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If you’re a fan of Johnny Nitro or Rick Flair, you may be surprised to learn that many of today’s professional wrestlers credit much of their success to Gorgeous George. Born George Wagner in 1915, Gorgeous George wowed fans with his theatrical antics in the ring from the late 1940s to the early 1960s.
Gorgeous George is best known for his flamboyant stage personality. In the past, most wrestling villains had gone out of their way to appear ugly and dirty. However, Gorgeous George set out to appear as dainty as possible. He curled his long, platinum blond hair and used gold bobby pins to keep it in place before a fight. He went to the ring dressed in frilly robes made from satin and silk that had been trimmed with sequins, lace, and fur. When he entered the ring to “Pomp and Circumstance” he made an elaborate show of folding his robe and having his tuxedoed valet spray the ring with his favorite perfume. Since most professional wrestling fans were still recovering from the end of World War II and had very traditional ideas about the definition of manhood, this behavior was instantly controversial.
Gorgeous George’s professional accomplishments included being named an AWA World Heavyweight Champion, NWA Southern Heavyweight Champion, GCCW Heavyweight Champion, and Northwest Middleweight Champion. He was also a two-time Pacific Coast Light Heavyweight Champion and a charter member of the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. Of course, as a physically average wrestler, Gorgeous George earned most of his titles by biting ears, punching kidneys, gouging eyes, kicking crotches, and pulling hair. His outrageous cheating was simply part of his villain persona.
Gorgeous George secured his place in history by bringing professional wrestling a mass appeal. As the performer people loved to hate, he got the public talking about the sport in a way that no one else had been able to accomplish. He was such a sensation that he inspired many Americans who had never even owned TVs to purchase their first sets just to see what he would do next. Even celebrities such as Little Richard and Liberace are thought to have drawn the inspiration for their public personas from Gorgeous George.
Gorgeous George passed away in 1963 after suffering a heart attack on Christmas Eve. Although he was one of professional wrestling’s best paid performers, he died nearly penniless as the result of the alcoholism he struggled with throughout his career. However, his fellow wrestlers chipped in to ensure that he had the lavish funeral he deserved.