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Official Article

When Wrestling Rocked

There are several trends of the 80’s that we’ll never see again: Flock of Seagulls haircuts, Eddie Murphy being funny and short shorts on dudes. When we look back on this Devo-laden decade all people seem to remember are the Miami Vice jackets and neon aerobics wear, while completely ignoring another fad that took pop culture by storm, professional wrestling! I think it’s time to set the record straight about the impact of pro wrestling on the decade before “The Hoff” traded his leather jacket for swim trunks.

It’s not as though wrestling was invented in the 80’s, if anything it’s the oldest sport known to man (next to running for your life from savage beasts). Rather it’s the commercialization of the sport (it wasn’t yet “sports entertainment”) that really made it shine like the gold on a championship belt. Thanks to toys, cartoons, TV shows and closed circuit broadcasts everyone had some exposure to the idea of 2 combatants bashing each other menacingly while sporting brightly colored outfits and personalities.

Like a lot of things, my personal experience with the world of staged violence began with the toys. My classmate Kara had an older brother who had an awesome collection of World Wrestling Federation figures that he often let me play with when I stopped by for a visit. Though I had a crush on Kara, the minute I saw that plastic wrestling ring filled with those hard rubber wrestling heroes and villains, a sweet smile and pig tails became the last thing on my mind. It was time for wrasslin’!

Though the big dogs like Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant were part of her Big Bro’s collection, I was more enamored with the likes of Rowdy Roddy Piper and Captain Lou Albano, who seemed to exude personality rather than simply show off glistening muscles. Which is just as well, since all you could really do with these toys was bash them together. There was literally no articulation. A kid found playing with these static playthings was simply holding a solid hunk of rubber molded to look like King Kong Bundy that could be stood up in the ring if you were lucky.

The smaller version of these toys, called Thumb Wrestlers, gave you the ability to at least simulate some style of combat as you positioned the wrestler on your thumb then interlocked the limbs of your Iron Sheik figure against the thumb-mounted Junkyard Dog of your neighborhood chum. I never totally understood how you were supposed to win the bout, but every time I walked down the K-Mart aisles I still asked my parents to buy me buy a 2-pack. Speaking of the toy aisle, it was filled with wrestling toys during the 80's and not just WWF ones. I mean WWF dominated the shelves with Stretch Wrestlers, Work Out Kits and more, but other wrestling promotions tried their hand at the action figure game too.

The AWA (American Wrestling Association) had a line of Tag Team sets featuring teams like The Road Warriors, but the one that always got my attention was the 3 pack featuring Jimmy Garvin, Steve Regal and their manager, Precious. What was a “girl toy” doing packaged with action figures? I mean Teela and Evil-Lyn at least fit into the motif of the MOTU series, but this female figure had doll’s hair-BAH! The real issue though was that since the AWA matches were mostly broadcast in the Midwest I had no idea who these guys were, so they quickly fell into the category of generic wrestler toys. Speaking of TV, eventually I started watching WWF programming, though wrestling wasn’t really a huge part of it.

The WWF had the wildest cast of characters found this side of a mental institution. Aside from “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff whose gimmick seemed to be thinking he looked great in a pair of speedos, each wrestler was presented with such easily identifiable (if not stereotypical) traits that they might as well have been cartoon characters…and that’s what they became!

Hulk Hogan’s Rock N’ Wrestling was an animated cartoon that featured a team of good guys like Hulk Hogan (of course), Hillbilly Jim and Tito Santana foiling the schemes of the bad guys like Rowdy Roddy Piper, Nikolai Volkoff and Mr. Fuji. It was a pretty standard Saturday morning adventure, but what made it possible was the wrestling/pop music crossover that gave the series its name featuring none other than Cyndi Lauper.

In her massive hit video for “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” Cyndi is hassled by her “father” who wags his finger and mouths the words “When you gonna live your life right?” Well the actor playing Cyndi’s Dad was none other than wrestling personality Captain Lou Albano (yep, Mario himself), who created controversy with Ms. Lauper which led to them each selecting a female wrestler to battle it out on their behalf and settle the score (like any civilized person would do). What followed was a massive media blitz that culminated with a wrestling match live on MTV in 1984!

The wrestlers selected to appear in the Brawl For It All were the young, Wendi Richter and Women’s Wrestling Champion since the beginning of time, The Fabulous Moolah. It was the perfect battle of youth vs. adults for a generation of rebellious music lovers to get behind. Richter won with Cyndi in her corner, then had follow-up match on MTV dubbed The Brawl To End It All where she lost the championship to Moolah’s protégé, Leilani Kai, but then claimed the victory again at the first Wrestlemania in 1985. What a journey!

What you may notice is that Hulk Hogan’s name was nowhere to be found during my description of these events. That’s right, the big break for the WWF was with Women’s Wrestling, which they surprisingly let fizzle out not long after the Rock N' Wrestling Connection ended. The last gasp of this titanic tag team was Cyndi Lauper’s music video for “Goonies R Good Enough” which featured the live action version of the cartoon show cast terrorizing Mikey and the gang through the sets from the film.

Returning to the fact that Wrestling Women really kicked off the high profile of pro wrestling in 80’s, I have to believe that it was these events that led to the formation of another wrestling media phenomenon called G.L.O.W., Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Only lasting a brief 4 years on television sets nationwide from 1986-1990, these glitter-drenched wrasslin’ women could be found getting rowdy in the ring, then trying to make you laugh with bad puns.

I would usually catch the show on a Saturday and see Hollywood pummel Roxy Astor, the Park Avenue Knockout, then be confused as they switched over to a comedy sketch featuring Mount Fiji and Zelda, The Brain playing Sherlock Holmes. The show was a very eclectic mix of wrestling action, comedy and rapping. Yep, each wrestler performed her own rap before she climbed in the ring and Godiva, the British Bombshell went so far as to enter the arena on a white horse. It was pure spectacle and people took notice! Soon you saw G.L.O.W. wrestlers on every channel making guest appearances on talk shows, game shows and sitcoms.

I remember being home sick from school one day and catching an episode of Donahue where the G.L.O.W. girls were interviewed, then got Ol’ Phil in the ring to face Big Bad Mama! Watching that white-haired host get body-slammed was outrageous and unexpected. Then there was the gals’ winning turn on Family Fued vs the male wrestlers from WCW showing they had brains as well as beauty. They even met-up with Al Bundy himself on Married…With Children during their trip to Las Vegas. The sightings didn’t stop there, during my regular channel surfing I caught G.L.O.W. appearances on re-runs of Mama’s Family and even a scene in the Roseanne Barr film, She-Devil. They were literally everywhere!

The only problem was that despite all these guest appearances, the actual G.L.O.W. show wasn’t always easy to find on the tube. On the other hand, if you needed your wrestling fix for the week, the WWF always had you covered from network TV to home video. I remember the entire video shelves filled with Wrestlemania and Survivor Series VHS tapes featuring superstars like Randy “Macho Man” Savage and Mr. Perfect challenging you to and experience the intensity of their matches in the squared circle, which I did.

Though it took a few years, after all the hype and merchandise I finally got to know the real-life counterparts to my favorite toys and I was blown away. The wrestlers were so over the top, yet they really got you invested in their feuds. Though to be fair, a 6 year old can pretty much relate to most wrestling rivalries, “He said he was smarter than me, let’s fight!” I think the most shocking moment in the early days of my wrestling fandom was the break-up of the perennial good guy tag team, The Rockers.

Basically David Lee Roth and Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden in wrestling form, Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty were always full of energy and perfectly in synch. Then Shawn started doing his own thing and adding black leather to his neon, fringed ensemble. Finally his partner Marty confronted him on interview segment The Barber Shop with Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake. After a heartfelt exchange, Shawn looked deep in thought then…BAM! Shawn super-kicked Marty in the face, then tossed him through the Barber Shop window, shattering the glass and bloodying Marty’s face.

I had never seen that level of violence anywhere, but more shocking was the break-up of these best friends who had survived so many battles together. How could such a good guy, go so far to the other side? That’s the moment when I was hooked into the drama of pro wrestling and soon realized that other kids at school watched it too. Even more important, each kid had their favorite wrestler. The great part was that when you argued over why your favorite was better than your friend’s, it was very likely that those 2 would be pitted against each other at the next pay-per-view and one of you could walk away saying, “I told you so”.

Man, I could actually go on and on about those exciting days spent taking in the grappling greatness (I didn’t even touch on WCW with Ric Flair and the 4 Horseman) but the magic of wrestling for me will always be in those “pure” days of the 80’s when good vs bad was easily defined and so prevalent in the culture that everyone had an opinion. Best of all, when wrestling was on it seemed like anybody could get behind the idea of good conquering evil for a night during the Main Event and that unity made for great memories.

So I’m curious, who were your favorite wrestlers? What are your memories?

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Looking for more from Hoju Koolander?

Hoju Koolander Posted on Feb 10, 2016 at 10:15 PM

@GLOW Wrestling Official Hey, thanks for checking it out. GLOW was such an 80s phenomenon it definitely deserved all the space it got in this article.

GLOW Wrestling Official Posted on Jan 24, 2016 at 07:42 PM

Thank so much for all the GLOW love!


comic_book_fan Posted on Nov 17, 2014 at 04:19 AM

Hoju Koolander yeah we all lived in a small house and she knew i was going to see it when my older siblings watched it and she knew they would keep me in check because they liked the show too.
we all watched married with children together along with the simpson and x-files my family related alot to the bundys lol that is my favorite sitcom of all time.

OldSchool80s Posted on Nov 14, 2014 at 03:32 PM

Awesome work! Loved wrestling back in the 80s. Still a Hulkamaniac.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Nov 12, 2014 at 04:44 PM

@comic_book_fan: That seems like a fair deal your Mom struck with you on that one. I had a similar situation regarding Married...With Children, my Mom was always saying, "Are you watching that Bundy again? If you start acting like that, it's going off."

comic_book_fan Posted on Nov 10, 2014 at 12:29 PM

my mom allowed me to watch the attitude era but if i got caught acting like anyone on the show then no one in my house would be allowed to watch it and my brothers would have beat the crap out of me if they couldn't watch it that was the same with shows like beavis and butthead as well i think the best era for actual wrestling as far as the in ring matches were 1992 through 1997 i was 8 to 11 years old during the attitude era.

Vaporman87 Posted on Nov 05, 2014 at 09:34 PM

There was indeed alienation going on in the attitude era. Nobody wanted their kids watching that style of drama and violence.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Nov 05, 2014 at 04:16 PM

That's a good point, pikachulover. The Attitude era definitely pumped life back into the WWE in a big way. I personally feel like they are still coasting on that popularity. But the difference I think was that the 80's era was universally accessible because it was classic good vs evil, while the Attitude era was bad vs evil. Though it was a small percentage, I think there was a potential audience that was being alienated at that time.

pikachulover Posted on Nov 05, 2014 at 04:29 AM

I didn't follow wrestling back in the 1980s. I barely started following it in 2003. But I think it's important to know about the history. I may not be that well versed on the history, but I wanted to learn about it.
People think I'm just some airhead who watches it for the good looking buff guys. (mainly Cena)
I also think that the Attitude era is very similar to the Rock n Wrestling era for the WWF. As it brought wrestling to the forefront of pop culture, but in different ways.

Vaporman87 Posted on Nov 04, 2014 at 10:50 PM

Yeah, The Brain was the best there ever has been at playing the part of annoying heel manager. So good. And then when he started commentating on the matches his dialogue got even better. I miss those days.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Nov 04, 2014 at 08:45 PM

I'm with you on the managers. They only functioned well when they were acting as cheaters to make the heels/bad guys look that much more evil (Bobby Heenan was king!). but when a face/good guy had a manager (Jimmy Hart with Hulk Hogan) it was pointless because their whole job became acting as a hype machine for a character that was already loved. Kind of redundant.

Vaporman87 Posted on Nov 04, 2014 at 02:44 PM

There is so much about wrestling in the 80's that I could go on about. I was so convinced it was all real, and the drama could make your blood boil.

Naturally I was always rooting for Hulk Hogan to win everything. He and Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake were two of my favorites. The Undertaker came along some time later and soon became my favorite as well.

I loved Roddy Piper. Yeah, he was usually a heel... but he was so good at it that you just had to like him. Macho Man was another favorite of mine. He was so kooky and Elizabeth was a beauty that every young boy loved.

I like the style of Ricky Steamboat though. He was a great wrestler and knew how to put on a show with just in ring maneuvers. Those were the matches you really loved watching... the ones with guys who could actually impress you with what they could do. Not just running around doing clotheslines and leg drops.

And then there were the managers (which only ever seemed to work with heels). Always there to make trouble and you just wished these idiot good guys would just bring their own outside the ring helper to fend off the cheaters!

The fun and excitement faded with time. Like you said, there was something magical in the 80's when you knew who were the good guys and who to root against, and then joined the other millions of fans to watch. It was a soap opera for men, and it was exceptional at capturing our attentions.

That isn't to say that it isn't still good at capturing attention. But it's different now. The magic of not quite being sure if it's real or not... and whether or not these guys really hated each other... it's gone. We all know it's fake, and they make no effort to hide it any more. The drama that catches headlines is more real now... what really is happening behind the curtain, and that's just not magical. It's the gritty and grim reality we all live in, and hoped to escape from when we sat down to catch a match.

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