In pro wrestling, finding the right character can take years of trial and error, rooms full of intelligent minds combining together, and an unrivalled passion and dedication from the one that portrays it. Or, you could just straight up steal something directly from fiction. Movies, folk lore, cartoons, video games – everything is fair game in the world of pro wrestling, whether it abides by copyright or not.
So let’s look at those times that the world of fantasy transformed into in-ring reality. These are the Top 10 Fictional Characters That Became Actual Wrestlers.
For this list, only exact depictions of a fictional character will be eligible – any wrestling gimmick that is clearly heavily inspired by character, yet doesn’t share the same name as it will not count. Also, I’m only including wrestlers that have had at least one official match, so sadly there is no RoboCop in sight in this top 10.
Now, there are a few rumours going around that Santa might not be real. I cannot confirm nor deny this, so for arguments sake, let’s just say he is so I can fill up ten entries on my list. Cool?
Believe it or not, Kris Kringle has appeared in wrestling rings many times. Whether he’s competing for Bar Wrestling alongside Macaulay Culkin, having a Good Santa vs. Bad Santa match on Monday Night Raw, or appearing in indie federations all over the place, Santa Claus is making towns near you.
9. Tiger The Dark
Our first venture into the wonderful world of anime comes from the villainous Tiger The Dark, the main antagonist to the popular series, Tiger Mask W. The series proved to be such a hit in fact, New Japan Pro Wrestling included a match dedicated to the series at their biggest show of the year, Wrestle Kingdom, in 2017. In this bout, we saw real life representations of Tiger The Dark and the series’ title character face-off, with the persona in question being portrayed by the fantastic ACH.
If there weren’t already enough reasons to watch NJPW, it’s also a place where anime characters can come to life. How can anybody not want to watch that?
8. Freddy Krueger
Yes, as terrifying as this may sound, Freddy Kreuger has come to life, and he’s even learnt a few wrestling moves. But if it’s any sort of relief, he only seems to compete in Japan, so thankfully most of you are safe… for now.
In the early 90’s, hardcore wrestling was starting to blossom in Japan. Promotions dedicated to this art form were popping up all over the place, some far stranger than others. The Wrestling International New Generations promotion decided that rather than using copyrighted music without a license as most indie feds do, they decided to go one step further and just use some of the most famous copyrighted horror characters of all time (with zero permission of course).
The company started promoting bouts between horror movie villains, such as Freddy Krueger. And these weren’t Fire Pro Wrestling, copyright friendly depictions of these famous faces, they were straight up rip-offs. Same masks, same outfits, and even same names.
It’s quite remarkable to see Freddy Krueger appear on a match graphic before witnessing a rather dreadful hardcore bout with Japanese fans fleeing in fear. But of course, the fun didn’t just stop with Freddy…
The original horrific example of blatant disregard for international copyright laws came thanks to Michael Kirchner.
After a relatively unsuccessful run in the WWF as Corporal Kirchner, Michael ventured over to Japan to find glory elsewhere. The aforementioned WING promotion weren’t big fans of Kirchner’s character, so they gave him a new one…. or rather, an old one. Kirchner debuted as Leatherface, a direct copy of the villain of the same name from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, complete with mask.
Leatherface was the start of the trend of utilising already established horror villains in Japanese indie promotions. In the end, there ending up being three different Leatherface’s throughout the 90’s (mainly because Michael went to jail for getting physical with a fan, and was fired at one point for legit powerbombing somebody onto a bed of nails post-match), and the gimmick was even revived at one point under the name “Super Leather”.
When your character is a rip-off of a famous slasher movie villain, the only way it can end is horrifically.
6. Tiger Mask W
As mentioned earlier, the protagonist of Tiger Mask W did make his way into an actual New Japan Pro Wrestling ring, however it wasn’t just for Wrestle Kingdom. The fictional character even had a match against then reigning IWGP Heavyweight Champion, Kazuchika Okada, at the company’s anniversary show, with the incredible Kota Ibushi portraying the masked wrestler.
That’s something you’ve got to respect about New Japan – they will take one of the best wrestlers on the entire planet, somebody who’s surrounded by buzz after competing in WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic six months earlier, and make them dress up in a mask and wrestle as an anime tiger.
In 1989, Hulk Hogan starred in the leading role of the WWF’s first venture into feature film. Appropriately, the movie centres around the WWF Champion fighting against his greatest enemy, the fictional heel known as Zeus, portrayed by Tom Lister Jr. In an effort to promote the film, Vince McMahon decided that life should imitate art… or perhaps art should imitate a different type of art in this case… by bringing in Lister to have an actual match as his Zeus character.
From this small acting role, Zeus managed to bag himself a main-event match at SummerSlam, a spot in the traditional Survivor Series elimination match, and even headlined a pay-per-view named after the film he starred in. What many don’t know that is this wasn’t the end of Lister’s wrestling career, as he would go on to take his Zeus character down to Puerto Rico for a short stint, and even reignited his feud with Hogan in WCW under the name Z-Gangsta.
If Zeus’ time in wrestling taught us anything, it’s that WCW was so desperate to capitalise on anything WWF related, they were even willing to hire a guy that starred in a seven year old film starring Hulk Hogan. How that company survived for another five years after that is incredible.
4. Black Tiger
And now for the original villain of wrestling anime. Black Tiger, the inspiration for the previously mentioned Tiger The Dark, who starred as the main antagonist of arguably the biggest wrestling manga and anime series of all time. The character first invaded the real world back in 1982, when legendary British wrestler Rollerball Rocco donned the mask and made his way to NJPW. Since then, seven different people, including Rocky Romero, Eddie Guerrero, and even Tomohiro Ishii, have portrayed Black Tiger in their own unique way with varying levels of success.
It’s amazing that a character born from a manga series could go on to have so many runs in New Japan, and be portrayed by some fantastic pro wrestlers. Who knows if Black Tiger will ever surface again, however if he doesn’t, he will still easily go down as wrestling’s greatest villain to come directly from fiction.
The TNA Impact video game will always remain in my memory for having the single greatest yet craziest set-up to a character customisation screen of all time.
The story mode begins by explaining that you were the top star in the company, that is until you were brutally attacked by LAX. You awake in a hospital completely covered in bandages to discover that you were disfigured so badly in the attack, that you are no longer recognisable, and require severe, full-body plastic surgery – this is how you create your character.
From there, after battling your way through amnesia and a head-to-toe body replacement, you eventually discover that you were once the high-flying Suicide, regardless of how big or small you decide to make your CAW.
As strange and crazy as this story mode was, the most ridiculous part happened in real life. TNA decided to bring Suicide into reality, and in December 2008, the video game character debuted, quickly winning the X Division title. Over the years, many well known faces were shrouded by the Suicide mask, including Kazarian, Christopher Daniels, and TJ Perkins, but none could make the character reach the heights that its video game counterpart achieved.
For a gimmick born straight out of a video game, especially one created by TNA in the late 2000’s, Suicide turned out to be pretty damn cool. If TNA had allowed Suicide to compete against some of its top heavyweight stars, who knows where this story mode hero could have gone to.
2. Jushin Liger
One of the most iconic wrestlers of all time was born straight out of an anime.
The Jushin Liger anime series debuted in 1989 on the TV Asahi channel, proving to be very popular in its native Japan. To capitalise on this popularity, another TV Asahi associated product, New Japan Pro Wrestling, were given permission to give the Jushin Liger name to one of its wrestlers. NJPW picked Keiichi Yamada, a young up-and-coming junior division star out on excursion in Canada at the time, to portray the character.
Not long after the anime series was first broadcast, the real life Liger made his debut in the Tokyo Dome, and amazingly is still going strong to this day. The same man has been underneath that iconic mask since 1989, and at almost 54 years old, can still put on one hell of a match. It’s telling of Yamada’s charisma and ability that after almost thirty years, he has managed to take a character made for a TV series, and make it completely synonymous with his in-ring persona.
On paper, an anime hero come to life doesn’t sound like the most durable idea for a wrestling gimmick, yet three decades later, Liger still proves to be as popular as ever. The Jushin Liger gimmick could have been a death-sentence to the young Yamada, yet thanks to the iconic character design and undeniable star power of the man underneath the costume, it turned Yamada into one of the most iconic and influential wrestlers of all time.
- Tiger Mask
And finally, the originator.
First published in 1968, the Tiger Mask manga strip was about a feared heel wrestler turned good guy who was constantly being hunted down by the leader of the villainous organisation, Tiger’s Den. By the early 80’s, the manga have evolved into both a movie and a television series, with great success, so much so that New Japan Pro Wrestling saw value in bringing the character into their ring.
Satoru Sayama became the first man underneath the legendary mask, and it’s all history from there. Tiger Mask was at the forefront of New Japan’s junior division, which had critics and fans around the world talking at the time due to how innovative and exciting their matches were. In 1983, Tiger Mask was even a part of the first match to ever get five stars from Dave Meltzer.
Over the years, Tiger Mask moved promotions, the character was portrayed by different people, yet it’s still as iconic as ever. The current Tiger Mask is the fourth incarnation of the character, which has spawned spin-offs and villainous counterparts along the way. If it wasn’t for the success of Tiger Mask, we may have never seen Jushin Liger reach a New Japan ring, and dozens of junior heavyweight wrestlers would not have had such an important, influential figure to look up to.
This is why I love wrestling. It is an industry where a wrestling tiger born from the pages of a comic strip can go on to become a significant part of many people’s lives and careers. What a wonderfully weird world it is.
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