Long before Vince McMahon came along, pro wrestling was “sports entertainment.” Wrestling had always had a push in mainstream pop culture but the arrival of television is what really pushed it up majorly. It continued in the 1970s yet the 1980s was when it exploded into the mainstream big time thanks to the arrival of Hulk Hogan. Today, wrestling is tied into pop culture majorly thanks to numerous TV shows and movies. It helps that several wrestlers have moved onto some big movie work to show more impact.
Some wrestlers have just had a much bigger impact on pop culture than others. It’s not just getting famous in movies (although that helps). They’re able to make a mark in other ways from blazing a trail in their acts to opening up the doors for wrestlers to follow. There’s also the elite group who become so famous that even people who have never watched wrestling know who they are. Some are bigger deals than others while a few are truly iconic in pop cultural terms. Here are 10 wrestlers who made the biggest impact on pop culture and helped elevate wrestling even more.
10 Jesse Ventura
Jesse Ventura always had a great drive in wrestling with his good body and his brash interview style. He was forced to hang it up for health issues but then became one of the best color commentators around. Ventura always had an impact in movies with hits like Predator and notable for playing tough guys.
Ventura's biggest impact was shocking the world by being elected Governor of Minnesota in 1998 which became a major pop culture meme before memes existed. He followed that up with several reality TV shows and still a popular face on talk shows to prove “the Body” became a major pop cultural voice as well.
9 Roddy Piper
While Hulk Hogan clearly had his influence on pop culture with wrestling in the 1980s, Roddy Piper wasn’t too far behind. His brash style made him a natural on talk shows and his great mouth made for some fun interviews. Piper also scored much better in movies than Hogan, particularly the cult classic They Live where his “I have come to kick a--- and chew bubblegum and I’m all outta bubblegum” line is still quoted today.
Piper remained a popular face on various TV shows and movies all the way until his death in 2015 to show his pop culture impact.
8 El Santo
There had been masked wrestlers in Mexico before but El Santo was the one who elevated it into a new level of cultural prominence.
The masked man was a sensation with crowds thanks to his style and set the tradition of luchadores never removing their masks in public. He was also a major superhero in dozens of movies which also set a new standard in Mexico that others followed. His impact was huge as he’s still considered an icon in his country. The man was even buried with his mask on and every luchadore since has been following the trail he blazed in both wrestling and pop culture.
It’s hard to have more of an impact on pop culture than starring in one of the biggest movie franchises in history. Batista always had a good vibe in wrestling and was only held back by his various injuries and his age. Movies were a natural for him but he lucked out big time with his role as Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy.
Fans and critics adored his take on the funny warrior as he’s reprised the role several times. Bautista has also had success with the Bond movie Spectre and other roles yet can boast much bigger pop culture relevance than many wrestlers on this list. The MCU was a great thing for this guy.
6 Mick Foley
Mick Foley’s impact on pop culture is more important than many realize. Foley’s biggest contribution was his autobiography becoming a massive bestseller. Amazingly, there had been a feeling in 1998 that wrestling books wouldn’t sell because “those fans don’t like to read.” His bio topping the New York Times bestseller list ended that line of thinking majorly.
Foley opened the doors for scores of wrestling biographies and histories to create a whole publishing brand. He’s remained popular since as Foley proved how wrestling books could be big sellers.
5 Gorgeous George
When wrestling started to be shown on television, most guys treated it like any other match. George Wagner was the first to realize television was going to change the game and decided to change with it. He transformed himself into a pretty boy who pranced about the ring, cheated majorly and cut some of the first modern promos.
He was incredibly ahead of his time as he led to wrestling being a huge hit for the medium and paved the way for scores of others to follow. George was the man who made wrestling cool for the mainstream and should never be forgotten.
4 John Cena
Mock John Cena all you want on his ring work or constant pushes. It can’t be ignored how Cena made a huge impact on pop culture. His entire hip-hop persona captured the attention of fans and Cena has become a major mainstream star as well. He seems ready to move into Hollywood as he’s shown a great talent for comedy more than action movies.
There’s also how Cena has set the record for the most Make-A-Wish appearances of any other celebrity. Cena still gets attention wherever he goes to showcase a great wrestler to jump into the mainstream and affect it.
3 Steve Austin
Steve Austin seemed an unlikely guy to be a pop culture superstar when he started out. But his entire “tough redneck fighting a corrupt boss” act was a key reason why WWE exploded to the top in 1998. Austin was soon gracing magazine covers and the mainstream media even getting into his character nicely.
He’s continued on hosting reality TV shows and is still referenced on TV for his terrific butt-kicking ways. Austin’s great style helped WWE to new pop culture heights and still stands as a great star today.
2 The Rock
It’s still fun to remember Rocky Maivia as the smiling babyface fans couldn’t stand. It all changed of course after unleashing his inner arrogance to become the Rock. While he was already great for the wrestling ring with his character, as soon as Dwayne Johnson was featured in The Mummy Returns, it became obvious he was a natural for Hollywood.
Today, Johnson is one of the biggest box office stars in the world with numerous hit movies and his own TV show. That’s not to mention his style winning over other fans to make the Rock a true pop culture icon.
1 Hulk Hogan
It can’t be denied just how huge an impact Hulk Hogan has had with pop culture. Make no mistake, to this very day, whenever pro wrestling is mentioned, Hogan is the first person non-wrestling fans think of. He was truly larger than life and showed it in movies like Rocky III and numerous talk show appearances.
Hogan’s character has been emulated countless times but few have truly duplicated him and you can’t count the number of video game characters he’s inspired. When it comes to who is the biggest star in the business, Hogan still dominates for many.