Today, most of the world is enjoying the month of March. Yet, for a small, but vocal contingent of men, women and children, this flip of the calendar indicates something altogether more exciting — the heart of WrestleMania season.
Originally conceived as a wrestling “Super Bowl,” WWE’s flagship WrestleMania pay-per-view has evolved into an annual media event. Replete with actors, musicians, athletes and other celebrities converging on a host city, WrestleMania is now a place to see, be seen, and occasionally watch fictional gladiators settle deep-rooted emotional differences in spandex.
While the unconverted continue to see professional wrestlers as nothing more than well-paid carnival attractions, legions of fans who pack arenas and stadiums seem to think otherwise. With the meteoric Hollywood ascent of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, alongside a wealth of other superstars who are transcending the “pro wrasslin'” stigma, it’s clear that professional wrestling is not only a popular guilty pleasure for men and women of all ages, it’s a continued force in defining pop culture and entertainment.
But, this goes a lot further than The Rock. Plenty of wrestlers have found ways to transform ring bravado into mass-media success. Here are 5 of the more notable examples:
5. Stardom, Thy Name is “Thunderlips”
When “Rocky III” debuted to big box office dollars, most expected the breakout star of the movie to be Mr. T, who portrayed the glib and delightful Clubber Lang. And, in many ways, the mohawked bruiser did find more fame as a result of the film. But no one expected the bigger success story would be a tall, blonde wrestler who looked like a Greek God from Ridgemont High, and yet isn’t seen beyond the first 10 minutes of the movie.
Hulk Hogan — then the champion for regional wrestling powerhouse, the AWA — appeared as Thunderlips, a fictional wrestler slated to “fight” Rocky for a promotional charity event. Through clever camera work, filmmakers made Thunderlips seem larger than life as he manhandled the diminutive boxer in and out of the ring, but displayed a warm, engaging personality when posing for photos after the fact.
Though just a minor scene in the movie, this brief appearance laid the foundation for an entire wrestling persona that would become synonymous with the sport itself. Through a little fine-tuning from Vince McMahon and the WWE creative minds, Hogan went from a limited, but charismatic wrestler, to a bonafide role model and the face of a burgeoning industry — a role many would argue he still holds 30 years later.
4. Andre the Giant Boosts Peanut Sales
Though he started wrestling back in the “carnie” days, when the performers themselves were as much a draw as their work in the ring, Andre the Giant is best-known for how he ended his career. Most notably, his gentle, innocent appearance in the modern cult classic, “The Princess Bride.”
A private, if not complicated man off-camera, many have said that Andre’s performance as Fezzik is perhaps a more accurate representation of his true personality than his larger-than-life wrestling persona. Much as he was in reality, Andre portrayed the character as a fragile soul, known and hired for his muscle, but barely concealing the sensitive layer right beneath the surface.
When “The Princess Bride” became a dorm room staple and cult success, many people went back and revisited Andre’s work in the ring, and noticed there was much more depth to his in-ring character than initially perceived. Even within the over-the-top grandeur of WWE shows, Andre didn’t fight for vengeance or pride. He fought for acceptance, and — in one long-running story arc — unrequited love.
Andre died shortly after his last WWE storyline came to a close. Quietly, without fanfare, and likely unaware of just how many people he touched through his role as the childlike Fezzik, and a misunderstood, gentle giant in the ring.
3. A Vote for Ventura is a Vote for Change
Why play a wrestling villain when you have the ability to portray one in real life? Joking aside, while wrestling often bumped up against other forms of entertainment, it very rarely crossed over into real life. That was, until Jesse Ventura traded feather boas for three-piece suits and entered politics.
Already a veteran of several big-budget action films, Ventura still wasn’t satisfied. So, after a successful run as the mayor of a small Minnesota town, he decided to up the ante and attempt a gubernatorial run.
By maintaining a campaign focused on grassroots change, with ads that urged citizens to not “vote for politics as usual,” Ventura’s Reform Party run was successful, narrowly defeating both Democratic and Republican candidates.
After five years, Ventura found life in politics wasn’t too far removed from a WWE storyline, and decided against reelection. However, he hasn’t become any less outspoken, and is now best known for his books and television appearances focused on government conspiracies and cover-ups.
2. Scream for Me, Jerichoholics!
Chris Jericho, one of the most talented and versatile in-ring performers in the industry, will never be accused of idling his creative engine. Well aware of how wrestling careers tend to end early and unexpectedly, Jericho ensured his future (and his neck) would survive well past his days in the ring.
Did he study accounting or invest in successful tech start-ups? Not a chance. Instead, he decided to back up his audacious wrestling persona by becoming a rock star. You see, when Jericho isn’t competing for heavyweight gold, he brings fans heavy metal steel as frontman for the band Fozzy.
Once a novelty rock and metal cover band, Fozzy was comprised of too many talented musicians — including the surprisingly powerful singing of Jericho himself — to keep playing other people’s music, and before long, were writing fist-waving anthems of their own.
Now a legitimate headline act around the world, Fozzy has become Jericho’s primary creative outlet, but he still has time to host a successful podcast, appear on “Dancing with the Stars,” and of course, knock a few heads in a WWE ring whenever the mood strikes.
1. When People Stop Being Nice, and Start Being … Awesome?
Traditionally, professional wrestlers seeking larger levels of fame use their in-ring presence to launch television, movie and even comedy careers. But, it’s a rare occasion when it works in the other direction. Enter Mike “The Miz” Mizanin.
Mizanin first became famous in 2001, for his “role” as a naïve, but well-intentioned Midwestern youth on MTV’s “The Real World: Return to New York.” During his time on the venerable reality show, he demonstrated a strong passion for wrestling, and even lapsed into his wrestling alter ego, “The Miz,” whenever provoked or, in many instances, inebriated.
After several “Real World”-themed spinoff shows, Mizanin took the initiative to bring this wrestling character to the big stage, appearing on the WWE tryout show, “Tough Enough.” He didn’t win the competition, but garnered enough interest to earn a contract with his dream company.
It wasn’t long before The Miz catapulted to the top of the company — complete with his own trademarked catchphrase, “I’m Awesome” — having won 10 championships in WWE. And now his career has come full circle, with his wrestling success translating to appearances on shows such as “Identity”, “Ghost Hunters”, “Psych” and even the game show “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?”
Today, The Miz still spends a good amount of time in the squared circle, but has also shown considerable chops as an announcer and host of WWE’s various studio shows. While it’s unclear if Mizanin will wear any more WWE gold around his waist, he’s well-groomed for a long career in the business, in and out of the ring.