The wrestling industry was built on the shoulders of the strongmen and acrobats that inhabited carnivals, fairs, and vaudeville halls, from Frank Gotch to Toots Mondt. Today, the wrestlers are the ones who bask in the spotlight, the ones whose names and faces adorn the t-shirts sold en masse to the ardent fans. But there have always been others whose hands the stir the pot of the business: the promoters, managers, announcers, and television executives who took the combative sideshow to wider audiences.
As fans, we all know about Hulk Hogan, The Rock, Steve Austin, and John Cena, as well as the slew of other performers who have appeared on our screens over the years. With the size and scale of production that wrestling has ascended to since the 1980s, it takes many hundreds of people to produce the weekly wrestling shows we enjoy, and hundreds more to create the media—magazines, pay-per-views, action figures, magazines, and even websites like this one—that surrounds the in-ring product.
Over the years, wrestling has attracted a treasure trove of different talents and influencers. What follows is a list of the top 15 most important people in wrestling who rarely or never competed in the ring. They are writers, managers, announcers, promoters, executives, and others, all of whom have left some kind of indelible mark on the sport and its legacy.
15 Lilian Garcia
Lilian Garcia has had two runs in WWE, including her first from 1999 to 2008 that set the precedent of the first female onscreen personality to stay with the company for ten consecutive years. During that time, she became a fixture of the sports entertainment giant’s varying eras, including memorable run-ins with Jeff Jarrett and Howard Finkel.
But Garcia is best known for her announcing. She was the first major bilingual announcer on WWE programming, which allowed her to nail the nuances of announcing names and hailing-from’s of notable Latino superstars like Rey Mysterio and Alberto Del Rio.
In addition to these accolades, she was the first female to announce at WrestleMania, according to WWE.com. Although she is now retired from the announcing spotlight, she hosts two podcasts with AfterBuzz TV—one in English and the other in Spanish. Her tenure in WWE lasted nearly twenty years, ranking her among the all time greats of ring announcers.
14 Ted Turner
It’s impossible to imagine the Attitude Era without the Monday Night War. One begat the other, in a real chicken-or-the-egg type of situation. The same can be said of World Championship Wrestling and Monday Nitro.
One man to thank for that is Ted Turner. As the mogul heading the eponymous Turner Broadcast System, he channeled his personal wrestling fandom into a professional endeavor when he purchased Jim Crockett Promotions and renamed it World Championship Wrestling. Almost immediately, the new asset began to compete fiercely with, and outpace, then-World Wrestling Federation.
Once he, along with Eric Bischoff, created Nitro as a competitor to RAW, the Monday Night War exploded. The direct, primetime competition from a show of equal—sometimes greater—production value and creative storytelling gave both companies an electric shock that propelled them through the end of the 90s and into the 2000s. It was one of the most exciting times in the industry’s history.
13 Eric Bischoff
After creating the show with Turner, Eric Bischoff began the fierce acquisition of WWE talent that would define the earliest battles of the Monday Night Wars. He was often credited as the mastermind behind the New World Order, the standard bearers of Monday Nitro’s main event scene.
But the gamut of Bischoff’s ideas ran from superb to questionable. The nWo was wildly popular, but Bischoff seemed preoccupied with showcasing stars that were already established—such as Hulk Hogan, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, and others—rather than investing in a longer term plan. His tenure also included the dubious nWo inter-feuding, which saw the popular faction splinter off into countless less interesting versions, as well as Bischoff’s own WCW Hardcore Championship reign.
Still, he deserves his place in history as a leader in WCW during its late-90s boom. WWE today is sorely missing the serious competition that challenged McMahon and his team to reinvent themselves and innovate toward more engaging television.
12 Kevin Dunn
Kevin Dunn is not a household name. He’s a name even some more passionate devotees to wrestling are unaware of. He has rarely appeared in any WWE programming, very few public pictures of him exist, but he is one of the most important executives in the company.
He, like Vince McMahon, is a second-generation executive in WWE; his father was the head of television production for Vince McMahon, Sr. throughout the 70s. Dunn cut his teeth throughout the 80s and has the distinction of having Line Produced WrestleMania III, the largest event the company had held at the time.
Dunn has been criticized by many, for his production style (shaky camera angles with copious fast zoom-ins) and by some industry veterans for not having any experience as a wrestler, manager, or booker. Nonetheless, he has ascended the corporate ladder and influenced the television production of professional wrestling for decades.
11 Paul Heyman
Throughout the 90s, if WWE and WCW were the rock music you heard on the radio, ECW was the hardcore punk band you went to see in a basement. At its head was madman-genius Paul Heyman, whose heavy artillery booking style in Extreme Championship Wrestling gave fans a third option during its brief, chaotic life.
Heyman earned his prestige in the business as the devilishly entertaining Paul E. Dangerously in WCW. He portrayed a fast-talking, Wall Street type manager whose cunning and charisma centralized on one golden thing: to earn his clients and himself as much money as humanly possible.
Later in his career, after WWE purchased the bankrupt ECW, Heyman became the head writer of Smackdown during one of its most successful periods, as well as becoming the “advocate” for such superstars as CM Punk, Kurt Angle, and, of course, Brock Lesnar. His versatility, business savvy, and total mastery of the microphone has made him an endurable asset to any company with which he’s worked. There is no doubt that he’ll be remembered as one of the greatest of all time.
10 Jim Cornette
Jim Cornette is one of the professional wrestling industry’s stalwarts, and also perhaps its harshest critic. He cut his teeth in the southern wrestling territories as a manager, commentator, and booker. Thus, he has a fairly traditional set of values with regard to how a show should be booked, as well as what those who work in the industry can do to “protect the business.”
As the owner of Smoky Mountain Wrestling, he presented a very old school product that struggled to get a foothold beyond its southern territories. He would go on to work for WWE as a manager and later as a talent developer in Ohio Valley Wrestling. There he had a direct hand in fostering the notable class of talents that included John Cena, Randy Orton, Brock Lesnar, and Batista.
Cornette is also fairly infamous, namely for his scathing rants about the state of the wrestling industry. The targets of his rage are as varied as virtually anything WWE does to the more cartoonish aspects of CHIKARA and other independent companies. Whether one agrees with him or not, though, it’s always interesting to hear what Cornette has to say. He is staunchly old school in his wrestling tastes.
9 Dixie Carter
Dixie Carter served as the president of TNA for over a decade after purchasing a majority share in the company via her family’s business. She had no history in professional wrestling prior, but possessed the business savvy to investigate the potential for a competitor in the market that WWE had theretofore monopolized.
TNA has had a mixed legacy, but one had to admire the tenacity the company displayed. Made up of mostly unknown superstars and castaways from WWE, they nevertheless made a serious attempt at competing with the goliath.
Unfortunately, the growth potential of TNA was stunted early on, reminding many a fan of the same problems that had befallen WCW in its latter day—including many of the same faces: Hulk Hogan, Eric Bischoff, and Vince Russo to name a few.
The company still exists to this day, but imagining them ever ascending to the competitive level Carter and Jeff Jarrett envisioned at its inception now feels like a pipe dream. Although, it’s worth noting that Carter has recently resigned from her post as president of the company, having sold her majority share and decision-making power to Anthem Sports and Entertainment. The new president, Ed Nordholm, has spent the early part of his tenure there rebuilding the brand.
8 Howard Finkel
Even if you don’t know his name, you know his voice. Howard Finkel’s booming tenor has filled the grandest stages at the most legendary venues, including Madison Square Garden, where he made his ring announcing debut. His hearty and articulate introductions have emboldened the names of legends and future Hall of Famers—Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin. He even returned for a one-night stand in 2011 to introduce CM Punk on the night Punk’s 434-day title reign began. It was a fitting return for “the Fink”; his voice was just the extra ingredient of epic pageantry that night warranted.
He continues to work for WWE to this day, as a writer and interviewer for WWE.com, as well as occasional appearances on Network programming like The Edge and Christian Show. Having begun his career in 1975 under Vince McMahon, Sr., he is the longest-tenured employee of the company; he’s been on the payroll even longer than Vince McMahon himself!
7 Jim Ross
The unceremonious firing of Jim Ross four years ago still lingers as a bitter aftertaste in the mouths of many a sports entertainment fan. Due to a public snafu during a disorganized panel discussion for WWE 2k14, which allegedly involved Ric Flair and some alcohol, WWE terminated its decades-long relationship with one of their signature voices.
His ability to endow wrestling moments with genuine emotion made him a legendary commentator. It’s impossible to separate his calls from hallmark moments of the Attitude Era and beyond; this is a man who managed to employ words like “slobberknocker” and phrases like “he is broken in half” without making them sound hokey or contrived.
He continues to stay active commentating, working with the likes of New Japan Pro Wrestling and World of Sport, as well as occasional appearances calling the action at boxing and MMA events.
Fortunately, the split from WWE does not seem irreparable. Speaking with Sam Roberts after his termination, Ross said he was "always gonna be a WWE guy." He has also expressed a great deal of empathy for Flair’s state of mind at the time of the incident, Flair having lost his son Reid to a drug overdose only months earlier. Perhaps one day soon we could once again hear good ol’ J.R. calling a WWE match again.
6 Vince Russo
Depending on who you ask, Vince Russo is either a creative genius or a blithering idiot. He is an antithesis of sorts to someone like Jim Cornette. Whereas Cornette favors in-ring product, sound match psychology, and discretion in the business, Russo’s booking philosophy aligns with edgy storylines and blurring real life with fiction.
In his prime working as the head writer of WWE during the mid-90s, Russo masterminded the angles that made talents such as Steve Austin, The Rock, Mick Foley, and D-Generation X into stars. He introduced edgier content into the angles, including a heavy focus on storylines that in some way were based in the reality of the wrestling business.
Ric Flair would later say of Russo’s legacy that the only reason his ideas worked was because Vince McMahon could reel them in. In WCW, Russo was the head of creative, and so his ideas ran wild and unchecked. This is how the company ended up with such turds as Judy Bagwell on a forklift, the Bash at the Beach 2000 championship debacle, and even booking himself into winning the WCW World Heavyweight Championship, despite not being a wrestler.
He is an anomaly in this list, in that the reason he’s so well-known is for the terrible decisions he has made. One almost has to admire how recklessly he charged forward at the helm of WCW.
5 Dave Meltzer
In a New York Times profile of Dave Meltzer, it is estimated that he has written 33 million words analyzing, critiquing, and reporting on professional wrestling. Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated is quoted as saying “You could cover the Vatican or State Department and not do as good a job as Dave Meltzer does on wrestling.”
To say that his output is prolific would be understatement. Meltzer has released the weekly newsletter himself since the 1980s, garnering a significant following from wrestling fans who seek to stay in the know of the industry’s inner workings.
His legacy in the world of professional wrestling is unique, in that no one was providing the service he has made himself a living from and that to this day, thirty years on, no one else has done nearly as proficiently. The Wrestling Observer Newsletter continues to be a primary source of gossip and debate in the “dirt sheet” seeking corners of the internet wrestling community.
4 David Arquette
At the end of the day, it isn’t David Arquette’s fault, really, that he was WCW World Heavyweight Champion. He was just an actor showing up on weekly TV to promote the wrestling-themed film he had just starred in, Ready to Rumble. He realistically had no part in the booking decision, and even voiced opposition to it when Vince Russo pitched him the idea.
And yet, David Arquette’s title reign was one of the biggest harbingers of doom at WCW. It was a major turning point in the ratings war with WWF, from which the Atlanta-based fed never recovered. The woes of WCW’s booking and creative drama extended far beyond that which involved Arquette, but his 12-day stint with the title in spring of 2000 left a lingering stink in the air of bad creative decisions that would neuter the company in the coming months.
His short run in the company serves as a good example of when celebrity appearances become a major disservice.
3 Cyndi Lauper
The Rock ’n’ Wrestling Connection was a major turning point for WWF in the 80s. It brought the stodgy old product into the music video age, enlisting none other than Cyndi Lauper to appear on the company’s shows.
During a feud against Lou Albano—who had appeared in Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” video—Lauper made several appearances as a valet to Wendi Richter facing off against Albano’s Fabulous Moolah. Their first encounter was broadcast live on MTV, which was the first time a wrestling match had been broadcast on cable television.
The relationship between Lauper and WWE continued through much of the mid-80s, including further appearances by wrestlers in her music videos, and Lauper valeting for Richter at the first WrestleMania.
2 Donald Trump
The year is 2007. Riding high on the success of the most recent season of The Apprentice, a familiar face appears on Monday Night RAW to shower fans with money and challenge Mr. McMahon to a “Battle of the Billionaires: one Donald J. Trump, a full decade before he would become President of the United States. In a feud between the two suits, using Bobby Lashley and Umaga as their combat vectors, Donald Trump bests McMahon at WrestleMania 23, leading to two of the most memorable moments in ‘Mania history: the shaving of Mr. McMahon’s head, and Stone Cold Steve Austin delivering a stunner to the future President.
But Donald Trump’s relationship and legacy in professional wrestling, particularly with regard to WrestleMania, almost 20 years before then. Trump Plaza in Atlantic City NJ gave venue to ‘Manias IV and V, the seminal followups to the legendary WrestleMania III.
In his WWE Hall of Fame induction speech, Trump refers to his relationship with McMahon as “amazing,” citing the beginnings of their personal and professional favor for one another in the franchise event's infancy.
1 The McMahon Family
The McMahon family are indisputably the most influential figures in professional wrestling history. From Stephanie and Triple H stepping into major corporate roles, to Shane’s business skills and locker room leadership, to Linda’s public relations and political aspirations, to Vince, Sr.’s unyielding legacy, and the innovations that the head honcho himself, Vincent Kennedy McMahon, made from that legacy—there exists no other family with as expansive of a grip on the industry as the McMahons.
They are far from infallible, of course. They have been accused of burying talent, of being out of touch with their fans, of becoming complacent without competition to compel them into making a can’t-miss product. Vince is known as ruthless, egomaniacal, and has been accused of maltreatment by CM Punk, unfair labor practices by Jesse Ventura, and investigated more than once by the federal government for issues relating to steroids and brain injuries.
And yet, the scope of their sports entertainment empire is undeniable. There is no one else in the world who has as much influence on professional wrestling as WWE, and no one who influences WWE more than the McMahons.
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