The world of pro wrestling, and especially World Wrestling Entertainment, has always been known for its dynamic collection of colorful personalities. Vince McMahon made it clear through the successful globalization of his brand of the product that wrestling connects with a much wider audience when the characters are relatable in some way. Viewers want to have heroes to root for and villains to boo, but the formula for a truly great wrestling character is far more complex than just making the decision that a performer will be an antagonist or protagonist.
If the transformation of WWE’s development process into a popular WWE Network program has taught us anything, it’s that the company knows how to work wonders. NXT is the tool kit with which the company grooms bland wannabe wrestlers into presentable, larger than life Superstars. You can take almost any current WWE Superstar who came through NXT and compare the performer they’ve become to the performer they were in their first NXT matches and you’ll get quite a shock. Because so many eyes are now on NXT, the WWE Universe has recently become familiarized with the practice of building a Superstar from scratch, but it’s not a new concept. It’s been happening for many years.
It’s almost a guarantee that if a fan were to pick their favorite WWE Superstar, past or present, and have a glance at their early days, the two versions of the same person would be almost unrecognizable. Professional wrestling is, no doubt, in the business of entertainment, and WWE puts enough stock into the presentation aspect of the industry that they rely heavily on those painted faces being plastered all over t-shirts and other merchandise for a large portion of the corporation’s profits. Let’s take a look at fifteen images that show what miracles the magic of character development can achieve.
15 Seth Rollins
Several years ago, a man who had made a big name for himself in Ring of Honor as Tyler Black joined NXT, which had just transitioned from a seasonal competition show into WWE’s new and official developmental program. He now went by the name Seth Rollins and would become the first ever NXT Champion, and the rest is history. After a couple of years on the main roster as a member of The Shield with Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose, Rollins then feuded extensively with both of his former partners and has become one of WWE’s biggest stars.
Rollins hasn’t always had the presence and charisma that makes him such an asset to WWE’s main event scene today. Before hitting it big in NXT, Tyler Black was just another high-flying indie guy; the type that never seems to find their groove in the corporate giant that is WWE. But the machine processed him into their vision of what he could be and the scrawny former ROH World Champion is now sitting atop the highest mountain in the sport.
14 Sasha Banks
One would be hard pressed to find a professional wrestling fan today that isn’t completely in love with Sasha Banks. Perhaps for the first time in history, WWE has a female version of the “boyhood dream” scenario which actually resonates with the WWE Universe, because Sasha’s fan base knows how much wrestling means to her. Her story is told often; she grew up idolizing the likes of Eddie Guerrero and never wanted to be a “Diva.” Instead, Sasha Banks’ goal was to become the greatest women’s wrestler to ever compete for Vince McMahon. Given her accomplishments, in ring skills, charisma and popularity, she seems to be on the right track.
But let’s not discredit the role that physical appearance plays in bringing “The Boss” together as a complete package. Sasha has indeed established her iconic style – bright pink hair, colorful outfits, brass knuckles, shades – and it’s used as a tool for seemingly successful merchandise sales, but it didn’t happen overnight. Like with any performer in WWE, Sasha’s character was built over a period of years in NXT and, as seen here, she didn’t quite start out with the swagger she carries herself with today.
13 Baron Corbin
2016 has been the biggest year of Baron Corbin’s wrestling career. He made his debut on WWE’s main roster in a big way by winning the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WrestleMania 32 and going straight into a feud with former World Heavyweight Champion Dolph Ziggler. Following the WWE brand extension Corbin, ended up on SmackDown Live and the new era couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for the former NXT star; fresh off the momentum of his first few months, the brand split should offer Baron Corbin plenty brass rings to grasp.
Corbin certainly has the presence of a classic WWE villain now, but that wasn’t always the case. He spent several years in NXT crafting his appearance and move set and through much effort the big man seems to have finally found a gimmick that works for him, but at one point in time, the biker bully looked a bit more like a Warcraft bully.
She’s been called the female version of John Cena for the way her gimmick relates so easily to children and that alone may be enough to make Bayley a megastar in WWE. John Cena hasn’t exactly done too bad for himself and before even being called up from NXT, Bayley had already established a monstrous following. She’s a walking, hugging advertisement for WWE merchandise; she makes her entrance covered in snap bracelets and headbands, all of which are covered in her brand, which she hands out to children on her way to the ring.
Bayley’s theme music is upbeat and infectious and her side ponytail can be found all over the audience, so it’s clear something is working. Time will tell, but it would seem the Bayley gimmick is one of the most well crafted works of character development in recent WWE history, especially among the female Superstars. It’s really a miraculous feat considering the vanilla competitor Bayley was as Davina Rose on the independent circuit, as seen in this photo.
Few WWE Superstars have been as consistently active in the ring for as long as Kane. The Big Red Machine has been a loyal WWE mainstay for two decades and has probably seen more evolutions than most any wrestler to ever compete for Vince McMahon. Kane’s career is slowing down these days, something that has been gradually happening over the past few years as his character has grown more and more stale, but there’s no denying his legacy. Through each and every version of his demon character, and even his time more recently as a corporate yes-man, Kane has refused to fade from the public eye.
It’s a testament to his versatility that the man behind the red and black mask has proven to be such a frequent go-to personality for WWE over the years, but even the talented Glenn Jacobs couldn’t make the mid-1990s character Fake Diesel work. Here is a shot of the character before Jacobs eventually became Kane. Let's not even get into his time as an evil dentist...
10 Xavier Woods
Xavier Woods sort of came out of nowhere as a big star for WWE. He plodded around the company’s undercard for a while before being teamed with Big E and Kofi Kingston, whose careers had also been in slumps around that time. Together, the trio became the New Day, and after some tweaking the crew developed into one of the WWE’s hottest acts and certainly the most popular part of the tag team division in years. As the mouthpiece, Xavier Woods and his trombone Francesca have helped mold the New Day into future Hall of Fame material if they continue on this pace.
But if you thought his early years in WWE were obscure, those days have nothing on his time as Consequences Creed in TNA. As you can see in the screenshot here, Consequences Creed was miles apart from Xavier Woods, dressing in a busy combination of red, white and blue. On a side note, Creed teamed with Xavier’s old WWE tag partner R-Truth in TNA as well, and the pair was known as Truth and Consequences.
9 Bray Wyatt
A lot of people thought Bray Wyatt would be the spiritual successor to The Undertaker for WWE until the company mishandled him so badly that he could no longer be seen as a legitimate threat. Some of that damage stands to be corrected since the WWE brand extension as more opportunities have arisen for the company’s plethora of underused talent, and if anyone can take advantage of the situation it’s The Eater of Worlds. Bray has raised hell in WWE for years and despite his poor record for wins and losses, he remains one of the best promo guys in the wrestling world.
Bray Wyatt’s eerie, intimidating aura feels natural, but before he became a cult leader from the swamps he was the victim of WWE’s dreadful Husky Harris project, which saw a heavier Bray booked simply as a chubby, bully type of character. It’s difficult to imagine the man in the picture here going on to scare anyone, really.
8 Alexa Bliss
As one of the most recent female Superstars to be called up from NXT to the main roster, Alexa Bliss is poised to take advantage of a prime opportunity on SmackDown Live. For several years, Alexa has been impressing fans and higher ups alike with her natural athleticism and knack for entertaining the crowd. Having begun as an overtly bubbly babyface who would blow glitter into the air, she eventually transformed into a vicious partner for NXT’s tag team known as Blake and Murphy. Bliss took the villainess role and ran with it, dropping the glitter for a bad attitude and excelling at it.
Alexa is bound to have plenty of great matches on WWE’s main roster despite not having an extensive background in wrestling prior to NXT. She’s taken to the squared circle like a natural, but before stepping into the ring she participated in a slew of other sports including bodybuilding, as seen in the photo here where she looked a whole lot different from how she does today.
7 Luke Gallows
When Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson joined AJ Styles in WWE, the hardcore wrestling fandom celebrated in unison. AJ Styles is an international icon in the industry, having competed just about everywhere before coming to the biggest wrestling company in the world. Karl Anderson is a virtual unknown to the WWE Universe, not to take anything away from his own accomplishments on the independent scene. Luke Gallows, however, is probably vaguely familiar to long-time WWE fans for his myriad smaller roles from the past.
For instance, Gallows was once a member of CM Punk’s Straight Edge Society faction and even portrayed an impostor version of Kane at one time. However, the more surprising of his personas is probably that of Festus, a hillbilly who teamed with former WWE Superstar Jesse. A much bigger Gallows would come to the ring with his tongue dangling out of his mouth until the bell rang, the sound of which drove him into a violent frenzy. This image clearly shows the drastic change in appearance which saw Festus transform into Luke Gallows.
For a few years now, Paige has been delivering quality content for WWE’s women’s division. She was the first ever NXT Women’s Champion and won the Divas Championship twice within her first year on the main roster, though ever since the “women’s revolution,” which saw a slew of fresh faces rise to prominence, Paige has taken a bit of a back seat. Nonetheless, she’s been consistent in her wrestling and her ability to connect with the WWE Universe.
Perhaps that’s because upon Paige’s arrival in NXT she had already established a respectable following from her time on the indie circuit where she wrestled beside and across from her own mother, English wrestler Saraya Knight. During these days Paige was known as Britani Knight and she looked a lot less glammed up than she does today; her famous goth look was dialled way back and she was sporting basic ring gear and much less makeup.
5 The Undertaker
There are the household names in the wrestling industry, personalities so much larger than life that even non-wrestling fans know who they are. Those are the men like John Cena, Hulk Hogan and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Then, there are the wrestlers who have actually earned legendary status within the business by being the most internally respected performers in their area of expertise, and there is no man more respected among his colleagues than Mark Calaway, known as The Undertaker.
Aside from a stint in the early 2000s when he played a more realistic biker redneck for a few years, The Undertaker is mostly known for his sometimes zombie mortician, sometimes wizard character. He’s served as WWE’s resident dark cloud, a nigh unbeatable force to be reckoned with for nearly thirty years, but a couple of glances into his pre-WWE career might just crush the child in any wrestling fan. As it turns out, the man behind Mark Calaway is an actual human being with a past full of bland characters that failed before he became the Deadman.
Everything Ric Flair has ever touched or been associated with has turned to gold. That’s just a fact of life accepted by every wrestling fan on the planet. The Nature Boy is so legendary that he’s the only two-time Hall of Famer in WWE, inducted once as a member of the famed Four Horsemen team and again as his sixteen-time World Champion self, so to say that his daughter Ashley, known in WWE as Charlotte, has big shoes to fill would be an understatement.
But somehow she manages. Charlotte is a member of her own unofficial stable known as The Four Horsewomen with Bayley, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch and has now been the only woman to hold the NXT Women’s Championship, the Divas Championship and the WWE Women’s Championship. Her in-ring skills put her in a rare class and her persona continues to grow and evolve. She’s got the classic blonde locks of her father, but in this photo from her early days in NXT she looked a whole lot different than she does now.
3 Dean Ambrose
Known as The Lunatic Fringe, Dean Ambrose came into WWE as perhaps the underdog of The Shield. As a company, WWE obviously favored Roman Reigns while Seth Rollins seemed to be the crowd favorite, but now three years after the group’s debut on the main roster, Dean Ambrose is getting more cheers than either of the others. In 2016, Dean became the final member of The Shield to capture the WWE Championship. Soon after, he was drafted to SmackDown Live and was separated from Reigns and Rollins.
Ambrose stands out from the crowd by wrestling in jeans and a tank top, appropriately grungy to complement his rough around the edges personality and brawler style of wrestling. However, at some point during his run in independent organizations, Ambrose was sporting some very flashy pink hair, as seen in this screenshot from an appearance he made on WWE television long before he’d signed a contract with the company.
2 Roman Reigns
John Cena might be the most polarizing figure in WWE, but he paved the way for a respectable runner up in Roman Reigns. Fans were mostly indifferent to Reigns as a part of The Shield until the group split up and he began being pushed by the company ahead of Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins, who were much more popular among the WWE Universe. Vince McMahon and WWE have remained determined to make Reigns work as the heroic face of the business despite consistently negative crowd reactions, proving the descendant of the great Anoa’i dynasty is here to stay.
Roman’s looks have been a big topic of conversation because many of his critics believe WWE has pushed him based on that alone. It’s true, Roman has the look of a Superstar, but that didn’t come easy. Seen in this awkward screenshot, Roman Reigns was once Roman Leakee during his developmental days.
1 Brock Lesnar
Brock Lesnar is a cash cow for WWE, there’s no doubt about it. Lesnar is notorious for his attitude toward pro wrestling, particularly for the fact that he doesn’t seem to like it very much and only shows up for the paycheck. It doesn’t seem to deter his fans, though, as he remains one of the company’s biggest draws. As the man who ended The Undertaker’s legendary WrestleMania undefeated streak and then, months later, squashed John Cena for the WWE World Championship, Lesnar’s appeal relies completely on his reputation as a beast.
Brock Lesnar dominates in the ring and his intense aura sometimes feels legitimately scary. He’s not to be messed with. But all that hype falls a little flat when you take a look back into Brock’s early years and get a glimpse of this photo which features a young “Beast Incarnate” in a suit, tie and nerdy glasses.
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