Whether by chance or by choice, there comes a time when a wrestler has to hang up his boots. Fortunately, for many who were savvy enough to adapt to the business end of the sport, they were able to extend their careers by sliding into a different role. While many wrestlers transitioned into retirement via administrative roles as referees, bookers, road agents and even promoters, there were some who maintained their visible presence on camera by migrating to a different position. In the process, they extended their careers and generated visibility to a whole new audience.
Some of the sport’s most successful managers were once wrestlers themselves, lending their expertise to guide the careers of others. In some cases, those wrestlers with a particular gift for gab, transitioned rather smoothly into the broadcast booth where their voices became the soundtrack that accompanied some of our most vivid memories of the sport. Interestingly, some of these athletes became so successful in their post-wrestling lives that their track record between the ropes has almost been forgotten. The following list celebrates the successes of those wrestlers who adapted so well to their role as a manager or announcer that their in-ring pursuits may be mentioned only as a footnote to their brilliant careers.
15 Freddie Blassie
The self-professed “Hollywood Fashion Plate” certainly laid claim to an enviable career that was highlighted by an impressive international schedule and high profile in the media. Originally from St. Louis, Blassie wrestled his first match in 1942 and rose to headline status in a number of wrestling territories, most notably southern California before sliding into semi-retirement in 1974. However, for younger fans, it was as a manager in the WWE that Blassie is best remembered and that most of the action figures and memorabilia in his likeness celebrate. In 1979, he was assigned to an upstart that was viewed to have great potential named Hulk Hogan. His stable also included, at different times, Nikolai Volkoff, Waldo Von Erich, Iron Sheik, Kamala, Hercules Hernandez and John Studd, among others. Blassie remained visible for decades after his official retirement in 1986, serving as a patriarchal figure in WWE vignettes and media appearances.
14 Jerry Lawler
In the 1980s, Jerry Lawler was somewhat of the “little engine that could” in terms of professional wrestling. He had been actively wrestling and headlining in Memphis for close to a decade without national visibility when an opportunity fell into his lap to make him a household name. When comedian Andy Kaufman decided he wanted to try his hand at pro wrestling, Lawler reaped the benefits – securing late night talk show appearances on David Letterman and becoming one of the most visible wrestlers not signed to a major company. His transition into broadcasting happened somewhat accidentally after Randy Savage abruptly departed from the WWE to rival WCW and Vince McMahon needed to find a replacement to call the matches for TV. That was in 1994 and the assignment was supposed to last only a few weeks. What has resulted is a broadcast career that has been longer, and more visible than his dedicated career as a wrestler.
13 Cyrus The Virus
Introduced to WWE audiences as The Jackyl, leading the short-lived Truth Commission down to the ring, many fans may not realize that Winnipeg’s Don Callis had actually intended to join the WWE roster as a wrestler himself. After a few tryout matches in 1996, Callis was partnered with Rick Martel on the independent circuit when the duo approached Vince McMahon with the idea of a tag team called “The Super Models.” Callis was signed to a contract and before Martel was secured, he accepted an offer from the rival WCW. Callis had been wrestling for seven years in Canada and had done tours to South Africa and Germany, establishing a credible track record. Callis’ career in the WWE and ECW would see him in a very visible role, but not as a wrestler. Most American and international fans may be oblivious to his ring origins.
12 J.J. Dillon
Best known as the manager for the Four Horsemen, J.J. Dillon is still sought out to throw up the four fingers for photo ops at fan fests and conventions to this day. Surprisingly, though, his association with the Horsemen represents only a fraction of his entire career. While trying his hand at wrestling in some of his earliest matches in 1962 in New Jersey, Dillon’s career really didn’t take off until 1968. His greatest successes took place in the Carolinas, West Texas, Florida and the Canadian Maritimes. His career as a manager began in 1975, when he was assigned to The Mongolian Stomper. It wasn’t until 1986 that his affiliation with Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, Ole Anderson and Tully Blanchard materialized at the Four Horsemen was born. The reign of the Horsemen for Jim Crockett Promotions was only a three year run, but one that has defined Dillon’s career for a generation of wrestling fans.
11 Pepper Martin
Originally from Hamilton, Ontario, Pepper Martin earned a solid reputation for himself as a wrestler in his travels about the wrestling territories of the 1950s. While wrestling in Portland, Oregon, he received an opportunity to go to California on the reference of fellow wrestler Pat Patterson and it turned out to be a career altering move. Not long after arriving in California, Martin was presented with an opportunity to get into the film industry. Juggling wrestling and acting commitments he wasn’t always able to fulfill his ring schedule, but promoters saw the value in having a Hollywood celebrity on the roster and slid Pepper into a spot as a color commentator for the matches. The role turned out to be a great fit and allowed Martin to successfully maintain both careers. On the acting side of the equation, Pepper appeared in hundreds of movies, including a brief appearance as a truck driver in Superman II that thumps Christopher Reeve in a diner.
10 Tony Condello
The list of wrestlers who got their first big break from Winnipeg, Manitoba promoter Tony Condello is numerous. His infamous northern Canadian winter tour has become a topic of legend among the wrestlers who went on to successful careers in WCW and the WWE. However, while his achievements as a promoter and frequently ring announcer for the cards that he promotes has been the staple of his visibility for the past two decades, there was a time that he was mixing it up inside the ropes as well. He got his start wrestling on local club shows in Winnipeg in 1960, eventually finding himself wrestling on the undercard for AWA events in Winnipeg, as well as select TV tapings in Minneapolis. While actively wrestling, he opened a training school and his most successful student, out of his first class was a cocky bagpiper named Roderick Toombs, who would go on to a Hall of Fame career by the name Roddy Piper.
9 Jesse Ventura
“We shocked the world!” was Jesse Ventura’s proud declaration when he became the Governor of Minnesota in the 1990s. It was not a surprise to wrestling fans, who had been on the receiving end of Ventura’s efforts to stand out in a crowd of larger than life personalities. Perhaps best recognized for his visibility in the media outside of the wrestling business through his television show Conspiracy Theories, as well as his action movie roles opposite stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, Ventura’s voice rings out when we think of pro wrestling in the 1980s and 90s. The former Navy Seal launched his pro mat career in the mid-1970’s and saw tag team success with partner Adrian Adonis. However, by the time McMahon was taking his product from regional to national, Ventura was already at the tail end of his active career, sliding into the broadcast booth as a color commentator and antagonizer.
8 Lou Albano
At the center of the WWE’s Rock and Wrestling movement that was the catalyst for mainstream visibility to launch the first WrestleMania was the rotund Lou Albano. Known for wearing Hawaiian shirts, left open to display his bulbous physique and pinning rubber bands to his cheeks, “Captain Lou” may be one of the most beloved characters of that era in pro wrestling. Leading multiple teams to tag team title success, Albano frequently appears on lists of the sport’s greatest managers. However, earlier in his career, Lou was a despised villain as a wrestler. Teaming with fellow Italian Tony Altomare, the duo were the fedora wearing tag team billed as The Sicilians. In the 1970s, Albano would even get under the skin of, and find himself across the ring from World champion Bruno Sammartino.
7 Sherri Martel
Louisiana’s Sherri Martel could easily be recognized as one of the most successful woman wrestlers in the world in the 1980s. Claiming both the AWA Women’s championship and the WWE Women’s championship at different times, Martel achieved success that many would not. However, in the 1990s, with a shallow talent pool available, Sherri was transitioned from a role as a wrestler to become one of the most ruthless managers of the decade. First at the side of Randy Savage, then Ted DiBiase, Martel was a great addition to the marketing of Shawn Michaels as he was first breaking out as a solo star. Martel would continue to cement her reputation as a manager in WCW where she most notably directed the careers of Harlem Heat – Booker T and Stevie Ray. Along the way, her battles against the likes of Luna Vachon, Candi Devine and even the Fabulous Moolah seem to have been forgotten.
6 Mr. Fuji
In the 1980s and 90s, the tuxedo-clad Mr. Fuji reminded us more of a Bond villain than a professional wrestler with the track record that he could boast. Fuji, as the corner man for Don Muraco, or later the WWE creation, Demolition, was a staple of the WWE roster in the 1980s and early 90s. But Harry Fujiwara was an accomplished wrestler as well, securing championship success in a number of territories and even co-holding the WWE Tag Team titles as the 1970s came to a close. While some footage does exist from Fuji’s days as an active wrestler, fans searching for Fuji are more likely to find his cheesy vignette parodying the hit TV series Miami Vice with Don Muraco in a segment dubbed Fuji Vice. Wrestling and managing aside, the legacy that Fuji truly leaves behind, though, is as one of the most notorious ribbers in the history of wrestling.
5 Paul Ellering
“Precious” Paul Ellering was first partnered with the Road Warriors as the iconic face-painted tag team was taking their earliest steps as a duo in Georgia. Ellering was in the corner of Animal & Hawk as they climbed the ladder in the AWA, NWA, and even after their arrival in the WWE. However, the former bodybuilder’s intentions upon entering wrestling was not to take a passive role on the sidelines, but rather to be a featured star himself. While wrestling in the AWA, Ellering feuded with another wrestler destined for success beyond the ring, Jesse Ventura. Ellering’s success inside the ring was somewhat limited, but his track record as a manager has cemented his place in wrestling history.
4 Frenchy Martin
In the 1980s, the barrel-chested Dino Bravo’s anti-American sentiment was punctuated by his manager carrying the Quebec Fleur-de-lis and a picket sign reading “USA is not OK.” While Martin’s visibility in the WWE was limited to his services as a second for Bravo and occasionally filling in on an arena show when there was a vacancy on the card, Frenchy’s international success gets overlooked. Martin, wrestling by a variety of names on the ascent of his career, found great success in Canadian rings in the 1970s. As a wrestler, his greatest success may arguably have been as a tag team with Michel Martel, older brother of WWE Superstar Rick. His track record as a headline wrestler in Puerto Rico, Canada and other international ports of call is all but forgotten when considering the WWE roster of the 1980s. He stands as one of the few standouts of the era to never be immortalized as an action figure.
3 Billy Red Lyons
Wrestling fans in the Toronto area and catching the Canadian satellite feed across the country will distinctly remember the enthusiasm of Billy Red Lyons as he promoted the upcoming card coming to Maple Leaf Gardens or to an arena near you. His trademark “Don’t ya dare miss it” closing line created a sense of urgency to get to the box office and buy tickets for the upcoming match. Of course older fans would remember the agile Lyons as a mainstay of the Ontario wrestling scene and a championship-winning wrestler across North America and Japan from 1958 to 1975. Lyons, who was the brother in law of Buffalo, New York’s Dick Beyer, enjoyed many tours internationally before hanging up his boots to become a pitch man for Vince McMahon.
2 Gorilla Monsoon
To this day, wrestling fans still quote the unique colloquialisms of the late Gorilla Monsoon when calling the action. Describing an impact to the bad of the skull as “damaging the external occipital protuberance”, Gorilla can also be credited with giving Bret Hart the nickname “The Excellence of Execution” (a short while after he first used that phrase to describe Bob Orton Jr. The duos of Monsoon and Bobby Heenan or Monsoon and Jesse Ventura produced some of the most comical banter in wrestling history. As the beloved ringside commentator and later assigned to President of the WWE, it’s difficult to imagine a period a decade earlier when he was billed from outer Manchuria and was a serious threat to Bruno Sammartino, Pedo Morales and other fan favorites of the day. One of Gorilla’s biggest showdowns was a boxing match against Andre the Giant from Puerto Rico.
1 Bobby Heenan
If one were to compile a list of wrestling’s greatest talkers of all time, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan would rate highly on the list. Heenan broke into the business as a teenager and his first assignment was as a manager. In the early 1970s, Heenan was widely considered by his peers to be one of the best undercard villains in the ring. His crowd psychology and timing made him an opponent that his fellow wrestlers loved to see as their assignment for the night. However, the talent that Bobby had as a wrestler was soon eclipsed by his ability to whip audiences into a frenzy as the manager for some of the most heinous villains of the day. Heenan tops most rankings of wrestling’s best managers and even went on to serve as a broadcaster in both the WWE and WCW before his retirement. His brilliance as a wrestler is often disregarded.