We cannot understate the importance of wrestlers choosing a good ring name. Would Joe Anoa'i, for instance, get a massive super-push as Leakee and not as Roman Reigns? How different would the wrestling business be if Steve Williams chose to accept his Ringmaster ring name in WWE, or if he elected to become Baron von Ruthless? Oh, and you can't say Jim Raschke and Tom Pestock are as effective as Baron von Raschke or Baron Corbin, respectively. Daniel Bryan works as a nice reversal of Bryan Danielson, but Lloyd Bonaire doesn't have the same amount of gravitas. Surely you get what we're driving at here, and sometimes a change of ring names can do a world of good...or lead to your downfall into mediocrity.
For this list of wrestlers whose creative fates improved or deteriorated notably after changing their names, we're including wrestlers who changed their name within the same major promotion or after moving from one major promotion to another. But we're not including those who changed their names after moving from the independent/territorial scene to WWE, Impact, or WCW – we won't include Terry Boulder becoming Hulk Hogan, nor are we considering Jon Moxley and Tyler Black becoming Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins. We're also omitting the many examples of WWE talents who lost their first or last names midway through their runs – no (Antonio) Cesaro, (Alexander) Rusev, Big E (Langston), or Elias (Samson) in here, in other words.
With all that being said, here are 13 wrestlers who were better for changing their ring names, and 12 others who weren't.
25 Thrived: The Rock
Let's start out with one of the most obvious, famous examples of a wrestler changing his name and getting much better returns after doing so. As Rocky Maivia, Dwayne Johnson was loathed by jaded mid-'90s WWE audiences, who booed him despite his babyface alignment and disliked how WWE seemed to be forcing his goody-two-shoes, plain-vanilla "Blue Chipper" character down their throats.
An injury suffered early in 1997 turned out to be the best thing that could happen to Johnson, as he returned after a few months out as a heel, joining the Nation of Domination and letting his natural charisma and promo skills shine through as he reinvented himself as The Rock. The rest is sports entertainment...and show business history.
24 Flopped: Stardust
Nowadays, Cody Rhodes is on top of the independent scene, having won multiple titles, including the NWA World Heavyweight Championship he recently won at All In. And speaking of All In, it goes without saying he had a hand in organizing that event, along with the Young Bucks. That sure beats the rut he was in at the time he left WWE in 2016.
With WWE looking to shake up his character, Cody became Stardust in 2014, which was essentially a younger, weirder version of his brother Dustin's Goldust gimmick. Not everyone hated it, but many people, including Rhodes himself, found it derivative and stifling, as he remained mired in the mid-card once his and Goldust's moderately successful tag team partnership ended.
23 Thrived: Dude Love/Cactus Jack/Mick Foley
This may be cheating it a bit since Mankind didn't exactly stop being Mankind after Mick Foley's two other "faces," Dude Love and Cactus Jack, were first presented to WWE audiences. But the fact remains that Foley became an even bigger star during his "three faces" stage, as each of his three gimmicks were massively over with fans and a key part of the Attitude Era as we know it.
Foley didn't just enjoy success in the WWE under three separate gimmicks/identities, as he became very recognizable under his real name, not only making a great impression in the ring but also as the author of multiple autobiographies, starting with 1999's best-selling Have a Nice Day.
22 Flopped: Chaz
It's rare for a switch to a real name to prove detrimental to a wrestler's career, but that's exactly what happened to Chaz Warrington, aka Headbanger Mosh. After his partner Thrasher suffered an injury. Warrington was put on the shelf and repackaged not once, but twice, as he was given some of the more tasteless and/or potentially offensive gimmicks of the Attitude Era.
Once Thrasher returned from his injury, Warrington was back to his most successful role as a Headbanger, but he wasn't done being Chaz, as he had another forgettable run under that name, this time teaming with D'Lo Brown as one-half of the Tiger Ali Singh-managed lower-card tag team, Lo Down.
21 Thrived: Ryback
We're using "thrived" in a relative sense here because one can't deny how Ryback ultimately floundered in the WWE after an ill-conceived heel turn and a demotion to the mid-card as one-half of RybAxel and as a singles star with an inconsequential Intercontinental title run. However, changing names from Skip Sheffield to Ryback was the best thing Ryan Reeves (as he was legally known then) could have done for his WWE career.
As Sheffield, Reeves was playing a role ill-suited to him, what with his cheesy catchphrase, fake Texan accent, and generic muscle role as part of the Nexus. Ryback may have been Goldberg-derivative, but in most cases, the character suited Reeves' persona to a T.
20 Flopped: TJP
After winning the 2016 Cruiserweight Classic and becoming the revived WWE Cruiserweight Division's first champion, TJ Perkins was projected for greater things. He was, after all, a familiar name from Impact Wrestling and the indies, and a proven talent whose big introductory push was well deserved. Then he lost his title to Brian Kendrick, and his WWE career hasn't been the same since then.
Not even a slight name change to TJP has worked for the Fil-Am Flash thus far, as he has gone from up-and-coming star to near irrelevance on the cruiserweight roster. Don't be surprised if he returns to the indies at some point next year, because this is one name change that simply hasn't clicked.
19 Thrived: Bray Wyatt
Despite briefly winning the WWE Championship and holding the Raw Tag Team titles with "Woken" Matt Hardy, Bray Wyatt hasn't had the run expected of him after he changed his name and gimmick. It isn't clear why WWE doesn't seem to have enough faith in Wyatt to give him a sustained main event push, but it definitely beats being an "Army tank with a Ferrari engine."
That was the cheesy line Windham Rotunda used to describe himself when WWE initially debuted him as NXT Season 2 rookie Husky Harris. While he did well on the show, he was little more than a generic next-generation wrestler who was hardly missed when Randy Orton literally punted him back to developmental.
18 Flopped: Curt Hawkins
In the beginning, Brian and Brett Major were kayfabe brothers who made a good impression as WWE newcomers, first as a babyface tag team, then as the "Edgeheads," two young guys who took advantage of their resemblance to Edge to help him win matches. Then it was revealed that the Majors weren't really brothers, as Brian became Curt Hawkins and Brett became Zack Ryder.
Ryder's brief successes under that ring name barely exempt him from this list, but Hawkins has almost exclusively been asked to count the lights since the tag team dissolved. Now, doing the job is at the very center of Hawkins' gimmick, as his losing streak is now at 200+ since his return to WWE in 2016.
17 Thrived: Drew Galloway/McIntyre
As we mentioned above, we've decided to include examples of wrestlers who changed their names after moving from one major promotion to the next. One such example is Drew McIntyre, who, after getting a good initial push as Vince McMahon's "Chosen One," got reduced to jobbing, and was out of the WWE in 2014 following a stint in the jobber faction 3MB.
Moving to Impact Wrestling, McIntyre switched to his real name of Drew Galloway and parlayed his main event push and World Championship run into a successful WWE return under his old ring name. Now he's a Raw Tag Team Champion alongside Dolph Ziggler, and part of what looks to be Raw's top heel stable together with Ziggler and Braun Strowman.
16 Flopped: Aron Rex
On the opposite side of the "flop in WWE, thrive in Impact" spectrum, we've got the wrestler known in real life as Aaron Haddad, who sort-of thrived as Damien Sandow in WWE before he got buried deep in the lower-card. What was once a promising gimmick as the "Intellectual Savior of the Masses" became a waste of talent at the time he was released in 2016.
Later on in the year, Sandow was on Impact Wrestling, blasting his old gimmick and calling himself Aron Rex, a seemingly no-frills guy determined to succeed in his new environment. Alas, that didn't come to pass, as Sandow/Rex was out of shape, undermotivated, and out of the company by the spring of 2017.
15 Thrived: Juice Robinson
For this entry, we're featuring an example of someone who left WWE (or in this case, NXT) and became a much bigger name after signing for another major promotion, albeit outside of North America. As CJ Parker, the real-life Joseph Robinson was saddled with cheesy hippie and "eco-warrior" gimmicks and was mostly used to put over NXT's bigger names. Feeling underappreciated, he asked for his release in 2015, which was quickly granted.
After leaving the WWE, Robinson competed briefly in the indies, but soon signed a deal with New Japan Pro Wrestling, where he adopted his old Juice Robinson ring name and became one of NJPW's top gaijin, or non-Japanese performers.
14 Flopped: Repo Man/"Hole In One" Barry Darsow
After Bill "Ax" Eadie retired from in-ring competition, that marked the end of Demolition for the meantime, as Crush became an easy-going Hawaiian surfer caricature and Smash became a repo man. No, make that the Repo Man, as Barry Darsow dressed in a Lone Ranger mask and repossessed people's stuff. Yep, it's as bad as it sounds.
Later on in WCW, Darsow worked another occupational gimmick, using his real name as an evil wrestling golfer upon his return to the company in 1997. Prior to that, he was the Blacktop Bully, who became infamous for his match against Dustin Rhodes in the back of a moving truck (yes, seriously), as opposed to his rather generic gimmick.
13 Thrived: JBL
Love him or hate him, there's no denying that the former wrestling mountain man Justin "Hawk" Bradshaw finally worked out as a character when he started going simply by his kayfabe surname and providing "protection" to other wrestlers alongside real-life best friend Ron Simmons. But there was one more name/gimmick change forthcoming, and it proved instrumental in catapulting the erstwhile lifelong mid-carder to the main event.
As John "Bradshaw" Layfield, the renamed JBL channeled his real-life financial background to become a J.R. Ewing-esque heel and, until AJ Styles broke the record earlier this year, the longest-reigning WWE Champion in SmackDown/SmackDown Live history.
12 Flopped: Alberto El Patron
Let's look at the interesting case of Alberto Del Rio/El Patron, who had a very strong initial run in the WWE and multiple main event championships to his name. After he left the WWE in 2014 over a backstage incident, he was rehired in October 2015 but failed to click as he suffered through poor creative decisions and even more backstage turmoil.
On paper, Del Rio's run in Impact Wrestling as Alberto El Patron seems successful, as he held the company's World Heavyweight Championship and unified the belt with the GFW Global Championship. But his outside-the-ring issues continued and got so bad that Impact let him go in April 2018 after he no-showed yet another scheduled appearance.
11 Thrived: Kane
No wrestler epitomizes why "third time's the charm" holds true in the world of pro wrestling better than the new mayor of Knox County, Tennessee, Glenn Jacobs. WWE fans first got to see him in 1995 as the evil dentist Isaac Yankem, DDS. That gimmick predictably ran out of steam after Jerry Lawler's feud with Bret Hart ended, so Jacobs was then repackaged as the fake Diesel, another gimmick that did no favors to anyone involved.
After Jacobs was done insulting WWE fans' intelligence as a Kevin Nash impersonator, he was taken off television and brought back in a mask as The Undertaker's kayfabe brother, Kane. Despite the forays into corporate stooge territory and many character tweaks through the years, no one can say that being Kane didn't work out for the man who plays him.
10 Flopped: Sin Cara (FKA Hunico)
As of this writing, Sin Cara is still receiving paychecks from the WWE and one has to be surprised how long he's lasted since replacing the original Sin Cara, aka Mistico/Luis Urive, who left WWE early in 2014 after a much-ballyhooed, yet ultimately disappointing run with the company.
While Jorge Arias was barely utilized on WWE TV as Hunico, his overall resume as Sin Cara is hardly better, despite an initially promising start as one-half of the Lucha Dragons. These days, he's hardly present on SmackDown Live programming and is mostly used as a jobber to newcomers such as Andrade "Cien" Almas.
9 Thrived: Dolph Ziggler
Here's another example of "third time's the charm" holding true in the wrestling business. Early on, he was just plain Nick Nemeth, working as Kerwin White's golf caddy. Then he was male cheerleader Nicky of the Spirit Squad. Finally, in 2008, the real-life Nemeth finally found a ring name that worked for him.
Yes, Dolph Ziggler sounds a bit ridiculous to non-fans and almost like the name of Mark Wahlberg's character in Boogie Nights. Even then, Ziggler's "Show-off" persona became a huge hit, and despite all the rumors he might not be much longer for the WWE, he keeps returning to relevancy, just as he's doing now alongside Drew McIntyre and Braun Strowman.
8 Flopped: Emmalina
Shall we call this a name change even if she never wrestled under the gimmick? What the heck, let's do so anyway because this gimmick was so bad it flopped before it could actually debut.
For more than four months, WWE sought to reinvent a struggling, injury-prone Emma as an old-school "Diva" character called Emmalina, frequently teasing her re-debut but always pushing it back until fans were fed up with it all, disliking her YouTube vignettes en masse. Turns out, WWE creative was also fed up, as their unhappiness with Emma's portrayal of her new role reportedly led to her "makeover from Emmalina to Emma" on the very night of her re-debut.
7 Thrived: "Stone Cold" Steve Austin
If WWE and Vince McMahon had their way, this guy could have easily found himself on the other side of this list. Instead, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin is arguably the epitome of the Attitude Era, a classic character who got over with his "Austin 3:16" catchphrase (among others) and his epic rivalry with Vince's own evil Mr. McMahon on-air persona.
Originally known as The Ringmaster and debuted as Ted DiBiase's latest protege, Austin disliked his initial WWE gimmick almost from the get-go but was given terrible suggestions for a new ring name to match the cold, ruthless persona he wanted – Chilly McFreeze, Fang McFrost, Ice Dagger, etc. Good thing reason prevailed and WWE went for something far more realistic.
6 Flopped: Akeem, The African Dream
Quick, what is there to do when a generic biker gimmick is losing momentum and the man playing the gimmick needs to be kept on air? Why, how about giving him a tasteless new character while simultaneously pulling a rib on the rival booker? That's exactly what happened in 1988 when the One Man Gang was repackaged as Akeem, the African Dream.
With Slick leading the way and conducting an elaborate ritual to help OMG embrace his "African roots," Akeem started speaking in a stereotypical African-American accent and dancing in the ring, both in the fashion of WCW's then-booker, Dusty Rhodes. Of course, that wasn't WWE's only rib on the American Dream, as evidenced by Mike "Virgil" Jones.
5 Thrived: EC3
Back in the day, moving from WWE to Impact Wrestling (or TNA as it was then called) was a wise career move for underutilized mid- and lower-carders. Few were able to make as much out of the move as Derrick Bateman was.
As a hardly used comedy wrestler in WWE, Bateman was considered surplus to the company’s needs in 2013. However, he surprised many pundits by breaking out in TNA as Ethan Carter III, Dixie Carter’s stuck-up nephew. He rode this new gimmick to a main event push and multiple world title runs, and is now back in WWE, simply known as “EC3” and doing quite well so far in NXT, though he has yet to win a title down in developmental.
4 Flopped: Kerwin White
"If it isn't Kerwin White, it isn't right?" How about "If it ain't broke, don't fix it?" Up to now, it still boggles the mind as to why WWE turned a proven mid-card talent in Chavo Guerrero into a suburban caricature named Kerwin White. Under this ring name, Chavo denied his Latino heritage and feuded against non-white wrestlers like Tajiri and Shelton Benjamin. Why, WWE, why?
In storyline, the reason was Chavo having had it with weeks of beatdowns from the Mexicools. Still, launching one stereotype gimmick in reaction to losing to another doesn't make it right, and Chavo was back to playing himself toward the end of 2005, albeit only after his uncle Eddie's untimely death.
3 Thrived: Triple H
While we've often argued that Triple H was always Hunter Hearst Helmsley, given that he's still called "Hunter" on-air from time to time, we're calling this a name change this time around.
Originally a snooty aristocrat under his full ring name, Helmsley was singled out for bigger and better things early on in his run, but after his punishment for his involvement in the "Curtain Call" incident, he worked hard in the ring and pushed for WWE to tweak his character. What happened was a gradual transformation from genteel mid-card villain to crude, uncouth "degenerate," and ultimately to the "Cerebral Assassin" we know him as today.
2 Flopped: Braden Walker
Knock, knock, who's there? Braden Walker and I'm quite possibly the worst example of a name change in pro wrestling history. Of course, that's not how the original "joke" went, but you get the idea. Using his real name in the company then called TNA, Chris Harris was one of the company's more valuable mid-card performers. Then he got out of shape ahead of his WWE debut and was slapped with a gimmick that had no legs on it whatsoever.
After two quick and unsatisfying victories, Walker was quietly released by the WWE, and we can argue his career has never been the same again after his super-quick WWE run turned him into a wrestling punchline.
1 Thrived: The Outsiders (Kevin Nash And Scott Hall)
Back in the mid-'90s, it still wasn't commonplace for wrestlers to succeed while using their real names. This was typically reserved for jobbers, and even then, wrestlers such as Mick Foley (aka "Jack Foley" in the mid-'80s) competed with mildly tweaked names as local enhancement talents. That notably changed in 1996, when WWE's Razor Ramon and Diesel appeared on WCW television, asking the company if they "want a war."
Given that WWE owned their ring names, WCW had no choice but to advertise them as Scott Hall and Kevin Nash respectively, and all they did was pave the way for the formation of the nWo, all while enjoying big-time pushes under their birth names.