Professional wrestling started out as a regional business instead of a national one. Each area of the country had their own promotions and stars that they were accustomed to seeing, and their own stars that were unique to them. Of course, when Vince McMahon’s WWE rose to to national prominence in the 1980s, the demand for high-profile, national wrestlers was growing at a very fast rate.
One of McMahon’s strategies was to formulate deals with the regional promotions still in existence, and then coax their stars to join his promotion, giving more exposure than they otherwise would. In short, WWE eventually became the front-runner, major league promotion, with most of the regional ones becoming default developmental leagues. It got to the point where most wrestlers only stayed with regional promotions such as AWA, NWA and WCCW until they were seasoned enough to warrant a shot at the big time.
Many of our favorite WWE stars over the years have been featured prominently in other promotions from all over the United States. In fact, that was the case for the ostensible majority of them. For some, the highlights in their other organizational ventures surpasses those sustained in WWE. And that was the thing about the structure of the wrestling business after WWE’s rise to power; there wasn’t room for every great wrestler to achieve great results on a national level.
Having said that, most of the names below, did go onto great career’s in WWE. They all deserve to be considered elite talents historically, and will always be remembered for their excellence in the ring and on the mic. Listed below are the top 15 wrestlers WWE acquired from other promotions.
15. The Road Warriors
Largely considered one of the best tag teams of all time, The Road Warriors (or Legion Of Doom) were staples in the AWA and NWA before making their way to WWE in the early 1990s. They won the WWE tag titles at SummerSlam 1991 from the Nasty Boys and kept it until February of the next year. They would depart for WCW soon after for a run in the mid 1990’s before returning in the latter half of the decade, when they won the tag titles yet again.
Remembered for their physical style and dominating personas, the Road Warriors were undoubtedly one of the most memorable duos in the history of the squared circle, and a worthwhile acquisition to WWE’s roster.
14. Farooq (Ron Simmons)
Simmons began his career with great success in the NWA, where he won the tag titles as a member of Doom with Butch Reed, when they defeated The Steiner Brothers. This served as a launch for a successful solo run in WCW, and in 1992 he became the first African American Heavyweight Champion in WCW history by beating Big Van Vader.
This prompted WWE to take a shot at him, and he served as a member of both The Nation Of Domination (which also featured a young Dwayne Johnson), and The Acolytes which featured Bradshaw as the other half of the tag team. Both factions went on to great success in WWE which capped off a successful career for Simmons.
13. Kerry Von Erich
One of the most tragic stories in the wrestling world, Von Erich and his family ran the WCCW territory in Texas. He was a regional star there through the 1980’s, paying his dues, and wrestling in a mix of a physical and technical style. Eventually, he got the call to WWE, and achieved his most noteworthy title win when, as “The Texas Tornado” he defeated Mr. Perfect to win the Intercontinental title.
Unfortunately, Von Erich suffered the same fate as several of his brothers, when he committed suicide in 1993 after being released from WWE the previous year. Despite his untimely demise, he will be remembered as a part of one of the most legendary wrestling families of all time, and one of the elite in Texas wrestling.
12. Rob Van Dam
Obviously “Mr. Pay-Per View” was a staple in the innovative ECW promotion based out of Philadelphia, but before that he was also known as Robbie V when wrestling for WCW in the early 1990’s. Combining both hardcore and high-flying styles, he was not a prototypical WWE-styled talent, but regardless he transitioned very well when making his debut there in 2001.
Van Dam went on to win the Intercontinental and Tag Team titles various times during his time in WWE. Against large odds, he became a fan favorite, and opened the doors for wrestlers with similar styles to succeed in WWE.
11. The Undertaker
Before he became a certified legend in WWE, the Undertaker wrestled with marginal success as “Mean” Mark Callous in WCW and before that, in Texas-based WCCW. He was a member of The Skyscrapers with Dan Spivey and were one of the top-tier tag teams in 1990. When WCW didn’t re-up on his contract, he departed for WWE, making his debut at Wrestlemania VII, where he defeated Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka.
Callous only went on to become one of the most recognizable figures in the promotion’s history. Utilizing his renowned Tombstone Piledriver finishing move, he has to be considered one of the best acquisitions, as well as gimmick alterations, WWE can lay claim to.
10. Daniel Bryan
Recently retired, Bryan had a long run of success, showcasing him technical wrestling style all over various independent promotions in the 2000s, most notably ROH, where he wrestled under his real name Bryan Danielson, and is considered to have participated in some of his most classic matches. He went on to considerable success in WWE, as expected, winning every title, becoming a Grand Slam Champion.
Bryan recently decided to cease his career due to concussions. While it may have been brief, he remains one of the best examples of a pure, technical wrestler as there ever has been in the sport.
9. Stone Cold Steve Austin
Another example of how a gimmick change can completely transform a wrestler’s career, Austin was the face of WWE in the late 1990s. When he started in WCW in the early part of the decade, he was part of the Hollywood Blondes with fellow future WWE acquisition Brian Pillman. While it was a far cry from “Stone Cold”, the team saw decent success.
Following an injury, Austin was released and went to ECW, where he used all his frustrations from WCW to spark him in promos, showing what massive potential he had. That’s when WWE came calling, meaning ECW would never really benefit from Austin’s potential stardom.
When he became the trash talkin’ Texas Rattlesnake, his career really took off. Austin is one of the most well-known WWE champions ever, alongside The Rock and Hulk Hogan. He became a transcendent superstar and Vince McMahon is likely glad that it happened on his watch.
8. Mick Foley
Before he became Mankind, Mick Foley displayed the character of Cactus Jack, which he used in WCW, USWA and Japan. He would also go on to use it in WWE, but in conjunction with his other alter-egos, the aforementioned Mankind, and Dude Love.
Foley’s high-risk, hardcore style of wrestling was no doubt intriguing to McMahon when he desired to take the product into an edgier territory as the 1990’s progressed. He knew that presenting Foley as the maniacal Mankind gimmick, was the perfect combination to showcase his talents. As it turned out, Foley turned out a superstar and is the subject of dozens of highlight reel moments throughout the last 20 years.
7. Chris Jericho
Vince McMahon and his talent relations team was smart in the early 2000s to seek out young stars with potential and who were hungry. Guys were making great money in WCW, but they wanted opportunities WCW would never give them. Chris Jericho made the leap and while it took him a while to find his stride, he’s still contributing to the company 16 years later. The WWE got quite a return on their investment when they convinced a young Y2J to defect up north.
6. Eddie Guerrero
As the tide shifted in the Monday Night War, the WWE began to poach some of WCW’s younger stars, much like WCW had poached many established talents from WWE. In one fell swoop in 2000, the WWE landed Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, Perry Saturn and Dean Malenko who had all asked for their WCW releases.
Guerrero would go on to achieve the most success in WWE, although Benoit wasn’t too far behind. Guerrero just seemed to have more of what WWE was looking for in a star.
5. The Big Show
When he wrestled as The Giant in WCW, he was one of the most significant WCW stars of the 1990’s, due to his immense physical stature. As successful as he was there, when he appeared in WWE as The Big Show, all bets were off. Surprisingly athletic for someone of his size, he was a hit with the WWE fans, and became one of the driving forces for the promotion over the next decade.
Ultimately, he can be considered one of the best big-men of all time, next to Andre The Giant. His prowess was a perfect match for WWE, and his power wrestling style maintained popularity through multiple eras.
4. Bret Hart
Bret Hart essentially came over to WWE by default, as Vince McMahon bought Stu Hart’s territory in Western Canada and as a result, took much of its talent. Among that talent was Bret Hart, whom WWE used mostly as a jobber at first, due to his lack of size. His career in WWE was saved by being paired with Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart to form The Hart Foundation.
When the group split, Bret was able to climb to the top of the WWE mountain and become one of their biggest stars of the 90s. It was Bret’s skills learned north of the border though, that led to him being such a big star.
3. Hulk Hogan
Easily the most popular star in WWE history, Hogan had a successful run in Minneapolis based AWA in the early 1980s and was promised to win their Heavyweight title from Nick Bockwinkel. He also wrestled in NJPW before he began his second, and most famous run in WWE, adopting the “Hulk” gimmick, and achieving mass-crossover and super-stardom. He would go on to similar success in WCW as “Hollywood” Hogan, before making yet another return to WWE.
While Hogan’s better days were certainly ahead of him, his time spent in AWA proves that even the greats of the sport had to start somewhere, and that it is rare than any professional wrestler is an overnight success.
2. Shawn Michaels
Before he became “The Showstopper”, Michaels was a part of the Midnight Rockers tag team in AWA and various Midwestern territories. An early version of the WWE version of The Rockers, his partner continued to be Marty Jannetty when he got the call-up to the big leagues. While he was several years off from his “Heartbreak Kid” persona, Michaels still utilized his patented superkick finishing move (though it wasn’t called Sweet Chin Music at the time).
Eventually, McMahon recognized his potential as a singles star and the rest is history. Michaels became one of the most noteworthy stars in the company for the next 20 years, entertaining fans the world over, and participating in dozens of classic matches.
1. Ric Flair
Considered by many to be the single greatest wrestler ever, Flair was a legend before he ever hit the mat in WWE in 1991. He was recognized through the years for his classic matches in NWA, Japan, and seemingly every notable independent promotion. It was the ultimate acquisition for McMahon, who simultaneously, in Flair and Hogan, had the sports’ two biggest stars in the early 1990’s.
Flair won the WWE title in the early 1990s, and returned for a second run with the promotion after WCW folded in 2001. The importance of Flair’s career cannot be understated. He was the biggest draw in the sport for 30 years and proved to be McMahon’s most high-profile buy ever. Going to WWE was the last obstacle for him and his figure four leg lock to conquer, and they did so as was per usual for “The Nature Boy”.
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