Wrestling and Weightlifting: The WWF and Fitness in the 1980s

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I’ll admit it, although born in the early 1990s, I was a Hulkamaniac. Aside from growing up during the WWF attitude era, where individuals like Triple H, The Rock, Mark Henry and Stone Cold were living embodiments of strength, I regularly went through back catalogues of old wrestling shows. There I’d see Jimmy Superfly Snuka’s iconic finishes, Jimmy Hart’s unmatched smack talk and everything weird and wonderful that wrestling offered from the 1980s onwards. I, like many others, was enthralled by the athleticism of the wrestlers. I suspect that my initial interest in training came from my love of wrestling where the heels and the babyfaces sported muscular bodies in equal measure. In that vein, today’s post examines the WWF’s crossovers into health and fitness in the 1980s.

Why the 1980s?

Big and strong wrestlers have been a crucial part of the wrestling game since it began. Why then, should we focus on the 1980s? In the first instance, wrestling began to move much, much, closer to the mainstream during this period. The 1980s was a decade when wrestlers began to appear in much great numbers in movies, television programmes, books and magazines. Yes much of this was driven by individual superstars like Hulk Hogan, who recruited Hulkamanics wherever he went.

‘Hulkamania’ aside, wrestling in general was receiving much more television attention. Significantly, the industry wasn’t yet dominated by a single wrestling entity like the WWE or by two companies, as was the case during the 1990s when WCW and WWF duked it out for television ratings. Until Vince McMahon Jr. consolidated the industry under one umbrella, fans of the sport had several big name organisations they could watch. Speaking to my own experience, as a child in the 1990s, I was still able to access old National Wrestling Alliance tapes from the 1980s. The boom in wrestling was very far reaching indeed.

As more individuals came to watch wrestling, either in person or on television, the wrestling organisations began to stress more and more the physicality of their athletes. This had been done in the past but not with the frequency of the 1980s. In the wider society more and more individuals had become health conscious. Spurred on by films like Pumping Iron and individuals like Jane Fonda, men and women began entering the gym and obsessing over their bodies in a way previously unthinkable. Wrestling associations tapped into these anxieties to see tickets. The decision then to focus more on wrestler’s physiques made practical business sense. In a marketplace saturated with content, it was important to stress the uniqueness of your own roster. Hence there was a value in having the ‘strongest man’, ‘best body’ etc. How they did this is the focus of the present article.

What Do Ya Bench?

Previously on this site we’ve attempted to discuss the history of the bench press. For gym goers we’ve all gone through a phase (or perhaps we’ve still stuck in the idea) of using the bench press as the ultimate test of our strength and power. As a teenager people were quickly separated based on their pressing figures. At an unconscious level people equate the bench press with power. Wrestling organisations were not oblivious to this fact as evidenced by the below videos.

Now Dino was undoubtedly a strong fella and even if you have some doubts about his strength, as many of my friends do, he still deserved more than that lacklustre appreciation from the crowd. At least Warlord got some love from the WWF fans when he did his own bench press record attempt in 1991.

Dino and Warlord aside, we also have footage of the Road Warriors doing some pretty hefty pressing in AWA. Even in the grainy footage, we get a great sense of how the crowd went wild for the Warriors and their strength. Admittedly this stunt is a little different owing to fact it ended in a fight but hey, who hasn’t felt angered at their fellow gym goers on international bench press day, which as everyone knows is Monday.

Training Videos

So bench press stunts have been an ongoing theme but for me, wrestling promos focusing on the wrestlers in the gym were always the most impressive and interesting. I, like many others, became fascinated in training thanks to such often corny and over the top videos. Some, like Butch Reed, made exercise working out part of their entire wrestling persona.

Others, like Paul Orndorff, simply humiliated regular gym goers as part of their drive for ultimate heat among the fans. Mr. Wonderful wasn’t going to win over any friends but his training videos were still pretty amusing.

I still like the idea of someone slowly walking around the gym telling one member to eat more, another to eat less ad nauseum. Shout out also to Orndoff for training in a Nautilus gym. Arthur Jones would be proud. Who am I kidding though? I’ve already professed my Hulkamaniac ways. Obviously I need to talk about Hulk Hogan who was undoubtedly the most regular focus of these training segments during his time with the WWF. Hulk was filmed working out in preparation for a big match, with other wrestlers like Hillbilly Jim and even with the irreplaceable Mean Gene.

So Hogan was a childhood hero of mine but even I’m suspect about the above video. Was the Hulk quarter repping his squats? In any case the most common training videos featured the Hulkster in the gym. As Hillbilly Jim showed, not everyone could keep up with him.

Such was Hulk’s enthusiasm for the Iron Game that even Mean Gene tried out the gym.

The Results?

For wrestling fans, it was obvious that years of training underpinned the hard bodies and hard slams shown week in and week out. Some wrestlers, like the Ultimate Warrior, boasted a body many bodybuilders would have been proud of. In wrestling mags, and indeed the broader fitness sphere, people were beginning to take notice.

It wasn’t just the bodies and the strength which drew many of us in. In 1987, and at WrestleMania III, Hulk Hogan body slammed the 500 lbs. giant that was Andre. Early on in the fight Hogan tried and failed to lift Andre, nearly losing the match in the process. It was only after the famous ‘hulking up’ routine that the Hulkster could finally press and slam the unforgettable Andre. For fans of the sport, young and old, it was clear these men trained hard and got results.

The Aftermath

By the early 1990s, it became clear to wrestling promoters like Vince McMahon that wrestling had the potential to crossover into the fitness industry. This explains the creation of the World Bodybuilding Federation, the WBF, whose history has been covered previously on this site. That the WBF failed hardly matters. It’s very existence signified the fact that wrestling has, in its own way, impacted our modern fitness industry.