Very few wrestlers have been able to get over on skill alone. Nearly all the top guys have always succeeded in part because of their characters, not just their in-ring abilities. We might like to think that the cream will always rise to the top. That the best wrestlers will eventually succeed no matter the circumstances. Because it mimics a sport, pro wrestling might make us think the same way. If you’re one of the best hockey players, you will play in the NHL. If you’re one of the world’s top point guards, you will play in the NBA. Talent always gets discovered and funneled to the right channels. But just like some players’ careers might get hampered by playing on poor teams, so too can wrestler's careers be hampered by bad gimmicks.
It’s a scary thought. Would Hulk Hogan ever have become wrestling’s most recognizable character if he kept the moniker “Terry ‘the Hulk’ Boulder”? Would Chris Jericho ever rise to become the self-proclaimed G.O.A.T. if he had continued wrestling as simply “Lion Heart” (or worse still, “Cowboy Chris Jericho”)? It’s disquieting because one can only think of how many great wrestlers we lost to terrible gimmicks. What if Mantaur could have been the next Ric Flair? What if the only thing holding Ron Reis back was the awful “Yeti” gimmick? OK, these might be unlikely. And maybe the true greats will always find a way past terrible gimmicks. But what if some of these great wrestlers’ initial gimmicks had stuck? What would have happened then?
15 The Ultimate Warrior as the Dingo Warrior
When the Ultimate Warrior was signed by the WWE in June of 1987, he initially competed at house shows under the name he had been using in World Class Championship Wrestling: The Dingo Warrior. Vince McMahon (or somebody at WWE) didn’t want him to be one of several wrestling warriors, along with the Road Warriors and 'The Modern Day Warrior’ Kerry von Erich, so he was rechristened “The Ultimate Warrior”. Would The Ultimate Warrior have risen to become WWE champion as “The Dingo Warrior”. It would have been more difficult, but probably.
Him not actually being Australian shouldn’t have hurt him any more than ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper not actually being Scottish. And nothing about Warrior ever made any sense anyway, so why not? Interestingly, before he was The Dingo Warrior, he wrestled as “Blade Runner Rock” in the Blade Runners, seemingly yet another Road Warriors rip off. His teammate? Blade Runner Flash, played by Steve Borden, who would go on to be the man called Sting.
14 Triple H as Hunter Hearst Helmsley
Long before he was a 14-time world champion, an executive vice president in WWE, and Stephanie McMahon’s husband, Paul Levesque was Hunter Hearst Helmsley. Levesque debuted in WWE as ‘The Connecticut Blueblood’ Hunter Hearst Helmsley; a similar gimmick to his WCW character of Jean-Paul Levesque, except without the atrocious French-Canadian accent. When Hunter aligned with the newly turned heel Shawn Michaels in 1997, Shawn began referring to Hunter by the off-screen nickname he had for his friend: “Triple H”. The two would of course go on to form D-Generation X along with Chyna and the rest is history.
But would Triple H have been as successful if he kept the Connecticut Blueblood gimmick? Not a chance. That gimmick belonged to the cartoonish mid-1990s and there’s no way it would have survived in the attitude era. It should also be noted that Hunter’s significant growth in size (entirely natural, I assume) played a large role in his push.
13 Kevin Nash As Master Blaster Steel, Oz, Vinnie Vegas
When Kevin Nash got his start with WCW in 1990, he had to endure several years of horrible gimmicks. He began as the orange-mohawked Master Blaster Steel, first teaming with Master Blaster Blade (Al Green) and then as a singles wrestler. He was then the silver-haired Oz; a character based on The Wizard of Oz. He then portrayed wise-cracking mobster Vinnie Vegas and joined Diamond Dallas Page’s stable, The Diamond Mine, along with other early gimmicks of The Diamond Studd (Scott Hall) and Scotty Flamingo (Raven). By mid 1993, Nash had had enough and left for the WWE, where Vince McMahon always knows how to book big men. Nash would go on to become WWE Champion as Diesel, before enjoying further success under his own name (and acerbic personality) back in WCW in the late 1990s. Could Nash have succeeded as Master Blaster Steel, Oz, or Vinnie Vegas if given enough time? No way. One could hardly think up three worse gimmicks for Nash if they tried.
12 Emma as the Dancing Emma
In early 2013, Emma developed a character in NXT that become a fan favorite. Emma would do an awkward dance which you’d have to see to understand. Emma’s happy go lucky character was received well by younger fans, especially young girls, who loved to imitate her dance. The encouraging NXT crowds got behind her as well. However, when the WWE debuted her on the main roster in early 2014, they did just about the worst job they could do. They gave no explanation of Emma’s dance nor her character and just showed her dancing in the crowd, looking as though she may have a mental disorder.
They then threw her together with Santino Marella as a comedic pairing. It bombed horribly and Emma was sent back to NXT. Emma would go on to develop a good heel team with Dana Brooke. Unfortunately, Emma would get injured as soon as they got called up to the main roster in 2016. Now Emma has been advertised to debut under new gimmick “Emmalina” for months, which looks doomed to fail. If WWE had just introduced the dancing character properly, Emma could have got over with her original gimmick.
11 Santino Marella as Boris Alexiev
Speaking of Santino Marella, the Italian goofball character was not his original gimmick. In the WWE’s then developmental territory, Ohio Valley Wrestling, Santino wrestled as Boris Alexiev, a Russian Mixed Martial Arts fighter. While Marella (real name Anthony Carelli) is actually a Canadian of Italian, not Russian, descent, the Alexiev character was more like his real self inasmuch that Carelli is an experienced judoka and amateur wrestler. He dominated many of his opponents with stiff strikes and throws, before he was called up for ‘the Milan Miracle’.
Could Carelli have succeeded as Alexiev as well as he did as Santino? You could argue that, as a serious character, Alexiev had a higher ceiling. But with the main roster being chock full of big bodies, the comparatively smaller Carelli probably could not have lasted as long under a serious shoot fighter gimmick. The Santino character was probably better long term and it allowed him to showcase his excellent comedic instincts.
10 The Godfather as Papa Shango/Kama Mustafa
Charles Wright’s fun loving pimp character --The Godfather-- was a hugely popular opening match gimmick with the (male dominated) Attitude Era audience. But could Wright have enjoyed as much success under his previous gimmicks? Kama ‘the Supreme Fighting Machine’, was an MMA character. While Wright did relatively well in the profoundly calamitous “Brawl for All” tournament, nobody would confuse him for Jon Jones. After that failed, he was repackaged as “Kama Mustafa” and thrown into the Nation of Domination with the rest of the black wrestlers Vince didn’t know what to do with. So clearly, Kama was not a winning gimmick.
But Papa Shango? Shango is a divisive figure. Adult fans watching in 1992 hated the cartoonish voodoo character. But ask anybody who was a kid at the time and they’ll likely tell you they were terrified of Papa Shango. Maybe if he hadn’t missed his cue to interfere in the main event of WrestleMania VIII; maybe if the Ultimate Warrior hadn’t been fired before they could wrestle; maybe if they had not given Shango the ability to make wrestlers vomit from afar, the gimmick could have worked.
9 Edge as Val Venis
It’s hard to imagine how much wrestling history would have been altered had Edge (Adam Copeland) debuted under the gimmick that was initially intended for him: Val Venis. As Val Venis, fellow Canadian Sean Morley, became quite popular during the Attitude Era in a similar vein as The Godfather. But clearly the gimmick did not have legs, and by 2000, it had pretty much run its course, save a for a drastic change-up as part of the Right to Censor. It’s hard to imagine Copeland, as Val Venis, winning the first Money in the Bank at WrestleMania 21, main-eventing WrestleMania 24, or being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. Even though Copeland was a better wrestler and a more dynamic performer than Morley, there’s no way he could have done anything more with the Venis character. Now, if Edge debuted under his indie name of “Sexton Hardcastle”? Instant main event.
8 Kane as Isaac Yankem/”Diesel”
Glen Jacobs is yet another demonstration that, if you’re big enough, Vince McMahon will be very patient in trying to find the right gimmick for you. Ultimately, that gimmick was Kane; the masked, burned (but not really?), baby brother of the Undertaker. While the Kane gimmick on paper seems ludicrous, he eventually got to Undertaker status where the WWE could pretty much throw anything at him and the crowd would more or less accept it. (Except that Kane seemed to get the stuff that was too crazy even for the Undertaker).
As Jerry Lawler’s dentist Isaac Yankem (get it?), Jacobs was portraying a typical mid-1990s Vince character, when all the wrestlers seemed to have outside jobs. Obviously, that was going nowhere. Jacobs then portrayed “Diesel” after Kevin Nash left. This was a pathetic attempt to recreate the success of the Diesel character without Nash. If you wonder if Jacobs could have been as successful as the Fake Diesel as he was with Kane, simply look the not-so-illustrious career enjoyed by Rick Bognar, the fake Razor Ramon. Kane had to be Kane to succeed.
7 The Undertaker as Mean Mark Callous
As mentioned above, The Undertaker character gets a free pass. In a business that is often most successful when portraying a realistic sports-like atmosphere, The Undertaker is a gigantic exception. Because of his legendary career and professionalism, The Undertaker is unreservedly revered, even if we know he’s not really controlling the lights in the stadium. Back in the early and mid-1990s, however, ‘Taker was portraying an even more cartoonish zombie-like character. But he played it well and it worked in that era. He displayed far more charisma as The Undertaker than he did as “Mean Mark Callous” in WCW, or “Texas Red” in WCCW. The “Mean Mark” gimmick was essentially just a big guy who liked to hurt people. And to see how long those gimmicks tend to last, just look up the career trajectory of Mike Knox, Adam Bomb, or Kurgan. It’s hard to imagine Mark Calaway not being a successful pro wrestler, but if he never became The Undertaker, he probably wouldn’t have.
6 Lita as Essa Rios’s Luchadora Sidekick
Had Lita never teamed up with The Hardy Boyz to form Team Xtreme, she would be nothing more than a footnote in wrestling history. She debuted in the WWE in 2000 as Essa Rios’s valet. Unlike many valets, Lita could actually wrestle and mimic Rios’s luchador style. Despite not actually being Latina, Lita did well in this gimmick, but the WWE didn’t care at all about Rios nor the entire Light-Heavyweight division. Furthermore, Lita displayed no personality in this gimmick. It wasn’t until she aligned herself with Jeff and (her real life boyfriend) Matt Hardy that she got to showcase her personality and a wider range of her abilities. She appealed to both men and women with her alternative, skater girl/punk rock fashion and she helped to make the Hardys a legendary tag team. Things she would never have done as Essa Rios’s valet.
5 Rikishi as Fatu or The Sultan
Solofa Fatu rivals Ed Leslie (Brutus Beefcake) for the most gimmicks ever, except Rikishi eventually got over. He worked for years along with his cousin Samu as the Samoan Swat Team in various promotions, including WCW. The team were a stereotypical “savage” Samoan team. They carried over their gimmick to the WWE in 1992 as “The Headshrinkers”. The gimmick worked fine for its time, but the one-dimensional and pretty much racist gimmick couldn’t have lasted much longer (though, oddly, it did work for Umaga in the 2000s). Rikishi also portrayed The Sultan; a bizarre, masked, Middle Eastern character whose tongue had been ripped out. That was pure garbage.
The interesting one is “Make a Difference Fatu”, the short-lived gimmick he had between these two. Fatu spoke of his real life hardships growing up in poor neighborhoods and the crime he saw and wanting to help his community. The WWE seemingly didn’t even give this gimmick a chance, but the more realistic, uplifting character could have gone somewhere. Instead, Fatu would achieve his greatest success as Rikishi: an overweight man who liked to dance and shove his ass into people’s faces. Who knew?
4 JBL as Justin Hawk Bradshaw
John “Bradshaw” Layfield is one of only a few wrestlers to achieve success with two different gimmicks. His most success came as a more villainous version of his real self: a Texas-born New York stock trader. But before he became WWE Champion as JBL, he was Bradshaw, the hard-drinking, hard-fighting, muscle for hire along with Faarooq in the Acolyte Protection Agency. Before that he and Faarooq portrayed the bizarre Acolytes as part of The Undertaker’s Ministry of Darkness (an odd role for them).
But before any of that, he was Justin ‘Hawk’ Bradshaw, a cowboy managed by Uncle Zebekiah (Dutch Mantel). That was it; a tough cowboy. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t work, so he grew a handlebar moustache, died his hair jet black, and teamed with Barry Windham as “The New Blackjacks”. There’s a rule in wrestling that a “new” version of a tag team is doomed to fail. Safe to say, had he never found his way to the APA, JBL would not have accomplished much.
3 Mankind as Mason The Mutilator
Mick Foley had already been reasonably successful in WCW, ECW, and in Japan as “Cactus Jack”. But when he came to the WWE, Vince wanted to give him a new name: “Mason The Mutilator”. This name is often pointed to as one of the worst Vince ideas of all time. And it is terrible, but let’s be honest, is “Mankind” that much better a name? Names like “Mankind” and “Triple H” are testaments to the theory that great performers will get past bad names. Granted, it’s hard to imagine Jim Ross yelling, “By gawd, Mason The Mutilator is broken in half!”. While Foley probably never would have won the WWE title as “Mason The Mutilator”, if he could have found a way to evolve into Dude Love and then Cactus Jack (as he did from Mankind), he still could have succeeded. But if he were forced to perform only under the Mutilator moniker forever, perhaps not.
2 Stone Cold as The Ringmaster or Chilly McFreeze
Right after somebody mentions “Mason The Mutilator” as a terrible name suggestion, somebody will inevitably top it with “Chilly McFreeze”. Believe it or not, that was an idea for Steve Austin. “Chilly McFreeze”. Chilly McFreeze is not winning any titles, full stop. I don’t care who’s portraying him. When the “Chilly McFreeze” name had been floated to Austin, he had already been wrestling as “The Ringmaster”, another winning gimmick. While The Ringmaster was not great, it didn’t damage Austin’s reputation beyond repair. Austin wanted to portray a cold-hearted character and mentioned this to Vince and/or creative. They sent him a list of possible names that missed the point entirely. They just came up with “cold” puns.
Thankfully, Austin’s then wife told him to drink his tea before it became “stone cold” and a star was born. If Austin had actually been forced to wrestle as “Chilly McFreeze”, the WWE might not even exist today. There’s just no way “Chilly McFreeze” headlines a WrestleMania and turns around the WWE's business.
1 The Rock as Rocky Maivia
Rocky Maivia becoming “The Rock” is one of the more subtle rebrandings on this list, but it’s possibly the most significant. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is the highest grossing actor in Hollywood. He has transcended pro wrestling. He is arguably the biggest star the WWE ever created. And none of that would have happened if they didn’t let him turn heel. As crowds were enthralled by the bad-ass, antihero
Chilly McFreeze ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, Dwayne Johnson was being made to portray a boring, white meat babyface. The crowd couldn’t care less about his father or grandfather, they just saw an average wrestler with no charisma. Rocky was assaulted with “Rocky sucks” chants and even fans with “Die Rocky Die” signs.
The WWE finally allowed Rock to turn heel and join the Nation in August 1997. It saved his career. If Rock were forced to remain the bland babyface Rocky Maivia, he would never have been successful and probably wouldn’t be a movie star. He’d just be some guy. It’s crazy to think about. It also brings to mind a certain current half-Samoan WWE wrestler who is floundering as a babyface...