“If at first you don’t succeed, try again.” This old mantra is actually quite true as most in sports and entertainment can attest. Many times someone fails their first time out but finds greater success later on and that works for wrestling as well. It’s rare a guy gets a great start and goes running along with it. Too many guys have to pay their dues a lot before getting more success. That goes for guys in WWE as numerous times, they’ve had runs, left and come back for something bigger. It was more common in the days when WCW and other promotions were around for guys to jump around. But even today, there are cases of workers whose early tries with the company weren’t that good.
Sometimes, it’s a case of them being too raw and not ready. Other times, they need the right character to take off while others just don’t click at first. It’s tricky but still notable how so many guys get a bad turn only to come back with a better one. Here are 15 guys whose first runs in WWE were forgettable but turned into stars later and how unique the business can be on second chances.
This might seem a bit premature but it can be argued that Goldberg’s current WWE run is already much better than his first. From the start, his debut in 2003 was marred with a feud with The Rock where Goldberg was made out to be underwhelming. He then lost in his first try against Triple H so when he won the title, it wasn’t as impressive. WWE just didn’t book Goldberg right as he just wasn't the unstoppable force that made him a top star in WCW. No wonder he left in 2004 in a huff after being so misused. But this year, WWE is doing it differently. Crushing Brock in just two minutes rebuilds Goldberg as the monster he should have been and already makes a rematch a money feud. In one bout, Goldberg came off far better than he did in his entire first run and it looks like the WWE is ready to make him look like the star he was in the late 90s.
Back in the mid-1990s, Terry Richards was a guy you’d see on RAW and B-shows as a jobber who lost to some of WWEs stars. Barely out of his teens, Richards was a long-haired guy with a stocky build that just didn’t click with fans. After time abroad, he transformed into Rhyno, the massive monster in ECW who dominated as champion for a while.
His WWE run was rough but he was rewarded with the Hardcore and US championships before famously ending when he trashed a hotel room. He spent time in TNA and other places but recently returned to WWE where he surprised everyone by forming a great team with Heath Slater. Together, they reign as SmackDown Tag Team champions as Rhyno shows his veteran savviness each and every night.
13 Bobby Roode
He may be the oldest “rookie” on WWE’s current roster. Way back in 2001, “Rudy Rude” made some appearances on B-shows like “Velocity.” He had some skill but nothing special, losing to the likes of Perry Saturn and others in matches where the announcers were more interested in putting over other events than the talent themselves. After a bit of time on the indies, Roode moved onto TNA and soon became one of its biggest stars.
A multiple time tag team champion, his time as TNA World Champion was amazing and did huge business for the company. His departure in 2016 was a huge deal, as many saw him leaving as a sign that the company was going in the wrong direction. Now in NXT, Roode is slowly rising up the ranks, looks like a wrestler that is revitalized, and is giving WWE's independent brand some "glorious domination."
As the son of Dusty Rhodes, Dustin was naturally pushed to the upper mid card despite lacking a ton of experience at the time. In 1990, he got a few wins and was pushed into a feud against Ted DiBiase and Virgil. His TV appearances were rare, which ended with the Rhodes losing at the Royal Rumble. When Dusty left for WCW, Dustin followed and over the next few years, became a top worker as US, TV, and Tag Team champion.
In 1995, he came to WWE and changed himself massively into Goldust. The character was sensational, leading to runs as Intercontinental champion and really ahead of its time. Dustin returned to WCW but later came back to WWE. He made one more return back in 2014 and looked better than ever. Adopting DDP Yoga into his life, Goldust looks like a completely different wrestler and man than recent years.
11 Zack Ryder
Ryder’s career has seen some major ups and downs but started in a quiet fashion. He debuted in 2005 doing jobs on Smackdown. It took nearly a year for him to sign a developmental deal with WWE and spent time in OVW and then ECW and SmackDown.
Even then, nothing really clicked until Ryder took matters into his own hands as his “Long Island Iced Z” videos made him a winner with the WWE Universe. He rose up to become US champion, only to suffer a major blow as the WWE never capitalized on his championship run. But Ryder remains massively over with crowds, eventually helping him win the Intercontinental title at WrestleMania and become a popular tag team with Mojo Rawley known as the Hype Bros. Some argue he deserves a lot more success than the company will give him but it can’t be denied Ryder did a lot better than his initial run.
10 Dolph Ziggler
His first gimmick is pretty forgotten as Nick Nemeth appeared as the “caddy” for Chavo Guerrero during his infamous “Kerwin White” phase. That was dropped after Eddie’s death and Nick was sent to OVW, only to be called back up as a member of the Spirit Squad, one of the most ridiculous stables of all time. Presenting a band of male cheerleaders as some sort of evil heel group was crazy and it didn't help that they were made out to be total losers in their feud with DX.
After another stint in OVW, he returned as Dolph Ziggler, a cocky heel that ended up becoming a fan favorite. With multiple reigns as IC, US, and World champion, Ziggler has become one of the hottest stars around, proving that a slow start doesn't mean your career is doomed.
9 Dean Ambrose
It’s still a remarkable sight. Back in 2006, Jon Moxley was a jobber on SmackDown, notable for his bright pink hair. He had a good attitude and showed promise but nothing too sensational and was eventually cut. In CZW, he gained a major following for his skill and willingness to take savage blows in matches. Hired back with WWE, he washed out the pink and worked in FCW as Dean Ambrose. He had promise, and it was never more evident than when he joined Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns to create The Shield and run roughshod over everyone. A long reign as US champion helped him out as the trio rose but it was assumed Ambrose would be shoved aside when they split up.
Instead, his wild behavior made “the Lunatic Fringe” a winner with crowds, far more over than Reigns. Because of that, the WWE had to pay attention to finally put the title on him. Ambrose remains a main eventer and is one of the flagship stars working under the WWE brand.
8 Owen Hart
In 1987, Owen broke out in Stampede Wrestling and established himself as possibly the most talented of the Hart clan. A great technical worker, he was a genius in the ring and rose up the ranks quickly. When signed to the WWE, it was assumed he’d be pushed under his brother Bret. But instead, he was saddled with a mask and costume as the Blue Blazer. His work rate was cut down and Owen had forgettable matches along the way.
He took time away, returning in 1992 with tag team stuff like High Energy and the New Foundation. It took until 1994 for him to explode with his heel turn and masterpiece matches against Bret. Holding the Tag Team and IC belts, Owen established himself as a fantastic performer fans loved to hate. He went back to the Blazer in 1999 which sadly set up his tragic death that year. Still, originally losing the mask was the best thing to happen in Hart's career.
7 Samoa Joe
It’s remarkable to see a much younger and far thinner Samoa Joe back in 2001, getting a shot on “Jakked” where he lost some matches. He didn’t last long as the influx of talent from WCW pushed him away and Joe would move on to help form Ring of Honor. He was soon wowing fans with his brilliant technical style and how, for a man his size, he could take to the ropes with ease. After his classic feud with CM Punk for the belt, Joe left for TNA and became one of their biggest stars. He held just about every belt in the company while riding high with some of the best matches TNA had ever seen against AJ Styles, Kurt Angle and many more.
Finally, in 2015, Joe came to WWE and has been dominating in NXT, holding the championship and elevating the brand nicely. Fans are eager for him to get called up to the main shows, as many believe he could be a serious star at a top level.
Glenn Jacobs had what it took to make it in WWE. He was tall, strong and had a good presence but was saddled with some truly lame characters. In 1995, he came out as Isaac Yankem, an evil dentist feuding with Bret Hart. He then was given the “Fake Diesel” character which fans loathed.
But in 1997, Jacobs was chosen to have the role of Kane, The Undertaker’s long missing half-brother. In the tight outfit and mask, he was an instant hit, pushed as a monster and became a huge success. Jacobs remains a massive star for the company, altering the character so he appears to be a face or a heel, talking, unmasked and going back to it, even making it funny at times. No matter what, it shows that all it takes is the right character to elevate a worker and Jacobs made it work better than anyone could have expected.
5 Bray Wyatt
A football player and the son of multiple-time champion Mike Rotunda, you’d think this guy would have gone far pretty fast. He was a strong man with a good skill and seemed prepared to push himself hard. But then there was the name: Husky Harris. You just can’t get behind someone with a name so stupid, and his time in NXT wasn't spent well. He was part of The Nexus but just didn’t seem to click there and soon cast back to developmental.
There, he improved not only in the ring but in character and transformed himself into Bray Wyatt, the creepy cult leader with some of the best promos around. It was amazing to see him change into a man taking on main event stars like John Cena, The Undertaker and more and elevating himself majorly.
4 Mick Foley
Foley himself chuckles about how he was once a pretty skinny guy when starting out in the indies. In 1986, he got a shot in WWE as “Jack Foley,” a simple jobber on TV shows. This included a famous episode where he faced off against the British Bulldogs in a tag team match. Foley went to the Bulldogs first to give the okay to do pretty much anything to him. He immediately regretted it as his lip was split by a savage clothesline and he took a harsh suplex for the pin. Foley did thank the Bulldogs later, as the beating proved to the higher ups he was willing to take some punishment in the ring.
Foley would soon build himself up as Cactus Jack in various indies and then WCW before signing to WWE as Mankind. Eventually, his ability to take punishment and his great humor won him a huge following to become a major star and Foley looks back with some amusement at his early time in the company, mostly because he ended up being one of its biggest stars.
3 AJ Styles
Styles had been doing well on the indie circuit as the 2000s began as his technical work and high-flying offense gained a ton of attention in the wrestling world. He was looking good in WCW in 2001 but the company’s end ruined that. In 2002, he got a few tryouts for WWE, appearing on TV and was offered a contract for the developmental school. However, Styles didn’t want to be away from his wife, so he declined. Instead, he cut his teeth in ROH and then became the star of TNA, holding every belt in the company en route to blowing away fans with his ring work.
Finally, in 2016, Styles arrived in WWE and outdid expectations by winning the WWE championship and looking amazing. Currently positioned as one of the top stars in the company, that may not have happened if Styles signed with the company in 2002.
2 Shawn Michaels
Shawn is fond of telling this story a lot on his DVDs. By 1987, the Midnight Rockers had taken off as AWA Tag Team champions and wowed fans with their amazing teamwork and moves. With the AWA doing badly, the two decided to take an offer from WWE and seemed ready to take off. However, a bar fight got them into major trouble. They showed up at Vince’s office with Shawn having just bought brand new cowboy boots and Vince couldn’t resist saying “those boots are made for walking” as he fired them. The Rockers bounced around the AWA, Continental and other areas before finally getting another shot at WWE in 1988.
They proved themselves with their fantastic matches to take off and set the ground for Shawn’s later success as one of the greatest wrestlers in the company's history. He laughs today as the Heartbreak Kid’s first WWE run was hardly iconic.
1 Hulk Hogan
Yes, believe it or not, the Hulkster’s first run in WWE wasn’t that notable. He was a huge heel, a powerhouse guy with his look and build but he let manager Freddie Blassie do all the talking in promos. He had some flash but nothing too notable as he came up short against Andre the Giant and in a championship match against Bob Backlund. He was a decent heel but nowhere near the superstar he would become. Leaving for the AWA, Hogan clicked on his “Hulkster” character that led to success and nearly became champion there.
Thus, his return in 1983 was a major deal that boosted him fast as he won the title and embarked on his iconic run that transformed the entire industry. Everyone has to start somewhere, and even the Hulkster knows that the right thing will come, as long as you're patient.