Professional wrestling isn’t real, and you’re unlikely to see an American dream team of professionals competing in Olympic wrestling events.
Still, the theatrics of the professional wrestling world still draws in millions of fans every year for generations. Like video gaming, there are lessons that can be learned from professional wrestling.
These 10 wrestlers had to keep reinventing themselves in order to obtain and retain relevancy in professional wrestling. As a result, most of them reached the top of the sport and outlasted many of their peers.
10. Mick Foley
Mick Foley was one of the first professional wrestlers allowed to break the fourth wall and actually embrace his many wrestling personas.
After stints in WCW, ECW, and various smaller wrestling promotions in the U.S. and Japan as Cactus Jack, he was rebranded into Mankind upon joining the WWF.
Cactus Jack was a hardcore wrestler known for enjoying pain, often putting his body at risk in extreme situations involving barbed wire, bats, explosions, fire, and death-defying leaps onto concrete.
Mankind became an even more insane extension on the character. Though WWF’s more family-friendly brand didn’t allow for him to take as many risks, he still managed to get involved in a variety of painful feuds, even becoming the first hardcore champion in any wrestling promotion.
It wasn’t long before childhood videos of Foley appeared, and he introduced another character, Dude Love, the third of what became known as the Three Faces of Foley.
Dude Love was a hippie persona Foley dreamed up as a kid and Foley switched back and forth between all three personas and his real name for the remainder of his time competing in the WWF.
After the WWF became the WWE in 2002, Foley made occasional returns to the brand, most often as himself, though in 2005, fans were even given an opportunity to vote online as to which persona he’d show up as in the ring.
The fans voted for Mankind.
Foley then wrestled as himself throughout the independent circuit, including RoH and TNA.
These days, Foley is widely recognized by wrestling fans as himself, and he even showed up on Wrestlemania 32 along with Shaun Michaels (real name Michael Higgenbottom) and Steve Austin (real name Steve Williams).
9. Glenn Jacobs
These days pretty much every wrestling fan knows Glenn Thomas Jacobs as Kane. It’s even his stage name in Hollywood.
Before he became the demon-spawned half brother of The Undertaker, however, Jacobs had a lot of gimmicks, many of them considered among the worst in professional wrestling.
In the indie circuit from 1992-1995, he had a variety of names, including Angus King, Doomsday, the Unabomb, and The Christmas Creature (the ugly green monster wrapped in garland with the candy-cane-striped arms in the bottom left of the picture above).
He entered the WWF in 1995 as Mike Unabomb, but soon found himself portraying Isaac Yankem, DDS, Jerry Lawler’s private dentist, hired to help rid the company of Bret Hart.
After Kevin Nash and Scott Hall jumped ship to WCW in 1996, Jacobs was rebranded as the new Diesel, Kevin Nash’s former gimmick.
Then in October 1997, Jacobs was again reintroduced as Kane, the long-lost half brother of The Undertaker and son of Paul Bearer.
One would’ve thought this, too, would be a temporary gimmick, but it’s stuck for nearly 20 years now, although the character has evolved over time.
In 2002, the mask was reduced and in 2003, it was completely removed before returning in 2011.
In 2013, an unmasked Kane bore a suit and became a part of Stephanie McMahon’s faction, The Authority. In 2015, both “Corporate” and “Demon” Kane became the norm, and fans embraced the dual-personality wielded by Jacobs.
When Scott Hall started out in the mid-80s, the world of professional wrestling was much different than it is today.
During his original stint with the NWA from 1984-85, Hall wrestled as Starship Coyote (the mustachioed man on the right in the above pic) as part of the tag team American Starship.
He then moved around the indie circuit and performed as a jobber for a while under his own name, though with different nicknames in front, like “Magnum” and “Big” Scott Hall.
Then, in 1991, he joined WCW (which was formerly part of NWA) and was given the gimmick of The Diamond Studd, a ladies man managed by Diamond Dallas Page.
In 1992, Hall joined the WWF and was rebranded as Razor Ramon, a Miami Cuban character modeled after Tony Montana in Scarface. Ramon oozed machismo and was known for his laid back Hispanic style, despite clearly not being of Latino descent.
Despite his popularity, Razor Ramon is a throwback to a (even more) racist time in wrestling in which minorities were often played by Caucasians.
Luckily in 1996, at the height of his gimmick’s popularity, Hall abandoned it to join the WCW and form the NWO at the height of the Monday night television wars between WCW and WWF.
Although he retained much of his Razor Ramon and Diamond Studd attitude, Hall only ever had to wrestle as himself from that point on, whether in the indie circuit, TNA, or his brief return to WWE, with the exception of occasional matches as Ramon.
7. Rodney Anoa’i
Rodney Anoa’i is part of a large (in many ways) family of Samoan wrestlers. His uncles were The Wild Samoans, Afa and Sika, and he’s also related to Rikishi, Roman Reigns, Umaga, Dwayne Johnson, The Headshrinkers, and more.
When he started out, Anoa’i was part of The Wild Samoan stable, using variations of the name Kokina, such as Great Kokina and Kokina Maximus. This continued from 1985 through 1992 when he signed to the WWF.
Although he originally transferred to the promotion with Eddie Fatu (Rikishi), Samula Anoa’i, and Samu’s father Afa, Vince McMahon had a different path in mind for Rodney.
When Rodney Anoa’i debuted on WWF television in late 1992, he was known as Yokozuna, a sumo-style wrestler made to look very much Japanese, despite being neither Japanese nor a sumo wrestler.
He was billed as being Polynesian, but everything from his manager, Mr. Fuji (Japanese-American Harry Fuiwara) to his entrance music, actions, and style were all heavily influenced by Japanese culture.
Much like his cousin Leati Anoa’i (Reigns), Yokozuna was given a huge early push by McMahon, being quickly catapulted to champion status, defeating both Bret Hart and Hulk Hogan on separate occasions for the WWF Heavyweight Championship.
Unlike his Reigns, however, fans grew fonder of Yokozuna over time. The heel eventually became a face, and many wrestling analysts today are practically begging McMahon to shut Reigns up and assign him a mouthpiece like his cousin Rodney had.
After leaving the WWF in 1996, Anoa’i continued wrestling under the Yokozuna gimmick throughout the independent circuit until his death on October 23, 2000, at the age of 34.
6. Windham Rotunda
Another man from a multi-generational wrestling family, Windham Rotunda is the son of Mike Rotunda (Irwin R Schyster/Michael Wallstreet), Grandson of Blackjack Mulligan, and nephew of Barry and Kendall Windham.
Starting off in FCW under the name Alex Rotundo in 2009, he soon changed his name to Duke while teaming with his real-life brother Taylor, who wrestled under the name Bo.
This Dukes of Hazard gimmick lasted until the WWE’s NXT competition, when Rotunda was rebranded as Husky Harris in 2010 and competed in the WWE as part of Nexus until 2011.
He then briefly donned a mask and competed as Axel Mulligan off-camera, while continuing to use the Husky Harris gimmick until 2012, when he debuted the Bray Wyatt persona as WWE rebranded FCW to NXT.
Growing a beard and adopting a look similar to failed WWF gimmick Waylon Mercy (portrayed by Scott Hall’s former Starship partner Dan Spivey), Wyatt is an evil cult leader that became an enigmatic figure in the WWE, with his Wyatt Family often involving themselves in attacks on major superstars’ matches.
In an era where many wrestlers struggle to differentiate themselves from the crowd, Rotunda’s Bray Wyatt character serves as a throwback to a forgotten era of wrestling, serving as a catalyst for a lot of crazy brawls and spawning the return of both Kane and The Undertaker in their demon forms.
Though he’s now known as Triple H, The Game, and one of the best in the business after marrying the boss’s daughter Stephanie McMahon and becoming a Vice President in the company, Paul Levesque took a long road to get there.
He started out in 1992 as Terra Ryzing in the IWF. Then he joined WCW in 1994 alternating between Terra Risin and Terror Rising. This gimmick was essentially just a Hollywood Blonde-style villain similar to Stunning Steve Austin and rather generic.
Midway through 1994, he was rebranded as a French aristocrat (though he doesn’t speak French and only employed a fake French accent) named Jean-Paul Levesque, who teamed with British aristocrat Lord Steven Regal.
In 1995, Levesque kept the aristocratic villain persona and joined the WWF as Hunter Hearst Helmsley, this time billed as hailing from Connecticut.
As Helmsley, Levesque personified everything we hate about the One Percent, arrogantly offering etiquette lessons to both wrestlers and fans.
However, Levesque was a member of the infamous backstage group known as The Kliq, which included Shawn Michaels, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, and Sean Waltman. Soon he partnered with Michaels, Chyna, and helped kick off the attitude era with Degeneration X in 1997.
As part of DX, Levesque dropped all the etiquette and joined Michaels, Joan Laurer (Chyna), and Rick Rood (Rick Rude) in shooting increasingly lewd and inappropriate promos. Shortening his name to Triple H, Levesque became a party animal until Chyna turned on him and joined The Corporation in 1999.
Soon Triple H also turned on DX and joined The Corporation as well, dubbing himself The Game, as Jim Ross referred to him as The Cerebral Assassin.
Levesque kept the same basic persona from this point out, while switching back and forth between corporate stooge heel and rebellious face.
Having control over much of the talent and creative decisions with his wife, Levesque has spent the better part of the last two decades on top of the WWE both on-screen and backstage.
4. Dustin Runnels
Dustin Runnels’ father Virgil Runnels Jr. was known throughout the wrestling world as Dusty Rhodes, and he wanted to separate himself from his father’s shadow, so he did so by using his real name originally when wrestling in in the independent circuit and WCW from 1988-1990.
From 1990 to 1991, he started embracing his father’s wrestling legacy and joined the WWF as Dustin Rhodes, even teaming with his father before heading back to WCW.
From 1991-1995, he wrestled in WCW as The Natural Dustin Rhodes and was clearly attempting to use his father’s spotlight to catapult himself to stardom, with limited success.
Then in 1995, Runnels finally struck gold with one of the most bizarre gimmicks to ever succeed in wrestling – the sexually ambiguous Goldust.
As Goldust, Runnels painted his face gold, wore a gold wig, and donned a full-body gold suit, playing a creepy Academy Award come-to-life. He soon became one of the most popular WWF superstars until he departed the company in 1999 to join the WCW.
Toward the end of his initial WWF stint, he followed Prince’s lead and became The Artist Formerly Known as Goldust. During this period, he teamed with Luna Vachon in a variety of outlandish costumes.
Initially, Runnels was slated to join the WCW as the creepy, white-face-painted character Seven in the top left corner of the pic above, but the character was dropped almost immediately. During his first interview with WCW, Runnels trash-talked his Goldust gimmick, the Seven gimmick, and wrestling gimmicks in general before rebranding himself “The American Nightmare” and turning heel.
However, when WWE bought WCW in 2001, Runnels returned to the promotion as Goldust until 2003.
From 2003-2008, Runnels wrestled in the independent circuit mostly under his real name, though occasionally wrestling as Dusty Rhodes Jr. and variations of the Goldust name, such as Gold Dustin. He also briefly returned to WWE during this time as Goldust.
In 2007, he joined TNA as Dustin Rhodes and quickly discussed a split personality before debuting a second character named Black Reign.
He played both characters until his return to the WWE/ECW/NXT in 2009, once again as Goldust.
In 2013, Runnels teamed with his half-brother Cody Runnels, who was experiencing similar issues making a name for himself as Cody Rhodes until transforming himself into Stardust, an even weirder version of Goldust.
Faces of Charles Wright
3. Charles Wright
When he started out on the independent circuit in 1989, Charles Wright went by the name The Soultaker, a large, mohawked brawler before joining the WWF in 1991 as Sir Charles.
Then in 1992, Wright was rebranded as Papa Shango, a voodoo practitioner who would cast voodoo spells on his opponents while carrying a smokey skull to the ring and controlling the arena’s lights.
As Papa Shango, Wright was generally hated by fans, as he would use magic to make opponents vomit or bleed black blood from their skulls instead of doing much actual wrestling. Still, he retained the gimmick in the independent circuit for a year following his departure from the WWF in 1993.
In 1994, he returned to the WWF as Kama, The Supreme Fighting Machine. This gimmick was inspired by the rising popularity of the UFC, a mixed-martial arts league featuring real fights.
In 1997, the WWF filled with gangs, and Wright joined the Nation of Domination as Kama Mustafa, a Nation of Islam-inspired character.
By 1998, Wright split from the Nation and became his most popular character to date – The Godfather. As The Godfather, he became a pimp who came to the ring surrounded by a group of women he dubbed his ho train. He would often offer to pimp his hoes to hist opponents.
The Godfather was Owen Hart’s (as the Blue Blazer) scheduled opponent at Over the Edge in 1999 when Hart fell to his death during his entrance at the live pay-per-view.
Soon, the WWE expanded to UPN, and the Parents Television Council began criticizing much of the content, including Wright’s constant usage of hoes in his segments.
In 2001, Wright dropped The Godfather moniker and pimp act to instead don a collared shirt and tie to join the Right to Censor, a conservative group of wrestlers. He then became The Goodfather until 2002, when he briefly returned to The Godfather pimp gimmick and brought back the ho train.
From that point on, he only appeared on TV part-time, but stuck with The Godfather gimmick, occasionally even reviving Papa Shango.
2. Bob Backlund
Bob Backlund’s appearance didn’t change like everyone else’s on this list. He never changed his name either. Instead, he’s on this list for the intense personality change he infused into his gimmick.
From 1973-1983, Backlund was the classic American face wrestler, embodying the type of technical skill necessary at the time to be considered a champion.
He was a hero who didn’t rely on gimmicks, instead battling gimmicky wrestlers and easily showing them up…that is until new CEO Vince McMahon decided to rest the WWF’s future on the more charismatic star: Terry Bollea (Hulk Hogan).
Backlund was criticized by wrestling analysts for being too clean cut and was ended up losing the WWF Heavyweight Championship to Hossein Vaziri, who was billed as the villainous Iron Sheik after his manager Arnold Skaaland threw in the towel. This setup Hogan’s win against the Sheik and a new era in professional wrestling.
In 1992, Backlund returned to the WWF for its transition from the Rock n Wrestling Connection Era to the Attitude Era. He remained on the mid-card until 1994, when he finally snapped.
Backlund began referring to himself as Mr. Backlund and turned what was once a boring lack of a gimmick into a gimmick in and of itself. He criticized everything about professional wrestling and maintained that he never lost his championship.
The nice-guy persona would gradually descend into madness, calm and normal one minute, and then suddenly snapping and holding opponents in his signature cross-faced chicken wing submission hold for long periods of time. When officials would finally pull him off, he would stare at his hands as though he couldn’t believe what he just did.
This new iteration of Backlund was like the most conservative and unyielding parent you can imagine, refusing to sign autographs for fans unless they could name all the US Presidents in chronological order.
By the end of 1994, Backlund regained the WWF Heavyweight Championship before dropping it 3 days later to Kevin Nash as Diesel in the shortest WWF title match in history.
Backlund continues this persona even today, often showing up randomly to either lecture fans, canvass for votes, or snap and torture random wrestlers and staff.
1. Mark Calaway
When Mark Calaway debuted in WCCW in 1984, he was known as Texas Red a no-nonsense ginger who dominated opponents with his sheer size.
In 1989 he debuted a new gimmick – The Master of Pain, a recently released inmate who spent five years in prison for killing two men in a fight. He also donned a mask and used the name The Punisher before joining the WCW as Mean Mark Callous.
The same year, he wrestled in Japan under the name Punisher Dice Morgan, which is the black-and-white photo above.
Each iteration had similarities in that he was portrayed as a no-nonsense and dark character. It wasn’t until he arrived in the WWF in 1990 that he finally found the name he’s known as today – The Undertaker.
Even as The Undertaker, though, Calaway has gone through several iterations, initially being billed as Kane the Undertaker and dressed as a mortician with Bruce Pritchard (Brother Love) as his manager.
Soon he dropped the Kane name and picked up William Moody (Paul Bearer) as his manager.
In 1994, Ted DiBiase briefly introduced a new Undertaker (Brian Lee), who became known as The Underfaker. When Calaway returned, the gray accents of his costume were replaced with purple, and his entrance theme had been remixed.
During this timeframe, Calaway started a locker room clique known as the Bone Street Krew, even tattooing BSK Pride on his stomach. The clique included Charles Wright, Rodney Anoa’i, Solofa Fatu Jr., Dennis Knight, Mark Canterbury, and Juan Rivera.
In 1997, The Undertaker went all black and in 1999, he began donning hoods and becoming a dark priest. Calaway would come to the ring with a group of hooded druids, known as The Ministry of Darkness, which came to include The Brood (a vampiric group), The Acolytes, Knight (Mideon), and Nelson Frazier, Jr. (Viscera).
By 2000, Calaway turned biker and transformed The Undertaker into a biker in what’s known as the American Bad Ass era. He would ride a motorcycle to the ring to Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock and sported typical biker gear.
In 2001, he cut his traditionally long hair short and began referring to himself as Big Evil.
From 2004-2011, Calaway returned to the demonic Undertaker persona (complete with long hair), though a modified version who now wore MMA gloves.
Calaway returned to the short haircut in 2011, though he still retains much of his deadman persona.
Thanks to The Undertaker persona, Mark Calaway is one of the most popular, most successful, most respected, and most recognized characters in the history of professional wrestling.
Brian Penny is a former Business Analyst and Operations Manager at Bank of America turned whistleblower, troll, and freelance writer. His work appears in High Times, Huffington Post, Fast Company, The Street, and Hardcore Droid.