Game of Thrones: How Vince McMahon Rebuilt The WWF

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”, Cersei Lannister, Game of Thrones

Vince McMahon Sr. and Jr.

The story of Vincent Kennedy McMahon pulling his father’s World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) from a 70’s decline into the pop culture juggernaut of the 80’s World Wrestling Federation (WWF) is entwined with both some shockingly harsh truths and some bias driven myth, but one thing is for sure. When Vince Jr. took the keys off his dad in 1982, the WWF soon emerged from a neck and neck race with the NWA and its territories and Verne Gagne‘s AWA and won the race with lengths to spare. While his product wasn’t always the best in-ring product, there was no denying that in 1987, more of the general mainstream public knew who King Kong Bundy was than Ric Flair. But it’s also a well known fact that Vince signed away several main event and mid-card talent from most of his rivals, locking them up with exclusive contracts with promise of higher gate percentage and merchandise revenue sharing. With many of the territories in the early 80’s struggling to keep their doors open, the idea of a steady source of income was a tough deal to ignore.

Photo: WWE

By the end of the 80’s, most of the territories were dead or swallowed up, as they failed to keep pace with McMahon’s cable television lead WWF and their willingness to embrace new technologies, like Closed Circuit Television. While most people will point at Vince’s “raiding” of the territories, hindsight is often 20/20. Most of the territories let guys like Hulk Hogan, Paul Orndorff, Ricky Steamboat and others go because they chose to invest in their aging main eventers, like Nick Bockwinkel or Verne Gagne themselves, than offer any real indication that the younger talent would get the same opportunities that an eager McMahon was offering them. It’s easy to look back and point at all the Legends that the WWF signed from the NWA or AWA, but there was also plenty who didn’t exactly turn out to be the Superstars the WWF was hoping for. But regardless of the view, it’s not hard to see that the loss of some of these wrestlers – some who were just simply more charismatic than athletic and lended their personalities better to WWF’s MTV-style approach – may have robbed the territories and AWA of stars they could have used to sell their own television. And not all of the stars who made the jump in the early days of Vince’s takeover stuck around long. And there massive exposure in the WWF helped them command bigger paydays for the territories that did survive – like Jim Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic Wrestling – ultimately pushing the ones who didn’t drown to start to get some visible buoyancy in an emerging entertainment medium.

The Holdovers & First Recruits (1982)

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State of the Territories:

NWA Hollywood Wrestling folded in 1982 and in 1983, the WWF began booking in the vacant territory.

When Vince McMahon took over ownership of the WWF in June of 1982, he acquired a company that was neck in neck with the NWA territories and the AWA, in an industry that was a far cry from the glory days of the 1940’s and 1950’s. His World Champion was the baby faced Bob Backlund, former WWWF World Champion Pedro Morales was in the midst of a 425-day reign as WWF Intercontinental Champion, and Chief Jay Strongbow and his “brother” Jules Strongbow were the newly minted WWF World Tag Team Champions. They still had several titles being contested in NJPW as well, such as the WWF Light Heavyweight title (then held by Gran Hamada) and the WWF Martial Arts Champion Antonio Inoki. There was no WWF Women’s Champion, as the WWF still had a working agreement with the NWA and used NWA Women’s Champion The Fabulous Moolah when needed. Vince had a strong starting foundation for a promotion with the stars that had worked for his father (most for decades), but the NWA – particularly Mid Atlantic – was beginning to groom younger stars quicker than the WWWF had been, with such names as Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes and The Road Warriors capturing the younger generation’s attention more than some of the dinosaurs still in the WWF. While many were slowly shown the door, Vince kept several of the past eras stars with the company – some were younger talent that needed an opportunity, while others were kept to help put over the new emerging Superstars.

Wrestlers Vince Started With After Purchase

  • Adrian Adonis (1981-1987): Vince transformed the rough and tough New York City brawler into the flamboyant “Adorable One” and one of the 1980’s most memorable heels. Left the WWF for the AWA in 1987, then NJPW in 1988, but was killed that same year in a car accident.
  • Captain Lou Albano (1964-1986): A long time wrestler for his dad, Vince Jr. turned him into one of the most recognizable managers of the 80s. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’96
  • Tony Atlas (1980-1992): A legitimate strongman who joined the WWF in 1980 from Georgia Championship Wrestling, he had a run with tag team gold alongside Rocky Johnson and a mild singles run. Left the WWF after never leaving the mid-card to join WCW in the early 90s.
  • Bob Backlund (1977-1984): Vince Sr.’s golden boy to close out the 1970’s, he was far too boring for Vince Jr.’s new WWF for the 80’s. He left the WWF in 1984 when he refused to turn heel to face Hulk Hogan after Hogan beat Iron Sheik. Upon his exit, he went to Mid-Atlantic and the AWA until he returned a much darker character in the early 90s. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’13
  • “Classy” Freddie Blassie (1974-1986): He retired from active wrestling in 1974 after years as a top heel in the territories and became a manager in the WWWF. He continued that role into Junior’s era. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’94
  • Fabulous Moolah (1964-1987): Moolah was an independent who defended her NWA Women’s title in the NWA and WWF territories. In 1984, Vince Jr. bought the title off of her, making her (and the Women’s Championship) WWF exclusive, and promptly had her drop the title to Wendi Richter after holding it for nearly 30 years. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’95
  • Mr. Fuji (1981-1992): Fuji returned to the WWF in 1981 following a few years away in NWA territories (Mid Atlantic, WCCW) and All Japan; he was slowly transitioned from tag team specialist to singles wrestler, and by the time Junior’s vision was complete, he became one of the 80s most iconic managers. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’07
  • SD “Special Delivery” Jones (1974-1988): A long standing employee who worked as a mid-carder for Senior but enhancement for Junior.
  • Pedro Morales (1980-1987): Morales returned to the WWF in 1980 following three years away, where he’d been working NWA Mid-Atlantic and NJPW. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’95
  • Don Muraco (1981-1988): Muraco become one of Vince Jr.’s top stars early on, with huge Intercontinental runs, but left just as the WWF exploded in 1988, heading back to Japan, before joining ECW in its infancy in 1992. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’04
  • Ivan Putski (1975-1987): A top star under Vince Sr., his momentum slowed considerably when Vince Jr. decided to go with younger stars. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’95
  • Johnny Rodz (1965-1985): A steady worker for Vince Sr. for nearly 20 years, he was let go shortly after Vince Jr. took over. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’96
  • George “The Animal” Steele (1968-1988): One of Vince Sr.’s top heels in the 60s and 70s, he became one of the 80s most beloved faces under Jr. Following his retirement, he became a long standing backstage agent/producer for the WWE during the 90s. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’95
  • Wild Samoans (Afa & Sika, 1980-1985): Became the cornerstone of the emerging Tag Team division, but were phased out once the Rock N’ Wrestling era began. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’07

Wrestlers Vince Signed During Purchase

  • “Superstar” Billy Graham (1982-1983, Mid-Atlantic): Graham had quit the WWWF in 1978 when Vince Sr. refused to turn Graham full face despite his growing popularity. When Vince Jr. took ownership, Graham returned, but without his trademark long locks or bright colours. Instead he debuted a new karate gimmick. While he contended for the WWF World title, he lasted barely a year before leaving again. He returned again in 1986 as a full blown face, but sadly major health issues emerged and he was forced to retire in 1987. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’04
  • Iron Sheik (Georgia Championship Wrestling): As Hussein Arab, he’d worked stints for Vince Sr. before, but he was also an independent who spent the bulk of the 70s working for the AWA and the early 80s for Georgia Championship Wrestling, Mid-Atlantic and NJPW. In one of Vince’s first signings since assuming full ownership, he brought him in to take the WWF World title from Bob Backlund, which he finally did in December of 1983. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’05
  • Rocky Johnson (1982-1985, Mid-Atlantic, NJPW): Finally joined the WWF in 1982 and was paired with Tony Atlas in a rising new tag team, but left the company shortly after the first WrestleMania, returning to the NWA. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’08
  • Jimmy Snuka (1982-1985, Mid-Atlantic, GCW): A journeyman star in the NWA territories, particularly Mid-Atlantic and Georgia Championship Wrestling, he was lured by the bright lights of the WWF in 1982 and was an instant star. He left the WWF after the first WrestleMania and headed to the AWA instead. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’96
  • Big John Studd (1982-1989, CWF, NJPW): With Andre The Giant continuing to work as an independent, Vince wanted to lock in his own giant, so he signed the near 7′ Studd from NJPW. Studd had been working Championship Wrestling from Florida the year before as well as Mid-South, Mid-Atlantic and the AWA after a short stint with the WWF in the 70s as part of the tag team, The Executioners. He retired as a WWF Superstar in 1989 following several health issues. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’04

Vince’s First Year (1983)

Vince Junior spent his first full year working with his new recruits – which he pushed hard, with Snuka being the top face behind a rapidly falling off Backlund and the Iron Sheik as the top heel – and figuring out which of the holdovers worked into his new vision for the company. But he still went after some new talent to help revitalize an aging roster, including two young studs and his first Real American Hero.

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  • Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff (1983-1988, Georgia Championship Wrestling): Orndorff was a rising star who had been a Tag Team specialist early on his career in the late 70s and was becoming a top singles star in the South – he was a 3x Mid-South North American Champion and 4x NWA National Heavyweight Champion in Georgia. He signed with the WWF in the fall of 1983, but it wouldn’t be for another few months before his impact would be truly felt. While he was a major part of Vince Jr.’s early WWF, as the company exploded, Orndorff saw less and less of the limelight. He headed to Mid-Atlantic (and subsequently WCW) in 1988. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’05
  • Tito Santana (1983-1993, AWA, Georgia): Tito had had a brief stint in the WWF in 1979 under Vince Sr., but he soon left for the AWA and Georgia Championship Wrestling. In 1983, he began to work some WWF dates again and this time, Vince Jr. signed him exclusively in the summer of 1983. He would go on to become one of the most popular mid-card Superstars of the 80s, as a 2x WWF Intercontinental Champion and 2x WWE World Tag Team Champion. He left the WWF in 1993 when they went with a younger direction but instead of heading to WCW, he joined the fledgling ECW. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’04
  • Sgt. Slaughter (1983-1984, Mid-Atlantic): Sgt. Slaughter arrived as a major heel facing WWF Champion Bob Backlund but soon become arguably it’s top face when he had a huge rivalry with the Iron Sheik throughout most of 1984. But when G.I. Joe came knocking, it would lead to contract disputes between Slaughter and McMahon and Slaughter left for the AWA a year later. He would return in 1990 (aligning himself with his old foe) and become a top heel once again – and finally winning the WWF World Champion – and continues to be an ambassador for the WWE to this day. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’04

Hulkamania Arrives (1984)

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Now starting to get national exposure on a level that began to dwarf the competition, Vince McMahon made a more aggressive pursuit of talent from the territories, plucking emerging stars from promotions unwilling to up their pay or see their potential. But his biggest gem was luring back to the WWF a golden haired beach bodybuilder from the AWA who was in the middle of contract disputes with Verne Gagne and launching the single most powerful force in professional wrestling – with an army of new recruits to surround him. Vince also began to create his own alliances after previously cutting off his father’s allegiances to NJPW, NWA and AWA, by working with (and then purchasing) the iconic Canadian promotion, Stampede Wrestling. Although he would sign a large crop of their young stars the next year, he would also sell it back to the Hart family.

State of the Territories:

Georgia Championship Wrestling (GCW) was sold to Vince McMahon Jr. by principal owners Jack and Jerry Brisco in July of 1984.
Stampede Wrestling
, NWA’s western Canada territory based out of Calgary, was sold to Vince McMahon Jr. by Stu Hart, who would use the territory as a developmental system until he sold it back to the Hart brothers in 1985.
Maple Leaf Wrestling, the NWA’s eastern Canada territory based out of Toronto, was sold to Vince McMahon Jr. by Frank Tunney

  • Brutus Beefcake (1984-1993, NJPW, Mid-Atlantic): Well known to be a close friend of Hulk Hogan’s during their formative years, Beefcake arrived in the WWF in the summer of 1984 alongside his friend, coming off a stint together in NJPW. While Hogan was becoming a main event in AWA for a few years prior, Beefcake was working Mid-Atlantic under the name of Dizzy Hogan, Hulk’s kayfabe brother. He would become a top mid-card heel in the WWF until his face turn as “The Barber” in 1987. When Hogan left for WCW in 1993, Beefcake followed, but never again captured the same popularity as he did during his WWF heyday.
  • B. Brian Blair (1984-1988, NJPW, CWF): Although most famous for being part of the Killer Bees tag team in the WWF, Blair actually arrived in the WWF a year earlier than his partner. He tag teamed regularly with Tony Garea and Bob Backlund, before moving to a lower mid-card status as a singles wrestler. Once Jim Brunzell arrived in 1985, the two become one of the most popular tag teams of Vince’s early days in control. The duo both left the WWF in 1988 and headed to Bill Watts’ short lived UWF.
  • Bret “Hitman” Hart (1984-1997, Stampede, NJPW): Following years grooming in NJPW and his father’s Stampede Wrestling, in 1984 Bret Hart became a WWF Superstar. Used primarily as a low card performer his first year, in 1985 he would be paired with his brother-in-law Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart and manager Jimmy Hart to form The Hart Foundation, one of the most successful tag teams of the 80s. When the older stars began to jump to WCW in the early 90s, Bret became a singles wrestler again and the face of the company for the first half of the 90s. Following the Montreal Screwjob in 1997, he left the WWF for WCW. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’06
  • Bobby Heenan (1984-1993, AWA): Long since retired as an active wrestler, “The Brain” was one of the top managers in the AWA during the 70s. Vince convinced Heenan to join fellow AWA signee Jesse “The Body” Ventura as his manager, which he accepted. His run with Ventura was short lived (due to Ventura’s health problems), but Heenan would go on to manage many Hall of Famers with his Heenan family and become the top manager antagonist against the WWF’s meal ticket, Hulk Hogan, and arguably the greatest manager of all time. He retired from the WWF in 1993, but a year later was lured out of retirement by WCW to become their colour commentator. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’04
  • Hulk Hogan (1984-1993, AWA, NJPW): He came the biggest name in sports entertainment history and arguably the greatest draw of all time during his second run with the WWF, thanks largely in part to two huge blunders. Vince Sr. released Hogan in 1981 when Hogan filmed his scenes for Rocky III behind his back. The AWA quickly swooped in, signed him and pushed him as a face (he’d been working heel in the WWF). But after a failed attempt to take the AWA World title from Nick Bockwinkel in the spring of 1983, Hogan was relegated to second fiddle, appearing in more battle royals than Championship matches. When Verne Gagne refused to pay him main event money, he left for NJPW, where he became the first ever IWGP Heavyweight Champion, and finally back to the WWF, where he and Vince created Hulkamania. The rest is history. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’05
  • Junkyard Dog (1984-1988, Mid-South): Junkyard Dog was one of Mid-South’s emerging superstars, as the Mid-South North American Champion, 3x Mid-South Louisiana Champion, and 8x Mid-South Tag Team Champion. He was also a regular with Stampede Wrestling, where he was a 2x North American Champion (their top title). But while he never saw that kind of title success in the WWF, he was arguably the second most popular face behind Hulk Hogan during the Rock N’ Wrestling formative years. He was one of the first major WWF Superstars to jump ship to WCW in 1988. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’04
  • Cpl. Kirchner (1984-1987, AWA): Another of Hulk Hogan’s friends who joined him in the WWF was Cpl. Kirchner, a character Vince created to capitalize on the Rambo craze at the time. While hugely popular when he started, his star quickly faded and he left in 1987, heading to Japan where he had some success in NJPW, FMW and W*ING.
  • Moondog Rex (1984-1988, CWA): Originally created by Vince Sr. in 1980 along with Moondog King in the Moondogs stable, in the territories Randy Colley went by many names such as The Nightmare and Assassin #2 in the Assassins tag team. When he paired with Larry Lantham (as Moondog Spot), the two became WWF staples in 1984. When the Moondogs team ended, he was paired with Bill Eadie (Ax) as Smash in a new unit called Demolition, but fans recognized him as Rex and he was replaced. He left the WWF shortly after and went to WCW as his prior Nightmare character, as well as reuniting with Spot in Jerry Lawler’s USWA.
  • Moondog Spot (1984-1987, CWA): Larry Latham had his biggest spotlight in the WWF when he paired with Randy Colley in the Moondogs, but he was a huge star prior in Jerry Jarrett’s Continental Wrestling Association in Memphis as part of the Blonde Bombers, with Roy Wayne Ferris (futurely known as The Honky Tonk Man), where they were 3x AWA Southern Tag Team champions and 3x NWA Mid-America Tag champs. He left the WWF in 1987, just as his old tag partner was arriving, and headed back to Memphis and the USWA to reunited with his Moondog partner, Rex.
  • Dick Murdoch (1984-1985, NJPW, Georgia): Dick Murdoch had been one of the territories top stars in the 70s – in some circles, Murdoch heading to the WWF was a bigger coup than Hulk Hogan at the time. A major player on the NWA Tag Team circuit – with Dusty Rhodes in the Texas Outlaws and Junkyard Dog in Mid-South – and a solid singles career where he’d become one of the most popular “tough guys” around, Murdoch never quite fit in with Vince’s new WWF and lasted only a year, but still garnered more tag team gold, winning alongside Adrian Adonis (pre-Adorable) for 279 days.
  • Cowboy “Ace” Bob Orton Jr. (1984-1987, Mid-Atlantic, NJPW): He arrived in the WWF in 1984 as part of Roddy Piper’s new entourage, but prior to that he had been tag teaming with Don Kernodle in Mid-Atlantic (where they’d just won the NWA World Tag Team titles) and three years into a run with NJPW. A strong territorial hand throughout the 70’s, he left the WWF in 1987 to join the emerging WCW. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’05
  • Ken Patera (1984-1988, AWA): Vince Sr. had let this former Intercontinental Champion go back in 1980, where he went on to some success with the AWA. He was also part of the AWA exodus of ’84, and immediately became part of Bobby Heenan’s new Heenan Family in the WWF, although he never reached WWF gold again. With no real advancement in the WWF, he returned to the AWA in 1989, just in time for the promotion to fold. Patera retired shortly after that.
  • Roddy Piper (1984-1996, Mid-Atlantic, AJPW): Next to Hulk Hogan, signing Roddy Piper away from Mid-Atlantic was the second most important signing of the 80s by Vince Jr. Piper was one of the top mid-card heels in the world by this point, where he was a 2x NWA US Champion and 2x NWA Television Champion, coming off one of the most brutal feuds of 1983 – with the infamous bloody dog collar match – against Greg “The Hammer” Valentine. Upon arriving in the WWF, McMahon gave Piper his own talk show – Piper’s Pit – and let his mouth turn him into one of the greatest heels of all time, and the natural mortal enemy of Hulk Hogan. Although he had a few retirements within his WWF tenure, he left in 1996 for WCW. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’05
  • Wendi Richter (1984-1985, Mid-South, CWA, AWA): Prior to Vince handpicking her as his new Women’s Champion in 1984, Richter was an average journeywoman in the territories. But she fit Vince’s idea for the new look of the WWF and he pushed her to the moon. She started modestly in a tag team with Peggy Lee, but months after her debut she became the first woman to defeat the Fabulous Moolah in 30 years and for a brief spell, thanks to the success of her MTV feud with Cpt. Lou Albano and Moolah with Cyndi Lauper in her corner, she was nearly as big as Hulk Hogan. But when contract disputes arose in 1985 due to her meteoric rise, Richter became victim to McMahon’s first “screwjob” and Moolah won the title back (as Spider Lady). Richter left the WWF immediately following that match. She wrestled periodically in territories after that, but was never able to recapture the lightning in the bottle of her year in the WWF. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’10
  • Mike Rotunda (1984-1987, CWF, Mid-Atlantic): A standout grappler in Championship Wrestling of Florida and Mid-Atlantic, Rotunda excelled as a Tag Team Specialist (with brother-in-law Barry Windham) and as a singles grappler. He joined the WWF with Windham and the two became the top face tag team in the company. But as flashier teams like the Hart Foundation and British Bulldogs emerged on the roster, they saw their spot fade. Rotunda headed to Mid-Atlantic (and WCW) in 1987, where he continued his pre-WWF story, winning two NWA Television titles and NWA World Tag Team titles with Rick Steiner in the Varsity Club. In 1991, he returned to the WWF as The Million Dollar Man’s crooked accountant, Irwin R. “IRS” Shyster.
  • Bruno Sammartino (1984-1988): Bruno had retired in 1981, before Junior took over, but in 1984, he lured the WWWF Legend out of retirement to come back to the WWF. He sporadically did legends matches, but was principally used as colour commentator on various shows. He left the WWF in 1988, disgusted at the path the WWF was undertaking. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’13
  • David Sammartino (1984-1988, AJPW): Part of the conditions of Bruno’s return to the WWF was that his son would come with him and be given a shot on Vince Jr’s roster. Sadly, the younger Sammartino was nowhere near the prodigy his dad was and Sammartino spent much of his career as enhancement. It’s no surprise that when Bruno left in 1988, David did too, returning back to Japan.
  • Greg “The Hammer” Valentine (1984-1995, Mid-Atlantic): Much like Piper, Valentine was one of the territories top emerging mid-card stars, with a resume including 4x NWA World Tag Team Champion, 4x NWA Television Champion and 3x NWA US Champion. Her arrived in the WWF and immediately got the same treatment, becoming Intercontinental Champion and winning WWF World Tag Team gold with Brutus Beefcake in The Dream Team. As the WWF moved in a younger direction in the 1990s, Valentine became obsolete in the WWF, eventually moving to WCW in 1996. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’04
  • Jesse “The Body” Ventura (1984-1990, AWA): Although he’d wrestled periodically with the WWF prior for Vince Sr., he was part of the AWA exodus of ’84, when he came to the WWF with Bobby Heenan. Sadly, his WWF career in the ring came to an end shortly after arriving, when blood clots where found in his lungs. But his WWF career became arguably more noteworthy, as his partnership as colour commentator with Gorilla Monsoon set the benchmark for what a colour man could do. He left the WWF in 1990 following contract disputes. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’04
  • Nikolai Volkoff (1984-1990, Mid-South): Volkoff had had a prior WWF run from 1974 to 1979 as part of the Mongols, but he left to reinvent himself as a singles wrestler. In Mid-South, All Japan and Championship Wrestling of Florida, he did just that, as the Russian brute, Nikolai Volkoff. He returned to the WWF in 1984 and was immediately paired with the Iron Sheik to become the top heel tag team in the company. He left the WWF in 1990, but made sporadic appearances later on, including one final run in 1994-1995 as part of the Million Dollar Corporation. He retired from active competition in 1995. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’05
  • Barry Windham (1984-1985, CWF): Barry Windham didn’t last as long in the WWF as his partner Rotunda did. After their explosive year as the US Express, he would return to Championship Wrestling of Florida and then Mid-Atlantic (WCW), where he’d become a top singles star and join the Four Horsemen (taking Ole Anderson’s spot). He briefly returned in 1989 as The Widowmaker, but after four months, returned to WCW where he won the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in 1993. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’12

WrestleMania Is Born (1985)

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If Hulkamania helped propel the WWF to the top of the heap in 1984, it was the calculated risk (and monstrous payoff) of WrestleMania in 1985 that propelled WWF away from it’s closest competitor, Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling (which eventually began to pick up territorial survivors and WWF castaways to build WCW).

State of the Territories:

St. Louis Wrestling Club, one of the flagship NWA promotions owned by Sam Muchnick and Harley Race, is absorbed by Jim Crockett Promotions (owner of Mid-Atlantic).

  • Dino Bravo (1985-1992, IW, AWA): Dino Bravo had made appearances for the WWF in years past, but he joined the roster full time in 1985, promoted initially as the WWF Canadian International Heavyweight Champion. At the time, he was one of the co-owners of International Wrestling in Montreal, which became a Quebec territory allied with the WWF. He was a strong mid-card contender (although his Canadian title was phased out in 1986) and heel with the company. He retired from the WWF in 1992 to become a trainer, but was killed the following year.
  • British Bulldogs (1985-1988, Stampede, AJPW, NJPW): Part of the Stampede influx of ’85, Davey Boy Smith and The Dynamite Kid were two UK kids who lived in Calgary and worked for Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling. Both had been working between Stampede and NJPW for years, but in 1985 they debuted together as The British Bulldogs and became instant fan favourites in the WWF Universe. They both left the WWF in 1988 and returned to Japan, but Davey Boy Smith would return in 1990 using just the British Bulldog as his moniker.
  • “Jumping” Jim Brunzell (1985-1993, AWA): Jim Brunzell was making his name in the AWA as part of The High Flyers with Greg Gagne (son of Verne), where they were 2x AWA World Tag Team Champions. In 1980, he had a near year long feud with The Iron Sheik in Mid-Atlantic for their Heavyweight title (Brunzell held it twice). Brunzell was immediately paired with B. Brian Blair and the two became The Killer Bees, one of the most beloved WWF tag teams of the mid-80s.
  • King Kong Bundy (1985-1988, NJPW, GCW): King Kong Bundy was brought in to the WWF from NJPW just before the first WrestleMania, following several years as a mercenary in several territories, such as Georgia Championship Wrestling, AWA, CWA and WCCW. By the following year, WWF had built him into a monster, facing Hulk Hogan for the WWF World title at WrestleMania II.
  • Terry Funk (1985-1986, AJPW): An NWA legend by the time he joined the WWF in 1985, he’d actually been wrestling in Japan when he went to work for Vince Jr. He had an extensive feud with Junkyard Dog early into his WWF run, as well as main eventing as the villain to Hulk Hogan, but failed to capture the WWF World title. His brother Dory Funk Jr. joined him in the Funk Brothers stable the following year, but with seeming no real serious angles, both would leave the WWF by the end of spring. Funk would return to Japan, then briefly WCW, before joining upstart ECW in 1993. He would periodically show up for guest appearances or short runs over the next 20 years for the WWF. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’09
  • Haku (1985-1992, AWA, IW): King Tonga was a world class tough guy who was working for the AWA as well as one of the top emerging stars in International Wrestling in Montreal when he joined the WWF alongside Dino Bravo. Although he started in the WWF under his prior name, he was switched to Haku the following year. In 1989, he formed The Colossal Connection in one of the last runs for Andre the Giant, capturing the WWF World Tag Team titles. He left the WWF in 1992 and headed to WCW, where he was renamed Meng.
  • Jimmy Hart (1985-1994, CWA): “The Mouth of the South” got his start with the WWF in 1985 after fellow CWA wrestler Harley Davidson joined WWF as Hillbilly Jim. Hillbilly Jim pushed for them to sign him and Hart went on to become one of the most iconic managers of the 80s, managing such teams as The Hart Foundation and The Dream Team, and Intercontinental Champions like Greg Valentine and The Honky Tonk Man. He left the WWF in 1994 to join Hulk Hogan in WCW. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’05
  • Hercules Hernandez (1985-1992, CWF, Mid-Atlantic): Hercules Hernandez was being developed as a new powerhouse big man in Championship Wrestling in Florida when he decided to jump to the WWF in 1985. A solid mid-card heel for most of his run, he left in 1992 and briefly worked for WCW, before heading to NJPW.
  • Hillbilly Jim (1985-1990, CWA): Prior to joining the WWF, he had been working as a biker gimmick with Jerry Jarrett’s Continental Wrestling Association in Tennessee as Harley Davidson. But in 1985, Vince Jr. swapped him from biker to hillbilly and made Jim Morris a bonafide Superstar. Although he won no titles in the WWF, he was one of the most recognizable and beloved stars of the 80s and continued to work as an ambassador to the WWE long after he retired as an active wrestler in 1991, including periodic returns to the WWF as a guest or manager (he briefly managed the Godwinns in 1995).
  • Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart (1985-1992, CWF, Mid-South): Although he got his start in Stampede Wrestling years earlier, Neidhart joined the WWF from runs in CWF and Mid-South. Initially starting off as a singles wrestler, by spring he was repackaged with his brother-in-law Bret Hart as a tag team. Once Bret moved on to a singles career, Neidhart saw his stock in the WWF dwindle, until he left in 1992 for stints in ECW and WCW. He would periodically return to WWF for short runs here and there, most notably the New Hart Foundation from 1996-1997.
  • The Rougeau Brothers (1985-1994, IW): Another pair from the International Wrestling territory in Montreal, Jacques and Raymond Rougeau debuted as a face tag team in the New Year and would become mid-card stars in the emerging tag team division. When Raymond retired in 1990 to become WWF’s French-speaking colour commentator, Jacques was repackaged as The Mountie and would win the Intercontinental title before retiring in 1994.
  • Randy “Macho Man” Savage (1985-1994, CWA): Randy Savage was one of Jerry Jarrett’s fastest rising stars in the CWA when he signed with the WWF in 1985. He was immediately pushed as the “hottest free agent in wrestling”, with every WWF manager vying to be his representative. He shocked the world when he brought in his real-life wife Miss Elizabeth and went on to become one of the most iconic WWE Superstars of all time. He left the WWF in 1994 to join WCW. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’15
  • Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat (1985-1988, Mid-Atlantic): Ricky Steamboat heading to the WWF in 1985 was a big blow to Mid-Atlantic, who had been grooming him as one of their top faces embroiled in epic battles with the Four Horsemen, particularly World Champion Ric Flair and Tully Blanchard. While he is best remembered for his legendary WrestleMania III battle with Randy Savage in 1987, he was limited as a mid-card performer and ultimately left in 1988 to return to Mid-Atlantic as it was transitioning into WCW. He immediately picked up his feud with Flair and finally beat him for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in 1989. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’09

Beefing Up The Roster (1986)

All images: WWE

State of the Territories

Central States Wrestling (CSW) was sold to Jim Crockett Promotions in 1986

  • Andre The Giant (1986-1991, NJPW, NWA): While Andre the Giant has appeared for the WWF going back to the 70s, it was Vince Jr. who locked him up as a solely WWF Superstar in 1986. While initially a face due to his international popularity, McMahon gambled on turning Andre heel and in 1987, Andre vs Hogan became one of the most famous (and watched) wrestling matches of all time. Injuries would continue to slow Andre down from the imposing Giant he was in the 70s, but he continued to be a huge draw with the WWF. He finally retired from the WWF in 1991. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’93
  • Dory Funk Jr (1986, AJPW): Another NWA Legend and former World Champion long before he joined the WWF, Dory was repackaged as Hoss Funk and paired with brother Terry in a tag team, with a third kayfabe brother Jimmy Jam Funk in tow. Dory was having none of it and lasted only a few months, before he left, taking Terry with him. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’09
  • Billy Jack Haynes (1986-1988, PNW): Another emerging star from the territories, Haynes was a homegrown boy from Pacific Northwest Wrestling, as well as regions like CWF, Mid-South and Stampede. While Haynes had moderate success as a popular mid-card wrestler, he never became the Superstar the WWF had hoped for. He returned to PNW after he left the WWF in ’88, as well as stints in NJPW and WCW.
  • Honky Tonk Man (1986-1991, Stampede): While he’d had a solid run in the late 70’s as part of the Blonde Bombers in the CWA, Honky Tonk Man had been working for Stampede Wrestling for a couple years when he finally got his WWF call, as a very similar character called Honky Tonk Wayne. He still holds the WWE record for longest reign as Intercontinental Champion at 454 days. A hot heel out of the gate, as the 80s came to a close he began to appear in more and more tag team match-ups than singles. He briefly worked as a colour commentator in 1991 before leaving the company.
  • Kamala (1986-1987, Mid-South): Kamala had a brief run in the company in 1984, but remained independent, working all over the NWA territories as well as the AWA. Mid-South and Memphis were home bases for him before he joined the WWF as a new monster heel to challenge Hulk Hogan in 1986. He wrestled for two years in the WWF before heading back to CWA and the Memphis area. He would return to the WWF in 1992 to face The Undertaker, but left again shortly after.
  • Masked Superstar (1986-1990, NJPW, AWA): While he only competed briefly as The Masked Superstar in 1983 and 1984 while an independent, when he returned in 1986, he was on the verge of his big breakout. Bill Eadie was kept masked initially and paired with Blackjack Mulligan as the masked Machines (Eadie as Super Machine and Mulligan as Big Machine). In 1987, he was repackaged as Demolition Ax, part of the Road Warriors-esque Demolition, one of the most popular tag teams in WWE history. Ax was a long standing ring veteran when he’d returned to the WWF and injuries began to slow him down. He left the WWF in 1990.
  • Rick Martel (1986-1994, IW, AJPW, AWA): Rick Martel had a brief stint as a young tag team wrestler in the early 80’s, heading to the AWA shortly before Vince Jr. took over, capturing the AWA World Championship in 1984. He returned to the WWF again as a tag team, alongside Tom Zenk in the Can-Am Connection. Following Zenk’s departure shortly after, he paired with Tito Santana in Strikeforce. He turned heel in 1989 as the arrogant “Model”, becoming a top mid-card star for years. He left the WWF in 1994 when they decided to go in a younger direction.
  • Harley Race (1986-1989, Central States, AJPW): One of the NWA’s absolute icons, when his own St. Louis Wrestling Club was dissolved in 1985, Race began to work elsewhere, finally taking the big money offer from Vince McMahon in 1986. While still a huge name draw, his best years were behind him and he left the WWF in 1989 to head to WCW where he assumed a managerial role. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’04
  • “The Natural” Butch Reed (1986-1988, Mid-South, AWA): A former tag team partner of Jim Neidhart, Butch Reed arrived in the WWF as a solid mid-card threat. But despite getting close and a few solid rivalries, his WWF career never truly took off, so he left in 1988 to join WCW, where he would form Doom with Ron Simmons.
  • Jake “The Snake” Roberts (1986-1992, Mid-South): The Snake was becoming one of Mid-South’s top psychological masters in the early 80s when he headed to the WWF in 1986. He main evented against Hulk Hogan and many others, but never managed to secure any WWF hardware during his first run with the company, so he headed to WCW in 1992. He had a brief return in 1996, but it only served to launch the career of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and the infamous ‘Austin 3:16’ promo. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’14
  • Dick Slater (1986-1987, Mid-South, Mid-Atlantic): Another huge NWA legend of the 70s, much like Dick Murdoch, Slater didn’t last long in the comic book world of the WWF in the 1980s.
  • Koko B. Ware (1986-1994, Mid-South, CWF, CWA): A solid tag team and singles wrestler in the Memphis area, he exploded as one of the most popular characters in WWF’s Rock N’ Wrestling era. He returned to the Memphis area in 1994 following his exit from the WWF. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’09

Dominating the Airwaves (1987)

All images: WWE

State of the Territories:
Championship Wrestling of Florida (CWF) was bought out by Jim Crockett Promotions in February of 1987.
Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF, formerly Mid-South) was bought out by Jim Crockett Promotions in April of 1987.

  • Bam Bam Bigelow (1987-1988, CWA, NJPW): Bam Bam Bigelow emerged as a monster from NJPW and CWA when he first arrived for his first run with the WWF in 1987. Despite his monstrous appearance, during his first year long run with the WWF, he worked as one of Hulk Hogan’s buddies in his battles with the Heenan Family. He left after only a year for WCW, where he wrestled for a few years, before returning as a heel in 1992.
  • Ted DiBiase (1987-1996, Mid-South, AJPW): He’d briefly competed for the WWF in 1979, but despite winning the WWF North American Heavyweight title (that was merged with the South American title to create the Intercontinental Championship), his WWF career never advanced. But in Mid-South, Ted DiBiase was arguably the promotion’s top star – 4x Mid-South North American Heavyweight Champion and 5x Mid-South Tag Team Champ. His charisma reached new heights in the WWF when he became the legendary villain The Million Dollar Man in 1987, where he was a main event heel for years, both as a singles wrestler and tag team. He left the WWF in 1996 and joined WCW, where he debuted as the financial backer of the nWo. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’10
  • “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan (1987-1993, Mid-South): Another star from Mid-South, Duggan became another American hero in the WWF, even winning the inaugural Royal Rumble in 1988. While his character was immensely popular, he rarely exceeded the mid-card and went without a title during his entire WWF run. He left the WWF in 1993 and went to WCW. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’11
  • Killer Khan (1987, AJPW): Although he rejoined the WWF in 1987 from All Japan, for most of the 70s, he was a top star in NJPW under the name Masashi Ozawa. He’d competed for the WWF under Vince Sr. in the early 80s, but left around the time of the change of ownership. His second run would last only a year, before he headed back to Japan.
  • Krusher Kruschev (1987-1993, Mid-Atlantic): When Randy Colley (Moondog Spot) was ousted as Demolition Smash from the new Demolition tag team, the WWF brought in Barry Darsow, who was working in Mid-Atlantic with The Russians stable with Nikita & Ivan Koloff, as Krusher Kruschev. Although he had success in the NWA, his run in Demolition was the high point of his career. When Demolition dissolved in early 1991, he was repackaged as The Repo Man. He left for WCW in 1993.
  • One Man Gang (1987-1990, Mid-South): Mid-South’s bad-ass big man jumped to the WWF along with other Mid-South wrestlers like Ted DiBiase, Jim Duggan and Sam Houston in 1987, with only DiBiase seeing more success out of the gate. One Man Gang was a devastating monster of a big man, going after WWF World Champion Hulk Hogan almost immediately for much of the year. In the fall of 1988, he went the strange repackaging as Akeem The African Dream, which he rode out for the rest of his WWF days. He left in 1990 for WCW, where he returned to his original One Man Gang gimmick.
  • “Ravishing” Rick Rude (1987-1990, Mid-Atlantic, WCCW): Rick Rude was an instant sensation when he arrived in the WWF, after spending the early parts of the year working for Mid-Atlantic and CWF and the previous year in WCCW. He dominated the mid-card, winning the Intercontinental Championship from the Ultimate Warrior in 1989. He returned to Mid-Atlantic in 1990 (now rebranded as WCW), where he finally became the main event player he’d wanted to be. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’17
  • Ultimate Warrior (1987-1992, WCCW): It didn’t take long for the WWF promotion machine to turn the Dingo Warrior into the Ultimate Warrior and ultimately one of the most recognizable WWE Superstars of all time. Despite some of this controversial moments throughout his career, Ultimate Warrior’s 80’s work is still remembered by millions of wrestling fans. He left the WWF in 1992 following contract issues. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’14

Reinforcing The Roster (1988)

All images: WWE

State of the Territories:

Continental Wrestling Association (CWA) and World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW) merged in 1989 and rebranded as United States Wrestling Association (USWA)
American Wrestling Association (AWA) goes inactive in the fall of 1990, filing for bankruptcy and ending in early 1991.

  • Big Bossman (1988-1993, AJPW, Mid-Atlantic): Big Bubba was a solid mid-card in Mid-Atlantic, but when he was brought to WWF and repackaged as a crooked prison guard, his career skyrocketed – he spent the bulk of his first year feuding with Hulk Hogan himself. An imposing and tough figure in the ring, he left the WWF in 1993 for WCW, but found out the grass wasn’t always greener. He returned in 1998 and had an equally successful second run through 2002. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’16
  • The Brain Busters (1988-1989, Mid-Atlantic): A huge coup at the time, when two of the Four Horsemen – Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard – jumped to the WWF in 1988 as Bobby Heenan’s new tag team. They dominated the division, even beating Demolition for the WWF World Tag Team titles. But they soon grew weary of the WWF and returned to WCW in 1989. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’12
  • Bad News Brown (1988-1990, Stampede, NJPW): Trained by Antonio Inoki during a lengthy career in NJPW, followed by another extended stint in Stampede under Stu Hart, Bad News Allen joined the WWF in 1988 under the name Bad News Brown and immediately showed his toughness. His intensity was a bit much for the WWF, both on-screen and backstage, and in 1990 he returned to Stampede, where he would become one of the trainers.
  • “Rugged” Ronnie Garvin (1988-1990, Mid-Atlantic): It was actually a pretty big deal in 1988 when Garvin jumped to the WWF – he’d just come off a reign as the NWA World Heavyweight Champion. But apart from a lengthy, near year long feud with Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, Garvin’s WWF run was pretty forgettable. He went to WCW in 1991, but didn’t last long before heading to Smokey Mountain Wrestling in 1992.
  • Owen Hart (1988-1989, NJPW, Stampede): Stu Hart sent his youngest son to the WWF in 1988 after spending the previous year studying with NJPW. The high flying Hart was not exactly the kind of Hart the WWF was used to and his high flying technique was still an uncommon sight to North Americans. Owen only lasted a year in the WWF before he decided to head back to NJPW to continue his career. After an even worse time in WCW in 1991, Owen returned to the WWF at the end of the year, where he stayed until his death in 1999.
  • “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig (1988-1996, AWA): With the AWA dwindling down, former AWA World Champion Curt Hennig thought it the perfect time to jump to the WWF, where he was repackaged as the arrogant Mr. Perfect. He spent the first year developing a winning streak against low carders, but by 1989 he was main eventing against Hulk Hogan. He would go on to become one of the greatest Intercontinental Champions of all time, before injuries forced him to the broadcast booth in 1993. He came out of in-ring retirement in 1997 and joined WCW, before making a comeback with the WWF in 2002, shortly before his death. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’14
  • Shawn Michaels (1988-2010, AWA, CWA): Alongside Marty Jannetty, his tag team partner in the AWA’s Midnight Rockers, Michaels debuted in the WWF in 1988 as simply The Rockers, becoming one of the top tag teams of the late 80s. But when Michaels turned on Jannetty in the early 90s, it launched one of the greatest singles wrestlers of all time. WWE Hall of Fame, Class of ’11

As the 80’s began to wind down, WCW was now in full affect (with Ted Turner buying Jim Crockett Promotions in 1988). With Turner’s bank account now in play, WCW became a financial threat to the WWF like Vince Jr. had never seen since he took over the WWF in 1982. Over the next 10 years, WCW and WWF would trade stars back and forth as they competed for national television viewers, with WWF bringing in such WCW icons as Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, The Steiners, Lex Luger and The Road Warriors, and eventually WCW bringing in such WWF icons as Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, and more. By the time the mid-90s hit, both sides had their armies for the final battle, as The Monday Night Wars began.

As the 80’s began to wind down, WCW was now in full affect (with Ted Turner buying Jim Crockett Promotions in 1988). With Turner’s bank account now in play, WCW became a financial threat to the WWF like Vince Jr. had never seen since he took over the WWF in 1982. Over the next 10 years, WCW and WWF would trade stars back and forth as they competed for national television viewers, with WWF bringing in such WCW icons as Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, The Steiners, Lex Luger and The Road Warriors, and eventually WCW bringing in such WWF icons as Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, and more. By the time the mid-90s hit, both sides had their armies for the final battle, as The Monday Night Wars began.

Photoshop: David Silveria (Original photos: WWE, HBO)