One of the keys to success as an actor or actress is commitment to the role. This certainly holds true in the world of professional wrestling, where acting is certainly one of the biggest parts of the job. Unlike with regular acting, though, wrestlers need to play in character while going through grueling physical excursions, adapting to strange and new surrounding each week they find themselves against a new opponent. Staying in character as much as they’re able to could help a wrestler act more naturally as said character once cameras are on, but there’s definitely a limit to how far a wrestler should live the gimmick, so to speak.
Many of the greatest wrestling gimmicks in history were a result of the performing creating a character not terribly far removed from their real life, with the most marketable characteristics thrown into overdrive when it was time to get near a wrestling ring. Fans need to suspend disbelief enough when they watch wrestling, so a little bit of verisimilitude goes a long way in the industry. It makes sense, then, that wrestlers with gimmicks like this could get accused of being a little too into their characters at times, but even still there’s a point at which the wrestler needs to stop acting like a performer and start acting like a human. Even worse are the wrestlers with cartoonish, wild, and even downright crazy gimmicks, who somehow have managed to live long portions of their personal lives in character. Keep reading if you want to know which superstars took things a little too far with our list of 15 wrestlers who were creepily attached to their gimmicks.
15. Sabu – Pretended He Couldn’t Speak English Despite Breaking His Neck
Sabu only made a small dent in WWE history, but he wrestling history in general no doubt remembers him as one of the first standout stars to come from ECW. All of the wrestlers in ECW were hardcore, but Sabu was hardcore on another level, jumping through tables with chairs in his hands after wrapping himself with barbed wire—and he won that match. With this crazy offense, Sabu won both the ECW World Heavyweight title and NWA World Heavyweight title once, and he did it without ever speaking more than a few words of English. Sabu is the nephew of legendary wrestler The Sheik, who trained him to become a wrestler and gave him the blessing to use a similar gimmick, knowing living the gimmick would run in the family.
Sabu finally spoke for the first time in ECW in 1997 to call out Taz, but even then all he did was call Taz a “****ing midget” and challenge him to a match. Sabu almost never spoke again after that, with the implication he couldn’t speak English still a strong part of his character. And apparently he kept it going outside of the ring, too, as an infamous legend claims that when Chris Benoit broke Sabu’s neck in 1994, Sabu refused to speak to the doctors at the hospital for several hours and had Paul Heyman do the talking before it was clear he had no choice but to answer them for his health. Now that’s hardcore.
14. Nikita Koloff – Pretended He Couldn’t Speak English For Years
Nikita Koloff is one of the few major names of the 1980s never to make a stop in WWE, but he was a huge star wherever he went, most notably in the NWA. Non-wrestling fans might even recognize him as one of the fathers profiled on AMC’s documentary series Preachers’ Daughters. Long before becoming a man of the cloth, Koloff was one of the most sterling examples of the “evil Russian” trope in wrestling, a skill he learned by aping his kayfabe “uncle” Ivan Koloff. Going even further back in history, Koloff was born Nelson Simpson in Minnesota, but that part of his life story wasn’t public knowledge for the first several years of his fame.
Nikita Koloff eventually became famous for his promos featured grunted broken English, but for the first few years he was developing the character, part of the idea was that he only spoke Russian. Koloff would rely on Uncle Ivan to help him translate at hotels and gyms, while secretly loving the fact he could get away with not paying bills thanks to the confused foreigner routine if someone wasn’t a wrestling fan. Koloff didn’t last very long in the business, but his meteoric rise was a testament to his dedication to his character, whether or not his intentions were always pure in developing it.
13. Andy Kaufman – Wrestling Got Him Banned From SNL
Andy Kaufman is one of the most famous celebrity wrestlers of all time, and it’s pretty hard for anyone to argue he was anything but the greatest. Kaufman was a true wrestling fan from the time he was a young child, and he loved the idea of being the bad guy more than anything else. Some of Kaufman’s most legendary stand-up bits basically come down to insulting the audience, and he took that persona to legendary heights when he briefly joined the Continental Wrestling Association to feud with Jerry “The King” Lawler. Lawler was the most beloved man in Memphis wrestling, so Andy had to be the most hated man in the world to play his rival, and he loved nothing more than making that happen.
Andy Kaufman is remembered as a comedian, and he was, but more than that he was a prankster who loved to play tricks on his audience. Kaufman’s main wrestling gimmick was that of a misogynist who wrestled any woman who dared challenge him, and although even then most people knew wrestling was fixed, the controversy behind this character directly affected Kaufman’s real life in major ways. He and Lawler appeared on The David Letterman Show for a famous interview most fans didn’t realize was staged, and it was later decided as a result of a fan vote that Kaufman would be banned from Saturday Night Live around the same time period. Andy never let up that any of it was a gag unless around his friends, and part of Andy’s endless charm is that some of those friends like to keep the gimmick alive to this day.
12. “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase – Lucked Into A Role Anyone Would Get Attached To
While the other wrestlers on this list mostly ended up living the gimmick a little too much due to their own volition, at least one wrestler was basically told to do so by his boss. Ted DiBiase was known as a solid heel interview and an extremely talented wrestler for years before joining WWE, but after he met Vince McMahon, his life changed forever and fans only knew him for his gimmick: The Million Dollar Man. Blessed with wealth that even McMahon himself couldn’t imagine (as incredible as such a thing seems), The Million Dollar Man would make fans embarrass themselves for petty cash to give himself a chuckle. When he wasn’t mocking the fans, he was acting viciously in the ring with other wrestlers, doing whatever he could to convince them to take the money and run.
Outside of the ring, DiBiase was flying in private jets and paying the tab at expensive restaurants with hundred dollar bills—and it was Vince who told him to do so. Kayfabe was still alive and well in the 1980s, and fearing the idea wrestling fans might see DiBiase hail a discount taxi, McMahon personally gave him the money to fly first class and always get the best accouterments wherever he went. In this way, DiBiase really had one of the best gimmicks in the world, and we completely understand why he was always laughing.
11. The Missing Link – Wanted Bobby Heenan To Talk For Him
The idea of a wild savage character has thankfully started to disappear from wrestling, thanks to how inherently offensive the concept obviously is. The 1980s came before political correctness, though, so back then such characters made up a pretty significant piece of the wrestling landscape, and one of the most colorful examples was The Missing Link. The Missing Link wrestled for several decades in his native Canada and Mid-Atlantic Wrestling as Dewey Robertson, usually performing as a heroic babyface. He didn’t make much of a splash internationally until he joined Mid-South Wrestling in 1983 and created The Missing Link gimmick, painting his face green and starting to act like a bizarre wild man.
The Missing Link was so colorful and noteworthy he was signed to Vince McMahon’s WWE two weeks after appearing in an issue of Sports Illustrated that covered wrestling. The Link became a member of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan’s ever-growing Heenan Family, and it’s according to The Brain that he lived his gimmick in the ring and out. Heenan claims that unlike most wrestlers, Link expected Heenan to act like his actual manager, setting up bookings and hotels for him to sell the fact Link couldn’t think rationally enough to speak. The Brain proved his genius yet again by telling the guy to get over himself.
10. “Dr. D” David Schultz – Definitely Wasn’t Faking Being A Violent Jerk
“Dr. D” David Schultz is best known for the moment when he slapped reporter John Stossel during a 20/20 report on professional wrestling. Stossel had just asked Dr. D to comment on the popular notion that wrestling was fake, and the violent Southerner felt five fingers to the face was the best way to answer the question. D’s character was that of a violent redneck who’s family stood in fear of their maniacal patriarch, and if his idea was to prove that part of the show was close to real life, he achieved his goal with flying colors. Of course, that’s a really stupid thing to brag about in real life, and D was fired and blackballed from the industry as a result.
“Dr. D” was not only a violent jerk, but he also fit into the delusional egomania elements of your average wrestling heel, as well. Despite the fact he is clearly just a blip on the wrestling radar, Schultz had the honor of working with legends like Randy Savage, Hulk Hogan, and Roddy Piper—but of course, if you’d ask him, it was those guys who had the privilege of working with him. This level of self-interest really only comes from the wrestling industry.
9. “Macho Man” Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth – The Match Made In Heaven, Or Hell?
“Macho Man” Randy Savage is one of the greatest professional wrestlers in the history of the sport, and every WWE fan knows it. Savage is a former WWE World Heavyweight and WWE Intercontinental champion, and he won plenty of titles in WCW and smaller promotions around the country, as well. For the first several decades of his career, always by his side, both on screen and off, was his gorgeous wife Elizabeth Hulette, known to fans as Miss Elizabeth. There had been women in wrestling before, and there wasn’t anything particularly special about Elizabeth’s ability on the microphone, but something about her style, grace, and beauty contrasted with the madness of the Macho Man made her an enduring figure throughout sports entertainment history.
Part of Savage and Elizabeth’s relationship on screen was the fact Randy was terrifyingly overprotective of his girlfriend-later-wife, and would fly into a jealous rage if anyone would so much as look at her with “lustful eyes.” By most accounts, this was absolutely true of Randy in his real life, as well. Plenty of guys can relate to the idea of being a little protective of their girlfriend, especially in a world of testosterone heavy muscle men like WWE, but Savage took things took far by allegedly locking her in the dressing room during his matches to assure no one would talk to her. This was more real life Macho Madness than anything to do with getting attached to the gimmick, but that doesn’t make it any more palatable to those retroactively concerned over Elizabeth’s well being.
8. Ric Flair – Living The Gimmick All The Way To The Poor House
What’s causing all this? Why, it’s the limousine riding, jet plane flying, wheeling, dealing, kiss stealing son of a gun who just so happens to be the greatest wrestler in the world today, The Nature Boy, Ric Flair. Flair is a 16-time World Heavyweight Champion, having won belts in NWA, WCW, and WWE, and many people agree with him on his assessment that he was the best in the world. Whether or not he believes that part for real is a little bit dicey, but more importantly for our purposes is the whole Nature Boy thing—the idea Ric is a non-stop party animal who can’t get enough of the ladies. By all accounts, Ric believes this to be true, and will spend every last dollar he owns upholding this reputation.
There’s nothing wrong with being a party animal, especially not if you can stay in great shape and continue to be the absolute top of your professional while being one. There is, however, something pretty obviously wrong with racking up an outrageous credit debt thanks to your nonstop spending sprees at the bar, and that’s more the direction Ric’s life has been going in lately. Unfortunately, WWE isn’t really doing anything to stop this, as Vince admires Ric too much to get in his way, and Charlotte continues to reap his benefits too much to stop her father from being himself.
7. Brian Pillman – A True Loose Cannon
The idea of a wrestler being “crazy” is almost passé these days, with the idea watered down significantly every time a wrestler seems to flip their lid. At one point, however, the idea of a true “Loose Cannon” was one of the most thrilling and exciting characters in wrestling, and part of that had to do with how brilliantly Brian Pillman was portraying the role. Pillman was a former WCW Lightweight and Tag Team Champion with his partner in the Hollywood Blondes, Steve Austin, but it was after that group broke up he really started to make a name for himself as a solo star. After breaking up with Austin, Pillman soon became one of The Four Horsemen, but his fellow stable mates regularly noted he was a little unhinged.
Pillman’s in-character insanity came to a head at SuperBrawl VI, when he was set to face Kevin Sullivan in a “Respect Match.” Sullivan was the actual booker of WCW at this point in time and decided he shoot be the winner, so Pillman grabbed the microphone at the start and said “I respect you, Booker Man” seconds into the match. Weeks prior, Pillman caused Bobby Heenan to break character on air and ask, “What the **** are you doing?” by grabbing The Brain’s shoulders during a match. Pillman was fired by WCW President Eric Bischoff after the Booker Man incident, and he went to ECW where he got heat with several wrestlers for his interviews, which continued to blend the line between wrestling and reality.
6. The Ultimate Warrior – Took His Gimmick To Court
Each and every one of these wrestlers was a little bit too attached to their gimmicks; that’s the whole point of this list. The Ultimate Warrior, formerly Jim Hellwig, was the only one to get so attached he took things to court. Warrior’s character was a being from another planet, who screamed to the Gods for power to vanquish his foes in the name of all that was good. He would give snorting, crazy, rambling interviews that somehow made him into one of the biggest stars on the planet, but as most Internet wrestling fans know, he wasn’t a stable enough person behind the scenes for this character to last past its first few years.
Warrior’s instability has been a controversial part of WWE history, in that they have both made a DVD that mocks him by highlighting it, and eventually changed their minds on him and inducted Warrior into the Hall of Fame in 2014. Another controversial element of his life is the fact he legally changed his name from James Hellwig to “Warrior” in 1993. His widow’s legal name is Dana Warrior, and likewise, his children are Warriors, too. It makes sense to try and keep the rights to your character, but no other wrestler we’re aware of has even gone this far.
5. The Wild Samoans – Pretended Not To Speak English While Getting Arrested
The Wild Samoans are one of the most legendary names in WWE tag team history, and modern fans are reminded of their impact whether they realize it or not every single time they watch wrestling. Individually, the Samoans are Afa and Sika, and Sika is noteworthy for being the father of Roman Reigns. Long before he sired The Guy, Sika and Afa were redefining the concept of the wild savage character by dominating every tag team in wrestling and becoming three time WWE World Tag Team Champions. The Wild Samoans were some of the top names in the company during their various tenures with the belts, but they always had Captain Lou Albano do the talking, and the idea was that they couldn’t speak English.
According to Hulk Hogan, one evening, this pretend inability to comprehend the English language very nearly cost him and both Samoans their freedom, as a police pulled Hogan over, found an unregistered gun in the car, and was unable to explain himself without the help of witnesses. The only witnesses were the Samoans, who refused to speak English to the officer, acting like the confused foreign savages they played on television instead. Only thanks to getting bailed out by Gorilla Monsoon did they all escape time in jail.
4. The Gangstas – Real Life Violent Criminals
New Jack and Mustafa Saed were two of the most unlikely babyfaces in ECW, but somehow they turned into the most popular wrestlers in the company by way of their wild hardcore matches and seeming disregard for their own bodies, not to mention their opponents. They primarily competed as a tag team known as The Gangstas, and it was through that team they had most of their success, but New Jack is really the focus of this particular entry. When The Gangstas debuted in ECW and even in SMW before that, the focus was on their considerable arrest records, including the fact New Jack allegedly had committed four justifiable homicides. The full story on that and whether it’s real or not isn’t exactly clear, but what is clear is that a couple decades into his career, New Jack certainly tried to make it come true.
The Mass Transit incident, when Jack stabbed a 17-year-old who lied about being a trained wrestler, was basically the kid’s own fault, and the time Jack got a little too rough with the 69-year-old Gypsy Joe was weirdly consensual in the professional wrestling sense, so we won’t even hold those moments against him. What we will bring up is the time in 2004 when New Jack stabbed a fellow wrestler 9 times, cutting into his opponent so hard he faced real aggravated assault and attempted murder charges. Jack again claimed it was part of the show, but a police officer on the scene testified it was getting way too real, and the promoter purported the match wasn’t even supposed to be hardcore. Clearly, New Jack went way too far with his attack, but somehow he continued wrestling for almost another full decade after the incident.
3. Mr. Bob Backlund – Wants His Fans To Be Moral Citizens
Bob Backlund was the last passion project of Vince McMahon, Sr., and as a result he proudly held the WWE World Heavyweight title for nearly 6 years from the late 70s through the early 80s. Backlund was a consummate athlete, wrestling every challenger with stern pride and smiling his winning smile everywhere he went along the way. Of course, that was only a winning smile if you were into cornhusking traditionalism like Vince, Sr. was, and most fans felt Backlund was outdated even in the 70s and 80s when he was the top superstar in WWE. Part of the problem was that Backlund truly lived the smiling babyface role he was meant to play, and his hyper-morality and goody too shoes actions got him labeled as “Howdy Doody” by many of his detractors.
When Bob returned to WWE in the 90s, he turned heel, still living by these traditionalist ideals, but now acknowledging the fact crowds hated him for it. Backlund’s character was passed off as crazy at this time, drawn mad by an immoral society, and he would act like a madman with fans as a result. Stories claim he would refuse autographs to anyone who couldn’t recite the Presidents of the United States in chronological order, and he would often wander off in mid-conversation to play on his madness. Mr. Backlund has allegedly calmed down in his older age and will give an autograph like a normal person these days, but he still boasts the laurels Vince, Sr. made him a star based on.
2. Bret Hart – The Best There Ever Will Be?
There’s not a wrestling fan alive who doesn’t recognize Bret Hart as “the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be,” but whether or not that’s an actual description or just a catchphrase is a little bit less clear. And we’re not just talking about with fans—The Hitman himself seems to have completely bought into his own hype, and no one believes that statement about Bret Hart to a greater degree than Bret Hart himself believes it. Bret has used virtually every medium of WWE imaginable to express his unabashedly high opinion of himself, putting down every other wrestler he can think of to further his point that he truly was the greatest ever to step into the ring.
It’d be one thing if Bret was feeding into his own egomania to sell a heel character, but he seems to firmly believe he deserves respect and deference as the best of all time. Superstars like Ric Flair, Shawn Michaels, and Triple H are Bret’s most constant targets, but any wrestler who dares claim they may be better than him in any way no doubt will hear his wrath before long. One might think decades of retirement might force him to gain some perspective, but Bret recently rallied out against WWE video games, so if anything, retirement must have left him too much time on his hands.
1. The Undertaker – The Phenom For A Reason
Not only is The Undertaker one of the most iconic figures in WWE history, but it almost goes without saying that Mark Callaway crafted the most memorable gimmick ever to exist within professional wrestling. There have been more successful wrestlers with more popular gimmicks for short periods of time, but none come close to the lasting impact and legacy of WWE’s Phenom, who debuted in 1990 and still remains an integral part of the sports entertainment landscape whenever he decides to step back into the ring. He doesn’t step into the ring that often these days thanks to his advanced age, and he doesn’t make that many appearances outside of the ring for WWE either—because if he did, it might go against the whole undead zombie hell-bent on destruction thing.
The Undertaker became iconic due to, as we said from the start, an incredible dedication and commitment to his character. Part of that character is not talking much and only focusing on chaos. Another part of that character is having magic powers, and being able to control the weather. Neither of these things exactly allows for a friendly chat with fans, and as a result, The Undertaker is one of the more secluded and private wrestlers around, as well, especially in the eras his character was at its most mystic and zombie-like. None of this has stopped Taker from staking a potential claim as the best WWE superstar in history, so maybe he’s the exception that proves the rule, and sometimes it’s okay to get a little too into character.