Professional wrestlers take years and years of training to become the icons they dream of being. It's no different in the WWE. Even if you make it to Vince McMahon's business, there is a long way to go. He's employed countless wrestlers, but only so many are in the WWE Hall of Fame. It's not easy to stand out from the rest.
In the WWE, we've seen so many awesome legends who helped grow the industry. Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund, Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Lex Luger, Triple H, John Cena, The Rock, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, and Shawn Michaels, among others. But you may not know this: Almost every big wrestler you can think of needed some luck to get their big break. A wrestler either left the company, retired or maybe even got hurt. And right after that? A new Superstar emerged from out of nowhere. These examples show how it all went down.
15 Lex Luger In The Absence Hulk Hogan
"The Total Package" wasn't able to out-do Hulk Hogan or Randy Savage, who were easily Vince McMahon's top two stars at the height of WWE's growth. However, the boss made a huge risk in moving on from Hogan and wanted to get younger competition in. Odd, considering Luger is only four years younger than The Hulkster.
Once Hogan left WWE in 1993, Luger became THE GUY in WWE. He was portrayed as the major, ultra-American icon fighting for his country. An easy way to appeal to a country that is known for being extremely patriotic. Luger even got to ride in his own buss; The Lex Express. He became the main face of the company as he feuded with Yokozuna, but Luger would not end up cutting it out as their long-term number one guy. Still, he enjoyed moments of being on top, thanks to Hogan's departure from the company.
14 Randy Orton In The Absence Of Brock Lesnar
Oddly, Randy Orton has to thank the man who gave him that major beatdown at SummerSlam this year (some believe it actually was real and not kayfabe,) for helping him become a huge star. Lesnar was on top of the WWE, but left in 2004 as he tried to pursue an NFL career (that failed, by the way.)
Lesnar was a significant draw because of his ability to rise in his mid-20s. WWE needed a new young gun, and Orton fit the bill as a third-generation Superstar; son of "Cowboy" Bob Orton. Working in Evolution, Orton was "mentored," by Ric Flair and Triple H to be "the future," with Batista. You know the rest: Orton wins the World Heavyweight Championship at SummerSlam, 2004, gets kicked out of Evolution the next day and feuds with Triple H and becomes a top face.
13 Kevin Owens In The Absence Of Finn Balor
Donald Trump doesn't take long to change his mind every time he says something. It's science-defying speed. The one thing that defies that is how it took such short time for Finn Balor to emerge as a top babyface.
With his surprising SummerSlam victory over Seth Rollins to win the WWE Universal Championship, Balor had the future painted brightly right in front of him. Sadly, he suffered a legitimate labrum tear. WWE went with Plan B, making Kevin Owens the new Universal Champion; giving him the long-awaited push he needed. Owens was already flourishing as a heel, and his partnership with Chris Jericho will continue to go a long way in making him THE Guy on Monday Night Raw. Sorry, Roman Reigns. The time for Owens to go far is now.
12 Rob Van Dam In The Absence Of Triple H
WWE fans will never know just how great The Invasion storyline could have been if Triple H didn't tear his quadriceps in a 2001 tag team match on Monday Night Raw. Though his injury left nothing but question marks, WWE found new stars to take his place. Enter Rob Van Dam, the so-called "one of a kind."
RVD was a mega-star in ECW, so it didn't take long for him to win over the WWE crowd. With Triple H sidelined, RVD won the WWE Hardcore Championship over Jeff Hardy. He even made a bigger name for himself by defeating guys like The Rock, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin ,and The Undertaker. RVD carried this momentum to become a one-time WWE Champion, four-time Hardcore champion, and two-time World Tag Team Champion.
11 Bob Backlund In The Absence Of Bruno Sammartino
Before Dean Ambrose and Kevin Owens, there was John Cena and Batista. Before them, there was The Rock and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. Before them, there was Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage. Before them was Bob Backlund and Bruno Sammartino.
Vince McMahon had a pair of mega-stars to kickstart the global dominance of WWE. Sammartino was the guy at the time, holding the WWWF Heavyweight Championship. The second time he held it, the reign lasted over three years. However, Sammartino chose to give it up and end early due to real-life neck injuries, losing it to "Superstar" Billy Graham. And then came Backlund, winning the championship at MSG in 1978. Backlund became McMahon's top Superstar during the late '70s and early '80s. It's very possible Backlund never would have experienced this success without Sammartino taking time off with his injuries.
10 Edge In The Absence Of John Cena
Edge defeated Cena at New Year's Resolution in 2006 to become the WWE Champion after cashing in his Money in the Bank contract. However, he still wasn't close to reaching the level of Cena and had a long way to go. Near the end of 2007, Cena suffered a torn pectoral and was sidelined for several months. With Raw missing their main draw, the focus shifted to Edge.
"The Ultimate Opportunist" formed an alliance with Randy Orton (Rated RKO), and went on a lengthy rivalry with D-Generation X. This helped Edge gradually become the top heel on Raw. Along the way, he became a record 11-time World Tag Team Champion after winning the titles with Orton (Edge would win another World Tag Team Championship with Chris Jericho). Edge never looked back, even when Cena returned. He finished his career with four WWE titles and seven World Heavyweight Championships.
9 Kurt Angle In The Absence Of Triple H
Kurt Angle, like RVD, arose while Triple H was sidelined during The Invasion Angle. Though he's been out of WWE for about a decade (and counting), Angle is easily remembered as being the best of the best when it came to heels. But how would you react if the fans screamed "You suck," during your intros?
Angle instantly became a huge deal when he worked with "Stone Cold" Steve Austin to defeat The Alliance (members of ECW and WCW). Angle also became a Grand Slam Champion, winning all of these titles: Tag Team, Intercontinental, Hardcore, European, and WWE Championship. It wouldn't be long until he was feuding with stars like John Cena and The Undertaker.
Again, who knows what could have really happened if Triple H didn't miss the Invasion. But Angle and RVD made up for it by giving Vince McMahon two new stars out of nowhere.
8 Bruno Sammartino In The Absence Of Buddy Rogers
Amidst all of the great wrestlers we've talked about, it was absolutely Buddy Rogers who paved the way for greatness. Think about Sammartino, Ric Flair, and Bob Backlund. Those guys had the way paved for them by the great Buddy Rogers. Rogers was in his prime during the '60s, a time when you didn't know about all of these other Superstars on the rise.
Rogers slowly drifted out of the wrestling spotlight before the '70s. He would return to the WWE in 1978, but Sammartino had already become the new guy in town. Sammartino put together the longest WWE Championship reign in history and was the main guy for Vince McMahon until the emergence of Bob Backlund. Still, Sammartino's career could very well have gone nowhere without the help of Rogers stepping away from the ring.
7 Bret Hart In The Absence Of Hulk Hogan
Ah yes, Bret "The Hitman," Hart. Without a doubt one of the WWE's greatest stars ever produced, and one that was always surrounded in controversy. A man who also loves to rip on the product of the PG Era.
So when Hogan joined WCW in 1994, Hart was already a big deal in WWE. In the years leading up to Hogan's departure from WWE, he was only appearing sporadically, so it allowed Hart to emerge. He had captured the WWE Championship in his home country in 1992. He and his real-life brother Owen formed The Hart Foundation. Hart also feuded with Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels, and other WWE legends.
His match against The British Bulldog at SummerSlam 1992 was named the match of the year and is widely recognized as an iconic match. Hart wasted no time in making a name for himself when Hogan left. That's a fact, brother.
6 John Cena In The Absence Of Brock Lesnar
With Lesnar leaving WWE in 2004, Vince McMahon was in some trouble. Raw was booming of course, but Lesnar's departure came short years after Austin and The Rock were out of the company. McMahon needed someone to build SmackDown around. Enter the guy who went by "The Doctor of Thuganomics" in 2004.
John Cena was a solid mid-card wrestler and a fan favourite as the United States Champion. When he challenged John "Bradshaw" Layfield for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania 21, won it, and then went to Raw, everything went according to plan. Cena was now the main face of the WWE.
Would any of this have happened if Lesnar stayed? We'll never know for sure. But many of us would confidently guess that McMahon would have kept using him and hold Cena in the mid-card form.
5 Triple H In The Absence Of The The Rock
To explain how the Triple H and Rock situation went down, imagine Subway and McDonald's. The Rock is McDonald's, everyone knows it and loves it. Triple H is Subway: A great alternative with a huge success story and following. But that main competition is always in the way.
Now imagine if McDonald's was shut down worldwide. Then how much would Subway boom? Well, Triple H is lucky that the WWE's biggest star began distancing himself from the company in 2002 as he decided to promote a Hollywood career.
What didn't Triple H do as he became the man who defined the Ruthless Aggression Era? He formed Evolution with Flair, Orton, and Batista as the World Heavyweight Champion and mentored the first two into becoming major Superstars. He reformed DX twice with Shawn Michaels, headlined many epic Pay-Per-Views and of course became The Authority figure while working behind the scenes with McMahon.
Sorry to The Rock's fans, but his departure was a huge turning point in the WWE, as Triple H became the second-biggest influence behind the driving force of WWE. After McMahon, of course.
4 The Rock In The Absence Of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin
These were the two biggest stars that helped A) Form the Attitude Era and B) Help put WCW out of business. You see, The Rock was starting to grow as a character in 1997, but he still had no way of going to the top with Austin there. "The Texas Rattlesnake" was going to be WWE's main star until he left. A tragic real-life injury set everything in place for The Rock to take off.
Austin suffered a real broken neck after Owen Hart botched a piledriver on him at SummerSlam, 1997. In 1999, Austin went out of wrestling for nine months, while The Rock and Mankind formed The Rock N' Sock Connection, putting two WWE legends in one tag team duo. During this time, the Monday Night War ratings were heavily on McMahon's side as WCW went out of business.
Rock's legendary status continued into the 2000s, putting on epic matches against the likes of Austin, Brock Lesnar, Chris Jericho, and of course Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania X8. We can only wonder if this would have happened had Austin never gotten injured.
3 Mick Foley In The Absence Of Steve Austin
Mick Foley, going as the Mankind character during this time, was in the exact same situation as The Rock. Yes, the fans loved him and he was cool, but he wasn't Steve Austin cool. When Austin was sidelined with his neck injury, Mankind got to make a bigger name for himself.
Oddly enough, Foley was also nearing the end of his first go-around with WWE, as he would retire a short time after Austin was sidelined. But any who, he helped Raw achieve its greatest rating ever (8.4) in a segment with The Rock in September, 1999. There was also that aforementioned Rock N' Sock Connection which brought WWE fans to their feet. He engaged in a number of awesome matches and would win the WWE Championship shortly after Austin returned.
Foley's legacy was sort of completed with his Hell in a Cell match against Undertaker at King of the Ring, 1998. But he had plenty of more to work to do, and he did it in the absence of WWE's top guy.
2 Shawn Michaels In The Absence Of Bret Hart
Man, we all know WWE is scripted, but to write a story with more drama than the rivalry between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels?
As everyone knows, these two guys could not stand each other one bit. They were two of the most profitable names in WWE during the mid '90s. In a way, there was also tension with Hart being Canadian and Michaels being American. But their personal rivalry was put on in show and in real life during Survivor Series, 1997 in Montreal. Bret Hart was jumping ship to WCW after Vince told "The Hitman" he wasn't going to be able to fulfill the 20-year contract they agreed to. An agreement was in place for Hart to defeat Michaels and retain the WWE Champion in his home country, then forfeit the title before he left.
You know the rest: McMahon double-crosses him, gets punched by Hart and that was that. And yes, all three parties made amends in 2010.
But as for Michaels? "The Heartbreak Kid" went from WWE star to WWE Superstar once Hart went to WCW in late 1997. He brought D-Generation X to new heights with Triple H, arguably the greatest faction of all-time. He also put on epic matches against the likes The Undertaker.
It's hard to admit this, but the Montreal Screwjob kind of gave the fans a much better Shawn Michaels than the one prior.
1 Hulk Hogan In The Absence Of Bob Backlund
This was an easy choice for number one. When Vince McMahon wanted WWE to grow big time, he had Hulk Hogan as the main Superstar. And we all get to see just how in the world it all worked out. "Hulkamania" brought millions of fans to their feet, and the children of the '70s, '80s, and early '90s knew to say their prayers and eat their vitamins.
The legend of Bob Backlund, as we talked about earlier, ended in 1984 and he wouldn't return for another eight years. That's all Hogan needed to become the most iconic name in the history of professional wrestling. He didn't have another WWE icon to get through with. He was now the man.
Though Hogan was fired over a year ago by WWE for leaked racial remarks, his legacy on the wrestling world is felt more than three decades after he started it. Just ask yourself how big it'd be today without "The Hulkster," brother?