Professional wrestling can be a tough industry to crack, even if you have all the talent in the world. Nothing helps quite like having a friend or two backstage to aide a wrestler in getting ahead and if that friend is powerful enough, their help could turn out to be the only thing a young wrestler needs to go from a rising talent to a bonafide superstar. Backstage politics can also help a fading star stay on top for far past their expiration date and it's probably telling about the wrestling industry in general that this is the case more often than not.
Leaning on backstage politics isn’t necessarily a sign that a wrestler is untalented, considering how widespread and essential the practice can be to making a name for one’s self in the industry. However, any superstar on this list will forever have their reputation stained with the knowledge they didn’t come into their accomplishments entirely due to their own talents. Of course, it may go without saying that certain superstars you’re about to read about never would have succeeded in the slightest had it not been for politics and therefore these superstars were undoubtedly the ones to benefit the most. Keep reading to learn 15 wrestlers who only made it because of backstage politics.
15 Lanny Poffo
Whether wrestling fans recognize him as “Leaping” Lanny or The Genius, chances are they know who the man’s brother is. Lanny Poffo followed his big brother “Macho Man” Randy Savage from WWE to WCW, regularly filling out the undercard on nights Randy would be starring in the main event. Lanny may have existed within his brother’s shadow, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a talented wrestler in his own right, capable of putting on a great show for the fans whenever given the opportunity. Lanny not only exceled in the ring, he also managed to become noteworthy through his promos, which consisted of rhyming poems targeted at his opponents. As The Genius, Poffo also achieved success as a manager, supporting Mr. Perfect during his initial WWE run. Despite his success inexorably being linked with Randy, Lanny carved out his own niche in WWE throughout the 80s and early 90s that made him a moderate star on his own. His WCW run, however, was entirely based on politics. Savage got Lanny his job and managed to keep his brother employed for five entire years and yet Lanny never once made an official onscreen appearance with the company.
14 Big E
Big E’s career started long before he connected with Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods in The New Day and prior to meeting his future partners, Big E was starting to look like one of the first missteps of the NXT system. While still using his last name of Langston, Big E was the second-ever NXT Champion in 2012. Less than a year later, he also won the WWE Intercontinental Championship, at which point it started to become clear what WWE saw in Big E, despite fans not yet connecting with him. As it would turn out, Big E has long been one of John Cena’s sparring partners and gym buddies, and Cena heavily pushed for Big E to get a singles push in late 2013. Big E held the IC belt for nearly six months, proving Cena’s recommendation meant a whole lot in the wrestling world. Now that E connected with The New Day, politics aren’t playing a role in his career. Fans shouldn’t forget where his career started, though, and might want to keep it in mind when New Day inevitably runs its course.
13 Jim Duggan
Toting an American flag and chanting the letters U-S-A turned Jim Duggan into a major star, albeit not one that won any championships in WWE. Duggan’s fortunes took a turn for the better when he made the jump to WCW, shortly after which he defeated Steve Austin for the United States Championship. Unfortunately for Duggan’s legacy, by this point, it's almost common knowledge that he only won the belt at the behest of his buddy Hulk Hogan and because WCW executive Eric Bischoff didn’t see any star power in the future Stone Cold. Either way, Duggan didn’t earn the belt on his merit and he likewise wouldn’t need any particular talents in the ring to keep his job with WCW for the next six years, since Hogan was always nearby to make sure of that, as well. Duggan eventually earned a position in the WWE Hall of Fame, thanks to his notoriety as the man who won the first Royal Rumble.
12 Michelle McCool
We may never know when exactly Michelle McCool and The Undertaker first started dating. What we do know, though, is that McCool went from being a Diva Search also-ran who looked like she was outstaying her welcome to suddenly becoming one of the most decorated female superstars of the modern era in a manner of months. We also know that this transformation happened during the same short period between her divorce from her first husband and her marriage to The Deadman, leading to some fans assuming the two events could be more than mere coincidence. McCool was unquestionably one of the most successful women during her time with the company, starring as half of Laycool and being presented as unbeatable during the tail-end of the long era when women’s wrestling was rarely considered seriously.
11 The Bella Twins
In all fairness, there’s at least a slight chance The Bella Twins can owe their success solely to the fact Vince McMahon likes uniquely attractive women and as their moniker would imply, the two are gorgeous twins. Even so, it probably hasn’t hurt that Nikki has been in a relationship with WWE top star John Cena since 2012 and sister Brie is now married to one of the few people to arguably equal Cena’s popularity, Daniel Bryan. The two also benefit from a famous stepfather in long time WWE executive John Laurinaitis, although his relationship with their mother didn’t begin until after Nikki had already started winning championships. Although that connection may not have benefitted The Bellas, the Cena connection certainly has, with John reportedly having had something to do with Nikki’s status as the longest reigning Diva’s Champion in history.
10 Dusty Rhodes
Denying the legacy of Dusty Rhodes could be tantamount to blasphemy in the wrestling industry and yet there are certain facts fans need to consider when considering his true contributions to the sport. It would be impossible to pretend The American Dream wasn’t one of the most charismatic and popular superstars in wrestling history. However, it would be pretty easy to argue the peak of his talents came during the 1970s, while the peak of his fame came during the late 1980s. Dusty still had plenty to give backstage and on the microphone by the time NWA was worldwide, but his talents in the ring had considerably diminished and he couldn’t perform at the same level he was performing when he was a much younger Dream. Despite this, Dusty so desired to stay on top that he repeatedly booked himself as a NWA United States, National, or Tag Team Champion, constantly keeping himself in the spotlight far beyond the time it was wise to do so.
There is no denying Konnan achieved the majority of his American success as a result of backstage politics, although considering what Konnan did to earn his political favor, most wrestling fans might ultimately agree it was worth it to give the self-proclaimed Mexican Legend whatever it was he wanted. Konnan is famously responsible for introducing lucha libre to Eric Bischoff and the rest of WCW, thereby not only earning himself a job, but also getting jobs for future superstars like Rey Mysterio, Eddie and Chavo Guerrero, Hector Garza, La Parka, and dozens of other Latino pro wrestlers. Konnan was rewarded for his efforts with a run as WCW United States Champion and he would later also become Television Champion for a brief spell, presumably as an after-effect. Despite his successes, Konnan has long been criticized for being lazy in the ring and for the fact his own abilities are a far cry from many of the men he introduced. Nevertheless, no one in the wrestling industry is an island and therefore we reiterate Konnan perhaps contributed enough to the business in the long run that he deserved what little success he was given as a result of it.
8 Jeff Jarrett
While everyone on this list is pretty bad with the backstage politics, Jeff Jarrett is the only person who used his clout to induct himself into a Hall of Fame he was in charge of. Jarrett isn’t without talent and, in fact, he had carved out a decent niche for himself in both the WWE and WCW midcard prior to using political maneuvering to turn himself into one of the longest tenured and least deserving main event stars in the wrestling world. Jarrett first made the ascent to the top in WCW, when his good friend Vince Russo was booking. Once WCW went out of business and Russo was blackballed, Jarrett kept his momentum going by creating his own company and allowing Russo back into the business so they could keep booking one another as the top of TNA. If Jarrett’s legacy ended with multiple Intercontinental and US Championships, no one would complain and he could be viewed as one of the better elements of the Attitude Era. By forcing himself to the top and refusing to leave, Jarrett only stained his own legacy and ensured the company he founded would be second-rate from the start.
7 Diamond Dallas Page
With monikers including “the world’s oldest rookie” and “the most unlikely World Champion in history,” it should be pretty obvious that in spite of his legendary status, “Diamond” Dallas Page needed a little bit of help in order to get there. Page’s biggest problem was that he got his start in the industry as a manager and thus had a lot of work to do before he could be taken seriously as a wrestler. Page put in hours of work at the WCW Power Plant to gradually achieve this credibility, although that was merely icing on the cake to what would truly help DDP excel in the wrestling industry. As luck would have it, Page was neighbors with and therefore a close personal friend of Eric Bischoff. This was in addition to DDP simply being friends with practically everybody else in the company, most importantly Scott Hall and Kevin Nash. Fans can argue whether or not DDP ultimately deserved the various WCW World and United States Championships he won, but the truth is he probably wouldn’t have gotten a chance to win them in the political WCW climate were it not who his best friends were.
6 Ed Leslie
Ed Leslie has so many nicknames he turned himself into a meme, so to be brief, you may also know him as Brutus Beefcake, The Disciple, or a bunch of other names. Regardless of what he was being called at the time, the reason you knew him was that Leslie is Hulk Hogan’s best friend and has been since the two were in their early 20s, if not earlier. Hogan and Leslie trained together and, according to Jerry Lawler, Hogan has been making sure Leslie had a job practically since the day they were ready to enter the ring. Leslie and Hogan often worked as a tag team and even occasionally presented themselves as brothers, with Leslie calling himself Eddie Hogan at one point in his career. Leslie was a decent enough wrestler in the 80s, although never one worthy of performing in main events. Hogan of course gave him that opportunity in 1994 at the biggest WCW show of the year, Starrcade. Leslie gradually fell back down to the midcard or lower where he belonged and yet the fact he remained employed at all was a sign Hogan’s politics were still at play.
5 Larry Zbyszko
Modern day fans are all too familiar with the trials of Triple H and Stephanie McMahon (spoiler alert: more on them later), who used Stephanie’s position as the daughter of the WWE CEO to make her husband one of the most decorated superstars in WWE history. These two were hardly the first, though, and in fact, HHH and Steph basically learned everything they knew by witnessing the career of “The Living Legend” Larry Zbyszko. Zbyszko came to fame during the late 1970s as the protégé and later archrival of Bruno Sammartino. The peak of Larry’s success came nearly a decade later, however, when he married Kathy Gagne, daughter of AWA owner Verne Gagne. Gagne quickly pushed Larry as the dominant AWA World Champion, with Larry long denying his marital status had anything to do with his title win. Tellingly, Verne kept Larry as champion despite plummeting attendance rate, and the AWA was out of business only a little more than two years after Larry first won the belt.
This list is a testament to the fact having friends in the right places can make a wrestler’s entire career and these days, there’s no better friend to have than Triple H. X-Pac is the wrestler who proves it most. In fairness, there was at one point a time when The 1-2-3 Kid was one of the most exciting and innovative wrestlers in the United States. Unfortunately, that time faded fast as Sean Waltman descended into drug and alcohol abuse and stopped caring about his performance in the ring. Despite his talents waning, Waltman managed to dominate the WCW cruiserweight division as Syxx thanks to his friendships with Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, and then did the same in WWE thanks to his friendship with the increasingly powerful Triple H. X-Pac still had gas in the tank during his European Championship feud with Shane McMahon in 1998, but that was all gone by 2001 when he unified the WCW Cruiserweight and WWE Light Heavyweight Championships. Triple H was actually out of action during this time,and yet most fans assumed that relationship was responsible for X-Pac’s success.
Behind only Brock Lesnar, Sheamus is on record as the superstar with the second shortest amount of time having taken place between his WWE debut and the day he first became WWE World Champion. Even years later, when he won his fourth such title, fans had no idea how The Celtic Warrior kept making his way to the top of WWE. Dominant though he was in the ring, Sheamus has yet to get particularly over as a heel or a face and his championship wins are always met with more surprise than elation or anger. The answer most likely lies within the fact Sheamus has long been friends with Triple H and the two particularly enjoy spending long hours in the gym together working on their impressive physiques. Considering how much time men like them spend honing their bodies, this means Sheamus and Triple H have been spending hours out of the day together from the beginning of his career and most likely will continue to do so as long as Triple H needs to stay in wrestling shape.
2 Kevin Nash
It can be hard to draw a line between who is a backstage politician and who is simply a likeable personality, and that’s a defense Kevin Nash has used to justify most of his career. From his suggestions to Vince McMahon with his friends in The Kliq to his ascension to head booker of WCW thanks to his friends like J.J. Dillon, Nash has always claimed he merely made suggestions that people listened to as a deflection to people who argue Nash used politics to succeed in either WWE or WCW. Nash was definitely over enough to become World Champion in both companies, which he did, although the circumstances behind his championship reigns remain suspect to his political intervention, considering he never drew particularly well in the main event. Politics definitely played a role in Nash’s latest runs in both TNA and WWE, as there was absolutely no justification behind Nash continuing to main event and win championships into his 50s, outside of the fact he had friends in the right places.
1 Triple H
Several of the other wrestlers on the list should have already made number one rather obvious. Triple H has not only benefitted more from backstage politics than any other wrestler, but he has also been responsible for a half dozen of his friends doing the same. Triple H isn’t untalented and he has managed to become one of the greatest heels of the current generation through hard work and dedication to his craft, but unfortunately a huge stain will always remain on his record in his initial run as World Heavyweight Champion from 2002 to 2003. Triple H had recently returned from his infamous quadriceps injury and was nowhere near the talent he was at the start of his career. He eventually recovered and arguably became better, but this year of terror will never be erased and it remains the worst abuse of political power in WWE history. Considering the fact Triple H’s power only continues to rise, there’s no saying what age he’ll be when he manages to eclipse his own hubris.