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Ranking Every WWE PPV Of The 1980s

WrestleMania, SummerSlam, Survivor Series and more...

If you're anything like me, you're 5'10" tall, have blonde hair, and tend to subsist on Lucky Charms regardless of time of day. Oh, and you also gleefully take residence deep in the archives of WWE Network. Breaking Ground, WWE: 24, and weekly episodes of NXT? Screw *that* (WINK!) - give me Maple Leaf Gardens shows from 1985, and all of the late-eighties Prime Time Wrestling that I could possibly consume (I've found that SD Jones vs. Iron Mike Sharpe, like most matches of the era, goes great with Lucky Charms).

For this here list, I will be calling upon my zeal for all things 1980s (perhaps even my Metallica and Judas Priest fandom, but not necessarily) by ranking WWE's pay per view output from that decade. Beginning with the first WrestleMania, which we'll pretend is a pay per view, WWE produced 13 qualifying specials that ranged anywhere from "pantheon-level classic" to "#CancelNonExistentWWFNetwork".

From there, who knows? Perhaps I'll rank all 81 pay per views from the 1990s as well! Granted, most entries on that list would begin, "The company was in its dark days, and the immediate future looked bleak," and that would just be repetitive. But let's not put the cart before the horse here - let's go back to those wonderful days of acid-washed jeans and regrettable hairstyles, and rank those WWE pay per views from the eighties.

13. No Holds Barred: The Match/The Movie


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Yeah, this counts. Since it's dead last on this list, think of it as the cinematic equivalent of the newspaper that lines the bottom of a birdcage. You've surely heard of the 1989 Hogan/McMahon arthouse project that was essentially Road House without the thespian-level acting, and introduced the world to the ocular-challenged brute known as Zeus. Which begs the question, "Why isn't Zeus in the celebrity wing of WWE's Hall of Fame?" We need Deebo from Friday waving on the WrestleMania stage, damn it.

Anywho, back on topic. In December 1989, WWF produced a pay-per-view that consisted of the movie itself, followed by a pre-taped steel cage match pitting Hogan and Brutus Beefcake against Macho Man Randy Savage and Zeus. Yes, even though it was called "The Match/The Movie", they aired the two events in the opposite order. And that was the least of its problems.

12. The Wrestling Classic


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You know that annoying feeling when you're watching a wrestling pay per view, and there's a few matches with screwy finishes, and you're like, "This is a pay per view; why can't we have clean finishes?" If you've ever felt that way, then you would truly loathe The Wrestling Classic; a one-night, 16-man elimination tournament with enough convoluted finishes to make Vince Russo's WCW look like Gedo and Jado's New Japan.

Imagine a match where Junkyard Dog counts his own pinfall. Or one that ends via stoppage because Davey Boy Smith crotched the ropes. Or Terry Funk losing by countout after failing to trick Moondog Spot into getting counted out. Or the tournament itself concluding on a countout, after JYD backdropped Randy Savage to the floor. Not one match, including the non-tournament WWF Title defence pitting Hulk Hogan against Roddy Piper, reached 10 minutes in length, making The Wrestling Classic a rather brisk bit of silliness.

11. WrestleMania IV


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Finally, we move into the Big Four pay per views. Sadly, we begin with WrestleMania IV, which set standards for soul-draining run-time that would not be matched until WWE would bring the grand circus to Dallas in 2016. Like The Wrestling Classic, the event's focus was a one-night elimination tournament, although in this case, there was a notable grand prize: the vacant WWF World Heavyweight Title.

The event was certainly star-studded, and it at least had a thrilling conclusion, as Macho Man Randy Savage won four matches in one evening to become champion, capped off by a dramatic victory over Ted DiBiase. The problem was that the show dragged badly, with not much in the way of truly thrilling action through its bloated length. Outside of Savage and DiBiase's paths to the finals, and the anticipated Hulk Hogan/Andre the Giant rematch, there just wasn't enough to get excited about, especially in justifying the duration.

10. WrestleMania 2


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Sometimes you can overdo it with a gimmick. In the case of WrestleMania 2, the idea of staging the event in three different locations across three separate time zones was the sort of excess that WWE could do without. Same goes for the idea of putting a female celebrity in each commentary group. Elvira tried, but Susan St. James' repeated "uh-ohs" could be a Cultaholic drinking game unto themselves.

Admittedly, there were some really solid tag team matches therein (British Bulldogs vs. Dream Team, Junkyard Dog and Tito Santana vs. The Funk Brothers), and memorable bouts like the NFL-infused battle royal, and Hulk Hogan's steel cage victory over King Kong Bundy. Conversely, there were some clunkers, like Fabulous Moolah vs. Velvet McIntyre and Adrian Adonis vs. Uncle Elmer. It's a mixed bag to be sure, and there have been far superior WrestleManias, thankfully.

9. SummerSlam 1988


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The most memorable match of the evening lasted roughly 30 seconds: The Ultimate Warrior conquered The Honky Tonk Man's record-setting 15-month reign as Intercontinental Champion, using little more than a whirlwind of elementary offence. Outside of that historic moment, it's not exactly a historic show, aside from being the start of the SummerSlam chronology.

The main event in which the Mega Powers triumphed over the Mega Bucks, after a cheesecake tease from Miss Elizabeth, proved to be a worthwhile main event, but the rest of the show was as basic as could be. Soon-to-be outgoing wrestlers like Ken Patera, Junkyard Dog, and Don Muraco dropped undercard bouts to a fresher wave of heels in Bad News Brown, Rick Rude, and Dino Bravo, though none of them were truly memorable clashes. As a show, it's just "there" - a parade of colourful talents in simple matches, forming a benign portrait of the era.

8. Royal Rumble 1989


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The 1988 edition was omitted from this list, as it was a USA Network special (though it was a helluva lot better than No Holds Barred: The Movie/The Match/That's The Correct Order/Morons). The first pay per view version of the Rumble came at the dawn of 1989 and, like SummerSlam 1988, it was a mostly non-descript affair.

The Rumble match itself is really good up until Hogan gets eliminated about two-thirds of the way in, after which it snails its way to the conclusion. What else do you say about a show in which 1) the Rumble winner (Big John Studd) was a 40-year-old recent returnee that would leave the company less than five months later, and 2) the Ultimate Warrior and Rick Rude are relegated to a posing contest? The only real drama during the course of the night came when Hogan and Savage had dissension shortly after Savage's elimination, but otherwise, it's fairly meh.

7. WrestleMania 1


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Outside of the spirited intensity of the afternoon's main event, there really wasn't much to WrestleMania 1. On paper, much of the card doesn't provoke jolting excitement, and in practice, it felt like your typical Madison Square Garden house show of the day. Outside of the celebrities on hand, there wasn't much to separate it from any other mid-eighties WWF card.

It's hard to deny the simple charms that the first WrestleMania had, be it the Piper-Mr T staredown, or Andre the Giant tossing Big John Studd like a sack of potatoes, or Cyndi Lauper celebrating with Wendi Richter. An underrated moment is the pop that Bruno Sammartino gets in *his* home arena when Howard Finkel announces his name. Overall, WrestleMania 1 just felt like a happening, which is appropriate because Gorilla Monsoon referred to it as such about 38 times during the broadcast. The show was monumental in its simplicity, and that's easy to grasp watching it more than three decades later.

6. WrestleMania V


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Take the soul-crushing tournament out of WrestleMania IV, but keep the dead casino tourist crowd from that show in place, and you have WrestleMania V, a nominal one-match show that managed to set an impressive WWE buyrate record that would stand for a full decade. Most of the interest went toward the Randy Savage-Hulk Hogan WWF Championship main event, the Mega Powers' bond severed after a paranoid Savage blasted Hogan with the title belt.

That match more than lived up to the hype and build, and wasn't the only enjoyable match of the afternoon. Rick Rude and Ultimate Warrior's IC title match surpassed expectations, and the undercard was occupied by some technically-sound midcard action (Mr Perfect vs. The Blue Blazer, Strike Force vs. The Brain Busters). Mostly, it was a lot of one and two-star matches being staged in front of a muted crowd, so it really only holds up for those nostalgic for the time.

5. Survivor Series 1989


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The third instalment of the "Thanksgiving Night Tradition" did away with the five-on-five format, going with a more streamlined four-on-four set-up for the elimination bouts. In the days when Survivor Series was Survivor Series, the usually-lengthy matches were only as strong as the characters, workers, and storylines holding them up, and in 1989, the show was mostly good.

The Warriors vs. Heenan Family bout ended up being fairly strong, and probably best of the night, even with an early Andre the Giant elimination, and the fact that Bobby Heenan had to fill in for the recently-fired Tully Blanchard. None of the matches are what a discriminating fan would call a "match of the year candidate", but each featured solid workers going head to head (Tito Santana vs. Rick Martel in the opener, Bret Hart vs. Randy Savage and Greg Valentine in the second match, etc). Each bout has a quality blend of vivid stars and technicians to some degree, and the show works as a result.

4. Survivor Series 1988


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What I love most about the 1988 Survivor Series is how each match has time to breathe. Other than Danny Davis getting eliminated about a minute into the opener, the other bouts didn't see a single elimination until at least five minutes in. Three of the four matches went 30 minutes or longer, and it's very much a "settle in and enjoy yourself" kind of event, with serious star power fueling each match.

The 20-man elimination bout (five face tag team vs. five heel duos) combined quality wrestling with a curious ending twist, that being Mr Fuji double-crossing Demolition in order to join the Powers of Pain. The Mega Powers' friction was hinted at in the denouement of an exciting main event bout that saw Savage and Hogan thwart a team led by Big Boss Man and Akeem. The '88 Survivor Series was a simple post-Thanksgiving showcase of popular heroes and villains, there to entertain while Americans digested their cranberry sauce. It more than did its job.

3. SummerSlam 1989


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Now *this* is more like it. An opening tag team bout pitting The Brain Busters against The Hart Foundation. A fast-paced six-man tag where Tito Santana partnered up with The Rockers against Rick Martel and The Fabulous Rougeau Brothers. The Ultimate Warrior regaining his Intercontinental title by defeating Rick Rude, in what would be Warrior's best match that didn't involve either Mega Power.

SummerSlam 1989 matched the energy of a hot northern New Jersey crowd (dig the reaction to Jimmy Hart accidentally waylaying Honky Tonk Man with guitar), and the result was a show that was tons of fun, and not just in a "fun by 1989 standards" way, either. Even Zeus didn't look completely awful in the main event, as Hogan, Savage, and Brutus Beefcake ably covered for his weaknesses with what was mostly a satisfying conclusion to one of the better SummerSlams of the day.

2. Survivor Series 1987


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Survivor Series and the Hell in a Cell match have one thing in common: their first incarnations happened to be the first best version of each property. Survivor Series may have been concocted primarily to screw with Jim Crockett's Starrcade pay-per-view, but it became a tentpole event for a company that values its traditions when convenient.

There isn't a single bad match on the show. The 10-woman tag is possibly the best WWE women's pay per view match pre-Revolution, thanks mostly to the Jumping Bomb Angels and the Glamour Girls bumping like crazy. The three men's matches were all highly enjoyable as well, ranging from really good (Savage's team vs. Honky's team), to shockingly awesome (Hogan's team vs. Andre's team), to the best elimination match in the event's history (the 20-man tag). If you've never seen it, you owe it to yourself to watch it at least once - it's on the short list of greatest WWE pay per views ever.

1. WrestleMania III


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For sheer history, perhaps no event in WWE's long history will ever beat the time that the lure of Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant was enough to fill the Pontiac Silverdome. Whether you believe the 93,173 attendance number that WWE gives out or the slightly more conservative 78,000 that some insiders bandy about, none of that is relevant. WrestleMania III has achieved a mythology that supersedes all tangibility.

The undercard of the event is highly underrated, whether it was Roddy Piper's spirited "finale" against Adrian Adonis, the fast-paced six man tag, or even Hercules and Billy Jack Haynes' acrimonious exhibition of power. Of course, no mention of 'Mania 3 is ever complete without mentioning the two title bouts - Hogan and Andre's famed clash for the WWF Championship, and Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat's mould-breaking dance of death for the Intercontinental gold. Its greatness extends beyond the two headline matches, and yet those two bouts would've been enough to assure it number one on this list, among many others.

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Justin Henry

Written by Justin Henry

In addition to writing lists and commentaries for Cultaholic, Justin is also a features writer and interviewer for Fighting Spirit Magazine, and is co-author of the WWE-related book Titan Screwed: Lost Smiles, Stunners, and Screwjobs.