The 1980s was one of the most successful times in professional wrestling history. The WWE was then known as the World Wrestling Federation, and this decade helped form the business model of the sport today. Previously, there were regional promotions, as each territory had their own superstars and own champions. Vince McMahon took over his father's company and sought to bring in the best from surrounding territories, which ultimately drew many of them out of business.
In fact, today marks the 27th anniversary of the day known as "Black Saturday," when the WWF took the timeslot of WTBS, which had broadcasted Georgia Championship Wrestling's show "World Championship Wrestling" for the previous 12 years. This became the wrestling equivalent of "The Shot Heard 'Round the World" and was the first event in the timeline that had the World Wrestling Federation become the group that it is today.
Here is a group of 20 superstars who had become larger-than-life in this decade, be it in the WWF or in other competing promotions. All of these names are well-known, and, while they may not be your choices, they are a list of men who would be the pictures in this chapter of wrestling history.
The Honky Tonk man began as a goofy gimmick that, had you presented this guy to me as a great superstar, I would have thought that you were joking with me. The fact is that The Honky Tonk Man is one of the most underrated men in wrestling history simply for his gimmick. He was never world title worthy, but he had the longest reign ever with the Intercontinental Championship.
Sure, it is true that that honor was ready to go to Ricky Steamboat, but he was punished for wanting to spend time with his family. That was Honky Tonk Man's opportunity. He still holds the record for the longest reign with that belt that is often seen as a big stepping stone in order to be an all-time great.
Don Muraco may not be a major name in many people's minds, but Muraco had a fantastic career from 1981-1988. Muraco is mostly known for being the very first King of the Ring. While he never won a world championship in the WWF, Muraco won two Intercontinental Championships. He was paired throughout his career with some of the great managers of the time. From Mr. Fuji to The Great Wizard and Lou Albano, Muraco always had a great mind in his corner.
I personally view Muraco as one of the great heels of the 1980s, coming to the ring sometimes while eating a sandwich to disrespect his opponents and calling for the use of his piledriver finisher. Muraco entered the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004, a much-deserved honor for him.
Tito Santana also entered the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004. Santana became a huge name in the WWF after winning the Intercontinental Championship from Muraco in 1984. What would follow is one of the great rivalries in the history of the Intercontinental title against Greg "The Hammer" Valentine. Valentine would eventually take the belt from Santana, who would go on to be the first-ever winner of a match at WrestleMania.
Tito would become King of the Ring in 1989, but would never win the big one, failing to be a world champion in his career. Santana did just about everything else in his career, as he has one of the most overlooked lists of credentials from wrestlers in the 1980s.
This guy was big, and not just because it is in his name. Big John Studd was a fantastic superstar in the 80s and was a wrestling manager's dream. Studd won the Royal Rumble in 1989 and, while never holding any singles gold, was one of the most menacing creatures in the WWF during that decade. Studd's major gimmick in his days in the promotion was that he could never be bodyslammed. Studd and his managers, whether it was "Classy" Freddie Blassie or Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, would often hold Bodyslam Challenges, which were a big hit at house shows.
Studd would put up $10,000, which later became $15,000, to anyone who could slam him to the ground. Studd never paid up and never shut up about never being slammed, even if Andre The Giant and Hulk Hogan had done so. Studd was slammed at the first WrestleMania by Andre The Giant in one of the most memorable moments of that inaugural show.
Studd is one of the few men to have ever been named to both the WCW and WWE Hall of Fames.
Can anyone name the first Triple Crown Champion in WWE history? If you didn't say Pedro Morales, then you are incorrect. Morales is known as the man to end Bruno Sammartino's 2,803-day reign as WWE Champion back in the 1970s. Morales returned in the 1980s and went after the Intercontinental Championship, the only title keeping him from his Triple Crown honor.
Not only would Morales become Intercontinental Champion in 1981, but he would lose it and win it back later that year, becoming the first-ever multi-time Intercontinental Champion. Morales was already in his 40s when McMahon began expanding the WWF. He would go far in the 1985 King of the Ring tournament and participate in a battle royal at WrestleMania 2 before being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995.
Before he would give us countless hours of entertainment with his epic shoot promos, The Iron Shiek was the first great foreign heel that became the benchmark for getting instant heat from the crowd. Shiek is known as the guy who defeated Bob Backlund for the WWE Championship, ending Backlund's six-year reign. Shiek is also the guy to lose to Hulk Hogan when Hogan won his first world championship in WWE. His tag team with Nikolai Volkoff is still one of the best tag teams ever in my mind.
"Ravishing" Rick Rude is one of those guys that you can see and realize that he oozes charisma. He wouldn't grow into his own until the early 1990s, but Rude was still a cocky and arrogant heel that anyone could hate. He made the women in the crowd swoon and get angry at him, which probably made them swoon even more. At WrestleMania V, Rude became Intercontinental Champion by defeating The Ultimate Warrior.
Rude would later go on to be one of the top heels in the early 1990s, as well as one of the original members of D-Generation X.
Everybody had a price for Ted DiBiase, who was one of the great heels that I have ever seen. It was impossible to hate this guy, who would throw around money like it was nothing. Alongside Virgil, DiBiase would try to be a WWE Champion, but could never do so. That was when he created The Million Dollar Championship, which has taken on a life of its own as one of the most popular gimmick belts in wrestling history. It has never been an officially sanctioned belt in WWE, so his title reigns with it never really counted for anything. Even if the belt does not look as impressive all these years later, it is still one of the most prestigious belts in WWE history.
There were three things that "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan loved more than anything else: America, the fans and his trust piece of wood. Duggan is one of the only men in WWE history to have been a Royal Rumble winner and a King of the Ring. Duggan won the first-ever Royal Rumble, which was only a 20-man match at that time. As for the crown, Duggan won that in a match, never actually winning the tournament that many others have had to win for it.
Duggan is still one of the most popular superstars today and can instantly get a pop with an American flag, his 2x4 or simply by yelling "Hooo!"
For as popular as Jimmy Snuka has been in his career, it is hard to believe that he was never WWE Champion. Snuka is right up on top of that list of great men to never climb to the top of the mountain. What Snuka did climb to instead was the top of a steel cage.
In one of his most memorable moments and one of the greatest era-defining moments, Snuka climbed 20 feet to the top of the cage and tried to splash on then-WWE Champion Bob Backlund in Madison Square Garden. Snuka missed, and Backlund escaped from the cage to retain his title.
Snuka was the first real high-flier in WWE history, even if he never actually won anything in the promotion. Snuka is one of the most respected Hall of Famers for that very reason.
I still feel afraid when I look into the eyes of Jake "The Snake" Roberts. Then there was the fact that he had a big snake with him in a bag. Roberts was once again one of the men on this list to not win any gold in WWE, but that did not stop him from making a major impact. Roberts is exactly the kind of character Randy Orton hopes he can become. Roberts was always menacing, and, even when he was a face, his cold stare scared you and made you happy he was on your side.
One of only six men in the WWE, WCW, Professional Wrestling and Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fames, Harley Race is one of the all-time greats. His match with Ric Flair at Starrcade 1983 is still one of the greatest matches in wrestling history. Harley Race was a champion pretty much anywhere he went, including the honor of being WWE's King of the Ring in 1986. There isn't enough time in the day to say how great Harley Race is and how important he is to the history of this business.
King Kong Bundy seemed like nothing more than a sideshow act brought in to get people over. In a way, that's all he was. Bundy did it better than anyone else, though, still remembered as one of the best big men in WWE history.
Bundy won the second shortest match in WrestleMania history, a nine-second defeat of S.D. Jones. It was then that Bundy demanded having to win with five-counts instead of three-counts. Bundy got Hogan over to a rocking crowd at WrestleMania 2, falling to the Hulkster in a steel cage. Every big man nowadays should take a page out of King Kong Bundy's book in order to be a better superstar.
Ricky Steamboat is another all-time great to come into prominence in pro wrestling in the 1980s. His match at WrestleMania III with Randy Savage for the Intercontinental Champion is one of the five greatest matches that I have ever seen. Anyone can watch that match and want to be a professional wrestler after seeing it. Stemboat is one of the most recognizable Intercontinental Champions of all-time and was a world champion in WCW, winning the NWA World Championship.
One of the most excited men in wrestling history was The Ultimate Warrior. The crowd could immediately feed off of his energy, which helped in him being so successful as a pro wrestler. While already holding onto the Intercontinental Championship, Warrior became WWF Champion, forcing him to vacate the previous title. Had he been able to hold both at the same time, Warrior could have had a chance to be one of the most dominant champions of all-time. Even if you didn't grow up watching him, you can still watch promos of him and wish that you were him for a few minutes.
Forget about Hulk Hogan for a minute. It was Andre The Giant that became a household name and put the WWF on the map. He helped to start Hulkamania. He was one of the first wrestlers to be a successful actor in Hollywood. His size and stature put butts in the seats in a way that nobody since has been able to duplicate. Andre The Giant is not only one of the 20 best of the 1980s, but is also one of the 20 best of all-time, easily.
One of the greatest wrestlers to ever hold a microphone, Roddy Piper is more known to wrestling fans as a non-WWE Champion than he ever would have been as a one-time or even a two-time champion. It speaks to Piper's legacy that he was never on top of the company because he never wanted to be. Piper made everyone around him better, and that was what he did best. I would sign a guy like Roddy Piper immediately and build a promotion around him because the things he knew and could do for other people's careers made him invaluable.
We know all too well lately what the accomplishments are for Randy Savage when he tragically passed away earlier this year. Savage has inspired every single man in professional wrestling today, and his spirit will live on in the squared circle forever. Who can forget his mainstream success with commercials and appearances across the world? Savage was just as great backstage talking to Gene Okerlund as he was in the ring with Hulk Hogan or Ricky Steamboat.
Ric Flair was wrestling in the 1980s. He had the moves, the talking ability, the style and the ability to have you love or loathe him whenever he wanted you to. Flair never needed to hold all of the world championships that he did in his career, but the fact that he did is a testament to how great he really is. Without him, there is no World Championship Wrestling, no Monday Night Wars, no Four Horsemen and no Evolution. That's just scratching the surface.
Call it a cop out if you must, but Hulk Hogan is one of the most famous wrestlers of all-time for what he was in pop culture in the 1980s. Ask your grandmother to name a professional wrestler, and Hulk Hogan is probably the person that she says.
Hogan took wrestling and made it much more than that. WrestleMania does not get sold to the masses without a guy like Hulk Hogan. Vince McMahon needed a guy to spearhead this growth of the WWF and handpicked Hogan from AWA to do so. I would say that it was a pretty good choice.