As the concept of professional wrestling was entirely overtaken by sports entertainment, the role of an authority figure gradually became one of the most important in a given promotion. That said, the idea of a commissioner, president, or other such presiding body has been around practically since the industry started, with both positive and negative results.
While it isn’t entirely clear who the very first wrestling authority figure ever was, the earliest we’re aware of is Willie Gilzenberg, who was the WWWF President from the company’s inception to his death in 1978. Gilzenberg almost never appeared on television, and for the most part only appeared named in promotional materials and newspaper articles. Around the same time, Stanley Blackburn had an actual role on AWA television as the President of that company. The NWA long relied on unseen championship committees, catching up with the picture around the 1980s. By the late ‘90s, every company had at least one authority figure keeping wrestlers in line and making the big decision.
It goes without saying that some authority figures were better than others. The main thing to consider is how well the role is played, of course, but there’s more to it than simply who plays the part. Some of the best wrestlers and talkers in the business have done horrible jobs when given power in kayfabe. Actual authority outside of kayfabe is another factor, albeit not a huge one, since many of the greatest authority figures in WWE have had absolute no power behind the scenes. For all the details, keep reading to learn the 8 best and 7 worst wrestling authority figures of all time.
15 BEST: Bill Watts - Mid-South Wrestling Promoter
Former wrestler turned promoter “Cowboy” Bill Watts became one of the first authority figures to regularly appear on television and not bore the life out of the crowd when he did so. Watts’s position as the head honcho in Mid-South Wrestling started shortly after his career ended, and generally saw him continue his career as a no-nonsense babyface making sure heels kept in line. This was the norm for authority figures at the time, the difference with Watts being if he threatened a heel and they didn’t listen, he couldn'y actually do something about it, unlike Stanley Blackburn or Jack Tunney. Watts was also different in that he didn’t have ultimate authority, and was merely presented as the voice of an unseen board of directors, ensuring the faces wouldn’t get too much of an advantage. He briefly held a similar role in WCW during the early ‘90s, marred by how short it was and how little he did in the role.
14 WORST: Stephanie McMahon - ECW Owner
The main thing separating Stephanie McMahon from her brother and father, who (spoiler alert!) we’ll get to as the other half of this list goes on, is her unwillingness to look weak in comparison to her wrestlers. Upon her debut as Daddy’s Little Girl in 1999, Stephanie has only received any sort of comeuppance a handful of times and there hasn’t been a significant one since about 2002 or so. On top of her inability to book herself in a true loss, Stephanie simply isn’t as good on the microphone as Shane or Vince. Criticisms about her screechy voice are overdone, but there is a point to saying she lacks range, with the only emotions she bothers trying anymore are rage and complacency. The rage forces her to keep positioning herself above the wrestlers and the complacency is flat out boring, not to mention pretentious. Her turn as the owner of ECW ranks as the absolute nadir of her talents, but the truth is Steph could’ve made her way onto this list under just about any role she’s performed.
13 BEST: Shawn Michaels - WWE Commissioner
Immediately upon the revelation Vince McMahon was the true owner of World Wrestling Entertainment, Sgt. Slaughter’s role as the company commissioner immediately felt irrelevant. In order to make the role seem important again, a huge name with unmatchable charisma needed to revamp the role as something unique and that’s exactly what “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels did during the Attitude Era. While Commissioner Slaughter towed the company line and did whatever McMahon said, HBK introduced the concept of a renegade authority figure at war with the establishment, creating the WWE equivalent of a checks and balances system. His former ties with Triple H and D-Generation X highly influenced his decisions, serving the added benefit of keeping HBK extremely popular at a time he couldn’t compete in the ring. He loses some points for basically fading away during the end of his tenure and making too many turns in the role, but we’ll never forget those few years when there was a new sheriff in town.
12 WORST: Hulk Hogan - TNA General Manager
No superstar better exemplifies the reality that wrestling fame alone does not make a good wrestling authority figure than the biggest star in industry history, Hulk Hogan. Mistake number one was that Hogan held his position of power in Total Nonstop Action, a company he had a very tenuous relationship with. The next error was the fact Hogan was serving second fiddle to actual TNA President Dixie Carter, initially leaving him with the non-descriptive title Managing Partner. Even as he ascended to the realer position General Manager, Hogan regularly took all the attention away from the show without adding anything to the wrestling angles. His attempt at stealing the company from Dixie and turning heel was the most embarrassing part of all, and were it not for a certain grainy video leaked by unruly gawkers, it might’ve been the low point of his career.
11 BEST: Mick Foley - WWE Commissioner
In order to recognize the greatness of Commissioner Mick Foley, you need to separate his peak years at the turn of the millennium from the current Santa Claus-looking McMahon sycophant we see on Raw today. Foley’s initial run as commissioner was worlds apart from his current one, filled with constantly hilarious interjections and relying on cheap pops only when appropriate. He particularly shined when paired with comedic characters like Edge and Christian, but his then recent past as the most dangerous main event superstar in WWE meant he could make fans and talent alike take him seriously when necessary. Similar to Commissioner Shawn Michaels, the original run of Commissioner Foley was a lot shorter than some fans of the Attitude Era might remember, only serving to make it more impressive how much charm Foley exuded in the role. The one downside to Commissioner Foley is that he kept coming back with diminishing returns, such to the point he could end up on the other half of this list if he doesn’t go away for good.
10 WORST: Mike Adamle - Raw General Manager
More than merely a horrible authority figure, Mike Adamle was in over his head and vastly unprepared for just about every job Vince McMahon asked him to perform. He made his WWE debut at the 2008 Royal Rumble as an interviewer by mispronouncing the name of Jeff Hardy, soon transitioning to a role as the announcer of ECW and then suddenly getting a promotion to be the General Manager of Raw. The few months Adamle had spent in WWE up to that point were hardly enough for him to stop making mistakes, even if doing so simply meant learning his co-workers names. Adamle’s previous credentials (if you can call them that) had apparently blinded the McMahon family to his faults, with his reputation for hosting American Gladiators for the majority of the series’ run more important than his lack of wrestling knowledge. That may have been the case for Vince, but the WWE Universe and maybe even Adamle himself soon recognized he was unfit for any and every role, and he was in and out of WWE in less than a full year.
9 BEST: Theodore Long - SmackDown General Manager
You can’t go wrong with Theodore Long, a fact the man has proven in his many efforts as a manager, referee, and ultimately the General Manager of SmackDown. Perhaps due to how limited his roles often were, Long was the rare wrestling performer to reach the peak of his fame in his late 50s. His advanced age didn’t stop him from juking and jiving over the SmackDown roster, always able to threaten his superstars with the threat of a match against The Undertaker, and constantly thrilled at the idea of turning solo encounters into tag team matches. His swaggering confidence made him one of the longest tenured GMs in SmackDown history and, more significantly, he was the first African American to hold a kayfabe position of power in WWE. His later roles in WWE were somewhat hindered by an over-reliance on romantic angles with women less than a third his age, but to focus on that would be drinking the Hateorade, so we’ll just holla at the good times, playa.
8 WORST: J.J. Dillon - WCW Commissioner
As the manager of The Four Horsemen, J.J. Dillon was one of the most iconic figures in NWA history. Unfortunately, it had been over eight years since he left the role when he reentered WCW as an authority figure and, in classic WCW fashion, the company didn’t do much to reintroduce him in the role. Dillon was essentially only named WCW Commissioner to check the power of nWo President Eric Bischoff, but considering Bischoff was also WCW President, Dillon was completely useless and ineffectual in the role. His one big storyline was trying to facilitate Sting’s return to the ring, where J.J. was apparently the only person alive who didn’t realize Sting wanted a match with Hulk Hogan for the WCW Championship. Dillon strangely never had the support of the WCW roster, either, making him look especially weak and made his regular appearances feel more pointless than meaningful.
7 BEST: Shane McMahon - WWE Owner
The son of Vince McMahon, Shane-O-Mac has been viewed as heir apparent to the WWE Universe from the day he made his debut as a referee in 1989. Once he evolved to an on-air personality as the host of Sunday Night Heat and then his father’s closest confidant, Shane’s electric talents on the microphone and daredevil in the ring only reaffirmed that he had all of Vince’s bravado and might one day be able to run the company. In the very least, he could act like he did on television and make a compelling story out of it, using his cocksure attitude to overcompensate for his lack of experience when he briefly took over as the on-air owner of WWE during the Corporate Ministry Era. Unlike his sister, Shane has always been willing to take his comeuppance as well, whether as a heel or babyface.
6 WORST: Vince Russo - WCW Power That Be
The most confusing thing about Vince Russo’s tenure as the WCW whatever he was is the fact his role was never implicitly stated on television. He was a “power that be” upon arrival and by the time he took a regular on-screen role in April of 2000, he bizarrely assumed everyone would just accept him in a leadership role because he kind of had one backstage. Russo’s emergence as an authority figure also explains everything wrong with his tenure under the role, that being he simultaneously expected too much and too little out of his audience, wanting them smart enough to understand all the current backstage news, while at the same time dumb enough to still think everything that happened in the ring was real. Most wrestling fans are indeed aware the sport is scripted, but suspension of disbelief is what makes it fun to watch and starting to confuse that concept and pretend it’s all legitimate destroys the whole show. On top of the basic problems, Russo was a classic case of an authority figure who made himself look stronger than all the wrestlers, going so far as to win the WCW Championship while technically undefeated.
5 BEST: William Regal - WWE Commissioner
Not that he hasn’t been excellent in virtually ever role he’s been given, but at this point in his career, William Regal has achieved such a natural air of authority it feels like the role he was born to play. Regal wrestled for WWE, WCW, and a number of British organizations throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, suddenly ascending to the position of WWE Commissioner after returning to the company in mid-2000. At times hilarious and other times vicious, Regal achieved perfection as both a heel and babyface, bouncing all over the company in various positions of power to this day, when he presides as General Manager of NXT. It is a testament to Regal’s versatility that we can’t decide whether his peak was found joking around with Tajiri or as the tyrant Raw GM who manipulated the King of the Ring so he could easily earn that crown, as well. The only downside to him taking the role to NXT is that it squanders his talents, as he could easily continue to reign supreme over Raw or SmackDown into the future.
4 WORST: The Anonymous Raw General Manager
The General Manager era has across the board been negatively received and aside from the few standouts we placed on the good half of this list, just about any person to earn the position could be called one of the worst ever. Therefore, it only feels appropriate to include the many miserable unnamed authority figures that made Raw the mess it is today in one blanket entry, focusing on the absolute worst of the bunch, the Anonymous GM who presided for over a year from June 2010 to July 2011. Voiced by Michael Cole and later revealed to be Hornswoggle, the Anonymous GM would speak via emails delivered through a laptop next to the announce desk and lasted significantly too long to have any sort of reasonable payoff. Fans already didn’t like Michael Cole and this killed off his chance of earning their respect pretty much for good.
3 BEST: Eric Bischoff - WCW/nWo President
Eric Bischoff has often been quoted as claiming that when he was promoted to the real life position of WCW Executive Vice President, no one was more surprised than he was. Considering his place in the industry at the time, he probably wasn’t kidding. At the same time, however, it’s still a surprising piece of honesty from a man who would so completely own the role of a smarmy jerk boss that he defined an entire genre of authority figure. Without spoiling the perhaps obvious number one on our list, someone else typically gets all the credit, but Bischoff was in fact the first legitimate wrestling authority figure to use his position as an onscreen heel. The move revolutionized the business and gave audiences someone to hate when anything went wrong in the company and, in WCW, things went wrong every week. Bischoff could take it all with a smile and a pat on his chest, thanking us all for loving Hulk Hogan the way we did and looking like an asshole for giving people exactly what they wanted: an incredible wrestling show.
2 WORST: Jack Tunney - WWE President
Infamously described by Bobby “The Brain” Heenan as “the best President since Noriega,” Jack Tunney presided over the World Wrestling Federation from 1984 to 1995. Traditionalists and fans of the Hulkamania have been somewhat kind to Tunney in retrospect, arguing that the cliché of a sports franchise owner is a boring old man, a role Tunney certainly fit. Realistic though it may have been, there’s no way to spin Tunney’s plain and charisma-free read of the Royal Rumble rules at the 1992 event into something entertaining, nor were any of his behind-the-desk addresses to the fans ever able to create any level of interest in the show. Even in the rare moments where Tunney was heated or forced to show any level of emotion, he remained wooden and dull, unable to do much more than exaggeratedly smile or frown depending on the situation.
1 BEST: Vince McMahon - WWE Owner
Was there ever any doubt? It should come as no surprise that the ultimate authority figure in professional wrestling was, well, the actual ultimate authority figure in professional wrestling. There had been sly references to Vince McMahon being the legitimate owner of WWE for decades and he was finally acknowledged as such in no uncertain terms by Jim Ross in 1996. Vince generally remained a face, though, not redefining himself and etching his way into television history as well as wrestling history when he started his feud against “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in October of 1997. Austin-McMahon remains the ultimate battle between a blue collar worker and his jerk boss, with McMahon’s willingness to lose the battle and eat face on a regular basis what made it truly legendary. Without Austin, Vince’s character has shown an unfortunate history of needing a top face to feud against with varying results. The hits are always home runs, though, outweighing the duds more than enough to make Vince the best wrestling authority figure of all time—in every sense of the expression.
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