Teething issues, rushed production, unreleased prototypes, and more, this is the story of WWE’s first-ever wrestling figures: WWF Wrestling Superstars!
“They’re so real, can you tell the difference?”
– Vince McMahon in a 1986 Wrestling Superstars commercial
WWF Wrestling Superstars – The ‘80s Wrestling Figures That We Love!
With Vince McMahon and the WWF’s insistence on catering to kids while taking over the national wrestling landscape in 1984, LJN released the WWF Wrestling Superstars toyline.
During the ’80s, He-Man, Transformers, G.I. Joe, and Star Wars dominated the toy aisles, and it was time to make room for massive rubber wrestlers so kids could recreate their favorite matches.
Called by many as “inaction figures” because of their stiffness, these toys were nonetheless full of character and are still very popular with collectors today. Wrestling figures in their original, unopened packaging fetch in the hundreds and even thousands of dollars.
At a time of significant expansion by the WWF, these toys were vital in capturing the attention of younger fans that now, as adults, continue to support the WWE and are still amongst its most passionate fans.
The Creation of WWE’s First-Ever Wrestling Figures
When toy manufacturer LJN Toys Ltd. picked up the license to manufacture figures for the popular WWF Superstars seen on television at a figure of $200,000, they envisioned them to be similar in scale to Star Wars and G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. But instead of a 3.75-inch scale, buyers saw 8-inch tall semi-rigid rubber figures.
The unusually large-sized figures (called Two-Ups) were ideal for showcasing the new product but not meant to stay that way. However, fascinated buyers insisted that they remain as is. Every figure came with a rolled-up stylized poster of the superstar and cutout bio card on the back.
Led by founder Jack Friedman, LJN agreed to the deal.
In hindsight, this unexpected alteration was critical to the toyline’s success. LJN had manufactured toys of popular licenses such as E.T., Knight Rider, Gremlins, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Michael Jackson, Dune, Magnum P.I., and Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. Now the larger-than-life WWF personalities could be owned by children everywhere.
These hefty hunks of rubber began populating toyboxes near and far. They weren’t the first wrestling action figures (Japan had JWA by Bullmark in 1969 and Super-Pro Wrestling by Popy in 1981). However, they were at least one of the first mass-marketed and produced for North American consumption.
Former senior vice president of Remco toys Steve Rosenthal is often credited with launching the first wrestling figures in the U.S., and Greg Gagne assures that their AWA All-Star Wrestlers released in 1985 were indeed just that.
But if the WWF Wrestling Superstars were released in 1984, then how could this be?
Remco was infamous for copying popular toy trends and making knockoff toylines but of a lesser quality than the originals. Their line of wrestling figures was similar in look and mold to the popular He-man and The Masters Of The Universe fantasy/adventure action figure toyline.
One thing is certain though, if they weren’t the first produced, they came into existence only months after the WWF line. And while the Remco toyline lasted only one year, the WWF LJN figures continued strong into the late-’80s. The short-lived Remco figures still boasts a substantial demand by collectors to this day though, with some figures commanding more than respectable prices on the market.
In the June/July 1985 issue of WWF Magazine, LJN explained that “Extreme attention to detail was essential for the WWF Wrestling Superstars toyline because the WWF stars are some of the most recognizable athletes in the world. The reproduction is so close to real life that each figure has its own unique personality.”
Interesting Tales From LJN’s WWF Wrestling Superstars Product Design Manager Bill Stanhope
In an interview with Fightful Pro Wrestling, former LJN Product Manager (1985-1988) Bill Stanhope said he wasn’t surprised that there was still a significant interest for these figures; he was shocked. But he also recalls the massive amount of work needed to produce these beloved toys.
“It was a great gig, a great job because I got to meet all these famous people. I won’t deny that. But it was a job where we were working so fast trying to get these things out.”
Stanhope continued, “LJN was a very small company. I came from Hasbro, and they had ten times the amount of design staff compared to them. So, everything we did was outsourced to freelancers, outside sculptors, designers, and just a huge coordinating effort to try and get things done.”
LJN used featured articles from WWF Magazine, press kits, press shots, and 8×10 glossies to know the wrestlers’ appearance and favorite moves. Remember, there was no internet at this time.
Sculptors tried to create each wrestler’s look to the best of their abilities by sculpting them in wax. Then, a silicone mold was used for the prototypes and later paint. Wax figures not passing LJN’s or the WWF’s approval were sent back to the sculptor and melted down.
According to Stanhope, usually, they’d make four prototypes. Some became sales samples, while others went to the factory, and the rest sent to Toy Fair.
Ultimately, Vince McMahon Jr. decided which wrestlers LJN made, and they were more than happy to try and make as many as they wanted. “We were always pushing for more wrestlers,” remembers Stanhope.
His team went to Stamford, Connecticut several times and met with Vince McMahon at WWE Headquarters for final approval of the product. He also remembers meeting many of the wrestlers at TV commercials and the LJN employee Christmas parties.
“None of the guys were hard to work with,” he reminisces. “You got to understand that back then, I’m meeting these guys, and I got a toy wrestler that looks like them. That right there is pretty cool. You’re not going to treat badly a guy that just made a likeness of you.”
Stanhope continued, “The one that was most intimidating to me was actually Gorilla Monsoon because he wanted a figure made of him, but at the time, we were just doing the wrestlers.”
LJN made figures of Vince McMahon as an announcer and other non-wrestling characters like managers and even referees, but never one of Gorilla Monsoon. Bill Stanhope doesn’t have an answer as to why.
In New York, the 1985 International Toy Fair had the WWF wrestlers in an actual ring to promote the toy line.
Watch WWF Wrestling Superstars by LJN Commercials:
Issues With Rushed Production
Because they were in such a rush to get the figures into production, sometimes the final version differed from the press materials.
Some examples include Adrian Adonis not having his scarf in the final retail product. Tito Santana was too bulky and didn’t fit the blister, so he got a completely different look than initially conceived. George “The Animal” Steele‘s body hair couldn’t get made correctly by the factory.
“It was a spray-on and just wouldn’t adhere correctly, so we just kept the sculpted hair, [just flesh-colored bumps, no black].”
Bill Stanhope also recalls how the large size of the figures delayed all the other processes.
“The amount of time it takes to actually mold one of those things took forever because it had to cool,” he offered. “You had this mass of vinyl, so it was a big problem.”
When considering the limited face sculpting technology available in the mid-’80s compared to the face printing used to make Mattel’s WWE Elite figures’ extremely accurate line, the WWF Wrestling Superstars’ facial expressions were still very reminiscent of the wrestlers.
Their size and colorful paint schemes helped them stand out in the toy aisle, but their limited malleability hurt their playability. Without scaling them down, LJN couldn’t add metal wires underneath the rubber because it became cost-prohibitive, and they were unable to find a wire thick enough that could keep the figures posed how they wanted. It just wasn’t going to work.
Even with the benefit of a child’s vast imagination, the figures suffered enormous limitations. This hindrance later got rectified by a smaller line of more pliable figures known as the WWF Wrestling Superstars Bendies, which was closer to the original size they had planned on making for the first figures.
LJN also released WWF Wrestling Superstars Thumb Wrestlers so kids could play wrestle practically anywhere. And in 1987, a line of Stretch Wrestlers, similar to the material used by Kenner’s Stretch Armstrong, was created. These consisted of only eight different wrestlers and were very sparsely distributed, thus commanding high prices on today’s collectibles market.
The WWF Wrestling Superstar figures have quite a few variants that are sought-after by many collectors. But Stanhope explained, “It was a materials issue many times and [the factory] just made it with anything they wanted to.”
It wasn’t a conscious decision to sell more figures. It came down to what the factory in China had available.
Some examples of variants include S.D. Jones with two different colored shirts. Many collectors debate as to why he had two figures when Macho Man had only one. Miss Elizabeth also had two colored skirts, Junkyard Dog had either a red, black, or grey chain, and Corporal Kirchner had different facial hair ranging from clean-shaven to having stubble and a full beard. There are many more, but it would fill at least a page!
A common trait amongst these figures is a loss of paint and lots of wear: obvious playtime evidence. Most kids opened their toys, so many carded figures are tough to find, and when they are, they commonly fetch in the hundreds if not thousands of dollars on the secondary market.
LJN’s parent company MCA Universal shut them down in 1989 partly due to legal troubles with their realistic-looking line of motorized water guns called Enertech.
Canada’s Grand Toys continued the toyline for one more year, and their Series 6 black carded figures only available in Canada. These are much more difficult to find than earlier LJN releases. Due to the impossibility of finding them, many even doubt some of the figures exist.
In 1990, video game manufacturer Acclaim Entertainment bought LJN, and the former toy manufacturer began publishing video games with mixed results. They are known to have worked on many movie-based titles and even some WWF video games. Many fond memories, but not some of the better titles to be found. LJN ceased to exist in 1995.
The then-WWF didn’t miss a beat, and in 1990, Hasbro was awarded the license to manufacture their wrestlers. They took a completely different approach and made the figures smaller, more affordable, with greater detail and action features.
WWF Wrestling Superstars Are Still Loved Today
Snarky comments about the WWF Wrestling Superstars by LJN just being immobile hunks of rubber that looked like chew toys thrown at your canine companion to gnaw on is rather exaggerated.
Despite their shortcomings in the articulation department, the oversized toy wrestlers hold a special place in ’80s toy lore. With their commercials, WWF’s marketing geniuses enticed kids to buy the figures resembling your favorite wrestlers. Even now, there is a sizeable online collecting community for them.
I have fond memories of walking the toy aisle and needing one of my parents to hold me up so I could get a look at all the different WWF Wrestling Superstar figures. They seemed pretty real to this ’80s kid, and I still proudly conserve several of these 35-year-old-toys from my childhood in my Geek Den. They are in pretty decent shape, and I’m lucky to still have them!
80’s Toys From My Attic
I had the opportunity to share my thoughts on this fun toy line and show them off on the 80’s Toys From My Attic podcast. You can watch me on their episode entitled “LJN WWF Wrestling Figures” below.
80’s Toys From My Attic is dedicated to discussing the history and significance of “the greatest toys from the greatest decade.” Their Facebook page is also full of nostalgic goodies and is well worth the follow!
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