I have yet to meet a man who, as a kid or even an adult, has never tried to lock in a “figure four,” leaped off a bunk bed like Jimmy “Super Fly” Snuka, danced to regain his mojo like Chief Jay Strongbow, or pinned his brother, with one hand cupped to his ear, and pretending to hear the crowd scream like Hulk Hogan.
Professional Wrestling has grown from the 1940’s and has never been more popular. In the 50s and 60s, wrestlers battled without “scripts” and the punishment they endured is marked all over their bodies. In the 70s and 80s, after Saturday morning cartoons, a more colorful, rehearsed, yet still physically demanding form of wrestling filled television screens. We rooted for good over evil or evil over good, the drama, and the chair smacking, shoulder shaking, elbow dropping, glaring stairs of our heroes. Lou Albano and those wrestlers invented “smack.” This was the golden age, where imagination, champions, last minute heroics, and screaming at referees who failed to see the villain kept fans on the edge of their bed.
Then there was pay per view, matches without winners, and wrestling became a circus of greed and predictability. Yet the popularity never waned, as one man and now woman left the scene he or she was immediately replaced. The stars are richer and more popular than ever, the athletes are picture perfect, and the matches are seamlessly produced, crafted, and synchronized. But… We must return to the pioneers, the ones who paid their dues on the circuit, slept in cars, and didn’t have pain killers. These are the true champions. Their characteristics, attitudes, and style brought us feelings of glory, frustration, laughter, and they could never be imitated. These are the men that true wrestling fans can never forget.
15. Tito Santana
We start the list off with a former Intercontinental Champion, Tito Santana. Not only did he win the IC title, but he also won the tag titles twice, once with Ivan Putski and once with Rick Martel. Some will remember Santana better as El Matador, a stereotype gimmick of a bull fighter given to him in the late 80s. He also briefly returned to the WWE in 1997 to serve as a Spanish language announcer, even calling WrestleMania XIV.
As crazy as it is to think, Santana is still in amazing shape and still wrestles several matches every year. He’s also become an elementary school teacher since his full-time wrestling career came to a close.
14. The Honky Tonk Man
You might remember him as the Elvis imitator who held on to the Intercontinental Championship for a record of 14 months. Honky Tonk Man won the title from Ricky Steamboat in June of 1987 and would hold it until SummerSlam 1988, losing to The Ultimate Warrior in 35 seconds. As crazy as it sounds, Wayne Farris is still wrestling on the indies occasionally today. If you follow Honky Tonk Man today, you’ll notice that he’s never shy about voicing his opinion on any matter. He’s often seen delivering shoot interviews and isn’t afraid about calling anybody out. While his opinions are controversial and many fans will often disagree with them, they’re entertaining.
13. Tony Atlas
Anthony White is now 62, married, has a child, and lives in Maine. But before that, he burst onto the scene as a body builder and power lifter where he won “Mr. USA” three times. He began his wrestling career in the 1970s, was the first man to pin Hulk Hogan, but of course the referee didn’t see Hogan’s foot on the rope. Atlas was a dominant tag team partner and won the ICW Heavyweight title from Joe Savoldi, before losing and reclaiming it from Vic Steamboat.
But in the 1980s, Atlas battled drug addiction and was homeless. Vince McMahon brought him back as “Saba Simba,” and was a competitor in the 1991 Royal Rumble. He worked as a commentator and in television through 2012, wrote a book- “ATLAS: Too Much, Too Soon,” and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006. He was also recently on WWE Legends House, which pointed at some friction between Atlas and Hacksaw Jim Duggan.
12. “Cowboy” Bob Orton
Robert Keith Orton Jr. is surrounded by a family of wrestlers. He was the first wrestler to master the Superplex to defeat his opponents. He was a tall, powerful man who strutted into the ring with long curly hair, his signature cowboy hat, leather pants, and a vest. He was also famous for using a cast to smash other wrestlers. At first, the cast was real after Snuka broke his forearm in a real match, but he was a villain and continued to use it. He won the AWF Heavyweight Championship by defeating Tito Santana in 1996, the ICW Southeastern Heavyweight title, and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2005. He also had his fair share of ugly feuds with Snuka, “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff, and the Fresno Police Department who tasered him for being drunk and naked on the roof of a Fresno hotel.
11. Don Muraco
Don Muraco was another early winner of the Intercontinental Championship, winning it off of Pedro Morales and feuding with him over the belt. He was also part of one of wrestling’s most iconic moments, when Jimmy Snuka leaped off the top of the cage and hit Muraco with his Superfly Splash following their epic cage encounter. That incident inspired a young Mick Foley to become a professional wrestler.
The two-time Intercontinental Champion is often seen at autograph signings and has also been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. From 2003 to 2008 Muraco ran his own wrestling promotion in Hawaii called “Hawai’i Championship Wrestling”. He also made a WWE appearance back in 2007 to induct his former manager, the late Mr. Fuji into the WWE Hall of Fame.
10. The Rougeau Brothers
Fans might remember The Rougeau Brothers as The Fabulous Rougeaus whose gimmick was that they had embraced the American lifestyle, but were really just patronizing American fans. Jacques and Raymond Rougeau won the tag titles in their WWE career, but made some enemies backstage, particularly The British Bulldogs. In fact, in retaliation to a prank, Jacques socked Dynamite Kid in the head with a roll of quarters in his fist.
Raymond retired from the business fairly early due to back injuries, but Jacques has remained active in the business. After he attempted to become a police officer in his native Quebec, Jacques decided to open his own wrestling school, which he still has today. In fact, current WWE Superstar Kevin Owens attended the school back in his teen years.
9. Pedro Morales
What Bruno Sammartino was to the Italian-American community, Pedro Morales was that to the Latino community. Pedro Morales is often forgotten when talking about some of the biggest stars in wrestling history, but Morales was an iconic figure back when he won the WWWF World Championship back in 1971 off of Ivan Koloff. He also won the Intercontinental Championship twice, first off of Ken Patera, before exchanging it several times with Don Muraco. Finally, he also won a tag team championship alongside Bob Backlund. Morales retired from the business in 1987 and became a Spanish announcer for WWE, then WCW.
Morales has described himself as an old-school wrestler and has admitted he’s not a fan of what “sports entertainment” has become, although he acknowledges the success it’s had.
A Puerto Rican native, Morales expressed interest in returning to Puerto Rico once his wife retired, but unfortunately the 74-year-old is battling a case of advanced Parkinson’s disease, which prevents him from travelling.
8. Sgt. Slaughter
Robert Remus marched around the ring, waved the American flag, wore dark sunglasses, a camouflage shirt and black boots, hat, and chewed a cigar with a scowl. He’d stand face to face with anyone daring to strike his mammoth chin. He was a Marine, and he took his military looks and attitude into the ring. He enjoyed immediate success with moves like The Cobra Clutch, won the WWE Heavyweight Championship in 1991. He first became a big star in the early 80s and of course, one of his major rivals was the Iron Sheik. He continued to wrestle in the occasional battle royal and for special promotions, but by 2014 he officially retired. He is still with the WWE as an Ambassador. Slaughter has since been immortalized by an action figure, has appeared in cartoons and comic books, put out an album, enjoys the Monster Truck races, and is basking in his popularity throughout his retirement.
7. Greg Valentine
Greg Valentine’s wrestling career goes back to the days of the AWA out in Minnesota but casual wrestling fans will remember him more for his time in WWE, where he won the Intercontinental Championship in 1983 and when he won the tag titles along with the Brutus The Barber Beefcake. He would later form Rhythm and Blues with The Honky Tonk Man and the pair were managed by Jimmy Hart, but they failed to capture gold.
Since retiring, Valentine has appeared on Hogan Knows Best and co-starred in Fuse’s Insane Clown Posse. Valentine recently made headlines when he criticized the Women’s Revolution in WWE with sexist remarks, saying: “As far as girl wrestling, I would send them all out to the strip bar and fire ’em. I’d fire every girl wrestler I ever saw. They don’t draw any money, they have horrible matches. Uh … they’re terrible. That’s the way I feel. They take away jobs from men that need to support their families. They should be home washing dishes and cooking and pregnant and barefoot.”
6. Bob Backlund
Robert Louis Backlund started wrestling in high school and is widely considered the greatest technical wrestler to grace the ring. After joining the WWE, he won the Heavyweight Championship by beating Superstar Billy Graham in 1978. His signature moves were The Atomic Knee Drop and The Crossfaced Chicken Wing. He’d also win the WWWF and WWE heavyweight titles, and the Match of The Year Award three times. He defended his belt seven times and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. The retired life has been good to Backlund. He wrote an autobiography, “The All-American Boy: Lessons and Stories on Life from Wrestling Legend Bob Backlund,” and acted in the feature film “In the Land of Merry Misfits.”
Backlund is married, has a daughter, and lives in Connecticut. In 2000, Backlund ran for Congress but lost. Most recently Backlund was brought back to WWE to serve as a manager/coach for Darren Young, but with Young on the shelf with an injury, Backlund’s status is up in the air.
5. “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase
Gone are the days of the black and gold tuxedos, blonde mullet and goatee, but the legend of Theodore Marvin DiBiase is far from forgotten. He wrestled in various circuits and promotions and won over 30 titles. He’s most well known as a dominant villain and technical wrestler as he dominated the WWE, headlined WrestleMania IV, and the first SummerSlam in 1998. DiBiase also headlined the 2010, WWE Hall of Fame list, and when he retired, he became a manager, color commentator, works with the WWE Legends program, and is an ordained minister. He’s married, has three sons, and lives in Mississippi. Furthermore, he’s written three books and been featured in two documentaries.
4. Harley Race
Harley Leeland Race terrorized wrestlers with his stocky, powerful frame as he took the ring with his tattoos, thick chops and chinstrap, and blue, black, or red shorts. As a child, he overcame Polio, was expelled from school after a fight with the principal, and began wrestling in the 1960’s. After dominating the southern circuit, tragedy struck. He and his his pregnant first wife, Vivian Louise Jones, were in a car accident where she died and Harley almost lost a leg. When he returned to the ring, he used the Bridging Fisherman Suplex and Diving Headbutt to win eight heavyweight championships, and was inducted into four Halls of Fame. Race wrote “The Professional Wrestler’s Workout and Instructional Guide,” and played himself as a ring announcer in the film “Mil Mascaras vs. the Aztec.” Now, at 73 years old, he lives is in Missouri, has two children, and five grandchildren.
3. Bruno Sammartino
Bruno Leopoldo Francesco Sammartino was born in 1935 and is a living legend in the WWWF, the WWF, and now the WWE. He held the WWWF Heavyweight Championship for over 11 years and remains one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time. His style was considered “mat-oriented,” but he was a brawling, powerful, and charismatic wrestler who was known for taking wrestlers or boxers down in and outside the ring. From the 1960s to the mid 1980s, no other wrestler was as dominant and loved by the fans. After he retired, he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013 by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and his career is summarized in two DVDs: “Bruno Returns to Italy With Bruno Sammartino” and “Bruno Sammartino: Behind the Championship Belt.” Sammartino is also honored on the Madison Square Garden walk of fame. Now, he is 81 and lives outside Pittsburgh with his wife of 57 years, Carol, with three children, and four grandchildren.
2. Jesse “The Body” Ventura
James George Janos has led a very interesting life. Both of his parents, William and Bernice, served during World War II, his older brother served in Vietnam, and he was a Navy Seal. The bleached blonde bodybuilder, who flamboyantly wore pink jackets and bandanas, pirate shirts, and shades, took on the character of a beach bully with his devastating move, “The Body Breaker.” He won the Pacific Northwest Wrestling title twice, tag team titles five times, but had to retire after blood clots formed in his lungs. And that’s when things got interesting. His post retirement career began with a wrestling talk show called “The Body Shop,” and he announced NFL games.
He acted in films such as “The Predator,” “Major League II,” “Batman & Robin,” and more. He’s written ten books, won the Mayoral race in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, and then became the Governor of Minnesota. He remains politically active, is married, and has two children.
1. The Iron Sheik
Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, was a key figure in wrestling’s Golden Age. He was born to middle class parents in Iran and idolized Iranian wrestlers. He moved to the United States where he adopted his signature look. He wore a headdress with blue and gold jewels, a sand and gold robe, and a thick black mustache. He burst onto the scene as one of the great villains just after the Iranian Hostage Crisis and his signature move was The Camel Clutch. He won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in 1983 from Bob Backlund. He later lost the belt to Hulk Hogan which propelled “Hulkamania.” From 1993 on, the Sheik became a manager and appeared in two films,”The Tale of The 3 Muhammads” in 2005 and “Operation Belvis Bash” in 2011.
He married Caryl J. Peterson in 1976 and they have three daughters as well as five grandchildren. In 2014, the Sheik’s documentary was released under the title “The Sheik.”