With very few exceptions, wrestlers (like any athlete or star) are not great right out of the gate. Sure, some can achieve that; Kurt Angle was an Olympic gold medalist and took to the whole wrestling world with a great grasp of how to make it all work. Likewise, everyone who saw Steve Austin when he started out knew this guy was going to be a superstar. It’s tricky to figure out, especially nowadays as guys are pushed fast with little real need to build them up or even pay their dues as much. Still, it’s always clear that when someone has it, they have it and deserve their pushes.
Some wrestlers will be well seasoned under the radar, wrestling across the indies or in smaller promotions so that by the time they're in the spotlight, they're at least passable. Ideally, nobody should really be brought up to the main roster before they can deliver in the ring. Unfortunately, the territories no longer what they were before Vince McMahon trumped them all. There are less places for aspiring wrestlers to be seasoned before they make it to TV, meaning some people will be, as the expression goes, "green as goose s***".
There are cases of folks who, at first glance, just don’t have the stuff. They may have some skill but not the flash or such that makes them a future superstar. Weak physique, a bad act, little understanding of the ring work or poor on the mic, they look like nothing special at all. Only to end up surprising everyone by not only improving but blossoming into a true huge star. It’s amazing to see them improve so well and become stars in their own right, making you marvel if you ever come across footage of them in their early days. Here are 15 workers who started off bad before rising high and a reminder you can’t be too judgmental off the bat.
15 Brooke Tessmacher
One of the most laughable bits of TNA (I know, that’s a long list) was when Lacey Von Erich offered to train Brooke Tessmacher when the former Knockouts chief decided to be a wrestler herself. While she’d had a stint in OVW, Brooke was still known better for her hot looks than any actual wrestling ability. The joke was soon the fact that Brooke became miles away a far better worker than Lacey could ever hope to be.
While she’s gorgeous, she can back it up with great wrestling and charisma, working through injuries and handling herself quite well, truly impressive shifting from just flashing her chest to multiple Knockouts champion, a backbone of the division and one of the better female wrestlers out there. Proof you can’t go by just looks as Brooke has shown herself much more skilled than most would have predicted.
14 Arn Anderson
Believe it or not, “Double A” was nothing more than a jobber once. A tough kid growing up, Martin Lunde got his start in the early ‘80s in Minnesota and was just used to fill in rings, including a run against the Road Warriors that Arn describes as one of the worst experiences of his entire life. It was Ric Flair who saw something in him, the two becoming friends and Lunde hooking up with Ole Anderson as his “cousin.” Ole helped Arn improve himself with some technical work to mix with a no-nonsense approach and Arn clicking well on the mic with great promos.
Soon, he was winning titles and establishing himself as the bedrock of the Four Horsemen, going on to more runs in WWE and WCW as champion and seen by many as possibly the best mid-card guy of all time. That’s not an insult as Arn could make anyone look great in the ring, a quite impressive feat given his start but showing how this rough rock was forged into a wrestling diamond.
While the Canadian wrestling scene is known for young talent, Adam Copeland has admitted his early stuff wasn’t as great as he’d hoped. With names like Damon Striker, Adam Impact and Sexton Hardcastle (seriously), Copeland was rather skinny and not that impressive, often doing jobs to guys with a blink and you’ll miss it WCW appearance, just a lanky kid with nothing to really offer. It took training at Hart House for him to get going and finally learn something but even then, it was a journey from the “mysterious guy” in WWE to the superstar he would become as Edge.
You cannot deny his success, however, winning just about every title in the company, engaging in fantastic ladder bouts, stellar on the mic and while it was sad for his retirement to come so soon, he’d already achieved most everything in the company. Copeland has always been grateful to the Harts for how they helped him out and gave him the “edge” he needed to go from jobber to star.
12 Triple H
It’s wrong to say Hunter only owes his success to Stephanie as he’d shown he had some goods early in his career. Anyone trained by Killer Kolwaski is going to pick up the stuff needed to succeed and Triple H was easily his best student. Of course, before that, he had to pay his dues and it was pretty bad as Hunter himself laughs at his early runs as “Terra Ryzing,” a long-haired goofball who was basically ring fodder for a while with little idea how to work a good match. He’d move on in WCW as Jean-Paul Levesque, a “French aristocrat” and it was teaming with Steven Regal that really started to improve his ring work.
It took a bit of time for him to click as Triple H in the WWE but he was soon impressing with technical work and power but it was really the combination of Chyna and Shawn Michaels that let Hunter unleash himself on the mic and as the wild tough character he could be. Even then, it took a while to be truly convincing as the main event heel champion, fans not buying him at first at that level but the feud with Mick Foley truly elevated him for fans and his long success as company head. He’s known today as the center of the company and probably in charge one day in the future, a great journey for a guy who looked like just another ‘90s pretty boy.
11 Hulk Hogan
Granted, even at his height, Hogan was never that great a worker. Still, when he debuted, he was totally out of his element, no idea what he was doing half the time as he just used his size and strength to shove guys around and was often out of his element against an actually good worker. Verne Gagne was a big help there, not just in training Hogan to take hits and such but also unlocking his inner charisma to connect to the fans. It all paid off, of course as Hogan was able to show a bit more ring skill, able to handle just about any worker to come his way and, more importantly, becoming the mega-star to take wrestling to new heights.
From mere muscleman to the biggest star the business has known, a pretty good improvement by any standards even if Hogan was never the best in the ring but always at the box office.
10 The Rock
It’s not that The Rock was bad when he started out, he always had the in-ring goods with a quick attack plan and strength to balance it out. The issue was that WWE horribly bungled his entrance, pushing him as the clean-cut babyface, more a high-flying guy and that just turned the fans against him fast. He was good but not that great, his ring work pretty forgettable and bland as hell on the mic.
It took his injury for a more ground-based attack to improve his ring work but of course, the big change was letting him cut loose on the mic, showcasing his fantastic charisma and ability to command a crowd like few others. He remains the best example of how “being yourself” can lead to true stardom, a lesson more promoters should pay attention to. Although, to be fair, it’s hard to count that many guys who can dominate the camera more than the People’s Champ has.
9 John Cena
Like The Rock, Cena wasn’t that terrible when he started out but just didn’t seem all that special. On one of his DVDs, JBL laughs about seeing Cena in OVW as “The Prototype” and that “this kid didn’t have a chance in hell.” He was great on the mic but was mostly a power wrestler, just strong moves and seemed your typical muscle guy out of his league against better workers.
His push in WWE in 2002 was slow, he just didn’t seem to connect at all and dismissed as a mid-carder at best. But once he latched onto his “hip hop” character, Cena suddenly showed incredible improvement with his F-U finisher, a brawler who could go to the ropes and surprise with technical work as well. His star rose and Cena has shown the “he can’t wrestle” crowd how wrong they are as a great worker capable of handling the pressures of being champion and long matches, proof you can’t really judge by the early going.
8 Booker T
When Harlem Heat came on the scene, they were impressive with their strength, speed and skill, reigning multiple times as WCW tag team champions and a great team. When Booker moved to a singles run, he was rough at first, seeming a bit out of his element and not too flashy.
But with a little training, Booker suddenly erupted into a fantastic worker, great on the mic and showing surprising technical knowledge to go along with his strength and flashy moves like the Spinaroonie and such. His feud with Chris Benoit for the TV title elevated him big time and his reigns as World Champion were a rare highlight for the dying days of the company. He followed it up with good runs in WWE and TNA, standing tall as the great example of a tag team worker who turned into a true singles star and how some guys need time to get going.
When Kane first debuted in 1997, he was just meant to be a big imposing guy in the mask to take on The Undertaker. As such, his ring work basically consisted of going around smashing up guys with hard punches and kicks, nothing much else to him. As time went on, however, he would show some subtle but surprising improvement in how he was able to go longer than expected and work with guys from most every field.
It could be a wild brawl or a tough battle with a highflyer but either way, Kane was able to handle it, even ladder matches which isn’t as easy as it sounds for a big guy. He’d shift the act up with face and heel turns, back and forth with the mask and his longevity has been rewarded with some runs at the top from time to time. That he’s managed to keep going for so long shows his skills and how he managed to push his act to a true star.
6 Roddy Piper
Piper was always the first to admit he wasn’t that impressive when he started out in wrestling. At only 15, he had a good career in boxing and martial arts but was out of his element at first in the wrestling world, incredibly skinny and his name coming from how the audience misunderstood his announced label of “Roddy the Piper.” It took a bit for him to rise and Piper to find his groove as a good brawler who could go surprisingly technical at times. It took a bit of work but Piper was able to bulk up more to be believable and rise better to become one of the industry's most fantastic stars, especially on the mic and an icon to many.
It’s downright hilarious to look back at Scott Levy in his early years, pushed hard in the Pacific Northwest but still pretty damn rough and then as Scotty Flamingo in WCW with a surfer gimmick (complete with board). That led to his run as manager Johnny Polo in WWE, a decent guy on the mic but just a joke to watch actually wrestle. But with help from Paul Heyman, Levy would give himself one hell of a makeover in ECW, taking on the persona of the moody Raven.
His ring work improved as well with his DDT finisher, able to brawl and hang with most any other worker and helping elevate ECW to new heights. His work in WCW and WWE wouldn’t be as effective but he still rose high with a run as champion in TNA and showcased how a good character makeover can improve a guy’s work immensely.
4 The Undertaker
When Mark Calaway debuted in WCW in 1990, he seemed just your typical tall and strong guy but nothing much else to him. He was slow and stiff, you could understand why WCW saw no real potential and dropped him. In WWE, he was given the now famous gimmick but even at the start, it took a bit for him to unfold. At first, he just plowed through guys but soon, would begin breaking out his rope walk and high-flying clothesline amid some great ring psychology to get him over.
He’s a guy who’s truly improved as time as gone on, extending his repertoire with such things as the Last Ride and the triangle choke and has proven himself able to get through anything from a Hell in a Cell brawl to a hard-fought technical battle. He’s been smart to shift up the character enough to keep going with fans and thus transforming from just another “big guy” to an icon of the business, a fantastic transformation.
3 Mick Foley
In his books, Foley loves to talk about how woefully unprepared he was for the wrestling business. A highlight is his first televised WWE match, tagging against the British Bulldogs and Foley realizing he’s totally over his head as he ended up with a busted lip and hurt neck thanks to the Bulldogs’ stiff work. He kept at it, pushing himself more and soon getting attention for his wild dives and ability to absorb punishment.
Some may still slam him as a “glorified stuntman” but Foley has proven himself as a good worker able to carry a crowd like few others, not to mention one of the most loveable guys out of the ring as well. A kid with wrestling in his blood who got to live out his dream, Foley proved that hard work (and a few nasty breaks) can make all the difference in how you rise to the top.
2 Diamond Dallas Page
It’s easy to forget that the majority of Page’s time in wrestling was spent as manager, first in the AWA, then in WCW for the Diamond Studd (Scott Hall) and a few others. When he decided to go for wrestling himself, he was already older than most of the other workers and no one gave him a chance. Page backed it up with some poor ring work, often looking out of shape and just seemed out of his element.
But he kept at it and soon was able to improve drastically, helped by how he enjoyed planning matches out in advance, showing great ring psychology. It took a bit for him to take off but he would soon become one of WCW’s biggest stars, a good worker able to handle the main event and his Diamond Cutter one of the best finishers around. While DDP is retired now, he stands tall as a guy who seemed to have none of the skills of a worker who turned into one of his company’s biggest guys.
1 Trish Stratus
There was no denying Trish was quite the looker when she debuted in WWE in 2000. She was incredibly hot and curvy with an ample chest, blond hair and showing off in revealing outfits. She appeared just the typical eye candy, nothing more until Fit Finlay began training the various Divas in hopes of building a real women’s division.
It only took a little training for Trish to unlock the stunning talent inside her, incredible with moves, able to take punishment, her body lean to pull off great stuff like the “Ma-Trish” and her rana off the ropes. She would go on to win seven Women’s championships, a major highlight for the entire company and still regarded as one of the best female workers of her time. Not bad for a former eye candy at all.