Editorial Columns

What’s In A Name?

Peter Barnes looks at the trend of WWE shortening or even changing names of superstars and wonders whether it’s a good or bad thing.

That was the question that Shakespeare famously posited; it is one of life’s great thinking points. As he puts it through the character of Juliet ‘That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet’. But does that apply to characters as much as flowers, for a start if it was the Smiths and the Jones’s, Romeo and Juliet would have a different feel to it.

Wrestling is an industry built on athletic ability and larger than life characters. Having a good character (or gimmick) is one thing but it is ably supported by a name. A good name adds a layer of depth to any gimmick and is intended to reinforce the characterisation that the wrestler is going for.

Unlike most regular people whose names are chosen by our parents, wrestlers (sometimes the company they work for) have the ability to choose their own name. For instance Mr and Mrs Bollea would never have called their son Hulk, yet he still got to choose to be Hulk Hogan. Likewise, there was never a Mr and Mrs “the Barber” Beefcake, but there was a Brutus. These names are obviously fictional characterisations and as such, the actors behind them can claim expenses as tax deductible (just ask Lorraine Kelly).

So what’s in a name?

To me with the name being chosen, it means there’s a conscious decision by a wrestler and largely one of the first things you learn about a character. It is vital, therefore, to choose wisely when it comes to names. Would Jimmy Havoc still be the BritWres legend that he is, if he chose to be James? Speaking of legends, Big Daddy would be a hugely different character if he kept his real-life (or shoot) name of Shirley.

I could run down the history of names from the pantheon of greats, showing how a name change can signal a change in character. I could analyse Mick Foley having the names which signified the different gimmicks from his past, which were Cactus Jack, Mankind and Dude Love – no prizes for guessing which one of those was a hippie style gimmick. Those are options I could write about but with WWE seemingly cutting wrestlers down to single name monikers I thought it prudent to look at wrestlers having names being changed and whether that changes them as characters.

This is not a new phenomenon, both WCW and WWE would change wrestlers names, especially if the wrestler had been with one company and moved to the other. This phenomenon was and still is also present when going from the indies to WWE or leaving WWE to return to the indies.

For a small amount of time, it was predicted that when Big Cass was released he would find his next gainful employment as Huge Cassidy at IMPACT! (the company that rose from the ashes of WCW). The truth, in this case, is stranger than fiction, as Big Cass rebranded himself on the independent circuit as Big Cazz and then changed his name once more to become Big C. If nothing else, this less than inspired name change tells us something about his character at least. Now he seems to have settled, at least in the short-term, on the name CasXL. The less said about that, the better.

Another notable change was when Tommy End became a WWE employee and ceased to be known as Tommy End, instead taking on the name Aleister Black. As far as my understanding of the character is, there was no discernible change from the indies to WWE. He is still the striking specialist from the Netherlands. He has been given the nickname the Dutch Destroyer, another in the long list of “Nationality + Descriptor” nicknames. Has the change from Tommy End to Aleister Black added to the character? I’m not sure. He’s presented with gothic and metal vibes, but that’s not changed from the indies; the only thing that has seemed to change is he is also presented as being ‘dark and moody’. Potentially, the WWE’s wisdom was that Black is a better surname to represent darkness and moodiness, or that the WWE wanted a clean break for Aleister and to disassociate him from the indies, however I cannot see the rationale behind the latter. My opinion is that the metaphorical flower that is Tommy End would still smell as sweet, Aleister Black still conveys the character.

One option would have been to keep the same name. To an audience used to wrestlers having their name changed as soon as they enter the WWE machine, this seems like sacrilege. However, this is a route they have started to walk down, with two notable stars in particular who came from rivals TNA (an iteration of WCW). Those were Samoa Joe and AJ Styles.

It is a tricky decision for any WWE executive in these situations. On the one hand, you have reputable names who bring name recognition if they stay how they are. At the same time, that encourages the audience to look into their back-story and find out where they came from. However, the decision by WWE to keep Samoa Joe and AJ Styles as they were seemed to suggest a change in thinking and that wrestlers from the independent scene would keep the name and brand that they had built up.

Before AJ, there was a man who had travelled a similar path, in that he spent a lot of time in the indies and the Japanese company NJPW. That man is currently known as Finn Bálor. Before he made his way to the WWE, he was known primarily as Fergal Devitt and in NJPW – Prince Devitt. The reason to change Fergal to Prince was in part due to cultural differences and probable pronouncing issues for the Japanese audience. For him to have been changed from Prince Devitt to Finn Bálor makes some sense to me. The Finn element clearly plays up his Irish-ness but his name also works with the mythology of his character, with his demon. Bálor, so the story goes, was the tyrant king of the Fomorians that wrought destruction when he opened his apparently large eye.

Here the renaming process worked very effectively, but only if you understand the backstory and meaning of Bálor. Without that, it just seems like it’s a return to the same level of Irish as Fergal Devitt, without going back to Fergal, so by using the surname so creatively, WWE have worked extra layers into the character in a subtle and intelligent way.

So what’s in a name? Having a clean break from one character name to another can change how a wrestler is viewed even if nothing else changes. Alternatively, it can be a catalyst for more gimmick changes.

When Divinia Rose bid the independent scene farewell and took up a contract with WWE, she became the “huggable one” that is Bayley. This meant her name joins a rather long list of WWE superstars who inexplicably have a single name, the vast majority of them having been female. AJ Lee started WWE life as AJ; Paige, Natalya and Tamina all have surnames steeped in wrestling history that would surely interest the casual fan in most cases. Yet, these surnames get cast to the wayside, almost as if they’re meaningless.

Thankfully, in recent times this trend has been bucked somewhat. Mercedes KV upon joining the biggest company in wrestling became Sasha Banks, which proved to me that women are allowed more than one name.

This honour of having more than one name has not been extended to the members of Heavy Machinery – Tucker (Knight) and Otis (Dozovic). Someone else who has not been permitted to keep two names is ALI. He was formerly Mustafa Ali, and with this being such a recent change, it is sometimes hard to talk about him and omit his former first name. For WWE to take away the Mustafa element of his name is an aberration. Many people put this better than I can, but the name as a whole was representative of people who share his religious beliefs. It helps normalise those beliefs in a country which is arguably not all that welcoming to them. To take half of it away, does more than erase all the good that being called Mustafa Ali does. By being just known as Ali, it could be easily compared to the great boxer of the same moniker, however, they are two very different characters, so having that connection could actually take away from his character potentially.

In the complete opposite direction, Charlotte Flair gained a name, which in my mind, adds a layer to the gimmick that she uses. When she was first in the WWE machine, she was simply Charlotte. It may seem like an easy direction for the company to have gone down, but the addition of the surname Flair enhances the character. Charlotte’s gimmick (and her reality) was always that she is the daughter of Ric Flair. It adds a level of entitlement to the character, that she’s naturally more talented and more able than anyone else.

Her arrival has taken a step being followed by increasing numbers of wrestlers, in that she has kept her shoot name. I am referring to former MMA-star and actor, Ronda Rousey. She has followed the same suit as Brock Lesnar in wrestling under their real name. It may seem odd to look at characters when the one is known by their birth name, but in not changing name there is a conscious decision taking place. The use of a real name can add a layer of legitimacy to an art form that is regularly seen as fake, although this logic is not the case for everyone using their real names. My opinion is that although the result and the story is largely predetermined, the action is still quite real. Wrestlers take the steps they can to mitigate the risks of injury and make moves look as impactful as possible whilst also keeping their colleagues/opponents safe.

That notwithstanding, and with the two above wrestlers having careers outside of wrestling that has gained them fame, it does make the choice to rename them difficult. Difficult but not impossible, Daria Berenato didn’t carry as much name recognition before signing, but she was still renamed as Sonya DeVille. The choice to keep Ronda and Brock as they are is definitely a conscious choice by management.

So what’s in a name? It is character defining. To answer the question only around 400 years after asked, a rose by any other name won’t smell as sweet, or it might but we’re too busy looking at the thorns to notice that aspect. Any time a wrestler changes their name, there is a choice being made. A choice to show an element of their personality, it’s almost vital and can be greatly underestimated by both young wrestlers and audiences alike.

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You can find me on Twitter @pbwrites92. Thanks for reading.

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