Heroes And Villains 07.22.04: The Substitutes



He inspired last week’s column and he supplied me with a good intro to this week’s column. Take it away, William Ricks:

“Next week: Rethinking the Fake Diesel and Razor Ramon: Can Different
People Play the Same Character?”

That’s actually one of the main reasons why a TV show jumps the shark:
Same Charcater, Different Actor. So offhand I’d say no. Don’t you just
love how I give an opinion of your next column before you write it?

Although there have been a few shows which maintained popularity/quality after replacing an actor, such as Bewitched and the Jeffersons, William is basically right, at least as far as sitcoms go. But consider soap operas. Unless you count wrestling, the only soap that I’ve ever watched is Days of Our Lives. Though it’s been over 10 years since I last kept up with it, I know that they’ve gone through at least 3 Beau (Bo?) Bradys. And then there’s that whole Roman Brady/John Black thing. Yet the show seems to maintain its popularity, as far as I can tell.

So which is wrestling more like—soap operas or sitcoms? (I’m getting a sense of déjà vu here .) Given the most famous (or infamous) example of same gimmick, different wrestler, I’m willing to bet most of you would say the latter.


Calendar year 1996 is often considered one of the key years, if not the key year in modern wrestling history. This year saw the debut of the nWo in WCW, the single angle most responsible for the beginning of the late 90s boom and the transformation of pro wrestling in America. A well-known footnote to the birth of the nWo was the introduction of the “fake” Diesel and Razor Ramon characters. Debuting on the September 23 edition of Raw, Glenn Jacobs (later Kane) and Rick Bogner aped the surface trappings of the characters which Kevin Nash and Scott Hall had originally portrayed. The replacements were little more than jobbers with famous names, and both were gone by early 1997.

Eight years removed from these events, there is still a degree of mystery surrounding the Fake Diesel and the Fake Razor Ramon. There are three dominant interpretations to explain their short run:

Ammo for a lawsuit. Vince McMahon sued WCW, claiming that Kevin Nash and Scott Hall were essentially still playing Diesel and Razor Ramon. The theory here is that McMahon re-introduced these two characters in order to prove that WCW had damaged their marketability. According to this theory, Vince had no illusions that the new versions of Diesel and RR would get over—he was just trying to strengthen his legal case.

Burying the competition. Also falling into a “designed to fail” category is this theory, which holds that Vince McMahon was trying to bury the two individuals who were, arguably, most responsible for WCW’s boom. The fake Diesel and RR were treated as jobbers, after all.

A legitimate effort. Probably the least cited reason for the fake Diesel/Razor Ramon experiment. The evidence against this line of thinking is pretty strong: the constant jobbing, the association with a “heel” JR, and the general consensus that Vince McMahon is too smart to have thought this scheme would work.

On the whole, I think the cases for the first two are pretty strong. The major sticking point for me, however, is this: why would Vince McMahon waste so much time and effort in promoting a gimmick that was intended to fail? Of course, the wrestling business isn’t always what we might call “rational,” and this wouldn’t be the first time that a promoter would have done something like this. One fact, however, often seems to be overlooked in this debate. In 1996, Vince McMahon had a track record of success in substituting wrestlers.


Only a month after Demolition’s debut, the WWF removed Randy Culley from the new tag team, replacing him with veteran Barry Darsow. From around the same era we have Doink the Clown—and, as many of you probably already know, four different men played this role. Now, as I think I’ve mentioned before, I wasn’t watching wrestling at this time, so I have to rely on what I’ve read to gauge how people reacted to these changes. And, as far as I can tell, no one seemed to care or possibly even notice.

There are a few reasons for this. First, in the case of Demolition Smash, there wasn’t enough time for the audience to have grown attached to Culley, making Darsow’s transition that much easier. Second, both gimmicks had the advantage of the cover of heavy makeup, partially obscuring their replacement. (Vince McMahon had similar success with two far more arcane gimmicks, Max Moon and Battle Kat, with the even greater advantage of masks to hide the wrestlers’ identities.) Finally, in the case of Smash, everyone knew good and well that Demolition was just a cheap Road Warriors knockoff. This might have helped the WWF get by with making the Culley-Darsow switch.

On the other hand, the WWF also had played things the other way as well—in 1994, during the fake Undertaker angle, which might have, in some way, influenced the Diesel/RR angle two years later. The fake Undertaker angle, for those of you who need a refresher, went something like this: The Undertaker was buried alive at the 1994 Royal Rumble. Some time after Wrestlemania, Ted Dibiase began making claims that he was bringing back the Undertaker—and instead brought out an obviously different person (Brian Lee). Anyway, at Summerslam the real Undertaker returned and set things right.

This is not an angle that many fans recollect with fondness, in the conventional sense of the word. Most people consider it a cartoonish relic of the short-lived Pat Patterson regime, in which Vince’s trusted consigliore took over while Vince was, as he puts it, valiantly battling the federal government. But, regardless of its aesthetic merits, this angle reveals a lot about the way that characters worked in the WWF at the time.


One of the rites of passage for all IWC newbies is learning the truth about the Ultimate Warrior. Like many of you, before I got on the ‘net I had been told repeatedly by fellow fans that several men (three, to be precise) had played the Ultimate Warrior. I have no idea where this rumor started, but it certainly is widespread. Why is that?

There are several reasons, I think. First, the Ultimate Warrior has a history of taking extended leaves of absence, which might lend credence to the idea that different men have taken up his mantle—or face paint, as the case may be. That’s a second thing—like with Doink or Smash, the Warrior wears makeup that partly obscures his features (albeit to a much lesser extent). It seems plausible that some other jacked up goon could have painted those stupid markings on his nose, and tied those ridiculous strings to his biceps. Which brings us to point number three—the WCW tried not once, but twice to replicate the Warrior in the person of Rick Williams, better known as the Renegade (who later committed suicide after being released from WCW). There might be some confusion there.

This brings us to the heart of the issue of replacing characters. The multiple Warrior myth and the tragic history of the Renegade are the opposite poles of the WWF gimmick machine of the early 1990s. On the one hand, we (and some promoters) look at these old, goofy gimmicks and think, “My God, anyone could play this stupid character.” But, when a promotion tries this tactic, our real reaction is “My God, do they think we’re really that dumb? That ain’t Jim Hellwig up there.” With Doink or Smash, it didn’t matter as much. Admittedly, that’s partly because they were under heavy makeup. On a deeper level, however, it’s also because we thought of them as throwaway gimmicks—cheap mid-card fare. But the Ultimate Warrior, as childish as the character seems to us now as adults (or adolescents), made a much deeper connection.

I think this might have been what Pat Patterson and Vince McMahon were getting at with the fake Undertaker angle. Back in 1994, the Undertaker seemed like another ridiculous cartoon character in many respects. The WWF played on this with the fake Taker angle. The Undertaker was a conspicuously unrealistic character, mostly defined by clothing, music, maneuvers and mannerisms that anyone could have adopted. In 1994 there were no Mark Calloway fans—only Undertaker fans. The fake Undertaker angle played against this understanding of the character by emphasizing the illegitimacy of the Brian Lee version. Lee wore the same clothes (with the addition of the mask), came out to the same music, performed the same maneuvers, and acted with the same mannerisms. But he wasn’t the real Undertaker, as the angle reminded us over and over again. Unlike Doink or Smash, fans cared enough about the Undertaker to reject a replacement. The fake Taker angle didn’t create this situation—it simply brought it to light.


So, is replacing wrestlers an idea we can dismiss entirely?

Let’s turn to Japan and Mexico. In Japan, there have been five Tiger Masks (our own Ryan Byers pointed out to me that the original Tiger Mask was not Satoru Sayama, but Bushwhaker Butch!). In Mexico, Luchadores frequently adopt the gimmick of an older relative (father or uncle, usually) and append the words “El Hijo de” or “Jr.” But in none of these cases do the promotions try to create the illusion that it’s the same guy each time (with the exception of the fake La Parka in AAA). Yet one could make a case that these are the same gimmicks.

Could we apply this model to American pro wrestling? We’ve already seen it in action, to some extent, during the Giant’s early WCW run, when Jimmy Hart and others strongly hinted that he was Andre the Giant’s son (leading to one of Kevin Nash’s cleverest wisecracks in that magical year of 1996). Rocky Maivia is another example, though to a much, much milder extent. You might say that all the Samoans, Rikishi excepted, have played more or less the same character. Sabu has in some ways maintained the legacy of his uncle, the Shiek. In the future, we may see Harry Smith or Jimmy Snuka Jr. take on modified versions of their fathers’ gimmicks.

What are the possibilities for outright replacement, though? It seems to me that the Diesel/Razor Ramon experiment was doomed to failure for one obvious reason: those characters didn’t have enough visual markers that would conceal the fact that the new versions were clearly not the same person. The best chance of replacement seems to be for those who somehow obscure their true identity, either by makeup or mask. However, Rey Misterio aside, neither seems to be in vogue in the WWE right now. Another factor that seems work against the possibility of replacement is the presence of a live audience. Days of Our Lives had an advantage over the WWE here; when they trot out a new actor under the name of Roman Brady, there aren’t thousands of fans audibly chanting “bullshit.” And, ultimately, any attempt to replace a character who the audience cares about is bound to fail. In wrestling, it’s hard to separate the wrestler from the character he portrays—much harder than it is to separate an actor from the character he or she plays. And if we don’t have a vested interest in the person who plays the character, then the character is probably not worth keeping.


I’ve had my say. Now what do you think? Specifically, I’d like your feedback on one particular question: are there any gimmicks now or in the recent past that were strong enough to withstand this sort of substitution? Tell me why or why not, and I’ll include the best responses next week.


Special, special thanks to my colleagues here at 411 for all their help with this week’s column. In particular, Ryan Byers, Michael Melchor, and J.D. Dunn answered my many questions on the writers’ forum. It might not be obvious from reading their columns every week, but Ryan and Mike are very knowledgeable on the lucha/puro stuff. And, as I’m sure you know by now, JD is also an expert in this field. I also should point out how much the faq at wrestleview.com helped me get my facts straight. The faq started out as the work of a certain 411 writer named Scott Keith (maybe you’ve heard of him?), but the guys at the site have added a lot to it since then. Make sure to check it out, folks.

I’m in South Carolina for about a month now, sleeping on a friend’s couch as I do research for my PhD dissertation. My connection to the internet is a bit sporadic, unfortunately, so my deep, deep apologies if I don’t respond to feedback in a timely manner. But please, don’t let that stop you from sending it; your emails have made this column a real pleasure to write every week. And I’m depending on your comments for next week’s column. Speaking of which:

Next week: Standing at the Crossroads: Which wrestlers could most benefit from strong, character-based pushes right now? Plus reader feedback on different wrestlers, same gimmicks.

I hope Mr. Ricks is satisfied.