Perhaps the most recognizable and enjoyable aspect of professional wrestling is the gimmick. Where most of the art is focused on making the audience forget that the action is pre-determined, gimmicks are often designed to exploit the benefits of the fictional side of the sport. Like most devices, gimmicks are not to be over used. Some performers thrive with more realistic personae and serve to pull the story back to reality. That said, a good, ridiculous gimmick can be used to enhance other performers and the show as a whole.
Let’s come up with a fun gimmick. Okay, I got it. The newest wrestler on the TNA roster is a Lifeguard, we will call him Billy Beach. So, Billy is first seen in series of vignettes, he’s saving Brooke Hogan from a Shark(boy) or something. Two weeks later he shows up on IMPACT!, wins his match with a finisher we’ll call “The Whistle Blower.” Now, why do we want a wrestling Lifeguard on our roster?
Having a strong, recognizable occupation or other gimmick allows the audience to have an immediate connection with the wrestler. The crowd may hate that a Lifeguard is in the ring with their favorites, but at least they react. Throw a guy in black trunks and no background into that ring and he better have something real special to get their attention. Another benefit to such a strong persona is its use in comedic segments and on commentary. It is way easier to make jokes about something that the audience is familiar with, than counting on realism. Recognizable traits allow for easy punchlines and parodies.
It is often said that the best gimmicks in professional wrestling are those that are exaggerations of the performer’s actual personality. The real wrestler “turned up to eleven” (how did I get this far without any Spinal Tap references), is perhaps the most common type of persona on pro-wrestling television. Most wrestlers are not trained thespians, so tapping into a better (or worse) version of themself is a logical way to portray a convincing character. Even if we don’t act on our base instincts, we all have a sense of what that would be. It also lends itself to a heel or face turn, as the character will not need as much explanation. It’s still the same character, just with a change of heart. Some performers who utilized this logic to great success are “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, CM Punk and “The Franchise” Shane Douglas. Though this method has an impressive track record, it has also been shown that this initial level of realism is not required for great success.
Let’s look at the case of Mick Foley. Mick comes to prominence as Cactus Jack, a sort of…okay, the gimmick never made much sense, but he was a violent guy with leopard print boots. Regardless, he was not Mick Foley. He moves to ECW where he creates a transitional persona. The crowds in ECW were “smart” to the show, so he begins to inject a little more Mick Foley into the act. Soon, he moves to WWF and is given the character of Mankind. Mankind starts out as sort of a serial killer who doesn’t kill anyone. As the crowds warms to him, he becomes less evil and more crazy. This shift leads to the appearance of Dude Love. In this second gimmick, Foley portrays a tie-dyed cool guy, the guy Mankind wishes he was. Not long after that, Cactus Jack also reappears, now as the “serious” violent guy. As Mankind’s success increases, two things begin to happen. First, the Dude and Cactus characters once again fade into the background, only occasionally showing up to compete. Second and more importantly, Mankind becomes more like Mick Foley. While this era affirmed his Hall of Fame status, this change has a lot more to do with the audience than the performer.
As the audience becomes more familiar with the wrestler, they react to what works the best in their promos, attitudes, etc. The best talkers in the business all posses a natural flow and in turn, their personality, phrasing and sense of humor come out. Basically, the gimmick dilutes naturally and encourages logical evolution. Parts of the gimmick stick, but they are the parts that function best. This is not always a speedy process as the gimmicks may be too useful to evolve right away. A great example of this is WWE’s Daniel Bryan. After struggling to find a strong character, they finally hit with the arrogant YES!/NO! gimmick. Now, with this gimmick, Bryan is easily one of the most popular wrestlers on the roster and is ready to move on, but for right now he won’t. He’s too good for the still growing Tag Division and the top of the roster is well populated. Bryan deserves the chance to evolve and, hopefully, he will get to, in time.
The two scenarios already presented affirm the idea that adaptation is a good thing in a character. Either allow natural reactions to the story or change the character as the crowd moves with them. Both leave the character in a logical state, which is always a help in creating new narratives. This, however, is not always necessary. Some characters are so finely tuned that they never need to change. “Macho Man” Randy Savage is the finest example of this. Through different companies, face and heel turns, Macho was ridiculously consistent. Now, it could be argued that his persona was an extension of his personality and we have no reason to doubt that. What cannot be argued is that this personality was, well, realistic. It is a perfect, unique gimmick.
That leaves the last option, constant change. The Undertaker is one of the most popular professional wrestlers of all time. He also lacks gimmick consistency. Though The Undertaker has had many characters, his expert performance, paired with some great ideas on the creative side, has distorted how different they actually are. Let’s take a look:
#1 Giant Undertaker
#2 Giant Magic Undertaker
#3 Giant Magician
#4 Giant Satanic Priest
#5 Giant Biker
#6 Giant Magic Cowboy
#7 Giant Magic Cowboy MMA Fighter
#8 Giant Magic MMA Fighter with Pointy Coat
That’s probably not even all of them, don’t even get me started on Kane. The point is that The Undertaker is magic. No, that’s not it. The point is that sometimes when things can’t naturally evolve, they can take harsh turns and still work. It’s the beauty of fiction. Yes, professional wrestling requires one foot in reality, but some of its greatest successes are based around the fictional half. In that ring, anything can happen and The Undertaker has stood many times as that “anything.” Wrestlers can portray ideas beyond real human potential. One day a man is a cowboy, the next, he’s a magic cowboy.