There can be little question that one of the most influential characters on all of professional wrestling history is Vincent Kennedy McMahon. His effort to evolve the sport from a regional system to an international monopoly has forever changed the industry. However, due to WWE’s status as the last standing survivor in the industry and owning the rights to most video footage and photographs that exist, Vince has manipulated history in his favor, or simply elected to omit some of the events and characters that don’t fit WWE's agenda. It's all told in a manner that reflects well on his company.
While there is no doubt that Vince deserves credit for much of the significant developments in wrestling over the past 30 years, there are other innovators whose contributions have influenced the industry that should not be forgotten by a WWE-owned version of history. We’re not talking about wrestlers who can lay claim to bodyslamming Andre the Giant a decade prior to Hulk Hogan’s WrestleMania III claim to be the first to do so. Instead, we’re looking at those figures who own a significant claim to fame for having influenced the way the business is conducted today.
15 Vince McMahon Sr.
14 Mike Mazurki
You may not have noticed, but the word 'wrestling' is rarely uttered on WWE programming. Instead, as the modern climate emphasizes the WWE's reputation as an entertainment franchise, the word 'wrestling' has been largely removed from WWE's vocabulary. Vince has often said in interviews that professional wrestling is what 'his father did'. Due to the WWE being seen as an entertainment platform, several wrestlers have been able to successfully cross over into the mainstream.
13 “Carnation” Lou Daro
12 Joe Pedicino
In the early 1990s, immediately following the death of the territories, Max Andrews and Joe Pedicino were the principals behind a new wrestling company based in Dallas under the banner of the Global Wrestling Federation. While many stars from the initial roster would go on to success with World Championship Wrestling and the WWE later in their careers, including Booker T, Raven, Marcus Bagwell, John Bradshaw Layfield, and X-Pac, that’s not what is most significant about this promotion.
11 Jack Pfefer
Jack Pfefer may well be one of the most polarizing figures in professional wrestling. Depending on what source material you read, he was either a misunderstood genius, or a complete nuisance that destroyed the industry. The same has been said on both sides of the argument for Vince McMahon Jr.
10 Klaus Landsberg
While professional wrestling was largely divided from the 1950s to 1980s into what is estimated to be 30 to 40 wrestling territories with each running television in their own region, Vince McMahon wasn’t the first promoter to have a syndicated wrestling program that aired from coast to coast. While television was a big component of Vince’s takeover of professional wrestling, there were a number of wrestling operations that had syndicated television before the WWE came along. The first syndicated wrestling program in the United States was filmed in California and debuted in 1947 as Hollywood Wrestling.
9 Joseph “Toots” Mondt
Joseph “Toots” Mondt was a wrestler-turned-promoter that had a heavy influence on the early days of the Capitol Sports promotion that would become the World Wide Wrestling Federation under Vince Sr. While Mondt will be remembered for many contributions during his career in the wrestling industry, his most significant contribution to the future of wrestling was identifying the parallels between professional wrestling and vaudeville. Specifically, Mondt is credited with understanding the importance of creating compelling, colorful characters – not just two wrestlers in black trunks and black boots squaring off against one another.
8 Paul Heyman
While the WWE Network is still regularly allocating airtime to discuss the Monday Night War of the 1990s, simply focusing on the ratings battle between the WWE and rival WCW is only telling a part of the story from that era. While the two wrestling superpowers were battling for prime time supremacy, there was a culture growing in the American northeast as wrestling fans craved something different. Identified as “hardcore,” Extreme Championship Wrestling steered clear of family-friendly story lines that were appropriate for grade schoolers in favor of an edgier product that harnessed the angst of wrestlers who didn’t fit the mold to be stars in the larger companies.
7 Super Fire Pro Wrestling
This one may seem strange for most readers, but a Japanese video game was ahead of its time in influencing what was to come for North American gamers. The game, which was an unlicensed, independent creation produced by Human Entertainment, included fictional characters based on actual wrestlers from Japan and around the world, allowing gamers to play out dream matches. What is most important about this 1991 video game is that it was the first of its genre to allow players to create their own wrestler.
6 Stu Hart
It has been now a number of years since we lost the patriarch of the Calgary Hart clan and founder of Stampede Wrestling. Still, his influence on professional wrestling lives on both through his own bloodlines that continue to grace the ring, as well as those who passed through his territory and trained in his infamous “Dungeon” that now wear Hall of Fame rings. However, what isn’t well publicized is that it was Stu Hart that first introduced the ladder match in the 1970s.
5 Verne Gagne
Perhaps one of Vince’s fiercest rivals when he was preparing to launch his brand nationally, Verne Gagne is arguably the first to realize the potential of what the WWE would eventually accomplish. Gagne’s American Wrestling Association did recognize a territory in the American Midwest, but its reach beyond jurisdictional boundaries and relationships with international organizations in Japan and Europe set it apart.
4 Gorgeous George
One of the few wrestlers to make the list, Gorgeous George holds a unique place in professional wrestling history, recognized as the personality that really kicked off the television era of the sport in the 1950s. With his ornate robes and finely coiffed bleached blond mane, George Wagner certainly knew how to stir up an audience. While Toots Mondt can be credited with changing the platform of wrestling to facilitate the evolution of sports entertainment, Gorgeous George was the first to incorporate two elements into his act which would become commonplace 30 years later.
3 Eric Bischoff
Though there was certainly a time when Vince McMahon might not have had a kind word to say about Eric Bischoff, it is important to note a key detail in the timeline of the Monday Night War which points to the WWE following WCW’s lead. Yes, Bischoff was the first to broadcast a weekly live prime-time wrestling telecast while the WWE was taping three weeks at a time during the mid 90s. This would influence the WWE’s taping schedule.
2 Bill Watts
“Cowboy” Bill Watts figures into the narrative of many wrestlers who worked their way through the territories to reach the WWE. Recognized as a hard-nosed businessman, Watts helped to shape the young careers of men like Ted DiBiase, Jim Duggan and the Junk Yard Dog. After the sale of his own Universal Wrestling Federation circuit, Watts continued to have a hand in the business through roles with both WCW and the WWE at different times. Watts’ most significant contribution to the industry is by being the first promoter to write his television programming as an episodic storyline unto itself.
1 Jerry “The King” Lawler
Over the past 22 years, the face of Jerry “The King” Lawler has become a familiar one to fans of the WWE. However, Lawler’s most significant victory in the industry dates back to 1982. Comedian Andy Kaufman, who was a TV sitcom star, was a huge wrestling fan and wanted to get into the wrestling business somehow. He had contacted Vince Sr., but the veteran sportsman didn’t see the value in implementing a Hollywood star into his programming.
Through Pro Wrestling Illustrated writer, Bill Apter, Kaufman was connected with Jerry Lawler in Memphis, resulting in a series of matches between Kauffman and The King. The media interest in the comedian dabbling in professional wrestling even secured the small southern promotion national television coverage on David Letterman. Three years later, when Vince Jr. took over the reins, he made sure not to miss out on similar opportunities again. Over the years, dozens of celebrities have been integrated into WWE appearances and recurring storylines. Kaufman could have been the first.
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