WWE is not always right about their projections of how much a talent will accomplish early in their careers. Many of the biggest stars in the company's history were not handpicked to have main event runs. There are instances of WWE’s chosen ones to thriving with The Rock, Randy Orton, and Brock Lesnar serving as examples of top signings that worked. However, that is usually the exception to the rule given how many variables are in play when one must succeed.
We will look at both the signings that found a lot more success than expected and the ones that didn’t have as strong runs as the company hoped for. There are the wrestlers that were expected to flop and, for various reasons, defied the odds and showcased that their talent was undeniable. Unfortunately, on the other side of the list are the wrestlers expected to go far, only to end up lackluster. These are five mega-stars WWE originally expected to fail, along with five top signings that flopped.
10 Surprising success: Samoa Joe
WWE did not have high hopes for Samoa Joe when he finally joined the company with an NXT deal. They allowed Joe to keep his name since he was allowed to continue working the independent circuit. Triple H even warned Joe that a main roster run was unlikely.
Joe’s instant success with top t-shirt sales along with the interest growing in NXT proved that fans loved him. The work of Joe also impressed WWE enough to make him a full-time member of the company, an NXT Champion, and get called up to the main roster. Joe is now an important main roster star with the occasional main event story line.
9 Flopped: Sin Cara
The initial signing of Mexican wrestling superstar Mistico would receive huge fanfare when WWE had big plans for him. There was a press conference announcing Mistico’s signing to play the new Sin Cara character with weeks of vignettes hyping him up.
Triple H was rumored to be a huge supporter of Mistico as one of his first major signings. However, Sin Cara was a huge flop for WWE in the early stages. The constant botches, injuries, and inability to get over with the crowd doomed all plans. WWE eventually fired Mistico and have had Hunico playing the character the past few years.
8 Surprising success: Rey Mysterio
The size of Rey Mysterio was a big concern for WWE and fans when he joined the company in 2002 after his WCW contract expired. Vince McMahon was still known for preferring the big men of the sport with the smaller wrestlers having a glass ceiling to stop them from top level success.
Mysterio however won over everyone in the WWE from fans to management right away. The incredible work of Rey delivered must-see matches along with an underdog character fans could rally behind. Mysterio would get pushed into the main event picture as a World Champion and WWE Champion, which no one expected before the signing.
7 Flopped: Austin Aries
NXT started becoming the home for major independent wrestling names after the success of names like Kevin Owens, Finn Balor, Sami Zayn and Neville. Most would find success in the WWE world, but Austin Aries was one of the few that did not live up to expectations.
The NXT run of Aries featured lackluster feuds with Baron Corbin, No Way Jose, and Hideo Itami. WWE pushed him as one of the top names in the cruiserweight division for the 205 Live show. Aries had some good matches with Neville, but his backstage attitude reportedly resulted in a quick release from his contract.
6 Surprising success: AJ Lee
Female wrestlers like AJ Lee struggled to get signed by WWE back when the company only looked to hire models for the women’s division. Lee did win them over enough to land a developmental deal and a spot on the main roster after the NXT competition.
The use of AJ was non-existent for the first few months as part of the main roster. Lee revealed in her book that someone in WWE management claimed she was not physically attractive enough to be on television. The lack of belief in AJ would be proven wrong when she made the most of her opportunities to become one of the most successful women in WWE history.
5 Flopped: Hideo Itami
Hideo Itami joined WWE in the same signing class as fellow big names Kevin Owens and Finn Balor. The success of Owens and Balor were obvious right away as they were able to showcase the same style that found them success outside of WWE. Itami however struggled right away and never rebounded.
The first few months in NXT for Itami were disappointing and injuries would make it worse. Itami’s multiple stints on the injured list removed any momentum and he was moved to 205 Live. The disappointing run ended with Itami letting his contract expire, but he is now working as KENTA again for New Japan in the Bullet Club.
4 Surprising success: Daniel Bryan
Chris Jericho revealed that Vince McMahon already expected Daniel Bryan to fail on his first night on the job for the original season of NXT. The size, personality and even the fact that he doesn’t eat meat all made McMahon think Bryan was going to be a mid-carder at best in WWE.
Bryan would prove him wrong by making the most of every opportunity and winning over the WWE fan base. Even the biggest main event push of Bryan’s career came thanks to the fans fighting for him with chants and cheers when WWE management was not sold. Bryan’s legacy is now a legendary WWE icon that is still adding moments to his career.
3 Flopped: Ultimo Dragon
The success of Rey Mysterio in the early 2000s for WWE made them believe signing another masked former WCW star could benefit them. Ultimo Dragon joined the company in 2003 with vignettes hyping him up with the hopes of a big push.
But, the WWE was not impressed with his work, as fans didn’t react the way they did for Mysterio. Dragon lost his spot on WWE television quickly as he became a regular on the secondary show Velocity until his time with the company ended relatively quickly.
2 Surprising success: Mick Foley
Jim Ross put his reputation on the line when signing Mick Foley during his time as the main person in charge of hiring talent. The work of Foley in WCW as Cactus Jack impressed Ross, but Vince McMahon was not as sold. Ross claimed McMahon signed Foley with the intent of teaching Ross what it was like to have a talent break his heart.
Foley however proved Ross right and McMahon wrong right away. The character of Mankind found him success in a feud with The Undertaker. Other characters like Cactus Jack and Dude Love showed off his versatility. At the end, Foley was good enough to be himself as a hardcore legend and three-time WWE Champion.
1 Flopped: Marc Mero
WWE signed Marc Mero due to his work in WCW as Johnny B. Badd. The good matches in WCW were fine, but Vince McMahon believed he could make Mero a bigger main event star in WWE. Mero surprisingly received the first ever guaranteed contract in the company's history.
A huge push to start the WWE run would not help Mero as fans didn’t support him the way McMahon expected. Mero’s wife Sable joined him as a valet and ended up becoming the bigger star of the two. Once WWE split them up to push Sable on her own, Mero floundered until his WWE career ended.