What’s in a Name? For Some Wrestlers, It Can Be Everything

Choosing the right ring name is one of the most important things for a wrestlers. Eight performers told us the stories behind their monikers.
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For some in professional wrestling, the perfect name seems so easy.

Andre Roussimoff will forever be known as Andre The Giant. The name is iconic, capturing the essence of pro wrestling is only three words. But would Andre have still become a legend if he worked under a different name?

Before settling on the name that would become intertwined with pro wrestling, Andre was known by a bevy of different names, including “The Polish Giant” Rousanoff, “The Giant” Jean Ferré, and Andre, The Giant Frenchman. It took nearly a decade to arrive at Andre The Giant, which still looks perfect on the WrestleMania III marquee next to Hulk Hogan.

There was no grand plan for that name—it was just an example of a serendipitous moment in wrestling. Nine years after breaking into the pro wrestling business, in September 1973, Andre Roussimoff was first called Andre The Giant during a show in Chicago. That name stuck with him for the rest of his life.

“Andre The Giant is still the most synonymous name in pro wrestling,” said Jim Ross, whose history with Andre dates back over 40 years to their time together in Mid-South Wrestling. “I was the guy responsible for making sure Andre had something to drink and plenty of fried chicken to eat, so I can tell you firsthand that Andre was bigger than life—and so was his name. That name, Andre The Giant, it still gets conversation started.”

The most recognizable names in pro wrestling, past and present, roll off the tongue with ease. The name gives meaning and provides the substance for a wrestler. Had “Stone Cold” Steve Austin flipped off Vince McMahon as Chilly McFreeze, or if the “Macho Man” Randy Savage were known as The Spider, how would their careers have played out? William Shakespeare famously wrote that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” though that may not apply to the squared circle. 

Talent still needs to carry the performer, but the right name plays a significant role in wrestling. Would today’s stars still be standing atop the wrestling world if they were making their way to the ring under a different name? It is clear that there is no exact formula to choosing the right name, yet the right name is a necessary part of a star’s total package.

Becky Lynch played a critical role at WrestleMania 35, closing out the show as the first-ever woman to have her hand raised at the end of WWE’s signature event. “The Man” became one of the faces of the company, and if she decides to return to WWE after the birth of her first child, she will be met by a fan base eagerly awaiting her return. But what if her name in WWE wasn’t Becky Lynch? What if she was Quin Chulainn?

“When I was coming up with my name in WWE, I came up with a bunch of mad Irish names that I thought were cool,” said Rebecca Quin, whose work has made Becky Lynch an instantly recognizable name. “Since my last name is Quin, I tried to get that in there as a first name. Quin Chulainn was one, and that was based off the mythological person from Irish mythology. Cú Chulainn is a badass character in Irish mythology.”

Would a triple threat match between Ronda Rousey, Charlotte Flair, and Quin Chulainn still have headlined WrestleMania 35? Would Chulainn have claimed her place as “The Man”? Would she still have had the same success if she were known as Robin Daly?

“They wanted a name associated with my own name, like Rebecca,” said Lynch. “So I became Becky, and two of the names that came back to me were Becky Lynch and something like Madeleine. I was like, ‘I didn’t even submit that, I don’t know how it got in there.’ It made me think of that TV show Madeleine. Anyway, I said no to that, and the other name that came back was Robin Daly. I actually did like that, but I thought it would be better to have a part of my own name in there, so Becky Lynch it was.”

Rebranding yourself in wrestling under a new name is a legitimately tall order. It has been accomplished, as Mick Foley did in his transition from Cactus Jack to Mankind, but it is much easier to keep your original name instead of starting over. Sometimes there is no choice but to change names, which was the case for Jonathan Good, who left WWE—and, by extension, the Dean Ambrose character—when he went to All Elite Wrestling to star as Jon Moxley, returning to the name he started with on the indies.

“That name was given to me,” said Good, who is AEW Champion Jon Moxley. “Before one of my very first matches when I was 18, I was put in a stoner football player comedy act to get my feet wet. I didn’t even know I was going to have my first match that day.”

Moxley had thought his only responsibility at the Heartland Wrestling Association show in 2004 was going to be selling popcorn and soda, until someone looked at him and said, “You’re going to be in the third match.” He quickly got dressed in preparation for his debut, with one lingering problem.

He was a wrestler with no name.

“Literally, minutes before I went out, they said, ‘Come up with a name,’ and I totally froze up,” recalled Moxley. “I couldn’t think of anything. One of the guys in the locker room said, ‘Who’s the guy from Varsity Blues? Jonathan Moxley? Be him.’ Mox was played in the movie by James Van Der Beek, but the guy screwed up his name. He was Jonathan Moxon. And that’s how it started.”

It is hard to envision anyone but Jon Moxley dismantling Chris Jericho’s Inner Circle and winning the AEW Championship in such spectacular fashion, and it helps that the Jon Moxley name perfectly fits his persona.

“It’s completely random,” said Moxley. “But it works, especially where you can shorten it to Mox.”

Despite a well-earned reputation for predetermined outcomes, wrestling also has within it the potential to be as real as reality. The best programs blur the line between storyline and certainty, which CM Punk captured brilliantly in his famed “Pipebomb” promo from June 2014. Punk’s real name is Phil Brooks, but it is impossible to see him or hear him without thinking of his wrestling persona—and name. But there are wrestlers who have used their real names, and it is an equally absurd endeavor to picture them announced any other way.

Two examples are “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase and “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, legends whose nicknames enhanced their actual name. This is also the case with Johnny Gargano, affectionately nicknamed “Johnny Wrestling” for his aptitude and excellence in the ring.

“I was never approached about wrestling in NXT as anything other than Johnny Gargano,” said Gargano. “Luckily enough for me, I started without a contract and I came in as Johnny Gargano. I think it was too far in at that point to change it.”

Gargano, who is now a cornerstone for NXT, initially worried that he would not be able to be known as “Johnny Wrestling” in a promotion owned by Vince McMahon.

“I was like, ‘Am I allowed to be ‘Johnny Wrestling’?’” said Gargano. “There was this big stigma, this big rumor for a long time, that you couldn’t say ‘wrestling.’ So I wondered if I could still be ‘Johnny Wrestling’ until Triple H said, ‘No, it’s fine, you can still be ‘Johnny Wrestling’.’

“Nothing else was ever brought up. And thank god too, because I am not very creative. As you can see, my name is my real name. If they would have had me come up with a different name, it could have ended really badly. I’m glad they let me stay as myself.”

In order to be noticed in wrestling, you need the right character. And an integral part of a character is the right name. Kofi Sarkodie-Mensah possessed the talent and the drive to become an icon of the industry, but the first step in turning his aspirations into reality was finding the right character, which led to his name.

“I was training in Boston, pursuing my dream, and we had promo class,” said Sarkodie-Mensah, better known as Kofi Kingston. “Everybody in the class was saying that WWE was looking for characters, so you had to have a persona. I remember trying to think of something.

“The Damian Marley Welcome to Jamrock album had just come out, and I remember listening to that nonstop to and from work, from work to wrestling practice, from wrestling practice back home, and it just hit me one day. ‘Oh, I can be a Jamaican guy. Let me try that in promo class.’”

He tried the accent and cut a promo on Ric Flair, instantly grabbing everyone’s attention.

“It was a promo where I gave Flair a Jamaican beef patty and he threw it in the trash, so I was offended,” said Kingston, who is currently one half of the SmackDown Tag Champions with Big E. “Everybody in the class was up in arms. That was it. People said I had to do it because it was so entertaining. Then we had a tryout at the school, and the talent scouts hadn’t seen a Jamaican character before. It’s so difficult to stand out in WWE, you have so many different talented performers. When you find something that works, you stay the course and ride it until the bitter end. Luckily, we’re still on that ride.”

Kingston’s character has evolved in the last decade-and-a-half, peaking with an intensely passionate run to the WWE Championship in 2019 at WrestleMania 35. And while names change often in wrestling, he did it with the name he created, which is the only one he has had in WWE.

“It’s actually kind of a miracle,” said Kingston. “There are a lot of wrestlers that come in with a certain name, and then they debut on TV and then they’re somebody completely different. That name is lost. But for whatever reason, I was not only allowed to keep my real name, Kofi, but also the character I created. Kingston, the name rings through the streets, as the kids say. It’s pretty cool that I was able to keep my same persona from the very beginning. Now, all these years later, Kofi Kingston is still doing his thing. It’s great, I love it.”

So many wrestlers in North America change their name upon entering the wrestling business, but that is not often the case in Japan. The wrestler’s nickname, as seen with “The Rainmaker” Kazuchika Okada, the “Stone Pitbull” Tomohiro Ishii, or “The Ace” Hiroshi Tanahashi, is the place where additional flair is added.

“That’s the traditional way of doing things in Japan,” Tanahashi explained through a translator. “Wrestlers have nicknames attributed to them and become synonymous with those nicknames. Japanese fans always think of the ‘Burning Fighting Spirit’ when it comes to Antonio Inoki, the ‘Revolutionary Warrior’ that was Riki Choshu, or the ‘Blazing Dragon’ Tatsumi Fujinami. If you’re presenting wrestling to a non-fan, nicknames make it much easier to understand because you know something about these people’s characters right away.”

As a child, long before Tanahashi emerged into “The Ace” of New Japan Pro Wrestling, he dreamed of having a different nickname, one that paid tribute to a larger-than-life figure that captured his imagination.

“I was a fan of Tatsumi Fujinami, so I liked the idea of a dragon,” said Tanahashi. “I wanted to be Dragon Hiroshi.”

When creating a name, the opportunity exists to highlight one’s own history.

Cheree Crowley made her pro wrestling debut in New Zealand over a decade ago as Evie, and she has flourished in NXT as Dakota Kai. The new name added another dimension of realism to a performer destined for success in WWE.

“Before I was signed, I was known as Evie, which was my favorite Pokémon, so I made myself that,” said Kai. “In NXT, I wanted something that sounded tomboyish but also fit my Polynesian heritage, which is where Kai comes from. Despite people thinking I’m related to [former pro wrestler] Leilani Kai, that’s not it.”

The word Kai means sea, and she is immensely proud of the distance she has traveled, from the South Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, to arrive in NXT.

“I wanted to reflect my Samoan heritage,” said Kai. “Any of us that start with NXT, if a name change is needed, we get to go to creative [writers and producers] with all the ideas that we have. I brought every combination of names that I wanted, and I was really lucky to get my first choice.”

Another name with spiritual and familial roots is carried by New Japan star Tama Tonga, who teams with his brother Tanga Loa in the Guerrillas of Destiny tag team.

“G.O.D. because our family believes in God and we were brought up that way,” said Tonga, who is Alipate Aloisio Leone, a United States military veteran. “We were spiritual, went to church, and that was a foundation in our life. We wanted to find something to connect to that. Me being a soldier, we were trying to figure out a way to connect it all. And what’s our destiny? That was key. A guerrilla is like a freestyle, unorthodox fighter, and we came up with the Guerrillas of Destiny.”

Tonga and Loa were given their wrestling names by their parents, adding an even more powerful undercurrent to their work.

“These names are from spiritual gods in our Polynesian culture,” said Tonga, whose father is former wrestling star Haku. “Tanga Loa was a god of the ocean. Tama Tonga was a spiritual leader. That is also the wrestling name that was given to my father by Peter Maivia, the grandfather of The Rock. That name was given to me by my father as soon as I entered New Japan.”

Clearly, there is not one definitive way to find the perfect name, and a deeper connection is not always necessary.

Ring of Honor’s Brandel Littlejohn wrestled under a mask as Leech Landa, but he made his name in wrestling as Cheeseburger.

Back in October 2010, when he was a 17-year-old trainee who weighed barely 120 pounds, Littlejohn made his first road trip for Ring of Honor as part of the ring crew and introduced himself to Rhett Titus.

“He’s one of my best friends now, and the first time we met, I shook his hand and said, ‘Nice to meet you,’ but he kind of looked me up-and-down and said, ‘You need to eat a cheeseburger,’” said Littlejohn. “I was like, ‘Nice to meet you, too.’ The Cheeseburger name stuck on that road trip because guys wanted me to get a cheeseburger at every rest stop so I could gain weight for wrestling, and the name stuck backstage.”

Among the talent, Littlejohn was known as Cheeseburger. Three years later, the name Titus bestowed upon him was shared with a much wider audience.

During a show in 2013, ROH’s Charlie Haas cut a heel promo. He mocked one of the young men collecting streamers and toilet paper rolls in the ring. Haas asked for the man’s name, which he was told was Brandel Littlejohn. But that was about to change, as Haas mockingly called him Cheeseburger before laying a beatdown on him.

“Charlie said it as an inside joke in the ring, but then the crowd started chanting it,” said Cheeseburger. “My boss in the back was like, ‘You might have something with this Cheeseburger name.’”

Initially, that name seemed like the kiss of death. How could a wrestler have legitimate success with the name Cheeseburger? But Littlejohn is an inspiring performer, with the innate ability to make a crowd believe in him. And by this point, it is hard to think of him as anyone but Cheeseburger.

“I didn’t want the name at first,” said Cheeseburger. “But it’s been really cool to see how it’s evolved and how fans have followed my journey over the past seven years.”

Past and present, there is connective tissue between every great performer and their name. Each of those performers is dripping with talent and charisma, and the right name is necessary to complete the ensemble.

So what’s in a name? Everything, depending on who is playing it.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.