The history of professional wrestling is filled with colorful characters who were defined by a timeless gimmick which not only increased their box office appeal but cemented their legacy long beyond their retirement from the ring.
Such was the case for Texan Raymond George Wagner who was just another wrestler in a pair of black trunks before coming up with the idea to bleach his dark hair blonde, style it into a feminine coif and tour by the name Gorgeous George. Though considered to be an outrageous departure from wrestling tradition, Wagner became one of wrestling’s top drawing wrestling commodities and his appeal transcended the sport to influence performers in other sports and entertainment genres.
Sometimes, those outrageous ideas that are scoffed at by the fans and even industry insiders only to evolve to become pure gold such as The Undertaker. In the wrestling magazines of the day, the character was celebrated, but self-proclaimed experts predicted that it was a gimmick with a short shelf life. In that case, the experts were wrong and Mark Calaway has enjoyed one of the longest tenures in WWE history.
But sometimes the creative influences behind the scenes miss the mark by a wide margin. On paper, we still can’t reconcile that someone was paid to come up with these characters which did little to inspire awe, fear, or endearment. Further, in some cases, the re-packaging of known and credible wrestlers not only served as an injustice to the performer, but also to the fans who buy the tickets. The following list explores some of professional wrestling’s biggest head scratchers in terms of character changes.
Here are the 20 wrestling character changes that made no sense.
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19 Greg Valentine
Greg “The Hammer” Valentine forged his reputation as a tough as nails competitor in the 1970s and 80s, best remembered as a master of the figure four leglock and for brutal matches such as his highly graphic dog collar chain match against Roddy Piper. A decorated grappler, he held almost every title short of the world championship in both the NWA and WWE by the mid-1980s. In fact, he has declared in interviews that he was being groomed for a WWE World title run after Bob Backlund until plans were re-routed with the arrival of Hulk Hogan to the company.
So in 1989, it was mystifying why the WWE would take this rough and tumble competitor and reduce him to a caricature of himself by dying his hair black and making him look like a Roy Orbison clone in a tag team with the Honky Tonk Man. Not only was it an image change that was hard for the fans to reconcile, it was easy to see that Valentine’s heart wasn’t into it either which certainly didn’t help it become any more palatable.
18 The Coach
In Los Angeles and most everywhere else he appeared during his storied career, Hamilton, Ontario’s John Tolos rose to the top of the roster and laid claim to dozens of championships during his career. His talent between the ropes was only eclipsed by his gregarious demeanor on the microphone which inflamed crowds on television and drew them into the arenas to see him get his comeuppance.
Tolos’ entrance to the WWE as Bobby Heenan was making the shift to a broadcast role looked like a great transition and would allow a new generation of fans on a national level to appreciate the art of the ring legend. Instead, he was introduced to WWE audiences as “The Coach” managing Curt Hennig. His WWE career was punctuated more by his use of a whistle at ringside than his articulate interviews on the microphone. The Coach represented a botched opportunity for the talent scouts that acquired him.
17 Any WCW character for Brutus Beefcake
It’s well regarded that Brutus Beefcake may never see Hall of Fame recognition as his career was created more by his friendship to Hulk Hogan, who opened the door for him almost everywhere he went. However, as Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, he ascended to main event status on his own and was possibly one of the most colorful and merchandised wrestlers of his day. However, the heights he reached in the WWE were followed by a successive list of career lows in WCW. Whether you talk about The Butcher, The Zodiac, or the Booty Man ... “Brother Bruti”, as Hogan used to call him, would probably prefer that we all forget his WCW career in its entirety.
16 Lord Tensai
We have to admit, Prince Albert was a character that fell pretty flat outside of the veiled innuendo of his partnership with Test (Andrew Martin) as T & A. However, as A-Train, he did show his skills and developed a credible following during his solo career in the WWE. After a hiatus where he re-invented himself in Japan, many were excited to learn about his pending return to the WWE. However, our excitement fell flat upon his re-debut as Lord Tensai.
Did the WWE honestly expect us to forget his track record with the company already? Besides, how many race-changing gimmicks have ever been a success? Didn’t they learn their lesson with Kerwin White?
15 The Boss
Ray Traylor generated an immediate impact in the WWE as The Big Boss Man, first as a villain tormenting favorites such as Hulk Hogan, and then later as a fan favorite. The character of a prison guard from the deep south fighting for truth, honor and the American way evolved to become one of the most endearing characters in WWE history. However, when he made the jump to WCW, there wasn’t a lot of imagination put into the character for the man who had wrestled as Big Bubba Rogers for them just a few years earlier. By trying to play off of Traylor’s WWE fame, it was only a matter of time before someone made a slip and called “The Boss” by the wrong name.
It was Bobby Heenan in the broadcast booth who slipped and called Traylor Boss Man on live television. Not surprisingly, a character change immediately followed, that stunk even worse.
At the height of the Monday Night Wars, Vince McMahon was pulling out all the stops against his rivals in WCW. Vignettes portraying Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan as geriatric caricatures of themselves clinging to their past glory was only one example of what Vince was prepared to do in the ratings war. When Bill Goldberg exploded onto the scene and became WCW’s most heavily marketed commodity, the WWE team felt they needed to take a shot at him as well. The result was despicable.
Re-casting preliminary wrestler Duane Gill as Gillberg, mimicking the WCW star did little for the WWE. While it may have provided Gill with the greatest notoriety of his career, it was as a parody – a mockery of not only Goldberg, but also his own achievements in the ring as well.
14 New Midnight Express
You could almost reserve this spot for every tag team that ever found themselves with the word “New” tagged to the front of their team name. However, the re-introduction of the Midnight Express casting Bob Holly and Bart Gunn as a team did a dis-service to both wrestlers as well as the tag team handle that carried with it a legacy as some of the greatest tag team displays in the 1980s. Bart Gunn had a strong reputation for tag team wrestling after multiple tag team title runs with Billy Gunn as the Smoking Gunns, but the dynamic of Holly and Gunn as a duo was largely forgettable.
There have been many occasions in wrestling when an organization has to tell a wrestler with a previous association with the company that there isn’t an opening for them. Despite their talent, maybe the re-introduction of the familiar face doesn’t offer the right fit based on the roster and the talent that is being promoted to the forefront. That may have been the best approach for Jim Neidhart in 1996. Neidhart, a two time WWE tag team champion with Bret Hart, had enjoyed multiple runs in the company and was easily recognized by his crewcut and goatee. So, he was hired, but re-packaged. Donning a pair of plain yellow trunks and generic mask, he was dubbed the equally unimpressive title as “Who”. The barrel-chested Neidhart was easily identified by fans and the character was quickly discarded.
12 Hoss Funk
A former NWA World champion and recognized as one of the finest wrestling technicians of his era, Dory Funk Jr. was well-known throughout the world of wrestling when he signed with the WWE in 1985. However, maybe the name Dory didn’t sound tough enough for a grappler from Texas and he was instead assigned the name Hoss. The character, combined with his placement in the middle of the card with little opportunity for advancement readily ensured that Dory wouldn’t see the same success that his brother Terry would enjoy under Vince McMahon’s banner.
As a chief tormentor of The Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan almost as soon as he arrived in the WWE, the former sumo wrestler from Surrey, British Columbia known as The Earthquake was one of the most fearsome competitors in the WWE. Seeing success as a tag team champion alongside Typhoon (Fred Ottman), Earthquake’s place in WWE history should have been cemented, but after returning from a hiatus, he found himself re-cast under a mask and in a pair of sweat pants and a t-shirt as the largely forgettable and unimpressive Golga.
To long time fans, it felt as though 'Quake was being punished for the time that he spent outside the ranks in the rival WCW. Sadly, this isn’t John Tenta’s only appearance on this top 20 list.
10 The Executioner
Let’s forget for a moment that Terry “Bamm Bamm” Gordy has since been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame as a member of The Fabulous Freebirds trio that stirred up notoriety throughout the 1980s. Gordy dominated most everywhere he appeared – the Universal Wrestling Federation, WCW, and was probably one of the most successful American wrestlers of all time in Japan. Gordy’s arrival in the WWE in the 1990s could have been his greatest triumph – finally arriving as a solo star in North America’s largest wrestling company.
Instead, he donned a black mask and cloak as The Executioner. Fans could see enough of his face to recognize that this poorly done Halloween costume signaled the death of Gordy’s WWE run.
9 Curtis Axel
If Curtis Axel hasn’t been the victim of WWE cuts by the time this list even reaches publication, this author will be abundantly surprised. A third generation star, we can understand that the company might want to put him out in front of the public with a name that ensured he wouldn’t coast on the laurels of his father and grandfather before him. So we were subjected to the rather unremarkable “Michael McGillicutty”. We held our tongues and waited for the talent Joe Hennig to earn his stripes.
Finally, they realized McGillicutty wasn’t a money maker and we got ... Curtis Axel – mash-up of his father’s and grandfather’s wrestling handles. Unfortunately, just like when they tried this years earlier with Rocky Maivia, it stinks.
8 Mr. J.L.
WCW spurred interest in the smaller, athletic wrestlers with the introduction of the Cruiserweight division in the 1990s. While there were some successful North American wrestlers creating an impact in the division, it was largely dominated by the Mexican luchadores. So, it made sense when the road-tested Jerry Lynn arrived in the company that given his short stature that he was re-packaged as a masked high flier in the style of his counterparts from south of the border. So, what exciting super hero-inspired name might they assign to this new creation? Mr. J.L. – the wrestler’s own initials. Not surprisingly, success did not follow.
7 Abe “Knuckleball” Schwartz
When the WWE was first sweeping North America with its national takeover of the wrestling industry, the company’s proprietary magazine touted Steve Lombardi as a rookie who was on the rise. It took a few years for Lombardi to rise from the preliminary matches, but he did enjoy some notoriety as the Brooklyn Brawler, even assigned the management of Bobby Heenan for a time. The Brawler wasn’t a main eventer and may never have an action figure likened in his image, but it can be hard to ascend in the eyes of the fans when they have seen you weekly for years unable to mount a winning streak of any significance. However, the Brawler was still preferable to the ill-fated Abe “Knuckleball” Schwartz that the WWE tried to assign to Lombardi. What long term future was that expected to have?
6 Saba Simba
Tony Atlas will forever hold distinction with Rocky Johnson as the first African-American team in history to win the WWE World Tag Team Titles. Atlas has had a rocky career, one of his own admission. However, when he was re-signed to the WWE in 1990, the opportunity to ascend to his previous success was limited by a character assignment that fans could see through. Dubbed “Saba Simba”, Atlas was declared to have been celebrating his ancestral roots.
Thankfully, as fans watched his television debut in disbelief with the adornments and accessories that reminded us a lot of Kamala, color commentator Roddy Piper may have influenced the life span of this horrible casting when he blurted: “That’s not a Saba Simba, that’s Tony Atlas!”
5 Dok Hendrix
The charismatic Michael Hayes has enjoyed a lengthy and successful career in the wrestling industry both in the ring and behind the scenes. As the leader of The Fabulous Freebirds, Hayes was no stranger to engaging audiences on the microphone and his addition to the WWE’s broadcast team when his own ring career wrapped seemed like a great fit. However, shearing his signature long blonde locks and dressed like a game show host, the repackaged Dok Hendrix gave fans little that they could get behind. Fortunately, time has erased memory of that short-lived character from most fans’ minds.
4 Akeem the African Dream
Almost from his earliest matches for the Poffo family’s International Championship Wrestling, George Gray dominated every territory that he appeared. The giant of a man at 6’9 and weighing 450 pounds, sporting a Mohawk hairstyle to show off the tattoos he was known as the One Man Gang and headlined Florida, Texas, and the Mid-South before arriving in the WWE. Unfortunately, his dominance in the territories didn’t translate to Vince McMahon’s portfolio and after being fed to Hulk Hogan like so many other monster villains of his era someone made the decision to re-package this fearsome antagonist.
What resulted was yet another failed cross-culture gimmick where the biker-themed brute was re-christened as Akeem the African Dream. Sadly, this one should have died on the cutting room floor, but we were subjected to it for far too long.
3 The Shark
Under the WWE banner, he was a Natural Disaster as Earthquake. So, when he arrived in WCW and needed to come up with a new name that wasn’t owned by Vince McMahon, it didn’t seem creative but it wasn’t much of a stretch when he was assigned the name Avalanche. But WCW officials correctly identified that they hadn’t arrived at a main event caliber moniker and it was soon back to the drawing board. What do you do with a 6’7, 468 pounder who dominated on the amateur mats at a college level and enjoyed a short-lived career as a sumo before making the transition to the pros? Call him The Shark, shave fangs into his facial hair and have him mimic a shark fin with his palm to frighten his opponents. It will come as no surprise that this one didn’t last for the duration of his contract for the Atlanta-based wrestling franchise.
2 Col. Mustafa
The 1980s produced some of the most iconic wrestling characters of all time. The evidence of their lasting legacy can be evidenced by the number of wrestlers from that era who continue to find themselves in high demand for personal appearances and comic conventions as pop culture icons. Among them, few cast a shadow as large as the Iron Sheik. Best known for unseating Bob Backlund for the WWE World title and being the champion unseated by Hulk Hogan to spawn Hulkamania, Sheik stands as one of the most recognizable stars of the 1980s.
So, it made no sense to us, just six years removed from his brief reign as world champion that The Sheik was re-introduced to us as Col. Mustafa. Forget that his nationality was changed from Iranian to Iraqi in the process, this was a character change that was doomed from conception.
1 Chainsaw Charlie
Just when you thought the bell had rung on Terry Funk’s career, he re-emerged with even more vigor than before. It’s hard to fathom now that the younger Funk brother had actually first announced his retirement in 1983 with intentions to go a different direction with his professional life. We’ve since lost count of how many times the former NWA World champion has declared his retirement and embarked upon a farewell tour. When he debuted on Monday Night Raw, cutting his way out of a wooden crate with a stocking over his head and by the name Chainsaw Charlie, many were scratching our heads to ask “What the hell is this about?” Frankly, as I write this now, almost 20 years later, I’m still a little mystified about it.
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