It’s only natural in wrestling history that guys change their character a lot. It happens constantly, someone debuts, they kind of get stuck in limbo for a while and then click on a character change to elevate themselves. Tons of guys have seen their careers on the low side until they find the right character to get themselves massively over and become huge stars. Evolution is constant as several guys have to go through changes before they reach that point and it’s rare to find someone who hits it the first time. The Rock and Steve Austin had to undergo big changes before they hit the big time and likewise for many stars.
It’s easy to look back at evolutions of the past (Hulk Hogan and Sting) but there are a lot of current wrestling stars who look a lot different than when they started out. They adjust their character, make changes to their appearance and build themselves up, becoming major deals in the business. Some have seen multiple turns but remain quite successful thanks to their great talent and charisma. Here are 15 current major stars of wrestling and how vastly different they were in looks and character when they debuted.
A rather famous example to be sure. Dustin Runnels debuted in Florida in the late 1980s under the arm of father Dusty Rhodes. While small and thin, he had potential and was soon pushed in WCW. He ended up being more skilled than his dad, at least athletically, a cowboy motif at times but still a mostly clean-cut babyface worker. When hired by WWE, Dustin changed everything as Goldust, a character truly ahead of its time. The gold makeup, the wig, the homoerotic overtones, the bizarre promos, it was astonishing to see and it got him massively over.
While he’s tried to drop it now and then, Dustin keeps sticking to this character and remains highly over with it. It was a huge gamble but it paid off with his success and how his skill helped carry this remarkable transformation.
14 Bray Wyatt
This really is a remarkable change. In FCW, he was Alex Rotundo, a chubby worker with some decent skills who got some good pushes. In NXT, he became “Husky Harris, a bit thicker with a light beard and pushed as part of the Nexus. But he still didn’t seem that great and so left for some training. When he came back, it was huge as Bray Wyatt, the freaky cult leader with the spooky promos. He improved massively in the ring as well to win over fans for some epic feuds with The Shield, The Undertaker and more. Adding Randy Orton to the mix has only boosted them and it’s stunning how different Wyatt looks to the point fans barely even remember his first appearance as it seems he's a totally different man.
13 Eric Young
Young debuted in TNA in 2004 after time as a WWE jobber and work on the independents. At first, he was a skilled but mostly quiet guy with Team Canada, holding the tag titles. He then moved to being paranoid and wacky which led to massive popularity with the “Don’t Fire Eric” chants growing. Young was soon a fun goofball in various antics, including holding the Divas tag team titles with ODB and the nutty “Super Eric” character that showed his comedic skills. In 2014, he was moved to a serious bearded guy holding the World title and getting more of a push as a heel before ultimately leaving TNA. Now in NXT, Young is more serious as part of the Sanity stable and showing how a goofball can evolve into a real star over time.
12 Christopher Daniels
The “Fallen Angel” was very different looking when he debuted in the indies, including a full head of hair. He had tryouts in WWE and some work in WCW, including the attempt to push the Cruiserweight division once more before the company folded. In TNA, Daniels found his major success as X Division champion, including a “cult leader” look for a time. He also played the rather bizarre masked character of Curry Man for a bit. After a long career there, Daniels has moved onto ROH with Kaz, holding the tag titles and a wild look of a German officer that’s offset by his arrogant ways. Not just in his looks but his character, Daniels as evolved and that fantastic skill all the better today.
11 Randy Orton
In OVW, Orton showed his early skill and promise as a pretty clean cut and bland guy. He continued it in his early WWE work until a shoulder injury put him out. He then did a series of videos pushing his return as a huge deal that got him huge over. He was soon winning the World title and suffered a bit but intensified as “the Viper” to get himself over and multiple champion. He bounces between heel and face but highly popular with the crowds still and his current work with the Wyatt family shows how well he can handle any changes to his character. He may be booed a lot but Orton has shown some nice turns to his character to remain among the tops in WWE’s current landscape.
Terry Richards was little more than your usual jobber in WCW. A clean-shaven husky guy, he lost in matches on their syndicated and Saturday Night programs and didn’t seem that great a guy overall. In ECW, however, Rhyno soon clicked as a monster tackling people and rising into one of the company’s biggest stars. He continued that for a time in WWE than TNA and ROH as well as the indies. In 2015, Rhyno returned to NXT and instead of just a “legends run,” got pretty over again with a fresh new attack style.
After a brief feud with Heath Slater, the two are now tag team champions, showing off a good partnership and Rhyno is a smarter guy in the ring. A long way from jobbing to Road Warrior Hawk to be sure.
9 Brian Kendrick
Brian Kendrick’s debut ranks among the absolute craziest imaginable. After work in various indies, he was signed to WWE in 2002 and first appeared when Paul Heyman was confronting The Undertaker in the ring. Heyman wanted to “send a message” and out came Kendrick on a bicycle with a goofy red outfit to do a “singing telegram” of a threat. This naturally ended with him getting his ass kicked. Kendrick moved onto Cruiserweight stuff until he and Paul London enjoyed a long reign as tag team champions. Kendrick then moved onto his arrogant “The Brian Kendrick” character that got a mild push but he was dropped in 2009.
Returning to the company this year, Kendrick is now the Cruiserweight champion and is sticking to the role of the arrogant heel once more, showing how even the dumbest debuts can lead to a good career.
8 Kofi Kingston
In terms of looks, Kingston hasn’t changed too much, still in loud tights and dreadlocked hair. But when he came out, he was set up as a Jamaican wrestler, complete with a nutty accent. That would be dropped (leading to funny bits like Triple H asking “where’d your accent go?”) and Kofi continuing as a good worker with high flying moves. Despite holding the tag team, US and IC belts, Kofi appeared lost as 2015 began and he wasn't really up for anything good. But then he was hooked with The New Day and after a rough start, soon took off with their wacky antics. Kofi is now a long-reigning tag team champion, winning in promos and merchandise and fans loving them. Kofi nicely showcases how any worker can adjust given the right circumstances to get hotter than ever.
After spending some time in places like Smokey Mountain, Glenn Jacobs joined WWE in 1995 with hopes of some good pushes. Instead, he was given the gimmick of Isaac Yankem, an evil dentist Jerry Lawler used in a feud with Bret Hart. It was as dumb a gimmick as you can imagine and didn’t help him much. That was followed by a run as the “fake Diesel” in 1996 that likewise did nothing for him. It took taking on the role of Kane to make Jacobs a huge star, this masked monster soon one of the biggest guys in the business. He’s changed that character a bit from silent monster to talking, shifting his mask, even adding some comedy, as well as going with no mask and going corporate for a while. Today, Kane remains a major star no matter what and shows how one can escape even the dumbest gimmicks.
6 Dolph Ziggler
Ziggler’s work in OVW got major attention with him as Nick Nemeth. He started on RAW as the “caddy” for Chavo Guerrero during his Kerwin White phase and looked dorky. That led to him as part of The Spirit Squad, a male cheerleader somehow pushed as a major heel group and feuding with DX. When they faded, he took up his new persona as Dolph Ziggler and a major heel. He’s shifted between face and heel since, cocky and arrogant but that’s just won him a huge following and some good pushes. Now the IC champion, Ziggler continues to adjust his act, a bit more of a showboat but still showcasing his terrific talent. Going from a caddy and cheerleader to multiple IC champion showcases how Ziggler’s path has been long but paid off in the end.
5 The Hardyz
From a young age, Matt and Jeff Hardy were into wrestling, loved watching it and soon were having matches in their backyards. When they came to WWE, they were just jobbers in outfits of headbands and tassels, often in singles stuff. One bit had them as guys in uniforms opening doors at the 1996 King of the Ring show. They were elevated in the 2000s with their fantastic tag team wars with Edge and Christian and others and pushing themselves into singles work as stars.
Today, of course, they have truly transformed in TNA with the utterly bizarre Brothers Nero act. Their now-infamous “Final Deletion” videos have garnered huge attention and they continue to get a good push because of it. It’s remarkable seeing them survive so many changes and such and how the Hardyz have evolved a lot over the years.
4 The Undertaker
So many times WCW has dropped the ball with talent but Mark Callous remains one of the biggest. After showing some stuff in Texas as “The Master of Pain,” a supposed ex-con out for revenge, that got him hired to WCW as “Mean Mark,” a tall and imposing guy who was part of the Skyscrapers team and could have been a bigger deal. But WCW just saw a big slow guy and dropped him. Signed to WWE, The Undertaker was born, soon becoming a massive star thanks to his incredible aura and surprising skills.
He’s changed a few times like the “American Badass” period before going back to “the Deadman” and no matter his age, he gets monster pops wherever he goes. It’s a major case of missing the boat for WCW to not get one of the biggest stars ever on their side.
3 Chris Jericho
Originally coming out as “Lionheart,” Jericho was a typical babyface with high flying moves, long flowing hair and a wild fun style. In WCW he kept it up before latching onto his character as an arrogant jerk with killer promos that won the fans over. Soon, he was taking off but still being held back by management. So he jumped to WWE with a huge debut and won people over as that cocky jerk Y2J.
He has since adjusted his act like his “silent and serious” bit that got him over and today continues to elevate himself with bits like his “list” of folks who get on his bad side. Overall, Jericho has showcased how amazing a performer he is and it's fun to see him go from just a clean-cut babyface to the all-around writer/rocker/wrestling star fans love today.
2 Triple H
His early years are stuff even Triple H himself laughs about. He started off in WCW as “Terra Ryzing” with a lame “wild-man” gimmick, including long blonde hair and acting crazy. He then took on the aspect of Jean-Paul Levesque, an arrogant Frenchman (who wasn’t really French). Signing with WWE, he was Hunter Hearst Helmsley, a Greenwich snob intended to be a shot at the elite folks Vince McMahon hated. He was in fancy clothes and doing bows and speaking in a cultured voice. But working with DX opened Triple H up to be more wild and outgoing and he proved to be very versatile as a performer. More shifts came to turn him into “The Game” and a multiple champion and main eventer. Today, he acts as an authority figure in suits but can still wrestle if need be and showing why “evolution” is a name that works quite well for Triple H over the years.
1 John Cena
On one of his DVDs, it’s talked of how Cena debuted in OVW as “The Prototype,” your typical muscle man. JBL has laughed, as he claimed he once thought “this kid doesn’t have a shot in hell” as he was just a power guy with an okay move set although his mic skills were good (like his “rewinding” of talking a threat). When he debuted in WWE, Cena was a clean-cut athlete, a good worker but just lacking that edge needed. He found it with a Vanilla Ice impression at a Halloween show and was soon taking off as the wild “Doctor of Thuganomics” to become a major star.
Since then, Cena has shifted to the face of WWE, its biggest star with fun antics, standing up for the troops and more. He is the biggest name in the business and to see him evolve from that muscleman is pretty impressive to show Cena’s fantastic skill despite his detractors.
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