Like any business, wrestling has had to evolve to survive. The smaller-scale of the past with straight on battles gave way to the larger than life “Rock ‘n Wrestling Connection” of the ‘80s and the cartoonish characters of both eras. That would segue into the ‘90s as the Monday Night Wars and Attitude Era led to a new style that brought more realism, violence, T&A and other items. It slowed a bit in the 2000s before settling into today’s PG era of WWE but hints a new shift might be coming. The fact is that wrestling has seen a lot of changes over the years to address the shifts in society and welcoming new fans on board. We need those changes and we need people to lead the way there.
A revolution or major shift does not happen overnight. It takes time but it can work with the right people involved. Throughout wrestling history, there have been individuals who have changed the landscape big time, men (and the occasional woman) who have brought a new attitude to things, a new edge and changed how wrestling works. From the way they come off, their characters and their real personalities, they change the game and are daring in ways fans could never imagine. Some may have been a bit ahead of their time, others using what came before to break out in their own way but all made a huge mark for professional wrestling that made the business the way it is today. Here are 15 cases of wrestling personas who pushed the envelope big time and changed the business forever.
For years, Scott Levy had bounced in various goofy gimmicks and characters, from Scotty Flamingo in WCW to manager Johnny Polo in WWE. When he came to ECW in 1993, Levy decided to remake himself into a grunge character with long hair, leather jacket and rough clothing who would cut promos involving long-winded talk, more philosophical than threats on opponents, ending with “Quote the Raven, nevermore.” It got over better than anyone could dream as Raven was soon transformed into a cult leader of sorts as well as handling his epic feud with Tommy Dreamer that helped put ECW on the map. He’d also be involved in arguably the most infamous ECW angle ever, the “crucifying” of the Sandman which went over so badly to fans that Heyman sent Raven to the ring to apologize for it.
It was watered down a bit in WCW and WWE but would be revived in TNA for some success. What mattered was that Raven was a character who pushed himself as more a dark soul than just a heel, a leader of other twisted folks, an angle used time and again in wrestling but not with as nice a style. The Raven flew his own path to push ECW and thus all of wrestling, in a direction fans could never have dreamed of.
14 Jake Roberts
Even his early days had Jake Roberts showing a dark edge in promos but he really broke out in Georgia as (by accident) he invented the DDT, one of the first finishing moves that had fans gasping seeing it used and meant instant defeat for the opponent. In Mid-South, he used it on valet Dark Journey and you didn’t see women attacked back then so it was wild. In WWE he really took off with the snake itself intimidating opponents and freaking out fans, even when he was a face. His interview segments were amazing, including the “Snake Pit” stuff as he would bring out lines and thoughts so deep and tight that fans were enthralled.
Of course, Jake was infamous for his personal demons getting the better of him so often with his hard drinking and drug stories but it’s really the character most remember, a dark soul unlike others in WWE at the time as a Jake promo never gets out of your head and shows him as a man who knew how to use the dark side well thanks to spending so much time there.
13 Mick Foley
It’s not as if wrestling hadn’t seen its share of guys getting into bloody brawls and taking hard shots. But Mick Foley took it to a degree fans could never imagine. His WCW tenure had him power-bombed by Vader onto concrete and the infamous Germany bout where he lost half his ear and he’d build it up more in ECW. His WWE tenure started slow but the Hell in the Cell battle with The Undertaker changed all that as Foley’s massive falls and refusal to quit won him legions of fans.
He is truly a hardcore icon, taking WWE bouts to an extreme edge and balancing that with fun characters like Mankind and Dude Love with some funny promos and segments. But all that fun is outdone by how Foley showed an inhuman ability to take punishment and that elevated WWE’s hardcore fighting to a new level and give us some wild and classic fights to follow.
Every WWE Diva today owes Rena Mero a note of thanks. Yes, WWE had long pushed gorgeous women as valets or eye candy but Sable was something else altogether. Her arrival was small at first until she started breaking out in the leather and then skimpier and skimpier outfits, culminating in the famous bit of stripping with only painted hand-prints covering his breasts. She was soon pushed into actual wrestling and doing a decent job of it, as hot in the ring as she was outside it.
It would build up to making history posing for “Playboy” and taking women in WWE to a hotter and wilder direction. She has gone on record admitting how she got a huge ego out of it which would drive her out of WWE for a while but make no mistake, Sable was the lady who paved the way for every Diva to follow, from Trish Stratus to the Bella Twins and pushing how women in wrestling could be hot as hell in any way imaginable.
11 CM Punk
Punk was always unique with his look, the massive tattoos but talking a straight edge persona, incredibly gifted worker and good on the mic. But it was the 2011 feud that would forever solidify his place as a man who pushed the envelope big time. That now-immortal tirade as he trashed Vince McMahon, HHH, John Cena and WWE itself was captivating, Punk saying what so many fans already thought and not afraid to back his words up in fighting. That would carry over with further promos and pushing some big stuff like his “Straight Edge Society” and the feud with Rey Mysterio. He would utilize social media to get his message out and himself over, showing how big that was for wrestling today and blur the lines more between what was real and fake.
To top it all off, Punk walked out on the company when he was still massively over with the fans and used that fame to head to UFC, trashing WWE constantly as he went even as his DVD was selling out in stores. A man who got over trashing his own employer was truly pushing the edge in wrestling and why Punk remains one of the most amazing guys the business has seen in the last decade.
10 D-Generation X
Perhaps WWE today pushes DX’s contributions to the Monday Night War a bit too much. But that’s really not far from the truth as 1997 saw the company, pushed hard by WCW, having to change and Shawn Michaels and Triple H were the guys to do it. They took the simple heel moves of promos and mocking guys like Bret Hart and elevated it big-time from shots on Bret’s rumored affair with Sunny to Shawn picking his nose with the Canadian flag. It grew more as 1997 went on and Bret departed, Shawn using the heat of Montreal nicely to make himself more the obnoxious jerk and Hunter his loyal partner.
The moment they showed the infamous “Curtain Call” on live television was stunning, Vince in commentary having to react to it and blurring the lines of the business and fans. That was followed by such things as the “press conference” mocking USA Network's censors and more antics that just got them over more and more. When Shawn was put out by injury, HHH built the group into a team that would do everything from “invade” a Nitro show to dressing in blackface to mock the Nation of Domination. Whatever the case, the fact remains that DX really were revolutionaries who helped fans get more “in the know” on the business, not afraid to get dirty doing it and a stand-out for wrestling acts that took an adult edge to the show.
If there was ever an act ahead of its time, Goldust was it. A good wrestler, Dustin Rhodes knew he had to get something special in order to get over in WWE in 1995. So he chose an act that fans really couldn’t stop seeing. The gold-painted face and outfit with wig were one thing but there were the promos, quoting movies and laying on the homosexual overtones majorly and Dustin threw himself into it better than anyone could have guessed. It was really something unlike anything in wrestling at the time, so different than what WWE or WCW were giving fans and it got him over nicely, winning the Intercontinental Championship and adding the smoking (literally) Marlena to the mix to keep fans guessing.
Dustin would seem trapped by the act, forced to go back to it over and over through the years but it still stands as a character that blazed a new trail in wrestling, at times uncomfortable but still hugely over and thus a winner in changing fan perceptions.
8 The Road Warriors
Tag team wrestling can easily be divided into two categories; before and after the Road Warriors. There had been unique teams before but the Legion of Doom was something else. The leather outfits, spiked shoulder-pads, painted faces, Hawk and Animal were just two scary and freaky dudes. That came off in their wrestling as they would tear into opponents, beating them brutally, no-selling offenses, so savage that jobbers literally feared getting into the ring with them. Throw in their amazing promos that mixed wicked threats with out-there lines and Paul Ellering as their real-life manager who would elevate them more and the Warriors pushed wrestling in a new direction with their work.
They would launch many imitators but the Road Warriors were always one of a kind, a team that took not just tag teams but the business to an edge that would enthrall fans and scare the hell out of anyone they had to face.
7 Roddy Piper
Piper did what he wanted, when he wanted and didn’t care about such things as censors or such. It was obvious from his time in Portland and then Mid-Atlantic, cutting promos so wild and crazy and engaging in bloody brawls like the dog collar match with Greg Valentine that would make an ECW fan wince. In WWE, he just took it to the next level as his “Piper’s Pit” was home to such things as smashing Jimmy Snuka with a coconut and more, the first interview segment to push some wild antics and all thanks to Piper’s gift for gab.
He never pretended to be a pure face or heel and that was a key reason fans cheered him on as he kept on doing his own thing. That included moments like painting half his body black to face Bad News Brown or cutting promos with open cursing at a time WWE was into squeaky-clean family images. He was one of the first to blur the line of pure face and heel and getting over on his own terms, as he did throughout his life. Whether you loved him, hated him or both, Hot Rod was one of a kind and a legend who was one of the first “tweeners” before that term existed and why he will be missed.
6 Superstar Billy Graham
Wrestling champions in the 1970s tended to be the same; mostly clean-cut, even the heels not that bad, doing so-so promos and just wrestled in tights. Graham changed all that big-time. He was the first guy to blatantly flaunt a steroid-created body, loving showing off his physique in poses around the ring. His ring attire was tie-dyed shirts, pants and headbands with sunglasses and he would enjoy throwing Frisbees into the ring as well.
What really caught fans’ attention were his promos as Graham would emulate Muhammad Ali with talk that mixed rhyming with boasts of his greatness, unlike anything guys were doing already (“the man of the hour, the man with the power, too sweet to be sour!”). It led to huge success as WWE champions, fans paying to see him lose yet also cheering him occasionally. Hulk Hogan is only one of many to admit basing so much of his own wrestling act on Graham as the Superstar set a new path that boosted the larger-than-life wrestling personas of the ‘80s but with a style all his own.
5 Stone Cold Steve Austin
Austin always had the potential to be a star, most everyone who saw him in his debut year of 1990 could see that. The potential was there in WCW but they failed to properly utilize it as he was let go after bungled pushes. His time in ECW built up his ability to talk and take shots at WCW nicely. WWE of course pushed him down with "The Ringmaster” but when he was allowed to cut loose, Austin took it to a level no one could have guessed.
The “Austin 3:16” promo is truly one of the biggest game-changers in the history of the business as fans today don’t realize just how stunning it was seeing this guy cut loose with cursing and flipping the bird all over the place. Austin was himself and fans responded to it, his popularity soon building beyond measure. He trash-talked like no one else, he beat the crap out of anyone that pissed him off and he was soon feuding with the most powerful man in wrestling and getting the business over like never before. He was the leader of the entire “Attitude Era” and still one of the hottest guys in the business for doing what he wanted, when he wanted and never apologizing for it and pushed wrestling where it needed to go.
4 Gorgeous George
In so many ways, he was the innovator. He was the first guy to see how television was going to bring wrestling to a new level and that it was going to be as much performance as actual in-ring ability. Thus, George Raymond Wagner took on a character that, for the time, was something never before seen. Coming to the ring in elaborate robes to “Pomp and Circumstance,” accompanied by a lovely valet and his personal butler who’d put a red carpet in front of him, George would step in the ring, making sure it was sprayed with air freshener first. His long golden locks would have bobby pins and he would insist on the referee’s hands sprayed with perfume first. He was also the first guy to break out in promos with such lines as “Win if you can, lose if you must but always cheat!”
He may not have been a huge champion but he was the first superstar of televised wrestling, his act going over like gangbusters with viewers and he would play it up, obviously a homosexual angle but still his own style to keep fans guessing. His end would be sad but George should be remembered always for the first guy to realize wrestling was sports entertainment and using television to get himself over huge.
3 The Fabulous Freebirds
If there’s a thin line between love and hate, the Freebirds walked it better than anyone. They were the first cool heels, the first bad guys fans wanted to be like and even cheer on at times. Michael Hayes was born for wrestling with his skill and amazing command of the mic. Terry Gordy was a fantastic mix of technical worker and powerhouse. Buddy Roberts was quick, sharp and talented taking a beating. Together, they gelled perfectly as blood brothers, tearing it up with stories of partying that are still legendary in the business. They backed it up in the ring, taking it to the Von Erichs in the feud that would elevate World Class to national prominence and the Freebirds loved pushing crowds to near riot status.
They brought a rock and roll sensibility complete with a music video for “Badd Street” and would do promos at bars or broken-down houses, something quite different for the time. The trio would tear it up with brutal heel stuff but the fans couldn’t hate them totally, a mix they would carry throughout their careers. Cheered or booed, the Freebirds walked their own path and few could keep up as they pushed the idea of how some heels you truly loved, not just hated.
2 Brian Pillman
Perhaps the greatest summation of Pillman comes from Arn Anderson: “He was either the craziest smart man I ever knew or the smartest crazy man I ever knew.” To this day, many are unsure just how much of Pillman’s “Loose Cannon” was an act or not. What is sure is that Pillman blurred the lines of the business like no one else before him and set the tone for the “Attitude” era before anyone knew what that was. Already a fantastic worker and great heel, Pillman began his work with such things as ending a match with Kevin Sullivan by taking the mic and calling him “Bookerman” in the middle of the ring, a huge breaking of kayfabe.
He followed that with attacking Bobby Heenan’s bad neck, causing Bobby to blurt the F-word on live television. Pillman threw himself into it so much that even his closest friends thought he was truly losing his mind. It would lead to an ECW run where he’d threaten to piss in the middle of the ring and then the jump to WWE that nearly ended early by his brutal car accident. Even injured, he kept it up with the now infamous “gun incident” on RAW that nearly got the show thrown off the network. Pillman would keep it up until his untimely death in late 1997 that threw folks even more. He may have made the mistake of buying into his own act but there’s no doubt that Pillman was one of the best cases in modern times of a man who broke the rules of the business in a great way and established the “anything can happen” feelings that so many others have run with since.
1 Paul Heyman
Yes, it’s true, Heyman was not a wrestler himself (although he would be called into the ring for bouts now and then). But when you talk of someone who created a seismic shift in the entire business by pushing the status quo, he has to rank at the top. Heyman was always driven in his days as manager, first in Memphis, then the AWA and then to WCW. His tenure there ended badly (so much so that Heyman is still legally banned from talking about it) and would fuel Heyman’s drive when he took on booking for Eastern Championship Wrestling. Heyman’s formula was simple: “Accent the positives, hide the negatives.” Under his tenure, ECW would transform the entire wrestling world with storytelling tropes that are still common today.
Heyman himself could be difficult but the fact he never treated the audience like idiots truly helped win fans over (as Tommy Dreamer once put it: “Paul never lied to the fans. He lied to the WRESTLERS but not the fans.”) and helped ECW rise so well. He introduced a new style of storytelling, not just the violence but pushing things with stories of old rivalries, intense feuds, women wrestling and/or making out and much more. This small promotion soon attained a huge following, one that WCW and WWE knew they had to emulate in order to transform themselves. While Heyman was always a better creative mind than a businessman (which is why ECW went out of business), his creative drive can never be denied as he was the driving force behind the transformation of wrestling in the 1990s and that alone makes him tops on this list.