Does the gimmick make the wrestler? Or does the wrestler make the gimmick?
The argument can be made for both when it comes to WWE wrestlers. Sometimes a gimmick is given to a wrestler and it is the catalyst for what springs them in to superstardom. Fans cannot imagine a wrestler without that persona, and it provides them the platform they need to become legends in the industry.
However, this is not always the case. Sometimes no matter for excellent a performer is, they cannot overcome a poor gimmick. There have been gimmicks so bad in WWE over the years that they careers have never overcome them. Whether the gimmick is in poor taste or it never got over with fans, it has resulted in their departure from the company. The stigma of that gimmick has even followed some around their career outside of WWE.
For example, when Albert returned to WWE after a prolonged absence as Lord Tensai, it didn't work, as fans simply remembered him as Albert, Prince Albert, A-Train, etc... and they weren't buying that all of a sudden this familiar face coming from Japan was a different wrestler. They openly rejected it, chanting 'Albert' during his matches and it ultimately hindered his WWE comeback bid.
While some performers have overcome poor gimmicks and turned them in to a wonderful thing, it takes a special performer to do so. How many of those types have been in WWE before?
Here are 10 Gimmicks That Saved A Wrestler's WWE Run (And 10 That Got Them Released):
20 Saved - John Cena
When Cena first burst in to WWE's developmental program in 2000, he was billed as The Protoype. Instead of being the man focused on Hustle, Loyalty and Respect, he was a semi-robotic character who used his strength and power defeat opponents. Upon debuting on SmackDown in 2002, Cena did not have a distinct gimmick besides having "ruthless aggression".
While he certainly appeared to be a hot shot, there was no indication that he would last based on his look alone. It was not until Cena had become The Doctor of Thuganomics that he became an attraction for WWE. Overnight, his popularity exploded and fans connected to his rapper gimmick. Had it not been for Cena's gimmick change, he would not have become the face of WWE.
19 Led To Release - Stardust
This is a gimmick that's very easy to point to leading to a release, as Cody Rhodes himself has admitted this was why he requested his release. Rhodes has proven since his WWE release that he's capable of being a big star, but he was given the Stardust gimmick that pretty much put an end to any chance he had at being a main eventer.
While Rhodes was very dedicated to making the gimmick work, no one saw world champion material in him. Rhodes asked to drop the gimmick, especially after the passing of his father Dusty, but his pitches fell on deaf ears. Finally, Cody decided he'd try to make it on his own elsewhere and he certainly has.
18 Saved - The Rock
Finally, Rocky Maivia became The Rock and realize his true potential.
Prior to Dwayne Johnson's tranformation, WWE fans experienced a completely different person. Instead, "The Blue Chipper" was asked to smile as much as possible and was portrayed as a clean-cut babyface. Due to the changing dynamics of wrestling fans at the time - who were looking for a much edgier product - instantly rejected him. In fact, chants of "Die, Rocky, Die" were not uncommon during his appearances.
That was until 1997 when he changed to a trash-talking, cocky champion who delighted in insulting the audience. His popularity instantly rose, and he flew to the top of the card, and eventually the entertainment world.
17 Led To Release - Emmalina
Despite being one of the most formidable women's wrestlers on the roster, Tenille Dashwood was never able to connect fully with the audience. This resulted in numerous start-and-stop pushes.
WWE decided to one final gamble on her by pushing her return as "Emmalina". Vignettes aired for months showing her in provocative poses and outfits, in what was meant to be a throwback to women of WWE's past like Sable. Unfortunately, reports started to surface that Dashwood was not able to perform the character to WWE's vision, and the plug was pulled. Shortly after, she was released from WWE.
While Dashwood has been doing very well for herself since her WWE departure, she likely wishes she could take back her time as "Emmalina".
16 Saved - Stone Cold Steve Austin
Had Steve Austin remained The Ringmaster in WWE, he would've just been another footnote. Without the character development of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, the entire landscape of professional wrestling would be different.
Austin is regularly credited with being one of the biggest faces of WWE's success, and it's rightfully earned. His transition to The Rattlesnake helped boost WWE's popularity to new heights, and ultimately helped them secure their ratings war against WCW. The Ringmaster did not have the ability to do that. This is probably the most prominent example of how a gimmick change could really change a wrestler's legacy forever.
15 Led To Release - Perry Saturn
Even the toughest of characters cannot overcome looking absolutely foolish on national television.
Despite being a legitimate tough-guy outside of the ring and having great wrestling ability, Perry Saturn was given one of the silliest gimmicks in WWE history (and that is saying something). Saturn began to show signs of kayfabe brain-damage following numerous hits to the head, and began to speak only in nonsense. This also resulted in him falling for "Moppy", and inanimate mop that he found backstage.
Even though the gimmick became popular to fans, he was never seen as a credible threat in the ring again. Even though WWE attempted to repackage him afterwards, he was unable to gain traction again and was released in 2002.
14 Saved - The Hurricane
Stand back, there is a big successful gimmick change coming through!
Despite the fact that a superhero-turned-wrestler gimmick looks awful on paper, Gregory Helms was able to embrace it with such honesty that it has become a calling card for his entire career. A self-professed comic book enthusiast, Helms jumped in to the gimmick with both feet and has achieved considerable success.
If it were not for Helms' taking the role so seriously, it would never have been as successful as it was.
For evidence, listen to The Hurricane's reaction when he made an appearance at the 2018 Royal Rumble. In fact, it was only after Helms dropped The Hurricane gimmick that his career started on a downturn which resulted in his release from WWE.
13 Led To Release - DDP's WWE Gimmicks
While there were numerous casualties of the WWE's Invasion storyline, Diamond Dallas Page's fall in to obscurity is the saddest one.
In WCW, Page was one of the top main eventers for the company for several years. Unfortunately, WWE did not see him in the same way.
In just over two years with the company, WWE managed to damage Page's wrestling persona so severely, that he was never able to recover. He removed all the edginess to his character and became Positively Page, who was akin to a motivational speaker. While his catchphrase made him popular, he quickly fizzled out with audiences (and it was certainly not a good thing). Thankfully, Page has regained his legacy has is now a member of the WWE Hall of Fame.
12 Saved - Kane
There is no doubt that The Big Red Machine was a big part of WWE's success. He is perhaps one of WWE's greatest creations, and continues to stand the test of time as a semi-active member of WWE's roster today. That being said - how different would his legacy have been if he did not become Kane.
Prior to Kane's debut in 1997, he held numerous gimmicks in WWE with poor success that have ended up in the rogues gallery of bad gimmicks. Take your pick - Isaac Yankem DDS, Jerry Lawler's private dentist or a fake version of Diesel.
While Glenn Jacobs's career has not always been filled with the greatest matches or storylines itself, there is no discounting his WWE run was saved by his gimmick.
11 Led To Release - Brodus Clay
Brodus Clay had all the tools for a solid career in WWE - he had a terrific look, the size and strength to be viewed as a monster and had a love for professional wrestling.
All wrestling fans assumed that Clay would make his main roster debut as a mean, unstoppable monster. So when he came dancing out on an 2012 episode of RAW as The Funkasaurus, complete with gyrations and a big smile, everyone was stunned.
Unfortunately, it's difficult to make a dancing big man a credible main event player. Ultimately, Clay was released from WWE before he really got to show what he was capable of. Fans now can only wonder what could have been.
10 Saved - Bray Wyatt
While fans are certainly divided on the direction of his character, there is no denying that Bray Wyatt is one of the greatest characters that WWE has had in recent years. Ever wonder where Windham Rotunda would be without it?
Look no further than 2010, when he has a very forgettable run as Husky Harris in WWE as a part of the Nexus stable. Despite being a part of one of the biggest storylines in WWE at the time, he was a background player without a discernible pathway. Harris quickly faded in the distance, and he was repackaged into Bray Wyatt.
Windham Rotunda is deep into the Wyatt character, and was heavily involved in his development in NXT. Thankfully so, as it certainly saved his job.
9 Led To Release - Eugene
It's very interesting to dive in to the vault of previous WWE gimmicks and see things that would never work with today's product. Some former gimmicks would be considered distasteful by today's standards. Enter Eugene.
Nick Dinsmore did his best with the Eugene gimmick, which was an attempt to portray a mentally-challenged wrestler. While he did this with as much honesty and sincerity as possible, it fell flat. In fact, it's miraculous that he was able to stretch three years out of it.
Dinsmore is a very formidable wrestler, but there is no possible way that Eugene would have been any more than a mid-card novelty act in WWE. Following a long stint in developmental, it must have been disappointing to land such an upsetting gimmick when reaching the main roster.
8 Saved - Rikishi
The Usos said it best during Rikishi's Hall of Fame induction - "that butt put us through college!".
Following a string of gimmick changes in WWE, Solafa Fatu Jr. finally struck gold in 1999 as Rikishi. He teamed with the popular dance duo Too Cool, and his popularity sky-rocketed. Combining the entertaining dance routine with his "unique offense" - including the Stink Face maneuver - and he began receiving significant pushes.
Rikishi had a very consistent stint in WWE, including several brushes with main event status, before settling comfortably in the Tag Team and Intercontinental divisions. While he did wind up being released in 2004, it would have been much sooner had it not been for the Rikishi gimmick.
7 Led To Release - Paul Burchill
While the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has been wildly popular, it didn't exactly have a place in professional wrestling.
Paul Burchill is another case of WWE not knowing who they had as a performer at the time. With a great look and incredible in-ring talent, he would have been similar to a Dolph Ziggler at the time of his employment. Unfortunately, WWE didn't see that and sacked him with the task of getting a pirate gimmick over with the crowd.
WWE fans wanted to see great in-ring action, but a pirate only offered comedy and catered to children. While it was popular with some members of the audience, it had no longevity for him.
6 Saved - The Fashion Police
Talk about stringing gold from wool - The Fashion Police were supposed to be nothing more than a jobber tag team with minimal screen time. However, they were able to create a considerable amount of buzz from their comedy routine.
While they would both certainly prefer to be known as in-ring talents, Tyler Breeze and Fandango became WWE's resident comedy duo. Their Fashion Files segment made SmackDown must-see-TV, as fans were waiting to see what hilarity they would come up with next. Without the popularity of the segment, they wouldn't have been on television at all.
While the duo has since lost some momentum, and may wind up getting released at some point, they'd have been gone already without this gimmick.
5 Led To Release - Lance Storm
Management saw the serious-faced, technical wrestling genius that is Lance Storm as a problem that needed to be fixed as soon as possible.
When he entered WWE as part of The Alliance, he carried a big legacy from both WCW and ECW with him. He was best known for his technical prowess, which marks him up as one of the best wrestlers in the world. At the time, WWE was not looking for technicians, and tried to transform Storm into a comedic character.
WWE proceeded to ask him to dance during his matches in an effort to make him "less boring" to the audience. Fans were even encouraged to chant "boring" during his matches to get the gimmick over. All it succeeded in doing was marring his entire WWE run.
4 Saved - Batista
There is no denying that Batista's WWE run has landed him a future spot in the WWE Hall of Fame. However, had it not been for a gimmick change earlier in his career, he would have landed in the same pile as other former "big men" of the era like Matt Morgan and Nathan Jones.
Batista first came on the scene as Deacon Batista alongside Reverend D-Von as his enforcer. In this role he stood in the background and looked menacing - that's it.
Batista initially appeared as a very one-dimensional character who wouldn't last. That was until he joined Evolution and became The Animal. From there, he sky-rocketed to the top of WWE. Thankfully this change was made, as it would have deprived fans of some big moments over the years.
3 Led To Release - Chavo Guerrero
With the Guerrero family legacy by his side, Chavo Guerrero should have been poised for a long career with WWE. While the majority of his career has not been a disappointment, including reigns as Tag Team Champion, Cruiserweight Champion and ECW Champion, he must be disappointed with how it ended.
For the majority of 2009, Chavo was placed in to a never-ending feud with Hornswoggle in which he was in a series of matches that imposed handicaps on him. These stipulations included his hands tied behind his back and wrestling in costumes. Naturally, Chavo fell out of favor with the audience, and was released by WWE shortly afterwards.
There is no secret was to why this did not get over with fans - it was just plain silly.
2 Saved - Goldust
While he has not always had complimentary things to say about the gimmick, Dustin Rhodes should be thankful for Goldust. In fact, he has been playing the character for over 20 years.
Since debuting with WWE in 1996, Goldust's bizarre antics have stood the test of time. Sometimes he will be serious and other times comedic, but fans have always been enamored with him. Rhodes plays him with such sincerity that fans connect with him, despite how odd he can be.
His recent run with the company is being called one of his best - his storyline alongside his brother Cody was both compelling and inspirational. Rhodes' work as Goldust is a true testament to how abilities as a performer.
1 Led To Release - Shelton Benjamin's Momma
Some characters in WWE make very little sense at all that fans have to wonder how someone even came up with them.
Shelton Benjamin's early WWE run was plagued by his lack of mic skills. In these cases, WWE has usually paired soft-spoken wrestlers with managers to help get them over. However, in Benjamin's case he was placed alongside his "Momma" who shouted instructions from ringside.
Benjamin's in-ring abilities should've placed him alongside some of the top wrestlers at the time, but gimmicks like this seriously impeded him. It's no surprise that having Momma around him did not help him, but in fact sent him directly to unemployment shortly afterwards.