Fame doesn’t happen overnight, even in today's and age. Go to any actor’s history and you’ll see low-budgeted and often forgotten movies in their early days before they hit the big time. It takes hard work, effort and yes, a lot of times sheer luck to get yourself into things and become a success. Wrestling is no different. As much as fans complain about “early pushes,” the fact is that so many wrestlers had to pay plenty of dues in order to make it. That includes a lot of guys we know as pretty big deals today who had to spend time with bad gimmicks and such before they could hit it big.
It was common in the older days for guys to spend a bit of time in WWE before moving on to other places and you’d see some guys cutting their teeth in various territories before moving to the bigger game of WWE. Today, that’s not as large an option but occasionally, you’ll still see someone spending time with another company before they make it big in WWE. And it can often be someone far more famous for another company who cut their teeth in WWE first. For one reason or another, their first go around in WWE didn't make them stars, but they shined through somewhere else. The same concept can apply in sports. Sometimes it takes experience and a change of scenery for someone to reach their potential.
From the humblest of beginnings came some of the biggest stars and amazing to see how well they all clicked for the company. Here are 15 names that appeared in WWE before their big break to stardom and how you can’t always judge by first looks alone.
Here are 15 names you didn't know appeared in WWE before stardom.
15 Dustin Rhodes
Throughout wrestling history, major guys have done their best to use their clout to give their sons a break in the business. Such a case was in late 1990 as Dusty Rhodes talked Vince McMahon into allowing his son Dustin to show up to help his dad. At the time, Dustin was young and rather skinny but had promise, teaming with Dusty against Ted DiBiase and Virgil, often coming up the losers in the conflict. Dusty would jump back to WCW and take Dustin with him as Dustin soon rose to fame there with multiple championships.
He would return to WWE in 1995 with the groundbreaking Goldust character that led to a new level of fame and keeps coming back to it while being even better a worker than his dad and a great star in his own right.
In 2000, Amy Dumas took the wrestling world by storm as Lita, her red hair and tattoo making her stand out as she soon elevated women’s wrestling to a new level. Before that, however, she was a part of the original ECW as "Miss Congeniality" while also doing some odd jobs. That included being part of the “Ho Train,” the bevy of beautiful women who followed The Godfather to and from the ring and were often offered as bribes for Godfather’s opponents to throw matches. The outfits were hot on them but just faces among a pretty crowd.
13 Bobby Roode
Today, Roode has become one of the most revered guys in TNA history, going from tag wrestler to reigns as champion and main eventer and respected for his ring work. In 2002, Roode was hired to WWE as a “developmental talent” and was soon featured losing on Sunday Night Heat and other B-shows, mixing around in various bouts with guys like Al Snow and Three-Minute Warning, not really given a chance to show his stuff off.
Eventually, Roode left in 2004, joining TNA as part of Team Canada and beginning his run as one of the company’s best guys.
12 Christopher Daniels
Already making a name for himself in the indies with his great moveset and high-flying, Daniels was hired by WWE in late 1998 after training with Dory Funk. Despite that, Daniels was shoved down as merely a jobber on “Shotgun Saturday Night” and some other shows. A bit of fame came in 2000 when he donned a mask as one of the Conquistadores as part of a wild angle. Towards the end of WCW, Daniels was also brought in as a cult-like leader for the group "Syndrome." Shaving his head, Daniels would become part of TNA, first tag team champions in XXX before a standout in the X Division and putting on fantastic matches.
Now in ROH, Daniels remains a top notch worker and one wonders if WWE could have done more for “The Fallen Angel.”
The “Monday Night War” series openly admits that WWE’s attempt to build a light heavyweight division in 1997 was a failure. WCW had snatched up the top cruiserweights already so WWE had to go to lesser known guys, mostly from Japan. Tajiri was only three years into his career when he showed up on TV to battle Taka Michinoku a few times before fading away when the division fell from a push. Moving to ECW, Tajiri became notable for his great ring work and would return to WWE to mix comedy stuff with good in-ring action and show how they missed the boat on him before.
Today, we know Rhino (or “Rhyno” as he also spells it) as one of the monsters of ECW, a powerhouse who could take it to anyone and also handling himself well in TNA, including a run as NWA champion. In 1997, he was just developmental talent in WWE, working as Terry Richards on various shows like “Shotgun Saturday Night” and others. He soon became friends with Edge and Christian but wasn’t seen as anything notable and was let go. Moving to Philly, he took on his new persona for his rise to fame before returning to WWE in 2001 and showing how good of a worker he could be.
9 Daniel Bryan
Most believe Bryan’s first exposure to WWE came when he showed up on NXT and later The Nexus. However, in truth, he showed up back in 2002 as first “Bryan Danielson” and then simply “American Dragon” for various appearances on “Velocity” and other shows and putting over newcomer John Cena.
Of course, he would make his name in ROH and the indies before coming back to WWE and then taking off as one of the most amazing stars of recent times as well as among the most beloved. Good things do come to those who wait.
Diamond Dallas Page is famous for being late coming to the wrestling business. He spent much of his time as manager in the AWA and then WCW before going out as a wrestler and surprising many with his skills as TV champion in WCW before hitting the big time. Before all that, Page was paying his dues like anyone else, which included at WrestleMania VI. His role in this epic card? Driving the pink Cadillac carrying Rhythm & Blues, the ill-fated tag team of the Honky Tonk Man and Greg Valentine.
It was just a brief bit as DDP would move to WCW as manager before a wrestler and another decade before returning as arguably the most successful “late bloomer” the business has known.
7 Samoa Joe
For years, fans wanted to know when WWE would sign on one of the most revered wrestlers of the indies and it finally happened with Joe reigning as NXT champion. But some may not know they actually had a chance with Joe back in early 2001 as he faced Light Heavyweight champion Essa Rios on “Jakked.” It was a forgettable affair with Rios retaining his title and would be the only appearance by the then blonde-haired worker. Joe would move to ROH for his classic battles with CM Punk and then TNA for a long tenure before finally making his way to WWE to remind fans of his killer work.
6 AJ Styles
When Styles made his debut at the 2016 Royal Rumble, fans went wild, thankful that at long last, WWE had gotten one of the most dynamic and popular workers around. After a brief run in the dying days of WCW, Styles worked with NWA Wildside before WWE came calling in 2002, looking for fresh young talent. Styles showed up in early 2002 for their “Metal” show to lose to the Hurricane. He was offered to train in OVW but declined as the move to Ohio conflicted with his wife’s college plans. Instead, Styles joined the newly formed TNA and soon became one of the most popular stars of the company, helping put the X Division on the map while also reigning as tag team and World champion. One wonders how The Phenomenal One’s career would have gone had he accepted that early contract and gotten his shot in WWE a lot sooner.
Scott Levy’s career had a few turns, starting with “Scotty the Body” in Portland. That was followed by him in WCW as surfer dude “Scotty Flamingo.” In 1993, he joined WWE but not as a wrestler. Instead, Johnny Polo was pushed as a manager for tag team champions The Quebecers and an announcer, acting like a spoiled rich kid with a polo mallet and a silly prep outfit. He left in 1994 after The Quebecers lost steam, moving on to ECW where he gave himself an epic makeover as the broody goth Raven and the epic feud with Tommy Dreamer that boosted ECW to success. Tenures in WCW would follow and a brief WWE return before TNA and showed a fascinating transformation for a guy who was mostly a comedy manager.
The Celtic Warrior has proven himself in WWE with reigns as champion, putting on some hard battles and in promos selling himself well. Sheamus had actually been with the company for some time as in 2006, he was part of a “security team” that escorted DX out of a building. The team also included Wade Barrett and Sheamus would later return as a guard to eat a Pedigree from HHH. Somehow, HHH liked the guy and recommended him for a push leading to his current fame and showing how job security can have a different note in wrestling.
3 The Hardy Boyz
Remember the mockery Mike Adamle took when he announced “Jeff Harvey?” Maybe he was actually doing research as Jeff was using that name when he began as a jobber in 1995, facing Razor Ramon in his very first match. Soon joined by brother Matt, the two were used as just developmental talent in the singles work. A notable bit was at the 1996 King of the Ring as they were the guys dressed in uniforms opening up a door for wrestlers to enter through (with a bit of Ahmed Johnson bursting through the doors to knock them aside.)
It took until 1998 for them to become a regular team under Michael Hayes and the standout feuds that would make them superstars which continue today.
2 CM Punk
Look up an old 2003 episode of “SmackDown” and you’ll see a young CM Punk and Ken Kennedy as part of a pack of “fans” congratulating Brock Lesnar after he won the WWE title off of Kurt Angle. Punk would then show up in 2005 for a couple of appearances of “Sunday Night Heat” with the rather bizarre name of “Chad Collyer.” A bit more famous is how he was one of the “gangsters” hanging on a large car for John Cena’s infamous WrestleMania 22 entrance. After a brief return to ROH, Punk would come to WWE and take off with his infamously controversial career that’s solidified him as one of the biggest stars the company has ever seen who helped shift wrestling up majorly.
1 Mick Foley
In his first autobiography, Foley discusses how in 1986, he was just another jobber out to make some money and cut his teeth in the business. He and Les Thornton were put in a TV match against the British Bulldogs, then the tag team champions. Foley made the mistake of going to The Bulldogs before the match and giving them the okay to go to town on him. He realized his mistake in 30 seconds as he was slammed about, taking a clothesline that split his lip, a brutal suplex and a wicked finisher to get the pin.
Foley still thanked The Bulldogs afterward, doing a few more jobs before moving on to the indies and his rise to major fame and showed early on how willing the future Cactus Jack could take punishment.