In any profession, they often say it's not what you know, but who you know. In professional wrestling, living by that motto and letting it run your decision making can make a career.
There are countless stories of professional wrestlers and executives who made a name for themselves or took their careers to new heights because they understood the art of backstage politics. For these performers, it was often less about how good you were at your craft, but who you rubbed shoulders with as you ascended to the top of the mountain. It didn't matter who you burned on the way up, what you said or how you got there, only that you did what you needed to do to make it in a cutthroat industry. And once you were there, it took whatever it took to keep your spot. Losing it meant losing championships and the big money that came with them.
If you've ever wondered who the absolute best in the wrestling industry were at getting over by cheating, deceiving and making connections, keep reading. The next 15 performers are among the most skilled at using backstage politics, connections and affiliations to make it in the business. Coincidentally, it also makes them some of the most crooked people to ever grace our television screens. From writers to promoters and in-ring performers, this list is a who's who of the biggest backstage politicians ever.
15 Sean Waltman
If there was ever a wrestler to hitch a ride with one of the most famous groups in wrestling history, Sean Waltman probably takes first place for turning very little into a long and plentiful career. It's not that Sean Waltman (X-Pac) wasn't talented in the ring, it's that he offered similar skills to many other wrestlers who never make it. The reason he defied the odds was because he was buddies with The Kliq, namely Scott Hall. That then got him in with Triple H and Shawn Michaels.
Waltman jumped ship with every turn of the tide that The Kliq made. When Hall and Nash jumped to WCW, the two were able to secure Waltman a WCW contract. When Waltman eventually botched his opportunity, his friendship with Triple H brought him back into the WWE where he was part of D-Generation-X.
Alone Waltman offered nothing but trouble inside and out of the ring. Thanks to his connections, his troubled history didn't matter.
14 Randy Orton
There are only two ways you can be as arrogant and get into as much trouble as Randy Orton does and still have a job. One is being extraordinarily gifted in the ring. The other is being gifted at the art of backstage politics.
Born to be in the business, Orton is a third-generation star who has natural charisma. Despite that, for years, he's been floundering with the fanbase. Never quite the heel and never quite the babyface, his numerous titles wins don't gather much reaction these days. He still manages to stay atop the WWE's list of decorated Superstars and he yields all sorts of power.
He's been known to get wrestlers in hot water (Kofi Kingston) and get others fired (Mr. Kennedy). He rubs that power in others faces while leading a poor example of what being a WWE Superstar should be all about.
Amazingly, JBL is still employed by the WWE. Currently a part of a major news story on backstage bullying, JBL has been known to do more harm that good to the WWE product, it's talent and it's audience. Because he's a lackey for Vince McMahon, none of that seems to matter.
Clearly, JBL is not a fan favorite. He's not viewed as a talented commentator, but he's holding a top spot on SmackDown Live and pay per views. He was never viewed as a gifted wrestler, but he held the WWE Championship on SmackDown Live for an eternity. He's jealous of and rude to other WWE talent, he treats and talks to fans like their idiots and he's probably mean to babies and hates puppy dogs (ok, we don't have proof of the last two). If he's good at one thing, it's in his ability to see an opening and capitalize on it.
12 "The Friends of Hogan"
Hulk Hogan himself is much higher on our list, but there is a nice spot reserved for his friends here at No. 12. If you became buddies with Hulk Hogan, you had it made. Don't believe? Just ask The Nasty Boys, Ed Leslie (Brutus Beefcake), Jimmy Hart and others who followed Hogan around from promotion to promotion and earned employment and opportunities far past their expiry dates.
It's not so much you can blame these guys for looking a gift-horse in the mouth, but it's almost as crooked to get by with very little talent because of who you know, as it is to actually get by with no talent because you played your cards right. These guys did nothing but cash cheques supplied because of their affiliations.
11 Shawn Michaels
Shawn Michaels is probably the most talented wrestler ever to step into a wrestling ring. He probably would have become just as decorated had he just let his talent do the talking. He simply didn't.
Known as a founding member of The Kliq, Michaels took every advantage of being friends with some big names and using the power they'd built backstage to run almost all the major angles in the WWE at that time through those individuals. If there was a storyline that didn't involve The Kliq, it wasn't a major story.
From there he played a major role in Bret Hart's exit from the WWE and he was known for temper tantrums and a major lack of respect within the WWE. He only held his position because he was in the ear of Vince McMahon who clearly loved Michaels and owed him at a time the WWE was struggling.
It helps if you're not particularly over with a WWE audience to be friends with Triple H. That describes The Celtic Warrior, who despite the fact that Sheamus has turned over opportunity after opportunity, his association to Triple H keeps him in high places. As you're getting your foot in the door, long gym workout sessions with "The Game" isn't much of a price to pay for long-term job security.
Many fans might not know this, but Sheamus is the second to only Brock Lesnar as the WWE Superstar to hold the WWE title faster than any other wrestler after making his initial debut. There is a definitive difference between the marketability of a star like Lesnar and a performer like Sheamus. If it's not talent and charisma. your guess is as good a mine.
9 Diamond Dallas Page
Known as the blue collar working-man's wrestler, Diamond Dallas Page was recently inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame and he probably deserves to be there. He wouldn't be there however if it weren't for his friendship with Eric Bischoff. Bischoff was coincidentally Page's neighbor and despite DDP's late start into the wrestling business, was given an opportunity that he probably didn't earn. To his credit, he made the most of it.
His rise to fame came from a program he worked with Hulk Hogan (also one of wrestling's biggest backstage politicians), Dennis Rodman and Karl Malone. That screen time made Page a household name. That he was friends with Scott Hall and Kevin Nash didn't hurt either. Both approved giving him the rub as the first major WCW star to get a clear win over an nWo talent.
8 Jeff Jarrett
Jeff Jarrett knew how to make friends. It's a skill often saved for the best of backstage politicians. He cozied up to Vince Russo in his days with the WWE and WCW and he turned that friendship into some very long and extended runs as champion when they probably weren't deserved.
Jarrett was a central piece to the ultimate end of Hogan's time in WCW and that entire incident was one big series of backstage political events that were so complex. to this day, still are yet to be understood. Today Jarret runs Global Force Wrestling and is back with Impact and TNA. Once that friendship candle dims, there is no doubt Jarret will wind up someplace else, using a connection or two to get his foot in the door.
7 Vince Russo
Vince Russo proved he was one of the worst decisions ever made by WCW. His hiring was, in many ways, directly responsible for their demise. Yet, somehow, he was able to take a reputation he'd built as a WWE writer under the strict supervision of Vince McMahon and turn it into a total control situation as head-writer for WCW. To this day, Russo throws wrestlers and executives under the bus for his failures.
Russo was also widely hated by many of the people he worked with. From Hogan to Bischoff, the reason he probably didn't get along with any of them is probably because they were very similar personalities. There's only so much room for backstage politics and only so many "votes" to go around.
6 Vince McMahon
The WWE Universe will be forever grateful to Vince McMahon for creating what we now know as the WWE. There is probably no person who works harder or longer hours than McMahon himself. That doesn't mean he isn't shady.
Known for all sorts of unethical practices, McMahon is notorious for having run other promotions out of business during the territory days, hand-picking his favorite Superstars or holding others down despite being over with the WWE crowd. He's used his influence and power to treat women and his employees like garbage and he hides it all behind the "brass ring" mask that is so easy to use to make the wrestlers responsible for all decisions — even those not in their control. You don't get to where McMahon is without making friends. You don't definitely don't earn the reputation Vince has without rubbing others out along the way.
5 Paul Heyman
Paul Heyman will be forever known as a creative genius and one of the best talkers in wrestling history. His skill as a talker took him to far greater places than he probably ever would have otherwise.
From the time he was a kid, he faked his way into the business. From there, he talked his way into changing Eastern Championship Wrestling into ECW and as the puppet master of that company, had wrestlers running themselves empty for him despite often not being paid. Heyman admits to flat out lying to many of the people who worked with and those who worked for him to get what he wanted. Listening to his many stories today, the WWE Universe is entertained, but one can't help but wonder just how much of anything Heyman says is legit.
4 Hulk Hogan
There is a special place reserved in backstage politics heaven for Hulk Hogan. It took making racist remarks long after his use as an in-ring performer before he finally couldn't use his clout to stay employed. Even then, he fell bass-akwards into money winning a lawsuit against Gawker for a sex-tape that "leaked" without his knowledge.
Hogan is known to have been influential in the success of the WWE as it rose to prominence as a national, then global company. He is almost as well known now for using that clout he earned from being the face of the WWE to demanding massive contracts, hiring his friends, creative controlling his character and promotions to their doom and making countless enemies along the way.
3 John Cena
Arguably the best professional wrestler to do more for causes like Make-A-Wish than any other superstar, John Cena's reputation is far from squeaky-clean. Now in a major position of authority and wielding a ton of power backstage, if Cena doesn't want you around, you don't get to stay. Performers like Tyer Reks, Alex Riley, Kenny Dysktra, Mr. Kennedy, Mickey James are or were perfect examples.
On the other hand, if you were close to Cena, you did well. Randy Orton stayed employed after giving the WWE plenty of reasons to fire him. Daniel Bryan is still employed with a healthy paycheque and position in the company despite some of the negative things he's had to say about the WWE and Nikki Bella is probably the most decorated female athlete in the WWE over the past decade. Does she deserved to be?
2 Kevin Nash
Kevin Nash is probably still cashing cheques for the work he did with his mouth backstage. Never terribly gifted on the mic in front of a crowd, Nash clearly knew what to say behind the scenes because he worked his way from one of the most hideous gimmicks in wrestling to a prime spot beside Shawn Michaels. He parlayed that spot into a major run as WWE Champion and turned that into a big fact guaranteed contract to return to WCW after he ditched them only a few years earlier.
He was a founding member of one of the most influential backstage groups ever in The Kliq and he seized every opportunity in every promotion he ever worked to gain influence, creative control and put himself over. At one point, he was a backstage booker in WCW. His time in that position is credited with some of the worst ideas in WCW history (the finger poke of doom).
1 Triple H
How does Triple H not top the charts in this category? After all, he's a stone's throw away from taking over the WWE and being one of the most influential people to ever work for or in the WWE. He's clearly talented, but he's also an opportunist.
Starting as part of The Kliq, he probably should have been fired when that group did the infamous curtain call at MSG. Instead, he was punished but persevered. He went on to marry the daughter of Vince McMahon (Stephanie) and supplanted himself in a position of authority, ensuring his WWE career would extend much longer than his ring one did.
He's still in great shape and he's got a gift for the business, but he wouldn't be where he is now if he didn't shift and maneuver better than anyone. He certainly knows how to "play the game."