Matt Hardy’s recent rebirth and transformation is just the latest example of a pro wrestler who reinvented themselves later in their careers to either sustain or find success. A look back in pro wrestling history reveals a fascinating list of former WWE stars and wrestling greats who took it upon themselves to evolve and experience new success with often times greater results.
Ric Flair was recently reminicing with former foe and friend Greg Valentine on a recent The Ric Flair Show podcast about the first time they met. Valentine talked about meeting Flair early in Flair’s career when he was fat and had short hair. Ironically I was later watching a recent shoot interview with Scott Levy when it got me thinking about some of the most successful transititions in pro wrestling history. Thus this list was born.
Ric Flair – I don’t know if there is anyone on this or any other list that achieved more success with his transition than Flair. Flair started out in the AWA and had the bulky body of a powerlifter without any of the glitz that he would later become known for. Flair eventually got a lucky break and a feud with Buddy Rogers in the Mid-Atlantic territory resulted in long blonde hair, a slimmer body, and a whole lot of charisma. The Nature Boy was born and it was smooth sailing from there.
Johnny Polo/Raven – Scott Levy is a guy that comes to the top of a list in any conversation about wrestlers who reinvented themselves. Levy completely reinvented himself in 1995 when he joined ECW. Levy left the WWE where he was known as a spoiled rich kid named Johnny Polo to a grungy, rich, tortured soul named Raven. Levy is not given nearly enough credit for pulling this off. Almost immediately this “smart” crowd welcomed Raven into ECW fully aware of Levy’s former WWE character (and previous WCW and indy gimmicks). Levy would say many times that in order to become successful in the WWE that he needed to leave and reinvent himself elsewhere which is exactly what he did.
Scott Hall / Razor Ramon – Magnum Scott Hall’s slow transition from a Magnum P.I.-like character into a character based on Al Pacino’s character from Scarface is unequivocally one of the most successful in WWE history. Hall bounced around the territories until getting a break in WCW as the Diamond Stud. The Diamond Stud was an early incarnation of Razor Ramon but it wasn’t until Curt Hennig gave him the idea around Ramon that Razor was born. The Razor Ramon character remains one of the most iconic gimmicks in WWE history thanks to Hall’s transformation.
Kevin Nash / Diesel – Nash certianly had his own identity crisis early in his career. Entering WCW as Oz, Nash would eventually reinvent himself as the comedic, yet impressive Vinny Vegas. Nash eventually made the jump to WWE and didn’t bring his comedic side with him until much later. Debuting as the stone-faced, biker/bodyguard Diesel, Nash would continue to reinvent himself before enjoying his biggest success as…Kevin Nash.
Mark Calaway / The Undertaker – Long before the dead man, Calaway worked his way through territories as everything from the Punisher to the Master of Pain. Calaway finally scored his first big break in WCW, catching a break by replacing the recently depparted Dan Spivey in the Skyscrapers under the character Mean Mark Callous. Callous was raw, yet fairly one dimensional for the time period. Vince McMahon saw that raw size and athleticism and reinvented Calloway into arguably the most iconic figure in WWE history, the Undertaker.
Steve Austin – Prior to his days whooping ass and dropping Stone Cold Stunners, Austin wrestled with his own identity crisis. Austin has a lengthy career prior to the WWE in WCW as Stunning Steve. Stunning Steve was raw but had a lot of potential. Unfortunately Stunning Steve had little microphone time and didn’t have a highly dimensional character. Austin came to the WWE as the Ringmaster, a character more bland than Stunning Steve. Slowly Austin started to morph hismelf into the Stone Cold character and as a draw had arguably the most successful transition of any pro wrestler in history.
Nicky / Dolph Ziggler – As a member of the Spirit Squad, Nick Nemeth was doomed. A male cheerleader had a short life in the WWE, especially after getting repeatedly squashed by Degeneration-X. Unlike his Spirit Squad mates, Nick was somehow able to reinvent himself as a high-flying gigolo named Dolph Ziggler. Ziggler’s transition was so successful, he remains one of the mainstays in the WWE today.
Adrian Adonis – If I told you that a tough, New York, street brawler would be able to successfully reinvent himself into an ambigous crossdresser, you’d tell me I was crazy but that is what Adonis did. Adonis had two prior WWE runs as the New York bully and reappeared only a few years later in a dress hosting the Flower Shop. The transformation worked and Adonis went on to have one of the most memorable feuds in WWE history with Roddy Piper.
Sugar Ray Harris / Kamala – Ray Harris was a journeyman wrestler before morphing into the Ugandan giant. Harris wrestled predominately in the United Kingdom with modest success at best. Jerry Lawler and Jerry Jarrett had this crazy idea for an African savage and Harris immediately fit the bill as Harris was coming to the territory and all of the worlds aligned perfectly. The legendary vignette was shot in Jarrett’s backyard of Kamala trolling the jungles and Harris went from opening cards in Memphis to headlining giant houses against legends like Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan, and Bruiser Brody.
Leon White/Vader – Long before he was pulverizing helpless preliminary wrestlers, Leon White was known as the “Baby Bull” in the AWA. White was a very vanilla wrestler with nothing going for him other than his previous life as an NFL player. Yet somehow or another Antonio Inoki was able to see through that and identify the raw potential that White had. While White was not the original choice for the Big Van Vader character, he immediately embraced the role and became one of the most successful big men in pro wrestling history, headlining events all over the world against Inoki, Sting, Ric Flair, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, and Hulk Hogan.WWE: Attitude Era Unreleased Volume 3