I see branding everywhere. Even in pro-wrestling. Or rather, especially in pro-wrestling. Especially in WWE, which swagged up pro-wrestling. WWE (earlier, WWF) came to India in the early 90s (’91, to be precise), and I and other 17-year-olds and younger were hooked. It was fun, it was testosterone, it was adrenaline, and we realized later, it was fake (ok, “scripted”). But nothing to take away from the costumes (ok, gear) – comprising fur, leather, masks – and each wrestler’s signature moves. And then, we got over it. Perhaps for the same scripted reasons. I can’t remember the last time I watched WWE, and don’t know who the current champ is. Last I knew, courtesy FB Trending, was Roman Reigns, right? (If not, you know how much I know now.)
Another reason perhaps – and a digression this – is that the physiques got assembly line: everyone looks the same six-pack, sculpted, all-shaved now. Earlier, the bods were more “believable” and some even everyday (or what is called dad-bod these days; or basically, my type of bod). I trust wrestlers back then used to gym too, and do steroids too, but somehow they looked less like action figures or the male version of the impossibly proportioned Barbie.
Anyway, one thing I had dug then, and perhaps realized much later, is the gear, each wrestler’s specific costume. Or the way I see it, their unique branding. This sometimes came from a name (such as Jake “The Snake” Roberts building his brand around a snake motif), a personality type (Ric Flair was flamboyance personified with his boa, wooooo and all), or simply, and the way branding goes, with a colour (Hulk Hogan with his bulk of yellow and a smattering of red).
I am sure the wrestlers these days continue that branding tradition, and they need to, but I’ll stick to those from the 90s for this listicle (as my pro-wrestling started and stopped then; if I do catch pro-wrestling on YouTube now, it’s mostly matches from those times). This also makes sense because up until the 90s, pro-wrestlers usually stuck to trunks, tights or singlets. So, nothing to differentiate there.
Here then are my top pro-wrestler branding examples of all time. I’ll stick to WWE, for as I said, it brought branding to pro-wrestling. I have listed just three, but included two more as preambles, to perhaps distinguish between mere branding and smart branding. One or two may not be a surprise, and I may have already mentioned them earlier. But I believe a couple will be, especially the numero uno. Wait, wait, don’t scroll. Else, I’ll give you a piledriver.
First, the ones who don’t quite make it, although they did take their branding forward consistently.
Ric Flair was one of the first few WWE wrestlers I noticed. Could be because he was a famous one. But could also be because of his blond hair. And he took that touch of glam (some would even say bordering on androgyny) forward – to his robe, to the feather boa, and to his calling card: flamboyance. I guess only he could have made all that still appear macho. What I especially like(d) is that he took it all forward right until he hung up his boots. Many wrestlers, as their physique begins withering, begin adopting more body-friendly gear (read: costumes that begun covering the moobs and other body parts that begin sagging).
Jake Roberts took his snake gimmick / branding forward consistently too, from a snake graphic curling up his tights to actually bringing a bevy of snakes to the ring. The long, curly hair somehow worked with the gimmick too. In later years, he too started “covering up”, but made sure, like a good brand does, he remained true to his brand: the snake remained, whether on his tights or in his hands.
And now, the actual list.
And the pro-wrestler with the third-best branding is… Canary.
Huh? Allow me. When WWE had first come to India and had started raging in popularity, I was in college. I had gone for this inter-college festival and was witnessing a round of Taboo in progress. Basically, you get a chit with a proper name but also some words you can’t use (those are taboo). You need to give a set of clues to your partner that don’t use those words. So, one guy got his chit and immediately went: “Canary”. And at once, his partner guessed: “Hulk Hogan”.
Hulk Hogan with his canary-coloured trunks, shirt that he would rip, boots, hair and even moush. That is branding. And now, imagine all those Hulkamaniacs dressed similarly. That. Is. Branding.
However, the Hulk too later, as I wrote earlier, changed his clothing according to advancing age: the trunks gave way to tights. With talk of him possibly returning to WWE, though probably not in grappling capacity, it would be interesting to see what branding he adopts now.
The second-best now. And this, frankly, I noticed only recently. But delighted almost immediately as I did so. Larry Zbyszko with the very difficult surname (oddly enough, his real name is simpler: Larry Whistler) but with the wicked ambigram logo: the L looking like a Z and vice versa, no matter which way you look(ed) at it. When Larry Met Branding Gold. Ok, silver. Because gold’s up next.
Branding also, or especially, works if it has some intrigue value. You wonder what the name or icon means, and when you crack it, you go “Aha!” And then, lavish some more attention over it, this time with the knowledge of achievement.
So, I had “got” this guy’s branding early on. Or, maybe it’s only in my head – but I do believe it’s clever. That apart, I also like(d) him as he had an everyday physique. Hell, he’s even had a paunch for as long as I can remember. (I “suffer” on both those counts.) And the best part is, he continues to wrestle (although in smaller leagues) to this age, which is a ripe 68. Maybe that’s why he’s lived and wrestled so long: he doesn’t look like he did steroids to pump up his body, because those who did, mostly passed away. He says he’ll continue to wrestle until his last breath. Which might be a bit alarming as he’s already suffered a heart attack when in the ring sometime back (although not while wrestling).
Now, without further ado, I give you… Jerry “The King” Lawler. Yowzer? Sure, he’s not too well known in India, and outside, folk will be aghast at a list in which he surpasses the Hulk or even Flair. But folk, reminder: this is a branding list.
So, did Lawler’s King gimmick, complete with crown, royal robe, and regal tune appeal to me? No, that I thought was quite the expected. But take a closer look at Jerry’s top gear: the single-shoulder strap. Do you see a J this side and an L the other side? As in J-erry L-awler. Well, I do. And I saw it back then. And I even wrote to him once, about my fan-worship and the initials on his strap. And he replied, though not to the latter. So, perhaps, it was indeed only in my head?
Or maybe not. Jerry also has this action, where in the latter part of a match, to indicate he means business, he takes off the strap (although I’m not sure how the latter means the former). So, what happens to the J and L then? Ah, then, he becomes the King. See, I told you I see branding everywhere. And that makes Jerry Lawler also the King of Pro-wrestling Branding.
Although, again, I’m not sure the others will like it too much. I already see them coming after me with leg drops, figure-four leg-locks, guillotine chokes and… snakes.
PS: In researching this piece (yup, this needed research too, apart from the sourcing of pix), I came across a couple of interesting sites, one on branding in pro-wrestling by former pro-wrestler Mongol Santino on his eponymous site, and the other on graphic depictions of WWE wrestlers’ gear, which is both fun and has you guessing from the first slide to the last.