With the glorious help of hindsight, the WWF in the early to mid 90's was a tough time. WCW was on the rise, star power was being lost to Ted Turner, whispers of steroid became fully fledged screams and the roster was looking increasingly thin. Never fear however, Vince McMahon and Creative had an idea, a way to bring back the average viewer.
Occupational gimmicks. Yes that's right, new wrestlers would début and as well as being pro grapplers, they would also have a job on the side, a job that someone in the audience could surely relate to. So, all of a sudden, we had a wrestling garbage man, a wrestling plumber, a wrestling alligator hunter, a wrestling hockey enforcer, and many many more. The list goes on.
These gimmicks have become something of a joke now. When looking back we have a good chuckle, nostalgia goes into overdrive and we all talk about our favourites. Well, in the name of self obsession, here's five that I remember fondly, and not just for nostalgic reasons.
The Mountie was a heel that I remember despising more than any other character at the time. The Rougeau family is one of the most well known in all of wrestling, and up until the beginning of 1990 Jacques and his brother Raymond had been competing in a tag team known as the Fabulous Rougeaus. I hated them as well. Raymond retired, and Jacques disappeared for a year. When he eventually returned, he would return as The Mountie.
Now, being a five year old Welsh kid, I had zero idea what a Mountie was. I had seen adverts for that show about mounties on Sky One, but that was it. For years, Jacques Rougeau would be all I knew about mounties, and good lord I hated them. Basically, he was a corrupt member of the mounted police who would carry a cattle prod shock stick to the ring. From memory, he only ever managed to win matches by using this thing. The fact that Wikipedia lists the drop kick as one of his finishing moves adds weight to this.
The Mountie would actually be one of the more successful occupational gimmicks of the 1990s, even going on to win the Intercontinental Title. He even defeated Bret Hart for it no less! Quite the push right? Well, Hart was going through contract negotiations and The Mountie would drop the title to Roddy Piper just two days later, in what was then the shortest Intercontinental title reign of all time. Rougeau would slip back into the tag team ranks, winning gold again as part of The Quebecers.
Duke 'The Dumpster' Droese
No talk of bad 90s gimmicks is complete without talking about the garbage man, Duke 'The Dumpster' Droese. Contrary to my young child reaction to The Mountie, I loved Droese. He was a big dude, around 6'6”, 300 or so pounds. He had a backwards cap, and of course when you're a child that stuff is awesome. Or was, in the 90s. He wore a sleeveless garbage man outfit and yes, of course he brought trash cans to the ring. He always seemed to have a smile on his face, and his only real notable feuds in WWF came against the heels who had elevated views of themselves with regards to social strata.
Notable is probably too strong a word, but pitting the working man against Jerry 'The King' Lawler and Hunter Hearst Helmsley were clever moves, that worked to a degree. In fact, the only thing anyone might remember from his run was being clocked by The King with one of his own trash cans. Par for the course now I suppose, but in 1994 that was way too violent for WWF TV. King was subsequently forced to make an on-air apology for excessive violence.
I think there was a lot more mileage in the garbage man character than was explored. He was an imposing guy as stated, and his tilt-a-whirl power slam (named the 'trash compactor') was a pretty effective finishing move for the times. He was definitely popular to a degree as well, and unique amongst the occupational gimmicks as he began as a good guy. An eventual black hat turn would have easily worked with the character, or even a descent into trash man madness. That's an 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' reference, if you weren't already aware.
(Note: a cursory glance at wikipedia shows me that Droese actually placed number 500 on the very first PWI 500. Quite the accolade).
Doink the Clown
Out of all of the occupational gimmicks of the 1990s, the one that had the most potential depth was none other than the character referenced this past Monday on Raw. I'm talking, of course, about Doink the Clown. I genuinely believe that the timing was right, especially with the attitude era that would start four or five years after his début. This clown could have been a big deal, and I'll attempt to explain why.
The official name for a fear of clowns is Coulrophobia, which comes from the Greek for 'stilt walker'. Throughout history, they have essentially represented the darker sides of human beings, existing on the edge of society, in the seedy underbelly. Still, fear of clowns only really took off in the 1980s, thanks to the combined efforts of Emmett Lee Kelly, John Wayne Gacy and Stephen King.
Doink however, made his début as a traditional clown who just played pranks on people. Sure, cruel pranks, but pranks none the less. His evil side would soon come out though, and I still say that the two Doinks at WrestleMania IX is the only good thing to take from that entire pay per view. In a time when the vast majority of the audience were young people, building up a genuinely evil clown to eventually get knocked off by a top babyface would have made all sorts of money. Either that, or it would have scared most of the audience away.
A face turn was obvious, and with it came a more light side to the clown. He became not much more than comic relief, famously feuding with Jerry Lawler (I'm sensing a theme here). At this point the clown was still being portrayed by Matt Osborne, a technically gifted if uninspiring wrestler. It is what he would go on to do in ECW after his firing by WWF that shows the potential this character could have had in better hands.
In ECW, now going by the name Matt Borne, he would show up with Shane Douglas and criticize Vince McMahon for turning a gifted technician like Osborne into a comic relief side show. He would still however display some of the Doink traits, even having half of his face painted in Doink style. The point was that he had borderline personality disorder from his time as a clown. This of course is what plagued the Emmett Kelly family for three generations, and the psychological possibilities of a wrestling character of the same ilk are just too wonderful to dismiss. As over-the-top gimmicks died out, a psychologically disturbed yet technically proficient hangover from that era would have fitted in fantastically.
As it was, it never happened, and Matt Osborne died this past June. The Doink character is remembered with frivolity and quickly dismissed, but it's potential was, like that of the clown in general, limited only to how much we deny our own depravity.
Has anyone been saddled with as many silly gimmicks as Barry Darsow? The Blacktop Bully, Stewart Pain (a villainous golfer) and an overzealous fan, to name a few. To most WWF/E viewers, he will be better known as one half (and eventually one third) of the tag team Demolition. Whilst some people considered them to be a WWF rip off of the Road Warriors, the truth is that they were way better, because they actually had matches with other teams as opposed to just beating people up. To me however, Barry Darsow will always be the Repo Man.
With a lone ranger style mask, grey tights with tire tread all over them and a tow rope that he would bring to the ring with him, Repo Man was exactly what you would imagine him to be. A guy who repossessed items when people were late on their payments. He was a bad guy, so he would sometimes use nefarious means. He would sneak around the ring, like some sort of thief cat. His most famous moment would come when sparking a short feud with 'Macho Man' Randy Savage, based on Repo Man stealing his hat. The visual of Repo wearing Macho's hat is one that will be with me forever.
Now, Repo Man was obviously supposed to be a bad guy. He took peoples possessions. He once stole a kids bike, purely because the kids Dad was an hour late on a payment. But, Darsow played the part with such ridiculous enthusiasm that it was almost impossible to hate. Kids lapped it up. It is amongst the most ridiculous of occupational gimmicks, but you can't give Darsow enough credit for his performance. Is there a more fondly remembered occupational gimmick than Repo Man? Oh, and best entrance music ever? I think so.
The Big Boss Man
This might be my favourite occupational gimmick of all time, and you can maybe argue that it wasn't a gimmick at all. Ray Traylor actually was a corrections officer from Cobb County, Georgia, and upon arriving in the WWF he was displayed as such. He was named the Big Boss Man, he wore a blue police shirt, talked about justice and law and order and would handcuff his defeated opponents to the ropes and beat them down with a night stick. The wrestling policeman was a bad guy.
His turn to the good side however, was one of the most subtly beautiful things I've ever seen in wrestling. Jake Roberts had stolen 'The Million Dollar Man' Ted Dibiase's prized million dollar belt. Dibiase was incensed, and hired Slick and the Big Boss Man to get it back. During a match between Roberts and Dibiase, Boss Man hit the ring, attacked Jake and handcuffed him to the ropes. He took back the belt, but as soon as Dibiase mentioned the pay off he became incensed. He wasn't corrupt! He thought he was protecting the law! He gave Jake the belt back, as well as the key to the cuffs, and a babyface he was. His character hadn't changed at all, but the fans went from hating him to loving him in a second. It was as organic as any turn I can think of.
The Big Boss Man was in many ways the archetypical occupational gimmick. He was unremarkable in the ring, on the microphone, in every way. Still, he was honest, he never claimed to be any more than he was. He did his job, which just happened to be a professional wrestler and police officer. And we loved him for it.
Well, until he came back and fed Al Snow his dog anyway.
And that's enough nostalgia for now. Which occupational gimmicks do you remember fondly? Which do you think could work today? Are they really as ridiculous as we make them out to be? Leave a comment in the lonely comment box below, or find me on the internet either at twitter (@pingvinorkestra) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org). I'm back in Wales after a heartbreaking few weeks. A long winter awaits.