World Wrestling Entertainment is a promotion with a history of wanting to control different aspects of a performer’s career. Most notably, the company will often rename a wrestler so that it can make money off a name it has trademarked and also so that performer cannot use the gimmick in a different organization such as Ring of Honor, Impact Wrestling or New Japan Pro Wrestling. Kevin Owens, Finn Balor, Sami Zayn, Asuka, Seth Rollins and Neville are all recent examples of wrestlers who built their reputations outside of the WWE and who were known by different names until they were given a new label working for the biggest promotion in North America. It’s actually somewhat astonishing, and refreshing, a Superstar such as A.J. Styles was allowed to continue to work by that name after joining the WWE last year.
With that said, a plethora of individuals over the years have used their real names for their WWE characters. Some had to change those names, over time, while others merely needed to make small changes, such as a spelling adjustment, in order to appease the company’s front office or, maybe, the promotion’s chairman. The emergence of the NXT brand has resulted in the WWE relaxing these types of rules and restrictions, and the hope is that trend will continue, over time, so that acts who are familiar with fans who follow the independent wrestling and other organizations will be able to keep their names long after they sign with the WWE. Hey, it worked for CM Punk. Imagine if the WWE would’ve given him some generic name before he debuted for the old ECW brand. Yuck.
16 Paul Wight
Depending on your age, you may have never witnessed the man formerly known as The Giant in World Championship Wrestling who currently goes by The Big Show in the WWE work under his real name in any wrestling promotion.
Somewhat humorously, the WWE seemingly didn’t know what to do with the big man after signing him to a lucrative contract, so he performed under his real name, Paul Wight, during his early days in the promotion, most notably on the night when he launched Stone Cold Steve Austin through a cage. The larger-than-life athlete then went by “Big Nasty” Paul Wight for a time before he was finally renamed to The Big Show. We’re not gonna lie; Big Show is a much better name, and we’re glad the WWE gave it to him.
Upon looking back, the WWE has allowed a handful of noteworthy women wrestle and perform under their real names throughout the company’s history. Maryse, who went by her full name, Maryse Ouellet, for a period of time, is one example. The company never renamed her during the Diva Search portion of her career, and she was allowed to retain her name until the conclusion of her first stint with the promotion and upon her return.
Marrying The Miz, who, coincidentally, goes by a shortened version of his actual name, didn’t change her status in the eyes of WWE writers, and it appears Maryse will always be Maryse so long as she has a job in the promotion. We hope the WWE doesn’t attempt to rename the couple’s child, who may make a television debut at some point in 2018.
One would assume, knowing how the WWE thinks about these types of things, that somebody within the creative portion of the promotion would’ve wanted to change the name “Layla El” even before the former Diva debuted on television. That was not the case, however, and Layla was allowed to perform under her real name during her entire stint with the company.
Layla may not have been the most impressive athlete early into her career, but she did well to work on her craft and evolve into a solid wrestler and an even better character. We miss the team of Laycool, but we do have to credit the promotion for giving us a 2017 version of that gimmick via the Iconic Duo. For what it’s worth, neither of the women in that team wrestle with their real names in WWE.
13 Shelton Benjamin
Not every noteworthy athlete who achieved success in amateur wrestling on the college scene was able to wrestle under his real name in the WWE — Jack Swagger immediately comes to mind — but some have kept their names for the entirety of their careers. Shelton Benjamin, along with another wrestler featured in this piece, was a legitimate sports champion long before he signed for the WWE, and the promotion kept his real name as part of his gimmick during his time in developmental until he debuted on the main roster.
Benjamin returned to the WWE in 2017, again under his real name, and he has been a solid hand as part of the SmackDown roster. Maybe he’ll be given a brief run as a singles worker before he and the company part ways a final time.
12 Jerry Lawler
Granted, we’ve always known this living legend of the industry as “The King,” but Jerry Lawler was Jerry Lawler well before he became pro wrestling royalty in Memphis or anywhere else, for that matter. It’s actually difficult to imagine Lawler performing under any other name at any point of his career.
Think about his historic feud with actor Andy Kaufman. That would’ve been all the more silly and, in some ways, unbelievable had Lawler not worked under his real name or if Kaufman would’ve had to pretend to be somebody else. The WWE probably would’ve gotten this storyline wrong in one way or another because of wanting to have its hands on different aspects of the feud. Those of you who’ve never re-lived it should do so via the glory of the Internet.
11 Shinsuke Nakamura
Wrestling fans who commonly post in forums and on social medial platforms joked about what ridiculous name the WWE would give to the charismatic Shinsuke Nakamura before he officially debuted in NXT in 2016. To the surprise and delight of those who followed his career for a decade, Nakamura remained Nakamura on his first night in NXT up through the start of his tenure on the SmackDown brand.
The WWE has to put its brand on almost everything, however, so announcers have referred to him as “The Artist known as Shinsuke Nakamura” in 2017. While this can be annoying, particularly for viewers who watched Nakamura have tremendous feuds overseas, it’s a little thing we can ignore. Anytime this bothers you, just remember the company could’ve given Nakamura some generic full-time name.
10 Bret Hart
If you’re anything like us, you may have actually missed that members of the famous Hart wrestling family performed under their real names in the WWE. Bret Hart went by the nicknames “The Hitman” and “The Excellence of Execution,” but he remained Bret Hart during his time in the WWE, WCW and elsewhere around the world.
Hart was one of the best overall workers of his generation, and it’s likely he would’ve gotten over with audiences regardless of what the WWE called him once he joined that promotion. That he was able to work under his real name, which he used in Canada well before he signed for the WWE, provided more legitimacy to his character. One would think Vince McMahon and others would remember this before renaming talented wrestlers in 2017.
9 Michelle McCool
Mrs. Undertaker started off her WWE career with a "hot teacher" gimmick, managing K.C. James and Idol Stevens (aka Damien Sandow) before forging her own path as a serious female competitor. McCool would make history when she became the inaugural WWE Divas Champion, as well as becoming the first ever woman to hold both that title and the WWE Women's Championship. Following a great run as part of Laycool (with Layla), Michelle would retire, focusing on building her family with The Deadman.
You would think a name like "McCool" was a fabrication of some WWE writer, but no, Michelle was born with it, and it served her well in the industry she decided to join.
8 Matt and Jeff Hardy
Other than the times when they worked as anonymous jobbers unknown to the majority of even diehard fans, Matt and Jeff Hardy wrestled under their real names throughout their WWE careers. Even when they used their “BROKEN” gimmicks in Impact Wrestling, the duo remained true to their backgrounds.
Matt, of course, was “BROKEN Matt,” and Jeff played the role of “Brother Nero,” a clever reference to his actual middle name. Heading into 2018, Matt and Jeff are still legally not allowed to portray the characters they made famous in 2016, which is downright ridiculous considering the state of Impact Wrestling this holiday season. We are still holding out hope that we’ll see BROKEN Matt and Brother Nero before they leave the WWE for good at some point down the road.
7 Harley Race
This is one you may not realize just because you might have automatically assumed he must’ve used a fake name throughout his incredible Hall of Fame career. Harley Race is, in fact, the wrestler’s actual name, and it’s the name he used during historic feuds with the likes of “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. While he had some silly nicknames after joining the WWE such as “Handsome” Harley and a forgettable run as the “King” Harley Race, he retained his real name until he hung his wrestling boots up for good.
Race also used that same name when he managed performers such as Lex Luger, Big Van Vader and a wrestler known as Vinnie Vegas. You probably know Vegas as Kevin Nash, who has been better off using his real name since his days as Diesel.
6 Dave Finlay
We’re not sure why the WWE has some weird thing about shortening wrestler names (another example tops this list). Dave Finlay was one of the more under-appreciated acts in WCW during what is referred to as the “Monday Night Wars,” and the WWE acquired his services in the 2000s. Rather than allow him to continue using his real name, the company thought it wise to rename him “Finlay” before he first wrestled on SmackDown.
Those of us who knew about his reputation weren’t overly bothered by this slight alteration, but it was nevertheless strange how the WWE essentially pretended that he never wrestled in North America after the company bought whatever remained of WCW in 2001. At least we got to see him have multiple noteworthy matches inside WWE rings before he took a job behind the scenes.
5 Brock Lesnar
Wrestling fans all around the world should be thrilled the WWE allowed Brock Lesnar to continue using his real name after he first signed for the organization and before he debuted as a one-man wrecking machine on Raw. Lesnar, a once-in-a-generation wrestler who dominated as an amateur, needed no silly gimmick or different name to add to his character before he started smashing opponents with Paul Heyman at his side.
The former Ultimate Fighting Championship Heavyweight Champion may, all things considered, be the best overall performer of the past ten years, and it’s somewhat discouraging to realize he is likely in the twilight of his wrestling career. At least the WWE didn’t rename him “Bork Laser” or something dumb like that. Every now and then, WWE gets things right.
4 Gail Kim
It sometimes appeared as if Gail Kim, who now goes by Gail Kim-Irvine following her marriage to celebrity chef Robert Irvine, was never fully valued by certain people making booking decisions for the WWE. Kim, theoretically, had the goods to be one of the best female performers of the 2000s, so much so that she could’ve launched what’s been referred to as the “Divas Revolution” all on her own.
While Kim is now 40 years old and retired from in-ring competition, there remain fans holding onto the dream that she may make a short return to the WWE for even a single match in either NXT or on the main roster. Not for nothing, but a Kim versus Asuka bout could be a lot of fun to watch.
3 Eddie Guerrero
Eddie is a nickname for Eduardo, and so we are adding the all-time great who lied, cheated and stole his way into the hearts and memories of wrestling fans to the list. Eddie performed under multiple gimmicks before he had his first match in the original ECW, where he worked under his real name and was introduced to many North American fans who had never before seen him perform.
Guerrero became a Superstar after joining WCW, but his best days occurred in the WWE, where he won the biggest titles of his career. Sadly, Guerrero passed away in November 2005, and fans continue to honor his legacy on the date of his death 12 years after the fact. In fact, wrestlers still utilize his “Three Amigos” suplex sequence during WWE matches.
2 John Cena
Would John Cena have become the John Cena you know today had the WWE introduced him to fans as “The Prototype?” Thankfully, we’ll never have to answer that question. Cena debuted on SmackDown as a young prospect who possessed “Ruthless Aggression” and who wanted to prove himself in a match against Kurt Angle, and nobody could’ve guessed, at the time, that he would become the biggest single wrestling star of the 2000s and a celebrity who will, eventually, leave the wrestling business for acting and other gigs.
Cena is a worldwide sensation who will be able to choose from a variety of careers once he decides that he's done taking bumps inside of rings. We wouldn’t be surprised to see him host a national morning show in the future. No “Prototype” could do that.
We finish the list with maybe the most comedic example of a wrestler using his real name while in the WWE. Dave Bautista had several gimmicks during the early parts of his WWE career before the company thankfully scrapped all those silly ideas and allowed him to just be “Big Dave,” but the promotion eliminated a single letter from his last name to turn him into Batista — pronounced the same way.
Batista went from being an impressive-looking athlete who offered little as it pertained to in-ring work to a Superstar worthy of being in the Hall of Fame after he was linked with the Evolution stable, and he is now a film star who has done well to make quite the impressive living for himself outside of pro wrestling.