The View From Down Here – Wrestling Gimmicks

I started watching wrestling in the early 1980s. The first match I can remember seeing was Sergeant Slaughter against Ivan Putski. It was on a Saturday afternoon sports show and it had me intrigued. I watched for these matches religiously. From there we had the first Wrestlemania broadcast a few weeks after it aired in the USA and I was hooked.

But there was always something that I never really gelled with: the Gimmicks. They were either hit or miss, and more miss than anything else. My mother explained that it was sort of fake (and now having done it myself, I know how “sort of” that is – this year alone I’ve lost a tooth and dislocated a knee twice) but that that was how wrestling worked. So, even if it was fake, why did they need to pretend to be people they weren’t? I was confused.

So here are the gimmicks that have stuck with me from my early years. Myself and my friends were probably not indicative of Australian wrestling fans, but I’m going to pretend we were. I should probably point out here that my first gimmick was a cowboy – an Australian cowboy. Who wrestled. And sold like Iron Mike Sharpe – lots of random yelling. And lost. A lot. Pot, this is the kettle, and you’re… well, you know.

Hulk Hogan: What? Well, being Australian, Hogan’s over-the-top US patriotism made most of us cringe. While that played well in Reagan-era USA, in Australia it made us feel like we were about to be invaded. None of us liked Hulk Hogan, never did. Wrestlemania 6 was a time of celebration for us because Hogan was defeated. The gimmick, it must be pointed out, wasn’t helped by the fact we watched Savage and Steamboat and, when we could get it on video, WCW/NWA and saw that Hogan’s moveset was, shall we say, limited.

The Missing Link: This was the first gimmick that made me laugh, and not in a good way. The fact he painted himself green and grabbed that topknot of hair to deliver his trademark headbutt just seemed, well, stupid. I mean, we were kids – teenagers – and to us it looked pathetic. Oh and his matches – what few of them we saw – were terrible as well. At least, my memory of them is very negative. Oh what the hell – they were terrible.

George ‘The Animal’ Steele: He has always stuck with me, and in a good way. He played the character perfectly. He was the sort of guy you imagined getting into wrestling because it was all he could do. From biting the turnbuckle pads to falling for Miss Elizabeth, the character was played perfectly, whether heel or face. And I was even more stunned when I saw an interview with him and he was intelligent and articulate and funny. This was a good one.

Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase: One of the best gimmicks I’ve ever seen. Played to the hilt all the time he was on TV. The vignettes, the entrance, the music. Just perfect. There is not much more that can be said.

Mr Perfect Curt Hennig: And speaking of perfect – this was one awesome gimmick. The vignettes when he first came to the WWF were great and his matches were superb. The match against Blue Blazer at WM-V is an underappreciated effort by both young men involved. But to me the gimmick was damaged when he didn’t win the Royal Rumble, being the last out to Hogan. He wasn’t perfect anymore, and he got done by Hogan, a guy he should have put away with ease.

Jake Roberts: While his DDT has become a transition move in the past decade or more, the man was the master of the creepy promo. He genuinely scared the little sister of a friend of mine. If a snake could talk, he would be Jake Roberts. However, it seemed he lived the gimmick a little too well. Beyond The Mat depresses me.

Honky Tonk Man: I hated this guy when I first saw him, when he was trying to be a face. Couldn’t stand him, and the “Elvis impersonator who didn’t know there had ever been an Elvis” gimmick was annoying, especially to an Australian too young to ever get the Elvis thing in the first place (I am obviously older now and have more of an appreciation for him). But he won me over by his sheer in-ring presence. Maybe not the best worker, it’s been said you watched him to see him get beat, and damn if that wasn’t what we did, even at the arse end of the world. He was good.

Undertaker: His original ‘deadman’ gimmick seemed like yet another over-the-top cartoon. I mean, seriously, how do you defeat a dead man? While his mannerisms helped make the gimmick, it seemed more suited to a Roger Corman C-Film than a wrestling ring. His selling was, shall we say, dodgy and the whole urn thing was just ridiculous. He was big and looked like he could kill you without breaking a sweat, but that was about it. Another one that just irked me. And still does.

Kamala: Until recently, it was rare to see people of African descent in Australia. Yet even watching this fat guy I knew this gimmick was not right. It was another cartoon, the sort of stereotype they put in Bugs Bunny cartoons from the 1940s and 1950s. And when he made the Warrior vomit, well, magic in wrestling? Why didn’t he just use magic to make his opponent give up and then win the title? Made no sense.

Nine that stood out for me from the early years of my wrestling watching existence.

Now, for a while I gave up watching televised wrestling, especially the WWF, but it was a gimmick led by strong characters that actually brought me back. Bret Hart’s anti-USA / Canadian Hero gimmick and the New Hart Foundation. In Australia, we were torn. We loved Stone Cold Steve Austin, but found ourselves agreeing with everything Hart had to say. We were divided in our loyalties, and when the Canadian Stampede video finally made it to our local video shop, you had to book a month in advance to hire it.

The NWO gimmick also intrigued me at first. I watched the PPV where Hogan turned on WCW, and then the following Nitros and was getting into it… but they just made everyone else look second rate. There was no competition. Then they did their recruitment drive and the matches were horrible and, well, that was another gimmick that I never got into. While it might have ‘changed the face of wrestling’, and while it might have been as popular as anything ever done in wrestling, to me it was just annoying.

Nowadays, wrestling has changed. Jericho is my favourite current wrestler, taking over Flair’s broomstick mantle. I loved the start of the Nexus angle. But, really, there are not many really good gimmicks any more. Sure, some have come – Cody Rhodes current ‘Dashing’ gimmick is decent enough – but not too many. The audience has changed and the cartoon world of wrestling as it was for the MTV generation is gone, replaced by more believable characters (is this different to a gimmick? I’m not sure, but I think it is) and stories and soap operas for men. Yes, some still exist, more as hangovers from the Attitude Era and before, but the new characters are really just the performers themselves amped up.

Do I miss the OTT gimmicks, with every wrestler having a day job? No, not really. But sometimes it’s fun to look back on them and think about what made me step into the ring myself.