Who was that masked man? In professional wrestling, many talented wrestlers benefitted from the opportunity to pair their skills with a creative and mysterious persona that elevated their careers.
However, in the only professional sport which features masked athletes under an apparent alias, there have also been occasions where the assignment of a masked character have signalled a glass ceiling for how much a wrestler could advance in their careers.
This list explores the wrestlers who evaded certain career death to ascend to even greater heights after being able to unlace their masks and get out in front of wrestling audiences with their own face.
These wrestlers made us believers in their ability and we were able to get emotionally attached to the men and women behind the mask.
20 Justin Credible
We are certain that Justin Credible still gets ribbed by his peers to this day about his introduction to the WWE as Aldo Montoya, the Portuguese Manowar. Forget the fact that the manowar is actually a jellyfish – that mask that resembled a yellow jockstrap didn’t really generate a strong fan following. Fortunately, an opportunity to re-invent himself in ECW alongside his trainer, Lance Storm as the “Impact Players” allowed his career to do a 180.
19 Ron Simmons
Despite the lack of imagination applied to the black tights, boots and masks of the world championship winning team of Doom, there is no disputing the dominance that Ron Simmons and Butch Reed achieved with Teddy Long in their corner in WCW. But when Simmons lost his mask, he rose to even greater heights. First as WCW World Champion, and then later success in the WWE where he may have achieved even greater fame, though never securing singles success under Vince McMahon’s banner.
18 Mr. J.L.
Anyone whose career has ever been at mercy of apathetic management had to feel for Jerry Lynn’s less than stellar run as a luchadore in World Championship Wrestling. Jerry had enjoyed a steady rise on the independents before being signed by WCW. He rolled with it when he was told that he would be given a mask ... but the wind was completely let out of his sails when he asked management what his new name would be. With little more than a shrug, he was labelled “Mr. J.L.” – some great creative work happening there. Fortunately, Jerry would shed the mask and cement his legacy in the sport again under his own name with runs in both WWE and ECW.
17 The Undertaker
Few fans may even remember the career of “Mean” Mark Callous before his WWE debut and one of the most dominant runs in WWE history. However, in his early days in the ring, promoters had different ideas for him. While in Memphis, he was cloaked under a black mask and dubbed as the Master of Pain. Fortunately, it was a forgettable name that didn’t follow him around.
16 John Studd
WWE Hall of Famer John Studd enjoyed a strong start in the WWE alongside his mentor Killer Kowalski as one of three masked Executioners that enjoyed a WWE World Tag Team title run. Studd became an even bigger star as one of the top tier villains antagonizing Hulk Hogan during the national expansion of the WWE and was among the first superstars to be immortalized as an action figure. Studd later went on to make some select appearances as an actor as well.
15 Gail Kim
Toronto’s Gail Kim has enjoyed success in both the WWE and TNA, though her earliest work in the sport saw her often playing second fiddle to fellow aspiring Canadian star Traci Brooks. It’s quite possible that her ascent in the sport may have been slower as fans didn’t have the opportunity to see her stunning beauty as Gail was shielded under a mask wrestling as La Felina for the Apocalypse Wrestling Federation in matches around Ontario. As fans, we’re glad the mask was discarded by the time she reached the national spotlight.
Fans of the WWE’s attitude era will recognize that it wasn’t just the mask that Dennis Knight shed to become one of the most notorious figures of that time frame. Prior to initially arriving in the WWE as Phinneas Godwinn, he had partnered with his “cousin” Henry Godwinn in WCW. Wrestling by the name Shanghai Pierce, Mideon was clad in a mask for whatever reason. His short WCW run will probably not be remembered over the long term. Unfortunately, what we will recall is seeing him streaking through arenas wearing only a fanny pack. Higher profile on the radar for sure, but ... ewww!
13 Jamie Noble
Recognized by Arn Anderson as one of the greatest carpenters in the history of the sport, Noble had the opportunity to display his ability in WCW as a member of the Jung Dragons. Though behind a mask, fans may not have fully appreciated what he brought to the table. Fortunately, in numerous separate runs in the WWE, Jamie had the opportunity to better showcase his skills between the ropes and on the microphone.
12 Eddie Guerrero
You would think that due to his wrestling pedigree alone, Eddie Guerrero would never have need of an alias. The youngest son of Gory Guerrero, who had blazed his own trail, and behind three brothers who were in high demand during the territory days of wrestling, Eddie was in good stead to launch his own career. However, some of his early matches, particularly in Japan were wrestling under a mask as the Black Tiger. His personality served to compliment his ability and propel his ascent to a championship win on wrestling’s grandest stage over the one and only Brock Lesnar. “Latino Heat” may never have become a phrase we remember even a decade after Eddie’s untimely passing had he not shed his mask.
11 Rocco Rock
During the 1980s, the newsstand wrestling magazines (most of which were based in the American northeast) featured frequent photos and articles of the masked Cheetah Kid, who was constantly pitted against the top villains on the independents and heavily promoted. However, the stardom that he achieved in the early rise of ECW as a tag team mainstay in Extreme Championship Wrestling alongside Johnny Grunge, easily eclipsed his earlier press. The team of Public Enemy were cornerstones of ECW and had stays in the major companies as well.
10 George “The Animal” Steele
As a savage villain challenging Bruno Sammartino in the 1970s and closing his career as a lovable Neanderthal in the 1980s, it’s hard to imagine George’s large personality being concealed in any manner. But such was the case when the young man, who also held a career as a teacher in his native Michigan, took his earliest steps in the squared circle. Under the obscurity of a mask, Steele was known to fans as simply “The Student.”
9 Al Snow
Like many stars who achieved their first national spotlight in the 1990s, Al Snow had the opportunity to re-invent himself in ECW after a rocky start in the WWE. Under a mask as “Avatar,” and also with a brief run by the name Leif Cassidy, Snow’s talent was powerless to overcome bad booking. It was enough to make someone insane, which maybe was his inspiration to scrawl “Help Me” in mascara across his forehead backwards and start taking guidance from a mannequin head. As bizarre as it sounds, the off-balance character was a hit with WWE audiences and elevated Snow to greater heights.
Winnipeg’s Sarah Stock stumbled into the world of professional wrestling somewhat by accident in 2001. The University-educated Stock, had been training as a kickboxer when she learned about the local professional wrestling scene. Within months, she was touring nationally in Canada and latched onto international opportunities which eventually landed her in Mexico. Adopting the tradition of the lucha libre style, Sarah became The Dark Angel and rose to fame as one of the top women in action south of the border. After dropping the mask, her run in TNA, winning the Knockouts tag team championship and becoming an international headliner around the globe has carried this Canadian beauty to greater success.
7 Marc Bagwell
Looking back, it seems especially corny to see Marc Bagwell as a lone ranger masked generic fan favorite as The Handsome Stranger. However, that was his introduction to audiences in Texas before his greater success under his own name in WCW as both a Tag Team Champion and solo star. Though never reaching World title success, Bagwell is easily one of the most identifiable stars of WCW’s 1990s, even through the tumultuous Monday Night Wars.
Konnan may well have been lost in the shuffle had he not escaped the masked character that was synonymous with his earliest days in the ring. Behind the obscurity of his hood, Konnan had a run in Stampede Wrestling and made select appearances in WCW, and had been scouted for the role of Max Moon in the WWE. However, beyond his career under a mask, Konnan factored in heavily to the height of WCW’s run and the NWO’s rise to fame. Konnan continues to be one of the most recognized and influential stars in AAA in Mexico and his stardom has crossed over into the country’s pop culture.
5 Demolition Ax
This wrestler may be among the most disputed inclusions on this list. As the Masked Superstar, Bill Eadie headlined in the Carolinas, Georgia, Montreal, the AWA and around the world. However, in the late 1980s, few teams in the WWE generated as much notoriety as the face painted duo known as Demolition. A multi-time tag team champion whose gravelly voice still resonates with fans of the team, Demolition Ax is arguably Eadie’s most successful role in a career which spanned beyond three decades.
4 Chris Benoit
“Crippler” Chris Benoit is still studied by students of the game for his incredible performances throughout his career. After his maiden voyage with Stampede Wrestling, he was given the opportunity to study in New Japan’s dojo where he honed his style. In New Japan, his early success took place under a mask as The Pegasus Kid, a name by which he secured some of his earliest championship success. Returning to North America, he was able to shed the alias to rise to the top of both WCW and WWE with world title wins in each company.
3 Owen Hart
Even close to two decades after his controversial passing, Owen Hart’s tenure as The Blue Blazer continues to be a topic that is hotly debated. Owen was introduced to WWE audiences at the masked Blue Blazer in 1988 and did generate a small following through his stellar performances against top tier opponents such as Curt Hennig. However, as the thorn in the side of his older brother Bret Hart, and later as a tag team and singles champion on multiple occasions, the legend of Owen Hart will live on far beyond what he could have ever accomplished as a grappler incognito. Sadly, Owen's return to The Blue Blazer character signalled not only a sudden end to his career, but also his life.
2 Daniel Bryan
Though known as The American Dragon both with and without a mask, the man behind wrestling’s “YES” movement was fortunate to discard the ridiculous three horned mask that was a feature of the character early on. Consider the challenge that he faced to get the creative influences of the WWE to allow his talent to outshine his portrayal as an awkward nerd and as a goat ... had he entered the McMahon portfolio under a mask, that would have signalled a pre-mature death for his career – even more so than what his unfortunate injury has caused.
1 Alberto Del Rio
A second generation star, Alberto Del Rio was virtually royalty in Mexico, following his father Dos Caras into the family business. Del Rio has been arguably one of the most successful wrestlers to transcend cultures and find his place before American audiences. Fans of Del Rio’s distinct and dynamic style are ever hopeful that his second run with the company will eclipse his earlier stay.