A generation ago, World Wrestling Entertainment was considered to be too character-oriented. On a regular basis, pop culture sites including The Sportster feature stories about the best and the worst of an era that brought us Bastion Booger and The Red Rooster. As the industry has evolved, and the fans started to demand more reality-based programming, we are seeing an unprecedented era in which wrestlers are retaining their established ring names that they used on the independent scene and the announce team even acknowledges their career prior to their arrival.
Still, when talent is adopted by the WWE and brought in through the Performance Center, NXT, or even fast-tracked to the premiere brands under their banner, nobody is better at cultivating that wrestler to a distinct and marketable entity.
You know their names, but when you see these astonishing rookie year photos of some of your favorite WWE superstars, you’ll readily identify the evolution of these stars from wrestlers to sports entertainers. In many cases, the transition is quite striking from past to present.
Now, without further ado, here are 20 astonishing rookie year photos of some of your favorite wrestlers. You may not recognize some of them as they have come a long way.
20 Brock Lesnar
Okay, so Brock Lesnar pretty much always looked like The Next Big Thing and The Beast Incarnate. Lesnar was part of the legendary class that got out of OVW in the early 2000s. In addition to Brock Lesnar, the territory also breeded future company stars like Randy Orton, John Cena and Batista. Lesnar signed with the WWE's developmental territory shortly after winning the NCAA heavyweight championship.
When starting out in OVW, Lesnar teamed up with Shelton Benjamin to form The Minnesota Stretching Crew. Together, the former college roommates would win the OVW Southern Tag Team Championship. Lesnar has often credited Shelton Benjamin with helping him through his journey to the WWE.
17 John Bradshaw Layfield
15 Harv Sihra
14 Ascension’s Viktor
13 Mickie James
There are many fans delighted to see the return of Mickie James to the WWE in recent weeks. Her meteoric rise through the ranks of professional wrestling is almost unmatched, signing with the WWE after only four years as a pro. From 2005 to 2010, she would reign as champion in the WWE six times, holding both the Women’s title and the Divas championship when they were in commission. From her rookie promotional shot, there is no doubt that this young lady had the looks to become a featured star in the cosmetic world of pro wrestling, but we’ve also learned that there is more than just a pretty face with Mickie James.
Whether it’s an expert analysis of the top imports to the sport of wrestling to ever grace American soil, or it’s the diehard fans who celebrate the ascent of their favorites from the upper echelon of the independents in Ring of Honor to achieve success in the WWE, everybody wants to talk about Cesaro’s strength. Yes, we can admit and can point to several anecdotes wherein the Swiss Superman has performed feats that seem unfathomable. However, when we see this early promotional photo of Cesaro, what we wonder most is why nobody is ever talking about how exceptionally well dressed this wrestler has been ever since his first days in the business?
11 Dean Ambrose
Though he received his training from the reputable Heartland Wrestling Academy school in Cincinnati from esteemed trainer Les Thatcher, one might not have predicted that Dean Ambrose would even arrive in the WWE. Launching his career in the aggressive Puerto Rican territory, then spending years working in promotions featuring a level of gore that would make Paul Heyman’s entire ECW roster cringe, quite simply, Dean Ambrose didn’t fit the WWE mold. Looking at this shot of Ambrose when he was still active as Jon Moxley, the words that Tom Prichard uttered to many WWE hopefuls springs to mind: “Listen, we like your work, you’re a good wrestler. You just don’t LOOK like a superstar.”
10 Seth Rollins
9 Becky Lynch
The Lass Kicker’s success in the WWE comes as no surprise to many as she was already touring internationally in her teens. What may be most striking about her achievement in the WWE is that her destiny was largely built over a decade of work before signing with the company. Lynch, alongside Bayley, Charlotte and Sasha Banks are at the forefront of the women’s revolution in wrestling – an era in which, for the first time in a century, the ladies have the opportunity to headline television broadcasts and pay-per-views based on their merit as superstars.
8 Sami Zayn
The internet wrestling community marveled at the performances of El Generico in his native Quebec as well as his appearances in Ring of Honor and other top American independent promotions. Still, there was this nagging belief that while talented, his appeal was in the mask – as a mysterious character with a name that might suggest that he would rarely tug the curtain in the opening match (successfully). For many, while they were happy to see that his talent was being recognized by a contract with the WWE, they were still dismayed that it would mean the retirement of the mask that had made him famous. Sidelined by injury on the night when he first broke into the main roster, Sami Zayn’s ascent has been a little slower than that of his peers, but he’s still on the job and we expect to see him come into his own over the next few years.
7 John Cena
It’s worth a chuckle to look back at the early promotional photos of John Cena. For a wrestler that has been defined by a non-traditional ring attire of denim shorts and sneakers for much of his career, to see him in generic spandex trunks as he tried to garner attention from the WWE brass while in Ohio Valley Wrestling is amusing. We’re also not really sure what inspired the Horshu (look it up) haircut, but it’s probably a fad and it’s best he moved away from it.
6 Dolph Ziggler
5 Bray Wyatt
4 Roman Reigns
Fortunately, for Roman Reigns, the WWE creative team didn’t take the easy way out when it came to assigning a character for Roman Reigns. However, this early publicity shot seems to indicate that they may have been venturing down that path. Son of former WWE tag team champion, Sika, Roman may have evaded the fate of being typecast as a Samoan savage simply by not being built the same was as many of his bloodline. Samu, Fatu, Manu and even Roman’s own brother “Rosey” found themselves relegated to almost stereotypical roles as bare-footed, burly islanders.
3 Daniel Bryan
We’re sad that one of wrestling’s ultimate underdogs will never truly get to enjoy the fruits of his labors and the sacrifices that he made to ascend to the pinnacle of professional wrestling. While his climb was slower than many of his fellow classmates at the Shawn Michaels school of wrestling in San Antonio, his peers Brian Kendrick and Lance Cade arrived and achieved success before he himself had even signed a deal. Eventually he did make it. Earning the respect of the veterans with textbook performances and winning over the fans and being at the front of the “yes” movement, the American Dragon laid claim to his WrestleMania moment.
2 AJ Styles
The “Face that Runs the Place” will cap off an incredible wrestling career with a run in the WWE among the top stars on the roster. Without a doubt, his exciting ring style has influenced a generation of aspiring hopefuls on the independent scene who attempt to replicate his daredevil moves (with varying degrees of success) in community centers and armories all over North America. Sadly, many of those self-identified rising stars are also nondescript in their direct theft of this look from AJ’s early career. Dressed in a name-brand track suit (which often doubles as their ring gear in absence of a significant investment), they sport a pasty white complexion with a slight hint of definition.
1 Kevin Owens
Kevin Owens declared Monday night his exclusive domain and that he, as Universal champion, is bigger than the RAW brand itself. It’s a title that one of his earliest trainers couldn’t have predicted, though in fairness to Jacques Rougeau, he first saw Owens in a ring when he was 15 years old. Emerging to a spot in the wrestling game where some predict that he will become the defining villain of his generation, that’s certainly not what we see when he look at this fresh-faced youngster in the photo.
That said, there are a lot of commonly held beliefs about the WWE and who will make the cut that Kevin Owens shatters with each passing achievement. The 32-year-old has only been in the WWE for a little over two years and has already amassed a list of career milestones that surpass what many have done in a lifetime.
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