The world of professional wrestling is filled with larger-than-life characters. These men and women battle it out in the ring like real-life superheroes and villains. Although there is debate about whether these bouts are sporting events or scripted entertainment, it cannot be denied that the best professional wrestlers are tremendous athletes and performers. Take a look back at wrestling legends who have captured the imaginations of fans young and old.
“Mean Gene” Okerlund (1942–2019)
“Mean Gene” was the face of professional wrestling for many years as the premier wrestling broadcaster. He played the perfect straight man while interviewing stars like Hulk Hogan.
Big Van Vader (1955–2018)
Born Leon White, Big Van Vader was a legendary villain in the WWE and the WCW. He had memorable feuds with the Undertaker and Shawn Michaels.
Johnny Valiant (1946–2018)
Hall of Fame wrestler Johnny Valiant, aka Luscious, was a two-time world tag-team champion.
Bruno Sammartino (1935–2018)
Sammartino was professional wrestling’s “Living Legend” and one of its longest-reigning champions.
Bobby Heenan (1944–2017)
With a career spanning more than four decades, Heenan was the “The Brain” behind some of the most prolific superstars in sports-entertainment history.
Ivan Koloff (1942–2017)
The Canadian wrestler was known as the “Russian Bear.”
George “The Animal” Steele (1937–2017)
The WWE Hall of Fame wrestler gained fame in the 1980s for his eccentric look and wild antics.
Harry “Mr. Fuji” Fujiwara (1934–2016)
In a league known for its over-the-top stunts and rivalries, Mr. Fuji had a unique signature trick: throwing salt in the eyes of his opponents.
Axl Rotten (1971–2016)
Axl Rotten took his name from rockers Axl Rose and Johnny Rotten and formed a tag team with partner Ian Rotten (John Williams). Calling themselves The Bad Breed, the duo were popular in the ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling) in the 1990s.
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper (1954–2015)
WWE Hall of Famer “Rowdy” Roddy Piper went on to become a movie star and podcast host.
Dusty Rhodes (1945–2015)
WWE Hall of Famer Dusty Rhodes was a three-time NWA champion.
Verne Gagne (1926–2015)
Mae Young (1923–2014)
In a career that spanned eight decades, Mae Young was a pioneer for female wrestlers, first as a role model and later as a coach and trainer for younger wrestlers.
The Ultimate Warrior (1959–2014)
The Ultimate Warrior, who legally changed his name from James Hellwig in 1993, was a champion in the early 1990s along with fellow legends Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage. Known for his strength, intensity and distinctive face paint, Warrior was inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame just days before his death.
William Moody (1954–2013)
Moody was better known to pro wrestling fans as Paul Bearer, the pasty-faced, urn-carrying manager for performers The Undertaker and Kane.
“Macho Man” Randy Savage (1952–2011)
Savage helped define wrestling in the 1980s and early 1990s with his outrageous costumes and “Oooh yeah!” catchphrase.
Captain Lou Albano (1933–2009)
Captain Lou Albano, seen here goofing around with singer Cyndi Lauper in the 1980s, went from wrestling to acting. He portrayed Lauper’s father in music videos and later played video game icon Mario in “The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!”
Walter “Killer” Kowalski (1928–2008)
Notorious heel Killer Kowalski opened a wrestling school after his retirement and trained well-known wrestlers from Triple H to Chyna. Here he demonstrates a “claw” hold on his nephew’s face.
The Fabulous Moolah (1923–2007)
Eddie Guerrero (1967–2005)
Guerrero, aka the “Latino Heat,” headlocks his opponent, Kurt Angle, during Wrestle Mania XX in 2004. Guerrero won 23 titles during his career using his “Frog splash” finishing move and catchphrase “Lie! Cheat! Steal!”
“Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig (1958–2003)
A champion in multiple promotions during the 1990s, Mr. Perfect was regarded as one of the best all-round competitors and one of the greatest in-ring performers of all time. Here he is seen wrestling Dennis Rodman, aka “Bad Boy,” in 2000.
Road Warrior Hawk (1957–2003)
Michael James Hegstrand aka Road Warrior Hawk is best remembered as one-half of the tag team known as the Road Warriors (WCW) or the Legion of Doom (WWF). Here Hawk has “Nature Boy” Ric Flair on the ropes in 1988.
“Classy” Freddie Blassie (1918–2003)
Classy Freddie, the “Fashion Plate of Professional Wrestling,” transitioned to management after retiring from the ring. He is pictured here with Muhammad Ali before Ali’s boxer vs. wrestler match in 1976.
Davey Boy Smith (1962–2002)
Davey Boy first achieved success as a member of “The British Bulldogs” tag team before becoming a headline solo wrestler. He was the only wrestler to hold the title of WWF European Champion and was particularly popular in his native U.K.
Ravishing Rick Rude (1958–1999)
With a physique the WWE called the greatest in pro wrestling history, Ravishing Rick dubbed himself the “Sexiest Man Alive” and gave “Rude Awakening” kisses to lucky female fans. A villain in the ring, Richard E. Rood was anything but in real life.
Owen Hart (1965–1999)
Owen Hart applies a choke hold to his brother Bret Hart during WrestleMania X in 1994. Five years later, Owen would fall to his death after an equipment malfunction during a pay-per-view event.
Gorilla Monsoon (1937–1999)
As Gorilla Monsoon, Gino Marella was a popular super-heavyweight main eventer. He is probably best remembered by television audiences as the good guy or “face” of the commentary team with “heel” Jesse “The Body” Ventura and later Bobby “The Brain” Heenan.
Junkyard Dog (1952–1998)
As Junkyard Dog, Sylvester Ritter was the first black wrestler to be made the top star of his promotion. During his heyday in the early 1980s, he headlined events that sold out the Louisiana Superdome and other major venues. He died in a car crash driving home from his daughter Latoya’s high school graduation. Sadly, Latoya died suddenly in 2011.
Big John Studd (1948–1995)
Big John Studd and another wrestler sandwich football player William “The Refrigerator” Perry in 1986. Studd was a famed “monster heel” who would bring a stretcher to the ring so his opponent could be carried away after his beating.
Andre the Giant (1948–1993)
Andre the Giant faces off with Hulk Hogan before their bout in 1988. Though a legend of wrestling, he is perhaps best remembered as Fezzik, the lovable giant in “The Princess Bride.”
“Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers (1921–1992)
Nature Boy flies through the air at Billy Darnell (1926–2007) in a match from 1950. Rogers inspired a generation of wrestlers with his cocky, strutting “Nature Boy” style.
Gorgeous George Wagner (1915–1963)
A flamboyant self-promoter, Gorgeous George once told Muhammad Ali, “A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous.”
Georg Hackenschmidt (1877–1968)
Hackenschmidt was the early 20th century’s most famous wrestler. A well-educated man, after retiring from the ring he wrote books about physical culture, training, and even philosophy.
Frank Gotch (1878–1917)
Born and trained in the wrestling hotbed of Iowa, Gotch was America’s answer to Georg Hackenschmidt. Nearly 30,000 people came to see Gotch win his final match at the new Comiskey Park in Chicago in 1911.