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The 1980s were a magical time, not only for pop culture but for professional wrestling as well. Thanks in no small part to Vince McMahon, the industry received its first mainstream exposure from the likes of MTV, Saturday Night Live and Sports Illustrated.
By the time WrestleMania was introduced in 1985, there was no looking back for many wrestling fans (yours truly included in that). And while there were definitely lots of big names competing in the National Wrestling Alliance and American Wrestling Association... this list focuses on the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE).
In selecting the Top 50 WWF Stars Of The 1980s, Wrestling Merchandise and Memories looked at the following criteria:
How prominent was the star in the WWF between the years 1980 and 1989 (e.g. excluding what they may have accomplished elsewhere)?
Were they involved in memorable matches and angles?
Did they win any WWF championships during this time (not crucial, given announcers and managers on this list, too)?
Are they often associated with the 1980s wrestling scene?
Note: While celebrities such as Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T were arguably among the biggest stars driving the Rock & Wrestling Era, we've excluded them because they were more special guests than they were WWF stars.
Ready? Here we go!
Koko B. Ware
WWE Hall of Famer Koko B. Ware debuted in the WWF in 1986. Nicknamed "The Birdman" and always with his macaw Frankie in tow, Ware was largely a midcarder, although he achieved prominence through singing the cover track "Piledriver" on the second Wrestling Album.
Rick Martel joined the WWF in 1980, capturing the promotion's tag team championship with Tony Garea. After spending several years in the AWA, Martel returned in 1986 and later gold again with Tito Santana. By 1989, Martel turned on his Strike Force partner and turned into the heelish "Model" persona.
The Magnificent Muraco
WWE Hall of Famer The Magnificent Muraco captured the WWF Intercontinental Title twice between 1981 and 1983, feuding with the likes of Pedro Morales and Tito Santana. By the middle of the decade, Muraco was managed by Mr. Fuji and would have a huge rivalry with Ricky Steamboat.
WWE Hall of Famer Greg "The Hammer" Valentine spent most of the 1980s in the WWF. In 1984, Valentine feuded with Tito Santana over the Intercontinental Championship. After defending the belt at the first WrestleMania, Valentine began teaming with Brutus Beefcake; the two were WWF Tag Team Champions.
The Fabulous Moolah
WWE Hall of Famer The Fabulous Moolah had been presented as the WWF Womens Champion off and on for the better part of 28 years. In 1984, she became a focal point of MTV's The Brawl To End It All show, in which Moolah finally lost the title to Wendi Richter, who was aided for the match by Cyndi Lauper.
Bam Bam Bigelow
While Bam Bam Bigelow only spent about a year in the WWF during the 1980s, The Beast From The East made a huge impression. When he arrived in 1987, Bigelow was courted by all of the heel managers before selecting Oliver Humperdink. And at the first Survivor Series, he was the final man eliminated.
WWE Hall of Famer Nikolai Volkoff had been in the WWF under different monikers but returned as the iconic Russian heel in 1984. After teaming with The Iron Sheik and capturing the WWF Tag Team Championship, Volkoff would become a singles wrestler, battling the likes of Hulk Hogan and Cpl. Kirschner.
Hacksaw Jim Duggan
WWE Hall of Famer Hacksaw Jim Duggan debuted in the WWF in 1987, making himself known at WrestleMania III. During the remainder of the decade, Duggan would battle the likes of The Iron Sheik, King Harley Race, Andre The Giant, Dino Bravo and King Haku while winning the first Royal Rumble in 1988.
WWE Hall of Famer Wendi Richter was arguably the most popular WWF female competitor in the 1980s. In 1984 and 1985, Richter was managed by Cyndi Lauper during a pair of high-profile MTV specials as well as the inaugural WrestleMania, where she won the WWF Womens Championship a second time.
WWE Hall of Famer Pat Patterson spent his final years as a competitor in a WWF ring during the early 1980s, holding the Intercontinental Championship and feuding with Sgt. Slaughter. After retiring, Patterson became an announcer on WWF television and was even the referee for the main event of WrestleMania I.
Big John Studd
WWE Hall of Famer Big John Studd was in the WWF in the early 1980s, managed by Classy Freddie Blassie and feuding with Bob Backlund. By the middle of the decade, Bobby Heenan became his manager, leading him into an epic rivalry with Andre The Giant. Studd also won the second Royal Rumble in 1989.
WWE Hall of Famer Jimmy Hart was part of the WWF from 1985 onwards. During those years, The Mouth of the South participated in some of the company's biggest angles, managing the likes of The Honky Tonk Man, The Hart Foundation, The Rougeaus, King Kong Bundy and Greg The Hammer Valentine.
WWE Hall of Famer Jake "The Snake" Roberts debuted in the WWF in 1986, shortly before WrestleMania II. Always lugging his python Damien around, Roberts feuded with the likes of Ricky The Dragon Steamboat, The Honky Tonk Man, The Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase and Ravishing Rick Rude in the 1980s.
While Vince McMahon is of course the creator of sports entertainment, founding what is now known as WWE in February 1980, to most fans back then, he was simply the company's lead announcer. WWF fans recall McMahon's distinct voice calling almost all the big matches during the 1980s.
WWE Hall of Famer "Ravishing" Rick Rude first appeared in the WWF in 1987 as the crown jewel of Bobby Heenan's Heenan Family. Feuding with Paul Orndorff, Jake The Snake Roberts and others, Rude defeated The Ultimate Warrior at WrestleMania V to capture the Intercontinental Championship.
While Vince McMahon was the most visible WWF announcer during the 1980s, WWE Hall of Famer Jesse "The Body" Ventura was easily the most colorful. After competing in a tag team with Adrian Adonis, Ventura retired in 1984 and became the industry's top heel commentator... and a pioneer.
The Junkyard Dog
WWE Hall of Famer The Junkyard Dog was arguably one of the company's top babyfaces during the mid-1980s. After debuting in 1984, JYD challenged Greg Valentine for the Intercontinental Title at the first WrestleMania and won The Wrestling Classic tournament (the WWF's first pay-per-view) the next year.
The Iron Sheik
WWE Hall of Famer The Iron Sheik made headlines by defeating WWF World Champion Bob Backlund in 1983. A month later, he would lose the title to Hulk Hogan, effectively beginning Hulkamania in the WWF. The Sheik would also win the WWF Tag Team titles with Nikolai Volkoff at the first WrestleMania.
Captain Lou Albano
WWE Hall of Famer Captain Lou Albano is known for guiding 15 tag teams to WWF gold, many during the 1980s. During his legendary career, Albano managed Andre The Giant, The Wild Samoans, The British Bulldogs, Greg The Hammer Valentine, Ken Patera and George The Animal Steele, among others.
WWE Hall of Famer "The Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase returned to the WWF in 1987 (he'd previously been a fan favorite in the late 1970s) as an evil millionaire with his own bodyguard, Virgil. Paying off both a referee and Andre The Giant, DiBiase attempted to buy the WWF World Championship in 1988.
For the first three years of the 1980s, WWE Hall of Famer Bob Backlund was the company's primary draw as WWF World Champion (a title he first captured in 1977!). Over the years, Backlund faced challenges as diverse as Jesse Ventura, The Wild Samoans, Hulk Hogan and Greg The Hammer Valentine for his belt.
While WWE Hall of Famer Brutus Beefcake isn't always mentioned in the same breath of some of his contemporaries, the was among the most popular names in the company in the late 1980s. After turning babyface in 1987, Beefcake's run as "The Barber" became incredibly popular.
The Ultimate Warrior
WWE Hall of Famer The Ultimate Warrior would not become WWF Champion during the 1980s - although this was the decade that helped shape his legend. Debuting in the WWF in 1987, Warrior feuded with The Honky Tonk Man, Andre The Giant, Ravishing Rick Rude and many others on route to his 1990s success.
Rowdy Roddy Piper
WWE Hall of Famer Rowdy Roddy Piper debuted in the WWF in 1984 and quickly became the promotion's top villian. His Piper's Pit talk show led to rivalries with the likes of Hulk Hogan, Superfly Jimmy Snuka and Bruno Sammartino, and Hot Rod had featured matches at the first three WrestleManias.
WWE Hall of Famer Randy "Macho Man" Savage debuted in the WWF in 1985 as the company's top free agent, with heel managers bidding for his contract. Over the next several years, Macho Man would feud with George The Animal Steele, Ricky Steamboat, The Honky Tonk Man, Hulk Hogan, Ted DiBiase and others.
Cowboy Bob Orton
With the exception of a few short stints in the NWA, WWE Hall of Famer Cowboy Bob Orton spent almost all of the 1980s in the WWF. Most famously, the father of Randy Orton served as a bodyguard for Rowdy Roddy Piper, being in Hot Rod's corner for the first two WrestleManias before breaking off on his own.
Long-time WWF/E front office employee Bruce Prichard debuted as Brother Love in 1988, the red-faced, white suit-wearing talk show host that strongly favored the heels while spreading his message of Love. Over the years, Brother Love had confrontations with the likes of Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper and others.
WWE Hall of Famer Larry Zbyszko only spent about a year during the 1980s in the WWF before traveling elsewhere, but it was a memorable year. In January 1980, Zbyszko turned on his mentor Bruno Sammartino, leading to their memorable Showwdown at Shea match that summer, which Sammartino won.
Classy Freddie Blassie
WWE Hall of Famer Classy Freddie Blassie was long retired from the ring by the time the 1980s began. The "Fashion Plate" managed a variety of top heels in the WWF at the time, including Kamala, Big John Studd, The Iron Shiek, Nikolai Volkoff, Killer Khan and, perhaps most interestingly, a young Hulk Hogan.
Mean Gene Okerlund
WWE Hall of Famer (and spokesman for our former site Canadian Bulldog's World) Mean Gene Okerlund was a focal point of the WWF from the moment he joined the company in 1984. Okerlund was the primary backstage announcer for the early WrestleManias and Saturday Night's Main Event.
Though primarily a tag team wrestler in the early 1980s, Adrian Adonis often battled the likes of Bob Backlund and Pedro Morales around that team. He also teamed with Dick Murdoch before transforming into Adorable Adrian Adonis in 1986 and feuding with Rowdy Roddy Piper and The Junkyard Dog.
King Harley Race
While WWE Hall of Famer Harley Race had gained notoriety as a seven-time NWA World Champion, he debuted in the WWF in 1986 and quickly became the crown and robe-wearing King Harley Race. As The King, Race would battle the likes of Hacksaw Jim Duggan and The Junkyard Dog before leaving in 1989.
The Hart Foundation
While Bret "Hit Man" Hart will ultimately be remembered as a top singles wrestler, most of his time in the WWF during the 1980s was spent teaming with his brother-in-law Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart as WWE Hall of Famers The Hart Foundation. The duo held the WWF Tag Team Championship for most of 1987.
WWE Hall of Famer Mr. Fuji spent the first half of the 1980s teaming with the likes of Mr. Saito and Tiger Chung Lee, even winning the WWF Tag Team Championship. Upon retirement in 1985, The Devious One became a manager, standing in the corner of The Magnificent Muraco, Demolition and many others.
WWE Hall of Famer George "The Animal" Steele began the 1980s as a vicious heel, but changed his ways after the first Saturday Night's Main Event and became managed by Captain Lou Albano. A staple of WWF's TNT and SNME shows, Steele entered into a feud with Randy Savage over Miss Elizabeth.
The Wild Samoans
WWE Hall of Famers The Wild Samoans (Afa and Sika) captured three sets of WWF Tag Team Championships during the 1980s under manager Captain Lou Albano. They also feuded with WWF Champion Bob Backlund in the decade. Afa and Sika are both the patriarchs of the legendary Samoan wrestling dynasty.
Big Boss Man
WWE Hall of Famer Big Boss Man debuted in the WWF in 1988 and was immediately cast as one of the company's top villians. Managed by Slick and carrying various prison-based weapons, Boss Man would feud with Hulk Hogan and partnered with Akeem as the unfortunately-named Twin Towers.
With the exception of a couple of years in the AWA, WWE Hall of Famer Tito Santana was a mainstay in the WWF during the 1980s and is one of the only people to compete at the first nine WrestleManias. Santana is both a two-time Intercontinental Championship and a two-time WWF Tag Team Champion.
King Kong Bundy
King Kong Bundy appeared in the WWF weeks before the first WrestleMania, and was said to have a "nine second" win at the inaugural supercard. Bundy also feuded extensively with Andre The Giant, teamed with Big John Studd and, most famously, battled Hulk Hogan in the main event of WrestleMania II.
The British Bulldogs
The British Bulldogs (no relation) debuted in the WWF in 1985 and immediately started a feud with fellow Stampede Wrestling alumnae The Hart Foundation. Davey Boy Smith and Dynamite Kid captured the WWF Tag Team Titles at WrestleMania II, holding them for the better part of the following year.
Demolition (Ax and Smash, although the original Smash was quickly replaced) debuted in the WWF in 1987. The duo quickly captured the WWF Tag Team Championship at WrestleMania IV and held the gold for what was a record length up until recently, and the first of three tag team reigns for the team.
In the early 1980s, WWE Hall of Famer "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka was a heel and challenged WWF Champion Bob Backlund. In later years, Snuka turned babyface, having a famous steel cage match with The Magnificent Muraco in 1983 and engaging in a red-hot rivalry with Rowdy Roddy Piper in 1984-85.
WWE Hall of Famer Sgt. Slaughter started his run in the 1980s as a heel, feuding with the likes of Bob Backlund and Pat Patterson. In 1984, Slaughter defended the U.S.A. against The Iron Sheik in a moment that would cement his legacy as an All-American Hero, as well as a real-life G.I. Joe character.
WWE Hall of Famer Paul Orndorff debuted in the WWF in 1983, being managed by Rowdy Roddy Piper and Bobby Heenan at various times. In addition to being in the main event of the first WrestleMania, Orndorff headlined a massive stadium show in Toronto in 1986 against Hulk Hogan.
While Miss Elizabeth was never really a professional wrestler, she was arguably the most iconic female WWF star of the 1980s. In the corner of Randy Macho Man Savage (and later, Hulk Hogan), Elizabeth was a centerpiece in The MegaPowers and its subsequent breakup in the main event of WrestleMania V.
WWE Hall of Famer Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat debuted in the WWF in 1985 and quickly became one of the most popular babyfaces, feuding with the likes of Magnificent Muraco and Mr. Fuji. But Steamboat is best remembered for his rivalry with Randy Macho Man Savage that culminated at WrestleMania III.
The Honky Tonk Man
Decades before Elias was doing it, WWE Hall of Famer The Honky Tonk Man was playing guitar for his adoring fans. The Elvis impersonator debuted in the WWF in 1986 and quickly turned heel. When he upset Ricky Steamboat for the Intercontinental Title in 1987, it would lead to the longest I-C reign of all time!
WWE Hall of Famer Bobby "The Brain" Heenan debuted in the WWF in 1984, and quickly became the most infamous non-wrestler of that era. Heenan managed the promotion's top villians throughout the decade, including Andre The Giant, Big John Studd, King Kong Bundy, Rick Rude and Paul Orndorff.
Andre The Giant
WWE Hall of Famer Andre The Giant began the 1980s feuding with a heel Hulk Hogan and seven years later, the two had reversed roles for the main event of WrestleMania III. The Eighth Wonder Of The World was a top attraction throughout his career, and was always at the forefront of the WWF during his run.
While Hulk Hogan's first run in the early part of the 1980s was somewhat memorable, Hulkamania was truly born when he captured the WWF Championship for the first time in January 1984. This led to main events or featured matches in the first nine WrestleManias and The Hulkster feuding with virtually all of the WWF's biggest heels in that era.