One second. That’s the amount of time it should take for you to be aware of what wrestler is making their way into an arena once their theme music starts. If you don’t know within one second, the music has already failed its most important test. How can a crowd react if they don’t know who is about to walk out? It is the “one-second rule” that illustrates the importance of entrance music to the world of sports entertainment.
Of course, just qualifying under the one-second rule isn’t always enough to make an entrance theme iconic. At times, the music itself sounds as if only the first second was given any true creativity or work while the rest of the song falls flat. Other times, the music simply doesn’t fit the superstar it has been given to. For so many different reasons, entrance music can be instantly forgettable or forever memorable.
As much as many of us love great wrestling matches, it’s the moments that we remember forever. An iconic entrance theme is the spark that helps us remember the icons of the industry, and it makes their legacy capable of being reignited in a split second. How did we get to the current state of music within wrestling? How did entrance themes become so crucial, and what makes them good or bad?
The history of entrance themes
Music, whether it be entrance music, an event’s official theme song, a track used in a video package, or any other form, is integral to professional wrestling. It wasn’t always that way, though. It’s genuinely difficult to imagine professional wrestling without entrance themes. Decades ago, prior to the 1940s, it wasn’t the norm for wrestlers to have music of some kind playing while on the way to the ring.
Like any other aspect of an industry, there’s always a pioneer. When it comes to the usage of entrance music, it’s still up to debate precisely who and when entrance music first appeared in the world of wrestling. When it comes to knowing who popularized the practice, no one man revolutionized things quite like the legendary Gorgeous George.
If there was any single person who helped push wrestling into the realm of sports entertainment, it’s Gorgeous George. While innovators after his time helped bring things to a new level, it was Gorgeous George who bucked convention by becoming an egotistical bad guy. He accentuated femininity in his character, whether it be his long blond hair or flashy robes, and did so long before American society was ready for it.
George’s oddities and attitude made him the era’s quintessential villain. He was easy to hate, and boy did the fans love to hate him. With a pre-Nature Boy strut, Gorgeous George was serenaded on his way to the ring by the classic “Pomp and Circumstance.” While the song would later be associated with Randy Savage (as well as almost every high school and college graduation in the United States), it was George who was the first to use it on the way to the ring.
Despite the early use by Gorgeous George, both Michael Hayes and Sgt. Slaughter have separately claimed to be the first to use entrance music. Slaughter used the Marines’ Hymn as entrance music in Madison Square Garden in the 1970s, but the game truly changed when The Fabulous Freebirds used Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” to enter arenas in the 1980s. They’re widely credited as the first to use rock music and thus usher in the inevitable connection between professional wrestling and rock ‘n’ roll.
The Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection
In hindsight, it’s almost surprising that it took so long for rock music to hook up with professional wrestling. In the early 1980s, wrestling was experiencing an unprecedented level of success. Regardless of your opinion of the man he has become, Hulk Hogan changed the game when he was signed by the World Wrestling Federation in 1983. He had already gained mainstream popularity after appearing in Rocky III, and that only got cranked up to another level once he joined the WWF and the company began to set itself apart from the pack in the wrestling industry.
While Hogan played a crucial role in the latter part of the period, it was actually WWF manager Lou Albano who really got things rolling. Captain Lou, who is most remembered for his wild appearance and rubber band adorned facial hair, met Cyndi Lauper on a trip to Puerto Rico in the early 1980s. Lauper asked Albano to appear as her father in the music video for her single “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” It was the first domino to fall, and Lauper became crucial to the mainstream boom of wrestling during the period.
At the first ever WrestleMania, Cyndi Lauper was in the corner of Wendi Richter when she toppled then-WWF Women’s Champion Leilani Kai. By that point in 1985, music was integral to professional wrestling. Major stars had already begun using entrance music, and before long it was the standard around the industry. In 1985, the connection hit a high point as Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling began airing on CBS as part of their Saturday morning block of cartoons. The show continued for two more years, but the marriage of rock ‘n’ roll and professional wrestling was unbreakable by this point.
Jim Johnston: Professional wrestling’s Mozart
While Gorgeous George, The Fabulous Freebirds, and even Cyndi Lauper helped usher in the connection between music and professional wrestling, it’s impossible to overlook the impact of one Jim Johnston.
During the early 1980s when entrance music was becoming more prevalent in the industry, the issue of copyright began to pop up as many companies could not afford to officially license popular music at the time. Rather than forking over the money, WWE hired Jim Johnston and enlisted the talents at the time of then-manager Jimmy Hart. With their own crew composing theme music for both the talent and for events, WWE was able to avoid paying for licensing rights the majority of the time.
The influence of Jimmy Hart only continued during the mid-1980s and into the 1990s with his helping compose music for the Honky Tonk Man, Jimmy Snuka, Shawn Michaels, and even WCW themes for Sting, nWo Wolfpac, and 3 Count (just to name a few). While Jimmy Hart’s impact can’t be forgotten, it pales in comparison to the tenure and influence of Jim Johnston.
Finding an exact count of how many theme songs Johnston has composed during his tenure is nearly impossible, but even with a diminished role in the last few years, Johnston has composed 134 songs in the last decade that have been released via iTunes. That’s just a fraction of the total, as Johnston has been the primary driver in composing entrance themes and event music from the late 1980s to 2013.
The duties for entrance music began to shift to the group CFO$ in 2013, but Johnston has not ceased his work. CFO$ made their musical debut in mid-2012 as Kromestatik when their song “The Night” was selected as Raw’s official theme song at the time. The partnership bloomed over time, and CFO$ has composed over 150 themes (that have been released via iTunes) just since 2013. Their list of credits includes the beloved themes of AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Finn Balor, Alexa Bliss, Bobby Roode, and countless others.
While Johnston’s role has been somewhat diminished in recent years, his genius when it comes to the art of music and professional wrestling is unparalleled. To get a glimpse of it, the following video shows his process in composing The Undertaker’s unforgettable theme song in the early 1990s. It remains one of the few themes to continue with the same general structure for such a long period of time. While it has been remixed several times, the tune at the core of the song remains the same.
“The One-Second Rule”
I’ve searched high and low to find the origin of this phrase. I’ve stumbled upon other fans that have heard it before, and I’d heard about it from my brother years ago. Put most simply, “The One-Second Rule” is that for an entrance theme to serve its purpose, you must know the wrestler coming out within one second of their music playing.
In the late 1990s, Jim Johnston made a comment in one interview that you’d want to know which wrestler was entering the arena with only the first or second chord or note. That may well have been the origin of it, but the core of it rings true regardless. Nothing is more important than that opening moment.
In order for a competitor to get the proper reaction, good or bad, the crowd must immediately know who is coming out. Think of the glass shatter at the beginning of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s music. Think of those deafening notes at the beginning of Roman Reigns’ music. Think of the obnoxious sound of The Miz screaming “awesome” before he makes his way to the ring. Think of that opening riff in John Cena’s music. You can probably hear them in your head the moment I mention them.
Whether you’re meant to boo or cheer someone, it’s that opening moment that gives you the cue to react as loudly as you can. It’s that first second that lets you know it’s time to make your voice heard and express your opinion about that superstar.
Using the video screen to cheat the one-second rule
In the last few years, WWE has tried to skirt the one-second rule with two cheap tricks. The first has become more prevalent in the last few years and has to do with WWE’s utilization of the superstar’s entrance video. On the surface, it’s a smart move. You can notice it used most if you watch NXT, as newer superstars may not have an entrance theme made specifically for them so early. Unfortunately, it seems like WWE is relying too heavily on that name to pop up to appease the one-second rule rather than letting the music do the work.
Look no further than the entrance of Roderick Strong to see a prime example of this. The odd piano intro wasn’t exactly helped by Strong’s complete lack of character development until just recently, but it took some time before the intro itself would actually get the crowd’s attention. Instead, NXT could simply rely on his name flashing across the screen in giant letters to illicit a reaction. While Strong’s own ability has made up for this, including his slow character growth as of late, the music itself still falls flat. The piano is unique but doesn’t have enough pop to draw the crowd just yet.
The biggest example as of late, no pun intended, is that of Big Cass. Since splitting with Enzo Amore, Cass struggled to find any sort of role other than “the guy who beats up Enzo.” While the split itself was well executed, it’s been terribly handled at pretty much every turn after that.
His new entrance theme has been reworked several times since it was given to him, a sign of just how terrible it is. WWE then attempts to cover for the utterly uninspiring bass hits at the beginning by plastering “BIG CASS” across the video screen in as massive a font they could possibly find.
The issue has become so widespread that WWE even does this when it’s not even remotely necessary. When Bobby Roode debuted on SmackDown Live, there was no questioning who he was. Any fan who knows the name “Bobby Roode” is going to know his music and know him from NXT. If, by chance, someone doesn’t know him, plastering “ROODE” on the screen in a 3D graphic font yanked out of a 2005 edition of Windows Movie Maker isn’t exactly going to help things.
Even going back to 2013 when WWE appeared to be giving Curtis Axel a well-deserved push, you can see them relying on the video because of the music Axel was saddled with.
While I don’t mind the modernized remix of Mr. Perfect’s original music, especially since Axel is his son, the opening segment doesn’t draw the attention of the crowd nearly like it should. All of this is not to say that names should never be a part of an entrance video, but in recent years WWE seems to have gotten lazy at times and relied too heavily on cheap tricks like this one to skirt around what an entrance theme usually needs.
Cheating the one-second rule with *insert loud noise here*
I mentioned above that there were two cheap tricks WWE liked to employ, and the second is perhaps the simplest. It’s not a technique that should be done away with, nor is it one that instantly makes the music bad, but it’s definitely one WWE needs to stop leaning on. Rather than steering towards the song itself, WWE has tended to tack words being said by superstars, loud noises, yelling, or any manner of completely out of place soundbites at the beginning of an entrance theme to skirt the one-second rule.
This one is fairly flexible when it comes to calling it cheating because it definitely works at times. The glass shattering at the beginning of Austin’s music, the tires squealing before Razor Ramon’s, the car wreck before Mick Foley’s, even “my name is Finlay, and I love to fight” weren’t necessarily bad choices that were helped by quality music. Moving to the modern era, the most obvious example would be Braun Strowman’s music beginning with him screaming his name at the top of his lungs.
With any competitor other than Strowman, it wouldn’t work. Of course, that’s not an uncommon sentiment in wrestling. I can’t count the number of times I’ve thought “with anyone else, that would never work.” Those cheap inserts have been used with great effectiveness at times, but they’ve also been abused to make up for bad music.
If you look to NXT, Heavy Machinery is a great example of this. While they’ll likely get a music reboot when they’re more ready for the main roster, their generic music is preempted by a random array of backup noises from...heavy machinery. It’s not exactly the most subtle music ever made. Another example of this cheap trick is Darren Young’s most recent music, basically a generic regal sounding theme with Bob Backlund shouting “let’s make Darren Young great again” inserted at the start.
Sometimes it works despite the use of this, such as Rusev’s theme. While Rusev’s booking over the last few years has been uninspiring, to say the least, his “Rusev udrya! Rusev machka!” opening has become easily recognizable and the song itself still fits Rusev’s strong heel character. This is one of many times that a competitor has taken a lackluster or even lazily constructed theme and made it work through their own performance.
WWE loves to recycle
I’m not talking about environmentally friendly actions here, but rather the choice to use old music again as if they’d never used it in the past. WWE is no stranger to revisionist history, they prefer the history books to read as they remember things. Interestingly enough, recycled entrance themes haven’t always been a bad thing. There are actually some notable ones that went on to become some of the most iconic themes of all time.
Back in 1997, The Patriot had a brief stint in the WWE and feuded with the Hart Foundation (for obvious reasons). Despite some experience in WCW, AWA, and AJPW, The Patriot’s run in the WWE was short-lived. After suffering a torn triceps, he was released in early 1998 and subsequently retired from in-ring competition. However, his entrance theme saw new life when one Kurt Angle arrived. That same theme has lived on to this day, including a few remixes, and it’s hard to believe anyone other than Angle could have ever used it.
As I mentioned earlier, Gorgeous George was the first man to use Pomp and Circumstance in wrestling, but it was later breathed new life by “Macho Man” Randy Savage. Even perhaps the most iconic song of all, depending on when you started watching wrestling, was recycled. That’s right, “Real American” was not initially written for Hulk Hogan. It was intended for The US Express, the tag team of Mike Rotunda and Barry Windham. Of course, that’s nothing more than a fun trivia fact now as the theme remains forever linked to “The Immortal” Hulk Hogan.
My favorite successful instance of recycling would be that of “This Fire Burns” by Killswitch Engage. While fans will associate it with CM Punk’s early years in WWE, everything pre-Cult of Personality, it was actually first used for Randy Orton.
Orton used the theme for a few months in early 2006, but it never fits Orton’s slow and methodic character. Even Orton from ten years ago wasn’t that energetic. Once the song was paired with CM Punk, it seemed like a perfect match. While it took several years for WWE to see what many fans already saw in Punk, good entrance music at least gave him a good launching pad. Just look at how it worked years later.
Of course, these are the examples of the times recycling worked. There are so many more examples of times it didn’t. The most notable in recent years would be that of Brodus Clay. If it felt like “Somebody Call My Momma” was out of place, that’s because the song was written in the 90s for Ernest “The Cat” Miller. That didn’t stop WWE from using it, and it’s a testament to Clay’s creative skill that he made it as good as it was. Unfortunately, the song never felt completely right and was accompanied by a character concept that was designed to never move up the card from the start.
On top of these notable examples, there are an innumerable amount of forgettable ones. One Reddit user compiled a good list a few years ago of generic songs used by multiple competitors, most of which you probably wouldn’t recognize without going out of your way to find them. The truth is that generic music, especially recycled generic music, can be the kiss of death for a competitor.
While some people may think of ridiculous songs or ones in a genre they don’t care for when it comes to bad theme music, the worst music is all of the songs you can’t remember. Even those ones you hate are ones you remember. Maybe the dislike for the music itself even extends from a dislike of the superstar. The true worst themes are the ones no one remembers. Of course, if a competitor is good enough they may eventually force WWE into giving them better music, but being saddled with something generic is never a good start.
Finding the perfect fit
Don’t take any of my criticism as disrespect. On the contrary, it’s hard to even articulate how much I respect and admire Jim Johnston and his work on music in the wrestling industry. I didn’t make the choice to call him wrestling’s Mozart lightly. I also have great respect for CFO$ and their work since joining forces with WWE, but that doesn’t mean everything is a home run. No one is that good, and sometimes it’s out of the songwriter’s control. Finding the perfect fit takes more than a good melody.
A composer can give you the most iconic entrance song ever written, but none of it matters if the character doesn’t fit with it. There are few hard and fast rules when it comes to entrance music. I believe the one-second rule is among them, but just about everything else can be tweaked and bent if it fits the character and the superstar makes it work. Even music that feels mediocre or bland at first can be made to work with a well-executed entrance, such as Baron Corbin.
While many have expressed dislike for his original entrance music, and his new music has received mixed reviews, it was his execution of his entrance that made his old theme fit so well. Corbin had the walk and the pace down perfectly. The spotlight use and Corbin’s overconfident condescending personality combined with his smug expression made it all work as a package.
To see someone who was given good music that never fit, look at Nia Jax. Despite the sledgehammer subtlety of giving WWE’s only plus-sized female superstar at the time a theme with the lyrics “I’m not like most girls,” the beat and general feel of the song just isn’t right. The song isn’t bad, and it fulfills the one-second rule easily. It just doesn’t seem right. That intangible fit, much like the “it factor” that many speak of superstars possessing, is hard to explain. If there was a ready-made formula for creating that fit or that “it factor,” we’d already know by now.
Instead, it’s all in the nuance and the subtlety. It’s about marrying the mood that the music creates with the attitude of the character it represents. It’s about that superstar’s actions on the way to the ring lining up with their music. It’s about the musical cues that they react to. It’s about the song being unique enough to not be confused with others while still being a good, often catchy, song. It’s about every action a superstar takes fitting back into the tone set by their entrance music. It’s all of those things, and so much more.
While there are several great examples of this in today’s WWE which I’d love to list, I think one illustrates it best. That is the music, and accompanying entrance, of Samoa Joe. This video is not the absolute best entrance he’s done, but it’s the best video I could find to illustrate this point. Before I tell you why, just watch it from start to finish.
The one-second rule is fulfilled immediately. That song hits and everyone knows who’s coming. The moment Joe steps through the curtain, you can feel his intensity. You can feel the attitude. Yet, you can also feel the calm. You can feel the calculated relaxation from the Samoan that hails from Huntington Beach, California. You can feel over fifteen years of experience. It’s all there.
By the time he makes it to the ring, you already know that this is a dangerous man who won’t hesitate to live up to his nickname as “The Destroyer.” By the time the crash comes just after forty seconds into this video and he throws up the shaka hand sign, you see an homage to his childhood growing up in Ewa Beach, Hawaii without ever losing the mood and intensity that the entrance created. Samoa Joe’s is only one of many great entrances in the WWE right now, but it illustrates things well.
What makes entrance music iconic?
The truth is that it’s impossible to nail down every little thing that makes entrance music iconic, while it is possible to specify many of the aspects that contribute to it. Of course, it’s easy to know what ruins entrance music. Break the one-second rule, and it’s all doomed from the start.
Whether it be the ominous memory of The Undertaker’s slow path to the squared circle or The Ultimate Warrior’s frenetic sprint to the ring, it takes a marriage of great music and a great performer to create an iconic entrance theme. It’s no small feat, but when things come together they are never forgotten.
Think of your favorite wrestler of all time. Imagine their entrance in your mind, but also remember what made them your favorite. Imagine your reaction if you heard their music hit the arena while you were at a WWE event you didn’t expect to see them at. Imagine yourself grooving, jumping, bobbing your head, or just absorbing the atmosphere as they make their way to the ring. All of that is what makes an entrance song iconic.
What do you think is most important in an entrance theme? What are some of your favorites throughout the years? Let us know in the comments below!
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