Among the 300-pound muscled up he-men of WWE, there’s the underdogs. Often without the guns and pecks characteristic of a Superstar, the underdogs of wrestling give us average folk a glimmer of hope. They show us that half the battle is showing up to fight, and sometimes all the glory comes with taking a defeat. On some deep psychological level, they’re us. And through them we can get in the ring with Goldberg and Triple H, or even go all the way to Suplex City.
That’s why on the October 18 showing of SmackDown Live, there were more James Ellsworth fans in the stadium than AJ Styles and Dean Ambrose combine. I know, because I was there. That same night was the debut of Ellsworth’s t-shirt, emblazed with a dorkus portrait of the main-event newbie, which now only weeks later is one of the top five best selling shirts ever for the network. Sales could have been effected by the pugsly-looking underdog defeating AJ Styles for the second time (more times than even John Cena). But if you look back over the countless underdogs of WWE, Ellsworth doesn’t make the top 15. Compared to many, he’s nothing more than Dean Ambrose’s rag doll. Sure, he delivered a beautiful Sweet Chin Music to Styles during the SmackDown rumble, but here are 15 underdogs that put Ellsworth to shame.
15 Tommy Dreamer
There’s no easy way to get the crowd on your side— an essential step to becoming a WWE underdog— but the quickest way is to get your ass beat. Tommy Dreamer was having a hard time adjusting to the ECW style, until a hardcore match against The Sandman secured him as a gilded underdog in the eyes of the fans. After losing to Sandman, Dreamer’s punishment was ten whips from the Singapore Cane (an actual form of judicial punishment in Singapore, added as as accessory in hardcore rings alongside chairs, ladders, and barbed wire). Instead of fleeing, Dreamer shouted, “thank you sir, may I have another?” Fans were stunned. Dreamer not only earned respect from the crowd but revolutionized the way wrestlers use their actions in the ring to impacts the viewers’ emotions. After that, the Singapore Cane became a trademark item in Dreamer’s wheelhouse, helping him earn the title of "The Innovator of Violence." Underdogs in the hardcore style like Tommy Dreamer are the absolute greatest due to the beatings they endure. Compare this to Ellsworth measly ring-toss between Ambrose and Styles and the latter seems comical and lame.
14 CM Punk
You may be thinking, no way is Mr. Money in the Bank an underdog. And you’re right, he’s one of the all time greatest, especially in modern age wrestling. His rebellious speeches about the corruption of Vince McMahon’s WWE were ballsy, but only semi-underdog. The rivalry with Jeff Hardy also verged on underdog status. His frame wasn’t as heavy as rival John Cena, but CM Punk was by no means wimpy in stature. After being on his wrestling game for more than a decade, it was only in 2016 that he founds himself a sizable underdog. The Second City Saint retired from the ring in 2014 and took up MMA. At UFC 203 in September Punk made his debut in the octagon as the starter for the starter to the main event, facing off against Mickey Gall for the Welterweight win. Within 2:14 minutes of Round 1, CM Punk was defeated by submission. Welcome to the underdog club.
13 Chris Benoit
"The Canadian Crippler" is well-known in the world of wrestling, holding titles in every promotion from WWE to WCW and even ECW. Although the 220-pound Benoit had everything it takes to be a leading Superstar, he was passed up for the Heavyweight Championship Championship year after year. Benoit was our favorite underdog at WrestleMania XX, facing up against Triple H and Sean Michaels in a Triple Threat match. Another loss seemed inevitable. Michaels and Benoit were both eyeing the championship status. The expectation was that the company would allow Michaels the win so he and Triple H could duke it out again. Benoit held his own. Triple H and Michaels saw blood and turned on the Wild Pegasus, and after nearly being tapped out more than three times from a backbreaking Suplex by Triple H, Benoit kept fighting. Minutes later, he was laying a tap-out Crippler Crossface on Triple H for the win. Tears in his eyes and blood across his face, Benoit looked down at the belt in his hands as if it were an illusion. There we witnessed a man, not a wrestler, realizing his own power.
12 Spike Dudley
The 5’7 runt of the Dudley litter is the most relatable wrestler for anyone who grew up as a younger sibling. No, The Dudley Brothers weren’t actually related by blood (which we hope you already figured out judging by their different races and sizes), but we all saw Little Spike as the underdog of the group— he even picked his nose in the ring. Eventually he got turned on by his brothers, and deserted by them in ECW, but it was in 1997 that Spike showed his underdog colors. Amid a storyline with Bam Bam Bigelow, Spike was in the ring against the nearly 400-pound behemoth, summoning the image of an ant being squashed under a boulder. It was David versus Goliath, a true underdog match. Spike was slammed on the top of his head, raised into the air by the neck, but “he got him!” Spike would go on to wrestle hardcore and gain the nickname “The Giant Killer.”
As we saw with Benoit, some of the best underdogs don’t always appear to be the long shot. Christian was a tag team king in WWE with Edge by his side. The two had been fighting together since the late '90s and drawing audiences with their surfer dude vibe, laughable costumes, and comedic antics, all while making their way to fame together. After a falling out in 2001, Edge easily transitioned into a strong solo wrestler while it seemed Christian's run in the biz was expiring. On his own, Christian lost to Diamond Dallas Page, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, and even tried joining a different tag team, but all he saw was defeats. Even when he won the WWE Hardcore Championship, he lost it less than hours later. Like most underdogs, he wasn’t getting a chance so he left for TNA. It was the right move to embrace his fate as a dark horse in WWE because upon his return years later, "Captain Charisma" won the World Heavyweight Championship twice and had a great run as a heel.
10 "Stone Cold" Steve Austin
Before he was the bald-headed, beer-truck driving Austin 3:16, Steve Austin had long, blonde hair and took the role of Stunning Steve in WCW. The glamorous jerk he played wasn’t positioned to be a superstar. Despite Stunning Steve’s attempts to climb the ladder of success at WCW, challenging everyone from Dusty Rhodes to Barry Windhan, Bobby Eaton, Ricky Steamboat, you name it, the company was against him growing. Eric Bischoff eventually teamed Austin up with Brian Pillman to form The Hollywood Blondes— yet another move that kept Austin pigeonholed in a character going nowhere. He was eventually fired from WCW after a triceps injury and if it wasn’t for Paul Heyman getting Austin to join ECW, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin would cease to exist. Steve Austin’s one of the unsung underdogs because many forget how stacked the odds were against him at WCW— which should have been a time of evolution and growth for the young "Texas Rattlesnake."
9 Zach Gowen
Okay, now here’s a guy that checks off every box on the underdogs we love requirement sheet. Physically weaker or inferior: check. Gowen was diagnosed with cancer as a kid and lost his left leg due to it. He would become one of the only one-legged wrestlers ever (he also fought completely without the use of a prosthetic). Average Joe just like the guys in the crowd: check. Gowen began his WWE career as a bystander who came to the aid of Mr. America. Isn’t a pawn of ‘the man’ McMahon: check. McMahon dangled a WWE contract in front of Gowen, but to gain it, Gowen would have to join the Kiss My Ass Club. Instead of puckering up to McManon’s cheeks, he attacked Vince. Loses almost every match: check. The big win under Gowen’s belt was done to gain his contract. And lastly, long-shot matchups against the Superstars: check. The list includes Big Show, John Cena, Brock Lesnar, and Matt Hardy.
8 Crash Holly
Think of the big names of the WWE Attitude Era— Stone Cold, The Rock, Triple H— these are physically jacked dudes. Crash’s debut on RAW came when his super heavyweight cousin Hardcore Holly brought on The Houdini of Hardcore, dubbing his pint-sized kin another super heavyweight. Crash’s first words on the mic were Undertaker and Big Show— the guy was not afraid of starting beef with the monsters of Monday night. During a time when WWE was only giving prominence to tall, bulked wrestlers, Crash Holly worked twice as hard, around the clock to gain and keep his title. The stipulation of his 24/7 belt also meant Crash was being attacked at all times, and frequently beaten at all times… and I mean BEATEN. Still, he always bounced back and snuck a pin to regain the Hardcore Champion. As it was often said by announcers and fans, he had heart.
7 Zack Ryder
Zach Ryder entered WWE in 2007 as one half of The Major Brothers tag team. They started out with a win, being the underdogs who beat the old favorites. This would become a trend throughout his career, as Ryder earned the Tag Team Championship, Intercontential Championship, and U.S. Championship, but these were all one-time wins. What makes Ryder such a poetic underdog is that he’s fought with some of the best wrestlers of all time, beating many (most recently a March 2016 Jericho fight that ended with Y2J looking like a flopping fish), but Ryder is constantly half-foot in the shadows. Take for instance his La Familia tag team. Ryder stood shoulder to shoulder with Edge, but was the go-to punching bag for the trio. He’s the network’s go-to underdog who can actually compete physically with the best, and doesn’t throw a hissy when the belt passes over him. I say Woo Woo Woo to that.
6 Jeff Hardy
Jeff Hardy was finishing his tag-team run in The Hardy Boyz with brother Matt and struggled to find a place as a solo main eventer. But what "The Charismatic Enigma" lacked in weight he made up for in height… being that he would climb to daredevil peaks (20+ feet), on ladders or arena architecture, and risk it all with death-defying falls. His stunts were unheard of at the time, and his reckless attitude was inspirational. The match that really made him was a classic underdog fight, where a young, scrawny Hardy was pit against The Undertaker in a Ladder match for the Undisputed Championship. Hardy didn’t win, but he held his own against one of the toughest (and tallest) dudes to own the ring. With every reach Hardy made for the belt, fans stopped breathing and watched in awe. The more Jeff was torn down by The Undertaker, the more we wanted him to win. In fact, every time he got matched up it seemed Jeff Hardy was the underdog, not against other fighters necessarily, but against the heights and stunts he put his body through.
5 Eddie Guerrero
It’s not as common for our favorite underdogs to be heels, but in the case of the cocky "Latino Heat," his less wholesome side made him more vulnerable and made for great TV. The masses at No Way Out 2004 were 100 percent behind Guerrero as he faced off with the bulldog Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship. All the advantage was given to the 6’4 Beast Incarnate, but 5’7 Guerrero showed up for the challenge and endured a wicked beating that lasted more than half an hour. Down 60 pounds and up 10 years, there was something for Guerrero to prove. In a promo for the fight Brock even said Guerrero was addicted to losing. But Eddie reminded us how hard he worked to get there. “I’m addicted to the do or die feeling, holmes,” he said. Guerrero will do anything, face anything, and damn that made us all feel like we could too.
4 Mikey Whipwreck
Who would have thought that a mama’s boy, out of shape ring-crew member would go on to be the youngest ECW Champion in history. Mickey Whipwreck was so far from being labeled a star wrestler that Sonny Blaze didn’t charge him for training during Whipwreck’s early ECW days. It was Paul Haymen that had discovered the sophomoric, tie-dye wearing roadie, and pushed him to embrace an underdog persona in the ring. The beatings piled up for Whipwreck, and it took some time for him to learn how to make an offensive move, but come 1994 Mikey won the World Television Championship against The Pitbull. That same year, ECw friend and mentor Mick Foley enlisted Whipwreck to join his tag team, where the two won World Tag Team Champions. This was all leading up to the two pinnacle underdog victories of Mikey’s career. First, a World Heavyweight Championship against the hardcore Sandman, and second, a shocking defeat over Steve Austin. Out of the ring in promos, Mikey played up his lack of skills, saying he was scared to enter another match. Inside the ring, he wasn’t scared of nothing, throwing Roundhouse Haymakers like they were going out of style.
3 Rey Mysterio
“I was always considered the smallest cat in the ring,” Rey Mysterio said. But he saw this as a way to differentiate, even elevate, himself from the rest. Dubbed "The Ultimate Underdog," Mysterio entered every match as though it were his last, leaving his heart on the mat. When the 5’6 newcomer made his debut on WCW at The Great American Bash, it was clear veteran Dean Malenko would win the bout. But the luchador had such charisma and precision in his high-flying moonsaults and springboarding that Rey recalls everyone in the locker room giving him a standing ovation at the end of the match. As his career would mature, "The Biggest Little Man" would be weighed against wrestling supermen and always made them work for the win. At WrestleMania 22, Mysterio’s speed and gusto earned him World Heavyweight status over Kurt Angle and Randy Orton, making him the smallest man in the world to achieve the feat … let’s remember, Mysterio is five foot six and weighs under 200 pounds.
2 Mick Foley
It’s funny to think a multiple time WWE Champion and the GM of RAW got to where he is today from losing. No other wrestler in existence had made such a name for himself from the savage beatings he could endure. I mean, Cactus Jack lost his ear in the ring against Vader and kept going after the ref tossed the ear into the corner. But it’s not just the off-the-scale pain tolerance that helped make Cactus Jack, Mankind, and Dude Love the perfect underdogs. Mick Foley is wicked smart. First he knew he had to outperform the other guys in the ring, since he didn’t look like a traditional champion. Through the genius of developing Mankind, he was able to turn a sadistic madman freak into someone we empathized with and even hoped would be the face of the company. When Mankind won his first WWE Championship against McMahon’s golden boy The Rock in 1999 it was a momentum changing moment. McMahon was pissed and the crowd was hysterical. “He may not be the most talented, he may not be the best looking, but he is champion,” the announcers said. For so long he was told he couldn’t do it, and there he was, sock in one hand and belt in the other. He dedicated the win to his kids— a completely adorable underdog move.
For anyone that looks, acts or feel a little different, we should bow down to Foley for his role in boosting the underdog to a real competitor. He revolutionized the success of being a long-shot, mentoring others like #4 of our list Mikey Whipwreck, and turning the role into more than a one-time championship holder that shakes up the old favorites from winning all the time.
1 Daniel Bryan
He was small, no one gave him a shot, and at WrestleMania XXVIII Sheamus defeated him in 18 seconds. Daniel Bryan worked his ass off climbing the independent circuit after being dropped from WWE in the early 2000s. He returned almost ten years later and failed to win his first 10 matches. From there, three years of fighting resulted in the Yes! Movement, when fans got behind The American Dragon. Bryan's ability to connect with fans was almost hypnotic as he proved he wasn’t the wet towel in Team Hell No. WWE’s administration, led by Vince McMahon and Triple H, didn’t like Bryan’s look, especially as the face for their company. Their lackeys made success impossible for Bryan, adding stipulations to his wins, inserting crooked referees, and even physically interfering in matches. Always a reach away from the big titles, the company simply didn’t want Bryan to win. At WrestleMania XXX, Bryan would win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in the main event. The following years he defeated all odds at WrestleMania 31, won the Intercontinental Championship, and became one of the few wrestlers to ever win all active championships available on WWE. Shortly after, Bryan suffered a head injury and within months announced his retirement to a sea of heart broken RAW fans. (If you didn’t shed a tear during his goodbye speech you shouldn’t be trusted). Today Bryan is the GM of SmackDown, and married himself a Bella Twin. His is the true underdog story.
James Ellsworth, you’ve got some work to do.