If you've never watched a pro wrestling match before--which is to say, if you've never been an 11-year-old boy--it might be hard to understand why people are still watching it now. It's been almost 20 years since the WWE (then the WWF) began calling itself "sports entertainment," and winking at its own fixed matches. It's been something like 14 years since I watched it, so I'm of no help, but I can tell you one thing that kept me enthralled through the summer I spent, as a 12-year-old, renting every old WWF tape at the video store: The theme music.
By the late '80s pro wrestling, once mostly the domain of people who looked like actual wrestlers, had filled with comic book characters, and each of them made his entrance to theme songs that were just as outlandish. It wasn't just Hulk Hogan and "Real American"--if you had a gimmick, you probably had a weirdly specific, synth-filled '80s theme song explaining it. What follows are, to the best of my knowledge, the 25 greatest '80s pro wrestling themes that came from the WWF's golden age of disbelief-suspension.
If you disagree--well, you'll just have to challenge me to a steel cage match at the Survivor Series.
25. The Fabulous Rougeaus
At some point in the late '80s the Rougeaus went from perennial heel tag-team contenders to mincing joke-heels who waved tiny American flags around and hugged each other while eight-year-olds threw garbage at them.
Bad news for their careers, probably. But it got them this remarkable theme song, in which they establish their American bona fides by loving "Barry Manilow" and "the preppy look." Like the Rougeaus themselves, this theme probably deserves to be ranked a little higher, but here they are, booked for the first match of the night again.
24. Akeem The African Dream and Slick
Slick was a jive-talking con artist who managed a number of heel wrestlers in an illustrious WWF career. Akeem The African Dream was--I'm going to leave this one to Wikipedia.
In September 1988, One Man Gang's manager, Slick, announced that Gang was actually African and planned to re-embrace his roots. An episode of WWF Superstars, which aired on September 24, 1988, featured a vignette with Gene Okerlund on-location in an American ghetto that was dubbed "The Deepest Darkest Parts Of Africa," where dancers dressed as tribal Africans danced and chanted around a fire; Slick then announced that Gang would be known by his new name, "Akeem, the African Dream." ... The Caucasian "Akeem" delivered a promo in which he spoke with an extremely stereotypical black accent and mockingly danced while an African ritual took place in the background.
This gimmick might well have happened in your lifetime. This is why there are people who honestly believe this is what a Post-Racial America looks like.
23. "The Model" Rick Martel
I might be wrong here, but I think Rick Martel is the only guy who's going to appear on this list twice. This isn't quite as Skinemax-goes-to-Sandals as Rick Rude's theme; it's unique on this list in that it could also be used to sell timeshares where peoplearen't
having coke-fueled key parties.
22. Bam Bam Bigelow
I'm not sure the WWF ever knew what to do with Bam Bam Bigelow, and for once I'm also not sure that I can blame them--what do you do with a huge, acrobatic guy wearing a jumpsuit with flames on it and a tattoo in the shape of a widow's peak?
For his more successful '90s stint they went with something a little more foreboding, but one of his first theme songs was this bouncy saxophone solo, which seems designed to play off his Asbury Park origins. This is literally as close as the WWF got to broken heroes on a last-chance power drive.
21. Wendi Richter
The Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection thing has largely been collapsed into Cyndi Lauper, Hulk Hogan, and Al Capone sitting atop a flagpole by now, but at the time Wendi Richter--challenging here for the "WWF Ladies' Championship," with Lauper in her corner--was a major part of pro wrestling's mainstreaming.
Here she is coming out to "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." Wikipedia tells me she later came out to "She Bop," which was probably the last time someone did not turn to someone else during "She Bop" and say, "You know, it's really about masturbating."
20. Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake
Okay, now imagine Jerry Seinfeld telling jokes over it.
My fondness for the WWF in the '80s can basically be boiled down to this: I yearn to return to a universe where two guys who are supposed to be genuinely threatening can have a theme song that begins "Here comes the Axe!!!!! / And here comes the Smasher!!!!!!!"
That's a pretty bitchin' guitar theme about a minute in, though--only the big deals got lyrics and guitar solos in their themes.
18. Nikolai Volkoff
Nikolai Volkoff had one of the great pre-match gimmicks of all time: Singing the Soviet national anthem before every match, and requesting that the audience stand politely while he do it. Not conventional, but I'll take it.
And hey--unlike another pro wrestling Evil Russian, Nikita Koloff, he was at least from Europe. For professional wrestling in the '80s, that's cultural sensitivity.
17. Big Boss Man
The Big Boss Man had one of the more unnecessarily detailed back stories in pro wrestling--not only was he a corrupt prison guard, he was a corrupt prison guard from Cobb County, Georgia, as his song explains. Not an easy piece of backstory, kayfabe-wise.
If I were a corrupt prison guard, I would probably not showcase my corruption on pay-per-view a few times a year, but the WWF was probably paying better than the felons by then.
16. "Rowdy" Roddy Piper
It's important, when you're thinking about writing a culture studies paper about pro wrestling, to
take into account the broad reality of the WWF's race- and ethnicity-switching. Roddy Piper, like a disproportionately large number of pro wrestlers, is from Canada.
But the Barenaked Ladies' Gordon would not be nearly so stark a contrast to the usual pro wrestling themes as those bagpipes.
15. Strike Force
Erstwhile tag-team champs Strike Force have maybe my favorite origin story of all time. I'm going to let Wikipedia tell it:
The name Strike Force came from [Tito] Santana's promise that as a team they would, "be striking (the Islanders) with force." [Rick] Martel immediately came up with the team's name based on this.
Most of their promos were equally stiff. But they were good in the ring, and looked plenty fresh-faced, which earned them this theme song about liking girls in cars. (While they were in the cars too, I guess? Or maybe Tito and Rick are just fond of quiet, pensive observation while the girls go by. "Why is it always someone else in the car with them?" Tito wonders. "Perhaps it's just meant to be so," Rick says. A single tear glistens on his cheek.)
14. The Blue Blazer
The Blue Blazer gimmick is most famous now, unfortunately, forkilling Owen Hart
in the middle of yet another masturbatory late-'90s meta-gimmick. In the late '80s it was just a really strange way of keeping him mired in jobber-to-the-stars matches, because the path to WWF success in the '80s involved weighing 290 pounds and throwing a lot of clotheslines.
But at least it got him this incredible theme song.
13. "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes
I never picked up on this as a kid, but am I right to think that the chorus to this song is actually "Hey! He's American Dream," even though "he'sthe
American Dream" both fits the meter and actually makes grammatical sense? I guess it could be "He's A Merican Dream," which is now trademark Dan Moore 2013.
In any case, god bless Dusty Rhodes for putting on the most ridiculous outfit I've ever seen--in an era replete with ridiculous outfits--and making something of it.
12. Koko B. Ware
Nothing illustrates what made WWF in the '80s great quite as well as Koko B. Ware's time in the promotion. Someone decided Koko B. Ware needed a gimmick, in addition to his incredible name, and then someoneelse
signed off on the idea of naming him Birdman, and then someoneelse
signed off on solidifying the gimmick by having him carry a bird to the ring. "Yeah, sure, Birdman. Go for it.
"Now somebody get Lampguy in here."
11. Junkyard Dog
This is a rare pleasure: Video of JYD, the Junkyard Dog, performing (kayfabe) his own theme song, "Grab Them Cakes."
Growing up I loved JYD unconditionally, like all children. But even then I was not convinced that crawling around on all fours and trying to headbutt people was a viable wrestling strategy.
10. The Rockers
I don't know who it was that first made this point to me, or where I (or that person) originally read it, but I've always remembered it: The most interesting thing about Brian Wilson's later years is that he was making what hethought
was pop music, even though it clearly was not. It was a rare, strange look inside his head.
This is a not-especially-rare, strange look inside the WWF's head. This is what came to mind for them when they thought "carefree good-looking rock-stars." It's called "Rockin' Rockers," apparently.
9. The Hart Foundation
Like Jake the Snake's theme (to come), something about the Hart Foundation's theme seemed to perfectly illustrate Bret Hart's technical approach to wrestling. But what's really impressive about this theme is its longevity. In 1994, as tastes changed and Bret became a solo star, it got rerecorded--with what are now equally dated-sounding guitar solos--instead of being replaced.
Later on, when he went to WCW, he was given a theme that sounded so close to this one that the urban legend at the time--I've never tried it, myself--was that it was literally this one played backward. I would not be surprised. (Google "Self High Five theme song.")
8. Honky Tonk Man
I could never quite tell who the Honky Tonk Man was supposed to be. Was he supposed to be a famous singer? Was he supposed to be a guy who just wanted to be a famous singer?
Did he just enjoy carrying a guitar to the ring?
7. Ultimate Warrior
The Ultimate Warrior basicallywas
his theme song. His first title run started with a match against the Honky Tonk Man that lasted barely longer than the music did. He would run in while it was playing, run up and down the ring throwing clotheslines like it was still playing, and then run out after it started playing again.
So it was pretty important than the theme itself was as memorable as the facepaint and the streamers hanging off his biceps.
6. "The Macho Man" Randy Savage
In a federation filled with guys who delivered loud, unhinged promos, Randy Savage's were in their own loud, unhinged universe. Over the course of his career he dressed in increasingly weird ring gear, took part in increasingly strange gimmicks, and appeared in increasingly ubiquitous Slim Jim commercials.
And his theme song, somehow, was "Pomp and Circumstance."
5. Mr. Perfect
Exactly the right kind of pompous for Mr. Perfect, who mixed a long winning streak with a persona so over-the-top smarmy that he could never quite be taken seriously as a threat. What sells all of it is that hewas
such a talented wrestler, even if he wasn't the perfect golfer, quarterback, bowler, cleanup hitter, and also wide receiver.
4. "Ravishing" Rick RudeCut the music!
Rick Rude was one of the first and best theme-music-interactors, insisting that his hilariously trashy music stop for a moment so that he could warn all the 14-year-old boys in the crowd that he was about to leave the convention center with their women, who may or may not have been spraypainted on his tights.
And then there was the hip-swiveling. Always with the hip-swiveling.
3. Jake "The Snake" Roberts - "Snake Bit"
This theme carries the distinct honor of being the only song, WWF or otherwise, ever to use every single '80s synthesizer preset. Jake the Snake was one of the eeriest, weirdest, and--faint praise or not--most eloquent wrestlers of the WWF's golden age, delivering promos that were wildly different from the screaming, bizarre non-sequiturs of his peers.
Also, there was that thing about carrying a huge snake to the ring and putting it on top of people. Never a conventional heel or face, the weird '80s-police-procedural eeriness of "Snake Bit" was a good fit.
Also, in case you were wondering where he's been lately, after years of well-publicized drug problems, I looked it up: Doing DDP Yoga (anybody want to go in on a DVD set with me?) and getting a hair transplant. (Somehow he's been the same level of stringy-hair balding for the last 25 years.)
— JakeSnakeDDT (@JakeSnakeDDT) August 21, 2013
2. "The Million Dollar Man" Ted Dibiase - "It's All About The Money"
This would have placed on the list if it were just two minutes of Ted Dibiase laughing. Despite a fortune that wasn't even all that intimidating in 1989, when he bought his way into the last entrance of the Royal Rumble--that's a little under two million 2013 dollars--the Million Dollar Man played the heel-with-infinite-resources character perfectly, verging on the ridiculous without feeling a need to be in on the joke or play it in an explicitly comic way.
Where most wrestlers would have turned full-on cartoon character with the part, Dibiase somehow made bribing fans, managers, wrestlers, and nurses believable, or at least WWF-believable. (He very nearly made being chauffeured around by a professional wrestler in full tights plausible.)
It didn't hurt, of course, that the super-rich of the '80s were way more gaudily extravagant than today's tech titans. I can't--unfortunately--imagine Elon Musk wearing a jacket with gold lapels and sequined dollar signs on it.
Side note: Almost certainly the best ringtone on this list.
1. Hulk Hogan - "Real American"
'Side note: I've never seen this "Real American" video, which is apparently Official, but it's just the greatest thing there is. Head-butting the Soviet flag? Check. "When it comes crashing down" being illustrated by a building actually crashing down? Check. A
tonof blue-screen footage of Hulk Hogan pretending to play the guitar in front of American landmark b-roll circa 1988? You betcha.
Whether you love or hate pro wrestling themes and everything they entail--the huge entrances, the surprise returns, the weird suspension-of-disbelief they require when long-gone wrestlers make an appearance that shocks everybody except the guy who's in charge of the sound system and pyrotechnics--you can probably blame Hulk Hogan for them. After a stretch of coming out to "Eye of the Tiger," the prototypical hulkin'-up song, Hogan eventually got this Rick Derringer hand-me-down, originally meant for Barry Windham and Mike Rotundo.
Fate would have it that their patriotic tag team--the U.S. Express--left the WWF just as Hulk Hogan was reaching Peak Hulkamania, and by now it's hard to imagine this song as belonging to anyone else (except maybe the mysterious, masked Mr. America.)
"Real American" was so crucial to the Hulkamania mystique that when he defected to the WWF's arch-nemeses, the WCW (spearheaded by Jimmy Hart) hastily put together a soundalike called "American Made" that hit most of the same wailing-guitar-patriotism notes (without the help of Cyndi Lauper, who's responsible for the super-intense backing vocals in the original.)
But there's something about the original that the Mouth of the South just couldn't ape--the way it goes so over the top that listening to it ironically eventually means you're listening to it unironically, usually by the time the guitar solo hits. I'm not going to say I've ever actually thought the words "I've gotta be a man, I can't let it slide," but I'm also not going to say I haven't.
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Because Hulk Hogan told me that being true to myself was key to being a Real American.