In this piece we'll examine the key elements necessary to successfully repackage a WWE Superstar.
It's a lot more than just renaming a wrestler or giving them a new outfit. Repackaging involves creating an entirely new character. This character needs to highlight the performer's strengths and position him as an important player within the WWE.
A proper repacking can transform a languishing wrestler into a top superstar. Three recent successful examples of repackaged wrestlers are Dolph Ziggler, Bray Wyatt and Fandango.
Nick Nemeth began his on-screen WWE career in 2005 as the caddy for Chavo Guerrero's golfing alter-ego Kerwin White.
When that gimmick fizzled, Nemeth was repackaged alongside a team of rookies as Nicky of the Spirit Squad. Following a memorable feud with D-Generation X, the Spirit Squad was packed into a crate and shipped back to Ohio Valley Wrestling (OVW).
Still, Nemeth's strong in-ring skills and charisma couldn't be denied.
In late 2008, WWE finally found the right character for Nemeth, and Dolph Ziggler was born. This cocky "Show Off" has since struck gold on multiple occasions, winning the Money in the Bank contract (2012), the WWE Intercontinental Championship (2010, 2014), the United States Championship (2011) and the World Heavyweight Championship (2011, 2013).
Not many wrestlers would get three shots on the main roster. However, Nemeth demonstrated the perfect mix of raw skill, perseverance and showmanship necessary to stick out. Eventually, WWE creative found the right gimmick for him.
With Cody Rhodes as his mentor, Windham Rotunda debuted on the second season of NXT as Husky Harris. While he was eliminated from the NXT competition in August 2010, Husky Harris returned to WWE in October, eventually joining both Wade Barrett's Nexus and later CM Punk's New Nexus. Still, Harris' tenure in WWE was short-lived.
In January 31, 2011, Randy Orton punted Husky Harris on Monday Night Raw. The kick to the head sent Harris off television and back to developmental.
Eighteen months later, Rotunda returned to WWE television as fiendish cult leader Bray Wyatt. He'd transformed into a new man. Sporting a unique look and dangerous entourage, the head of the Wyatt Family captivated the WWE Universe with his intense promos and one-of-a-kind entrance.
Importantly, Bray Wyatt was immediately positioned as a star. Wyatt was seen worthy of feuding with top acts such as The Shield and the company's biggest star, John Cena.
Husky Harris' rebirth as Bray Wyatt was no accident. Instead, it included an intervention from Executive Vice President of Talent, Paul "Triple H" Levesque.
At last month's fireside chat, Triple H discussed Windham's journey from Husky Harris to Bray Wyatt:
He wasn't quite connecting with the crowd. Decent hand. Talented kid. Right person. They were going to let him go and I said, 'Let me take him and do something with him.' We moved that character to NXT. We put some other people around him that fit the package. Moved him back onto Raw and SmackDown, and he's one of our most popular superstars Bray Wyatt. I'll go out on a limb and say in 10 years Bray Wyatt will be one of the most memorable characters in WWE.
After an eternity languishing on NXT as rookie Johnny Curtis from 2010 to 2012, wrestler Curtis Hussey finally had his breakout moment in 2013 when he was repackaged as the flamboyant dancer/wrestler Fandango.
Hussey's new character quickly became a hit, with the crowd memorably singing his music throughout the post-WrestleMania episode of Raw in 2013.
Fandango's success can be attributed to equal parts luck (a catchy theme song) and feud programming (debuting with a high-profile angle against WWE veteran Chris Jericho). It also helped that he was paired with a pretty woman (a role that eventually went to Summer Rae) and integrated into a Total Divas storyline as a possible love interest.
There's three common elements which repeatedly appear when you examine wrestlers who have been successfully repackaged. Those three elements are:
Rotunda was 25 years old when he flipped from Husky Harris to Bray Wyatt. Nemeth was 28 years old when he debuted as Dolph Ziggler. Hussey was 31 years old when he donned shiny pants and transformed into Fandango.
In a company where the average age is 32 to 33 years old, it's important to be repackaged while you're still relatively young.
Next, to invest the time and effort in repackaging a wrestler, the talent needs to prove that he's gifted in several different areas. He needs a memorable look. He needs to be able to perform in the wrestling ring. He must be able to talk. All three successes (Ziggler, Wyatt, Fandango) embody these traits.
Some skills can be taught and refined while a wrestler is training in the developmental leagues. However, there's always that intangible quality which is paramount to success. Triple H called it "charisma, the 'it' factor."
When WWE can tell that a wrestler has the ability to connect with an audience, the company devotes the extra energy required to finding the right gimmick for that performer.
The last key element for success is being programmed with a meaningful star when a newly repackaged wrestler debuts. It's important he comes in and makes a big impression. Programming a new character with top-level talent gives him the opportunity to make a significant impact.
As the old adage goes, "You only get one chance to make a good first impression."
Essentially, a repackaged wrestler is a new character being introduced to the audience. When a repackaged wrestler shows up and competitively wrestles against a top star, it's clear to the audience that this repackaged performer is an important character.
Repackaging doesn't always work. Consider recent examples such as Curtis Axel and Adam Rose.
As the son of WWE Hall of Famer Mr. Perfect, Joe Hennig's future seemed bright. However when he debuted in 2010 on NXT as Michael McGillicutty there were warning signs. The fact he didn't even adopt his father's name seemed odd. Though he was part of Nexus, McGillicutty was completely outshone by charismatic leader Wade Barrett.
For years McGillicutty was stuck in the midcard. He wasn't going anywhere. He was either stuck in a tag team with David Otunga (2011) or losing to Zack Ryder on WWE Superstars and Sin Cara on Saturday Morning Slam (2012).
Finally, Hennig's luck seemed to turn around. In May 2013, Joe Hennig was repackaged as Curtis Axel. With new music and Paul Heyman as his manager, Axel started off strong by feuding with both Triple H and John Cena on Monday Night Raw. However, it was clear things were amiss from the start. When Axel's wins against top talent came from Ryback's interference and not Axel's ability, it became obvious that the reboot was doomed.
While Axel did win the intercontinental title at June's Payback pay-per-view, his time in the sun was short-lived. After a feud with ex-Heyman protege CM Punk, Axel lost the title to Big E Langston in November 2013 and since returned to the midcard mambo.
The lone upside from Heyman's involvement in Axel's repackaging was the new tag team of Axel and Ryback as RybAxel. And while RybAxel have yet to win a tag team championship, they have been consistent players in the division. Sadly, Ryback's recent injury puts that team on hold. Again, the forecast on Axel's future is quite murky.
South African wrestler Ray Leppan was hired by the WWE in 2010. At Florida Championship Wrestling (FCW, the predecessor to today's NXT), Leppan wrestled as the imposing mercenary and hunter Leo Kruger. He was even Florida Heavyweight Champion twice during his time in FCW, but as the years rolled past he failed to ascend to the main roster of the WWE.
Finally, in 2014, Leppan was repackaged as playful life-of-the-party Adam Rose. With his entourage of "Rosebuds" ringside, Rose has racked up quite the string of victories. He's actually undefeated (27-0) in televised singles competition this year. However, his win record still means nothing, as his opponents have been low-level talent. Defeating Camacho and Heath Slater and Damien Sandow and Curtis Axel does not make someone a superstar.
While both Axel and Rose have the raw talent and ability needed to be significant stars, that's not enough. One key element, age, is not in their favor. Perhaps at 34, both Joe Hennig and Ray Leppan are just too old to start over.
Repackaged stars need to have important programs with top talent to be seen as relevant competitors. Axel's feud with Triple H and Cena went nowhere. Rose hasn't been programmed with top guys. Unsurprisingly, neither Axel nor Rose is a major Superstar.
Lately, WWE's idea of repackaging seems to involve simply shortening a wrestler's name. Recent examples include Antonio Cesaro (Cesaro), Alexander Rusev (Rusev) and Big E Langston (Big E).
There's a lot more to actually repackaging a wrestler.
For it to work, you need to take someone who is young, talented and capable of working credibly with top-tier wrestlers. Bray Wyatt is a great example of someone whose career was completely transformed via being repackaged. His success demonstrates how the WWE can reshape a bland wrestler into a memorable Superstar.
In my next article, I'll examine five current WWE Superstars who would greatly benefit from a creative repackaging.