The 25 Best Wrestlers of The 1980’s, Ranked
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Quick! When you think of pro-wrestling in the 1980’s — who comes to mind? Certainly, the drug-fueled charms of the salacious and ostentatious Ric Flair are indelibly imbued into our collective memories. Can’t you almost hear the raspy, strained shouts of Macho Man Randy Savage? And of course, the omnipresence of Hulk Hogan’s red and yellow logo will forever be etched into wrestling history.
But the thing about nostalgia is that it tends to whitewash some of the darker parts of history in favor of a rose-tinted rearview. Times have changed — and it’s increasingly difficult to view grapplers like The Ultimate Warrior without thinking of his appalling and bigoted worldviews.
Although the world of 80’s pro-wrestling was filled with neon tiger stripes and cocaine dreams — that decade was also a time of immense athleticism, over-the-top characters, and intrepid innovation in the art of combat sports. With that in mind, we’ve created an alternate pantheon of both iconic wrestling legends and lesser-known heroes who many would consider underappreciated compared to the more ubiquitous — and deeply obvious — wrestling celebrities of that decade. Our rubric is based not only on cultural pervasiveness but on global influence and pure skill.
25. Brutus Beefcake
Often seen brandishing a castrating pair of garden shears, Beefcake’s libidinous persona was displayed in his eccentric outfits. Eventually, the character morphed into a deranged barber who cut the hair of his opponents following his decisive victories. Beefcake held nine titles throughout his career and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2019.
24. Iron Sheik
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Although perhaps better known these days for his bombastic and foul-mouthed twitter rampages, Iron Sheik was a key heel throughout the ’80s. His IRL truculent personality and tendency towards bridge-burning made him an unlikely favorite in the industry — and although he was likely portrayed as a villain (along with his partner Nikolai Volkoff) due to xenophobia within the USA, he certainly lived up to his dastardly, devil-may-care reputation out of the ring.
23. Jim Niedhart
The Niedhart legacy these days is carried on through current WWE superstar Natalya, but her father — frequently known as The Anvil — had cemented his heroic status long before she began fighting. A key member of The Hart Foundation faction, Niedhart ran roughshod through the WWF with his pink-clad partners throughout the 1980s.
22. Adrian Adonis
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An early example of the queer coded villain in the wrestling world, Adrian Adonis was a grotesque caricature of gay culture — but a compelling personality nonetheless. Of course, this shaved, corpulent, and effeminate fighter in a nude diaper was a villain, but his bizarre characterizations made him quite unique in a sea of hyper-machismo.
21. The Jumping Bomb Angels
Noriyo Tateno and Itsuki Yamazaki were key figures in the Japanese women’s tag scene during the ’80s and even had success as a duo in the WWF. They often provided an excellent foil to the overpowered Crush Gals throughout their influential run.
20. Mountain Fiji
Although in the year 2020 fans are more likely familiar with Machu Picchu, the GLOW character she inspired, Mountain Fiji was widely considered the heart and soul of the imminently campy Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling TV series that went on to garner a cult following. Her sweetness and indomitable spirit were documented in the GLOW documentary. Just try not to cry while watching it!
19. Junkyard Dog
Entering the ring to Queen’s infectious anthem, “Another One Bites The Dust,” Junkyard Dog was a paradigm of pure power. Although he was often relegated to WWF’s midcard, he garnered immense popularity as a working man’s hero.
18. Ted Dibiase
DiBiase ran rampant in NWA, NJPW, and WWF throughout the ’80s and proved himself to be a paragon of in-ring excellence in each federation. Known for his signature evil laugh, “The Million Dollar Man” bragged about — you guessed it — his extraordinary wealth while trouncing opponents around the world.
17. Jake “The Snake” Roberts
Jake The Snake Roberts
Widely known as the inventor of the DDT, Jake Roberts often arrived to fights toting his signature reptilian friend. His reputation for playing “mind games” with his opponents never superseded his actual in-ring acumen.
16. Rick Rude
With the sex appeal of a Chippendale’s performer, this “Ravishing” fighter was a WCW legend before career-ending injuries forced him to stop performing in 1997. The prototypical arrogant pretty boy, Rude was known for insulting the mostly-male crowds before enticing women with promises of sexual promiscuity.
15. Roddy Piper
One of wrestling’s breakout stars, Roddy Piper became a bonafide pop-cultural icon with numerous appearances on television sitcoms and cartoons. Amassing 34 total championship wins in his career, Piper’s legacy now lives on in Ronda Rousey, whom he gifted the “Rowdy” moniker. Respected and influential wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer went as far as calling him "one of the key figures in the growth of WWF.”
14. Mr. Perfect
Named one of the top five WWF Intercontinental Champions of all time, Curt Hennig AKA Mr. Perfect exemplified the widely reviled heel archetype throughout the decade. His over-the-top video packages established him as a kind of miraculous meta-human that, despite or because of their inherent campiness, catalyzed his global superstardom. Wrestling journalist In the book “WCW: The Ultimate Guide,” Dave Scherer described Hennig as "one of the best all-round competitors this business has ever produced.”
13. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat
Inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2009, Ricky Steamboat’s fights against “Macho Man” Randy Savage (1987) and Ric Flair (1989) were both awarded Match of the Year by Pro-Wrestling Illustrated and the Wrestling Observer. Known for his unexpected grace in the ring, Steamboat was also a proficient tag team wrestler alongside his partner Jay Youngblood.
12. Harley Race
One of the few men to have been inducted into five separate wrestling Hall of Fames, Harley Race is studied to this day as a technical master — so much so that he was often announced as the "The Greatest Wrestler on God's Green Earth." For a while Race was a record holder as far as World Heavyweight Title reigns went until he was bested by Ric Flair. Flair had nothing but praise for Race upon his death in 2019: “Without Harley Race, there was no Ric Flair. I tried my hardest every day to live up to his standard in the ring,” he said.
11. Wendi Richter
The history of women’s wrestling may have taken an entirely different direction had Wendi not been bamboozled by Vince McMahon and The Fabulous Moolah during the infamous “Rock N Wrestling connection” moment. Richter attempted to bring legitimacy to women’s wrestling and was actually rather successful, but the world (or, actually, maybe just Vince) simply wasn’t ready for what she had to offer. Nonetheless, Richter won championships around the globe before her retirement in 2005.
10. Dump Matsumoto
The main rival of the Crush Gals, Matsumoto’s ghastly look complimented her domineering in-ring presence. Her matches with her aforementioned nemeses were attended by sold-out crowds in Japan and bolstered the reputation of Japanese women’s wrestling worldwide. Although she was far more active in All Japan Women’s Wrestling, she made brief appearances in the WWF in 1986.
9. Tiger Mask I
Played by Satoru Sayama, who Bret Hart once called “the Bruce Lee of professional wrestling,” Tiger Mask I was both a real-life wrestling character and the star of a popular Japanese cartoon. Although the conceit might seem silly, Sayama had the skill to back up the story: his match at NJPW Sumo Hall Show in 1983 (against Dynamite Kid Thomas Billington) was the first fight Meltzer ever granted a 5 Star rating.
8. Lioness Asuka
As a member of the notorious Crush Gals tag team, Lioness Asuka helped to propel women’s wrestling to global popularity. In fact, it was the Crush Gals that catalyzed All Japan Pro Wrestling’s international following. It’s no surprise that The Crush Gals are often considered the greatest women’s tag team of all time considering the duo’s perfectly honed and incredibly powerful movesets.
7. Mil Máscaras
A symbol of the spirit of Lucha Libre, Mil Máscaras is one of the few masked fighters ever inducted into WWE’s notorious Hall of Fame. Both flashy and furious, Mil Máscaras is considered one of Mexican wrestling’s first international stars. Introducing acrobatic aerial attacks to Japanese audiences, Máscaras is considered an innovator of high-risk antics like the ever-popular tope suicida. As much a wrestler as a cultural ambassador, Máscaras starred in over 20 films. And although his identity is now known worldwide, he’s one of the few masked wrestlers to have never revealed his face to the public.
6. Bull Nakano
One of wrestling’s premiere villainesses, Bull Nakano’s striking punk rock-influenced look would enrapture audiences around the world, as did her absolute physical domination in the ring. Although she was often teaming with her mentor, Dump Matsumoto, she also held the All Japan Pro Wrestling women’s title for three years starting in 1985 — she was only 16 years old at the time. Her garish fashion statements have since inspired a new generation of sartorial outsiders.
5. Jaguar Yokota
Jaguar Yokota for a time was considered the best wrestler in the world — period. Although wrestling back then was strictly segregated by gender, Yokota’s unquestioned skill level was often thought of as far surpassing that of her male counterparts. Starting her career at the age of 15, it wouldn’t take her too long to start snatching titles. However, in 1985 she was forced to vacate her championship due to an injury, which prompted an early retirement in 1986 at the age of 24.
4. Dusty Rhodes
Despite his goofy yellow polka dots, there’s something sort of poetic about Dusty “The American Dream” Rhodes’ rise to fame. Poised as an everyman, Dusty managed to wrack up title wins across divisions and federations. His later years were spent training the up-and-coming legendary children of NXT — and his own biological children, Cody and Goldust, remain in the top tier of wrestling’s biggest stars to this day. In an homage to Dusty on the WWE Network, Vince McMahon claimed that no wrestler "personified the essence of charisma quite like Dusty Rhodes.”
3. Chigusa Nagayo
As one half of the Crush Gals, Chigusa Nagayo was a key player in the rising popularity of Japanese women’s wrestling in the 1980s and quickly became an international icon. Her appearance as a heart-hardened sensei in the 2000 documentary Gaea Girls showed how she viewed wrestling not as an art form or a sport but as a kind of sacred pursuit. Meltzer has previously described her as “the most popular women’s wrestler of all time.”
2. Bret Hart
While other '80s wrestlers are known as much for their bombastic personalities as for their actual fighting ability, it’s the latter quality that continues to endear industry insiders to Hart. It’s almost impossible to overstate the precision and crispness of Hart’s technical abilities — and his resilience in the face of some very real tragedies is beyond admirable. For a time, Hart was considered the most famous person in Canada and is quite often regarded as the greatest wrestler of all time.
1. Andre The Giant
Even an alternative canon of pro-wrestling would have to include Andre The Giant.
It would be beyond cliche to call Andre “larger than life” but it’s an appropriate descriptor considering his largesse both in and out of the ring. A movie star, a pop hero, and a gentle soul — Andre’s kindness is often remembered as fondly as his physical domination. In retrospect, it’s actually shocking that he only had one heavyweight title run during his stint in WWF.
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