The Contentious Ten 7.16.12: Top 10 Wrestling Toy Lines
Posted by Gavin Napier on 07.16.2012
This week in the Contentious Ten, Gavin Napier counts down the greatest wrestling toy lines of all time. Will it be LJN's WWF line, Remco's AWA line, Tonka Wrestling Buddies, or something else entirely? Find out inside!
Another week, another countdown. Last week's list sparked some debate about where CM Punk's two wins should place, but nobody seemed to yell at me too much. It's nice to not be yelled at for a change, but I feel like this week's list could draw a variety of responses. Here is my criteria for the Top 10 Wrestling Figure Lines so that we're all on the same page:
-They have to be toys made in some sort of likeness of actual wrestlers
-The time frame is essentially my lifetime, meaning from 1980 forward
-No knockoffs were considered, no matter how cool they may be.
-American wrestling figures only, no Japanese lines were considered.
-Only "action figures" were considered. No statues or pillowcases or other licensed accessories. Just, you know, wrestling figures.
-My level of personal enjoyment from them, either as a child that played with them or as a collector.
-Overall quality of the toys..
Despite the fact that He Man and Lion-O had several tag team matches against the formidable team of Skeletor and Mumm Ra in my living room, I didn't include "toys that imaginative children could use for wrestling purposes but weren't actually wrestlers." That means that my super awesome and way too detailed wrestling promotion that was comprised of GI Joe, Marvel Secret Wars, and DC Super Powers figures won't get the respect it truly deserved. It was complete with oddball tag team pairings (Stretcher and Big Ben were a dominant tag team championship combination), superbabyfaces (Martian Manhunter was undefeated for months at a time), monster heels (Darkseid, anyone?), and high flying luchadore action (I'm looking at you, every version of a COBRA Viper that was ever released (except SAW Viper, who was more of a bruiser. I'm not sure why. And yes, I just went double parentheses.)) among others.
I've never really researched wrestling toys that predate my childhood, so if there's some awesome ones out there that I omitted, well, sorry. Just assume this list is for 1980 to present and try not to hate me any more than you already do.
I made sure to mention knockoffs not counting, because there have been several quality knockoff wrestling figures, as well as wrestling toys that weren't licensed. I remember in particular a series of GI Joe sized (3 ¾" figures) that were wrestlers, and came packaged in groups of 3. There was Unknown Warrior, who looked like a Native American; Shockwave, who looked like a cyberpunk; and four more that didn't stick out in my memory nearly as well. There are also the infamous Dollar General and Family Dollar style knockoffs that vaguely resemble famous wrestlers.
In regards to the Japanese lines, I honestly just don't know enough about them to warrant ranking them on this list. A quick eBay search will provide literally dozens of variations on figures, some of which look exceptionally cool. Unfortunately, without having a knowledge of the entire line of figures or time frames for all of the lines to compare quality, it would be nearly impossible to rank them appropriately. I know this is going to piss somebody off, but there's not much I can do about it other than spend weeks researching the topic, which I'm not ashamed to say that I'm not willing to do.
Finally, if you enjoyed a particular line of these toys more than me, that's fine. I won't take offense to it. Feel free to debate things below. Again, I understand that nostalgia is a big part of this list and the memories that people have attached to certain toys will vary greatly, as will where they rank them. I look forward to seeing the lists that the comment section produces.
The Original San Francisco Toymakers ECW figures
It's a shame we never got a Styles or Heyman figure. -Produced 1999-2000
I'm fully aware that these aren't the greatest toys ever. The likenesses aren't all that great, even by 1999 standards of toy making. There wasn't a great deal of detail in the figures, either. However, what makes this line so much fun is that it featured the first, and in some cases only, figure that a lot of guys got. With 40 figures, and only a handful of repaints for ECW's marquee guys like Raven, Dreamer, RVD, and Sabu, you could essentially recreate ECW. Most of the figures came with one or two weapons, which added to the authenticity of things, as chairs and tables galore were a necessity. Could I have put Wrestling Buddies in the tenth spot and saved myself a lot of grief? Probably. But Wrestling Buddies didn't have New Jack and Axl Rotten. It's a shame we never got a Styles or Heyman figure, but virtually everyone else you could realistically want is in this set.
Toybiz TNA figures
This line deserved better. -Produced 2004-2007
-1 NWA World Heavyweight Championship replica
Toybiz/Marvel's deal expiring with TNA for their figures is one of the biggest disappointments in wrestling memorabilia history for me. As evidenced by their work with the WWE license in the years since, they do excellent work with sculpts and in terms of scale. As with the ECW line, a lot of guys got their first (and only) figures with this line. Of the 70 figures released, there are actually 4 Jeff Jarrett, 5 AJ Styles, 4 Sting, and 4 Abyss figures, and several wrestlers that saw two figures released. Marvel toys was in bad shape towards the end of this line, and they had figures ready to produce but didn't release them. The license expired and TNA went with Jakks. That's been a double edged sword, as the quality of figure has gone down severely, but at least they're being released. This line deserved better, but the Monty Brown figure in particular is an example of how good it could have been.
Toybiz WCW figures
There are a handful of great figures in this line. -Produced 1999-2001
Toybiz's line of WCW figures was so amazingly varied that it almost felt completely random and unfinished at times, which has also been used to describe WCW's booking. There are a handful of great figures in this line, though. My personal favorites are the Saturn figure from his gothic, dress wearing days, and the Hardcore Hak aka Sandman figures. In Saturn's case, the sculpt and attention to detail was phenomenal. For Hak, the accessories made the figure, especially the kendo stick. There are several of the figures that came with special features that made them absolutely unplayable in a wrestling sense, such as the figures that came packaged with motorized motorcycles. That batch of figures looks like they're permanently in horse riding position. There were also a lot of retailer exclusives here, such as K-Mart, K-B Toys, and Toys R Us. Michael Buffer got a figure out of it, as did Elizabeth as part of a "vs." pack with Macho Man. This was one of the first lines that really stepped up in terms of making sure the likenesses were as accurate as possible. It was a huge leap forward from the Original Toymakers of San Francisco WCW Line, and way ahead of what most of Jakks' WWE figures looked like at the time. Unfortunately, the line didn't last long enough or go through enough of WCW's massive roster to really achieve greatness. They focused more on gimmicks and flash when they had a great deal of substance to work with. Again, the parallel between the toys and the real WCW are astounding.
Galoob WCW figures
Who knew miniature LJN figures could be so much fun? -Produced 1990-1991
-13 figures released in the US
-19 figures released in the UK
Here's an example of a series with a much smaller run that's simply better than those listed below it. Now granted, there's a great deal of nostalgia and personal memories that are involved in making this list. To me, though, these figures still look great. The Sid Vicious figure from this line is maybe my favorite wrestling figure of all time. These were close enough in scale that they could be used with the Hasbro WWF figures of the era, even if they weren't flexible at all. Mostly the Galoob WCW figures were hard plastic versions of the old LJN WWE figures, but who knew miniature LJN figures could be so much fun? This was the first real opportunity to have a lot of the WCW guys in toy form, and some of them were exceptionally hard to track down. As time went on, the UK exclusives became pretty highly sought after by collectors, but time has brought the market down somewhat. This was also the first line that I remember where almost everyone was in scale. Sid wasn't a giant, but his figure was noticeably larger than Ric Flair's or Arn Anderson's. Even with a short time frame, Galoob was able to capture most of WCW's heavy hitters from that era, at least, allowing kids to create WCW vs. WWF dream matches on their own.
JAKKS WWE figures
Jakks is kind of like a rash that won't go away. -Produced 1996-2009
-Well over 1,000 figures
-Over a dozen rings and playsets
To the best of my knowledge, this is by far the largest line of wrestling toys ever produced. Jakks is kind of like a rash that won't go away. Their toys aren't that great by collectors' standards. See, Jakks generally uses identical body types for everyone, as evidenced in the picture above. It doesn't matter if they're wearing a shirt or not, if they're tall or short, if they're a cruiserweight or super heavyweight, they're all going to look pretty much the same. While this does remove a bit of authenticity for collectors, kids don't really care about such things. Using the same parts over and over with new coats of paints allows Jakks to produce figures quickly and cheaply, which is how they managed to amass over 1,000 toys in a single line. Now, I'm sure a great deal of those are either simple repaints, or putting existing figures into new packaging for boxed sets. That makes pinning down an exact number of figures produced virtually impossible at this point. It's also difficult to find a complete list of the figures online due to the sheer volume. The furthest I counted was over 1,300 and I hadn't even started on their Classic Superstars yet. In 15 years, Jakks covered virtually everyone ever associated with WWE that you could possibly want. Valets, managers, bit players, jobbers, main eventers, legends - they were all there. The quality of the toy may not be the greatest – especially in the late 90's – but this line ranks highly based on longevity alone. There are a ton of "gimmick" toys in there, including super stylized figures that "sweat", a Triple H that spits water, figures that sound like bones are being broken, figures designed to do their finishing moves, and so much more. I highly doubt we'll ever see another line quite like it.
LJN WWE figures
Toys that double as self defense mechanisms from older brothers. -Produced 1984-1989
-12 Thumb Wrestlers
-8 Stretch Wrestlers
-2 16" wrestlers
-1 ring and cage accessory
These are the first wrestling toys that I truly remember. This line, much like the Jakks line that was just discussed, contained the greater part of the WWF's roster from 1984 through about 1987. For the last couple of years that the line was produced, LJN didn't produce quite as many figures, and would eventually shut down their toy division entirely. These figures are toys that double as self defense mechanisms from older brothers. The King Kong Bundy figure was a lethal weapon, rivaled only by the Kamala figure. My favorite part of this line was the list of what amounted to no names to a 6 year old kid at the time. Corporal Kirchner, Ted Arcidi, and SD Jones were all immortalized in painted rubber in this series, which is sort of mind boggling. The ring was appropriately huge for these 8" figures, and could handle plenty of normal wear and tear. Unfortunately, it didn't deal so well with being stepped on in the dark during a power outage, and my ring had a huge crack in the middle of the mat for a long time. This line also featured multiple versions of some superstars, as LJN cashed in with varying sizes and styles of toys. The Stretch Wrestlers cashed in on the Stretch Armstrong craze and were a lot of fun to play with. Bendies provided a smaller version of the LJN figures that were poseable thanks to wires inside of them. The thumb wrestlers were, well, wrestlers that you shoved your thumb into and battled your friends with. I still have a dozen or so of these figures in my parents' basement, including the awesome Ultimate Warrior figure and the much less awesome Vince McMahon figure from the main series, and the Junkyard Dog vs. Iron Sheik thumb wrestlers. The main 8" figures proved to be so popular that LJN style figures were created for modern superstars before Jakks lost the license for WWE.
Remco AWA figures
Remco's ring was the best ever for a good 25 years. -Produced 1986-1986
This line of figures ranks this highly for one reason and one reason only – the rings. Don't get me wrong, the figures were great – The Road Warriors came with awesome chaps and dog collars, and virtually everyone came with some form of entrance gear or another. It was all about the rings, though. Remco's ring was the best ever for a good 25 years. Until the WWE Real Scale ring was released, nothing even came close to what Remco put out in 1985. It had wooden ringposts, elastic ropes, plastic turnbuckles, and an honest to goodness canvas that fit over top of the plastic frame for the mat. The steel cage looked like fencing, which I thought was much cooler than the "big blue" cage that the WWF was using at the time. Again, the figures themselves were pretty impressive too, considering the era. They were along the same size as Masters of the Universe figures, and the likenesses were accurate, the little extras like title belts and ring jackets that they came with were fun, and they got a pretty wide variety of wrestlers into the lineup. Ric Flair, Curt Hennig, Shawn Michaels, Stan Hansen, The Road Warriors, and The Freebirds all got their first American figures in this lineup. It may well be their first figures ever for many of them, but I'm not translating and digging through Japanese wrestling figure checklists to be sure. This line also featured a figures of legendary referee Dick Woehrle and Sheik Adnan Al-Kaissie, which to my knowledge remains the only figure for either man.
Mattel MUSCLE figures
These toys were perfect for road trips. -Produced 1985-1988
Known as Kinnikuman overseas, the MUSCLE figures came to America in the mid 1980's, also known as the golden age of toys. Right in the middle of the decade, we had the Masters of the Universe, Thundercats, GI Joe, Transformers, Hot Wheels, MUSCLE, Guts, MASK, Remco wrestlers, LJN wrestlers, and about a dozen other lines going all at once. While it was awesome to be a kid back then, I'm sure it was tough on the wallet for parents. What separated MUSCLE from most of those lines, though, is that these toys were perfect for road trips. I had grandparents that lived about six hours away, and while I could pack up a fair number of toys into a suitcase, it didn't really help me to have anything to do in the car. Fortunately, two pockets full of MUSCLE figures was enough to keep me entertained most of the way. The figures are all monochromatic, with the majority of them being a pink color. Other variations include blue and orange, but the distinctive pink color is what most people remember. The figures represented a race of creatures that battled for control of the galaxy, mostly through professional wrestling. Interesting concept; no small wonder it came from Japan. In addition to the various outlandish characters that the line featured, there were also figures that were crafted as a tribute to wrestling superstars such as Dusty Rhodes, Terry Funk, Abdullah the Butcher, and Jushin "Thunder" Liger. They weren't the most articulated figures, they weren't the most realistic, but they were a ton of fun, and still have a dedicated following. Japan still releases new Kinnikuman figures and shows regularly. If you're a fan of this line, I suggest looking them up for some pleasant surprises.
Hasbro WWE figures
I had the Dusty Rhodes figure. Be jealous. -Produced 1990-1994
This was the last line of wrestling figures that I actively sought out for the sake of actually playing with them. The line started when I was 10 years old, and the figures were pretty easy to find in this area until I was about 13. The last few series really didn't make an appearance around here, or at least not nearly in as great a number as the originals. This line of figures was absolutely outstanding. I still vividly remember the first two figures I purchased – Jake "The Snake" Roberts and Demolition Smash. They were the only two that the Ames I found them at had in stock. It was shortly after my birthday, and my ever so reasonable parents understood that one wrestler was useless. It took two to have a match. Subsequently, Jake Roberts and Demolition Smash had a "best of 249" series until some other figures were added. The action features that the line made use of generally related to either a finishing or signature move for the wrestlers, and most of them worked reasonably well. The wind-up punches for Texas Tornado and Tatanka cracked my knuckles more than once, but the rest were pretty safe. The typical "fat guy" action that was assigned to Andre the Giant, Dusty Rhodes, and Akeem didn't seem to work all that great, though. Yeah, that's right. I had the Dusty Rhodes figure. Be jealous. This line still has an extremely dedicated following, and you can hop on eBay right now and find a ton of custom figures for modern WWE superstars that make use of JAKKS heads. I'm acutely aware that my personal nostalgia is the main reason this line ranks so highly, but that's why I included that as one of my criteria. As wrestling lines go, there are more fond memories attached to the Hasbro WWF figures than any other wrestling line. Except maybe hitting people with King Kong Bundy's LJN figure.
Mattel WWE figures
This line is everything good about professional wrestling toys. -Produced 2009-current
-739 figures and counting
Nearly 750 figures in under four years. That's astounding. What's even more astounding is that I only counted John Cena once in each series. That means that if Cena had a version in one series with a blue shirt, and another in the same series with a red shirt, it only got counted once. If you count variants in this, the total jumps to over 800 figures in a hurry. So why is this line number one? This line is everything good about professional wrestling toys. Because it has something for everyone. They've learned from every mistake and omission from every wrestling toy line in the past, and Mattel isn't making the same mistakes. There's the basic line of figures, which look great, are mostly in scale, have their own rings, and are perfectly acceptable playthings for children. Beyond that, they have the "elite" figures, which are acceptable for toys for older children, but are also perfectly acceptable as collector's editions. For pure collectors and the older demographic, there's an entire line dedicated to legends of the sport, as well as figures decked out in memorable entrance gear, and a "real scale" ring to match the perfect scaling of these figures. They're not done yet, though, not by a long shot. There are also WWE "rumblers", which are basically the WWE's answer to the MUSCLE line, only with more color and a more stylized form. There are exclusives for K-Mart and Toys R Us and MattyCollector members. The likenesses are nearly perfect, and they're producing absolutely outstanding figures for wrestlers that have never had them before. The idea that this line can only grow and get better is astounding. It makes me almost wish I were a kid again. Almost.
Think I missed something? Don't like the order these appeared in? That's cool. Make your list below, we'll debate it. I may even jump into the discussion to defend my picks or comment on yours. I always enjoy seeing the reasoning behind others' choices, and understand the complete subjectivity that goes into this list. Leave your ideas below, find me on Twitter @GavinNapier411, or email me with any suggestions for future lists. See you back here next Monday for another countdown.