Gimmick changes are a necessary part of professional wrestling, and have been for a long time. The ability to have a wrestler change characters can extend their career longevity, be the catalyst for new feuds and angles, as well as mark a transition for their career as a whole. It’s a tried and true practice in the world of wrestling when it’s done correctly, especially in a gimmick-heavy company like WWE. Basically, changing a wrestler’s gimmick can see a host of benefits that make them more interesting, and more viable for the long-term in any given promotion.
However, there are of course instances in which changing a characters is ultimately for the worst. There are times when the creative team, again, especially in WWE, can be overzealous with the changes they want to make. It ends up hurting the individual wrestler, and sometimes their career never recovers. So, it’s always been important to toe the line between savvy creative decisions, and recklessness with creative power when it comes to wrestling characters. Let’s take a look at some of the highs and lows in wrestler gimmick changes through the years.
Ranked below are 10 wrestler gimmick changes that failed miserably, and 10 that surprisingly succeeded.
20. Reverend D-Von (Failed)
Going as one-half to one of the greatest tag teams in the history of the business to being a singles competitor wouldn’t be easy for any wrestler. It’s especially difficult when you’re hampered with a stopgap gimmick that was comparatively lame to the Dudley Boyz gimmick. The Reverend D-Von character was used as a launchpad for Batista’s debut, and it just didn’t make any sense to use a great tag wrestler in such a lower mid-card role.
Predictably, it didn’t last long in 2002, and before the year’s end D-Von was back in the tag ranks with Bubba Ray and Spike. It was bound to falter from the beginning, as a hokey spiritual gimmick wasn’t a good fit for D-Von or anyone else involved.
19. Kane (Succeeded)
Toiling for several years as Dr. Isaac Yankem, Glenn Jacobs needed a gimmick that would make good use of a his size and power-based style in the ring. There was a lot of reasons for the Kane gimmick to fail, but it ended up working out for the best. It could have been considered too close to The Undertaker’s gimmick, which was well-established by 1997, but instead it got over in spades with the fans.
From then on, The Brothers Of Destruction were one of the biggest commodities in the entire company for roughly a decade after the inception. It was a hallmark WWE gimmick in one of its most profitable eras, and it solidified Jacobs as one of wrestling’s all-time greats.
18. Repo Man (Failed)
Barry Darsow had seen years of success as part of Demolition playing the Smash character, but by the early-’90s the WWE creative team was really struggling to pump out memorable mid-card gimmicks. Repo Man certainly wasn’t one of them, and it made Darsow’s career stagnate from then on. It was the definition of a filler character, and synonymous with the sheer goofiness that was present in WWE at the time.
He had already hit the main event scene with Demolition, so the effect wasn’t that detrimental, but it still remains one of the most ridiculous WWE gimmicks of the early-’90s. A misstep for Darsow’s career, definitely.
17. “Big Poppa Pump” Scott Steiner (Succeeded)
Turning a proven tag wrestler into a generic muscle-head character was always going to be a risk, but it turned out that it was the best version of such a character. Steiner was clearly taking some, err, supplements in order to achieve even more muscle mass to a previously-ripped frame, but it ended up launching him to a somewhat successful singles career in the wake of The Steiner Brothers tag team.
He was able to transfer over to WWE after the folding of WCW under the same character, and did fairly well for a wrestler that was squarely out of his prime. Surprisingly, this turned out to be a good idea, and it gave WCW some desperately needed new main event talent in their dying days.
16. “Macho King” Randy Savage (Failed)
While some of Savage’s best matches cam during this era of his career in the early-’90s, it still wasn’t on par with the character/wrestler combination that he had displayed before and since. The wrestling in-ring was still very good, but Savage as a maniacal heel being managed by Sensational Sherri just seemed weird at the time, and it hasn’t gotten any better with the passing of time.
It was a transitional time for WWE, so it’s not really a surprise that they were willing to take a risk on such a character change. While it did yield some marquee moments, it’s understandable why they repackaged Savage back into “The Macho Man” a short time later. All in all, it was probably a failed experiment, for one of the company’s biggest stars no less.
15. Doink The Clown (Succeeded)
Matt Borne had been wrestling in WWE and WCW for several years in a lower mid-card role, and had done just fine in that capacity. What nobody saw coming, was that he was going to change his character to a maniacal clown as a heel, and that he would actually end up making it work. The key was that Borne was actually a very solid wrestler, so his performance didn’t fall off once he hit the ring. Combined with the “evil clown” mystique, it was an outright success for a period of time in the early-’90s.
No doubt, this shouldn’t have turned out as well as it did. It had “wrestlecrap” written all over it (and Doink’s face version still does), but for some reason Borne was able to pull it off, and Doink as a whole is actually one of the more memorable mid-card character of the early-’90s.
14. Kerwin White (Failed)
To put a great wrestler such as Chavo Guerrero into such a nonsensical and cringeworthy role was one of WWE’s worst moves of the 2000s. The Kerwin White character was not only stupid, it had absolutely no chance of getting over. Weakening one of the biggest stars in the crusierweight division wasn’t a good idea, but it was par for the course considering a lot of what WWE was doing at the time.
After Eddie Guerrero died a short time later, the gimmick was thankfully scraped, so at least management was able to practice some damage control over the whole situation. Still, it was a gimmick that never should have been placed upon Chavo to begin with.
13. Too Cool (Succeeded)
Brian Christopher and Scott Taylor were toiling in the cruiserweight division as singles wrestlers, as well as a stint in the tag division together before they got over with the Too Cool gimmick during The Attitude Era. This was one of WWE’s most well-timed comedic gimmicks, and they didn’t put it on wrestlers who had enough sheer talent to get over by themselves. Exactly how it should be.
Morphing into Scotty 2 Hotty and Grandmaster Sexay, Taylor and Christopher, along with Rikishi, were able to sustain longer careers, and excelled in this role for years. Comedy is needed in wrestling, and Too Cool was a perfect example of how to implement it properly, while not wasting valuable talent.
12. The Sultan (Failed)
Just one in a long line of different gimmicks for Rikishi Fatu, The Sultan was probably the biggest failure of them all, because it was clear that management had high hopes for it. It couldn’t compare to the aforementioned Too Cool in terms of popularity for him, and the intensity paled in comparison to his days in the Samoan Swat Team.
The idea was a botch from the beginning, and Fatu was never able to garner any kind of popularity with the new gimmick. His kayfabe inability to speak aside, he was too close to the Iron Sheik’s persona, and it just never took off. Not surprisingly, it was scrapped in 1998. Fatu would emerge as Rikishi, which ended up being a much better choice of a character.
11. The Godfather (Succeeded)
Charles Wright had toiled in the mid-card as Papa Shango during the early-’90s, and then as Kama as a member of The Nation Of Domination. Both characters were only mildly entertaining at their peak, so it wasn’t expected that a character based on a pimp would do any better in the long run. But miraculously (or maybe not so much, given that it was The Attiude Era), it actually did, and Wright became a massive success.
It was still in a limited capacity, but his entrances were one of the most marquee elements of The Attitude Era’s mid-card, and it remained that way for a long time. Wright struck gold with The Godfather character, and it gave him a career-defining persona.
10. All-American Lex Luger (Failed)
When Hulk Hogan departed WWE in 1993, the company immediately began searching for new stars that could carry the load in the main event scene. Luger was plucked from WCW, and after starting out as a heel in WWE with The Narcissist gimmick, he was eventually repackaged as a patriotic, muscle-bound All-American face character.
Early returns on the idea were good, but it never had the longevity, and Luger never had the sheer charisma to make it work. We had already seen the idea in some form with “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and Sgt. Slaughter, and there was only so much mileage you could get out of such a one-dimensional character. Luger certainly had a good overall career, but in hindsight this gimmick never lived up to expectations.
9. Rapper John Cena (Succeeded)
Early in his WWE career, Cena was just another generic young talent trying to make his way up the ladder. Once the company finally decided that a definable gimmick needed to be applied to him, one that centered around rapping as a white wrestler seemed to be almost career-ending in theory. But somehow, Cena pulled it off, and managed to parlay it into one of the most successful WWE careers we’ve ever seen.
And the character was legitimately entertaining, even if Cena’s wrestling ability didn’t compare with the all-time greats. At the end of the day, WWE has made no bones about the fact that they’re about entertainment over anything else, and this was a testament to that ideology. Cena became one of the most recognizable wrestlers of all-time as a result.
8. Akeem “The African Dream” (Failed)
Truly one of the worst gimmicks of the early-’90s, changing The One Man Gang into Akeem was a move that was destined for failure. Even worse was making him one-half of a tag team with The Big Boss Man of all people, which was perhaps the most unorthodox tandem of the late-’80s.
The whole gimmick was just terrible, and made no sense. The One Man Gang was a reliable heel big-man gimmick that had been shown to garner some heat on a regular basis. The Akeem character was just silly, and it didn’t help that it was abundantly clear that it was just The One Man Gang in a dashiki and other African garb. Definitely an embarrassing character in an era that was full of them.
7. Triple H (Succeeded)
In the mid-’90s, Triple H didn’t have the clout that he does today, and was just another wrestler on the WWE roster trying to make a name for himself. Beginning with the company as Hunter Hearst Helmsley, he was pretty much a shell of what his future character would be. It was a mid-card gimmick, and fine for the time, but after transforming into Triple H as a member of DX, he took the wrestling world by storm.
It was dangerously close to being generic, but the intensity and mic skills of Triple H made him a success fairly quickly. There’s no doubt he had the help of Shawn Michaels, and the DX phenomenon, but he was able to sustain under his new gimmick for years to come, and became one of the best WWE stars of the era.
6. The Ringmaster (Failed)
Instead of letting letting Steve Austin career over his gimmick wholesale from WCW, which had worked very well as a member of The Hollywood Blonds, they gave him a paint-by-numbers Ringmaster gimmick, and made Ted DiBiase his manager when he debuted in 1995. They essentially wanted him to be a carbon copy of DiBiase in his prime. It was so generic, that Austin’s WWE career was over almost before it even began.
The gimmick itself bombed almost immediately, and if it wasn’t for WWE finally letting him have some creative control over his character, we wouldn’t have been able to witness one of the most charismatic WWE stars in history.
5. Mankind (Succeeded)
It was a risk changing Mick Foley’s character when he first came to WWE, because the Cactus Jack character had real name recognition, and had been used in a variety of other promotions up to that point. That was Foley’s brand at the time, and the Mankind character was going to be new territory for him.
Of course, with a wrestling talent like Foley, he was able to pull it off, and it ended up being arguably more successful than the Cactus Jack gimmick when it was all said and done. Foley would switch back and forth between various gimmicks during his time in WWE, but it all started as Mankind, and was able to snowball from there.
4. Saba Simba (Failed)
Tony Atlas had a moment in the 80s when he was one of WWE’s most notable stars in the tag division, along with his partner Rocky Johnson. Substance abuse and unreliability forced an early departure from the company before the end of the decade, but he would return in the early-’90s as a favor by Vince McMahon. The gimmick wasn’t up to snuff, however.
At worst, the Saba Simba character was mildly racist, and at best it was just a ridiculous gimmick, which saw Atlas sporting stereotypical Ugandan tribal garb, and acting accordingly. Not one of the better moments in WWE creative’s history, and unsurprisingly, the gimmick had a short shelf-life until Atlas left the company yet again.
3. The New Hart Foundation (Succeeded)
Reforming The Hart Foundation may have been a questionable decision at the time in 1997, and overloading it with wrestlers who weren’t a part of the original tag team (Brian Pillman, British Bulldog and Owen Hart) was even more risky. As it turned out, it became a premier angle during 1997, and the split allegiances regarding the stable from Canadian and American fans respectively. It was amazingly well done, and garnered a ton of attention.
In the end, it was one of the catalysts that helped springboard WWE into The Attitude Era. Though it may have been Bret Hart’s last hurrah in WWE as a full-time member of the roster, it allowed for one of the best storylines in the history of the business. An unforeseen success it was, and a hallmark of Hart’s career.
2. Stardust (Failed)
In recent history, there hasn’t been quite the WWE career-killer like there was when Cody Rhodes adopted the Stardust character. It should have been reserved for an aging veteran at worst (if it was to be done at all), but creative was adamant about giving Rhodes the gimmick, because of his connection with older brother Dustin Rhodes, who portrays the Goldust character.
Predictably, it did nothing but help to sink Cody and his future in WWE. To give a young, talented wrestler such a ridiculous gimmick is one of the massive failures on WWE’s part in the past several years, especially since Rhodes is now seeing a resurgence on the Indy circuit. It was a terrible waste of talent, and a decision WWE wishes they could have back, without a question.
1. “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair (Succeeded)
Some may not be aware that in the infancy of Flair’s career, he was billed as Rambling Ricky Rhodes, and was essentially destined for the mid-card for the rest of his career as a result. It took a stroke of genius, some obvious talent, and a bit of luck to have “The Nature Boy” character take off, but for reasons that aren’t so obvious in the modern day.
Flair took large portions of the character from a wrestler named “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, as well as his look, finishing move, and mannerisms. At the time, it felt very close to a wholesale ripoff. Thankfully, Flair was able to put his own twist on it, and through the years he’s proven that his gimmick could coexist with (and eventually exceed in popularity) Rogers’, but at the time it was an undeniable risk to copy a wrestler that had seen so much success, as he was a former WWE Champion, and major player in the NWA.
In the end though, Flair prevailed, and was able to take the ideas that Rogers had put forth, and turn them into the backbone of the most successful wrestler we’ve ever seen.
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