With attendance numbers on decline across the board, ratings reaching all-time lows, and fans loudly rejecting live events on a regular basis, it sometimes feels like WWE is in the worst shape it's ever been. It certainly doesn’t help that Vince McMahon’s solution to his problems has been pushing the same ideas everyone vocally hates again and again. Rather than try anything new, Vince seems content reminding us of the old cliché about how crazy people will repeat the same action and expect different results. As per usual, WWE’s complacency is setting a trend throughout the entire wrestling world, at least insofar as the mainstream is concerned.
Despite all this, there are, nonetheless, a handful of wrestlers and executives in the industry who are legitimately making the business a better place for fans and performers alike. No matter how bad WWE and Vince McMahon’s tendencies can get, another notable cliché is that the cream always rises to the top, and when it does, the world can greatly benefit from unique greatness revealing itself. On the downside, some wrestlers are also making the industry a whole lot worse, balancing everything out and leaving us with the mediocre wrestling landscape we have today.
For better or worse, the wrestlers changing and defining the present WWE Universe will go down in history as the most pivotal figures of their day. In retrospect, it might be hard to remember which of them did so in a good way versus who destroyed what some people once loved about sports entertainment. That’s why we have to parse out the details as they develop. Keep reading to learn about 15 pro wrestlers who are genuinely changing the industry.
15 Darren Young
Truth be told, from a technical standpoint, Darren Young really isn’t doing anything to change pro wrestling. Bland and uninteresting in the ring and never given much of a character, such to the extent Young’s continued presence in WWE since splitting with Titus O’Neil in the Prime Time Players is somewhat questionable. Despite all the negatives about his performance in the ring, though, Young has nonetheless been making history since 2013 as the first (and as writing this) only openly gay wrestler actively working for WWE. There have been other gay wrestlers who came out after leaving WWE, yet none felt the need to admit their sexuality while contracted to the company. By doing so, Young broke down a barrier some worried WWE may never cross. Since Young came out, WWE has largely stopped mocking effeminate characters, and it’s hard to picture them ever relying on homophobic tendencies as a gimmick ever again.
14 Piper Niven
In many respects, every woman to participate in the Mae Young Classic tournament that aired on the WWE Network played her part in changing the wrestling business for the better. The tournament was yet another sign women are finally being taken seriously in WWE, given a multiple-episode series focusing entirely on their wrestling talent, of which most featured had plenty. WWE decided the standout was Kairi Sane, and she definitely deserved her victory, but the participant doing the most for females in sports entertainment may well have been Piper Niven, known as Viper on the independent scene. Ten years ago, it would have been almost unthinkable for a woman who looks like Niven to appear in WWE and not get mercilessly mocked for her larger-than-average stature. Past examples like Bull Nakano, Molly Holly, and Vickie Guerrero were half Niven’s size and still felt the sting of countless stupid, offensive jokes about their weight. However, Niven’s incredible skills in the ring finally forced announcers to stop being mean and start admitting women of all sizes could seriously impress inside the ring.
13 Kenny Omega
Even wrestling fans who exclusively watch WWE are probably aware of Kenny Omega, arguably the top star working for the international competition that is New Japan Pro Wrestling. Born in Canada and making his name on the American independent scene, Omega permanently moved to Japan circa 2010 and never looked back, spending the bulk of his career in the Land of the Rising Sun since then. It’s not simply the fact Omega is a North American finding success in Asia that makes him unique, however, since this has happened plenty of times before. It’s the sheer extent of Omega’s fame that makes him standout, coupled with his incredible skills on the microphone that truly make him a crossover star. In the past, most great foreign wrestlers in Japan were great in the ring, but not on the mic, because that part of the business isn’t emphasized in the country. Omega is a star who could easily dominate WWE, yet, also has the ring skills to take over Japan.
WWE can be a pretty complicated universe, making it bizarrely possible for someone to change the wrestling business in a good way and bad way all at once. In the unique case of Bayley, this status was achieved by the wrestler in question being an incredible talent with a unique character, even though the company she works for manages to royally mess things up for her and nearly killed her career in the process. Initially, Bayley was changing the business by being one of the best role models for young women the company had ever created. Sure, there were generic references to “girl power” here and there throughout just about every notable female’s career, but Bayley’s optimistic hugger persona connected with younger females in a way no other character ever had. This was great for women in general because it showed how popular they could be. But then when WWE called Bayley up to the main roster, instead of that popularity increasing, she was made into just another petty diva with few defining characteristics. Turns out the more things change, the more they stay the same.
11 “Diamond” Dallas Page
Such is the elastic nature of the sports entertainment business that a wrestler can keep changing the entire industry a full decade after his retirement. “Diamond” Dallas Page hasn’t stepped into a wrestling ring for an official singles match since 2006, but his post-grappling career may wind up having a greater impact to the sport than any of his three reigns as WCW Champion. This is because Page has spent his retirement developing an entirely new system of exercise he calls DDP Yoga. Since Page started sharing his secrets with fellow wrestlers, he’s legitimately started saving lives. Not only does DDP Yoga help people lose incredible amounts of weight and alleviate aches and pains, it’s apparently also great at distracting addicts from their poisons. Jake Roberts and Scott Hall are just two athletes who credit the system with their lives, and Page has essentially opened up his house and services to any other wrestler needing his help.
10 Jinder Mahal
By suddenly winning the WWE Championship and holding it for six months, Jinder Mahal was living proof that for all its negatives, the company is truly more unpredictable today than ever before. No matter what happens, it turns out Vince McMahon can still surprise his audience with a truly left-turn victory, legitimately making a star out of a nobody in one match. Mere months before Mahal was the top superstar in the company, the vast majority of WWE fans probably didn’t even know who he was, and those who did just knew he lost every single match he appeared in for years. Of course, whether or not the fact a total jobber can now literally become champion overnight depends on the wrestler WWE chooses to put through that transformation. In Jinder’s case, it was a pretty awful idea all around, but there’s a plus side in that it sets a precedent where Vince McMahon may well take a chance on your favorite underappreciated nobody when you least expect it.
9 Sasha Banks
Even though WWE tried to give all the credit for the women’s wrestling revolution to a man named Triple H, it was actually the female wrestlers themselves who did the hard work necessary to win respect for their gender at long last. Sasha Banks, in particular, has stood out from the very beginning as an athlete not willing to accept the same treatment women in wrestling have been receiving for years. Since joining WWE, she has developed immensely from Mercedes KV to “The Boss,” becoming more flamboyant and flashy as she gains more respect for women everywhere. As Banks came into her own as a performer, the state of female wrestling developed along with her, with the company she works for unable to ignore her significant talents. In a few short years, Banks increased the profile of women’s wrestling enough that she became the first female to main event NXT and WWE Pay-Per-Views, with Bayley and Charlotte Flair as her respective opponents.
8 Keith Lee
Every few years, an impressive “big man” wrestler comes along with such agility, critics inevitably refer to him or her as a super heavyweight who moves around like a cruiserweight. Vader had his moonsault, Bam Bam did his cartwheels, and even The Undertaker made daring leaps outside the ring. However, none of them did the corkscrew planchas as well as the plus-sized athlete. Keith Lee has made a regular trademark in his matches for independent promotions like Pro Wrestling Guerilla or EVOLVE. Lee’s talent is such that ESPN recently profiled him, a significant feat in and of itself for a wrestler who has never worked for WWE, Impact Wrestling, or any other major company. In particular, Lee’s match against Donovan Dijak at PWG Battle of Los Angeles is being called one of the best matches in 2017, which also isn’t a first for a wrestler his size, but given the nature of the match, it’s certainly unique.
7 Kevin Owens
Although Kevin Owens isn’t as big or as athletic as Keith Lee, there’s one key difference that makes both of them valid candidates on this list for basically the same reason. Unlike Lee, Owens has managed to succeed despite his size in the WWE Universe, which has for many years been considered a land of muscle-bound freaks and unrealistic Adonis-looking men in the main event. Wearing a few extra pounds around his waist without the height to carry it as a monster, Owens is very much not of this cliché variety, yet it hasn’t stopped him from becoming one of the top stars in WWE today. To see just how much of a game changer this is for the wrestling industry, look no further than the thousands of negative comments on the Internet, mocking him for being “fat” and claiming this alone should keep him away from the upper echelon of WWE, where he currently sits. Obviously, these “critics” have no idea what they’re talking about, and Owens proves a wrestler’s waistline doesn’t matter every time he steps into the ring.
6 Charlotte Flair
It takes more than just a few women to forever change the way their gender is perceived in a given industry, and the four appearing on this list are merely standouts among dozens of incredibly talented female wrestlers doing similar things as they are. That said, Charlotte Flair has in many ways been the standout among the standouts, possibly the most talented in-ring female performer of the modern era while possessing great character work to back it up. There’s also the fact her father is one of the industry’s preeminent legends, which defined her career for its first few years. However, it was breaking out of the Nature Boy’s shadow that truly proved how much Charlotte had done for women in wrestling. Not too long ago, if WWE could define a female wrestler through a man, that would probably be her whole character. Just look at Tamina Snuka, a very unique performer who WWE wouldn’t ever allow on air for two seconds without mentioning she was the daughter of a Hall of Famer. By breaking the trend and standing on her own, Charlotte is allowing all women to do the same.
5 Cody Rhodes
For a span of almost 10 full years, Cody Rhodes was known as one of the most miscast and underappreciated wrestlers in WWE. Sure, he had his moments in the sun now and again — his time in The Legacy and teaming with his brother Goldust for a brief reign as Tag Team Champions in particular standing out as positives to a disappointing career. However, most fans and critics of WWE had long believed Rhodes had the skills required for something even better, something he pretty much immediately proved after walking out of the company in 2016. Since then, Cody became one of the biggest stars on the independent scene and quickly won the ROH World Championship. More important, Cody announced he’s making more money now than he did in WWE, showing that independent wrestling can be a financially viable career path on par with working for Vince McMahon. Even if wrestlers knew they could win more titles working for smaller promotions before, they may not have realized their money and fame could increase, as well.
4 Chris Jericho
It’s been over a decade since the Monday Night War ended in definitive victory for WWE, so the idea of wrestlers “jumping ship” from one company to another has largely fallen by the wayside. The full story is still somewhat unclear, but depending on how Chris Jericho’s trip to New Japan Pro Wrestling pans out, that may no longer be the case. In November of 2017, Y2J announced he would be leaving WWE for the first time in 19 years to take a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, where he’ll wrestle Kenny Omega. Sources vary on whether Jericho’s WWE contract is over and he elected to work for a different company or if Vince McMahon approved of this journey overseas, but either way, it’s huge news for the wrestling community in general. It's crazy to think an iconic performer contracted to the biggest wrestling company in America voluntarily chooses to work for their global competition while maybe having WWE be okay with it. That’s two huge game-changing pieces of information in one, and fans in America and Japan can’t wait to find out how the story develops.
3 Brock Lesnar
From the day he made his debut appearing out of nowhere and beating up multiple WWE superstars at once, Brock Lesnar has practically made changing the business part of his character. His rise from obscurity to WWE Champion back in 2002 redefined the concept of a rookie sensation. His decision to leave wrestling for football in 2004 was entirely unprecedented for both WWE and the NFL. That he then took over the world of UFC and MMA added a third sport to the mix of athletics Lesnar was rewriting in his image. And then he made the return to wrestling, this time serving as a game changer by merely blessing the ring with his internationally famous presence. Such is Lesnar’s star power that he doesn’t even need to show up on Raw or SmackDown unless he feels like it, a status that no WWE Champion (or Universal Champion) has ever had before. Since WWE started airing weekly television, the champ was either in person or live via satellite in practically every episode of Raw. With Lesnar, months go by without them even acknowledging him, and yet he’s made such a name for himself, no one can forget he’s a superstar.
2 Roman Reigns
Ultimately, none of the wrestlers on this list have anywhere near the same power as the people employing them. For the ones working in WWE, they’ll probably never even come close to the authority wielded by Vince McMahon. Most of them don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing, but none benefit nearly as much as Roman Reigns — the most hated WWE superstar ever to get pushed as the top babyface in the company. In truth, Roman himself isn’t doing all that much to change wrestling, but he’s being used as the McMahon’s instrument to do so in a very direct way. Rather than following the mantra that made McMahon famous for decades, that being listening to the fans and giving them what they want to see, WWE is now on the contrary trolling their own audience and pissing their most loyal viewers off at every opportunity imaginable. The sole reason for this is the fact Vince loves him some Roman, while no one else on earth seems to see any appeal in The Guy.
1 Triple H
Starting in 1982, Vince McMahon has been seen as the most important man in wrestling, a status that he still holds to this day. However, for the first time since then, a definitive second, most important name has asserted itself as a potential heir to the throne, and that name is Triple H. Rarely wrestling more than a match or two per year, Triple H is essentially retired as an active performer, but that has only increased his chances of genuinely changing wrestling forever from behind the scenes. The more power he gets, the less power Vince McMahon personally has. Every time Vince gives his son-in-law more control, whatever he’s controlling has potential to change for the first time in three decades. Completely removed from Vince, Triple H is also responsible for NXT, which is both changing the way WWE presents a unique show to its audience and creates the new stars McMahon will be relying on for years to come. Simply put, The Game is changing the playing field.