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.
15 15. Virgil
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.
14 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.
13 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.
12 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.
11 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.
10 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.
9 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.
8 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.
7 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.
6 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.
5 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.
4 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.
3 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.
2 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.
1 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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