A constant in wrestling is how promoters will try to get guys over no matter what. Roman Reigns is a great modern example, WWE insisting on pushing him as the main eventer and face of the company despite how fans don’t take well to him in that role. It’s not new of course as slews of promoters have made the same mistake time and again. WCW is famous for ignoring all the guys he had over in favor of the older types. It goes back to the territories, many a guy held back despite being incredibly popular as he wasn’t the guy the company wanted to be the star.
Sometimes, they’re able to break out of that and still be on top. The company realizes that if the fans want the guy, just push him already. Other times, they cut the legs out, do all possible to hold him back as he doesn’t fit into their plans. Yet they still manage to get over nicely and be a star no matter what the company does to them. WWE is guilty of this plenty of times, slews of guys who got over despite their efforts and some turning into the biggest stars around.
Nick Dinsmore is one of the most bizarre cases of talent mismanagement in WWE history. In OVW, he was a fantastic star, winning the title 10 times, over as a worker and on the mic and should have been poised for stardom in WWE. Instead, he was given the gimmick of Eugene, Eric Bischoff’s “slow” nephew and pushed as a mentally challenged wrestler. At first, it seemed WWE had a handle on it as training by William Regal showed Eugene as a wrestling savant who could mimic any worker and fans responded to his promos. A major moment was when Eugene was run down by The Coach only for The Rock to make a surprise appearance to give him the rub.
WWE would ruin that with a feud with HHH coming out on top yet Eugene remained popular with various antics and fans hoped for more but combinations of injuries and bad booking undermined him and led to his dismissal. A shame as the man was a talent who got over with a bad act and deserved better than what he received.
14 Santino Marella
This is an interesting case as WWE wanted him over then didn’t. At first, coming out as a “fan in the crowd” to win the IC belt, Santino was pushed as a babyface and “inspiration story” that fans didn’t buy. When he dropped the belt and turned heel, he looked to be just a jobber. But the man’s incredible comedic talent helped him shine, playing himself up as this total goofball who could surprise in the ring and hold the IC and tag titles. He added to it was a face with the “Cobra” and various nutty promos that the fans loved. He just threw himself into the act completely and to the point that you just loved to watch his antics.
Santino retired due to injury while still over as a guy to show that being funny can get you pretty popular in WWE and many miss the laughs he provided.
13 Chris Jericho
On his documentary, Jericho admits he was bugged that after his fantastic entrance in WWE in 1999, he seemed a forgotten factor in the company. Some of that was the bias about him being with WCW for so long and also not the main-event build. But Jericho’s combination of being a fantastic ring worker and absolute master of the mic was way too much for the company to ignore. His pops were fantastic and boosted Jericho majorly as a champion with multiple titles and getting himself over.
His returns were great with some nice turns like the “quiet heel” bit and his stardom as a music guy and author adding to it. He may have come in as a “smaller guy” but Jericho’s amazing skills turned him into one of the biggest stars in wrestling and a man who can captivate a crowd with ease.
12 Matt Hardy
When The Hardy Boyz were split by the initial draft in 2002, Jeff was clearly set to be the singles guy on RAW with some main event bouts. Matt was just stuck in the mid-card at SmackDown yet latched onto the genius “Matt Hardy Version 1” gimmick that won him new fans. He was soon having runs as Cruiserweight and tag team champion, doing a great job and fans backing him. It hit its height when the Lita-Edge affair became public, the fans backing Matt totally and his return to the company was a major deal. He was shifted about a bit with a few singles belts and tag titles but not much else, the company seemingly thinking he just wasn’t right as a main eventer.
But Matt still showcased himself as a great worker and a lot more dependable than his brother, which has led made people to think WWE was pushing the wrong Hardy a lot in this period.
11 John Cena
As hard as it is to believe today, there was a time when WWE really didn’t care that much about Cena. He did have an impressive debut in 2002 against Kurt Angle but that faded quickly. The young Cena got stuck in the mid card with no real push at all and WWE had considered him a forgettable guy. Then came the fateful Halloween party where he came as Vanilla Ice and Cena suddenly had the character he needed. Coming in as a heel, those raps and his good work soon got fans on his side and before long, he was a face whose pops were so huge that WWE had to put the belt on him. While many today might grouse about Cena hogging the limelight so much, it’s still notable how WWE never intended for him to be the biggest star of the company but Cena’s own skill and drive got him to that position.
Rising up as Claudio Castagnoli in Ring of Honor, Cesaro was signed up to WWE as just a big strong guy, an intimidating figure who won the U.S. title quickly. He wasn’t intended for much more, just a big guy in the shuffle, but Cesaro actually won fans over with his great swing move and some surprising skills in the ring. His mic work improved with him joining Paul Heyman and the Real Americans. The “Cesaro Section” has grown in the last year, fans backing him more and more and yet another guy WWE (or more specifically, Vince McMahon) doesn’t want to see rising up as a main eventer.
It’s surprising given Vince McMahon’s love of big guys yet Cesaro’s recent promo taking shots at the company shows even he recognizes he’s a guy the fans want a lot more of than his own company does.
9 Dolph Ziggler
After his run with the Spirit Squad and a name change, Ziggler was intended to pretty much just be mid-card filler for a while. However, the man turned out to be far more talented than expected as well as a great guy on the mic. While a heel, he got backing for some title runs and the pop when he won the World title over Alberto Del Rio was huge. Of course, WWE would try to hold him back as he wasn’t seen as a top guy but Ziggler kept it up, popular even as a heel and his recent promo on RAW has boosted him up even more, many feeling it proves he’s a main event talent just waiting for a push. He’s gotten over damn well for a guy who started off as a male cheerleader and many fans wanting him to get another push for the top.
8 Steve Austin
It’s not that WWE didn’t like Austin by any means, they just didn’t feel him right for the main event in 1996. Signed on from ECW, Austin was saddled with Ted DiBiase as his manager and the gimmick of “The Ringmaster” as the new “Million Dollar Champion,” muting his great skills as worker and mic guy. It took dumping DiBiase to get going, shaving his head and taking the Stone Cold moniker but still not a guy really being pushed at all. It took “Austin 3:16” for him to finally take off and even then, it was the feud with Bret in 1997 that changed things. Despite being the heel, Austin got fans going wild for his antics.
The feud with Vince elevated him to iconic status and made Austin one of the greatest stars in the history of the business, a guy whose stardom was so massive, it could never be contained no matter what and changed wrestling forever.
7 Dean Ambrose
When The Shield split up, it was obvious what would happen: Seth Rollins would be the hated heel, Roman Reigns the mega-face strong guy and Ambrose would just fall by the wayside. But as Rollins reigned as champion, the fan reaction to Reigns wasn’t as huge as hoped. Instead, “The Lunatic Fringe” took off with fans, Ambrose terrific on the mic and firing up the card as a singles guy. WWE kept pushing him back as they clearly wanted Roman on top but it was obvious that Ambrose was far more over with the fandom and they were clearly backing him more. WWE still seemed resistant for a time, intent on the Roman experiment but has finally bowed to the inevitable to give Ambrose the title and he’s been doing great with it.
It shows how you can plan all you want but can never control over who the fans want as Ambrose emerged as the real face star of The Shield.
6 The New Day
Kofi Kingston, Big E and Xavier Woods were three guys floundering in the lower ranks of WWE, tossed together with the original idea of them being a “black militant” outfit but that was dropped. The fact was, there was no real plans for them, the trio set up as a team and just used as jobbers for other teams meant for the titles. But somehow, these three managed to get over with their goofball ways, the trombone, the wacky promos and being an actually good team in the ring. The trio won the tag belts to defend and their act was so good that even as heels, they got massive pops to carry them over and are now one of the best parts of the show.
The fact WWE has yet to split them up shows even they respect how these three took off on their own terms to one of the best acts WWE has seen in a while and even the lower-rung guys can shine if given the chance.
5 Rob Van Dam
When ECW was absorbed into WWE, it quickly became clear Rob Van Dam was the major star of the new push. His part in the Invasion had fans backing him with his great high-flying ring work and tough attitude, a cocky showboat fans enjoyed. However, whether because of his size or his background, WWE was reluctant in giving RVD the main event run most wanted for him. He was more over than anyone on RAW in 2002-03 yet WWE had him in tag bouts rather than in the main event title scene. In 2006, he got the boost was part of the ECW revival to finally hold the title, clearly just to appease the ECW faithful. WWE can use the excuse of how RVD ruined that with his arrest a few weeks later as proof he wasn’t meant for the main event but not striking when he was so hot in 2003 remains a huge mistake as RVD still had a huge following that was more over than others in the company at the time and still high with fans today.
4 CM Punk
True, WWE had some hopes for using Punk when they signed him from Ring of Honor but it’s obvious, they never intended him to be a main event guy and face of the company. He seemed mostly set for ECW, his World title run in 2008 a surprise with many not too taken aback and WWE let it fade. Punk was openly told he wasn’t “a WWE guy” despite being so huge with the fans, loving his ring work and promos. He would end up using it for the infamous “pipe bomb” that turned him into a mega-star, taking on the company’s attitude in public and won the fans over more than ever before. He backed it up with great ring work as champion, holding the crowd tight as he continued to rip his own company and they loved him more for it. Punk proved he meant what he said by walking out on WWE over creative issues for UFC and showing himself to be a true rebel that made him far more over than even WWE could hope for.
3 Mick Foley
He was never a main event guy to be sure. Yes, Foley was popular as Cactus Jack in WCW and that company truly blew his drive a lot. However, WWE just saw him as a mid-card guy to feud with The Undertaker a bit, not a guy to be a huge company face. However, from the start, Foley’s amazing ability to take punishment and his in-ring skills got fans going with great battles against 'Taker and Shawn Michaels and winning them over. The return of Cactus Jack and arrival of Dude Love added to it with Foley injecting his own humor into things. The Hell in the Cell match made him a legend, instantly over due to his insane risk-taking and so pulling the trigger with a title run in late 1998 turned into one of the best moves for the company. Foley would continue his rise, a man with a large gut, lost teeth and a bad build yet more popular than most others and proving himself as one of the wrestling’s biggest ever stars.
2 Zack Ryder
He is sadly the poster child for how to cut the legs off a rising guy but the fact he got to that spot in the first place is impressive. After time in the lower ranks, Ryder decided to start putting out a series of videos of his “Long Island Life” which clicked with the fans and soon had him growing in popularity with fans. They would chant his name and laugh with his antics, the pops getting bigger and Ryder was soon on the rise, winning the U.S. title and seemingly ready for the big time. WWE then cut him down with bad moves and injuries yet Ryder’s popularity continued.
That was shown by the massive pop with his winning the Intercontinental title at WrestleMania and outrage when he dropped it the very next night. Ryder still remains among the more popular guys in the company despite WWE’s efforts to keep him down and thus many dislike WWE not giving him more of the push he deserves.
1 Daniel Bryan
Bryan always had a following, a fantastic worker in ROH who also helped out in WWE with reigns as US and World champion. He could be funny but relatable, his work ethic fantastic and by late 2013, it was clear the fans were responding. But WWE wanted Batista in the main event at 'Mania, thinking Bryan was just too small and not charismatic enough to work out. This led to the start of the “YES” movement that had crowds chanting Bryan’s name and a massive backlash when he wasn’t in the 2014 Rumble. WWE actually used it for the storyline of HHH saying Bryan wasn’t right and clearly expressed Vince’s own feelings but the fans couldn’t be stopped, the backlash clear and WWE had to listen to finally give Bryan the belt at Mania.
It wasn’t to last due to his injury and the backlash was even bigger when they ignored Bryan the next year in favor of Reigns as Vince just couldn’t grasp how the fans loved Bryan so much. Again, his injuries cut it short with his retirement but Daniel Bryan stands as a guy who got over despite everything the company did to hold him back.
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