Brian Damage, Craig Wilson, John Carbery and Jamie Lithgow
Pretty simple and straightforward…think wrestlers that were going nowhere, and were perhaps on the chopping block, and a new gimmick suddenly revitalized their careers. The only caveat to this Top Five is the gimmick change had to happen in the same promotion. Without further ado…
5. Husky Harris to Bray Wyatt: Let’s be realistic, the gimmick of Husky Harris…the wrestler who was built like a tank with a Ferrari engine wasn’t going to amount to anything. It wasn’t until he adopted a Cape Fear type gimmick and renamed Bray Wyatt that his career really took off.
4. Tugboat to Typhoon: Fred Ottman was pretty much going nowhere fast as the kid friendly Tugboat complete with a sailor’s outfit and his pattented, “Toot, Toot!”. It wasn’t until he turned heel and joined forces with Earthquake in the Natural Disasters tag team that Ottman started being taken seriously…winning the WWF tag team titles.
3. Sandman the Surfer to Sandman the Hardcore icon: The Sandman as a beach going surfer dude in ECW wasn’t going to end up as much. It wasn’t until he ditched the scuba gear and surf board and replaced it with a Singapore cane, cigarettes and beer that he became an ECW legend.
2. The Ringmaster to Stone Cold Steve Austin: Arguably one of the most successful gimmick changes in WWE history. The Ringmaster managed by Ted Dibiase was going nowhere. Once he ditched Dibiase grew a goatee and started spewing curse words…did Steve Austin explode onto the wrestling scene.
1. Hulk Hogan to Hollywood Hogan: The good yellow and red Hulk Hogan from the WWF days was not working at all in WCW. When Hogan turned heel, grew a five O’clock shadow and wore all black did he make huge waves for the company and in turn extended his career for several more years.
5. Kama becomes The Godfather: Quite the career for Charles Wright. Papa Shango was hugely entertaining, albeit over the top, in the early 90s and The Godfather was a memorable character during the Attitude Era. It was the bit in between that was the worst bit: Kama, the supreme fighting machine. Generic beyond belief as he transitioned from part of the Million Dollar Corporation to the Nation of Domination. Neither made him stand out. That was, until, he played on his real life experiences, adopting the gimmick of a pimp. A Hall of Fame entry later and the rest is history.
4. Blackjack Bradshaw to Ass-kicking APA Bradshaw: From the ultra bland Justin Hawk Bradshaw to a marginally less bland member of a tag team reboot to a 9-month reign as WWE champion, who saw that coming? It’s fair to say that Bradshaw was drifting from his debut onwards. Even in the New Blackjacks it was mid-card mediocrity. Then after WrestleMania 14 he became aligned with Farooq – another drifter – and the pair soon became a pair of kick-ass beer drinking, cigar puffing, poker playing hardmen and one of the more memorable, and more popular, acts of the Attitude Era. After the New Blackjacks, Bradshaw could easily have been cut loose. But being part of the Acolytes showed that he could make a strong connection with the fans.
3. The Roadie & The Rockabilly to The New Age Outlaws: Yet another example of two guys that had been around for a while during the mid-90s and saddled with very mid-card gimmicks yet a few changes here and there led them to becoming huge stars and household names during the era that saw more eyes than ever before on wrestling. From a lackey to Jeff Jarrett and a protege to The Honky Tonk Man to the iconic New Age Outlaws is quite an improvement. One of the most decorated tag teams in WWE history and has seen them make a return in recent years, including a final run with the WWE tag team titles. Not bad for two guys who could easily have been binned at the start of 1997. If they had, few would have lost any sleep.
2. Surfer Sting to Crow Sting: In the early 90s, Sting was hugely popular. His bright facepaint and blonde hair made him a big hit with the WCW faithful. But by the mid-90s as the company added some of the biggest names in wrestling history to the roster, Sting got largely left behind. No longer the figurehead of the promotion, he was eclipsed by the exploits of the New World Order. Sting needed an overhaul of his surfer, fan-friendly Stinger. And boy was the change dramatic. Inspired by Brandon Lee in The Crow, Sting grew his hair out, dyed it black and began dressing in attire like Lee did in the film. Hanging from the rafters and not appearing on TV added a level of mystique to the character and prolonged a career that was stuttering to a standstill.
1. Rocky Maivia to The Rock: To much fanfare, Rocky Maivia debuted in the WWE at the 1996 Survivor Series and it was clear very early on that Vince McMahon had very high hopes for the third generation performer. So much so that he proceeded to strap a rocket to his back and push him harder than many in recent memory. It led to a revolt for fans who couldn’t take to the bland babyface and soon his matches were soundtracked to chants of “die Rocky, die.” A heel turn and alignment with the Nation of Domination undoubtedly helped Maivia and he was able to show some levels of charisma that would spawn some of the most memorable soundbytes in WWE history. By the 1998 Survivor Series – two years after his arrival on the scene – he was WWE champion. More the Corporate Champion than the People’s Champion as he claimed, but a champion none the less and didn’t look even slightly out of place. The attempts at hand clapping and over the top smiling had been replaced by a sneer and the ‘people’s eyebrow’. Now he transcends the world of wrestling and has gone on to appear in some of the highest grossing action films of recent years.
5. From Jr Heavywight dud to Deathmatch King : Atsushi Onita: Figurativley speaking, the Japanese wrestling scene was on fire in the mid 90s partly because Onita was literally willing to set himself aflame. Having failed as a Jr Heavyweight in All Japan Pro Wrestling in the 70s/80s Atsushi would rebrand himself as a screaming, blood and guts brawler to great effect. His company, FMW, was one of the top promotions in Japan at a time where they faced stiff competition from the likes of NJPW, AJPW and All Japan Women and it was all sparked from Onita’s star power after his gimmick change.
4. Vampires to Reeking of Awesomeness to Edge & Christian: If you like a good cringe, go and watch some promo segments for the Brood in 98/99. Edge and Christian were fraternal bloodsuckers at the time and while it certainly gave them a start, it wasn’t going to make them stars. After their breakout series with the Hardy Boyz though they slowly morphed into the goofy heels everybody remembers. Their time on top of the tag division laid the foundation for both of their main event careers.
3. From Tasmaniac to just Taz: The Tasmaniac was one of those low rent New Generation era gimmick wrestlers you’d see regularly on low rent alternatives to the WWF in the early 90s. So it was quite a departure when the same guy became Taz in ECW, which was a gimmick way ahead of its time. Paul Heyman used The Human Suplex Machine to great effect from 96-99 with Taz being a big draw for the company and eventually ECW World Champion.
2. Vince McMahon to Mr McMahon: Vince went from colour commentator to acknowledged owner to mega heel Mr McMahon and started one of the most successful feuds ever with Steve Austin. Vince became one of his own key players and a genuine attraction. His matches at Wrestlemania X7, 19 and 22 were all a big part of why those shows were successful. He even gave himself a wee run as WWF World Champion. What a nice guy.
1. The Ringmaster to Stone Cold Steve Austin: When I first saw the Ringmaster, I was actually excited. I’d only ever read about Austin in magazines so it was a thrill to see him wrestle for the WWF at the time. Though looking back at it now with context, it was a really shitty gimmick to foist on one of the hottest prospects in wrestling. Thankfully everybody at Titan Towers saw the light and allowed Austin to wear a gimmick that was better suited to him.
5. The Sultan to Rikishi: This may be cheating slightly, based on the time between these two gimmicks. The god awful Sultan character was last seen in 1997 while the thong wearing, dancing Samoan – Rikishi – appearing in late 1999. Teaming with Too Cool, Rikishi was ridiculously popular in 2000; an accusation that was never levelled at the masked – and apparently tongueless – Sultan.
4. APA Bradshaw to JBL: Taking inspiration from Craig’s Bradshaw suggestion, I’ve gone for what I perceive to be the biggest leap this character made. From beer-drinking ass-kicker to wealthy stock market dickhead. Those two characters sound like polar opposites, but JBL made it work and moreover, made it make sense too. This is probably because – in a stereotype bursting twist – the real life John Leyfield could easily be described as a mix of APA Bradshaw and JBL.
3. Stevie Richards to Steven Richards: For me this is up there with JBL for total change in direction of a character. Stevie Richards did literally nothing in WWE and was probably only known as The Blue Meanie’s buddy. A haircut and Frank Grimes inspired makeover later and the now Steven Richards became a despised heel as leader of The Right To Censor, WWE’s parody of The Parent’s Television Council (PTC). The beauty of this gimmick is that it hung around for just the right amount of time, because it did have a shelf life. So while this did not exactly save Stevie Richards’ WWE career, it most certainly prolonged it.
2. Generic jobber Hardy Boyz to emo daredevil Hardy Boyz: For much the 90’s Matt and Jeff Hardy were recurring jobbers on WWE TV. They then became fixtures of Shotgun and Superstars as a thoroughly generic babyface tag team that occasionally picked up a win against the few acts lower on the card than them. Enter Doc Hendrix – sorry, Michael Hayes – some typically late 90’s baggy pants and death defying moves and you have a team successfully repacked and ready to attract scores of male and female fans.
1. Ruthless Aggression John Cena to Marky Mark John Cena: Prototype/Ruthless Aggression John Cena was never going to main event Wrestlemania. Save for one impressive performance against Kurt Angle, he was no different to the other large, heavily muscled men who appeared in WWE in the early 00’s. That was until the 2002 Smackdown Halloween party where he dressed as Vanilla Ice. Thereafter he basically became a wrestling Marky Mark, complete with his own one man Funky Bunch; Bull Buchanan. Ironically Mr Cena can now be found in movies alongside Marky Mark…… that’s Mark Wahlberg for those unfamiliar with pre-Eminem white rappers.
You can read all previous Top Five pieces here.