The 1980s were the glory days of professional wrestling. It was considered a professional sport and you could pick up the newspaper the day after a card and get the results, complete with the times of each match and articles about the action the night before.
Things are much different now as they have lost the “professional sport” status and wrestling is now officially deemed as entertainment. Newspapers no longer carry the results in the sports sections. Gone are the long matches, the title vs title matches, and the weekly one hour shows on Saturday afternoons after roller derby. There wasn’t a pay per view event every single month and when your area hosted a card it was always hyped up and it usually lived up to its billing.
There were three main organizations back then, the WWF, NWA, and the AWA. Every once in a while there were title vs title matches that nobody ever won to unify two championships. Even in those days you knew that those major “World Championships” wouldn’t be unified, but it was a great match to watch when the top guys of each organization would get in the ring together.
Bob Backlund is featured several times on this list, and many people of today’s era don’t realize what a great wrestler he was back in the day. He was part of some of the greatest matches of all time when he was in his prime. He could go for an hour and still have plenty left in the tank.
When he lost the WWF title, wrestling started to change. That’s when Hulkamania began and Backlund became a forgotten man. Wrestling became more predictable then, and more of the entertainment than the sport. Here we look at some of the best matches across the three organizations during the ’80s.
10. Andre the Giant vs Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania III
March 29, 1987
Over 93,000 fans jammed into the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan to witness what might just have been the turning point from sport to entertainment. The two biggest men in wrestling were squaring off against each other for Hogan’s WWF Championship. Andre didn’t lose matches so it was interesting to see how it would play out. How could a man his size go as long as he had without losing matches, not become the new champion?
A couple of minutes into the action Hogan reached in and tried to body slam the 520 pound challenger and it almost backfired. He couldn’t get the giant completely over him and he fell backwards with Andre crushing him in the process. He was able to kick out just before the three count and the match continued.
After 12 minutes of a back and forth struggle, Andre grabbed Hogan and threw him across the ring off the ropes in hopes of landing his famous big boot to the face move. But Hogan ducked out of the way and came back off the ropes to deliver a clothesline that knocked Andre to the mat for the first time during the bout. Hogan then picked him up, completed a body slam of the giant, and then delivered his famous leg drop to set up the pin fall of Andre to retain his title.
Andre the Giant was clearly not in the best of health for this match and his being brought to the ring on a cart showed that. He was slow and less than graceful in his movements around the ring. His health was deteriorating but he stayed in the ring for another few years and put on several other great matches until his retirement. Despite clearly being on the downside of his career, he was able to put on a match that was good enough to be one of the best of the ’80s.
9. Hulk Hogan vs Randy Savage at WrestleMania V
April 2, 1989
Hogan and the “Macho Man” Randy Savage had been one of the most popular tag teams during the ’80s and they were dubbed the “Mega Powers”. But when the former friends split up, it could only be settled in a main event at the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
There were more matches than usual on the card but this one was almost twice as long as any other match that day, and deservedly so. Savage had been the WWF Champion for a year after winning it at the previous WrestleMania, but his title reign came to an end after nearly 18 minutes of exciting back and forth action.
During the match Savage connected with a double axe handle off of the top rope onto Hogan’s head and nearly came away with a victory. He had several other near pin falls before he got cocky and started to pose in the middle of the ring. Hogan used the break to recover and turned the match around to his favor for the next several minutes. Macho Man was able to come back and when he dropped his flying elbow from the top rope onto the fallen Hogan, it looked like the match was over. But the challenger was able to kick out from another near pin fall and took control of the match before finishing Savage with his leg drop to take the title for the second time.
Both athletes were in the prime of their careers at the time and they put on one of the best matches of the ’80s without a doubt in this one.
8. Bruno Sammartino vs Larry Zbyszko
August 9, 1980
This steel cage match, which was held at Shea Stadium in New York, capped off what could have been the greatest card of the ’80s. It was the third and final “Showdown at Shea” and looking back at the participants you can see why it just may have been the best card of the decade from top to bottom.
Greg Gagne was on the card as well as Pat Patterson. Antonio Inoki beat “Pretty Boy” Mike Sharpe and Andre the Giant defeated Hulk Hogan in just under 8 minutes. Who would have known at that time that those two would meet up in one of the best matches of the decade just seven years later? Hogan clearly kicked out before the three count in this one but was counted down anyway. Also on the card Tony Atlas got by Ken Patera and Bob Backlund teamed up with Pedro Morales to beat The Wild Samoans for the WWF Tag Team Championship in a two out of three falls match.
But the highlight of the evening was the outdoor steel cage match between Sammartino and Zbyszko. Both men had been a major force in the wrestling world in the ’70s and it carried over to this match. Zbyszko started the match by pummeling his former teacher and he did so for several minutes before Sammartino was able to turn the tide in his favor. After Bruno put a serious beat down on his opponent, he casually walked through the door of the cage for the victory, at the 13:49 mark.
7. Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka vs “Magnificent” Don Muraco
October 17, 1983
Despite his recent personal issues, Jimmy Snuka is one of the best wrestlers of all time. You never saw him take part in a match that he didn’t give his all to and he always put on a great show for the fans. He just may be the best wrestler ever not to become a world champion at some point in his career. Certainly he is the most popular.
This bout was about a year after he leapt into history by making his first “Superfly” jump off of the top of the steel cage. We’ll talk about that one in a little bit. This night the crowd at Madison Square Garden saw another typical great Snuka match and though we will never know, he may have lost his bid at Muraco’s Intercontinental Championship due to a bit of bad luck.
Muraco was another great one during that time and many people forget about him. He took part in his share of great matches and this night was no different. After several minutes of great action inside a steel cage, Snuka grabbed Muraco and threw him toward the corner. Muraco went through the ropes and hit the door of the cage. The door opened and Muraco fell through it onto the arena floor, thus getting the victory and keeping his championship. We will never know how that match was supposed to end, but it certainly looked accidental when the champ fell through the door.
Snuka was obviously not happy about what had happened and he went out and grabbed Muraco and dragged him back into the ring. He laid him out in the center of the squared circle and the fans in attendance had an idea of what was coming next. Snuka climbed to the very top of the steel cage for the second time in his career and landed a perfect “Superfly” onto the fallen Muraco. Knowing the match was already over and it no longer mattered, Snuka just climbed out of the cage and walked to the dressing room, leaving Muraco a beaten champion in the middle of the ring.
6. Sgt. Slaughter vs The Iron Sheik
June 16, 1984
A lot of wrestling experts say that this “Boot Camp” match that took place at Madison Square Garden is the best match overall during the 1980s. While it may not be THE best, it certainly ranks up among them.
The rivalry was based on the state of the world at the current time and Slaughter was America’s hero while the Sheik was probably the most hated man in the world at the time. Before each match he would wave the flag of Iran around the ring and would always grab the microphone and yell “Tehran, Iran #1!” several times before the opening bell.
These two rivals put on top notch matches wherever they met and this match was to decide the rivalry once and for all. It was a no disqualification meeting where falls counted anywhere in the building, even if it happened at the concession stand.
The match was around 15 minutes long and Slaughter wound up pinning the Sheik after nailing him with his own loaded boot. The match, just like the feud itself, left both men a bloody mess. This was one of the greatest feuds there has ever been and there wasn’t even a title on the line.
5. Bob Backlund vs “Magnificent” Don Muraco
October 17, 1981
The Philadelphia Spectrum was the site of what was without a doubt, one of the top matches in the ’80s. WWF Champion Bob Backlund squared off against the Intercontinental Champion “Magnificent” Muraco. Over 15,000 fans packed the place and not one of them were prepared for what they would witness.
The two top conditioned athletes battled it out to a 60 minute time limit draw that kept fans on the edge of their seats throughout the entire match. Both men had plenty of chances to end the match but the other kept escaping the final bell. When the bell rang to signal the end of the time limit, Backlund was in control and getting close to a pin fall. He was so upset that the match had ended that he shoved the referee out of his way and knocked Muraco to the ground one last time before leaving the ring area.
4. Bob Backlund vs Harley Race
September 22, 1980
This matchup was a title vs title match along the lines of something we will never see again. With WWE owning everything that has to do with wrestling now, matches like this one will never be seen again. A sold out Madison Square Garden saw WWF Champion Bob Backlund go at it against NWA Champion Harley Race, with both titles on the line.
As you would expect, it was a back and forth match that lasted over 35 minutes. Both men were extremely brutal towards one another and each combatant was bleeding seriously when the match was over. At the end, Backlund put the sleeper hold on Race and when the referee went in to check on the NWA champ, Race grabbed him and pulled him into Backlund, thus earning a disqualification only seconds before possibly dropping his title to the WWF champ.
3. Ric Flair vs Bob Backlund
July 4 1982
This title vs title match saw NWA Champion Ric Flair face off against the WWF Champion Bob Backlund at The Omni in Atlanta, Georgia.
According to Flair’s book, Ric Flair: To Be The Man, he had a lot of respect for Backlund because of his dedication to fitness. In several interviews Backlund shared the same admiration for Flair. The problem with matches of these types, according to Flair, was that the magazines and newspapers knew how big of a match it was, but the locals only followed their local organization and they didn’t know a lot about the WWF champ. That meant that the fans didn’t really understand how big of a match it really was.
After twenty minutes of hard fought action the match ended in a double count out. Flair didn’t show any of the admiration that he spoke of as he refused to shake Backlund’s hand when the match was over.
2. Ricky Steamboat vs Ric Flair at WrestleWar 89
May 7, 1989
The main event of WrestleWar 89 saw NWA Champion Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat put his title on the line against Ric Flair. The two had been so evenly matched over their previous matches that three judges were brought in to decide a winner in case the match went the full 60 minutes of the set time limit.
Both men put on a great show and each performed several of their signature moves to the delight of the crowd. Steamboat injured his leg during the match when he fell out of the ring and the injury cost him the title a few minutes later. A little over 31 minutes into the match he tried to scoop slam Flair but his leg gave out and Flair pinned him with an inside cradle move to win the NWA Championship.
Following the conclusion of the bout both men shook hands, but neither was prepared for what was going to happen next. Terry Funk, one of the judges at ringside, challenged Flair to a title match right at that moment. An exhausted Flair turned him down and Funk then attacked the new champion and delivered a pile driver on Flair on the judges table.
1. Bob Backlund vs Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka
June 28, 1982
The site was Madison Square Garden on June 28, 1982, and the Main Event was WWF Champion Bob Backlund ending a long standing feud with the Challenger, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka. This feud that had gone back and forth over the course of several months was going to be settled tonight, inside of a steel cage, with Backlund’s Championship on the line.
Over the previous several months Snuka had beaten Backlund to a bloody pulp on several occasions but could not secure the title. He won matches on count outs, and disqualifications. On this night there would be nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and fans were assured everything would be settled.
After fifteen action packed minutes that saw Snuka bloodied and beaten, and Backlund severely beaten, Snuka saw his chance to finish off the champ. He climbed to the top rope to deliver his famed “Superfly” finishing move. Once he reached the top rope Snuka turned around and realized that in this match he could get even higher. In an unprecedented move he climbed to the very top of the steel cage to deliver his finishing move. This tremendous athlete stood atop the steel cage as cameras flashed and the fans were in awe of what they were witnessing. Nobody had ever made such a bold move before. And they knew their champion was finished.
Snuka leaped off of the top of the steel cage as the sellout crowd let out a roar. He flew through the air toward the champion who wasn’t moving on the canvass. And then it happened.
With Snuka hurtling toward him in mid air, Backlund suddenly rolled over to his right, just out of the way of his opponents’ devastating move. The “Superfly” move was unsuccessful as Snuka crashed chest first into the mat, from 25 feet in the air. He was obviously stunned at not only the fact that he missed his mark, but he was obviously in a great deal of pain from taking such a fall. Backlund knew it was now or never and quickly crawled toward the door of the cage and climbed out to remain the WWF Champion.