Everyone gets old. It’s how you do it that counts, right?
Wrestlers in the 1980s often gave no thought to getting old. They lived hard, indulging in sex, drugs, booze, and just about anything you can think of to take their minds off of the brutally hard road trips and the physical demands of the ring. They made a lot of money, but they spent a lot of money. In a time of conspicuous consumption, the world of professional wrestling was filled with outlaws who simply didn’t look past the next match, let alone into the next phase of their lives.
Of course, this wasn’t always the case. Some wrestlers kept themselves in shape--both physically and financially--so that they could be healthier or wealthier in the years to come.
But regardless of how well-prepared you are, life throws you curve balls. Take veteran southern wrestler Bob Armstrong, who was lifting weights in a gym one day when the bench he was lying on collapsed. The dumbells he was lifting fell from his grasp and tore his nose clean off of his face. Armstrong, then in his late 40s, had to keep wrestling in order to pay the medical bills from plastic surgery to have his nose repaired. He wrestled well into his 70s.
But Armstrong didn’t make the list. Neither did ‘The Raging Bull’ Manny Fernandez--famously called ‘Cemento’ in Japan due to the stiff nature of his punches. Fernandez continues to wrestle into his 60s. It’s the only life he knows. Also not making the list: Magnum T.A., whose career was cut short by a horrible car crash that left him partially paralyzed. He walks today with the aid of a cane.
Enough. Let’s see who DID make the list!
15 Aged Badly: Kamala
The Ugandan Giant was a fearsome warrior from the plains of Africa--or at least, that’s what we were supposed to think. But in reality, James Harris had already had a fairly successful career in the southern independent promotions as ‘Sugar Bear’ Harris before making a national splash as Kamala with WWE. The 6’8” Harris played a mute savage who slapped the moon and stars painted on his belly before giving his opponents a running splash. He was involved in high-profile feuds with Hulk Hogan and the Undertaker before leaving WWE in 1993. In the years since, Father Time has not been kind. Kamala has suffered major physical problems due to diabetes and high blood pressure. Harris has had to have both legs amputated, and relies on dialysis to survive.
14 Aged Well: Jim Cornette
OK, fine--Jim Cornette isn’t really a wrestler. You got me. But hey, the loudest mouth in the South since Jimmy Hart has actually wrestled matches in three different major promotions, including an appearance in the Gimmick Battle Royal at WrestleMania X-Seven. After famously blowing out a knee by falling from a scaffold at one of the early NWA Starrcade shows, Cornette gained a great deal of weight, and his health suffered as a result. In recent years, however, he’s taken the weight off. He’s not as thin as he was when he first appeared on national TV, and his hairline has slipped back a little, but his baby face still makes him look years younger than his actual age. He'll be inducting the Rock 'N' Roll Express at the 2017 WWE Hall of Fame ceremony.
13 Aged Badly: Brutus Beefcake
The real-life Ed Leslie followed his best friend, Hulk Hogan, into the WWE, where he found tag team gold as part of the Dream Team with Greg Valentine. Beefcake kept a good look as he transitioned into his ‘barber’ gimmick, and even after being badly injured in a parasailing accident. But since being released from WCW (his buddy Hogan had once again gotten him a job), Brother Bruti has not aged well at all. He’s let himself go, gotten his nipples pierced, and his repaired face has begun to show its age--and Beefcake is older than you think. He started his wrestling career back in late 1970s, posing as Hogan’s brother, ‘Dizzy’ Eddie Hogan in territories around the southeast United States. He’s nearly unrecognizable these days.
12 Aged Well: Bret Hart
Anyone who’s had a stroke and managed to come back to look and act the way Bret Hart does can absolutely go on the good list, folks. While he’s mostly known as a 1990s wrestler, Hart’s career began in the early 1980s in Stampede wrestling, and he and Jim Neidhart were a phenomenal team as the Hart Foundation in 1980s WWE. Hart’s brilliant in-ring career was cut short thanks to a devastating mule kick from Goldberg in WCW. After his retirement, Hart fell during a bike ride and had a stroke. He’s come back from a career-ending injury, a stroke, and being professionally undermined by Vince McMahon. So what if Bret looks older? He’s got every right to. He’s not dying his hair. He’s not trying to fool anyone, not trying for a comeback in the ring. For a guy who’s been through everything the Hit Man has gone through, he’s looking damned good these days.
11 Aged Badly: Jake Roberts
The Snake was never a good-looking guy. Even at his heyday in the ring in the 1980s WWE, Jake Roberts was not what one would call an attractive man. But years of substance abuse--drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, you name it--took their toll on Jake, to the point that many people weren’t sure that he’d live much longer. Things got especially bad in the 2000s, when Jake essentially disappeared from the wrestling spotlight. Jake is candid about the timely intervention of longtime friend Diamond Dallas Page, who has helped Jake battle his addictions and demons: “That guy saved my life,” Jake says. Looking at Jake just a few short years ago compared to where he is now, it’s pretty easy to agree with him.
10 Aged Well: Tully Blanchard
The former Brainbuster in WWE and Horseman in the NWA once had a significant drug problem. However, he was able to turn his life around once he found religion. Or, at least, that’s his story. Regardless, Blanchard looks like a whole new man these days, and that’s a good thing, after most wrestling fans’ last memory of him as an over-the-hill opponent for Shane Douglas in one of ECW’s more uninspired efforts. These days he’s sporting a neatly clipped salt-and-pepper beard and short haircut. During a recent shoot interview, Blanchard looked more like a retired professional golfer than one of the dirtiest to ever play the game in professional wrestling.
9 Aged Badly: Tommy Rich
There was a day when Wildfire Tommy Rich was the hottest young good guy in the wrestling business, and he was making money hand-over-fist. His short-lived NWA world title reign was supposedly a sign of things to come. Until it wasn’t. Rich engaged in a years-long feud with Mad Dog Buzz Sawyer that saw Rich’s good-looks wane quickly from night after night of gouging his forehead with a razor blade. And Tommy always liked his beer--before the matches, after the matches. He was just a good ol’ boy from Hendersonville, Tennessee who’d made it to the ‘rasslin’ big-time. Add in a prodigious weight gain and several missing teeth, and Rich looks nothing like the handsome poster boy whose blonde locks graced magazine covers in the early 1980s.
8 Aged Well: Larry Zbyszko
Larry Legend made a name for himself by turning on his mentor Bruno Sammartino and facing off against him in a cage match at a sold-out Shea Stadium in New York. Larry was just a kid then, but his understanding of the business marked him for greatness. He went on to become AWA world champion and, most famously, work as a color commentator for WCW Monday Nitro. He was careful with his money, and it’s easy to see that today: With the exception of a few pounds, he looks pretty much like he did in the broadcast booth back in the 1990s once his in-ring career had played out.
7 Aged Badly: Ron Garvin
The Man with the Hands of Stone is older than you think. He’ll turn 72 on March 30, 2017. He was already 41 years old when he defeated Ric Flair to become the NWA world champion in 1986. But Garvin never really looked that old. He stayed in good shape, moved well, and appeared to be ageless. Then in a recent shoot interview, it was easy to see that the rough-and-tumble wrestling lifestyle had caught up with him, as Garvin appeared on-camera jaundiced and bleary-eyed. He still had the spiked flat-top and the gravel voice, but it was finally apparent that Ron had, in fact, gotten old.
6 Aged Well: Ric Flair
On a list like this, Ric can go either way. His skin is leathery and his forehead looks like bubblegum from being bladed so much. But the man--and make no mistake about it, Ric Flair will always be The Man--carries himself like someone 20 years younger. The booze and the travel and the wild parties haven’t taken their toll on the Nature Boy--at least not yet. Flair’s hair is going, but his sense of style is still intact, and he’s in the gym every day. In fact, he recently posted a video on Instagram of him deadlifting more than 400 pounds, with the caption “I. Will. Never. Retire.”
5 Aged Badly: Ricky Morton
The blonde half of the Rock & Roll Express, Ricky Morton was one of the most dynamic performers on the 1980s wrestling scene. He was also especially popular with the ladies, with Jim Cornette once saying that Morton and his tag-team partner, Robert Gibson, got laid more on their way to the ring than most guys will get laid in their lifetimes. But while the mullet remains the same, Morton’s hard-living rock-and-roll lifestyle seems to have caught up with him. The boyish face is gone, and the voice is raspy from too much booze and too many cigarettes. The 2017 WWE Hall-of-Fame inductees look like party boys who have stayed around long after it’s time to go home.
4 Aged Well: Arn Anderson
I’m fairly certain Arn Anderson looked middle-aged when he was born. The glasses, the beard, the bald spot, the slight beer belly: that all adds up to a guy who looks like he’s in his 40s. But Anderson was in his mid-20s when he hit the national scene in Jim Crockett Promotions as part of the Four Horsemen. Nowadays, Anderson stays on the road as an agent for WWE, working to ensure that matches between talent go as planned. He hasn’t changed a whole lot: He’s just a little heavier than he used to be back in the day. Other than that, he’s the same Arn Anderson he always was.
3 Aged Badly: Robert Gibson
It’s hard for Robert Gibson to see eye-to-eye with anyone. Yes, that was an amblyopia joke in a sports list. The brown-haired half of the Rock & Roll Express has always had a lazy eye. It’s been immortalized in wrestling photos since the tag team formed in Memphis. But it’s gotten worse as time has gone on, turning farther outward away from his face. It doesn’t help that his lustrous brown locks haven’t turned gray. Instead, they’ve mostly turned loose. In the ring, Gibson was the tougher of the Rock & Rolls, and he looks a lot like how you’d imagine an aging tough guy looks--like five miles of bad road.
2 Aged Well: Nikita Koloff
In his heyday, Nikita Koloff was in great shape. He was tall, muscular, and imposing. He also sported a shaved head and a Fu Manchu mustache to complete the look. As part of the notorious Russian contingent in the mid-1980s, Nikita ran roughshod over the likes of Dusty Rhodes, Magnum TA, Ric Flair and the Rock & Roll Express. And he largely looks the same these days. As an evangelist, Nikita’s looks still matter to him. Most haven’t seen him since his appearances on the reality series Preachers Daughters in 2013, but he still pretty much looks the same.
1 Aged Badly: Bobby Heenan
Again, I'm cheating a little bit, but just a tiny bit. Heenan was a wrestler and manager, often pulling double duty. He wrestled in the AWA, NWA, and WWE (albeit only in gimmick matches in the latter). And I want to make sure to point out that Bobby the Brain Heenan is the greatest manager in the history of the wrestling business. Everyone else is fighting for second place. In his autobiography, Heenan said that his aim was to “manage like a wrestler, and wrestle like a manager.” His commitment to his craft and his uncanny ability to ad-lib made Heenan (and the WWE) a lot of money in the 1980s as members of his ‘Family’ tried to take down Hulk Hogan. But Heenan has been silenced in his old age by repeated bouts of throat cancer, the last of which was disfiguring, as most of his lower jaw was removed. When last seen, Heenan relied on a cane or occasionally a wheelchair to get around. That’s a shame for someone whose voice brought so much laughter and outrage.
That’s the list. Did I miss anyone? Hit me up on Twitter: @bobbymathews.