Even people who were not big wrestling fans in the 1980s can probably name a number of popular wrestlers from that era. Hulk Hogan usually tops the list. Guys like “Macho Man” Randy Savage. Andre The Giant. Rowdy Roddy Piper. Ultimate Warrior. Jake “The Snake” Roberts. George “The Animal” Steele. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. I could go on for quite some time. One name that seems to slip through the cracks too often is Paul Orndorff. Monday he passed away at 71 years old. It is safe to say that “Mr. Wonderful” had an extremely underrated WWF run. Although Orndorff’s wrestling career was much more than just his time in WWF, Paul was absolutely one of the company’s top stars between his arrival in late 1983 and his final WWF rivalry in 1987 (against Ravishing Rick Rude). Records indicate that Orndorff battled Rude one final time in early 1988 before departing the company.
There were so many epic moments featuring Orndorff. Let’s start with 1984. Hogan won the title in January at Madison Square Garden. That ushered in what many people consider to be the golden age of wrestling. Hulk’s first challenger at MSG a month later? You guessed it. None other than Orndorff. He challenged Tito Santana for the Intercontinental Title in March. Basically whoever held that belt was considered second in the company. April held a special place in my heart. Orndorff was part of a card held approximately one block from my house at a high school gym. In fact, he participated in the main event and was on the winning team. There were more clashes with Hogan and Santana throughout 1984, and Tito squared off against Orndorff at MSG again in May. Orndorff prevailed. Since Santana was counted out, the title did not change hands. He also claimed wins against Hogan, but with Hulk getting counted out or disqualified.
By 1985, Orndorff had really taken off. Perhaps people forget that he competed in the main event at WrestleMania. Back when it didn’t have a number, as Roddy Piper once said. The original. Eventually he would become a good guy. Fans were cheering him. Orndorff became wildly popular. His action figure was one of the early ones made by LJN. Orndorff began taking on former manager Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. He also tangled with Piper, who was a former manager of Orndorff himself. They had also teamed up in the big WrestleMania main event.
1986 was the peak of Orndorff’s WWF career. He was teamed up with Hogan in a match against King Kong Bundy and Big John Studd. Following the bout, Orndorff turned on Hogan. He surprised him with a clothesline before delivering a piledriver that left the Hulkster in a heap. This generated incredible heat, and resulted in an epic feud. Orndorff even stole Hogan’s music and tried to claim it as his own. The two battled across North America, including an outdoor show at Toronto’s CNE Stadium. Approximately 70,000 fans gathered to see the event, which set a new World Wrestling Federation record at the time. With 1986 coming to a close, Orndorff and Hogan would collide in steel cage matches throughout the United States. Their cage match in Hartford was aired on NBC’s Saturday Night’s Main Event. Despite being taped in December, that air date was January 3, 1987. It actually aired hours after one of the worst playoff losses ever suffered by my New York Jets. This memorable clash was billed as the first steel cage match in network television history, and helped ease my pain.
A huge crowd saw Hogan battle Andre The Giant at WrestleMania III in March of 1987. About 90,000 fans were in attendance. Another record. Orndorff was suspiciously left off the card. There was talk of Orndorff being held out as a possible substitute because Andre’s health was a serious question mark. However, Paul had his own issues to deal with. He had injured his arm during a weightlifting accident. Instead of taking time off, Orndorff continued to wrestle Hogan in front of large crowds. Finally, he stepped away after the profitable program had concluded. Shortly after his return, Paul once again fired Bobby Heenan. He turned face, or good, once more. The first annual Survivor Series took place in November of 1987. Yet again, Orndorff found himself in the main event. He was part of Hulk’s team in the big showdown on Thanksgiving night.
Another legend has left us. Maybe you hadn’t heard of him, or perhaps this terrific career was somehow lost among the greats. It truly is amazing that he was somehow overshadowed by the other giants of 1980s wrestling. He deserves his flowers. The guy stacked up with everybody. He had the look. A body of work. Put fannies in seats. Had memorable interviews. He did everything you could have possibly imagined. Mr. Wonderful may be gone. His accomplishments will not be forgotten. Rest in peace.