Let's start with an easy one ... Rock N Wrestling. (Some may consider this time period a little different and they may be correct, but for my purposes here, I want to look at 1984-1986 WWF. I'll explain why.)
What makes this era stand out, good and bad?
First, we should talk about the good. The wrestlers have the benefit and burden of working in a company that's growing so fast it can barely keep up with itself. By the fall of 1986, the WWF turned up the house lights for Saturday Night's Main Event and debuted Superstars and Challenge. The "brand" effect was taking hold in terms of a consistent look and feel and generally expected working style, and they started running a formula, which one could argue that they've just been continuing to iterate since then.
That's not really what you see in 1984-1986. You see a company looking for an identity and at least at first, you see a lot of wrestlers just carrying over what they've always done. The "family friendly" WWF may have been bringing in Cyndi Lauper and trying to find ways for Hulk Hogan to appeal to kids, but the Iron Sheik and Sgt. Slaughter were also working violent bloodbaths while Tito Santana and Greg Valentine were working stiff and athletic matches over the IC title. Neither feud would have felt out of place in the more workrate-centric Jim Crockett Promotions at all. Hulk Hogan was doing brawls with Kamala that felt more like Mid South in execution than what we currently think of as the WWF/WWE style.
Eventually, reality set in. The WWF was running the most insane schedule in wrestling history in the 1980s -- not just in terms of the number of dates, but in terms of flying all over the map. They would in some cases go coast to coast and back again in a single week's time. People who encountered them on the road near the end of month-long tours have described them as "zombies" by the end of it. It was an exciting time, but it was also a demanding time.
We started seeing those matches less for a couple of reasons. One, it's hard to give that level of effort every night when you're on such a brutal schedule and two, it's not really the vision Vince McMahon had for the company. The best thing about watching the WWF during these formative years is how uneven it is. 1985 has less traditional wrestling than 1984, and 1986 less than 1985. And 1984 WWF would barely recognize 1987 or 1988 WWF in terms of the working style, the types of crowds, the look and feel of the shows or the in-ring style. Things changed very quickly.
The WWF was not at all the place to go if you were a hardcore fan in the 1980s looking for good matches or wild angles. Occasionally, they'd pull one out, but it was rare.
What was the general working style at the time?
For the most part, the talent was just trying to get through the night. They might dial it up if they were working SNME, an MSG card, or another big show, but by and large, they were going through the motions. Lots of cheap heat and easy crowd pleasing spots. Get through the match, don't hurt yourself, because you've got another match the next day, or maybe even later the same day. The attraction was not the promise of a great show as much as it was the experience of seeing your TV favorites in person.
How much footage do we have and how complete is it?
A lot, and it's mostly complete. We don't have ALL of the WWF TV during this time frame, but we have enough to draw conclusions. Almost every major house show was recorded and is in circulation. There were SNME TV specials, a couple of pay-per-views, The Big Event, etc. Syndicated TV was mostly short squashes and interview segments where you might see an angle 4-5 times in a year.
Who are the best wrestlers of this era based on footage we have?
To me, the names that stand out the most are:
- Randy Savage
- Tito Santana
- Greg Valentine
- Hulk Hogan
- Roddy Piper
They aren't the only ones who did things worth watching during this time, but to me, all five of them have matches during this time that strengthen their cases for GWE. Perhaps you could add Slaughter or Sheik, although most of Sarge's peak preceded this, and the Sheik-Volkoff team wasn't exactly inspiring anyone. However, the Slaughter-Sheik match is as good or better as anything we have from either of them, and this would be important to point to when making a case for either of them.
If you like Orndorff, these years are likely going to be the bulk of his case.
Some other wrestlers that "passed through" that may have hurt their case during this time (or at best not helped it very much):
- Barry Windham (Not sure the team with Rotunda produced any hugely memorable matches, despite them being pushed to the moon)
- Dick Murdoch (The team with Adonis wasn't the most giving to other teams and did have some good matches, but also had so many disappointing ones)
Is there any reason to think anyone might be better or worse than the footage suggests? If so, who?
I don't see this as a period like the earlier territory days where you have a lot of talent that you suspect may have been better than the footage lets on. Available WWF footage during this time paints a pretty clear picture.
What are some comparable eras and how do the best wrestlers compare to each other?
I don't think there's another era in wrestling history quite like this one, at least in terms of the demands on the wrestlers. I don't think other boom periods are really comparable -- the late 90s in the U.S. happened more on television than in the arenas. Surprisingly, the most comparable era (in a very roundabout way that I'm not even completely comfortable with, but just putting the idea out there) might be early 90s AAA, where lucha libre was going through a television boom and the wrestlers were having to adjust to that reality, but I don't even know how much adaptation they really had to go through during that time. It's a question worth asking, I suppose.
Even before this era, match quality was probably less important here than in any territory in America. However, I think that can lead to some incorrect takeaways about how good people on the roster were at this time. If you look at the roster during this time, almost every major name had some generally well-received run elsewhere where they were having good matches that people like. Even guys like Bundy and Studd, whether you love their ring style or not, had plenty of stuff where they were part of exciting and effective matches before they arrived in the WWF.