Without innovation, professional wrestling (much like pretty much any other industry you can think of) would still be stuck in the dark ages. Just think of how different the business is from the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, and even the 2000s.

 

Of course, this innovation can come in many different forms. Some competitors created a moveset that is unlike anything people have seen for, while others have meshed existing styles to create a unique subset.

 

But this isn't just about work rate - in fact, some of the people on this list aren't considered technical wrestling innovators by any stretch. Some of them re-defined how promos are delivered. Some of them had a unique look that made them an attraction (and as a result, made their opponents more money, too). Some of them came to the business with a different approach.

 

Because of all these variables, this was a really fun list to put together. How does someone who re-defines the traditional wrestling interview compare with someone who has a fantastic series of moves and holds? And because we're going back 40-plus years in the criteria, what worked for one particular wrestler in their era wouldn't work for another in another era.

 

In compiling a list of the Top 50 Innovators, Wrestling Merchandise and Memories looked at the following criteria:

 

  • What was truly unique about them?

  • How influential were they on wrestlers that came after them?

  • How historically memorable were their personas or contributions?

 

Granted, this is a highly subjective list, so there's TONS of room for debate. If you'd like to be a part of this conversation, Tweet us at @canadianbulldog using the hashtag #Top50, or leave a comment below.


Ready? Here we go!

50.

Tommy Dreamer

What better way to kick off a list of innovators than with The Innovator of Violence? Tommy Dreamer brought a unique quality to the ring, whether it be in ECW, WWE, TNA or even House of Hardcore. Presented as an underdog, Dreamer used a tremendous fighting heart and hardcore spirit to get ahead.

48.

The 123 Kid

In the early-1990's, WWE Hall of Famer The 1-2-3 Kid (a/k/a X-Pac) broke down a barrier that had been suggesting scrawny, light heavyweights couldn't get past opening match status. His unique aerial moveset, combined with an underdog spirit, paved the way for 200-pounders to succeed at a top level.

46.

Rick & Scott Steiner

Rick and Scott Steiner re-defined tag team wrestling in the early 1990s. They showed audiences in WCW, New Japan and the WWF a style that combined amateur wrestling with high-flying and brutal physicality. Few tag teams - brothers or otherwise - have been able to copy the intense Steiner Brothers style.

44.

Chyna

WWE Hall of Famer Chyna broke a barrier during The Attitude Era by being the first woman to routinely wrestle men on a major platform such as the WWF. Her commanding strength and physique allowed her to be competitive with male wrestlers and even led her to win the WWF Intercontinental Championship! Her style has influenced the likes of Nia Jax and Tessa Blanchard.

42.

Brian Pillman

While Brian Pillman rose to prominence as an aerial artist in the late 1980's, his later Loose Cannon persona is what made him a true innovator. Pillman had the unique ability to look like his actions were breaking the fourth wall, giving him a psychological edge and paving the way for characters such as Dean Ambrose.

40.

Kenny Omega

Kenny Omega earned the nickname "Best Bout Machine" for his ability to frequently have the match of the night. Incorporating video game-style techniques into his offense, Omega routinely has stolen the show in New Japan Pro Wrestling, All Elite Wrestling and elsewhere.

38.

Owen Hart

When Owen Hart began his career, it was as a high-flyer that could perform daring maneuevers. Under a mask as The Blue Blazer, WWF audiences saw many of Hart's top rope moves for the first time. Later as The King Of Harts, Hart reinvented his style to be arguably wrestling's best whiny little brother character.

36.

Mick Foley

WWE Hall of Famer Mick Foley got himself over in virtually every major promotion in the 1990s and early 2000s as a grappler who could take awe-inspiring bumps and seemingly enjoyed absorbing tremendous amounts of punishment. Foley's Hell In A Cell bump in 1998 illustrated his penchant for death-defying stunts.

34.

The Young Bucks

Brothers Matt and Nick Jackson broke the mould of what a high-flying tag team could achieve, developing dozens of innovative moves and incorporating them into their act throughout runs in TNA, Ring of Honor, New Japan and All Elite Wrestling.

32.

Vader

During his peak in the early 1990s, Vader held championships all over the world (including WCW World Titles) by simply being the best "big man" in the industry. Not only did Vader pack the strength of an elephant, he could also leap through the air to deliver surprisingly-great moonsaults and Vader Bombs.

30.

AJ Styles

AJ Styles frequently lives up to the name "Phenomenal," using unique moves such as the Styles Clash and Pele Kick. After successful runs in TNA, Ring of Honor and New Japan, Styles brought himself to WWE to reinvent his style again.

28.

Kurt Angle

Not only did WWE Hall of Famer Kurt Angle incorporate his Olympic medal-winning amateur skills to his moveset, but he also brought tremendous charisma and even a sense of humor to create a complete package. 

26.

The Fabulous Kangaroos

While many fans today won't know who The Fabulous Kangaroos even are... the fact that remains that Al Costello and Roy Heffernan are generally credited with inventing the modern concept of tag team wrestling, using a tandem appearance and team moves to popularize the match type way back in the 1950s and 1960s.

24.

CM Punk

CM Punk's unique ring style -- a combination of jiu-jitsu and hard hitting aerial moves - was enough to get him a spot on the national stage. But his take no prisoners, speak his mind promo style is what truly set him apart, as evidenced by his infamous pipe bomb interview on Raw and subsequent departure from WWE.

22.

Sabu

Sabu was a primary architect in the hardcore revolution that was ECW. Not only did his moveset incorporate death-defying dives and innovative moves like moonsaults through tables, but his bloodlust often found him finding new uses for moves involving chairs, tables, ring aprons and even barbed wire.

20.

Hulk Hogan

WWE Hall of Famer Hulk Hogan re-defined wrestling in the 1980s and 1990s, becoming a larger-than-life superhero. His moveset, while formulaic and quite basic, incorporated a power-based offense, selling for his opponent and then "Hulking up" for victory, a technique that has been used many times.

18.

Triple H

For a quarter-century, Triple H has constantly reinvented himself, seamlessly moving between a wiseass rebel and legendary badass. While some criticize The Game for marrying into royalty... he wouldn't be in the position he is today without having the "it" factor.

16.

Shawn Michaels

WWE Hall of Famer Shawn Michaels was already identified as one of the industry's top prospects when he was still part of The Rockers tag team. But by the time he broke out as a heel in 1992, Michaels was able to employ an innovative moveset, combined with a "break the rules" attitude that would pave the way for D-Generation X.

14.

Gorgeous George

Gorgeous George became the prototype for ever preening, pretty boy heel that has come on the scene since then. Between his effeminate look, perfume-spritzing valet, flower petals and over-the-top ring entrance, Gorgeous George already had tremendous heel heat with fans before the opening bell rang. 

12.

Brock Lesnar

With a size and physique rarely seen, even by professional wrestling standards, Brock Lesnar leveraged that to create one of the most intimidating characters ever. In addition, he's borrowed things from his amateur wrestling and MMA careers to create an arsenal of moves that is unparalled.

10.

The Rock 'n' Roll Express

WWE Hall of Famers Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson were another team that defined an era of tag team wrestling, using high-flying double-team maneuevers that hadn't really been done before. Their teamwork was emulated by many, including The Rockers, The Midnight Express, The Hardy Boyz and numerous other duos.

8.

El Santo

El Santo is considered the father of lucha libre, with a career that span nearly five decades beginning in the 1930's. His iconic look of a white mask and a white pair of trunks set a template for what luchadors look like, and he became a national hero. El Santo also became a legitimate film star throughout Mexico.

6.

The Undertaker

The Undertaker has been called Vince McMahon's greatest creation, and for good reason. His persona, which began as a zombie-like being and evolved into a unique icon, has transcended time and seen him compete in dozens of main events against the likes of Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart and Brock Lesnar.

4.

Dusty Rhodes

WWE Hall of Famer Dusty Rhodes took his 'common man' persona to a top level in the industry, proving that you didn't need to have a great physique or be athletically gifted to make it to the top. Rhodes' undeniable charisma and promo skills got him to the very top of the business and cemented his legend as the heroic American Dream.

2.

Stone Cold Steve Austin

WWE Hall of Famer Stone Cold Steve Austin carved out a niche that was never used before in the wrestling business - a bad-ass tough guy that did whatever he wanted and welcomed thumbing his nose at authority. While many others have tried to emulate the character since (even pop culture characters such as Walter White have taken a page out of the antihero playbook), no one came close to matching Stone Cold's intensity and charisma.

49

Bill Goldberg

No one in wrestling history ever personified the unstoppable monster persona as well as WWE Hall of Famer Bill Goldberg. From his look to his ring entrance, Goldberg was the character that never lost in WCW. His power-based moveset - quick and deadly - cemented his warrior-like reputation.

47.

Abdullah The Butcher

For decades before anyone had ever heard of hardcore wrestling, WWE Hall of Famer Abdullah The Butcher had a style uniquely his own, carrying less about in-ring skills and more about how much he could make an opponent bleed. His physique and scar tissue-filled forehead made Abdullah look like a horror film character.

45

nWo

The original nWo (Hulk Hogan, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash) ushered in an era of the "cool heel" in wrestling; competitors that could say and do whatever they wanted to while threatening to tear apart the "good guys" and still receiving admiration from the crowd. The faction's attitude will likely never be duplicated.

43.

Becky Lynch

Although Becky Lynch isn't as physically dominant as Chyna was, her role in WWE helped lead to a renaissance in womens wrestling, portraying an anti-authority attitude combined with a fighting heart that helps her overcome the odds.

41.

Fred Blassie

WWE Hall of Famer Fred Blassie was one of the most hated heels in wrestling history, which is no easy task. He became so villified that in Japan, people allegedly had heart attacks watching him on television! He was also nicknamed The Vampire because of his propensity for biting opponents.

39.

The Great Muta

The Great Muta was one of the first Japanese wrestlers to successfully bring an intense, high-flying style to U.S. audiences and to do so as a top star. During his time in NWA/WCW, Muta had rivalries with Sting, Ric Flair and other main event names without having to compromise his unique ring work.

37.

Bret Hart

Speaking of Harts..... WWE Hall of Famer Bret Hart was nicknamed The Excellence Of Execution because of his ability to showcase technical wrestling in an era where the WWF often featuring giants and muscular behemoths that couldn't adapt to the same kind of style. As WWF Champion, Hart introduced his expertise at a top level.

35

Mil Mascaras

One of the most influential luchadores in history, WWE Hall of Famer Mil Mascaras was one of the first masked Mexican wrestlers to get over with audiences in the U.S. and elsewhere by employing a fast-paced, high flying style. People who know very little about wrestling can recognize Mascaras' signature mask and appearance.

33.

Bruno Sammartino

WWE Hall of Famer Bruno Sammartino had strength and fighting spirit to spare, and his style of working a match - letting a top heel take him to the limit before fighting back to save the day as wrestling's ultimate hero-  is a formula that was later used by Hulk Hogan, John Cena and others.

31.

Daniel Bryan

Daniel Bryan constantly reminds us what a unique style he brings to the ring, be it in Ring of Honor, WWE or elsewhere. A combination of submission moves, intense dives and an Rocky-like determination to defy the odds shows why fans have always backed Bryan in droves.

29.

Rowdy Roddy Piper

In his prime, absolutely no one was better at riling a crowd up and angering them than WWE Hall of Famer Rowdy Roddy Piper. While his ring skills weren't overly unique, his heelish mannerisms and interview skills were unparalled in the industry, giving fans a reason to back Hulk  Hogan and others in order to shut Hot Rod up!

27.

John Cena

While many longtime wrestling fans see John Cena as a somewhat-cartoonish character in an industry full of serious heroes and vilians, his fighting spirit and style ensure that Cena will be remembered as a true original.

25.

Matt & Jeff Hardy

What Rick and Scott Steiner did for tag team wrestling in the 1990's, Matt and Jeff Hardy did a decade later. Using a variety of high-flying moves, death-defying leaps and the persona of young men fighting to move to the top level, The Hardy Boyz impressed older and younger fans alike with their style.

23.

The Rock

Speaking of innovative talkers.... The Rock was one of the most talented promo men in wrestling history, coming up with unique catchphrases that became part of the wrestling lexicon. Beyond that, he also had charisma to spare, a hard worker in the ring and movie-star good looks.... which came in handy later on.

21.

Chris Jericho

From high-flying cruiserweight to faction-leading main-event heel and holding tons of championships everywhere he's gone, Chris Jericho is a true innovator. His ability to constantly reinvent himself has helped Jericho become one of the best in the business.

19.

Tiger Mask

While several wrestlers have donned the costume of Japanese manga hero Tiger Mask, it was the original Satoru Sayama that thrilled audiences in the United States and Japan with his daring high-flying moves. Sayama's run as Tiger Mask included winning the WWF and NWA Junior Heavyweight Titles simultaneously.

17.

Randy "Macho Man" Savage

WWE Hall of Famer Randy "Macho Man" Savage had an intensity in the ring rarely ever seen, as though he was often fighting for his life. In addition, he had a distinct voice and catchphrases to accompany it, a move set that matched his intense personality and a unique charisma that separated him from others.

15.

Ric Flair

Ric Flair didn't become WWE's first two-time Hall of Famer without becoming one of the most emulated personas of all time. Sure, Flair was a great technical wrestler, but he also projected the vain, wealthy playboy with an unlimited budget that led him to victory in any promotion he worked for.

13.

Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat

WWE Hall of Famer Ricky Steamboat's style, part high-flyer and part martial artist, wasn't overly unique, but his selling was. According to long-time rival Ric Flair, Steamboat would study tapes of boxing matches to see how they sold punishment. The dramatic style led Steamboat to the best performances in pro wrestling history.

11.

Superfly Jimmy Snuka

WWE Hall of Famer Superfly Jimmy Snuka was the first heavyweight to use light heavyweight moves on a national stage. Most notably, of course, was his Superfly Splash (and top of the cage splash) which has been emulated by countless wrestlers over the years.

9.

Rikidozan

Rikidozan was a former sumo wrestler that popularized modern professional wrestling in Japan throughout the 1950's. He was treated as a national hero in his adopted home country of Japan, tangling with everyone from Lou Thesz to Freddie Blassie, capturing the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.

7.

The Dynamite Kid

The Dynamite Kid brought a hard-hitting style from England to North America when he debuted in the Stampede teritory in the early 1980s. He quickly expanded his repetoire, marrying brutal headbutts and dives with fast-paced moves, paving the way for Chris Benoit and other cruiserweights.

5.

Rey Mysterio

While El Santo, Mil Mascaras and others paved the way for Rey Mysterio, Mysterio himself reinvented what a luchador could be, employing innovative aerial maneuvers to make his way into prominent positions in ECW, WCW and WWE, where he even became World Heavyweight Champion in 2006.

3.

The Road Warriors

No matter how far you go back in the history of wrestling, no tag team was ever as dominant as WWE Hall of Famers The Road Warriors. Using a template of power, a badass look and rarely selling for opponents, Hawk and Animal dominated the division and paved the way for Demolition, The Powers of Pain, The Ascension and countless others.

1.

Superstar Billy Graham

How was  WWE Hall of Famer Superstar Billy Graham the most innovative wrestler of all time? Consider this: Graham was the first wrestler with a bodybuilding physique to get the very top of the industry when he burst on the scene in the 1960s. He also unseated Bruno Sammartino after a record-setting WWWF title reign. And his flashy, tye-dyed clothes and fantastic charisma inspired the likes of Hulk Hogan, Jesse Ventura, Scott Steiner and others which were wrestling innovators in their own right.

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Wrestling Merchandise and Memories podca
Wrestling Historian Mike Rickard