The Best Wrestlers of the 1980s

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Professional wrestling may have been around a lot longer than the 1980s, but for many people, the '80s was when the entire industry saw its first big boom among mainstream audiences.

In previous years, wrestling was considered more of a niche sport, with its small contingent of fans who enjoyed seeing wrestlers like Gorgeous George, Gorilla Monsoon, Lou Thesz, and Buddy Rogers. But by the 1980s, pro wrestling suddenly found itself attracting a more extensive viewership, many of them gravitating towards the hard-hitting wrestling style of NWA or WWF's theatrical, family-friendly presentation.

It's hard to say why wrestling suddenly became so widely accepted among the masses. Still, more than likely, it can be attributed to the immeasurable talents that came about at the time. From younger wrestlers like Sting and Ricky Steamboat to world-famous performers like Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, here are 15 of the most outstanding wrestling personalities of the 1980s.

15. Terry Funk

Nowadays, Terry Funk is probably more often remembered for his ridiculously short attempts to stay retired — only to inevitably step back into the ring one more time.

But back in the 1970s and '80s, Funk was one of the best to lace up his boots, having stellar singles matches against the likes of Ric Flair or tag matches with his brother, Dory Jr.

It's also worth pointing out he's one of the more influential wrestlers in the industry's history, pioneering hardcore wrestling years before anyone else. Anybody who ever engages in a match involving a trash can, barbed wire, or dangerous bumps owes him a debt of gratitude, from fellow legends like Mick Foley to modern wrestlers like Jon Moxley.

14. The Iron Sheik

As you can imagine, the 1980s weren't exactly the most … inclusive of decades. As with the ridiculously pro-American movies that came out at the time (think of the foreign caricatures American heroes had to battle in films like Red Dawn, Rocky IV, or Rambo), wrestling was not immune to this similarly problematic trope among mainstream media.

Like his regular tag team partner, Nikolai Volkoff, The Iron Sheik was one example of this. An Iranian-born wrestler, the Sheik was billed as America's stereotypical view of Iran — the perfect boogeyman for Americans to tremble at after the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979.

Racist? Probably. But the Sheik's exceptional talent in the ring allowed him to become one of the most incredible heels in the business. What's more, his feud with a young up-and-coming Hulk Hogan eventually got the Hulkamaniac over in the eyes of the WWF universe, leading to the first of many world championships for the Hulkster over the years.

13. Jake The Snake Roberts

Jake the Snake Roberts was a man ahead of his time. His wrestling style — a no-nonsense brawler — was always great, but his promo and microphone skills set him apart as a top-tier performer.

With his smooth, calm voice and his tendency to quote philosophers, writers, and artists, Roberts specialized in tearing apart his opponents mentally before they even stepped foot in the ring together.

Carrying a massive python in a burlap sack to the ring and dispensing it in the corner during his matches (meant as a way to get inside his opponents' heads), Roberts was the Cerebral Assassins a decade before Triple H could claim that elite title. An underrated performer in every sense of the word, he's just one of the many wrestlers who deserved — but somehow never received — a significant push in WWF.

12. Arn Anderson

The muscle behind the Four Horsemen stable in NWA and WCW, Arn Anderson very much embodied his onscreen persona as “The Enforcer.”

It's pretty standard for wrestling factions to have one wrestler to act as the brawny manager outside the ring, interfering with matches and coming in at the last second to clobber opponents while the referees' backs are turned (think Batista in Evolution, Kevin Nash in the NWO, the Big Boss Man in the Corporation).

Yet it was Anderson who was the first to occupy that role, paving the way for every pseudo-enforcer that followed. But more than that, Anderson was also a skilled wrestler in his own right, standing tall as one of the greatest tag team performers alongside fellow Horseman Tully Blanchard.

11. Ted DiBiase

More commonly known by his nickname, “The Million Dollar Man,” Ted DiBiase was one of the more creative villains to ever grace a WWF ring in the mid to late '80s.

Like equally extravagant characters like Ric Flair, the basis for DiBiase's onscreen persona was that he was a rich, conceited, arrogant jerk that used his vast wealth to do practically anything he wanted in the WWF.

Whether that meant having “fans” (plants) in the audience humiliate themselves for a bit of extra cash, or trying to bribe other wrestlers into handing over their championship titles, he was the perfect villain to oppose the main heroes of WWF at the time (Savage, Hogan).

10. Harley Race

Before Dusty Rhodes, before Ricky Steamboat, before Ric Flair, there was Harley Race, the man who put NWA on the map.

Wrestling for the company from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s, Race showed that you didn't need a flashy character to stand apart as one of the best in the world. All you needed was pure talent, a hard work ethic, and (probably most importantly) to be a safe and selfless wrestler in the ring.

Everybody who came after him in NWA rightfully looked to him as an idol. The fact that he's been inducted into five separate halls of fame over the years (WWE, NWA, WCW, Wrestling Observer Newsletter, and the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame) speaks volumes about his talent and influence in the business.

9. Sting

It's up to your individual tastes which you prefer: the blond-headed surfer Sting of the 1980s or the goth Crow sting of the late '90s (although most people probably tend to gravitate towards the latter).

Regardless of the era, Sting was consistently great no matter which decade he wrestled in, even now having some of the most standout moments of his career in AEW at age 63.

Taken under the wing of Ric Flair (who later turned out to be his best and most bitter rival), Sting was the young underdog you had to cheer for in NWA and WCW. He was young, talented, and he had fantastic chemistry with practically everyone he faced off against in the company.

8. Ricky Steamboat

Ricky Steamboat was one of those NWA wrestlers who changed the industry. Like his long-running rival, Ric Flair, he favored a more unorthodox offensive style composed of chops, kicks, suplexes, and dives during a time when wrestling matches were composed principally of fake-looking punches, body slams, and headlocks.

Through his acclaimed matches with Flair, Steamboat became one of the most influential faces to alter the course of pro wrestling, leading to the similarly-veined match-styles of WWE's NXT branch, NJPW, and AEW decades later.

His WWF run was all too short-lived, but at the very least, he gave us that instant classic match with Randy Savage. Sadly, all we can do is wonder what might've been if WWE gave him the screentime the Dragon so clearly deserved.

7. Dusty Rhodes

Another supremely influential wrestler (sensing a trend yet?), Dusty Rhodes had one of the most ingenious gimmicks during his stint in NWA. The originality behind his persona is that he essentially characterized everything a wrestler shouldn't be.

He didn't look like a wrestler, he didn't act like a wrestler, he barely ever talked like a wrestler. Instead, he was portrayed as “The Son of a Plumber” — an average blue-collar worker who only got to where he is through hard work and sheer determination.

Dubbing himself “The American Dream.” Rhodes excelled at getting over with fans based entirely on his perseverance. Watching him go after the World Championship symbolized all the possibilities and ambitions Americans held dear to themselves. When he won, it was like we were all winning, each of us achieving our dreams.

6. Tito Santana

Tito Santana is one of those rare wrestlers apparently incapable of having a bad match. A consistently amazing performer from the start of his career in 1977 till his retirement in 2019 (!), Santana was one of WWF's old guard as they transitioned to the Hulk Hogan era of the late 1980s.

But before the likes of Hogan, Savage, and DiBiase could be ushered in, Santana still held onto his distinguished place as one of the WWF's top performers, holding the Intercontinental Championship for a combined 443 days (one of the longest combined reigns of all time).

How he became lost in the shuffle of new talent emerging in the WWF, I have no idea. But if WWF had pushed him a good deal more and put him opposite Hogan or Savage more often, no doubt fans would've gotten several more dream matches in the making.

5. Rowdy Roddy Piper

We've talked a little about great performers on the microphone, but nobody comes close to the level of promo talent Rowdy Roddy Piper had in WWF throughout the 1980s.

As the host of his infamous Piper's Pit, Hot Rod was as skilled a talker as any, and is now considered one of the best and biggest personalities in WWE television history.

Utilizing his notoriously short temper and penchant for openly mocking wrestlers to their faces, Piper was like the mean-spirited standup comic you hope never turns their attention towards you. Crude, rude, but always entertaining, his promos had an air of unpredictability when it came to watching them — like watching a demolition derby, you expect the whole thing to blow over at any given moment, which, of course, they always did.

4. Macho Man Randy Savage

Along with Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage was one of the main faces of WWF television in the mid to late 1980s.

Capitalizing on all the pomp and circumstance of his outfits, Savage had a breathy, deep-voiced personality that showed he was always ready to throw down, no matter the circumstances or who his challenger was.

Whether he was the villainous Intercontinental Champion or the heroic WWF champion, he was everything you'd expect from a wrestler of his era and then some. In his matches with Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat, too, he showed exceptional and forward-thinking in-ring talent, and was, without a doubt, miles ahead of his tag partner/later rival, Hulk Hogan.

3. André The Giant

Literally the biggest attraction in WWF in the '80s, the wrestling world had never seen anyone quite like André before. The definition of a gentle giant outside the ring, André was unsurprisingly billed as a force of nature in his matches — one of the most formidable opponents a wrestler could face at the time.

André's work as a face was always commendable, but it was his sudden betrayal of Hulk Hogan and his alignment with the devious manager, Bobby “the Brain” Heenan, where he really began to shine as an entertainer.

Though by that point he was beginning to wind down his career as a wrestler, his feuds with Hogan, Jake the Snake Roberts, and Randy Savage were always exciting. And André — class act that he was— always managed to make his opponents look like absolute superheroes, putting them over in the eyes of the fans any way he can.

2. Hulk Hogan

By far not the best wrestler on this list, there's no arguing that Hogan was the definitive face in pro wrestling by the late '80s in more ways than one.

The most universally recognized wrestler in his day, Hulk Hogan was like the Superman of the WWF — even those who were unfamiliar with the sport knew instantly who he was (which is extremely impressive when you consider this was way before the Internet or social media).

His move sets grew more limited over time, but at his peak, Hogan truly seemed like the ultimate hero wrestling had ever seen, his loyal legion of Hulkamaniacs permanently at his back.

1. Ric Flair

Ric Flair practically was wrestling in the 1980s. The second largest in-ring personality behind Hulk Hogan, Flair may not have been as popular as Hogan was, but he came pretty darn close.

What separates Flair from Hogan, though, is the Nature Boy's incredible in-ring work. In terms of his character work and wrestling style, few wrestlers came close to achieving the acclaim Flair won in his matches — such as his indelible bouts against Ricky Steamboat, Sting, Terry Funk, and Dusty Rhodes.

From his flamboyant personality as the limousine-riding, jet-flying, kiss-stealing, wheeling-and-dealing Nature Boy, Flair was the kind of a wrestler you loved to hate and were dying to see lose. You can argue that his career went on a tad too long (after all, he only recently wrestled his last match at the age of 73), but wrestling just wouldn't be the same without the Dirtiest Player in the Game, Ric Flair.

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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Author: Richard Chachowski

Title: Journalist

Expertise: Classic Film, Contemporary Film and TV, Video Games, Comic Books

Bio:

Richard Chachowski is an entertainment and travel writer who has written for such publications as Wealth of Geeks, Fangoria, Looper, Screen Rant, and MSN. He received a BA in Communication Studies and a BA in Journalism and Professional Writing from The College of New Jersey in 2021. He has been a professional writer since 2020. His geeky areas of interest include Star Wars, travel writing, horror, video games, comic books, literature, and animation.