There are thousands of young men and women out there on the wrestling circuit who are dying for their opportunity to break into the WWE and the chance to count themselves among the elite list of wrestlers in the top tier of the sport. However, of the few who do manage to capture the attention of the right people from the WWE’s talent relations department and pay their dues to find themselves on national television ... a horrifying truth suddenly becomes a reality that they cannot escape.
Getting signed is only part of the battle. Sometimes your career can spin violently out of control due to nothing that you have personally done or said - you were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when the creative department had an ill-conceived gimmick to assign and before you know it, the rest of your active career is plagued with the bitter truth that your dream job just became a nightmare (from which you will never wake). The list of wrestlers whose careers were dissolved under the stench of a bad gimmick are numerous, but some have found a way to survive.
Whether it was a change in management, the foresight of someone to realize that talent was being wasted, or just pure, simple luck, here are 20 wrestlers who were able to overcome a character assignment that spelled career death to achieve success in the WWE.
20 The Red Rooster
There may be some debate about this entry. You see, Terry Taylor was recognized as one of the brightest up and comers of the class of 1980 when he broke into the sport. Seeing success in a number of territories including, most notably Bill Watts’ Mid-South territory, Taylor was actually being considered for the role of Mr. Perfect – an assignment that would be bestowed upon Curt Hennig.
Taylor’s consolation prize? The Red Rooster. Strutting to the ring to a soundtrack of fear-inspiring rooster crows, the Red Rooster was a lame duck from the beginning that fans were painfully subjected to endure for far longer than was humane. Not even Taylor’s talent could allow us to get past the ridiculousness of this character which, astoundingly inspired a branded t-shirt and a large poster in the WWE catalog. Taylor, shed the dyed rooster comb to return to WCW where he re-adopted his own name and got his career back on track. Taylor returned to the WWE later on in an administrative capacity and continues to serve in a talent development role with the company to this day.
19 Rocky Maivia
Any time that someone's ring name requires an explanation, that's bad news. Some of us can still remember the painful introduction that welcomed the youngster who would become "The Most Electrifying Man In Sports Entertainment," putting on a smile and explaining that his name paid tribute to a three generation wrestling legacy ... "I picked Rocky for my dad (Rocky Johnson) and Maivia for my grandfather." Add to that the tasselled Hawaiian ring smock and the floppy hairdo that The Rock sported in those early matches and what you have is mid-card fodder who will never see a main event. Thankfully, someone within the WWE administration recognized what an asset they had in the third generation star, who has since eclipsed the careers of both of his original namesake. He's not the only wrestler on the list whose legendary career was almost submarined by poor creative vision at the outset.
18 Dean Douglas
There is a philosophy which holds that the best wrestling character is one which takes the attributes of the wrestler themselves and “turns up the volume.” We want to give the WWE writers the benefit of the doubt to suggest that when they learned that Shane Douglas was a certified school teacher, that they wanted to incorporate his real life achievements into a ring villain that the fans could easily despise.
The challenge became that Shane Douglas had already established his legacy in Extreme Championship Wrestling as “The Franchise” and this watered down version of the reputed headliner simply wasn’t going to cut it – especially in the northeast where ECW held sway. While the Dean’s run under this monicker was short-lived, he returned to Shane Douglas in WCW, where he enjoyed a much more profitable tenure.
17 3 Count
Boy bands and professional wrestling is not a combination that should ever be considered in the same sentence. So when WCW unveiled the boy band trio of Evan Karagias, Shannon Moore and Shane Helms as 3 Count, it was a phase of the careers for all three that I’m sure they wish they could forget – except for Karagias, that was his greatest achievement.
Thankfully, Shane Helms landed on his feet and under the WWE banner was able to evolve into The Hurricane. The super hero gimmick, combined with Helms’ incredible talent between the ropes and charisma on the microphone was a winner. In his WWE run, he became one of the most recognizable stars of his era, claiming championship gold along the way.
Those who recall Ron Simmons’ entrance to the WWE and also recognize that Simmons could shorten their existence on earth recall his WWE entrance under the name Faarooq Asaad; delicately describing the character as a ‘black Spartacus.’ For fans who knew of Simmons’ record as an all-American football player and former WCW World Champion, this character was comedically horrible.
Thankfully, Simmons was able to ride out the rocky start, landing a lead role in the faction “The Nation of Domination” before moving on to a lengthy tag team partnership that would define his WWE career alongside John Bradshaw Leyfield as the Acolyte Protection Agency. Damn!
15 Kwang the Ninja
Fans who had access to the newsstand wrestling magazines of the 1980s were familiar with the gory environment that existed in Puerto Rico and the bloodbaths that seemed to punctuate the wrestling climate there. Alongside the battered images of Carlos Colon and Abdullah the Butcher was a franchise player known simply as TNT. Rugged and scarred, there was no mistaking his toughness, and that probably factored into the WWE’s decision to sign him to a contract in 1996.
However, something got lost in translation when the barbaric TNT morphed into Kwang the Ninja, a masked martial artist with some apparent lucha libre influences. Fortunately, when fans failed to respond to the masked menace, the hood came off and fans got to experience the expressive and colorful style of Savio Vega. In solo competition, or later as a part of Los Boricuas when it seemed that everyone in the WWE was in a gang, Savio Vega earned his pay cheque, and was able to help fans forget about his earlier introduction.
14 1-2-3 Kid
Imagine Sean Waltman's excitement when he received a call from the WWE to find out that they were interested to sign him to a contract. Having paid dues from his training days in Minnesota to securing great reviews for his work across the United States and Japan as the Lightning Kid, he was going to have the opportunity to break the glass ceiling for wrestlers hovering around the 200-pound mark in the heavyweight-rich organization.
We can only expect that the happiness over having a job with the top company in wrestling made it an easier pill to swallow when he was assigned the name the 1-2-3 Kid and assigned a pair of baby blue tights that looked like a kindergarten coloring book. Still, helping youngsters master their first attempts at counting was still better than being baby powdered and diapered after losing a special stipulation match I guess. Oops, that happened, too.
13 Blackjack Bradshaw
Wielding his bullrope like a maniac and with a jaw full of chewing tobacco, Justin Hawk Bradshaw stormed into the WWE like a Texas tornado reminiscent of Stan “The Lariat” Hansen. It looked to fans like a hellraiser had arrived to shake things up in the WWE, but our excitement soon turned to a groan when Bradshaw found himself “re-packaged.” Partnered with Barry Windham, his hair sheared and dyed black, the “New” Blackjacks were thrust upon the wrestling world.
There’s no disputing talent – both Bradshaw and Windham had it in spades. However, just as with every “new” concept of the day ... the New Midnight Express, the New Rockers, the New Foundation, New Coke ... this one was already destined for the glue factory before its first lap of the track. The magic of the original Blackjacks was a generation removed from the minds of the fans for too long. Fortunately, Bradshaw recovered to form a team with Ron Simmons and later moved on to a singles career, ascending to the top of the line up.
12 Johnny Polo
Sometimes you find yourself building off of an already bad idea. On the independent scene, Scott Levy garnered attention for his youthful good looks and fit image as Scotty the Body. WCW re-branded that image as Scotty Flamingo, a flamboyant crybaby who would languish in undercard matches and gimmicky showdowns. Making the move to the WWE, the promotion had the opportunity to go a different direction, but instead decided to build on a character that couldn’t generate any steam elsewhere. Levy was branded Johnny Polo and his match record during his first WWE run is forgettable – most memorably assigned to be a ringside manager for the team of Jacques Rougeau & Pierre Ouellet.
Levy, like other before him, found the opportunity to re-define himself under the chaotic realm of Extreme Championship Wrestling, where he quoted cryptic literature referencing the works of Edgar Allen Poe, under the brooding ring name Raven. His character was so compelling that he enjoyed runs in both WCW and the WWE under a name that was not contrived by the creative departments of either wrestling super power.
11 The Real Man’s Man, William Regal
From doing more of the same thing and hoping for a different result with Scott Levy, the WWE has also gone to great lengths to create its own unique identity for a recognized wrestler that is being introduced to the fold. Lord Steven Regal had been cast as so many other technically sound English wrestlers have been over the course of wrestling history – as a snooty English nobleman who looked down upon the fans with great disdain.
Perhaps feeling they could break the mold, the WWE introduced the debuting Regal in a sleeveless lumberjack shirt, billing him as “a real man’s man.” The debut came off like a Monty Python skit and fortunately enjoyed a quick and sudden death. Regal, of course, has enjoyed success with the WWE both in front of and behind the television cameras and his insights into the art of professional wrestling continue to mold the frame of reference for many at the onset of their WWE careers.
It’s painful to think about how one of the most talented wrestlers of the present generation was almost wasted under the ridiculous character Festus. Billed as a simple country boy who transformed in Pavlovian fashion to a merciless beast at the sound of the ring bell, many fans were so distracted by the pageantry that they may not have keyed in on the talent underneath. We got a sneak peak at what this lumbering grappler can do when Luke Gallows became a member of CM Punk’s “Straight Edge Society” and it looks like we’re going to get to see more now that he has returned from a successful run in Japan with eyes on eclipsing his previous WWE run.
9 Spirit Squad Nicky
What 3 Count was to WCW, The Spirit Squad was to the WWE. After all, don’t you just lie awake at night with horrible visions about the havoc that would be unleashed upon the world by a troupe of villainous male cheerleaders? For some, the debut of the Spirit Squad felt like the WWE was faced with a surplus of talent from their developmental system that they were eager to introduce all at once, but lacked the imagination to assign them with distinct identities. Make a tag team a five man unit and send ‘em out there ... the people will love it. (We didn’t.)
Fortunately, among the five youngsters, some did find that their talent set them apart from the pack. Nowhere was that more apparent than with the success of Spirit Squad member Nicky, who has carved out his own legacy in the WWE since going solo as Dolph Ziggler. In Ziggler, we may yet see a future WWE World champion.
Long before the James Cameron sci-fi hit by the same name, we were stricken with the debut of Avatar in WWE rings. Resembling the Japanese risk-taking Hayabusa, there was some obvious talent and cat-like instincts in this masked man, but this gimmick was a stinker from the beginning. Unfortunately, the talented journeyman’s next assignment as a partner for Marty Jannetty in the New Rockers wasn’t much better. Perhaps it was worst, as he was treated to humiliation by the name Leif Cassidy, but his long time fans couldn’t equate the talent they knew with the package they were being handed.
Like Scott Levy, it was during a hiatus to Extreme Championship Wrestling that Al Snow arrived at a character that would save his WWE career. Returning to television with the message “Help Me” scrawled in black mascara in reverse imagery on his forehead and taking strategic match advice from a mannequin head, Al Snow’s talent was able to shine through and make a lasting impact on the fans.
7 Aldo Montoya
We’re not really sure where one comes up with the idea to take a kid from Connecticut who was trained by Keith Hart and Lance Storm in Calgary, put a yellow mask resembling a jock strap over his head and call him the Portuguese Manowar. Worse yet, after you have contrived this bad idea even for a Saturday morning cartoon, to convinced others that it will make money and put it on television. As Aldo Montoya, Pete Polaco did not make a dent in the annals of wrestling history ... though, strangely, we can’t forget it.
However, as one of the few wrestlers with a bad pun for a name, he created an impact as a tag team partner alongside his trainer Lance Storm in Extreme Championship Wrestling and enjoyed his best years in wrestling as Justin Credible – even securing solo championship success in ECW before returning to the WWE, sans yellow jockstrap headwear.
6 The Sultan
We have been treated to an education about the rich heritage of the Samoan bloodline in professional wrestling involving the Anoai and Fatu families. Certainly, Salofa Fatu’s first matches in the WWE supported that legacy, as he paired with Sam Anoai as the Headshrinkers, propagating the popular wrestling prototype that Samoan wrestlers are barefooted cannibals that will savagely maul any opponents in their path. While overdone, the character was believable and worthy of a tag team title run.
However, after his tag team partner was fired and a replacement with Sionne Vailahi failed to ignite box office chemistry, the WWE was back to the drawing board. The result was a creation that would have best been left on the cutting room floor – The Sultan. Saddled with a mask to obscure his face, and paired with the Iron Sheik and Bob Backlund as co-handlers, the Sultan was a royal disappointment. Fortunately, this third gimmick in the WWE wasn’t his last. He went on to memorable success and headline status as Rikishi Phatu.
5 Sparky Plugg
The commonly accepted theory about Sparky Plugg is that Vince McMahon was distracted with his legal woes at the time and the creative direction of the WWE’s product was left in the hands of his most trusted aids. We like to consider that upon his return to the WWE offices that Vince looked around the board table and asked someone to own up to the stupid name Thurman “Sparky” Plugg and upon identifying the culprit, fired him on the spot.
While Bob Holly did enjoy a relationship with the racing scene, his racecar driver-themed gimmick failed to accelerate his career. However, later known simply as Bob Holly, this double tough customer earned the respect of his peers and the fans alike with convincing performances between the ropes and a no-nonsense attitude that we expect would have quickly dispensed with comedy gimmicks such as he was first assigned.
4 The Supreme Fighting Machine, Kama
Wrestling has been known to draw from pop culture references and a case could be made that when the WWE was looking for a new direction for Charles Wright after the Papa Shango character had run its course, the writers were inspired while playing video games. The gimmick for Kama, ‘The Supreme Fighting Machine’ reminded us of a similar character that we had seen from the arcade hit Street Fighter. We would have preferred Papa Shango.
After a run in the Nation of Domination where Kama got to quietly drop the rest of his ill-fated monicker, he would later re-emerge with his most successful career image of all. As the Godfather, a colorful pimp, Wright illustrated the changes in American culture with a character that a decade earlier may have been strictly defined as a villain became one of the most loved and celebrated wrestlers of the day. Of course, the rotating bevy of beauties that comprised his ‘Ho Train’ to accompany him to the ring each week may have had a big influence on public opinion.
The great and powerful Oz is a great children’s story, but doesn’t translate between the ropes. We can’t escape the thought that when the WCW creative team suited Kevin Nash up in a green leotard and cape with frosted white hair and a rubber mask to boot, that they knew it was a dead end disaster – but perhaps as Nash was still relatively new to the sport, if it went down in flames, it wouldn’t impact the stars who were collecting higher salaries in the company.
Kevin Nash was a giant that the sport didn’t seem to know what to do with. In WCW, he was a Master Blaster, Oz and Vinnie Vegas in successive years, failing to inspire marquee appeal in any of those roles. However, when he jumped to the WWE and was re-cast as Diesel, slowly the wheels began to turn resulting in runs as Intercontinental, Tag Team and World title reigns. Interestingly, Nash’s greatest success in the sport came after dropping all assumed names and simply wrestling under the name given to him at birth.
2 The Ringmaster
In 1996, Steve Austin was considered to be the hottest free agent in professional wrestling. Released from WCW and with a bitter taste in his mouth that Eric Bischoff felt that he didn’t have enough appeal to become a major star, he spent a short time in Extreme Championship Wrestling where he had the opportunity to unleash his frustrations in some direct and candid interviews that fired shots at his former employer. Snatched up by the WWE, the technically sound wrestler with strong microphone skills was paired with a manager, awarded the Million Dollar Belt and dubbed the Ringmaster. This didn’t inspire imagery of someone who is an expert at all matters inside the ring, but instead someone who should be wearing a top hat and tails. The sad thing is that in this case, this wasn’t even the WWE’s worst idea – that’s well documented.
When he came up with the idea for “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, his career exploded quickly and the native of Victoria, Texas, became one of the iconic wrestlers of his generation and a face that is readily attached to professional wrestling’s Attitude Era. It’s difficult to imagine what would have happened had Austin and the WWE not soon realized that their first attempt to create an identity for Austin in his new environment was a dud.
1 Isaac Yankem, D.D.S.
Glenn Jacobs has already made an appearance on this list, but his earlier listing almost feels like an honorable mention in comparison to this list-leading gimmick blunder. On the independent scene, Jacobs was tagged with a few different characters while he paid his dues. In Memphis, he was Doomsday, in Smoky Mountain Wrestling he was known as Unabomb – both frightening and insidious monsters. Arriving in the WWE, towering at near seven feet tall on a 300 lb. frame, you would think the organization which was famed for its larger than life roster would know exactly what to do with a piece of untapped talent like this. Yes, something horrifying, something to curdle the blood of the fans ... “Let’s make him a dentist.” Isaac Yankem has to rate as one of the biggest near misses in wrestling history.
It’s hard to believe the lasting legacy that Glenn Jacobs has established for himself once they found the right fit for him with the gimmick Kane – a character which has evolved and adapted over an impressive twenty year run and continued to be one of the most recognized and respected figures in the history of the company.