Let’s start this off with an admission: with all of the wrestling spectacles and content going down regularly (AEW’s weekly TV and PPVs, Supercard Of Honor, a resurgent IMPACT Wrestling), I’ve lost any consistency in catching WWE’s weekly television programs. Going through RAW and SmackDown was, in the past, the tentpole of my wrestling week. With far more access to far more options now, it’s just not. I still seek out content I hear about, or am interested in, but feel a bit more out of the loop in terms of the latest developments so far in 2022. Imagine my surprise, when I heard second-hand that Elias (who I’ve long enjoyed in NXT and on the main roster) had returned to action after an extended time away! Except he wasn’t Elias. Ok so a gimmick change, I asked, or yet another WWE name change? Did they make him over like Cody into Stardust? No, he’s just himself…only now he’s his brother. Wait, WHAT? This I had to see, even if it turned out to be a curious disaster.
I found every clip, replay, and YouTube upload I could with this “mysterious” new roster member, and the more I watched, the more I found myself enjoying it. Elias had stagnated on the roster, turning face/heel/face/heel too many times and being used as a generic corporate stooge a bit too much; he needed a fresh start. Ezekiel then comes in with a new clean-shaven look, new gear, and the freshest start possible – because he’s a completely different person! He also gives the fans something they can be “in” on, which is where Kevin Owens’s role in this saga comes in. As Zeke, the fans and other members of the roster all just go along for the ride, on the inside they’re all taunting and lording it over KO – because it’s fun! Owens will seemingly go to any length to end the charade, failing time after time, with each go-round making Ezekiel seem more triumphant and endearing him more to the crowd. By the time this story runs its course and Ezekiel is forced to confirm and confront his true identity, all it will take is one guitar shot for the crowd to remember the weeks of fun they’ve had and remind them that they DID like Elias and now he’s back too! WWE recently teased this in setting up a rematch between the two, and the pop was noticeable.
This is not a new recipe in wrestling. For decades, bookers often had to explain absences for injuries, life events, or athletes spending time in another territory. This led to a higher prevalence of matches with suspension and “loser leaves town” stipulations. At times, however, they used those same stakes to re-warm a feud or give a stagnant character – usually a babyface – a fresh coat of paint. When the beloved hero would sadly need to go away, the company allowed enough time to pass so the fans missed them. Commentary would then mention a few times that the missed hero had reached out to their “friend” who would be showing up soon.
Sporting a mask and different gear, these new characters never tried too hard to hide that it was the same man under a new name – which was the point. Heels would complain to anyone who would listen that it was actually the same babyface they’d just beaten, and who was barred from being here! They’d demand something be done, but fail to prove their case until just before, or just after, the terms of the good guy’s exile expired. Sometimes they’d even succeed in taking off the mask, find an unrelated wrestler underneath, then realize they’d been bamboozled and insist they were still right! Meanwhile, the fans just enjoyed the bad guy getting comeuppance, and the good guy still got a huge ovation welcoming them back as themselves.
What is unique and strange about WWE’s use of Ezekiel is that there is no mask, nor a removal of one. He’s just there, clearly the same person, and not hiding it in the slightest bit as opposed to the usual VERY slightest bit, yet it has still been effective. He’s held his line, gotten brilliant tantrums from Owens, with assists from an ever more hilarious Chad Gable, and got the fans on his side in the story and in the ring. Hopefully the payoff will be as inventive as the approach, but they’d still do well to take a page from past takes on the genre. Here are…
4 Wrestlers Who Appeared As Other Versions Of Themselves
1) Dusty Rhodes/”The Midnight Rider”
The go-to example of trying to explain this trope/phenomenon to someone new to the business, it of course involves one of its biggest ever stars. In Florida, The American Dream Dusty Rhodes was as hot as hot could be, but had faced down most of all the major heels in the territory with nothing set up on his horizon. He then lost an unsanctioned lights out steel cage match against Kevin Sullivan, with the consequences being he was banned from competing in the state for 60 days. This was a common setup, with the ultimate return of the hero being pre-scheduled so it could be assured of going smoothly as a payoff to the whole angle. After a few Dream-less weeks, the crowd eagerly ate up the debut of a masked man wearing a bandana around his neck and a more cowboy-centric presentation; he called himself The Midnight Rider. A new star? Gee, take a listen and see who YOU think it might be under there…
The Rider soon went after his friend Dusty’s old enemies, specifically Sullivan and then-champion Ric Flair. He even won the NWA belt from Flair, finally delivering true justice and vengeance as promised! In the ultimate Dusty-style extended tease, there needed to be a champion on record and he declined to unmask and show his true self (the stipulation going around was that if Dusty was busted as the Rider he would have been banned for a full extra year). The Rider was then stripped of the gold, meaning there was still a bad guy to tackle all over again when the good ol’ American Dream came back, Jack. A classic that has been often imitated, but never had its success duplicated, including by Rhodes himself who flopped with it 5 years later in Jim Crockett Promotions.
2) Junkyard Dog/”Stagger Lee”
This one is probably my favorite. Fans who primarily know Junkyard Dog from his time in WWE are likely aware of him being a very popular figure, but one in the mould of someone like Hacksaw Jim Duggan: a huggable character from a bygone era that kids could enjoy and shout “GRAB. THEM. CAKES.” to without a whole lot else going on. It may surprise such folks to know that JYD wasn’t just an incredibly over wrestler in Mid-South Wrestling prior to his WWE work, but in fact was the BIGGEST babyface in the territory and a feature player who drew such ovations that it was worth pretending to take him away.
After winning the North American championship, Junkyard Dog had to defend against his former tag team partner and good friend Ted DiBiase, before he made his kayfabe millions. After starting off with good clean competition, Ted shocked the world by using a loaded glove to turn on his friend and steal the title, becoming a bad guy in the process. JYD sought payback and went up against all of the oldest heel tricks in the book from DiBiase, who of course would turn out to be one of the greatest villains the sport would ever see from then on. Ultimately, during a Loser Leaves Town match, we even saw Duggan himself in a gorilla suit (and as a heel!) interfere and prove too much for the Dog. He was now out of the territory. Soon thereafter, still-North American champ DiBiase went up against an unknown announced as “S. Lee.” Ted and the crowd all seemed confused, until suddenly the music hit.
A masked man appeared at the entrance and charged the ring. Immediately, the crowd erupted and DiBiase began screaming to the ref and throwing a fit. This reinforced what this stranger’s moves would give away in an instant…OF COURSE this was Junkyard Dog in disguise. Yet it was sold as his old friend who, per commentary, “used to beat him up and steal his milk money on the bus” back in the day. Stagger Lee then beat DiBiase quickly in a non-title squash, and even got some poetic revenge by headbutting Ted with his own loaded mask, which only JYD would really have reason to do. But, while it was purposefully obvious (to get the rapturous crowd reaction), it was no throwaway gag, as the company invested in a striking set of matching gear and mask for Stagger, tauntingly bearing “Is It Me?” on the front, and carried the ruse on for more than several weeks, even playing the classic card of having Lee unmasked – as someone besides the Dog! All along, they kept playing him to the ring to the inimitable Lloyd Price version of the namesake tune “Stagger Lee” rather than generic entrance music, or even Dog’s own music.
Using such a blatant trick to get vengeance on DiBiase was nodded to perfectly by that very track, adapted from a famous folk song regarding an African-American man taking penance out in blood from someone who’d taken advantage of him. It fit this scenario perfectly. The different versions of the tune, which go way back to the point of pre-dating recording techniques, vary as to how much Lee was a comeback kid versus a rampaging bastard (and also as to the exact spelling and delivery of his name). Nonetheless, the folk hero role he came to represent was adapted masterfully to the everyman JYD. It was so successful that Koko B. Ware later adopted the same moniker, albeit with a different mask.
3) Elias Samson/“El Vagabundo”
That’s right, Zeke’s own flesh and blood even got in on the act! While in NXT, Elias was in the middle of his time as The Drifter when Kassius Ohno beat him in a match that stipulated the loser could no longer perform on the black-and-gold brand. Fans fully expected this to simply be an excuse to promote Elias to the main roster. He went there eventually, but not before showing up back on NXT in the guise of El Vagabundo, still strumming a guitar and taunting his first opponent under this name, Oney Lorcan, with his signature musical stylings.
This was less about a blood feud or a belt, but showing just how little of a crap Samson gave about rules, traditions, or the people booking the show. He didn’t even bother lacing up his lucha mask! This, as it is wont to do, made him come off as incredibly cool and got the crowd on his side immediately, even when he was ostensibly a heel. It also did not lead to a long-term story as Lorcan unmasked him (again – laces!) during that same first bout. Oh lazy luchador, we hardly knew ye.
4) Jimmy Valliant/”Charlie Brown From Outta Town”
This example, which lends the gimmick its name, is perhaps its most basic and hilarious. On some level, the sheer goddamn audacity to put this onscreen as an angle is fantastic, almost unbelievable even in these days of Ezekiel. I mean, I might buy that Zeke is Elias’s younger brother more readily than the idea that the man in the mask shown above is anyone besides Jimmy Valiant. Valiant, of the legendary giant beard and unique speech patterns, also lost a match requiring him to be gone from Mid-Atlantic Wrestling for some time. On strolled Charlie Brown to continue wowing the crowds. While the small mask and lazy name may seem slight in comparison to the others, it goes to show that even if you strip this idea down to the studs, fans will go with it they love the wrestler and the story. If anything, the fact that there was so little effort put in to something that still bedevilled his opponents made Valiant more over during this use of the idea.
So fret not, Ezekiel fans, perhaps him putting on NO mask, voice, or any disguise whatsoever will prove to be the most successful deniable makeover ever seen in a sport loaded down with them. Is it me? Not so long as Me’s younger brother is drawing the gate!