Wrestling is a tricky business. As much as they think otherwise, promoters and bookers can never be truly sure what’s going to work and what won’t. So many times, ideas that look great on paper die while stuff that’s incredibly dumb goes on to draw huge money. Guys are given gimmicks that look totally stupid but they end up working while others are saddled with things that sink them. It’s hard to find a wrestler who hasn’t had to put up with some rough stuff and it’s a testament to how talented they are that they can rise above it.
So many guys have had bad gimmicks that were early in their careers and they had to break out of them. Others are interesting in that they were veterans who tried a change and it didn’t work out very well. Many a worker has had stupid stuff put on top of them and it takes a real inner talent to rise above it and still make it work. Dusty Rhodes had to put up with the polka dot outfits in WWE but still got over well thanks to his fantastic talent while son Dustin made things like Goldust work out damn well too. On the other hand, poor Terry Taylor was never the same after the horrific Red Rooster sank him badly. It’s still notable how many guys have been hit with stupid stuff though and managed to still get over. Here are 15 major wrestling stars who once had the worst gimmicks imaginable and how so many of them managed to bounce back from those to be a huge star.
15 Batista- Deacon Dave
Starting off wrestling at the age of 31 was a bit daring but Dave Bautista was going for it anyway. After time as an effective monster in OVW called Leviathan, he was called up to WWE who promptly gave him the gimmick of Deacon Dave, the sidekick to Reverend D-Von. It was a goofy act that gave him little chance to shine as much as he should have and WWE seemed to recognize it. After his first loss was caused by D-Von, Dave turned on him and soon took on the name of Batista. He was then hooked into Evolution and the rise to ring stardom and eventually movie roles as well. He’s criticized for his attitude but still says a lot of how Batista escaped this bad character to become a major star in two fields.
14 Kevin Nash - Oz
Most would agree Kevin Nash at his best wasn't that stellar in the ring but he at least had a nice charisma to make up for it. In WCW, he was saddled with some rough stuff like "Vinnie Vegas," a supposed high-roller. That, however, was nothing compared to the absolute idiocy of Oz. Having acquired the MGM movie library, Turner pushed WCW to create characters based on some classic movies and thus Nash was picked as Oz, coming out to green smoke with a bushy beard he would remove to show off green hair. His matches were terrible as the rookie Nash barely knew what he was doing and the entire act just laughable even by the standards of 1991 WCW. It was dropped fast and no wonder Nash fought so hard to keep in the spotlight in the future given what he had to put up with in his early days.
13 Edge - Damon Striker
Adam Copeland always had the wrestling bug at an early age, seen in the crowd at WrestleMania VI. After spending his time in the Canadian indies, he began his move to the U.S. and was signed to WCW. His first act, however, wasn’t notable: Damon Striker, a wild-haired jobber on WCW weekend shows, losing to various talent. That included a bit where the Giant (the Big Show) choke-slammed him on the floor, a pretty impressive bump for his age. WWE would sign him up and soon push him much better and after a few years, he progressed into one of the biggest stars in the entire company. They all start somewhere, even the Rated-R Superstar to when he was just a PG-guy.
12 Raven - Johnny Polo
Raven really had the wrestling goods but starting out in the 1990s meant he had to put up with some goofball stuff. He started as Scott the Body and then Scotty Flamingo, both long-haired goofballs with the latter even carrying a surfboard to the ring. In WWE, he was just made a manager and announcers as Johnny Polo, a prep rich kid managing the Quebecers as tag team champions. Released, he moved to ECW where he transformed himself into a goth man who led to massive success. It’s truly remarkable just how much he changed his act to be one of the pioneers of extreme.
11 Dolph Ziggler - Spirit Squad
A lot has been made of OVW guys who were terrific only to be saddled with terrible gimmicks in WWE. A key aspect would have to be the Spirit Squad, five really great workers who could have been something only to have the gimmick of male cheerleaders working as flunkies for Vince McMahon. Despite having the numbers advantage, they would get their butts kicked on a regular basis by DX and soon either sent back to OVW or released. One who rose up better was Nicky who took on the new name of Dolph Ziggler and soon rising into success as IC, US, tag team and World champion. He has his ups and downs but Ziggler still doing a lot better than when he started out.
10 Kane - Isaac Yankem
Even by the standards of 1995 WWE, this was an insane idea. After being made to kiss his own foot after a match with Bret Hart, Jerry Lawler claimed to have gum damage and thus went to his personal dentist, Isaac Yankem. Pushed as a sadist, Yankem soon transitioned into the wrestling ring for some bad matches with Bret, Undertaker and others. He would later play the “new Diesel” before WWE decided to put him into the mask and costume of Kane. While he’s had some goofy turns in that character, Jacobs has continued to be one of the company’s biggest stars and how even a survivor of the 1990s landscape can become a huge guy under the right persona.
9 Triple H - Frenchman
Hunter always had the goods early on. You don’t get trained by Killer Kowalski and not know your stuff and his good build and ring moves pushed what would be a great career. In WCW, he started as “wildman” Terra Ryzing before repackaged into Jean-Paul Levesque, a supposed French aristocrat. In one of their typical strokes of genius, WCW would adapt it to Levesque simply thinking he was a Frenchman, coming out in powdered wigs and a snotty attitude along with a bad accent. He still had a few things going for him as he was signed to WWF, giving the role of a Greenwich snob before rising to fame. WCW gave him the early going but HHH was the one who made it all click into a wonderful star package.
8 The Undertaker---Mean Mark
It still has to stick with WCW that they had the man who would be one of the biggest stars in all of wrestling and it failed. Mean Mark Callous had a good build and impressive showing but all WCW could do was put him in a biker outfit and teamed with Dan Spivey as the Skyscrapers. It was a good act but just not effective with some lame wins and WCW soon splitting them up and having them move on. Callous thus moved to WWF where they gave him the Undertaker persona and the rest is history. A true case of a guy with a bad gimmick remaking himself into a mega-star.
7 Shane Douglas - Dynamic Dude
After years as an okay worker, Douglas transformed himself as “The Franchise” and took off as the first ECW champion and helping put the promotion on the map. It’s amazing to see his rise given how his start was one of the most goofball of ideas. In 1989, he and Johnny Ace (John Laurianitis) were formed as the Dynamic Dudes, a pair of skateboarding faces meant to be the big team with the fans. The face neither knew how to skateboard and just brought them to the ring didn’t help and the face push was so obnoxious that fans turned on the entire idea massively and booed them out of the building.
They would split up with Douglas doing a few single turns before ECW and his mega fame. He had another dumb idea in “Dean Douglas” in WWE as a teacher which went nowhere and showcased how he was at his best as himself, a tough and arrogant heel fans loved to hate.
6 Booker T - G.I. Bro
Booker had to rise above bad stuff from the start as originally Harlem Heat were booked as convicts in orange suits and chains led to the ring by a Southern “Colonel.” Thankfully, that was dropped fast and the Heat rose quickly with Booker transitioning to a singles champion as well. In 2000, Booker and Stevie Ray got into it in an idiotic feud with the even more stupid stipulation that by losing, Booker lost the “T” name to Big T (the former Ahmed Johnson).
So, Booker got back into an old gimmick he’d had in his early days as “G.I. Bro,” a camo-clad “soldier” type and was put with the Misfits In Action. He did his best but it was just a stupid gimmick totally unneeded for a guy already massively over and WCW smartly had him drop it fast. He would become World Champion but still a poor turn for a character who didn’t need one.
5 AJ Styles - Moron
AJ Styles has been seen as one of TNA’s top guys, holding every belt in the company multiple times and putting the X Division on the map. He wowed fans with his amazing ring work and truly over yet TNA seemed to give him some bad stuff. That included a bit where Ric Flair tried to mold Styles into a second “Nature Boy” when Styles didn’t fit that at all.
Worse was an earlier bit in 2008 when, while partnered with Tomko and Kurt Angle, this smart ring technician was suddenly being portrayed as a complete idiot into goofy antics, including accidentally marrying Kurt Angle's wife. Some guys can pull that act off but AJ wasn’t one of them as his entire persona up until then had been a great ring tactician and thankfully TNA dropped this but still another way they let him down.
4 Sting - The Joker
Sting has shown himself to be terrific when it comes to shifting his act. His transformation from the “California surfer” to “the Crow” helped push WCW to new heights of success and he would alter it now and then. But in 2011, his newest transformation didn’t quite have the same impact. For no real reason, Sting started to act like the Joker, altering his makeup for a big grin, coming out in silly outfits and acting like a lunatic. It got mild interest but really just a nutty thing that served as a huge distraction, among the many other dumb bits floating around TNA at that time. Sting would soon drop it and even go around as a the non-painted boss for a bit to show even Sting couldn’t make some transformations work.
3 Ric Flair - The Black Scorpion
The plan for 1990 was for Ric Flair to drop the NWA title to Sting and help book Sting as a great champion. But first, Sting’s knee injury put him out for months to put that off. Ole Anderson then took over booking and by the time Flair did drop the belt, Ole had soured to him. Thus, Ole created the Black Scorpion, a mysterious guy from Sting’s past whose “feud” involved video threats and magic tricks on audience members. By the time Starrcade came along, it finally dawned on Ole that they needed someone to fill the role out. So at match time, four UFOs dropped four masked Scorpions before the real one came to the ring.
He and Sting battled it out with Sting winning and unmasking the Scorpion as Ric Flair. This was wild as WCW had been trying to push Flair down as “past his time” yet he would end up winning the belt a few weeks later as a reward for putting up with this terrible idea.
2 Hulk Hogan - Mr. America
On a “Best of SmackDown” DVD, guys openly laugh on how stupid this was. During a 2003 feud, Hulk Hogan was pushed off of SmackDown by Vince McMahon. Vignettes began to appear promoting a big guy called Mr. America. On “Piper’s Pit,” out came a guy in a red-white-and-blue costume and mask who was quite obviously Hulk Hogan. As guys on the DVD noted “you can put some guys in a mask, not him.” He did promos not even bothering to hide his voice and feuded with Piper, even put to a lie detector test. He finally unmasked just before leaving the company after issues with creative and for once, hard to argue with Hogan there on as dumb a gimmick for a mega-star as you can imagine.
1 Steve Austin - The Ringmaster
Almost everyone who saw Steve Austin in his debut in 1990 knew this guy was a star in the making. He had amazing ring skills as well as killer on the mic. In WCW, he held the TV and U.S. titles and seemed ready for more of a rise but that was cut short when Hogan came in and Austin pushed down the card. Fired while injured, he moved to ECW and got over majorly with his mic work there so WWE came calling. But ignoring all that, WWE gave Austin the gimmick of “The Ringmaster,” with Ted DiBiase as his mouthpiece and making him his “Million Dollar Champion.”
Wasting Austin like this was a true mistake and it was clear Austin himself hated it. He began to shift up the act and as soon as DiBiase left for WCW, Austin dropped the gimmick and adopted the Stone Cold persona that would launch him to fame. Still remarkable how one of the greatest stars ever was nearly undone in the early going.
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