It’s been said that there are no new original ideas. In a world where every second movie coming out of Hollywood seems to either be a remake, a reboot, or a sequel, this seems increasingly true. But professional wrestling has been recycling ideas since before it was cool. Honestly, talk with a wrestling historian, and you’ll find everything has been done a million times already. Venture to say what you think was the first ladder match or who were the first wrestlers to use entrance music and you’ll find out the first such incidents happened years, perhaps even decades, earlier than you thought, and of course, nobody really knows the first instance of anything. At this point, I wouldn’t be shocked to hear that back in 1905 George Hackenschmidt and Frank Gotch were hitting each other with steel chairs, coming out to fireworks, and a having “bottle of nerve tonic on a pole" matches.
So yes, wrestling has always existed by reusing standard tropes, characters, and storylines. But some are too obvious. Some are clearly ripoffs of either a figure in pop culture or another wrestling persona. This is not to say it’s necessarily bad. Wrestling characters are like blues songs: nobody’s really sure who invented the core themes, so it’s kind of okay to rip it off. And some rip offs are great. And some are garbage. This list will look at both of them. But a point of order: we will not look at parodies of characters. Thus Jay Lethal’s incredible “Black Machismo” character is not so much a ripoff as it as an homage to Randy Savage. Similarly, Ed Ferrara’s awful “Oklahoma” character was more a distasteful parody of Jim Ross than a rip off.
The bottom line is, ripoffs are bound to happen in wrestling. Here are eight examples of a ripoff working and seven times it failed.
15 Failed: “The All-American” Lex Luger
Hulk Hogan, the keystone figure in the WWE’s massive popularity in the 1980s, left the company in mid-1993. Business was way down and Vince McMahon was desperate to recapture his former glory. So he repackaged Lex Luger, who had only began wrestling in the WWE since that January, from The Narcissist to “The All-American”. The idea was to fill the incredibly muscle-bound, patriotic hole left by Hogan with Luger. And it started off well when Luger became the first man to bodyslam Yokozuna on the U.S.S. Intrepid. But Luger’s push was too forced. Fresh off a motorcycle accident and a stint in Vince’s failed World Bodybuilding Federation, Luger, who was never a great worker, was severely limited in his mobility.
What’s worse, Luger didn't have Ric Flair to make him look good as he had in NWA/WCW. After Luger failed to win the WWE title after a big push going into SummerSlam in 1993, he really lost steam. When he co-won Royal Rumble ‘94 with Bret Hart, it became apparent the fans were much more into Bret, and it was Bret who eventually beat Yokozuna.
14 Succeeded: Demolition
The Road Warriors were a massively popular tag team of two big, muscled dudes in face paint in the American Wrestling Association (AWA) and Jim Crockett’s National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) territory. Vince McMahon deliberately set out to create his own Road Warriors and the result was Demolition. Just to describe them doesn’t sound like they’d be successful: two muscle heads named Ax and Smash wearing bizarre face paint and S&M gear.
But Demolition were very successful, getting over huge with audiences and were the longest reigning tag champions in WWE history until The New Day surpassed them late last year. They started off as hated heels, but they became so successful that audiences began to gravitate towards them. After their manager, the maniacal Mr. Fuji, betrayed them at the 1988 Survivor Series, Demolition had a successful babyface run. And with whom did Mr. Fuji replace Demolition?
13 Failed: The Powers of Pain
While Demolition were an intentional rip off of the Road Warriors, the Powers of Pain were something of an organic rip off. The Powers of Pain were a tag team in the 1980's that achieved their greatest prominence in the WWE. And frankly, history has treated them a bit poorly. Many people see them as another of Vince McMahon’s attempts to rip off The Road Warriors. But The Powers of Pain were not actually a Vince McMahon creation; they were a team for years before signing with WWE. The Barbarian and The Warlord had teamed up before they even moved to the NWA, but it was there that they were pitted against The Road Warriors and were modeled to mirror them (big dudes in face paint).
In the WWE, the Road Warrior influence was heightened, but the two never really clicked to any great degree with the audience. Why did Demolition succeed where the Powers of Pain had failed? One reason may be that Demolition started off as heels, thus giving them one big differentiation to the Road Warriors. By the time The Powers of Pain had turned heel (and feuded with Demolition), Demolition were already over and there was no real role for the Powers of Pain.
12 Succeeded: The Road Warriors
What is sometimes lost in all this Demolition vs. Powers of Pain debate, is that The Road Warriors themselves were a rip off. However, Hawk and Animal weren’t ripoffs of another wrestling team, but rather from pop culture. The Road Warriors were pretty much blatant rip offs from the Mad Max movie franchise. But fans certainly didn’t seem to mind. The Road Warriors are arguably the most popular wrestling tag team of all time, headlining shows for the NWA and even have a crowd reaction named for them: the “Road Warrior pop”.
Vince McMahon did eventually get The Road Warriors in the WWE in 1990. There, they were more commonly identified as “The Legion of Doom”, and promptly entered into a dream feud with Demolition. But, by this point, Ax was having health issues and was winding down his career and was replaced with the much less charismatic Crush. Despite winning the tag titles, The Road Warriors never reached their past heights in the WWE.
11 Failed: Glacier
Until the baffling Emmalina promos that recently ran for about 817 weeks (and resulted in nothing), Glacier was the prime example of a wrestler who was overhyped but under-delivered. Promos hyping up the arrival of a “Glacier” character began in WCW in April 1996, but Glacier did not debut until September. Glacier’s ring entrance was also very elaborate, replete with lasers. But all off this could not hide that, basically, one or more of the writers liked Mortal Kombat and just ripped off the Sub-Zero character.
Raymond Lloyd, who portrayed Glacier, did have martial arts training, but incorporating martial arts striking into pro wrestling has always been hit and miss. What’s more, Lloyd didn’t exactly have a surplus of charisma. And at a time in WCW when everything was overshadowed by the nWo, Glacier was forgotten quicker than his promotional period.
10 Succeeded: The Honky Tonk Man
And now we have the age old philosophical question: was The Honky Tonk Man a rip off of Elvis, or an Elvis impersonator? The “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” is probably the most impersonated human ever, so it’s only natural he should have a pro wrestler impersonator. And that person was Wayne Farris. Farris had been a moderately successful journeyman wrestler before he entered the WWE in 1986. There, his gimmick was completely changed and he was rechristened “The Honky Tonk Man”. For younger fans, the idea of an Elvis impersonator might sound lame, but it worked great in the gimmicky 1980s wrestling scene.
After a bit of a dispute between Intercontinental Champion Ricky Steamboat and Vince McMahon over paternity leave, Honky Tonk man was chosen, perhaps somewhat randomly (perhaps at the suggestion of Farris’s good friend, Hulk Hogan) to be the new champion. The Honky Tonk Man would go on to become the longest reigning IC champion in WWE history.
9 Failed: Asya
Asya was WCW’s answer to Chyna. And like pretty much all of WCW’s answers for WWE characters, Asya failed miserably. While her name was definitely a parody of Chyna’s, Asya didn’t really mimic any of Chyna’s mannerisms, so it’s more appropriate to consider her a ripoff than a parody. Asya had been a character on WCW television for a few months in 1999, before she joined the Revolution stable and was re-named “Asya” (because Asia is bigger than China; hilarious, right?). Asya was a former bodybuilder, but she was never a wrestler. Chyna was not exactly The Fabulous Moolah in the ring, but she was still streets ahead of Asya, which should tell you just how bad Asya was. A horrible idea for a horrible wrestler.
8 Succeeded: The Bullet Club
The purveyors of the hottest selling t-shirt in wrestling today, the Bullet Club began in New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) in 2013 with founding members Karl Anderson, Bad Luck Fale, Tama Tonga, and Prince Devitt (who would become Finn Balor in the WWE). Now, the Bullet Club includes many more members, including Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks. They also have a presence in Ring of Honor, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, and have a spinoff in the WWE, “the Club”, with AJ Styles, Karl Anderson, and Luke Gallows. So, it’s been an extremely successful stable. And right from the beginning, they never tried to hide what they were: a blatant ripoff of the nWo. The black t-shirts, the invading stable of wrestlers, and of course, the “too sweet” hand gestures. These were just a group of foreigners who loved to imitate the wrestlers they grew up watching. And the whole thing has come full circle, because Eric Bischoff first got the idea for the nWo from watching the UWFi invasion of NJPW angle.
7 Failed: Waylon Mercy
Is there any failed gimmick more beloved than Dan Spivey’s Waylon Mercy? Spivey was a journeyman wrestler who achieved his greatest success as part of the Skyscrapers with Sid Vicious in WCW in 1989-90. He re-joined the WWE in 1995 as “Waylon Mercy”, a character clearly inspired by Robert De Niro’s Max Cady from Cape Fear. Mercy’s unsettling southern gentleman demeanor changed into a violent madman once the bell rang. But the gimmick never got over and lasted less than a year. However, many think it could have worked under the right circumstances. The child-friendly, cartoonish WWE product at the time was quite restrictive on such a character. Had Mercy been allowed to be truly evil and sinister, it could have been better. Many people see echoes of the character today in Bray Wyatt.
6 Succeeded: Razor Ramon
Razor Ramon was Al Pacino's Tony Montana from Scarface. That’s it. It was just Scott Hall’s Tony Montana impression. Despite Scott Hall not being Cuban and the utter shamelessness of the ripoff, it worked out very well. Kids, who were the target audience at the time, had no idea who Tony Montana was, and so Razor Ramon was just a tough, accented, bad guy. And parents of kids who did know Scarface, got a kick out of it. Hall was so successful as Razor Ramon that he had to turn babyface about a year into his run. It’s interesting to note that, when he left for WCW in 1996, Scott Hall left the Razor name behind, but kept the accent and many of the same mannerisms.
This led the WWE to take legal action against WCW for unlawful use of their intellectual property. The end result was that Hall had to ditch the toothpick, as that was seen as belonging to the Razor Ramon character. And the less said of Rick Bognar’s turn as “the fake” Razor Ramon, the better.
5 Failed: Arachnaman
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this actually happened. Welcome to Jim Herd’s WCW. In late 1991, Brad Armstrong, of the famed Armstrong wrestling family, was given another masked gimmick to follow up on his ever so successful run as Fantasia. This time, he would be...Arachnaman! I doubt you need me to tell you that this was a Spider-Man ripoff. Yes, Jim Herd and WCW thought it would be a good idea to blatantly ripoff a famous superhero character. Apart from the ugly mask and ring gear and apart from the idea being a totally idiotic, there was an even bigger obstacle for the Arachnaman gimmick: Marvel Comics. The comic book giant quickly noticed the ripoff and threatened WCW with legal action and Arachnaman’s brief run was over.
4 Succeeded: Sting
Steve Borden would rise to prominence in WCW in the late 1980s and be the top guy in the early 1990s as a face painted fan favorite with a bleach blonde crew cut. This look came to be known as “Surfer Sting”. This began to change in 1996 when he grew his hair out and stopped dying it blonde. Then, early on in the nWo angle, Sting felt betrayed by WCW and the audience when they assumed the nWo’s “fake Sting” was actually him. The result was a darker, brooding character, who hung around in the rafters with a baseball bat and trenchcoat. This was “Crow Sting”.
The aesthetics and mood of the character were taken directly from The Crow, a 1994 movie based on a successful comic book series. The movie is infamous for its star, Brandon Lee, dying from an accident during filming. This gave The Crow even more notoriety and a cult following than it would have had, and Steve Borden capitalized on this with his hugely successful “crow” Sting character. Later in his career, with Total Nonstop Action (TNA) wrestling, Sting would incorporate elements from the Joker from the Batman comics into his character, to mixed reviews.
3 Failed: The Renegade
The Renegade wasn’t just a ripoff of The Ultimate Warrior. He was worse. Because WCW wanted the audience to believe, for a time, that he actually was the Ultimate Warrior. After Hogan came into WCW, they went through a bad phase of bringing over any old WWE guys they could get. But one guy they couldn’t get (at least not then) was The Ultimate Warrior. Their solution was the have Hogan promise the audience and his opponent, Vader, the “Ultimate Surprise” at Uncensored 1995. WCW showed vignettes of the silhouette of a musclebound man with long hair and tassels, leading the audience to believe The Ultimate Warrior was coming. But it wasn’t Warrior, it was Rick Wilson as The Renegade.
As bad a wrestler the Warrior was, The Renegade was even worse. Fans groaned at the lame ripoff, but he managed to keep a job there until 1998. Sadly, a few months after his release, Wilson killed himself. I mean no disrespect to Wilson’s memory, but he was not a good wrestler and this gimmick sucked. It’s too bad WCW couldn’t think of something better for him.
2 Succeeded: “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair
Perhaps the greatest wrestler of all time, Ric Flair, stole his gimmick. But that’s wrestling; the same basic character can be interpreted and presented in different ways. The original “Nature Boy” was Buddy Rogers, who began wrestling way back in 1939. Rogers was a hugely important figure in the history of professional wrestling as his feud with Lou Thesz was at the heart of the WWE’s split from the NWA in 1963. As a result, Rogers became the first ever WWE Champion and is one of only three men to have held both the NWA World Championship and the WWE title (along with AJ Styles and Flair himself). Flair began wrestling in the 1970s as a much more muscular man than he would become.
A horrible plane crash forced Flair to slim down and wrestle a more technical style. This also caused Flair to focus more on his character, so he lifted the “Nature Boy” gimmick from Rogers, and even took the figure-four leglock from him. The result was Flair Stylin’ and Profilin’ all through the 1980s as the NWA’s top guy. Rogers even once put over Flair in a match in 1978.
1 Failed: “The Nature Boy” Buddy Landel
Flair wasn’t the only one Rogers inspired. Butch Reed used a similar gimmick as “The Natural” in the WWE in the 1980s. And when Dustin Rhodes was first starting out, WCW game him the “Natural” moniker (though not so much the gimmick). Buddy Landel, however, took this too far. While Flair was inspired by Rogers, Rogers' heyday ended 20 years before Flair’s, and the two didn’t look particularly similar. Landel, however, looked exactly like Flair. He wore similar attire and coiffed his hair the same. And, they were contemporaries. And, they were in the same company! And most baffling of all, NWA booker Dusty Rhodes and his compatriots were actually considering putting the NWA title on Landel in 1985, when he was still quite green.
But Landel, unfortunately, was a bit of partier and a bit of screw-up. He couldn’t be trusted. So they kept delaying his push and a main event feud with Flair until they had to cut him loose in 1986. Landel would return to company (now WCW) in 1990, but at this point he was nothing more than a cheap Flair knock-off.