When WWF Wrestling Figures Ruled the '80s

Zorro Mendez, YouTube
Zorro Mendez, YouTube

When the action figure market heated up in the 1980s, a number of companies were delivering very positive earnings reports to shareholders. Mattel made $350 million marketing its He-Man line in 1984 alone; Hasbro's G.I. Joe regularly topped holiday wish lists curated by newspapers. So did their Transformers, which earned $300 million in 1985.

Many of the more successful figures were either based on or supported by animated shows that effectively acted as advertising for their licensed merchandise. With this template established, it's not difficult to see why toymaker LJN saw opportunity in partnering with the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), a larger-than-life parade of grapplers that clashed in weekly televised matches. The end result—a large variety of 8-inch, heavy-duty rubber figures that could withstand aggressive imaginary play—became one of the most successful toys lines of the 1980s.

A screen capture of a Hillbilly Jim LJN wrestling action figure
John Wild, YouTube

Founded in 1970 by Jack Friedman, LJN had experienced some dizzying highs and lows in the mercurial world of toymaking. In 1982, the company acquired the license to produce items based on E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. With other potential licensees dubious about the film's potential, LJN was able to get the rights for a relatively paltry $35,000. The movie, of course, was a massive hit and the products reaped millions of dollars in revenue. Friedman took to driving around New York with a vanity license plate that read, "Thanx ET."

Two years later, LJN was less successful when the company launched a toy line based on 1984's Dune, David Lynch's big-budget, widely ignored feature film adaptation of Frank Herbert's sci-fi novel. LJN paid $2 million for the rights and watched as kids passed up Kyle MacLachlan and sand worm toys in favor of more Star Wars items.

"We all went to Mexico City to meet with [Dune producer] Dino De Laurentiis and got food poisoning," Karyn Weiss, who worked at LJN in product development at the time, tells Mental Floss. "The president of Toys 'R' Us was there. He got sick, too."

Fortunately, LJN had other prospects. As Dune was sinking, the WWF was making a rapid move into popular culture. When MTV began airing their matches, the WWF benefited from the mainstream appeal of guest stars like Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper. The wrestling league and its best-known performer, Hulk Hogan, were something like a touring superhero troupe. Vince McMahon, who ran the organization, had successfully taken the sport from its roots as a regional attraction into something that had national recognition. In addition to a weekly television series, McMahon would eventually profit from tie-in products like shirts and ice cream bars. VHS cassettes of the inaugural WrestleMania and its 1986 sequel would sell more than 1 million units each. Action figures seemed like an obvious next step.

"Wrestling was getting hot and people were talking about it," Weiss says. A meeting between LJN executives and McMahon went well, and the two companies began working on a line of figures and accessories.

According to the Fully Poseable Wrestling Figure Podcast interview with an LJN sculptor, what became the familiar 8-inch, rubber-molded aesthetic of the WWF line happened by accident. LJN planned on making the figures closer in size to the 3.75-inch height typical of most action figures of the era. They sent McMahon the larger prototypes for approval. When he saw their proportions, he figured it was more in line with his mammoth wrestlers and insisted the toys remain that size.

A photo of a Hulk Hogan LJN wrestling action figure
Grant Baciocco, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

While Hogan was the clear star of McMahon's roster and was likely going to remain on top for the foreseeable future, LJN relied on the WWF to tell them which wrestlers could be expected to maintain their popularity over the time it would take to get the figures into production. "We met with McMahon every six months and he'd tell us which wrestlers he was going to make popular," Weiss says. "Those are the ones we'd go into production with each year. He'd say, 'Hogan's going to keep the belt, Roddy Piper's going to be big.'"

The first wave of nine figures released in spring 1984 featured Hogan wearing his WWF world title belt, Piper, André the Giant, Big John Studd, Hillbilly Jim, The Iron Sheik, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, Junkyard Dog, and Nikolai Volkoff. (Notably absent was Sergeant Slaughter, an anvil-chinned military recruit who allegedly upset McMahon when he signed his own separate toy deal with Hasbro to appear in their G.I. Joe line.)

Once or twice a year, Weiss and other LJN employees would congregate at a production studio in New Rochelle, New York, to shoot commercials with the wrestlers. “André was bigger than life,” Weiss says. “They were all very lovely. We talked mostly about how they got into the wrestling business.” LJN also made sure the wrestlers made appearances at the annual Toy Fair in New York.

Unlike He-Man and G.I. Joe, who could bend at the joints and were made of lightweight plastic, the WWF figures were solid molded rubber. As a projectile launched at a sibling’s head, they hurt. But they were also tough enough to sustain themselves through cage matches, battle royales, and other clashes. Some figures based on massive wrestlers like King Kong Bundy were essentially blobs of heavy rubber that would have increased shipping costs. “They came in on boats from Hong Kong,” Weiss says.

By December 1985, LJN had sold 4 to 5 million of the figures, which retailed for $6 to $10 apiece. Second-quarter earnings for the company ballooned from $8.3 million in 1985 to $55.7 million in 1986, erasing the bad taste left over from the Dune deal and helping make LJN a major player in the action figure aisles, with some additional help from their Thundercats line.

Kid-sized wrestling belts, exercise kits, tag team sets, thumb wrestlers, and other products followed. Roughly 1.4 million wrestling rings—which were later recalled in 1991 due to having pointed posts that could impale children—were sold. Bendies were smaller, posable versions of the larger figures; LJN also made a 16-inch Hogan doll that had a rip-away shirt. And it wasn’t just McMahon who enjoyed the profits. In a 1986 interview with United Press International, “Macho Man” Randy Savage estimated a third of his income came from merchandising revenue.

The line continued through 1989, at which point LJN decided to make a move into the burgeoning video game industry and passed on renewing their license with the WWF. It would eventually go through a succession of licensees including Hasbro, JAKKS Pacific (which was owned by Jack Friedman), and Mattel, where it currently resides. Though the newer toys have multiple points of articulation for better simulated grappling, kids who grew up with the rubber toys prize the unopened products that can sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay.

Wrestling hasn't left Weiss’s attention, either. Now a licensing and marketing executive for Accessory Innovations, she handles licensing deals for backpacks. “We have 40 different licenses, and wrestling is one of them,” she says. “So I’m still doing it.”

This $49 Video Game Design Course Will Teach You Everything From Coding to Digital Art Skills

EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images
EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images

If you spend the bulk of your free time playing video games and want to elevate your hobby into a career, you can take advantage of the School of Game Design’s lifetime membership, which is currently on sale for just $49. You can jump into your education as a beginner, or at any other skill level, to learn what you need to know about game development, design, coding, and artistry skills.

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The lifetime membership that’s currently discounted is intended to allow you to learn at your own pace so you don’t burn out, which would be pretty difficult to do because the lessons have you building advanced games in just your first few hours of learning. The remote classes will train you with step-by-step, hands-on projects that more than 50,000 other students around the world can vouch for.

Once you’ve nailed the basics, the lifetime membership provides unlimited access to thousands of dollars' worth of royalty-free game art and textures to use in your 2D or 3D designs. Support from instructors and professionals with over 16 years of game industry experience will guide you from start to finish, where you’ll be equipped to land a job doing something you truly love.

Earn money doing what you love with an education from the School of Game Design’s lifetime membership, currently discounted at $49.

 

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The Fur Trade: How the Care Bears Conquered the '80s

Care Bears were one of the great merchandising success stories of the 1980s.
Care Bears were one of the great merchandising success stories of the 1980s.
Kristy Sparrow, Getty Images

How do you patent a teddy bear? That was the question facing executives at American Greetings, the popular greeting card company, and toy kingpin Kenner in the early 1980s. American Greetings was coming off the success of Strawberry Shortcake, an apple-cheeked sensation that adorned cards and hundreds of licensed products. Kenner was the force behind the Star Wars action figure line, which rolled out in the late 1970s and went on to become one of the biggest success stories in the history of the toy industry.

Now the two companies wanted to collaborate on a line of teddy bears. For Kenner, it was an opportunity to break into the lucrative plush toy market. For American Greetings, having a stuffed, furry iteration of a greeting card—complete with a name, a unique color, and an emotional message—was the goal. The solution? Put greeting card-esque designs on the bears's stomachs and call them Care Bears. It was a simple idea that proceeded to rake in roughly $2 billion in sales in the Care Bears's first five years alone.

 

Strawberry Shortcake was the brainchild of Those Characters From Cleveland, a creative subsidiary of American Greetings headed up by co-presidents Jack Chojnacki and Ralph Shaffer. (While on a business meeting on the West Coast, the two overheard a receptionist telling someone that “those guys from Cleveland” were there, inspiring the name.) Given a mission from Kenner to reinvent the teddy bear, a childhood staple since the turn of the 20th century, Those Characters recruited cartoonist Dave Polter and freelance artist Elena Kucharik.

Shaffer examined the rainbow, heart, and other greeting card designs submitted by Polter. He then examined the bear sketches turned in by Kucharik. They fit together like two puzzle pieces. Putting the colorful designs on the bear’s stomach gave it a quality similar to the sentimental cards American Greetings was known for.

Two Care Bears are pictured at the Boy Meets Girl x Care Bears Collection at Colette in Paris, France in February 2017
Care Bears symbolize friendship—and billions of dollars in revenue.
Kristy Sparrow, Getty Images

Those Characters continued to refine the look of the bears, compressing their frame and giving them a little extra volume to make them more squeezable, and a heart-shaped button on their rear ends identified them as Care Bears. American Greetings was able to secure a patent based on the graphic design of their bellies. Their two-dimensional look was fleshed out by Sue Trentel, a plush designer who was able to craft a teddy that resembled the drawings.

The creative team eventually settled on a lineup of 10 bears, each one a different color and reflecting a different emotional dimension. There was Bedtime Bear, Birthday Bear, Cheer Bear, Friend Bear, Funshine Bear, Good Luck Bear, Love-a-Lot Bear, Tenderheart Bear, and Wish Bear, along with one anomaly. To balance out the potential overdose of saccharine feelings, Grumpy Bear was added. In the narrative devised by Those Characters, the Care Bears lived in a giant castle and went out on missions of caring.

While Kenner was leading the charge in terms of marketing, American Greetings knew they had a premise with broad appeal. Before any Care Bears made it to shelves, the company secured 26 licensees to manufacture everything from clothing to bedsheets to coloring books. Retailers who may have been reluctant to devote store space to a new line of teddy bears were impressed by the support, leading chains like Walmart, Kmart, and Target to quickly sign on.

 

To complement the launch of the Care Bears at the 1983 Toy Fair in New York City, Kenner president Bernie Loomis mounted a major Broadway-style stage production at a cost of roughly $1 million. During the show, Strawberry Shortcake made an appearance to introduce the next great merchandising craze.

The bears went on sale that March and quickly sold out. Desperate for more product, Kenner promised a factory owner in Taiwan a new Mercedes if he could make 1 million more Care Bears—and quickly. (Kenner got their bears, and the factory owner got his car.) American Greetings had a 16-foot stretch of Care Bears cards lining the greeting card aisles. An animated series was a hit. The Care Bears Movie followed in 1985. By 1988, more than 40 million Care Bears had been sold. By 2007, the number was 110 million. The teddy bear had successfully been reinvented.

Several Care Bears are pictured on a table at the Boy Meets Girl x Care Bears Collection at Colette in Paris, France in February 2017
Care Bears have endured for nearly 40 years.
Kristy Sparrow, Getty Images

The Care Bears have been reintroduced several times, including in 2002, 2007, and 2013. American Greetings is still marketing the Care Bears under their Cloudco Entertainment brand. A new animated series, Care Bears: Unlock the Magic, began airing on Boomerang in 2019, while apparel and other licensing—like Care Bears Funko Pops! and Care Bears clothing for Mattel’s Barbie—is still going strong.

Why the enduring appeal? In 2007, Polter credited the secularized version of values that are often instilled in churches. The Care Bears were on a mission of sharing, loving, and caring—a greeting card message that never had to leave your side.