One of the greatest things about professional wrestling is how a wrestler can change styles many times throughout their careers. Whether they take on new characters or learn new move sets, you can watch a good match one year, then watch the same two wrestlers put on a completely different match a few years later. Rarely will a wrestler stick to the same character and style in their entire careers, which makes each match a must-see, knowing it may very well be one-of-a-kind.
Not all gimmicks are created equally, though. Some characters can stay at the top of the wrestling world for years, while others are ditched quickly as they never get off the ground. Sometimes even good ones are thrown out either because an even better idea comes along, or because the wrestler leaves for a new company and isn’t allowed to keep their gimmick. All these things add up to one thing: very few performers find success in the wrestling world without making a few changes to how they were when they started.
Considering most wrestlers work for many smaller companies before making their name with larger promotions like World Wrestling Entertainment or New Japan Pro Wrestling, it can be difficult to find famous personalities back when they first broke into wrestling. It’s easy to find when they started for the big companies, but we’re talking about their very first wrestling matches anywhere.
Luckily for you, we’ve dug up 10 pictures of wrestlers from their professional debuts. Some of these are so surprising that you probably won’t recognize them.
20 Before - American Dragon
The Texas Wrestling Academy is the wrestling academy that Shawn Michaels founded and operated during his temporary retirement in 1998. It was later taken over by Rudy Boy Gonzalez even before Michaels returned to wrestling. Not only did it train its students in wrestling concepts, its accompanying promotion gave its students their first experience wrestling in front of an audience. One of its earliest students and future stars was the American Dragon.
The American Dragon lived up to his name, wearing red, white and blue tights and a lucha-style dragon mask, adorned with stars just in case there wasn’t enough American flag symbolism. He obviously wasn’t putting on five star matches as just a rookie, but he was one the more promising students. He received TV Title matches and won the Tag Team Titles with Spanky, better known now as The Brian Kendrick.
19 After - Daniel Bryan
The man under the mask was none other than the current General Manager of WWE SmackDown, Daniel Bryan. Kept in a non-wrestling role after a buildup of injures (despite multiple doctors clearing him to compete), Daniel Bryan and his magnificent beard got so over with WWE crowds that the creative team had no choice but to re-book the main event of Wrestlemania XXX. He’s that popular.
Bryan wrestled under his real name, Bryan Danielson, in Ring of Honor before being a contestant on the first season of NXT. He retained his American Dragon nickname for much of his career before nabbing a deal with WWE. But even those who followed him closely probably didn’t know that it wasn’t just a moniker at first. He was actually trying to look like an American dragon.
18 Before - Steve Williams
Not to be confused with “Dr. Death” Steve Williams, and changing his name soon after his debut specifically to avoid confusion, Steve Williams wrestled for World Class Championship Wrestling and later the United States Wrestling Association. His long, flowing blond hair might have reminded you of Hulk Hogan, but he didn’t quite have the body or natural charisma to be the instant star that Hogan was.
Rather, his development was far more typical of most professional wrestlers, toiling in the mid-card of different territories, waiting for an opportunity to prove himself. Though he spent many years in WCW under his new name, it wasn’t until he moved to the WWE that he really broke out and became a true main-event star, shaving his head and calling himself…
17 After - Stone Cold Steve Austin
Stone Cold Steve Austin was one of the most lucrative professional wrestlers in history. He was iconic not as a monster heel or underdog face, but just as a take-no-sh** rattlesnake. His famous on-screen feud with Vince McMahon was almost single-handedly responsible for WWE re-surging in TV ratings to conquer WCW in the Monday Night War. If not for breaking his neck from taking a botched piledriver from Owen Hart, he may well have been the top star in wrestling for an entire decade. But instead, many dream matches were left on the table after he retired in 2003.
The combination of his iconic bald head and the attitude that made him famous makes seeing him back in his debut incredibly jarring. Seeing Steve Austin with hair at all just doesn’t look right, especially not bright blond locks like those.
16 Before - Starship Coyote
Be honest. When you first saw that picture, you probably thought “Who’s that Burt Reynolds impersonator?” That’s Starship Coyote, an early tag team wrestler in Championship Wrestling from Florida. If you never heard of Starship Coyote, it’s probably because his tag team was never booked to be dominant. However, Coyote did receive a singles push as the more promising of the two before moving on to the American Wrestling Association.
In AWA, Verne Gagne booked him to be a dominant babyface. In fact, because he came to the AWA right after Hulk Hogan left, Gagne booked him literally to be the next Hulk Hogan, having him copy many of Hogan’s mannerisms. Unfortunately for Gagne, he left the AWA before it came to fruition, recognizing the promotion as a sinking ship. He made a name for himself elsewhere as...
15 After - Scott Hall
He didn’t become the next Hulk Hogan, but he more than made his mark on the wrestling industry. Forming the New World Order in 1996 along with Kevin Nash and Hogan himself, Scott Hall was part of the stable that revitalized the entire industry, and almost stopped the WWE in its tracks. He became well recognized for his new look (which he admittedly stole from Scarface) ever since he went to the WWE as Razor Ramon.
Hall never won a world title WWE or WCW, but is still well known for his classic matches and moments, especially his ladder matches against real-life friend Shawn Michaels and running wild in WCW with the nWo. And we can all be glad he made his legacy as the sleazy mobster we all know and love, and not the generic buff guy that Gagne wanted him to be.
14 Before - Texas Red
Masks are a trope used often in wrestling, and for good reason. A good one can create a compelling mystique around a face or emphasize the evil nature of heels. However, a bad mask can ruin a wrestler’s chances of ever getting over by unintentionally making a mockery of the character who uses it. This is one of those times. Meet Texas Red.
Texas Red debuted for World Class Championship Wrestling in 1984 wearing all black, including a mask covering most of his face. It was clearly intended to look menacing and help get him over, but the mask was less menacing than it was just creepy. He looked more like an S&M practitioner than a wrestler. He ditched the mask and experimented with several gimmicks after leaving WCCW, one of which he became very famous for.
13 After - The Undertaker
It’s The Deadman, The Phenom, The Undertaker. Granted, an undead man with supernatural powers isn’t exactly the most promising gimmick either. But despite how silly it sounds, The Undertaker became one of the most iconic characters in the history of WWE. By far the longest tenured wrestler in WWE today, The Undertaker is a multiple-time world champion and ran a legendary 21-0 winning streak at WrestleMania events before being defeated by Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania XXX.
Now limited to a part-time role due to his age and health, he will almost certainly retire after this year’s WrestleMania. Though admittedly, we all thought that last year too, so who really knows? When he does retire, don’t expect his time when he looked like a leather daddy to be remembered too well. And people thought Mean Mark Callous in WCW was a sharp departure from what he is now.
12 Before - Máscara Mágica
What is it with famous wrestlers starting out with masks? Granted, this one makes more sense because we’re talking about an actual luchador. Máscara Mágica joined the Mexican promotion Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre in 1987. In his time with CMLL, he became unbelievably popular with the crowds. So popular indeed, that CMLL insisted on keeping the character even after its original portrayer left the company.
In 1992 the original Máscara Mágica was set to leave the company for the newly founded Asistencia Asesoría y Administración. To make sure CMLL could still use the Máscara Mágica mask and character for someone else, they made him unmask voluntarily on his way out. Luchadores losing their masks in wager matches was already considered dishonorable. Doing so willingly was completely unprecedented. So who was it under the mask?
11 After - Eddie Guerrero
None other than Latino Heat. Eddie Guerrero continued to wrestle in AAA, NJPW, and briefly in ECW before establishing himself in WCW. He was a popular midcarder for many years, but frustrations with the company, including not being pushed when he felt he deserved it, led him to jump ship for WWF in 2000 along with the Radicalz.
He remained very popular with the crowds despite being a heel for most of his run and was finally given a chance to be a main event star in 2004, beating Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship. His untimely death in late 2005 left holes in our hearts, despite questionable decisions by WWE in honoring his memory. Never before had someone who lies, cheats, and steals been so loved. It’s nice to take a look back at where he started.
10 Before - Géant Ferré
There aren’t that many well-known giant wrestlers so there’s a good chance you already know what’s coming next. He also looks very familiar. Still, this is a unique view to see one who’s still relatively skinny. If anything it emphasizes even more just how tall they really are.
Géant Ferré was brought into professional wrestling by a promoter who knew how much of a draw his sheer size would be. Starting in Paris where he hailed from, he was an instant success. He traveled to many countries and wrestling territories, never staying in one place too long before his spectacle wore out. In 1972 he found fame in North American wrestling promotions and eventually found his way to the WWWF with his gimmick and spectacle more polished.
9 After - André The Giant
The Eighth Wonder of the World. André the Giant joined the WWWF in 1973 and embarked on a 15-year undefeated streak. Vince McMahon Sr. recognized that in order to make sure he didn’t become boring to crowds, he had to be booked like a literally unbeatable monster. He was a lovable giant, though. He spent most of his run as one of the biggest faces in the entire wrestling industry, both figuratively and literally.
The 15 year buildup led to one of the most iconic WrestleMania moments ever. He turned heel to set up a feud with Hulk Hogan, leading to the main event of WrestleMania III. Hogan bodyslammed the giant, and became the first person to pin André in his 15 years with the company.
André always looked monstrously large compared to his opponents, partly due to his massive bulk. But seeing him without the bulk puts an even finer point on how tall he was.
8 Before - Ric Flair
From one wrestler who was much smaller than we usually remember, to one who used to be much larger. Before Ric Flair became the “Nature Boy” as we know him today, he was actually a power brawler in the AWA, AJPW, and the NWA Mid-Atlantic region. While he didn’t have the same ring style we know him for today, the undying charisma and endurance was certainly there. He debuted and established himself in AWA in 1972 before moving to Mid-Atlantic in 1974, and his career nearly ended just a year later.
In late 1975, Ric Flair was involved in a plane crash in North Carolina, breaking his back in multiple places. Despite doctors telling him he’d never wrestle again, he underwent intense physical rehabilitation and returned to the ring just months later. But after such a serious injury, he had to change his style for health reasons.
7 After - "Nature Boy" Ric Flair
Yes, turns out the wrestling style Flair became known for was out of necessity to keep his career alive. While it’s easy to look back and see that he wasn’t really the best worker in wrestling because of this, his unmatched charisma more than made up for it. His ability to carry himself so well in his appearance and on the mic earned him a record 16 world championship reigns, recently tied by John Cena.
Flair used his antics in the ring to help get him and his personality over, leading to him being known as “the dirtiest player in the game”. He was one of the few people who could switch between heel and face on a yearly basis, but make it believable every time. Relying on his personality more so than his wrestling ability, he remained one of the most iconic wrestlers in history despite not keeping his body as strong and athletic as when he started.
6 Before - Chad 2 Badd Allegra
Chad 2 Badd Allegra debuted in the Northern Wrestling Federation in 2002. He took on a frat boy character as part of the Young Lions, a stable of rookies. It wasn’t the most serious stable ever, but you could tell they were having fun with it. Crowds ate up the characters, especially Chad 2 Badd. Their wrestling was fine, but their video packages and promos were fantastic.
Chad 2 Badd turned heel and split off with fellow member Matt Parks partway through the group’s run and laid it on even thicker with his kayfabe reality show “Chad 2 Badd Live”. The gimmick was not meant to last, but Allegra’s charismatic heel character had him made for better things. He wrestled for NWA and Pro Wrestling Guerilla, but truly made his name in NJPW.
5 After - "Machine Gun" Karl Anderson
Turns out Karl Anderson has always been entertaining in heel stables. His eight-year run in New Japan saw him jump between various stables such as Great Bash Heel, Chaos, and most famously, Bullet Club. Anderson had four runs with the IGPW Tag Team Championship, once with Giant Bernard (you might remember him as Albert) and three times with Luke Gallows, who he remains teamed with even after leaving NJPW for WWE.
Though their run in WWE at first seemed like a complete waste of the two established stars, Anderson and Gallows finally have some momentum on their side as the recently crowned RAW Tag Team Champions. Anderson knew how to be an effective heel from his time as Chad 2 Badd Allegra, but it wasn’t until New Japan that he found the darker edge that made him the tag team star he is.
4 Before - Dustin Rhodes
Most entries to this point have been strange gimmicks famous wrestlers had when they started, but this is the other way around. We’re so used to Dustin Rhodes’ gimmick that it’s weird to just see him as his normal self. The son of the late wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes, and half-brother of Cody Rhodes, Dustin Rhodes started his career in CWF before quickly moving to WCW, primarily as a tag team wrestler.
Rhodes teamed mostly with his father Dusty as well as Kendall and Barry Windham, the latter of whom he had a very famous match with when Barry turned heel on Rhodes. He had a run with the WCW United States Heavyweight Championship before returning to tag team action. He was released for blading during an infamous King of the Road match in 1995, and debuted later in the year in the WWE with the gimmick he’s used intermittently ever since.
3 After - Goldust
Though he wrestled as himself briefly in 1997 and whenever he wasn’t working with WWE, Rhodes has been known ever since as “the bizarre one”. His gimmick; win matches by being so weird and suggestive that it distracts his opponents. Despite being the son of a legend, he never moved up from the midcard. He had a decent run as Intercontinental Champion, beating Razor Ramon for the title, but hasn’t seen much more success than that.
His WWE career has seen him mostly return to tag team action. Over the years, he’s teamed to varying degrees of success with Booker T, Yoshi Tatsu, his half-brother Cody Rhodes, later Stardust, and currently with R-Truth. His gimmick was always going to make him mostly a comedy character, but whenever he did have a good program running, it always seemed like WWE just didn’t know what to do with it. It’s a shame they didn’t do more with Rhodes or his brother.
2 Before - Rocky Maivia
It seems today that the WWE struggles to get its stars over, with the wrestlers clearly favored by management getting thoroughly rejected by crowds. (*cough* *cough* Roman Reigns) But let’s not forget that they nearly made the same mistakes with one of the biggest stars at the turn of the century. One of the few wrestlers who actually did debut for WWF after a short stint in developmental, Rocky Maivia was the classic happy-go-lucky babyface that people were sick and tired of. So what did crowds do? They told him to die. Literally.
In an era when professional wrestling was booming with a new edginess that got everyone excited to watch, Rocky Maivia was a character right out of the Hulk Hogan era. And people didn’t want to see it anymore. Debuting at Survivor Series 1996, Rocky was booked to be another persevering babyface, but would not get over with crowds until the WWE turned him heel.
1 After - The Rock
Letting Dwayne Johnson be a savage heel was the best thing that could have happened to him. Perhaps the most charismatic wrestler in history, he tore everyone to shreds with his sharp tongue and his career turned right around, becoming one of the faces of wrestling right next to Stone Cold. He was so charismatic that his talents eclipsed the world of professional wrestling and became a true star in Hollywood like many wrestlers before him could only try to be.
The Rock still makes the occasional appearance in WWE, usually to a huge pop, even though the results aren’t always the best. His initial return in 2011 was well received, but his special appearances recently, not so much. He’s mostly been used to try to cover up bad booking with sheer star power, but not even he can fix the creative team’s missteps. If only they’d look back at his debut year and remember that there's better ways to fix failed pushes.