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.
It’s rare that you will find anyone with a harsh word to say about Vince McMahon Sr. However, while he was widely respected, the recurring narrative that dominates any reference to Senior identifies that he had apprehensions about selling to his son. Had he known what Junior had proposed to do, he may not have let the company go, instead turning it over to partner Gorilla Monsoon. However, one area where Senior holds distinction is that he is recognized as being the first promoter in the United States to split the gate with the wrestlers scheduled that night. Previously, pay had been established as a minimum guarantee. Senior’s system allowed for wrestlers to be rewarded if the crowd was larger on any given night, but also reduced pay if the attendance was low. This was a great incentive-based reward system that encouraged all talent on the roster to take ownership of their own fate.
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.
However, wrestlers were leveraging their appeal as pop culture icons to become regulars on movie and TV show sets for 50 years before the first WrestleMania occurred. The first major star in North America was Mike Mazurki, a cauliflower-eared grappler who first appeared on the silver screen in 1935. We suspect that his roles may have even drawn more favorable reviews than Hulk Hogan has received for most of his cinematic work.
13 “Carnation” Lou Daro
In Los Angeles in the 1920s, the colorful “Carnation” Lou Daro established himself as the czar of professional wrestling. This sportsman is credited with a few innovations. When attendances were low and he was looking to create a buzz around his product, Daro was the first promoter to see the value in issuing complimentary tickets, also known as “papering” the house to create a few standing room-only shows that he could use to generate a media buzz. After just a couple weeks, the word of packed houses created demand to get people in the door. Daro was also among the first promoters to manipulate the media on a grand scale. In 1937, he announced to the local press: “I tried to sign Hitler and Mussolini for a match with only the strangle and poison gas being barred. Hitler agreed but that Mussolini held out for Spain and Austria.”
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.
The GWF was the first promotion, and specifically Joe Pedicino was the first broadcaster to acknowledge other wrestling organizations by name. Historically, when a wrestler departed, it would simply be acknowledged that they had left the territory. At best, a state or region might be identified, but never would another wrestling company be named. This didn’t happen in the WWE until the past few years, when a wrestler’s past might even include a name drop for independent promotions where they got their start.
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.
In the absence of having the budget to employ the top tier wrestlers of his era, Pfefer would create stars like the circus, with fantastic fictional biographies and, most importantly, an ethnic connection. His roster included defined Jews, Pollacks, Germans, Puerto Ricans – any segment of the Northeastern population he could draw to his matches in support of their own hero. Using ethnicity as a drawing card to build an audience was also heavily adopted by Vince Sr. Some may recall that Hulk Hogan was given his name to appeal to the Irish population of New York.
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.
Produced by Klaus Landsberg, this was the first of many syndicated programs to have wide airplay across the country. More commonly, the history books will recognize the efforts of the DuMont Network, airing professional wrestling out of Chicago, which battled against the major networks and even with only 15 of 62 cities in its portfolio, was drawing a 21% rating among homes with televisions in the 1950’s.
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.
Additionally, Mondt holds claim to creating what were known as “blackout” matches. At the time, wrestling contests between competitors could go on for hours and result in a draw. Mondt created the notion of shorter, snappier matches to get crowds engaged. These two innovations would become the core of professional wrestling in America over the next century. In a way, Mondt was the pioneer of “sports entertainment.”
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.
ECW rose to be the third most powerful promotion in America with television in syndication and licensing deals on video games and action figures, and both their stars and the tone of their programming became attractive to both of their larger rivals. Therefore, Paul Heyman and ECW may claim responsibility for inspiring the “Attitude Era.”
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.
In this way, Super Fire Pro Wrestling allowed fans to create themselves as playable characters and integrate themselves into the action. This innovation would later be implemented into WWE digital games and other American-produced electronic media. In recent years, it has not been uncommon for a gamer to play as themselves or to create full rosters and arenas from their favorite independent organizations to enrich their game play.
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.
From the first showdown between Dan Kroffat and Tor Kamata in 1973 to some of the earliest matches of this variety in the WWE in 1993 between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, the root of the growing insanity around ladders starts with the stoic, traditional Stu. Certainly with each successive match that tops the efforts of previous combatants, the stipulation continues to evolve, but that doesn’t change where it began – in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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.
However, what Gagne did better than anyone else was establish an in-house training camp. Similar to what the WWE has done with Florida Championship Wrestling and now the WWE Performance Center, Verne Gagne was breaking in future champions in Minnesota throughout the 1960s and 70s. The graduates of his camp? Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat, Ken Patera, Iron Sheik, Jim Brunzell, Sgt. Slaughter, Buddy Rose, Tom Zenk and many more. While each territory had a system for breaking in new talent, few can declare the success that Gagne achieved through his camp.
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.
First, George will forever hold a place in history by being the first wrestler to be accompanied to the ring by a female valet. Up until that point, any managers or corner men at ringside were men. Second, George was the first wrestler to use ring music to enter the arena, ushered to the ring to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance,” a theme used in more recent times by “Macho Man” Randy Savage.
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.
But perhaps more importantly, in 1996 Eric Bischoff wrote himself into WCW’s programming as a heel character – the villainous general manager with his fingers directly in the mix. It somewhat removed the fourth wall and blurred the lines between fact and fiction. Up until that point, Vince McMahon had been a ringside commentator, not presented to the fans as the boss. Over the next year, McMahon evolved to become the on-screen “Mr. McMahon,” the chairman of the board, active antagonist in the ring and even an occasional competitor – but Bischoff did it first.
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.
Typically, while many promotions had television, they used it solely as a vehicle to promote the major stars in one-sided matches with the intent to sell tickets to the live events coming to that market. Watts switched the dynamic, using television to drive the storylines that would sell out not just small armories, but large stadiums. When RAW promotes its status as the “longest running episodic television program in prime time,” some credit needs to be directed at Bill Watts for creating that model.
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.