Wrestling is a business meant to adapt and change. It’s very, very rare for a guy to stay on top for a long time without adjusting his act and adapting to fan appeal. Lots of guys need to change in order to get ahead and get over more and in some cases, it can hurt. There’s an entire massive list for guys who had potential but stuck with some of the absolutely worst and idiotic ideas imaginable that pushed them down and ruined their drive. On the other hand, a shift in a gimmick is all that’s needed to cause a guy to explode to true stardom and get ahead. It’s almost impossible to find any worker who became a star with the gimmick they started out with as guys learn as they go and know how to adjust themselves to adapt to the business and find a gimmick that suits them best.
The examples are numerous, both good and bad and continue today as a gimmick change can be critical to a guy’s career. Some are able to use it to rise high and be great stars. Others just sink lower and never recover from the bad stuff they’ve got. Whatever the case, some guys don’t just alter it slightly, they completely shift their persona, taking on a new style that rocks fans, sometimes taking a while to click but when it works, it’s amazing. Here are the 15 most stunning gimmick changes of wrestlers over the years and how this evolution can help (or, sometimes, hurt) the guy involved although the best are able to use it well to achieve greatness and show that change isn’t always bad.
16 Mike Awesome - That '70s Guy, Fat Chick Thriller
Even by their own amazing standards, WCW truly messed this up. Awesome had clicked in ECW as a terrific monster, his powerbomb feared by all and riding high as their champion. When WCW signed him on, still as ECW champ, the heat was tremendous and he seemed just the huge star the company needed at that time. Instead, they gave him the gimmick of “That ‘70’s Mike Awesome,” a lounge lizard with an interview segment, a role he was utterly unsuited for. That was followed by “The Fat Chick Thriller” which is as bad as it sounds. It totally killed Awesome’s persona, reducing him to a joke and his career never recovered, showing this as one of the worst gimmick shifts ever.
15 Ric Flair
One has to wonder how vastly different the wrestling world today would be if a young rookie had kept to his plan to be “Rambling Ricky Rhodes,” the “younger brother” of established star Dusty Rhodes. He was good in the ring but more like Dusty with wild brawling and a “cowboy” persona. Thankfully, Dusty himself told this guy he should be more his own person, not a copy of him.
Thus, he took on the name of Ric Flair, modeling himself as “The Nature Boy” but ended up making the persona of an arrogant womanizing playboy who just happened to be the best wrestler on the planet work for decades. It’s remarkable how he shifted so well but it worked wonderfully to show how close we came to missing out on one of the business’ greatest icons.
14 Mick Foley
The master of shifting gimmicks yet still being himself. After a rough start as just “Jack Foley,” he clicked onto Cactus Jack, the wild madman who got into some of the most stunning and fantastic brawls in all of wrestling, even losing an ear in one. In WWE, he became Mankind, worked as a masked lunatic who oddly won fans over. He also worked in Dude Love, a fun-loving goofy relic of the 1970s who would dance around despite good ring work. Foley's amazing work as Mankind finally won Vince McMahon over, convincing him that Foley could adapt to the WWE style, making him much more valuable in the eyes of the Chairman.
His Hell in a Cell match in 1998 turned him into a star and eventual WWE champion, fans loving his promos. Then in 2000, he became the Commissioner with short hair, goofy antics backstage and still hot with crowds. No matter what name he uses, Foley has been acclaimed for his humor, drive and love of the business that’s infectious and that makes him a star no matter his gimmick.
13 The Rock
It’s well known but bears repeating. When Dwayne Johnson debuted in 1996, he was set as Rocky Maivia, a “blue chipper,” smiling babyface with a high-flying offense. It was a classic move to boost him up but the fans hated it from the start with his bright persona just not going over well. It was exactly the kind of good guy act fans had grown tired of. After time off for an injury, he returned as a heel and he soon hit upon the idea of an arrogant jerk who referred to himself in the third person and boasted of his greatness and being the “People’s Champion.”
It exploded big time, turning him into the biggest star in the company, popular even when he was a heel and taking off huge. It led Johnson to his movie stardom and still huge appeal when he returns, showing how being more yourself is the real key to becoming a star. If the WWE had kept trying to force Rocky Maivia down our throats, Dwayne Johnson would've fizzled out and WCW would have run away with the Monday Night War.
12 John Cena
In a documentary on Cena, JBL laughs on how he figured “this kid didn’t have a chance in hell” when he started in 2001. In OVW, Cena was “The Prototype,” a typical muscleman with bad dyed hair, just power moves and little else although he did show some ability on the mic. When he started on Smackdown in 2002, he was just a plain worker, not much else. But on a Halloween episode, Cena dressed as Vanilla Ice for some rapping and found what he needed.
He soon came out with the “Thug Life” persona of chains, shirt and cap, doing freestyle raps and his ring work ramping up. It was exactly what it took to boost Cena to massive prominence and a mega star and even as some claim his act has gone stale, he’s still the biggest star in the business now and how his gimmick change gave us a real icon. Cena would again change once he did reach the top, becoming the stand up good guy and while adult fans may hate it, it's led to Cena owning the top spot for a decade now.
It was a long road for Scott Levy. First, he was Scotty the Body, a surfer dude type who wrestled in Memphis and Portland and even a brief WCW run as Scott Flamingo. Then, he was Johnny Polo, a rich kid who served as manager to the Quebecers. Needless to say, he was never going to be a star, especially in ECW, as Johnny Polo. Levy made the transformation into Raven, bulking up big time with nose rings and tattoos, wearing his hair wild and dark outfits. He came out with some sly and wicked promos that were far more intelligent than most in wrestling at the time.
It became a mainstay and Raven would keep it up to become one of ECW’s most famous faces and later taking it to WCW, WWE and TNA. It’s amazing to see how different he was as bringing out his inner darkness gave Levy the gimmick that truly took flight.
10 Kerwin White
Here we have a very bad example of a big change. For years, Chavo Guerrero had been a highlight with his terrific ring work, a top cruiserweight for WCW and WWE and holding the tag titles with uncle Eddie. In 2005, someone in creative had the genius idea of giving Chavo a makeover into Kerwin White, a middle-class guy with blonde hair who insisted on being referred to as white and complete with this catchphrase “If it’s not white, it’s not right.”
He was soon shown running down minorities for cheap heat, including Shelton Benjamin and the backlash was huge as it turned Chavo into a bad joke. It was ended when Eddie died and Chavo went back to his old persona but really shouldn’t have been in this in the first place. His career never quite recovered from the horrendous makeover.
9 Bray Wyatt
If Bray Wyatt had let WWE control his gimmick, he'd have been out of a job by now. Husky Harris wasn’t exactly a stellar guy in NXT. He was just an overweight guy, dark beard and hair, a forgettable part of the Nexus. He didn’t do all that much, just getting lost in the shuffle. In 2012, he remade himself as Bray Wyatt, the freaky cult leader that mixed in parts of “Cape Fear” and the old Waylon Mercy character. Suddenly, his promos became the best part of a NXT show, his ring work improving and truly fun.
That just got better in WWE as he led his “family” and soon elevated against some of the biggest stars around. He’s had a few ups and downs but the way the character works makes him a standout and astounding how well Wyatt has gotten into it, turning him from just another worker to one of the highlights of any WWE show today.
8 Scott Hall
Hall always had the looks of a good worker, tall and handsome but never seemed able to click. He was your classic ‘80s guy with bushy hair and thick mustache, set up as the hero but never getting a chance. In 1991, he began a run in WCW as the Diamond Studd, slicking back his hair, chewing a toothpick and taking on an arrogant persona. He didn’t rise more and so jumped to WWE, adding on a five-o’clock-shadow, gold chains and a “Cuban” accent.
Thus, Razor Ramon immediately took off, fans at first booing him but his cool persona inevitably got him massively over as a face. He would become a standout of the era, holding the IC belt several times, great feuds with Shawn Michaels and Diesel and a huge star. That carried to WCW as, despite his personal issues, Hall kept on top and showed how a shift in an act can get you over nicely.
When Dustin Rhodes started, he was pushed by father Dusty as basically a carbon copy, a cowboy motif with good ring work (actually better than his dad) and a classic babyface. When he moved to WWE in 1995, Dustin decided to get as far away from that shadow as he could and created an act truly ahead of its time. Being just another cowboy wasn't going to cut it "up north".
Coming out in golden robes and makeup with wig, acting up with homosexual overtones and some amazing promos, Goldust was a sensation that pushed the boundaries well before the Attitude Era took off. It led to a run as IC champion and while Dustin has shifted himself a few times, he keeps coming back to this persona, as it has allowed him to stand out on his own.
6 Vince McMahon
For years, there was an unspoken agreement between Vince McMahon and the fans: Vince pretended he was just an announcer (albeit a bad one) and not the owner of the WWE and fans pretended they bought it. With his loud voice and cheering of faces, Vince got himself on TV a lot (naturally) and while he was known for goofy stuff, it wasn’t that big a deal.
When Steve Austin began his rise in 1997, Vince finally came out as the owner for a meeting that ended with Austin hitting him with the first of many, MANY Stunners. The fans loved it and it got bigger after Montreal with everyone hating Vince and he decided to embrace that. It wasn't planned by Vince to become the most hated guy in the business, but he embraced it and ran with it.
Basically acting the arrogant corrupt jerk everyone already thought he was, Mr. McMahon became a staple of WWE programming. It’s a huge turn as Vince went from just a commentator to the biggest villain wrestling has ever known. This changed the course for McMahon, as his feud with Austin is the no.1 reason why WWE won the war with WCW. Had McMahon remained an announcer, he'd be out of business today.
When Sting debuted, it was the classic babyface for fans. He was fantastic in the ring, wild in action and he took off huge with fans painting their faces and spiking their hair to look like their hero. Even the arrival of Hogan did nothing to hurt Sting’s persona, the man always coming out in bright tights and jackets and doing great promos. When the New World Order took over, Sting was framed for joining them and not happy people believed it.
It was still amazing how he turned, inspired by a suggestion from Scott Hall and mimicking the movie “The Crow.” He was soon dressed in black with dark and white makeup, hanging in rafters, not saying a word…and became more popular than ever before. The company needed a perfect foil for the nWo and surfer Sting just wasn't going to cut it anymore. The shift to a darker character created a more credible threat for the nWo and forever established Sting as the true face of WCW.
4 Hulk Hogan
For over a decade, Hogan was the single biggest face in all of wrestling. In the 1980s, no one could touch him in popularity, he was truly a super-hero come to life and fans ate it up in droves, pushing wrestling to huge mainstream success. True, that was fading a bit as the ‘90’s dawned and more fans against him but Hogan was still so set as the mega-hero in WCW, the idea of him turning seemed impossible. Which was why it was all the more shocking when at Bash at the Beach ’96, he joined Hall and Nash to create the New World Order and turned heel.
It was amazing how well Hogan took to it, wearing black clothes, his arrogance now shifting to a heel persona with amazing ease. He took on promos running down fans and fellow wrestlers, constantly cheating to win, acting the tool everyone wanted to punch and thus WCW took off big time. It was a major risk but it paid off thanks to Hogan’s charisma, making him hotter than ever and putting WCW well on top. Hogan was severely stagnating as a babyface and by making the shift to heel, he was able to remain the top star in the company for several more years.
3 The Undertaker
Mean Mark Calllous would have been out of the WWE within a couple of years. With all the lame acts the WWE had in the early to mid-90s, Mark Calaway would have just been another guy. He showed promise as a performer, but he was missing something to make him stand out.
The idea of The Undertaker gimmick is highly debated as to who created it, but with the idea sounding so ridiculous on paper, only Calaway could have pulled it off the way he did and make it last so long. This gimmick gave the performer the material he needed and with it, he has become an icon of the business, with many arguing he's the greatest performer of all time.
2 Stone Cold Steve Austin
Anybody who had high hopes of Steve Austin becoming a big star in WWE must have been crushed when he was essentially given the silent gimmick of The Ringmaster. It was as if all the fantastic promo work and character building he'd done in his short ECW stint was going to go to waste. Austin woke up one day and decided he wasn't The Ringmaster and anything other than the top spot in the company wasn't good enough for him.
He thus adopted the persona of Stone Cold that went much better with his personality and perfectly accentuated the chip Austin was carrying on his shoulder. Being the cold-blooded badass, Austin built up great heat as a heel, but was so cutting edge, fans took to him and he was a made man after refusing to submit to Bret Hart's sharpshooter, pulling off the greatest double turn in history and Austin would go on to be the biggest star in the business. Who'd have thought The Ringmaster really was the future of the company?