World Wrestling Entertainment’s history is so colorful and rolls through so many evolutionary stages that the wrestling community tends to divide it up into eras. The “Attitude” era, for example, is largely accepted as the most profitable and magnificent time in the history of professional wrestling, let alone WWE. The “Ruthless Agression” era which followed, however, is seen as the beginning of the downfall of WWE, which in recent years has seen one of its lowest periods of popularity.
But WWE remains a worldwide phenomenon, a monster that will not be taken down anytime soon. It wasn’t always destined to be this way, as the wrestling industry was separated into territories with mostly local fan loyalty until Vince McMahon took his business and launched it into the national market with WrestleMania in 1985. It was the moment that allowed WWE and wrestling as a whole to break into the mainstream – it changed everything.
There were wrestling purists who saw what Vince McMahon did as tainting the legacy of the sport by turning it into a spectacle under the bright lights of pay-per-view, but for most of today’s wrestling fans, it was the beginning of an era that laid the foundation for what has become a way of life. This period of time is affectionately referred to as the “golden age” of WWE and gave us some of the most iconic wrestlers to ever lace up boots. But where are those wrestlers today? Let’s catch up with 15 of the men who gave their blood, sweat and tears to give us the WWE we know and love.
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Virgil is most likely remembered for his years in the role of the bodyguard for “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase. Virgil, stone faced and muscled, accompanied his boss to the ring and was always standing nearby when DiBiase was around. After a few years of DiBiase taking him for granted, Virgil eventually turned on him in 1991 and won Ted’s self-sanctioned Million Dollar Championship. Virgil embarked upon a singles career and would compete with WWE until 1994 when he was released.
These days, Virgil (real name Mike Jones) seems to make a habit out of stirring up controversy, such as a confrontation with current WWE Superstar Xavier Woods on Twitter in 2015 where Woods accused Virgil of telling him he’d never succeed because he’s black. Virgil’s also done some acting recently and has been featured in a documentary titled The Legend of Virgil & His Traveling Merchandise Table. He remains very active on social media.
14 Greg “The Hammer” Valentine
A former Intercontinental Champion, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine was an iconic WWE Superstar from the golden age. Valentine was one of the era’s many masters of the Figure 4 Leg Lock and he was known, like another Figure 4 master, Ric Flair, for his flashy robes and blonde hair. That is, until he joined The Honky Tonk Man to form a very popular heel tag team and dyed his hair jet black. The Hammer had a unique look about him and was well respected among the WWE Universe.
That respect started to wane recently after some comments he made about female wrestlers in a recent interview. When asked about the new era in women’s wrestling, Valentine stated that all women wrestlers should be sent to the strip bar and fired, and that they should all be “home washing dishes and cooking and pregnant and barefoot.” A few have come to his defense, however, arguing that he possibly could have been playing the heel character he’s always been known for.
13 Tito Santana
In the 1980s, Tito Santana was a massive fan favorite for WWE. He remains one of the most universally loved Superstars in history, never having played a villain. Tito won the Intercontinental Championship on two occasions, has been a WWE Tag Team Champion and won the 1989 King of the Ring Tournament. He also won the first ever match in the history of WWE’s annual Super Bowl equivalent, WrestleMania, by defeating The Executioner. His career was so decorated that in 2004 he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
Tito Santana, also known at one point as El Matador, left WWE in 1993, but to this very day he still wrestles part time at age 63. Most of his time, however, is spent being being a Spanish teacher in New Jersey at Eisenhower Middle School, working with at-risk students. He also works part time as the owner of a salon.
12 Gene Okerlund
Gene Okerlund, affectionately known as “Mean” Gene, is one of professional wrestling’s most iconic voices. Over a career which has spanned more than four decades, Gene was perhaps most famous for his work as a backstage interviewer for WWE throughout the vast majority of the golden age. He was involved in storylines with Hulk Hogan and sang the national anthem at the very first WrestleMania, but Okerlund is also known for a blooper that took place at SummerSlam in 1989 where the set fell apart in the middle of an interview and he started cursing on live television.
“Mean” Gene has stayed busy over the years, making sporadic appearances for WWE. In 2013, he was present for Mae Young’s birthday party on Raw and in 2014 he inducted Mr. T into the WWE Hall of Fame. Okerlund was also one of the cast members on the WWE Network’s 2014 reality show Legends’ House along with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Hillbilly Jim, Pat Patterson and others. Gene’s also active on Twitter and is obviously still very involved in the wrestling culture.
11 “Cowboy” Bob Orton
Sometimes the smallest of things can make a Superstar one of history’s most memorable. For “Cowboy” Bob Orton, it was a simple cast on his arm that would be his bread and butter. Orton broke his arm early in his WWE career but would continue to wear the cast for years after the injury had healed, claiming that it wasn’t. He used the cast to cheat during most of his matches by using it as a weapon, and it played a crucial role when Orton managed “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff in the first main event in WrestleMania history. During the match, Orton got involved and accidentally hit Orndorff with the cast, causing his team to lose the match.
Bob Orton was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2005 and was involved in an on-screen storyline for WWE in 2012 where he was attacked by Kane, who was feuding with Randy Orton, Bob Orton’s son. Bob, or “Ace” as he was occasionally called, still wrestles occasionally on the independent scene at 65 years old.
10 “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan
On paper there was nothing flashy about “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan. He had the face of a bearded maniac, carried a two-by-four over one shoulder and an American flag over the other. But defying all logic, Duggan became a star during the golden era. He had an infectious catch phrase, as he’d simply yell, “Hooooo!” That phrase was worked into the beginning of his theme song making him instantly identifiable, and his star shone so bright that he was able to win the inaugural Royal Rumble match. Hacksaw was just one of those WWE Superstars who didn’t need to win any Championships to be successful, so he didn’t win any.
He was, however, inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame with the class of 2011. Jim is still active in the wrestling world in various capacities; he returned in 2012 as a surprise entrant in that year’s Royal Rumble, 24 years after winning the first one. Today, Hacksaw is under contract with Jeff Jarrett’s Global Force Wrestling promotion, working as an ambassador and has his own one man show.
9 Harley Race
When Harley Race entered World Wrestling Entertainment in 1986, he already carried with him one of the most respected careers in pro wrestling. The great Harley Race did not need WWE during the golden age, yet the golden age benefited greatly from his presence. Winning the King of the Ring tournament early on, he was referred to as “King” Harley Race and was involved in rivalries with many of WWE’s biggest stars at the time, including their 1980s poster boy Hulk Hogan. He's perhaps most memorable to WrestleMania buffs is Race’s match at WrestleMania III with the beloved Junkyard Dog.
Harley Race’s legacy is comparable to that of “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair. In fact, Triple H has often cited Race as his favorite wrestler of all time. Race was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame with the class of 2004 and aside from a few scattered wrestling related appearances has mostly stayed out of the spotlight. He does, however, have his own annual, week-long wrestling training camp.
8 Hillbilly Jim
Much like “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, Hillbilly Jim was one of those characters who seemed so simple and goofy in concept that he was destined to be comic relief. And while Hillbilly Jim didn’t become known for any Championship reigns, he became quite a big deal in the late 1980s. He feuded with the era’s biggest heel personas such as Ted DiBiase, Big John Studd and King Kong Bundy, as well as making alliances with such heroes as Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan. Jim and his on screen family members were involved in a memorable fictional wedding when “Uncle Elmer” was married on Saturday Night’s Main Event.
These days, Hillbilly Jim is long removed from his wrestling career. However, he did appear in 2014’s Legends’ House, a reality show on WWE Network where WWE Superstars from the past live in a house together. As of 2010 he had started his own line of beef and turkey jerky, and he currently has his own show on SiriusXM Radio called “Hillbilly Jim’s Moonshine Matinee.”
7 Bobby “The Brain” Heenan
It’s a rare occasion that a wrestling personality can play the role of the heel so well that he transcends the part and becomes beloved for being so delightfully disliked. Bobby “The Brain” Heenan won the audience over with his trademark quick wit and exceptional knack for making any wrestler he managed into a better villain without once taking the spotlight for himself. The Brain managed many of the greatest heel wrestlers of all time, including King Kong Bundy, Big John Studd and Andre the Giant, but also brought his flavor to the commentary table, commonly alongside the revered Gorilla Monsoon. There is no denying that Bobby Heenan is one of the most iconic personalities in the history of WWE.
The Brain was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004, but has mostly stayed out of the spotlight. His battles with cancer and other health issues have been a constant topic of discussion among fans over the years, as he has battled throat and tongue cancer, and has also suffered a couple of falls, the most recent being in 2016. His wife, Cynthia, and friend Gene Okerlund continue keep Heenan’s fans up to date on his health.
6 Sgt. Slaughter
In the early 1990s, near the end of the “golden age” of WWE, Sgt. Slaughter would see the highest point of his career. Having always been an American hero type of character, the strong jawed patriot turned on his country and began feuding with Hulk Hogan for the WWE Championship. Due to the volatile real world political environment of the time, the storyline saw huge success and Slaughter won the WWE Championship, becoming one of the most hated heels of his generation. The rivalry with Hogan came to a head at WrestleMania VII when Hogan defeated Slaughter for the title.
Sgt. Slaughter continues to work with WWE behind the scenes. He was a member of the WWE Hall of Fame Class of 2004 and has made several on-screen appearances including a 2014 confrontation with Rusev. In a 2016 interview, Slaughter revealed that he currently does ambassador work for WWE, including charity work with organizations like Make-A-Wish and the Special Olympics. In 2016, he voiced himself in the WWE Network adult animated comedy, Camp WWE.
5 The Honky Tonk Man
Sometimes WWE’s golden age is referred to as the “cartoon era” due to the very straight forward nature of many of the gimmicks. The Honky Tonk Man was one of the best examples of this mentality; he was an Elvis Presley impersonator, complete with the slicked black hair, sequined one-piece suit and accompanying guitar. Often joined by legendary wrestling manager “The Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart, Honky Tonk Man became legendary for having the longest Intercontinental Championship reign in WWE history, a record which holds to this very day. Later, he would also become a part of a tag team with Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, who dyed his hair black to match the former Intercontinental Champion’s.
Today, the Honky Tonk Man (who is the cousin of WWE Hall of Famer Jerry “The King” Lawler) has his own radio show called “Shake, Rattle & Roll.” Despite his legendary career, he has not been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, a fact that has been a sore spot for his fans.
4 Jesse “The Body” Ventura
Most of Jesse “The Body” Ventura’s in-ring successes came before the golden age of WWE had really picked up steam, but Ventura’s years on commentary during this era may have earned him even more recognition than his wrestling. Ventura became one half of WWE’s regular commentary team at the time, along with Gorilla Monsoon. In fact, most of the commentary for the first WrestleManias was handled by the team. The Body would favor the villains in the ring and become revered as one of the voices of many fans’ childhoods.
Along with a plethora of other Superstars from the golden age, Ventura was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004. He has been involved in politics for most of his post-wrestling years, becoming the Governor of Minnesota in 1998. He considered running in 2016 for President of the United States. Also in 2016, Ventura had some legal troubles as he sued author Chris Kyle for defamation stemming from comments made about Jesse in the book, American Sniper. He also worked on a show entitled Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura, which aired for three years.
3 Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat
When wrestling fans have the discussion about the greatest WWE Superstars to never win the WWE Championship, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat will always fall near the top of the list. Audiences were captivated in the late ‘80s with The Dragon’s agility, as he wrestled a style that was far ahead of its time. Steamboat’s exhilarating style inspired many who would go on to become successful wrestlers in their own right, Chris Jericho being one of them. Steamboat wrestled one of WWE’s finest matches of all time against “Macho Man” Randy Savage at WrestleMania III. It was a contest that is credited for influencing the evolution of pro wrestling into what it has become today.
Ricky has remained involved with WWE over the years. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2009, the same year he would return to the ring to compete alongside “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka against Chris Jericho at WrestleMania XXV. These days, The Dragon is under a Legends contract with WWE, speaking on their behalf as an ambassador.
2 Jake “The Snake” Roberts
The late 1980s and early 1990s were packed full of memorable WWE Superstars who are now in the WWE Hall of Fame or deserve to be. But among all those, few were as influential as Jake “The Snake” Roberts. If Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat helped bring about the evolution of the in-ring side of wrestling, Jake Roberts is responsible for the evolution of the wrestling promo. Roberts’ skills on the microphone were unmatched and he brought about a more psychological approach to calling out an opponent. Look no further for the effects of this influence than current WWE star Bray Wyatt.
Roberts’ most famous trademark was the live snake he would bring to the ring with him in order to terrify his opponents. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2014 and after a lifetime of substance abuse problems, Jake is finally living clean and sober in 2016, crediting WCW legend Diamond Dallas Page as helping get him back to good health. Jake keeps up with his fans today through social media.
1 Hulk Hogan
WWE’s golden age may have brought us a slew of heroes and villains to remember for the rest of our lives, but none of them could measure up to the unbound popularity of Hulk Hogan. In an era which would lay the foundation for WWE to become a global juggernaut, Hogan supported the entire system on his shoulders. He was WWE Champion for most of these years and in the main event of nearly all of the first ten WrestleManias. It would be the peak of Hogan’s career, but very far from the end of it.
Hulk Hogan wrestled frequently until the late 2000s when his in-ring career started to wind down, but it was then that his personal troubles would pick up. In 2015, Hogan was fired from WWE after some old audio of a conversation of his went public which included extensive use of racial slurs. He’s currently involved in a nasty legal situation involving gossip blog Gawker over the leak of an adult tape featuring Hogan, apparently filmed without his consent. There is no telling whether or not Hulk Hogan will be able to move past these scandals and once again find himself in WWE someday.
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