Many of the greatest WWE Superstars in history were those that wore masks. In Mexico, a wrestler’s mask is considered almost sacred, with the rules and traditions surrounding wearing and removing one’s mask being treated with the utmost respect. Elsewhere in the world, masked wrestlers have made a major impact on the promotions in which they have worked.
Over the years, there have been many masked wrestlers in WWE, and many of them have been featured heavily on TV, partly because of their masks. For some of these masked wrestlers, their masks were integral to their characters and backgrounds, which made for more compelling television.
In other cases, the masks were there for cultural or traditional reasons. In a few other instances, a wrestler wore a mask because Vince McMahon wanted to make a ton of money in merchandise by selling these masks to their audience. However, all five of the wrestlers listed here have one thing in common: they weren’t the same once they removed their masks.
#6 Santos Escobar
A few years ago, El Hijo Del Fantasma was making waves on the independent circuit. The Mexican superstar was signed by WWE, making his debut in the Cruiserweight Championship tournament. He defeated the already-fired Drake Maverick in the finals to become the interim Cruiserweight champion. A week after the final match, a couple of masked men who were targeting Hijo throughout the tournament showed up to confront the newly crowned champion and Maverick.
Fantasma would pull the ultimate swerve, turning heel on Maverick and aligning with the masked men. Later revealed to be Raul Mendoza and Joaquin Wilde, the unmasked Fantasma is now called Santos Escobar. The former Cruiserweight Champion is perhaps the only WWE Superstar on this list whose career took off after losing the mask.
#5 Gregory Helms
While wrestling under his "Hurricane" gimmick, Gregory Helms was both incredibly popular and highly successful. His over-the-top gimmick was very well-received by both fans and his co-workers. He has enjoyed quite a bit of success as "The Hurricane", winning the World Tag Team Championship on two occasions and engaging in one of the funniest mini-feuds in history after spending three weeks battling The Rock.
Sadly, that all changed when WWE decided that The Hurricane gimmick had run its course. Hurricane was unmasked and Gregory Helms began wrestling under his real name instead. Although he enjoyed a lengthy reign as WWE Cruiserweight Champion, there was little attention being given to that division at the time, if any. So even though he was the champion, both Helms and the division were portrayed as afterthoughts in hindsight.
#4 Juventud Guerrera
Juventud Guerrera is one of many smaller wrestlers who enjoyed some degree of strong booking as a member of WCW’s burgeoning cruiserweight division. He also had spectacular matches in ECW as well, and a big part of that was that he was a luchador who got over with his wrestling alone.
As soon as he was unmasked and began performing without a mask, things started going downhill for him. Though he was always known for being a wrestler with an ego, it really grew to new heights once he stopped wearing a mask. His booking in North America started getting worse, which culminated in his booking as one of the ‘Mexicools’.
So, instead of getting presented as the same excellent cruiserweight he was while part of WCW, he was booked as a joke in a division that wasn’t being treated seriously at the time. Maybe, just maybe, if Juventud kept his mask, he could’ve had much better matches in WWE against Rey Mysterio.
#3 Big Van Vader
The late (Big Van) Vader was one of the greatest big men in wrestling history. Despite weight well over 400lbs. For most of his career, Vader was known for his impressive agility for a man of his size. Few people could pull off a Moonsault at his size, and his matches in WCW and Japan were genuinely outstanding.
However, Vader wasn’t able to enjoy the same kind of positive booking while in WWE. He was booked strongly initially, but then he ran Shawn Michaels afoul during the latter’s ‘peak years’ when he was known to be difficult backstage. This led to a gradual decline for Vader’s presentation, which culminated in a devastating loss to Kane at Over the Edge 1998 in a Mask vs. Mask match.
Once Vader was forced to unmask, his days as a top-level threat were over. He became a jobber to the stars, and began losing to other stars on a regular basis. At one point, he even said about himself that, "I’m a big fat piece of sh*t".
This was the point of no return for Vader in WWE and he departed the company soon after. Thankfully, he was able to re-establish himself as a major threat in Japan, whose audience treated him as if his WWE run never even happened.
#2 Rey Mysterio (in WCW)
Rey Mysterio is widely regarded as the best cruiserweight wrestler in WWE history. Not only was he quite possibly the greatest underdog in WWE during his prime, but he must’ve made the company millions in merchandise sales. A key part of that merchandise empire was Rey’s mask, which WWE smartly kept on Rey no matter what.
The reason for that was because WWE learned from a critical mistake made by WCW when Rey worked for them. Rey lost a ‘Luchas de Apuestas’ match (which means a wager match), in which his mask was on the line. As a result, he was forced to remove his mask on-screen, despite being vociferously opposed to this backstage.
Yet, for some reason, Eric Bischoff thought it was a good idea for Rey Mysterio, arguably the most popular masked wrestler in the company – possibly in North America – to remove his mask. A joke compilation of WCW’s mistakes called ’The WCW Epic Fail Files’ summed it up perfectly: “Despite the amazing amount of mask sales, Eric Bischoff decided Rey Mysterio Jr. would be a bigger draw without his mask. He then proceeded to do nothing with him.”
#1 WWE Hall of Famer Kane
Between 1997 and 2003, Kane was one of the most popular and enjoyable wrestlers to watch in WWE. While his matches weren’t technical masterpieces on the same level as, say, Kurt Angle, many people loved watching Kane destroy people as an unstoppable masked monster.
A central part of Kane’s booking and creative direction for many years was his mask and what he looked like underneath. No one knew what he looked like, and WWE’s storytelling speculated that he was an ugly freak underneath. But while he was masked, that question always took a backseat to Kane being booked as an ass-kicking machine.
Then 2003 came and Vince McMahon decided to unmask Kane. In retrospect, it was an awful move because Kane’s booking suffered significantly after the mask was removed. Not only had he lost a significant amount of mystery that surrounded him while he was masked, but he also suffered from a creative perspective.
No one cared about Kane that much anymore, especially since the big question of what he looked like had finally been answered. Now the Mayor of Knox County and a deeply-respected veteran, the Kane we saw in the second half of his career is a far cry from what he was when he wore his trademark mask.
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