Founded in 1972 (although not first published until 1979), Pro Wrestling Illustrated is the longest running magazine in sports entertainment today. Standing apart from more hard news based publication like the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, PWI became popular by extending the storylines taking place in the NWA, WWE, and just about every other company you could think of, adding a fan’s perspective while keeping it kayfabe.
Like most sports-based magazines, PWI also compiles annual lists of the best athletes in the field they cover with a ranking they call the PWI 500. The biggest thrill a wrestler can receive is getting named the Best Wrestler of the Year, but that isn’t the only award PWI offers. There are also designations for the Most Popular Wrestler, Most Hated Wrestler, and then even more specific categories like Feud, Manager, and Rookie of the Year. Also common amongst sports publications, the Rookie of the Year is arguably the most difficult of the awards to decide.
Regardless of what a new pro does in year one, the award can already seem meaningless by year two if their potential fizzles out. PWI has gotten it right plenty of times—Ric Flair, Bob Backlund, Ricky Steamboat, Owen Hart, Steve Austin, Kurt Angle, and plenty other future legends were acknowledged for their skills from day one, more than earning their Rookie of the Year status as their careers went on. It’s easier to forget the times they were wrong, though, so keep reading to learn about 15 PWI Rookies of the Year who didn’t amount to anything.
15 1981: David Sammartino
One of the trends we’re about to see with PWI and the Rookie of the Year is that they tend to consider familial lineage as one of the most important qualities a wrestler can have. David Sammartino was one of the worst examples, with nothing in his entire career to make us believe he was chosen for anything other than who his father was. The only reason David even got hired and pushed by WWE was to convince his father Bruno to sign a contract as his manager and an occasional wrestler himself, and that was in 1984. In 1981, David was basically serving the same purpose on the independent scene that he later would for the McMahon’s, wrestling old enemies of his father without adding much on the microphone or coming anywhere near Bruno’s abilities in the ring. He was gone from WWE for good by the late ‘80s, leaving without ever winning a championship.
14 1984: Mike Von Erich
Appropriate to 1984’s reputation for dystopian nightmares, Mike Von Erich’s lack of long-term success in the wrestling industry isn’t entirely his fault, at least not on a personal level. He may have been a little harmed by his tragic family history, rushed into a major role after only three months in the business due to the death of his brother, David. Teaming with his living siblings Kerry and Kevin, Mike earned his role as Rookie of the Year by feuding with The Fabulous Freebirds, creating so many classic matches and moments we actually understand why he won. Unfortunately, the very next year Mike developed toxic shock syndrome while touring Israel, was in a horrible car accident the year after that, and then topped it off by taking his own life in 1987. On a more literal sense than anyone else we’re about to mention, Mike Von Erich simply never had a chance.
13 1985: Nord the Barbarian
In 1985, PWI proved that maybe nepotism isn’t so bad after when they decided the Rookie of the Year was the man who would later come to fame as The Berzerker. Known as either The Barbarian or more specifically Nord the Barbarian (to differentiate himself from Sione Vailahi, the more famous wrestling Barbarian), he spent most of his rookie year working for Mid-South Wrestling and the AWA, also briefly heading overseas with NJPW. Whatever name he went by, all Nord really had going for him was his unique look, which to his credit did lead to some territorial main events throughout the late ‘80s. However, Nord never won a single championship anywhere he went, and didn’t even come close in WWE or the other comparably large international companies he had stints at. If nothing else, his gimmick remains pretty memorable to this day, bridging the gap between the cartoon characters of the ‘80s and the colorful child friendly nature of the New Generation.
12 1989: The Destruction Crew
Mike Enos and Wayne Bloom are the only two wrestlers to win Rookie of the Year at the same time, getting the nod in 1989 for their tag team, then known as the Destruction Crew. The two had debuted individually a year before getting paired up, though they were already familiar with one another due to sharing Eddie Sharkey as their trainer. They started raising the ranks once they became a team, winning the AWA Tag Team Championships in mid-1989, explaining why they got the nod. Unfortunately for them, AWA was out of business the next year, and they could never recapture their success during stints in WCW, NJPW, and WWE, where they rebranded themselves as The Beverly Brothers. It could be argued that Enos had his biggest moment when Scott Hall interrupted one of his matches to introduce the nWo storyline, but other than that, neither he nor Bloom accomplished anything worth mentioning together or apart once their rookie year was over.
11 1992: Erik Watts
Despite getting off to a good start with Steve Austin in 1990, the rest of the ‘90s were not a good time for PWI when it came to predicting the success of rookie sensations. The magazine had been accused of leaning too heavily towards WCW on multiple occasions, especially whenever WCW allowed them free airtime. That wasn’t quite the case in 1992, but they were still entirely off base with the suggestion Erik Watts was anything resembling the Rookie of the Year. There’s no question that Watts was only pushed because his father, Bill Watts, was booking WCW at the time, as the kid was unable to work a decent match even with great talents like Austin, Bobby Eaton, and Paul Orndorff (all of whom Watts unrealistically defeated). He faded away from WCW soon after his father was fired, and subsequent stints in WWE as half of Tekno Team 2000 was equally embarrassing. He found minor success in the early days of TNA, though not nearly enough to save him from being a lock for this list.
10 1993: Vampire Warrior
The weirdest part about Vampire Warrior, real name David Heath, winning the PWI Rookie of the Year in 1993 is that he actually made his debut almost five whole years earlier, once even jobbing to The Big Bossman on Wrestling Challenge. Heath started coming to prominence in the early ‘90s as half of a tag team called The Blackhearts, though apparently he never accomplished enough for PWI to notice. They finally did when Heath reinvented himself yet again as Vampire Warrior, based on the movie The Lost Boys. The cartoonish gimmick was a huge hit in Southern territories and led him to the USWA Southern Championship, but it didn’t quite translate to the mainstream. He made a few appearances in ECW as Vampire Warrior and then had a long-term role in WWE during the Attitude Era as Gangrel, though he never won any gold in either company. His gimmick alone will probably allow him to wrestle on the independent scene forever, but he was never going to main event for a major company.
9 1994: 911
Arguably the hottest act in ECW throughout 1994, once again it made sense for PWI to select 911 as that year’s standout rookie. Originally debuting as Sabu’s handler in ECW, 911 then transitioned to a role as Paul E. Dangerously’s fixer, interrupting any segments the crowd didn’t enjoy with bombastic chokeslams. 911 didn’t have much to give in the ring, but there’s no denying he became extremely popular amongst the ECW crowd, no pun intended. Even so, 911’s particular brand of mayhem never really translated to success as a wrestler. He worked much better as an attraction, and when actually forced to attempt a normal career, he lost far more matches than he won. Outside of ECW, his only claim to fame was a brief run in WCW as a jobber with nondescript names like Tombstone and Big Al. Memorably as his initial path of destruction was, 911 remains another wrestler that simply couldn’t translate his small scale success to the mainstream.
8 1995: Alex Wright
Another wrestler who had been in the game for some time before he won Rookie in the Year, “Das Wunderkind” Alex Wright nonetheless needed to win the award more than anyone else on the list—it was basically his gimmick. As his nickname implied, the whole point of Das Wunderkind was that he achieved incredible success for a person his age, starting when he made his wrestling debut at age 16…in 1991. He made the jump to America in late 1994, and to be fair, it wasn’t that he didn’t impress in the ring. Wright was pretty decent as a worker, going on to win a number of minor championships in WCW as his career went on. That said, he never elevated himself beyond the midcard, and ended his career almost immediately after WCW went out of business. Though he didn’t live up to his potential, Wright is still successful in the sense he left the business before it could consume him, retiring while still in his 20s.
7 1997: Prince Iaukea
Okay, seriously, the ‘90s were really, really not a good time for PWI. The magazine’s rampant nepotism was on display yet again in 1997, when Prince Iaukea was named the Rookie of the Year. This time around the strange thing was that Iaukea wasn’t actually related to King Curtis Iaukea, though he was named after the legendary hardcore grappler. More importantly, the elder Iaukea was a friend of WCW booker Kevin Sullivan, who took a shine to the Prince and pushed him to the moon shortly upon his debut. Prince Iaukea won the WCW Television and Cruiserweight Championships presumably due to his connection with Sullivan, the latter of which a few years into his career after switching gimmicks to a parody of another Prince, the music icon who wrote Purple Rain (and hundreds of other hits). Iaukea was gone from WCW not long after Sullivan was, and he never again found his way to the mainstream spotlight.
6 2002: Maven
In a manner of speaking, winning PWI Rookie of the Year was basically an unspoken perk Maven received for winning season one of Tough Enough. The real prize was winning a WWE contract, and considering the experiment would have been an instant failure if Maven didn’t pan out, the company gave him the perfunctory push immediately upon arrival to justify it. He started out 2002 in bombastic fashion, eliminating The Undertaker from the Royal Rumble, and he went on to win the Hardcore Championship three times, so it isn’t fair to say Maven was a total bust. He wrestled with WWE for the next three years while intermittently bouncing up and down the card, only to get suddenly released in 2005 despite showing marked improvement in the ring. He gradually faded away from wrestling after that, retiring altogether in 2007. He’s since made his return to the business, but it’s probably too late for him to reclaim the glory of his rookie year.
5 2003: Zach Gowen
The minute Zach Gowen made his debut he was bound to turn heads, albeit in an entirely different manner from every other performer on this list. In fact, Gowen is one of the most unique grapplers in history as the only WWE superstar to compete with a missing limb. Gowen’s left leg was amputated due to childhood cancer when he was only 8 years old, and yet it didn’t deter him in the slightest from achieving his dream. He technically started wrestling in 2002, moving to the mainstream with runs in both TNA and WWE in 2003. His size and condition meant he probably wasn’t ever going to win the World Championship, but it also meant he was a major attraction upon arrival yet again, thrust into top feuds with Vince McMahon, Roddy Piper, and Brock Lesnar. Just as he was gaining traction, Gowen suffered an injury in late 2003 and was released by WWE several months later. He’s competed on the indy scene ever since.
4 2004: Monty Brown
Call it a love of second chances or ignoring the past, but PWI did it again in 2004 when they called Monty Brown the best rookie around four years into his career. It would be one thing if he had made his mainstream debut that year, but he didn’t even do that, having challenged for the NWA Championship on one of TNA’s weekly Pay-Per-Views in 2002. The one justification for this is that Brown’s initial TNA run only lasted a manner of weeks, and he became much more popular upon his 2004 debut. Adding animalistic tendencies to his characters and threatening enemies would get “Pounced,” Brown fast become one of TNA’s most impressive homegrown talents, so naturally WWE swooped him ASAP. After switching names to Marcus Cor Von, his career in WWE was significantly less high profile than his time in TNA, and he retired from the business entirely in 2007.
3 2006: The Boogeyman
Far older than the average rookie, Martin Wright’s time in wrestling technically started when he was cut from Tough Enough for lying about his age. Somehow he earned a contract anyway, getting past his physical limitations by creating The Boogeyman character, a larger than life literal monster. He made his WWE debut in late 2005, and it’s not that his next year was particularly bad, but it was bogged down by injuries to the extent he really couldn’t accomplish anything particularly noteworthy. Once he returned, his cartoonish antics kept him popular while also keeping him out of any main event storylines, introducing a Little Boogeyman as his sidekick while becoming an outright comedy character. One memorably bizarre segment with a certain future Commander-In-Chief notwithstanding, Boogeyman simply didn’t have any long lasting effect on wrestling, likely because he came into the business a few years too late, and was too old when he did so on top of that.
2 2008: Joe Hennig
Returning to that old school nepotism-based mentality, PWI picked third-generation superstar Joe Hennig as the top rookie of 2008. The early months of 2009 seemed to justify the pick when Hennig won the FCW Florida Championship, and yet all of the good will flew out the window when he was called up to WWE as Michael McGillicutty. After two years on the main roster, he was sent back down to the developmental territory for extra training when fans simply showed no interest in his character. He rebranded himself Curtis Axel, paying tribute to both his father Curt, AKA Mr. Perfect, and his grandfather Larry, AKA “The Axe,” but this character too failed to capture the attention of WWE fans. Not that the company didn’t try to sell him, giving him a run with the Intercontinental Championship and Paul Heyman as his manager. It’s the fact those two things didn’t work that makes us so confident in saying this Hennig has little chance of turning his career around, and we predict he’ll get the axe long before he achieves anything near perfection.
1 2010: David Otunga
Perhaps more so than anyone else we’ve mentioned thus far, David Otunga was significantly overqualified when he decided to enter the wrestling industry in late 2008. He has a number of professional degrees in psychology and law, having graduating from the University of Illinois and then Harvard long before stepping in the squared circle. He made his WWE in February 2010 after two years of training, appearing as one of the more technically sound members of The Nexus. He continued competing throughout 2012, although he would very quickly start diminishing his time in the ring in favor for a non-wrestling role based on his past credentials as a lawyer. He still steps into the ring on rare occasions to this day, but has mostly transitioned to a role in the announce booth as a color commentator for SmackDown and minor WWE Network programs. In a certain sense, he’s probably more successful than most others on this list, but the fact his achievements are all happening outside of the ring still means PWI was a little off about their prediction.