13 Biggest Superstars in the History of the WWE5
By Dan Berry
13 Biggest Superstars in the History of the WWE
Since the dawn of time, men have wrestled. And not much has changed since. The only difference is the stage has grown bigger, as have the competitors. Professional wrestling has become big business with millions of rabid fans around the globe. And the main reason for this: World Wrestling Entertainment. The company took the sport from a regional attraction and transformed it into an internationally televised event – much like promoter Jake Nelson, the protagonist of the series Full Nelson, is trying to do with his small Fresno wrestling racket. Of course, as Jake is learning, in order for the promotion to grow, you need superstars.
When it comes to legendary talent, the WWE has been incredibly fortunate. For nearly three decades now, fans have swarmed stadiums looking to catch a glimpse of these modern day Hercules in action. And of all the competitors who have dared enter the ring, these are the 13 greatest superstars in WWE history. Gods among men, they have combined for some of the greatest television (and worst movies) of all time.
Full Nelson – The Sport of Kings
13. John Cena
The current face of the WWE, John Felix Anthony Cena, Jr., started his professional career in 2000, wrestling for Ultimate Pro Wrestling. In 2001, he signed a contract with the World Wrestling Federation (WWF)—which later became WWE in 2002—and was sent to Ohio Valley Wrestling. Cena did not have to spend long in the developmental league. On June 27, 2002, he made his WWE television debut and quickly shot to stardom as the rapping wrestler—performing weekly freestyles challenging his opponents. Personally, I find this gimmick to be insulting to such musical legends as Vanilla Ice; but still, Cena has managed to ride it to the top. He has won a total of fifteen WWE titles, released two rap albums, appeared on countless television shows and starred in the feature films The Marine, 12 Rounds and Legendary. All three movies were so bad they should have held the premieres at a Blockbuster; but somehow still, John Cena’s superstardom continues to grow.
12. Jimmy “The Mouth of the South” Hart
If Full Nelson’s Jake Nelson were to have only one hero, it would unquestionably have to be Jimmy Hart. Without a doubt the greatest manager/promoter/hype-man in WWE history, The Mouth of the South started off as a member of ’60s rock band The Gentrys before being brought into wrestling by one of the most famous wrestlers in history, Jerry “The King” Lawler, with whom he had attended high school. Hart later became Lawler’s manager.
After splitting from Lawler, Hart created a stable known as Hart’s First Family of Wrestling to attack Lawler, which among others included King Kong Bundy, “Ravishing Rick” Rude, Kevin Sullivan, Randy Savage, and The Iron Sheik.
In 1982, Hart earned national headlines doing a program with comedian and television star Andy Kaufman. Hart, Lawler and Kaufman would continue this feud for over a year. Around this time, Hart became known as “The Wimp,” a nickname given to him by Lawler and chanted by fans, and was the subject of Lawler’s song “Wimpbusters” and the subsequent music video that featured footage of Lawler beating Hart and his “First Family.”
In 1985, Hart’s friend Hillbilly Jim recommended him to WWF owner Vince McMahon, who hired him. He was termed “The Mouth of the South” after his trademark megaphone. Throughout the years, Hart used the megaphone to instruct and encourage his protégés, to discourage and annoy opponents as well as announcers (especially Gorilla Monsoon) and also as a weapon.
Hart teamed with Hulk Hogan in 1993, managing him and serving as his corner man at WrestleMania IX. This appearance was Hart’s last in the WWF, as he and Hulk Hogan both departed for World Championship Wrestling (WCW).
Hart has twice been named Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s Manager of the Year—in 1987, and again in 1994. The Mouth of the South is currently under contract with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA); and although his role with the company is up in the air at the moment, it’s a safe bet that we have not seen (or heard) the last of this superstar wrestling manager.
11. Triple H
Paul Michael Levesque—better known by his ring name Triple H, an abbreviation of his former ring name Hunter Hearst Helmsley—has proven himself to be both the dumbest and also the smartest man in professional wrestling history. Levesque, who began his career in 1994 with the WCW, came to the WWF in 1995, and immediately displayed an utter lack of brainpower by dating (in real life, I might add) fellow wrestler Joanie Laurer, a.k.a. Chyna, a.k.a. Steroid-Ridden She-Male. But even with that big, ugly, alcoholic bitch on his arm, Levesque still managed to push his way to WWF and WWE superstardom.
Overall, Levesque has won 23 championships in WWE and is also recognized as the first World Heavyweight Champion under WWE’s lineage. One needs to wonder, though, if any of this would have been possible if he hadn’t made the wisest move in professional wrestling history when he ditched Chyna and started dating, and then married the boss’ daughter—Stephanie McMahon. The couple has three kids, and in 2010, while recovering from an injury sustained in the ring, Levesque was officially named WWE Senior Executive Advisor. Apparently, dipping your pen in the company ink can be a smart and incredibly lucrative move.
10. Vince McMahon
Vince McMahon, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. (WWE), is a third generation promoter who has made WWE into the global phenomenon it is today. As a pioneer in the television syndication business, a recognized television personality throughout the world, a visionary promoter and a fearless marketer, he continues to make his presence known as a leader within the broadcast and entertainment industries… as well as in the ring.
Like any good CEO, McMahon is hated by the masses. His cutthroat business practices and poor treatment of his performers, including allegations that he supplied his wrestlers with steroids (not to mention, the “Montreal Screwjob”—see #8), have made him a man vilified by his employees and, more importantly, the fans. But ever the shrewd businessman, McMahon has merely embraced this bad guy persona and used it to his benefit, becoming quite possibly the greatest “heel” in WWE history.
For his accomplishments in entertainment, television, and pay-per-view, McMahon, one of the longest running personalities on television, was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2008.
9. The Undertaker
Mark William Calaway began his professional wrestling career with World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW) in 1984. He joined the WCW as “Mean” Mark Callous in 1989, where he was crowned World Tag Team Champion. But only a year later, when WCW failed to his contract, Calaway joined the WWF and took the name that has since become known to millions upon millions around the world—The Undertaker.
The Undertaker has two contrasting gimmicks: “the Deadman,” an undead occult like figure, and “the American Bad Ass,” a biker. Needless to say, it is the first persona that has earned The Undertaker all-time superstar status with such specialty matches as the Casket match, the Buried Alive match, and the notorious Hell in a Cell – not to mention the presence of his one-time manager, the creepy Paul Bearer.
At the Royal Rumble in 1993, The Undertaker was sealed in his own casket and seemingly vanquished for good. But because it is professional wrestling, an Undertaker was soon reintroduced back to the WWF. This Undertaker, however, played by Brian Lee, was an impostor Undertaker (dubbed the “Underfaker” by fans) and led to the return of the real Undertaker. Appearing as a new version of his original Deadman persona, replacing grey with purple, The Undertaker defeated the imposter after three Tombstone Piledrivers, thus restoring order to the world.
Overall, as The Undertaker, Calaway is an eight-time world champion, four-time WWF/E Champion and three-time World Heavyweight Champion, a one-time WWF Hardcore Champion, and a six-time WWF World Tag Team Champion. He was, at one point, the youngest WWF Champion in history and is undefeated at WrestleMania, with an 18-0 record, which is the single longest undefeated WrestleMania streak in WWE history.
8. Shawn Michaels
Not only is Michael Shawn Hickenbottom, a.k.a. Shawn Michaels, one of the greatest superstars in WWE history, he is without a doubt the greatest ladies man the WWE has ever seen. Women simply adored “The Heartbreak Kid,” as Michaels became known, showing up in droves to mob the longhaired lothario—something I seriously doubt would have happened if he’d wrestled under his real name of Hickenbottom.
Michaels, who wrestled for WWE from 1988 until his retirement in 2010, was considered one of WWE’s senior performers, having showcased his talents for over 20 years. During that time, he racked up numerous accolades including being a four-time world champion, a three-time WWF Champion and a former World Heavyweight Champion. He was also the winner of the 1995 and 1996 Royal Rumbles (while a member of Degeneration-X, along with Triple H and Chyna) and was the company’s first Grand Slam Champion. He has also won the Slammy Award (WWE’s version of the Oscar) a record 10 times.
Michaels is probably best remembered, however, for his televised real-life feud with Bret “The Hitman” Hart—another legendary WWE superstar who easily could have made this—that culminated in the “Montreal Screwjob,” one of the most controversial professional wrestling events ever in which Vince McMahon (with the help of Michaels and the referee) double-crossed Hart, the defending WWF Champion.
A number of factors led to the Montreal Screwjob. For starters, Michaels and Hart had several backstage arguments including a fight before a house show in Hartford, Connecticut (after Michaels had publicly accused Hart of having an affair with his then-girlfriend, WWF Diva Sunny), which saw Michaels suspended for 2 months. Secondly, and more importantly, McMahon was planning to take WWF public, which required him to minimize any long-term financial commitments, such as the 20-year contract Hart had just signed. So, with that said, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when the ref called for the bell to ring and ended the match as Michaels held Hart in the Sharpshooter submission hold (Hart’s signature finishing move), even though Hart had not submitted. Michaels was declared the victor by submission and crowned the new WWF Champion.
7. The Rock
“Can you smell what The Rock is cooking?”
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was born to be a wrestler. Literally. He is the first third-generation wrestler in WWE history. However, it wasn’t in the ring that Dwayne first gained national attention. Rather, it was in college as a member of the University of Miami’s national championship football team that he first garnered the spotlight… when he was caught chasing San Diego State’s Aztec mascot around the field during a live nationally televised game.
When his dreams of a professional football career fizzled, Dwayne decided to follow the family tradition and become a professional wrestler. He gained mainstream fame in World Wrestling Entertainment from 1996 to 2004, quickly being given a push, first as “Rocky Maivia,” and then as “The Rock,” a member of the Nation of Domination. Two years after he joined the WWF, Johnson won the WWF Championship, and became one of the most popular wrestlers within the company’s history for his engaging interviews and promos. A nine-time world champion, he decided, in 2001, to cash in on his immense popularity—much like Hulk Hogan before him—by trying his hand at acting. But in stark contrast to Hogan, Johnson’s career on the big screen has actually proved quite successful. In fact, Arnold Schwarzenegger—the greatest action star of all time—literally passed the action movie crown to The Rock in the opening scene of The Rundown. But unfortunately, and again like the Hulkster, Dwayne hasn’t always had the best eye for scripts. Of course, it could be that wrestlers/actors just love seeing themselves on the big screen… in tutus! I mean, c’mon, how else would you explain such epic flops as Suburban Commando and The Tooth Fairy?
6. The Nature Boy, Ric Flair
“I’m a limousine ridin’, jet flyin’, kiss stealin’, wheelin’ dealin’ son of a gun. WOOOO!”
Sure, Richard Morgan Fliehr, better known by his ring names Ric Flair and “The Nature Boy,” dresses like Liberace and can easily be considered the original WOOOO Girl, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t all man. To quote the 16-time World Heavyweight Champion and 2008 WWE Hall of Fame inductee: “Girls, you can’t be the first, but you can be next.”
One of the most well known professional wrestlers in the world, The Nature Boy has been welcoming opponents and fans to “Flair Country” since 1972. A multiple-time champion in the NWA, WCW and WWF, he has even served as the on-camera co-owner of WWE—a role that spawned an on-screen feud between he and Vince McMahon, ultimately leading to the two men wrestling for sole ownership of the company (McMahon won with the help of Brock Lesnar).
In 2009, at the tender young age of sixty, Flair signed with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling and is still hamming it up in the ring. Now, while many may be wondering what The Nature Boy—old floppy man-boobs and all—is doing still cracking skulls, I need only quote the man himself: “Space Mountain may be the oldest ride in the park, but it has the longest line!”
5. Stone Cold Steve Austin
Steve Austin (born Steven James Anderson; later Steven Williams), better known by his ring name “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, wrestled for several well-known wrestling promotions such as World Championship Wrestling (WCW), Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) and most famously, the WWF/WWE. Billed as “The Most Popular Superstar in WWE History,” the organization has also named Austin as the greatest talker in the history of professional wrestling—a funny fact considering that he gained significant mainstream popularity in the WWF during the mid-to-late 1990s as a disrespectful, beer-drinking antihero who routinely defied his boss, Vince McMahon, frequently flipping the CEO the bird and incapacitating him with the Stone Cold Stunner, his signature finishing move. Still, in-ring antics aside, McMahon didn’t hesitate to induct Austin into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2009.
Austin held nineteen championships throughout his professional wrestling career and is recognized by WWE as a six-time world champion, having held the WWF Championship on six occasions, and the fifth Triple Crown Champion. He was also the winner of the 1996 King of the Ring tournament, as well as the 1997, 1998 and 2001 Royal Rumbles. He was forced to retire from in ring competition in early 2003 due to a series of knee and neck injuries sustained throughout his career – although he has continued to make part-time appearances.
Austin’s genuine rise to superstardom began at the 1996 King of the Ring. Austin began using his trademark finishing maneuver, the Stone Cold Stunner; and with this new technique, he won the King of the Ring tournament, defeating the legendary Jake “The Snake” Roberts in the finals. At the time, Roberts was portraying a born-again Christian, so after the match, Austin cut a now famous promo during his coronation, telling Roberts, “You sit there and you thump your Bible, and you say your prayers, and it didn’t get you anywhere! Talk about your psalms, talk about John 3:16… Austin 3:16 says I just whooped your ass!” “Austin 3:16″ ultimately became one of the most popular catch phrases in wrestling history and subsequently went on to become the highest selling tee shirt in WWE merchandise history.
4. Macho Man Randy Savage
“Oooooh yeeeah! The madness is runnin’ wild! Dig it!”
What would the WWF/E have been without Randall Mario Poffo, a.k.a. “Macho Man” Randy Savage? Too hot to handle and too cold to hold, Macho Man is one of the most recognizable wrestlers in history, thanks to his distinctively deep and raspy voice, his ring attire (comprising sunglasses, a bandanna or head band, gaudy robes, and a cowboy hat), intensity, and (of course) his signature catch phrase: “Oooooh yeeeah!”
A twenty-time champion and ten-time world champion, the WWE has named Savage the greatest champion of all time, saying: “There has never been a Superstar more colorful than “Macho Man” Randy Savage. His style – perfectly punctuated by his entrance music, “Pomp and Circumstance” – has only been outshined by his performance in the ring. He has brought a higher level of credibility to the title through his amazing in-ring performances.”
Of course, while Macho Man’s in-ring performances are things of legend (he is also responsible for introducing the world to Miss Elizabeth, the first true WWE Diva), many of his performances outside the ring have been legendarily ludicrous. Why he ever decided to cut a rap album (“Be A Man”) with lyrics referring to Hulk Hogan as a homosexual, I have no idea. But hey, it did make me laugh, so I guess I’ll just chalk it up to his larger-than-life persona. And with that being said… “Snap into a Slim Jim! Oooooh yeeeah!”
3. Andre the Giant
Wrestling aside, any man who can drink 119 beers in a single sitting is an all-time superstar in my book.
His parents named him Andre Rene Rousimoff, but we knew him as The Eighth Wonder of the World, Andre the Giant. For two decades, from the late 1960s through the mid 1980s, Andre the Giant was the highest paid professional wrestler in the business and a household name across the globe. Promoters fought tooth and nail to book Andre, as his presence on a card guaranteed a sell-out. Fans cheered his every move and mobbed him on the street as if he were a great big Beatle.
For proof of his drawing power, look no further than WrestleMania III in 1987. The main event was Andre vs. Hulk Hogan. The show drew the first million-dollar gate in wrestling history, set a pay-per-view record that lasted a decade, and set the all-time indoor attendance record for any live event ever—78,000+ at the Pontiac Silver Dome in Detroit—destroying the previous record set by some no-name rock band called the Rolling Stones. His rematch with Hogan two months later, broadcast live on NBC, attracted 33 million viewers, making it the most watched wrestling match ever.
Known to his friends simply as “Giant” or “Boss,” Andre was born on May 19th, 1946, in Grenoble, France, the child of Russian immigrants. Shortly after his birth, he was diagnosed with a rare glandular disease, acromegaly, which caused his body to over-produce growth hormones. As a result, Andre grew to a height of somewhere between 6’11″ and 7’5″ and a weight of over 500 pounds. His actual height and weight have been speculated about for decades – the business is notorious for inflating wrestlers’ statistics. However, Andre’s illness sometimes made him slouch or bow his shoulders, so he might well have been the advertised 7’5″. He first wrestled as Andre the Butcher, but it was Vincent J. McMahon Sr., owner of New York’s World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF), who christened him “Andre the Giant.”
There were only two things that the big man loved: wrestling and booze—mostly booze—and his appetites were of mythic proportion. While it can be argued that a miniscule handful of professional wrestlers matched Andre’s in-ring achievements (Gorgeous George back in the ’40s and ’50s, Dusty Rhodes in the ’70s, and Hulk Hogan in the ’80s), no other wrestler ever matched his exploits as a boozehound. In fact, no other human has ever matched Andre as a drinker. He is the zenith. He is the Mount Everest of inebriation. Known to have regularly demolished a dozen or so quarts of beer as a “warm-up” for a match, it has been estimated that Andre the Giant drank 7,000 calories worth of booze every day. The figure doesn’t include food. Just booze. Furthermore, while you won’t find it in the Guinness Book of World Records, Andre the Giant holds the world record for the largest number of beers consumed in a single sitting. These were standard 12-ounce bottles of beer, nothing fancy, but during a six-hour period Andre drank 119 of them. Think about it: 119 beers in six hours. That’s a beer every three minutes, non-stop. That’s beyond epic. It’s beyond the ken of mortal men. It’s god-like.
When ill health forced Andre to largely quit wrestling in the late ’80s, he accepted the role of Fezzik in Rob Reiner’s movie The Princess Bride. Everyone on the set loved the big man, with the possible exception of Reiner himself. Ever the sociable fellow, he kept fellow cast members Mandy Patinkin and Carey Elwes out night after night, drinking and goofing around. The actors were incapable of matching Andre’s intake, but certainly gave it a serious try. As a result, they often showed up on set still loaded or suffering from the sort of hangovers that make death seem a pleasant alternative.
Following WrestleMania III, Andre retired for good, returning to France to be with his family. He was still there when, on January 26th, 1993, Andre died in his sleep of heart failure at the age of 47.
2. Hulk Hogan
Sure, thanks to reality television (and the fact that his wife left him for one of his son’s friends), Terry Gene Bollea, better known by his ring name Hulk Hogan, is considered by many today to be a joke; but that will never alter the fact that he is the greatest superstar in the history of professional wrestling—a title he has held ever since defeating Andre the Giant at WrestleMania III.
From 1979-2007, Hulkamania ran wild as the all-American, working-class hero repeatedly used his signature maneuvers — pointing at the opponent, shaking his finger to scold him, three punches, an Irish Whip, the big boot and Atomic Leg Drop — to dispatch one opponent after another as his Hulkamaniacs cheered him on. (That finishing sequence would occasionally change depending on the storyline and opponent. For instance, with larger wrestlers like Andre the Giant, the sequence might involve a body slam.)
The Hulkster’s popularity was limitless. Far more than just the face of the WWF, he was a bona fide pop culture superstar. Hogan was named the most requested celebrity of the 1980s for the Make-a-Wish Foundation children’s charity. He was featured on the covers of Sports Illustrated, TV Guide, and People magazines, while also appearing on The Tonight Show and having his own CBS Saturday morning cartoon titled Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling. Hogan went on to headline eight of the first nine WrestleMania events, co-host Saturday Night Live and star in a number of forgettable movies, as well as several live-action TV series. Furthermore, AT&T reported that his 900 number information line was the single biggest 900 number from 1991 to 1993.
No need to do a double-take. You read that right the first time. Steroids.
With the exception of Andre the Giant—who did it like Babe Ruth, with hot dogs and beer—damn near every wrestler to ever enter the ring took the shots and popped the pills like Pez. Hell, without steroids, there probably never would have even been a WWE. And that’s why steroids is the true superstar.
Now get that camera outta my face, fool! I’m ragin’!
Full Nelson – Blood Is Thicker
Full Nelson – The Son Also Rises
Dan Berry began writing and performing stand-up comedy while skipping class and drinking heavily at New York University. An inexplicably instant success, he has since appeared in clubs and on college campuses nationwide and is frequently featured on radio and television. Aside from creating the humor site “Jotter of a Rotter” and the internationally acclaimed website “The Prison Kite,” Dan has also lent his warped writing skills to a pair of failed pilots for FX and NBC, as well as to several current network shows that are somehow proving successful in spite of his crazed contributions.