The Top 50 Wrestlers of WWF’s Golden Era (1985-1992)
In 1985 the WWF emerged from bleak arenas to become an international media superpower. The expansion of cable television and pay-per-view, coupled with the efforts of promoters such as Vince McMahon, saw the sport shift from a system controlled by regional companies to one dominated by two nationwide companies: McMahon's World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now WWE) and Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling(WCW). Their first pay-per-view event - Wrestlemania, attracted celebrity names such as Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T opening wrestling to a new audience.
With Hulk Hogan as the face of the company, the WWF expanded into mainstream prominence as rival territories fell in its wake. This era saw the organisation go from strength to strength with successes such as Wrestlemania III, where they filled the Pontiac Silverdome with over 70,000 fans. The 'Golden Era' era also saw the showcasing of many cartoonish, yet memorable characters; such as the Ultimate Warrior and Honky Tonk Man. A tag team division the envy of any other era and epic, captivating feuds such as Hogan vs. Andre the Giant, The Mega Powers of Hogan and ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage exploding, and Hogan’s ‘Ultimate Challenge’ against the Ultimate Warrior.
This high continued until 1992, when the steroid scandal took its toll on attendance and Hogan temporarily left the limelight.
Here we take a look at the superstars who made up this era, from the bit players to the mega-stars, the outlandish characters to the straight workers. This list will take into account both the actual ability of the wrestlers, and their prominence during the period when determining their rankings. These are the superstars who, in their own way, contributed to a great era which brought about pro wrestling, or ‘sports entertainment’, as we know it today.
50. Don Muraco
Muraco's career highlight arguably came before the golden era, with his feud and legendary cage match with Jimmy Snuka. But he proved to be a reliable hand in the mid-card; elevating several of the names higher on the list. An interesting note of trivia is his use of the nickname ‘The Rock’ between 1987-1988.
49. Junkyard Dog
A charismatic fan favourite known for his head-butts and gimmick of dancing with young fans. He won’t exactly be remembered for his in-ring ability, but the current WWE Hall of Famer was a memorable figure of the mid-80’s, with notable achievements such as winning the 1985 Wrestling Classic tournament and featuring as a character in the Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling cartoon.
48. Big John Studd
Standing at 6ft 10, notable career highlights include; his $15,000 bodyslam challenge match against Andre the Giant at the first Wrestlemania, and winning the 1989 Royal Rumble. Not remembered as one of the best giants in WWF/E history, it’s the aforementioned moments which consign him to the history books.
47. King Harley Race
Race’s glory years were clearly behind him at this point, as before he joined the WWF, he was a former eight time NWA world champion; having battled with the likes of Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes. A brief run in WWF saw Race as a mid-carder battling the likes of Junkyard Dog and Haku. But his overall legacy, and the grace in which he carried the king gimmick puts him on this list.
Though he was pretty much a mid-carder throughout his entire run (bar a single title match against Hulk Hogan), Hercules is included for his longevity. Debuting in 1985 and leaving the company in 1992, his run encompassed the entire golden era; having wrestled in 19 pay-per-views.
45. Nasty Boys
The Nasty Boys are often derided for their lack of technical skill, and their prominence being assured by their friendship with Hulk Hogan. However the team from ‘Nastyville’ made up for it with their brawling style and abrasive attitude. The pair captured the tag team title from the Hart Foundation at Wrestlemania VII before losing to the Legion of Doom at SummerSlam 1991.
44. Cowboy Bob Orton
Better known these days as the father of current superstar Randy Orton, the elder Orton had a distinguished career in his own right. Serving as the enforcer for top villain Roddy Piper, with his hand cast which he often used as a weapon (and mysteriously never healed for several years). He was also a good worker, having entertaining matches with the likes of Ricky Steamboat.
43. Dino Bravo
Another example of a perennial mid-carder who was never known for being a great worker, Bravo was known for his Quebec foreign heel gimmick. Notable feuds during his tenure included Don Muraco, Ronnie Garvin and Jim Duggan, before his death in 1993 which is believed to be caused by the Canadian mafia.
42. The Brain Busters
Arguably Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard had better career in Jim Crocket Promotions as a part of the Four Horsemen. However, nothing should be taken away from one of the best tag teams in all of pro wrestling. Despite their short run in WWF, under the guidance of Bobby ‘the Brain’ Heenan (where they got their name from), they managed to hold the tag team titles for nearly three months.
41. Jim Duggan
Duggan has always been a strange case. A perennial inhabitant of the undercard, he was nevertheless loved by fans due to his tongue-in-cheek patriot gimmick. The highlight of his career is having the distinction of winning the first ever Royal Rumble match in 1988. Duggan continued to be a part of the WWF/E up until the 2000’s.
40. The Killer Bees
Possibly the second best team of the golden era never to have won the tag titles (the best is yet to come). B. Brian Blair and ‘Jumping’ Jim Brunzell mixed fasted-paced offence and technical ability to but on many enjoyable matches with the likes of the Hart Foundation, Demolition, and the Fabulous Rougeaus.
39. Sgt Slaughter
Someone else who bad a brief run with the company, Slaughter's in ring work left little to be desired (see his Wrestlemania VII match against Hulk Hogan for reference). His inclusion on this list is due to him having held the WWF title in 1991 during his controversial main event run in the tasteless Iraqi sympathiser angle as the Gulf War was ongoing.
38. Kerry Von Erich
The ‘Texas Tornado’ was another NWA import whose better days were in that company; having held the NWA world title. But, Von Erich was a skilled worker who had a lot going for him during his run (not just the fact that his hair and physique made him look like a smaller Ultimate Warrior). He went on to win the Intercontinental title from Mr. Perfect at SummerSlam 1990.
37. One Man Gang/Akeem
The 6ft 9 450 pound monster heel was a major player in the late 80’s. Whether it was as the leather and denim-clad street thug; the One Man Gang, or as Akeem ‘the African Dream’; where he dressed in African garments and spoke with a stereotypically black accent. He formed a team with the Big Bossman named the Twin Towers, and feuded with top stars Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage.
36. Dusty Rhodes
Though his WWF run paled in comparison to his legendary career in the NWA, Dusty still showcased why he was one of the most captivating wrestlers of all time. Decorated in polka dots, the ‘common man’, the ‘American Dream’ always gave top promos and had decent (if not mishandled) feuds with the Honky Tonk Man and Randy Savage.
35. Jim Neidhart
His legacy is often overshadowed due to the success of his former Hart Foundation partner Bret Hart; with whom he held 2 tag titles. But ‘The Anvil’ was formidable part of the tandem, providing the brute force and powerhouse manoeuvres that complimented Bret’s technical skill. The Anvil’s power offence was on display when he’d run wild after a hot-tag. Neidhart’s legacy is certainly more than that of ‘the other Hart Foundation member’.
34. Bad News Brown
A menacing loner heel, Brown had a seemingly promising career with brief feuds against Jake Roberts, and Randy Savage for the world title. The most notable moments of his run included winning a battle royal at Wrestlemania IV, and a barmy feud with Roddy Piper; in which Piper painted half his body black before their match at Wrestlemania VI.
33. The Iron Sheik
During a decade when tensions between the US and Iran were at a boiling point, the Iron Sheik was a perfect foreign heel. Angering fans with his catchphrase ‘Iran number one! USA? *Spits’. He holds a special place in history for losing the WWF title to Hulk Hogan in 1984, kick-starting the Hulkamania movement. Also notable was his capturing of the tag team titles at the first Wrestlemania with Nikolai Volkov.
Considered one of the toughest men in wrestling, the Tongan made a name for himself as a part of Bobby Heenan’s stable ‘The Heenan Family’. Haku’s career highlights included being anointed as ‘King’ Haku, and holding the tag team titles with Andre the Giant as ‘The Colossal Connection.
31. Greg Valentine
Greg ‘the Hammer’ Valentine had a notable career in the WWF. Holding the Intercontinental title, and defending it at the first Wrestlemania, and becoming tag team champion with Brutas Beefcake as a part of the Dream Team. Valentine spent the rest of his WWF tenure feuding with fellow midcarders, but stuck around until the end of the golden era in 1992.
An unlikely inclusion, Virgil was notable for being the man servant of the Million Dollar Man Ted Dibiase. This is a roll he played well, incurring the physical wrath of babyfaces Dibiase had wronged; keeping the heat on Dibiase, complimenting his character. Virgil’s big break came in 1991 when he turned against his master and engaged in a singles feud; garnering sympathy as the plucky underdog babyface.
29. Sid Justice
His first initial and brief run came at the tail-end of the golden era, in a storyline involving him being aligned with, and then betraying Hulk Hogan. Basically a less impressive version of the Mega-Powers storyline; highlighted by an unimpressive Wrestlemania VIII main event. But, Sid was an impressive specimen, and an intimidating monster heel.
28. King Kong Bundy
Despite resembling an angry egg, Bundy was a major player at the start of the golden era due to his tremendous size. The first Wrestlemania saw him defeat jobber S.D Jones in supposedly 9 seconds (but was actually 24). His career highlight came at Wrestlemania II; challenging Hulk Hogan for the WWF title in a steel cage match. Bundy’s career petered out after that, with his next Wrestlemania appearance being in a six-man tag match involving midget-wrestlers; one of whom he crushed, before leaving the company.
27. The Fabulous Rougeaus
The team of Jacques and Raymond were an entertaining French-Canadian tag team who worked primarily as heels; adopting a facetious pro-America gimmick. The Rougeaus had notable feuds with the likes of the Hart Foundation, the Rockers, and the British Bulldogs (in which Jacques and the Dynamite Kid came to real life blows). They eventually split up, with Jacques embarking on a singles career as the Mountie, and holding the Intercontinental title for 2 days.
Deceptively agile for a man who was 6ft 7 and 468 pounds, Earthquake was an underrated big man of his era. He feuded with big names such as Hulk Hogan and Jake Roberts, with the peak of his career being a match against Hogan at SummerSlam 1990. Earthquake went on to form the Natural Disasters with Typhoon, and captured the tag team titles.
25. Tito Santana
A decorated mid-carder with a career spanning the golden era, Santana was also a solid hand as a worker. He held the Intercontinental title twice, as well as the tag team titles with Rick Martel as a part of Strike Force. Afterwards, Santana became a ‘jobber for the stars’ and adopted the gimmick of ‘El Matador’.
24. The Big Boss Man
The former prison guard from Cobb County, Georgia burst onto the scene in WWF in the late 80’s, feuding with main-eventers Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage. Brandishing his nightstick, he promised to deliver ‘Hard Times’ to his opponents. Boss Man was a larger than life character who embodied the cartoonish nature of the golden era, whilst also being a serious worker.
23. Legion of Doom
Brought in after success in other promotions the Legion of Doom (formerly the Road Warriors), Hawk and Animal were big, bad, and clad in spiked shoulder pads and face-paint. Their outlandish appearance and powerhouse style made them extremely popular upon joining the WWF. They went on to capture the tag titles from the Nasty Boys at SummerSlam 1991; feuding with the Natural Disasters and Money Inc.
22. Brutus ‘the Barber’ Beefcake
Despite limited ability, and a career predicated on being Hulk Hogan’s mate, ‘Brother Bruti’ still played a prominent role in the golden era. Initially a heel male stripper who held the tag titles with Greg Valentine in the Dream Team, Beefcake later took on the Barber gimmick and became a fan favourite; with a notable highlight being teaming with friend Hulk Hogan at SummerSlam 1989 against Randy Savage and Hogan’s ‘No Holds Barred’ co-star Zeus.
21. Rick Martel
Martel is one of the most underrated wrestlers of his era; talented in the ring and charismatic on the mic, it seems a shame that he never broke into the top tier of the main event. Starting off as a tag team champion with Tito Santana in Strike Force, Martel turned heel and became ‘the Model’; an entertaining narcissist who’s shill his cologne: ‘Arrogance’ in brilliantly camp vignettes.
20. The Undertaker
Debuting at the 1990 Survivor Series at the age of 25, young Mark Callaway made an immediate impact as the character that would define him for the next 25 years. He played the role of the undead wrestler impervious to pain to perfection, while others would’ve faltered. Even in his early years ‘taker feuded with big stars such as the Ultimate Warrior, Jake Roberts, and even won the WWF title from Hulk Hogan for 6 days. Even in his early years, the Dead man showed glimmers of greatness that would carry on into a legendary career.
19. Paul Orndorff
‘Mr Wonderful’ had a prominent run in the main event scene during the early years of the golden era. This included being in the main event of Wrestlemania I; teaming with Roddy Piper against Hulk Hogan and Mr. T. In 1986, after teaming with Hogan as a face, Orndorff would go on to have the feud of the year with Hogan after turning on him, culminating in a steel cage match which Hogan won.
18. The Managers
Though these were not ‘wrestlers’, I believe that the managers of the golden era deserve recognition, and are an element sorely missed in modern WWE. These managers included; ‘Classy’ Freddie Blassie, ‘The Mouth of the South’ Jimmy Hart, Mr. Fuji, Slick, and Sensational Sherri. These were charismatic individuals who elevated the wrestlers they managed, and added to the matches their clients were involved in.
17. The Rockers
Consisting of Marty Jannetty and future Hall of Famer Shawn Michaels, the Rockers are arguably the best team to have never held the tag titles. With their fast-paced high flying offence, the Rockers put on many high-calibre matches with the top teams of the time. The team broke up in the last year of the golden era, with Marty’s drug problems holding him back, and Shawn becoming one of the greatest singles wrestlers of all time.
A powerhouse team who lacked technical skill, but still put on entertaining matches with a brute force style. Ax and Smash battled all the prominent teams of the golden era who’re features on this list, racking up 3 tag team title reigns. With their S&M Mad Max inspired look, along with their brawling style, Demolition were a popular team with an impressive legacy.
15. Ric Flair
With his first WWF run only lasting a year and a half, you may wonder why Flair is placed so high on the list. But Flair owned it, with incredible promos and great matches. It wasn’t long after his debut that Flair gave the greatest Royal Rumble performance in history, lasting over 60 minutes to win the vacant WWF title in 1992, later stealing the show at Wrestlemania VIII against Randy Savage.
14. The British Bulldogs/Davey Boy Smith
One of the most innovative tag teams of the ‘80s, the Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy Smith mixed technical ability and intricate double team manoeuvres to put on great matches with the likes of the Hart Foundation. They won the tag team titles at Wrestlemania 2, holding them until Dynamite Kid’s back injury caused them to drop the belts and disband. But Davey Boy embarked on an impressive singles career, highlighted by winning the Intercontinental title at SummerSlam 1992 in Wembley stadium.
13. Honky Tonk Man
An example of an outlandish character who held a prominent role in the golden era, and is fondly remembered by fans today. Playing the role of an Elvis impersonator, Honky was a much reviled heel who used numerous forms of chicanery to win matches/retain his title. Honky’s prominence came from his Intercontinental title reign, holding it for a record 454 days; confirming his place as the greatest Intercontinental champion of all time.
12. Bobby Heenan
Despite not being a wrestler (though, he did take part in several novelty matches with stars like the Ultimate Warrior), this man deserves recognition for the part he played during this era. Possibly the greatest manager of all time, his antics and mic-work turned those that joined his ‘family’ into established heels. It is also his time as a quick-witted heel commentator that cements ‘the Brain’s legacy as a true great.
11. Ricky Steamboat
One of the best workers in the history of the industry, ‘the Dragon’ had the ability to put on entertaining matches with wrestlers of any calibre. Steamboat’s career highlight came in his feud against Randy Savage, in which he captured the intercontinental title at Wrestlemania III in one of the greatest Wrestlemania matches of all time.
10. Bret Hart
Kick-starting his WWF career as one half of the Hart Foundation with Jim Neidhart; possibly the best team of the golden era, ‘the Hitman’ showed early signs of greatness with his crisp technical ability which earned him the moniker ‘the excellence of execution’. Hart’s singles career saw him rack up 2 intercontinental titles runs in classic matches against Mr. Perfect, Roddy Piper, and the British Bulldog. The end of the era in 1992 saw Hart win the WWF title from Ric Flair, ushering in his prominence in the era to come.
9. ‘Ravishing’ Rick Rude
A mixture of a god-like physique, charisma, and solid in-ring skills established Rude as a major player of the era. A notable part of his character was his pre-match ritual of kissing a random woman in the crowd, and then ceremonially disrobing to showcase his physique. Rude feuded with the Ultimate Warrior in 1989, showcasing his ability by carrying the greener Warrior, and captured the Intercontinental title from him at Wrestlemania V.
8. The Ultimate Warrior
What the Warrior lacked in technical ability, he more than made up for in energy and character. The face-painted, muscle-bound, larger-than-life persona captured the imagination of the fans; resulting in his popularity and rise to stardom. His 27 second Intercontinental title victory over the Honky Tonk Man at SummerSlam 1988 was only surpassed when he defeated Hulk Hogan in ‘the Ultimate Challenge’ at Wrestlemania VI to win the WWF title.
7. Andre the Giant
A true spectacle of a man, standing over 7 feet tall and weighing around 550 pounds, Andre holds a reputation as being the greatest ‘big man’ in wrestling. Andre’s defining moment came during his legendary feud with Hulk Hogan, and its culmination at Wrestlemania III; which contributed to the event’s massive attendance. Hogan body slammed the giant to produce one of the most memorable moments in WWF/E history.
6. Ted Dibiase
‘The Million Dollar Man’ is regarded as one of the best wrestlers to have never held the world title. His tremendous in-ring talent was only overshadowed by his memorable character. Proclaiming ‘Everybody has a price’, Dibiase established his villainous character by paying random fans to perform humiliating tasks for him, and trying to buy the WWF title. When that failed, Dibiase created his own Million Dollar championship. Another example of an entertaining character who put on quality matches.
5. Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts
A silver-tongued devil, Jake Roberts was one of the best talkers in wrestling, delivering chilling promos in a calm, pernicious manner. But it wasn’t just Roberts’ talking that defined him, he was a master of psychology; building his matches around his DDT finisher, probably the most popular move of the era.
4. Mr. Perfect
A solid worker who put on entertaining matches with his technical ability and his bombastic selling, Mr. Perfect was as close to perfect as a wrestler could get. His detestable character of the man who did everything in life perfectly was showcased brilliantly in numerous sporting vignettes that also showcased his charisma. Perfect was a 2 time Intercontinental champion, eventually losing it in a great match against Bret Hart at SummerSlam 1991.
3. ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper
“Do you think they would have loved you so much if they hadn’t hated me?” A statement made by Roddy Piper towards Hulk Hogan, and it’s hard to argue with. Every good hero needs a good villain, and Piper was the ultimate villain of the early years of the golden age. His feud against Hulk Hogan is what helped make the first Wrestlemania as big as it was; launching WWF into the golden era.
2. Hulk Hogan
Simply put; there is no golden era without Hulk Hogan. The WWF’s top star throughout the era, his superstardom helped carry them into the mainstream. There are too many memorable feuds/highlights involving the Hulkster to recap in this paragraph. His impact on the golden era, and pro wrestling as a whole cannot be overstated.
1. Randy Savage
Many would assume that Hogan would get the top spot, but the Macho Man edges it due to all that he encompasses. Great in the ring; with show stealing matches against Ricky Steamboat, Ultimate Warrior, and Ric Flair at Wrestlemania’s III, VII, and VIII. Great on the mic; delivering captivating, entertaining promos to make him the best talker of the golden era. And many memorable moments; his Intercontinental title reigh/feud with Steamboat, his WWF title victory and the amazing Mega Powers storyline with Hulk Hogan, and his reunion/marriage to Miss Elizabeth.
The golden era featured many colourful characters and great talents, but the Macho Man embodied and exceeded as a colourful character and great talent.
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