WWE’s Golden Era of 1984-1993 was a period of tremendous change in the promotion.
Vincent K. McMahon began his national expansion in December 1983 when he presented a WWE television taping in the National Wrestling Alliance stronghold of St. Louis, Missouri. Meanwhile, he lured Hulk Hogan from American Wrestling Association promoter Verne Gagne with the promise of the WWE Heavyweight Title, which Hogan captured from The Iron Sheik the very next month before a sold out Madison Square Garden in New York City. As the months and years passed, McMahon signed many more stars from regional organisations around the country and gave them a national platform on which to perform.
WWE’s national expansion brought great change for the talent in terms of their touring schedule, profile and match style, as the product evolved.
And then there were the changes to the talent themselves. WWE’s Golden Era has often been described as the Cartoon Era: every star wrestler required a gimmick or a prop to distinguish him from his peers and broaden his merchandise potential. Each wrestler needed a nickname and at least one catch phrase or marketing slogan. McMahon’s new era of sports entertainment was as much about the characters and their costuming as the matches.
In recognition of these character adjustments, we’ve compiled a list of 15 stars from WWE’s Golden Era who looked and, in many cases, behaved very differently either before or after they worked for McMahon’s company. Many but not all were repackaged by WWE. Some of the changes are truly extraordinary.
16 THE BIG BOSSMAN
The late Ray Traylor began his wrestling career as a jobber in 1985. At 6-foot4 and 330 pounds, he might have been the largest enhancement talent in the profession.
With his size and fluid, big-bumping style, Jim Crockett Promotions booker Dusty Rhodes realized Traylor was capable of much more and, in 1986, repackaged him in a suit, sunglasses and hat as Big Bubba Rogers, the bodyguard of manager Jim Cornette.
Towering over Cornette, Big Bubba struck a fearsome presence at ringside. Inevitably, Rogers entered the ring, and had memorable matches with the likes of Dusty Rhodes and Ron Garvin. In April 1987, he won the UWF Championship from The One Man Gang, just weeks before Gang signed with WWE.
Tired of the low pay, Traylor joined WWE in May 1988 as The Big Bossman, the character Traylor is now known for the most.
15 THE HONKY TONK MAN
Roy Wayne Farris wrestled for nearly a decade under various guises before he joined WWE as The Honky Tonk Man in 1986.
Sporting bleach-blond hair and a black and blond beard, Farris’ first notable run was in the Memphis territory as one half of The Blond Bombers tag team with partner Larry Latham in June 1979.
Days after arriving in the region, Farris and Latham toppled resident stars Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee for the Southern Tag Team Title in Tupelo, Mississippi. However, it was the riotous scene after the match, not the title switch, which made headlines. Their bloody battle in the Tupelo Sports Arena concession stand was the talk of the town that night and the entire territory after it was broadcast on television the next morning. No one had seen anything like it.
Farris was a credible brawling-style wrestler at the time, very different from The Honky Tonk Man, the cowardly Elvis-inspired character for which he became famous in WWE seven years later.
14 THE BUSHWHACKERS
Brian Wickens (Luke Williams) and Robert Miller (Butch Miller) first teamed in the 1960s in their native New Zealand as The Dream Team. As their skills and reputation grew, they toured Australia, Singapore and Malaysia, before they landed their break in the Grand Prix territory in Montreal, Canada in the early 1970s.
Known as The Kiwis, Sweet William (Luke) and “Crazy” Nick Carter (Butch), they had blond hair and wore white fur waistcoats. In 1974, they travelled to Stampede, where they held the International Tag Team Title twice.
Later billed as The Sheepherders, Luke and Butch portrayed anti-American heels, who were known for their chaotic street fights, cage matches and even barbed wire cage matches. In the 1980s, they fought Roddy Piper and Rick Martel in Oregon, the Invaders in Puerto Rico, and The Fantastics (Bobby Fulton and Tommy Rogers) in Mid-South: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QIIp1ivz27Y
Their appearance didn’t change a great deal when they joined WWE as The Bushwhackers in 1988, but their approach to matches certainly did. Instead of producing ferocious, bloodstained brawls, so-called cousins Luke and Butch marched to the ring and licked each other’s heads. Each appearance was a comedy show. Still, their WWE stay lasted seven years in which time they earned more money than ever before.
12 DUSTY RHODES
Dusty Rhodes used The Midnight Rider mask and gimmick a number of times in his career. The most famous turn occurred after Rhodes lost a loser leaves town cage match to Kevin Sullivan on December 25, 1982, following interference from Jake Roberts. As a result, Rhodes was forbidden from wrestling in the state of Florida for 60 days.
Rhodes wouldn’t serve his ban, as he hinted in a backstage promo after the Christmas Day defeat: “Just when you think it’s all over, daddy, it’s only begun,” Rhodes warned Sullivan.
Rhodes returned under the black mask and costume of The Midnight Rider days later. Realizing it was Rhodes under the mask but unable to prove it, Sullivan, Roberts and manager J.J. Dillon offered $10,000 to anyone who could unmask The Midnight Rider.
True, it was obvious that it was Rhodes under the mask. But what a storyline. Rhodes never did anything this imaginative in WWE during the polka dot years of 1989-1991.
11 BRUTUS BEEFCAKE
Ed Leslie was a wrestling fan growing up in Florida in the 1970s, who attended the same Championship Wrestling from Florida matches as Terry Bollea, the future Hulk Hogan.
Sharing an interest in wrestling and weight training, Leslie and Bollea became workout partners in the gym and, eventually, tag team partners in wrestling. Billed as brothers Ed and Terry Boulder, the blond, moustachioed musclemen passed through the Atlanta, Pensacola and Memphis territories from 1978-1979.
Leslie, who also used the name Dizzy Ed Golden among numerous other monikers, faltered after Bollea went solo as Hulk Hogan. However, their friendship endured and, after Hogan won the WWE Heavyweight title in 1984, strings were pulled and Leslie was signed by Vince McMahon and renamed Brutus Beefcake.
It was intimated that Beefcake, in his colourful zebra-striped spandex, was an ex-stripper. Working as a heel, he held the WWE Tag Team Title with grizzled veteran Greg Valentine from August 1985 to April 1986.
In 1987, Beefcake turned babyface and took to cutting his opponents’ hair after their matches.
Anyone who thinks Kevin Nash had everything handed to him in wrestling and that he didn’t “pay his dues” should think again.
Nash made his WCW debut in September 1990 as the leather and mohawk-sporting Steel, part of the Master Blasters tag team, WCW’s low-budget replacement for The Road Warriors, who had left WCW for WWE earlier that year. Come to think of it, perhaps low-budget is an exaggeration.
When the Blasters were chalked up as a failure, Nash was reborn as Oz in May 1991. Hailing from the Emerald City, the silver-haired, luminous green-attired Oz was one of the worst gimmicks WCW ever foisted on its audience. That was soon dropped as well.
Nevertheless, WCW persisted with the 6-foot-9 Nash, and repackaged him once more in January 1992 as fast-talking, high stakes gambler Vinnie Vegas. In his regular wrestling attire, the sneering “Vin Man” was inoffensive, at least. The next year, he became Shawn Michaels’ bodyguard Diesel in WWE. In 1994, ably assisted by Michaels, he raced up the card, and ended the year as WWE Champion.
John Tenta was a sumo wrestler in Japan before he became a pro wrestler.
Born in British Columbia, Canada, Tenta was a successful amateur wrestler before he was recruited for sumo in 1985. Moving to Japan, he won more than 20 matches, but found the draconian training techniques and pay intolerable and retired from the sport in summer 1986.
Tenta had been a pro wrestling fan as a child and had aspired to turn pro after his amateur wrestling career had ended. He did so, via sumo: by way of his fame in Japan as a Canadian in a sport dominated by Japanese, he made his debut for All Japan Pro Wrestling in 1987.
But it was in WWE that he achieved his greatest success.
In October 1989, Tenta attacked The Ultimate Warrior in a memorable angle at a WWE television taping and joined forces with Dino Bravo and manager Jimmy Hart. Billed as the Canadian Earthquake and, later, Earthquake, he crushed Hulk Hogan in another celebrated angle in April 1990, which led to the biggest match of his career, a count out loss to Hogan, at SummerSlam 1990.
8 DEMOLITION AX
Like contemporary Ed Leslie, Bill Eadie had numerous guises in his four decades in pro wrestling.
He wrestled under a mask as The Paramedic and with a shaved head as Bolo Mongol of the Genghis Khan-inspired Mongols tag team in the IWA, the World Wide Wrestling Federation and Mid-Atlantic from 1973-1976. Eadie’s Bolo Mongol was a replacement for Bepo Mongol, who had left the team to pursue a solo career as Nikolai Volkoff.
After the Mongols had run their course, Eadie went solo as Masked Superstar (pictured). Climbing the card, Superstar flourished in Georgia, Mid-Atlantic and WWE, where he challenged Heavyweight Champion Bob Backlund in 1983 and had the honour of losing by disqualification to Hulk Hogan in Hogan’s first WWE title defense on February 10, 1988.
Eadie donned a different mask as a member of the Machines team with Andre The Giant (Giant Machine) and Blackjack Mulligan (Big Machine) in 1986, before he became the leather and make-up-clad Demolition Ax in 1987. Initially, Ax and partner Smash were viewed as a pale imitation of The Road Warriors. However, the duo became a huge hit, and were the longest-reigning WWE Tag Team Champions ever, until The New Day broke their record in 2016.
7 BASTION BOOGER
Mike Shaw did not fare well in the major wrestling promotions.
He spent most of the 1980s wrestling in Canada, most notably as the turban-wearing Makhan Singh in the Karachi Vice stable in Stampede Wrestling.
With Gama Singh, Vokkan Singh (Gary Albright) and others, Shaw’s Makhan provoked tremendous heat among Stampede fans, which he jacked up at every opportunity with his derogatory comments about Calgary and its people.
Makhan could produce in the ring as well. A three-time North American Champion, Singh had well-received matches with a young Owen Hart from 1987-1988.
But from the dated, low-rent characters of Norman The Lunatic (an escaped psychiatric patient) and Trucker Norm (yes, a truck driver), one would never have known that he could dazzle on the microphone or in the ring.
Shaw’s bald-headed “401-pound” Bastion Booger in WWE was even worse, incredibly. Dressed in an ill-fitting costume that accentuated his enormous belly, Booger was presented as a repulsive, malodorous glutton, who would eat almost anything, including dog treats. The character can only have existed for Vince McMahon’s amusement.
6 THE UNDERTAKER
Contrary to what you might read elsewhere, Mark Calaway made his pro wrestling debut in 1987 under a mask as Texas Red for World Class Championship Wrestling at the Sportatorium in Dallas, Texas. Red’s opponent that night was Bruiser Brody, who hammered him in just two and a half minutes.
Red’s manager for the match was Percy Pringle, who would also manage Calaway in WWE for much of the 1990s. By then, of course, Calaway was known as The Undertaker and Pringle was Paul Bearer.
Calaway went through a number of name changes before Vince McMahon turned him into The Undertaker in WWE in 1990. He was The Master Of Pain and The Punisher (pictured) in Memphis and Texas and “Mean” Mark Callous in WCW. For a time in WCW, Callous was managed by Paul E. Dangerously. Callous’ biggest match in the company was a defeat to Lex Luger at The Great American Bash in July 1990.
Calaway suffered few losses when he joined WWE later that year. The Undertaker was presented as an unstoppable force, who possessed supernatural powers. As absurd as some of his escapades were, The Undertaker would headline for more than two decades and become the most successful gimmick wrestler ever.
5 DEMOLITION SMASH
Barry Darsow was trained for wrestling by Eddie Sharkey in the same camp as the future Road Warriors and Nikita Koloff in 1983.
Darsow wrestled under his real name, before he decided to exploit tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union by portraying Communist sympathizer Crusher Darsow in the Mid-South territory. Renamed Krusher Khrushchev, Darsow defeated Terry Taylor in a tournament final to become the first Mid-South TV Champion on May 2, 1984.
With Jim Neidhart, Khrushchev won the Florida territory’s U.S. Tag Team Title in October 1984. The next year, Khrushchev banded together with Ivan Koloff and old training partner Nikita Koloff as the Russians in Jim Crockett Promotions. The championship-winning, hammer and sickle flag-waving heels had intense heat in arenas, and topped cards against The Road Warriors, The Rock ’N’ Roll Express and others.
Randy Culley was the first version of Smash, Bill Eadie’s partner in WWE’s new Demolition tag team in 1987. However, WWE felt it had to replace Culley because fans saw through the face-paint and costume alteration and realised he had previously wrestled as Moondog Rex. Consequently, Darsow was hired as Smash, version two.
Steve Keirn had wrestled for eight years, with only minor success, before he allied with Stan Lane in Memphis to form The Fabulous Ones in 1982.
Endorsed by area legend Jackie Fargo, The Fabulous Ones were promoted by a series of state-of-the-art music videos, which depicted the ripped, pouting Keirn and Lane in stages of undress. Clearly, the act was designed to attract females, who comprised a large percentage of the territory’s audience.
Even those who disliked the stripper-esque portrayal of Keirn and Lane had to concede The Fabs were a gutsy and exciting team, who could brawl with the best of them. A hit with female and male fans, then, Keirn and Lane held the Southern Tag Team Title numerous times and set local attendance records.
Departing Memphis for the AWA in 1984, The Fabs returned later that year, but could never capture the original magic. Keirn left wrestling in 1987 to work in real estate. Lane, meanwhile, joined Bobby Eaton in The Midnight Express, another prosperous team.
In 1991, Keirn resurfaced as alligator hunter Skinner in WWE. In his ragged shirts, the scowling, swamp-dwelling Skinner could not have been more dissimilar from the hunk who had set pulses pounding in Memphis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXaNBlniBdg
Skinner was not a hit.
3 BORIS ZUKHOV
In the early 1980s, James Harrell was billed as Private Jim Nelson, a member of Sgt Slaughter’s Cobra Corps in the Mid-Atlantic territory. Under the tyrannical Slaughter’s lead, Nelson and fellow Cobra Corps team-mate Don Kernodle were unscrupulous heels. Together, Nelson and Kernodle held the Mid-Atlantic Tag Team Title twice in 1982.
In 1983, Nelson split from Slaughter and Kernodle and became a defender of truth, justice and the American way. Once his feud with Slaughter and Kernodle ended, though, Nelson’s patriotic soldier act wore thin. Realising he needed something dramatic, Harrell created for himself the character of bald-headed, Soviet heel Boris Zukhov, complete with a Russian accent, red attire and a Soviet flag.
It was nothing new in wrestling, but it was a new start for Harrell, whose career took off in the AWA, where he held the AWA World Tag Team Title with Soldat Ustinov, and WWE where he formed The Bolsheviks with Nikolai Volkoff. This was the era of the foreign menace and cheap heat, after all, and Harrell made the most of it, until his retirement in 1991.
2 RAVEN (Johnny Polo)
Scott Levy wrestled in Memphis, Portland and Texas in the late 1980s and early 1990s under his real name and as Scotty The Body and Scott Anthony. In 1992, he joined WCW as the narcissistic Scotty Flamingo. Nicknamed “The Palm Beach Heartthrob”, Flamingo held the WCW Light Heavyweight Title for two weeks over the summer. Once he lost the title, his career entered free fall.
Although Levy landed a WWE contract in 1993, he was used as a manager, commentator and personality, not a wrestler. “It was very disappointing,” Levy told Power Slam magazine in 2005. “They said I was too small [to be a wrestler].”
Levy became Johnny Polo in WWE, a comedy character. He was neither content acting as a manager nor playing the zany Polo persona.
Indeed. He left the company for a lower-paying job in the upstart ECW, where he was radically reborn in 1995 as Raven, a dark, dangerous, unpitying figure. The gamble paid off: Raven was one of ECW’s top stars from 1995-1997, and later worked for WCW and WWE.
In a conversation with this writer in summer 1995, Levy said that he would “always be Raven”. He was right.
1 RANDY SAVAGE
Randy Poffo’s first passion was baseball, not pro wrestling.
As an outfielder and catcher, Randy played in minor league teams fielded by the St. Louis Cardinals from 1971-1973 and the Cincinnati Reds in 1974, and spent time in the Chicago White Sox training camp in 1975, before he abandoned his baseball aspirations.
By then, Poffo had spent two years working on Career Plan B. In baseball offseason in 1973, he had secretly made his pro wrestling debut under a mask in order to conceal his identity from baseball owners. The masked Poffo was billed as The Graduate and, more famously, The Spider.
Randy, whose entry to the profession had been facilitated by his wrestler/promoter father Angelo, threw all his efforts into pro wrestling after he was cut by the Chicago White Sox, and wrestled, sans mask, in Florida, Detroit and Alabama. In 1977, while working in Georgia, he was renamed Randy Savage by territory booker Ole Anderson.
Between 1978 and 1985, the aggressive, agile and charismatic Savage headlined in Nashville, his father’s ICW promotion in Kentucky and Memphis. With beautiful wife Elizabeth by his side, he joined WWE in 1985 and became one of the biggest names of WWE’s Golden Era.
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