It’s very rare in wrestling to find a worker who hasn’t undergone a major change in either look or character. Wrestlers need to evolve for the times, especially those with long careers. Some are able to handle it better than others but a guy who stays with the same character or gimmick through his career runs the risk of getting stale and hurting his drive in the end. It’s a risk of course; as many a writer has noted, it’s hard to tell what gimmicks will work and which won’t. Fans can react in different ways as many a nutty gimmick has gone great while good ones fail.
It’s a combination of the gimmick and the performer, some guys able to work it better than others. Fan reactions can help as well but for the most part, it rests on the man himself to pull it all off. And some just are able to do it better than others. Some gimmicks should never have been tried, others managed to succeed nicely and it’s interesting to see the differences. Here are 10 gimmick changes that bombed big time while 10 others soared to give us some fantastic stars and showed how wrestling can be a tricky business.
20 Bombed: Saba Simba
Even for 1990, this was a bad idea and today, it comes off even worse. Tony Atlas had been a good worker in the 1980s, a powerful strong man with some charisma, with a feud with Hulk Hogan firing him up. He and Rocky Johnson won the tag team titles for a great pairing and Atlas seemed ready for an Intercontinental title run. However, Atlas ran into some drug issues that would push him out of the company for a time. When he returned in 1990, Vince apparently decided to punish him by having Atlas coming out as Saba Simba, dressed in African tribal gear complete with headdress, sword and shield.
In his first appearance, Roddy Piper broke from script to out him as Atlas and Vince covered by claiming Atlas had “discovered his roots” on a trip to Africa. The gimmick never worked, Atlas suffering badly afterward and it's a damn shame Vince felt the need to push this on the guy.
19 Succeeded: Raven
This is a truly astonishing transformation. Scott Levy got his start in Portland as “Scotty the Body,” an obnoxious prep kid with a surfer attitude that he carried over in a brief WCW run. In WWE, he became Johnny Polo, a trust fund brat who worked as a manager and commentator with a polo-styled outfit. When he joined ECW in 1994, Levy decided to change himself into a grunge-inspired guy with long hair and a rough wardrobe, doing promos that mixed in poetry and a moody edge.
The result was Raven, a man who became a major face for the company, especially in the epic feud with Tommy Dreamer that led to ECW’s biggest successes. While his time in WCW was rough, he returned to ECW and later had a good TNA run to showcase how taking on this dark persona was what Levy needed to finally be a star.
18 Bombed: Brother D-Von
A concern of many fans regarding the new brand extension are memories of the last time it was tried. The initial draft broke apart many teams, but no split was bigger than the Dudley Boyz. D-Von was sent to SmackDown with the gimmick of him as a reverend, coming out in dark suit and collar to preach in between his matches which didn’t come off as anything really special. His promos were okay but his matches showed he just wasn’t cut out to be a major guy without Bubba Ray helping. His biggest contribution was his sidekick, “Deacon” who was a then-rookie Batista. They fought it out in the end and D-Von would reunite with Bubba Ray at the Survivor Series to become a great tag team once more.
While they would have good singles turns in TNA, this attempt to label the rough and tumble D-Von as a “preacher” just didn’t seem to work out right in the end.
17 Succeeded: Triple H
Contrary to opinion, HHH was a star in the making long before he met Stephanie McMahon. In WCW, he started off as wildman Terra Ryzing before a makeover into “French aristocrat” Jean-Paul Levesque. In WWE, he was given the character of the Greenwich snob, coming out in a pompous attitude and bowing in the ring but still did some good work as IC champion.
The first shift came with the addition of Chyna, making him more a hated heel and carrying a rougher attitude in the ring. The big change was when he and Shawn Michaels joined up as DX, the snob left behind for the radical guy smashing up the old barriers of the business and soon rising majorly as a wild guy on the mic.
As leader of the team, he won fans over with his great style and ring work and then shifted to “The Game,” more of a methodical guy in the ring to finally reach the main event as WWE Champion. A remarkable evolution (pardon the pun) to show how HHH was a star in the making even through these various gimmick changes.
16 Bombed: AJ Styles
For years, Styles was the heart of TNA, blowing away fans with some absolutely fantastic ring work, reigning as NWA champion and helping to elevate the X Division to the best part of the company. But in 2007, the first of several bad moves for Styles was made by TNA that would hurt his standing. First, the man established as a smart worker and top guy was suddenly turned into an absolute moron, teaming with Tomko to win the tag titles but presented as an idiot with bits like “accidentally” marrying Karen Angle.
It was just so bad and Styles shifted back to his usual form soon. However, that was followed by him taken under the wing of Ric Flair to become a “new Nature Boy,” and while Styles was charismatic, he in no way approached a Flair level and seeing him in the robes was like a bad cosplay. He’s a great worker but Styles is better as just himself than these character gimmicks.
15 Succeeded: Razor Ramon
Scott Hall was one of those guys who had the looks and the skill to be a good star but never had the right push. With his dark hair and mustache, he broke out in the AWA as tag champion but didn’t get the push he thought he should. He bounced around the indies before heading to WCW as the Diamond Studd with slicked hair, five o’clock shadow and a toothpick. The politics of the company would keep him from stardom and so he signed to WWE, adding to the act gold chains and a “Cuban” accent to become Razor Ramon.
It was finally the character Hall needed to become a major star, feuding with Randy Savage and Bret Hart and the character was so entertaining that the fans started to cheer him. Now a face, he would win the IC title numerous times and later help forge the New World Order to help dominate WCW. While his personal problems are well documented, Hall was one of the hottest workers of his time and the Razor gimmick just what was needed to make him a star.
14 Bombed: GI Bro
Even as a tag team worker with Harlem Heat, Booker T showed amazing drive and skill and real potential to break out. He got his chance in 1998, taking off as TV champion and a singles star and soon rising higher in the company with many seeing him as a main eventer. Just as this seemed to click, he was put in a dumb feud with Stevie Ray and Big T (the former Ahmed Johnson) over who got the “T” name for themselves. He lost and thus took on the persona of GI Bro, dressing in camouflage clothes and doing military-themed promos. He was paired with the Misfits in Action, a dumb stable of faces and his ring work came off pretty bad.
Thankfully, WCW realized their mistake, getting him back in his old persona and winning the World title but it just showcased how even the top guys of the company weren’t immune to such bad decisions.
13 Succeeded: Crow Sting
From the start, Sting was just exploding with charisma, over instantly, so much so that they had to change him from heel to a face. Fans loved cheering him on with his short blonde hair spiked and the variety of face paint alongside his bright jackets and tights. For years, he was the hero of WCW, reigning as champion several times and the fans loving his bright outlook. When he was set up by the New World Order, Sting felt that the fans had turned on him and so was ready to turn back. Inspired by the movie “The Crow,” he changed his paint to just black and white, his hair now dark and long and wearing black trenchcoats.
Hanging from the rafters, he spent a year never speaking, as he would attack Hogan and his underlings to set up their big Starrcade match. That ended up going badly but the build was still one of the best things WCW had ever done as this darker Sting came off far better to send his career in a bold new direction.
12 Bombed: That 70s Guy - Mike Awesome
Even by their own amazing track record of blowing sure things, how WCW dropped the ball with this is astonishing. In 2000, they managed to sign Mike Awesome, the ECW champion known for his great work in the ring of smashing guys through tables while also having good technical skills. He made his debut attacking Kevin Nash and the heat on him from ECW fans for leaving the company was huge as he dropped the belt to Tazz (then with WWE) to enter WCW. With all that heat, what was WCW’s genius idea for Awesome? Having him come out in a lame lounge lizard act with a talk show, completely wrong for him in so many ways. That was followed by him as the “Fat Chick Thriller” chasing overweight women. In both cases, it was totally wrong for Awesome and completely ruined all the potential he had to elevate WCW, yet another of the company's massive mistakes.
11 Succeeded: The Undertaker
It’s a crazy idea to be sure. A guy in funeral clothes with a zombie bearing led by a manager with a magical urn? Yet somehow, some way, this character clicked over with fans to become one of the biggest stars in the history of WWE. Dominating for years as the “Phenom,” The Undertaker kept to this persona with a few touches here and there but mostly stayed the same. In 2000, returning from injury, The Undertaker changed the act majorly, coming out as a biker character with a more laid-back style on the mic.
It was a huge change but he pulled it off, the fans still loving it and thus the “American Badass” turned out to be a boon for Taker’s career, giving him new life and when he returned to the “Deadman” persona, it was a bigger deal and another notch in his terrific legacy.
10 Bombed: Seven/Black Reign
It’s sad that a truly talented worker like Dustin Rhodes could only get himself over with some sort of makeup and costume. Goldust was fantastic as a character and led to huge success but Dustin’s attempts to continue without it faltered badly. When he rejoined WCW in 1999, he was given promos as Seven, a white-faced man in a dark coat and hat peeking through kids windows, about as unsettling an image as you can imagine. His big entrance had him floating to the ring only to cut a promo on how stupid the whole thing was, wasting all that build. In TNA, he was given the name of Black Reign and coming out in what was basically a silver and black version of his Goldust look for various bad matches and a later return to WWE and his more famous name. He was great as Goldust but Dustin’s attempts to push beyond that never worked right.
9 Succeeded: Goldust
While he had to handle the shadow of his superstar father, Dustin Rhodes still had some great skills. Indeed, in terms of in-ring work, he might well have been even better than his dad and certainly in better shape. However, he lacked the same skill on the mic so even while holding titles in WCW, he didn’t seem to have what it took to reach true stardom. But when he joined WWE in 1995, Rhodes remade himself into Goldust, the bizarre figure who would talk in movie quotes, exude homoerotic tones but was still great in the ring.
It was an act truly ahead of its time, elevating Dustin majorly as IC Champion and would continue to various runs over the years. While he’d have a rough time breaking free of the persona, there’s no denying this was a major change that led Dustin to hit gold in the wrestling business.
8 Bombed: Kerwin White
It’s still among the dumber moves of WWE even in a time period where they were making plenty of dumb moves. Chavo Guerrero had established himself as a great star of Cruiserweights, bouncing as a loon and a tag champion with Eddie and his heel turn sparking him up more. So leave it to the brain surgeons in WWE creative to have Chavo suddenly come out with blonde hair, lightened skin, dressed like a country club member and adopt the name of Kerwin White.
He slammed his own Latino heritage with the line “If it’s not white, it’s not right,” and his in-ring work more stilted than usual. He was horribly insulting and you could tell Chavo didn’t like it all as fans loathed it totally. It would end sooner than planned by Eddie’s unexpected death but even putting up with it this long was a terrible move for Chavo’s career.
7 Succeeded: The Rock
In Memphis, Rocky Maivia had a good look as a rough heel, a jerk character with skill and seemed ready to rise in WWE. However, they made the mistake of making him a “blue chipper,” a classic babyface with a goofy outfit and in bright colors all the time. He was okay but the fans turned on him fast, even with winning the IC title and sinking further, leading to the famed “Die Rocky Die” chants. After an injury, he returned as a heel, a harder edge to become The Rock and soon began clicking over wonderfully as leader of the Nation of Domination and IC champ again.
His charisma just exploded outward, leading to his rise to the main event and rocking the wrestling landscape hard as even today he gets bigger pops than anyone else. Today he’s known as an A-list Hollywood star but it took the change to hated heel for The Rock to become such an icon.
6 Bombed: Rey Mysterio Unmasked
This is such a huge mistake that Rey today pretty much refuses to talk about it and even WWE skips it on their docs about him. Rey had been a standout for WCW’s cruiserweight division, a fantastic worker, hot with the fans and his masks adding to his special aura. But Eric Bischoff didn’t go with all that traditional stuff and instead decided to have Rey forced to unmask on the idea he’d be more “marketable.” Rey was forced to do so, causing massive anger with his fanbase and in Mexico. He soon looked like a hip-hop crazed teenager.
It didn’t take, mostly because the unmasked Rey looked to be a kid and no longer had that special aura and was buried on the roster. When he returned in 2002, WWE had him with his mask and have since made a mint off the sale of Mysterio masks as Rey has taken off as a star, proving how stupid WCW was with this idea.
5 Succeeded: "The Face That Runs The Place" John Cena
Had he just gone with any other costume for a Halloween part in 2002, the entire WWE would be a lot different. Cena had a good look and skills but just wasn’t clicking right as a worker, bland and had nothing for fans to latch onto. Then for a SmackDown Halloween episode, he showed up as Vanilla Ice, doing some goofy rapping and suddenly he clicked over wonderfully. He soon made himself up as a rough and tumble street guy, more brawling with his skills and cutting fantastic raps on opponents that won fans over to him. Cena was soon battling The Undertaker and rising up nicely to become the face of WWE today. While some complain his act has gotten stale, the change in gimmick was still one of the best choices in recent WWE history and elevated Cena to super-stardom.
4 Bombed: The Artist Formerly Known as Prince Iaukea
In 1997, WWE decided to have “blue-chipper” Rocky Maivia pull an upset win over HHH for the IC title. WCW decided to get inspiration by having young Prince Iaukea pull his own upset to beat Steven Regal for the TV title. His reign lasted two months and he drifted for a while among the other cruiserweights with the rumor he’d had an affair with the wife of an executive that held him back. In 1999, Vince Russo decided to repackage the character as the “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince Iaukea,” an obvious play on the musical icon.
He came out with a dark coat and hat, doing goofy “music” numbers that showed a lack of talent and a run as Cruiserweight champion that did little to help. A talented guy transforming like this was not among the best moves, even for WCW. Unsurprisingly, it didn't last long.
3 Succeeded: Hollywood Hogan
For over a decade, Hulk Hogan was basically the patron saint of babyfaces in wrestling. He was fantastic as the hero champion, the crowds going nuts for him as he dominated all heels, making his famed comebacks and always rocking crowds with his red and gold outfits and power. By 1996, the act had gotten stale, especially in WCW who had always been against that sort of super-hero character in many ways. Still, Hogan was considered the monster hero and obviously reluctant to change but Eric Bischoff managed to sway him that a change was needed. So at Bash at the Beach 1996, Hogan came out to turn on WCW as “the third man” alongside Hall and Nash.
Showing up in black clothing and a painted-on beard, Hogan railed against the fans for not treating him right and declared the dawning of the New World Order. It was a huge move, leading to the biggest level of success WCW ever enjoyed and proving Hogan could still command the main event, hotter as a heel than he’d been in years and it was one of the turning points of wrestling history.
2 Bombed: Red Rooster
Poor, poor Terry Taylor. In Mid-South, he’d established himself as a fantastic worker, top notch, able to handle 40 minute matches with Ric Flair and rising as both a face and a heel. He was the last UWF TV champion, a bit lost after the company was merged with Crockett so felt a jump to WWF was the best move. According to urban legend, it was literally a flip of the coin as to whether he or Curt Hennig would get the “Mr. Perfect” gimmick and Taylor might have been good in that role. Instead, he was given the absolutely idiotic gimmick of the Red Rooster, first a heel under Bobby Heenan but then turning face. With a red streak in his hair and promos that had him crowing, Taylor never had a chance, the character awful, fans hating it and Taylor’s in-ring work suffering. His career was never the same afterward and Taylor cites it as a low point and a sign of how idiotic a gimmick can get.
1 Succeeded: Stone Cold
From the day he debuted, Steve Austin was a guy who had future superstar written all over him. Skilled in the ring and fantastic on the mic, Austin just burst with promise but held back by guys who felt he didn’t have “the look.” His run in WCW had him as a multiple champion but the higher-ups didn’t like him and he was fired while recovering from a neck injury. In ECW, he showed his mic skills off beautifully and erupted as a star to win a contract with WWE. However, he was hampered by being put with the character of the Ringmaster, the new “Million Dollar Champion” with Ted DiBiase as his mouthpiece. His ring work was okay but it just didn’t seem the right move.
Thankfully, Austin would take matters into his own hands by dropping DiBiase, shaving his head and taking a nickname from his wife as Stone Cold. It was the now-epic speech at King of the Ring that truly made him, transforming him into the ass-kicking Rattlesnake we know today who pushed WWE, and all of wrestling, to a huge new level and finally becoming the star he was promised.