Look at James Ellsworth. Back when he was another local enhancement talent sent out there to make Braun Strowman look like a monster, he didn't look like someone who'd become a cult favorite among WWE fans. He's a ham-and-egger who's made good for himself, and it didn't take him long to do so, as rumor now has it that he's close to signing a full-time WWE deal.
But what about Strowman's other victims, such as Johnny Knockout? What about Gary "The Milkman" Milliman, that guy who stripped down to his briefs and got massacred by Kane for his troubles? Moving on to the women, maybe the perky Houston jobber Hyan and Alicia Fox's friend Ann Esposito have a chance at WWE stardom. Initially showing up on WWE TV as a jobber doesn't disqualify anyone from a shot at the main roster, and neither does debuting with a bad gimmick and a bad push.
There are many current WWE Superstars who had quick runs as jobbers, or simply flopped in their first main roster run, only to establish themselves more when given another chance. Today, we shall be looking at 15 of those Superstars who made the most out of those second chances, and in some cases, gone on to achieve great success in the WWE.
IMPORTANT NOTE —This list only includes active WWE or NXT wrestlers, with an emphasis on the former. While we're aware that RAW GM Mick Foley and SmackDown GM Daniel Bryan debuted as jobbers years before they became main event superstars in WWE, they are no longer active in the ring, making them ineligible for this list.
15 LUKE GALLOWS a.k.a. FESTUS
We’re going to start out with a rather controversial choice, as many of you may remember his earliest WWE gimmicks. But since a recent report claimed Vince McMahon himself didn’t remember one of those gimmicks, we’re including Luke Gallows in here for his second WWE gimmick, the mentally-challenged Festus. (His first was Impostor Kane, and while that can be called a failure, that wasn’t supposed to be a long-term gig anyway.)
For the benefit of old Vince and anyone else who doesn’t remember Festus, he was one-half of Jesse and Festus (with Ray Gordy playing Jesse), a gentle giant of a man who’d completely lose it on his opponents whenever he’d hear the sound of the bell being rung. It was a fun little run that lasted from 2007 to 2009. But it was only when Festus dropped the comedy and got repackaged as Straight Edge Society thug Luke Gallows that he made a bigger impression on WWE fans. Especially when Straight Edge Society leader CM Punk, in storyline, blamed Gallows’ Festus persona on alcohol abuse.
14 BRAY WYATT a.k.a HUSKY HARRIS
He used to play college football. His dad is Mike Rotunda, the IRS Man. His grandfather on his mother's side? Blackjack Mulligan. His blend of strength and athleticism made him akin to an Army tank with a Ferrari engine. His name? Husky Harris. Forget that he had legit skill and physical tools, as well as great bloodlines through his father, grandfather, and uncles. Husky Harris was a name that couldn't put butts in the seats, and when he moved on from Season 2 of NXT to the Nexus faction in late 2010, the beefy youngster was little more than a generic enforcer for a once-mighty stable on life support.
Soon after being sent back to FCW in 2011, Harris reinvented himself, growing out his hair and his beard and trading his generic big guy attire for Hawaiian shirts and white pants. He became the creepy Southern cult leader Bray Wyatt, and he's been eating worlds and cutting cryptic promos on the main roster since 2013. WWE Creative might not always have known what to do with a Bray Wyatt, but at least Windham Rotunda has had far greater success as Wyatt than he did as Husky Harris.
13 BOBBY ROODE a.k.a. RUDY RUDE
He was a big star in TNA, and is currently showing NXT what “Glorious Domination” is all about. When Bobby Roode finally makes it to WWE’s main roster, he will likely be a 40-year-old “rookie” getting his first big push on the main roster, on account of his years of pro wrestling experience. But you might not realize that that experience includes occasional appearances on WWF and WWE television in the early 2000s.
Back in 2001, Roode made a few jobber appearances on WWF’s B-shows as Rudy Rude – of no relation to “Ravishing” Rick, apparently. The future Glorious One was back in 2003, this time using his real name/usual ring name, and while he kept counting the lights, he did at least team up once with another former TNA veteran/current NXT wrestler in this list – Eric Young. Now who would've guessed it would be 13 years before he'd return to WWE, this time as a big signing from a top rival?
12 DOLPH ZIGGLER a.k.a. NICKY/NICK NEMETH
Now you've probably been reminded recently that Dolph Ziggler got his start in WWE as Nicky, one of those obnoxious male cheerleaders who may have brought back memories of, well, the male cheerleaders you may have had in school, only turned up to eleven. But we're not going to talk you through the rah-rah repulsion the Spirit Squad represented to a lot of wrestling fans. Instead, we're going a bit further back in time to when Nick Nemeth (Dolph Ziggler's real name) was a clean-cut golf caddy for a man named Kerwin White.
This writer himself couldn't even remember it, but Nick Nemeth the golf caddy did actually wrestle a couple matches alongside his boss, even beating Matt Striker and Shelton Benjamin in one of them. But WWE probably wouldn't let you remember those moments; as we explained in our worst Ruthless Aggression gimmicks list, Chavo Guerrero's Kerwin White gimmick was shelved permanently when his uncle Eddie died in late 2005.
11 GOLDUST a.k.a. DUSTIN RHODES
Before he transformed into the Bizarre One, Goldust was known simply as Dustin Rhodes in late 1990, when he made a blink-and-you-miss it appearance in the old WWF. Only 21 years old at the time, Dustin fought alongside his father Dusty as they feuded against Ted DiBiase Sr. and Virgil, and while pudgy Dusty was embarrassingly trotted out as the polka dot trunk-wearing Common Man, young Dustin was a tall, well-built rookie who didn’t have an embarrassing gimmick. He didn’t have a gimmick at all, and if you didn’t know his surname was Rhodes (or Runnels in real life), chances were good you wouldn’t care about him.
Dustin was off to WCW by early 1991, joining his disgruntled dad, who had long had it with being trolled by Vince McMahon. He returned to WWF in 1995 as the sexually ambiguous, eccentric Goldust, and it took quite a while before it was finally revealed through worked-shoot angles that he was, in fact, the very straight and then-married son of a wrestling legend.
10 SIN CARA a.k.a. HUNICO
Ever wonder why Sin Cara suddenly got a tattoo and stopped being so botch-happy sometime in late 2013? That’s because Mistico (a.k.a. Luis Urive), the original man behind the Sin Cara mask, was on the outs with WWE and mere months away from being future-endeavored. Two years before that, the original Sin Cara feuded with a heel impostor, who eventually lost the feud in a mask vs. mask match at Hell in a Cell 2011. Soon after being unmasked, the former Sin Cara Negro started billing himself as Hunico, and continued to feud with OG Sin Cara as a stereotypical Mexican gangster.
In the years that followed, Hunico teamed with kayfabe Mexican Camacho and occupied the lower rungs of the tag team rankings. The original Sin Cara, on the other hand, was still botch- and injury-prone, and was soon deemed surplus to WWE’s needs. The character would live on, though, as Hunico assumed the Sin Cara identity and did much better as one-half of the Lucha Dragons, while having mixed results as a midcarder in singles competition.
9 AJ STYLES
Not only did AJ Styles have a cup of coffee in WCW right before it folded, he also made a very quick appearance on WWF programming in January 2002, losing to The Hurricane on an episode of the B/C-show Metal. Despite losing that match, WWF was impressed by the youngster’s talents and wanted to sign the would-be Phenomenal One to a developmental contract. As it would turn out, Styles "didn't want none" of the WWF, as he turned down the deal for the sake of his wife, who was attending college at the time.
It took 14 more years before AJ Styles made a proper WWE debut, and when he did, he did it with a bang, taking nearly two decades of pro wrestling experience with him and winning the WWE World Championship within his first year with the company. Amazing to think that it all started almost 15 years ago, when a fresh-faced kid from Georgia lost a quick match to a kayfabe superhero.
8 RHYNO a.k.a. TERRY RICHARDS
It’s impressive that at the age of 40, Rhyno was able to make a successful comeback to the WWE, teaming up with Heath Slater as one of 2016’s biggest sleeper hits in the world of wrestling. That success came more than a decade after his last WWE run had ended, and while he was strictly a midcarder during that time, he was nonetheless one of the company’s top recruits from ECW, and a onetime United States Champion and three-time Hardcore Champion.
Prior to all of that, Rhyno was plain old Terry Richards, just one of the many pure jobbers who showed up to lose on Monday Night RAW in its earliest days, and also one of the youngest. He was barely out of his teens when he did the job for Henry O. Godwinn on a November 1995 episode of RAW, and after spending time competing in Canada and Germany, he was off to ECW in 1999, where he finally rose to prominence in his home country.
7 DARREN YOUNG a.k.a. FRED SAMPSON
These days, you’d be lucky if you see Darren Young on Monday Night RAW, and if you would, he’d usually be on the losing end, what with his partnership with Bob Backlund failing to make him “great” again. Prior to that, however, he achieved a fair amount of success as one-half of the Prime Time Players, and was one-eighth of the Nexus stable that probably would have dominated WWE by the end of 2010 had Super Cena not shown up to save the day like he often does.
All things considered, Young has had a decent midcard run with the company, but way before it even started, he was fodder for midcarders on Velocity and Sunday Night Heat circa 2005-06. Back then, he was wrestling as Fred Sampson, using his real-life nickname as he lost to the likes of Val Venis and Lance Cade/Trevor Murdoch. It would only be in 2009 when he'd formally sign with WWE, and one year later, he was reprising his "South Beach Party Boy" gimmick from FCW, and frustrating his adamantly straight-edge mentor CM Punk on the first season of NXT.
6 KONNOR a.k.a. CONOR O’BRIAN
Currently, one can say that Konnor’s run as one-half of The Ascension is a failure, considering how many lights these Road Warriors knockoffs have counted since debuting on WWE’s main roster. But at least it wasn’t as big a failure as Konnor’s original WWE debut as Conor O’Brian, one of the rookies in the forgettable fourth season of the NXT rookie search.
With Alberto Del Rio and Ricardo Rodriguez, then Ted DiBiase Jr. and Maryse serving as his mentors, O’Brian was the second elimination in Season 4. And when he returned in Season 5, he was mentored by Vladimir Kozlov, and as you’d probably expect from such a pairing, he was still a flop. He is one of only two rookies from the fourth season who's still an active WWE wrestler, and speaking of NXT Season 4...
5 FANDANGO a.k.a. JOHNNY CURTIS
...let's move right on to the guy who won it all that season, the wrestler formerly known as Johnny Curtis. As a reward for winning NXT Season 4, Curtis and mentor R-Truth won a chance to fight for the WWE Tag Team titles, but since those plans fell through, Curtis instead teased his debut through several vignettes where he'd interpret popular expressions literally. We told you all about it in our list of worst WWE gimmicks of the 2010s, and if you need a reminder of what this gimmick is about, imagine a wrestler spilling milk all over himself and crying. Yes, Johnny Curtis actually did that.
That gimmick flopped and Curtis was soon back to NXT in its new developmental incarnation. But by early-2013, he was back as ballroom dancer Fandango, and for a while, he and his ring theme were a pretty big deal. He's back down to the lower card now, but at least the Fandango gimmick lasted much, much longer.
4 ERIC YOUNG
The second of three current NXT names in this list, all of whom became household names through TNA, Eric Young might have been a contender for a small push during his brief stint in WWE in 2003. As mentioned above, he was in a tag team match alongside Bobby Roode, where they did the job for Chuck Palumbo and Johnny Stamboli of the Full Blooded Italians. He was then billed as “Showtime” Eric Young, but despite being that rare job guy with a nickname, it was bedtime for “Showtime” as he lost in singles matches to Sean O’Haire and Val Venis. As expected, this all took place on WWE’s B-shows.
Currently, Young is the most senior member (in terms of age) in the NXT stable SAnitY, and he’s also a fairly recent example of why many people are now referring to WWE’s developmental territory as “NXTNA.”
3 ZACK RYDER
Zack Ryder is only 31 years old, yet he’s had a very long and interesting run as a WWE Superstar. He’s served as a lackey to Edge and Vickie Guerrero as part of their villainous La Familia stable, gotten himself over as a singles wrestler through his own YouTube series, jobbed for so long that he became a running joke, and won the Intercontinental Championship at WrestleMania 32 in what has got to be this year’s biggest upset so far. That didn’t lead to a true career renaissance for Long Island Iced Z, but at least his partnership with Mojo Rawley, the Hype Bros, is enjoying some success in SmackDown’s tag team division.
Two years before Ryder officially debuted in WWE as the long-haired Brett Majors, he was a short-haired teenage jobber (using the name Brett Matthews) fed to the much larger Matt Morgan in an April 2005 episode of SmackDown. It would be ten months before he signed a developmental deal with WWE, but in any case, it’s fascinating to note that Zack Ryder has spent slightly more than a decade with the company, yet never risen past the midcard.
2 SAMOA JOE
The last of our three “NXTNA” talents in this list, Samoa Joe joined NXT in 2015 as one of the bigger free agent signings of the year, having starred in TNA for a decade prior. So far, he’s proven his worth as one of the most talented big men in professional wrestling, and he was NXT Champion for four months before losing his belt to Shinsuke Nakamura. He’s been a true Nation of Violence in NXT, pardon the TNA reference, and it might not be long before he makes it to the main roster and finally makes a proper WWE debut.
By the looks of things, Joe’s main roster debut will come about 16 years after he had his WWF cup of coffee. In March 2001, a much younger, slimmer Joe appeared in an episode of Jakked, where he lost to Essa Rios. He's gained a lot of weight since then, but his time in TNA and Ring of Honor has more than prepared him for what should be a late-starting, yet successful WWE career.
1 DEAN AMBROSE a.k.a. JON MOXLEY
Many indie fans, in their irritating tendency to keep referring to WWE stars by their indie names, still refer to Dean Ambrose as Jon Moxley. But you probably couldn't blame them, as the future Shield member and WWE World Champion was quite a big deal in the indie circuit, carving out a reputation as an unstable, violent, take-no-prisoners competitor in promotions such as Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW). Watch CZW's Tournament of Death VIII from 2009 and you'll see what we mean.
Years before CZW, Ambrose used the Jon Moxley ring name as a WWE jobber in 2006-07, particularly showing some flashes of brilliance as one-half of the jobber team in a match against MNM. He also wrestled Val Venis wearing a long, hot pink hairdo — a sign that even then, the would-be Lunatic Fringe had a penchant for the outrageous.