The year was 2007. Rex Grossman had become one of the most unlikely Super Bowl quarterbacks of all time, but Peyton Manning made sure ol' "Wrecks" didn't become a Super Bowl-winning QB. LeBron James couldn't catch a break in the NBA Finals, as the Spurs shut out the Cavs in four games. Likewise, Red Sox fans were lovin' that dirty water, as Boston swept the Colorado Rockies in the 2007 World Series. Meanwhile, John Cena was unstoppable and super-polarizing as WWE Champion, Shawn Michaels was flying the DX flag by himself, the former Evolution's members were enjoying individual success, and the entire wrestling industry dealt with an unspeakable tragedy in the form of the Chris Benoit double murder-suicide.
Pro wrestling in 2007 was so different from what it is today. Though some of today's biggest names — John Cena and Randy Orton immediately come to mind — had long been in the main event by then, wrestlers such as Kevin Owens, Dean Ambrose, and Kenny Omega were still toiling away in the indies. Roman Reigns and Bray Wyatt were still playing college football, while Bayley and Alexa Bliss were high school standouts — in basketball and cheerleading, respectively. And while he's not on this list, WWE United Kingdom Champion Tyler Bate was all of ten years old! And that begs the question — how did today's top wrestling stars look like about a decade ago, probably give or take a year or two in the absence of photos from 2007?
One important thing before we continue — when we say 20 biggest stars of 2017, we're thinking of the biggest names in the entire world of pro wrestling, and not just WWE's main roster. That means you may see some stars from other major companies, but with WWE having greater exposure than any other wrestling promotion in the world, it goes without saying that most of the names in this list currently wrestle for the company.
20 20. Alexa Bliss
Had Sasha Banks not fallen a bit down the card in recent months, she'd be making this list as its youngest member, but instead, that distinction falls to Alexa Bliss, who was all of 15-16 years old a decade ago. Unfortunately, the former SmackDown Women's Champion had battled a severe eating disorder around that time, with her heart rate dropping so low that she was close to death after losing almost 30 pounds in a matter of weeks.
This all took place before a 2008 photo shoot for American Cheerleader, where she ended up making the cover. As such, the photo you see above comes from the pages of that magazine, just as the real-life Alexis Kaufman was successfully recovering from her life-threatening experience and putting the pounds back on. Kudos to her, especially since she's now helping raise awareness of eating disorders and serving as living proof that they can be successfully overcome.
19 19. Braun Strowman
Okay, so this is stretching it quite a bit with the "10 years ago" requirement, as the above photo was taken in 2010. But since we can't find any photos of Adam Scherr circa 2007-09, that's as far back as we can get for the pre-fame, clean-shaven Braun Strowman, who looks like he's carrying "only" 320 pounds or so on his 6'8" frame, while having fun after pulling off another impressive weightlifting feat. Who'd guess that that dancing fool would one day fancy himself as WWE's Monster Among Men?
Before entering the world of professional wrestling, Strowman made his name as, well, a strongman. In the years immediately preceding his arrival in NXT in 2013, Strowman finished in the top ten in multiple strongman events, while literally growing his beard and looking more fearsome as the years went by.
18 18. Bobby Lashley
The photo above doesn't lie — in case you weren't watching then or are too young to remember, current Impact Wrestling Champion Bobby Lashley once took part in an angle with the 45th President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump. As you can see, he looks (or should we say they look?) virtually identical to present-day — Lashley still rocks the bald head and muscular frame, while the Donald's still got the Trumpadour and the orange pigmentation. And at WrestleMania 23, they combined to shave Vince McMahon bald. Could you imagine what would have happened had Vince's proxy Umaga defeated Lashley in that Hair vs. Hair Match?
That was, unfortunately, the highlight of Lashley's run as a WWE midcarder/upper midcarder, though he's obviously had more success at TNA/Impact, where he now reigns as a four-time World Champion. He's also racked up an impressive 16-2 record in mixed martial arts, and remains signed to Bellator's heavyweight division.
17 17. Finn Balor (And Becky Lynch)
Now we're not too sure what year the above photo was taken, but that's a young Finn Balor, then known under his real name, Fergal Devitt, alongside his teenage protege Rebecca Knox, who would later on be known as Becky Lynch. This was well before the former's Demon King costume and the latter's steampunk-inspired ring attires, and it was taken while the two were competing in their home country as part of the NWA Ireland roster.
In the years that followed that picture, Devitt would carve out an impressive career as Prince Devitt in NJPW, where he won several titles in their junior heavyweight division and co-found the Bullet Club, while Lynch would wrestle extensively in the U.K. and North America, go on hiatus, and return to wrestling in 2011, initially managing the mother-and-daughter team of Saraya and Britani Knight (a.k.a. Paige) in Shimmer. The rest, as they say, is history.
16 16. Bayley
Although her current reign as RAW Women's Champion has gotten mixed reviews so far, there's no doubt that Bayley is one of the leading female wrestlers in the world today. She's experienced great success on both WWE's main roster and in NXT, and while she may need some work on her promo skills, the sky's the limit for the Hugger, who's only 27 years old and very much in the prime of her career.
Known in real life as Pamela Martinez, Bayley has been a longtime fan of professional wrestling, but she was also involved in other athletic endeavors as a teenager. The above photo shows Bayley in the back row, extreme left, wearing jersey #15 for Independence (San Jose) HS' girls' basketball team. We're cheating it a bit since the photo is from about 12-13 years ago, but it's proof positive that Bayley has been a well above-average athlete for most of her life.
15 15. Dean Ambrose
In 2007, the wrestler then known as Jon Moxley wore a number of different hairdos, but it's obviously the one above that we like to remember the most. Then only 21 years old, that pink-haired kid with the maniacal gaze was the enhancement talent on tap for the January 19, 2007 episode of Sunday Night Heat, where he put over a lukewarm, lower-midcard Val Venis. Hard to imagine he'd one day win multiple WWE titles as "The Lunatic Fringe" Dean Ambrose, but that's how he looked like a decade ago.
After the one-off stint as a local jobber, Jon Moxley continued working for Heartland Wrestling Association and Insanity Pro Wrestling, and would gain bigger indie fame a couple years later when he joined CZW. He also made a similar one-off appearance in TNA in 2008, wrestling a dark match in what turned out to be an unsuccessful tryout.
14 14. The Miz
Nowadays, The Miz's look and gimmick practically screams "A-Lister." He's become one of WWE's top heels once again, thanks to a long and fruitful run as Intercontinental Champion in 2016, and there are many fans who believe he should get another shot at main event stardom, even as he approaches the wrong side of 30. And YOU KNOW WHAAAAAT? He's married to his smoking-hot valet and part-time Nikki Bella impersonator, Maryse.
A decade ago, few thought his current achievements, as well as his late-2010 to early-2011 WWE Championship run, would all be possible. Back then, he was a youngster with an annoying gimmick and an even more annoying hairdo that made one think "Red Rooster reboot." And while today's Miz is a one-woman man, circa-2007 Miz was a "Chick Magnet" with three female valets as he worked for the ECW brand, with Extreme Expose (Kelly Kelly, Layla, Brooke Adams) accompanying him to the ring.
13 13. The Hardy Boyz
"Oh my! (tm) Things are about to be broken! Team Xtreme is back!" So said Michael Cole at WrestleMania 33, as The Hardy Boyz made their triumphant WWE return and won the RAW Tag Team Championships. Sure, Matt isn't 100 percent "Broken," and Jeff seems far removed from his old TNA/Impact identity as Brother Nero. But the potential is still there for a DELIGHTFUL return, especially if the Hardys clear up their dispute with Impact over the Broken Universe.
How about those pre-Broken days, back when both were clean-shaven, with Jeff sporting far fewer tattoos than he does today? As of early-2007, it hadn't been a few months since the Hardys reunited as a tag team for the first time since 2002. They would then feud mainly with Lance Cade and Trevor Murdoch for the World Tag Team Championships, winning the belts from the kayfabe cowboy/trucker duo in April, and losing them back in June.
12 12. Kenny Omega
Kenny Omega is one of the highest-profile North Americans who have yet to compete on WWE's main roster, and while rumors suggest he came close to signing with WWE earlier this year, he's still in New Japan for the immediate foreseeable future, and he's still carrying some big-time momentum from his extremely well-received match against Kazuchika Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 11. But what was The Cleaner up to a decade ago?
In 2007, Omega was fresh off an unsuccessful stint in WWE's developmental system, and was splitting time between multiple indies, including Premier Championship Wrestling, Jersey All Pro Wrestling, and Pro Wrestling Syndicate. At this point, he had a shorter, blonder, even curlier hairdo and no facial hair, looking more like the young prospect he was than the main event superstar he has been for the past few years.
11 11. Bray Wyatt
It's a fascinating idea for wrestling-themed improv comedy — what if Bray Wyatt was a football quarterback? He'd probably be rambling on about buzzards and Sister Abigail and eating worlds and the damnation of the defense's souls instead of shouting out plays to the rest of the offense. But ten years ago, the long-haired, short-bearded future WWE Champion and second-generation wrestler was playing a completely different football position, and one more apt for his massive frame — offensive guard.
Playing for the College of the Sequoias, Windham Rotunda was a second-team junior college All-American guard as a sophomore, upon which he committed to Troy University. He chose not to finish his college education, though — as a senior, the wrestling bug began to bite the son of Mike "IRS" Rotunda and grandson of Blackjack Mulligan, and he dropped out to begin his pro wrestling training. So far, the move seems to have paid off, though we'd rather he get another run as a main event talent, instead of meandering on RAW's upper midcard.
10 10. Kazuchika Okada
In case you've been keeping count, there are 20 WWE wrestlers in this list (tag teammates and plus-ones included), and only three from other major promotions. But we wouldn't include Kenny Omega if we weren't going to include his Wrestle Kingdom 11 opponent, reigning four-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada. As he's just 29, you'll never know if or when the WWE will come knocking, but for the meantime, he's NJPW's top dog, and deservingly so.
Like many of the photos above, the above picture of Okada is undated, but it shows him as an "Young Lion," fairly early on in his New Japan career. He debuted for the company as a junior heavyweight in August 2007, and while he suffered an injury that sidelined him for eight months, he would resume his fast rise up the card in the spring of 2008. You also might have forgotten he had a brief, uneventful stint in TNA from 2010 to 2011, though he would return to Japan soon thereafter and get a successful repackaging as the "Rainmaker."
9 9. Seth Rollins
We're not saying that Seth Rollins is ageless — at 30, he's still a bit too young for such a designation. But save for his facial hair not being that thick at 20, there's hardly anything to set him apart from his present-day self.
Rollins was still a teenager when he made his wrestling debut in 2005, and in September of 2007, he made his Ring of Honor debut, using the ring name Tyler Black and enjoying big-time indie success before he signed his developmental deal with WWE in 2010. But before that, he was already getting TV exposure under that name, thanks to his stint on MTV's ill-fated attempt at a wrestling promotion, Wrestling Society X. Together with future ROH tag teammate Jimmy Jacobs, the future Architect worked an emo teen gimmick as Do it for Her (DIFH), which would have made a good emo band name...had it been a little longer and more pretentious-sounding.
8 8. Charlotte Flair
So she isn't presently wearing any gold around her waist. And we may or may not be seeing her turn face on SmackDown Live — 2015 did show us, after all, that Charlotte Flair isn't a very convincing babyface as the daughter of the "Dirtiest Player in the Game," WWE Hall of Famer and 16-time world champion Ric Flair. But she's still arguably the biggest name in women's wrestling, and still a solid candidate to become the first woman in the post-2016 brand split era to hold Women's Championships on both brands.
It may be a surprise to some, but the current "Queen" of women's wrestling didn't seem too interested in joining her father and brothers in the business. As of the 2007-08 school year, she was still Ashley Fliehr, a senior at North Carolina State University. Yet she still found time to support her father Ric in his retirement match at WrestleMania XXIV, and show up for his farewell address on RAW.
7 7. Kevin Owens (And Sami Zayn)
If achievements over the past year are criteria to be one of the 20 biggest wrestling stars of the year, we're sad to note that Sami Zayn, who's still running WWE's midcard treadmill, might not make it. But we all know he should, and that's why we're making this one a joint entry for real-life best friends Kevin Owens AND Sami Zayn, or Kevin Steen and El Generico as they were known back in 2007. (Yes, we're familiar with the whole deal with El Generico, and how he and Zayn are supposedly different people, but just roll with us, okay?)
The year 2007 was an eventful one for the tag team informally known as Steenerico, as the Kevin Steen/El Generico partnership defeated PAC (a.k.a. Neville in WWE) and Roderick Strong to win the PWG World Tag Team Championships in July of that year. They weren't as lucky in ROH, however, as they spent most of the year fighting for the ROH World Tag Team Championships, but ending up on the losing end of a feud with the erstwhile champions, the Briscoe Brothers.
6 6. Shinsuke Nakamura
Try to process the above image for a moment. The guy throwing the mounted punches is the same guy WWE is repackaging as "The Artist"(who do they think he is, Prince?), with Dolph Ziggler implying that his name is actually Michael Jackson. To his fans, Shinsuke Nakamura will always be the King of Strong Style and not The Artist or the King of Pop, and back in 2007, he was rocking a radically-different, more serious, and slightly beefier look as a 27-year-old competing in NJPW.
2007 was actually a challenging year for Nakamura, who lost to Toshiaki Kawada at Wrestle Kingdom, and dislocated his shoulder in August as he competed in the semifinals of the G1 Climax tournament. He would sit out the next three months, and make a triumphant return in November as he reinvented Masahiro Chono’s Black stable and renamed it RISE, where he was aligned with the likes of Giant Bernard (a.k.a. Albert/Tensai), Travis (a.k.a. Tyson) Tomko, and Prince Devitt (a.k.a. Finn Balor).
5 5. AJ Styles
Regardless whether you love or hate AJ Styles' "soccer mom" hairdo, you can't deny that he had one of the best debut years a WWE "rookie" could have, spending a good chunk of 2016 as WWE Champion, while taking over from John Cena as the "face that runs the place" on SmackDown Live. But we're all aware that Styles was anything but a wrestling rookie last year — prior to joining WWE, he enjoyed huge success in multiple wrestling promotions, mainly ROH, TNA, and NJPW.
That was where Styles was about a decade ago — one of the best wrestlers not affiliated with WWE, yet a mere upper midcarder for the most part in TNA, as he was still two years away from winning his first World Championship for the company. But he was, at least, finally a full-timer for the then-Dixie Carter-run promotion, and as the above picture shows, "Mr. TNA" was still wearing his hair short and maintaining a boyish appearance.
4 4. John Cena
John Cena has just turned 40 years old, but looking at the above picture from a press event ahead of WrestleMania 23 you can't see...the difference between Cena a few months away from turning 30 and Cena in present day. As it seems, John Cena in anything but a military-style flat top hairdo, ever-changing-colored t-shirt, and jorts is just as unbecoming as a John Cena heel turn. (Though we can still dream of the latter, right?)
Ten years ago, Cena was having a huge 2007, as he set a modern-era record as longest-reigning WWE Champion, holding the belt for 381 days until an injury forced him to relinquish it in October. He feuded with now-and-forever rival Randy Orton, as well as Shawn Michaels, Edge, and — surprise, surprise — The Great Khali. And in an interesting note, he briefly held the World Tag Team Championships with Michaels, only for HBK to turn on him on the RAW after WrestleMania 23.
3 3. Roman Reigns
If you didn't know his surname, you probably wouldn't have guessed that the burly, long-haired Georgia Tech defensive lineman named Joe Anoa'i would enjoy his biggest success in professional wrestling and get booed night in and night out by fans despite his babyface alignment. But as the son of Wild Samoan Sika, brother to the late Rosey, and relative to several other WWE Superstars of Samoan origin, it was inevitable that Joe Anoa'i would one day become a big name in the pro wrestling business.
Well before that, the future Roman Reigns graduated from Georgia Tech in 2007, and went undrafted in that year's NFL draft. The Minnesota Vikings would sign him as a free agent and cut him a week later, and while his NFL dreams were dashed at that point, he did get to play some pro football, suiting up for the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos in 2008.
2 2. Randy Orton
One decade ago, Randy Orton was only 27 years old, but already an established main eventer in the WWE. Save for wearing a slightly longer flat top than his current buzzcut hairdo, and of course, the more youthful appearance, Orton the Legend Killer isn't too far removed from current 13-time world champion Orton, who's now 37 years old and still booked as a main event talent and the current WWE Champion on SmackDown Live.
In 2007, Orton was involved in some interesting title feuds — remember when John Cena vs. Randy Orton was still interesting? Check out the feud they had that year. And as we hinted above, the third-generation Superstar was also bringing back his Legend Killer persona, working best as a heel as he often does; 2007 also saw him feuding with Shawn Michaels, beating HBK at the Judgment Day PPV. And for another notable 2007 accomplishment, Orton's snake-like qualities and treachery earned him a nickname that sticks around to this day — The Viper.
1 1. Brock Lesnar
There probably shouldn't be any surprises here — Brock Lesnar doesn't look too different now as compared to how he looked like a decade ago. Okay, so he still was far more baby-faced as a 29-30-year-old in 2007, but the hair, the huge physique, the tattoos — they were all there as early as then. But at that time, professional wrestling was as far as you can get from the Beast Incarnate's mind.
In 2007, Brock Lesnar was preparing to make the big transition from pro wrestling to mixed martial arts, and it was that year when he made his MMA debut, defeating South Korean fighter Ming Soo Kim at K-1's Dynamite!!! USA show. One year later, he was in UFC, and while he lost his debut fight against Frank Mir, he would prove his doubters wrong when he beat the legendary Randy Couture for UFC's Heavyweight Championship at UFC 91 that November.
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