They are among some of the most successful wrestlers to have ever stepped between the ropes. The list of legendary names attached to the WWE World Championship read like a who’s who in the history of professional wrestling. While it is the aspiration of most every wrestler that ever pursues a career in the industry to ascend to the top tier of the industry, only a small percentage actually make it. In an industry often criticized for being pre-determined, we wonder just large a role fate played in the career of these 20 recognizable stars.
Judging by these rookie year photos, many of them representing the first professional image ever put before the public for these future world champions, could anyone have predicted world title success in their future? From characters that started off wrestling under the names on their birth certificate to those who started under a more colorful guise, these twenty photos need to be seen to be believed. Check out these 20 rookie year photos of eventual WWE champions.
20 Ivan Koloff
Bruno Sammartino vividly recounts the tale of the night he dropped the WWWF Heavyweight Title to Ivan Koloff at Madison Square Garden even 40 years later. During a recent interview, he even identified that one of his greatest matches of his career was with Koloff just weeks prior to that history-making bout. However, the “Russian Bear” didn’t start out on a path to career dominance. The Ontario-born wrestler, actually wrestled in the preliminaries on Pittsburgh television in 1965 under the name “Orwell Paris” and was readily dispatched by Bruno in a one-sided affair.
This photo, used to promote an upcoming match while performing for Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling, billed him as Red McNulty … a guise that was sure to keep him in the middle of the card. Fortunately, Johnny Rougeau and Legs Langevin had an idea for the burly French-Canadian in 1968 that would change the trajectory of his career forever.
19 Randy Orton
Fans that remember Randy Orton’s debut on WWE television can no doubt still vividly recall the vignettes that introduced the third generation star to the national spotlight. “Randy Orton … the business is in his blood”. Orton, whose father Bob Orton Jr. was dubbed by Gorilla Monsoon as the “Excellence of Execution” prior to Bret Hart being given the title, had big shoes to fill. Both his father and grandfather had been successful wrestlers and his billing as a “blue chipper” – a guaranteed success story certainly added a lot of pressure to a youngster making his first steps in the business. Not every second and third generation star has excelled in the WWE environment – Scott Putski fell short, Richie Steamboat didn’t make the grade, Ted DiBiase Jr. fell short.
In the case of the “Apex Predator” though, he has lived up to the hype and has become one of the greatest wrestlers of his generation.
18 Sgt. Slaughter
Does this 1970s photo of “Beautiful” Bob Remus scream ‘World Champion’? We could hold this photo up against dozens from that era of wrestling to see barrel-chested wrestlers in plain, solid colored tights and unfortunate hair that has become a trademark of the 1970s. In fact, Remus more closely resembles “Meathead” from All in the Family than any of the world champions in wrestling of the era.
However, when he first came to the WWE through the recommendation of friend Pat Patterson, he had an idea for a character that would catapult him to the forefront of the public’s attention. Dubbing himself Sgt. Slaughter, being one of the first wrestlers to enter the arena to music, and his hard-hitting ring style propelled him to success in the 1980s, and the WWE World Championship in 1991. Of course, political hostilities of the Gulf War at the time must also be considered as a catalyst for this push to the top.
17 The Rock
You can’t look anywhere today without seeing Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Recently named People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, that title follows word that Johnson is currently the highest paid male actor in the world. Not to mention that he is one of the busiest names in Hollywood right now. Of course, as wrestling fans, we will still lay claim to The Rock as our discovery, through our support propelling him to become the “most electrifying man in sports entertainment”.
When we look back at this rookie photo of Rocky Maivia, just weeks after he’d been called up from Memphis where he was dubbed Flex Kavana, this photo doesn’t foreshadow the success that we’ve seen. It should come as little surprise that not long after this gimmick was debuted, the rising babyface on the roster was greeted by chants of “Rocky sucks”. Fortunately, he was blessed with an opportunity to reinvent himself rather than be dismissed as so many have with the contrite message that “creative has nothing for you”.
There can be little doubt that when promoters first laid eyes on the 6’10” Glenn Jacobs that they were seeing dollar signs. However, it took a few tries to get it right. In this rookie photo, taken during a tour of Puerto Rico, the smiling visage of this towering heavyweight might suggest a successor to the Hogan empire in the WWE that others had failed to become. Fair-haired and larger than life, he had the markings of a traditional fan favorite, but the wrestling climate was changing by the time he was called up to Vince McMahon land.
Chances are that simply being Glenn Jacobs in his early outings might have been more successful than the demented dentist Isaac Yankem, or a ripoff of a championship winning character as the fake Diesel. Ironically, his greatest success – including the WWE Title - came from covering up most of his immense frame, including his face.
15 Mick Foley
Even when he did finally ascend to the top rung of the WWE ladder, Mick Foley was one of the most unlikely success stories in the history of the company. It’s amusing now to note that his very first match of his career took place in the 1980s as a television jobber, battered and abused by the British Bulldogs in an appearance that might otherwise have been forgotten. Despite building a level of notoriety around his name in the territories and later WCW, it took a long time for the WWE to even return his calls about a spot on the roster. Foley, introduced to the WWE Universe as Mankind, was one of the most chilling and blood-curdling characters of all-time – but probably not a character that could carry the world title, sadly. However Foley, looking not all that different from this same hopeful on the undercard, did rise to become a multi-time champion and one of the unforgettable icons of his generation.
14 Billy Graham
When you think about the career of “Superstar” Billy Graham, it is hard to identify what we remember most – his chiseled physique, his tie dye ring tights, or his jive-talking ringside interviews. Graham is credited with inspiring a generation of stars that would follow – including Hulk Hogan, Jesse Ventura and Scott Steiner, and is best remembered for his larger than life personality and colorful presence. That’s exactly the opposite of what Stu Hart taught in the Calgary “Dungeon” where Graham got his start. Hart, a former Olympic hopeful on the amateur mat and one of the most feared technicians of his day, preferred substance over style, and that was reflected in his debut of Graham – under his given name Wayne Coleman. No long wavy locks, no tie-dyed tights, no pomp and circumstance. We might not have seen a world title in the future of this rookie just seven short years after this locker room conversation with Angelo Mosca took place.
13 Sid Vicious
When he first appeared before the cameras in WCW, Sid Vicious declared that he wanted what was coming to him – “the world and everything in it”. There can be little dispute that Sid was poised to write his own ticket in the world of wrestling. He was anointed into the Four Horsemen, was to be Vince McMahon’s hand-picked successor to Hulk Hogan in 1992 and has found himself in the championship picture on a number of occasions despite a number of ups and downs in his career. However, this rookie picture suggests that even though he towers over most of the competition at 6’11” and weighs more than 300 pounds of sculpted muscle, someone still felt he needed a gimmick to make him marketable to the ticket buyers. Many of Sid’s earliest matches took place under a hockey mask as "Lord Humongous" prior to his ascent to world title success.
If Mark Calaway had any illusions that there were some brilliantly creative people in the wrestling industry upon his entry to the business, he may have been quickly disappointed. While there are many pictures circulating around the internet from his tenure as the Master of Pain in Memphis, donning a black mask and being accompanied by Skandor Akbar, his earliest matches two years prior saw him billed as the ever-menacing “Texas Red”. Dressed in a pair of plain black tights, aside from his height, there wasn’t much to distinguish him from the pack. We imagine that the conversation in the booking office went something like this: “Well, he’s from Texas … he’s got red hair … I got it! We’ll call him Texas Red! That’s gonna put some butts in seats!”
Seen here, with Billy Two Eagles on a tour of South Africa, we’ve certainly seen a great deal of change in this individual that has become one of the biggest stars of all time.
11 Kevin Nash
How amusing is it that a former strip club bouncer went through four characters before seeing his greatest career success under his own name? When Kevin Nash first stepped through the ropes for World Championship Wrestling, he was a member of the Master Blasters with Al Greene, who we remember from counting the lights on many episodes of WCW Saturday Night. The word is that there were some big plans for the team, but when Greene refused to do business with the Steiner brothers, the team was quickly dispatched, resulting in Nash being directed to grow his hair out. It might have been a blessing in disguise, as it eventually led to an opportunity to work with Shawn Michaels as his bodyguard and successively win the WWE Tag Team Titles, the Intercontinental Title and the World Title.
Though we may have never imagined a day when we would have a world champion simply named “Diesel”, we certainly never would have bought the face as pictured as a world champion.
10 CM Punk
For a long time in professional wrestling, there was a very definite divide between independent wrestling and the WWE. Quite simply, wrestlers who paid their dues on the independents and achieved a level of notoriety in promotions like Ring of Honor and Extreme Championship Wrestling simply didn’t get serious consideration to elevate their career. C.M. Punk was one of the first wrestlers to break that mold, but it took time for the culture of the WWE to adjust. In fact, in his first year, many of the agents felt that his style was “too indy”.
We bet those same agents would have looked at this smiling youngster in his ripped blue jeans and dismissed him as a candidate from the WWE roster at all. But who among us could have foreseen that this guy would go on to hold the WWE Championship for more than a year – which is a nearly impossible feat in the modern era of the industry?
9 Ultimate Warrior
Vince McMahon loves the wrestlers with the bodybuilder look, so Rick Bassman might well have thought he was sitting on a gold mine when he recruited the quartet that he dubbed “Power Team USA” – Jim Hellwig, Steve Borden, Garland Donoho and Mark Miller. Well, he was half right. Two of his aspiring superstars would go on to become champions and WWE Hall of Famers.
Hellwig, far left in this 1985 photo, went on to become The Ultimate Warrior – one of the most explosive performers in and out of the ring in the late 80s for the WWE, and would unseat Hulk Hogan for the WWE World Title at WrestleMania VI. In the case of the Warrior, though, it did take a few adjustments to get to the pinnacle. He was Jim Justice in Memphis, Blade Runner Rock in Mid-South and evolved into the Dingo Warrior in Texas before refining the image that would cement his professional wrestling legacy.
8 Hulk Hogan
Hulk Hogan has been in the spotlight for so long, and has spent so much of that time with a hairdo that could only be acceptable in professional wrestling, many fans might never recall a time when the Hulkster had need of a hair brush. The 1970s rock and roll influence is apparent in Hogan’s early look when he would wrestle as Terry Boulder and Sterling Golden in the southeastern territories. In fact, he didn’t become Hogan until Vince McMahon Sr. recruited him to the WWE and was looking for the up and comer to represent the Irish contingent of his fanbase.
Fortunately for Hogan, his spot as the face of the WWE in 1984 was not contingent on his hairline, but rather his self-declaration as the owner of the largest arms in the world. Still we wonder if he had debuted in the WWE after his cameo appearance in Rocky III and not before, would we simply know him today as Thunderlips?
7 Bret Hart
Born into a family of wrestlers, Bret Hart’s fate was pretty well secured from the time he was old enough to start thinking about careers. One of eight sons born to Stu Hart, who were each involved in the business in some way as a wrestler, referee or promoter, Bret was sure to follow suit. This photo, appearing in the Stampede Wrestling Bodypress program is Bret’s first publicity shot. While his success in Calgary was somewhat assured, not unlike the Von Erich brothers in Texas at the same time, few would have predicted that this plain looking wrestler would ascend to the top of the wrestling world in a pair of pink tights and pink shades to make the declaration that he is “the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.” Fortunately, he avoided the comparisons to Weird Al Yankovic by addressing this mop of unruly hair as well.
6 Triple H
Terra Ryzing. Say it quickly enough and the name sounds kinda cool. But broken down, you still have a 250 pound man trying to gain credibility in the world of professional wrestling asking people to call him Terra. WCW quickly corrected this mistake, changing the future Triple H’s name to Jean-Paul Levesque, even though this was a much less inspired monicker – really just a play on the wrestler’s own real name. But the long flowing blonde locks that made Ric Flair memorable where in themselves not a guarantee of one’s success. Just ask Chic Donovan or Buddy Landell.
By the time Triple H had won his first WWE World Title, he had been through a few character evolutions and the Charlie’s Angels feathered locks were long forgotten. Still, Triple H’s hair would factor into the equation throughout most of his career – even allegedly demanding that other recruits to the WWE have their hair shorn so as not to look to similar to himself.
5 Andre The Giant
Wrestling’s love affair with the unusual dates back to its very origins in the United States. Giants, midgets, one-legged wrestlers, and more have all found their way into the realm of wrestling – probably owing to its carnival roots in North America. When Andre Roussimoff was first discovered in France, there was no doubt to North American promoters that he would translate into a big box office sensation. We now know the late Andre The Giant as “The 8th Wonder of the World”, but we wouldn’t take that from this early photo of a young Andre.
Featuring a menacing stance and large mitts, Andre could just as easily have experienced the abysmal path of Paolo Silva. However, clever management and crafty marketing ensured that Andre was a huge attraction wherever he appeared, including a lengthy tenure under contract with the WWE – and featured in one of the biggest matches of all time against Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania III.
4 Steve Austin
After Steve Austin hit with Austin 3:16, most every other detail about his early career was forgotten. With his stylish robes and long flowing blonde locks, the wrestling magazines had predicted that Steve Austin would be the next Ric Flair early into his journey in the world of sports entertainment. A Pro Wrestling Illustrated Rookie of the Year, Austin captured the WCW Television Title, United States Title and the World Tag Team Titles during a five-year stay in the company before his career stalled.
Sidelined by injuries, the industry insiders stopped predicting great things for Austin, and Eric Bischoff, touted by many as a visionary, released him from his contract because he didn’t feel that Austin would draw for the company. Becoming Stone Cold, Austin ascended to become the strongest draw that the WWE has ever seen, according to Vince McMahon himself. Would he have achieved the same success with those leopard print tights? Probably not.
3 Shawn Michaels
When you think about the Heartbreak Kid, you remember the ring music, the flashy ring gear and of course the ensemble wasn’t complete without the chaps. It’s even a stark contrast to look back to his modest solid color tights in the 1989 Royal Rumble to envision what was yet to come for the future WWE Champion. While we’re sure that this black and white promotional shot sent many hearts aflutter wherever a young Shawn Michaels appeared in the mid-80s, we’re pretty confident that had the photo made its way to the talent relations department at the WWE that it wasn’t pulled aside and red flagged as a future world champion and Hall of Famer. The setting of the photo, looking like it was shot out beside the garage in the family driveway may have caused a stir as the neighbors were out and about on the block though.
2 Randy Savage
“Macho Man” Randy Savage has become one of wrestling’s most timeless personalities. Even decades after he first rose to stardom, Savage still regularly pops up in social media news feeds and his inimitable interviews continue to be a YouTube hit. But even though Randy was a second generation wrestler, his path to the ring wasn’t a certainty like many of his peers in a similar situation. Randy was an outstanding baseball player and had aspired to a career in Major Leagues. In fact, while still playing ball, he dabbled a little in the wrestling game for pocket cash. But, to prevent any issues with his contract when he wrestled, he did so under a mask as “The Spider”.
This rare photo is one of the few high quality photos circulating of Savage from that early stage in his career. Given how meticulous he became later on about the coordination of his outfits, the thrown together nature of mismatched mask, vest and trunks suggest that wrestling, at that stage in his life, was a distant second in terms of priorities.
1 Ric Flair
When you think about a wheelin’ dealin’, kiss stealin’, jet flyin’, Rolex wearing son of a gun, is this the face that you picture that accompanies that grandiose bravado? Ric Flair got his start in the unforgiving camp of Verne Gagne – a camp which also produced Ken Patera, Ricky Steamboat, the Iron Sheik, Sgt. Slaughter and other tough as nails competitors. But early on, Flair didn’t have an identity. Dusty Rhodes claimed in his book that Flair, while riding with Rhodes and Dick Murdoch at the start of his career had pitched the idea of becoming a third outlaw, to be billed as “Ramblin’” Ricky Rhodes.
Luckily, fate steered Flair a different direction and upon his arrival in the Carolinas, we started to see the evolution of the Nature Boy. Looking back on his career, as a 16-time World Champion, Flair is probably grateful he didn’t become Ramblin’ Ricky as well.