"Gorgeous George" Wagner was one of the first villains of professional wrestling – and he set a high standard for followers to live up to. He had it all, everything wrestling fans love to hate: a flamboyant and prickly persona, disdain for referees and fellow wrestlers, elaborate costumes (and that perfectly coiffed hair), and of course, a complete and total willingness to cheat. As he often said, "Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat!"
Gorgeous George with wife Betty (Wikimedia Commons/Los Angeles Daily News)
Wagner practically single-handedly created the professional wrestling culture of today. As his theatrics grew, professional wrestling burst onto the pop culture scene, going from a niche live entertainment event to a wildly popular television draw. Audiences loved to tune in and see Wagner's preening, strutting entrance to the ring.
Wagner had influence beyond the wrestling world – a young Muhammad Ali was inspired by his highly effective trash talk. He received some personal advice from Wagner that he stuck with later in his career: "A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous." James Brown also modeled his career in part on Wagner's, though he was inspired by the wrestler's outrageous style and antics rather than his villainy. Studying Wagner, Brown said, helped "create the James Brown you see on stage."
Gorgeous George would have turned 97 today. He retired from wrestling in 1960, just three years before his death, but the reverberations of his career can still be felt – in pro wrestling and beyond.
Written by Linnea Crowther