The path to wrestling stardom (or stardom in general) is rarely easy. Athletes need to be willing to constantly learn, practice, and put in time at the gym to stay in top physical condition. Even after all that, wrestlers still need to catch the right break to be discovered and signed to a reputable promotion.
And this is just for the folks with normal upbringings. Some wrestlers grew up in extreme poverty, had abusive parents, struggled with addiction (or were raised by family members who struggled with addiction), ran into trouble with the law, or worse. Overcoming these issues to become a happy, healthy, functioning member of society can be extremely difficult, to say nothing of becoming famous or successful.
Yet some of the biggest names in wrestling did just this. They leapt over the hurdles, dodged the bullets (sometimes literally), triumphed over seemingly unbeatable odds, and eventually got their big break in the business. They may not have all reached the WWE, and some of the stories didn’t have happy conclusions in the very end, but that’s not the point here. Because when all is said and done, they still forged better lives through wrestling than they would have otherwise had. And these are their stories.
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Edge was born Adam Joseph Copeland on October 30, 1973 in Ontario and was raised by a single mother who worked two jobs to support herself and her son. Not only was Edge’s father not in the picture, Edge has literally never even seen a picture of him. From a young age, Adam dreamed of becoming a professional wrestler. When he was only 17, he entered an essay contest and won the opportunity to train with Sweet Daddy Siki and Ron Hutchinson in Toronto. However, Copeland had to temporarily put his dreams on hold in order to work and help pay the bills.
In order to finally get his break, Edge spent all his independent circuit earnings on a plane ticket to Toronto. As he had no money upon landing, wrestler Johnny Smith gave him food and shelter. Bret Hart was impressed with Edge’s training and put in a good word with the WWE, who first hired him in 1996 without a contract for $210 per week. He was officially signed the following year.
14 Dean Ambrose
Born Jonathan Good on December 7, 1985 in Cincinnati, Dean Ambrose had it rough right from the very beginning. Growing up on the less affluent end of town, Ambrose spent much of his early years in public housing. As a kid, he idolized Bret Hart and used wrestling as an escape from his difficult upbringing and immersed himself in videos and read stories about wrestling’s early days. Before he started training with Les Thatcher of the Heartland Wrestling Association, Ambrose sold popcorn and helped set up the ring before matches. Once he began training, Ambrose dropped out of high school and did quite the independent circuit tour, with stops in Insanity Pro Wrestling, Combat Zone Wrestling, Dragon Gate USA, Ring of Honor, Full Impact Pro, Evolve, and Jersey All Pro Wrestling before signing a development deal with WWE in 2011.
13 Roddy Piper
Born Roderick Toombs on April 17, 1954 in Saskatchewan, Roddy Piper had a relatively easy early life. However, as he grew older, things got more complicated. Roddy was expelled from junior high after bringing a switchblade to school, which obviously didn’t sit well with his father, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer. The two had a falling out and a teenage Toombs left home to go out on his own, living in various youth hostels. To make ends meet, Roddy picked up odd jobs at the local gym running errands for the wrestlers. Already a boxer and proficient in judo, Toombs entered the world of professional wrestling under the care of promoter Al Tomko and was a member of the AWA, NWA, GCW, and WCW before being signed by the WWE full time in 1984.
Born in Atlanta but raised in North Carolina, Ronnie Aaron Killings’ father sold marijuana to make ends meet and provide for his son. After receiving various athletic scholarships but deciding to drop out of high school to pursue music, Ronnie ended up also selling weed and was eventually arrested and sentenced to 13 months in prison. Following his release into a halfway house, Killings spent two more years attempting a career in music before he was recruited by Jackie Crockett of the NWA. He trained with Manny Fernandez for three years, debuting as “K-Krush” in 1999.
At the insistence of Rick Michaels, Killings sent an audition video to the WWE that same year and ended up signing a developmental deal. He was promoted to the main roster only a year later, making his TV debut on November 13, 2000.
11 Ric Flair
Ric Flair was born Fred Phillips on February 25, 1949 in Memphis, Tennessee. He spent the first part of his life in the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, an orphanage with a negative, scandal-ridden reputation. Phillips was eventually adopted by Kathleen and Richard Fliehr, who renamed him and moved to Minnesota, where Ric spent the remainder of his childhood. However, it wasn’t smooth sailing the entire way, as young Ric frequently got himself in trouble for stealing his parents’ car and underage drinking, which led to him being sent to boarding school. He eventually attended college on a football scholarship, but dropped out and worked as a bouncer instead. However, after playing football alongside Greg Gagne and joining the wrestling school of his father, Verne Gagne, Flair earned stints in the independent wrestling circuit in and was signed by the WWE in 1991.
10 Adam Rose
Born and raised in South Africa, Raymond John Leppan had dreams of wrestling since age 10. Despite growing up in a loving family, Leppan dropped out of school and ran away at 14 and spent two years living on the streets and in abandoned buildings. Leppan later described his life as “spiraling out of control” during this time, as it was marred by alcohol and violence. His only comfort at the time were his aspirations of becoming a professional wrestler, and eventually, Leppan’s mother persuaded him to come home by promising to help pay for wrestling classes.
Leppan debuted in South Africa in 1995 and eventually received his American work visa, joining Florida Championship Wrestling in 2010 and changing his name to Adam Rose. Finally getting his big break, Leppan debuted with the WWE on May 5, 2014.
9 AJ Lee
April Mendez was the youngest of three siblings when she was born in New Jersey on March 19, 1987. Her parents struggled to support their kids and had to settle for crashing with friends, with family, in various motels, and sometimes in the family car. “I would definitely say my whole childhood, until I was able to get out there and take care of myself - it was rough,” Mendez told NJ.com.
After graduating high school in 2005, Mendez briefly attended NYU, but family and financial issues forced her to drop out after only six months. She then worked several jobs in order to support her family and save money for a wrestling school near her home. In 2009, she was plucked from obscurity at a WWE tryout camp and made her TV debut in 2011.
In addition to the fact that Batista’s parents worked and his grandfather earned money through several odd jobs like driving a taxi and cutting hair, he also grew up in a rough neighborhood. In fact, before age 9, three people had been murdered on his front lawn. Despite having good parents, young David mixed with the wrong crowd, started stealing cars at age 13, and was estranged and living on his own at 17. While working as a bouncer, he was arrested after getting into a fight and was sentenced to one year probation before getting into bodybuilding and turning his life around.
Although WCW told him he’d never make it after a tryout, the WWE sent him to work at the Wild Samoan Training Centre, which eventually led to his big break and TV debut in 2002.
7 Roderick Strong
Roderick Strong was born Chris Lindsey on July 26, 1983 in Wisconsin, but spent most of his youth in Florida. His mother was in prison during this time for shooting his father, his parents were separated (obviously), and both struggled with addiction issues. Lindsey has said he had a tough upbringing, but is quick to point out that his parents never abused him. “They were more concerned with their lives than mine,” he recalled, also noting that he was overweight as a child. However, one day his father’s wrestling instructor realized young Chris had some talent of his own. That instructor, by the way, was none other than Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart. After stints with Independent Professional Wrestling and NWA Florida, Lindsey joined Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, where he spent over a decade.
6 Booker T
Booker “Booker T” Huffman Jr. was born the youngest of eight children on March 1, 1965 in Louisiana. Before he was 14, both of his parents passed away and older brother Stevie Ray had to act as the father figure.
In need of money, Booker and three accomplices robbed a Wendy’s by donning uniforms obtained when the crew previously worked at the fast food chain. Police immediately suspected an inside job and arrested Booker and his buddies. In December 1987, Huffman pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated robbery and was given five years in prison. After serving one-third of the sentence, Booker was paroled and got a job with a storage business. Hoping for a better life for himself and his young son, he was loaned money for wrestling lessons at Ivan Putski’s Western Wrestling Alliance and in 1993, both Huffman brothers were signed by the WCW following a recommendation from Sid Vicious.
5 Rich Swann
Rich Swann (born February 15, 1991) had a tough life growing up in Baltimore. His father was murdered when Rich was only 14, his mother died a couple years later, and after that, Swann fell in with a rough crowd. He started using cocaine, but quit after his dealer suffered a heart attack. Swann’s aunt stepped in to help him stay clean, get an apartment, and get his high school degree. In 2009, he began training at Combat Zone Wrestling and has since made the rounds with Dragon Gate, DGUSA, Chikara, Evolve, Jersey All Pro Wrestling, German Westside Xtreme Wrestling, Full Impact Pro, and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. Thanks to a tweet by rapper Wale and a tryout arranged by Mark Henry, Swann signed a developmental deal with NXT in 2015 and was recently named part of the upcoming RAW cruiserweight division.
4 AJ Styles
AJ Styles was born Allen Jones on June 2, 1977 in North Carolina to a poor, abusive, alcoholic father, making his childhood especially tough. According to Jones, he wasn’t a wrestling fan growing up because his family was too poor to afford cable, and he only entered wrestling school because his friends were doing it. Still struggling to get by, Jones took jobs mowing lawns and driving ambulances to supplement his income. He was trained by Rick Michaels and worked on the independent circuit for three years before the WCW offered him a contract in 2001. Although he made two appearances with the WWE in 2002, he opted to wrestle for Ring of Honor and TNA instead. After weeks of speculation, Styles joined the WWE on January 20, 2016.
3 Jake “The Snake” Roberts
Although most fans are familiar with Jake “The Snake” Roberts’ public struggles with alcohol and drug abuse, many are unaware he had a troubled upbringing as well. Born Aurelian Smith Jr. on May 30, 1955, Jake had a strained relationship with his father, pro wrestler Aurelian “Grizzly” Smith. Even worse, Roberts says he was sexually and physically abused as a child by his stepmother and cites this as contributing to his wrestling persona. “One of the reasons I was so good at doing interviews and coming up with storylines was because I learned to lie quickly,” Roberts told Sports Illustrated. “After you’re sexually abused, you learn to lie quickly and constantly be on guard.” After 12 years of wrestling in the South, in Canada, and with World Class Championship Wrestling, Roberts made his WWE debut in March 1986.
2 Sweet Saraya
Most wrestling fans are aware that Sweet Saraya is the mother of two-time WWE Divas Champion Paige, but many don’t know that Saraya’s own mother, along with her father, abused her as a child in England. She ran away at 15, lived on the streets, bathed in public swimming pools, and was later raped and became a drug addict. At the age of 18, she overdosed on pills, prompting her to get sober. When she finally got her first meaningful job, she had to request that her new employers wait 12 hours for her initial arrival, as she had to hitchhike the entire way. It was at that job that Saraya met professional wrestler Ricky Knight, whom she married in 1990. Knight was also the one that trained her, and the two now run the World Association of Wrestling (WAW) promotion in Norwich, England. Saraya is widely regarded as the best female wrestler to never wrestle with the WWE.
Following the divorce of her parents when she was only four, Joanie Laurer had a total of three stepfathers and one stepmother. Her biological father had alcohol abuse issues and once accidentally stabbed her mother with a bread knife, her first stepfather threatened suicide at one point, and as a seventh grade student, she was sexually kissed by an older teacher. Additionally, young Joanie began purging after eating at age 13, developed a drug problem by 16, left home after her mom insisted she go to rehab, and developed an ovarian tumor that same year.
In college, she was raped by two men at a party, had her father take out numerous student loans in her name without her knowledge (amassing $40,000 in debt), and, after taking a six-week-long class to become a flight attendant, she got into a serious car accident on the way to her first flight, which required a four-day hospital stay.
After all this, Chyna finally got her break in the WWE in 1997 and spent four Hall of Fame-worthy years with the promotion.
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