Vince McMahon has made more money through professional wrestling than any other person in history. Ted Turner owned the second most successful wrestling company in American history, and for the most part he only ever lost money through the venture, making Vince’s accolade even more impressive. But he didn’t do it alone—Vince amassed his fortune on the backs of hundreds of great wrestlers, perhaps even thousands. But really, it was these 10 men who earned him the most.
Exact figures aren’t publically available and there’s almost too much to consider, so this list shouldn’t be considered a definitive ranking of wrestling’s top stars, but this isn’t just guesswork, either. The primary considerations were the performer’s ability to draw a crowd, the general success of the wrestling industry during their time on top, and most importantly, merchandise sales. The list only concerns wrestlers after Vince inherited the company from his father, so names like Bruno Sammartino and Antonino Rocca were ineligible, although few other than those two would have really been possibilities.
There’s plenty about Vince McMahon people don’t know, and he’s responsible for some stuff he may prefer we’d forget. But everyone who knows him knows at least one thing about him, because he tells the world loud and proud every Monday night: with the help of these wrestlers, Vince made a hell of a lot of money.
10. ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage – Status Encouraged The First SummerSlam
The cream of the crop always rises to the top, oh yeah, so it’s no surprise the ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage made Vince McMahon enough money to drive a man to madness. Savage was a former WWE Intercontinental Champion known for his intensely energetic interviews and athletic, over-the-top performances in his matches when he rose to the top and won the WWE World Championship at WrestleMania IV. As the top star of the WWE in 1988, Savage takes credit for an incredibly successful year for McMahon, drawing massive enough crowds around the world to inspire the WWE to start their second Pay-Per-View, SummerSlam, the first two of which were main evented by Savage.
‘Macho Man’ remained on top of WWE after winning his first title, most famously feuding with Hulk Hogan, his former tag team partner in the Mega Powers. The two headlined the extremely successful WrestleMania V, with Hogan winning the title back. Their feud extended to the second SummerSlam, still drawing incredible crowds. Whether a heel or a face, fans always enjoyed watching Savage, and his iconic “Macho Man” t-shirt remains a big seller to this day.
9. The Undertaker – Undefeated Streak Was A Huge Draw
There is definitely something to be said about the power of longevity. None of the other wrestlers on this list come close to working for Vince McMahon for as long or as consistently as the Undertaker. A top star in WWE since his debut in 1990, of course the Undertaker has made Vince McMahon an incredible amount of money. The Phenom won his first WWE World Championship in 1991, but his drawing power wasn’t truly tested until he headlined WrestleMania 13, which was the only WrestleMania in history not to be a sellout. Things turned around in a huge way at the other two he headlined, XXIV and XXVI, which both had crowds of over 70,000 fans screaming for the Dead Man. The Undertaker’s brief reign as WWE World Champion in 1999 also holds the distinction of having the consistently highest rated Raws of any World title reign.
WWE in general wasn’t doing that great the first time the Undertaker’s abilities were tested, but he did a great job at helping things stay on track while they needed to regain fans after the unsuccessful years with Diesel and Shawn Michaels on top. While moderately successful at the time, by sticking around, Undertaker became one of the biggest stars in history. His undefeated streak was the main draw of WrestleMania until it ended, and countless t-shirts supporting him and his Creatures of the Night have no doubt earned the Undertaker a special place in WWE history and McMahon’s wallet.
8. Triple H – Huge Merchandise Seller Thanks To DX
Like the Undertaker, a good deal of Triple H’s success comes from longevity. Starting with WWE in 1995, Triple H won his first WWE Championship in 1999 and has been on top since. Though he hasn’t personally had the meteoric success of the next few names on this list, he was always on top while WWE established itself as the dominant force in American professional wrestling. With 13 subsequent reigns as champion, Triple H proved he wasn’t just another part of the show, but rather the main attraction, keeping fans interested and watching for the past two decades.
Triple H can also be considered in a large way responsible for the success of D-Generation X, a popular group and a hugely successful merchandise seller in the late 90’s. Though DX were bigger draws when Shawn Michaels was the leader, they continued to be top merchandise sellers even as they were relegated to more of a comedy role. By the time Shawn Michaels returned to revive the group in 2006, the comedy antics were front and center and their strength as draws was arguably better than ever, though never quite as strong as the next few on this list.
7. Andre the Giant – Big WrestleMania Draw
Andre the Giant is the only wrestler of his era to make this list, but it’s still not surprising he makes it considering he probably made more money for wrestling promoters than any other individual before Vince McMahon took over the business in the 80’s. In many ways Andre was more than a wrestler, he was an attraction in and of himself. Standing 7’4”, Andre towered over even the giants of 1970’s and 80’s, and his friendly smile and gentle giant demeanor made him a fan favorite everywhere he went, including, of course, WWE. When Vince decided to expand nationally, Andre was a big part in Vince’s plans, wrestling important matches at the first two WrestleMania’s and appearing as a regular honored guest on Tuesday Night Titans.
Andre’s greatest success for Vince, at least in terms of earning him money, came at WrestleMania III. After years as a smiling face, Andre challenged Hulk Hogan for the WWE World Championship, aligning with Bobby Heenan. An alleged 93,000 fans packed into the Pontiac Silverdome to see the match, and we feel it’s only fair to consider the immovable object 50% responsible for selling the battle against the unstoppable force. He continued to be a huge selling point for WWE events until he retired in 1991. Thanking him for his efforts, Vince selected Andre as the first inductee to the WWE Hall of Fame.
6. Mick Foley – Vital In The Monday Night Wars
The Attitude Era is mostly remembered for ‘Stone Cold’ and The Rock battling each other and Vince McMahon, and although it’s not fair to say Mick Foley has been forgotten, but sometimes the extent of his importance gets lost in the shuffle. Foley joined WWE as Mankind in 1996, but his true success started in 1998 as Dude Love. Aligning with McMahon, the Dude was the first true opponent of Steve Austin during his time on top. Foley’s incredible interviews during the period brought more emotion to professional wrestling than ever before, and his passion and dedication on the mic and in the ring unquestionably “put butts in the seats,” despite what Tony Schiavone may have claimed.
On January 4, 1999, again as Mankind, Foley won his first WWE World Championship. The victory is considered an integral moment in the Monday Night Wars, with allegedly millions of fans switching from WCW Monday Nitro over to Raw to see Foley win the title after WCW announcer Schiavone foolishly announced it would be happening. In addition to being a clear ratings draw, Foley has always been a strong merchandise seller, particularly as Cactus Jack with his “Wanted: Dead” t-shirt.
5. ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper – Hot Rod
Every good hero needs a villain. Vince McMahon certainly knows that, and while he probably had the same innate understanding of what most writers possess, no one has ever proved it to him like Roddy Piper. Hulk Hogan was the preeminent wrestling star of the 1980s and no one could ever fight that claim. However, he didn’t become the biggest star in the world by beating nobody. Hogan might have beat the Iron Sheik for the belt, but it was his battles with Roddy Piper that solidified his place as champion and brought WWE to a national stage.
Hulk Hogan gets almost all the credit for the era of “Rock and Wrestling,” but it was Roddy Piper who defined the era by interviewing Cyndi Lauper on Piper’s Pit. Piper also headlined The War to Settle the Score, a major WWE show held at Madison Square Garden and broadcast on MTV. Piper challenged Hulk Hogan for the WWE World Championship at the event and lost by disqualification, leading to the first WrestleMania. Piper made millions of fans flock to arenas to watch him get beat up, only to eventually win them over and sell millions of t-shirts emblazoned with his nickname, Hot Rod.
4. John Cena – Unrivalled Merchandise King
John Cena has been the top star of WWE for at least the past decade. His merchandise sales are unrivaled and his status as the top draw is never questioned. Cena has been WWE World Champion a record 15 times, and thousands of fans flocked to watch him headline five separate WrestleMania’s. Though WWE isn’t as successful today as it was 10 years ago, Cena remains the one unquestionable star in the wrestling world, selling out shows and achieving crossover appeal in mainstream media other wrestlers couldn’t imagine.
Cena’s real success for McMahon is in his merchandising. The Doctor of Thuganomics has branded everything, selling t-shirts, jerseys, shoulder pads, knee pads, towels, armbands, wristbands, custom hats, and virtually anything else people can wear. Either simply promoting Cena or representing his “Rise Above Hate” attitude, fans can and do adorn themselves in all sorts of clothing promoting the Cena brand.
3. The Rock – “The Great One”
The Rock could very easily have been number one on this list if he chose to dedicate his life to wrestling. The Rock has the shortest professional career of any wrestler on this list, but there’s no question he deserves to be this high. The Great One inspired dozens of top selling t-shirts and won the WWE World Championship 8 times, headlining five WrestleMania’s along the way. The Rock debuted in 1996 and though he still makes appearances, he essentially stopped wrestling full time in 2003, aside from a brief return as WWE Champion in 2013.
The Rock sold out arenas nationwide during the Monday Night Wars, and was one of the key reasons fans switched from WCW to WWE and never turned back. Throughout 2000 in particular, the Rock was the star of WWE. Ratings reached record numbers and WCW was completely unable to compete. Feuding Triple H, The Undertaker, Mick Foley and Steve Austin, The Rock kept the fans on his side against even the biggest names on this list. Even after mostly leaving wrestling for Hollywood, The Rock makes Vince endless streams of revenue through merchandise sales every time he appears on Raw wearing a new t-shirt.
2. Hulk Hogan – Hulkamania
Hulk Hogan was unquestionably the biggest star in professional wrestling history until a few people came to stake claims against him in the late 1990’s. In the 80’s, though, Hogan was the king and Vince McMahon put him on the throne. Winning the WWE World Championship in 1984, Hogan was responsible for countless sellout shows in the 1980’s, doing incredible record business for WWE everywhere they went. His merchandise, primarily the iconic Hulkamania t-shirt, sold well enough to fund the entire promotion during its massive expansion.
Hogan’s charisma and energy headlined seven of the first eight WrestleMania’s, four of the first five Survivor Series’, and the first two SummerSlams. These events were amongst the first Pay-Per-Views in WWE history, and they succeeded primarily based on fans supporting Hulk Hogan. Though some argue Vince kept Hogan on top for too long, which is why sales started to lag in the early 90’s, his success in the 80’s makes him a clear pick for the top of this list.
1. ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin – Saved The WWE
In terms of pure numbers, Steve Austin shouldn’t be number one on this list, but we have a really good reason why we put him here anyway. Nobody in professional wrestling comes near the success of ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin during his peak. His merchandise sales, especially the iconic “Austin 3:16” t-shirt, were unrivaled by any wrestler in history, and he mostly accomplished this in under five years. While most of the other wrestlers on this list had long careers, Austin won his first WWE World Championship in 1998 and was retired by 2003. He was injured most of 2000, and spent half of 1999 and 2002 on the shelf as well. That’s barely over three years as an active wrestler, and in those three years alone, Austin shattered the records set by Hogan and the others before him.
Austin achieved his success by riling millions of fans to their feet during his battles with Vince McMahon himself. Fighting back against the totalitarian, tyrannical owner of WWE, Austin inspired millions who wished they could beat the hell out of their own boss. WWE shows were universally sold out during this time period, setting cable ratings records and making national news along the way. WCW had almost put WWE out of business in late 1997, and by 1999 such talk was unspeakable due to how summarily Austin was dominating the wrestling universe. And ‘Stone Cold’ did it by giving his boss two middle fingers. In a way, by standing there and scowling at Austin while he did it, it could be argued the wrestler to make Vince McMahon the most money was none other than Vince McMahon.