WWE: The 25 Most Dominant Wrestlers Prior to the WrestleMania Era
Since WrestleMania I began at Madison Square Garden on March 31, 1985, professional wrestling has been part of mainstream entertainment. It wasn’t always that way, however, as wrestling was once considered a niche sport by most observers.
At the time, few knew what to expect out of WrestleMania and nobody knew whether or not it would succeed. Fast forward nearly 27 years, and WrestleMania has essentially become an American institution in many ways.
The likes of Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper helped launch wrestling—the WWE in particular—to unseen heights in terms of popularity. As important as they were it is equally as important to remember the wrestlers who blazed a trail for guys like Hogan and Piper.
If it weren’t for “Superstar” Billy Graham, Harley Race, Bruno Sammartino and many others, WWE would never have been in a position to create such a spectacle. While wrestling’s pre-WrestleMania stars may not be known by the new generation of wrestling fans, they are forever appreciated by wrestling purists.
This list will focus on the 25 most dominant wrestlers from the pre-WrestleMania era. Since the WWE’s roster tended to be fairly sparse during that time period, wrestlers from other promotions such as the NWA and AWA will be considered as well. The list will also mostly hone in on the era from 1960 to 1985.
So many legendary wrestlers competed during that time that it’s an impossibility to list every deserving competitor in a top-25 list. These wrestlers, however, are the cream of the crop from the pre-WrestleMania era, in my humble opinion.
Stan Hansen, known as “The Lariat” for his devastating clothesline, was a dominant fixture in the NWA and WWWF (a precursor to the WWE) throughout the 1970s and '80s. Hansen competed predominantly in the Georgia Championship Wrestling branch of the NWA.
Hansen won the NWA Heavyweight Championship five times in four separate territories of the company. He was also a five-time Tag Team Champion, teaming mostly with Ole Anderson and Tommy Rich. Hansen was also an AWA World Heavyweight Champion, although that occurred post-WrestleMania I.
Hansen went on to become perhaps the most successful American heavyweight in Japanese wrestling history thanks to his stint in the late-'80s, but his character was developed long before that. Hansen was one of wrestling’s biggest heels for most of his career and he may be best known for breaking the neck of Bruno Sammartino.
Chief Jay Strongbow
WWE Hall of Famer Chief Jay Strongbow was undoubtedly one of the most dominant wrestlers of the 1960s. Strongbow competed in the Georgia and Florida territories of the NWA throughout the decade and won numerous titles in the process.
Strongbow was a three-time NWA Heavyweight Champion as well as an impressive 10-time Tag Team Champion. Strongbow joined the WWWF in the early 1970s and continued his legacy as a fantastic tag team competitor. He won the tag team straps on four separate occasions with Sonny King, Billy White Wolf and his kayfabe brother Jules Strongbow.
Strongbow was well known for competing in Indian Strap matches in which he and his opponents were attached throughout the match by a strap. He is also famous for his version of Hulk Hogan’s “Hulking up,” known as “going on the war path.” With each blow from his opponent, Strongbow would gain momentum and engage in a tribal war dance before finishing his opposition with a Tomahawk Chop.
Fritz Von Erich
Best known as the patriarch of the famous Von Erich wrestling family, Fritz Von Erich was truly a pioneer in the business of professional wrestling. As accomplished as Von Erich was as a wrestler, his greatest contribution to wrestling was likely his own wrestling company, World Class Championship Wrestling.
As a wrestler, Von Erich held numerous titles, most of them coming in the NWA. Von Erich was most successful as a tag team wrestler, winning the NWA Tag Team Championships 16 times, with the likes of his sons Mike and Kevin and kayfabe brother Waldo. Von Erich had great longevity as well, competing in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
Von Erich’s WCCW was well ahead of the curve in terms of production value. The company’s wrestlers used theme music, which was quite uncommon at the time, and it also used television syndication. Unfortunately for Von Erich, many of his top stars ended up in the WWE, causing a premature end to the company.
As a wrestler Von Erich used the claw as his finisher which is a move that his sons would adopt as well.
Known as “Polish Power,” Ivan Putski was one of wrestling’s biggest powerhouses throughout the 1970s and '80s. Although Putski may not have the longevity or the championship pedigree of many of the other wrestlers on this list, he was certainly a dominant force during his heyday.
Putski began his career in the AWA and NWA, winning the NWA Tag Team Championships three times with partner Jose Lothario. Putski joined the WWWF in 1976 and became an instant fan favorite. He engaged in many high-profile feuds, including one with “Superstar” Billy Graham over the WWE Championship.
While Putski never captured the title, he did capture tag team gold with his partner Tito Santana, beating the Valiants in 1979. Putski possessed a wide array of power moves including his running double axe handle, “The Polish Hammer.”
Putski was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 1995.
Tito Santana enjoyed a long and fruitful career in the wrestling business, but most of his success came prior to WrestleMania I. Santana started off in the NWA before moving onto the AWA and eventually the WWWF in 1979.
Santana was a NWA Tag Team Champion with partner Ted DiBiase, who would eventually become “The Million Dollar Man” in the WWE. Once joining the WWWF, Santana won the Tag Team Championships with Ivan Putski as well. Perhaps Santana’s biggest win came when he beat Don Muraco for the Intercontinental Championship in 1984.
Santana also enjoyed plenty of success in the years following WrestleMania I, including a second Intercontinental Championship reign, a second Tag Team Championship reign (with Rick Martel), a King of the Ring win and eventually an ECW Heavyweight Championship reign.
Santana was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004.
Stan “The Man” Stasiak competed mostly in the NWA throughout the 1960s and '70s and is one of the most decorated champions of all time. Stasiak is also the father of former WWE and WCW wrestler Shawn Stasiak.
Stasiak was a 10-time NWA Heavyweight Champion in territories ranging from Texas to Calgary. He also held the Tag Team Championships on a number of occasions with partners like Buddy Rose and Billy Jack Haynes. Stasiak’s biggest claim to fame, perhaps, came during his brief stint with the WWWF, where he beat Pedro Morales for what is now the WWE Championship.
With that win Stasiak became the fifth WWE Champion and he ended Morales’ nearly three-year title reign. Stasiak was originally known as “The Crusher” due to his Bearhug finisher. He later adopted the Heart Punch as his finishing move and was heralded as the master and creator of the maneuver.
Nicknamed “The Body” due to his incredible physique, Jesse Ventura is recognized as one of the strongest and most powerful wrestlers of all time. Ventura enjoyed most of his success as a tag team wrestler, although he did capture the NWA Pacific Northwest Heavyweight Championship two times.
Ventura won the NWA Tag Team Championships seven times in numerous territories. He also won plenty of gold in the AWA, taking the Southern Heavyweight Championship two times and the Tag Team Championships once with Adrian Adonis as The East/West Connection. Ventura joined the WWWF in the early ‘80s and engaged in a feud with champion Bob Backlund.
Ventura was never able to unseat Backlund, but he proved to be a worthy foe. A pulmonary embolism cut Ventura’s in-ring career short, but he went on to become one of the more entertaining announcers ever.
The WWE Hall of Famer found success in the political realm as well, serving one term as governor of Minnesota.
“The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff was the first wrestler to make the gimmick of monstrous Russian heel a popular one. Koloff spent almost his entire career in the NWA and was incredibly successful as both a singles and tag team wrestler.
Although Koloff made a name for himself in the NWA, his defining moment likely occurred during his brief one-year stint in the WWWF. In 1971 Koloff defeated Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF Championship, ending his incredible seven-year reign. Koloff’s title reign was a short one, though, as he dropped the belt to Pedro Morales less than a month later.
Koloff may have served as a transitional champion in the WWWF, but that was far from the case in the NWA. Koloff was six-time NWA World Heavyweight Champion across numerous territories, as well as an unprecedented 19-time Tag Team Champion with the likes of Ole Anderson, Nikolai Volkoff, Nikita Koloff and many more. Koloff was certainly one of the greatest heels of the pre-WrestleMania era.
The Iron Sheik
The master of the Camel Clutch, The Iron Sheik was one of the most hated wrestlers of the pre-WrestleMania era. Sheik debuted in the WWWF as Hussein Arab, but he eventually moved to Mid-South Wrestling where he was repackaged as The Iron Sheik.
The Sheik first gained prominence in the NWA where he was Heavyweight Champion on three occasions, Television Champion once and Tag Team Champion once as well. The Iron Sheik rejoined the WWE in 1983 as it was beginning to take off nationally. It wasn’t long before he found himself at the top of the company.
With Hulk Hogan rising up the ranks, the company needed a heel to take the belt off Bob Backlund. The Iron Sheik got the call, as he beat Backlund when Backlund’s manager, Arnold Skaaland, threw in the towel. The Sheik then dropped the title to Hogan a month later. The Sheik joined forces with Nikolai Volkoff soon after and formed one of the more successful heel tag teams of the era.
There have been many times over the course of wrestling history where a wrestler has been billed at a height or weight higher than they really are. This wasn’t the case with Haystacks Calhoun, however, as he looked to be every bit the 601 pounds he was billed as.
Calhoun was one of wrestling’s biggest draws from the late-1950s through the 1970s. While Calhoun was an absolute behemoth, most of his success came in the tag team ranks. Calhoun was a three-time Tag Team Champion in the 1960s while teaming with both Don Leo Jonathan and Jack Brisco. Calhoun joined the WWWF in the early-1970s and was a big reason for the company’s eventual success.
Calhoun teamed with Tony Garea to win the WWWF Tag Team Championships from Mr. Fuji and Toru Tanaka. After dropping the titles back to Fuji and Tanaka, Calhoun wrestled mostly as a singles competitor. His presence often helped the WWWF sell out events at Madison Square Garden. Perhaps Calhoun’s most noteworthy asset was his athleticism, as he was able to perform a top rope splash as his finishing move.
While most wrestlers of his era eventually wrestled for the WWE or its predecessors, Wahoo McDaniel was an NWA guy through and through. His only exposure to the WWE came when he wrestled briefly for the WWWF in 1964.
McDaniel played nine years in the AFL as a linebacker for the Houston Oilers, Denver Broncos, New York Jets and Miami Dolphins before becoming a professional wrestler. McDaniel began wrestling in the NWA upon his retirement from football and found immediate success. McDaniel won countless titles in the NWA including the Heavyweight Championship 16 times and the Tag Team Championships 11 times.
He also won the United States Championship and Television Championship on numerous occasions. McDaniel was one of the NWA’s most beloved faces for most of his tenure, although he did turn heel near the end of his time with the company in 1984. McDaniel may be best known for his many battles with Ric Flair in the Mid Atlantic territory in the 1970s.
Ray “The Crippler” Stevens began wrestling in main event matches at the age of 17, and he continued to do so throughout his illustrious career. Known for his “Bombs Away” top rope knee drop finisher, Stevens was among the most graceful wrestlers of his time.
Stevens began wrestling in the late-1950s in the MWA and NWA and eventually made the move to the AWA in 1960. Stevens became a seven-time United States Heavyweight Champion in the AWA, as well as a four-time Tag Team Champion. Stevens joined the Heenan Family in 1972 and teamed with Nick Bockwinkel.
Stevens and Bockwinkel won the tag titles three times and were considered one of the best tag teams of their time. Stevens was also quite successful in the NWA as he won a myriad of titles, including the Tag Team Championships, Heavyweight Championship, United States Championship and Junior Heavyweight Championship. Stevens joined the WWE late in his career and while he had a couple high-profile feuds, his best days were clearly behind him.
Kerry Von Erich
Although Kerry Von Erich gained notoriety by winning the Intercontinental Championship as The Texas Tornado in the WWE in the early-1990s, he was an established star in the NWA’s Texas territory long before that. Few wrestlers can match Von Erich’s impressive championship track record.
Von Erich held titles on 27 different occasions in the NWA. He was a 12-time Tag Team Champion, nine-time Heavyweight Champion and six-time Six-Man Tag Team Champion. Von Erich often teamed with his brothers David, Kevin and Mike, and he held titles with each of them on numerous occasions. NWA Texas eventually morphed into the WCCW and then the WCWA.
Von Erich was very well known for his devastating finisher, “The Claw.” Von Erich was a fan favorite for virtually his entire career and he was beloved, particularly in the state of Texas.
Von Erich had no shortage of personal demons, however, as he took his own life presumably due to an upcoming prison sentence for drug possession. Von Erich’s career and life may have been cut short, but there is not denying his dominance in the 1980s.
Standing 6’5” and 342 lbs. with a full beard and devilish eyebrows, Ox Baker was the quintessential monster heel over the course of his career. Baker competed in several NWA territories during his time in wrestling which stretched throughout the 1970s.
Baker was an NWA Heavyweight Champion five times and a Tag Team Champion on multiple occasions as well. Baker also won the AWA Tag Team Championships three times during his stint with the company early in his career. As great as Baker was at playing the heel, he didn’t get his first World Title win until he turned face in 1979.
Baker’s heel persona was buoyed by two in-ring instances in 1971 and 1972 respectively. In both cases, opponents of Baker died following the match.
Although neither death had to do with Baker, as Alberto Torres died from a pre-existing condition and Ray Gunkel died of a heart attack, Baker was credited with killing them, furthering his character. It was said that Baker’s Heart Punch finisher, which he borrowed from Stan Stasiak, was so powerful that he had singlehandedly killed both men.
Many wrestling fans probably remember Dusty Rhodes’ stint with the WWE in 1990 when Rhodes was a polka-dot wearing common man. While that gimmick didn’t exactly work out too well, Rhodes had an incredibly successful career in the NWA prior to that.
Rhodes began his career as a heel and won a number of titles, but it wasn’t until his face turn in 1974 that Rhodes’ career truly took off. After his face turn Rhodes became known as “The American Dream.” Rhodes was a huge fan favorite and is certainly one of the NWA’s most iconic wrestlers. Rhodes held an NWA Heavyweight Championship in some form an eye-popping 24 times.
Rhodes also won the Tag Team Championships and Television Championship many times as well. Rhodes is known for his feuds with many of the era’s top talent including Harley Race and Ric Flair. He also has two sons who have excelled as wrestlers in Goldust and Cody Rhodes who is the current Intercontinental Champion. Although most of Rhodes’ accolades were garnered in the NWA, he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2007.
Best known for his famed claw finisher, Killer Kowalski was one of wrestling’s biggest villains, particularly in the 1960s. Kowalski first gained notoriety in the NWA and competed in the company sporadically from 1950 until the mid-1970s.
Kowalski was a six-time NWA Heavyweight Champion across numerous territories and he also held the Tag Team Championships many times as well. Kowalski began wrestling in the WWWF in 1963, teaming with Gorilla Monsoon to win the United States Tag Team Championships.
As a singles wrestler Kowalski was engaged in an intense feud with World Champion Bruno Sammartino. The feud helped Kowalski become one of the most hated men in wrestling.
After going back to the NWA, Kowalski came back to the WWWF in 1976. He teamed with Big John Studd under masks, and they were known as The Executioners. The Executioners soon beat Louis Cerdan and Tony Parisi for the Tag Team Championships.
Kowalski officially retired from wrestling a year later to focus on training. He went on to become one of wrestling’s most prolific trainers as he trained the likes of Triple H, Chyna, Kofi Kingston and many more.
For most wrestling fans the moniker “Nature Boy” likely prompts visions of the iconic Ric Flair. However, Flair wasn’t the original “Nature Boy,” as that distinction goes to Buddy Rogers. Everything from Flair’s style, attitude and signature figure-four leglock were first done by Rogers.
Rogers wrestled most of his career in the NWA and AWA throughout the 1940s and 1950s. He was a four-time AWA Heavyweight Champion as well as a two-time NWA Heavyweight Champion. Rogers also was a multiple-time Tag Team Champion in both the NWA and Midwest Wrestling Association (MWA).
Rogers is certainly best known for being the inaugural WWWF (WWE) Champion. After a controversial loss to Lou Thesz in 1963, the WWWF was formed and the company’s main title was handed to Rogers. Although Rogers lost it to Bruno Sammartino six months later, he holds the distinction of being the first man to win both the NWA Heavyweight Championship and WWE Championship.
“Superstar” Billy Graham
Before colorful muscle men like Jesse Ventura and Hulk Hogan burst onto the scene, “Superstar” Billy Graham was flexing his pythons (as he called them) and showing off his impressive physique. Graham is certainly best known for his time with the WWE, but he debuted and was very successful in the NWA.
Graham was a three-time NWA Heavyweight Champion in the Florida and Hawaii territories, as well as a three-time Tag Team Champion with partners Ox Baker and Pat Patterson. Graham debuted in the WWWF in 1975 with The Grand Wizard as his manager. Two years later knocked off Bruno Sammartino to win the WWWF (WWE) Championship. This ended a nearly four-year title reign for Sammartino.
Graham won the title by using the classic heel tactic of putting both feet on the ropes to gain leverage for a pinfall. Graham went on to hold the title for 296 days, which was unprecedented for a heel at the time. In fact, it still stands as the longest heel WWE Championship reign in WWE history. Graham feuded with and defeated many of the company’s top faces like Sammartino, Bob Backlund and Dusty Rhodes among others, making him perhaps the greatest heel of the time.
Although Harley Race joined the WWE in 1986 and won the King of the Ring, his truly great contributions to wrestling came in the two decades prior to that as a member of the AWA and NWA. Race is considered by many observers to be one of the greatest wrestlers of all time.
Race ran roughshod over the NWA throughout the 1970s and early-1980s. He was an eight-time NWA Heavyweight Champion, as well as the first NWA United States Heavyweight Champion. Race was also a five-time NWA Tag Team Champion. He also formed one of the most devastating tag teams in wrestling history with Larry “The Axe” Hennig. Race and Hennig went on to win the AWA Tag Team Championships three times.
Race feuded with many all-time great wrestlers over the course of his career including Terry Funk, Ric Flair, Curt Hennig and Dusty Rhodes. Race was named the Wrestler of the Year by Wrestling Observer in both 1980 and 1981. Since retirement Race has become a trainer and created his own independent wrestling company, World League Wrestling.
He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004.
Bruiser Brody is undoubtedly remembered by most for his incredibly wild and unhinged personality. Billed at 6’8” and 285 lbs., Brody was a legitimate monster whose gimmick was that of a mentally unstable brawler who would often say unintelligible things both in the ring and during interviews.
Brody competed in many promotions including the NWA, All Japan Pro Wrestling and World Class Championship Wrestling. Brody was a part of many bloody gimmick matches during his time with the WCCW, including barbed wire matches, chain matches and steel cage matches. He certainly helped blaze a trail for future hardcore wrestlers in that regard.
Brody won seven Heavyweight Championships in various NWA territories. He was also very adept at tag team wrestling as he was an eight-time Tag Team Champion with partners such as Kerry Von Erich, Stan Hansen and Ernie Ladd. Unfortunately for Brody his career and life were cut short when he was stabbed to death by Jose Huertez Gonzales (Invader I) following a show in Puerto Rico. Brody was certainly one of the most brutal competitors in wrestling history.
During a time period when a handful of faces dominated the WWE in the 1970s, Pedro Morales was among the company’s biggest stars. Born on Culebra Island, off the coast of Puerto Rico, Morales is best known for his two stints in the WWE, although he also competed in the NWA.
Prior to joining the WWE, Morales wrestled for the NWA’s Hawaiian territory. He was a three-time Heavyweight Champion for the promotion, as well as a three-time Tag Team Champion. He would also compete in the Florida and San Francisco territories later in his career, forming successful tag teams with both Rocky Johnson and Pat Patterson.
Morales’ greatest accomplishments came in the WWE as he defeated Ivan Koloff for the WWE Championship in 1971. Morales went on to hold the title for nearly three years before dropping it to Stan Stasiak. After a hiatus from the WWE, Morales returned and added more gold to his resume.
He won the Tag Team Championships with Bob Backlund in 1980, and he also beat Ken Patera for the Intercontinental Championship in 1981. This made Morales the first Triple Crown Champion in WWE history.
Bob Backlund was far from the most physically imposing figure during his time as a professional wrestler, but his dominance certainly cannot be denied. Not only was Backlund one of the greatest wrestlers of the 1970s, but he was also an NCAA amateur wrestling champion at North Dakota State University.
Backlund began his career with a brief stint in the AWA before moving to the NWA. While with the NWA Backlund was used primarily as a tag team wrestler, winning the Tag Team Championships on two occasions with Steve Keirn (who later become Skinner in the WWE) and Jerry Brisco as his partners. Backlund became a singles star immediately upon entering the WWE in 1978.
Just a few months into his tenure with the company, Backlund beat “Superstar” Billy Graham for the WWE Championship. Backlund held the title until 1983 when he was defeated by The Iron Sheik. This was a result of Vince McMahon wanting to put the title on the up and coming. Hulk Hogan. Backlund also won the Tag Team Championships with Pedro Morales during his WWE Championship reign.
After dropping the WWE Championship Backlund disappeared from the wrestling scene, although he resurfaced in the WWE in 1992. He even regained the WWE Championship for three days in 1994.
Andre The Giant
Billed as the eighth wonder of the world, Andre The Giant is one of the most iconic figures in the history of professional wrestling. Standing 7’4” and weighing between 475 and 540 pounds, Andre was a sight to behold for wrestling fans throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
The reason for Andre’s immense size is the fact that he suffered from acromegaly, which prompts the pituitary gland to produce excess growth hormone. Andre broke into wrestling in 1970 after training in his native country of France. He eventually debuted in the WWE in 1973 and became their top draw almost immediately. Andre would routinely face two, three and sometimes four men at a time and beat them with ease.
Andre never actually won a title in the WWE until 1988, although he did win the NWA Tag Team Championships with Dusty Rhodes on two occasions. Andre was such an incredible draw that he really had no need for a title. Even though his immense size was fit for a heel persona, Andre was an extremely popular face for most of his career.
While it’s difficult to confirm, Andre was touted as undefeated prior to being beaten by Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania III. Although Andre’s growth condition made him famous, but it also ended up being his downfall, as he tragically passed away at the age of 46 in 1993 due to congestive heart failure.
The fact that Lou Thesz made his professional wrestling debut in 1932 would seemingly disqualify him from this list, but due to his incredible longevity, Thesz absolutely must be considered one of the most dominant wrestlers of the pre-WrestleMania era.
Thesz is the only male wrestler for have competed in seven different decades. He debuted in the 1930s and retired in the 1990s, and wrestled in every decade in between. Thesz lost to Masahiro Chono in the final match of his career in 1990. Incredibly, Thesz was 74 years old at the time. Thesz wrestled primarily in the territories of the NWA during his career, winning an absurd amount of titles along the way.
Thesz was an NWA World Heavyweight Champion six times and he held the title for a total of 10 years, which is longer than anyone in wrestling history. He was also the youngest World Champion ever as he won his first title at the age of 21 in 1937. In addition to his success in the NWA, Thesz also held the AWA World Heavyweight Championship twice.
Thesz is recognized as one of the greatest technical wrestlers of all time thanks to his background in Greco-Roman wrestling. Thesz left an indelible mark of the wrestling industry as he is credited with creating many maneuvers that are still used today, including the German suplex, STF, powerbomb and his finisher, the Lou Thesz Press.
Many of today’s wrestling fans complain about the fact that either John Cena or Randy Orton always seem to be World Champion. While that may be true, there was a time when the WWE would feature the same champion for years on end without interruption. Such was the case with the great Bruno Sammartino.
Although Sammartino held the WWE Championship just twice during his illustrious career, he is by far the longest-tenured champion in WWE history, holding the title for a total of 11 years. Sammartino first won the WWE Championship in 1963 when he defeated the original WWE Champion “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers at Madison Square Garden. Sammartino would hold the title for an incredible seven years, eight months and one day before shockingly dropping the belt to Ivan Koloff.
The crowd was so surprised when Sammartino lost the title that the arena was absolutely silent, at least until some of the audience members began to cry. Despite holding the title for the better part of a decade, the fans still weren’t tired of Sammartino which was a true testament to his popularity. Sammartino regained the title from Stan Stasiak in 1973 and went on to hold the title for another four years before injuries forced him to drop it to ”Superstar” Billy Graham.
Having held the WWE Championship for the better part of the 1960s and 1970s, Sammartino is undoubtedly the most dominant wrestler of the pre-WrestleMania era.