If you grew up a wrestling fan in the ’80s and ’90s, chances are that you’ve seen your fair share of truly horrific gimmicks that were given to otherwise talented performers. That specific period was a golden age of wrestling that was particularly unusual and yet strangely necessary for a lot of young wrestling careers. WWE and — to a slightly lesser extent — WCW were offering a product at the time that was more or less comparable to that of a cartoon, with occupations being the gold standard for gimmicks that graced the airwaves and our subsequent television screens.
This list is going to showcase some of the worst creations that writers handed off to wrestlers that would either go on to eventually become legends in the industry or had already been well-established enough that their legacy would be ever-so-slightly tainted in the process. You might not be surprised at all to find that some wrestlers made the list more than once, which is a testament to their ability to stay relevant given a new character direction and also speaks volumes about their will to succeed.
Without further ado, here are 15 terrible gimmicks that various legends (and the wrestling audience) had to suffer through!
15. The “Common Man” Dusty Rhodes
Dusty Rhodes was a legend in the industry well before he ever stepped foot inside a WWE ring and that’s probably why his run in the company was short-lived and unimpressive. Vince McMahon has been known to show his dominance by forcing successful performers from rival promotions into cheap gimmicks that are practically designed to fail, and that’s more or less what happened to Dusty Rhodes.
Rhodes had previously worked as a booker and a wrestler for rival Jim Crockett Promotions, so when he came to the WWE in 1989, Vince wasn’t exactly thrilled at his previous work history and gave him the “common man” angle to work with. Rhodes stated that the humiliating trademark yellow polka dots were actually his own idea, kind of like an act of civil disobedience by making a ridiculous gimmick even more over-the-top. Dusty was still able to get over with the crowd in WWE, but would eventually leave for WCW after only a brief stint with the company from 1989 to 1991.
14. The Sultan
Hall of Fame Class of 2015 member Rikishi went by many names throughout his tenure in the WWE, first as a non-speaking headshrinker (as Fatu) along with his cousin (Samu), then a short run as a kid from the streets of San Francisco (where he spoke fluent English very often), and of course his most famous gimmick of all as the dancing third member of “Too Cool,” along with Grandmaster Sexay and Scotty Too Hotty. But there was one gimmick that we conveniently left out: The Sultan.
Yeah, Fatu was completely re-branded after the “Make a Difference” San Francisco streets angle was dropped, with his new gimmick being that of a sultan who was unable to talk from his tongue being cut out, for some odd reason. Why would a sultan ever have his tongue cut out? Aren’t sultans the ones who have other people’s tongues cut out? Anyway, The Sultan gimmick was short-lived and he eventually went back to wrestling school before returning as the WWE Superstar Rikishi in 1999.
Kevin Nash admittedly got into the wrestling business in order to make money, but one of his first gimmicks wasn’t going to do him any favors in becoming the next giant of the industry. He had to endure a fairly lengthy and — in terms of entrance gear and attire spending for WCW — expensive run as “Oz,” a 7 foot tall wizard with spray painted silver hair.
Billed from “Emerald City” (gee, how original), Nash slowly came down to the ring in a fog with green lights and a castle facade that closely resembled a fairy tale theme. He even wore a giant green robe and a rubber mask that looked like an old man, complete with a cone style hat that stuck straight up at the top.
The gimmick was terrible and barely resonated with the crowd, who moderately cheered for anything that Nash attempted to do while in the ring. His career would take a different path shortly afterward, but even his next gimmick wasn’t anything to write home about either…
12. Vinnie Vegas
We stay with Kevin Nash for this next entry, because going from one terrible gimmick to another equally terrible gimmick is just asking for trouble. In the most lateral of all lateral moves, the once menacing figure in Oz turned into a tuxedo wearing Nevada resident by the name of Vinnie Vegas. He would strut down to the ring to a god awful early ’90s theme song, and apparently the finisher he chose to use was the old-school move “snake eyes,” because, well, you know… it’s a gambling reference. Very clever, WCW.
It was with this gimmick that Shawn Michaels took notice and convinced him to come to the WWE, where Nash enjoyed far more success as Diesel before deciding to leave once again for WCW and their mountain of money. It just goes to show that not every terrible gimmick is career-suicide, even after a string of unsuccessful ones like Oz and Vinnie Vegas.
11. “Real Man’s Man” Steven Regal
Vince Russo, to his credit, came up with plenty of good ideas during the infamous Monday Night Wars, but that didn’t stop him from coming up with truly horrendous ones from time to time as well. Steven Regal was a terrific in-ring performer throughout his time in WCW in the mid-’90s, but when he came to the WWE in 1998, Russo developed him into the “Real Man’s Man” character, with vignettes showing him doing all sort of manly activities.
He would squeeze oranges in order to make his own glass of orange juice, he’d be seen chopping a tree, and he’d also shave with a straight razor. And his ring attire was just as laughable: a cut-off flannel shirt and a yellow hard hat. This character was quite different than his typical but successful posh Englishman gimmick, so it’s no surprise that this character flopped with The Attitude Era audience.
10. Dean Douglas
Shane Douglas was at the top of his game when he literally threw down the NWA Championship Belt and announced himself champion of a brand new organization called “ECW,” which would usher in a new era of professional wrestling through their groundbreaking performances and radically different approach to wrestling shows. But it’s his time in WWE that makes us shake our collective heads…
Douglas was given the role of Dean Douglas, who was a character derived on being highly educated, often critiquing his opponent’s matches through a grading scale from A to F, naturally. He even carried around a paddle that was referred to as “the board of education,” which is actually quite hilarious. However, the gimmick wasn’t very successful and only lasted a little while, and would eventually lead to him leaving the WWE in favor of ECW where he resumed his position as “The Franchise,” a role that he utilized much better in Paul Heyman’s company.
9. The Narcissist
The Total Package, Lex Luger, made his WWE debut at the Royal Rumble PPV in 1993, only he wasn’t billed as The Total Package, rather “Narcissus,” a physical specimen who was infatuated by his own image. He was hyped by Bobby “the Brain” Heenan as being “beyond perfection,” which was a brilliant ploy to engage in a feud with Mr. Perfect at the time, but the gimmick would be very short-lived and didn’t exactly get over with the crowd.
Part of the reason that the character was almost instantly dropped is because Hulk Hogan had left the WWE and they needed a new Superstar to capitalize on Hogan’s success, and that role went to The Narcissist, Lex Luger. Obviously not marketable as a self-obsessed heel to become the face of the franchise, Luger was transformed into the All-American Lex Luger and The Narcissist only lives on as a brief angle that wrestling fans only remember as being moderately silly at best.
8. That ’70s Guy
We often talk about Mike Awesome’s run in WCW with disdain and regret, and all of it is justified. When Mike Awesome left ECW after having an extremely successful run as their Heavyweight Champion, nobody thought that WCW — with all their infinite genius — could possibly mismanage and ruin his wrestling career. But alas, WCW did exactly that, and the wrestling world was subjected to both “That ’70s Guy” and the “Fat Chick Thrilla.”
Awesome said in a shoot interview that he believed that he was being punished by WCW for what happened between Vince Russo and Hulk Hogan at Bash at the Beach in 2000 when Russo legitimately fired Hogan from the company on live television. Since Mike Awesome and Horace Hogan (Hulk’s real-life nephew) were cousins, Awesome figured that Russo was trying to take it out on him as well, effectively giving him awful gimmicks until the company was eventually bought out by WWE.
7. The Ringmaster
Not even sports entertainment’s biggest Superstar was immune to being given an awful gimmick at one point in his career. Before he was Stone Cold Steve Austin there were two names that he went under: he was one half of The Hollywood Blondes in WCW as “Stunning” Steve Austin (which he was perfectly fine aside from his Texas accent not exactly matching up with him being billed from Hollywood, California), and he also went by a certain other name for his WWE debut: The Ringmaster.
Austin wasn’t too thrilled about the new moniker, but when he went to the creative department for help in finding a new character, they almost made matters infinitely worse! Austin recalls three names that they pitched to him: Ice Dagger, Otto Von Ruthless, and Fang McFrost.
Austin, thankfully, declined all of their suggestions and would instead adopt “Stone Cold” on his own, and we, the WWE audience, would never be subjected to any of those potentially horrific characters.
6. The Blue Blazer
Owen Hart was a terrific performer in the ring and was truly ahead of his time (he was a high-flyer during an era when high-flying wasn’t an industry standard). He spent a large portion of his career as an irritating heel, often being referred to as a “nugget” by the crowd, but it’s his last career path that WWE handed to him that puts him on our list.
The Blue Blazer was a gimmick that he used during his early years in WWE, but when The Attitude Era was in full-swing that same gimmick became Owen’s punishment. Owen refused to engage in a storyline that featured him having an affair with Debra (Jeff Jarrett’s valet at the time), stating that he didn’t want to have the television audience question his real-life values, so in retaliation WWE made him return to his embarrassing Blue Blazer gimmick.
Hart played the character well by urging kids to say their prayers and eat their vitamins, all while protesting the raunchy storylines that made The Attitude Era the most successful era in the history of professional wrestling.
5. Irwin R. Schyster
Mike Rotunda was a second-generation wrestler, is a father of two current third-generation WWE Superstars (Bray Wyatt and Bo Dallas), and was a big part of the golden age of wrestling through his various stints with Jim Crockett Promotions, Florida Championship Wrestling, the AWA, the NWA, WWE, WCW… you name it, he’s probably been there before. He often wrestled under his real name and had a considerable amount of success by doing so, but it’s his second run with WWE in the mid-’90s that we will focus our attention.
Irwin R. Schyster, or simply I.R.S., was a character that berated his opponents for being tax cheats, even going as far as feuding with Tatanka over a sacred ceremonial headdress that he received from Chief Jay Strongbow, claiming that Tatanka “never paid the proper gift tax.” Rotunda played the character very well, but his run as I.R.S. slowly fizzled away until he chose to leave the company due to him being dropped lower and lower on the card.
4. Isaac Yankem D.D.S.
Remember what we said earlier about occupations being a gold standard for wrestling gimmicks? Well, Glenn Jacobs — one of professional wrestling’s longest tenured talents — had to suffer through some pretty rough times very early in his WWE career by debuting as Jerry the King Lawler’s personal dentist, Isaac Yankem, DDS.
The seven foot tall monster was hardly memorable throughout his initial push and subsequent feud with Bret Hart, so the gimmick was thankfully cut short before it dragged on for longer than it ever really needed. He dropped all the way down to the bottom of the card, often jobbing to established stars and was generally treated as an enhancement talent until the dentist gimmick was dropped once and for all.
It would only be a couple years later that he would be repackaged as the character that we all know and love today (Kane), but there would be yet another infamous character in between those two runs that fans everywhere truly despised right out of the gate…
3. Fake “Diesel”
Kevin Nash made Diesel a WWE Superstar. Well, technically Shawn Michaels and Vince McMahon did, but Kevin Nash was the personality behind the gimmick and that can go a long way when trying to get over with the audience. When Scott Hall and Kevin Nash split for WCW in 1996, Vince had the bright idea to simply give the Razor Ramon and Diesel characters to other wrestlers and play it off as if nothing had changed.
What happened next will shock you: the crowd turned on them immediately. Wrestling fans aren’t stupid and telling the world that Razor and Diesel could be played by anyone is a slap in their faces, so it’s no surprise that the characters never worked out as planned.
In the middle of the whole ordeal was Glenn Jacobs — who had just come off an unsuccessful run as the aforementioned Isaac Yankem — so he was practically an innocent bystander in the character assassination that was the Fake Diesel debacle. They would take him off television to prepare him for his new role as Kane and the world was right once again.
2. Mr. America
Even the most famous wrestler of all time makes our list and the situation surrounding the whole gimmick is a real head-scratcher, to put it nicely. Hulk Hogan was kayfabe told by Vince McMahon that he was to sit out the remainder of his contract with WWE, effectively forcing Hogan to retire from professional wrestling in 2003. So what did the creative geniuses have Hogan do instead? They made him into “Mr. America,” a masked wrestler that was an intentionally poor attempt at disguising Hogan’s true identity.
All the same gestures, catchphrases, and gravelly mic work came along with the “new” character, but after only two months of all that garbage Hogan finally had enough with the direction he was headed and non-kayfabe quit the WWE altogether. Why the WWE creative team thought it would be a good idea to put the world’s most recognizable wrestler into that gimmick is something we’ll never know.
1. Chainsaw Charlie
Perhaps the single worst idea that Terry Funk has ever had was to destroy his own legendary career with two words: Chainsaw Charlie. We’ve written about him before: a chainsaw-wielding, overall-wearing, panty-hose-sporting lunatic that the crowd didn’t seem to understand when he made his grand entrance into the WWE Attitude Era.
Hardcore icon Terry Funk played the role and admittedly is responsible for creating both the name and the character design, but he was a little over-zealous when he imagined how the crowd was going to respond when he made his television debut on Monday Night Raw. Expecting a resounding cheer from the capacity crowd, Funk recalls that the sound that he actually heard was more along the lines of “escaping gas,” probably because people didn’t quite understand why a person was inside of a wooden box at the top of the WWE entrance ramp throughout the show. Funk should have just stayed himself, but unfortunately he tops our list as the worst gimmick to be given to a legendary wrestler, even though he gave it to himself.
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