In the old days of professional wrestling, you either had a gimmick or you didn’t have a job. Very few wrestlers were allowed to simply be themselves. Even if they were incorporating real life personality traits into their character, they still needed a character to play in the first place. In those days, there was no gimmick too stupid to not be worthy of consideration. While that often led to the kind of wrestling gimmicks that fans spent years mocking (hello Yeti), it also meant that promoters would occasionally strike gold with a dumb gimmick that that somehow managed to just work.
Some of these gimmicks retain their brilliance. Even though the ideas may sometimes be outlandish (at least in comparison to the modern style) it’s impossible to not appreciate how these characters fit into the crazy world of professional wrestling. Other times…well, some other times, these gimmicks are impossible not to look at as the product of a different time. Not everything that worked in professional wrestling once upon a time would work today, and that most certainly applies to gimmicks. These are the top 10 gimmicks that would make it today, and 10 that would fail.
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20 Fail - The Godfather
“Only in the Attitude Era” is a phrase that some wrestling fans use to make sense of the crazy things the WWE got away with during their TV-MA boom period. It was a magical time when it seemed like there was nothing too stupid to fail. Now that we’ve all recovered from that era, it’s time to realize that gimmicks like The Godfather were just dumb. The idea of a wrestling pimp is not something that would ever be allowed on WWE television today, especially as WWE is in the middle of a women’s revolution (as they’re so fond of reminding us). More importantly, there really isn’t a lot of mileage you can get out of this gimmick. It’s amusing for a couple of weeks and then loses a lot of steam.
19 Succeed – "The Narcissist" Lex Luger
All due respect to Lex Luger, but the man was awful in the ring. Even in Lex Luger’s prime (sometime around the late ‘80s), he was barely capable of moving like a pro wrestler. Were it not for his incredible build and the contributions of guys like Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat, he would have probably not been a professional wrestler for long. Luger’s run in WWE was especially forgettable, but it did start out strong with the debut of his “Narcissist” gimmick. Luger entering the ring with a small army of groupies holding mirrors that allowed himself to admire his own physique was a simple gimmick, but it maximized Luger’s potential and just made sense. The closest we’ve seen to this gimmick in recent years was Chris Masters, and that also worked out well for a time.
18 Fail - The Sandman
There’s a popular misconception that Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Sandman were basically the same character. Both drank beer, both rebelled, and both didn’t meet someone’s idea of the typical champion (or even pro wrestler). The difference is subtlety. The Sandman was an average guy meant to appeal to the average guy. Stone Cold was basically a sociopath who found popularity once he turned his violence against the system.
There was no depth to The Sandman character. He was designed to be kind of a guilty pleasure at a time when wrestling was missing such things. If that character had to be on television every week, it wouldn’t be long before the act got old. Not to mention, I'm not sure Vince McMahon would want to see one of his talents smoking while walking to the ring and bleeding after smashing beer cans on his head.
17 Succeed - "The Road Warriors" Hawk and Animal
The dirty secret about Hawk and Animal is that they were terrible wrestlers. They could throw a mean clothesline and had an incredible finisher, but they could not work a great match unless they were in the ring with a seriously talented tag team. Even worse, they were some of worst wrestling bullies in history. The two were dedicated to looking like the meanest guys in the room and went to any lengths to maintaining that image. All that being said, their gimmick is one of the best of all time. Strap those spiked shoulder pads onto two guys and throw some face paint on them, and you’ve got an intimidating force that will never fail to make a mark on whatever card they are on.
16 Fail - Hercules
He kind of gets lost in wrestling history, but Hercules had a pretty impressive run in WWE during the late ‘80s. The man born as Raymond Fernandez managed to turn his impressive physical stature into a fruitful wrestling career. It took him a little while to find his way to WWE, but once he did, he soon dropped his common name and bland look. In their place, he adopted the gimmick of a Hercules. See, Hernandez didn’t just dress and act like the mythical Hercules; he actually believed he was Hercules. There were numerous promos during Hercules’ prime in which he references “his father Zeus” and other such nonsense.
Eventually, WWE toned down the references, but the idea of a man who believes he’s Hercules walking around a wrestling ring would be too much for modern audiences to stomach.
15 Succeed - Raven
Unlike The Sandman who was a product of some of the worst elements of the ECW style, Raven is an example of the company at its best. ECW identified itself as the Nirvana of the professional wrestling industry, so it makes sense that they would openly incorporate a grunge character into the show. Raven’s unique look and apathetic nature were certainly products of their time, but there are elements of the character which would just work in any era. Raven was a rebel against the system, but he was rarely a babyface. He was a guy that just wanted to watch the world burn. His apathy made him a villain because he was always able to beat the mot popular wrestlers without ever seeming like he was trying.
14 Fail - "The Ugandan Giant" Kamala
Kamala was a pretty brilliant idea way back in the day. He was a pure savage imported from some strange land that was so dangerous he had to be escorted to the ring by a handler. Kamala didn’t speak often, and honestly rarely won matches, but his mere presence was often enough to create the desired effect. He was one of many such wrestling savages. Some were from Samoa, others from parts unknown. None of them would work today.
With all due respect to the great Umaga, who was just so talented he eventually forced the wrestling savage to get over in the modern day, the idea itself is way too offensive to play out today. Also, how much more mileage can you really get from this tired gimmick?
13 Succeed - The Hurricane
It actually wasn’t that long ago that Gregory Helms donned a cape and a mask and became The Hurricane. When he debuted, nobody was quite sure what WWE was thinking. As it turned out, the gimmick was the perfect way for the incredibly talented, but sometimes bland, Gregory Helms to show the wrestling world what he had to offer. The Hurricane turned out to be the gimmick of a lifetime. While Helms' performance was a major reason behind that, the idea of a slightly misguided wrestling crime fighter that’s as humorous as they are capable is a pretty solid one still.
It’s doubtful that the gimmick would ever be turned into a main event sensation, but there’s still plenty of entertainment value left in this one.
12 Fail - Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake
In all honesty, Ed Leslie got as far as he did in his wrestling career because he just so happened to be best friends with Hulk Hogan. Hogan kept him employed well beyond the point that he should have been a professional wrestler. That being said, Ed Leslie did manage to get over on his own early into his WWE career by playing "The Barber." Brutus The Barber Beefcake was a legitimately popular superstar that fans could not get enough of. It actually was pretty cool how they were able to work him into so many “loser gets their head shaved” matches.
Once those ran dry, however, it became much more apparent that there wasn’t much else The Barber character had going for it. Unless you’re shaving wrestlers' heads on a weekly basis on Raw, this gimmick would be a disaster.
11 Succeed - "Evil" Doink The Clown
There are two Doink the Clowns in terms of character. The Doink that most people seem to remember is the one that came to the ring, played fun tricks, surrounded himself with little companions, and tried everything to make sure that kids loved him.
The other Doink is the character that existed during the first year of so of Doink’s introduction. That character was a straight up psychopath dressed as a clown. His incredible music and fondness for winning matches through creative heel techniques made him one of the few genuinely creepy characters in wrestling history. Would people really be willing to buy into a wrestling clown again? Well, if a wrestler is able to commit to the character as much as Matt Osborne did and the character remained a heel, then yes it could.
10 Fail - The Honky Tonk Man
Roy Wayne Farris will forever be known to WWE fans as The Honky Tonk Man. There is nothing that Farris could ever do to escape the lasting image of that character. He took a gimmick that was simple, even hopeless, and turned it into a Hall of Fame career thanks to some impressive heel work. The idea of a heel wrestler that’s hopelessly stuck in the past is still interesting enough, but the whole “evil singer” thing has almost never worked outside of this gimmick and the time The Rock brought his guitar to the ring.
Plus, Deuce and Domino pretty much proved that many young fans don’t care about characters from this era. Then again, Deuce and Domino didn’t really help their own careers.
9 Succeed - The Brood
Sometimes, you need a little stupidity in professional wrestling. More specifically, you occasionally need a gimmick or storyline that can only work in professional wrestling. Otherwise, what’s the point? There’s certainly an argument to be made regarding whether The Brood falls into the category of wrestling stupid or just plain dumb. A trio of wrestlers that think they’re vampires? How does that work? Well, as the original Brood proved, it can work quite well. Gangrel, Edge, and Christian were certainly mimicking vampires, but it was done in a way that was rarely ever gimmicky. It was more of a look and an attitude than it was WWE trying to say “Hey, these guys are undead creatures of the night.” A similar approach could help some of the developmental system wrestlers receive personality upgrade.
8 Fail - Johnny B. Badd
Marc Mero has had a pretty interesting wrestling career. Early on, scouts recognized that the man had a lot of talent. WCW also recognized that the wrestler bore an uncanny resemblance to Little Richard. They decided to run with that resemblance and design Mero to be a Little Richard wannabe called Johnny B. Badd. The results were interesting, to say the least. Mero’s skills helped get him over, but the gimmick was always kind of awful. A flamboyant wrestling character isn’t a bad idea (Adrian Street and Goldust proved the idea can work), but there was no substance to Johnny B. Badd. He wore bright colors, shot a confetti gun, and operated at a 100 MPH. Audiences today would see right through it, which wouldn't bode well for someone with that type of character.
7 Succeed - Mankind
When Mick Foley entered WWE, creative had a few different ideas for him. They weren’t interested in recycling the Cactus Jack gimmick, but they knew that they wanted to do some kind of unhinged madman character. In the process of trying to create a Hannibal Lecter type gimmick, they eventually created the early template of Mankind. Early is the keyword here. The early incarnation of Mankind was a hopelessly deranged psychopath that often spoke as if he wasn’t really able to separate reality from whatever world he had created for himself.
As it turned out, this dissociation with reality makes for a pretty great wrestling character. Who better to make sense of the crazy world of professional wrestling than a deranged madman? This character still has legs to it.
6 Fail - The Undertaker
The Undertaker is rightfully considered to be one of the greatest gimmicks of all time. When Mark Calaway debuted in WWE as a demented mortician from parts unknown, he immediately separated himself from every other wrestler on the roster. As time went on, WWE started to play up The Undertaker’s mystical qualities. He could control lightning, for instance, and was seemingly capable of being raised from the dead. Those aspects of the character are impossible to replicate.
Calaway did such an incredible job of portraying a mystical phenom that so happened to become a professional wrestler that you eventually just learned to accept the character’s craziest moments. You can’t take away what The Undertaker gimmick has contributed to WWE over the last 25 years, but that doesn’t mean the gimmick, or any similar gimmick, should ever be given to anyone else.
5 Succeed - Mr. Perfect
Curt Hennig was always destined to be a big deal in the world of professional wrestling. He had the looks, he had charisma, and he most certainly had skills. It certainly didn’t hurt, however, that he was also given one of the greatest wrestling gimmicks ever conceived. Mr. Perfect is that guy that everyone knew at one point or another that as seemingly great at everything they did. The thing that separated Mr. Perfect from those guys is that Perfect knew exactly how good he was. You could root against him, but you knew he was going to always perform at a perfect level. WWE tried to recreate this gimmick somewhat with Dolph Ziggler, but their inability to really duplicate Perfect’s speaking style and mannerisms just meant it wasn’t the same.
4 Fail - Tatanka
Once upon a time, you needed to have a native American gimmick on your roster. Performers like Chief Jay Strongbow worked the territories for years playing off of their (sometimes fake) heritages in order to become top babyfaces. There was nothing wrong with slapping on a headdress, waving a tomahawk. Doing some rain dances around the ring was no big deal, but it’s almost impossible to watch that gimmick now with a straight face.
That image has slowly been getting filtered out of popular entertainment, and Tatanka was a particularly egregious example of the stereotype. Maybe WWE could work in a genuine native American heritage into a wrestler’s gimmick, but a character like Tatanka would be a walking PR disaster. Chalk it up to a different time in wrestling.
3 Succeed - Jake "The Snake" Roberts
If you were young when you watched Jake “The Snake” Roberts, you probably remember him for the snakes he would carry to the ring. To be certain, the snake was involved in some of Jake’s most memorable moments. However, the true brilliance of Jake Robert’s character lied in his promo and motivations. Jake was a snake in the sense that nobody necessarily understood any his intentions, but they knew that he could strike at any time. Jake spoke in a slow, almost rambling manner. His promos were like elaborate riddles. He’s kind of like Bray Wyatt in that way. The difference is that Jake was trying to creep anyone out; he was trying to get into their heads. There’s never really been an equivalent to Jake Roberts.
2 Fail - "The Real American" Hulk Hogan
Let us tell you something about Hulk Hogan, brother. That dude was the man in the ‘80s, jack. His catch-phrase spewing, America loving, entirely wholesome superhero image helped WWE rule the world during professional wrestling’s golden era. You really have to have been there to understand the full power of the Hulk Hogan character. He was more of a legend than a human being. Boy, did that get old quickly. For all the flack that John Cena gets about the “Super-Cena” persona, he was never as bad as Hogan at his worst. Hogan was presented as an immortal figure that could never do wrong and always stood up for what was right. It was a character that Hogan himself effectively killed when he turned heel.
1 Succeed - "The Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase
When Ted DiBiase entered WWE, creative told him that they had come up with a gimmick for him that Vince McMahon himself would take if he was a professional wrestler. It turned out to be a pretty accurate description. Wrestling promoters had been utilizing the evil rich man angle for years, but there is nobody that embraced it quite like Ted DiBiase did. He had this way of speaking down to everyone he interacted with that truly helped you believe that he was worth every penny he claimed to have. He was no slouch in the ring, but he preferred to settle his disputes by simply buying out the competition whenever it was possible. JBL’s run as a similar character really proves how strong this gimmick is.
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