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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
15 Mick Foley
14 Billy Graham
13 Sid Vicious
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!”
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
3 Shawn Michaels
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”.
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.
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