A recent press release stated that World Wrestling Entertainment would now be known simply as WWE, in an effort to distance the company from its wrestling roots and focusing more on the entertainment aspect of the product.
Needless to say, the change is absurd because professional wrestling is at the core of the product. Casual viewers who have no interest in ring combat will never tune in to WWE programs for cheap celebrity appearances or (shudder) the acting. Although WWE’s presentation has taken on an impressive cinematic feel at times, the creative execution of the non-wrestling aspects comes up way too short to justify seeking it out on a weekly basis.
A major reason why the wrestling component is more important now than ever is because the character development lacks the dimension that it used to have. To demonstrate this commentary, the next tier of the WWE Pyramid will invoke the spirit of the WWF’s golden age, when Superstars were expected to use their characters to enhance their in-ring performances and vice versa.
The Superstars who successfully exhibit that range today are few and far between. Perhaps history will place today’s best in the same category as the men who should be the first inductees into…
The Cavalcade of Characters
#10 – The Iron Sheik
The Iron Sheik hated America in an era when being an anti-American Arab had fairly shallow implications. Still, he used his Iranian heritage to catapult into the spotlight as one of the most despised figures in WWF history.
But the Iron Sheik’s presence as the resident stereotypical foreign villain would have fallen flat without his proven record as an in-ring star. With his career starting in the early 1970s under legend Verne Gagne, it should have come as no surprise that Sheik was the man who eventually ended the all-American champion Bob Backlund’s six-year WWF championship run.
Even after the Iron Sheik fell out of the championship picture, his character endured as one of the WWF’s more recognizable. He has since found new celebrity as a caricature of himself without the cultural insensitivities. But true wrestling fans know that the Iron Sheik is a legend whose memorable character set him apart just as much as his ability to inflict punishment.
#9 – “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka
Jimmy Snuka’s look and athleticism helped him stand out among the other Pacific Islanders in professional wrestling. Snuka put his Fijian roots on full display, wrestling barefoot and cutting promos in horrible English.
Snuka was not a major player during the WWF’s most exciting times. But his unparalleled high-flying ability has kept him memorable as a fearless performer who was ahead of his time.
And a WWF Superstar could do worse than being a favorite wrestler to people who don’t watch it much (e.g. my mom).
#8 – Junkyard Dog
Anyone who thinks that black professional wrestlers are marginalized today would consider the pre-1990s period the Jim Crow era of wrestling. The handful of black WWF Superstars never got legitimate championship pushes.
Ironically, the first black World Heavyweight Champion of a major promotion was Ron Simmons in 1992 in WCW, based out of Atlanta, Georgia. WWE, aka ‘the company up north,’ would not boast a black world champion until 1998 (The Rock).
Still, despite being denied the big money spotlight, one of the WWF’s most popular Superstars in his day (race be damned) was the Junkyard Dog. Coming down to ringside on his own leash (racial subtext being ignored for now), JYD had a rough-and-tumble style of combat that contrasted with his happy-go-lucky attitude when not in action.
Junkyard Dog’s spirit and energy has prevailed among successful black Superstars like Koko B. Ware, The Rock and Kofi Kingston. JYD was one of the pioneers who made it possible for his successors to prove that they could fill seats even if they looked different than the majority of the fans watching.
#7 – Honky Tonk Man
A WWF Superstar who styles himself after Elvis Presley shouldn’t have lasted long at all, but Honky Tonk Man took his jumpsuit, guitar and sideburns on the longest Intercontinental Championship reign in the title’s history (64 weeks).
Honky Tonk Man’s status as one of the WWF’s all-time greatest heels of got him inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2009, and his contribution to sports entertainment is still being felt by younger guys he helped develop and the fans who continue to watch him on the independent circuit.
#6 – Big Boss Man
Billed as a former prison guard from Cobb County, Georgia (which he actually was), Ray Traylor’s Big Boss Man character was an interesting example of flexibility. Although he started out as a heel that would cuff his opponents to the ring ropes and beat them with his nightstick, fans with a natural aversion to authority figures had no choice but to appreciate his face turn. His charisma on the microphone and his ability in the ring made him an irresistible personality for the 10 years he spent with the WWF/E, whether he was mowing down Bobby Heenan’s stable or feeding Al Snow’s dog to him.
#5 – The Ultimate Warrior
The Ultimate Warrior might be the most popular WWF champion with the fewest in-ring skills. He would sprint to the ring, shake the ropes, clothesline people, body slam them, and leave in a roar of applause. That was it. Somehow his character spoke for a new generation of wrestling fans who appreciated high spots and heavy metal.
But on the microphone…who the hell knows what group he was speaking for?
Warrior took his “from Parts Unknown” billing seriously as he launched into promos that no one could really understand, whether he was ranting about spirits or snorting his own name.
As little praise as there is for the Ultimate Warrior’s in-ring abilities, no one can deny how electrifying he was. His Superstar status was fueled on sheer heart-pumping energy…well…and his ridiculous profitability at the merch table.
#4 – “Ravishing” Rick Rude
As homoerotic as professional wrestling is (keep it real), “Ravishing” Rick Rude was one of the few Superstars to overtly defend himself against that claim. Unfortunately for male WWF fans, Rude’s strategy to do so meant addressing the women in the audience, telling them that he was what a real man looked like.
As a part of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan’s stable of wrestlers, Rude generated instant heat with his vanity and the underhanded moves made on his behalf. Meanwhile, the women who’d accompany male fans would swoon over Rude’s exceptional physique (and his porn ‘stache…hey, it was the ’80s), which he so graciously displayed before and after a match.
But Rude wouldn’t be ranked so high based on his persona alone. The truth is that the guy was tough as nails and could strike fear into any opponent, even if it did look like he’d be better suited for an adult movie about a pizza delivery guy.
#3 – Sergeant Slaughter
In the 1980s, Sgt. Slaughter (nee Robert Remus) had the most crossover appeal of any wrestler not named Hulk Hogan. As the resident US military officer of professional wrestling, Slaughter also appeared as a live-action AND animated character on G. I. Joe.
The shocking event that shoots Sgt. Slaughter so high on this list was when he won the WWF Heavyweight Championship as a supporter of Iraq during the Gulf War period. With evil General Adnan as his manager, Sgt. Slaughter flew the Iraqi flag, burned the American flag, and cheated to beat some of the WWF’s most beloved Superstars (including The Ultimate Warrior).
It’s not easy for any Superstar to evolve the way Sgt. Slaughter did. Some may say that his longevity was helped along by the coincidence of certain current events, but if the WWF/E does anything well, it’s capitalizing on topical issues to fuel its product. And for Sgt. Slaughter’s role in executing that storyline and every other, he should be saluted.
#2 – “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase
Today, Ted DiBiase, Sr. is a Christian minister. But in his time as a WWF Superstar, DiBiase was one of the most hated men in the company. There probably hasn’t been greater polarity between two stages in life for any other wrestler.
During show time, DiBiase lived by his catchphrase, ‘Everybody’s got a price,’ offering money to people for debasing themselves, including young fans who still thought all of this was real. And if his treatment of fans wasn’t bad enough, he also had a black manservant named Virgil whom he also humiliated on a regular basis. Some racist bastards out there might have been into that. But everyone else knew that the Million Dollar Man was bad news in every way.
The reason DiBiase’s name endures (aside from his son being with the WWE) is that he was one of the most technically sound and hardest working wrestlers in the business. Whenever he was matched up with the companies greatest champions, there was also a fear that DiBiase would win.
But DiBiase’s reign as a champion was short-lived at best. So what happens when a millionaire who’s at the top of his game doesn’t win a championship belt? He makes his own!
#1 – Jake “The Snake” Roberts
Fans and wrestlers alike will tell you that Jake “The Snake” Roberts was one of the greatest personalities of all time. Roberts changed the game of cutting promos by speaking softly and making everything he said matter. His cerebral approach to promos translated into his calculated wrestling style, which all complimented his nickname perfectly.
Forget about how he’s become an absolute train wreck in recent years, or that he never became a champion in the WWF. What people should remember is that the way he honed his craft in and out of the ring should be the blueprint for every WWE hopeful looking to live up to the entertainment component of WWE. For example, Randy Orton might have been fortunate enough to have a father and grandfather in the business. But he sure as hell has an uncle in “The Snake.”