10 Superstars who were ahead of their time
They were trend-setters, mold-breakers, but most of all, they were forward-thinkers. Throughout the course of sports-entertainment, there have been a number of immensely creative performers willing to think outside of the box to stand out and, in turn, inspire future Superstars who also would dare to challenge preconceptions.
From a leather-gloved butt-kicker who was never afraid to speak his mind to an oddity that made audience members uncomfortably wriggle in their seats, these 10 trailblazers captivated the WWE Universe and always seemed one step ahead of the curve — and their competition.
Chris Jericho once said “there is no one in the history of this business who wrestled as crisp, as mean, or as intense as Dynamite did.”
From his early time in Stampede Wrestling to his legendary matches with Tiger Mask in Japan to his WWE run alongside fellow Brit Davey Boy Smith, it was always apparent that Dynamite Kid’s in-ring work was on a whole different plane. Thirty years later, his revolutionary matches still stand the test of time. The 5-foot-8 fireball established proof that fantastic things could come in small packages, breaking the boundaries of what was believed possible for a performer of his stature.
Because of Dynamite Kid’s influence, there have been a number of performers in the junior heavyweight mold who have gotten the opportunity to thrive in sports-entertainment. The next time you watch Daniel Bryan launch off the top rope for a missile dropkick, you just might catch a glimpse of Dynamite.
-- Tom Herrera
A pioneer of wrestling’s “Golden Age,” the flamboyant Gorgeous George was a television star during the medium’s infancy who’d fit in seamlessly in the Internet age. “The Human Orchid” brimmed with a prissy cockiness that made him not only a universally despised baddie, but also among the first sports-entertainers to adopt an overtly egocentric persona.
Many longtime fans credit George with introducing entrance music to the squared circle, and his embrace of wrestling’s pageantry was prescient. In an era of ho-hum ring gear, “The Toast of the Coast” boasted a collection of lavish robes rumored to exceed 100 fine cloaks. His histrionic pre-match routine, which involved his valet spraying the ring with perfume and removing bobby pins from “The Gorgeous One’s” platinum blond hair, infuriated spectators.
George’s sphere of influence even breached the bounds of wrestling, inspiring perhaps sport’s all-time best trash-talker, Muhammad Ali, to hone his showmanship in the interest of promoting fights.
-- John Clapp
Few transformations in sports-entertainment were as radical as Brian Pillman’s. The athletically gifted and innovative Superstar made his initial splash as a dynamic highflier, but it was the outspoken and unpredictable “Loose Cannon” side of Pillman that kept WWE Universe members glued to their seats awaiting what he’d say or do next.
Before CM Punk broke the fourth wall with his unforgettable “pipe bomb” tirade in June 2011, Pillman regularly cast his wild eyes right at the camera’s lens and unleashed bold messages that captured the unbridled emotion of The Attitude Era. Despite Pillman’s relatively short career, his body of work — including rivalries that took deeply personal turns — continues to influence a new generation of performers.
Employing dashing good looks with keen mental ability — not to mention plenty of natural athleticism — Nick Bockwinkel was the AWA’s most dangerous assailant. On four occasions, he won the Minneapolis-based organization’s World Championship, with many of his victories coming against the beloved Verne Gagne. No matter how many times the hometown hero attempted to turn back his clever adversary, Wicked Nick returned time and time again.
The well-coiffed Beverly Hills blond has previously been called “the original Cerebral Assassin” by WWE.com, a comparison that certainly hits the mark. But for all of Bockwinkel’s deviousness akin to Triple H, he mostly closely resembles the Chris Jericho of the late 2000s. When Y2J began donning well-tailored suits while berating the WWE Universe with a bloated vocabulary, comparisons to the former AWA villain were inevitable. Both Jericho and The Game owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to The Sensational White Phantom — a man who paved the way for intellect mixed with brutality.
-- Zach Linder
Bad News Brown
If WWE.com ran a poll about the Superstar you’d least likely want to meet in a New York City alley, Bad News Brown would have to be one of the leading vote-getters. Simply put, Bad News Brown was one mean dude, one who had ties to neither heroes nor villains, as evidenced by the times he abandoned his teams at Survivor Series 1988 and 1989. With a threatening scowl and an even nastier disposition, Brown elicited boos upon boos in the 1980s with every attitude-fueled rant or act.
Nearly a decade before “Stone Cold” Steve Austin haunted Mr. McMahon’s dreams, Brown grabbed hold of the WWE Universe by terrorizing Jack Tunney, most notably on the set of “The Brother Love Show” in 1988, when Bad News turned a verbal showdown into a rare physical confrontation for the then–WWE President. From that point on, it was brutally clear that nothing seemed out of line for Brown, who set a new precedent for what it really means to be a no-nonsense rebel in WWE. He believed in D.T.A. — Don't Trust Anybody — prior to The Texas Rattlesnake branding it on his vest.
Eat your heart out, Lady Gaga. Your eccentric style doesn’t hold a candle to the freak show that rocked Hollywood in the ’90s courtesy of the one-and-only Goldust.
The latex-clad, blond-wigged Superstar turned the WWE Universe on its collective ear from the moment he asked Mr. Cecil B. DeMille for his close-up in 1995, and years before The Attitude Era fully picked up steam. Whether it was with physical gestures or twisted mind games, Goldust was the ultimate master at making his opponents’ skin crawl, and making audiences squirm in the process.
There have been many Superstars who have been dubbed mental masterminds in WWE history, but few can match the eccentricity and devious nature Goldust delivered.
Before the advent of YouTube, tape traders excitedly swapped third-generation VHS cassettes in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the human highlight reel known as Sabu. The ECW Original didn’t invent high-flying or hardcore wrestling, but he successfully merged the two genres, paving the way for Superstars who’d later make their names by spring-boarding off chairs and moonsaulting through tables.
Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon may have popularized the Ladder Match with their seminal WrestleMania X performance, but it was Sabu who raised the bar mere months later, tussling with Al Snow over an absurdly tall ladder that was barely able to stand upright in the small-town auditorium where the match was held.
Initially garnering acclaim as wrestling’s best kept secret, Sabu was arguably the first breakout star of the independent wrestling scene, and elements of his daredevil in-ring style can be observed in everyone from CM Punk to Jeff Hardy.
“Superstar” Billy Graham
“Superstar” Billy Graham boasted that he’s the man of the hour, the man with the power, too sweet to be sour. But Graham’s rhyming style was just a sweet sliver of the otherworldly charisma and showmanship which permeated every fabric of his being.
The unmistakable former WWE Champion redefined both the physical and verbal facets of sports-entertainment with the way he talked, dressed, posed and wrestled in every appearance. Establishing a flashy fashion trend that would later be followed by Hulk Hogan and Jesse “The Body” Ventura, it was anyone’s guess what Graham would wear each time he stepped into the spotlight.
According to his biography “Superstar Billy Graham: Tangled Ropes,” Graham even once had a robe made out of a cloth shower curtain with an illustration of a bare-breasted Renaissance-era statue. Expectedly, the robe was censored off TV, but left us imagining what “Superstar” would’ve concocted if he was part of The Attitude Era.
Long before CM Punk recruited a cadre of Straight Edge Societors or initiated members of his New Nexus, the man they called Raven commanded a vicious electrical current of influence through the veins of every organization he entered.
At first glance, Raven’s grungy appearance of a Pearl Jam roadie and his misanthropic demeanor seemed right at home during the boundary-pushing 1990s. But further investigating the nature of Raven’s psyche revealed a deeply tortured and fragile soul. The insidious man from the Bowery went to drastic lengths to haunt the personal lives of rivals like Tommy Dreamer and The Sandman in ECW and committed sadistic actions never before seen in a wrestling ring.
Villains including the aforementioned Punk, Triple H and even the phenomenal Undertaker have all borrowed from Raven’s bag of tricks. But the success of those and other influential individuals begs one pervasive question: What about Raven?
What are the odds of a grappler appearing on the cover of a Superman comic and throwing the Man of Steel over the top rope? Believe it or not, Antonino “Argentina” Rocca did just that in 1962, and for good reason. Few performers ever attracted a following as loyal and fervent — both from Italian and Hispanic audiences — as the barefoot brawler.
A box-office smash hit wherever he wrestled, Rocca dazzled crowds in the 1950s with his unique, acrobatic style and innovative move set, which included some of the first-known examples in the U.S. of utilizing the ropes as a catapult for high-risk maneuvers. Fellow WWE Hall of Famer Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka elevated the game with his daring top-rope dives in the 1970s, but it was Rocca who first set the bar for highfliers with his thrilling, high-energy arsenal.