WWE Superstars are by and large success stories. Sure, some are more successful than other and some remain successful longer than their peers. But any wrestler who sets foot in a WWE ring, or in a WCW or AWA ring before that, has made it to the highest level of the business, where the lights are on brightest and the most eyes are watching, To have arrived for anything more than a one shot appearance as local enhancement talent, but rather a regular role with a character and name recognition is a testament to a wrestler’s ability and dedication. It’s a symbol of having made it in his or her chosen vocation.
Some wrestlers enjoyed a steady progression from a happy childhood to being a star high school or even college athlete, to paying their dues in wrestling en route to a WWE contract. Other wrestlers, however, have less straightforward trajectories, or start from lower points. These are wrestlers who may have been abused as children, or suffered from mental or physical impairments; they’re wrestlers who may have fallen in with a bad crowd or even on the wrong side of the law before cleaning up their act.
Making it to the national stage in professional wrestling is an accomplishment in its own right, but doing from more a challenging starting point is all the more remarkable, and dare I say inspirational. This article takes a look at fifteen star wrestlers who survived troubling past to arrive at stardom in the professional wrestling world.
15 Charlotte Flair
Charlotte Flair is the daughter of Ric Flair, one of the greatest and most decorated wrestlers of all time. On top of that, she has a background as a star volleyball player. All seems good and on track for a top female athlete and wrestling star, right?
While Flair had a lot of advantages, and a cleaner path than some to the top of the sports entertainment world, she also had bumps along the road. In 2008, she was arrested for assaulting a police officer in an incident that also involved her father and her boyfriend at the time. In addition, Charlotte lost her brother Reid, who seemed destined to follow in his father’s footsteps, to a drug overdose in 2013, just as she was getting started in the wrestling business.
Through it all, Charlotte persevered and is now inarguably one of the most recognizable and successful female wrestlers of all time.
14 CM Punk
In WWE produced documentaries, wrestlers tend to speak fondly of their families. They talk about how supportive they were or how they grew up watching wrestling together. There are the occasional oddballs like Triple H’s folks who clearly didn’t (and may still not) know what to make of this wrestling business.
And then there’s CM Punk.
In Best in the World, Punk spoke candidly about never having a good relationship with his blood relatives, including his alcoholic father and a brother who stole money from him. These relationships seem to have set Punk on a course of strict independence, doing his own thing, rejecting authority, and considering his closest friends to be his family. The results? A guy who was an indie star and went on to become a multi-time world champion in WWE. While he may have left the company on less than amicable terms, the fact remains that he overcame a tough childhood to become a star.
13 Diamond Dallas Page
Today, Diamond Dallas Page is a legitimate celebrity based on the success of his DDP Yoga brand that has brought a lot of folks who probably wouldn’t consider yoga into the fold. Billed as yoga for regular guys, with a pedigree of having helped a number of current and former wrestlers heal their bodies, it’s made DDP something of a sensation in the home fitness industry.
Of course, Page got a head start on this business venture based on his success as a professional wrestler, thriving as a home grown main event talent in WCW, before also crossing over to WWE for a year long run.
None of this looked likely from childhood. Page had a tumultuous upbringing that saw him bounce from living with his dad to being brought up by his grandmother. In addition, he’s shared interviews that he’s dyslexic, which made school a struggle. On top of all of that, Page didn’t even try to become a wrestler in earnest until he was in his mid-30s, long after anyone thought he’d have a shot at becoming a star. Page overcame all of these odds.
12 Jeff Hardy
It’s fascinating to watch Jeff Hardy appear in interviews now, talking about how happy he is to be back with WWE, and talking about fatherhood. There’s a certain gratitude in his eyes for having had the opportunity to come back to the wrestling fold.
Most folks didn’t expect to see a humble, healthy Hardy working for WWE in his middle aged years. The guy purportedly struggled with drug use for years, including earlier spells with WWE and most infamously including his TNA run that reached its climax in a main event match with Sting. Hardy showed up to work in an impaired state, and a mere minute into the match, TNA called an audible. Sting pinned Hardy quickly to get the both of them out of the ring safely, and it was widely suspected that Hardy’s time as a national level professional wrestler was over.
Hardy’s story is one of dedication, redemption, and creativity. He has stayed on the straight and narrow since and partnered with his brother Matt in engineering the Broken Hardy gimmick that earned both men a lot of buzz, and paved the way back to WWE.
11 The Fabulous Moolah
The Fabulous Moolah, to this day, holds onto a legacy of being widely considered the greatest female wrestler of all time. That description is based far less on a catalog of great matches or tremendous athletic skill than longevity. Moolah was top female business person in wrestling who farmed out herself and her talents to different promotions, which gave way to WWE suggesting she’d held the women’s championship for thirty years. It’s a widely disputed figure that’s almost surely incorrect, but the record keeping of the day is uncertain enough that it can’t be outright refuted either.
For all of Moolah’s accomplishments, kayfabe and otherwise, there’s a seedier underbelly to her story—namely the suggestion from a number of parties that she not only did booking for the female talent she took under her wing, but also served as their pimp. It’s not confirmed, but few have meaningfully come to Moolah’s defense on this count. It may be the uncertainty that has allowed her legacy to stand strong despite the troubling allegations.
10 Booker T
Booker T is a celebrated pro wrestling legend today who rose from the tag team ranks to the mid card to winding up WCW’s final world champion as an independent entity. From there, he was one of the very, very few WCW performers who successfully transitioned to WWE. He added the better part of a decade to his career as a WWE star, which most notably included winning the World Heavyweight Championship as King Booker.
Before Booker’s successful wrestling career, he was a troubled youth. His parents passed away by the time he came of age as a teenager, and that gave way to him being a part of armed robberies that saw him get locked up for over a year. His personal history would become part of a storyline when Triple H insinuated he wasn’t a worthy challenger on account of his checkered past, but Booker has gone on to a successful career, overcoming his troubled personal history.
Despite starting with NXT and reportedly getting held from the main roster for a time because she wasn’t yet 21 and the company wanted to keep her out of trouble, Paige was already a seasoned veteran by the time she debuted on Raw. She came from a wrestling family and has reported that she took her first bumps in the womb, when her mother was still wrestling before she realized she was pregnant.
By her own account, Paige would enter the family trade at the age of 13, taking bumps and bruises long before she was physically mature. That included wrestling her own mother. It was a tough youth that didn’t afford her much opportunity to really be a kid, but it did set her up to be a worldwide wrestling star by the time she reached her 20s. Paige also had to work security at a bar her parents owned before she even turned 18.
8 Dean Ambrose
Dean Ambrose is one of WWE’s biggest stars. He’s a former world champion who has main evented PPVs and was part of one of the most successful factions in the company’s history, The Shield. On top of all of that, he’s now happily married to WWE commentator Renee Young.
For all of Ambrose’s success and popularity, he started in a much rougher place. In interviews, Ambrose has discussed growing up in a rough part of Cincinnati and that his father was largely absent during his upbringing. He saw wrestling as an escape and watched obsessively before pursuing it as a career of his own.
Ambrose’s life has changed in so many ways, and he’s spoken in shoot interviews about using the money he’s made as a WWE Superstar to ultimately buy his mother a new house, outside of their bad neighborhood.
7 Eva Marie
Eva Marie is a polarizing figure in WWE whom many agree came about at the wrong time. While WWE has a long history of favoring pretty faces over skilled athletes, Eva Marie came of age as a main roster star just as the company was transitioning to featuring stars like Charlotte Flair and Sasha Banks who could really go in the ring. Despite getting relegated to a supporting role, Eva Marie still had her supporters as a WWE star.
A part of Eva Marie’s identity that was less well-known to fans was that she suffered from alcoholism, an issue that may be ongoing. She opened up on the matter on social media, and some have speculated this was the cause of her Wellness Policy suspension from WWE that was never fully explained before she wound up leaving the company.
6 Sean Waltman
While fans have mixed opinions about Sean Waltman—best known as The 1-2-3 Kid, Syxx, and X-Pac—as a wrestler and as a wrestling personality, no one can call him dishonest. The guy has been open about a range of personal issues including substance abuse and relationship difficulties. He’s a wrestling star. Though he was never a main event guy, he was a memorable figure from the Monday Night War Era and surrounding years, and he doesn’t hide his demons.
Waltman has spoken openly, too, about his troubled youth. He claims to have gone mostly unsupervised from the age five, and has indicated that he was sexually abused as a child before dropping out of school. He’s discussed in several shoot interviews getting married at 19 only for he and his young wife to start their drug issues together. Waltman emerged relatively unscathed and launched his wrestling career, while he suggests his then-wife fell deeper into her issues.
5 AJ Styles
AJ Styles was set to go down as one of the all time great wrestlers to never make it to WWE, before he erased that asterisk in January 2016. After winning gold throughout smaller promotions in the US and in Japan, he finally arrived in WWE. Inside of a year, he was working main events and won his first WWE Championship.
While Styles has, in a number of ways, had a charmed wrestling career, his childhood was less inspiring. He’s reported that his father was abusive, and that his family was mostly impoverished when he was growing up. Even in the early stages of his wrestling career, he needed to supplement his income doing yardwork and other odd jobs. Fortunately, he worked through adversity to arrive as a true star in the world of pro wrestling.
4 Alexa Bliss
While Alexa Bliss was a good performer when she worked in NXT, few pegged her to become one of, if not the top star of WWE’s women’s division. That’s exactly what happened, however, when her killer promo work and ever improving in ring game earned her a run with the Smackdown Women’s Championship. She followed up her success on the blue brand by transitioning to Raw and promptly becoming the first woman to have held both brands’ women’s title since the new brand split. She got the better of a program with Bayley and now looks to be headed into a rivalry with Sasha Banks.
Bliss was a successful athlete before coming to WWE, including time as a serious competitive bodybuilder, as well as competing in collegiate gymnastics and cheerleading. It’s less well known that Bliss arrived at athletics after suffering from what she described in a WWE.com interview as “a life-threatening eating disorder.” Athletics paved a different road for her to take control of her body and self image.
3 Ken Shamrock
Ken Shamrock was an extremely successful mixed martial artist who went on to pursue professional wrestling. He was a popular act who took quickly to pro wrestling when he signed with WWE and was a steady upper card presence during the early Attitude Era. From there, he would succeed with smaller promotions, including a run as one of TNA’s first champions.
For all of Shamrock’s success as a fighter and a sports entertainer, he emerged into these worlds out of a very difficult youth. He was surrounded by brothers who used drugs. He’s spoken in shoot interviews about getting stabbed in robbery gone band and winding up incarcerated. Afterward, he was kicked out of his home as a teenager which led to bouncing around through the foster care system.
Some have questioned Shamrock’s ego—particularly his high asking price to be booked as a wrestler that largely priced him out of most markets. There’s little question, however, that his strong will and believing in himself helped him from a troubled past to a successful career as an athlete.
Batista is one of WWE’s top stars from the post-Attitude Era. He has main evented WrestleMania and won a number of world championships in WWE. The brief coda to his WWE career in 2014 proved that he’s a star, and a star capable of elevating others as his losses to Daniel Bryan and to The Shield did wonders for them during that run.
By his own description, Batista had a troubled youth. He claims to have witnessed no fewer than three murders on his front lawn as a child, growing up in a bad part of Washington DC. From there, he started stealing cars in his early teenage years. Batista has said that bodybuilding saved him as it gave him direction and discipline, besides paving the way for his successful wrestling career.
1 Scott Hall
There are wrestlers with troubled pasts, and then there’s Scott Hall.
Scott Hall rose to superstar status under the gimmick of Razor Ramon, a major player in WWE during the period between Hulkamania and the Attitude Era. He rose to another level with WCW in the aftermath, under his own name, as a co-founder of the New World Order. He was in and out of the wrestling business for a decade to follow, including short stints with WWE, work with TNA, and running the indie circuit.
Before Hall ever set foot in a wrestling ring, he worked as a bouncer, and in an incident he described decades later in interviews with ESPN and for a WWE documentary, he wound up killing a man in self defense. Hall suggested the incident scarred him and contributed to his life long issues to follow with alcoholism and drug abuse, which have also led to a variety of legal issues over the years.
For as successful as Hall was as a wrestler and as a creative mind in the business, he is the kind of talent for whom fans have to wonder just how great he might have been if he had not had to overcome his demons along the way.