Wrestling has been proven to be a very odd business. So often, things that look great and sound terrific flop while dumb stuff works out. In so many ways, it’s a bit of chance, figuring out which gimmicks or characters can click and which won’t. Promoters try over and over to give guys stuff that just doesn’t work out and often hurts them. Other times, guys can manage to make even stupid ideas work well. Look at The Undertaker. He was given as dumb a gimmick as possible but it turned out to be an incredibly successful one. Sometimes, it just needs the right guy to make it work.
Sometimes, guys come up with ideas on their own that end up far better than anything the promoters could have come up with. An old mantra is the best wrestling personas are just the real guy taken to the tenth level and so many times, they’re able to prove that. It’s what has led to major mega-stars taking off and especially in the Attitude Era. But other guys are able to work with great ideas as well to boost themselves up more. Here are 15 times wrestlers came up with stuff on their own that elevated them to a new level and proved how the real workers can do a lot better than the top brass in working things out.
15 The Hollywood Blondes - Gimmick
Over the years, Steve Austin and Brian Pillman would achieve greater fame for ideas they came up with that appear later on this list. In 1993, both were faltering in WCW as each had a great singles style but just didn’t seem that important to the higher-ups. They were put together as a tag team and basically told to just do anything they wanted. They came up with an old-school idea of a pair of heels who were wildly arrogant, calling themselves The Hollywood Blondes.
Pillman thought of stuff like matching tights and wearing jackets with stars and had the fun idea of putting lights in their boots to flash as they wrestled. They were meant to be forgotten but their great work and promos soon won fans over and pushed them to the tag team titles. WCW would break them up at the height of their success but it showed how Pillman and Austin had the tools to rise on their own merits.
14 Raven - Gimmick
Scott Levy had bounced around the scene for a while, starting as “Scotty the Body” in Portland and WCW with a surfer boy gimmick. In WWE, he was Johnny Polo, a rich kid manager and commentator. Joining ECW, Levy wanted something different and was inspired by the grunge movement, taking off to create a fantastic character. Raven was a brooding sociopath in ragged clothes and a leather jacket with long hair covering his face. His promos were different than the others, eloquent and philosophical, ending with “Quoth the Raven, Nevermore.” Fans loved it from the start, truly something unique even for ECW and his ring work helped get him over. This led to the epic feud with Tommy Dreamer that helped put ECW on the map. Levy would continue it in WWE, WCW and TNA and showcased a terrific character that was way ahead of his time.
13 Triple H & Shawn Michaels - Chyna
In early 1997, Hunter Hearst-Helmlsey (still the “Greenwich snob”) was IC champion and being pushed a bit more as a heel. Vince McMahon wanted him to have a bodyguard with the beefy Mr. Hughes in the role. However, Hunter wasn’t sure as that idea had been done to death already. He and Shawn Michaels were hanging at a hotel after a show when up came Joanie Laurer, talking about wanting to break into the business. Seeing tape of her work and seeing this impressive woman in person, Shawn and Hunter were instantly sold on the idea of a female bodyguard. Vince was unsure but they pressed that it could work and so “Chyna” debuted shaking Marlena like a rag doll.
Just as Hunter figured, fans responded to give him heat and she impressed by knocking down guys easily to help Hunter out. It aided him immensely in his rise to fame and would make both among the bigger stars of the Attitude Era.
12 The Road Warriors - Their Look
Hawk and Animal were pushed nicely because of their tough drive and great strength but they brought their own intensity and incredible power to the ring. The Legion of Doom would benefit from the addition of Paul Ellering, who really was their manager, helping them out a lot. That included creating the Road Warrior look as simple leather biker pants moved to studded collars and the spiked shoulder pads. The real brilliant touch was the face paint, something you didn’t see back in 1983 and really made them stand out. They also added the Mohawks and came up with their own design work (Hawk with a “Joker” motif on one eye while Animal had variations of a spider web) that made them even more impressive. It helped the Warriors become major stars and continue with their legacy as one of the best teams of all time and sold them as the best, despite so many imitators.
11 Scott Hall - Razor Ramon
Scott Hall always had the good looks and build to be a wrestler but lacked the right touch to really get over. By 1991, he had dumped his afro and mustache for slicked-back hair, touched off with a toothpick as the Diamond Studd in WCW. It was good but WCW didn’t really grasp what they had and dropped him. Moving to WWE, Hall suggested a take on the character based on “Scarface” only to find Vince McMahon had never seen the movie. But he liked Hall’s “Cuban” accent and with the addition of gold chains and a tough attitude, pushed him for it. Soon, Razor Ramon was a top star, a heel but his cool factor soon won fans over to make him a face and a multiple-time Intercontinental champion. Hall has had his demons but this act showed how great he was finally getting over with his charisma and machismo.
10 Zack Ryder - Long Island Iced Z
Zack Ryder’s rise and fall is annoying to many in and out of WWE. After all the talk Vince McMahon made on “grabbing the brass ring,” once one guy actually tried, he had the legs cut out from under him. Ryder had been a good talent but was floundering way too much in the lower rungs of the company. So he started doing a series of videos of himself as “Long Island Iced Z” that soon took off with fans. Ryder added to it by declaring himself the “Internet Wrestling Champion,” complete with a title belt. Soon, fans were going crazy for him, Ryder taking off huge and WWE had to listen and give him a run as US champion.
Sadly, that was ended way too fast with Ryder buried badly, a really stupid move by WWE. A recent push in tag teams gives hope but Ryder showed that wrestlers in WWE are far better off being themselves.
9 Santino - The Cobra
Santino Marella had started off as a babyface, a “fan” who won the Intercontinental title on a fluke. Fans disliked that so he was shifted to become an arrogant heel and playing up his actions as an Italian buffoon. While at a bar in Japan, Santino got to talking to a guy who showed him a move called the Cobra. Santino then showed it off to John Cena, who just burst out laughing at how dumb it looked. Rather than be annoyed, Santino realized this would be great for the crowds. Sure enough, the Cobra caught on with fans enjoying the set-up and how (at first) it almost never worked.
Santino then added the fun “sock” to it to make it stand out more. It gave Santino new life as a comedy worker, even a run as US champion and showed how to make a dumb idea work nicely.
8 Goldberg - Who’s Next
Goldberg was never meant to be the next big mega-star of WCW. He was just a muscle-bound guy to start with who had a rough moveset. But as crowds responded, the company actually realized they had something and soon began pushing him more and more with his “unbeaten” streak. The fact he almost never spoke added to his appeal; he just came out, crushed opponents in minutes and left. But soon he would be bellowing out a catchphrase, one that came from a very odd source. While dining after a show, Goldberg was listening to producers talking about how he needed to add something to the gimmick to stand out. Cue a waitress coming up to ask about orders and “who’s next?” Goldberg suddenly realized that was it and started yelling it after his victories. Before long, “Who’s Next?” t-shirts were all over the place and led to his amazing rise. A nice showcase for how beneficial a good dinner can be.
7 Blue World Order
Joey Styles once summed up “if any gimmick never deserved to make a dime and made a boatload of cash, this is it.” Stevie Richards, the Blue Meanie and Nova had been doing an act in ECW of mocking various music acts and other wrestling tag teams. A suggestion from Bubba Ray Dudley led to them doing a mocking of the New World Order. They came out in blue shirts with Richards doing a Kevin Nash riff, Nova dressed like Hulk Hogan, with Meanie as “Da Blue Guy” and doing major speeches on “We’re taking over!”
It went over huge as Paul Heyman couldn’t print BWO shirts fast enough. They would add to it with Inchworm, 7-11 and even a “Japanese” contingent. It was a brilliant parody that was one of the ECW’s most popular acts and showed how the knock-off can be as fun as the original.
6 Serious Jericho
Chris Jericho showed he could shift up with his own ideas in WCW, moving from a clean-cut babyface to an obnoxious heel with ease. He came up with a great storyline mocking Goldberg only to have WCW drop the ball with it. In WWE, Jericho came up with so much of his Y2J act with killer promos and persona to get himself over as a huge star. When he returned in 2007, Jericho realized the act was a bit stale so smartly shifted it up.
Inspired by the movie “No Country For Old Men,” Jericho became serious, adopted a different finisher (the Codebreaker) and was more cold and calculated in promos. It got him majorly over again as champion and showed how brilliant a performer he could be. Jericho showed it again with his “list” that he can shift his character on his own and remain hot as ever.
5 Mick Foley - Three Faces of Foley
The reason Mick Foley is so popular with so many fans is how much he loves wrestling and brought himself into it. He came up with Cactus Jack, a wildman from New Mexico who got into some truly brutal and bloody wars in WCW and Japan. While Mankind was pushed by WWE, Foley still brought up his past, including his old character of Dude Love. Eventually, he managed to get Love into WWE and began rising high with his great element of fun in the part.
Foley would come up with other ideas such as in 1998 with the storyline of him chasing Vince as a buddy to drive him crazy. Even his time as “Commissioner” had his own touches like backstage offices and other bits. So much of Foley was just the real guy no matter his persona and a key reason he took off so well for so many.
4 John Cena - Doctor of Thuganomics
One has to wonder what the WWE scene would be today had John Cena just gone with any other costume. He had promise as a good worker and on the mic but in 2002, Cena was pretty lost, his clean-cut image not doing too well. On the annual SmackDown Halloween show, Cena came out dressed as Vanilla Ice and began doing a goofy rap on Stephanie McMahon. Somehow, it just won fans over and Cena decided to run with it. While WWE did help with his hip-hop look, Cena brought his own attitude to it, coming up with more of his own raps and soon getting himself over as a heel. It got major attention and pushed him as fans soon started cheering for him, leading to his face turn. The rest is history as Cena continues to integrate more of his own persona into his act. It led to his mega-fame and showed how the choice of one costume could change so much.
3 Brian Pillman - The Loose Cannon
Arn Anderson perhaps summed up Brian Pillman best: “He was either the craziest smart man I ever knew or the smartest crazy man I ever knew.” Pillman had been regarded as a great worker but also an odd guy behind the scenes, prone to fights and known for his partying ways. By 1996, Pillman was sinking a bit in the limelight of WCW despite being a member of the Four Horsemen and wanted to flex himself. He thus began acting even crazier, including assaulting Bobby Heenan without warning (causing Heenan to drop the f-bomb on live TV) and then calling Kevin Sullivan “booker man” on the mic before a match.
His act was so wild that it made folks honestly believe Pillman was losing his mind. This led to him talking Eric Bischoff into giving him a release “to make it look real” and as soon as he had it, he bolted for ECW. A WWE contract came although it was marred by Pillman’s car accident and he was never the same afterward. Despite that, Pillman remained famous for this incident, blurring the lines of what was real and what wasn’t and showcasing how unique a mind he truly was.
2 Steve Austin - Stone Cold
Steve Austin always had what it took to be a superstar. He showed it in WCW and should have gotten more of a push except for the bad backstage politics pushing him down. He later spiked in ECW with killer promos which got him to WWE. However, he was saddled with the bad gimmick of “The Ringmaster” and Ted DiBiase as a manager to neuter him. Austin chafed under it and was grateful for DiBiase leaving for WCW. Inspired by a documentary on serial killers, Austin shaved his head and came up with the concept of a cold-blooded character.
But he still needed a better name and WWE was no help (“Chilly McFreeze” was one name pitched). Hanging around, his then wife made a remark on his tea getting “stone cold” and Austin had it. Even then, it took the inspiration of Jake Roberts’ sermons at the 1996 King of the Ring for Austin to make the famous promo of “Austin 3:16” that was on t-shirts in no time. From these two inspirational sources, Austin forged the identity that made him the biggest star in the business. It's remarkable what one offhand remark can do.
1 Jake Roberts - DDT
Jake himself reflects on how it was pure luck that caused him to basically invent one of the most famous finishers in wrestling history. Originally, the clean-cut guy used a knee-lift as a finisher, set as a knock-out move but not that really effective to look back on. One night, Jake was wrestling the Grappler and got him into a front face lock. They were supposed to break free but the Grappler tripped and thus knocked Jake back, the Grappler falling on his face. Jake immediately sat up to show he hadn’t bungled the move but the Grappler heard the gasp of shock from the crowd and wisely stayed down. Afterward, he told Roberts “you’ve got something” and Jake realized he was right. Thus, the DDT was born and while it’s been duplicated countless times, few have made it look so effective as Roberts, who made it a devastating move, dropping a guy on his head. If you could trademark a move, Roberts would be a rich man and this simple fall is what gave the Snake so much of his fame.