One of the best observations of the wrestling business was stated by R.D. Reynolds, author of the “Wrestlecrap” books: So often, the ideas that look terrific on paper bomb while the ones that sounded incredibly stupid go on to draw big money. It’s probably why there’s been so many bad gimmicks in wrestling history as guys just don’t know what will or won’t stick. That’s always been true in the business as more than one promoter has seen a seemingly sure-fire character or angle die in the eyes of fans while something just thrown together ends up selling merchandise like crazy.
In wrestling, you constantly have to try new things, especially nowadays with how saturated the product is. With so much content to fill on a weekly basis, something has to go out on the air. While WWE seems to tip toe around more, afraid to push the envelope too much, we'll still see plenty of stupid gimmicks/storylines every once in a while.
In a way, it’s like the old saying about Hollywood “nobody knows nothing” as it’s just hard to see what will and won’t work. Wrestling has been filled with numerous examples of guys who seemed saddled with something idiotic but making it work better than anyone could have imagined. It’s not just workers, there’s the case of a match that seemed a bit wild but it ended up working well too. Here are 15 cases of gimmicks that looked so incredibly bad yet ended up becoming huge winners for the fans and promotions alike and proof you just can’t judge at first glance.
15 Hardcore Championship
It was literally a big joke. As part of his overall plot to win Mankind to his side, Vince McMahon took an old broken-apart version of the classic WWE championship with the word “hardcore” written on tape across it and gave it to Mankind, who acted as if he was the most esteemed title ever created. Maybe it was because of Foley’s popularity or the rise of hardcore wrestling but before anyone knew it, the fans had embraced this as a real belt so WWE soon recognized it as a legitimate title.
The high point was undoubtedly when Crash Holly instituted a “24/7” rule and fantastic video of him being attacked everywhere from airports to an indoor amusement park/arcade, managing to escape with the belt to get him over with fans. The Hardcore belt was home to some of the craziest bits for WWE fans to enjoy and still has a place in the hearts of many Attitude Era fans.
14 Johnny B. Badd
As the 1990s began, WCW seemed intent to top WWE in terms of wild cartoon characters. As proof, Marc Mero was given loads of makeup and a haircut to look just like Little Richard and pushed with a majorly effeminate act. He’d come down to the ring with feathered boas and after beating an opponent, would put plastic lips on his mouth and later add the “Badd Blaster” which would fire confetti out on the crowd. That’s not to mention promos spoken with a lisp and “I’m so pretty I wish I’d been born a girl!”
Not exactly the sort of thing you’d think would click with the WCW Southern base but Mero’s terrific ring skills and boxing past helped him out as he went from heel to face, winning the TV title a few times and one of the company’s more popular mid-card acts.
13 The Hurricane
Gregory Helms had been rising as a cruiserweight in the dying days of WCW, getting over with his good aerial style and promos but still lost amid the various characters of the Invasion. In the summer of 2001, he took on the persona of a goofy super-hero in a green outfit with hair to match, swooping in for promos and even wearing his cape in matches. It was ridiculous but damned if fans didn’t take to it with Helms’ funny promos (“Whassup with that?!”) and how he embraced the act so fully.
It led to a run as European champion and tag title runs with Kane and Rosie and even a feud with the Rock that elevated him nicely with their great dueling promos and Hurricane masks and outfits popular in merchandising. You never know when you’re going to need a superhero and Helms is ready with a character that went from comedy to great winner.
12 The Million Dollar Championship
In 1989, Ted DiBiase was in a tricky position. His feud with Randy Savage had run its course and with Hulk Hogan now champion, he was mostly out of the main event picture. However, he was still a big enough deal that he didn’t seem right for the lower run of the card either. The solution? Have DiBiase declare that if he couldn’t win the title, he’d just make his own and so got a jeweler to make a fancy title with diamond dollar bills and gold links he’d wear around.
Dumb as it sounds, it actually got DiBiase newly over as he’d be proud showing his “title” off and even used it in his feuds with Jake Roberts and especially manservant Virgil, adding to DiBiase’s arrogant heel persona. Crazy but never underestimate the fan heat for a rich guy. Speaking of which…
11 Irwin R. Schyster
Mike Rotunda had been a good worker for a while but stuck with stuff like a run in WCW as a total rip-off of the Million-Dollar Man. When he came back to WWF in 1991, they decided to give him the character of Irwin R. Schyster, an evil tax agent, constantly doing promos mocking folks as tax cheats. It should have been just another of the many forgettable “occupational” gimmicks of the time but Rotunda was able to back the promos up with his great ring work. He also got over nicely by wrestling in the full suit with suspenders and even tie and somehow making it work.
The real great touch was when he was paired with Ted DiBiase, an ad hoc team to win the tag titles and the two actually making perfect sense as the evil millionaire and evil tax man the fans could hate. Money Inc would dominate the tag team scene for over a year with several runs as champions and IRs remaining a good heel character for a while after that. Thanks to Rotunda’s work, this was one “second job” character that actually became a hit with fans and one of the best characters of WWE in his time.
It could have been a disaster. Dustin Rhodes hiding himself under gold makeup, full body suit, fur coat and wig, doing promos quoting movies and obviously pushing a homosexual subtext. It looked crazy as hell but Dustin managed to still get it over and fans, while thrown, would respond to it. It helped Dustin win the IC title and he would shift the act up a lot over the next few years but kept coming back to it as somehow, Goldust just wins fans over. He’s had reigns as tag team champion and even inspiring brother Cody as Stardust to prove that, if the right performer is under it, any crazy character can work and get over to turn a dumb idea into a true winner.
9 Raven vs. Dreamer
It was a storyline so crazy even Vince Russo would think it too melodramatic to work: Tommy Dreamer and Raven had been at summer camp as kids together with Dreamer picking on Raven a lot and Raven angry because of it. Raven brought out Beulah McGillicutty, claiming she was an overweight girl Dreamer picked on at camp now grown as a fantastic beauty. That was a hell of a lot to take in but somehow, it managed to ignite what most consider the greatest feud in ECW history.
For two years, the two men would battle it out in one match after another with Raven always managing to avoid being pinned by Dreamer. Beulah’s loyalty would shift a bit as the two men engaged in one wild match after another and the fans ate it up in droves. It all culminated with Dreamer finally pinning Raven in the man’s last appearance before going to WCW to end their “lifelong rivalry.”
8 Ultimate X
TNA has given us a lot of gimmick matches over the years, many of them damn dumb (Reverse battle royal). When Ultimate X was announced in 2002, some rolled eyes at the idea of a ladder match without the ladder…and the fact that they did end up using a ladder in the first battle just made it worse. But the potential was there and TNA soon added to it, making the cables of the X stronger and more importantly using it to showcase the power of the X Division.
Since then, Ultimate X has given us some of the most fantastic bouts and spots TNA has ever seen, mostly X Division but also some great tag team matches as well with guys doing terrific leaps, bounds and moves to rock fans. Even in these darker times of TNA, an Ultimate X bout is a highlight and one of the best things TNA has ever given to wrestling fans.
7 Macho King Randy Savage
As 1989 went on, Randy Savage appeared a bit lost after losing the WWE title to Hulk Hogan, the addition of Sherri Martel as his manager helping but still not as effective as he once was. When he beat Jim Duggan to win the “King of Wrestling” bit, it just seemed another poor come-down. But Savage made it work wonderfully, adjusting the act with a great crown and adding “royal” talk to his always fantastic promos.
It fired up his ring work as he would take it to Hogan again and Sherri joining him as the “Queen,” the two the fantastic heels fans adored hating. Their entrance would be terrific, sitting on thrones atop a platform carried by jobbers and Savage would use his “scepter” to great effect as a weapon. Leave it to Savage to make the “Macho King” work so well, culminating in the classic moment of WrestleMania VII that makes the man such an icon.
Few rip-offs in wrestling are as blatant as Demolition. Leather outfits, studded vests, makeup and a hard nose offense, you couldn’t be more of a steal of the Road Warriors without getting sued. When they debuted in 1987, Ax and Smash were run down by fans, booed not as heels but because of how blatantly cheap they came off as. It just seemed a big shot at the NWA with “we can create our own LOD” and few doubted it would last long.
However, Bill Eadie and Barry Darsow (added as the new Smash shortly after the debut) managed to click pretty well as a team, better conditioned than the Road Warriors and the addition of Mr. Fuji as their manager helped give them more heat. They would win the tag team titles in 1988 and set the record for the longest tag title reign of any promotion, over a year before they would lose them and in that time become huge with fans adopting their face paint, shirts and masks. While the LOD came out on top in their eventual feud, you can make a great case that in terms of in-ring talent, opponents and championship length, the rip-offs actually did a lot better than the originals.
5 The Blue World Order
When the BWO reunited at the first One Night Stand PPV, a laughing Joey Styles summed it up best: “If any gimmick never deserved to make a dime and made a whole boatload of cash, this is it!” Stevie Richards, Nova and the Blue Meanie had been doing an act in ECW of parodying various wrestlers and rock acts before Raven’s matches, such as the Jackson 5, KISS and others.
It was Bubba Ray Dudley who suggested they parody the New World Order and so they did, wearing blue shirts with their logo and Nova dressing up like Hollywood Hogan. It went over like gangbusters as they would add and subtract members like Inchworm, 7-11 aka 3 1/2, Nacho Man and even a “Japanese” contingent. The fans loved it, chanting their name, buying up shirts like crazy and elevating Richards to main event level status.
4 The Honky Tonk Man
A wrestling Elvis. The very idea sounds completely stupid, something more fitting for the indie circuit than WWE in the late ‘80s. At first a face, HTM never got the fans on him with his arrogant persona and so turning heel made sense but he was still nothing more than jobber material for a time. According to reports, it was pure fate that he was chosen as the guy to upset Ricky Steamboat for the Intercontinental title in 1987. Fans thought it was a total fluke and he’d lose it fast.
Instead, he became the longest-reigning IC champion ever, arrogant as hell and infuriating in how he’d sneak out a win or get himself disqualified to keep the belt. He was big business as fans paid in hopes of seeing him lose and the heat when he didn’t making him bigger. When he finally did drop the belt to the Ultimate Warrior, it was a huge moment that instantly put the Warrior over as a superstar. Honky Tonk’s star fell fast after that but that shouldn’t take away how this “joke” turned into a money-making record-setting champion in his time.
3 John Cena
One has to wonder what the current wrestling landscape would be if John Cena had chosen any other costume for the 2002 Halloween “SmackDown” episode. While a good worker, Cena just hadn’t clicked, his character bland, not much going on and just seemed forgettable. On that episode, he dressed up as Vanilla Ice, doing a goofy rap and suddenly, he had something. The idea of a “white hip hop guy” had been done a couple of times before in wrestling and never worked out and seeing the Boston-bred Cena coming out as a “street guy” was nuts at first. But he kept at it, his ring work improving as fans began to respond, getting him over. It set Cena on the path to his current status as the company’s biggest star and the way he was able to carry it all off showcased the talent that keeps him one of the hottest guys in the business and how all it takes is a little character to finally get over.
2 The Royal Rumble
The irony of the Rumble has always been that it was created in 1988 as a free USA TV special to go against Jim Crockett’s “Bunkhouse Stampede” PPV, which needed no help being a total disaster. When Pat Patterson first suggested the idea of a battle royal with guys running in every two minutes, Vince McMahon thought it was dumb but the USA executives loved it and agreed to put it as the center of the special. To be fair to Vince, even some fans at the time thought it was too much of a gimmick and overly complicated to boot. But as it turned out, the special was a hit and fans raved about the coolness of the Rumble. Realizing he had something, Vince was smart to realize that making the Rumble a once-a-year bout was much better than multiple ones and made it the center of its own PPV in 1989. Since then, the Rumble has been an integral part of WWE, a major event for fans and provided slews of classic moments that’s helped it be one of the best gimmick bouts ever.
1 The Undertaker
If anyone in 1990 had predicted that 25 years later, this guy was going to not only be around but one of the biggest icons of the entire business, they would have been laughed at. A pale guy in funeral clothes led by a guy named Paul Bearer who seemed to get his powers from a mystical urn? It sounded like an incredibly dumb idea, even by the standards of the cartoonish WWE. Yet, it all worked thanks to how well The Undertaker played the role and adapting from just a big slow guy to a really talented worker and clicking with fans. At first a heel, his amazing act won fans over to make him a face and pushed him on.
Undertaker was smart to adjust the act as time went on, with new outfits, new attitudes, the “American Badass” period before going back to the classic “Dead Man” motif. The “Streak” also added to his power as well as his loyalty to WWE, never tempted to go to another company even at the height of the Monday Night War. He’s been respected as a locker room leader and one of the biggest merchandise movers in the company’s history. Overall, The Undertaker is the greatest example of a crazy gimmick that worked and became one of the best characters in the entire business.