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Professional Wrestling: The 50 Greatest Wrestlers of the 1980s

David LevinSenior Writer IIJuly 16, 2011

Professional Wrestling: The 50 Greatest Wrestlers of the 1980s

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    With all do respect to Robert Aitken, my writing colleague, there are better wrestlers in the 1980s that came out of other organizations besides the WWF.

    I know Hulk Hogan brought everything mainstream and led the Rock & Wrestling connection to everyone's attention and Wrestlemania set the world on fire.

    Before all this happened, the NWA was a better product with better wrestlers and the AWA was able to present a brand in the Midwest and the the northern states like Minnesota that was crisp and regional and cool.

    Names like Bockwinkle and Martel and the Road Warriors were cool and hip. And before the bolted to the WWF, names like Piper and Sgt. Slaughter and Greg Valentine were successful in the NWA.

    It is all a matter of perspective and opinion. This will spark a debate. I want it to. As a fan for the past 35 years and a writer who covered it in South Carolina, I seen some great things. I want old school wrestling, but I will take what we have now.

    So let the debate begin...

50. Tommy Rich

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    He became the world champion too soon and lost his spot as one of the greatest or one of the could-be greats.

    Fought in Georgia and feuded with Buzz Sawyer. It was a real rivalry for two men who hated each other and it nearly killed them both.

    He fought as well in Memphis and was in a tag team with Eddie Gilbert under the guidance of Jack Fargo. At one point turned heel.

    He could have been one of the best of all time, but was rushed too soon and we never got to see the best of him.

49. Ivan Koloff

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    He was the standard for all that was evil with Russia.

    He was WWWF Champion before moving to the NWA.

    Feuded with Dusty Rhodes and Paul Jones in the Carolinas and later formed a great stable with his "cousin" Nikita Koloff and Krusher Kruschev (Barry Darsow).

    The knee from the top rope into the back of the skull was downright scary!

48. The Great Kabuki

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    Gary Hart brought him over from the Orient to feud with Dusty Rhodes in Florida.

    Loved the green mist.

    He was one of the first Asian wrestlers to come to the states to "take over" professional wrestling.

    He led the way for Kendo Nagasaki and The Great Muta.

47. Rick Rude

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    He had a body that made men mad and made women swoon.

    He was a great wrestler.

    Bad hair, but a great wrestler. Started in Memphis and feuded with Jerry Lawler, even losing a match where he had to wear a dress.

    Went to WWE, where he was a star and later WCW, where he feuded with Sting.

    He died too soon and his talents are missed.

46. Ole Anderson

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    He was great for a number of reasons. A great booker and script writer. He joined the Horsemen and teamed with Arn Anderson to form a powerful tag team.

    But Anderson was a rugged, proud wrestler who could make you submit with an arm bar or he could bear down on a joint until you screamed for mercy.

    Truly one of the old-school bears of the business.

45. Dick Murdoch

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    An old school rugged SOB.

    Teamed with good friend Dusty Rhodes to form the Texas Outlaws in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

    Was a staple in Texas and the Carolinas. More of a loner and indy wrestler much like Bruiser Brody.

44. Junkyard Dog

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    When he was wrestling in Bill Watts' promotion, JYD was a talker and a performer.

    When he got to the WWF, that was a different story.

    Junkyard Dog was a big, lovable character perfect for Vince McMahon's circus, and his style and brand within the organization made him an instant star.

    He was never a top-tier performer, but he barked and made dog sounds, much like his name would indicate, proving that even the best can be brought down a few rungs on the ladder.

43. Eddie Gilbert

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    He may have been one of the first small-style wrestlers to get over in the 1980s. And having Missy Hyatt at his side was not a bad idea, either.

    Gilbert wrestled in the south, feuded with the likes of Jerry Lawler and Austin Idol. He was a tag team partner of Tommy Rich.

    Gilbert could play face or heel and was pretty good at either of them.

    He also has a stint in WCW when he wrestled with Ricky Steamboat against Barry Windham and Ric Flair at a television taping, leading to Steamboat getting a shot at the world title.

42. Rocky Johnson

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    He really got over once he came to the WWF.

    Johnson had rugged good looks and a style that most wrestlers did not have. And most of all, he was well spoken and was an instant fan favorite.

    While many will remember him today as the father of The Rock, Johnson was a tag title holder with Tony Atlas and held several southern regional titles on his own.

41. Don Muraco

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    He was a good looking guy from Hawaii who held the Intercontinental Title in WWF but never challenged for the WWF heavyweight title.

    He was also an NWA performer who won regional titles in Florida and other promotions.

    Muraco was a big guy back in the day and feuded with Tito Santana in the early 1980s at the beginning of the height of Hulkamania.

40. The Midnight Express

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    Whether it was Bobby Eaton an Dennis Condrey or Stan Lane, the team could wrestle anyone.

    They started in Bill Watts' promotion before they were lured away by Jim Crockett and his host of wrestlers.

    They challenged the Horsemen, the Minnesota Wrecking Crew, the Road Warriors and had a famous battle with the Rock & Roll Express.

    Bobby Eaton was a quiet type who did not speak and Condrey looked sheepish, so their manager Jim Cornette used his gift of gab to rocket them to the top.

39. Paul Orndorff

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    He was held down by the emergence of Hulk Hogan. I stand by that statement.

    Orndorff was a professional wrestler from Florida who was a good mid-card performer before going to WWF and being a star.

    He was in the first Wrestlemania against Hogan and Mr. T.

    As a competitor, he could have and should have held World gold in WWF but never attained the status.

    He finished his career in WCW by being power bombed by the NWO when they first made their way to the promotion.

38. The Iron Sheik

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    He is partially responsible for ushering in Hulkamania.

    He battled Bob Backlund and won the WWF world title before Hulk Hogan came to save the day at Madison Square Garden and Hulkamania was born.

    The Sheik's talents were more than just a Camel Clutch and hooked wrestling boots.

    He was a former AWA and NWA wrestler who was successful as a heel and when the WWF came calling, he was perfect for taking his persona up north.

37. David Von Erich

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    This is more of a look at what could have been.

    Ric Flair said David Von Erich could have been champion and carried the NWA. That is high praise from anyone.

    Von Erich was tall, strong and could hold his own in the ring with anyone. He wrestled Harley Race to time-limit draws in Missouri and was popular in the Orient.

    He died of acute pancreatitis.

36. Honky Tonk Man

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    Wayne Ferris took a gimmick and rode it into success.

    The Honky Tonk Man captured Intercontinental gold and rode the wave for more than his fair share of fame.

    The Gimmick started in the Mid-South region and kept right on going to the WWF universe.

    He too fit right into Vince McMahon's carnival of characters.

35. Carlos Colon

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    He is to wrestling in Puerto Rico as Celine Dion is to Canada.

    Maybe a bad analogy, but Colon feuded with the best of them, including Abdullah the Butcher. He is considered royalty and his bouts with Butcher and others are stuff of legend.

34. Bruiser Brody

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    Frank Goodish was a wild man who was a lone wolf. But wherever he wrestled, people stood up and took notice.

    Started in Texas and toured the world. Helped tear up the Florida territory and fought overseas in Japan and the Orient.

    He was also popular in the Caribbean.

    Sadly, he was killed after a match and is missed for his devilish persona and his flat-out brash behavior.

33. Abdullah the Butcher

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    Many of us never saw him wrestle, err, beat people up, err, bloody people to a pulp.

    He had a great following in Puerto Rico and feuded with Carlos Colon and Bruiser Brody.

    Butcher is iconic, leading to the big men like Kamala and other wild men from "parts unknown."

    He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

32. King Kong Bundy

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    He was vanilla and big and made a name for himself in the WWF.

    Chris Pallies main evented with Hulk Hogan, and broke his ribs in a match in 1985, but there was nothing real distinguishing about him other than he was a character heel in the federation.

    But he was one of the few bigger men that could move well and also spent time in the NWA wrestling in Georgia.

    He was so white and pale and hairless, he was referred to as the Michelin Man.

31. Magnum TA

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    Another wrestler who could have been better than he was.

    Started out as Terry Allen in Florida before moving to Jim Crockett Promotions where Ric Flair said Allen would be the man to replace him as champion and take over the NWA.

    He feuded with Wahoo McDaniel, Tully Blanchard and Nikita Koloff. Was successful as United States Heavyweight Champion.

    A car accident nearly killed him and the dream he would be the hero everyone wanted to be champion. His injury led to Dusty Rhodes and Koloff becoming the Super Powers and Koloff's face change.

30. Buddy Rose

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    He was trained by Verne Gagne and Billy Robinson and rose to fame in the western states. Rose was a fixture for years.

    In the early 80s, he was in the WWF and feuded with Pedro Morales, but his heart was in Portland and the Western region of the NWA.

    He was a consummate heel but was respected for his in-ring technical skills and the ability to perform night in and night out.

29. Pedro Morales

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    There were few wrestlers who were as good technically as Morales.

    Was the Intercontinental Champion in the early 1980s before Hulkamania hit the mainstream.

    Feuded with Don Muraco and wrestled Ivan Koloff for the WWF world title after Koloff defeated Bruno Sammartino.

    He was also known for his fiery Latin temper.

28. Greg Valentine

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    His father Johnny Valentine would be proud.

    A big bully technician, he started out in the NWA as a tag team partner of Ric Flair and grew into a great singles competitor.

    He wrestled with the best of them, playing the heel role well and winning acclaim.

    He feuded with Roddy Piper in the famous "Dog Collar" match which almost destroyed Piper.

    Moved to the WWF and claimed the Intercontinental championship. Known for his slow movement outside the ring, he walked to the beat of his own drum.

27. Lex Luger

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    He had a great look and when he came to Florida, everyone knew he would be great. Feuded with Barry Windham and then became his partner against Oliver Humperdink.

    Traveled to the NWA and Ric Flair taught him to make money and made him a star.

    Went to the WWF and another superstar was born.

    He won the WCW world title against Hulk Hogan but did not carry the title well.

    Have had legal troubles and was Miss Elizabeth's boyfriend when she passed away of a drug overdose.

26. Jake Roberts

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    "The Snake" was an NWA mid-card player for years in the Carolinas as Barry Windham's tag team partner and then traveled to Florida, became a member of Kevin Sullivan's cult and feuded with Windham, breaking his nose.

    Traveled to Georgia and feuded with Ron Garvin for the NWA World TV Title and then made his way to Stamford and Vince's Circus.

    Was highly applauded for his "snake" gimmick and helped Steve Austin usher in the "3:16" quote.

    Roberts wrestles on the indy circuit, and drugs and demons have evaporated what skills he did have.

25. Kevin Sullivan

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    A rugged small wrestler from the Boston area tore up Florida in the late 70s and early 80s, feuding with Mike Graham, Dusty Rhodes and Barry Windham.

    Never one to hold titles, he caused a commotion as the leader of a cult in Florida featuring Jake Roberts and Mark Lewin (Purple Haze).

    In WCW, he was the head of the Varsity Club, which had Steve Williams, Mike Rotundo and a young Rick Steiner.

    Served as a booker for WCW before it closed its doors for good.

24. The Rock & Roll Express

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    They made the mullet look cool.

    Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson were two undersized wrestlers that made it work. Four times they won the world title.

    The started in the Mid-South area and traveled to the Carolina territory for fame and fortune.

    They feuded with The Midnight Express, the Andersons, and the Road Warriors.

    Both still wrestle in independent circuits today.

23. The Freebirds

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    Michael Hayes, Terry Gordy and Buddy Roberts. They were southern cool and feuded in World Class Championship Wrestling with the Von Erichs.

    Hayes was the showman, Gordy the muscle and Roberts the sidekick.

    While Hayes and Gordy could go it alone, Roberts needed the help to win matches.

    Hayes went to WCW and later to WWE as a road agent and announcer. Gordy won numerous titles overseas and in the Midwest.

22. Ted DiBiase

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    He was a star in the Universal Wrestling Federation, wrestled in Georgia and feuded with both Brad Armstrong and Tommy Rich.

    Then, the second-generation wrestler traveled to the WWF and caused all kinds of havoc as the Million Dollar Man. He even bought the WWF world title and caused a stir when Andre The Giant turned heel.

    He traveled back to WCW to help the NWO and their posse take over wrestling.

21. Nikita Koloff

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    The Russian Nightmare. He was huge and intimidated wrestlers with his presence.

    Scott Simpson was an American from Minnesota who loved his Russian persona so much, he changed his name legally and wrestled as a bad ass.

    Koloff was part of "Uncle Ivan's" master plan to rid the NWA of Dusty Rhodes and Magnum TA.

    He turned face when Magnum TA was injured and nearly killed in a car crash.

20. Kerry Von Erich

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    Won the NWA world title after brother David idea in the Orient.

    He was the best conditioned wrestler in the states until Luger came along and held many regional titles in Texas, Missouri and Louisiana.

    He also won the World Class Heavyweight Title and feuded with The Freebirds with his brothers and then with Jerry Lawler before taking his act to the WWF as the Texas Tornado.

19. The Road Warriors

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    The baddest asses in wrestling. Period

    They were mean, and everyone who wrestled them knew they were in for a fight.

    They were also the only tag teams at the team to win titles in the NWA, AWA and WWW.

    Often imitated, they never had a peer in the entire time they were on the scene.

18. Ultimate Warrior

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    He started out as Sting's tag team partner, went to Texas as the Dingo Warrior and then traveled to the WWF.

    He defeated Hulkamania. And in doing so, he proved he could not draw like Hogan and eventually lost the strap.

    Warrior was very one-dimensional and it showed. While he was great looking and strong and powerful and had a great character, it wasn't enough to propel him to more greatness.

17. Hacksaw Jim Duggan

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    He was the consummate American.

    Wrestled in the UWF and WCW and then went to the WWF and flourished.

    Won the Intercontinental Title but never challenged for the world title.

    Very popular wrestler who was everyman and wrestled as a rugged fighter.

16. Tito Santana

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    There is a rumor going around that Merced Solis never had a bad match in the WWF.

    Santana was an Intercontinental Champion and was a crowd favorite the entire time he wrestled for the McMahon dynasty.

    A great technician in the ring, he also struck tag team gold.

15. Andre the Giant

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    What can you say about Andre that has not already been said?

    Maybe the greatest attraction in wrestling anywhere he wrestled.

    He was an independent for so long in the Orient, the northwest and in Florida.

    When he got to the WWF, he created a buzz with feuds against Big John Studd and Hulk Hogan.

14. Bob Backlund

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    He will always be known as the guy who helped set up Hulkamania.

    Lost the WWF title to The Iron Sheik, leading to Hulk capturing it and winning.

    It was said he did not want Hogan to win because he did not have amateur credentials.

    The Sheik was an accomplished amateur before he went pro.

    Backlund was a crowd favorite and would prove that mat wrestling could still win in the end.

13. Rick Martel

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    He had great looks and a great technique. The former AWA champion came to the WWF and was competitive.

    Martel also played heel up north.

    He is also remembered for wrestling Ric Flair to a time-limit draw when he was top dog in Minnesota.

12. Arn Anderson

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    He was the glue of the Four Horsemen.

    Actually he was a mid-carder before coming to the NWA and struck gold.

    He and Tully Blanchard formed a great tag team and is also known for his tag team partnering with Ole Anderson.

    Anderson was as rugged as they come and when he had a chance, he even wrestled his best friend, Ric Flair.

    Now, he works in the WWE as a road agent.

11. Ricky Steamboat

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    He has just as much to do with the success of Ric Flair as anyone else.

    He came to Jim Crockett Promotions and lit up the area.

    Wrestled in the NWA and left to claim the Intercontinental title from Randy Savage.

    Some will argue his Wrestlemania match with Savage is the greatest of all time.

    Came back to WCW and beat Flair for the heavyweight title.

10. Barry Windham

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    He had a great career in the NWA and WCW. But he also may have been held up by Flair's success.

    Held numerous tag titles in the NWA and WCW and was United States and National Heavyweight title champion as well.

    Went to the WWF and was tag team title champions with Mike Rotundo.

    Came back to the NWA and beat The Great Muta for the title.

    If Flair had not been so great for so many years, he could have been the next great thing.

9. Jerry Lawler

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    Now the loud-mouthed commentator for RAW, Lawler was a successful champion in the Mid-South area under Jerry Jarrett.

    Feuded with Austin Idol and Randy Savage.

    Won the AWA heavyweight championship and feuded with the likes of Kerry Von Erich.

    When he got to the WWF, The King was a mid-carder who was a hit but could never capture world gold.

    Still wrestles today.

8. Sting

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    When he came to the NWA, he was destined for stardom.

    He wrestled Ric Flair to a 45-minute time limit draw on the Clash of the Champions.

    Big and powerful, he was an instant favorite.

    Sting has toured the world and wrestled in the NWA, WCW and now TNA.

    He has never wrestled in the WWE, which still could happen.

7. Nick Bockwinkel

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    An AWA legend.

    He captured world gold. Fought with Verne Gagne, Hulk Hogan and Billy Robinson.

    Never short of a great mat work.

    He always said he would raise his arm in his sleep if he heard someone count to two.

6. Randy Savage

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    He was as flamboyant as the came.

    A great mat wrestler and high-flyer with a flying elbow that was lethal.

    Wrestled against Jerry Lawler in the Mid-South area and then took his act to WWF where he teamed with Miss Elizabeth and found gold.

    Savage was WWF champion and then went to WCW to claim more world gold and fight and then join the NWO.

    He was truly one of the best showmen the business has ever seen.

5. Harley Race

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    This man knew what it took to be champion many times over.

    Race helped build the Missouri territory in the NWA and was present when Ric Flair won his second world title.

    Race was rugged and most other wrestlers will tell you one of the strongest men they ever faced.

    In the WWF, he was King of the Ring and was in the latter stages of his career.

4. Roddy Piper

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    I know I will take heat for this one when Piper is ahead of Savage.

    Piper was a mainstay in the Northwest under Don Owen when he first came to the NWA.

    He moved to the Carolinas and feuded with Flair, Valentine and Jack Brisco.

    He was the best talker ever in wrestling and was a better mat wrestler than you think.

    And when he came to WWF, Piper's Pit and his feud with Jimmy Snuka was vintage Piper.

3. Dusty Rhodes

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    He had the best mind to create anything he wanted. War Games, Starrcade, Bunkhouse Stampede.

    He was a three-time world title holder, and held court in Florida and the Carolinas.

    He feuded with everyone and was the lead face while Ric Flair was the lead heel.

    Rhodes went to the WWF and was summarily used as a mid card wrestler.

    He is now working in WWE behind the scenes but also was in TNA for a while as booker and script writer.

2. Hulk Hogan

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    He created mainstream entertainment.

    He was not much of a wrestler in WWF as much as he was an entertainer.

    Hulkamania is the greatest concept ever created in wrestling. I will stand by that.

    Hogan made wrestling a national phenomenon in the mid-1980s.

1. Ric Flair

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    RIC FLAIR IS WRESTLING.

    While Hogan was creating a theatrical persona, Flair was wrestling 60-minute matches and beating everyone across the globe.

    He won the world title 16 times in the NWA, WCW and WWF.

    He helped launch the careers of Sting, Lex Luger, Rick Steamboat and Arn Anderson.

    There is no one in wrestling with a greater pedigree.

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