While a wrestling promotion is often most defined by its champion – or, at least, the wrestlers who are near the top of the card – in reality, it takes a village of talent working together to put on a successful show. And not all of those people are applying holds in the ring. There are crew members, non-wrestling talent, bookers, and a variety of backstage personnel, who are all collaborating to create the finished product.
In that last group, we find two types of capable individuals, who make sure that the in-ring presentation is the best it can possibly be. First, there are the trainers, the veteran grapplers who've equipped the current crop of wrestlers with all the tools they need to ply their trade. Then there is another group, referred to by many names: agents, coaches and producers. Whatever their title, this batch of experienced wrestlers assist the current talent in putting together matches and just generally make everything run smoothly. They're the not often seen, as unsung heroes of most of the televised wrestling we see today.
The wrestlers on this list all had respectable in-ring careers of their own. Many were established fixtures of multiple promotions, even champions. They were trainers, backstage agents, and members of "creative" teams. Several of these individuals have done a little bit of everything. But all of them achieved incredible things behind the scenes. In fact, each of these 15 wrestlers did so much backstage that it's almost easy to forget about their impressive performances inside the squared circle.
16 Dominic DeNucci
To old school wrestling fans, Dominic DeNucci is a fine example of a globetrotting wrestler who, while never a bonafide main eventer, was nevertheless a fixture of the pro wrestling landscape of the 1960s and 1970s. The Italian-born grappler held championships in Canada, Australia, and of course the U.S. He wore gold in the AWA, NWA, and WWWF (including a tag title reign with no less than Bruno Sammartino).
Suffice to say, after decades of competing around the world with some of the toughest, most legitimate wrestlers around, DeNucci had a fine grip of the fundamentals. He parlayed his knowledge and experience into a second career as a trainer, teaching the likes of Shane Douglas and Mick Foley at his Pittsburgh, PA wrestling school. Foley famously detailed his early experiences with DeNucci in his first autobiography, Have a Nice Day.
Not simply content to be a teacher, though, DeNucci continued to occasionally lace up his boots every so often throughout the years. In fact, he and his prized pupil Shane Douglas even teamed up to win a tag match at a 2012 Pro Wrestling Syndicate event. DeNucci was 80 years old at the time.
15 John Laurinaitis
Long before his brief, yet memorable stint as the on-air General Manager of Raw, John Laurinaitis was an accomplished in-ring performer. The younger brother of Joe Laurinaitis, better known as Animal of The Road Warriors, John began his career in 1986, competing for Championship Wrestling in Florida. He teamed with his younger brother Marcus (who competed as The Terminator), while adopting the name "Johnny Ace." The moniker followed him throughout his in-ring career and beyond.
Laurinaitis was no slouch as a performer. In fact, he invented the Ace Crusher, a move which would later be adopted by such luminaries as Diamond Dallas Page and Randy Orton as a finishing maneuver. He was also an accomplished tag team competitor, ultimately becoming a six-time Tag Champion in both CWF and All Japan Pro Wrestling. Despite these accomplishments, Laurinaitis' in-ring career often gets unfairly reduced to a joke, with a mere mention of his partnership with Shane Douglas. The two wrestlers came together in NWA to form The Dynamic Dudes – a pair of brightly dressed skateboarders who were very hard to take seriously.
Ridiculous gimmicks aside, Laurinaitis garnered a lot of respect backstage. He joined the WWE in 2001 as a road agent and, a mere three years later, he took over Jim Ross' role as Vice President of Talent Relations. For eight years, he was "the man" when it came to dealing with WWE talent, from hiring to firing. Though he was relieved of his duties in 2012, after becoming better known as an on-air authority figure, he continues to work backstage as an agent today.
14 Mike Sharpe
The late "Iron" Mike Sharpe is one of the most textbook examples of a wrestler who never achieved much in the ring, in the conventional sense, but who had a big hand in shaping the wrestling business. And that's not just because of all the colleagues he helped appear tougher and stronger while working as an enhancement talent (or jobber).
Though he was a champion for several other promotions, in the WWE, "Iron" Mike Sharpe character in WWE was a stepping stone to bigger things. Yes, in the wake of his 1983 debut with the company, he showed promise – even at one point unsuccessfully challenging World Champion Bob Backlund. But his flirtations with glory were short-lived. In the 1980s WWE landscape, Sharpe's number one responsibility was to bring out the best in those who were destined for bigger things than himself.
But while many remember Sharpe as a jobber, he had a deep understanding of the mechanics of the wrestling business. After his own career had fizzled, he proved himself to be a most capable trainer. Mike Bucci (ECW's Nova / WWE's Simon Dean), Charlie Haas, and WCW's Crowbar were among his pupils.
13 Dean Malenko
Dean Malenko may seem like a controversial addition to this list, considering that, for a time in the 1990s, he was considered one of the finest technical wrestlers on the planet. In fact, he was so good that, in 1997, he was #1 on Pro Wrestling Illustrated's annual "PWI 500" list of the top 500 pro wrestlers in the world. This is despite the fact that the PWI 500 is usually topped by a dominant World Champion and Malenko primarily competed in WCW's mid-card.
Indeed, his inclusion here is no slight to his abilities in the ring. Malenko held multiple championships in both ECW and WCW before capturing WWE's Light Heavyweight Title twice. And, though he didn't eventually main event like Eddie Guerrero or Chris Benoit (both of whom signed with the company alongside him), Malenko made an enormous impact on WWE once he began to work behind the scenes.
Since his quiet retirement from the ring in 2001, Malenko has been an integral part of WWE's backstage production team, working as a road agent. Aside from helping to produce matches, Malenko has been a source of indispensible wisdom for young talents, many of whom have been quite keen to take any advice "The Shooter" sends their way.
12 Dutch Mantel
Wayne McKeown, who most recently portrayed WWE manager and mouthpiece Zeb Colter, was known for decades as Dutch Mantel. Beginning in the early 1970s, Dutch embarked on a career that saw him win a bevy of championships throughout the continental United States and Puerto Rico. Though never a national headliner, Mantel wore gold in the NWA, AWA, and WWC, among many other promotions. He even had a memorable stint in WCW during the early '90s, though he didn't hold any titles.
Although he was always more of a brawler than a technician, Mantel has long understood the nuances of the wrestling business. For the better part of the last two decades, Mantel has become better known for his work behind the curtain. Beginning in Puerto Rico in the mid-'90s, he established himself as a reliable booker and writer, by working for both WWC and rival outfit IWA at different points. Between 2003 and 2009, Mantel utilized these new job skills for TNA, where he served as both a booker and a writer. During those formative years for the company, Mantel was said to have played a pivotal role in developing the Knockouts division and specifically in signing Awesome Kong to a TNA deal.
In the four years between his TNA departure and his first appearance as Zeb Colter, Mantel continued to work as a booker and writer on the independent circuit. Though it's uncertain what his future holds, there are likely many promotions out there who'd like to be able to pick his brain for a few hours.
11 Sara Del Rey
This isn't exactly a secret, as many WWE stars openly sing her praises, but NXT assistant head trainer Sara Del Rey was put into her current position for a reason. Del Rey was signed by WWE back in 2012, at only 31 years of age, specifically to train its developmental talents. Prior to being signed, she'd established herself as a force to be reckoned with on the independent scene – tangling with and defeating not just other women, but her fair share of men, as well. After beating several prominent male wrestlers in a short stretch of time, Del Rey made it into the 2012 PWI 500. She was only the 4th woman to ever make the list.
WWE knew they were signing someone special. Whomever Sara got into the ring with, she had a plan to push him or her to the limit. Her unique in-ring experiences, as well as her undeniable wrestling acumen, made her well suited to teach wrestlers who were almost at the level of WWE's main roster. She worked heavily with NXT's female wrestlers, who (along with Triple H) have since given her a great deal of credit for readying WWE's "Women's Revolution" behind the scenes. Daniel Bryan and Cesaro both cited her as one of the more technically gifted wrestlers they'd been in the ring with. And, before too long, she was working alongside head trainer Matt Bloom to prep the entire NXT roster.
10 The Brooklyn Brawler
Like Mike Sharpe (who debuted the same year he did), Steve Lombardi is often cited by wrestling fans – with a particular nostalgic giddiness – as a man who was most famous for losing matches almost all the time. Whether competing under his real name, as Abe "Knuckleball" Schwartz, or most famously as The Brooklyn Brawler, fans could count on Lombardi to lose like clockwork. With a few major exceptions, including an upset win over Triple H back in 2000, he was defined by his status as WWE's longest running jobber.
But without selling short his penchant for "putting over" other opponents, it's possible that Lombardi's biggest accomplishment might've been his staying power. After signing with WWE back in 1983, he remained under contract until May 2016. Scores of wrestlers came and went during that time period, but Lombardi remained, in one capacity or another. Though he very rarely wrestled in his last few years with the company, he remained an important part of the WWE's team of road agents, now called "producers."
In the modern wrestling landscape, anyone retaining a job for that long almost seems like a fluke. In Lombardi's case, it's obvious that he was doing something very right.
9 Mike Quackenbush
Fans who don't pay close attention to the independent wrestling scene may not know Mike Quackenbush's name, but most, are no doubt familiar with his work. As co-founder and initial head trainer for American indie promotion CHIKARA, Quackenbush was responsible not only for jump-starting one of the most unique wrestling products in the world, but also for helping to launch the careers of some of today's brightest stars.
An accomplished wrestler in his own right – having worn, among other titles, the NWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship and the IWA Mid-South Heavyweight Belt– Quack has done the most for the wrestling business as a promoter and a trainer. After establishing the CHIKARA "Wrestle Factory" with fellow wrestler Reckless Youth back in early 2002, he began teaching the fundamentals to dozens of wrestlers. Apart from the countless colorful masked characters whose true identities are kept secret, his past pupils include such current WWE standouts as Cesaro, Lince Dorado, and Drew Gulak.
Though Quackenbush is now retired from active in-ring competition, CHIKARA continues to thrive under his watchful eye.
8 Stu Hart
This one almost goes without saying. While Stu Hart obviously had great ring instincts and technical skill, his worker as a promoter and a trainer will go down as far greater in terms of contributions to the business than any of his own in-ring accomplishments (which, legend has it, included wrestling bears and other animals).
Stu Hart was, of course, the founder of legendary Canadian promotion, Stampede Wrestling, which, in addition to his talented sons, famously featured future stars such as Davey Both Smith and Dynamite Kid. But though the promotion gained notoriety in the 1980s, following WWE's talent raids of its locker room, it actually opened long before Stu's sons were old enough to wrestle. In fact, it had its own weekly TV programming that dated back to the late '50s.
On top of being a great promoter, Stu was also an unparalleled trainer. He established the Hart Family Dungeon, a training facility in his own basement. There, his sons, including Bret and Owen, learned to ply their trade. And, in later years, the likes of Chris Jericho, Lance Storm, and others traveled from far and wide to learn the ropes of the business. Though Stu passed in 2003, and the Dungeon no longer operates, the Hart Family's influence will be felt in the wrestling business for generations to come.
7 Fit Finlay
Dave "Fit" Finlay is, when it comes down to it, a real wrestler's wrestler. Thanks to his signature blend of brawling and technical skill, there was never any doubt as to whether or not he was "legit." Fans and fellow wrestlers alike believed what they were seeing, with no questions asked. And promoters followed suit, paving the way for Finlay to hold championships in the U.K., Germany, Japan, and the United States.
A third generation pro wrestler, Finlay's in-ring career spanned four decades. He made his debut in his native Northern Ireland way back 1974, replacing a sidelined wrestler on a card for Finlay's father's promotion. For the next 20 years, he made a name for himself across the U.K., before signing to WCW in 1995. When WWE purchased the company in 2001, Finlay (who hadn't been actively wrestling anyway) found a new role as a road agent and trainer.
During his first years with the WWE, Finlay coached wrestlers in OVW and was particularly noted for his work in revamping the then-fledgling Divas division. Matches up and down the card benefitted from Fit's wisdom and experience. After several years in this roll, Fit did go on to have a memorable singles run in the WWE later in the decade. After being released by the company in 2011, he was rehired the following year and resumed a role as an agent – a position he still holds today.
6 Bryan Alvarez
Unlike most of the entries on this list, Bryan Alvarez didn't earn his spot by training other wrestlers, producing matches, or even opening his own promotion. Alvarez may have begun his career as a wrestler, but his true claim to fame is as a highly influential voice in pro wrestling journalism.
After beginning his careers as a backyard wrestler in the mid-1990s, Alvarez soon went legit and started making appearances on the American independent scene. He was never a huge name and competed mostly in the country's Pacific Northwest, but his in-ring experiences – coupled with a lifelong love of pro wrestling – helped to develop a real knack for talking about the goings-on of the wrestling world.
The founder of the popular Figure Four Weekly newsletter, Alvarez also co-wrote the critically acclaimed 2004 book The Death of WCW with RD Reynolds. The following year, he launched the subscription website Figure Four Online the following year, which featured, among other things, the popular internet radio program, The Brian and Vinny Show. The website merged with Dave Meltzer's Wrestling Observer in 2008 and remains a go-to source for wrestling news and insight.
5 Fritz Von Erich
Fritz Von Erich, born Jack Adkisson, got his start in pro wrestling when Stu Hart booked his an evil German character. Because of that persona, Fritz and his sons would use that surname (as well as the clawhold characteristic of German wrestlers) for decades to come. Yes, like the man who gave him his first big break, Von Erich was the father of a famous wrestling clan and head of a wrestling dynasty. But Fritz had a far more impressive in-ring career than Stu ever did and, arguably, started an even more meaningful promotion.
It's worth mentioning, since so much of the focus of any conversation about Fritz goes straight to his family, that he was a highly decorated champion. He held the AWA World Heavyweight Title, as well as various other championships in the U.S. and Japan. After competing in Minnesota, Canada, and the Midwest, the Von Erich finally settled down in the Dallas, TX area, where he established his wrestling dynasty.
Originally called Big Time Wrestling, World Class Championship Wrestling (as it was rechristened in 1981) ultimately became a Texas institution, with fans packing the famous Dallas Sportatorium for matches week in and week out. But perhaps more importantly, its legacy spread elsewhere. Due to its popular television program, as well as word of mouth, WCCW made stars of Von Erichs sons (Kevin, Kerry, David, and Mike), the Fabulous Freebirds, and many others. And though it had fizzled out by the time the 1990s rolled around, the promotion's legacy lives on today, as new generations of fans discover WCCW through the WWE Network.
3 Lance Storm
Lance Storm is one of the quintessential examples of a talented technician whose behind the scenes contributions go tragically under-appreciated. A dedicated and conscientious talent from the time of his training at the Hart Family Dungeon, Storm's decade and a half career as an active competitor was marked by some great moments. He was Chris Jericho's first tag team partner, competed in promotions across the globe, and wore championship gold in WWE, ECW, and WCW (where he simultaneously held the Cruiserweight, Hardcore, and United States Titles).
By the time he arrived in the WWE in late 2001, Storm had developed a reputation as a very stoic competitor who had little time for the silliness of many of his contemporaries. While the character was certainly an exaggeration of a man who wasn't nearly so rigid outside the ring, it was also something of a fitting persona for a many who took what he did very seriously.
It's little surprise, then, that Storm was such an asset behind the scenes. Back in his ECW days, he helped Paul Heyman with booking duties. But his real legacy has been teaching his craft to dozens of wrestlers over the years. Later, as his active WWE career began to wind down in the mid-2000s, Lance worked in OVW (then a WWE development territory) to ready the next generation of wrestlers – training, among others, Dolph Ziggler.
After departing WWE in 2005, he devoted most of his energy to his own wrestling school. Storm Wrestling Academy has yielded dozens of capable and talented grapplers, including Tyler Breeze, Oney Lorcan, and Emma.
2 Tommy Dreamer
While he's certainly won his fair share of championships, including the ECW World Title in both its original and WWE incarnations, Tommy Dreamer has never been known as "the man" in any major promotion. And, truth be told, that's largely by design. Not only did the Tommy Dreamer character always work best as an underdog, but the man behind the persona was only ever interested in making the best wrestling product imaginable. In fact, he later said that he only became champion in the original ECW out of necessity – when the loss of talent required someone loyal and reliable to hold a title.
But while Dreamer was, at various points, one of the most popular performers in ECW, he was every bit as important behind the scenes. He crucially assisted Paul Heyman with creative duties in ECW, which prepared him for later backstage roles. In 2012, he established his own promotion, House of Hardcore, which features a mixture of veteran stars (particularly from ECW) and young talents. While the driving force behind the upstart promotion, Dreamer also began working in a backstage role for TNA, acting as a road agent and occasional performer. Wherever he goes, Tommy Dreamer brings years of experience both in the ring and behind the curtain, making him an asset to any promotion.
1 Killer Kowalski
To some, the inclusion of the late WWE Hall of Famer (class of 1996) on this list may seem like blasphemy. With an in-ring career that began in 1948 and didn't officially end until 1993, Killer Kowalski developed a reputation as a solid, reliable worker that led to championship runs in many promotions. It's no wonder that Kowalski was able to achieve so much, as he was trained by no less than the great Lou Thesz. And, appropriately enough, Kowalski's later experiences as a trainer would define his career in ways that no titles ever could.
With no disrespect to his numerous championship reigns in WWWF, the NWA, and Stampede Wrestling (just to name a few), Killer Kowalski made the greatest possible impact on pro wrestling by imparting wisdom to future generations of competitors. He famously trained Triple H who, of course, has made a huge impact on present-day WWE in his current backstage role. But the wrestling school Kowalski founded produced dozens of other great talents, including Big John Studd, Chyna, Perry Saturn, Damien Sandow, and Kazarian. The fundamentals that have been taught by Kowalski (both himself and through trainers who later took over for him) have had a ripple effect on the wrestling landscape far greater than all of his championship runs put together.