Part of the appeal of wrestling has always been the outlandish characters it has to offer. Men playing ridiculous, over the top versions of themselves, or characters so bizarre you wonder how they were dreamt up in the first place. Well, that used to be part of the appeal. In recent years wrestling companies seem to have moved away from this approach in favour of having everyone work under a realistic (or something approaching realistic) ring name, talking and acting in the same way.
The importance of the gimmick seems to have been lost.
All three of North America’s most notable promotions have contributed to this. Ring of Honor has always taken a more “real sports” approach to its product than its competitors and wants its talent to be known primarily for their in-ring ability. That’s fine, but a lack of more light-hearted characters can often make their product a little overly serious. TNA is such a mess that any good character ideas they do have, such as D’Angelo Dinero, Eric Young, Robbie E, Mexican America, and Austin Aries, are not served well by the promotion’s haphazard approach to booking.
WWE is by far the worst offender. I say this primarily because of the company’s history. WWE has the greatest collection of characters and gimmicks in the history of professional wrestling. Not only have there been believable main event level names such as Hulk Hogan, The Rock, Randy Savage, ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels and Triple H all working with clearly defined, unique characters, but there have also been memorable mid-match gimmick performers such as Doink the Clown, the Godfather, Hillbilly Jim, Kai En Tai, Goldust and, everybody’s favourite, the Gobbledy Gooker.
The importance of those gimmick performers should not be downplayed. Sometimes wrestling needs to be utterly ridiculous. It is supposed to be escapist entertainment after all. Audiences need the opportunity to revel in the absurdity of a man wrestling as a clown in order to appreciate the efforts of more serious performers higher up the card.
ECW booker Paul Heyman understood the need for gimmicks better than anyone. Every performer who worked for the promotion had a unique character to portray and something different to do. Taz is a great example. He was a guy who could execute amazing suplexes and had a nasty demeanour to him. Heyman built a character around those attributes by billing Taz as ‘The Human Suplex Machine’, booking him to choke people out with the Tazmission (allegedly an illegal Judo hold legal in wrestling), and instructing commentator Joey Styles call all of his suplexes “Tazplexes”.
At the comedy end of the scale there was JT Smith. He was an African American wrestler who tripped and hit his head during a match, causing severe swelling. Heyman turned the trip into a storyline in which Smith would botch a move in every one of his matches. He also had Smith talk in a stereotypical Italian accent, the idea being that the bump to the head had made him think he was Italian. Not only was it an amusing gimmick (which was the point, I should add) but it flourished into one of ECW’s most memorable acts: the Full Blooded Italians.
WWE now owns the complete ECW library, as well as the AWA and WCW. They have access to hundreds of gimmicks that could be updated for modern audiences, or inspire the current writing team to create fresh characters. Not everyone on a wrestling roster needs to be a realistic, relatable character. There’s room for Doinks, JT Smiths and Godfathers too.
It’s not all bad. WWE did good work repackaging Brodus Clay as ‘The Funkasaurus’ on RAW and SmackDown this week. Clay deserves the credit for pulling it off and likely playing a hand in devising the character, but WWE deserves acknowledgement for trying something different to their current approach. It was a step in the right direction.
It’s also worth pointing out that one of WWE’s most successful characters ever started out as a heavily gimmicked performer. If Vince McMahon hadn’t come up with the idea of a zombie who no-sells whatever is thrown at him we wouldn’t have the Undertaker, which would mean we wouldn’t have the Streak, or Kane (some may argue that’s a good thing I know), or, arguably, the Hell in a Cell match. Surely that’s worth bearing in mind before writing gimmicks off forever?