“Would you be as afraid of Darth Vader if he looked like Michael Jackson? Well, that’s possible, I suppose.” That amusing quote appeared on the inside cover of Adrian Street’s Skullkrushers Wrestling Wear catalog in the 1980’s as a fitting reminder to aspiring superstars that if they wanted to make their mark in professional wrestling, they needed to find a way to stand out from the crowd and ensure that their image effectively matched the character that they were trying to portray.
The sport of professional wrestling has been decorated by some of the most enduring characters in all of pop culture, but it may be surprising for some to learn that not everyone launched their career under the monicker that would see them to the top of the marquee. In some cases, it took a few different attempts to land on the name and character that would propel them to the forefront of the fans and, in many cases to a Hall of Fame career. In wrestling, one’s name and image can mean the difference between success and failure in a competitive and often cut throat industry.
While there are many wrestlers we can name that rose to fame using their own given name, or held onto a single handle throughout their career – such as Ric Flair or Mad Dog Vachon, the number of wrestlers that needed some time (and often an outside intervention) to strike a winning combination are numerous. Here are the top 20 wrestlers who probably would not have made as lasting an impression on us had they stuck with the name by which they first debuted.
20 Kamala - Sugar Bear Harris
When the enormous African-American from Missippi was first discovered by wrestling promoters, his introduction to the sport would be miles away from the character that would eventually see his rise to main events for the WWE. James Harris debuted under the name “Sugar Bear Harris”. Training alongside such other wrestling notables as Michael Hayes, Terry Gordy and Percy Pringle, Harris’ start was a little slower than his peers. He wrestled in the deep south and pursued some opportunities to wrestle in England, but didn’t really catch fire.
It wasn’t until 1982 when Jerry Lawler devised the idea to re-package the 380 pounder as a Ugandan Giant from deepest, darkest Africa under the name Kamala that things started to take off for Harris. Two years later, he debuted in the WWE and enjoyed multiple runs with the company, including headline feuds with the likes of Hulk Hogan and The Undertaker, who also join him on this list.
19 Hulk Hogan - Sterling Golden
Truth be told, most of this iconic wrestler’s earliest matches in 1977 around Florida took place under a mask as the Super Destroyer. However, as he started to forge out from his home territory and travel to other wrestling centres, the name Sterling Golden stuck as the first nomme do guerre to raise him up to main event status. He also toured under the name Terry Boulder in his formative years. But it was once he was dubbed Hulk Hogan by Vince McMahon Sr. that his identity started to take shape. Arguably, Hulk Hogan is one of the most recognized names in the history of wrestling. Sterling Golden … not so much.
18 Road Warrior Hawk - Crusher Von Haig
Straight of of Eddie Sharkey’s wrestling camp in Minnesota, there was no doubt that this 270 pounder from Chicago was born to raise hell in the world of professional wrestling. Right out of the gate, Sharkey sent the inexperienced Michael Hegstrand to Vancouver where he would be tutored through some of his earliest matches under the watchful eye of Moose Morowski. Some of those early matches can still be seen on YouTube. Fortunately, Von Haig’s next move was to Georgia, where he was partnered with another hulking up and comer, Joe Laurinaitis. Together, the team would become known as the Road Warriors, and Crusher Von Haig achieved great success under face paint and the name Hawk.
17 Greg "The Hammer" Valentine - Baby Face Nelson
Despite laying claim to a wrestling pedigree upon his debut in professional in 1970, this second generation wrestler was trained by Stu Hart and spent the first six months of his career wrestling as the junior version of his famed father. However, after first learning the ropes, Greg Wisniski hit the road – first pairing with Don Fargo as Johnny Fargo, then going solo under the name Babyface Nelson while he gained valuable experience. However, it was under the name Greg “The Hammer” Valentine that he created his greatest success and was featured in some of the most gruelling matches of the 1970’s and 80’s.
16 Virgil - Soul Train Jones
Dressed in red white and blue and strutting to the ring in a decorative vest with lapels and tails, Soul Train Jones looked like a 1980s Uncle Sam when he first appeared in Memphis, Tennessee. His athleticism and physique soon got him noticed though and he was called up to the WWE for a showcase role on the main roster. Many may forget his impact though as he is not best known for his efforts as a wrestler. Instead, it was as the bodyguard to Ted DiBiase under the name Virgil that this wrestler is best known.
15 Ivan Koloff - Red McNulty
Ontario’s Orreal Perras wrestled some of his first matches in a small wrestling club in Hamilton, Ontario, dabbling in a few spot appearances as enhancement talent on Pittsburgh TV tapings as a fall guy and wasn’t sure that his aspirations in the ring were going to lead him anywhere. He was billed during the early years of his career as Red McNulty and started to tour from territory to territory, but while he remained busy, the big money that accompanied main event status eluded him.
That was until he arrived in Montreal in 1967, shaved his head and became one of the most dominant villains on the scene under the name Ivan Koloff. As Koloff, he would go on to unseat Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship and wrestle around the globe in singles and tag team action for three decades.
14 Raven - Scotty the Body
If you watched the evolution of this wrestler from his earliest days in the sport in the late 1980s to the present, you might find it hard to believe that he was once considered a “body guy” in professional wrestling. However, when Scotty the Body first exploded onto the scene in Oregon, many saw a bright future ahead for the New Jersey native. Sure enough, he did see success … but it came after failed starts in WCW and WWE before he found the image that would define his career in Extreme Championship Wrestling. As Raven, Scott Levy built a steady following in the 1990’s and returned to both WCW and WWE placed higher on the card.
13 Edge - Adam Impact
At the primitive Sully’s Gym in Toronto, Ontario, a number of great wrestlers have been churned out under the watchful eye of Ron Hutchison and one time partner Sweet Daddy Siki. Among them was a lanky blonde who would go on to a WWE Hall of Fame career. Debuted as Adam Impact and also advertised as Sexton Hardcastle during his early career, Adam Copeland first appeared in the WWE in 1997 and by the name Edge left a lasting impression with fans as the “Rated R Superstar”.
12 Sting - Flash Borden
If you have any memories of the 1970s sci-fi film “Flash Gordon” you can’t help but hear the corny theme song from that flick whenever this name gets mentioned. However, it was right out of a California training school that Flash Borden emerged as a member of the tag team Power Team USA (with another dubious entry to be found on this list). Flash wrestled in Tennessee and then Oklahoma where he had the opportunity to evolve and under the name Sting, launched into a solo career that would lead him to memorable main events against Ric Flair and a number of championship reigns. The enigmatic Sting was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame earlier this year.
11 John Cena - The Prototype
With a super hero physique, a marine hair cut and a generic pair of wrestling trunks, the east coast born, west coast trained wrestler first made a splash on independent cards in California under the billing of The Prototype, in theory, the blank slate by which every man should be modeled. His earliest matches in Ohio Valley Wrestling were contested under the same name. But by the time he was called up to the main roster, the gimmick was dropped and he has found lasting success with no alias at all. John Cena has become one of the most visible wrestlers of his generation and one whose identity is strongly tied to the WWE brand.
10 Scott Hall - American Starship Coyote
A one-time night club bouncer making the transition into professional wrestling at a time when tag team wrestling was red hot, the 287 pounder who was trained by Hiro Matsuda was paired with Danny Spivey (as American Starship Eagle). Fortunately, the gimmick, and stylish vests and headbands was short lived and the promising up and comer went on to greater success under his own name, Scott Hall. He also found success in the WWE as Razor Ramon.
9 Smash - Zar the Mongolian
If we were to look through the annals of wrestling history, one might believe that outer Mongolia is a hotbed of professional wrestling owing to the number of Mongols that have graced the ring in North America. Sadly, most have evaded Hall of Fame recognition and are seldom mentioned in the lists of top contenders in the sport. Such may have been the same fate for Zar the Mongolian, who debuted in New Zealand in 1983 with tag team partner Gor.
However, after a brief run as a Mongol, then a higher profile run as a Russian, Zar saw his greatest success hailing from Parts Unknown under black leather and spikes as Demolition Smash.
8 Sid - Lord Humongous
When you are 6’10 and over 300 pounds wrestling promoters are sure to get excited about adding you to their roster … even if they are not sure what to do with you once they’ve got you. That seems to be the case for our next entry who terrorized Tennessee in the late 1980s under a gladiator’s smock and white goalie mask as Lord Humongous. The giant soon found himself in WCW as one of the Four Hoursemen under the name Sid Vicious – a name that would see him to World championships in both WCW and the WWE.
7 Buff Bagwell - Handsome Stranger
When you think of the Handsome Stranger, picture Johnny Depp as Don Juan DeMarco … on steroids. The popular wrestler, who wore a black mask ala the Lone Ranger and brought gifts of roses to young ladies at ringside was one of the most popular up and comers in Texas for the Global Wrestling Federation. It didn’t take long before he was snapped up by WCW where he enjoyed a lengthy career as Marcus Alexander "Buff" Bagwell.
6 Kane - Angus King
The name Angus King doesn’t really strike fear into the hearts of men, but that was the first known monicker for a seven foot monster making his first ring appearances in Missouri in 1992. As he gained experience, different promoters had other ideas for him but it wasn’t until October 1997 that the money-making idea was cast … “The Big Red Machine” Kane lays claim to one of the longest WWE careers in recent memory. But even his entry to the WWE was full of disappointment – first as a demented dentist Isaac Yankem and later as a reincarnation of Kevin Nash’s Diesel persona. Luckily, the right fit was found.
5 The Ultimate Warrior - Jim Justice
The name Jim Justice sounds like a name that you might find in any weekend wrestling show at the local armory, borne by a local favorite waving the red, white and blue. Fortunately, in this case, the future Hall of Famer had help from creative influences along the way to transform from the generic Jim Justice to something that would stick with the fans. In 1987, when he first stormed the WWE as The Ultimate Warrior, wrestling history was made.
4 Booker T - G.I. Bro
This one might be an easy one for wrestling fans to identify owing to the fact that his character was re-visited in the dying days of WCW. However, when he first appeared as a solo competitor in the Global Wrestling Federation, G.I. Bro was already turning heads. Later entering WCW alongside his brother, Booker T achieved great success as a tag team wrestler before venturing out on his own and achieving championship success atop the card.
3 The Undertaker - Texas Red
We are imagining the meeting backstage at the Dallas Sportatorium when they came up with the name for the newcomer to their ranks in 1987. “Well, he’s from Houston, Texas and he has red hair … let’s call him Texas Red.” The name doesn’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of all who might cross his path, but that was the beginning for a wrestler who would next be known as the Master of Pain and “Mean” Mark Callous before the WWE got their hands on him. Debuting at Survivor Series '90 as a mystery partner on Ted DiBiase’s four man squad, The Undertaker may be the most iconic creation of the WWE of all time and is one of those rare wrestlers that the fans can’t get enough of.
2 The Rock - Flex Kavana
When you hear the name Flex Kavana, it certainly inspires a vivid picture, doesn’t it? To this writer it brings with it an image of a self-admiring local on a beach somewhere, hitting on attractive tourists in a Hawaiian shirt open to the navel. Kavana, another creation of the Memphis wrestling territory, is not a name that we would expect to see headlining WrestleMania, so fortunately the name was short-lived and quickly forgotten upon this wrestler’s WWE debut.
Of course, simply known as The Rock, Dwayne Johnson has transcended not only wrestling but is also the most successful wrestlers to make the transition to Hollywood as well.
1 Abdullah The Butcher - Pussycat Pickens
We’re pretty sure that the files who filed into the ringside seats in Houston, Texas in 1959 had no idea what they were witness to when they cheered and booed during the earliest matches of McKinley “Pussycat” Pickens. After all, who could know that the 18-year-old from Windsor, Ontario, Canada was destined to become one of the most notorious and feared competitors of all time? Much of his first decade in the sport is rather unremarkable, but on June 19, 1967 in Vancouver, British Columbia, he debuted under a new name … Abdullah the Butcher, sparking an international sensation that was one of the most sought after and talked about wrestling hooligans of all time in the sport.