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Thursday Night Tanders (10/22/15): Who Are the Wrestlers in Your Neighborhood?



What do I remember about ‘90s television? The channel we know today as TV5 had Quantum Leap, a series starring accidental time traveler Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) and his pervy, yet well-meaning sidekick Al (Dean Stockwell). The X-Men cartoon series was on ABS-CBN,and it was in ENGLISH. No Tagalog dubbing like what TV5 does now. The Simpsons on RPN-9 was still years away from jumping the shark. Cable TV introduced me to Beavis and Butt-head and The Adventures of Pete and Pete, not to mention newer episodes of locally-shown foreign series on Star World. TV5 was also the main channel for WWF programming, and between ads for R&A Homevision and Encarnacion Bechaves, I saw some of the weirdest gimmick wrestlers turn the WWF into a blend of the United Nations, Gabi ng Lagim, and the Village People.

In the 1990s WWF scene, it seemed like a prerequisite for midcarders and below to have some sort of gimmicky gimmick. And a lot of these gimmicks involved some sort of non-wrestling job. Today on Thursday Night Tanders, we take a look at the best and worst of the 1990s occupational wrestler trend. 

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THAT’S ONE FOR YOU, NINETEEN FOR ME (TAXMAN!)

Irwin R. Schyster - the taxman who fathered a cult leader and a motivational speaker.

Occupational wrestlers first started crawling out of the woodworks in the late ‘80s, which was when we first met wrestling barbers (Brutus Beefcake), Elvis impersonators (Honky Tonk Man), male models (Rick Martel), and prison guards (Big Boss Man). Even as Jacques Rougeau was repackaged as The Mountie in 1990 and Tito Santana as the bullfighting El Matador in 1991, these types weren’t that common yet; somebody needed to open the floodgates. And that somebody, I’d say, was tax collector Irwin R. Schyster. IRS, get it?

Being barely aware of the WWF in 1984-1985, I didn’t realize that IRS was actually Mike Rotunda, one-half of former WWF World Tag Team Champions The US Express, where he had teamed with future brother-in-law Barry Windham. That team was a talented yet colorless unit that eventually ended up jobbing when Windham was replaced by Dan Spivey, the man who became Waylon Mercy in the mid-‘90s and arguably served as the main influence for Mike’s son Windham Rotunda and his Bray Wyatt persona. Six Degrees of Mike Rotunda, anyone? Now all we need is for Bo Dallas to cut his hair, drop the lukewarm motivational speaker gimmick, and become Bo I. Rotunda, second-generation taxman.

On a more serious note, Rotunda the elder did, in all fairness, make that gimmick work. From 1991 to 1995, he had a solid midcard run as IRS, holding the Tag Team titles thrice with Ted DiBiase Sr. as one-half of Money Inc. IRS was a very entertaining heel, as he’d wrestle in full taxman attire, and accuse fans and babyface wrestlers of being tax cheats. He even entered the ring to the sound of a typewriter typing! And though the term wasn’t invented yet, IRS was such a great troll—paying one’s taxes, after all, is the epitome of all necessary evils. Nobody likes paying their taxes, much less preparing them. Combine that with Rotunda’s strong promo skills and his willingness to roll with whatever creative gave him, and you had an effective heel who knew how to draw heat. 

It also helped that he had a dorky first name to match his no-fun taxman persona. Chants of “IRWIN!” were commonplace whenever IRS would take to the ring to scold faces and fans and demand that they pay their taxes.

While he often gets described as boring and overly gimmicky, I beg to disagree; you’d never confuse him with Shawn Michaels as an all-around worker and entertainer, but he could get under the audience’s skin and work pretty well. 

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THE FLOODGATES OPEN

The IRS gimmick worked because Mike Rotunda was a good (not great) worker and promo guy who didn’t have qualms about being a taxman. Seeing how well IRS was doing in his role, Vince McMahon probably saw it fit to make it a thing beginning in 1992, and begin launching more WWF newbies or repackaging existing stars as men with non-wrestling day jobs. Following Bill “Demolition Ax” Eadie’s retirement, Barry “Demolition Smash” Darsow traded his facepaint for a bad Lone Ranger mask and became The Repo Man, a guy who’d go as far as repossessing a young kid’s bike, and riding off on it. Charles Wright’s first WWF gimmick was Papa Shango, a wrestling voodoo priest who made everyone from The Ultimate Warrior to random jobbers bleed black. He’d also have runs as a couple other occupational wrestlers, namely MMA fighter Kama, then wrestling pimp The Godfather. Suffice to say, it’s that latter gimmick that Wright’s best remembered for.


Speaking of future Attitude Era mainstays, Monty Sopp and Mike Polchlopeck (two of the most non-wrestling names ever) debuted in 1993 as Billy and Bart, The Smoking Gunns, a team of wrestling cowboys with bad ‘80s mullet/mustache combos. Billy Gunn’s future New Age Outlaws teammate “Road Dogg” Jesse James was launched in 1994 as The Roadie, Jeff Jarrett’s literal roadie, and he soon became a wrestling country singer himself as “The Real Double J,” Jesse Jammes. (I never got the superfluous “m,” but he could legitimately carry a tune.) Bob Holly debuted as Thurman “Sparky” Plugg, a wrestling NASCAR racer who was somehow legit because outside the ring, the real-life Bob Howard raced stock cars on a small-time basis. Several men—Matt Borne, Steve Lombardi, Steve Keirn (also wrestling alligator hunter Skinner), and Ray Apollo—all took turns playing Doink the Clown, an evil clown who was quite effective before they turned him face.


Most of those men were successful midcarders at their best, except Skinner, who had more success as a trainer, and Bart Gunn, if you consider the peak of his career was winning the abysmal Brawl for All in 1999. Heck, Billy Gunn and Holly were with the WWF/E for more than a decade straight! But the occupational revolution produced more duds than it produced future stars. Let’s start with a few from 1992-94.

Veteran jobber Steve Lombardi as Abe "Knuckleball" Schwartz.
Demolition Smash’s gimmick change to Repo Man was a huge fall-off, for sure. I mean, would you take a grown man in a Lone Ranger mask repossessing a young boy’s bike seriously? Big Boss Man briefly feuded with a guy called Nailz, a beast of a wrestling convict with an artificial death metal growl (his real voice was quite high-pitched for a big guy) and a severe lack of competent wrestling skills. He was gone within months, not because he sucked, but rather because he actually tried to choke Vince McMahon in a real-life pay dispute. Before becoming deplorable slob Bastion Booger, Mike Shaw was wrestling monk Friar Ferguson for one Raw episode. Jobber of many gimmicks Lombardi was creative’s choice to play Abe “Knuckleball” Schwartz, the “Most Violent Player” of Major League Baseball and a short-term character used to parody the 1994 MLB strike. 

The years 1995 and 1996 saw WWF double down on the occupational trend, debuting a series of mostly short-lived characters who, if they weren’t quickly pulled from TV, soon tumbled down to glorified jobber status. Duke “The Dumpster” Droese hailed from Mount Trashmore, and he was a wrestling garbageman. Wrestling magician Phantasio routinely makes “Worst Gimmicks” lists—he made jobber Tony De Vito’s underwear disappear with a magical wedgie in his sole televised appearance in 1995! Jean-Pierre Laffite supposedly hailed from Louisiana as the descendant of great pirates, but couldn’t hide the fact that he was actually the wrestler formerly known as Quebecer Pierre. (Not occupational because THEY’RE NOT THE MOUNTIES!) WCW’s Maxx Payne became wrestling rock star Man Mountain Rock, who didn’t last long even if he could actually play that WWF logo-shaped guitar. And for shame—Shane Douglas' second WWF run may have lasted longer than the first, but there's a reason why The Franchise hated that run so much. He was wrestling educator Dean Douglas, and while he did win the Intercontinental Championship, he held the belt for all of eleven minutes.

A year later, wrestling plumber TL Hopper and wrestling hockey enforcer The Goon were forgettable, except if you think of how bad their gimmicks were. After his shitty (pun intended) run as Hopper, Tony Anthony then became Uncle Cletus, manager of the heel incarnation of The Godwinns. Mark Canterbury (Henry) and Dennis Knight (Phineas) were mediocre in the ring and had a bad gimmick to match, but wrestling pig farmers Henry O. and Phineas I. Godwinn (HOG and PIG, duh!) somehow lasted a couple of years in those gimmicks. You’ll see a little more of them in a bit. 

Yes, those were men—headbangin' men—underneath those nun's habits. The Flying Nuns/Sisters of Love celebrate over a fallen Henry O. Godwinn.
The Godwinns and Droese lasted long with their occupational gimmicks, and as we said earlier, Friar Ferguson was gone faster than you can say one Our Father and three Hail Marys. We saw another one-time religious occupational gimmick in early 1997, in the form of The Flying Nuns. And no, this wasn’t a female tag team, but two former enhancement talents named Chaz Warrington and Glenn Ruth who wrestled a few times in 1996 as heavy metal fans The Headbangers. After the Nuns beat The Godwinns on the debut episode of Shotgun Saturday, non-wrestling evangelist Brother Love (Bruce Prichard) offered to manage Mother Smucker (Warrington) and Sister Angelica (Ruth) and renamed them The Sisters of Love. About a week later, Warrington and Ruth were still wearing skirts, but once again as Mosh and Thrasher, the Headbangers; they’d have a solid late-’90s run and win a Tag Team title under this far more successful gimmick.

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FROM THE OUTHOUSE TO THE PENTHOUSE – THEY MADE IT OUT OF OCCUPATIONAL PURGATORY

Okay, we know what you’re thinking here—if there’s someone who succeeded despite having a job for a gimmick, it must be The Undertaker. I’ve always thought of him as ambiguously occupational. Sure, he’s a wrestling undertaker who made his own coffins and stuffed jobbers into body bags way back in the day. But his main selling point wasn’t the fact that he was a big, creepy dude who works at a funeral parlor. His selling point was, and still is his being (almost) impervious to pain—a wrestling zombie, and I don’t mean the guy who showed up in the premiere of WWECW and got owned by The Sandman. So with that in mind, Taker DOES qualify as occupational, even if you can argue his gimmick is more supernatural at the end of the day. Hey, if I included Papa Shango earlier, why not count the Deadman in as well? He’s truly unique as far as occupational goes—in 25 years in the WWF/E, he’s always had a good push or better, and has won more than a few main event titles using variations of that original gimmick of his.


We don’t need to remind you of what Mark Calaway accomplished in two decades and a half in the WWF/E. But regardless of who wins in his epic encounter against Brock Lesnar this Sunday at Hell in a Cell, we’ll have more Taker for you in next week’s Thursday Night Tanders Halloween special. 

Like some of the other men in this list, it’s debatable whether one can call Justin “Hawk” Bradshaw, who debuted in 1995, occupational or gimmicky. Like The Smoking Gunns, he was a wrestling cowboy, but with a lot of evil mountain man thrown into the mix. With his blonde ponytail, mustache, branding iron, and screamed promos, the man they called Hawk had a habit of branding his jobber victims with the initials “JB.” But after a series of unremarkable squash wins and light-counting for the stars, Bradshaw faded out and was eventually repackaged with shorter black hair as Blackjack Bradshaw, one-half of the New Blackjacks. 

This essentially cemented Bradshaw as a tag team specialist, as he would move on in a couple years to form the dark, ominous Acolytes with real-life best friend Faarooq, a.k.a. Ron Simmons. The Acolytes, of course, would lighten up, turn face, and become the beer-drinking, poker-playing, ass-kicking APA, or Acolytes Protection Agency. Yes, another occupational gimmick, but man, was it over with the fans, as it was more badass and realistic than it was cartoonish. 

Fast forward to 2004. Simmons, now 46, is headed to retirement and occasional appearances as that guy who says “DAMN!” His 37-year-old teammate Bradshaw, on the other hand, was headed to greater things, now sort-of using his real name as John “Bradshaw” Layfield. After nine years of running the midcard treadmill, JBL had finally made the main event, basing his new heel gimmick on his real-life credentials as a financial analyst and his conservative political leanings, not to mention JR Ewing, “lead heel” of 1980s primetime soap opera Dallas

Why did JBL’s push happen? There’s really no explanation behind his surprising push at an age where most main eventers are beginning to wind down their big push and move slightly down the card to put the younger guys over on occasion. But we can always theorize. A close friendship with locker room leader The Undertaker? Stiff and powerful Clotheslines from Hell? A need to fill in the voids left when Stone Cold Steve Austin “took his ball and went home” and The Rock left for Hollywood? Might be a combination of all three.

The devil's favorite dentist, Isaac Yankem.

Another occupational wrestler who eventually leveled up to the main event was Dr. Isaac Yankem, Jerry Lawler’s evil dentist. Standing close to seven feet tall, Yankem was more of an enforcer to the King, and from summer 1995 to early 1996, he defeated pure jobbers while losing, mostly by disqualification, in matches against Bret Hart. As the “kiss my foot” arc of the Lawler vs Bret feud faded into history, so did Yankem’s push, and he was eventually taken off television for several months.

When he returned, it was as part of another ill-fated 1990s WWF storyline, as the beloved Jim Ross turned heel and reintroduced the fans to Razor Ramon and Diesel. No, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash weren’t back in the WWF after their invasion of WCW. Instead, we got Rick Bognar as Razor, and Glenn Jacobs, the man who played Isaac Yankem, as Diesel. Everything about this storyline went down like a fart in church, and it wasn’t long before Good Ol’ JR quietly turned face again and the bogus Outsiders disappeared from TV screens.

You can’t keep a young and promising big man down, especially since a lot of wrestling giants back in the day were as big as they were inept. Giant Gonzalez’s workrate was always shite, Yokozuna had just eaten his way out of the WWF, and over in WCW, former collegiate basketball star Ron Reis was stinking up rings as THE YET-TAY. (Actually “Yeti,” but that’s how Tony Schiavonne said it.) With Jacobs’ first two gimmicks flopping, third time proved to be the charm, as he was repackaged as The Undertaker’s storyline brother Kane in the spring of 1997. The rest, as they always say, is history—whether he’s Demon Kane or Corporate Kane, Glenn Jacobs remains an entertaining fixture in today’s WWE, even as he draws closer and closer to 50.

Jeff Jarrett actually had a nice push despite his occupational gimmick.

And how can we forget this man? That’s J-E-double-F, J-A-double-R-E-double-T, Jeff Jarrett. The son of legendary promoter Jerry Jarrett, “Double J” debuted in the WWF in 1993 as a country singer. And not any ordinary country singer, but the world’s greatest wrestler, and the world’s greatest entertainer. Like The Undertaker, this is an unusual case of an occupational guy who was mainly in the upper midcard/main event. Compared to cowboy Bradshaw and dentist Yankem, Jarrett was pushed quite well in his WWF runs; he won the Intercontinental Championship in 1994 and flirted briefly with WWF title contendership. Not to mention, he’s also the ONLY occupational guy thus far in this article who wrestled under his real name.

After a one-year spell in WCW, Jarrett returned to WWF in the fall of 1997, launching a nasty pipebomb that dissed both Eric Bischoff and Vince McMahon, and also dissed his country singer gimmick. He was supposed to be the centerpiece of a brief NWA-vs-WWF invasion angle, but since that eventually fell flat, he was back to “singing” country music in early ‘98, having hired Tennessee Lee (Robert Fuller/Col. Robert Parker) as his manager, then Southern Justice as his bodyguards—that’s the tag team formerly known as The Godwinns, now working under their real names. And lo and behold—the announcers acknowledged that Mark Canterbury and Dennis Knight were once known as Henry and Phineas Godwinn! But going back to Double J, Jarrett still had a decent push and he was booked as a legit threat despite his occupational gimmick redux.

If I recall right, it was Jarrett’s loss to X-Pac in a hair-vs-mask match at SummerSlam 1998 that was the catalyst for his productive final year in WWF, where he finally dropped the country star gimmick. And as he left for WCW, never to be seen again on WWF/E television (except for that one time Mr. McMahon fired him on live TV during the WCW buyout of 2001), Jarrett became a legit main eventer, playing a prominent role till his last TNA appearance in 2013, and again for the short-lived GFW invasion.

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REALITY KILLS THE OCCUPATIONAL STAR

Update Rick Martel for the 2010s and imbue his gimmick with modern technology—meet present-day occupational wrestler Tyler Breeze.
What’s the main takeaway from all this reminiscing about occupational gimmicks? WWF circa early ‘90s was a kid-centric product. Creative wanted to present characters whom young kids can relate to, “people in your neighborhood” as the old Sesame Street song goes. Or maybe they were characters from scary childhood stories, like Undertaker or Papa Shango, or even Isaac Yankem—nobody likes going to the dentist, especially little children!

The occupational trend hasn’t really died, as proven by Fandango (ballroom dancer) and Los Matadores (bullfighters), and newly-debuted main roster call-up Tyler Breeze (male model). But it’s certainly faded, with a few other exceptions, like these ones. As the Attitude Era took hold of the WWF, we saw The Godfather tell us that “pimpin’ ain’t easy!” Val Venis was a wrestling porn star. As the 2000s hit, Dave Bautista debuted as Deacon Batista, a church deacon working as Reverend D-Von Dudley’s enforcer. Shad Gaspard and JTG were Cryme Tyme, a pair of petty criminals moonlighting as wrestlers. You can even call Spirit Squad occupational—a stable of wrestling male cheerleaders! And for one SmackDown episode in 2012, Tyler Reks and Curt Hawkins were an unnamed tag team of macho dancers. See? Occupational still exists, but it’s still mostly a mid- to lower-card thing, and progressively less prevalent.

But why are occupational wrestlers slowly headed to extinction? Why do today’s fans want their wrestlers—even the curtain-jerkers counting lights—to be edgier versions of themselves and not, say, wrestling auto mechanic Dean Ambrose, wrestling foodie Ryback, or wrestling comic book store owner Neville? It’s simple. This is, as the former Connecticut Blueblood Triple H put it, the Reality Era.

"Hi, I'm Ryan Reeves. And I'm a foodie." Nah. Ryback and "FEED ME MORE" sounds better.

Yesterday’s young wrestling fan was less jaded and easier to please. I, for instance, wanted my good guy wrestling heroes to be like comic book characters. That was the reason why Bret Hart’s technical wrestling style and genuine promos didn’t appeal to me at first. Conversely, I wanted my bad guys to be obviously, unambiguously bad, and with comic book or cartoon villains often being a sinister version of an everyday profession, occupational heels were all fine by me. Even until my early college days, I was fine with the for-ages-12-and-below product the WWF was trotting out, if not exactly thrilled. But as I was already an older teenager when the Attitude Era kicked off, I had to admit it was a welcome change from cartoonish to edgy and realistic storylines.

These occupational characters won’t have much of a chance to stick around these days, even as a stepping stone to main event stardom a la Kane, Jarrett, or to a lesser degree, JBL. Today’s fans know the score—wrestling IS the day job for the men and women we see every week on WWE or TNA. And even if it would be a nice idea to add a couple occupational gimmicks to the current major league wrestling scene, they just won’t connect to fans like some of the ‘90s occupational guys did. Once again, today’s WWE fans, who come from a much broader demographic than pre-Attitude Era WWF, want something that feels real.

These days, fans want to watch wrestlers they can relate to because they remind them of fictionalized versions of the people they interact with regularly. There’s John Cena talking and acting like a Student Council president or a good-guy jock with a hands-on approach to bullies. Then you’ve got Kevin Owens as the perfect parallel to a school bully—overweight but surprisingly a good fighter, runs when someone confronts him for his bullying. Those crazy cultists you hear about in the news? Bray Wyatt and his Family. Dean Ambrose is like your everyday eccentric who’s still popular because he doesn’t give a fuck. And Randy Orton and Roman Reigns are your nasa loob ang kulo types—men of few words whom you don’t want to piss off. Oh, let's not forget Dolph Ziggler, the former golf caddy and male cheerleader. Whether face or #HEEL, he's like that guy your ex-girlfriend dumped you for. And he'll be glad to remind you of that fact and rub it in your face.

Or what about relating WWE Superstars to workplace people? Easy. Seth Rollins is like your call center account’s Chosen One. He’s like the arrogant suck-up who got promoted to team leader even if (or because) he stabbed your teammates in the back after one of those “what you see, what you hear, leave it here” inuman sessions where you mostly rant about the bosses. Likewise, The Bella Twins are like those chismosas at work who want to break you up with your officemate turned relationship partner just because. And if you ever got a pay cut or laid off because it’s “best for business” and the company’s got to go lean and mean, who else comes to mind but Triple H and Stephanie McMahon?

All told, it all boils down to occupational wrestlers not being realistic enough for the Reality Era. You can’t expect the neighborhood plumber to DDT you and put a plunger on your head if you told him your toilet’s still clogged, nor can you expect a country singer to bash you in the head with his guitar if you called his rendition of “God Gave Me You” an insult to everything Alden Richards stands for. When it comes to making a living, plumbers unclog toilets, musicians make music, wrestlers wrestle.

The way I see it, occupational wrestlers may still stick around for a while as an “endangered” gimmick category—every promotion big or small needs some levity or comic relief, and they still can provide it to a certain degree.  Let’s face it—a lot of those guys were fun to watch! I personally have a soft spot for them, much like I enjoy watching horror B-movies from the ‘80s and ‘90s. But with the Reality Era in place, they certainly won’t be popping up like Gremlins in the rain like they did back in the ‘90s, and being an occupational guy these days might as well be the kiss of death for a young wrestler’s push, and a great way to set the glass ceiling much lower.

Just ask Fandango.


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The Throwback Tito is Enzo Tanos, a freelance writer and the drummer/manager for garage rock band The Myopics, where he hopes to debut his masked lucha drummer persona “Sin Verguenza” in future gigs. A wrestling fan since childhood, he’s old enough to remember watching Outback Jack’s pointless vignettes, and One Man Gang’s transformation to Akeem.



PHOTO CREDITS - IRS c/o Wrestling Forum, Knuckleball Schwartz c/o ShitloadsOfWrestling.tumblr.com, Flying Nuns c/o Cageside Seats, Isaac Yankem c/o Flickering Myths, Jeff Jarrett c/o Fanpop, Tyler Breeze c/o Bleacher Report, Ryback c/o First We Feast

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