Professional wrestling, unlike most every other sport on the radar, holds a rich heritage of larger than life characters within its ranks. Of course, promoters have had a hand in building the intrigue with fictional biographies and hometowns – whatever they could conceive to increase the box office appeal of the grapplers under their employ.
One might argue that every sport lays claim to their fair share of memorable athletes whose legend was as large while competing as it was away from the glare of the spotlight. However, one area that no other sport has ventured to create is the mystique that surrounds the many wrestlers that have donned a mask to enter the ring.
Historically, it was the cloaked villain that would don a mask to enter a new territory and serve as the antagonist for the home grown hero but over time the role of the masked wrestler has evolved. This is due in large part to the influence of Mexican lucha libre on North American wrestling, which has resulted in some of our most beloved stars of all time earning their fame incognito. Stars like Mil Mascaras, Jushin Liger and The Destroyer are best known for their work under a mask and few know what visage lies beneath.
The following list explores 12 of the best masked wrestlers that should never have unmasked, despite what the creative direction of the day may have dictated. In some cases, forfeiting their secret identities signaled the end of their careers. In others, professional wrestling simply lost a little of its allure by pulling back the curtain on some of the all-time great characters in the sport. Here are 12 wrestlers who never should have unmasked.
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12 Juventud Guerrera
Was it a coincidence that “Air Juvi” saw his career take a downward spiral almost as soon as his mask came off in his WCW run? Juventud was among the leading Latin wrestlers in World Championship Wrestling’s focus on the high flying cruiserweight division. However, after losing his mask in a stipulation match against Chris Jericho, much of what followed has largely erased the legacy that his performances to that point had created for him.
11 Barry O
On paper, it would seem that Barry Orton was on track to carry on the family tradition in the squared circle alongside his brother Bob Orton Jr. He had moderate success touring the territories and in Japan under his own name, but things exploded for him when he donned a black cloak and mask as The Zodiac under Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling banner. In fact, during his stay in Calgary, he became one of the territory’s top villains.
Unfortunately his momentum died upon being signed to the WWE and billed as Barry O. Sadly, his tenure in the WWE is rather unremarkable, aside from his role in a scandal which made it to talk show television as the 1980s came to a close. Could he have had a greater impact as the Zodiac in the WWE? We’ll never know.
Paul Heyman’s reputation as a wrestling visionary was never more apparent than when he expanded the largely northeastern U.S. talent roster in Extreme Championship Wrestling to expose fans to the best international talent on the market. Psicosis was among the first wave of talent to appear at the ECW arena and his talent was indisputable. It wasn’t long before he found himself under contract with WCW. However, when the WWE came calling and he debuted under the name by which he was known to fans without his signature mask, the change did not pay off for him as a member of the Mexi-cools.
Aside from being the only WWE wrestler in history to regularly ride a lawn tractor to the ring, there’s not much else of his brief stay in Vince McMahon’s camp that we remember a decade later. But those electrifying matches earlier in his career though ... we still get chills.
Mantaur makes the list but for entirely different reasons. Unfortunately for Mike Hallick, his brief run in the WWE will go down in infamy as one of the worst gimmicks in the history of professional wrestling. Coming down to the ring with a four foot furry buffalo mask which represented the height of WWE ridiculousness, the burly undercarder couldn’t even climb through the ropes with this monstrosity on his head. If only he had never unmasked, wrestling fans would never have been subjected to the forgettable matches that followed. Thankfully, Mantaur quickly went the way of the Gobbledy Gooker – but he holds a place of distinction near that dancing turkey-man in wrestling infamy.
8 The Spoiler
Canadian Don Jardine enjoyed a long career from the 1950s to the 1980s, most famously known as the Spoiler. Under a mask in headline matches around the world, Jardine was a top draw almost everywhere he appeared. In fact, after first donning the mask in 1967 in World Class Championship Wrestling, fans seldom saw his face again without his trademark mask. That was, until he was called up to headline Madison Square Garden against World champion Pedro Morales for Vince McMahon Sr. in 1972.
He was still featured atop the marquee as The Spoiler, but without the mask. When the photos hit the wrestling magazines, it was another busted myth for wrestling fans, even when he returned to the obscurity of his hood less than a year later.
7 The Shockmaster
Sadly, Fred Ottman’s wrestling career is best remembered for an ill-fated introduction to the WCW roster under a silver Styrofoam storm trooper mask. However, not long prior to that, billed as Typhoon, Ottman was one of the most dominant villains in the WWE. What would have happened if The Shockmaster had not tumbled through the wall and stumbled through an awkward interview that followed? We are not convinced that The Shockmaster, as designed would have had an illustrious run in the annals of pro wrestling history, but it certainly must have been better than the ridiculous Uncle Fred character that he was saddled with for the remainder of his wrestling career.
While many fans enjoyed the hilarity of Mick Foley’s folksy segments on Monday Night Raw playing off the serious personas of Steve Austin and The Rock, who didn’t get goosebumps at the earliest appearances of Foley in the WWE as Mankind? In a business that has seen everything, the character of Mankind transcended a whole new level of horror, even among the most jaded of wrestling fans. Mankind presented a visceral terrifying villain that would give fans nightmares ... unmasking the man with “an ear ripped from his skull, a face that no longer exists” killed one of the best creations to ever be concocted by the WWE’s creative team.
5 Jean-Pierre Lafitte
Unfortunately for Jean-Pierre Lafitte, in 1995, the only image that sprung to mind for a wrestler with one glass eye was a pirate with an eye patch. However, any way you slice it, the most memorable character ever attached to Montreal’s Pierre Ouellet was as the eye-patched swashbuckler. We salivate at the thought of what could have been done with Ouellet in the WWE in the Attitude Era had he been introduced at the same time as characters like Mick Foley’s Mankind.
However, as an “Amazing French Canadian” there wasn’t a lot of substance there to get excited about. Lafitte was never the same without the mask ... and the proof is in the inclusion of that eye patch in later iterations of his character that simply never seemed to translate into box office money.
Let’s admit, when we first saw Abyss, we couldn’t escape the comparison to Mankind. However, as the 6’8 monster in TNA carved his own wide swath and established his own identity and track record, we couldn’t help but get caught up in the rise of the monster that seemed unstoppable. Nothing could derail the wild animal Abyss. Oh wait, enter Joseph Park. Shearing his hair, discarding the mask and playing the role of his own brother, it was a little like pulling back the curtain on the incredible Wizard of Oz and discovering that he was just a frail old man with a gift for sleight of hand.
Here was the unstoppable monster, looking simply like an awkward, lumpy every man that could have just as easily have been in the arena holding a ticket stub in the front row. Colossally bad move.
3 Rey Mysterio
It’s difficult to define what WCW’s bigger mistake was: importing so many luchadores from Mexico that they were left with a marketing nightmare to distinguish them from each other to American audiences or resorting to taking away the identities that so firmly defined what the marquee appeal of this attraction truly was. At any rate, the unmasking of Rey Mysterio Jr., easily one of the most unique and celebrated lucha libre stars of his generation was a move that defied all logic.
What was so mysterious about a guy with the face of a 12-year-old pop star? Thankfully, when WWE picked up Misterio, they righted a wrong and restored his secret identity and elevated his career to greater heights.
2 El Generico
There is no denying the incredible talent of Sammy Zayn. He has thrilled audiences already in his short run with the WWE under the NXT banner. However, for long time fans of El Generico who witnessed his rise from the obscurity of the wrestling scene in Quebec to his show stealing performances in Ring of Honor and other top independent shows, something is missing. There was something ironic, yet vindicating about a wrestler with a self-deprecating ring name and run of the mill mask and tights that so defied his own ‘generic’ billing. While Zayn deserves to be on a roster among the very best of his generation, there’s a part of us that is sad that “El Generico” will never make it to WrestleMania.
It was twenty years ago that fans were introduced to “The Big Red Monster” and in commanding fashion. In fact, the arrival of Kane to the WWE and the back story that they created about his dark character was so compelling that we were even able to forget that we had already seen him as Isaac Yankem and as the ‘fake’ Diesel before this explosive debut. Through his evolution, Kane was never more compelling and frightening than from behind the mask. While still physically formidable, an unmasked Kane just looks like another middle-aged giant among a roster that has traditionally heralded big men.
Yes, remaining relevant over the span of a 20 year career is important and change is necessary, but the man behind the mask doesn’t stir images of the horrors that shrouded this masked menace upon his introduction. Kane’s unveiling makes many yearn for the era from which he was spawned.
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