A Brief History of Wrestling Action Figures
Ever since their inception in the 20th Century, action figures have been one of the defining aspects of childhood. WWE and WWF action figures have played a significant role in that history—and the tale of those action figures twists and winds between different manufacturers, catastrophic failures, unexpected successes, and heartwarming delight of all kinds.
Many of these figurines have become extremely valuable, often selling at prices in the high hundreds of dollars.
In exploring the topic, we’ll start with an extremely brief history of action figures as a whole. Then, we will shift and look at each manufacturing era these action figures have had: LJN, Hasbro, Jakks Pro, and Mattel. We’ll also take a look at some of the most significant and high-quality toys from each era.
Read on to find out more about the fascinating history of wrestling action figures.
- The First Contemporary Action Figures
- LJN’s Figurines: Legends Are Born
- Notable LJN Figures
- Hasbro’s Figurines: Better Actions and Articulations
- Notable Hasbro Figures
- Jakks Pacific’s Figurines: New Levels of Innovation
- Notable Jakks Pacific Figures
- Mattel’s Figurines: The Contemporary World
- Notable Mattel Figures
- Final Thoughts
The First Contemporary Action Figures
The first iteration of the contemporary action figure was not G.I. Joe or Obi-wan Kenobi, but Barbie. When Mattel initially released Barbie in 1959, the world went wild for her, and her most notable features are still key features of the action figure category of toys today. She was a stiff doll with moveable limbs and a customizable exterior.
In the early 1960s, Hasbro saw an opportunity to bring the same toy model into the market, targeted at boys. To do so, Hasbro rebranded them from dolls into “action figures,” and landed licensing deals with the most admired masculine figures in pop culture of the time.
The first toy that Hasbro promoted as an action figure was G.I. Joe, an adjustable and poseable gun-wielding fighter. He proved to be such a massive hit that they pushed out versions of G.I. Joe for other nationalities just two years after his initial release.
LJN’s Figurines: Legends Are Born
By the early 1980s, action figures had gained mass popularity and could be found on toy shelves all over the country. Whether it was He-man, Transformers, or G.I. Joe, every child wanted their hands on these wonderful toys.
At the same time, the World Wrestling Federation was also taking the dominant role in national wrestling. What’s more, Vince McMahon, the head of the group, was dedicated to offering child-oriented programming, and so the question arose: how could he market his company to kids? The notion of wrestling action figures naturally arose, and soon they explored cutting a deal to make licensed toys.
In that search, the WWF encountered LJN, a toy manufacturer specializing in creating licensed toys (and would soon be known for their video games). LJN paid $200,000 for the license in the deal, and in 1984 the very first series of wrestling action figures hit the market.
There were 12 options in the first series:
- Andre the Giant
- Hulk Hogan
- Big John Studd
- Hillbilly Jim
- Iron Sheik
- Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka
- Junk Yard Dog (three variants with different collar color options: black, gray, and red)
- Nikolai Volkoff
- Roddy Piper (two variants with different boot color options: red and brown)
These toys were envisioned in the same vein as existing action figures but at a much larger scale. The figures that had gained mass popularity were typically 3.75 inches tall and fully poseable, while these were 8 inches tall and made of mostly rigid rubber. Each one came with a rolled-up poster alongside a biographical card that kids could cut out on the back of the box.
The unique structure of the figurines was likely key to their success. So, while they maintained the masculine appeal that had been key to previous action figures, it was the style and size that popped out on the shelves to customers passing by.
It should be noted that, while LJN was putting out these figures, another toy company called Remco was also publishing similar action figures based on wrestlers from the American Wrestling Association. Remco started producing these in 1985, only a year after LJN’s first line hit the markets. They continued until 1994.
LJN continued producing these figures until 1989, having delivered several series. However, in that year, the company shut down its physical toy arm.
Notable LJN Figures
Certainly, the design and manufacturing of action figures have improved a great deal since the 1980s, but many of these original figures are still icons in their rights.
One of the most memorable figures from this season was the Hulk Hogan action figure. Although the likeness was far from spot-on, it was much closer than other figures in the line (and other non-wrestling action figures).
Even though all of the figures LJN made were predominantly rigid, they still had some elements of customizability and pose-ability. The Hulk Hogan figure was particularly strong in this regard, as the designers created a model that you could pose in the middle of some of his most famous wrestling moves (including his notorious leg drop).
Nikolai Volkoff was not the best-known character of the World Wrestling Federation, but the USSR-inspired heel had one of the best action figures of the era. The facial expression is surprisingly effective for the time, effectively representing the snarling outlook for which Volkoff was known.
And he too came with delightful possibilities for play. So, whether you wanted to recreate a suplex, a body slam, or even a Samoan drop, Volkoff was very fun to use when playing.
Another icon from this era, Big John Studd, was not quite as stylish as Hulk Hogan or Nikolai Volkoff, but his figure stood out in its playability. This was mostly enabled by the synergy between his pose and the form of the figures.
Studd was posed with a slight crouch, with two outstretched and bent arms. This stance allowed people to manipulate him in multiple fascinating ways, including clotheslines, suplexes, and drops of all kinds.
Hasbro’s Figurines: Better Actions and Articulations
After LJN closed its toy division, Hasbro won the license for the WWF’s action figures. Hasbro took these figures in a new direction, making them plastic instead of rubber, adding several more points of articulation, and, most importantly, adding spring-loaded signature actions for each figure.
These actions added a whole new level of interactivity to the toys. This interactivity contributed significantly to their further spread and dominance throughout the world of licensed toys. For some figures, pulling back an arm would cause it to snap back down, imitating a strike. Others took advantage of rotating waists, legs, even heads.
Hasbro did not maintain this contract for very long and stopped manufacturing the toys after 11 series in 1994. It is not clear what led to the termination of this license. Still, it appears that the WWF paused its licensing for two years before handing it over to a new manufacturer for a different direction: Jakks Pacific.
Notable Hasbro Figures
The Yokozuna action figure was the largest one Hasbro ever made. His signature “Sumo Smash” move was always a joy to experiment with when playing around. With this figure, Hasbro did an incredible job of representing the power that Yokozuna exhibited on screen.
The Ultimate Warrior was one of the great wrestling performers of his time, but his legacy has not lingered in the public consciousness in the same way as many of his contemporaries.
Nevertheless, his legacy has lived on in his action figures from this era, especially his Series 2 iteration. They are some of the finest figures Hasbro ever made, from the care in the art quality to the exquisite design of the signature action.
Macho Man Randy Savage is one of the undisputed great performers of the early years of the WWF. Fittingly, Hasbro’s first action figure depiction of him is one of the best wrestling toys ever made (in our view, anyway).
In fact, the design became so popular that Hasbro would redesign and create it many times in the future. It even ended up being used as a mold for different figures like Shawn Michaels and Rick Martel.
Jakks Pacific’s Figurines: New Levels of Innovation
Jakks Pacific started manufacturing and distributing WWF action figures in 1996 and continued through to 2009. They began in imitation, drawing upon Hasbro’s already popular toys from the “Superstars” line.
Then the Attitude Era came along. In 1997 and 1998, the World Wrestling Federation started regularly directly competing with World Championship Wrestling for the same viewers during the same time slot. This development caused WWF to pivot its programming strategy, incorporating more adult themes.
That pushed Jakks Pacific to innovate. If wrestling viewership decreased, they would need to keep customers through other means. Their most major innovation came in the “WWF Titantron Live Figures” line. Each action figure came with a microchip that, when used in concert with the line’s dedicated playset, would play the character’s entrance song. They were also beautifully detailed.
In 2003, they began to release their most popular line yet, called “Ruthless Aggression.” These did not come with many frills (though they almost always had an accessory alongside them). What made them unique was their extensive customizability, with 15 different points of articulation. In 2006, the company took that even further, producing toys with 27 points of articulation!
Notable Jakks Pacific Figures
Even though Jakks Pacific created much of the standard design features of contemporary figurines, almost all of their most distinctive products came from the TitanTron line.
That first series was one of the most radical ways a toymaker had incorporated technology into wrestling action figures. Moreover, the line featured some extraordinary hits from Stone Cold Steve Austin’s several iterations (including my personal favorite with an oversized lunchbox) to The Rock’s iconic figure.
Mattel’s Figurines: The Contemporary World
Once Jakks’ license expired, Mattel took it up and got right down to business. They introduced three new lines, called “Basic,” “Elite,” and “Flex Force” on the first day they had the license.
The Basic line was relatively similar to the Ruthless Aggression, one out of Jakks Pacific, while the Elite line seemed aligned with Jakks’ Deluxe Aggression line. Mattel was focused herein on refining the work Jakks Pacific had already done, rather than rocking the boat significantly.
Flex Force was their first innovation. This line was marketed towards children and re-created the Hasbro-era individualized signature moves for each figure. Using contemporary technology, they were able to simulate classic moves like clotheslines and dropkicks with even more fun and accuracy.
Since then, Mattel has released several more lines, even partnering once with Jakks Pacific to re-release one of their former lines. Mattel designed the “Entrance Greats” line in the Basic style with a renewed focus on extreme attention to detail.
These went so far in this goal that they emulated specific entrance outfits from particular events, like the Shawn Michaels figure that featured the entrance outfit he wore at WrestleMania XII.
Other notable action figure releases from Mattel have included:
- “Now Forever”
- “Epic Moments”
- “Superstar Match-ups,” which included removable wearables for the figures
- “Flex-Force Breakdown Brawl Ring,” a play area designed to be used alongside the Flex Force line
As well, there was the “WWE Legends” line, which made figures in the Elite style with accessories recreating famous WWE wrestlers from the organization’s long history. Nowadays, these figures belong to the “Flashbacks” line),
Notable Mattel Figures
Mattel has had the unique benefit of having all WWE/WWF history to draw from in creating their action figures, and many of their best ones have come from previous eras. For example, the Hulk Hogan Hollywood Edition is one of their highest-quality figures. Besides featuring a ton of delightful accessories, it brought a creative twist to Hulk Hogan’s classic character.
But Mattel’s work is not all ancient history. They recently published perhaps one of the greatest action figures of all time, the Finn Balor (Demon) Ultimate Edition. The flashy appearance of Balor’s alter ego fits extraordinarily well with the action figure genre, but the detail Mattel brought to the design here was incredible.
The history of wrestling action figures is a winding one that first started with the early years of LJN. Numerous action figures have since been made, immortalizing icons like Hulk Hogan and The Rock to lesser-known names such as Nikolai Volkoff and Big John Studd.
From the outset, wrestling action figures were enormously popular and continue to be sought-after as toys and collectibles. With the popularity of wrestling in general, it’s safe to say that the future of these remarkable figures will be as bright as ever.