Measuring how big a WWE Superstar you were, are or will be is not often done by counting how frequently you’re included in the main event of Raw or SmackDown Live. It’s not often measured by how many titles you win or how much television time you get. It’s not even measured by how much money you make. The true measuring stick in the wrestling industry is the mark you leave behind you once you leave.
The industry is full of past performers who have been so influential to the wrestling business that they still affect the way the WWE operates today. They affect how wrestlers wrestle, they affect how storylines and matches are drawn up and they affect the desire for the future stars of the WWE to get into the business.
Furthermore, today we see countless segments on our television screens that come directly as a result of these past performers. These superstars set the trends for what worked and what didn’t and they showed today’s talent how to be professional in a business that has, in many ways, changed but stayed very much the same.
Who are the 15 most influential ex-wrestlers of all time? Read on and discover who changed the business in a way that is still relevant today. What did these performers do that was so special? Well, in some cases, not what you’d think. In one case, one of the most influential wrestlers ever, never even held a WWE title. When you’ve never been a champion but there are elements of wrestling all around that originated because of you, it’s easy to figure out that you were one of the greats.
There are a lot of fans who love Goldberg and there are a lot of fans who don’t love Goldberg, but the one thing you can’t deny is that he and his undefeated streak changed wrestling forever. Some will argue that Andre the Giant was the first to ever really have such a dominant streak, but it’s hard to tell if Andre’s 10-plus years without losing was actually true or just a story to better sell WrestleMania III. What we do know is that Goldberg’s undefeated streak was documented all while it was happening. His undefeated streak was a part of his character and one of the parts that made it work so well.
Today, the WWE often uses this undefeated technique when trying to create new stars. Look no further than Asuka who is being played up as undefeated and now acknowledging her win streak on social media. In doing so, she often references Goldberg. Goldberg had two things that made him a star. His short but powerful matches and his undefeated streak. The formula works. Wrestling still uses it today.
14. Stone Cold Steve Austin
Stone Cold Steve Austin broke down the walls that separated the babyfaces from the heels. When his character (who was supposed to be a bad guy) started getting cheered because it resonated with a large portion of the WWE audience, Vince McMahon ran with it and WrestleMania XIII became the moment it didn’t matter whether you were good or bad, it only mattered if fans followed you. As the most cheered WWE Superstar and perhaps the most profitable wrestler ever, Austin became proof that you didn’t have to act badly to be bad or act honorably to be good. You just had to be yourself, connect with the audience and turn up the volume.
Today, his influence is everywhere. From guys like Dean Ambrose to Chris Jericho to Kevin Owens, it’s just about doing what you do and bringing the fans along for the ride. These superstars are often cheered for doing not very ethical things.
13. Gorgeous George
If there were no Gorgeous George, there would have been no Ric Flair. If there were no Ric Flair there would have been no Goldust, Rick Rude, Macho Man, Bobby Roode, Shawn Michaels or any other star who made a partial name for themselves because their characters were flamboyant and loud, making their “character” a major part of their persona. Even the great Muhammad Ali credits Gorgeous George with teaching him to be a boxing personality and not just a boxer.
Every time a new character enters the WWE that is stranger than the last or every time a ring entrance wows you, you’re seeing a part of Gorgeous George’s influence. Every time a wedding takes place in the ring, that too is all thanks to Gorgeous George. He started it all and the WWE wouldn’t be “entertainment” if it weren’t for him. They’d still be just a wrestling company.
12. The Undertaker
The Undertaker will likely go down in history as the greatest wrestling gimmick ever. There really wasn’t anything terribly complicated about it either. He was a “dead man” who rolled his eyes in the back of his head and stuck his tongue out. Today the WWE spends thousands upon thousands of dollars trying to find the next “Undertaker”. It’s pretty easy to make the argument they aren’t close.
In the past few years alone, fans can probably name a ton of failed gimmicks. Perhaps only Bray Wyatt comes close as a wrestling gimmick that the WWE Universe is truly behind. The reason? It’s not so much the gimmick itself, it’s the person hired to portray that gimmick that makes it successful. Mark Calaway was the guy who made the Undertaker work. The WWE just needs to find another person who can marry the person to the character. If they can find similar chemistry, even if it’s only half as much as The Undertaker did, they’ll have a star on their hands.
Oh yeah… he also did something little people called “The Streak” where he went undefeated at WrestleMania. Any time you ever see a wrestler go undefeated at PPV’s, you know that came from The Undertaker.
11. Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts
Jake Roberts never held a WWE or WWF title. Not one. It’s actually quite amazing when you think about it. He arguably invented what we now know as the wrestling “finisher” when he accidentally came up with the DDT and he became influential for his soft-spoken mysterious promos which Raven used effectively and now Bray Wyatt has seemed to bring back to life.
Roberts fingerprints are all over the WWE today. He proved you never needed to win a championship to be a huge star and if the WWE wrestlers of today are smart, they’ll realize they can do an awful lot of good without holding a belt. In many ways, Roberts also made famous the idea of animals as sidekicks. It’s a reach, but perhaps there’s no Francesca II with The New Day if not for Damien the snake.
10. The Four Horsemen
The concept of a wrestling stable isn’t new. Families and tag teams have been part of the wrestling industry since its inception, but one of the first time four different wrestlers got together, having come from all different walks of life, and became mainstream happened when the Four Horseman got together. The Ric Flair led faction paved the way for so many stables that came after, you can still see their influence today.
Evolution, the nWo, Nation of Domination, The Shield, Bullet Club and other stables likely wouldn’t have happened if there were no Horsemen. One of the best ways to get new talent over with an audience is to start them as a group and have them branch off. Some of the WWE’s biggest current stars started that way.
9. Miss Elizabeth
Where would the WWE be in terms of women’s wrestling if it weren’t for Miss Elizabeth? And that’s ironic considering she never once wrestled a match in the WWE. Yet, she was one of the first women to break down the barrier between managers, valets and women who were almost as popular, if not more popular, than the men they came to the ring with.
Today, you see her influence everywhere. From duos like Rusev and Lana to Alicia Fox and… well anyone. The WWE is not shy about introducing a new wrestler to the world and hoping that by pairing them with an attractive female, they’ll be much more likely to get the attention of the audience. It’s never really worked as well as it did with the Macho Man and Elizabeth, but it worked once so the WWE will likely continue to go to that well.
The Sandman’s ring entrance became his entire personality. So much so, few fans of ECW cared what he did in the ring. There was more anticipation for his introduction than anything else. The Sandman wasn’t the first person to walk to the ring accompanied by music. He might have been one of the first where the music made more of an impact than the performer did.
Today we see his partial influence in wrestlers like Shinsuke Nakamura’s entrance or the grand scale to which Bobby Roode heads to the ring. Even Finn Balor when he’s all dressed up has his entrance treated like a special attraction. All of these competitors are great wrestlers, but that’s not what the fans love. Look at every recent incarnation of WrestleMania to see just how much stock the WWE puts into entrances nowadays.
7. Dusty Rhodes
Dusty Rhodes had great matches, so it’s not fair to discount his contributions in the ring. That said, his matches weren’t what made him so loved and adored by millions of fans around the world. Dusty Rhodes was the “common man”. He performed promos like nobody else and he would have made the world love him had he never stepped one foot inside a ring.
Today the development of new WWE Superstars heavily focuses on a performer’s ability to give a promo. Can they connect with an audience? Can you make the crowd love or loathe you? Some of the most famous superstars ever were much better on a mic than they were in the ring and they carved out hugely successful careers because Dusty Rhodes showed everyone in wrestling, what you said mattered more than what you did.
6. Scott Hall
Before Scott Hall jumped to WCW, he was Razor Ramon in the WWE. It was a gimmick character that he played quite well but the WWE owned the rights to. Since he couldn’t take it with him to WCW, he showed up as… Scott Hall. He used his real name and sold himself as a real person. That was quickly followed by Kevin Nash who did the same when the Diesel character stayed with the WWE upon Nash’s departure.
Today guys like John Cena, Brock Lesnar, Randy Orton, Mark Henry, Kurt Angle, Mick Foley and others use their real names as characters. New arrivals like Shinsuke Nakamura and NXT’s, Johnny Gargano do as well. Is it all because of Scott Hall and Kevin Nash? Maybe not, but the fact that Hall and Nash got so over with their names means that it’s an extremely viable option for the WWE. They no longer have to think of gimmicky characters to get wrestlers over. In some cases, they actually make up new “real life” type names just so performers can’t take their names to other companies after the WWE makes them stars.
5. Bret Hart
How many versions of the Montreal Screwjob have been done and attempted since it became mainstream media? The Bret Hart situation brought to light how storylines and real life often collide and since that day, the WWE and the wrestling industry have written similarly non-unique storylines with the same premise. One wrestler doesn’t know the boss is going to work with a ref and his opponent to pull one over him. Said wrestler will then have a major beef and seek revenge. The only thing that seems to change is the ending. Now, the wrestler who gets screwed over often finds victory. Bret Hart was never the same and wound up being underutilized and then retired unhappy after a botched move that injured him in the WCW.
4. CM Punk
No one will likely ever re-create how effective the “pipe bomb” was that made CM Punk a legit WWE Superstar. That doesn’t mean the WWE won’t try. Every once and a while, wrestling will give someone a microphone and let them go unscripted, airing their grievances and hopefully finding something that sticks, blurring the lines between storyline and real life.
CM Punk turned a few minutes into a huge financial WWE career. Whenever you see or hear a WWE superstar who is going off script a bit, imagine that someone from the writing staff did one of two things. They either got lazy and had no material to give (unlikely) or they wanted to try and duplicate that CM Punk moment. Good luck with that. It’s not ever to have the same impact.
3. The Rock and Mick Foley
“This is Your Life” was one of the highest rated segments in the history of RAW when The Rock and Mick Foley did their version. It was a unique concept that had never really be done before and the two went well over the allotted time they had to make the segment work. Vince was upset, but after seeing how successful the segment was, he’s tried to re-create the segment in other forms throughout the years.
Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens did something similar with the “Festival of Friendship” and recently, Alexa Bliss tried to pull it off on RAW. Needless to say, these segments have never worked as well as when the Rock ‘N’ Sock Connection did it. Alexa Bliss’ version was so bad, the WWE almost completely ignored it in the YouTube replay highlights of the show.
2. Razor Ramon and Shawn Michaels
Their Ladder match at WrestleMania X will be remembered forever. It wasn’t the first time they’d use that gimmick and it wasn’t likely the first time two wrestlers fought with foreign objects or used ladders as weapons. It definitely won’t be the last time the WWE pulls it out. In fact, wrestling has taken the idea of using ladders and turned it into some of the biggest storylines and moments over the last twenty years.
Money in the Bank, Tables, Ladders and Chairs (TLC) and other hardcore style shows will forever be connected to the ladder match which was made so famous by these two. Razor Ramon (Scott Hall) never won the WWE Championship but it goes to show that titles don’t necessarily equate to a lasting legacy.
1. Hulk Hogan
Some might suggest the work Hulk Hogan did in the ’80s and as the poster boy for Hulkamania is why he’s on this list. That might be reason enough to put him here. After all, C-Nation, Jericoholics, and the Balor Club probably wouldn’t exist if Hulkamania never did. That said, the main reason Hogan makes the list is not because he was a huge star with a huge following of fans. It’s because Hogan taught us that being the biggest babyface makes it pretty easy to become the biggest heel in the industry.
The swerve is still a common technique used in wrestling on a regular basis and perhaps no one did it better than Hogan. There were guys who went from bad to good or good to bad prior to Hogan, but the “Hollywood Hogan” character showed the wrestling industry that some of the best turns come from wrestlers who no one would have ever expected would turn. Hogan’s mantra to say your prayers and eat your vitamins for decades made it very easy to hate him when he spat in the face of everything he’d stood for. Want a hugely hatable superstar? Make him the biggest good guy ever first.
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