Depending on who you ask, the best character a wrestler can portray is themselves with the volume turned all the way up. Steve Austin or Dwayne Johnson wouldn’t have reached the popularity they achieved in the ‘90s if they hadn’t developed their over the top “Stone Cold” and “The Rock” personalities, but what about other wrestlers? What about the ones who might not be so interesting, even with the knob turned to 11? How are they able to develop an in-ring persona that connects with the audience?
Some of them, for better or worse, look to the zeitgeist. If the fans see something they instantly recognize it can be a shortcut to understanding what the character represents. However, if the audience sees this as pandering and the performer trying too hard by practically yelling, “do you get it!?” based on their look alone, it can blow up in their face. It can either be seen as the wrestler expressing part of themselves based on something they are passionate about or a cheap cash-in trying to talk down to the masses. From movies, television, music, and anything else that becomes culturally significant, wrestlers have been ripping off those ideas for as long as there have been gimmicks. Some of them have proven to be successful and have even outlasted the original idea, others were so poorly executed that the experiment may have only lasted a few months at best.
Let’s take a look at eight pop culture inspired wrestlers that simply didn’t work and seven that surprisingly did.
15 Didn’t Work: Paul Burchill Ripped Off Captain Jack Sparrow
Once upon a time, there was a very talented wrestler named Paul Burchill. He had a good look, was great in the ring, and had the privilege of teaming up with one of the most underrated grapplers of all time, William Regal. Then one day in 2006, Regal and Burchill decided to split up. Soon after, Burchill began dressing up like a pirate with a look strikingly similar to Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. Complete with a theme song perfect to “yo-ho!” to, and a finishing move called “Walk the Plank,” Burchill was set to sail the seas of the WWE in search of gold. The character was soon scrapped almost immediately. According to lore, Vince McMahon (the perpetually out of touch owner of the WWE) was unaware of the billion-dollar Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Much like a sunken treasure chest, Burchill’s career was never able to truly resurface.
14 Worked: Chris Jericho Ripped Off No Country For Old Men
Chris Jericho has done it all both in and out of the ring. He has won just about every championship imaginable, main evented WrestleMania, makes music in a moderately successful band, and even had role in the greatest movie ever, MacGruber. His success can be attributed to the fact that he has never done the same thing twice. Each time he returns to the WWE, there’s a different angle to it. Whether he’s Y2J, wants to “Save Us,” puts people on his "list," or speaks softly while wearing a suit, he has made huge impacts every time he has returned. Jericho admitted the latter persona came from the character Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. The connection might not seem prominent at first but makes total sense. As Jericho put it in an interview with Rocky Mountain News, “The guy was completely committed to what he was doing… You could say he was evil and wrong, but in his mind, he was right and that's all there was to it. He was very calm, cool and collected, and a complete psycho as well. I thought, 'These are the elements of a great (wrestling) character.’" It’s no surprise Javier Bardem won an Academy Award for his role as Chigurh and Jericho won the Superstar of the Year Slammy, both achieving equal success and acclaim.
13 Didn’t Work: Oz Ripped Off The Wizard Of Oz
Between Diesel, Vinnie Vegas, Master Blaster Steel, and his real name, Kevin Nash has gone through a multitude of names and gimmicks. None of them were worse than that of Oz. With an entrance that included, a fairy tale introduction, green strobe lights, lackeys resembling Dorothy and her friends, and an elderly man mask, it was clear from the start that this gimmick was a disaster. There are middle schools who have put together better productions of The Wizard of Oz than WCW. Thankfully, Nash’s final stint with the company proved to be much more fruitful when he formed the nWo. Also, one of his finishers was called the “Oz Twister.” You know, because of the tornado that brought Dorothy to The Land of Oz. They really thought of everything. Except if it would work in a wrestling ring. It didn’t. Too bad that, unlike the ending of The Wizard of Oz, it wasn’t all a dream.
12 Worked: Doink The Clown Ripped Off Pennywise
The original incarnation of Doink the Clown was terrifying. A jester whose only joy came from pulling violent pranks on babyface wrestlers and tormenting audience members. His first theme song was particularly unsettling, starting off with a sample of “Entry of the Gladiators” before quickly turning into a dark and sinister tune with maniacal laughter scattered throughout. Played by the late Matt Borne upon his debut in 1992, this creepy portrayal was directly influenced by the character Pennywise the Dancing Clown from the 1990 miniseries It. Of course, Doink wasn’t allowed to feast on children so he had to settle for bonking Crush on the head with a prosthetic arm. Sure, once the clown became a good guy and palled around with his diminutive sidekick Dink, all of the terror and malice that made the character work was gone. But during his time as a bad guy, Doink succeeded in giving kids nightmares and making them rethinking that trip to the circus.
11 Didn’t Work: Jillian Hall Ripped Off Britney Spears
WWE has a long history of wrestlers singing poorly. From the entire '80s roster bumbling their way through “Land of 1,000 Dances” to Kurt Angle hilariously butchering Shawn Michaels' theme song while singing “Sexy Kurt,” it’s safe to say that wrestlers trying to carry a tune is a mixed bag. Thankfully, most of these are one off instances and rarely overstay their welcome. Then there is Jillian Hall. Hall’s main roster career first began when she acted as MNM’s and then JBL’s assistant where she was most notable for having a giant mole on her face that was bitten off by the Boogeyman. After that, Jillian began to showcase her (lack of) singing talent. Mirroring a tone-deaf Britney Spears by mimicking Brit-Brit’s southern twang, the Diva would spend many a backstage and in-ring segment heinously singing off-key to the chagrin of the WWE Universe. The company went all in with the gimmick and gave Jillian her own Christmas album in 2007 called “A Jingle with Jillian.” The seven track EP can be best described as 14 minutes of nauseating yuletide carols. Check it out this holiday season if the month of December isn’t depressing enough for you!
10 Worked: The Hurricane Ripped Off Green Lantern
Before coming to the WWE as part of The Invasion, Gregory Helms already had one pop culture based gimmick that fell relatively flat in WCW. Teaming up with Evan Karagias and Shannon Moore, Helms was one-third of the boy band parody known as 3 Count. Once signed to WWE, Helms floundered about in the cruiserweight division before adopting a new, larger than life personality. Inspired by a real-life love for comic books, especially the Green Lantern, the Hurricane was born. Helms donned a mask and cape similar to the ring-wearing space cop and began to dole out his own brand of justice within the WWE. He became one of the comedic highlights in the early 2000s when he began to conduct backstage interviews in his civilian identity while trying his best to keep his alter ego a secret. To go along with his green, Hurricane also racked up an impressive amount of gold, winning the Cruiserweight, Hardcore, and European championships in addition to Tag Team reigns with Kane and his “Super-Hero In Training” Rosey. In one of his biggest acts of super-heroics, Hurricane was able to pick up a shocking victory over The Rock.
9 Didn’t Work: Rad Radford Ripped Off Kurt Cobain
Vince McMahon is a man who makes his wrestlers say things like “suffering succotash” and allegedly wanted one to dress up a rodent superhero from the 1940s. It’s safe to say that he has never really had his finger on the pulse of what is popular. This was clear as day when WWE decided they wanted to tap into the grunge movement that was popular at the time. Of course, this was a full year after Kurt Cobain committed suicide, but that didn’t stop the billion-dollar company. On the plus side, they actually managed to find a wrestler who could embody the spirit of the genre in 24-year-old Louie Spicolli. Spicolli had already made a name for himself wrestling in Mexico’s AAA promotion as “Madonna’s Boyfriend.” In effort to outdo the terrible name he had south of the boarder, WWE christened him Rad Radford. Complete with a flannel shirt and a dubious claim to be dating Courtney Love, Radford never made much of an impact in the company before being fired after overdosing on Somas. Sadly, Spicolli died at the age of 27, the same age Cobain was when he passed.
8 Worked: Trish Stratus And Mickie James Ripped Off Single White Female
Mickie James and Trish Stratus’ initial storyline in WWE was buckwild. It all began, innocently enough, when James debuted for the company as Trish’s biggest fan and began teaming with the veteran. Soon, Mickie began to develop a fixation towards her idol. James dressed up Trish during a Halloween costume contest at 2005’s Taboo Tuesday where she sacrificed herself so Stratus could win a battle royal at the event. Continuing to look like Trish, Mickie soon adopted the former’s signature moves in her matches. Things came to a head when Mickie planted a kiss on her hero while the two stood under some mistletoe. Trish would rebuff Mickie’s advances, driving the rookie into a frenzy. James’ love for Stratus soon turned into hate and she defeated her in a controversial match at WrestleMania 22, becoming the new Women’s Champion. This angle is very reminiscent to the 1992 erotic thriller Single White Female, where a woman’s roommate becomes obsessed with her, changes her looks to match her, and grows jealous when others get more attention than she does. Just, you know, replacing murder with wrestling.
7 Didn’t Work: The Demon Ripped Off Kiss
Admittedly the Demon didn’t “rip off” Kiss as much as it was a 100% approved and sanctioned joint venture between the aging rock band and a failing WCW. Debuting on an episode of Monday Nitro, the character was originally played by the former Demolition Crush Brian Adams before being replaced by Dale Torborg. Looking like a musclebound Gene Simmons, the Demon was originally supposed to be the first in a faction of wrestlers known as the “Warriors of Kiss,” with the additional band members getting their own in-ring avatars. Most likely due to the fact that it was a terrible idea done twenty years too late, the face painted Demon’s popularity never took off. He can at least claim to have participated in a “Special Main Event,” as a match against The Wall was hastily put together to fulfill a contractual obligation with the band. The “god of blunder” was pinned in 3 minutes and 37 seconds, that’s only seven seconds longer than the album version of “Hotter than Hell.”
6 Worked: Kenny Omega Ripped Off The Terminator
Kenny Omega is a geek. He’s one of the most talented wrestlers to ever grace the squared circle, but he is without a doubt a real Melvin. With an arsenal of videogame-inspired moves like the V-Trigger and One-Winged Angle, Omega has no shame in admitting his love of popular culture. His current gimmick of “The Cleaner” is also an amalgam of a few characters. Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra, Resident Evil’s Wesker, and of course, the Terminator can all be seen. Wearing his trademark leather jacket and aviator sunglasses to the ring, Kenny’s love for these characters really shines through. He doubled down on the Schwarzenegger influence at Wrestle Kingdom 11 when he recreated a scene from The Terminator before walking to the ring wearing a T-800 mask and toting a shotgun. This blew Triple H’s entrance from the year before that also utilized imagery from the franchise out of the water. The inspiration can also be heard when the Young Bucks drum The Terminator’s score on the apron before Omega dives over the top rope in hopes of “terminating” his opponent.
5 Didn’t Work: The Artist Formerly Known As Prince Iaukea Ripped Off Prince
If you create a wrestling character based on a funny name alone, you should probably just stop there. Case in point: The Artist Formerly Known As Prince Iaukea. TAFKAPI wrestled for WCW for three years as “Prince Iaukea” and achieved a modest amount of success by winning their Television Championship. After being relegated to a jobber to the stars, Iaukea reemerged in late 1999 blatantly ripping off Prince. The new persona saw him wearing a purple overcoat and white blouse, entering the ring to a song that was definitely NOT “Purple Rain,” and accompanied by his manager Paisley (Booker T's future wife, Sharmell). Despite winning the Cruiserweight Championship on two occasions, the character never really managed to get over with the audience due to lacking the sheer charisma of the rock star he modeled himself after.
Thankfully, we currently have a much better version of this gimmick in NXT as Patrick Clark has adopted the moniker of the Velveteen Dream where he regularly finishes off opponents with his beautiful Purple Rainmaker elbow drop.
4 Worked: The Dudley Boyz Ripped Off Slap Shot
A lot of parallels can be drawn between Extreme Championship Wrestling and the beloved 1977 hockey comedy Slap Shot. They both involve a minor sports league who uses extreme violence and over the top antics to excite their fans and boost their popularity. Also, some of their both of their biggest draws were rowdy bespectacled brothers who could take and give a serious beating. ECW’s creative force Paul Heyman created the Dudley family by mimicking Slap Shot’s Hanson brothers, only swapping hockey jerseys for tie-dyed shirts and overalls. Both sets of siblings may have looked like dweebs, but they were some of the toughed men to ever lace up a pair of boots or skates. The Charlestown Chief’s enforcers weren’t the only examples of pop culture influencing the Dudleys as Heyman would create new brothers like the Native American Dances with Dudley and bible-quoting D-Von Dudley who was reminiscent of Samuel L. Jackson’s character Jules from Pulp Fiction.
3 Didn’t Work: Battman Ripped off Batman
The 1960s were a very different time for wrestling. Barring a few standouts like Gorgeous George, not many wrestlers had larger-than-life gimmicks like the ones that would develop in the ‘70s and really take off in the ‘80s. Tony Marino was one particular wrestler with no direction and little actual talent, until one day, he was struck by inspiration. Much like how a young Bruce Wayne was inspired by a bat smashing through his window as a child, Tony was inspired by a man dressed as a bat smashing through criminals on his television. Adam West’s Batman was a monstrous success on TV and Tony Marino decided to use the character as an inspiration to revitalize his wrestling career (and by inspiration, I mean outright rip-off). Calling himself Battman (notice the second “t”), Tony became a hit on the Pittsburgh wrestling scene. Oftentimes, another wrestler dressed as Robin would often accompany him to the ring. Which was probably spelled “Wrobin,” to thwart off his greatest villains, copyright attorneys.
2 Worked: Sting Ripped Off The Crow
Sting was already thriving in World Championship Wrestler before he adopted a character that looked just like Brandon Lee’s titular character from The Crow. He had an “Ultimate Warrior stung by a scorpion by way of Venice Beach” feel that had done him wonders in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Eventually, his bright colors and can-do attitude became stale just around the same time one of America’s greatest heroes (before all of the racism), Hulk Hogan, turned his back on his millions of adoring fans and formed the evil faction known as the New World Order. This left the WCW in a state of disarray. They were left without a face of the company, and Sting would soon disappear from television. Months later, he appeared with new, mime-style face paint in the rafters. He would go on to defeat Hogan for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship, all thanks to his newfound brooding abilities, which most likely came with a Nine Inch Nails album and a gift card to Hot Topic.
1 Didn’t Work: Sting Ripped Off The Joker
By the time 2011 had rolled around, we were already 17 years removed from the original, and only good, Crow film and the Stinger was ready for a change. Once again, the Icon turned to popular culture to be his creative muse (I didn’t even mention that when Sting teamed up with the Ultimate Warrior in the Universal Wrestling Federation, they called themselves the Blade Runners). Embroiled in a feud with Mr. Anderson, Sting was constantly mocked by the loudmouth and felt that he was treated as a *ahem* “Joke.” Deciding to lean a little too hard into that, he started smearing his greasepaint, donning extravagant colors, and smacking his lips like the late Heath Ledger did when he played the Joker in The Dark Knight three years earlier. His personality became more manic and annoyingly kooky as time went on. Sting’s Crow gimmick worked because he was able to elevate the character to popularity beyond that of the cult classic film. It was impossible for him to reach the levels of the Academy Award-winning performance he was aping.