In order to stay relevant in wrestling, you have to reinvent yourself over the course of your career, as gimmicks become old and stale with the viewing audience. In some cases that means revamping your entire persona, and in others it means making small tweaks to an established character. In both cases however, fans will either accept or reject the change, making them the ultimate judge of a wrestler's fate. Could you imagine what would have happened if the WWE Universe didn't get behind Undertaker's American Badass gimmick, or if they would have accepted The Gobledy Gooker as a main event player? Sure those may be extremes, but the underlying truth remains that a gimmick change can make or break a career.
Today we are going to look at 16 gimmick changes, half of which were horrible and the other half were career making. Some of these gimmick changes were necessary for a wrestler to thrive, while others were seemingly changed out of nowhere. In all cases however, careers were changed because of these creative choices that will be detailed today.
As always feel free to leave us your thoughts and opinions in the comments section, and let us know who we missed.
16 Made: Stone Cold Steve Austin
I mean it seems pretty obvious to put Steve Austin on this list as he was easily the biggest wrestling star of the 1990s. Scratch that last statement. After transitioning to Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Texas Rattlesnake WAS a pop culture icon and easily one of the most famous people in the world. While it’s true that Austin benefitted from the creativity of the Attitude Era (like most people on this list), you can’t take away the connection that he was able to establish with the fans following the switch. I mean who wouldn’t want to go to work, drink beer and then give their boss a Stunner all in a two hour window? It was a theme that Austin exploited, and as of a result he was able to tap into every cross section of fans.
15 Killed: Steve Austin (Heel)
When Stone Cold shook hands with Vince McMahon at the end of WrestleMania X-Seven, it began the decline of the former WWE Heavyweight Champion’s run in the WWE. Sure there were some classic comedy moments following Austin's heel turn, but for the most part can you remember more than three matches from that time? I’ll give you Kurt Angle at SummerSlam, and The Rock at WrestleMania XIX, but you give me the last one. It’s hard to think of right? That’s because the heel turn came at a time where Austin’s body was beginning to fail him, creating a double edge sword for The Rattlesnake. Fans simply didn’t want to boo a guy that they fell in love with over the past four years, and when the jeers finally came the ends didn’t justify the means in the eyes of many. Don’t just take my word for it, Austin has stated dozens of times how the change was one of the biggest mistakes of his career.
14 Made: Hardcore Holly
Bob Holly had run through the gambit of gimmicks before finally finding success in the WWE as Hardcore Holly. After Hollywood Holly, Sparky Plugg, Spark Plug Holly, and Bombastic Bob didn’t bring success for the wrestling journeyman, he finally found a gimmick he could sink his teeth into. Initially joining The J.O.B. Squad in 1998, Holly eventually gained fans during his title matches in the hardcore division. Holly became so popular in fact, that he actually had a stable built around him called The Holly Family, which consisted of him, his “cousins” Crash Holly and Molly Holly. All three were able to capture gold but none as many times as Bob, who was a nine-time champion in the WWE. Who knew all it took was a simple "Hardcore" to be added to his name?
13 Killed: Beaver Cleavage
After experiencing Tag Team Championship success as part of The Headbangers, Mosh fell into obscurity in the WWE in 1999 when his partner Thrasher suffered a knee injury. WWE creative decided that the best way to repackage Mosh as a solo act, was to call him Beaver Cleavage and use excessive sexual innuendos during his vignettes. Beaver would constantly make puns in regards to his “mother” Mrs. Cleavage, until finally the gimmick was scrapped. WWE tried to write themselves out of a corner by constructing a “worked shoot” interview on RAW, where Beaver (now Chaz) denounced the character and the idea. Whether or not the Chaz angle was the plan the entire time is arguable, but what isn’t is how Mosh’s career never bounced back after.
12 Made: The Godfather
I’m no expert on the matter, but I think that changing your gimmick from a witch doctor, to a pimp that gets you into the WWE Hall of Fame makes you worthy of this list. As Papa Shango, Charles Wright was ridiculed by fans and voted the Worst Gimmick by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter in 1992. It would take two years before Wright could wrestle on WWE television again, but this time it was as Kama “The Supreme Fighting Machine”, and eventually as a member of the Nation of Domination. It wasn’t until Wright struck out on his own as the very cheesy Godfather, that he would experience his greatest popularity.
The Godfather, along with his Ho Train, was charmingly able to connect with fans on the mic and eventually able to win the Intercontinental Championship. The Godfather character made so much of an impact that he is still able to get one of the biggest pops of the night when he makes surprise returns to the WWE.
11 Killed: Corporate Kane
Kane is a legend, and will probably go down as the second best big man in wrestling history, behind Undertaker of course. A 22 year veteran with the WWE, Kane has spent over 20 of those years playing a single character with minor variants along the way. One of those variants was the change from the Kane we all knew from the ‘90s, into a slacks-wearing, tucked shirt and loafer sporting Corporate Kane. The transition of Kane into a member of The Authority in 2013 was a huge departure for fans who had grown accustomed to seeing a monster since his debut in 1997. Though his legacy is still intact as of today, there is no doubt that moving Kane into the corporate faction surely has put a blemish on a pretty stellar career.
10 Made: APA
A common theme in wrestling is to partner together two guys who have nothing going on besides bouncing around in the mid-card. The APA is no different as both Bradshaw and Faarooq were both directionless by 1998 when their team formed. Though initially starting as The Acolytes, the duo was quickly swept into The Ministry faction and became featured players on RAW and Sunday Night Heat as WWE Tag Team Champions. As The Ministry faded, the team remained popular and decided to sell protection services as the Acolytes Protection Agency. Due to their comedy antics and legitimate tough guy personas, the APA was arguably as popular, if not more popular than 90% of the roster between 2000-2002. As a testament to their success, both JBL and Ron Simmons (Faarooq) are considered legends, with the latter already having been inducted into the Hall of Fame.
9 Killed: Tensai
Matt Bloom is certainly an underrated performer despite joining the WWE with such little experience in 1999. Debuting with only two years experience as Prince Albert, Bloom enjoyed a five-year career in the WWE before spending six years in Japan as monster heel Giant Bernard. In 2012 rumors swirled in about Bloom signing back with the WWE, but he denied it vehemently until showing up as Lord Tensai on RAW in March of that year.
His gimmick wasn’t horrible in conception, but rather the execution is what most fans had a problem with. Rather than playing up the fact that Tensai had spent time in Japan working on his craft, the WWE refused to acknowledge his history in the WWE. The fans however, weren’t so forgetting and took every opportunity to chant “ALBERT” during every match. The outright rejection of Tensai by the fans led to Bloom being used in comedic acts, and ultimately leaving television to work as a trainer for NXT.
8 Made: Mark Henry (Hall of Pain)
Do you want to know the best way to get a monster over in wrestling? Well if history tells us anything, then it’s to have your monster absolutely destroy other wrestlers, which is what the WWE finally did with Mark Henry in 2011. What made Henry’s squash matches different than those of the past, is that The World’s Strongest Man was running through other monsters. In just a few months Henry had injured The Big Show, Kozlov, Kane and the Great Khali, inducting the wrestlers into what he called his “Hall of Pain”.
This new vicious side of Henry was interesting, and despite not changing his name, his change of attitude was enough to get pushed into a World Heavyweight Title run. After 15 years of mediocre storylines, Mark Henry finally reached his full potential and gave fans a reason to consider him a legend.
7 Killed: Pirate Paul Burchill
Hmm which terrible gimmick should I talk about here, the one where Paul Burchill debuted as a pirate, or the one where he came back and was set to have an incestual relationship with his on-screen sister? I guess just based on the absurdity of a pirate wrestling in 2006, we’ll go with that one. When Burchill debuted in the WWE he was just a normal wrestler, until he revealed in an interview that he could trace back his lineage to the pirate Blackbeard. Obviously since he was related to the legend of the seven seas, Burchill had to adopt the gimmick of a Jack Sparrow lookalike. Even an entrance swinging from the rafters on a rope wasn’t enough to save this horrible gimmick, and Burchill was knocked back to developmental multiple times over the duration of his WWE career.
6 Made: Al Snow
Al Sarven had multiple runs in the WWE before finally hitting it big as the demented and tormented Al Snow. Unfortunately for Snow his effort at being a masked luchador, and his attempt to replace Shawn Michaels in The Rockers both failed miserably in the mid-90s. It wouldn’t be until he went back to ECW in 1997 that Snow would create the character that would propel him to heights he could have never imagined. Though his gimmick began under the guise of having a form of schizophrenia, his eventual adoption of a mannequin head named...Head would ultimately get him over. By the time he went back to the WWE in 1998, fans understood Snow’s gimmick and used double entendres to show their support by chanting “we want Head”; this was a reference to a sexual act of course. Until this day Al Snow still brings Head to independent shows, and uses her to win matches like he did in the WWE during his Hardcore Championship run.
5 Killed: Axelmania
Curtis Axel isn’t on here by any fault of his own, as it was the actions of Hulk Hogan that killed this gimmick for the third generation star. When Axel began using the Twitter tag #Axelmania in 2015, fans took notice as the trend was a parody of Hulkamania. Axel took the parody a step further when he began ripping his shirts off before matches, mimicking Hogan’s signature pre-match mannerism. WWE creative seized the opportunity and straight up put Axel into Hogan’s gear, encouraging their young star to do a Hulk Hogan impression on the mic. Admittedly the gimmick was getting over until Hogan got caught up in a scandal which caused the WWE to sever all ties to the Hall of Famer; this included severing Axel’s gimmick. Since losing his most successful gimmick, Axel has just kind of floated around and the question isn’t if he will be released, but rather when will he be released.
4 Made: Bray Wyatt
When Husky Harris debuted as part of NXT, there were few things that set him apart from the pack. The only thing he had going for him was the fact that his father was Mike Rotunda, otherwise known as WWE legend IRS. Harris failed to make an impact during his year on the main roster and was sent back to developmental to restructure his character.
This was easily the best move of his career, as Harris was able to develop the Bray Wyatt character in NXT and was quickly promoted to the main roster. Needless to say Wyatt has been successful, with multiple WrestleMania matches under his belt and of course is currently the reigning WWE Champion for SmackDown Live.
Fun fact: Harris was written off of television after taking a punt from Randy Orton, the man he's rumored to face at WrestleMania. Could this actually have been a six-year build without us realizing it?
3 Killed: Mike Awesome (WCW)
Mike Awesome seemingly had all the tools to make an impact on the wrestling industry. Standing at 6’6” tall, and weighing in at nearly 300 pounds, Awesome had the looks of a main event star during his prime in the late ‘90s. Maybe that’s why he was plucked from ECW to join WCW in 2000, surprising many by attacking Kevin Nash on an episode of Nitro. Adding to the mystery of Awesome was the fact that he was the reigning ECW Champion when he showed up on Nitro that night. You would think that ECW would be able to use his debut to springboard Awesome into a top spot, but you’d be wrong. Instead the brass at WCW turned him into a “70s guy”, which was a play on the popular show That 70s Show.
The gimmick saw Awesome dressing in 1970s style clothing, driving a Partridge Family van and hosting a talk show segment called “The Lava Lamp Lounge”. The gimmick flopped after a few months, but Awesome’s career was never able to reach the heights that it was predicted to.
2 Made: The Rock
No surprise here right? I mean who else benefited so much from a gimmick change as much as Dwayne Johnson did when he adopted The Rock persona? When Johnson debuted in the WWE as Rocky Maivia, he was billed as “The Blue Chipper”, a reference to his lineage as a third generation star with unlimited potential. Rocky was pushed as a clean cut babyface in a time when those types of characters no longer worked. When the audience eventually turned on Rocky in 1997 chanting “DIE, ROCKY, DIE”, a change had to happen.
Just as the fans had turned on Rocky, Johnson as The Rock, turned on them during vicious promos after joining The Nation of Domination. The Rock not only owes his Hall of Fame wrestling career to his gimmick change, but arguably his Hollywood career as well. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure that Rocky Maivia wouldn’t have been cast in any of The Fast and the Furious movies.
1 Killed: The Shockmaster
One single promo ended a career before it even began back in 1993 for Fred Ottman. Ottman, who had made a name for himself as Tugboat and Typhoon in the WWE, made the jump to WCW and was poised to debut as The Shockmaster in the main event of the Fall Brawl pay-per-view. Though he did participate in the match, The Shockmaster ruined any shred of credibility that he had by falling over during an interview segment with Ric Flair. Ottman was never able to recover from the infamous gaffe, and instead of continuing with the gimmick, WCW instead made The Shockmaster clumsy as part of his character. The incident may have ruined his wrestling career, but Ottman makes pretty good money in merchandise sales at various autograph signings because of it.