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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
12 Bombed: That 70s Guy - Mike Awesome
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.
10 Bombed: Seven/Black Reign
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.
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.
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.
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.
5 Succeeded: "The Face That Runs The Place" John Cena
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.
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.
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.
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