Wrestling with Brilliance: The 50 Greatest Minds of the Business PART II
Many have helped carve professional wrestling into what it is today. Perhaps the biggest contributors however, had simply the best minds for the wrestling business. Individuals and points can be argued either way. This list compiles the best brains for the business from the past and present of professional wrestling (in my opinion, of course). Whether they were in-ring stars, backstage cronies, or big time corporate billionaires, they simply changed the business forever and there is no arguing that. So, who made the top twenty five? Who is number one?
25. JOEY MERCURY – At one time, he was one half of the newest WWE tag team, “MNM”. You can now find him serving and protecting Seth Rollins on RAW every Monday night. What you may not know about Mercury is how much of a hand he’s had a hand in the careers of such WWE stars as Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins and other Florida Championship Wrestling and NXT trainees. For the past handful of years, Joey Mercury has been the guardian angel for many wrestlers behind the curtain, well before his reemergence on RAW in 2014. Though his own career in the ring would be cut short, his career beyond it has become far more important and fruitful. Dedicating such time and care to see others success in a business he respects and admires puts Joey Mercury at the twenty three spot.
24. “THE MAN OF ONE THOUSAND HOLDS” DEAN MALENKO – Former WCW mainstay and world-renowned technician Dean Malenko may have had a rather quite career, but make no mistake about it, his knowledge of the craft is deep and vast. It is no secret that “The Man of One-Thousand Holds” had to have known what he was doing, as it always seemed that Dean had a counter move for an opponent’s counter move. In fact, by 1997 Malenko was named as the best wrestler in the world by Pro Wrestling Illustrated. By the end of his in-ring career, it wouldn’t be long until Dean would be signed as a WWE road agent and trainer, giving young hopefuls their first dark match sporadically. With a talent like Dean Malenko in their locker room, the company and its newest stars have access to one of the greatest minds of wrestling of all time, and a rather underrated one at that!
23. TERRY FUNK – Bloodshed and barbed-wire aside, the amount that this Texan has provided the business with is truly impressive and inspiring. Helping to put Extreme Championship Wrestling on the map, innovating the hardcore genre in Japan, reinventing himself at the age of fifty four, running roughshod with his brother in the NWA, and wrestling for every major company there ever was are just a few things the wrestling business can thank Terry Funk for. Most of all, it is certain that Funk has had some impact or another on up-and-coming stars worldwide. Always doing what’s best for the fans, his family, and his promoters, Funk has become known as one of the most honest and hardworking wrestlers of all time. Ultimately dedicated to the craft he loves, Funk built and cemented his legacy by having a great understanding of it.
22. “THE HEARTBREAK KID” SHAWN MICHAELS – Perhaps best known for his legendary matches and backstage string-pulling, one cannot argue that Shawn Michaels has had no mind for the business. Coming up with such concepts as having both Intercontinental Championships on the line at Wrestlemania X in a ladder match and establishing the Ironman contest idea for Wrestlemania XII, and the formulation of D-Generation X, Michaels would make his career on innovation and success. Staying on top is hard in such an ever-changing business and Michael was a top guy for a long, long time. With a school with such high-caliber graduates as Daniel Bryan and psychologically-tight matches that have inspired a whole new generation of wrestlers, Michaels earns his way to number twenty two on this list.
21. CHIRS JERICHO – Speaking of people Shawn Michaels inspired to become professional wrestlers, Chris Jericho weighs in at number twenty one! Jericho is the man behind the concept of Money In The Bank, his own outrageous angles and promos in WCW, and Chris Jericho’s Highlight Reel. Chris Jericho is well-traveled and over huge, the world over, which is no small accomplishment. With over twenty years in the business under his belt and his knowledge for what’s best for it, Jericho has become an icon and role model in the locker room. Inspiring stars like The Miz and others to break into the business, Jericho has nearly had the reach and staying power that his hero Shawn Michaels has had. With dozens of classics under his belt and even more classic promos and segments, Jericho’s valuable entertainment skills and ability to change and adapt with each return proves his mind for Sports Entertainment. Also noteworthy, is the fact that Jericho has been able to juggle a successful music career while staying pretty relevant in the wrestling world.
20. “THE TASKMASTER” KEVIN SULLIVAN – To be fair, Kevin Sullivan didn’t exactly make it to the top twenty of this list for his in-ring prowess and inventiveness. He wrestled a no-nonsense match move-wise his entire career. On the other hand, the physiology Sullivan brought to the ring with him was great. As one of the only true bad guys of the business, Sullivan was able to carve out his own niche in the dark and twisted variety. By 1994, he’d have the book for WCW and didn’t really do too shabby. Responsible for keeping WCW’s name alongside the WWF’s during a low point in the business and forming one of the most memorable stables of all time, The Dungeon of Doom! The Dungeon would feud with new-to-WCW star, Hulk Hogan keeping the show 1994 fun and interesting. Also under Sullivan would be a true-to-life feud between himself and Chris Benoit. Kevin Sullivan’s booking would progress the company and keep it afloat until the duties would be passed on to the next guy. Needless to say, “I respect you, Booker Man.”
19. JERRY “THE KING” LAWLER – The king of Memphis has been around the business for a long time. Lawler has had an everlasting impact on professional wrestling. To name a few examples of his wrestling mind, Lawler was able to set territories on fire as a young heel, orchestrate a famous angle with Andy Kaufman, and become one of the most popular and well-known wrestling commentators of all time. Jumping at the chance to work with Hollywood’s Andy Kaufman when even the powers of the WWF turned their nose up at the possibility, Lawler showed his knowledge of the direction of the business by giving the skinny actor a chance to work in front of wrestling crowds around the mid-south. Not to mention his own ability to get crowds to nearly riot at his outrageous tirades! Arguably, his biggest claim to fame is his quick wit at the commentator’s table. Not many wrestlers are able to make a successful jump behind the table and Lawler has been doing it for years. Whether playing a comical and dirty heel, or a joking and innocent face, Jerry Lawler has been the voice behind the moments for a generation of unforgiving fans who only accepted the very best from their performers. “The King” would deliver and then some, across the years of his very successful career, thanks to his mind for the business.
18. MICK FOLEY – Perhaps best known for getting chairs, fire, and barbed wire bounced off his body, one may be surprised to see Mrs. Foley’s baby boy this high up on the list. Be the fact is, Mick was a trailblazer and innovated his way to a WWE Hall of Fame career. Knowing exactly when to change with times, walk away when its time, introduce comedy when needed, and throw in a Cactus Elbow here and there, made Mick his money. Being a smart and valuable performer is something that “The Hardcore Legend” can be proud of. Foley understood that the wrestling business is a multifaceted area of entertainment. His psychological promos from ECW are cemented as some of the best ever. He worked at the commentators table for a brief time and could have stayed longer if he chose. He played commissioner on television for months and kept each segment fresh and entertaining. With a very unique perspective on the business that he has made his living doing, he was even able to write a New York Times best-seller! Mick was a man with business goals alongside being a passionate and entertaining professional wrestler. To this day, Foley remains dedicated to following the product and keeping its pulse. His creative, comedic, and sometimes just plain twisted mind for the business solidly places Mick Foley at number eighteen. BANG! BANG!
17. “THE AMERICAN DREAM” DUSTY RHODES – Without Dusty Rhodes, the world of professional wrestling would be a very different place. Dusty had a strong hand getting Ric Flair over as NWA World Champion. Years later, Dusty would be given the book for WCW, which Rhodes took to rather quickly. As booker, Dusty would do a pretty fair job for just being a “common man”. Not to mention, the man formulated War Games! And how can his WCW commentating stint be forgotten!? It was highly entertaining, to say the very least. Most recently, Rhodes has had a huge hand in the developmental area of WWE. As a head figure of the WWE performance center and NXT, Dusty Rhodes has helped oversee the rise of many of today’s current stars. Even to the point of helping guys like Dean Ambrose adopt his WWE name. Dusty has even groomed two sons to become professional wrestlers (one more-so than the other, of course). He knows how to rally a crowd and has for a long, long time. Was he the best in-ring worker? Perhaps not. However, Dusty’s exceptional knowledge of people connection, talent formulation and what it takes to get himself and others over, puts him here.
16. JIM CORNETTE – Whether you love or hate the guy, you can’t deny that he often knows what he is talking about. Often credited as a straight-shooter behind the curtain, Cornette often falls victim to the loud mouth, know-nothing persona he plays on television. Sometimes, he can live up to that image off camera, too. However, more often than not, you’re going to get the raw with ol’ corny. He tells it like it is and that is that. Besides, anybody who was able to get Smokey Mountain Wrestling over, must’ve known something along the line! The fact is, Cornette put out a product that was ahead of its time as far as angles and realism go. He also has had his brain picked in almost every important promotion ever (SMW, WWE, WCW, ROH, TNA, etc). Was he a good with a covered tennis racket? Yes. But, Jim Cornette was also the brains and steam behind many of the nineteen nineties’ up-and-comers as they rolled through his promotion. To be the stepping stone for the bigger companies at the time AND being able to swim with them would have been no easy feat. He continues to spread his truth around the web today, living comfortably away from the business for the time being. He is able to do that because he made his money the smart way… With his brain and his mouth. Has time passed by him now? Who’s to say.
15. PAT PATTERSON – For those that don’t know, Patt Patterson has been Vince McMahon’s right hand man for a long, long time. Having a heavy hand in much of the booking up until very recently, Patterson has proven his vast mind for the business, decade after decade. His comedic value in front of the camera only adds to his knowledge of what crowds (past and present) like and don’t like. Most notably, the most stroke Patterson held, was in the nineteen nineties for the WWF ‘Attitude Era’. Needless to say, it was one of the most successful eras of the business and Pat’s work behind the curtain played a part in that. Still having influence in the company, Pat appears sporadically on WWE television to give a valued opinion or to cameo (due most likely to his climbing age). Today, he is a WWE made-man. His most memorable recent appearance was for WWE’s network-based series entitled, “WWE Legends House”. His wit and knowledge was showcased. To put it plainly, Pat Patterson was no stooge, after all!
14. JUSHIN “THUNDER” LIGER – Where to even start with such a mind like Jushin Liger’s? As the mastermind behind the booking and putting together of the absolutely legendary Super-J Cup and J-Crown tournaments hosted by New Japan Pro Wrestling, Jushin Liger cemented his knowledge forever. As one of the most influential junior heavyweights of all time, Jushin Liger’s knowledge of his craft would transcend Japan and wrestlers around the world would begin to adopt his style of impact and flight. By the early nineties, Liger was selflessly booking New Japan’s junior division, becoming one of the most important matchmakers of his era while building world-worthy stars in the process. To this day, Liger is a well respected and loyal worker for New Japan Pro Wrestling. Without the innovative mind of Jushin Liger, stars like Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, Rey Mysterio Jr., and Psicosis may have never had nearly as many opportunities as juniors.
13. WILLIAM REGAL – Despite being one of the most underrated talents of all time, William Regal is no stranger to the game. He knows what works and what doesn’t. Plagued all his career with roles that were almost destined to fail, Regal would step away from the ring by the late two thousands and would almost never look back. For the past several years, Regal has taken an active role in the maturing of acquired WWE talents. Keeping his eye fixed on the next big starts, Regal has almost become a talent scout for the company, most recently spotting guys like Prince Devitt (Finn Balor) for recruitment. He also had something to do with the special sharping of talents like Dean Ambrose during his time with Florida Championship Wrestling. Well-versed in and out of the ring, Regal has done it all. Knowing how the business is changing, as well as what age-old details should never be forgotten, makes William Regal a wealth of worthy knowledge for the WWE and its locker room.
12. “COWBOY” BILL WATTS – Now, before you stop reading this article over Bill Watts’ position on this list, here me out. Though to some his methods and ideas in the business are considered to be too old school and a tad bit out of touch, Bill Watts helped WCW upswing for a brief time when the company needed rigid and exact direction. Watts supplied the company with an image of respect, grit and rule on television. Was taking mats away from ringside smart, or making jumping from the top turnbuckle illegal? In hindsight, perhaps not. But, the idea of making WCW look like a tougher, nonsense promotion may have actually worked. The company’s fan base slowly began to level off, instead of decrease. Being in charge of WCW is perhaps why you know even know Watts’ name, though his reign was rather short. Regardless of length, Watts obviously had enough knowledge of the business to hold the reigns how he saw fit in order to shift WCW’s momentum the opposite way it had been headed. Harsh attitudes and regulations aside…
11. BOBBY “THE BRAIN” HEENAN – He wasn’t called “The Brain” for anything, you know! Heenan is a legend of the professional wrestling business who many consider to be the best manager of all time. Not to uncut his magical commentator calling alongside Gorilla Monsoon, of course. Bobby Heenan’s knowledge for the business led him to do just about everything a man in his role could accomplish. He knew how to make a crowd love or hate him. He knew how to groom a star. He knew what it took to make people laugh. He knew how to get people to shut up, and listen to exactly what he had to say. “The Brain” also knew how to stay fresh and relevant on television programs for both the WWF and WCW. His brilliant wit and comments on the headset are still enjoyed and remembered to this day, whether the company was in Madison Square Garden or Saskatoon for the night. He had the talent to vastly add to the show and further make people tune in. In fact, Bobby Heenan’s brain for the business continues to delight and entertain fans around the world to this day!
10. KONNAN – Considered by most as the ‘Mexican Hulk Hogan’, Konnan was able to reach success and popularity rarely seen before by foreign stars state-side. Konnan would become a matchmaker for the Mexican-based AAA promotion at a time when strong matches and feuds were desperately needed in the early nineties. He also had the mind to leave the WWF after being given the gimmick of spaceman-turned-wrestler Max Moon. Konnan would finally find himself in WCW where he would thrive. Having the mind for the business and the connection and pull in Mexico, Konnan would be directly responsible for convincing other popular Mexican wrestlers to make the jump to World Championship Wrestling. Years later, during his stint with TNA Wrestling, Konnan would again be responsible for bringing in great Mexican talent to the promotion. Konnan was an instrumental part in bridging the gap between Mexico and the United States’ talent exchange history. Without him, who knows what stars would’ve dared to make that jump and when. He still continues to teach, have stroke in Mexico and be an absolute legend of Mexico.
9. VINCE RUSSO – Number nine is non other than Vinnie Ru. Russo was the mastermind behind a handful of angles for the WWF at its zenith popularity of the late nineties. Not solely responsible of course, as Vinnie Mac had the final say in all creative decisions. With McMahon as his filter and safety net, Russo would produce edgy and provocative television every Monday night. Like it or not, thanks in part to this grease ball, RAW was a pretty interesting program to watch. Not the most politically correct or brilliant wrestling writer of all time, Russo had his periods of questionable scripts. For example, jumping to WCW after his stint with the WWF proved to be disastrous. With no filter or overhead, Russo would run-a-muck weekly programs and special events with ridiculous segments and illogical booking. If Russo had been able to stop the sinking ship that was WCW by then though, he probably would’ve been number one on this list, as the company was doomed for failure before he even stepped foot in the doors. Poor management meant poor booking, and poor booking meant the end of the brand. Regardless, for a good couple of years, Russo and his team were untouchable in the WWF. The fact that Russo’s ideas and concepts needed such a filter though, place him further down the list than he’d probably like.
8. HULK HOGAN – Now, if this guy doesn’t have a mind for the professional wrestling business, no wrestler does. Not only that, but he had an excellent ability to understand that it is just that, a business. Hogan was able to use pull to do, say, and stay where ever he pleased almost his entire career. Often allegedly using cutthroat tactics, Hulk Hogan stayed on top in the WWF and WCW for very, very long periods of time. How many hugely popular angles during the golden years of the WWF did Hogan have his name scrolled across? Even in WCW! A lot, if not most. Sometimes getting in good with the boss isn’t such a bad thing, after all. Needless to say, Hogan played the game well and made a lot of money because of it. He fought and put over who he wanted and left others in the dust. Only somebody with a mind for the business could have accomplished to do what he has done over the course of his career. Is he a great creative decision maker? No, perhaps not. Facts aside, he was he able to get into those types of positions. Knowing how to work the system and sometimes step on the little people often leads to getting what you want. At what price? Who knows. The guy is the most well-known professional wrestler of all time though, so one can’t really argue his tactics. Not only did Hulk Hogan have the brains for the business end of professional wrestling, he also had the balls.
7. JIM ROSS – If you didn’t think this guy would make it on this list somewhere, I question why you’re even reading it! Having a keen eye for talent, years before they even know it themselves, is a unique skill Ross has had for many years. Seeing the superstar in guys like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, while he was only just “Stunning” Steve Austin floundering about in WCW’s midcard, is one example. Ross was also high on a guy named Cactus Jack, who he begged a reluctant Vince McMahon to take a look at. Ross was also headman for the WWE for a long time, assure that all was running smoothly with those who occupied the locker room and had a big say in who left or joined it. Much like Bill Watts, Ross is a pretty no nonsense business man and thus had no problem enforcing the rules he was given, showing his sense of the business and how things should have be going. Highly respected and regarded as one of the best match callers of all time puts Ross at the well-deserved number seven spot! And on his behalf, I’ll bet his Oklahoma ass you don’t disagree!
6. VINCENT JAMES MCMAHON – One of the pioneers of promoting the early professional wrestling days, Vince Sr. was a mastermind. Know what exactly when a talent was a hot and when to put them in the right arena, McMahon made major waves in the North Eastern states for decades. Most wrestlers of the area knew that McMahon was the man to work for, as he took care of his wrestlers and put on a show people flocked to. Grooming Vincent Kennedy McMahon to one day take his place, as an obvious passion shown through, he showed him the ropes and gave him his trust. Perhaps the smartest thing McMahon ever realized though, was that syndicated programs would make his company famous. As the king of syndication, it is no wonder his son would soon monopolize the business in the cable television avenue. As a true trailbalzer, Vincent James McMahon knew that the business needed a loyal, determined employer and therefore, would get the same respect in turn from his employees and wrestlers. There is so much more that could be said about this visionary, but behold, the top five await…
5. ERIC BISCHOFF – Like it or not, the world of professional wrestling would be a very different place without this man. Once the king of Monday Nights, Eric Bischoff was able to help accomplish something that had never been done and may never again… Humble the WWF. Helping concoct the New World Order and booking accordingly, Bischoff and WCW turned professional wrestling upside down. Using brutal realism during a time when wrestling was very unreal, Eric would spark a revolution that would result in the WWF’s retaliation measures and ultimately, the Monday Night War. During the fierce battle for ratings supremacy, Bischoff was not able to hold his own against Vince McMahon but defeat him for weeks and weeks on end. To even fathom how close wrestling fans were to seeing WCW become the one and only is a fascinating thought, but a nightmare that was all too real for the other side of the fence. With some pretty decent ideas under his belt and a bottomless pocket of Ted Turner’s money, Eric Bischoff and his stars pushed WCW to the very top of the wrestling world. Bischoff would begin to lose steam however, proving that his lasting power was limited. With all that in mind, one must tip their hat to the man that helped almost topple a titan!
4. STU HART – Teaching more than a handful of the greatest wrestlers of all time at one point in their career isn’t just something anybody can lay claim to… Unless your name is Stu Hart. Hart had a hand in a countless amount of legendary careers from the British Bulldog, to Bret Hart and from Chris Benoit, to Brian Pillman. This fact is a testament to his mind for the business alone. However, Stu also managed to establish Stampede Wrestling as one of the hottest and most well-respected professional wrestling promotion of all time. Always trying to do right by his wrestlers and fans, Stu was respected by just about everybody. Having the knowledge of what fans like, Stu would put on unique shows with unique attractions providing a true show of variety! Young stars flocked to Stu’s promotion because they knew Stampede Wrestling added a pretty nice feather to a wrestler’s cap back then. It is no secret though, that financially, Stu was no wizard and money often came much slower than it went. Nonetheless, Stu Hart can easily be credited as one of the most influential and legendary promoters of all time. With a love of what he did, he was willing to go to a undefined end to realize the very best of what his vast mind could come up with… Not to mention he could tie you in a knot while doing it.
3. PAUL HEYMAN – Numbers and results don’t lie. Heyman was able to steer a poor, struggling, little ship to the golden grottoes of success. With very, very, very limited funds and resources, Paul Heyman was able to build a company on his own brilliance and heart, as well as the collective heart of ECW wrestlers and fans. Putting ECW on the map in a huge way, garnering an international audience, pay-per-view buys, and a cable television deal for a company that was almost nothing… Heyman can’t get enough credit. Heyman and his Extreme Championship Wresling program legitimately competed with multi-million dollar companies in WCW and WWF. The guy’s a mad genius. Furthermore, he’d be later hired by the WWF as head writer for Smackdown and backhandedly challenged to make it a bigger brand than RAW. Seemingly without a hope, Heyman accepted the challenge and took it very serious. Much to the chagrin of his superiors, Heyman booked Smackdown so well, it did surpass RAW! He took chances and applied his knowledge and did very well, all in the name of the brand. A self-made man in the business today is few and far between. Paul Heyman, at the age of about fourteen, made himself solely on his passion for professional wrestling and his great imagination for it.
2. ANTONIO INOKI – Perhaps one of the lesser known names on this list state-side, the legendary Japanese wrestler turned promoter deserves quite a bit of credit. The man founded perhaps the most influential promotion in Japan, New Japan Pro Wrestling. As the head of NJPW for three decades, Inoki booked, wrestled, and orchestrated some of the best professional wrestling in the history of the sport, Japanese-based or otherwise. Inoki had a mind for what Japanese fans wanted to see, whether it was a battle royal with Andre the Giant or a match with Muhammad Ali, Antonio Inoki delivered classic moment after classic moment. Even going the extra mile to book American wrestling stars like Ric Flair and Bruno Sammartino to beat him when the time called for it, Antonio Inoki proved he knew what would be better for his company and the wrestling business in Japan. He is a legend in and out of the ring, and rightfully so. His mind for the business built New Japan Pro Wrestling into the powerhouse it is today, even after his tenure. Many international stars of yesterday and today owe their careers to the opportunities Inoki gave. For that and so much more, Inoki reaches number two on this list.
1. VINCENT KENNEDY MCMAHON – So, did you think number one could have been anybody else? I doubt it. Vince McMahon brought a pop-culture spotlight onto professional wrestling, for better or worse. Wrestling popularity was about half of what Vince McMahon made it before Vince McMahon assumed the reigns of the World Wrestling Federation. He has monopolized the business and put all of his serious competition out of work. It is as simple as that. He knew that if the WWF was going to succeed and thrive, he’d have to break a few bonds and burn a few bridges. Soaking up as much of the territory talent as possible and hitting it big on cable television cemented WWE’s legacy forever, thanks to Vince McMahon. Since then, McMahon’s product has been brashly on display for the better part of thirty years. He and the WWE have come so far as to currently lay claim to the longest running weekly episodic television show in cable history! He’s created stars out of dozens and is the mastermind behind many of wrestling’s greatest and legendary moments. At the risk of being seen as a brash and ruthless businessman and promoter, Vince McMahon changed wrestling for the better and without him, who knows what kind of state the business would be in. Probably, not a good one to say the least…
HONORABLE MENTIONS INCLUDE: “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig, John Laurinaitis, Michael Hayes, Vampiro, Ed Ferrara, Kevin Nash, Jinsei Shinsake, Taz, Mike Tenay, Kane, Terry Taylor (just to name a few)!
There it is, folks. This is my list. Yours may be completely different, so let’s here it! What would you have changed? Who is in your top ten? Let your list be seen in the comments below!
Austin Skinner View All
I'm a twenty-seven year old lover of the professional wrestling of yesteryear, writer extraordinaire, and bigtime James Bond film/novel enthusiast... Welcome to the party, my dear.
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