Despite the contentious relationships that tend to play out between pro wrestlers on screen, there’s an unmistakable sense of camaraderie between the men and women who make a living in the business. In particular, those individuals who’ve made it to the highest tier of the wrestling business in WWE tend to form strong bonds over road trips, workout sessions, and working together to assemble matches and storylines. The friendships make sense given that the professional wrestling lifestyle is so unique and difficult for outsiders to fully understand, not to mention wrestlers get so fully invested in life on the road that it’s hard for performers to cultivate relationships outside it.
While a lot of friendships develop in the WWE locker room, there are also those friendships that predate WWE. Sometimes it’s a matter of friends from childhood who saw through a dream together to make it in the wrestling world. Sometimes it’s guys who trained to wrestle together. Sometimes it’s wrestlers who crossed paths on the independent scene or abroad before they each made it to WWE.
In some cases, WWE has used the personal history between two performers to its advantage, weaving it into storylines. That can mean using a real-world connection to sell a partnership. Alternatively, suggesting how close two men have been since long before their time in WWE can make it all the more dramatic when one wrestler turns on another, and the two become on-screen rivals.
This column takes a look at 15 different friendships that came together before both parties arrived in WWE.
15 Shelton Benjamin And Brock Lesnar
Long before they were on-screen rivals, with Shelton Benjamin backing Kurt Angle in his rivalry with Brock Lesnar leading up to WrestleMania XIX, Benjamin and Lesnar were real-life friends. The duo each attended the University of Minnesota, worked out together as part of the wrestling team, and even lived together for a time.
The relationship between the two amateur standouts would continue into their pro wrestling careers as they were originally booked as tag team partners in developmental. When they reached the main roster, Lesnar shot straight to the main event and has been a top tier star whenever he’s stepped into a wrestling ring since. Benjamin has enjoyed less explosive success, but has nonetheless had a very respectable career as a tag team specialist and mid-card talent for WWE and a number of independent promotions.
14 CM Punk And Daniel Bryan
In December 2011, CM Punk famously tweeted a photo of himself and Daniel Bryan. Punk had the WWE Championship he’d picked up at Survivor Series the month before; Bryan had the World Heavyweight Championship draped over his shoulder, fresh off of cashing in his Money in the Bank opportunity to win it at the TLC PPV. His caption? “Two indy schmucks didn’t do so bad, eh?”
Indeed, Punk and Bryan took similar roads to top of the wrestling world, each traveling across the country for small promotions. They more than once crossed paths and developed a friendship. Along the way, they quite arguably became the definitive stars of the U.S. independent scenes—the top guys to have not really had opportunities in WWE or TNA. Finally, they proved naysayers wrong by arriving at the top of the biggest wrestling company of the world, and proving they could hang with anyone anywhere in the wrestling world.
13 Mick Foley And Terry Funk
In the early days of the Attitude Era, Mick Foley and Terry Funk were a natural pair to team up—a pair of well-respected veterans with a hardcore edge, a scraggly look, and a reputation for being unhinged. They won the tag titles together and their work went a long way toward putting over The New Age Outlaws as the top tag team of their day.
The bond between Foley and Funk was real, though, born out of working together in ECW, abroad, and in a host of small companies throughout the world. While they’re each gifted enough performers that they surely would have succeeded together even if they didn’t know one another well, there’s little doubt that their real life chemistry helped the team pop immediately, regardless of silly theatrics like Funk initially getting billed as Chainsaw Charlie.
12 Edge And Christian
It’s not so unusual for boys to grow up sharing a bond over their love of professional wrestling. It’s less common for one of the friends to see through his childhood dreams and become a professional wrestler—let alone an objectively successful one. It’s positively rare, though for both friends to pursue the dream and to make it happen at the highest levels.
That’s the precise story of Edge and Christian. Edge has told the stories many times of writing an essay to win his way into wrestling school, only for his buddy Christian to ultimately follow him into the business. The two became one of the most celebrated tag teams in WWE history, and even more improbably ended up winning more than one world championship apiece.
11 John Cena And Samoa Joe
In 2017, John Cena and Samoa Joe are both big names in WWE. The connections between the two started long before, though. When Cena was a rookie, he started out in Ultimate Pro Wrestling, where one of his mentors was fellow young grappler Samoa Joe. They worked together frequently, before Cena landed a developmental deal with WWE.
In an odd twist of fate, the two old friends would wind up taking paths that were about as different as possible. Cena became the face of WWE—a guy often maligned by hardcore fans for his vanilla style, but nonetheless the most famous wrestler of his generation. Joe went to Japan then took a tour of U.S. indies and TNA to arrive as one of the best respected wrestlers never to have a run with WWE. Finally, Joe signed with WWE in 2015 and found himself headlining for NXT before joining Cena, about 15 years later, on the main roster.
10 The Ultimate Warrior And Sting
The Ultimate Warrior and Sting were each young up and coming bodybuilders when they made the jump to professional wrestling. In a podcast interview with Jim Ross, Sting told tales of them living together and eating baked chickens straight out of their containers while they grocery shopped to pack in protein while they were scraping to save every penny. Together, the fledgling stars formed a tag team called The Blade Runners that ran wild in the Mid-South.
The Ultimate Warrior would go on to become one of the biggest stars of his generation in WWE, while Sting would become one of WCW’s best and brightest. Ironically, it was a year after Warrior mended fences and rejoined the WWE fold (then passed away) that Sting finally signed with WWE for the first time, had his WrestleMania match, and ultimately went into the Hall of Fame two years after his old tag team partner and friend.
9 Shane McMahon And The Mean Street Posse
When Shane McMahon became a regular on-screen character, he had a small, largely ineffective stable behind him to have his back. The sweater-vest-clad trio of Joey Abs, Pete Gas, and Rodney were known as The Mean Street Posse. Unbeknownst to fans at the time, Gas and Rodney actually were Shane’s real-life friends from his youth, and only Abs was a fully trained wrestler brought in to round out the ragtag crew.
As could be expected, The Mean Street Posse didn’t accomplish much in WWE. Nonetheless, the trio was an integral bit of comic relief that helped get Shane’s character over when he was first introduced to the television audience as a rich kid heel, provided extra fodder for faces to beat up on, and then quietly receded when Shane’s character got more serious (particularly after he turned face).
8 Eddie Guerrero And Chris Benoit
At WrestleMania XX, Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit had the moment of a lifetime at the end of the show, holding up their world titles as confetti rained over them. The moment is bittersweet in retrospect, given that both men were dead less than four years later, and particularly given the ugly nature of the Benoit family tragedy. Just the same, if you consider history only up to this point, it was a beautiful pay off of two friends who had worked the indies, abroad, ECW, and WCW before they were more fully appreciated and recognized with world title wins in WWE.
Indeed, it’s well documented that Guerrero and Benoit were close friends in real life who traveled together often, besides making the most important trip of all when they jumped to WWE together. While their personalities on and off screen were different—Guerrero the more social and silly, Benoit the more serious of the two—they shared an identity as workhorses and were about as skilled at the craft of pro wrestling as anyone before or since.
7 Daniel Bryan And Brian Kendrick
Daniel Bryan and Brian Kendrick each hold their places in WWE history. For Bryan, the impact was more obvious given he was ultimately a multi-time world champion who won his last two singles titles in high-profile WrestleMania matches. Kendrick has a quieter, but nonetheless impressive WWE resume, as a long-time tag champ with Paul London, a solid mid-card heel, and one of the star players in the newly relaunched Cruiserweight Division.
Bryan and Kendrick haven’t interacted much on WWE TV, but the connections between the two are deep. They, along with Lance Cade, were the stars of Shawn Michaels’s short-lived period as a pro wrestling trainer. While accounts vary as to how hands on Michaels actually was with the guys, he purportedly foresaw Cade would get a big break first as the largest athlete, that Bryan would ultimately be the star, and Kendrick could carve out a solid career for himself on the indies. It turns out Michaels wasn’t far off at all.
6 Bret Hart And The Dynamite Kid
When Bret Hart was coming up in his father’s wrestling territory, The Dynamite Kid was the star he looked up to as particularly polished, sharp worker. The two became friends, in no small part because they could reliably put on great matches with one another.
Lo and behold, when Vince McMahon bought out Stampede Wrestling, Hart and Dynamite Kid were two of the most valuable talent acquisitions, and they wound up spending years ahead on the opposite ends of the tag team rivalry between The Hart Foundation and The British Bulldogs. Dynamite, unfortunately, wound up injured beyond repair and by many accounts went on to a miserable life back in his home country, while Hart’s star steadily rose until he was a multi-time world champion and considered one of the greatest wrestlers of all time.
5 Dean Malenko And Rey Mysterio
Amidst the hardcore spectacle of ECW arose a handful of pure pro wrestling talents—guys whose skills were grounded far more in technical grappling or athleticism than the use of plunder. Among them were Rey Mysterio and Dean Malenko, a pair of undersized talents who were simply masterful in the ring. The two were friends and put on terrific exhibitions with one another in the ring. It’s little wonder that, as the Monday Night War got going, WCW gobbled up both talents. While Malenko, in particular, was already a veteran, both were relatively fresh names to the general wrestling viewership and started making waves in the cruiserweight ranks and mid-card.
It’s unfortunate that Malenko’s body was already in decline by the time he made it to WWE, such that he only had a couple good years in a WWE ring before transitioning to a backstage role. Mysterio would reach much greater heights, rising as high as two world championships before he was through with WWE.
4 Sheamus And Drew McIntyre
Between 2005 and 2010, a trio of surprising talents arrived from the UK—Sheamus, Wade Barrett, and Drew Galloway, all uncharacteristically tall and jacked for the part of the world they’d started up in. McIntyre and Sheamus, in particular, had a long history with one another working opposite each other across a period of years before WWE signed them at around the same time.
Despite their friendship and similar routes to WWE, the trajectory for these stars was quite different from there. While McIntyre was marked early on as Mr. McMahon’s on-air chosen one, the buzz around him fizzled quickly until he was just another guy and ultimately left to ply his trade on the indies and in TNA. Sheamus, meanwhile, enjoyed a steadier ascent that included three world title reigns, a Royal Rumble win, a King of the Ring reign, and a Money in the Bank briefcase. Though he has largely settled into a mid-card role now, he looks to be with WWE for the long haul and there’s every possibility he might ascend the card again.
3 Curt Hennig and Scott Hall
In 1992, Razor Ramon debuted as a young stud and fresh face toward the top of the card. He quickly aligned with veteran Ric Flair and his sidekick Mr. Perfect. Things would take a turn toward the end of the year of course, when Perfect returned to the ring and turned face in one fell swoop, and went from Flair and Ramon’s ally to an arch-rival who teamed with Randy Savage to take them on at Survivor Series.
Unbeknownst to a lot of fans at the time, Perfect and Ramon had a history long before WWE, as the AWA tag team of Curt Hennig and Scott Hall. Hall recalls that time fondly, and has cited Hennig as one of his key mentors and influences from early in his career. While they played rivals in WWE, their friendship continued, and they wound up back on the same page on screen and off when they both found themselves in WCW as part of the nWo a few short years later.
2 Hulk Hogan And Brutus Beefcake
Hulk Hogan and Brutus Beefcake were friends who decided to break into wrestling around the same time. They hit the gym together and even posed as brothers with Beefcake taking the Boulder, and then Hogan surname to follow his faster rising friend.
While the two dropped the faux-family connection, they remained steady friends behind the scenes, and Beefcake shored up a mid-card spot behind Hogan in the main event form the mid-1980s to early 1990s. They eventually acknowledged their friendship on screen as they teamed up to battle Money Inc. at WrestleMania IX.
Hogan would bring Beefcake along to WCW for years to follow, culminating in a main event feud between the two when Beefcake kayfabe stabbed his friend in the back. Beefcake would never attain as high profile a role again, but remained steadily employed and used by WCW over the years. He switched gimmicks aggressively with stops as The Butcher, The Zodiac, The Booty Man, and The Disciple among others, as Hogan continued on as the top name in the company.
Hogan and Beefcake reportedly had a falling out not so long ago when Beefcake was allegedly caught selling memorabilia with phony Hogan autographs. Just the same, the stories of their lives and wrestling careers remain intertwined.
1 Kevin Owens And Sami Zayn
When Kevin Owens first appeared for NXT, he was introduced as Sami Zayn’s long-time friend. By the end of that night, Zayn was the NXT Champion and Owens turned on him, launching the WWE leg of their rivalry. That feud would stretch for months in NXT, then carry on to the main roster where they engaged in multiple great matches, which most recently saw Zayn challenging for Owens’s Universal Championship.
In this case, WWE didn’t hide the history between performers. As El Generico and Kevin Steen, the two made the rounds on the independent circuit and were particularly successful in ROH. Zayn made it to NXT first, but interestingly, Owens shot right past him to the NXT title, the main roster, and finally a main roster world title. By all accounts, the two remain friends behind the scenes which may well contribute to the excellent matches they’ve assembled together.