Becoming the WWE World Champion is simple, first spend your entire life working towards becoming a Superstar, then the hard part; surviving the politics and getting over. The road to being a great figure in wrestling history is usually filled with roadblocks of bureaucratic mind games and hoops to jump through. If you choose to abstain from the status quo, the WWE has been known to punish you by taking away your push or never giving you one to begin with.
Many careers have ended before they started in the WWE; not in the sense that the talent is released, but more so that creative will not work with them. In those cases many wrestlers are forced to try to become popular by alternative means.
In the past, many stars could rely on their wrestling skills to gain adoration and respect from fans, often resulting in their eventual push. Keep in mind however, during the Golden Era, matches were much longer than today's are. Conversely the Attitude Era may have had short matches, but also the creative freedom to develop characters on screen, which propelled some wrestlers into stardom without the help of WWE.
Though wrestlers today have limited screen time, especially in the WWE, they have more opportunity to reach out to fans than ever before. Whether it is using social media, reality television, YouTube videos, or putting on entertaining house show matches, current stars have used alternative means to get over with fans.
Today we are going to look at the top 15 WWE stars who got over without the help of the WWE, or at least began their own push in the company. And before everyone gets too excited (sarcasm) about the list, remember that some of these people were not the face of the company when they started. With that being said, as always feel free to leave a comment below and let us know what you think.
21 Matt Hardy
For years Matt Hardy was in the shadow of his younger brother Jeff, which is understandable considering that he was the more entertaining of the two. When the team eventually split, Matt had trouble getting over with the crowd despite his popularity as a Hardy Boy. In 2003 Hardy adopted a gimmick that he created call “Version 1”, and heavily involved himself in the online community of wrestling fans.
His roots on the internet would eventually come back in his favor, after news of his real life girlfriend Lita, having an affair with real life friend Edge came to light. Despite being fired by WWE for his reaction to the incident, Hardy received support from the WWE fanbase. Famously the crowd at 2005’s One Night Stand chanted “We want Matt” until Paul Heyman addressed it. The crowds eventually won, as Hardy was brought back into the company a short time later more popular than ever.
20 Dusty Rhodes
Dusty Rhodes is a legend in the wrestling business, who has wrestled and gotten over in every single major American wrestling promotion. However one of those promotions tried to bury Rhodes by giving him some ridiculous storylines, as well as some of the worst in ring gear ever made; can you guess which company?
Despite Vince McMahon’s efforts to bury The American Dream, which some attribute to him being a booker in a rival promotion prior to his WWE run, Rhodes was able to get over, like no other in the company, and eventually get inducted into the Hall of Fame.
18 Dolph Ziggler
It’s almost a bad joke at this point to suggest that Dolph Ziggler is going to get his big push. The time has come and gone, and come and gone, and come again for Ziggler to be elevated by WWE to the main event picture.
Ziggler has sold his way into the hearts of the fans, and has garnered one of the biggest pops in the PG Era by cashing in his Money in the Bank contract the night after WrestleMania in 2013. Ziggler is in an odd position, being one of the few guys to stay popular despite not being pushed, but if the fans have proved anything, it’s when they like someone they let WWE know it.
17 Shane McMahon
Maybe he doesn’t count because he was born into the company, but man did Shane McMahon earn his keep in the WWE. Never has a non wrestler been so entertaining and captivating then when Shane O’Mac was featured on WWE Programming.
The former corporate office worker never used his influence to main event any shows, yet still would receive some of the biggest pops of the night when featured. Though he left the company in 2010, fans are still hopeful he will return to WWE with his brand of entertaining showmanship, and daredevil antics.
15 Santino Marella
It’s no secret that we are fans of Santino Marella, with him appearing on multiple lists like this throughout the past. The retired Superstar is one of the most memorable acts in the WWE over the past 10 years, despite never being elevated into the main event picture.
Using just his charisma, Santino was always able to elicit a response from the crowd, despite often not having any direction from WWE management. Santino is planning on returning to the ring, following successful surgery, which we predict will garner one of the biggest pops of the year without WWE’s help or advertisement.
13 Crash Holly
After initially debuting as the younger cousin of Hardcore Holly in 1999, Crash Holly split from the tag team to go out on his own. Crash would eventually find success by joining the Hardcore Division of the WWE, and starting the “24/7” rule; meaning that the title could be defended anywhere and anytime as long as a referee was present.
While WWE created the division and the rule, Crash was able to get over with the crowd by coming up with creative and entertaining ways of defending the title over and over again. Despite having limited television time during his “matches”, Crash was the crux in one of the most entertaining divisions in wrestling history.
12 Mick Foley
It’s no secret that Vince McMahon wasn’t a fan of Mick Foley when he entered the WWE in 1996. Foley, who debuted as Mankind, was recruited by then head of talent relations Jim Ross and was given the task of developing an entirely new gimmick for the wrestling veteran. Fans sort of got the gimmick, but most knew who Foley was and were lukewarm on his psychopathic change.
Foley exploded as a superstar when he answered questions out of character during a series of interviews conducted by Jim Ross in 1997. The WWE fanbase accepted Foley from that point on, with the understanding that he was self made, not a creation of the company. His ability to get over has transcended his in-ring career, as his opinion is regarded highly in the wrestling community and influences the current product.
10 John Cena
Sheesh can John Cena be put on this list without someone invalidating the entire article by it? You see, fans of the WWE are completely prisoners of the moment, and at the moment, John Cena represents everything that they hate about professional wrestling. BUT… if you search your memory banks way back to 2002 when Cena debuted against Kurt Angle, you’ll remember him as an up-and-comer in WWE.
John Cena is a guy who had to work his way up the card the hard way, before being plastered as the poster boy of the WWE. His work ethic along with his entertaining heel persona is what drove him to the top.
Before you freak out, keep in mind that before he was going over with top guys, Cena regularly faced people like Albert, D-Von, Billy Kidman, Rico, Chuck Palumbo, Spanky and Funaki. When he eventually would work with main eventers he would lose to guys like Eddie Guerrero, Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, Undertaker, Brock Lesnar, and Chris Jericho. All of these matches actually took place in his first few years...go look it up.
There never has been a real plan for Cesaro since his 2012 debut in the WWE. The Swiss born star has gone through more gimmick changes than anyone else on the roster in just four years with the company.
Despite being one of the most talented wrestlers on the roster, WWE has not utilized Cesaro properly. But it seems no matter what horrible storyline he is apart of, or how much he floats in the mid-card scene, the fans never quit on him. Even with his terrible theme, the crowd continues to pop at his entrance, due to his ridiculous strength, and crazy work ethic.
8 The New Day
Originally this entry was going to be about Kofi Kingston specifically, but then after thinking about it, how could The New Day not be on this list? The trio has turned into one of the hottest acts in the company, proving that charisma and talent can trump a bad gimmick.
Kofi, Big E and Xavier Woods were not excited about the idea of portraying a preacher like gimmick, but took it in stride. Eating boos from the crowd for a few months, The New Day proved that they didn’t need the WWE creative team to make fans cheer for them, only with hilarious antics and great matches this past year.
7 CM Punk
Go and watch WWE’s Best in the World if you want to know why CM Punk is on this list; or keep reading and learn the short version. Punk the self proclaimed “King of the Indies” was signed to the WWE after an amazing run in smaller wrestling promotions in the early 2000s. As a testament to how little faith the WWE had in Punk, he was allowed to keep the gimmick name that he used all of his career - a mistake that they haven’t made since.
Punk worked his way up the card from ECW (version 2), all the way to the undercard of RAW, all with little to no help from the WWE officials. The Straight Edge Superstar would go on to the World Title, but only as a transitional champion on two separate occasions. It wasn’t until he became a heel and began manipulating the crowd on his own, that WWE started to notice Punk's ability. The current UFC star poised himself to be one of the most iconic wrestlers of our era, in spite of WWE.
5 Rob Van Dam
ECW original Rob Van Dam was one of the stand outs in the promotion, often without using the gore that the company was famous for. It would reason that RVD could take that same formula and get over in the WWE when he made his debut in 2001. The WWE would come to realize that despite his connection with the fans, that they could never put the ball in RVD’s hands because of his non-conformist ideology. Paul London offered a different reason for WWE not pushing RVD, stating that Triple H held him back in a 2013 interview:
“Hunter was pretty obviously jealous of certain individuals. I’m not saying he was jealous of me. I could tell he was envious of (Rob) Van Dam. He was extremely envious of Rob’s success. He was jealous of Van Dam’s personality. He was jealous that people gravitated towards Rob, because people liked being around Rob because he was very positive.”
Despite never having any solid storylines, being kept off of television, and having long periods of inactivity with the company, the fans have never stopped cheering for Van Dam.
4 Stone Cold Steve Austin
If Steve Austin was a passive man, then we never would have seen the Stone Cold gimmick. The WWE brought Austin in as The Ringmaster, a voiceless gimmick which clearly was a sign of ignorance the company showed regarding the fantastic promo work Austin had just done in ECW. After a few months as The Ringmaster, Austin approached WWE saying he was not The Ringmaster.
He then came up with the idea of the Stone Cold gimmick with the help of his then-wife. Austin got a break when Triple H's push was revoked due to his role in the Curtain Call. Austin was booked to win King of the Ring in 1996, but Austin 3:16 was his idea and his promos and character work were his doing. From there, WWE reaped the benefits.
2 Daniel Bryan
A testament to his talent, Daniel Bryan was able to completely abandon his grappler style developed on the indies, and conform to the WWE style of gimmicky short matches. Despite constantly being buried on WWE programming, the former World Champion always seemed to connect with the crowd while performing.
Bryan was excluded from the 2014 Royal Rumble, despite fans clearly wanting Bryan to headline WrestleMania. Instead the company had Batista pegged in, which saw the crowd completely turn on WWE. The backlash was so intense, that the WWE was forced to change the main event at WrestleMania; the rest is history.
1 Zack Ryder
The most brutal case of WWE punishing a star for getting popular without their help is, as Mick Foley put it, “The Sad Story of Zack Ryder”. In 2011 Ryder worked tirelessly hustling online through Twitter, and Youtube to gain followers, who eventually became fans. Using his online platform, Ryder connected with fans, and soon enough, every WWE arena in the country was filled with “WE WANT RYDER” chants throughout the show.
The chants became so evident, that The Rock had to stop his promo at Madison Square Garden, after his comeback match to acknowledged the Ryder Revolution. Eventually Ryder would win the United States title, enjoying a short reign.
Sadly unlike the previous entrant on this list, Ryder did not have his WrestleMania moment, or any moment at all, as WWE did everything they could to bury the young star after his year of self made success.