Sports have been in irreplaceable component to human life since the start of recorded history. While the constant thread that makes sports so important might seem like the feats of brute strength, speed, agility and technique, sports as a time-honored spectacle definitely revolves around its flare for drama. In this sense, professional wrestling has sacrificed the thrill of absolute unpredictability in the interest of guaranteeing theatrical satisfaction.
But of all the wrestlers who’ve come and gone, a select few set themselves apart in the WWF/E for being able to provide a roller coaster ride every time they set foot in the squared circle. The ability with which these men captivated audiences on a consistent basis earned them the role of top dog among their contemporaries.
The other 4 tiers of the WWE Pyramid honor men whose contributions were significant in specific ways. But final tier is reserved for the performers who essentially carried the wrestling business and set the standard for their company’s presentational merit. In other words, these men epitomized sports entertainment as we know it today.
So, without further ado, Marz Daily Media presents the last tier of the WWE Pyramid:
#10 – Jerry “The King” Lawler
Jerry Lawler has been a ringside commentator on Raw since the 1990s. But in the 1970s and 1980s, he was the king of Memphis wrestling. His popularity in Memphis demanded respect in an era when the territory system was the way of the wrestling world.
Lawler’s dominance in wrestling also turned out to be his ticket into the mainstream. Avant guard comedian Andy Kaufman’s public challenge to Lawler, after performing in a series of matches against women, took riveted television viewers that had every reason to believe that the storyline was 100% real.
Lawler and Kaufman’s commitment to the bit throughout 1980 exemplifies how an unbreakable 4th wall can be extremely effective in keeping people on the edge of their seats (people didn’t know that the program was completely staged until 1994, 10 years after Kaufman’s death). No doubt Vince McMahon witnessed this ordeal from afar, recognizing it as the tip of the iceberg that would crash professional wrestling into the greater world of entertainment.
No one remains a prominent figure in wrestling by accident. Lawler managed to parlay his in-ring legend into a mainstay position with the WWE, where he will still don the tights from time to time (against talent much younger, stronger, and faster than he), showcase his trademark fist drop, and keep the fans behind him on charisma alone.
It’s usually pretty disgraceful to watch wrestlers well past their prime get back into the ring. But “The King” is one of the few (if not the only one) who can do it without fans thinking that he might actually die.
Still not convinced that Lawler is the real deal? Well…this also happened. You’re welcome.
#9 – Dusty Rhodes
Dusty Rhodes’s brief in-ring tenure with the WWF will go down in history as the era when a sassy black woman trapped in a fat white man’s body paraded around as a “The American Dream,” a blue-color superstar with an appreciation for polka dots. Needless to say, Rhodes’s time with McMahon’s company was hardly a crowning achievement.
But before Rhodes took the job ‘up north,’ he was a top draw with the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA)’s Jim Crockett Promotions, which became World Championship Wrestling (WCW). Headlining in NWA main events against legends such as Ric Flair, Nikita Koloff, and Harley Race, Rhodes first earned his stripes in Vern Gagne’s American Wrestling Alliance (AWA) and in the Florida territory.
It was during his time in Florida that he first got to showcase his mind for the business. He became a booker in 1985 for Jim Crockett Promotions, masterminding special matches, gimmicks and in-ring finishes that kept Crockett’s product competitive with the then budding WWF.
These days, Rhodes is a leading creative mind with WWE, currently heading the creative team with WWE’s minor league Florida Championship Wrestling.
The 43 years Dusty Rhodes has spent in the wrestling business would make him a legend on any list. And even though Dusty Rhodes’s importance to sports entertainment (as developed by the McMahons) lay mostly behind the scenes, Marz Daily Media would be remiss if it did not acknowledge Dusty Rhodes with special distinction at the very top of sports entertainment’s unofficial pantheon.
#8 – Ric Flair
Similar to Dusty Rhodes, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair came to the WWF well after his prime. But no one can deny that Flair is one of the godfathers of sports entertainment, making him a must for this list. For someone who blatantly stole his look and nickname from “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, Flair rose above the recognizable gimmick and redefined it to become one of the best sports entertainers of all time.
As the trans-company rival to WWF top dog Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair’s time with the NWA/WCW in the ‘80s and ‘90s made him Hogan’s southern counterpart in the civil dispute between wrestling fans who speculated on which star would win in a match. But since they ruled over stylistically different sandboxes, their styles were never compatible enough to imagine a real dream match situation, further heating up the debate. Meanwhile, Ric Flair fed the ongoing discourse with epic battles against Ricky Steamboat, Sting, and Terry Funk among others.
By the time Flair and Hogan actually met in the squared circle, they were both well over 50 years old, nullifying the matchup’s overall importance to sports entertainment debates. But even in these exhibitions, Flair continued to be the performer that fans loved to hate the most. Finding the perfect blend of technique, brutality, cunning, and comedy is a feat that only a few have achieved before or since Flair.
Any WWE performer who ignores Ric Flair’s contributions to sports entertainment but also wants to be a premiere heel will never earn acclaim anywhere close to Flair’s. I’d say that makes him pretty damned important.
#7 – John Cena
There comes a time in every amateur entertainment critic’s life when personal opinion has to take a back seat to objectivity. Never is this the case more than for John Cena. Despite the annoyance that his display of skill hardly justifies his popularity, his longevity, work ethic and ability to polarize audiences demand that Cena be recognized as one of the top-tier sports entertainers of all time.
Vince McMahon definitely has considered John Cena a darling of the company, as Cena can be considered one of the few men able to carry the company in a time when the WWE has been trying to find its footing as a fully mainstream product. And as one of the few homegrown WWE Superstars, Cena’s evolution from an Ohio Valley Wrestling upstart to a household name demonstrates how far physical conditioning and a strong character archetype can get you in the wrestling business.
Much like his fellow Massachusetts native Mark Wahlberg, Cena broke into the spotlight displaying an urban-influenced style that black people used to resent coming from a pale-skinned package. But with Eminem’s presence in the public eye to confirm that inner city youth culture has as much to do with socio-economics as it does with race, John Cena’s popularity spread to the non-white audience with the same speed as any other group.
John Cena exemplifies how important the business aspect of sports entertainment is. It is likely that, under most circumstances, a split fan response would call for a drastic creative move to shift the tide one way or another. But in Cena’s case, the hatred of some fans and the unconditional appreciation from others only adds to the intrigue surrounding his character. And as long as his merchandise is flying off the shelves, there is no need to fix what fiscally ain’t broke.
#6 – Bret “The Hitman” Hart
Bret Hart’s first big push in the WWF came as half of the legendary tag team The Hart Foundation. But Bret Hart’s legend as we know it today revolves around his career as a singles competitor, where he went on to become one of the greatest Heavyweight Champions in the company’s history.
Vince McMahon gave Hart the reins of the company during one of its more difficult periods. Immediately after Hulk Hogan’s exit in 1993 and McMahon’s steroids scandal, the WWF needed a makeover to recover from its other major talent losses during that time. Dubbed “The New WWF Generation,” the recovery effort was led by Hart, Shawn Michaels, Kevin Nash (Diesel), Scott Hall (Razor Ramon), and Undertaker. But the minor players were often cartoonish archetypes, making it difficult for diehard wrestling fans to defend the product from offhanded dismissals by peers.
And it was during this period that Bret Hart thrived more than he ever would have before or after. A technical master in the ring, Hart reminded fans that wrestling is at the core of the product and that displaying expertise in the ring could supersede any storyline, no matter how intriguing or foolish.
Critics may say that Hart was simply in the right place at the right time to become the face of the company. But the truth is that Bret Hart had been waiting in the wings to emerge as a star since 1988, when he wowed fans at WrestleMania IV. And Ric Flair once commented that Bret Hart couldn’t fill arenas. But his popularity outside of the US and the merchandise revenue figures would suggest otherwise.
Despite his dispassionate exterior, his role with the WWF during the mid-1990s was more important than that of more flamboyant performers like Michaels. His in-ring talent would have placed him atop the Ringmasters tier of the WWE Pyramid. But his importance in the WWF’s recovery places him in the upper echelon of legends.
#5 – The Rock
The look. The talent. The charisma. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson fit the Superstar prototype to a T. But instead of using his genetic gifts to simply live up to his family’s legacy (his father and grandfather were also stars of professional wrestling), The Rock earned the self-projected image that surpassed the achievements of virtually all other performers in the business: “the most electrifying man in sports entertainment.”
Johnson entered the WWF as Rocky Maivia, a name that paid homage to his father, Rocky Johnson, and his maternal grandfather, Peter Maivia. But when the character that merged his father’s energy with his grandfather’s Samoan roots fell flat to WWF fans, Johnson’s true evolution began.
The meta-referential approach to justifying his seminal shift in character worked to make Johnson a heel that demanded attention and respect. Johnson’s alignment with the Nation of Domination—a loosely pro-black WWF stable including the first black World Heavyweight Champion Ron Simmons—gave him the opportunity to display his charisma on the microphone, alienating audiences until they couldn’t take their eyes off of him. This star quality was only the beginning.
Johnson’s magnetic personality continued to evolve as he mastered the use of comedy at the expense of other Superstars in his promos. His unparalleled ability to command attention at all times with quick wit backed up by world-class athleticism redefined an era of WW(x) history when the company staked a major claim in mainstream entertainment.
The Superstars that Vince McMahon helped cultivate have since appeared in many major motions pictures. But it was Dwayne Johnson who renewed the Superstars’ potential to step out of the ring and onto the big screen when his role as The Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns landed him a starring role in his own Scorpion King film.
Johnson’s first feature didn’t shock the world of action-fantasy, but it did open doors for Superstars such as Steve Austin, Kane, Triple H, John Cena, and others to sell movie tickets with their own movie roles.
As far as next-generation pioneers go, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has been a triple threat. He has blazed a trail for all Superstars to venture into careers outside of wrestling, he renewed legitimacy to the entertainment value of professional wrestling, and he stood atop the wrestling world as a minority. It is safe to say that there will never be another Dwayne Johnson. But with such an act to follow, the future of sports entertainment is in the good hands of those who emulate him whenever they can.
#4 – Triple H
Paul Michael Lévesque took his well-to-do New England upbringing into the WWF in 1995 as “Connecticut Blueblood” Hunter Hearst Helmsley. Over that last 16 years, Lévesque has been most commonly known as Triple H. In spite the many storyline changes and character evolutions he has undergone, Triple H has proven night in and night out that his intensity and commitment to the business has earned him the position he currently holds as the unofficial heir to the WWE Empire.
Triple H played an important role in WWF’s Attitude Era as part of Degeneration-X alongside Shawn Michaels. And he continued to stake his claim as top dog in the company with or without the WWF’s answer to WCW’s New World Order.
Several championships and epic battles later, Triple H heads up WWE’s Talent Development Department and is Senior Advisor to his father-in-law Vince McMahon. But this is one instance in which nepotism isn’t a key reason why Lévesque has gotten so far in the business. Any insider will tell you that his uninterrupted 16-year tenure with the company has been more than enough to prove that Lévesque deserves to be where he is. Hell, if nothing else, McMahon can thank Lévesque for being the son who isn’t a complete failure in the wrestling business (sorry, Shane).
#3 – “Stone Cold” Steve Austin
The New WWF Generation era was beginning to lose steam, and World Championship Wrestling (WCW) had begun carving out a larger share of the television market, setting the stage for the head-to-head competition known today as the Monday Night Wars. Vince McMahon was in dire need of a way to maintain and grow his audience without bankrupting his company, which was still recovering from lawsuits connecting him to steroids and corporate harassment.
Steve Austin found his way up north after parting ways with WCW and cutting fiery promos lambasting WCW Chairman Eric Bischoff and others in the business while working for Extreme Championship Wrestling. Certainly, the anti-WCW fire in Austin’s belly caught the WWF’s attention because McMahon signed Austin to a contract in 1995 as The Ringmaster, a Ted DiBiase-managed second coming of “The Million Dollar Man.”
But the Ringmaster character didn’t give Austin the creative outlet he was hoping for…until he found his voice during the 1996 King of the Ring tournament. Austin showed his mettle by suffering a split lip early in the night, getting stitches at the hospital, and returning to the event to win it all. And it was on that night that the Ringmaster was ceremoniously laid to rest, because the phrase “Austin 3:16 says I just whooped your ass!” gave birth to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
Austin built momentum from storylines with Bret “The Hitman” Hart and “Loose Cannon” Brian Pillman, but the most important role Austin played was as the usher of the WWF’s Attitude era. Austin’s swearing, beer-guzzling, boss-antagonizing persona gave audiences a larger-than-life version of someone with whom they identify with and/or wish they could be.
Soon the entire company veered in a more edgy direction with all of its creative decisions, forming a stark contrast to WCW’s more clean-cut product making its own waves at the time. Although WCW dominated the Monday Night Wars, WWF would not have stood a chance at all without the work of Steve Austin. He singlehandedly reenergized the business by demonstrating the broader entertainment potential of professional wrestling. Not many Superstars can say the same thing, and none can say it with as many expletives.
#2 – Shawn Michaels
If the WW(x) has ever had a company man, it is Shawn Michaels. Despite his ups and downs in life, problems with other performers, and injuries, Michaels has always shown up and delivered top-notch performances, making Vince McMahon rich.
Michaels earned his nickname “The Showstopper” in every sense. After he stepped away from tag team competition as one half of The Rockers, Michaels came into his own as one of the most arrogant flamboyant heels in wrestling. Using speed, cunning and high-risk maneuvers, Shawn Michaels always delivered matches that would leave audiences in awe, regardless of whether he was a face or heel.
He reigned as Intercontinental Champion—in a time when titles still mattered—with a run reminiscent of Curt Hennig’s, exhibiting undeniable skill yet barely escaping with wins, much to the chagrin of fans. And as a fan favorite, he became top dog of the WWF by becoming World Champion in a storyline that celebrated making childhood dreams come true.
Although there have been many electrifying champions in professional wrestling, Michaels earns distinction on Mt. Olympus because of his loyalty to the company. While most of his contemporaries jumped ship whenever a more lucrative situation arose, Shawn Michaels put his stake in the ground with Vince McMahon and became the face of the company.
The most glaring show of loyalty surrounds the Montreal Screwjob—the most controversial moment in professional wrestling—during which Michaels, McMahon and referee Earl Hebner conspired to change the outcome of Michaels’s match against Bret Hart without Hart’s knowledge. Hart didn’t expect to lose the World Title match in his home country, but McMahon & co. had other plans. Video captured an exchange after the match where Hart asked Michaels if he knew all about the fix of the match. Michaels kept his head down and nodded. To fans all over the world, the moment did not win Michaels any friends. But the incident seemed to be a pivotal moment of his career, making him an invaluable asset in the company who would do whatever he was asked.
But far from a typical corporate stooge, Michaels took the company to great heights during the Attitude era—the most ironic period in professional wrestling—with the stable Degeneration-X, which prided itself on defying authority. During the period when Vince McMahon invited any and all Superstars to defy his authority as a way of enhancing the entertainment, Shawn Michaels spoke for an entire generation of disaffected young people whose soundtrack was Rage Against the Machine.
No matter the approach, Shawn Michaels never disappointed as a performer. The past 23 years have been filled with 5-star matches and unforgettable moments. And the love Shawn Michaels has felt from the company and the fans is a testament to the indelible contribution he made to sports entertainment.
#1 – Hulk Hogan
Calling Hulk Hogan’s ranking on the all-time greatest WWE Superstars list (#23!) a miscarriage to sports entertainment justice would be an understatement. An analogous situation would be if the Chicago Bulls decided to remove Michael Jordan’s statue from the United Center because of his tenure the Washington Wizards. Unfortunately, industry politics sullied Hogan’s reputation. And now younger fans—who did not see Hulk Hogan when he was making the WWF a household name—have a skewed image of his importance.
During the 1980s, Hulk Hogan was professional wrestling. Kids and grown-ups alike got caught up in Hulkamania because of Hogan’s irresistible charisma. Hogan made the WWF and himself rich by being the good guy of all good guys. The tenets Hogan would recite, “Say your prayers, eat your vitamins, and believe in yourself,” made him a marketable live-action super hero to millions, bigger than any comic book character or TV star before or after him.
Hogan’s popularity allowed Vince McMahon to dream big when it came to the expanding his reach into mainstream entertainment. From the animated series Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling to Hogan’s motion picture roles in Rocky III, No Holds Barred and Suburban Commando, Hulk truly immortalized himself by becoming a bigger entity than the WWF itself. Without Hogan as the face of his growing company, McMahon’s upheaval of the territory system may not have taken place.
It was Hulk Hogan (along with Andre the Giant) who brought a record-breaking 93,173 fans to the Pontiac Silverdome for WrestleMania III. All the promotional spin in the world could not have influenced fans to come out for a lesser Superstar. And to recognize WrestleMania III as the true turning point for the WWF means that full credit has to go to Hogan for making the event so pivotal.
As for the 1990s, a case could be made that Hogan was an important part of the WWF’s success even when he wasn’t with the company. Hogan’s time with rival company WCW involved the most shocking heel turn in the history of wrestling, which set off the Monday Night Wars between WWF Raw and WCW Monday Nitro. Hogan’s stature in the business (and Eric Bischoff’s impeccable timing) forced the WWF to keep up with WCW’s product by reaching over the bar that Hogan had set with his presence over a decade before. As the leader of the New World Order, Hogan gave WCW’s talent more relevance than the company’s creative team ever could have given them.
By the time Hogan returned to the WWF, he really had no business in the ring. His matches with Shawn Michaels and The Rock were strange experiences best forgotten when looking back on Hogan’s legacy, much like MJ’s games in Washington.
Even though some of sports entertainment’s greatest performers have trouble walking away when at the right time, and despite the bridges they may burn, the respect they earn along the way must be acknowledged to the fullest extent of its impact. And that is why Hulk Hogan is the Zeus (not ironic, but close) of the WW(x), and always will be.
Professional wrestling is dead, but sports entertainment is thriving. This shift has made identifying ring legends of the future more challenging for fans of wrestling. So consider the WWE Pyramid a tribute to a time before Vince McMahon decided that wrestling wasn’t a key component to the growth of his business. While McMahon’s brilliance cannot be ignored, it is important to note that diehard wrestling fans are a dying breed at the expense of it.
So look forward to hearing a lot of wrestling geeks going on and on about guys you’ve never heard of because the independent promotions will be where purists will gravitate for their sports entertainment. They will tell Vince McMahon that he can keep his empire. Best of luck to us all, and thank you for reading.