The 1980s professional wrestling boom (more commonly referred to as the Golden Age) saw a surge in the popularity of professional wrestling in the United States and worldwide throughout the 1980s. The expansion of cable television and pay-per-view saw two companies dominate the field: Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now WWE) and Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling (WCW).
We hope you’re ready to rumble, as we’re about to count down the top twenty wrestlers of the period (not ranked in order of preference).
20. Jimmy Snuka
James Reiher Snuka, better known as Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, wrestled for several promotions from the 1970s to 2010. He was best known for his time in the WWF in the early to mid 1980s and was credited for introducing the high-flying style of wrestling to the sport. In 1996 he was inducted into the WWF Hall of Fame – but sadly, his later years were marred by scandal and tragedy.
Snuka was indicted and arrested in September 2015 on third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter charges over the May 1983 death of his girlfriend, Nancy Argentino. Snuka pleaded not guilty, but was ultimately found unfit to stand trial in June 2016 due to being diagnosed with dementia. As his health declined, the charges were dismissed on January 3, 2017. He died twelve days later.
19. Rick Rude
Richard Erwin Rood was better known as “Ravishing” Rick Rude. He was an American professional wrestler who performed for the WWF and the WCW. He wrestled between 1982 until 1994 where he retired due to an injury. In late 1997, Rude founded the D-Generation X stable alongside Shawn Michaels, Triple H, and Chyna.
On November 17 of that year, in the midst of the Monday Night Wars, he became the only person to appear on the WWF’s Raw and WCW’s Monday Nitro programs on the same night, as the former was pre-recorded and Rude had left for WCW in the interim. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2017.
18. The Ultimate Warrior
James Brian Hellwig, aka ‘The Ultimate Warrior’ wrestled for the WWF from 1987 to 1991 and again in 1992 and 1996. He became a two-time WWF Intercontinental Heavyweight Champion and won the WWF World Heavyweight Championship once when he defeated Hulk Hogan.
Warrior (his legal name, changed in the 1993) died on April 8, 2014, at the age of 54 in Scottsdale, Arizona. Over the preceding three days, he had been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, appeared at WrestleMania XXX and made his final public appearance on Raw, returning to the promotion after an acrimonious separation since 1996.
17. Mr. Perfect
Curtis Michael Hennig first performed under his birth name, but found his greatest success as Mr. Perfect, initially a nickname which in time became his official title. Hennig was named by WWE as one of the top five champions of all time; he was the longest-reigning titleholder of the 1990s.
The WCW recognised Hennig as “one of the best all-round competitors the wrestling business has ever produced.” He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2007 by Major League Baseball player Wade Boggs. Sadly, this was a posthumous honour, as Hennig passed away in 2003 from multiple drug intoxication.
16. Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts
Aurelian Jake Smith Jr. is otherwise known as Jack “The Snake” Roberts. Famed for his two stints in the World Wrestling Federation, the (1986-1992, then 1995-1997), his trademark was bringing large snakes – usually a python – into the ring. He also had a famous signature finishing move, the DDT.
Featured heavily in 1999 documentary Beyond the Mat, Roberts was among the first pro-wrestlers to speak publicly about the hardships endured by those in the sport. While he has struggled with personal issues including addiction, Roberts has managed to keep himself on track. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame on April 5, 2014, then the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum in 2020.
15. ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper
Like most of us, you probably thought that “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was a born Scotsman, as that was part of his character. In fact, Piper was Canadian, although he did have Scottish heritage, hence the kilt and bagpipe entrance music became part of his persona. He earned the nicknames “Rowdy” and “Hot Rod” by displaying his trademark “Scottish” rage, spontaneity, and quick wit.
As well as being considered one of the WWF’s greatest ‘heels’ (that’s ‘bad guys’ to the rest of you), Piper also enjoyed success as a film star, most famously taking the lead in 1988 cult classic They Live. Another WWE Hall of Fame inductee, Piper sadly died in 2015 from cardiac arrest. When Ronda Rousey joined WWE in 2017, she adopted elements of Piper’s look and persona.
14. Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart
Bret Hart is a Canadian second-generation wrestler, son of Stu Hart, founder of Stampede Wrestling, where Bret got his first break. He then joined WWF, forming tag team The Hart Foundation with brother-in-law Jim Neidhart. After winning the WWF Tag Team Championship twice, Hart went solo and enjoyed both Intercontinental Champion and World Champion success.
While he’s considered one of the best wrestlers in WWF history, Hart has a fractured relationship with the company after he was infamously denied championship victory in his final WWF match; fans refer to the incident as the ‘Montreal Screwjob.’ Hart then moved to WCW, but eventually returned to what was by then WWE after patching things up with boss Vince McMahon.
13. Hulk Hogan
Born Terry Gene Bollea, Hulk Hogan became arguably the most popular figure in wrestling in the 1980s. With his handlebar moustache, yellow costume (complete with T-shirt he routinely tore his way out of before every match), Hogan soon commanded an army of fans dubbed ‘Hulkamaniacs,’ and became one of the first wrestlers to enjoy mainstream crossover fame.
Outside of the ring, Hogan made famous appearances in Rocky III and TV’s The A-Team, although his attempts at being a movie leading man (Suburban Commando, Mr. Nanny) didn’t turn out so great. With WWF, he was a five-time World Champion, and the 90s saw him move to WCW where he held their championship title six times.
12. André the Giant
Born André René Roussimoff in Seine-et-Marne, France, the ring name André the Giant was something of a no-brainer for a man who, at his peak, stood 7’4″ tall and weighed over 500lb. This naturally made him a sight to behold in the ring, hence André wound up enjoying huge celebrity status all over the world.
As well as being one of the WWF’s (literally) biggest stars, André the Giant is also fondly remembered for his role in beloved 1986 film The Princess Bride. Sadly, the gigantism that helped him professionally took its toll on him physically, and he spent much of his life in pain before dying of heart failure aged just 46. Shortly after his death, André became the first inductee to the WWF Hall of Fame.
11. Randy Savage
Randall Mario Poffo, aka Macho Man Randy Savage (later renamed ‘Macho King), was another of the most memorable wrestlers from the golden age of WWF. With his deep, raspy voice, flamboyant attire with a taste for sequins, huge sunglasses and even huger hats, Savage really made an impression on fans, even before he broke out his signature catchphrase, “oh yeah!”
On top of holding eleven championship titles (encompassing WWF and WCW) over the course of a career spanning more than three decades, Savage also made a memorable film appearance in 2002’s Spider-Man, as the wrestler who faces off against Tobey Maguire’s young superhero. Sadly, he’s yet another wrestler who died young, taken by a heart attack in 2011 aged 58.
10. Davey Boy Smith
Also known as the British Bulldog, Davey Boy Smith hailed from the United Kingdom but made a big name for himself in the USA. After crossing the Atlantic, Smith trained under Bret Hart’s father Stu before joining the WWF. He also became part of the Hart family by marriage, wedding Bret’s sister Diana in 1984.
The 80s were great for Smith’s wrestling career, although he really hit his peak in 1992, defeating his brother-in-law Bret Hart at Summerslam for the Intercontinental Championship, at iconic British venue Wembley Stadium no less. Sadly, years of steroid abuse took their toll when Smith died of a heart attack aged just 39. His son Harry Smith now wrestles as Davey Boy Smith, Jr.
9. ‘Hacksaw’ Jim Duggan
‘Hacksaw’ Jim Duggan’s gimmick was simple, yet strangely effective; every inch the All-American patriot, he routinely carried the American flag to the ring and prompted the crowd to chant “U-S-A!” He also carried a wooden 2×4 plank as his weapon of choice, and somehow managed to get away with using it on his opponents. Then there was his battle cry, “Hoooo!”
After working with a number of smaller wrestling promotions, Duggan didn’t actually join WWF until 1987, but he quickly made a mark, most notably winning the first ever Royal Rumble match in 1988. He went on to work with WCW were he held two championship titles. Happily, Duggan is one 80s wrestling star who is still with us, despite some health scares including a close call with cancer.
8. Sgt. Slaughter
Michigan-born Robert Rudolph Remus started out as a pro-wrestler in the 70s, and on joining the WWF his character Sgt. Slaughter went through a series of at times eyebrow-raising shifts from hero to villain. He wrestled with WWF and AWA (American Wrestling Associaton) in the 80s, and bizarrely even appeared as himself in cartoon series GI Joe.
On returning to the WWF in the 90s, Sgt. Slaughter became a major heel at the centre of a provocative storyline: Slaughter turned on America and became an Iraqi sympathiser during the Gulf War, leading to a Wrestlemania VII showdown with Hulk Hogan. Long since retired as a wrestler, Sgt. Slaughter remains contracted to WWE as an ambassador.
7. Ted DiBiase
With a mother and stepfather who were also wrestlers, Ted DiBiase pretty much grew up in the ring. He was a pro from the mid-70s, wrestling with several different organisations under several different names before landing on the WWF persona he would be best known for: The Million Dollar Man.
An eye-catching figure with his gold-encrusted spangly tuxedo, Million Dollar Man had a high-profile feud with Macho Man Randy Savage in the late 80s. Unlike a lot of wrestlers, DiBiase opted to bow out at his peak, retiring from the ring in 1993. However, he’s remained active with WWE and WCW as a manager and commentator. DiBiase is also an ordained Christian minister.
6. Shawn Michaels
While he would enjoy his greatest success in the 90s as a four-time WWF World Champion, Shawn Michaels (or Michael Shawn Hickenbottom, to use his birth name) broke through in the 80s. After stints with National Wrestling Association, Texas All-Star Wrestling and AWA, Michaels joined WWF in 1988 and wasted no time making a name for himself.
Michaels was initially one half of tag team The Rockers, whose matches against The Hart Foundation paved the way for a feud with Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart that would help raise Michaels’ profile in the early 90s. In the years since he’s been widely recognised as one of the best wrestlers ever, with particular praise heaped on his 2007 match against John Cena.
5. Ric Flair
Ric Flair was a wrestling superstar in the 80s, but his career stretched out far beyond that. Remarkably, Flair started out as a wrestler in 1972, and fought what is said to be his retirement match a full fifty years later on August 1, 2022, aged 73. For anyone to spend that amount of time throwing and/or being thrown around the ring and still be standing is very impressive indeed.
Wrestling with many different promotions over the decades, Flair (born Richard Morgan Fliehr) enjoyed his highest-profile success with WWF and WCW in the 90s, but he was already a big deal in the 80s thanks to his work with NWA. He returned to WWF in the early 2000s, and fans have heaped praise on him over the years, with numerous sports news outlets calling him the best wrestler ever.
4. Jesse Ventura
Born James George Janos, Jesse Ventura came to wrestling in the mid-70s after serving in the US Navy, and went on to enjoy one of the most surprisingly varied careers of anyone in his field. After competing in the WWF as Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura, he stepped back from wrestling in 1986, but remained with WWF as a commentator, where he was every bit as much of a showman.
The late 80s also saw Ventura sidestep into acting, making two memorable appearances alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man and Predator. Similar to Schwarzenegger, Ventura also moved into politics, first as the mayor of a town in his native Minnesota, then serving as the state’s 38th Governor from 1999 to 2003.
Most of the biggest names in wrestling back in the 80s achieved that fame at least in part with the WWF. This was not the case with Steve Borden, otherwise known as Sting, who became one of the best-loved wrestlers of the era with rival promotion WCW, after earlier serving with Continental Wrestling Association and Universal Wrestling Federation.
After joining WCW in 1987, Sting was considered their biggest star, and was pivotal to many of the promotion’s most memorable moments, including being joined in the ring by RoboCop in 1990. Sting remained with WCW until 2001, when it went out of business and was bought out by WWF, and he wrestled with a number of other promotions before finally joining what was by then known as WWE in 2014.
2. The Iron Sheik
If there was any one specific wrestling character that almost certainly wouldn’t fly today, it’s probably The Iron Sheik. One of the WWF’s most prominent ‘heels’ in a time of difficult relations between the West and the Middle East, The Iron Sheik was always a controversial character for playing on (and/or stoking) anti-Arabic sentiments among the US audience.
Even so, wrestler Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri deserves some credit as the only Iranian to achieve global fame as a wrestler, winning the WWF world championship during his feud with the all-American hero Hulk Hogan. He kept wrestling as the Iron Sheik until 2010, and remains popular among fans thanks in no small part to his unguarded comments about his old rival Hogan (whom he apparently holds in genuine contempt).
1. Ricky Steamboat
Japanese-American wrestler Richard Blood started out competing in the lates 70s under his own known name, before being renamed Ricky Steamboat whilst working with Championship Wrestling Florida. He then took this ring name to the WWF, where he enjoyed his greatest success as Ricky ‘The Dragon’ Steamboat.
Wrestlemania III saw him win the Intercontinental Heavyweight Championship, but his Ricky’s relationship with WWF soured when he requested paternity leave. In the 90s he would move back and forth between WWF and WCW, although he remains contracted to WWE to this day under an ambassador contract.