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.
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.
13 Kevin Nash As Master Blaster Steel, Oz, Vinnie Vegas
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.
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’.
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.
9 Edge as Val Venis
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).
7 The Undertaker as Mean Mark Callous
6 Lita as Essa Rios’s Luchadora Sidekick
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.
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).
3 Mankind as Mason The Mutilator
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.
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...
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