The Hulkamania era of the WWF is famous for its exciting, over-the-top characters—Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior, Honky Tonk Man, Brutus ‘The Barber’ Beefcake, to name a few—but the characters tend to obscure the reputation of some of the great wrestling matches that took place during the era. It wasn’t all Hulk Hogan big boots and leg drops, you know!
Here are what I feel are the 5 best matches of the Hulkamania era, and if you haven’t seen them, I recommend checking them out. There’s a couple I think won’t surprise anyone being on this list, but I think there’s a couple here that might surprise people. Either way, these are my genuine top 5 WWF matches of the Hulkamania era, contests that have given me untold pleasure during my years of wrestling viewing.
Let’s get into it!
A quick note: for my purposes, the Hulkamania era lasts from January 23rd, 1984, when Hulk Hogan beat The Iron Sheik to win his first WWF World Heavyweight Championship, to WrestleMania VIII on April 5th, 1992, when Hogan left afterward to take his first hiatus from the company due to the steroid trial.
1. ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage vs. Ricky ‘The Dragon’ Steamboat—WrestleMania III
Why not start with one of the best matches of all time? The greatness of Savage-Steamboat is very well documented, so what new is there to say? What strikes me about the match now, looking at it in a contemporary context, is that, although you can argue it seems simple compared to the twists and tricks today’s modern athletic wrestler can do, Savage-Steamboat still captivates because not only were these two athletes able to demonstrate an incredible level of athleticism, but they were also able to do so while being able to show such a crisp, snug level of execution that you’re never taken out of the contest. The storytelling is so perfect that you wouldn’t want to be taken out of it.
Ric Flair criticized this match in his autobiography as it wasn’t called on the fly and instead was meticulously planned out by Savage beforehand. While I applaud anyone who has the kind of talent that they can call classics on the fly, why complain about a match being planned out if the results are this damn good?
An absolute classic.
2. The Tag Team Survivor Series Match—Survivor Series 1988
You forget, after years of the company’s tag division being almost an after-thought, that the Hulkamania era had a stacked tag division, one that they treated as important. To that end, the first two editions of Survivor Series featured ‘Survivor’ matches that were based around tag teams only. This led to two epic collisions that featured a hell of a lot of talent standing on those aprons.
The second of two matches, that took place at Survivor Series 1988, is the better of the two and is well deserving of its selection here. It might surprise some people, as it’s not an obvious choice, but I’ve always loved this match ever since my dad picked the tape up second-hand from a market stall when I was about six years old. He gave me the choice of this show or the Royal Rumble 1989. In hindsight, I think I picked well.
For starters, look at all the talent involved. The match saw Demolition (Ax and Smash), The Brain Busters (Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard), The Bolsheviks (Nikolai Volkoff and Boris Zhukov), The Fabulous Rougeaus (Raymond and Jacques Rougeau), and The Conquistadors (Uno and Dos) (w/Mr. Fuji, Bobby Heenan, Slick, and Jimmy Hart) take on The Powers of Pain (The Warlord and The Barbarian), The Rockers (Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty), The British Bulldogs (Davey Boy Smith and Dynamite Kid), The Hart Foundation (Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart) and The Young Stallions (Jim Powers and Paul Roma). Now that’s a stacked tag team division!
But it wasn’t just the quantity, it was the quality too. You could make an argument that The Bolsheviks, The Conquistadors, and The Young Stallions weren’t that much up to scratch, but The Rockers, Bulldogs, Brain Busters, and Hart Foundation are four of the greatest tag teams in the history of wrestling. The Rougeaus were always very good too, and Demolition and Powers of Pain, while not being up to that level, were always entertaining and knew how to work a crowd. As such, this match never takes its foot off the gas pedal and gives bell-to-bell entertainment. And it very successfully pulled off a double turn as well, with Demolition abandoning Mr. Fuji for the good side, leaving the Powers of Pain to pick him up, dust him off and turn heel in the process.
A much, much-recommended match.
3. The Ultimate Warrior vs. ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage—WrestleMania VII
A second entry for both the ‘Macho Man’ and WrestleMania here on my list, as Randy Savage took part in possibly one of the most famous matches in WrestleMania history—certainly of the Hulkamania era, in any case.
This was the famous retirement match at WrestleMania VII, with the loser ‘ending’ his in-ring career (set-up to transition Savage to a commentary position). Although he had a failed run as World Heavyweight Champion, The Ultimate Warrior was still exceptionally popular and the crowd did not want him to lose. Yet, although Savage had been a very successful heel since the start of 1989, the crowd still had a lot of love and respect for Savage, creating this electric tension throughout, as the crowd didn’t want either man to lose.
That set the tone for a classic of wrestling storytelling, with near-falls aplenty. The Warrior worked the crowd like a pro, making to walk out as it looked like he just couldn’t put Savage away, the ‘Macho Man’ having kicked out of everything Warrior threw at him. Yes, on paper, the idea of Warrior talking to his ‘gods’ in the sky for guidance before walking off sounds ridiculous, but you become so invested in the match that by this point you buy into the emotion of it all. I can’t think of a Hulkamania-era match that had this level of emotion and drama—and it had Warrior in it, which says a lot about how hard both men must have worked for this to work.
To cap it off, although Savage lost, he might have won the war overall. Not only did fans majorly pop when Savage came back out of retirement just mere months later to get at Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts, but he was reunited with Elizabeth at the end of this match, in perhaps one of the most iconic moments in WWF/WWE history.
If Savage was the loser here, he didn’t look like it.
4. Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart vs. ‘Mr. Perfect’ Curt Henning—SummerSlam 1991
Perhaps another obvious choice, but with a match this good, what other option did I have? This was the coronation, if you like, of Bret as a genuine singles star after 6-7 years as a tag team star. The Intercontinental Championship win legitimized Hart as a top player and from here, he never looked back. But the historical significance would be a little drier if the match itself wasn’t of the sublime quality that it is.
The fact that Mr. Perfect was wrestling with a hurt back is astonishing when you consider that Perfect gives it his all here. He doesn’t dog it at all and equally contributes to one of the greatest ‘pure’ wrestling matches WWE had presented to this point, certainly in the Hulkamania era anyway. You can’t tell Perfect is injured because he holds nothing back, apparently out of respect for Bret. Nobody would have held it against Henning if he’d been dogging it just to get through the match while injured, but the fact that he gave it his all says so much about his respect for Bret and that he wanted the new champ to look good.
And look good Bret did. It was very rare that you saw anyone kick out of the Perfect Plex, so for Henning to allow Bret to have done so here says a lot about both men. The finish is a great piece of wrestling, with Perfect going to leg drop the groin, only for Hart to grab the limb and roll Perfect over into the submission for the Sharpshooter. Wow. And so smoothly done!
The Excellence of Execution? That was both men here. A classic, even now.
5. Royal Rumble Match—Royal Rumble 1992
If you’re not familiar with the match, you might be thinking ‘a Rumble match? In the five best matches of the Hulkamania era? Of any era? Seriously?’
Seriously. Because if you’ve seen this match, then you know exactly why. But if you haven’t, allow me to state my case.
The 1992 Rumble match was only the sixth of this type of match of its kind to have occurred, and only the fourth on Pay-Per-View (the first took place at a 1987 house show to test drive it, as it were, and the second was a 1988 TV special, not a PPV). Fans were not yet jaded by the match or become immune to its novelty. It was very much an exciting, much-anticipated part of the WWF’s calendar, and the 1992 edition raised the stakes even further. The winner would become the WWF World Heavyweight Champion, the result of some shenanigans at the end of 1991 between Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, and The Undertaker.
It was Flair in particular that made this match the classic it is. Having the former king of the NWA and WCW in the WWF put the cat amongst the pigeons for the fans at the time. Flair was pretty much Hogan’s equal, and yet, while no one anticipated Hogan dropping the title to him, it was still true that Flair was coming into the WWF proclaiming himself ‘The Real World’s Champion.’ Something had to give. And while poor feedback from the house show circuit, plus the steroid scandal, put the kybosh on Flair-Hogan on PPV, there was an element of intrigue that remained. Could Flair do what he did in the NWA in the WWF?
When Flair came out at number 3, it appeared he wouldn’t. Bobby Heenan sold it brilliantly, coining the catchphrase “you’ve gotta be fair to Flair,” which is still great to this day. And yet, as the match progressed, Flair stuck it out, hiding here, eliminating a man there. He was surviving. No other wrestler had gotten to the end of the match from that early on. There was no way that Flair could do it…was there? The tension and genuine excitement are palpable, from both commentary and the crowd. Even now, when Flair finally eliminates Hogan, with help from Sid, and claims the gold, it still almost catches me off guard, and I’ve seen his match more times than you’ve had hot dinners.
Flair gave a performance and a half here and showed he could adapt to new surroundings. That’s why it makes my list of the top five matches of the Hulkamania era.
What are your five favourite matches of the Hulkamania era? Let me know in the comments!