A Look At WWE's Evolving Approach To Superstars' Names

What's in a ring name? Is a GTS delivered by KENTA any more devastating than one administered by Hideo Itami? Though seemingly illogical, the smart money says 'yes', but why?

In the wild world of professional wrestling, character is king and a ring name tells the audience all about the character, whether it is intentional or not. Whether it is the real name of a crossover professional athlete, like WWE Universal Champion Brock Lesnar or WWE RAW Women's Champion Ronda Rousey, the stage name of professional wrestling royalty, like Flair or Rhodes, or names reminiscent of fantasy super villains like Roman Reigns or Kane, a ring name tells us who a performer is and why we should care.

Back in the old 'territory days' of professional wrestling, it was commonplace to have more than one 'Nature Boy' or 'King' traveling the loop because gimmicks moved with the performers. Today, a character's name, catchphrases, and gimmicks may be owned by a promotion instead of the performer.

On the subject of WWE's trademark infringement lawsuit against WCW for Scott Hall and Kevin Nash appearing on WCW programming, WWE argued that Hall and Nash were still using their WWE characters in WCW and Hall averred that a person's face cannot be trademarked. Hall commented on WWE Network's Legends With JBL:

"I just remember thinking, 'the most recognizable features about my character is my face, so I feel like I own that.' And then, shortly after all that, the lawsuit went on from day one, but then, when the fake Razor and the fake Diesel debuted, it was pretty much kind of like, 'okay, like, done deal, like, that's Razor and Diesel. We're 'The Outsiders'."

If a name isn't all that important, why are such great pains taken to secure trademarks in the industry of professional wrestling? Why didn't Hall recapture the magic of his prior Razor Ramon run in WWE when he returned to the powerhouse promotion in 2002? Why is Razon Ramon a WWE Hall Of Famer and Hall isn't? There is no simple answer and getting the promotion, performer, and the audience all invested in a character is not as easy as taking off a 'Ringmaster' vest and putting on a 'Stone Cold' one.

Often lauded as the best class in WWE history, the WWE developmental territory, OVW, amassed the likes of the aforementioned Lesnar, Batista, John Cena, Randy Orton, and Shelton Benjamin in 1999. These standout athletes have one thing in common: they used their shoot names in WWE. While Batista is not exactly Dave Bautista's real name, it is merely a simplified form of the same surname.

When the above-mentioned OVW cohort made its way to the WWE's main roster by 2002, WWE Superstars using their real names was uncommon. See Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, and Booker T, for example. Instead, at that time, WWE was populated more typically by performers with gimmick names such as The Undertaker, Val Venis, and Edge.

Less than a decade later, WWE's roster became primarily constituted of performers using fake names that seem like real names such as Daniel Bryan, Drew McIntyre, and Tyson Kidd. By 2012, there was only a handful of WWE talents still using gimmicky ring names such as Goldust, The Miz, and William Regal. Everyone else was a Michael McGillicutty, Evan Bourne, or Justin Gabriel. Not only that, by this time, a vast majority of WWE performers had their ring names owned by WWE.

A performer's in-ring ability and lineage cannot compensate for a bad ring name. Curtis Axel, also known as Joe Hennig, is the grandson of professional wrestling legend Larry 'The Ax' Hennig and the son of the late great 'Mr. Perfect' Curt Hennig; however, Axel did not really connect with fans under his NXT ring name, Michael McGillicutty. WWE Hall Of Famer Mick Foley talked about the former Michael McGillicutty's predicament on Busted Open Radio in May 2013.

"Not only is he talented and waited his turn and lived through the Michael McGillicutty indignity," Foley professed. "I asked him about that, and, obviously, he didn't want to say anything bad about the company, but he said, 'it hurt a little – it stung when you get your name and it's Michael McGillicutty.'"

Conversely, 'The Rock' Dwayne Johnson struggled to get over with the WWE Universe when he first debuted for WWE in 1996. 'The Rock' was originally given the ring name of 'Rocky Maivia', a name highlighting 'The Rock”s famous pro wrestling father and grandfather, Rocky Johnson and 'High Chief' Peter Maivia. Only when 'The Great One' went with the abbreviated nickname of 'The Rock' did he find great success in the genre.

Axel demonstrated you're damned if you don't use the legacy ring name, but The Rock showed you're also damned if you do indeed use it. Second-generation star Charlotte Flair debuted in the WWE without reference to her father, Ric Flair, in her ring name; however, WWE would later add Flair to Charlotte's ring name.

The use of family names in professional wrestling gets even more convoluted from there. Cody Rhodes, son of WWE Hall Of Famer, the late great Dusty Rhodes, was able to use the famed Rhodes name in WWE. Since striking out on his own, Cody is only really ever called Rhodes when he is introduced along with his wife Brandi. The reason for this is that WWE trademarked the name Cody Rhodes, but Brandi appeared for WWE as Eden Stiles, and the company never trademarked the name Brandi Rhodes. Now, no one can say that Brandi married Cody for his name and Cody has even more reason to always want his lovely wife by his side.

Unlike professional wrestling royalty like the Rhodes and Flairs, some famous professional wrestling families are so large and have so many notable family members that no single last name encompasses the entire clan. For example, Smiths, Neidharts, and Harts are all members of Canada's first family of professional wrestling. Also, Fatu, Maivia, and Snuka are names we commonly associate with the Samoan Dynasty.

In April 2017, Roman Reigns talked about how he came up with his ring name on Talk Is Jericho. Notably, Reigns, the top babyface known for getting jeered by the wrestleverse, suggested that Roman Reigns is name for a heel performer. Perhaps, ring names subconsciously color the way we perceive different characters and a super villain name in the flavor of Lex Luthor is not the most straightforward path to fan adulation and relatability.

"I knew I wanted Roman. I liked Roman. I wanted Roman only and they were like, 'no, you need a last name'. And there's actually another guy in FCW by the name of Calvin Raines. He spelled it like 'rain', like a 'raindrop'. And they, I believe, released him and sorry, brother. He's a good man, a real nice brother. Sorry. Roman Raines sounded good to me, so they were like, 'alright, give me four or five different names' and they were like, 'okay, we'll go with like'? I was going through it and Corey Graves, he was down in FCW, still working at that time, he's actually one of my good buddies and our families are like really good friends. He told me, he was like, 'hey, I heard you saying 'Roman Raines'. What if you spelled it like, 'reigns', like a king reigns.' And I was like, 'whoa, I like that.' And there you go. And total heel name too!"

In addition to insinuating that the Michael McGillicutty ring name was holding back the performer wearing it, Foley claimed that Dolph Ziggler's ring name is so bad that the hardcore legend even tried to get WWE to change it. In 2014, Foley tweeted, in relevant part:

"I do agree that [Dolph Ziggler] is a terrible ring name. A couple years ago, I sent a very detailed e-mail to the powers that be with a suggestion of how he could get out of the name, and simultaneously garner some mainstream media attention? but never heard back from those in charge."

Unlike other standout collegiate athletes who have been able to use their shoot names in WWE like Angle or Lesnar, Ziggler came into the company with a comedic gimmick in 2005 as Kerwin White's golf caddy and then later as a member of the cheerleading The Spirit Squad. Chad Gable and Jason Jordan are two other outstanding amateur wrestlers who were given ring names in WWE rather than being able to use their real names. Perhaps, Jordan should change his ring name to Jason Angle to capitalize on his fake father's real name and repute in amateur wrestling since Jordan cannot capitalize on his own real name and repute in amateur wrestling in WWE.

On the subject of shortening ring names, WWE is not shy about making the names of its performers leaner and snappier. In recent memory, WWE has shortened the names of Heavy Machinery's Otis Dozovic and Tucker Knight to just Otis and Tucker; the former La Sombra, Andrade 'Cien' Almas, is going by just Andrade now; and WWE made sure WWE stands for 'Walk With Elias' by dropping the last name Samson. Additionally, Apollo Crews saw his fake last name get tossed and boomerang back to him. Likely, the draw of calling the WWE Monday Night RAW Superstar's fanbase 'Apollo's Crew' or 'The Crews Crew' is too attractive for WWE brass to pass up.

On episode 655 of the Taz Show, the former Tazz weighed in on Otis and Tucker losing their last names in WWE.

"We're talking about Otis and Tucker, Tucker Knight and Otis, his gimmick name is Furnham-Burnham. He has that long name. So why would that happen?" Taz asked rhetorically. "They want to push and promote characters that are not real names, if possible, okay, because they want to make money off of them because, then, when you leave the company, they think about when you leave. When you're pushing, you can't take Tucker Knight. You can take Tucker Knight in four, three, five years or Otis [Dozovic]. I'm screwing up the young man's last name. Well, Big E says, 'welcome to the club, boys' because Big E is just Big E, so then, when you go to use your name, your real name, when you're goneski, it [does not] mean anything. See? That's how you teach people."

The former Big E Langston joked on Twitter recently that Otis and Tucker have joined a not-so-exclusive club of WWE performers who have had their ring names shortened. Other members include the aforementioned Andrade, [Antonio] Cesaro, [Alexander] Rusev, [Erick] Rowan, [Luke] Harper, and [Adrian] Neville, now PAC, before he ran around and deserted WWE.

Not all former WWE Superstars are as fortunate as 'The Bastard' insofar as they don't have established names on the indie scene to fall back on. Some former WWE Superstars, are largely byproducts of the WWE developmental system and have had little to no experience elsewhere. The realest guys in the room, Big Cass and Enzo Amore, have both struck out on their own and have played off their WWE ring names for professional appearances with Big Cass appearing as Big Cazz or Big C and Enzo Amore going by nZo. Others see their star shine brightest in WWE and will forever be identified with the powerhouse promotion. Hornswoggle, who appears for WWE from time-to-time, shortened his WWE ring name to Swoggle on the indies.

Ring names are so important that some professional wrestling performers have even changed their legal names to their most prominent ring names. In 1993, James Brian Hellwig, popularly known as The Ultimate Warrior, changed his name to Warrior. Instead of renaming himself with the first name 'Ultimate' and last name 'Warrior', the WWE Hall Of Famer went with simply 'Warrior' like Sting [the professional wrestler] or Sting [the musician]. Later, Warrior's wife, Dana, and daughters, Indiana and Mattigan, would receive Warrior as their surname.

Another one-name WWE star who underwent a legal name change upon leaving the company is Joanie Laurer, better known as Chyna. After leaving WWE in 2001, Laurer was unable to make appearances as Chyna due to WWE's trademark protections. The former DX member would work as Chyna Doll until finally changing her legal name to Chyna in 2007.

Unlike Warrior and Chyna, Ryan Allen Reeves, also known as former WWE Superstar Ryback, legally changed his first name only. The former Skip Sheffield legally changed his name to Ryback Allen Reeves in 2016.

Changing one's legal name may seem like a drastic step, but those are the lengths some will go to when trademarking the ring name is not an option. Seeing professional wrestling performers trademarking their ring names is commonplace today. Jake Hager, formerly WWE's Jack Swagger, told Sporting News in January 2019 that he is in the process of trademarking his WWE ring name and does not expect to face opposition from the company.

"As far as the Jack Swagger name, [WWE] do not have it trademarked. I'm in the process of trademarking the name. I know there's a singer who has it trademarked for musical performances but this isn't music. I think I have a good chance of owning it down the line. I won't have the name for this [first] fight, but hopefully, by the second fight it will be Jack Swagger."

WWE seems to have taken a new, perhaps more relaxed stance when it comes to allowing talents to own their existing ring names and use those names on WWE programming. Former Impact Wrestling performers with goodwill and equity behind their rings names such as AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, Bobby Roode, and Eric Young were all brought into WWE with the names they made famous outside of the WWE Universe.

On Sam Roberts' Wrestling Podcast in April 2016, Styles joked that he would have been willing to change his ring name to just about anything for a WWE run.

"'Oh, he's BJ Smiles!', like I'm a wrestler from Fire Pro Wrestling," Styles joked. "I literally was like, 'you know what, man? I'll do whatever you guys want to do. Sure, I'd like to keep my name, but who wouldn't? But that's not going to stop me from going to the WWE. I want to do what's best for my family and my career, so if it works out, it works out [and] if it doesn't, it doesn't.' A lot of prayer went to this stuff, but everything worked out the way that it should've and they knew, I mean, it just goes to show how smart they are as well, because when the word 'phenomenal' popped on that screen [at WWE Royal Rumble 2016], it was like, that was the right thing to do."

Samoa Joe explained why he and Styles were able to keep their existing ring names in WWE on Sam Roberts' Wrestling Podcast in April 2016.

"My lawyer is dope," Joe laughed. "Yeah, but I'm really super over and awesome, so that helps. I think the biggest thing really is when they looked at the situation, which was very unique that I was coming into, and AJ's much the same way. It's very unique where we have decade-plus careers and decade-plus name recognition behind us that it's more of a benefit to keep us as we are, so I think that's the biggest thing. And for branding purposes and all that, I understand their business acumen behind trying to change somebody's name. But, at the same time, do we want to start moving stuff a couple of months down the line or start moving stuff on night one? And that was a motivating factor too. I mean, it was financially smart and it was creatively smart, so I think that was the biggest thing that went into it."

Along these lines, the likes of Styles and Joe have not been required to change up their characters in WWE, so it stands to reason that they would be able to keep their longstanding ring names. Instead, they have been tasked with adopting their presentations to the bright lights of WWE. Conversely, the NJPW faithful would say that Finn Bálor, the former Prince Devitt, is not the same character that led The Bullet Club in Japan or some 'ultraviolent' inhabitants of the wrestleverse would submit that Jon Moxley is a different persona from Dean Ambrose.

WWE cruiserweights such as Akira Tozawa, Jack Gallagher, and Cedric Alexander may have flown in under WWE's radar as they were allowed to bring in their existing ring names with them to WWE. As a matter of fact, all of the original Cruiserweight Classic participants who stuck with WWE after the tournament kept their existing ring names with the exception of TJ Perkins, who has since had his WWE ring name shortened to TJP. Sure enough, WWE has since filed applications to trademark the names of the entire 205 Live roster. We see a very similar occurrence happening with NXT UK where WWE is leveraging the existing characters and ring names of its UK talent and move to trademark any of the ring names that have no such legal protections already.

On very rare occasions, a professional wrestling performer will beat WWE to the patent and trademark office. Most recently, independent wrestler and actress Tatevik Hunanyan, also known as Tatevik 'The Gamer', applied to trademark the name Sister Abigail. Hunanyan attempted to develop the Wyatt Family character with WWE for over a year before filing for the trademark in the Summer of 2018. In December 2018, WWE applied for an extension to oppose the trademark. It will be interesting to see how this scenario plays out as WWE presses on to secure a ring name that is not currently being used in any storyline or by any performer.

So what's in a ring name? A ring name tells the audience who a character is, for better or worse. Also, a ring name might be an indication of what a promotion thinks of a certain performer and his or her potential. Sometimes, ring names are carefully plotted out. Sometimes, ring names are borne from epiphany. Sometimes, extreme measures are taken to safeguard ring names, and, sometimes, lengthy courtroom battles are waged over ring names.

What is clear is that a ring name is a very important thread in the tapestry that is the presentation of a professional wrestler. It is often said that first impressions are the most lasting and a ring name is often the first thing we learn about a character. Undoubtedly, the ring name is what will echo on in the annals of professional wrestling history when the performer hangs up the boots.

Source: Wrestling Inc.