Illustration by Nick Wanserski

One of the longest standing traditions in pro wrestling is the gimmick. The term itself is practically meaningless—a multipurpose piece of industry lingo that’s primarily used in place of the word “character”—yet a gimmick often determines a performer’s fate. A compelling gimmick can be enough to keep a mediocre wrestler afloat, but a limp idea can drag down even a great wrestler. In this Inventory, we salute wrestlers who fought their way to success or acclaim but, at one point in their career, had the misfortune of inhabiting a truly terrible persona.

1. Isaac Yankem, a.k.a. Kane

It’s no coincidence that the 1995 debut of psychotic dentist Isaac Yankem dovetailed with one of the worst creative and financial periods in WWE history. By this point, audiences had soured on a roster that leaned far too heavily on occupational gimmicks that, aside from one exception, failed to generate any personalities worth cheering (or booing). As Yankem, monstrous grappler Glenn Jacobs grinned through green grimy teeth and absent-mindedly twirled periodontal probes, but he never gained enough momentum to justify his feud with perennial fan-favorite Bret “The Hitman” Hart. “Frankly, it was a disaster,” Jacobs said of his run as Yankem, which wasn’t the only dud character he played in his career. During his tenure in Smoky Mountain Wrestling, he wrestled as a sentient Christmas tree and the Unabomber. Post-Yankem, as part of one of the most baffling bookings in WWE history, Jacobs took over the role of Diesel from a departing Kevin Nash for reasons left purposely obtuse. The turn had no precedent in WWE history and audiences responded with cries of “Fake! Fake! Fake!” The following year his perseverance was rewarded when he debuted as Kane, a masked demon from hell with an origin story out of Greek tragedy. Awesome as it was, Jacobs was probably just happy to never have to make a bad cavity pun again. [Randall Colburn]

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2. The Stalker, a.k.a. Barry Windham

In 1996, footage of a deranged camo-clad hunter obsessed with “pursuing” the WWE’s stars started popping up on Monday Night Raw. Known as The Stalker, he would sit around in the woods sputtering on about prey and predators and how no one can see him coming—apparently failing to realize that a wardrobe of colorful camo pants won’t do a lick of good in the middle of a wrestling ring. The man forced into those awful pants and laughable promo videos was Barry Windham, a gifted wrestler and one of the pillars of National Wrestling Alliance in the late ’80s—the WWE’s no-nonsense Southern cousin—and into the ’90s after its transition into World Championship Wrestling. Today, Windham may not be as famous as some of his legendary contemporaries, but in his prime, he was a naturally talented workhorse who climbed the NWA ranks and was at the center of one of the most shocking betrayals in wrestling history when he turned on his tag team partner to take a prestigious spot among The Four Horsemen, Ric Flair’s famous brood of snobby bullies. After splitting from the Horsemen and capturing the NWA World Heavyweight Championship—the company’s biggest prize—Windham would lose the belt to Flair, injure his knees, and all but disappear from wrestling for the next three years until reemerging in the WWE as that man-hunting lunatic who, after making his TV debut, never even stalked anyone. [Matt Gerardi]

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3. Steven Regal “A Real Man’s Man,” a.k.a. William Regal

Few wrestlers have earned their stripes like Darren Kenneth Matthews, the English grappler best known by the surname Regal. He wrestled for peanuts at seedy carnivals, bars, and shipping docks as a teenager, so WWE’s decision to book him as Steven Regal “A Real Man’s Man” in 1998 wasn’t completely unfounded. Rather than emphasizing his roughhouse youth, however, he became a Brawny Man-like lumberjack whose promo videos showed him chopping wood, shaving with a straight razor, and squeezing his own orange juice. Though Matthews’ personal struggles with painkillers, sleeping pills, and booze cut the “Man’s Man” gimmick short, he returned sober a year later and returned to the character that had defined him for years in WCW: William Regal, an uppity British aristocrat with a mean streak. He’s upheld both the gimmick and his sobriety (well, mostly) throughout the years, proving that one’s career rehabilitation can take multiple forms. [Randall Colburn]

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4. Thurman “Sparky” Plugg, a.k.a. Hardcore Holly

Bob Holly was a company man, remaining loyal to the WWE despite the company routinely wasting his talents. After years of losing to the company’s bigger stars, Holly debuted in 1994 as Thurman “Sparky” Plugg, a mullet-wearing racecar driver in neon, chessboard-patterned spandex. Holly was apparently a real-life racer, but you’d never guess it from his comically halfhearted debut vignette (“Boy, I’m ready to go racing, I’m ready to do it.”) or the fact that “Sparky” is hilariously misspelled on his signature race car. Curiously, WWE eventually rebranded “Thurman Plugg” as Bob “Spark Plugg” Holly, but it wasn’t until the rise of WWE’s PG-13 leaning Attitude Era in the late ’90s that Holly found his niche. Under his own name, he dabbled in a bit of lighthearted meta-theater as a member of Al Snow’s J.O.B. Squad, but as Hardcore Holly, the wrestler finally embraced his grumpy, no-nonsense real-life persona to help pioneer the newly minted “hardcore” division with the kind of brutal ring work that, more often than not, led to bloodshed. Some wrestlers, it just goes to show, were simply meant to play themselves. [Randall Colburn]

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5. American Badass Undertaker, a.k.a. The Undertaker

On the other hand, sometimes wrestlers might be better served sticking to their outlandish personas. By all accounts, American Badass Undertaker is the closest thing to Mark Calaway, the man behind The Undertaker, the legendary mystical zombie mortician who just recently celebrated 25 years of fake fighting for a living in the WWE. After a hiatus in 1999, the once untouchable phenom returned as “The American Badass,” now with added humanity and an appreciation for both respect in the locker room (a reflection of Calaway’s status as a locker-room leader behind the scenes) and Harley-Davidson motorcycles. The gimmick actually made a lot of sense… except that The Undertaker character already existed and was, and still is, a huge hit. Taker went from summoning lightning and cult members to demanding all of the whipper-snappers in the company get off of his lawn—“This is my yard” was the actual catchphrase. And in an especially embarrassing choice, given the passage of time, American Badass Undertaker had entrance themes from both Limp Bizkit (“Rollin’”) and Kid Rock (“American Badass,” obviously). Undertaker would not return to full-on Deadman territory until 2004, and this particular incarnation was never to be mentioned again. In a strange twist of fate, American Badass Undertaker is somewhat beloved by fans of the time, but according to a former WWE writer, Vince McMahon hated it, as it ruined the “mystique” of The Undertaker. It’s the rare occasion where the boss wasn’t the one pushing for such a regrettable onscreen persona. [LaToya Ferguson]

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6. “Sugar” Shane Helms of 3 Count, a.k.a. Gregory Helms

A lot of great and terrible things came out of the protracted death spasms of World Championship Wrestling. It was only in this environment that 3 Count could exist. In the embers of a fading federation, and with ’N Sync propped high on the throne of pop culture, why not put a wrestling boy band into the tag team mix? It was a bad idea—the wrestlers involved couldn’t sing or dance—and when MMA man-beast Tank Abbott was added to the mix as a superfan, it also became a surreal idea. Yet it was hard to know how to feel about 3 Count, because the wrestlers involved were such solid in-ring talents. The best of them was “Sugar” Shane Helms, a charismatic cruiserweight who could stand on his own in any style of match. He would later prove this in the WWE, where, as deluded superhero The Hurricane, he took another potentially disastrous gimmick and made it into one of the most popular acts of the 2000s. [Joe Keiser]

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7. The Shockmaster, a.k.a. Tugboat, a.k.a. Typhoon

The Shockmaster’s debut is to professional wrestling what The Room is to film: a singular, baffling happening that perseveres by virtue of its perfect storm of awfulness. Played by veteran wrestler Fred Ottman, The Shockmaster was conceived as a plus-sized wrecking machine who would debut by bursting through a wall of sheetrock at WCW’s Clash Of The Champions XXIV in 1993. Instead, Ottman tripped on a 2x4 while plowing through the wall, crashing to the floor and scrambling to retrieve his wayward mask. Making the spectacle that much more unreal were the rinky-dink pyrotechnics that prefaced the fall and the Shockmaster’s bargain-bin outfit: a wooly vest, jeans, and a Star Wars stormtrooper helmet covered in glitter. Everyone onstage reacts differently—Booker T is baffled; Ric Flair gasps; and Sid Vicious devolves into an apoplectic rage, as if to compensate for the buffoonery—as Ottman tries to salvage whatever menace might still linger with a few taunting gestures. Funny as it is, there’s a touch of tragedy to it all: After years of hamming it up in the WWE as Tugboat (a wrestling sailor) and Typhoon (a wrestling typhoon), the Shockmaster initially seemed destined for WCW main events. Instead, the character’s clumsiness became its defining quality, thus damning the Shockmaster to the fate of a wrestling comedy character. “I’ve never said no to a gimmick,” Ottman told WWE.com in an oral history of the Shockmaster incident. Unfortunately, that willingness is what led to his downfall. [Randall Colburn]

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8. “Adorable” Adrian Adonis, a.k.a. Adrian Adonis

Prior to 1985, Adrian Adonis dressed like a biker in the ring and played up his tough-guy persona, right alongside his then tag team partner Jesse Ventura. But his best acting—and the high point of his fame—came as “Adorable” Adrian Adonis, when he decided to get in touch with his feminine side. But wearing makeup and pink tights and spraying perfume at opponents wasn’t enough—Adonis also hosted his own Piper’s Pit-styled chat show called The Flower Shop. At one point, he stopped dancing around his shtick and just flat-out said, “I’m gay.” (In real life, he wasn’t; it’s hard to imagine this shtick flying today no matter how you slice it.) But in spite of the ridiculousness and offensiveness of it all, Adonis was a solid heel, though the reign didn’t last long. After leaving the WWE, he was killed in a car accident. [Josh Modell]

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9. The Gobbledy Gooker, a.k.a. HĂ©ctor Guerrero

Since the WWE’s Survivor Series show always takes place around Thanksgiving, the idea of a giant turkey hatching from an egg doesn’t seem completely out of left field. If only the costume had been a little (okay, a lot) cooler. Sadly, when the Gobbledy Gooker came into this world on November 22, 1990 to the immediate boos of the audience, his birdlike nature wasn’t accomplished through makeup, an elaborate mask, or prosthetics. Instead, viewers got Héctor Guerrero, brother of the legendary Eddie and Chavo Guerrero Sr., wearing what looked like a chewed-up dog toy for a head and a coat of feathers seemingly made from a shredded poncho. Even as “Mean” Gene Okerlund gamely interviewed the Gooker and do-si-doed with him to “Turkey In The Straw,” the crowd continued to boo. The WWE knew it was a dud, too, quietly retiring the Gobbledy Gooker except for a one-off, self-parodying cameo in WrestleMania X-Seven’s “Gimmick Battle Royal.” It wasn’t the first time Guerrero had portrayed such an unintentionally comedic character either. National Wrestling Alliance fans may remember him as Lazer-Tron, whose costume was based entirely around the then-popular Lazer Tag home game. Guerrero has wisely steered clear of such lame gimmicks since Gooker’s cameo in 2001, making more respectable career moves such as writing an autobiography, serving as a color commentator for Total Nonstop Action wrestling, and starting his own consulting company for professional wrestlers. [Dan Caffrey]

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10. Oz, a.k.a. Kevin Nash

It took a string of short-lived, gimmicky alter egos for WCW and WWE to realize that Kevin Nash worked best when he just played Kevin Nash. And while his tenure as the mohawked Master Blaster Steel and the sleazy gangster Vinnie Vegas were both embarrassing, 1991’s Oz was downright cringe-worthy in its theatricality. Based on The Wizard Of Oz, he would enter the arena from a castle backdrop straight out of a high-school play, bathed in green light and sporting a turban, starred robe, and the rubberized face of a bearded old man. Fortunately, Nash would discard the entire getup once he got to the ring to reveal the more captivating star underneath: himself. What’s even more depressing is that the whole Oz gimmick came from WCW owner Ted Turner, who had recently acquired the rights to the 1939 film. He apparently thought this would increase interest whenever the movie aired on TCM, as if The Wizard Of Oz needed more fame. It didn’t take long for Turner to realize that the worlds of musical theater and wrestling usually don’t mix. Oz was discontinued less than a year later, and Nash would go on to superstardom as Diesel in WWE and later, under his given name, as part of the revolutionary NWO invasion of WCW and dabbling in film as Tarzan in Magic Mike. [Dan Caffrey]

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11. Nicky, a.k.a. Dolph Ziggler

One of the main points of criticism against the modern WWE is how much it refuses or fails to make legitimate superstars (and not just branded “Superstars,” as it insists on calling its wrestlers) out of its younger talent, instead focusing on past performers and having them look good at the expense of newer faces. Case in point: the dead-on-arrival team known as The Spirit Squad. The basic idea was for them to be an athletic yet sinister team that, in Vince McMahon’s eyes, would be hated because they were male cheerleaders in the testosterone-laden world of professional wrestling. (It was the same logic that said fans would despise someone who didn’t drink or was a vegan.) Eventually, Shawn Michaels and Triple H reunited under the D-Generation X banner—a cornerstone of the WWE’s late ’90s Attitude era that had been disbanded for six years at this point—and turned the Squad into their personal whipping boys. The Spirit Squad’s run ended with DX putting them in a box and shipping them off to Ohio Valley Wrestling, WWE’s developmental league at the time, a particularly embarrassing fate for performers who’d already made it to the main television roster. By 2008, every member of the team was released from their contracts except for one, Nicky, who re-debuted in September of that year as Dolph Ziggler, a still-active and popular wrestler who’d go on to hold nearly every championship the company has to offer. But before he became Dolph Ziggler, he had a short stint as the caddy for another terrible gimmick: Kerwin White. [LaToya Ferguson]

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12. Kerwin White, a.k.a. Chavo Guerrero Jr.

Professional wrestling also has a well known reputation for racism and highlighting stereotypes of its wrestlers of color. But there’s something about having a member of a prestigious Mexican wrestling family transform into the ultimate WASP that comes across as bizarre and misguided in a way that a Latino tag team riding lawn mowers to the ring just doesn’t. That was the case with Chavo Guerrero Jr.’s short-lived Kerwin White gimmick in 2005, where Chavo denounced the Latino fans who never supported him—especially in comparison to his beloved uncle, Eddie Guerrero—and instead embraced “White America.” In storyline, Chavo legally changed his name, dyed his hair platinum, adopted a wardrobe of polos with sweaters wrapped around his neck and chinos, rode a golf cart to the ring, and created the slippery-slope catchphrase “If it’s not White, it’s not right.” Then came Kerwin White specifically targeting African-American wrestler Shelton Benjamin while also spreading iffy rhetoric about other minorities. Despite his all-around solid performance prior to this reinvention, Chavo was right about the fans not really supporting him, lending a bit of sad reality to this awful gimmick. But Kerwin White was a discomforting character in a time when WWE already had one too many discomforting characters. Immediately after Eddie’s death on November 13 of that same year, Chavo dropped the gimmick and went back to his real name, honoring his family once more. [LaToya Ferguson]

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13. Arachniman, a.k.a. Brad Armstrong

Aside from a few unfortunate exceptions, many of the gimmicks on this list were given quick, merciful killings because of how horrid they were. Arachniman (sometimes also spelled Arachnaman, in case you were wondering how much his handlers cared about the character), on the other hand, was nixed because of the threat of legal action. As absurd and legally dubious as the character was, the company couldn’t have picked a better performer to be inside the getup: Brad Armstrong, a member of the respected Armstrong wrestling family. He was gifted with a blend of agility and strength that made him a perfect Spider-Man impersonator—and one of the more exciting, underused wrestlers of his time. Both before and after the brief Arachniman debacle, he found some success in smaller federations and as one of the pioneers of WCW’s more fast-paced, acrobatic Cruiserweight division, but for whatever reason, Armstrong never quite got the opportunity or momentum needed to cement himself among wrestling’s top stars. Sadly, in 2012, Armstrong died of causes that are still unconfirmed. He was 51. [Matt Gerardi]

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14. Every incarnation of Ed “Brutus Beefcake” Leslie

As the real-life best friend of Hulk Hogan, Ed Leslie has enjoyed an anointed career, free of consequence for some of the worst gimmicks ever to grace a ring. He’s probably best known for his time as Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, a hair-obsessed man with comically large cutting shears. But before that, he was just Brutus Beefcake, a male stripper who wouldn’t take off his forearm warmers when performing. And after that came a cavalcade of nightmare gimmicks—he was once “The Man With No Name” (he had wrestled under at least six names by then) and “The Man With No Face” (his face was well documented by this point). Then he was “The Zodiac,” a zebra-striped grease ball who could only say “yes” and “no.” And then, he was “The Booty Man.” Try to guess what that guy was into. Any one of these gimmicks would easily scrub a less well-connected wrestler from history, but not Leslie. Thanks, Hulk. [Joe Keiser]

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