As fans of WWE - or just wrestling in general - we assume that every current WWE superstar grew up idolizing the likes of Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin, or The Rock. We assume they all wanted nothing more than to be professional wrestlers because, somewhere deep down, we all wanted that ourselves. Even if you didn't actually pursue it, you at least had countless imaginary wrestling matches with action figures or with your friends in the backyard, likely while pretending to call the action as if you were Jim Ross. And while that's the case for a lot of present-day WWE superstars, it isn't the consensus. Sure, most of them watched wrestling religiously and waited for magazines to come in the mail so they could keep up with the latest happenings, but others were busy pursuing other interests, whether it was football, amateur wrestling, or powerlifting.
The truth is: as much as being a wrestling fan growing up helps, it isn't necessarily a requirement. While it might give you an edge in understanding the in-ring psychology and ability to cut promos, it won't always set you apart as a superstar. Believe it or not, some of the most-over superstars in WWE history weren't even all that into wrestling growing up and instead were groomed by promoters or talent scouts who thought they looked good. You'll be surprised by the eight superstars on this list who fall into that category.
15 Didn't Watch: Alexa Bliss
It's hard to truly gauge if someone is telling the truth about anything these days, so take what you read about Alexa Bliss with a grain of salt. There's rumors that still ring out today that she was once a "ring rat" in NXT, although she has denied that and, given she's still with her longtime boyfriend and fiance Buddy Murphy, it seems unlikely to be true. She has also stated she watched wrestling growing up, but if she did, she couldn't have been that big of a fan, at least if you ask Sasha Banks or some others in professional wrestling. Banks is Bliss' biggest detractor and claims she wasn't at all a wrestling fan growing up, which is fine if true.
Bliss, meanwhile, has said on multiple occasions that she was a fan, although likely just to gain credibility in the industry.
To be fair to Banks' claim, it doesn't seem likely that a Disney-loving former cheerleader would have been all that into WWE.
Whether it's true or not, Bliss at least offered up a funny anecdote on watching wrestling as a kid:
"I wasn’t allowed to watch the Attitude Era because my mom told me to clean my room once and I was like, I have two words for you, so I put my arms up to do the crotch chop and she was like, you're grounded, and I was like, that's not how it goes."
14 Hardcore Fan: Sami Zayn
It's not hard to pick out the hardcore fans from the ones who might have only recently began pursuing wrestling. Generally speaking, the dudes with incredible, awe-inspiring size only came into wrestling later in life, while the smaller wrestlers who grinded away on the independent scene for years before making WWE are almost certainly all fans since the time they were kids. That definitely applies to Sami Zayn who, as El Generico, wrestled since 2002, when he was only 18 years old. He's most known for his time in Ring of Honor, where he was a one-time World Tag Team Champion and one-time World Television Champion, but he also wrestled in Chikara, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, and Dragon Gate, among other promotions.
Zayn (and his best friend Kevin Owens) has discussed his love of wrestling while growing up on multiple occasions.
While the Canadian does maintain some stereotypes from his home country (he has discussed his love of fantasy hockey on the E&C Pod of Awesomeness), his primary interest was always wrestling. In an interview with Gulf News while he was NXT Champion, Zayn discussed how it was his lifelong goal to reach WWE and named his five inspirations growing up: Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, Mick Foley, and Matt and Jeff Hardy.
13 Didn't Watch: Bobby Lashley
Speaking of Sami Zayn, the former NXT Champion is currently in a somewhat cringeworthy feud with Bobby Lashley, but it could certainly be a lot better if writers introduced an element of real life into it. For instance, instead of mocking Lashley's sisters, Zayn should discuss his own lifelong dream of becoming a wrestler, while mentioning the fact that Lashley seemingly just stepped into the role and perhaps doesn't care about professional wrestling as passionately as he does. It may not be true to this point, but there's definitely some truth in it. That's because Lashley, despite being a full-time wrestler since 2004, didn't grow up with plans of making it to the WWE like most of his colleagues.
Instead, Lashley was interested in amateur wrestling.
While attending Missouri Valley College, he was a three-time National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics National Champion in the 177-pounds category (which might be hard to imagine given his current-day physique). He had wanted to make the Olympics, but was forced to give up his dream because, as Dave Meltzer recalled recently:
"He was at the bank and somebody came in and they robbed the bank with guns and they started shooting and he dropped to the ground to avoid being shot and in doing so, he blew out his knee which is a hell of a story." That's the story Lashley should have told during his Renee Young sit-down interview.
12 Hardcore Fan: Sasha Banks
While it can be said that a lot of past female stars didn't exactly grow up as the biggest wrestling fans, that definitely isn't the case with present-day members of the WWE women's roster. The likes of Trish Stratus, Lita, and Chyna didn't have many female icons in the industry to look up to, hence why they might not have grown up with the desire to succeed in the industry, but that isn't true for someone like Sasha Banks, who, in addition to following the path blazed by the aforementioned women, makes no secret her fandom of "Latino Heat" Eddie Guerrero.
In an interview with Chris Jericho on his Talk is Jericho podcast back in 2015, Banks described how she wanted to grow up to be "the female Eddie Guerrero" and added how the fact she didn't get to see him perform live is "one of the most heartbreaking things ever." She had an emotional heart-to-heart conversation with Eddie's widow, Vickie Guerrero, prior to the 2018 Royal Rumble, in which she shared the following:
"Wrestling is the only thing I've ever loved. I really feel like wrestling saved my life. But Eddie was the first person I ever saw on TV and I was instantly hooked and I knew right when I saw him, that I wanted to do exactly what he did."
11 Didn't Watch: Titus O'Neil
It has been a bit of a whirlwind career for Titus O'Neil. Outside of the ring, the 41 year old is regarded for his philanthropy and willingness to give back to his local community, but the only smooth sailing in his in-ring career was experienced when he tripped and slid below the ring at the Greatest Royal Rumble in Saudi Arabia. The former WWE Tag Team Champion has mostly been used in the mid- to lower-card and has basically been relegated to serving as a manager in the past year. He was also at one time suspended for touching Vince McMahon when he wasn't supposed to. It has certainly been an interesting career for someone who only began seeing wrestling as a career option when he was 33 years old.
O'Neil had just completed an Arena Football League career after a stint with the University of Florida Gators.
He recounted how he wasn't a wrestling fan growing up on the Sam Roberts Wrestling Podcast, but his good friend, Dave Batista, introduced him:
"One day I was driving to South Tampa to get some dress shoes which was down the street from FCW. I happened to drive past the building and Dave had told me about it if I ever wanted the chance. I picked it up and asked Dave and I said I would poke my head in the back door and two weeks later I was in the building bumping."
10 Hardcore Fan: Kevin Owens
Kevin Owens has one of the more fascinating love stories with professional wrestling. Not unlike Finn Balor, he was somewhat restricted to viewing WWE or any professional wrestling, but not because of its availability. The WWE has long had a good relationship with Canada, which is where Owens is from, but it doesn't exactly cater to its French population, save for having French announcers for PPVs; even then, Canadians who ordered WWE PPVs got the English-language broadcast. Owens, however, grew up in rural Quebec, which is a French-speaking province. You can still pick out his French accent if you listen closely, but he has done a good job at masking it, considering he learned most of his English from WWE broadcasts.
Owens has said on several occasions that he started to become fluent in English because of Jim Ross, which, admittedly, isn't the best person to learn from - it's not every day you can effectively work slobber-knocker into a conversation. Further signifying the fact he grew up a wrestling fan, the 34 year old's son is named Owen, not after his WWE character's last name, but after Owen Hart, who he idolized growing up. KO recently signed a five-year extension with WWE, so don't worry about him going anywhere anytime soon.
9 Didn't Watch: The Bellas
Give Nikki and Brie Bella credit where credit is deserved - the twins worked hard at becoming the face of the WWE women's roster, albeit during a time when it lacked talent, but they're owed respect nonetheless. With that said, aside from their off-screen celebrity, there's little reason for fans to want to see either in a match on WWE programming these days given their relative lack of talent compared to stars like Asuka, Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Ruby Riott, and even Ronda Rousey. That's in part due to the fact most of those women grew up fans of wrestling, while that was far from the case for the Bellas, who actually moved to Hollywood in search of fame and success.
Yet, because of their work, Nikki was named No. 1 on the PWI Female 50 in 2015, while both sisters also established a brand and built themselves up as celebrities. It's an impressive feat for two sisters who had no interest in wrestling when they were younger. Before signing with WWE in 2007, they were contestants in the International Body Doubles twins search and participated as the World Cup Twins as part of a Budweiser ad campaign in 2006. They only ended up in WWE because Nikki, on a whim, suggested they try out for the 2006 WWE Diva Search.
8 Hardcore Fan: Seth Rollins
It doesn't take much to realize Seth Rollins was a die-hard wrestling fan growing up and that authenticity is probably part of the reason why he's adored so much by fans. Whereas his former Sheild mate Roman Reigns has failed to get over as a top babyface for the past two years, Rollins has recently been riding a wave of success both in the ring and in regard to fan popularity and appreciation. If it wasn't clear months ago, it should be now that he is the face of the WWE. And he's well-positioned to be the first true everyday face of the company since John Cena worked a more rigorous schedule.
At different times, Rollins has said he models his wrestling style after Shawn Michaels and Eddie Guerrero, which would make sense.
You can tell he's a true wrestling nerd in his answer when posed the question of who's his favorite wrestler for a WWE.com article. While other superstars said Goldberg, Sting, or Ric Flair, Rollins answered Necro Butcher:
"In the way that Sabu was revolutionary for his time, The Necro Butcher is that guy for our time. He channels all these great brawlers of the past, has this unique look and is completely fearless. I've wrestled with him and against him and he can do anything you need him to do."
7 Didn't Watch: Big Show
As previously mentioned regarding bigger and more physically-toned wrestlers, it's generally the case that they didn't grow up huge wrestling fans. Some did, but most naturally pursued interest in football or weightlifting before realizing wrestling was an option. That's the case with The Big Show, who was recruited to WCW by Hulk Hogan, among others, in the 1990s. The story goes that Show, while working various part-time jobs at the time, was introduced to Hogan by former child actor, radio personality and celebrity wrestler Danny Bonaduce and participated in a pick-up basketball game as part of promotion efforts for an upcoming WCW show. Hogan was impressed with how Show worked the crowd, so he recommended him to Eric Bischoff, who almost immediately signed him to a deal.
To his credit, he had previously sought out a career with the WWE, realizing his size would make him a commodity in the industry. However, he was turned away by a couple promoters and Pat Patterson didn't even bother watching his audition tape because he assumed he would be too similar to then-current WWE superstar Kurrgan. Not surprisingly, Vince McMahon wasn't too thrilled when he saw The Giant debut for WCW in 1995.
6 Hardcore Fan: John Cena
In that same WWE.com favorite wrestler poll in which he mentioned Seth Rollins named The Necro Butcher as his favorite, John Cena, almost too perfectly, named Vince McMahon. The "Company Man" picked the head of the company in what could only be described as the perfect measure of butt-kissing. However, he has his reasons. Cena was a passionate Hulk Hogan fan growing up, as was just about everybody his age, but he labels McMahon as his favorite wrestler in that particular interview due to his genius for the entertainment side of the industry - and he isn't wrong.
"When I wrestled him in 2006, it was awful, but he knows how to entertain," Cena said.
Think about it. Without his work on screen during the Attitude Era, Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock - or wrestling as a whole - wouldn't have been as near as popular as they should have been.
"And then, there's all that Vince has done from Hulkamania, to the Montreal situation, to the rivalry with Austin, to anytime he comes on television, he's my favorite. I'm biased, especially because of his entrepreneurial skills behind the scenes, but any time he comes out, something serious, weird, or seriously weird is going to happen." Real WWE fans know that to be the truth.
5 Didn't Watch: Roman Reigns
While it's far from the sole reason he isn't over with the WWE Universe, the fact that Roman Reigns didn't grow up with a passion for professional wrestling definitely plays a part in the disdain and apathy among fans, especially when compared to someone like Daniel Bryan, who for too long was underutilized despite obviously being a committed and passionate lifelong fan and hard worker. Reigns simply doesn't come across as an enthusiastic wrestler in the ring or on the mic. It doesn't feel like we're watching someone live out their dream. It just feels like we're watching a bad actor with decent physical skills.
Yet, like it or not, Reigns is the established face of the company as a three-time World Heavyweight Champion and ninth-ever Grand Slam Champion under the current format.
This is despite the fact that he hardly paid interest to wrestling growing up and instead pursued a career in football, which eventually led him to play for Georgia Tech and the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League.
He followed a similar path to fellow Anoa’i family member Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, but didn't have the charisma, nor the passion for the industry, as The People's Champ.
4 Hardcore Fan: Finn Balor
Again, it shouldn't take a genius to figure out Finn Balor was a massive wrestling fan growing up. He has been wrestling for nearly 20 years and truly treats each match like it's his last. He has a passion for the industry that is unmatched by most on the WWE roster so it makes sense that he would have been watching wrestling since he was a young boy. Despite WWE not being as accessible in Ireland back then as it is now, Balor would collect magazines via mail and, before that, watched World of Sports wrestling since he was four years old.
"That was kind of the British wrestling that was still on TV back home in Ireland at the time," he told SLAM! Sports in 2015. "It wasn't until I was about eight or nine that Sky (TV) came to Ireland and we got WWE," he added, noting that he was blown away by the colorful characters, high-flyers, and "bad guys" like "Mr. Perfect" Curt Hennig and Rick Rude. In a Table for 3 episode last season also featuring The Hardy Boyz, Balor relayed that he was heavily influenced by them growing up, despite the fact he's only four years younger than Jeff.
3 Didn't Watch: Kurt Angle
A lot of the wrestlers on this list who didn't watch WWE or any form of professional wrestling growing up are mediocre talents at best. That's largely due to the fact their size kept them from being able to do a lot of the things fans adore in the ring. However, Kurt Angle, widely regarded as one of the best wrestlers during the Attitude Era, took to the sport almost immediately after an impressive career as an amateur wrestler. Angle came from a family of wrestlers and he saw professional wrestling almost as a sideshow act that wasn't worthy of his respect, but he soon found out it wasn't as easy as he expected during his WWE tryouts.
In the WWE Network documentary detailing his career in the lead up to his Hall of Fame induction, he spoke of how he wanted to quit during the tryout, but battled through to earn a contract with WWE.
His lack of knowledge of the industry really stood out shortly after when he told Vince McMahon he was going to have to win every match as it wouldn't be believable that an Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler would lose.
He also didn't think fans in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania would boo him even though he was a heel.
2 Hardcore Fan: Lio Rush
You're probably aware of all the big-name superstars in WWE who grew up as fans of professional wrestling, so why not shine a light on some of the up-and-coming talent in NXT, especially seeing as they would have grown up not even in the Attitude Era, but during the Ruthless Aggression Era. Lio Rush is a 23 year old former CZW World Heavyweight Champion who was signed to NXT in July 2017, but hasn't been used all that frequently on TV, largely due to heat directed his way after a tweet in which he criticized Emma after she was released. Yet, he still has a bright future in the company.
And while he was only eight years old during the start of the Ruthless Aggression Era, Rush counts some of the Attitude Era stars as his favorite wrestlers growing up. In fact, he was largely inspired by the likes of Triple H and Shawn Michaels, who help train him today:
"Being a fan, being somebody who's wanted to be a professional wrestler since they were five years old and growing up watching Triple H, watching Shawn Michaels, and then to one day wake up and report to work and that's my coach. That's my boss. It's absolutely incredible."
1 Didn't Watch: Brock Lesnar
Nobody who grew up wanting to sacrifice everything to make the WWE and become a World Champion would do what Brock Lesnar is doing right now, even if they had the opportunity. While being paid a lofty price per appearance would be enticing, a lot of the superstars fans respect most love putting on a show too much to be a part-time champion. Would they like to cut back on their live shows to preserve their body? Likely. But would they be comfortable sitting out for months at a time while the company's biggest championship goes undefended? Definitely not. Lesnar, however, is OK with that. And while he's arguably earned that right given his history in the company and his ability to draw (although that's seemingly becoming less of a factor), it's still wrong.
Lesnar was able to transition into becoming a talented wrestler earlier in his career despite not being much of a fan growing up. The former college wrestler and two-time NCAA All-American showed up on the main roster in 2002 and was made WWE Undisputed Champion by SummerSlam. He even had a diverse move set back then as it appeared he was dedicated to winning over the audience, but that hasn't been the case for awhile now. Lesnar's matches are no more than a few suplexes and an F5 and he clearly lacks the passion he may have once had.
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