Even from the earliest carnival roots of sports entertainment, the practice of a wrestler taking on an alias has intertwined among the very origins of professional wrestling. Whether to inspire intrigue, fear, or support, the practice of ring names for athletes in the "squared circle" has been as much a part of wrestling’s lore as championship histories.
During times of conflict, a capable wrestler in need of a boost to their box office appeal might find themselves assigned a character – often a cultural stereotype that was propagated through the black and white world of heroes and villains in wrestling. Often, these accentuated the worst of our beliefs about those “foreign” threats. Goose-stepping German Nazis, elitist English Lords, bearded Russian Communists, and of course the conniving villains from the far east.
But beyond the characters, some of the most interesting tales in the business are about how some of the best known wrestlers in the world came to be known by the ring persona whose name will be etched on the walls of professional wrestling history. How well do you know the origins of the ring names of these top stars? Let’s take a look at how some of the wrestlers whose aliases were featured atop the wrestling marquee, and the inspiration that was responsible for their lasting image.
20 Rob Van Dam
During his earliest years in the business, the man we now know as Mr. Monday Night was spotlighted in a special feature in Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine identifying the stars to keep an eye on. While the feature admittedly missed the mark on such forgettable wrestlers as “Heavy Metal” Van Hammer, there was one youngster who would go on to great success. Listed as Rob Szatkowski, his legal name on his birth certificate, the man would also make some of his early TV appearances on WCW Television as Robbie V. RVD would get the ring name he is best known for because of recurring comparisons to an emerging actor with whom he resembled – “The Muscles from Brussels” Jean-Claude Van Damme.
The former ECW standout isn’t the only wrestler to get his name based on his resemblance to someone outside the realm of professional wrestling. Read on to see who else drew their most memorable gimmick from the larger spectrum of entertainment.
19 Magnum T.A.
Terry Allen’s meteoric rise in professional wrestling during a six year wrestling career is still regularly discussed by long time wrestling fans today. The charismatic star had his career cut short by a severe motor vehicle accident at age 29, which has left many wondering what would have happened as his visibility at the time was hitting a fever pitch. There is little doubt that his name would have appeared in the NWA World Title history books between listings for multi-time champion Ric Flair, but sadly, fate offered something different. Magnum is another wrestler who drew his identity from beyond the world of wrestling, in part because of his similar features to actor Tom Selleck. Selleck’s role on the hit TV series, Magnum P.I. inspired the ring name which Allen adopted upon his entry into the Mid-South Wrestling territory, and later in the NWA where he stood second only to Dusty Rhodes among the top fan favorites.
18 Curtis Axel
Over the past decade, the WWE has struggled with how best to acknowledge the rich family bloodlines of its second and third generation talent, while also giving the current generation an opportunity to create success on their own laurels. They first dabbled with this in 1996 when the grandson of Peter Maivia, and son of Rocky Johnson made his WWE debut; to pay tribute, they called the young man Rocky Maivia. Thankfully, he would later ascend and cultivate his own identity, The Rock, in addition to moving on to become the highest paid movie star in 2016.
We can only hope for the same fate for young Joe Hennig, whose father “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig followed his father Larry “The Axe” Hennig into the family business. Hennig was tagged with an amalgam handle incorporating his father’s and grandfather’s names as his own. On the plus side, it’s better than his original WWE name, Michael McGillicutty.
17 Dean Douglas
Yes, WWE, we understand the importance of a distinct character to help casual fans to identify one wrestler from another, but was this really necessary? Troy Martin was a student of WWE legend Dominic DeNucci and had made many appearances for the company as an enhancement talent in his early days, rising to fame in WCW and ECW as Shane Douglas. Douglas had even enjoyed time in the WWE under that same name in the early 1990s, filling in for an injured Shawn Michaels to partner with Marty Jannetty on a number of occasions.
Douglas’ re-introduction to the WWE in 1995, after becoming the franchise player for Extreme Championship Wrestling saw him assigned with a new name “Dean Douglas”. The character was developed by exploiting Shane’s real life degree as a practicing teacher, a career that he juggled with his commitments on the independent scene. Watered down from what we saw from him in ECW, combined with rumored conflict with Shawn Michaels backstage, really left Douglas with nowhere to go in this role.
16 Jean Pierre-LaFitte
Carl Ouellet had already been introduced to WWE audiences after a lengthy and successful run as Jacques Rougeau’s tag team partner in the Quebecers. Following the demise of that WWE World Tag Team Title winning duo, Ouellet was re-packaged. The decision to make him a pirate began from a very uncreative place – Ouellet legitimately only had one eye. He had been competing with a glass eye throughout his career, so the notion to give him an eye patch and turn him into a pirate was cultivated. The surname LaFitte is drawn from seafaring legend about an infamous family of French pirates from centuries before. While given some traction in feuds against the likes of Bret Hart and others, perhaps this character would have been better received if it had launched at the height of popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise. Although on second thought, it didn’t work for Paul Burchill.
While Dustin Runnels is perhaps best known for his work between the gold and black face paint and in a zippered bodysuit, the character originally began from a very dark place in Dustin’s life. Freshly fired from WCW in 1995 after the ill-fated King of the Road match on the first Uncensored pay per view, Dustin was also experiencing a period of estrangement from his famous father Dusty Rhodes. Arriving on the WWE’s doorstep, Dustin was looking to do something different than he had done in his seven year career to date, stepping away from the Rhodes name, and taking an opportunity to fire back in his own way at his father.
Goldust was a take off of a nickname the senior Rhodes had often used “Star Dust” during his career, and some of the television segments that Goldust would be involved in would directly lash out at Dusty, even doing an unflattering impersonation of his dad.
14 Madusa Miceli
Minnesota’s Debbie Miceli first captured the attention of wrestling audiences in the AWA, where she reigned as Women’s Champion and riled audiences as a valet to some of the circuits most heinous villains. She would go on to success as Alundra Blayze in the WWE, and simply as Madusa in WCW. Her WCW run included some action not only against the ladies, but a few men as well – including a feud with Paul Heyman.
But how did the strikingly gorgeous lady arrive at the name Madusa – a monicker similar to a mythical fearsome Greek goddess. Miceli explained that her name was intended to be patriotic – a shortened form of “Made in the USA” – Madusa. While her 2015 induction into the WWE Hall of Fame saw her enshrined by her WWE alter ego, it still seems to us that Madusa Miceli has a more melodic ring to it than what the WWE creative team devised.
13 Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart
Aside from an absurd 1996 stint under a mask with the name “Who”, Jim Neidhart was one of the rare wrestlers in the modern age who wrestled the largest part of his career under his own given name. So for Neidhart, it’s not his name, but his nickname that we are curious about.
A former professional football player before entering the world of wrestling, Calgary promoter Stu Hart was impressed with the barrel-chested heavyweight’s strength, and wanted to show him off at the famous Calgary Stampede rodeo and fair. Neidhart was entered into an anvil throwing contest at the marquee annual event, and emerged as the winner of the contest. It created some added notoriety for Neidhart and Stu Hart’s wrestling promotion, ensuring that he would be henceforth known as “The Anvil”. Jim embraced it, and even stitched the silhouette of an anvil onto his wrestling boots for many years.
There are occasions when the wrestling industry draws its inspiration from the business itself. Such was the case with Mike Jones, who was called up to the WWE after spending time in the Memphis territory wrestling by the name Soul Train Jones. Jones was to portray the role of a man-servant and valet for “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, and was given the name Virgil.
It is commonly believed that the name was assigned as a subtle rib on Dusty Rhodes, whose birth name was Virgil Runnels. Dusty held considerable influence in the rival National Wrestling Alliance (later WCW) at that time. There seems to be some merit to this long held rumor because when Jones jumped to work for WCW following the conclusion of his WWE career, now with Dusty Rhodes having some influence over the creative elements of that product, he was renamed Vincent ... a direct shot at WWE head Vince McMahon.
11 Ricky Steamboat
One of the most celebrated ring technicians of the 1980s has to be Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. His unparalleled matches against the likes of Randy Savage and Ric Flair have cemented his name into the annals of wrestling history. In truth, the New York-born wrestler who was billed from Honolulu, Hawaii for much of his career was born with a name that screams “pro wrestler” – Richard Blood. However, he would only use his birth name during the first few months of his career while wrestling for Verne Gagne’s AWA.
When he arrived in Florida for promoter Eddie Graham, the promoter felt that his name didn’t suit a good looking fan favorite persona that he would showcase on television, so changed his name to Steamboat because he felt that the youngster bore a strong resemblance to Hawaiian wrestler Sammy Steamboat who had been very popular in the territory during the previous decade.
When Jim Harris first debuted in professional wrestling, the massive African-American grappler was billed as Sugar Bear Harris. He competed in the southeast, and then had the opportunity to compete in England during the early 80s. Upon his return to the United States, he was recruited by Jerry Lawler for the Memphis territory, feeling he would be a good fit for an idea that they had in mind.
The Memphis wrestling scene was infamous for its over the top gimmickry, and a series of vignettes were filmed showing a search for the most fearsome wrestler to be imported to Memphis – Kamala the Ugandan Giant. That was just the beginning and the character stuck, taking Harris to the Oklahoma to wrestle for promoter Bill Watts, and later attracting the attention of Vince McMahon. Upon his arrival in the WWE, the spelling of the name was changed to Kamala, and he was initially promoted as a threat to then-World Champion Hulk Hogan.
9 “Stone Cold” Steve Austin
Sometimes, even an experienced team of writers gets stymied to create the iconic character for an incoming wrestler and future WWE Hall of Famer. Born Steve Williams in Texas, a young Steve Austin fell in love with professional wrestling and decided to give the business a try. However, wrestling already had a top star competing by the name Steve “Dr. Death” Williams, so he was dubbed Steve Austin by Dutch Mantell (aka Zeb Colter) to prevent confusion.
When he entered the WWE and his initial company-issued persona “The Ringmaster” proved to be a dud, the creative team presented him with a number of potential names, none of which seemed to be a winner. It was actually an off-hand remark from Austin’s wife to drink his tea before it got “stone cold” that gave Austin the inspiration for the character, which would bring him the most money and fame in the ring.
The story of Mankind’s origin in the WWE is one that has been told repeatedly by the man behind the character himself. Mick Foley had been wrestling for more than a decade around the world as Cactus Jack, and was met with closed doors every time he tried to make in-roads to the WWE. However, his unorthodox ring style and seemingly self-damaging repertoire of moves, like a running elbow drop from the ring apron to the concrete floor created a reputation for him as a destructive force.
The WWE proposed the idea of a character called “Mason The Mutilator” but Foley saw that as a dead end, instead suggesting the vague identity of Mankind for the sketches that the art department had produced. It was a winner, and opened the door for Foley to ascend to the WWE World Title. He would later have the opportunity to introduce his Cactus Jack persona to WWE audiences as well.
7 Honky Tonk Man
For those that have followed the career of the Honky Tonk Man since he was first signed with the WWE in 1986, it may be hard to envision that just a few years prior, he sported long flowing blonde locks and a regal goatee with a waxed mustache. Abandoning that character to create a new image for himself, Wayne Farris grew a pencil-thin mustache and greased back his hair – a look inspired by Pat Harrington Jr’s character “Schneider” on the TV sitcom One Day at a Time.
However, fans told him that his look reminded them of Elvis, and some devoted followers even gave him the gift of a custom Elvis-style jumpsuit. Farris took that character to Calgary, where he wrestled as Honky Tonk Wayne and the idea was a hit. When he was signed by Vince McMahon, they retained the character and simplified it, dubbing him simply the Honky Tonk Man.
6 Billy Graham
In his youth, Eldridge Wayne Coleman had no aspirations to get into the world of professional wrestling. The Arizona bodybuilder was looking to find his fame and fortune when he ventured to Calgary, Alberta, Canada hoping to making it in professional football. A career on the gridiron didn’t pan out for the future star, but he was introduced to Stu Hart who gave him his first break in wrestling, competing as Wayne Coleman and partnered with former pro footballer Angelo Mosca.
After six months with Hart, Coleman returned to Arizona where 1960s star Dr. Jerry Graham was promoting independent wrestling shows. Graham “adopted” Coleman into the wrestling family – which had previous included Eddie Graham (Edward Gossett) and Luke Graham (Grady Johnson). Arguably Coleman, as “Superstar” Billy Graham, to the name to its greatest heights among his fictional brothers, defeating Bruno Sammartino to win the WWE World Heavyweight Title and enjoying a lengthy reign as champion.
5 Roddy Piper
Born Roderick George Toombs in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, it may have seemed entirely unlikely that the 19-year-old kid who debuted at a strapping 180 pounds would go on to become one of the most iconic wrestlers in the industry. Certainly, his trainer Tony Condello could not have predicted it when Piper was taking his first steps down the road to wrestling stardom.
One night, Roddy showed up late to his wrestling class, and he was pressed by his trainer to account for his tardiness. Rod reluctantly admitted that he had been to bagpipe practice, and it had gone into overtime and that was the reason for missing the start of his ring time. After confirming that Rod was telling the truth by having the aspiring wrestler pull out his pipes and play, he became known in the camp as Roddy the Piper. He would debut by that name, later dropping “the” to simply be known as Roddy Piper.
4 The Junkyard Dog
Can you think of another wrestler that went on to great acclaim in any era of the business with a less flattering name than the Junk Yard Dog? When Sylvester Ritter first debuted in the ring, he competed as Big Daddy Ritter, wrestling in Tennessee, Alberta, Germany, and Japan. When he returned home to the southern States, he was signed to Mid-South Wrestling by wrestler-turned-promoter Bill Watts. Watts learned that in addition to wrestling, Ritter had a sideline career working in an auto wrecking yard and gave him the name Junkyard Dog.
The name was intended to inspire the working class African Americans that turned out the matches around the territory. Watts’ plan worked and over the following years, the JYD became one of the biggest fan favorites in the history of the circuit. He retained the name when he went to the WWE, and his distinct image saw him heavily marketed during the WWE’s national expansion among a short list of stars including Hulk Hogan as an action figure, a character in the Rock n’ Wrestling cartoon series, and a feature performer on the WWE’s “Wrestling Album”.
3 Dusty Rhodes
The 2015 death of “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes was a loss that was felt across the entire industry. His portrayal of a common man - the son of a plumber - so stirred audiences that he is recognized as one of the biggest wrestling personalities of all-time. But how did Virgil Riley Runnels become Dusty Rhodes?
When Runnels was able to open the door for his earliest matches in the American northeast, he appeared by the name Dusty Runnels. Upon his return to his home state of Texas in 1968, it was suggested by manager and matchmaker Gary Hart that Dusty adopt the moniker of a movie character portrayed by Andy Griffith Lonesome Rhodes. Dusty chuckled in response, saying “But I don’t intend to be lonesome”. A compromise was met and for close to 50 years, he wrestled by the name Dusty Rhodes. Of course, there was also his alter ego, The Midnight Rider ...
2 Randy Savage
Born into a wrestling family, the son of successful journeyman wrestler, Angelo Poffo and the younger brother of the sturdy Lanny Poffo, there wouldn’t seem to be any reason for Randy to even consider a name other than the one shared by his blood relations. In fact, for the first two years of his career, he appeared under his own name, frequently teaming with his brother Lanny in a number of territories. However, when he arrived in Georgia in 1977, Ole Anderson looked at him with his wild hair and piercing, intense gaze and correctly assessed that he resembled a savage. So, on February 28, 1977 in Augusta Georgia, Poffo would make his first appearance as Randy Savage.
The separation from his family name proved to be a good move, as it allowed him to travel with and compete against his own brother as headliners, particularly in the Canadian Maritimes and for their father’s own outlaw promotion in the early 1980s. Randy is the only Poffo to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
1 Hulk Hogan
Conceivably one of the biggest names in the wrestling industry of all time, Hulk Hogan achieved wide spread popularity on television, in movies and across all entertainment platforms in the 1980s; but it’s a safe bet that he wouldn’t have done it had he still been recognized by one of his earlier ring names. Aside from a rookie year assignment as the Super Destroyer in Florida, Hulk’s first ring name in the southeast was Sterling Golden. That changed when he arrived in Memphis as Terry Boulder. However, when he found himself on the radar of Vince McMahon Sr. and was called up to the WWE, McMahon had a different idea yet.
McMahon was a strong believer that his audiences were comprised of every ethnicity that resided in his territory in the American northeast. He aspired to create stars that spoke to each of those cultural groups, so that every segment of the community felt that they had their own champion to rally behind. Hulk was assigned the surname Hogan and intended to be the idol of the Irish community.