Back in the late 1980s, when Beau James started pro wrestling, the crowds came for a show between good and evil, to see a story about heroes and villains, to enjoy the bouts and then go home.
James enjoyed being the hero but it was nothing compared to playing the bad guy.
“They introduced me and the people booed me for almost two straight minutes. … It’s a high. … And I’ve been there in the same situation where they love me — I don’t think it compares to the high of the hatred.”
Wrestlers build a persona with a backstory so the audience feels the stakes are high when they get punched in the face. While they often take themes from news and pop culture, they’re not usually overtly political. But the 2016 presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton sparked an idea between James and wrestler Dan Harnsberger.
Together they developed “The Progressive Liberal” Dan Richards, often the bad guy at the matches in the Republican-voting mining towns of Appalachia and some southern states. The Liberal would get a hearing and even some cheers as crowds watch the staged violence at a night of pro wrestling.
Over the past five years, the atmosphere has turned far darker for "The Progressive Liberal," who appears in wrestling matches in Appalachia.
Over the past five years, however, that atmosphere has turned far darker, James and Harnsberger said this month.
After this month’s midterm elections brought defeat for many Trump-backed candidates, even some election deniers conceded their races. It suggested at least some were ready to move past Trump’s refusal to accept his 2020 loss and the mob of supporters he incited who violently stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
But in the mountain towns of Appalachia, that rhetoric has had a lasting effect, Harnsberger said, even among fans who know wrestling is entertainment.
“The crowd has taken on a more violent approach towards me,” said Harnsberger, who plays the Progressive Liberal in the ring. “I had rocks thrown at me. A lady pulled out a lighter, tried to light my trunks on fire while they are on me. And had someone else pull out a switchblade.”
Trump flags and Hillary trunks
A pro wrester lives or dies by the involvement of the crowd, which is more important even than the skills of those inside the ring.
So when he saw forests of Trump flags across West Virginia during the 2016 presidential election, James wondered how he could tap in to that passion — known as “heat” in wrestling parlance.
“My God,” he remembers saying to a buddy. “If we had a guy that was the anti-Trump, and we could send him to the ring in these towns, how much heat would we get?”
They tried wearing a Hillary Clinton flag in the ring, and got a very strong reaction. The next weekend, James ran into Harnsberger for the first time in a while. They’d wrestled together years earlier. Separately, Harnsberger had been testing how his politics would play.
The two came together to create and promote the Progressive Liberal. James helped Harnsberger sharpen his opinions into lines that would rile up the crowd, and how to pace them — like when to say, “We’re coming for your guns.”
And things went well. They entertained. One time a fan flashed a 9mm handgun on his hip and told Harnsberger to come take it, James said. Occasionally Harnsberger would have half the crowd on his side, like at a match in the Arkansas Ozarks.
When a sports website noticed Harnsberger’s gimmick in 2017, a wave of reporters, including me, came to see how his Hillary trunks were playing in the counties that showed the most support for Trump.
“The heat you want is the heat where people are upset at what you stand for … and they want to see you get your ass kicked,” Harnsberger said.
That’s when crowds get invested and will watch you win or lose and come back the next time.
‘Let’s get him’
In 2022, the Hillary trunks have been replaced by a pair saying, “Riding with Biden.”
The Progressive Liberal is still the bad guy, but Harnsberger and James said the audiences have changed.
“The last five years, it’s just got out of hand,” James said. People have become more frustrated, more divided, he said. And the Progressive Liberal offers an outlet for that built-up energy.
“So, now here’s this guy in our town, saying this stuff that we see on television that we don’t agree with. We can’t get those people [on TV], we can’t get the politicians. Let’s get him,” James said, describing the attitude.
“Dan gets to go and unleash what he believes, what he feels, his frustrations to an audience that he’s upset [and] that they get to give it right back to him because he’s the closest thing to what they’re mad at, that they can actually interact with,” he said.
And while most politicians aren’t coming to these little towns, the Progressive Liberal does. “You can cuss him. You can boo him, you can slap him, or try. You can throw something at him. He’s right there,” James said.
Harnsberger is a liberal and James a conservative. They don’t agree much on politics and don’t talk about it outside the ring, except to work on their act.
“We’re complete opposites,” James said. “I’m a gun-owning, tobacco-chewing, Bible-believing mountain person; Dan is not. But Dan and I can get along. And if we have arguments, we have a luxury that most people don’t have — we know somewhere in the next few days, we’ll be in the ring together so we can just punch the other one in the back of the head.”
But that’s stagecraft. And that’s not what’s been happening with the audience.
Turning ugly, and fast
James lays down some rules to try to keep the crowd from turning ugly — there’s no criticism or banter about the Bible or the opioid crisis in these towns.
But on a recent night in Stickleyville, Virginia, where Trump’s share of the vote rose from an already overwhelming 78% in 2016 to 84% in 2020, it did turn ugly, and fast.
As Harnsberger tried to engage with the people who’d paid to watch, he was drowned out by boos.
A lot of that was expected. A man in the audience, Alex Adkins, told CNN the Progressive Liberal’s opinions would not go down well: “Everybody wants to punch him in the face!”
And a man with a Trump flag who didn’t want to give his name said he wanted to see Harnsberger beaten up. “We love wrestling, first of all,” he said as to why he was there. “But to come and show the liberal like, hey, we know what we stand for. Yeah, and definitely not the left side.”
When some in the audience told their neighbors to let Harnsberger speak, it boiled over. Punches were thrown. Someone was hit with a chair.
“It got beyond the point of heat to it’s dangerous,” James said, explaining why they cut the bout short.
More fights broke out and the brawling spilled into the parking lot.
As James and Harnsberger sat backstage, waiting for it to be quiet enough to allow them to leave safely, they both agreed they could have handled the situation better.
But neither said they created the problem.
“I think if I had never existed they would feel the same thing,” Harnsberger said. “But I have a unique ability to bring that reaction out of them when I’m in front of them since I am here.”
Leon Halip // Getty Images
Over the last few decades professional wrestling has become one of the most popular and profitable sports. In 2021, World Wrestling Entertainment set a company record with over $1 billion in revenue. The WWE's programming can be seen in more than 1 billion homes worldwide through distribution on NBCUniversal, Fox Sports, and other platforms.
Pro wrestling continues to grow globally, and generates revenue for many businesses involved. More than 150,000 fans from all 50 states and 53 countries attended WrestleMania in April 2022 at AT&T Stadium. That generated a record $206.5 million for the Dallas/Arlington region's economy. The annual event goes to the Los Angeles area in 2023 and Philadelphia in 2024.
Many wrestlers also take their likeness outside of the ring, earning additional revenue through endorsements, business ownership, and acting.
Stacker ranked the top 20 professional wrestlers by net worth according to data from Celebrity Net Worth. They accumulated net worth data based on publicly available information including salaries, real estate holdings, divorces, record sales, royalties, and endorsements. Taxes, manager's fees, agent fees, and lifestyle are all excluded from the formula.
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Slaven Vlasic // Getty Images
- Net worth: $12.5 million
Eric Bischoff has earned his net worth in a number of ways. He owned a successful landscape construction company, ran a butcher shop, and launched a brewing company. Bischoff competed as a professional kickboxer and worked as a veterinary assistant before he started wrestling. While he has occasionally worked as a wrestler, he is mostly known as an announcer, booker, and producer.
Bischoff was the executive producer and president of World Championship Wrestling before becoming general manager of WWE's Raw show. He has also worked as an executive producer for Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. He has homes in several places, including Cody, Wyoming; Scottsdale, Arizona; and Los Angeles.
Joern Pollex // Getty Images
- Net worth: $14 million
The Miz was born Michael Gregory Mizanin. In the early 2000s, he started his career on MTV's "The Real World" and was the runner-up on WWE's "Tough Enough." He was on various other MTV shows after that, and has appeared in several other television shows and films.
The Miz made his wrestling debut in 2006. He won several titles, including three titles at the same time. Mizanin has hosted and appeared on many reality shows, including his own reality series with his wife Maryse Ouellet.
Mitchell Leff // Getty Images
- Net worth: $14 million
Michael Francis Foley spent the '80s in various wrestling operations. He caught on as Mick Foley in the WCW. Foley joined the WWE in 1996 after stints with WCW, Extreme Championship Wrestling, Smoky Mountain Wrestling, and IWA Japan. He retired in 2000, but Foley returned in various capacities through the rest of the decade.
Foley also is a New York Times bestselling author with five written memoirs. He has also written children's books, plus two fiction novels. Foley has made appearances in various TV shows, and he voiced various animated characters.
Noel Vasquez // Getty Images
- Net worth: $14 million
Maryse Ouellet signed with the WWE in 2006. In her wrestling career, she won the Divas Championship twice and in 2009 was ranked in the PWI Female 50 as the #9 female wrestler.
Ouellet married fellow wrestler The Miz in 2014, and the couple has their own reality show ("Miz & Mrs."). She also appeared in "Sharknado 3," "The Marine 5: Battleground," and "Total Divas." She has also worked as a real estate agent and has her own clothing and jewelry line. The Miz and her put their Thousand Oaks, California, home on the market in January 2022 for $12.5 million.
Jason Kempin // Getty Images
- Net worth: $14 million
Adam Joseph Copeland made his television debut in 1997 as Edge. Copeland won over 30 championships, including his 11 world championships and five Intercontinental Championships. The Canadian wrestler was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2012. Edge has also made appearances on TV shows and starred in films.
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Jason Kempin // Getty Images
- Net worth: $15 million
Jeff Jarrett spent years as a wrestler across WCW, WWE, TNA, and many more organizations. Jarrett debuted in a match in 1986 and wrestled for the United States Wrestling Association, which was founded by his father Jerry in 1989. The wrestler was infamously fired on air by Vince McMahon in 2001. He has been married to Karen Smedley (formerly Karen Angle) since 2010.
J. Shearer // Getty Images
- Net worth: $16 million
David Bautista started his life with financial hardships, growing up in a tough Washington D.C. neighborhood. He signed with the WWF in 2000, but did not make a televised event until 2002. Despite a number of arm injuries, Bautista won the WWE Heavyweight Championship belt a few times. Bautista released an autobiography in 2007, and won his only MMA fight in 2010.
Outside of the ring, Bautista has been an actor for years. He has been in many films including his roles in Denis Villeneuve's sci-fi films "Blade Runner 2049" and "Dune." He also starred as Drax in the "Guardians of the Galaxy" movies and other Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Bautista retired from wrestling permanently in 2019.
Jerod Harris // Getty Images
- Net worth: $16 million
Bill Goldberg became a professional wrestler after playing professional football in the NFL and the World League of American Football. The former Georgia defensive tackle left football in 1995 after injuries. He made his WCW debut in 1997. Goldberg went on to become one of the highest-paid wrestlers in WCW history with many wins. He left for All Japan Pro Wrestling until he joined WWE in 2003.
Goldberg has also appeared in movies and television shows. He sold his California home for $3.2 million in May 2020. Goldberg and his wife live on a 150-acre property in Texas with llamas and zebras. He also owns more than 20 collectible cars. Goldberg joined the WWE Hall of Fame in 2018.
Al Pereira // Getty Images
- Net worth: $16 million
Paul Donald Wight II made his name in the WWE as the Big Show. He left the WCW for the WWE in 1999. He is the only wrestler to have won the Heavyweight championships in WCW, ECW, and WWE. Otherwise, he's also made appearances in movies, TV shows, and reality series. Wight has taken a hiatus from pro wrestling over the years, now only appearing part-time. He owns a $3.7 million home in Miami.
KMazur // Getty Images
- Net worth: $17 million
The Undertaker was born Mark William Calaway. He joined the WWE in 1990 after a few years in the World Class Championship Wrestling and the Continental Wrestling Association. He is the only wrestler to headline WrestleMania in every decade since the '90s.
The Undertaker has won 17 championships. He has also appeared in TV shows and is a black belt in Brazilian jiujitsu. Calaway also helps pay for lifesaving treatments for large-breed dogs through his work with "The Zeus Compton Calaway Save the Animals Fund."
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Masashi Hara // Getty Images
- Net worth: $18 million
Chris Jericho made his WWE debut in 1999 after performing for organizations like ECW, WCW and various Japan tours. He went on to become a six-time world champion and nine-time Intercontinental champion.
Jericho left the WWE in 2018, and he joined All Elite Wrestling in 2019. He is also the lead singer of heavy metal band Fozzy and was featured in several movies and TV shows. He also has his own podcast called "Talk is Jericho."
Lizzy Sullivan // Getty Images
- Net worth: $20 million
Brie and Nikki Bella make one of WWE's highest paid sibling duo, as the retired wrestlers and models have a combined net worth of $20 million. They both won the Divas Championship, although Nikki held the title of the longest-reigning Diva.
These sisters have their own YouTube channel, wine label, podcast, and clothing lines. They have appeared in many shows and films as well. The Bella Twins made their WWE debut in 2008, retired in 2019, and were inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2021.
Jeff Kravitz // Getty Images
- Net worth: $25 million
Stacy Keibler acquired most of her net worth through marriage. She married technology executive Jared Pobre in 2014, who earned his fortune in online advertising.
Keibler started wrestling in 2000 while still in college. The former NFL Baltimore Ravens cheerleader made her WWE debut in 2001. She wrestled until 2006 when she retired to pursue other ventures, including acting and modeling. Keibler was the fitness editor of Stuff magazine for a year and has made several appearances on TV shows and sitcoms.
Paul Kane // Getty Images
- Net worth: $25 million
Terry Eugene Bollea is credited with bringing pro wrestling into the prime time television mainstream as Hulk Hogan. He first came to WWE in 1979, but would leave a few times over the next few decades. He made appearances in movies (such as "Rocky III") and also starred in reality TV series, including one about his family. He invested in several real estate investments and businesses around Florida. He still earns money from residuals and merchandise.
During divorce proceedings—after his then-wife Linda filed in 2007—it was found at the time he was worth over $30 million. Hulk was fired from WWE in 2015, after a series of racist comments were made public. He did make out with $31 million from a settlement with Gawker Media, ending a multimillion-dollar lawsuit funded by billionaire Peter Thiel. Hogan sued the now-defunct magazine for violating his privacy after they posted a sex tape.
Moses Robinson // Getty Images
- Net worth: $30 million
Steve James Williams, better known as "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, started wrestling at the end of the '80s. However, he did not make his WWE debut until 1996. He had one of the fastest rises to stardom of that WWE era, winning the world championship several times before retiring in 2003 due to injury. His career continued outside of the ring, as Austin made many non-wrestling appearances. He's also hosted TV shows and appeared in films. In 2021, he sold his compound in Marina Del Rey, California, for over $3 million.
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Chris Ryan - Corbis // Getty Images
- Net worth: $80 million
John Cena transitioned from a WWE professional wrestler into an A-list actor and television star. He has hosted "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" and stars in HBO Max's "Peacemaker" series from the DC Extended Universe. He collects rare and custom cars and has also granted hundreds of wishes through the Make-A-Wish foundation. Cena owns a home in Florida and another home in San Diego.
Cena made his WWE debut in 2000, but did not make the circuit's main roster until 2002. He won the WWE world championship in 2004 and was the face of wrestling for the following decade. Many of his peers consider him one of the greatest wrestlers of all time.
Bob Levey // Getty Images
- Net worth: $150 million
Paul Michael Levesque, aka Triple H, married into pro wrestling's most infamous family in 2003. His combined wealth with wife Stephanie McMahon and their shares in WWE earn him this spot. What started as an on-screen plot turned into a marriage spanning two decades, plus three children. Levesque turned a bodybuilding career into a wrestling career, before finally earning his shot with the WWE in 1995.
Triple H would go on to win the Intercontinental, Tag Team, European, and World Championship many times before becoming WWE's executive vice president of talent, live events, and creative in 2013. Levesque is credited as the founder of NXT, an offshoot WWE brand for development. He took a step back in 2021 after serious heart failure. Triple H came back to his role in talent relations in July 2022.
Mireya Acierto // Getty Images
- Net worth: $150 million
In July 2022, it was announced that Stephanie McMahon is one half of the duo slated to take over as CEO of WWE, after her father Vince McMahon stepped down. She owns a percentage of WWE, which has been worth anywhere from $40 to $225 million over the years.
Stephanie started in the family business after graduating from college in 1998. She made many TV appearances over the years, including in the ring. Her wrestling debut came as a valet in 2000. She's held many positions on the business side of WWE including chief brand officer, senior vice president, commissioner, account executive, and more. She has also made appearances on shows including "Undercover Boss," "Punk'd," and more.
George Napolitano // Getty Images
- Net worth: $800 million
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's wealth started with pro wrestling but grew far beyond the sport. The 50-year-old holds a stake in Teremana Tequila and also earns at least $100 million from film and endorsement ventures. He has also owned luxury mansions across the country.
Winning several heavyweight championships during a WWE career that began in 1996, Johnson made acting his primary focus in 2004, but started appearing in movies and television outside the ring as early as 2000. In movies, he's best known for his role in the "Fast & Furious" franchise as well as roles in "Pain & Gain," "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle," and the animated film "Moana." Johnson has made major contributions to the University of Miami, where his Hurricanes squad won a college football national championship.
Bryan Bedder // Getty Images
- Net worth: $1.8 billion
No surprises here, the former CEO of WWE is wrestling's most valuable earner. The wrestling promoter, commentator, film producer, and occasional wrestler has frequently played the role of the megalomaniacal boss in the ring, most (in)famously 'wrestling' his friend and future President Donald Trump in 2007. McMahon announced his retirement in July 2022 at age 76 amid an ongoing sexual harassment scandal.
Most of Vince's wealth comes from stock in World Wrestling Entertainment. He bought the company from his father 40 years ago and his two children both have hands in the family business. The WWE has seen its fair share of competing pro wrestling companies come and go, many of which McMahon acquired. The former CEO of WWE also took a couple attempts to establish an alternative pro football league to the NFL, the XFL, in the 2000s. He later sold the rights to the defunct XFL to a new ownership group that includes Dwayne Johnson.
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