Gimmicks, you just can’t escape them. As important a part of pro wrestling as a performer’s moveset or work rate, gimmicks are what sets wrestling apart from any other combat sport; fans get invested in the characters they see on TV, cheering the ones they like, booing the ones they don’t and completely verbally ruining wherever Roman Reigns falls on this scale. Wrestling has produced some pretty great gimmicks over the years – Austin’s pissed-off redneck character, John Cena’s Doctor of Thuganomics and The Undertaker come to mind. Equally, there have been some pretty terrible ones – just ask Mantaur, Bastion Booger and The Gobbledygooker. However, sometimes a wrestler can have both; a terrible gimmick immediately preceding a gimmick that made them a household name.
The following fifteen wrestlers will tell you that is absolutely true, as these famous faces were once associated with some pretty questionable characters before finding the gimmick that made them a star. Hindsight is 20/20, so let’s take a painfully clear look at some of the most embarrassing former gimmicks of wrestling megastars.
15. Kofi Kingston – Kofi The Jamaican
This one is just a little uncomfortable.
Kofi Kingston is having a pretty good time of things at the moment. He’s a member of The New Day, the longest-reigning Tag Team Champions in WWE history and has had a pretty solid career in the WWE, despite never cracking the main event like he perhaps could have done. He’s been United States, Intercontinental and Tag Team Champion on numerous occasions and has gotten to perform in some of WWE’s signature matches, including numerous appearances in the Elimination Chamber and Money in the Bank ladder matches. He’s also famous for his miraculous escapes during the Royal Rumble match. Not that these have helped him win one of those matches, but at least he has fun.
Eagle-eared listeners (that’s not the right phrase, but be quiet) might notice that Kingston is introduced as being from “Ghana, West Africa” in WWE, which is where he was born. However, if you were a fan of the WWE during Kingston’s early years, you’d be mistaken for forgetting he was African at all. For the early part of his career, Kingston was announced as being from, rather unoriginally, “Kingston, Jamaica” and even sported the Jamaican flag on his ring attire and spoke with a faux Jamaican accent. Right. What made things worse was that Kofi was celebrated as “the first Jamaican to ever wrestle for the WWE,” which made things even more awkward when his accent just sort of faded away and everyone had to admit that he was in no way Jamaican and was actually born on a totally different continent. Faking a nationality has often been something WWE superstars have been burdened with – Scott Hall pretending to be Cuban, Yokozuna pretending to be Japanese, etc. – but there is no way this should have still been acceptable in 2008. I’m just glad Kofi has managed to move on to a much better gimmick with The New Day… whatever that gimmick actually is anymore. Does anyone know?
14. Luke Gallows – Fake Kane and Festus
Luke Gallows might have one of the most varied careers of any wrestler ever.
Currently performing as one half of The Club (alongside Karl Anderson) on Monday Night Raw, Luke Gallows is one of the most athletic big men in the world of pro wrestling today. With the WWE, he and Anderson won the Raw Tag Team Championships from Sheamus and Cesaro at Royal Rumble 2017 and carried the titles all the way to WrestleMania, where they lost them in an excellent ladder match featuring Sheamus and Cesaro, Enzo and Cass and the returning Hardy Boyz. Before this, the duo found fame in New Japan Pro Wrestling as members of the popular Bullet Club stable. Gallows – who used the name “Doc” instead of Luke – and Anderson are multi-time IWGP Tag Team Champions and are generally regarded as one of Japan’s most popular foreign tag team, as well being responsible for a lot of the early success of the now-massive Bullet Club. But forget about all the success Gallows has had, let’s have a look at some of his absolutely awful gimmicks, because we are terrible people.
Gallows’ first appearance in the WWE was as Fake Kane in a 2006 storyline that saw the real Kane plagued by voices in his head and, eventually, an imposter dressed in his old red and black ring attire from the Attitude Era. The original plan, so the stories go, was to have Glenn Jacobs retire as Kane and have Gallows take over after it was revealed that the “imposter” was actually the real Kane all along and it was Jacobs that was the fake. However, Jacobs decided he wanted to continue playing the character and the angle (and Gallows’ character) was scrapped.
However, Gallows would return to our screens in 2007 as Festus, the mentally-handicapped hillbilly who would team with Jesse (Ray Gordy, real-life son of Fabulous Freebird Terry Gordy, who probably deserved better than this). The Festus character was a mild success, but it was hardly a good look for the future destroyer, Gallows. To go from playing a fake version of another wrestler to a mentally-handicapped hick to a hugely successful international performer is quite the leap and we should all give kudos for Gallows for pulling it off. Or, we could just make fun of him for playing some stupid characters. Yeah, let’s do that one.
13. Becky Lynch – Irish Dancer
Whatever you make of Becky’s weird Steampunk gimmick, at least it isn’t this.
Becky Lynch has truly been one of WWE’s most revolutionary performers in recent years. Alongside her fellow Four Horsewomen – Charlotte, Sasha Banks and Bayley – Becky completely revolutionised the way female performers were seen in WWE. Building on the good work done by fellow NXT women such as Paige and Emma, The Four Horsewomen delivered hard-hitting, emotional matches that saw fans become invested in female wrestling like never before. Whether in NXT or on the main roster, Lynch put on amazing matches with her fellow Horsewomen and others such as Alexa Bliss and Carmella. She also became the first ever SmackDown Women’s Champion at Backlash 2016, something that truly put her on the map as one of WWE’s greatest female performers. Also, her Irish accent is adorable. Nothing to do with wrestling, just thought I’d let Becky know I appreciate her.
As WWE tends to do, when first presented with the clearly very talented Lynch, they decided to do something very, very silly. Now, I’m no psychic, but I can tell you with some confidence that WWE’s thought process when deciding what Becky’s first gimmick would be went a little something like this – “Hmm, we have a new female performer who’s immensely talented, has a great look and can connect with the fans in a meaningful way… but, she is from Ireland. I know! Forget all that stuff about talent and looks, let’s dress her up in Emerald green, give her some Riverdance entrance music and make her do some Irish dancing on the way to the ring! Genius!” They probably then high-fived themselves and gave themselves all pay-raises. Thankfully, this awful Riverdance gimmick only lasted a little while before the Becky we all know and love started to take shape. At least they only did this to one of their top Irish stars in NXT. I don’t imagine Finn Balor would be half as over as he is now if The Demon King swapped his body paint for sparkly green tights.
12. Edge And Christian – Vampires
Yep, this was real.
Edge and Christian are one of WWE’s most popular tag team acts. The duo, along with The Hardys and The Dudleys, made their names in WWE in the early TLC and tag team ladder matches, putting their bodies on the line in ridiculously dangerous matches that fans ate up like it was gourmet steak. Both men also had successful solo careers; both won world titles in WWE and Edge was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2012 with Christian surely to follow him soon. Unless you believe everything the internet says, in which case Vince McMahon hates Christian and wants him to spend the rest of his life in abject misery. The internet is a silly place.
Before all this, however, Edge and Christian had a very, very different place in WWE. The duo originally found fame as members of The Brood alongside Gangrel. The gimmick of this stable was that they lived, as the WWE put it at the time, “a gothic lifestyle,” but the real story behind these characters was that they were vampires. Yep. Actual, factual vampires that drank blood and slept in a crypt. And if you think I’m joking, one of their signature moves was to give people a “bloodbath,” which meant drenching them in a red liquid that was supposed to be blood. WWE went full-on cosplay with this stable and it was weird as.
Despite the weirdness, The Brood were actually quite successful, gaining prominence when they joined forces with The Undertaker and his Ministry of Darkness stable in the late-’90s, before splitting in late 1999. Edge and Christian did incredibly well to overcome being “the dudes that pretended to be brothers AND vampires” and, looking back at this awful early run for the team, it’s amazing they managed to win anything after The Brood split up, let alone go on to become two of WWE’s most successful performers. It’s inspiring, really, but it’s also quite stupid.
11. Victoria – Godfather’s “Head Ho”
Let’s all take this moment to remember that there is man who was famous for playing an actual pimp in the WWE Hall of Fame. No wonder some people don’t let their kids watch wrestling.
Victoria is arguably one of the most successful female performers of the last fifteen years. With the WWE, she won the Women’s Championship twice and successfully defended the title at WrestleMania XX in a hair vs championship match against Molly Holly and in TNA, under the name Tara, she was one of the company’s most prolific female wrestlers, winning the Knockouts Championship (TNA’s version of the women’s title) five times. That’s pretty impressive, no matter what you think of TNA.
Victoria’s illustrious career, like everyone else on this list, did not start in the most illustrious of circumstances. She made her first WWE appearance in the early 2000s, not as a wrestler, but as a, umm, well, I wish I could put this better, but I can’t… she was a “ho.” To give a little context, The Godfather was a pretty popular wrestler in the Attitude Era. The character was, plain and simple, a pimp and, to get this across to the fans, he would often be accompanied to the ring by a string of beautiful women in skimpy outfits. One of these women was Victoria, who was known as the “head ho,” which is nice, I guess. Victoria actually gained a bit of fame from this role as, when The Godfather abandoned his sinful ways and became The Goodfather as part of PG-stable Right to Censor, he solidified this transition by delivering a powerbomb to one of his hos. This ho was, as you might have guessed, Victoria. Don’t expect that to be in her video package if you she gets inducted into the Hall of Fame, though.
10. The Rock – Rocky Maivia
Can ya smellllllllll… this awful gimmick? Because this really stank.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is arguably the most successful pro wrestler of all time, thanks to his massive success outside of the ring. After an extremely successful in-ring career, The Rock turned his hand to the world of acting and is now one of Hollywood’s biggest names, as well as the highest-paid actor in the world. So, yeah, he’s not done too badly, all things considered. The Rock’s character, a trash-talking, catchphrase-spitting jock, is one of wrestling’s most popular, even to this day when he makes sporadic appearances on WWE TV. So powerful is this gimmick, that Rock can literally do anything he wants on WWE TV and still be invited back to host WrestleMania. Seriously, he spoke to a man dressed as Hulk Hogan on an episode of Raw, even though WWE had completely blacklisted the Hulkster at this point. The man is untouchable.
Like his greatest opponent, Steve Austin, The Rock’s WWE career also began with one of the blandest gimmicks of all time. Debuting at Survivor Series 1996, Rocky Maivia, as he was then known (this was a combination of both his father and grandfather’s ring names), was a boring, cut-and-paste, “I’m so happy to be here” babyface, with no discernible characteristics and a ring attire that made look more like an elaborate lampshade than a future world champion. The fans also turned on this character; Maivia was often met with chants of “Die Rocky Die” and fan signs of a similar nature, which is shocking considering how over the man playing the character would become one day. Luckily, Rocky Maivia did die in the summer of 1997, when the character turned heel and joined The Nation of Domination, officially calling himself “The Rock.” This goes to prove that The Rock wasn’t exactly true every time he said “it doesn’t matter what your name is” – turns out it actually matters quite a lot.
9. Road Dogg – The Roadie
As if we needed any more reasons to dislike Jeff Jarrett.
“Road Dogg” Jesse James, real name Brian James, was one of the most recognisable faces of WWE’s Attitude Era. Alongside his partner, Billy Gunn, he formed The New Age Outlaws, one of WWE’s most popular tag teams ever. Their outrageous antics and alliance with D-Generation X led to The Outlaws being placed in a number of high-profile matches and angles, including several reigns with the World Tag Team Championships and a top-notch Dumpster match with Cactus Jack and Chainsaw Charlie at WrestleMania XIV. Road Dogg is also a former Intercontinental and Hardcore Champion and now holds a pretty substantial backstage position as a producer and creative force for the WWE. You might think that this has something to do with him being good pals with Triple H, but if you do think that, then you’ll probably end up suffering a mysterious, sledgehammer-related accident.
Before he was introducing himself to audiences in the most long-winded way possible, Road Dogg got his big break in the WWE aligning himself with everyone’s favourite cowboy and gold salesman, Jeff Jarrett. As The Roadie, the future Outlaw would act as an assistant to Jarrett during his wannabe country singer phase. As you can imagine, this made Dogg look about as threatening as a kitten playing with a balloon and was about as far-removed from the edgy, gritty persona that he would create as a member of The Outlaws. A feud was planned for the two, where it would be revealed that one of Jarrett’s, ahem, “hits” – entitled “With My Baby Tonight” – was actually sung by The Roadie, however, Jarrett left the WWE before this could be announced. Road Dogg then spent a while away from WWE, before returning under the name Jesse James and entering a feud with The Honky Tonk Man and his protege, Rockabilly – the former and future Billy Gunn. One thing led to another, and, eventually, The Outlaws were born, but not before Road Dogg thoroughly humiliated himself playing assistant to Double J. Side note, I actually quite liked “With My Baby Tonight.” I’d buy a Road Dogg album, not even joking.
8. Batista – Deacon Batista
Dave Bautista: former world champion, hugely popular wrestler, megastar actor… and member of the clergy? What?
Batista was one of the biggest stars in WWE throughout the latter half of the 2000s. His enormous size and power made him look like an unbeatable monster and his performance skills allowed him to create a personality that millions of fans worldwide could get behind. He won numerous championships in the WWE, including both the WWE and World Heavyweight Championships, as well as numerous tag team titles, high-profile matches against the likes of Triple H, John Cena, The Undertaker and more and two Royal Rumble matches. Although it’s probably best not to remind anybody about the second win, people were not happy with that at the time.
Before he became “The Animal,” Batista’s character in WWE was a little more tame, a little more restricted, a little more… divine. After The Dudley Boyz split in 2002, D-Von took on the new persona of Reverend D-Von, a holy man with a penchant for kicking ass and a pretty awesome theme song. To help him in his conquests, D-Von enlisted the help of one his flock, a Deacon by the name of, you guessed it, Batista. As Deacon Batista, the future Guardians of the Galaxy star would accompany the Reverend to the ring, hold a collection box menacingly (yes, that is possible) and provide back-up should his holy superior call for it. The gimmick was an interesting look for the future megastar and is not something that was brought up much following his eventually split from D-Von. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with being religious, a Deacon isn’t exactly the most terrifying profession and, when you’re capable of the things Batista is, a bad look could have ended his promising career before it even began. And that is the gospel truth.
7. Kevin Nash – Oz
Diesel didn’t really have a character, did he. He was just sort of… tall.
I’ve never really been sure about Kevin Nash. On one hand, he’s responsible for one of the most influential and popular stables of all time – the New World Order – and helped revolutionise pro wrestling. On the other, he was also Diesel, one of the worst WWE Champions of all time, and his backstage politicking was one of the main reasons WCW crashed and burned in its final years. Whatever you make of him, Nash is still one of the most decorated performers of all time and a legendary figure within the world of pro wrestling. And, you know, it’s not like, oh, I dunno, he used to wrestle as The Wizard of Oz… oh, hang on a second.
Yes, you read that correctly, during Nash’s first run in WCW in 1991, he wrestled under the name of Oz. He’d come down to the ring in a big green cape and hat, a fake beard and silver hair, looking the runner-up in a junior high Halloween costume contest. Amazingly, WCW decided to push this monstrosity of a gimmick for a while, until contract disputes with Nash led to a repackage in early 1992. Whilst Nash has accomplished a lot in his time in the business, it is important that we, as fans, never forget this absolute atrocity of a character. It’s either this, or we make quad-tearing jokes, you choose, Kevin.
6. Al Snow – Leif Cassidy
Whilst this gimmick was all that weird, it’s weird to someone as odd as Al Snow playing it.
Al Snow may not have the biggest collection of championships with the WWE, but he certainly made an impression on the fans. Snow’s character was a deranged madman, who would hear voices, behave erratically and generally be a bit weird. He was most famous for his inanimate companion, Head, who was, well, a head (a severed mannequin head, before you start worrying). Snow’s most famous catchphrase was to ask the audience “what does everybody want?” to which they would reply “Head!” And if you’re too young to get that joke, ask your parents, I’m sure they’d be happy to explain.
Before his screws came thoroughly loose, Al Snow had a stint in the mid-’90s as Leif Cassidy, which we guess was a hybrid of ’70s pop stars Leif Garrett and Shaun Cassidy. As Cassidy, Snow was partnered with Marty Jannetty to form The New Rockers, a reference to Jannetty’s former team with Shawn Michaels, The Rockers. Now, as many wrestling fans will tell you, putting the word “New” in something in wrestling is rarely ever a good idea; The New Hart Foundation, The New Midnight Express, The New Generation, none of these things are looked back with fondness and The New Rockers were no exception to this rule.
The duo were goofy to the point of annoying and it was really quite upsetting to see someone as talented as Jannetty reduced to clinging onto the successes of his past, whilst his former partner went on to have one of the greatest WWE careers of all time. The Leif Cassidy run lasted only a few years for Snow, but it was enough to well and truly kill the name of The Rockers and ensure that the Leif Cassidy name died with it. Whilst everybody may have wanted Head, nobody wanted this awful throwback.
5. Triple H – The Connecticut Blueblood
Rather surprisingly, a man with the nickname “Triple H” has had some silly gimmicks in his time.
The modern-day Triple H is one of the most titanic figures in modern day wrestling, both in the ring and behind the scenes. As a wrestler, he’s a multi-time World Champion, multi-time WrestleMania main eventer, a guaranteed Hall of Famer one day and he once fought Scott Steiner in a push-up competition. Truly a legendary career. Backstage, Triple H is also a force to be reckoned with. As the husband of Stephanie McMahon (and, by proxy, son-in-law of Vince McMahon), Triple H has huge sway when it comes to creative decisions. He is responsible for a lot of the early success of the NXT brand and a lot of recent WWE superstars have thanked The Game for helping them in their WWE careers. Triple H helping out young stars, oh, how things change.
When Triple H first appeared on WWE TV, he was still the same character, but by name only. He arrived on the scene in 1995 as Hunter Hearst Helmsley, a rich, snobbish blueblood from the wealthy area of Greenwich, Connecticut. The character was a highly-stereotypical rich heel gimmick, with Helmsley looking down on those he deemed lesser than himself and wearing elaborate costumes when making his way down to the ring. Whilst the ring heel character isn’t the worst in wrestling, it’s very strange to see a future Hall of Famer dress up in stupid clothes, spray himself with perfume and recoil at the sight of “poor people.” Also, this is the gimmick that took on Henry Godwinn in a Hog Pen match. If you don’t know what that is, just look it up on YouTube, you won’t regret it.
4. Dolph Ziggler – Nicky
Poor Dolph, you really haven’t had an easy time in WWE, have you?
The character of Dolph Ziggler debuted in WWE in 2008 with the character of, umm, someone who liked introducing himself. That was it, really. Over the years, the character went through numerous alterations, going from self-obsessed jock to impassioned fan favourite. With this character, Ziggler has been a multi-time Intercontinental, United States and World Heavyweight Champion, as well as a Money in the Bank ladder match winner. All in all, he’s done well for himself. In fact, he deserves a big cheer. If only we had a group of male cheerleaders…
In 2006, Ziggler appeared on WWE TV for the first time, but he did so under the name Nicky, a play on Dolph’s real name of Nicholas Nemeth. Nicky was one fifth of The Spirit Squad, a goofy heel stable of male cheerleaders who would interfere in matches on behalf of numerous heels, including Vince McMahon. The team actually won the World Tag Team Championships in 2006, giving Dolph his only tag team championship in WWE (under the Freebird Rule), but their reign was nothing to shout about. The gimmick was killed off in late-2006 and Ziggler would return to WWE under his most famous guise.
Whilst The Spirit Squad did get over as heels, the gimmick was still silly and the other four members of the group failed to overcome this and achieve any lasting success in WWE. It’s a testament to Ziggler’s talent and perseverance that he has managed to make something of himself. Also, before I get any heat in the comments, there is nothing wrong with being a male cheerleader. Absolutely nothing. Nothing at all. Honest.
3. Kane – Isaac Yankem, DDS
Oh, Glenn Jacobs, you’ve played so many bad characters.
Very few wrestlers can say they have played the same character as Glenn Jacobs, the man who has portrayed Kane since 1997. His character has taken multiple twist and turns; from his original run as the fire-spouting demon, to a goofy comedy character, to rampaging monster and Director of Operations for the WWE. Basically, Kane is the perfect example of why continuity doesn’t exist in wrestling.
Before Jacobs began playing the half-brother of The Undertaker, he portrayed a number of different characters, both in WWE and in other promotions. The most memorable one was probably Jerry Lawler’s sadistic personal dentist, Isaac Yankem, DDS. Do you get it – I. Yankem. I. Yank. Them. As in, teeth. D’you get it? Please say you get it. Anyway, Yankem made a few appearances as part of Lawler’s feud with Bret Hart in 1995, including a match against Hart at that year’s SummerSlam. Despite this pretty impressive feat, the character was still goofy as all hell (because, you know, he was an evil dentist) and didn’t last very long. The gimmick was retired shortly after this and Glenn Jacobs would go on to bigger and better things. Actually, he’d first go on to play “Fake Diesel” in one of the stupidest angles of all time, but after that he got to be Kane, so it all worked out.
2. Steve Austin – The Ringmaster
Seriously, what was WWE thinking?
As any self-respecting wrestling fan should know, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin is arguably the most famous and important wrestler of all time. His antics on WWE TV during the Attitude Era were what drew millions of viewers to Monday Night Raw every week, eventually sealing the demise of WCW and allowing WWE to become the biggest wrestling company in the world. The character that helped Austin to do this – a bitter, bad-ass redneck who drank, cursed and took no nonsense from anyone – is how a lot of wrestling fans see Steve today, but it might come as a surprise that this is not how Austin was first portrayed in the WWE.
After a pretty successful run in WCW as “Stunning” Steve Austin (with a full head of hair, nonetheless), Austin arrived in WWE in 1995. Austin’s dismissal from WCW had led to a lot of pent-up anger in the future Rattlesnake, which he would eventually channel to create the “Stone Cold” gimmick. However, this was not how he was first seen by a WWE crowd. He debuted as “The Ringmaster,” a member of Ted DiBiase’s Million Dollar Corporation. There wasn’t really much of a gimmick to The Ringmaster, past the fact that he didn’t really talk all that much. Yep, the man who came up with “Austin 3:16,” one of the greatest wrestling promos ever, on the spot wasn’t allowed to speak by WWE. Good move there, WWE, good move. Thankfully, this bland character would die shortly after and Austin would be able to craft his most recognisable character, but just think what would have happened had Austin been lumbered with The Ringmaster gimmick for his whole career. Let’s just say I don’t see The Ringmaster ever drowning Vince McMahon in beer.
1. John Cena – The Prototype
Yes kids, there was once a time where John Cena wasn’t the America-loving, Make-a-Wish-granting, mega good guy that he is today. Shocking, I know.
Where to begin with John Cena? A record-tying 16-time World Champion, a multiple-time WrestleMania main eventer, a two-time Royal Rumble winner, a former Mr. Money in the Bank, the most Make-a-Wish wishes granted ever, an internationally recognisable face, a promising movie star and he’s engaged to Nikki freakin’ Bella. John Cena literally has it all – I mean literally. Can you imagine waking up every morning and remembering you’re John Cena? That must be the best feeling ever. I’m so jealous.
It seems like John Cena might be the perfect example of a human being, which is funny when you consider that his first WWE gimmick was exactly that. During his days in Ultimate Pro Wrestling and WWE’s developmental system, Ohio Valley Wrestling (OVW), Cena was known as “The Prototype,” a supposed-cyborg character who had robotic enhancements to make him, quote on quote, “the perfect man.” You read that right – John Cena, one of the greatest professional wrestlers to ever lace a pair of boots, once pretended he was part-robot. If that’s not funny, I don’t know what is.
If this list has taught you anything, it’s that even the silliest of early gimmicks can lead to an incredible wrestling career and this is no clearer than in the case of John Cena. So who knows, maybe we’ll all look back and laugh at James Ellsworth’s early gimmick on the day he becomes a 26-time world champion. Then again, maybe not.
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