Before Steve Austin was ‘Stone Cold’, he was the technically gifted Ringmaster. Long before he was ‘Big Daddy Cool’, Kevin Nash sported a long purple coat and hailed from the land of Oz.
Wrestling historians have identified several turning points in the careers of many superstars of past and present, most notably Rocky Maivia’s evolution into ‘The People’s Champion’ and Glenn Jacobs’ transformation from a wrestling dentist into a burn-victim/demon. Sometimes all it takes for an individual to get over is to either drop a horrendous gimmick, or develop one.
Despite the various documented glam-ups, there have been a few incredible career reboots that have slipped through the cracks of critical acclaim. In this list, we take a look at ten examples of successful reboots, where a wrestler’s character undergoes such a dramatic change that it sends their career on a completely new trajectory.
Make sure you drop your own personal favourite career reboots in the comments section below.
10. Bradshaw to JBL
Before John Layfield started on his incredible run as WWE Champion in 2004, he was the beer-swilling, cigar-smoking badass of the A.P.A. Now the Protection Agency wasn’t exactly the least over duo on the roster, he and Faarooq would often find themselves opening shows and occasionally battling for the Tag titles. But quite frankly, there wasn’t much in the way of longevity for Bradshaw and the former WCW World Champion, Ron Simmons.
Bradshaw shocked the wrestling world by turning on his long-time partner just after WrestleMania 20. What many considered a bit of a dud turn, quickly turned into one of the most exciting angles on the blue brand, with Bradshaw transforming into the detestable JBL, a stockbroking Texan who would enter the arena in his iconic stretch limo to the sound of cowbells.
JBL is of course best known for his reign of terror as WWE Champion. His feuds with Undertaker, Eddie Guerrero and John Cena were generally considered some of the year’s biggest highlights. You’ve got to admit, even if you hate the guy, he did a great job at carrying the brand at a time where many of its biggest stars were caught off guard with injuries or simply walked away from the company.
JBL has gone down as one of WWE’s most controversial characters, inside and outside of the ring. Needless to say, if it weren’t for his evolution into JBL, he might not have been penned for the 2020 Hall of Fame, nor would he have ever become such an integral part of WWE programming as a colour commentator. The JBL character allowed Bradshaw to show off a lot more than just his brawn and skills at downing beers.
9. Jamal to Umaga
In 2002, the big Samoan duo known as ‘Three Minute Warning’ steamrolled through the majority of both RAW and SmackDown’s Tag team division, but unfortunately, they never made it quite far enough to become taken seriously as champions. Rosey and Jamal took two very different roads following the team’s break-up, one went on to become a Super Hero in Training (or S.H.I.T, which Vince had a good giggle at backstage). Jamal on the other hand became Umaga.
Umaga first appeared on the scene after WrestleMania 22, laying waste to ‘The Nature Boy’ and starting his path of destruction. Umaga was given the generic foreign monster treatment, living vicariously through his spokesperson/manager Armando Estrada while annihilating local talent before working his way up through the mid-card and into the main event scene. It’s a tried and tested method that WWE loves to roll out every other year: Yokozuna, The Great Khali, Rusev; all superstars that have become champions following this routine.
Umaga eventually captured the Intercontinental Championship and became the heavy of the Chairman himself in Vince’s feud with Donald Trump and Bobby Lashley. Umaga’s greatest triumph however, his series of WWE Championship matches with John Cena. Say what you will about hoss wrestlers and foreign heels, but Umaga could work a great match when given the time. He and Cena put together a fun Last Man Standing match at the 2007 Royal Rumble pay-per-view, a match that received critical acclaim across the board.
Naturally, Vince adored Umaga’s burly Samoan style, with the savage gimmick attached to him, there was nowhere to go but up for the Anoa’i tribesman.
8. Tiger Kid to The Bruiserweight
Believe it or not, before Pete Dunne became the notorious Bruiserweight of British independent wrestling, he sported a lucha-libre gimmick and flew about the ring with grace. Pete Dunne has always been a truly versatile athlete, being able to knock it out of the park with a variety of catch wrestling, MMA and strong style. If necessary, Dunne could even whack out some of his former high-flying abilities.
But I personally argue that the true stardom of Pete Dunne lies in his facial expressions. William Regal has always touted that the true art of turning a crowd is through the expert use of your own face. A wrestler can determine the vibe of any match based entirely on their facial expression, and Pete Dunne has this down to a tee. Whether he’s working as babyface or dastardly heel, his maniacally rugged demeanour can draw in a crowd to either get fully behind or against the many ways he inflicts torture.
‘The Bruiserweight’ has become more of a wrestling style than a character at this point. You can already see Dunne’s influence starting to seep its way into different gimmicks, imagine how many future wrestlers might consider Pete Dunne’s character work one of their biggest inspirations.
Pete Dunne is still very early on in his WWE career, and has already racked up quite the legacy. Not only did Dunne become one of the longest reigning champions of the modern era, but he was also an integral part of dethroning the Undisputed Era alongside Matt Riddle in NXT. Pete Dunne is soon to become one of the biggest things in all of wrestling, now just imagine if he did all this in a mask.
7. Japan’s Okada to The Rainmaker
At the turn of the decade, future IWGP World Champion Kazuchika Okada started laying the groundwork as part of TNA’s X-Division. TNA’s Okada was a far-cry from what he would eventually become in New Japan Pro Wrestling. Looking back on his work with the likes of Doug Williams, The Pope and The Young Bucks, you’d look at Okada and assume the least from a fairly generic Japanese import. Yet in years to come, he would usher in a new era for NJPW and independent wrestling as a whole.
TNA failed to realise the true potential Okada had. A booking team stuck in the past chose to run with a pretty generic foreign character based off of Kato from The Green Hornet. Needless to say, it didn’t work, and Okada was soon released from TNA. Despite this being a shadow of Okada’s success, the man himself looks back on his time in TNA fondly, learning that he needed to develop a character in order to be successful worldwide rather than just “fight, fight, fight”.
Upon Okada’s return to NJPW, ‘The Rainmaker’ was born. It’s hard to deny his natural charisma and megastar attraction, Okada soon entered into feuds with some of New Japan’s biggest stars: Hiroshi Tanahashi, Minoru Suzuki and eventually The Bullet Club’s AJ Styles and Kenny Omega. Over the years, Okada claimed the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship a total of 5 times, producing some of the best matches of the year, often being cited as the modern day Ric Flair.
‘The Rainmaker’ is one of our most cherished characters in wrestling today, thank god Okada didn’t stick around the ailing TNA brand longer than he had to.
6. The Natural to Goldust
The Son of a Son of a Plumber, Dustin Rhodes had a comfortable spot in WCW riding on the back of his family name. ‘The Natural’ was regularly featured on pay-per-view cards, but wasn’t really achieving all that he had in mind for himself. Soon enough, Dustin started looking for greener pastures in WWE, where Vince was quick to take him up on a contract. Instead of signing ‘The Natural’, Vince dreamt of something more glamorous for the young Rhodes, thus, Goldust came to be.
In the early 90s, a straight-shooting cowboy failed to fit in amongst the colours and cartoons of WWE programming. Dustin needed to adopt something that would make him more of a character than his standard self. Goldust was something that I’m sure nobody would have expected, although it eventually became one of the most ground-breaking gimmicks in all of pro-wrestling, destroying typical conventions and putting wrestling audiences on the edge of their seats.
Goldust hailed from the eccentric world of Hollywood film-making, therefore looked like a living Oscar statue. His feathery robes and bleached blonde wig caught eyes worldwide, making him one of WWE’s top heels in record time. What irked the WWF fans more than anything was his androgynous nature, something that has been an institution in professional wrestling since the carny days, championed by the likes of Gorgeous George and most recently, AEW’s Sonny Kiss.
Goldust was a true pioneer, peaking at various stages of his career; stealing the show with Roddy Piper at WrestleMania XII, developing a beloved tag team with Booker T in 2002 and then returning to ‘The Natural’ as part of AEW’s debut show and putting together a bloody battle with his younger brother Cody.
Dustin Rhodes is truly timeless.
5. Surfer to Icon
WCW enjoyed the services of Steve Borden for the best part of their lifetime. At first, Sting competed as a wrestling surfer from Venice Beach, his abilities to get over as a natural babyface helped him remain relevant for those early stages of his mainstream career. His feuds with the likes of Ric Flair, Randy Savage and Vader helped him capture the World Heavyweight Championship, cementing him as a big-time star. Things were going pretty well for Surfer Sting, but quite frankly, he needed to change with the times.
As WCW entered the era of the nWo, the babyface side of the roster needed someone to step up and become their leading man. With Surfer Sting taking a well-deserved hiatus from WCW, it was time for him to return in a big way, debuting a new look inspired by Brandon Lee’s Crow, the look that he would become most famous for.
Going by various nicknames throughout his career: ‘The Icon’, ‘The Vigilante’ and ‘The Man they Call’, Sting would become one of the biggest superstars of the time, often compared to The Undertaker during the peak of The Attitude Era. Sting helped turn the tide of the ratings war, keeping fans tuned into Nitro each week to see just how ‘The Stinger’ would creep on Hogan and his cronies, whether that be from the rafters or the rare occasion he’d actually hit the ring and start swinging with his signature bat.
Sting’s best work came at Starrcade 1997, climaxing his feud with Hogan in the main event of WCW’s biggest show of all time for the World Heavyweight Championship. Despite the gravitas of the event, there were still shenanigans at play that kept Sting’s victory from becoming the big moment it deserved to be. Referee Nick Patrick allegedly ‘forgot’ to make a fast count on Sting, giving Hogan a very credible win in the eyes of the fans. The angle was meant to play out with Hogan taking the tainted win, only for a debuting Bret Hart to protest against this timely screwjob and act as the special referee for a restarted contest which Sting would then go on to win.
Arguably this killed a lot of Sting’s momentum, whether that was down to nWo’s politics or not is another story entirely. But nevertheless, this new Sting would enjoy a long career of being kooky and mysterious, rarely drifting away from his Crow character, aside from his brief stint as The Joker in 2011. Sting will forever be one of my favourite characters of the era, and a key reason for me to have started watching TNA in the late 00’s.
4. Matt Hardy to ‘Broken’ Matt Hardy
Matt Hardy took the wrestling world by storm when he debuted his ‘Broken’ gimmick in TNA. For years, Matt Hardy had jumped from promotion to promotion attempting to rebuild his career after being let go of by WWE. Being Matt Hardy wasn’t quite enough to keep his stock high, so he took to drastic measures. One thing wrestling fans will never take away from the older of the Hardy boys is his limitless creativity. Whether it be Version 1, Big Money Matt or Broken Matt, Hardy has always managed to keep himself fresh when times were tough.
Broken Matt was on an entirely new level for him though, crossing into various medias and breaking new ground for wrestlers. His work with his brother Jeff single-handedly turned things around for Impact Wrestling, bringing eyes back to the product at a very crucial time in their history. The Final Deletion sent shockwaves across the entire scene, tempting other performers into developing more unique characters that existed outside of the confines of the squared circle. The Hardy Compound inspired WWE to produce a ‘Wyatt Compound’, which led to a very poor imitation of the skit featuring The Wyatts and The New Day.
The Broken One eventually took his act across the world, appearing for almost every major indie promotion, starting feuds with some of the biggest tag teams in the world including The Young Bucks, setting the stage for Matt Hardy’s recent debut in AEW.
Broke became Woke in WWE, garnering a huge reaction from the WWE Universe on his debut. He rode his newfound singles momentum through to a big WrestleMania win (well, big enough to win the Andre battle royal) and then captured the Tag titles with Bray Wyatt, assisting in his woeful career.
Broken Matt still is a true marvel in professional wrestling, a character that will go down in history as a pioneer move from the veteran.
3. Party Marty to The Villian
What a career reboot this was for the former Take Me Out contestant. Marty Scurll enjoyed bookings across the UK as ‘Party’ Marty, a binge-drinking raver who personified the young Brit’s desire to live life to the full. ‘Party’ Marty found himself being considered one of the best athletes on the scene, alongside the likes of ZSJ and Will Ospreay as they rose through the ranks of PROGRESS and RevPro. But the issue with Scurll wasn’t his in-ring prowess, it was the gimmick itself and how insular it was.
Outside of the UK especially, ‘Party’ Marty just wasn’t enough to make him a star. So drastic change was needed. So, he became a man that appreciated the finer things of life, a man that would snap your fingers and cackle in your face while doing so. ‘The Villain’ became one of the most striking characters in BritWres, the fur coats, the flashy specs and, most importantly, the top-knot, helped make Marty one of the most sought after names in all of indie wrestling.
‘The Villain’ took his dastardly deeds across the pond and competed for the likes of PWG, NJPW and ROH (where he would enjoy the biggest singles run of his career), eventually finding himself inducted into the ranks of the Bullet Club. While his peers started developing relationships with WWE through NXT UK, Marty remained one of the most popular British names on the indie circuit.
‘The Villain’ absolutely turned things around for Marty Scurll. He’s won several championships and is in-line to compete in a rematch with Nick Aldis for the NWA Championship in what’s being heralded as their biggest show to date. There are bigger things waiting for Marty in the coming years, and that’s thanks to his massive evolution into ‘The Villain’.
2. Chris Jericho to Chris Jericho
There’s no one time in Chris Jericho’s career which highlights just how incredible he is at reneweing himself. Chris Jericho’s gimmick list is almost as long as his list of “stupid idiots”, or the list of moves he’s mastered. What is there to say about Jericho that hasn’t been said already? For decades, he’s remained one of the most popular superstars in all of professional wrestling, he continues to wrestle on the top of his game as part of All Elite Wrestling and will likely continue to do so for at least another 5-10 years.
Jericho’s ability to time his transformations is second to none, just as Y2J starts to become slightly stale in the eyes of the audience, he completely switches it up, ensuring he’s the talking point coming away from an episode of RAW, SmackDown, Nitro or Dynamite by any means possible: A list, a scarf, a bottle of bubbly, a Jeri-tron 5000.
Jericho has an uncanny ability of reading crowds and understanding when to run with a meme. This has easily kept him in the conversation of greatest characters of the modern era, making him a viable main-eventer and a hot commodity wherever he ends up. Jericho should honestly start giving promo classes at the PC, because that’s a brain worth picking.
1. Bray Wyatt to The Fiend/Firefly Funhouse
Bray Wyatt has a very specific gift, the genius to produce characters with layers. You can tell that Wyatt was struggling to communicate exactly what he had in mind for his Bray Wyatt character during the many years of him trying his best to stay credible. What began as the cult leader of The Wyatt Family, an modern take on the ‘master manipulator’ archetype popularised by Jake Roberts and ruined by Waylon Mercy, soon turned into ‘The Eater of Worlds’, a more supernatural take on his character fuelled by his affliction for Sister Abigail.
Even though Wyatt was met by some minor success, namely a WWE Championship run heading into WrestleMania 33, it was still a very confusing time for his character. The rinse-and-repeat technique of spooky vignettes and stalking promos quickly lost its grandeur and became a bit of a joke among the WWE Universe. It was time for a shake-up, following his injury after the tag run with Matt Hardy.
Enter ‘The Fiend’ and The Firefly Funhouse.
Quite possibly the greatest character evolution of all time, Wyatt returned with a gimmick that was first responded to with confusion and crickets, a sinister version of Mr. Rogers who would hold a very dark secret. For weeks, Wyatt teased audiences with episodes of his Firefly Funhouse, introducing a range of not-so-lovable puppets that would signify the impending doom of the WWE Universe.
After a while, WWE pulled the trigger on ‘The Fiend’, Wyatt’s alter-ego. A cross between Slipknot front-man Corey Taylor and a B-movie Slasher villain, ‘The Fiend’ terrified audiences and became the talk of the wrestling world. Fans were ready to see what ‘The Fiend’ could do. Wyatt kept those supernatural tendencies but leaned in towards the unpredictability and the unknown.
‘The Fiend’ immediately turned into WWE’s top merch pusher and Universal Champion after a few months. Even though things seemed to have cooled off for Wyatt’s latest incarnation, we’ll forever recognise ‘The Fiend’ as a fantastic gimmick that came about at the exact right time in his career.
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