Niche industry though it is, in order to succeed in the sports entertainment business, a wrestler needs to feel cutting edge, or at the very least fresh and up-to-date. There are plenty of wrestling characters that have worked in every era, because the athletes performing them were inventive personalities who could react to whatever society threw at them. That said, it takes the right performer to ensure a mere gimmick turns into a full character.
Pure gimmicks can occasionally work in the short term, but they run the risk of falling out of the spotlight as soon as whatever popular trend to inspire the character fades away. In light of constantly changing social fads created by an unpredictable public, there have been certain wrestlers who proved especially adept at regularly scrapping their characters entirely and building a new gimmick from the ground up.
Argue all you want that the characters strong enough to withstand the test of time created better wrestlers overall; the effort of a chameleonic performer is nonetheless impressive and worthy of attention in whatever field they arise. On the downside, many of the athletes to become known for their strong gimmick work also weren’t particularly great in the ring, showing there are clearly pros and cons to judging wrestling careers through acting skills alone. For better or for worse, keep reading to learn about 15 pro wrestlers who never stopped reinventing themselves.
15 Chris Jericho
In the modern era of WWE, no wrestler has managed to age as gracefully as Chris Jericho. He won his first major American title over 20 years ago when he became the ECW TV Champion, and has gone on to win countless more in WCW, WWE, and various other companies around the world. Making things more impressive, he’s done it all with a number of brilliant and difficult to describe gimmicks that all come down to one fact: Jericho is one of the best mic workers the industry has ever seen. He can sell himself as a smiling goofball, an annoying whiner, a pretentious intellectual, or a hipster dad, all in the manner of a few carefully chosen words, phrased like only he can. In the ring, Jericho has also managed to adapt with the times introducing new moves that fit sports entertainment trends as they happen, a practice that could make him remain a star for years to come.
While he’s gotten pretty complacent since hitting the announce desk, back when Bradshaw was still wrestling, he was the definition of a performing willing to try anything until he found something that worked. Cowboy clichés that dominated his first few gimmicks in the WWE Universe, which he spent as a solo act and in short-lived tag teams with Barry Windham, Terry Funk, and Taka Michinoku. Bradshaw’s career turned around when he started to show his adaptability, dropping his cowboy act for a more sinister type of evil, forming the Acolytes with Faarooq and joining The Undertaker’s Ministry of Darkness. Faarooq helped him find his funny side when they left Undertaker to become general bodyguards as The APA, and when that team broke up, he found his greatest success yet by digging into a wealthy egomaniac persona, JBL. These days, the JBL shtick is starting to run a little thin, so it might be time he reinvents himself again on the commentary booth.
With his massive frame and impressive height making him a one-of-a-kind attraction, Nelson Frazier could have made a name for himself in wrestling using his real name and very little extra effort. Critics may argue that’s basically what he did, but that’s ignoring his several dichotomous and unique gimmicks, all of which he definitely deserves some sort of credit for. He made his WWE debut as a hip hop hippo in a tag team called Men on a Mission, along with manager Oscar and partner Mo. This was already a departure from his and Mo’s pre-WWE tag team, The Harlem Knights, an angry monster persona that would reappear when M.O.M. turned heel. Next up Mabel became a King, and after Mo left he left the throne behind to serve The Undertaker as Viscera. His true range was revealed when he became the World Largest Love Machine, followed by his career wrapping up as Big Daddy V, a slightly nuanced version of his earlier monster character.
12 The Godfather
One thing this list is going to prove again and again is that wrestler can have plenty of gimmicks without ever achieving a particularly high level of success. All they need is one of them to take off, though, and that can be enough to wind up in the WWE Hall of Fame. Case in point, The Godfather, who wrestled with quite a few other gimmicks in WWE and other companies that were more worthy of WrestleCrap than any sort of honorary institution. First there was the voodoo priest Papa Shango, then the would-be MMA fighter who clearly had no idea how to strike, Kama Mustafa. His friendship with The Undertaker gave him more and more shots, and he finally found something that suited his charisma when he became a pimp named The Godfather. Leaving the lifestyle behind and going heel as The Goodfather wasn’t a bad idea, either, allowing him to stay relevant by doing the exact opposite act he became popular for.
11 Matt Hardy
Flying around the ring with boyish good looks, all either of the Hardy Boys had to do to make crowds lose their minds was take of their shirts. The older and perhaps wiser of the two, Matt Hardy must have realized that would only work when they were kids, because he’s been coming up with unique gimmicks since their tag team split in WWE circa 2002. Perhaps inspired by his brother pouring paint all over his body, Matt also decided to get pretty weird with it. He started demurely enough, creating a cult of personality around Matt Hardy, Version One. Personal problems began plaguing from there, including a love triangle with Lita, leading to a number of decent if unoriginal redemption and comeback gimmicks. More recently, however, Matt’s skill at reinvention has increased his profile to perhaps its highest level yet, feeding into his most bizarre tendencies to create the “Broken” version of himself omnipresent in modern TNA.
10 Ed Leslie
Unlike the other wrestlers on this list who retained a few defining characteristics no matter what their gimmick happened to be, the one constant driving throughout Ed Leslie’s career actually happened backstage. From the time his career began, Leslie has been Hulk Hogan’s best friend, meaning the Hulkster has demanded his buddy get employed virtually everywhere he worked while he took over the wrestling world. Unfortunately, Leslie possesses none of Hogan’s magnetic energy, and thus needed to rely on no less than 18 different gimmicks to justify his paycheck. In addition to his most popular creation, Brutus Beefcake, Leslie has also gone by names like Brute Force, The Booty Man, The Disciple, The Butcher, The Zodiac, The Man With No Name, and a half dozen names implying he was Hulk Hogan’s brother. It should go without saying that none of these took off, and yet Brother Bruti still occasionally hits the ring today, presumably using whatever gimmick the indys will let him.
The eldest grandson of a plumber, Dustin Rhodes was predestined for pro wrestling greatness from birth. Unlike his legendary father Dusty, however, Dustin has become famous not using the family name, but rather by painting himself like an Oscar statue and calling himself Goldust. Before that, there were a few years as a tough kid doing his daddy proud before then in WCW, and the persona would come back a few times both in and out of WWE. Even when he was using his real name and making regular references to Dusty, Dustin did so in such clever and creative ways he always felt like a unique performer, far from a mere imitation. On the downside, the creativity doesn’t always mean a good thing – his runs as Seven and Black Reign as both seriously embarrassing, proving even the best chameleons are occasionally missing a few colors.
It makes sense that wrestlers would stop adapting once they find something that works, and because of this Raven has arguably been the textbook representation of Generation X for a little bit too long now. Even so, it was an absolutely perfect for the time, part of the driving force that made him the best ECW Champion of his era. Raven was so good at being a misanthropic, disaffected, wrestling version of an alternative rock star that fans forgot he was typically a smiling goofball before then, in both WCW and WWE. He worked for Turner first, wrestling as a highflying former Light Heavyweight Champion named Scotty Flamingo. When he jumped to WWE, Vince McMahon made him a spoiled rich kid manager named Johnny Polo. Elements of the spoiled rich kid would come back up when Raven went to WCW. While his best years are behind him, Raven still has what it takes on the microphone to adapt his stories and gimmicks for the modern day whenever he shows up on independents.
7 The Miz
Sign of the times or not, its still a little jarring to fans of The Real World that season 10’s loudmouth Mike Mizanin is now one of the most decorated superstars in the WWE Universe. On the surface level, it might be argued that Miz’s character hasn’t really changed much since his debut, the fact he’s a media personality outside of wrestling always being the crux of his character. On the other hand, Miz has shown a great deal of range in terms of what role WWE wants him to play, and he’s been consistently and impressively adept at virtually everything they’ve asked him to do (his debut appearance where he forgot his lines notwithstanding). Subtle details have been added to Miz’s persona with each title win, movie appearance, and partnership, the best of which being his current power couple with his real life wife, Maryse.
6 Mike Shaw
Most of the wrestlers to appear on this list eventually found fame with their gimmicks, but adaptability doesn’t always mean a wrestler will definitely catch on with their audience. Mike Shaw is infamous for having a large number of gimmicks that didn’t amount to anything, most of them more embarrassing than showing any particular potential for greatness. His career began in Canada, where he was moderately successful as Makhan Singh. What looked like a career break nearly destroyed him when Shaw jumped to WCW and became escaped mental prisoner Norman the Lunatic. Increasingly reductive and offensive gimmicks followed, including Trucker Norm in WCW and then Friar Ferguson in WWE. Last came Bastion Booger, such a literally disgusting and offensive gimmick that whatever talent Shaw possessed in the ring at the start of his career is almost entirely forgotten today. He left WWE less than a year after the character debuted, and followed his career crumbling on the independent scene.
5 Stevie Richards
Believe it or not, there was once a point in time when ECW diehards were heralding Stevie Richards as the next Shawn Michaels. Though he never quite achieved his full potential, Richards etched a rather decent career for himself, at least considering he got his start as a comedy character who defined the term “clueless putz.” Somehow, he went from a joke to the most popular face in ECW, turning on Raven and leading the bWo, at once a defiant hero-type and still showing signs of silliness. The comedy went away entirely when Stevie signed with WWE in 1999 and earned his greatest exposure yet, leading the conservative Right to Censor. He added dozens of Hardcore Championships to his resume when he changed gimmicks again by pairing with Victoria and showing signs of insanity. In a twist on that craziness, his TNA character made him a therapist, Dr. Stevie. Now that he’s a little older, Richards has been appearing in Ring of Honor as a veteran out to prove he has one run left in him.
4 Barry Darsow
Upon first glance, Barry Darsow might look like one of the most obscure names on this list. Check out a few of his gimmick names, though, and some memories are probably going to come to mind: Krusher Khruschev, Repo Man, and biggest of all, Smash of Demolition. Those are just the big ones, too – we can’t forget The Blacktop Bully or Mr. Hole-In-One. Not everyone can go from a Russian turncoat to a calmly golf enthusiast, and Darsow did it so well people forgot anything strange was going on until well after the fact. The truth is, Darsow rarely got much mic time when he wasn’t in a tag team, but he might not have needed it. In all of his gimmicks, secret weapon was always his extremely expressive face, which he could always adapt to his strange characters in a believable and natural way.
In his own words, Kane “grew up locked in a basement,” “buried his brother alive twice,” “set a couple people on fire,” trapped his “father” Paul Bearer in a meat locker, and has “an unhealthy fascination with torturing Pete Rose.” And that’s just the most popular gimmick Glenn Jacobs has happened to use. Before hailing from hellfire and brimstone, the future Devil’s Favorite Demon was a fighting Christmas tree, Al Snow’s tag team partner, Jerry Lawler’s evil dentist, and Jim Ross’s fake Diesel. It would be one thing if his shifting personalities stopped when Kane became a superstar, but the amazing thing is that he keeps evolving. It’s hard to imagine most of the gimmicks on this list leading way to a corporate makeover, and Kane made that work, so there’s no limit to what he might turn into if WWE decides to keep him employed for years to come.
2 Triple H
There are a number of ways to look at Triple H’s rise from a blueblood rookie who couldn’t wrestle his way out of the midcard to the heir apparent to the sports entertainment industry as we know it. To a fan of his, it was hard work paying off, adapting to the world at large and his increasing power as time went on. To a critic, its egomania and favoritism gone out of control, with a limited performer gifted with opportunities he doesn't deserve anymore because of his marriage. Either way, the fact remains Triple H has evolved plenty from his days as Hunter Hearst Helmsely (not to mention Jean Paul Levesque), going from a King to a Degenerate to a King of Kings to a COO. If he has his way, a title like CEO or Owner could easily be in his future, reinventing himself again and/or rewriting history while he does it.
1 Vince McMahon
A number of athletes on this list retained large pieces of their personalities even as their gimmicks were constantly changing. More than anyone else, Vince McMahon hasn’t changed much in the near 50 years he’s been on television – he loves the pro wrestling business, and he has more power over it than anyone else could even imagine. His character hasn’t changed much, either, from a mild-mannered announcer for decades and then a blowhard boss, for a few more decades. What makes him a lock for this list anyway is that he oversaw practically every gimmick change on the list, and hundreds if not thousands of others that were all necessary to save outdated wrestlers from losing their careers. WWE itself has shown chameleonic tendencies, naming eras in honor of Rock and Wrestling, the New Generation, Attitude, and now Linda’s mandate the company will be PG. Vince will no doubt continue doing his best to adapt his company for as long as he lives, almost incidentally helping his employees do the same as he does so.