When Steve Austin first entered the WWF in 1995, he was given the name “The Ringmaster.” His gimmick was in-ring skill (i.e., he’s a master in the ring, har har). This seems natural since Austin’s work in rival wrestling promotion WCW was defined by exceptional skill and fluidity; on his podcast, Austin often refers to himself pre-neck-injury as a technician or mechanic in the ring. (He also really loves IPAs and hates the small spaces in the Trader Joe’s parking lot.) To help get The Ringmaster gimmick over with the fans, Austin was initially managed by “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, a well-established heel.
The Ringmaster gimmick tanked. Austin failed to get over despite his solid work in the ring.
Austin wanted to change his gimmick, and wanted a crueler, harder persona, which was inspired by a documentary he saw about mafia hitman Richard Kuklinski aka The Ice Man. When Austin went to the WWF creative team with his idea, the powers that be proposed a few awful names: The Ice Dagger, Fang McFrost, and Otto von Ruthless.
As the legend goes, the proper moniker for Steve Austin’s gimmick came courtesy of his wife at the time, who told him that he should drink his tea before it became stone cold.
The Stone Cold Steve Austin persona would take a little time to catch on, but a combination of the 1996 King of the Ring and WrestleMania 13 in 1997 got Stone Cold over with the fans in a big way. By the end of 1997, Stone Cold Steve Austin was a bona fide WWF superstar, and he would become the biggest draw for the company the following year.
It’s hard to imagine Steve Austin achieving the same level of popularity if he wrestled under the name Otto von Ruthless. (Von Ruthless 3:16 says “You pay writers to come up with this shit?”)
One of the keys to a successful gimmick is that the wrestler has to believe in the gimmick and be able to sell the gimmick to fans. No one could have gotten over as Fang McFrost, for instance, because no one would believe in the name or the character. The best wrestling gimmicks—from Stone Cold to The Rock to The Macho Man to CM Punk—are about giving a performer the space for his or her natural charisma and personality to shine through.
I think it was wrestling announcer/commentator Jim Ross who first made this observation: the best gimmicks tend to be an extension of or a complement to a wrestler’s own personality. Think of it like superpowers with superheroes. There’s a fit between power set, personality, and costume. The best gimmicks are about that fit.