Don’t be surprised if this has been brought up in the past, but it does bear repeating. The creative side in professional wrestling is likely one of the toughest jobs. It’s also likely to be the kind of job where there can be the reward of praise or the risk of receiving a high level of scrutiny from the wrestling fan community.
Developing something unique and fresh for the various talents does take some careful planning. For one, it takes the right type of person to make a specific gimmick work in wrestling. The WWE was able to find the right man who made Hulk Hogan famous. Some of the radical changes he had in his career – i.e. turning heel and forming the New World Order – that worked out perfectly.
On the other side of the coin, there may be a superstar who receives a gimmick change that ruins a wrestler’s career. Maybe the change didn’t connect with the fans, or it was the kind of idea that should have never left the brainstorming session. There has been a mixture of gimmick changes that completely bombed and those that were highly successful within the WWE. The following views the top 10 on both sides.
20 Bombed: Beaver Cleavage
While Headbanger Mosh wasn't exactly setting the world on fire, he still had a good spot on the card alongside Thrasher, as The Headbangers were a decent tag team that were over with the crowd. After Thrasher suffered a big knee injury in 1999, the WWE looked for something that Mosh could do on his own. Their brilliant idea? Beaver Cleavage. What exactly did a name like that entail? Well, basically the gimmick amounted to black and white video vignettes where Beaver would have the hots for his mom, the voluptuous Mrs. Cleavage. The two would exchange sexual innuendos, making viewers uncomfortable to say the least.
The gimmick was scrapped before Beaver even wrestled a match, as he got on RAW and via a worked shoot, gave up on the gimmick. Scrapping a gimmick before it even makes it to live TV? Yeah, that's a failure all right. Although, we're kind of thankful it was scrapped so quickly.
19 Succeeded: 10. John “Bradshaw” Layfield
The A.P.A. were one of the more successful tag teams during the Attitude Era. But when the WWE started to transition into the Ruthless Aggression Era, we saw a drastic change in Bradshaw in 2004. Shortly after the decision was made to split him from his long-time tag partner Faarooq, Bradshaw transformed into John “Bradshaw” Layfield. The blue jeans, black sleeveless shirt and long, black hair were traded for a business suit, cowboy and a haircut.
The focus of the character was that he was worth a lot of money because of his real-life stock market pursuits. This led to him having an elitist mentality and representing the 1 percent that is the wealthy. It made him an instant heel that found himself in a perfect environment on the SmackDown roster. He was a mainstay in the main event with a 280-day reign as WWE Champion.
18 Bombed: Corporate Kane
Kane was definitely successful throughout his career in the WWE for several years. He’s had most of his success as one of the most dominant villains. Sure, the WWE had some questionable creative directions with Kane, which includes various comedy gimmicks through the years. The one that made fans scratch their heads most was the transition into Corporate Kane. The Big Red Machine turned in his mask and powers over fire for a business suit.
It went from being carried out of the arena by the Wyatt Family in 2013, coming back to attack them after a two-month hiatus and then turning his mask to The Authority. The gimmick change never got a proper transition and it felt like the creative team didn’t have any time to come up with a more completed storyline.
17 Succeeded: Dolph Ziggler
There wasn’t a lot that fans liked about the Spirit Squad during their brief run in 2006. There was some talent on the five-man cheerleading group, although some like Kenny Dykstra were unable to go far after the end of the gimmick. One superstar who has been able to make a deep run in the WWE was Dolph Ziggler. But for the few Spirit Squad fans, he was also known as the emphatic Nicky.
Since 2008, Ziggler has become a dependable superstar who can put on a good show with just about anyone on the WWE roster. His work has been rewarded with two runs with the World Heavyweight Championship. Ziggler might be one of the most popular superstars currently on the roster, but he’s mostly kept in the mid-card where he’s won the United States and Intercontinental championships multiple times.
16 Bombed: Reverend D-Von
There’s no denying that the Dudley Boyz are considered one of the best tag teams in professional wrestling history. As singles competitors, not as much. Both men had split up once in the WWE during the original brand split in 2002. Going to SmackDown, D-Von had a chance to do something different to stand out in the WWE. Unfortunately, he was repackaged as the Reverend D-Von.
It wasn’t a very well executed gimmick for D-Von that lasted only a few months. The problem was that he didn’t necessarily get over as a villain with promos condemning the WWE Universe for being sinners. Then again, this type of gimmick was never successful. Just ask Mordecai. This ended later that year with D-Von being reunited with Bubba Ray Dudley to continue their tag team championship pursuits.
15 Succeeded: Batista
Speaking of Reverend D-Von, he had some muscle accompany him to the ring during his short singles run in 2002. Known as Deacon Batista, he was an intimidating gentleman who carried D-Von’s collection box; looking for tithes and offerings from the WWE crowd. While it did provide a chance for Batista to get the call up to the main roster, it was a silly gimmick that ended rather quickly.
Since then, Batista evolved into “The Animal” that was scouted by Triple H to join Randy Orton and Ric Flair in Evolution. Batista’s personal character evolution was simple, but it worked as the fans started to embrace him when he eventually turned face. He’s also been a very successful heel where he brought more confidence and attitude. His evolution allowed him to become a six-time world champion in the WWE.
14 Bombed: Akeem
Before coming to the WWE in 1987, the One Man Gang was an established monster in professional wrestling. This included working with multiple promotions in various parts of the world. But this was a time when the WWE had some very radical ideas coming out of their creative office. One of them was to have One Man Gang 'embrace his African roots' with the help of his manager, Slick.
Slick introduced the new One Man Gang, now calling him Akeem. The 450-pound monster became a grooving and jiving wrestler wearing colorful African-themed attire. The worst part of this was the vignette included an African tribe dancing around a garbage can fire in an urban setting where Akeem was born. It wasn’t the first time someone changed their “racial profile” in a gimmick change, nor was it the last.
13 Succeeded: Kane
Glenn Jacobs' early WWE career included one of the silliest gimmicks in professional wrestling history. His first character for his 1995 debut was an evil dentist by the name of Isaac Yankem DDS. Sure, we all fear going to the dentist. But having a dentist be the villain on television was nearly career suicide for Jacobs. It wasn’t much better when he was covering for Kevin Nash as the “Fake Diesel,” but we’ll just skip over that part in 1996.
The Kane character was a great way for Jacobs to have a new masked gimmick, as fans may have thought of the Yankem gimmick if Jacobs came down to the ring without a mask. It was also a very well done storyline with him as a nearly uncontrollable monster who posed the biggest threat The Undertaker ever faced.
12 Bombed: The Love Machine, Viscera
Nelson Frazier, Jr., had multiple stints in the WWE that first began in the early 1990s as Mabel. He was usually a mid-card talent at best with a lot of time spent on the lower-tier of the WWE both as Viscera and Mabel. The most success he had was arguably when he was part of The Undertaker’s Ministry during the Attitude Era. But during a third run in the WWE, he became a playboy known as The Love Machine.
Turning someone who could have been better suited as a monster heel was instead used for a comedy gimmick. Because the thing that wrestling fans want is a 400-pound man wearing pajamas while trying to seduce Lillian Garcia and Trish Stratus. It was the type of gimmick that could only go so far and very much hurt his chances of being viewed as a credible threat in major feuds. Becoming Big Daddy V didn’t help him either.
11 Succeeded: John Cena
There was a time when John Cena had the look of a generic superstar. When he debuted on SmackDown in 2002 to answer Kurt Angle’s open challenge, he had basic trunks and basic music similar to what you would pick for your created wrestler in a WWE video game. But he would shortly receive a new gimmick after he appeared as Vanilla Ice on a Halloween episode.
This was the beginning of the “Doctor of Thuganomics” gimmick where fans enjoyed his freestyle rapping promos. The popularity would slowly grow as he eventually won the United States Championship. Whether it was the red, white and blue belt or when he finally won the WWE Championship, his gimmick allowed him to bring something different to not only his attire, but the championship belts he carried.
10 Bombed: Sgt. Slaughter
Professional wrestling has a few categories that gimmicks fall into. One of these categories should be classified as “patriotism vs. Anti-American.” Sgt. Slaughter is mostly known for the character that brought traits of a drill sergeant into the WWE Universe. But during his second stint with the WWE in 1990, his gimmick turned 180 degrees. Once known as the former U.S. soldier, Slaughter became an Iraqi sympathizer.
While this led to him winning his first and only WWE Championship in 1991, he lost the belt to Hulk Hogan a few months later at WrestleMania VII. There were reports that Slaughter’s heel turn led to him receiving a number of death threats. Many fans were obviously not happy with the character change. It didn’t last long when he became a face saying he wanted his country back.
9 Succeeded: Triple H
Hunter Hearst Helmsley was certainly a heel that got a lot of heat from the crowds. The Connecticut Blueblood was unique with how he posed and taunted his opponents. He was a rising young star whose stock took a hit after the infamous Curtain Call moment at Madison Square Garden in 1996. While he suffered through a period of time being a jobber, he did end up weathering the storm.
A new gimmick that included teaming with Shawn Michaels and Chyna to form D-Generation X was the start of something special. It allowed Triple H to begin receiving exposure to the main event picture while working with an established star in The Heartbreak Kid. Over time, the changes in Triple H made him worthy of winning 13 separate world heavyweight championships.
8 Bombed: Paul Burchill, the Pirate
Paul Burchill was arguably given a lot of poor direction from the WWE creative team. Keep in mind that he was repackaged for WWE television with his Katie Lea, who portrayed his sister. It was originally meant to be an incest storyline between the two, and yet that wasn’t the worst gimmick the WWE had for Burchill.
His initial debut on WWE television walking into a backstage segment dressed similar to Captain Jack Sparrow of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. While he showed a lot of abilities that helped him get over a little with the fans, it was a very limited gimmick that was never going to go anywhere for the talented British wrestler. It came to an end and he was sent back to developmental.
7 Succeeded: The Undertaker
Ignoring the time between 2000 and 2003 where The Undertaker wanted to ride motorcycles and be a little more realistic, there’s a reason he’s called The Phenom. It’s also a good thing that Mark Calaway was given the gimmick change when he first came to the WWE in 1990. However, what’s been the best part about The Undertaker’s nearly 27 years in the WWE is how he’s changed his character over the years. Minus the American Badass, his adjustments here and there have worked out perfectly.
The early years were simple as a giant man who looked as if he couldn’t be hurt. Then it evolved to him creating The Ministry. The Undertaker’s character doesn’t need to say much. It’s his body language and facial expressions mixed with the ambiance created with the iconic music, darkness and thunder that make him iconic.
6 Bombed: The Shining Stars
Primo and Epico could have made this list for a couple of different gimmicks. WWE fans may have thought there was nothing worse than wearing masks and having a tiny bull as Los Matadores. The WWE creative team proved those fans wrong when they repackaged them as The Shining Stars. Essentially, they came across more as spokesmen for the great nation of Puerto Rico.
In recent weeks, the WWE had them attempting to sell timeshares to WWE Superstars in the ring and members of the WWE Universe live in attendance. The WWE is attempting to make this gimmick work since it’s their third gimmick since coming to WWE in 2011. Unfortunately, there probably won’t be another chance for a team that once held the WWE Tag Team Championship years ago.
5 Succeeded: The Heartbreak Kid
It all started with the infamous Barber Shop scene in 1991. The Rockers were split up with a superkick from Shawn Michaels to Marty Jannetty. This was followed by the new villain throwing his former tag team partner through a glass window. It was a shocking moment in professional wrestling history as someone considered a good kid was suddenly one of the most hated heels in the WWE.
The change in attitude saw Michaels become more confident and egotistical. It worked for him because fans wanted to see him lose. But over the years, that talk was backed up with how he walked. Everything he said about being The Showstopper was true. Even in defeat, you were likely talking about his matches the very next day with your friends. This was one of the best gimmick changes in the last 30 years.
4 Bombed: Kerwin White
Many fans might feel that Chavo Guerrero never received great booking from the WWE officials during his time with the company. While he enjoyed being in their Cruiserweight Division and in a tag team with his uncle Eddie, Guerrero was given a very questionable gimmick in 2005 – even by WWE’s standards. Guerrero was denouncing his Hispanic background and wanted to completely convert into a Caucasian way of life.
He bleached his hair blonde and wore tennis club attire while driving a golf cart to the WWE ring. What made things worse was that he started making racial comments to wrestlers like Shelton Benjamin. The gimmick was quickly killed when he went back to his original gimmick after the sudden and tragic death of his uncle later that year.
3 Succeeded: “Stone Cold” Steve Austin
Steve Austin was once known as The Ringmaster and was named the Million Dollar Champion in 1995. It wasn’t going to go far, which is why Ted DiBiase’s departure from the WWE turned out to be a great opportunity for Austin. He wanted to have a colder personality, which led to a number of poor nicknames being pitched.
One cup of tea with his ex-wife later, the idea of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was born. The gimmick was brought to life on our televisions screens at the 1996 King of the Ring tournament final. The meaning of “Austin 3:16” was revealed after his big win over Jake “The Snake” Roberts. That cold spirit led to the anti-authority approach that wrestling fans from the 1990s reflect fondly.
2 Bombed: The Texas Tornado
The Von Erich bloodline has a long history of superstars who were able to find a lot of success during their respective professional wrestling careers. Kerry Von Erich had won several championships under the National Wrestling Alliance before coming to the WWE in 1990. However, his move to the WWE meant they were going to use a different moniker for Von Erich.
This was during a time when the WWE felt they needed to portray themselves as the only show in town, so they felt it was right to repackage him as The Texas Tornado. While Von Erich won the WWE Intercontinental Championship early in his WWE run, he wasn’t able to find a lot of success and fell down towards the lower-tier of the WWE roster within a couple of years. His developed addiction to painkillers certainly didn’t help him either.
1 Succeeded: The Rock
Long before wrestling fans hated Roman Reigns for being pushed as a top babyface, fans hated Rocky Maivia for similar reasons. He was a colorful and energetic superstar, but the fans felt he was being forced a little too much; enough to chant “Die Rocky Die.” This led to them hating him so much that the WWE felt the need to repackage Rocky into The Rock. He was quickly turned into a heel that helped form the Nation of Domination.
But we were seeing a transformation from a face into a heel based on how he insulted the fans. His charisma was improving as he was quotable in the ways he insulted others. Throughout the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, The Rock was embraced by the fans – both as a heel and as a face. It led to him rising beyond wrestling popularity and into the mainstream. Not bad for someone who fans wanted to die in the mid-1990s.
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