There are people who have spent their entire lives trying to decipher just what it is that makes a WWE superstar go from an athletic guy in tights to a worldwide phenomenon. Should a prospective talent perfect his in-ring wrestling skill, or should they focus more on what they can do on the microphone? I would argue that the most important aspect of a WWE superstar in determining their eventual success, is that a persona created for them (or by them) which they feel comfortable with taking to its max.
Future WWE Hall of Famer Chris Jericho has remarked that wrestling personas should merely be the performer’s own personality turned up x11, and I would agree. As such, this list will name the 8 WWE wrestlers who had the best gimmicks, and the 8 terrible gimmicks they had before that.
Filled with Hall of Famers (and future Hall of Famers) this list truly shows how important an appropriate gimmick is to the eventual success of a superstar. Who knows what would have happened if these incredibly talented wrestlers weren’t given the gimmicks they made famous, but rather continued on with this terrible collection of mismatched personas. From this list we may also think about the “terrible” superstars we make fun of, and whether these stars are truly terrible, or if they just never developed the gimmick which would truly have made them great.
All the characters and storylines described here are from the first-hand knowledge of the author. All references to specific matches or dates are taken from the WWE website.
16. Bad: Dr. Isaac Yankem
I wanted to start off this list with this entry simply for how ridiculous the character is. Though this was at the height of the late 80’s eccentric character phase, how anyone in WWE creative thought that this maniacal dentist was a compelling character is asinine. What is even more amazing to me, is that WWE would be willing to waste such an impressively large talent as Glenn Jacobs on such a ridiculous gimmick. With their well-known affinity to superstars with larger statutes (see Braun Stroman), it’s surprising that they wouldn’t want to brand him with the best gimmick possible. Luckily Jacobs didn’t stick around long as Isaac Yankem, thus opening the door for his much more iconic character, earning the next spot on our list.
15. Awesome: Kane
I just talked about how ridiculous the Isaac Yankem character is, so it seems a little odd to include the comic book like Kane character on the good side of this list. However, the simple difference is that the Kane character (as opposed to the maniacal dentist) actually works as a wrestling character. Sure the character is a little cartoonish, but it comes with a dark and detailed back story that very much worked in WWE’s attitude era. Additionally, while the Yankem idea was a bland character which could have been slapped on any superstar, the Kane character fit extremely well with Jacob’s size and the fact that (with hair and a mask) he looked very similar to the Undertaker, his fictional half-brother.
14. Bad: Spirit Squad Nicky
WWE fans have always wondered whether the Spirit Squad was meant as a temporary gimmick, which due to (sometimes sarcastic) fan reaction was kept on a longer term and more permanent basis, or if WWE Creative actually created the group with them in mind for a substantial push. The Spirit Squad was a stable in the mid-2000’s who had the unenviable status of being male cheerleaders. While there is nothing wrong with being a male cheerleader in general (looking at you George W. Bush), in order to draw heat the Spirit Squad was given the stature of the most annoying male cheerleading stereotypes you could ever imagine. While this would be okay if the five members were no-name enhancement talent, fans would realize in coming years that one member was an immensely talented superstar who never should have been branded with such an atrocious gimmick.
13. Awesome: Dolph Ziggler
“Hi! I’m Dolph Ziggler”. Admittedly, Dolph Ziggler’s singles character was pretty bad when it first debuted, but he has since made the character his own and become one of the most popular superstars on the WWE roster. Instead of being the stereotypical, over the top, male cheerleader, Ziggler’s new character has instead been modeled after an extremely talented athlete, though one who is very arrogant. This character works so much more not only because it’s not a joke gimmick meant to give the crowd a good laugh, but also because it’s so close to Ziggler’s own personality. We talked in the introduction about how important this is, and here is just another of how a superstars character must be somewhat related to that superstars own thoughts and beliefs.
12. Bad: Hunter Hearst Helmsley
I wonder if when Triple H was developing his character alongside WWE Creative if he ever imagined he would one day be one of the companies most cherished stars (not to mention one of its highest ranking executive officers). In today’s WWE, the snotty aristocrat character would never work, however, pre-attitude era this character likely fit in very well with the over-the-top characters that other wrestlers were implementing. As WWE began to turn towards more realistic characters, these cartoonish personas largely fell out of favor. Therefore, it is a testament to Triple H’s wrestling acumen that he was able to maintain this character as long as he did and that he was able to draw significant heel heat with this aristocratic villain. The problem with this sort of character, of course being that, though a skilled performer can use it to draw heat from the crowd, it will always be limited in its depth, thereby preventing the type of utility that the WWE top brass craves.
11. Awesome: Triple H
It’s pretty amusing to watch clips of the prissy Helmsley character and compare them to the badass juggernaut that Triple H was in his prime. I think it took an incredible amount of bravery on the part of Triple H, along with a significant amount of trust by WWE execs to make such a drastic change to his character. This is a simple case of high risk leading to high reward, as Triple H would go on to become arguably the most consistent WWE superstar of all time. He has since gone on to become a multiple time World Champion and has been in the main event in countless pay-per-views, including a record number of times at Wrestlemania. You can’t tell me that he would have reached this immense level of success as Hunter Hearst Helmsley.
10. Bad: Sexual Chocolate
I would love to hear the reasoning behind turning an athlete as talented as Mark Henry into the character Sexual Chocolate. Most (including WWE itself) call the period of wrestling in the late 90’s the Attitude Era, but I think it could just as reasonably be called the sex era. Through groups like Degeneration-X and the New Age Outlaws, as well as a divas division highly reliant on sexualized storylines and bra and panties matches, it is clear that WWE execs in this period were adhering to the mindset that sex sells. While this led to some of the most famous storylines and characters in WWE’s history, it also led to some of the most infamous. The issue with this over sexualized period of WWE was that for every Stacey Keibler moment, you also had a Sexual Chocolate moment. Without getting too much into details (for the sake of my sanity), Mark Henry under the moniker of Sexual Chocolate was cast as the love interests of the aging Mae Young. Meant as a comic bit, this storyline went on for far too long and seriously undervalued a superstar that at one time was literally the world’s strongest man.
9. Awesome: Mark Henry
Anyone who watched Mark Henry as Sexual Chocolate likely grimaced (among other reasons) at the waste of using such a powerful and explosive superstar in such a ridiculous gimmick. It was obvious to most that Henry would have been much better served in a monstrous powerhouse role. WWE would eventually pull the trigger on this type of character change, allowing Henry to shed his Sexual Chocolate moniker for a much more fitting role. Henry would much later dawn the nickname of “the Silverback”, a fairly appropriate nickname for a man with the immense strength of Henry. This would, of course, lead to compelling storylines with various face superstars, including a notable rivalry where he “injured” top star Batista. These examples show how the right gimmick can help create storylines much more than any re-write ever could.
8. Bad: Gavin Spears
Show of hands, does anyone reading this article actually remember Gavin Spears? For those of you who are not wrestling aficionados, Spears originally made his debut with the rebranded ECW as part of Teddy Long’s New Superstar Initiative. While this movement was meant to revive a dying ECW show (the show was already being treated as a lesser show by WWE before it was devastated by the death of Chris Benoit and the departure of stars like Bobby Lashley and CM Punk to the other brands), it was just another example of their producers immense ineptitude. They believed that a mere influx of new talent would revive their show, without giving these new talents the tools to succeed. The most important of these tools, of course, being a workable persona. In the case of talented wrestlers like Spears, the problem was that they were given no persona at all. Spears was cut soon after his debut, but luckily would come back to WWE Developmental under a new name, and working under a much more entertaining gimmick.
7. Awesome: Tye Dillinger
That’s right, the Perfect 10 Tye Dillinger’s real name and the name he wrestled under in ECW was Gavin Spears. Those of you who are familiar with Dillinger’s recent work are likely surprised that he previously had such an unsuccessful stint in WWE. For those of you who do not watch NXT (should), Tye Dillinger currently wrestles under a Perfect 10 gimmick that is highly entertaining and has seen some measure of success as both a heel and face. Recently, Dillinger has become a major component of the NXT storylines, and quite the fan favorite down at Full Sail University. A call-up to the main roster is probably not too far in the future for this charismatic superstar, hopefully, this one being more successful than his last. If WWE wants any tips for making his debut succeed, may I suggest as a surprise entrant in the 2017 Royal Rumble. Perhaps even at #10.
6. Bad: Kelly’s Expose
Most of the characters who are listed on the bad side of this list are done so because they never formed a connection with the crowd. Such was not the case here, as Kelly’s Expose, which debuted on the rebranded ECW, was highly popular with the fans. Instead, this gimmick can be listed as horrible because of how shortsighted the character was. Despite criticism, when WWE Creative actually tries they can create very in-depth characters with countless layers. Kelly Kelly (of Kelly’s Expose), however, was a character who merely took her clothes off. There was no personality to her character, instead, it was merely a way in which to get teenage boys (and probably a lot of grown men) to turn into a show which at the time had little else to offer. While this plan may have worked in the short term, it was a waste of a blossoming performer, who wouldn’t get a chance to show off her actual wrestling talents until the next entry on our list.
5. Awesome: Kelly Kelly
This just so happened to be at a weak point in the WWE Women’s Division, but it is undeniable that the company put a lot of stock in Kelly Kelly when it made her Divas Champion and the centerpiece of the Division. Rather than being mere eye candy, Kelly was actually able to get in the ring and duke it out with the other female competitors. While some criticize the lack of effort put into the Diva’s storylines at this time, at least she had some storylines as this character that didn’t involve her baring it all before a live TV audience. Additionally, making her the victim or “damsel in distress” character made for a much more sympathetic character than the uh “liberated” character she was at ECW.
4. Bad: Rocky Maivia
You may be thinking “wow I’ve never heard this name before, this character and superstar must have been pretty terrible”, and in many ways, you would be right. Maivia just never hit his stride, and it wouldn’t be until his moniker was changed that he would draw national acclaim as one Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. I would like to explain the Rocky Maivia gimmick to those who didn’t personally witness it, but honestly, there’s not a whole lot to say about the character. Your prototypical face wrestler, Maivia pretty much just pranced around in brightly coloured outfits and smiled a lot. WWE billed him as a third generation superstar (because you know, that always gets the fans on your side), but didn’t give him much additional character content. It wouldn’t be until Maivia turned heel and joined the Nation of Domination that we could see how great of a superstar The Rock truly could be.
3. Awesome: The Rock
“Can you smellllllllll what Rocky Maivia is cookin?” Doesn’t have the same ring to it right? “The Rock” initially made his heel turn only to serve as another minion of Faruk, the leader of the Nation of Domination. However, the Rock character became so popular (largely due to his impressive promo skills) that he would eventually take over the group, before embarking on an unbelievable singles career. Many have criticized the Rocks wrestling career, stating that the characters he plays in his movies are just a reflection of his own personality.
While this is not entirely true, that is exactly what WWE did in order to make his now nefarious character successful. Mirroring Dwayne Johnson’s own arrogance and charisma, The Rock (alongside top villain Vince McMahon) was someone you loved to hate. Furthermore, it was so easy for Dwayne to turn this characters switch just a little, and make him into the companies top hero after the departure of Stone Cold Steve Austin.
2. Bad: The Ringmaster
Is there anything more boring than a character whose whole persona is that he’s a good ring technician. While this may have been enough in the wrestling days of yore, today being a good in-ring technician should be a requirement (unless you’re Vince McMahon) but not the only aspect of a great professional wrestler. As such, it was imminent that the Ringmaster character created for veteran wrestler Steve Austin would fail. Despite the terrible moniker, Steve was still able to win some tag gold and establish himself as one of the best workers in the company.
While this normally would have been enough to keep him employed and under contract, WWE was just getting set to begin its famed “Attitude Era”. Fearing for his very livelihood, Steve (with a little help from his wife) created a new tough as nails character, he appropriately called him Stone Cold Steve Austin.
1. Awesome: Stone Cold Steve Austin
It’s hard to believe that perhaps the most popular superstar in the history of professional wrestling was almost wasted on such a bland gimmick as the Ringmaster. The heel turned renegade hero was a monumental fan favorite and the first real megastar of WWE since the departure of Hulk Hogan. In contrast to the boring Ringmaster persona, the Texas rattlesnake was must see TV. I remember going to middle school every Tuesday and discussing with my friends whatever antics Stone Cold had pulled on the McMahon family the night before.
Through this character Austin was able to become a pop culture icon and his anti-establishment persona would forever change the face of professional wrestling. With the issues of character development (or lack thereof) currently troubling WWE, maybe they should give Austin’s wife a call if they are trying to help bolster the creative team.