Bray Wyatt is the poster child for how a WWE Superstar's career can be stalled or propelled by the right gimmick.
Give a wrestler a nondescript role or one that is too far away from his real self, and expect disappointment. Find the right mix of fantasy and reality, the perfect vehicle for one to amplify his personality, and the chances for engaging the audience go up dramatically.
Fans who saw Wyatt flop as Husky Harris and now become one of the company's top talents as a backwoods cult leader have experienced that truth. The difference between Windham Rotunda playing Harris and Wyatt has been like the difference between trying to set fire to a pile of nails and igniting a straw basket filled with gasoline.
Wrestling promoters are constantly in search of the formula WWE found with Wyatt.
When Dustin Runnels began wrestling for World Championship Wrestling, he was known as "The Natural" Dustin Rhodes. He wore cowboy boots and standard wrestling trunks. His hair was bleached blond, just like his famous father, Dusty Rhodes.
WCW played up his Texas roots and his lineage and hoped his natural ability in the ring would do the rest.
It didn't. Rhodes earned a few lower championships, including the tag titles and the WCW United States Heavyweight Championship, but didn't gain much momentum. Too often, fans just saw his father when they saw him, and that Hall of Famer's shadow was too large to fight out of.
In 1995, he ventured to WWE and ditched the more generic gimmick for one of the unforgettable variety.
Rhodes became Goldust, a sensual, creepy character decked out in gold tights, gold face paint and a blond wig. This new version of himself shifted the discussion away from "Is he as good as his dad?" Goldust allowed Rhodes not only to create his own distinct path, but also to have the audience's attention in a headlock.
His entrance; his sultry, cigar-smoking valet, Marlena; and his outlandish outfits made him a significant part of the Attitude Era.
He has returned to that character for years afterward, wrestling as a subdued version of The Bizarre One today. It's hard to imagine that happening had he stuck with The Natural.
Picturing "Stone Cold" Steve Austin as anything but a beer-drinking, ass-kicking brawler is equally difficult.
It was a long journey before he found that gimmick, though.
Born Steven James Anderson, he later used his stepfather's surname—Williams. The problem was that Steve Williams was already a wrestler, "Dr. Death" Steve Williams, to be exact. Promoter Dutch Mantell (now Zeb Colter in WWE) made the switch from Williams to Austin.
Austin's ability was clear early on. It was just that he had yet to find the right role.
He went by "Stunning" Steve Austin in both USWA and WCW. While with the latter company, he teamed with Brian Pillman as The Hollywood Blonds. A rough-and-tumble guy such as Austin from Victoria, Texas, cast as a cocky Californian is hard to explain in retrospect.
He and Pillman did well, but in spite of the gimmick, not because of it. He was never going to reach his full potential with such an ill-fitting character. It was like Al Pacino being asked to do a series of romantic comedies before someone finally said, "I think this guy would be great as a gangster."
A glimpse of what would become Stone Cold emerged in ECW. Austin's rants showcased more of his personality than we had ever seen.
Sparks flew during those speeches, sparks that should have inspired what his gimmick would be going forward. When he arrived in WWE, though, the company had other plans. Ted DiBiase became his manager, putting the Million Dollar Championship around his waist, and Austin was known as The Ringmaster.
The gimmick didn't go much further than the name. He was supposed to be a master in the ring. Beyond that, there were no real character traits to work with.
There's no way that The Ringmaster would have ever become the cornerstone of WWE's most popular period, headlined WrestleManias and made it to WWE's Mount Rushmore. It wasn't captivating enough. It took a transformation into Stone Cold for him to achieve greatness.
Austin discarded the glittery belt that once belonged to DiBiase and traded it in for a rebellious attitude, all-black ring gear and the habit of celebrating a good whupping by chugging beers in each of the four corners of the ring.
Once he found the right medium for his personality, he went from being an underrated talent with potential to WWE's centerpiece.
That appears to be what Wyatt has discovered as well. He's gone from forgettable part of the background to John Cena's enemy and a man WWE has been asking to take up more and more of the spotlight.
As Harris, he claimed to be an army tank with a Ferrari engine.
Beyond that and family lineage, his character had little to offer. Trying to describe who he was was a tough task. It's no wonder that other members of Nexus stood out far more than him.
After just three months on the main roster, Randy Orton punted him in the head, and he was back down in WWE developmental.
He wasn't in the minors because he couldn't hit home runs, though. It was just that he had the wrong tool. A man armed with a Popsicle stick isn't going to get any hits regardless of his skill.
In WWE's feeder system, Harris morphed into Wyatt. As Florida Championship Wrestling became NXT, Wyatt was finding himself as a charming lunatic who admits his own evil and has expressed a desire to burn the world down.
With this Max Cady-Reverend Harry Powell blend, his magnetism on the mic began to show.
Fans didn't see performances like this when he was Harris. The metamorphosis bled into his ring work as well. Given a character, Wyatt could infuse it into how he attacked his foes. He mixed mauling with slow-dancing, barreling into enemies and kissing their foreheads.
The WWE world was about to experience its next great monster.
Without the gimmick switch, Wyatt would be either floundering in NXT or else released, forced to try to piece together bookings on the independent circuit. As Harris, he was expendable. As Wyatt, he is potentially one of WWE's pillars.
Men in NXT making little headway have to hope to find a similarly successful character shift.
Alexander Rusev's fortunes changed when he went from generic powerhouse to Bulgarian beast. Adam Rose went from languishing in NXT to charging toward a match at a pay-per-view with a former world champion when he found his current party-lover gimmick.
Finding the right fits for Baron Corbin, Jason Jordan and Tye Dillinger will help determine whether their careers are heated by flickers or infernos, whether they are the next Harris or Wyatt.
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