Professional wrestling is a strange business. Sometimes, talents who are very successful in one company, have trouble reaching the top in other companies. On the other hand, talents who struggle to get to the top in some companies can go to other companies and become mega stars. In WWE, Vince McMahon has shown that he can make stars out of wrestlers who might have struggled in other companies and he has done so time and time again. There have been many individuals who have come to WWE from the mid-card in other companies and have developed into some of the top talents in the wrestling business.
Many of today’s WWE stars are homegrown talents, who learned their craft in the WWE developmental programs. However, many of the stars of the Attitude Era and before were brought over from other companies. Some of those stars, like Eddie Guerrero, made it to the top of the card, while others, like Perry Saturn, were stuck in the middle or at the bottom of the card in WWE. Here now, are fifteen WWE stars that were unable to reach the top in other wrestling companies around the world before arriving in WWE and becoming some of the top stars in the history of the business.
15 Road Dogg
“Oh, you didn’t know…” When that cry goes out at the beginning of the theme music, crowds usually get very loud in anticipation of the arrival of The New Age Outlaws. “The Road Dogg” Jesse James and Billy Gunn survived a few bad gimmicks each in WWE to become one of the most popular tag teams in the history of the company. However, before being the voice of arguably the most widely known entrance theme in the company’s history, Brian James struggled just to get noticed.
Brian James is the youngest son of the legendary “Bullet” Bob Armstrong and that designation seemed to be more of a hindrance to Road Dogg than a helper. In WCW and Smokey Mountain Wrestling, James wrestled as The Dark Secret and was mostly a jobber with the occasional upper level match on television. Once James arrived in WWE, he went from being a roadie for “Double J” Jeff Jarrett to being one of the key members of D-Generation X and one of the top talents in the company in merchandise sales.
14 Xavier Woods
Before being the primary mouthpiece and background musician for the New Day, Austin Watson would compete as Consequences Creed in TNA. Creed, whose ring attire resembled the outfit that Apollo Creed wore just before being beaten to death in Rocky IV, was initially selected to replace Adam “Pacman” Jones in a championship tag team with Ron “R-Truth” Killings in TNA because Jones was not allowed to hit or be hit. The team of Truth and Consequences would lose the title and would be unsuccessful in attempts to regain the straps. Creed would then form a tag team called Lethal Consequences with Jay Lethal and this team would hold the TNA Tag Titles for three days.
Watson would leave TNA and would begin a three year stint in WWE developmental. Watson’s greatest achievement while in FCW/NXT would be a 27 day stint as tag champion with Wes Brisco, the son of WWE Hall of Famer Gerald Brisco. Once he made it to the main roster of WWE, Xavier Woods would become a huge star as a member of The New Day, the two-time WWE Tag Team Champions.
The man now known as JBL, who's a current announcer on SmackDown, has seen his name transition from John Hawk, to Justin “Hawk” Bradshaw, Blackjack Bradshaw, just plain “Bradshaw,” and then to John “Bradshaw” Layfield. Throughout all of these incarnations, JBL’s character was a cowboy of some sort. Even when he teamed with Ron Simmons, Bradshaw was seen as a hard drinking cowboy who loved to fight.
Prior to his arrival in WWE, John Hawk was stuck in the mid-card in the GWF, primarily as a tag team wrestler. Hawk would begin to rise within the GWF, but the company would cease operations, so Hawk would venture to NWA Dallas. Hawk would begin to rise in NWA Dallas, but that company would also cease operations before he could become a star. From there, he would join WWE, where would find his way into main events as JBL towards the end of his run and complete a Hall of Fame-worthy career.
12 The Honky Tonk Man
Roy Wayne Farris, The Honky Tonk Man, was known for being the cousin of Jerry “The King” Lawler throughout the Memphis area before arriving in WWE. During the mid-1980s, it was believed that Vince McMahon, whenever he was unable to get a star that he was interested in, would find someone similar. Mr. Perfect was supposed to have been a replacement for Ric Flair, Demolition was supposed to have been a replacement for The Road Warriors, and The Honky Tonk Man was supposed to have been a replacement for Jerry Lawler.
Farris, before arriving in WWE, worked in various territories, primarily in Tennessee, but was seemingly always in a place where Lawler or Bill Dundee were the top guys. Farris would win some titles, both as a single and as a tag team member, but he would not achieve his greatest fame until he became the longest reigning Intercontinental Champion of all time. His reign would last 454 days, which is one day short of 65 full weeks. To put his reign in perspective, the next longest reigns were Mr. Perfect at 280 days in 1990 and The Rock at 265 days in 1997.
11 William Regal
William Regal, upon arriving in America, began his career as Steve Regal, which created some confusion because “Mr. Electricity” Steve Regal, the man who teamed with Jimmy Garvin to defeat The Road Warriors in the AWA, was still an active wrestler. Once he signed with WCW, Regal would add the title “Lord” to his ring name, which helped to alleviate some of the confusion between the two gentlemen. Unfortunately, being a British snob would not help Regal to climb to the top of WCW.
Regal, as a member of The Blue Bloods, would be teamed with every other British wrestler the company had and was even placed into a storyline where he was tasked with trying to turn Alabama-born Bobby Eaton into an English gentleman. The various Blue Bloods teams would be unsuccessful in their attempts to achieve tag team gold and Regal would venture out on his own. Despite feuds with Chris Benoit and Ric Flair, where his microphone and wrestling skills were on full display, Regal would flounder until he signed with WWE (for the second time, as he spent a short, failed time there in-between WCW stints). Once in WWE, Regal would win every male championship that was available except the World Heavyweight and Light Heavyweight Titles.
Lita, the four-time former WWE Women’s Champion and member of the WWE Hall of Fame, began her career as a valet on the independent circuit before venturing into ECW. Once in ECW, Lita, then known as Miss Congeniality, became a manager/valet for Danny Doring and Roadkill. By 1999, even though many of the top ECW stars had left the company for WCW or WWE, Doring and Roadkill had trouble making a mark in ECW’s tag team division and, as Miss Congeniality, Lita was the manager of a team that was stuck near the bottom of the roster.
Once Lita left ECW, joined WWE and aligned herself with Matt and Jeff Hardy, her career began to truly blossom. She would be involved in the Hardy’s feud with The Dudleys and Edge and Christian, and would betray Matt for Edge, which would lead to the “live sex show” on Raw, the day after Edge defeated John Cena for the WWE Title. Lita would also make a name for herself as a member of the Women’s division and would become one of the most decorated female performers in WWE history.
When Glenn Jacobs, the man known as Kane, began his wrestling career, he would work as Doomsday in the USWA and as The Christmas Creature in Smoky Mountain Wrestling. As Doomsday, Jacobs would win the USWA Heavyweight Title, but during that title’s existence, the championship was tossed around almost as much as the WWE Hardcore title. Jacobs would also work as Unabomb, and would be a tag team partner of Al Snow while in SMW. The team would win the tag titles and hold them for 90 days, but the company would close shortly after the end of the title reign, and Jacobs would make his way to WWE.
In WWE, Jacobs had to endure a couple more bad gimmicks before emerging as Kane, the demon brother of The Undertaker. Once the Kane character appeared, Jacobs would be elevated to the top of the card, and would stay there through much of his WWE career. A part of Kane’s legacy is the fact that he was one of the few top stars who did not switch sides during the Monday Night Wars.
Rodney Anoa’i’s career started with his having been trained by his uncles, Afa & Sika, The Wild Samoans. Though the Samoans were affiliated with WWE, Anoa’i would begin his career working for Verne Gagne in the AWA. Wrestling as Kokina Maximus, Anoa’i’s greatest career achievement within the AWA was when he was credited with storyline breaking the leg of Greg Gagne and ending Gagne’s career. Despite the fact that the AWA had fallen on lean times, with much of the company’s top talent leaving the company for WWE and WCW, Anoa’i was still unable to get near the AWA World Title.
In WWE, Anoa’i, now known as Yokozuna, would make his debut in October of 1992. In January of 1993, Yoko would win the Royal Rumble and, in April of 1993, Yoko would become the first Samoan to win the WWE World Title and the first wrestler who would win the Royal Rumble and then win the world title at the WrestleMania event that same year. Yoko would go on to have a career worthy enough to see him inducted in the WWE Hall of Fame.
7 Matt and Jeff Hardy
In a list of stars that emerged from nothing to achieve greatness in WWE, nothing could be more appropriate than including wrestlers who created a company in their backyards and called it the Trampoline Wrestling Federation. The TWF would grow into OMEGA, which stood for the Organization of Modern Extreme Grappling Arts, and Matt and Jeff were the stars of the company. The company would close once The Hardys joined WWE, but prior to that, despite the fact that Matt and Jeff formed the company, the duo can only claim a six-month tag title reign to their credits.
The Hardys arrived in WWE as enhancement talent, but they would quickly establish themselves as stars and, before too long, they would win multiple titles, including a run as World Champion for Jeff Hardy. Matt and Jeff would go on to become among the most successful and popular performers in the history of the company.
6 Triple H
Triple H began his career under the name Terra Ryzing in WCW, which was meant to imply that he would be “terrorizing” his opponents with his size, strength and skill. The character sported a bleached blond haircut and a build that made HHH look very similar to Hulk Hogan. From there, the character was transformed to Jean-Paul Levesque, which was similar to his actual name. However, the Levesque character was designed to be a French nobleman and HHH was required to speak with a French accent. The company wanted him to promo in French, but Trips was unable to speak the language. JPL would be paired with Lord Steven Regal in another attempt to create an aristocratic tag team, this time featuring a Frenchman and an Englishman.
When WCW was unwilling to elevate him as a singles star, he was released and Triple H debuted in WWE, using the same snobbish character, but this time as an American from Connecticut as Hunter Hearst Helmsley. However, once he moved away from that gimmick to become a degenerate, Triple H was sent on a rocket ship to the top of the industry, where he remains today.
5 Shawn Michaels
The Heartbreak Kid was one of the greatest performers in the history of WWE. However, before he arrived in WWE, Shawn Michaels was nothing more than a mid-card act in a tag team with Marty Jannetty. Michaels and Jannetty won a few regional tag titles, including two runs as AWA Tag Team Champions, but neither Michaels nor Jannetty could advance beyond the tag team division.
Michaels and Jannetty came to WWE together, but would fail to capture the WWE Tag Titles. However, before too long, Michaels would establish himself as one of the top performers in the company. Shawn Michaels would capture every title available to men other than the Hardcore Championship,and would establish himself as a true mega-star. Michaels would earn his nicknames like “Mr. Wrestlemania” and “The Show Stopper,” as well as his induction into the WWE Hall of Fame.
4 The Undertaker
Mark Calaway is currently the longest tenured performer in WWE, having worked there since 1990. However, before arriving in WWE, Calaway worked in Texas and Memphis as Texas Red, The Master of Pain and as The Punisher. While in Texas and Memphis, though Calaway would win a couple of titles, he, like many others, was mainly used to help elevate Jerry Lawler.
Calaway would venture to WCW, where he would take the name of “Mean” Mark Callous. As Callous, he would be introduced as a replacement member for The Skyscrapers tag team, teaming with Dan Spivey while Sid Vicious was out with an injury. The team spent much of their existence feuding with The Road Warriors, so The Skyscrapers found themselves on the outside of the tag title picture in a never-ending feud.
Calaway would debut in WWE as Kane the Undertaker, but the “Kane” would be dropped and The Undertaker would become the most iconic character in the history of WWE.
3 Razor Ramon
Scott Hall debuted in Florida as Starship Coyote, in a tag team with “Starship Eagle” Dan Spivey. The team had little-to-no success and Hall would venture to the AWA. In the AWA, Verne Gagne wanted to make Hall into the next Hulk Hogan, so Hall was booked to use moves and mannerisms similar to Hogan’s. Hall’s only success in the AWA was a tag title reign with Curt Hennig, but when Hall ventured to WCW, he would be pushed further down the card.
In WCW, Hall was packaged as The Diamond Studd, but this gimmick was designed to be a copy of Rick Rude. As the Studd, Hall would work in a stable with Vinnie Vegas and Scotty Flamingo, but the trio, managed by Diamond Dallas Page, would find themselves mired in the lower part of the card.
It would be as Razor Ramon in WWE where Hall would become the star that other promoters thought that he could be. His career would take off and it would land him in the WWE Hall of Fame.
It is possible that no wrestler has had to survive more bad gimmicks than Kevin Nash. He has worked as Master Blaster Steel, complete with an orange Mohawk, and he worked as Oz, with silver hair and dressed all in green. Nash would transform into Vinnie Vegas, a mobster, complete with gambling-inspired moves and Nash would be another one who WCW really had no idea how to use, despite his size and obvious charisma. He would venture to WWE and there he would be given a chance to succeed.
As Diesel in WWE, Nash would become the third WWE Triple Crown Champion and would hold the record for the shortest time needed to achieve the Triple Crown. Nash, at 228 days between first title and third, would hold this record for 15 years until CM Punk would achieve the feat in 204 days. Nash would return to WCW as the star that he was meant to be and, there, he would reach the heights that he should have in his first WCW run.
1 Steve Austin
Steve Austin was the guy who was told that he would never get over simply by coming to the ring in black trunks and black boots. He became Austin because his real name (Steve Williams) would be confused with “Dr. Death” Steve Williams, who was already a big name in the sport. He formed The Hollywood Blonds with Brian Pillman because WCW had nothing for either of them, so they decided to work together.
During his time in WCW, Austin would win a number of singles and tag titles, and he had a fairly decent career, but the company never saw him as someone who could be the top champion, let alone a talent that would transcend and transform the industry. In ECW, Austin would be able to show is charisma and, in WWE, Austin would be able to put it all together. Once he was given an opportunity to shine, Austin would go on to have a career, rivaled possibly by only Hulk Hogan, which would define the industry for his era.