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.
Approximately two years after Lesnar's rookie year, he was already headlining SummerSlam against The Rock and defeated The Great One to become the Undisputed WWE Champion. He was a made man in the business from there.
In high school, our geography teacher dismissed the notion of professional wrestling representing a cultural mosaic citing that all the Russians in pro wrestling were really good ol’ boys from Tennessee. In the case of Rusev, though, we’ve got someone who represents the real deal. While he now resides in Tennessee, he was born in Bulgaria and emigrated to America specifically to become a professional wrestler. After learning the ropes from WWE Hall of Famer Rikishi and fellow WWE alumnus Gangrel, it didn’t take long before the 304-pounder billed as “Miroslav Marakov” on the independents attracted the attention of the WWE. While this photo is enough to tell us that we wouldn’t want to run into this guy in a dark alley, the image he has cultivated over the past two years in the WWE suggest a long future with the company – tormenting many fan favorites along the way.
Fans under 25 years old may seldom remember the career of “The Natural” Dustin Rhodes before he took that fateful call from Vince McMahon and Bruce Prichard in the summer of 1995 to take on one of the most unique and controversial roles ever to appear on television. Taking his first steps in the industry, he was cast in the mold of his famous father, WWE Hall of Famer Dusty Rhodes, complete with the cowboy boot style wrestling boots and western vest. It would be hard to argue with the formula as Dustin seemed to be destined for the World title, putting in solid performances against the best in WCW and seeing title success in solo and tag team action along the way. Still, we can’t unsee all that Goldust has done over the past generation, so seeing Dustin “ala carte” is quite a contrast from the character that we still see on TV today.
17 John Bradshaw Layfield
When you consider his finely coiffed appearance at the broadcast position on RAW or his investigative journalist-style approach to sit-down interviews on his Network interview series, it’s almost hard to imagine the evolution of John Bradshaw Layfield since he first debuted on WWE television 20 years ago. As Justin “Hawk” Bradshaw, this bullrope wielding madman was unleashed on the roster at a time when the company was full of over the top characters. He stood out as an authentic Texan in the style of Stan Hansen who had come to succeed at all costs. Looking at this photograph, we would not have predicted where his career would lead or the twists and turns as a Blackjack, an Acolyte and an elitist tycoon along the way. People often talk about The Undertaker’s perpetual re-invention during his WWE career, but overlook the evolution of mainstay performers like JBL whose character has seen even bigger changes.
Aside from modifications to his facial hair dependent on whether the fans were cheering him or booing him at the time, during his WWE career, we haven’t really seen a lot of radical change in the appearance of the Celtic Warrior, Sheamus, since he was first signed in 2006. However, when we look back at his earliest steps in the industry in his native land, the 6’4,” 267 pounder looks quite different. First billed as Sheamus O’Shaunessy, the Irish lad was trained in the United States at Larry Sharpe’s Monster Factory then returned home to Ireland and Britain to learn his trade. Some footage from those early appearances have made their way into WWE programming from time to time. What we can predict for sure when we see this fresh faced youngster is that we can be pretty confident that the beard is here to stay. Without it, we feel that even the most intense in-ring promo would get lost in translation.
15 Harv Sihra
Fresh off his opening match victory to kick off the WWE’s new vehicle 205 Live, it's safe to say that the wrestling industry and fans around the world are going to start to get curious about Harv Sihra and his brother Gurv. While the two fresh-faced youngsters may give the visual appearance that they are barely out of their teens, Harv has been wrestling for nine years, following his brother into the sport after a two year head start. One thing that jumps out at us right off the top with Harv is that while his character needed some refining, he paid homage to the Bollywood culture right from his first match and always had a very clear vision about what he wanted to bring to the ring aside from a hard-hitting repertoire. He's the more colorful of the siblings who made their WWE debut as part of the Cruiserweight Classic, and fans will be delighted by what they see next from the former “Bollywood Don.”
14 Ascension’s Viktor
Many casual fans may have only become acquainted with Viktor of the Ascension upon the team’s television debut when they declared themselves the best paint-faced team in the history of the company, burying Demolition and the Road Warriors in the process. However, prior to signing with the WWE and being assigned to their developmental program in 2011, Viktor enjoyed a 12-year career on the Canadian independents, getting his start in the infamous Hart dungeon. Trained by Bruce Hart, he was billed as Apocalypse and proved himself in matches for the re-launched Stampede Wrestling in addition to other promotions in western Canada. His rookie photo suggests to us that he may have been destined for an assignment as a Viking in his future (had that not already been done in the WWE) before the role of a post-apocalyptic warrior in the style of Mad Max became available.
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.
In addition to wrestling, she has since released her own country music albums and has dabbled in the entertainment realm beyond the ring. Does that mean that Mickie James will sing America the Beautiful at next year’s WrestleMania?
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?
From this stylish blue number to his James Bond entrance and tearaway formal wear today, Cesaro may hold distinction as one of the most fashionable wrestlers of all time. Ric Flair, you $1,000 suit wearing son-of-a-gun, watch out ... Cesaro is coming for your title.
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.”
Times change, the mold has been broken and Dean Ambrose has carved his own path to create his spot in the WWE and wrestling history. Now, if we could only convince him that you can still be a radical and comb your hair once in a while ...
10 Seth Rollins
Born in Iowa, Seth Rollins started his wrestling career at age 19 and learned the ropes on independent cards in the American Midwest for two years until he attracted the attention of Ring of Honor in 2007. Over the next three years, he would hold the ROH tag team titles twice and the ROH World title before signing on with the WWE, where the young man’s career has continued a steady ascent, even when sidelined by industry. Considering the focused determination of the young man who has already achieved so much by age 30, we are curious about the context which contributed to this early career photo being taken. Was he appearing on a special Halloween-themed wrestling event and needed to shake things up a little? Or, as CM Punk was trying to become wrestling’s Jesus with his Straight Edge Society, was Rollins cultivating a natural foil to run as his opposition?
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.
While Becky’s fiery mane has become a trademark of her WWE look, we suspect that her earlier tom-boyish rookie promotional photo might not have generated an invitation to the world’s largest sports entertainment organization. We have only just begun to see what’s possible for Becky Lynch.
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.
This early John Cena picture tells us that in developmental, each wrestler is trying to cultivate an image based on what they believe that the WWE wants – even if it doesn’t distinguish them from the pack. Would Cena have been as memorable in a pair of boots and cyclist shorts? Fortunately for Cena, and the WWE’s merchandising department, they came up with a better idea.
6 Dolph Ziggler
Pat Patterson has said: “To make a great wrestler, you need to start with a guy who can wrestle. You put a gimmick on him just so that he looks more like a wrestler.” In the case of Dolph Ziggler, his clean-cut appearance and credentials on the amateur mat as a wrestler in College probably would have guaranteed him instant success in the days of the territories. Promoters like Verne Gagne or Jim Crockett would have latched on to his matinee idol good looks and marketed him strongly to their ticket buyers. But in the era of sports entertainment, Nick Nemeth needed a little something more – some pizzazz. Though his square top haircut proved to be a good fit to introduce him to the WWE Universe as a member of the Spirit Squad, greater success was waiting when he grew his hair out and became the show off.
5 Bray Wyatt
The leader of the Wyatt family may stand as the greatest example of a third generation wrestler coming into the WWE and building a legacy on his own, without riding the coat tails of his father or grandfather who also saw success in the company. However, in the case of Bray Wyatt, we can’t fairly say that this result occurred naturally. Quite simply, when the elder of Irwin R. Schyster’s sons was signed in 2009, it looked like he would use the family name to launch his career. However, by the time he was called up to the main roster, he was billed as “Husky Harris.” He saw early success with a tag team title reign, but there were still bigger things to come for the superstar who is known as the “Eater of Worlds.” This early publicity photo doesn’t give us the heebee jeebies like the lantern-carrying cult leader does now.
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.
Whether you love or hate Roman Reigns, he has been able to transcend culture in the same way that The Rock has – still paying homage to cultural tradition in his tattooed body, but forging into new territory to make his character in the ring one that can’t be painted into a defined box. As a result, he’s already a two-time WWE champion.
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.
However, even with his talent, we can’t be confident that any of that would have been possible had he made the decision to stick with this mask that he wore upon his debut. Even with the inspiring "Flight of the Valkyries" playing in the background, fans probably would not have been receptive.
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.
Fortunately for the Phenomenal One, his career escalated past this “Pretty Fly for a White Guy” phase and has seen him become one of the most accomplished wrestlers of his generation.
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.