Wrestling is a business that moves pretty fast, and wrestler reinventions are the engine that keeps it running.
There’s something to be said for consistency. Roddy Piper was always Roddy Piper, and Steve Austin was pretty much always Stone Cold (Stone Cold! Stone Cold!). And it was great.
But equally great is when a wrestler can adopt a whole new character while maintaining who they’ve always been. Actually, that’s probably greater. It’s no easy feat to change who you are and hang on to who you were in one fell swoop. Like Time Lords in tights. But I’m going far afield.
Point is, wrestler reinventions are tricky business. So it’s all the more impressive when they pull it off with aplomb.
Here’s our list of the best versions of pro wrestling’s greatest chameleons.
5. ‘US Championship Open Challenge’ John Cena
Okay, so this is one of those wrestler reinventions that’s a little bit of a cheat.
John Cena has historically had two principal personas. The Doctor of Thuganomics and The MBA Specializing In Hustle, Loyalty, And Respect.
But Johnny-With-The-Coat-Of-Many-Colors (so many colors) can almost be divided into sub-personas. There’s the Cena that’s going to play the good guy start-to-finish that crowd loves. Then there’s the Cena that’s going to play the good guy start-to-finish that the crowd hates, but he pretends they don’t. And further still, there’s the Cena that just owns that people hate him and rolls with it.
Still beneath that is the merging of all of the above in the form of John Cena’s open challenge for the WWE United States Championship.
Cena’s open challenge deepened his Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect ethos while doing what all good wrestling should do – serving multiple functions with one match. Over the course of a couple months, Cena took on Cesaro, Sami Zayn, Dean Ambrose, and AJ Style.
The weekly US Championship Open Challenge match gave the crowd the chance to cheer guys just to see them beat Cena. And Cena’s opponents get over. The crowd gets to see Cena have to adjust to a litany of different styles on a weekly basis. Cena gets over. And WWE gets to get an easy 20-minute segment to build the show around with fantastic action – everybody wins.
It’s a bit of a stretch to call it a persona, but ‘US Open Challenge’ John Cena is the unsung hero of wrestler reinventions.
4. The Game – Triple H From 1999 To 2001
Hunter Heir H’apparent (thought of that myself) went through a handful of wrestler reinventions before he made his way to play the Game. Or, as Lemmy was fond of saying, “PLAY THE GAAAAAAME.”
Triple H started life in WWE as the Connecticut Blueblood, curtsying between winning the IC title and getting jobbed out to the Ultimate Warrior. Then he went on to being Shawn Michaels’s sidekick in DX Version 1.0 before bouncing into wacky babyface DX leader.
At WrestleMania XV we got the heel turn nobody wanted that nobody cared about, all for the sake of building Triple H to being a main event heel that nobody wanted and nobody cared about. But as WWE closed in on SummerSlam 1999, meant to be Triple H’s coronation until Steve Austin decided it wasn’t, Triple H did a sit-down with Jim Ross. And in that sit-down he declared himself not to be a student of the game but The Game itself.
At the time, it was a weird little catchphrase. But he took it and turned into an actual character. We all look back on his Royal Rumble 2000 battle with Cactus Jack as the birth of Triple H being legit. But he was well on his way. From that JR interview, he grew into Mr. Stephanie McMahon. Which is some weird real-life foreshadowing since he was playing “Vince-but-not-quite-Vince” long before the exchange of vows.
He was basically ‘Wrestling Machine’ Kurt Angle on steroids. Not literally, that’s not nice. Genuine 5-star affairs with Foley, Rock, Angle, and Austin over the course of two years just fueled how well he played the heel you hate because he can back up his talk.
The best wrestling reinventions are the ones that stick. And every iteration of the Game since August 1999 can’t happen without that two-year run. It also led to the 2002-2005 Reign Of Terror, though, so maybe we shouldn’t be celebrating it.
3. Hollywood Hulk Hogan (nWo)
Yeah, no, not Hollywood Hogan in the red and yellow. I don’t know why Terry ‘Hulk’ Bologna decided to start wandering around with a boa, but I hate it and anyone who likes it.
Part of me wonders if it’s fair to put an evil, scheming, cowardly Hulk Hogan among the best wrestler reinventions. I mean, that’s kind of just Hogan being Hogan. We’ve talked about this before.
Hogan turning on WCW to officially found the nWo was a seminal event in wrestling history, and there really isn’t much we can say about that that hasn’t already been said. But show me any version of Hogan that’s having more fun playing his character than heel Hollywood Hulk Hogan.
They were his absolute worst matches to not take place in TNA. But it was Hogan getting to just play himself on camera, demanding fealty from everyone around him while simultaneously terrified that one of his disciples would betray him.
Hollywood Hogan led to the best promos of his career, and the guy heeled so good that Starrcade 97 was at one time poised to be the biggest PPV of all time.
Anybody who follows the inside doings of wrestling, Hollywood Hogan was good meta fun. For the casual fan, it’s a drastic turn for the Hulkster to be evil and selfish.
The lifetime babyface became the guy fans couldn’t wait to see lose. Which leaves Hollywood Hogan among the best wrestler reinventions of all time.
2. Suit-And-Tie Jericho
After he was the guy with the weird ponytail calling Stephanie a hooker but before he was Spikejacket McDadbod, Chris Jericho went all method actor.
Like, we’re talking Joaquin Phoenix-on-Letterman method.
After a long absence from WWE, Chris Jericho returned to Vince’s Traveling Circus in 2008 and found he didn’t quite fit in anymore. So he started on the path to his first of many wrestler reinventions. He experimented with wearing trunks instead of tights, but he still needed to do some character tinkering.
And what he came up with was simple. He started wearing a suit and tie and cutting long, wordy promos with multi-syllable words and being a world-class jerk. In every sense of the word, the man was a jerk. All starting with the time he did this to Shawn Michaels at 7:05.
So what’s so special about that? Well, on the surface, nothing. But doing such an abrupt about-face resonated with crowds. His condescending tone and ruthless actions had crowds seething. To the point that he would get attacked in public.
Because, as mentioned before, Jericho started living the gimmick. What you saw on TV was what you got in real life.
These days in AEW, Jim Ross likes to call Jericho the “Reverend of Reinvention.” And Jericho stepping outside his comfort zone led him to do it again and again. It was a stepping stone to the List of Jericho. This gimmick in a weird way begat weird clownpaint Judas Jericho. All the way up to today’s Fedora Bubblybody.
Suit-and-tie Jericho is one of the wrestler reinventions that keeps on giving.
1. Hollywood Rock
It’s hard to imagine the Rock as someone adept at pulling off wrestler reinventions.
Take a minute. Think about the Rock. You’re probably seeing the sing-along babyface of 1999-2000. Or you might be thinking of John ‘The Dwayne’ Rockson, star of Fast And Furiousester 15.
But the Rock has been reinventing himself from the beginning. He entered WWE as the third-generation blue-chipper. After that, Farooq’s number-two guy in the Nation. Then the Corporate Champion. And then Captain Catchphrase. Everything I just mentioned covers just 1997-99.
Lost in the shuffle is the Rock’s heel turn from 2003. He returned from shooting one of his early movies as a prima donna. He came back in the run-up to a rematch with Hogan at No Way Out 2003 cutting a promo that the Hulkster was putting him to sleep. Then he took on ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin in the finale of their Mania trilogy at WrestleMania XIX. A feud predicated on Rock’s jealousy that fans voted Austin the ‘Raw Superstar of the Decade.’ And a month later at Backlash, he put over a debuting Goldberg.
Wait, this gave rise to Goldberg in WWE? Too late, I’m committed, this is number one on the list.
Rock was able to take the fans’ turning on him in the title match against Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam 2002 as a stepping stone to returning as a first-rate heel. His run as Hollywood Rock included the greatest promos of his career. When talking smack at the Hurricane, he had a 21-year-old me laughing like crazy. “You’re nothing! Oh, hang on, the Rock’s got a call. Hello? Oh, hey! It’s nothing! He says he knows you!”
To say nothing of answering an invisible People’s Palm Pilot. Don’t know what a Palm Pilot is? That’s cool. Bring my walker over here, I’ll show you where to find it on the Google.
Smug, smarmy, and lovably hateable. The perfect Rock. And the peak of all wrestler reinventions.
All images courtesy of WWE.