Wrestlers change characters not altogether unlike actors do. Sure, bigger name wrestlers have a harder time totally distancing themselves from past identities, and for some talents it’s pretty universally agreed that they’re best in a specific role. Just the same, for as iconic as someone like Kane is today, long time fans will remember that it took several attempts, over a period of years, for WWE to arrive at the optimal character for him. Even just within the confines of his WWE tenure, he played Jerry Lawler's dentist Isaac Yankem and The Fake Diesel (not to mention Unabomb and the Christmas Creature during his stint in Memphis en route to WWE).
Indeed, for most wrestlers, there is at least some variation in their identity over the course of their careers, and that is especially true of guys who make their way to WWE, and who have often as not traveled a winding road through the independents, other countries, or other national promotions.
This article takes a look back at twenty contemporary WWE stars and the forgotten characters they played earlier in their careers while they were under contract to different companies. In some cases, it’s all but laughable to think of today’s credible star in a silly past identity. In others, we have to wonder why a star didn’t stick with it in a gimmick that actually seems better than what he’s using now. In any of these cases, there’s a significant difference between these forgotten gimmicks and the character that the worker has since become better known for.
20 AJ Styles: Christian’s Sidekick
Long before AJ Styles was the face of SmackDown, and even before he starred for New Japan Pro Wrestling, he was one of the defining stars of Impact Wrestling. Over the course of his long tenure with the company, he weathered going from a main event spot, to getting cycled down the card periodically—often so the company could feature better established talents with WWE track records.
One of the earlier instances of Styles getting demoted happened when Christian jumped over and snagged top billing. Not only did Styles get knocked down a notch, but he was positioned as Christian’s sidekick, alongside Tyson Tomko, in the Christian Coalition heel faction.
19 Triple H: Jean-Paul Levesque
Triple H is a WWE icon and one of the best known power brokers in the company. He had humbler beginnings on the national stage, though, as then-WCW booker Ric Flair decided to play off of his real life French surname to cast him as arrogant heel foreigner Jean-Paul Levesque.
Never mind that he had already been introduced to WCW fans as Terra Ryzing; young Triple H couldn’t speak French or put on anything like a convincing French accent. The gimmick had a lower mid-card ceiling on it, and may well have contributed to his choice to defect WWE for less money when the opportunity became available.
18 Sami Zayn: El Generico
While it may seem counterintuitive to bill oneself as generic, Sami Zayn’s original gimmick that he built a reputation on in Canada and across smaller U.S. promotions was El Genrico, The Generic Luchador, whom it was implied stayed masked to hide his scars.
The character got over on the indies, but it’s hard to imagine Zayn using it now given how on point his facials were and how key they were to getting him over as a face in the WWE system. That’s not to mention how his lightly adapted, snarky heel mannerisms have made him a compelling character, too—a far cry from his masked beginnings.
17 Ricochet: Prince Puma
While Ricochet was allowed to carry his name and core persona with him into the WWE developmental system from the indies, he did have one other major character that he played for Lucha Underground as the original face of the promotion: Prince Puma.
Puma was a luchador from Boyles Heights, portrayed as a local boy made good. Over the course of his Lucha Underground tenure, he was a consistent face, though he did add a darker edge to his persona toward the end of his run, under the kayfabe tutelage of Vampiro.
16 The Undertaker: Mean Mark Callous
The Undertaker has been one of WWE’s definitive icons for over 25 years now. He has undergone character shifts within The Undertaker gimmick, including going from an undead character, to a cult leader, to a biker, back around to the undead-ish. However, before he developed his legend as The Deadman, he was Mean Mark Callous.
The name was very close to his real life name, Mark Calaway, and that’s demonstrative of how much effort went into his character as a mostly generic big man heel, best known up to that point for his efforts in WCW. As the name would suggest, there wasn't much hype behind his gimmick.
15 Eric Young: Daniel Bryan Lite
Nowadays, Eric Young is best known to WWE fans as the eccentric leader of Sanity. He had a long tenure with Impact Wrestling prior to that, though, that included playing a brash heel with the Team Canada faction, and a cowardly face who channeled a super hero alter-ego to battle monster heels.
Young arguably peaked as Impact’s World Champion. He conspicuously grew out his beard and was pushed as an underdog face. Given the timing and way he was booked, pundits were quick to call out that Impact seemed as though it was trying to channel how over Daniel Bryan was in WWE through their own version of the character in Young.
14 Andrade Almas: La Sombra
While Andrade Cien Almas emerged as one of the greatest heel products of NXT, and has made the most of limited opportunities since his call up to SmackDown, he had nearly a decade of ring experience before WWE got its hands on him. Almas worked primarily as La Sombra, which translates to The Shadow, as a masked luchador for CMLL who ultimately did some work for New Japan as well.
In addition to the mask, La Sombra was mostly a face character, in some ways closer to Almas’s original NXT character that failed to catch on. At least in the world of WWE, he has done much better as a face.
13 Finn Balor: Prince Devitt
Finn Balor has been a steady face throughout his time on the WWE main roster and NXT before that. While he has shown a darker edge through his Demon alter-ego, WWE has mostly played down the scary elements of that gimmick, and emphasized the cool factor of his body paint and different persona.
As Prince Devitt, Balor worked as both a face and a heel. He arguably reached the pinnacle of his pre-WWE success in New Japan, though, where he was the leader of the Bullet Club faction that guys like AJ Styles, Kenny Omega, and Cody Rhodes went on to take over in his wake. Working a more aggressive style, Balor was one of the best villains in the business in that gimmick.
12 Big Show: Andre The Giant’s Son
When WCW first introduced the man who would become The Big Show on a national stage, he was billed as The Giant with heavy innuendo that he was Andre the Giant’s son.
To their credit, WCW had a bona fide giant who was a fresh face to wrestling fans at the time, and suggesting a shared lineage with wrestling’s most famous big man wasn’t the worst idea. It was a little on the nose, though, as Show was immediately positioned as a monster heel in his kayfabe father’s tradition, challenging Hulk Hogan for the World Championship. It wasn't long though, before he was muddled up in the nWo alongside the newly heel Hogan.
11 Bobby Roode: Teaming With James Storm
Bobby Roode had a long career, mostly with Impact Wrestling, before signing on with WWE. His Glorious persona got him over as the top heel in NXT, and led to his face run in WWE which, while not exactly brilliant, has yielded US and Tag Team Championship gold.
In Impact, Roode ran the gamut from a lower level heel to playing a rich heel gimmick, to eventually arriving as first a face, then a heel main event star. The point at which his character work first really seemed to click was in his tag team with James Storm—in many ways a bridge between his rich guy shtick and main eventing. This team was a finely tuned old school tag team that thrived on their own and as part of the Fortune stable.
10 Chris Jericho: The Man Of 1,004 Holds
Before Chris Jericho became known as Y2J and became a legend via his work in WWE, he had a run in WCW. Jericho tends to stand out, in retrospect, as the embodiment of a super talented, hard working, main event attraction waiting to happen that WCW overlooked in favor of better established stars.
One of Jericho’s best, but often forgotten, bits of WCW work was billing himself “The Man of 1,004 Holds,” in contrast to rival Dean Malenko who went by the moniker The Man of 1,000 Holds. Jericho went so far as to read off all the holds he knew from a scroll in a particularly excellent promo segment.
9 Jeff Hardy: The In-Ring Leader Of Immortal
Jeff Hardy has had a long and decorated WWE career, but it’s worth noting that he also had two headlining runs working for Impact Wrestling. The latter one saw him reach a kayfabe peak, not as the eccentric daredevil face he’s generally known as, but rather as a calculating heel.
Hardy was positioned as the original in-ring leader of the Immortal faction. While Hulk Hogan was positioned as a figurehead at the top of the group, Hardy was the reigning world champion and de facto front man as a full time wrestler. Personal issues would cut this run short and muddy the storyline, which contributes to why this distinctive, starring role for Hardy tends to be forgotten today.
8 Paul Heyman: Paul E. Dangerously
Nowadays, Paul Heyman is one of the most recognizable names in wrestling. He rose to national prominence, however, under the name Paul E. Dangerously, which he used as a manager most memorably in WCW. As a much younger man, he wielded a giant cell phone that he often as not used as a weapon, and masterminded The Dangerous Alliance faction. The super group, starred Rick Rude, Steve Austin, Arn Anderson, Larry Zbyszko, Bobby Eaton, and Madusa. Looking back, it feels a bit like a bridge between The Four Horsemen and the New World Order for its mix of established stars and rising young talent and identity as an overwhelming heel force.
Heyman would become more historically important for masterminding WCW and later serving as a WWE manger for top acts like Brock Lesnar and CM Punk. It’s a mistake, though, to overlook the earlier efforts from his career.
7 R-Truth: Ron Killings
Nowadays, R-Truth is a veteran presence as one of the most experienced guys on the WWE roster. On screen, though, he’s largely dismissable as a comedic character, equal parts confused and confusing, and not to be taken seriously for any meaningful title picture.
Prior to this run, Truth was a more serious character in WWE (in addition to his middling run as K-Kwik before that), but he also had a run in Impact and on the indies as Ron Killings. Killings was a largely serious heel, who even got vocal against a young John Cena for stealing his gimmick as a rapping wrestler.
6 Ruby Riott: Heidi Lovelace
Ruby Riott has become a heel mainstay on Monday Night Raw as the leader of the Riott Squad faction and a perennial thorn in the side of the brand’s female faces. Even within the NXT system, she had a very different persona as a face who spent most of her time feuding with Nikki Cross.
Before she came to WWE, though, Riott had her share of experience working the indies and internationally as Heidi Lovelace, both as a face and heel character. Some of her finest work revolves around wrestling with and against Princess Kimber Lee, known as Abbey Laith in NXT.
5 Charles Robinson: Little Naitch
Charles Robinson is one of WWE’s more recognizable referees, if only for his longevity. He came over to the WWE once the company bought out WCW. Notably, in WWE at least, he has never been involved much in angles, but rather mostly lives by the old wisdom that the best referees can go unnoticed.
Robinson wasn’t so quiet in WCW, though. He was booked with his real life idol Ric Flair as his sidekick, stooge, and briefly as an undersized wrestler under the Nature Boy’s tutelage. For that absurdist angle, Robinson took on the moniker “Little Naitch.” Fortunately, the absurdist period was brief enough to be mostly forgotten nowadays.
4 Samoa Joe: Inspirational Young Champion
Samoa Joe has carved a niche for himself as a heel in WWE. He spent most of NXT run in that role, including programs with Finn Balor and Shinsuke Nakamura. He has since played a rabid pit bull of a bad guy on the main roster, antagonizing not only faces like AJ Styles and Roman Reigns, but also fellow heel Brock Lesnar.
Though Joe spent much of his Impact Wrestling tenure as a heel, too, he also spent chunks of time as a face, including his reign as World Champion there. As a homegrown talent, he rose up and wound up unseating established superstar Kurt Angle for the title, in a feel good story of a hard working young wrestler who rose up through the ranks to arrive on top.
3 Booker T: Half Of Harlem Heat
Booker T is in the conversation among the all time greats. His combination of athleticism, charisma, longevity, and kayfabe accomplishments made him a more than worthy inductee into the WWE Hall of Fame, and he was one of the very few top guys to actively better his legacy in WWE.
Booker’s best remembered personas are that of a relatively straightforward face, with the goofy add-on of his signature Spinarooni, and his heel king gimmick. However, long before he worked in this roles, he was half of the heel tag team Harlem Heat with his real life brother Stevie Ray. The duo was originally billed as Kane and Kole in WCW, and Booker was perhaps most infamously the guy to take the submission loss to Fred Ottman’s doomed Shockmaster character in the 1993 iteration of War Games.
2 Xavier Woods: Consequences Creed
Today, Xavier Woods is the most vocal member of the popular New Day unit, through which his eccentric personality shines through, and he has more than once proven himself as an able in ring performer. Before he signed with WWE, though, Woods was billed as Consequences Creed in Impact Wrestling.
As Creed, his character clearly linked back to Apollo Creed from the Rocky films, complete with patriotic trunks and his gift for gab. He spent most of his time competing in the X-Division ranks, and wound up collecting tag team gold paired with Jay Lethal in tandem called Lethal Consequences.
1 Drake Maverick: Rockstar Spud
WWE has featured Drake Maverick as a kayfabe authority figure over 205 Live, and more recently as the manager to The Authors of Pain. And we've all seen by now why Vince thinks it's so amusing to have Maverick paired with big powerhouses like AoP. Prior to his work with WWE, though, he had a memorable run as Rockstar Spud in Impact Wrestling.
Spud played a heel sidekick to Dixie Carter and EC3, before later turning face to feud with the latter as an outsized underdog. Spud wound up his time with Impact in the X Division title picture where his smaller stature and athleticism were a natural fit.