The rise of Hulkamania in the mid-1980s WWE changed the landscape of professional wrestling forever. It is one of the landmark events that transformed the industry from a regional entertainment into a national phenomenon. The business would never be the same, and the importance of it cannot be understated. Still, there was plenty of talent and stars to be seen in the promotion before Hogan began running wild.
In many ways, these stars from the 1970s and early-80s WWE roster laid the groundwork for many of the characters and storylines that would appear in the proceeding years. They almost created a kind of template for future stars to study. Wrestling was a regional business in those days, but WWE was the most popular in the Northeast, and featured high-profile matches and stocked cards to sellout crowds in that geographical demographic. The point being, they were still able to maintain their fanbase with the talent they had, and there was quite a bit of it. This was an era that holds much importance in the development of wrestling as a national power, and these are the top stars who participated in it.
Ranked below are the top 15 pre-Hulkamania WWE stars.
29 Chief Jay Strongbow
Mostly known for his work in the tag division, Strongbow was a fan favorite in WWE for over a decade during the 70s and early 80s. A four-time WWE tag champion, he won his titles with three different tag partners, the most popular being his on-screen brother, Jules Strongbow. He was a forerunner in the use of Native American gimmicks, and quickly gained favor throughout the promotion, and always was a consistent draw. He never won a singles belt while in the promotion, but did receive several opportunities at the WWE Title, none of which were successful. Without question, Strongbow was a key player in the McMahon's desire to turn "professional wrestling" into "sports entertainment", and when he departed the promotion for good in 1983, he passed the torch onto a whole new roster of wrestlers.
27 "Captain" Lou Albano
Albano started as a wrestler, but eventually became one of the most beloved managers in the history of WWE. The list of wrestlers that Albano manages throughout the 70s and early 80s is too lengthy to list in full, but includes such names as Greg "The Hammer" Valentine, The Wild Samoans and Don Muraco. Managers weren't used as often in WWE in that era, and Albano helped spearhead a kind of movement for the role that would reach its peak in the late 1980s in the promotion. He was charismatic, and played both heel and face characters over his career. A versatile figure that had much of the top talent at the time under his command, Albano was a one of a kind figure in WWE, and instrumental in turning the company into the dominant force that it eventually became. He dipped out of the company just as the pay-per-view era was beginning, but it would be worth it for younger fans to try and dig up some old footage.
25 Pat Patterson
The first ever Intercontinental Title-holder, Patterson was only with WWE for a relatively short amount of time, but made a profound impact when with the company. Starting in 1979, he would hold the title for almost a year, before losing it to Ken Patera in 1980. He was older when he began his WWE, having wrestled in various other promotions throughout the prior few decades, but found favor as a face in McMahon's promotion. Of course, he would eventually work in backstage roles for WWE in the proceeding years, and find more on-screen time as one of McMahon's "stooges" during the Attitude Era. In his heyday however, Patterson was a solid, reliable draw, and a consistent presence in the upper mid-card division.
23 Tito Santana
True, Santana was around in full force during the mid-80s when Hogan was the certified star of the company, and stretched his career even into the early-90s, but he also found considerable, if not more success in the pre-Hulkamania era. Santana was naturally charismatic, and a jolt to the roster at the time of his debut in 1979. In his first year, he won the WWE Tag belts with Ivan Putski, and also won the Intercontinental Title in 1984. He would have success in both division several years later in the Hogan-dominated 80s, but his initial few years with the company were as impressive as anything he ever did. In all, Santana would stick around for over a decade, and truly became one of the hallmark names in WWE history. His fast-paced style in the ring, combined with his flying forearm finisher always remained consistently popular with the fans.
21 Tony Atlas
While Atlas wrestled for numerous promotions during his lengthy career, he found success in WWE as one half of the tag champions with Rocky Johnson. They were the first African-American duo to hold the belts, and were really a phenomenon of their time, if not slightly short-lived. Atlas employed a power-wrestling style in the ring that was perfect for WWEs philosophy, and was overall a major hit in the early 80s. Unfortunately, sporadic substance abuse issues prevented him from really rising up the ranks, but he would continue to work for WWE in numerous roles during the next several decades. As it stands, Atlas is one of the most fondly remembered tag wrestlers of his era, and a master of his in-ring technique.
19 Ivan Koloff
Before becoming a predominant tag competitor with Nikita Koloff, Ivan was a staple in the heavyweight singles division during the early 70s. He competed against the top stars in WWE, and won the WWE Title for three weeks in 1971, defeating Bruno Sammartino. While Koloff (real name Oreal Parras) was a born Canadian, he played the Russian gimmick to a tee, and became one of the most recognizable figures in the wrestling world throughout the 70s and 80s. It's hard to think of another character who could draw as consistently as Koloff during his time, and covered as much range as he did with different promotions. One of the best heel characters of his era, and experienced both singles and tag success when in WWE. A true standby of the promotion for a long time.
17 Wild Samoans
Comprised of Afa and Sika, the Wild Samoans essentially spearheaded the Samoan-based gimmicks that would be used heavily in the proceeding decades by the company. Perhaps the most over face tag team of their time, their crazed in-ring style was fresh and exciting for the era. All in all, they held the WWE Tag belts on three occasions, over the span of three years. Both would go on to successful singles careers, as well as manager roles, but their peak was undoubtedly the early 80s while in WWE. Quite simply, they're legends in the WWE tag landscape, and one of the only teams to garner as much praise as the top singles competitors of their day. They will always be held in high regard when discussing the golden era of tag team wrestling.
15 Mr. Fuji
When Hogan was dominating the scene in the mid-80s, Fuji had primarily become a manager for the heels of the company. Before then however, he was one of the most successful tag wrestlers in WWE history. He had three separate runs with the promotion, and won the tag belts a whopping five times, with Toru Tanaka and Mr. Saito. Fuji's cunning nature as a manager was also seen within the ring, when he would still utilize the infamous "salt in the eyes" throw that he administered to many unsuspecting opponents as a manager. He also wrestled in singles competition in the early 80s, not achieving the same level of success. Overall, one of the best heels under the WWE domain during the 70s, and a standout tag team presence.
13 Gorilla Monsoon
Before becoming the undisputed voice of WWE as an announcer, Monsoon was one of the most beloved faces in the company. Extremely popular with the Northeast-dominated audience, Monsoon was a major player as a wrestling in the company for over a decade. He won the WWE Tag belts on two occasions, and despite the lack of a singles title, he was a fan favorite through and through. Perhaps the most notable wrestler to effectively use the Airplane Spin as his finisher, Monsoon took on the top talent in the company during his tenure (including a very young Hulk Hogan when he was still a heel). Of course, his broadcasting career is cemented in history for its excellence, but his work in the ring should as well, because Monsoon was unquestionably one of the biggest draws of his day.
11 Ivan Putski
A mainstay in WWE for over a decade, Putski was another strong-man character, with a distinct Polish edge. His style was definitely over for the time period, and while he only won one tag title during his tenure, he was one of the most distinct fan favorites of the day. Putski was a reliable mid-carder, and the kind of talent that was a building block for the next generation. While he was certainly a product of his time, the same principle can be applied to face mid-card talents from any generation. It was a character without a lot of bells and whistles, but the core of Putski's career was successful, taking on top WWE for many years, before the Hogan era. Thought oft-forgotten, he should be more recognized for his popularity, and ability to produce consistent, well-constructed matches on an perennial basis.
9 "Superstar" Billy Graham
A former WWE Title-holder in the 70s, there is a portion of fans who believe that Graham was essentially Hulk Hogan, version 1.0. Indeed, their mannerisms and style were very similar, and Graham was a very believable champion. Many of Hogan's trademarks were really just an upgrade on Graham's character from the 70s. He could work either as a face or heel, and employed a very methodical wrestling style that was popular in his heyday. Without question, one of the top stars in the salad days of WWE, Graham set the template for many future champions, and should be recognized as the prototype for the many characters he influenced. He would contribute to WWE on three separate runs, before ending his career in the late 80s. A legend of his time.
7 Andre The Giant
One of the only certified phenomenons in wrestling history, nobody had seen anything like Andre prior to his wrestling debut. A true super-heavyweight, and standing at well over seven feet tall, he towered over opponents, and was consistently a main draw with WWE in the 70s through the 80s. Of course, he did feud with Hogan during the Hulkamania years, but his best in-ring work came before the legendary match at WrestleMania III. In his prime, Andre was quite athletic in the ring for his size, and actually a face for most of his career. He had a true charisma with the fans, and has to be considered one of the most over performers in WWE history. He was another figure who really helped McMahon establish new levels of notoriety with WWE, and his matches filled arenas to capacity for over a decade. His feud with Hogan in the late 80s is legendary, but it was his work that came prior where he was at his peak, all things considered.
5 Pedro Morales
Rarely talked about today, Morales was one of the biggest stars in the promotion during his heyday in the mid-70s. He held just about every WWE title at least once, and wrestled all the top talent in nearly every relevant promotion, including in WWE. His Puerto Rican flair established a quick rapport with the fans, and he was always a consistent draw. His WWE Title run is one of the longest in history, and he helped establish a real credence to the belt that continued on decades after he retired in 1987. He would make several different runs in WWE, but his original is unquestionably his best. Morales was a key figure in wrestlers from Latin America find success in American promotions, and that impact could be felt throughout the years, with all the great talent to emerge in mainstream promotions, from that geographic location. One of the best of his era.
3 Bob Backlund
Most fans would likely be familiar with Backlund from his mid-90s WWE run, which poked fun at his clean cut tendencies. People often forget just how dominant of a champion he was when pure mat wrestling was one of the main orders of the day. During his extensive run as WWE champion, Backlund took on competition from other promotions, which helped give credibility to the WWE Title. Backlund held the strap for nearly four years, from '79-'83, in one of the most impressive reigns in the promotion's history. There may not have been a better technical wrestler in WWE during this time, and Backlund in general deserves more recognition than he currently receives. He would reappear in WWE in 1992, but in a mid-card capacity, that frankly wasn't on par with his best work. A true staple star who was an asset to the promotion during its most formative years.
1 Bruno Sammartino
Sammartino was simply the biggest star in the promotion before Hulkamania turned the corner. In two WWE Title reigns, he held the belt for over a combined 11 years. He was the biggest draw the company had for over a decade, and influenced thousands to take interest in the industry. There was nobody bigger in wrestling for the Northeast region, and Sammartino competed against every top star of his day. He truly did put WWE on the map as a formidable, money-drawing promotion. Without Sammartino's relevance, charisma and drawing capabilities, the WWE-version of Hogan never would have existed in the first place. He was arguably the biggest superstar of his era, and continued to wrestle for WWE in some capacity until the late-80s. When it comes to main event dominance, nobody can lay greater claim than Sammartino, who proved that WWE was a force to be reckoned with.