In sports, as well as in life, there is a long held mantra that timing is everything. That is certainly the case for many in professional wrestling. Some wrestlers relentlessly pursue an opportunity that never comes to fruition while others might stumble onto a single opportunity that becomes the catalyst for every future success between the ropes.
Certainly, we are aware of legends such as WWE Hall of Famer and former World champion Billy Graham, who was believed to have been a little before his time. The template that Graham established would influence others, including Jesse Ventura and most notably Hulk Hogan, who would draw upon the Graham influence to propel their own careers.
Alternately, we hear a lot of stories about independent wrestlers who lament that they missed out on the real opportunities to make a living as a wrestler during the territory days of the sport. On the flip side of that, though, are wrestlers such as those featured in the 2016 Cruiserweight classic who would have been considered too small even a decade ago who have ascended to the ranks of the WWE.
Too early or too late – either could be a career-killer. However, for these 15 superstars, they were simply in the right place at the right time and as a result, we still know their names and achievements in the industry today.
17 The Ultimate Warrior
Considering that Brutus Beefcake is known to be one of Hulk Hogan's closest friends in Hogan's entourage, it would have seemed to be a logical assumption that Brutus was destined for success in step with the Hulkster, piggybacking on the influence of his pal. However, just when it looked like Brutus was about to get his break as a singles champion as he was headed into a pay-per-view match against the 64-week reign of the Honky Tonk Man, Beefcake was sidelined by an ambush from Ron Bass just days prior to the match. The champion and his manager, Jimmy Hart, headed to the ring in Madison Square Garden without a challenger announced.
Seizing on the opportunity, the Ultimate Warrior filled the vacancy and catapulted his own career in the company – with one of the shortest and most explosive matches ever witnessed in the fabled history of the Garden.
15 Mike Kirchner
When Mike Kirchner first appeared before television audiences in the WWE, it was as an enhancement talent on Saturday morning telecasts by the name R.T. Reynolds. Often, his intro did not even capture his face, just a fist pump to the air before he would be demolished by a superstar foe. However, when Sgt. Slaughter abruptly departed from the company following a dispute with Vince McMahon stemming from a licensing agreement with G.I. Joe, Vince was eager to serve notice on Slaughter that he was easily replaced. Fans were soon introduced to Corporal Kirchner – a patriotic up-and-comer who would be immortalized with his own action figure and who would wage war against any anti-American adversary. Kirchner failed to eclipse the success Slaughter had in the WWE.
Interestingly, Kirchner appears twice on this list. Later in his career, he would create the circumstance that revealed an opportunity for another emerging star.
14 Moondog Spot
Wrestling in the southeastern United States as Larry Latham, Larry Booker had formed a pretty infamous tag team with Wayne Farris as the Blond Bombers in Florida and Memphis. When Farris left the territory for Canada to wrestle for Stu Hart, Latham was originally angry, feeling that his chance of success as a solo act was minimal. Little did he know that he was about to get called up for his biggest role. Ed White had been wrestling in the United States without a work visa as Moondog King and partnered with Randy Culley (aka Moondog Rex); the pair had won the WWE tag team titles.
However, when White was injured, he needed to return to Canada to see a doctor. He was apprehended upon his attempt to return to the United States and deported for not having a work visa. As the Moondogs were on television as champions, they needed to act fast, calling up Latham to become Moondog Spot.
12 Hulk Hogan (1982)
Sylvester Stallone was friends with Terry Funk dating back to a wrestling flick that Stallone wrote called Paradise Valley, which pre-dated the Rocky films. In fact, after the movie debuted, there was some discussion that Funk might retire from the ring and pursue acting. However, when Stallone called Funk and said he was looking for a wrestler to appear in an opening scene of Rocky III, Funk knew that what Stallone was looking for required a wrestler with different attributes than himself and reached out to Hulk Hogan.
While AWA promoter Verne Gagne initially did not want Hulk to do the film and did not capitalize on the value of his marquee appeal after the film was released, an enterprising promoter in the northeast had visions of a national expansion that would change the industry. Having a wrestler with cross-over box office appeal and visibility on the silver screen launched Hulkamania and Hogan became the face of the WWE for the next decade.
11 Louie Spicolli
There is undoubtedly a large inventory of footage of the early years of Louie Spicolli in the WWE – perpetually finding himself on the losing end of the equation. However, his talent may not have ever been truly appreciated until he found himself in the Mexican syndicate AAA under the name Madonna's Boyfriend. Despite years of toil on the independents, it was one single appearance on the AAA pay-per-view – When Worlds Collide – in 1994 that got the attention of Vince McMahon and secured him a contract with the WWE. Just five months after that pay-per-view appearance, Spicolli was reintroduced to wrestling audiences as Rad Radford, a member of the new generation – a youth movement afoot in the company. Though he would only enjoy a year under contract for McMahon, his tenure there led to opportunities in both ECW and WCW.
10 Rick Patterson
A well-traveled wrestler in his own right, Rick Patterson had started his career in Winnipeg, Canada in 1982 and during the next decade saw action in Stampede Wrestling, Central States, the Maritimes and even international tours to Puerto Rico, Mexico and South Africa. He was at home between tours when he got the call from close friend Eddie Watts that he was needed immediately in Japan. Mike Kirchner, previously Corporal Kirchner with the WWE, had been wrestling under a mask as Leatherface in Memphis and he took that character to Japan to wrestle for W*ING. Unfortunately, Kirchner found himself running afoul of the law after an alleged assault on a Japanese woman in a night club and it put plans on hold.
Patterson was called to fill in and since 1993, Patterson has continued to wrestle as Leatherface in Japan, Canada, Korea and other international tours – including the infamous death match tournaments against the likes of Mick Foley and Terry Funk.
9 Mark Callous
When WCW paired the 6-foot-11 Danny Spivey with the 6-foot-10 Sid Vicious, they believed that they had finally found a team that could physically oppose the Road Warriors in a way that the roughhouse tandem had never seen. In fact, with diminutive manager Teddy Long, it appeared that the Skyscrapers were on track for great success in the company until Sid Vicious suffered an injury that threatened to end his career. Talent relations did the unexpected when they brought up a relative newcomer to the business – another towering bruiser in his own right Mark Callous – to replace Sid.
It would be the first bit of spotlight for Callous, who would later go on to own one of the most impressive legacies in professional wrestling – including battles against both of his Skyscraper tag team partners in the WWE as The Undertaker.
As we speak, WWE World tag team champions The New Day may be about to make history as the first team in a generation to break the record for longest WWE tag team title reign held by Demolition. While often dismissed as simply Road Warriors knock-offs, the duo of Ax and Smash should be accredited with creating a departure from what Animal and Hawk were doing and defining their own identity. What might have been envisioned as a team that would enjoy only a short tenure with the company, Demolition would spend almost four years atop the tag team division – opposing every formidable opponent they could find, that is, until Ax found himself in peril after being exposed to shellfish – and almost leading to his death.
Thinking quickly, the WWE scoured the indies for a wrestler with the look and attributes to fill the vacancy and found Brian Adams in Portland, Oregon to become Demolition Crush.
7 Sgt. Slaughter
After their rocky falling out five years earlier, combined with the Vince McMahon template of a WWE Superstar, one might not have ever predicted that Sgt. Slaughter would return and become the World champion. However, when America declared war on Iraq in 1990, few wrestlers active at that time could have been better placed as an American soldier turned-Iraqi sympathizer than Sgt. Slaughter.
Slaughter had debuted as a villain in the WWE a decade earlier and his return to the company set the stage for a showdown with the top patriot – Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania VII. Capitalizing on the war time tensions in a manner that would probably be less palatable today, Slaughter found himself in the right place at the right time to mend fences with his former employer and cement his future Hall of Fame placement, not only in the ring, but also behind the scenes. Slaughter would become a long time mainstay with the company – thanks in part of Saddam Hussein.
6 Danny Spivey
In all, Danny Spivey can take credit for a lengthy and successful wrestling career, both in America as well as Japan. While certainly not a household name, and perhaps not high on the list for Hall of Fame induction, Spivey was a towering figure in the WWE locker room, starting shortly after the first WrestleMania. Spivey was catapulted into an opportunity after former WWE tag team champion Barry Windham experienced a bit of a meltdown and simply went home in protest after a lengthy tour that had left him physically and emotionally exhausted. When Windham did not turn up to work alongside his partner, and brother-in-law Mike Rotundo, the WWE swiftly replaced him in the U.S. Express tag team with Spivey who bore similar attributes to the second generation star Windham. By the time that Barry had come to his senses and made efforts to return to work, Spivey had already filled all of his dates on the tour schedule.
5 Kerry Von Erich
Brutus Beefcake simply could not catch a break. First, he had been sidelined from a title match at Summerslam '88 and when it looked like he was back on track in 1990, a parasailing accident that crushed his face prevented him from his showdown against then-champion, Mr. Perfect. As Vince McMahon looked around his roster, he set his sights on a wrestler that had just joined the ranks weeks earlier, and signed Kerry Von Erich – The Texas Tornado – for the championship match.
The bout and subsequent victory launched the most successful son of the Von Erich wrestling family to a new level and though his reign was only three months, established Kerry with the WWE audiences. Kerry and his brothers had been like rock stars in World Class Championship Wrestling and though Kerry had previously laid claim to a short run as NWA World champion, his initial push in the WWE – owing to yet another Brutus Beefcake tragedy – cemented his place in wrestling history.
4 The Hollywood Blonds
The wrestling industry is no doubt filled with stories about wrestlers whose value was not seen early in their careers by the people in decision-making positions. Guys like Kevin Nash, Mark Callous and Scott Hall languished in the middle of the card in WCW before making the move to the WWE, where they became big stars. It is a similar story for the team of Steve Austin and Brian Pillman. Though they were initially welcomed to the organization with a great deal of fanfare and championship success in both singles and tag team action, when they were paired up in 1993, it was not part of a grand design, but instead because the office had no plans for them.
When the two hungry competitors took ownership of their fate and created a gimmick for themselves as The Hollywood Blonds, they won over the fans and opponents with their work in the ring. Soon, WCW had no choice but to elevate the team that they had never intended to promote heavily.
3 Curt Hennig
Unlike the modern wrestling climate, 30 years ago while the WWE was making its national climb, very few wrestlers would be featured on television without a trademarked name and character. Even well-traveled wrestlers such as Steve Keirn would become Skinner, and Tito Santana, a multi-time champion with the company, would become El Matador. For Curt Hennig, there was no denying his talent and visibility under his given name, but they needed a hook – a gimmick to elevate him to the top of the card.
It has long been a part of wrestling lore that when WWE officials devised the character for Mr. Perfect, they were considering more than one possible candidate. So, what turned out to be a right place, right time opportunity for Curt Hennig was, unfortunately, not so great for his colleague, Terry Taylor, who was instead assigned The Red Rooster. Mr. Perfect remains one of the most iconic figures of his era.
2 Hulk Hogan (1994)
While there is no doubt that Hulk Hogan and Hulkamania have a lot to do with the meteoric rise of the WWE, when the WWE went national in 1984, it is important to remember that Hulk Hogan also played a pivotal role in the rise of the first real competition to Vince a decade later. Hogan had wrapped up a ten-year relationship with the WWE in 1993 and had moved on to movie and film projects. Hogan was filming television series Thunder in Paradise at Universal Studios in Florida at the same time that WCW was filming some of their television programming not far away on the same lot.
As Ted Turner pressured Eric Bischoff to mount an opposition against Vince McMahon, Bischoff seized an opportunity, with Ric Flair serving as a liaison to arrange a meeting with Hogan and ultimately make him an offer that would bring him into the World Championship Wrestling fold and elevate the company.
1 The Honky Tonk Man
It has been over 28 years since the Honky Tonk Man held championship gold in the WWE and to this day, he is considered by many to be the greatest Intercontinental champion of all time. While Chris Jericho holds a record nine reigns with that championship, the 64-week reign of the cool, cocky and bad superstar still stands as a record in the 37-year history of the belt. What may surprise many to learn though was that his reign might not have happened at all if not for a bit of good luck in June 1987.
Ricky Steamboat was actually scheduled to oppose Butch Reed on the evening of June 2 in Buffalo – and lose the title. Reed was a no-show at the tapings and Honky was slid in as a substitute. With Steamboat about to take a leave to tend to his pregnant wife, plans could not be delayed. Once he had the title in his clutches, it was hard to get him to let go.