In today’s professional wrestling, gimmicks are more of a personality and a nickname. They’re more like extensions of boxing monikers, like “Iron” Mike Tyson. There are still a few, such as The Fiend in WWE and Luchasaurus in AEW, but the WWF/E of the late 1980’s and 1990’s were filled with a plethora of gimmicks, from the mundane to the insane. We thought it would be fun to reminisce over the golden age of cartoonish gimmicks and write a bit about the ones we liked and the ones we didn’t. Let’s see what we can dig up.
Let’s start with the most successful gimmick in wrestling history, The Undertaker. The gimmick evolved over time, but I want to look briefly at the early incarnation of Mark Calaway’s character. He was slow and methodical. He approached the ring slowly, in a duster and a wide brimmed hat with an ascot style tie. He looked like an undertaker from the wild west. As he started to feud with Kamala and Yokozuna, that gimmick was taken to dramatic reaches. He filmed promos literally building wood coffins for his opponents. In the early 90’s, The Undertaker would even put his defeated opponents in body bags. His manager, Paul Bearer (clever!), was an actual mortician before hitting it big as a wrestling manager. One day, he brought in an urn from his inventory surplus and the gimmick grew even more. The urn possessed some sort of mystic power to control The Undertaker and as long as Paul had the urn and held it up, the Undertaker was practically invulnerable. This gimmick was amazing but because of how powerful it made him seem, it was tough to put him in championship runs. But the charm of the character was that he was never really pursuing fame and glory, but retribution. This character was so brilliant, another wrestler (Glenn Jacobs, aka Kane) has and continues to have a huge career based on being the Undertaker’s brother. While his gimmick morphed from a wild west mortician, to Satanic cult leader, to a fighting boxer dude, to an amalgam of all these characters, the original gimmick shined through all of them.
Another successful gimmick we really appreciated from this period was one of the Undertaker’s biggest opponents, Yokozuna. Yokozuna is of Samoan descent from Tampa, Florida. But, you can tell, and I can vouch, that the crowd was 100% convinced Yokozuna was a champion sumo wrestler from Japan, coming to the WWF to try to find real competition. To sell this even further, for the first year or so, Yokozuna would be greeted in the ring by several young young women with flowers. He would also do the traditional sumo ceremonial gestures, and his manager Mr. Fuji would throw salt. The ring would also be surrounded by photographers who were supposedly the Japanese press wanting to see how their champion performs. Yokozuna didn’t even cut his own promos until an In Your House event in 1996 because the story was that he didn’t speak English, therefore he needed Jim Cornette to speak for him. Miraculously, once Yokozuna became a face, he spoke perfect English. Sadly, this gimmick led to his death in 2000. When he was cut by the WWF, he had gone from 540 pounds to well over 700. Both Yoko and the Undertaker lived their gimmicks. The Undertaker, for 30 years, rarely spoke to the outside world, never broke kayfabe, and when he was seen in public, even just getting off the bus at arenas, would be dressed in all black.
We’ve covered some successful gimmicks, but this wouldn’t be any fun if we didn’t review some of the less favorable gimmicks. The WWF featured these gimmicks as a way to make their product both outrageous and relatable. From the late 80’s into the mid 90’s the WWF featured:
- A repo man
- A matador
- A model
- A barber
- An IRS agent and accountant
- A “real” millionaire
- A garbage man
- A prison guard
- A Canadian Mounted Police officer
- Two hog farmers
- An escaped convict
- A viking
- A circus clown
- A pirate
- A hockey player
- A dentist
- A Franciscan friar
- A truck driver
- Someone doing a Tony Montana impersonation
- A country music star (twice, one was cool, the other is an asshole)
- A roadie
- A jive talkin’ “African” (who was actually a white dude from South Carolina)
- A race car driver
- A wealthy New Englander
- A Thanksgiving turkey
Many of these were short lived, but some stuck around for a long time and became fan favorites. The Tony Montana impersonator, Razor Ramon, has some amazing matches and, when he took off for WCW in 1996, maintained a similar vocal effect (“meng”) to make the fans think he was Razor Ramon from the WWF invading. The dentist, Isaac Yankem, didn’t stay a dentist for long. He feuded with Bret Hart on behalf of Jerry Lawler, then came back as a substitute for the trucker Diesel. When fans saw right through it, he debuted as Kane, the Undertaker’s brother. The country music star, Jeff Jarrett, I’m pretty sure was meant as a jab at the stylin’ and profilin’ of Ric Flair. Too bad Double J is an a-hole and not half the wrestler Flair is.
The hog farmers Phineas I. and Henry O. Godwinn (Pig and Hog….get it?) had marginal success. Obviously, they were initially managed by Hillbilly Jim. They had a pretty good tag team run and Henry had some big rivalries, especially against a blue blooded Hunter Hearst Helmsley.
The most successful fighter on that list is the trucker, Diesel. He held the heavyweight title for 358 days. It’s the longest title reign in the 1990’s.
It’s probably safe to say that the worst was the Thanksgiving turkey, the Gobbledy Gooker. For weeks, the WWF hyped that a giant egg had turned up on the scene until it finally hatched at Survivor Series. There was speculation that it would be some new wrestler. The Undertaker, before he knew he was going to be the Undertaker was very concerned it was going to be him coming out of the egg. If only we had been so lucky.
My favorite out of that list was Doink the Clown. Portrayed by four different wrestlers, he had amazing feuds with Bam Bam Bigelow, Jerry Lawler, and Crush. He constantly pulled pranks and also had some crazy moves that you didn’t really see other wrestlers doing. Another fun aspect of his character is he fluctuated between being face and heel without changing antics. It all depended on who he was messing with.
With The Undertaker hanging up his duster for the last time in 2020, it’s finally the end of the gimmick era. While we laugh and think it’s unbelievable that the crowd really bought into this, it was the backbone of the WWF and carried them into the Attitude Era and beyond into the giant they are today.
Let us know what your favorite gimmick was or share any comments with us! We love to hear them.