For every good idea that exists in the world, there are thousands of bad ones. Human beings, the flawed creatures that we are, don’t always get things right on the first try. The fine performers and creative personnel employed by the WWE are no different. But if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.
The WWE did just that this past Monday night, when Paul Heyman introduced his new client, Curtis Axel (the former Michael McGillicutty). He was given a new name, new entrance theme, and a new lease on life in the WWE. In repackaging him, the WWE took the first step in helping us forget the mediocrity that he embodied as Michael McGillicutty, and have directed the WWE Universe’s sights to the future. The question is, how bright is Curtis Axel’s future?
He is far from the first WWE superstar to be rebranded, and while it isn’t an exact science, and doesn’t always lead to great things, some of the WWE’s brightest stars, first had to undergo a rebranding. This week, I’m going to take a look back at some of the most successful transformations in the WWE’s history.
Now before I get started, let me first explain that this list is for Superstars that were completely rebranded. There is a difference between rebranding and evolving a character to the next level. Steve Austin’s magnificent evolution from “The Ringmaster” to “Stone Cold” was not a rebranding. Chris Jericho’s change from Y2J to The Best In The World at What He Does was an evolution of the character as opposed to a rebranding. Now that those semantics are out of the way, Let’s Do This!
One of the WWE’s most recent rebranding success stories, World Heavyweight Champion Dolph Ziggler wasn’t always The Show Off. Long before he became many wrestling fans’ favorite in-ring performer, he was a member of the much-maligned Spirit Squad. Known as Nicky back in those days, he was a former Tag Team Champion with fellow Spirit Squad members, Kenny, Johnny, Mikey and Mitch. While they had a pretty high profile feud with DX during their run, the group was never taken all that seriously. The disbanded before the year was through.
Dolph, the only member of the Spirit Squad still employed by the WWE, endured his first run on the main roster, and would later debut as Dolph Ziggler. I think that with some tinkering over the last few years, Dolph Ziggler found his stride and it’s hard to argue with the results. Rebranding Dolph Ziggler worked beautifully. Not only is he the current World Heavyweight Champion, he’s seemingly among most people’s favorite superstars to watch perform on a weekly basis. He is without question one of the WWE’s most successful repackaged superstars.
Prior to being a longhorn limousine riding, white cowboy hat wearing, cabinet leading, rich, suit wearing, pain in ass to every babyface this side of Texas, John Bradshaw Layfield went simply by Bradshaw, and was mostly known for being a beer swilling, redneck who liked to brawl. He and his APA tag team partner Faarooq would provide their Protection services to anyone willing to pay for them, and when they weren’t brawling, they were smoking cigars, drinking beers, and playing cards. The APA was one of the WWE’s most entertaining Tag Teams. During his run as Bradshaw, I never would have imagined that he would one day be WWE Championship material. The character just didn’t have the legs for that.
That’s when he was repackaged as John Bradshaw Layfield and made to feud with then WWE Champion, the late, great Eddie Guerrero. During their feud, JBL demonstrated that he had the ability to be the WWE’s top villain. There was so much not to like about the self proclaimed “Wrestling God”. He wasn’t the lovable bar-brawler he was when he teamed with Faarooq. He was a smug, insulting, devious, and entitled individual, with the money to make his wildest dreams a reality. He went on to enjoy a fairly lengthy reign as the WWE Champion, successfully defending his title against superstars like Kurt Angle, The Undertaker, The Big Show, Booker T, and Eddie Guerrero, before losing it to John Cena at Wrestlemania 21. Not bad for a man who had formerly been best known for sitting in an invisible office smoking a cigar. His character took a complete 180 when Faarooq retired and he became JBL, which is why there are very few superstars who can say they rebranded themselves more successfully than JBL.
Arguably the WWE’s most successful rebranding of all time was that of The Rock’s. He debuted as Rocky Maivia, a wide-eyed rookie just happy to have a shot at the big time. Every time he entered an arena he sported an ear-to-ear smile and wrestled every match with child-like enthusiasm. That enthusiasm and good-natured persona didn’t do much for the fans who booed him mercilessly. The fact is that even back then, the WWE didn’t know how to debut new babyfaces without having the fans turn on them. Rocky Maivia was just too bland and idealistic a character for anyone to truly get behind. He did capture the Intercontinental title and enjoy a short reign before he suffered a knee injury.
The time off was the best thing for him, because it allowed him to rebrand himself upon his return. Gone was Rocky Maivia, generic babyface who was just happy to be part of the WWE. He was now The Rock. He was cocky, brash, confidant and bitter. He referred to himself in the third person, undermined and eventually usurped control of the Nation of Domination from Faarooq, and lashed back at the fans that had lashed out at him when he was Rocky Maivia. The change was remarkable. He had gone from boring and plain unbearable to one of the WWE’s most consistently entertaining performers. He developed an interesting character, one that was active, theatric, smart, and completely diverged from the Rocky Maivia character he debuted as. The Rock chewed scenery with this new character and went from the man that the audience hated, to arguably the most beloved character in the history of the WWE. It all started when he ceased being Rocky Maivia, and was given new life, rebranded as The Rock.
There you have it, but what do you think? Does Curtis Axel have a shot at being as successful a rebranded superstar as the three I’ve singled out (all went on to become Champions) or will he blow it like Pacers Head Coach Frank Vogel did last night? What are some of your favorite rebranded characters? What are some of the worst?
Until next time folks, I’m Matty J. Douglas saying if you haven’t heard about Combat Juggling, educate yourself. Oh and Go Spurs Go! Have a great week everybody!