It’s no secret that WWE has different criteria for stardom. An mantra in wrestling is “a guy can be a great worker but can’t draw money.” In WWE, it’s obvious Vince McMahon likes guys with big builds and great charisma, and cares less about their in-ring skill. However, many guys are able to back up their charisma with terrific ring work to become major stars. Sure, WWE may push the wrong guys but they have given main event runs to the likes of Bret Hart, Daniel Bryan and AJ Styles, who aren't so strong on the mic. Many a great wrestler has found as much success in WWE as in another company, often more so.
However, there have been plenty of failures. Sure, some guys don’t rise in WWE as much as they could despite some mild success. Lance Storm seemed saddled with bad stuff but still reigned as IC and multiple tag team champion. Other workers, however, get it even worse. Despite how they have great ring skills, are terrific on the mic and show promise, they just can’t make it work in WWE. Sometimes it’s bad booking and a lame character but other times, these guys get major pushes but just don’t make it to the top. It’s amazing how guys who seemed perfect for WWE fail to get to that level in the company. Here are 20 great stars who just didn’t succeed in WWE, as their tenures are seen as a failure to show how the company isn’t for everyone.
WWE is actually giving credit to Ring of Honor for helping introduce some great workers to the company. Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins, AJ Styles and Samoa Joe, are all ROH alumni who have gone on to be big successes in WWE. However, there have been failures and Cabana counts as one. His turns in ROH were notable as he both feuded and teamed with CM Punk and had a memorable feud with Bryan Danielson. Great in the ring and fabulous on the mic, Cabana seemed tailor made for success in WWE in 2007. Instead, he was given the dumb name of Scotty Goldman and an even dumber outfit complete with an amateur wrestling helmet.
He was kept from doing promos fans were used to, shoved in programs against Brian Kendrick and was mostly just used for battle royals and forgettable matches. He left in 2009 after doing pretty much nothing of note to continue to make his mark on the indies. Cabana doesn’t like his WWE tenure and is a major example of how not everyone from ROH is slated for greatness in the other company.
Windham’s first run in WWE was actually a small success. Paired with Mike Rotunda as the U.S. Express, the duo won the tag team titles twice and had fans behind them. However, Windham left suddenly in 1985 and was replaced by Dan Spivey. Windham headed to Jim Crockett Promotions where he became a major star. He held the U.S. and World tag titles but his biggest success came when he joined the Four Horsemen. Taking off better than expected as a heel, Windham reigned as US Champion and was a key member of the best Horsemen group ever. In 1989, Windham came to WWE as “The Widowmaker,” getting a good push but left after just a few months for reasons Windham refuses to discuss today.
After another run in WCW that included tag team champion and NWA World champ, Windham tried with WWE once more. This time, he was “The Stalker,” in greasepaint and was a military-themed character. He later formed the New Blackjacks in cowboy gear but both runs were failures, sending Windham back to WCW. Despite his good looks and charisma, Windham could never take off in WWE beyond that initial run and did better in WCW as himself.
In terms of wrestling ability, Severn was truly great. He was one of the first stars of UFC, helping to pioneer mixed martial arts and was a legitimate tough guy. He moved to pro wrestling and held the NWA title and even if the NWA was a shadow of itself, that meant something. In 1998, the NWA and WWE began a partnership with Severn brought in to defend his belt. He had a decent push at the start with Jim Cornette as his manager but it failed to really click as the NWA-WWE relationship soured very quickly. He had a feud with his old UFC foe Ken Shamrock and participated in the infamous Brawl For All. Despite his legitimate fighting skills, WWE seemed unsure of pushing Severn who couldn't really cut promos and fans didn’t take to him. Supposedly, he was to become one of The Undertaker’s disciples but Severn didn’t like the idea and left the company. A man who was a legitimately amazing fighter was probably a bit too real for even the Attitude Era.
It took a while for Scott Levy to find himself. He started off as “Scotty the Body” in Portland, Memphis and WCW, a surfer type with long hair. He had a turn in WWE in 1993 as Johnny Polo, an arrogant rich kid who served as the manager for The Quebecers. It was in ECW that Levy finally made it as Raven, a character ahead of his time with his dark poems and goth mannerisms. The fans adored it and it made him a huge star and he used it for a run in WCW before returning to ECW. He returned in 2000 and naturally was a hit in the Hardcore division, holding the belt 27 times (although some of those runs lasted literally minutes). In the Invasion angle, he was best known for destroying Perry Saturn’s beloved “Moppy” and faded into the background.
He was put on SmackDown in 2002 but didn’t do too much, trying his hand as a commentator but it didn’t work out. He finally left for a run in TNA and showed how the man was probably just too unique to work in WWE as Raven always flew his own way.
After time on the indies, Awesome Kong finally came to TNA and quickly became a standout. With her dominating size yet good ring skills, Kong dominated the Knockouts division, crushing all competition en route to winning the belt and fans loved seeing her as this monster. Her end with the company came when Bubba the Love Sponge mocked Haiti after Kong had worked to raise money for the country following its earthquake. Kong responded by giving Bubba a brutal backstage beatdown and was let go. She joined WWE as Kharma and immediately pushed as a monster, crushing the Divas and it looked like she would rise up quickly as a dominant wrestler.
However, in a terrible case of bad timing, Kharma announced she was pregnant and would take time off. This ruined the big push and when she came back, it was a brief bit as all the heat was off her by this point. It wasn’t really WWE’s fault but it still hurts that a lady who could have given the Divas a new direction had to bow out so quickly.
The poster boy for TNA guys who failed in WWE to be sure. In TNA, Harris was a great worker. He had some singles runs but was better known for his partnership with James Storm as America’s Most Wanted had several runs as tag team champions. In 2008, Harris joined WWE under the ECW brand and was given the character of Braden Walker. In no time, WWE ruined him with his idiotic “I’m going to knock your brains out” line and “knock-knock” routine that made him an instant joke. Despite his skills and charisma, that terrible character was something Harris just couldn’t overcome and any potential he had was driven down.
He was released after just a few months with viral sites having a blast mocking his tenure and “Hall of Fame” career. It’s sad that after all that good work in TNA, Harris is better known for his WWE failure and shows why some guys are better off in TNA after all.
WWE tried and so did he but somehow, Bigelow just couldn’t make it in the company. He had an awesome look, a big man who could take off the ropes and his bald head with flaming tattoos was amazing. He began a run in 1987, first a heel, then a face but just couldn’t get much mileage either way. He spent time in WCW for a big run before a return to WWE in 1993. This time around, he got stuck with a feud with Doink the Clown that led to some horrific matches. The “highlight” was him losing to Lawrence Taylor at WrestleMania XI, a pretty humiliating turn.
Bigelow would then move on to ECW where he finally got his due with fantastic matches, holding the World and TV titles and finally seeing as the “Beast From the East.” Yet in two tries, Bigelow couldn’t make WWE work out for him and his runs there were even worse than anything he got in WCW.
With brother Rick, Scott actually did well in WWE at first. The duo had already rocked fans by their work in WCW, winning the World and US tag titles and facing many top teams. Back in 1991, you didn’t see a guy doing things like a Frankensteiner and Scott was showing his stuff as a singles worker, holding the TV and US titles. Their first run in 1993 had them win the belts but when they lost them later that year, the two sunk in the tag ranks and were soon leaving to return to WCW.
Steiner of course became huge as “Big Poppa Pump,” winning the WCW World title and became a huge star. In 2002, he joined WWE and was immediately pushed against Triple H with hopes of a major feud. Instead, Steiner became better known for frankly ridiculous promos and some nutty actions. His Royal Rumble match against Triple H was a disaster where Steiner couldn’t do anything more than a suplex. His WWE tenure went down the drain from there.
“Dr. Death” was a long-time favorite of Bill Watts. Williams was known for his toughness, most famously for getting busted open so badly in an afternoon show that he needed 138 stitches but wrestled that very night. He had a good run in WCW and was a hit with Japanese fans who loved his stiff style. Old friend Jim Ross took Williams into the company in 1998 and began making plans to push the guy fast. The plan was for Williams to win the “Brawl For All” tournament and be set up as the next big challenger for Steve Austin. However, that was thrown out the window when Williams was beaten by Bart Gunn, suffering a torn hamstring in the process. A storyline of him as a bodyguard for Jim Ross didn’t work out well either and harmed his overall push.
Williams sadly had a battle with cancer before his death in 2009 and it’s too bad his run in WWE made Dr. Death more of a joke for main wrestling fans.
One would think Vader would be a perfect guy for WWE. He was a huge monster, imposing with a great mask and had major heat. In WCW, Vader dominated as champion, amazingly fast for someone his size and even able to take off the ropes. His power bomb and big splash finishers were truly devastating and looked terrific so when he came to WWE in 1995, most expected him to rise to the top fast. But politics interfered as Vader ran afoul of Shawn Michaels and their big program ended with Vader coming out for the worse.
He was stuck in bad battles and a poorly done face turn killed his drive. Vader doesn’t speak well of his tenure even as others say his own backstage attitude hurt a lot of his promise. Either way, Vader wasn’t served well by his WWE run and is another case of a guy who seemed great for the company who never lived up to it.
DDP was already a bit old when he got into wrestling, but he soon getting over with runs as TV champion. In 1997, he hit the big time with his fantastic feud with Randy Savage that became a highlight of the year for WCW and elevated DDP. He added to it with fun promos and soon became World champion. He remained a major star until the company went under and was pretty much the biggest WCW name to make the jump to WWE. However, the idea of him stalking The Undertaker’s wife didn’t go over well, and his big reveal was a letdown. DDP then had a bad time with poor runs . The idea of him as a motivational speaker character never clicked. DDP has become better known for helping wrestlers with addictions beat the habit and great work but his run as a worker in the WWE wasn’t that memorable.
In many ways, Scorpio was ahead of his time. Flashy and skilled, he was introducing a style of high-flying that preceded the cruiserweight era in WCW. He and Marcus Bagwell worked together as tag team champions and had he stayed, Scorpio could have pushed the division up faster. In ECW, Scorpio won the fans over with his work, winning the TV title and raising the standard for workrate in ECW. Scorpio was signed to WWE and was expected to do well as he already had an awesome name to push him up with his ring skills. But he was given the character of “Flash Funk,” dressing like some 1970s hip-hop guy and the fans didn’t take to him well. Despite some good tries, Scorpio was ignored in the more muscle-bound WWE and his entire tenure there was little more than a flash in the pan.
The Fabulous Freebirds broke the mold for wrestling. They were the first cool heels to win fans over. They helped make World Class Championship Wrestling a huge hit with wrestling fans and it looked like they’d be perfect for WWE. They were brought into the group in 1984 and pushed with the “Rock 'N' Wrestling Connection.” Between Michael Hayes’ mic skills, Terry Gordy’s amazing ring skills and Buddy Roberts able to get beat up a lot, the Freebirds could have gone far. However, they had a run-in with Andre the Giant that soured them fast. They also weren’t happy to hear WWE was planning to split them up for singles runs as they felt they were better as a unit.
Hayes would eventually come to the company in 1995 as the foolish “Dok Hendrix” character for commentating. Gordy (who was never the same after his 1993 stroke) briefly showed up in 1996 as the masked Executioner. It’s still amazing how a groundbreaking trio who seemed perfect for WWE just never rose up there.
Few folks have been massively hurt by a bad character like Taylor was. In Bill Watts' Mid-South/UWF, Taylor had been a great worker, holding the TV and tag titles. He was over as either a face or a heel, a great worker who could do a 45-minute match with Ric Flair and younger fans (especially female ones) loved him. An urban legend is that it was literally the flip of a coin whether Taylor or Curt Hennig would get the “Mr. Perfect” gimmick and Taylor could have made it work. But instead he was saddled with the totally stupid Red Rooster gimmick. Forced to dye a streak of red in his hair and go around making crowing sounds, Taylor never had a chance. He bad-mouths the entire thing constantly and WWE themselves mock how they thought it up in the first place. It's a shame Taylor never got the chance to be a big star in WWE.
Frankly, WWE did nowhere near the damage to Awesome that WCW did. In ECW, Awesome lived up to his name, a man who could brawl, take off the ropes and be a great technical worker. His power bomb through a table was a stunning sight as he rode high as champion. At his peak, Awesome signed with WCW and the ECW fans were ready to kill him for leaving with the belt. But Awesome paid for it as WCW saddled him with a terrible '70s lounge lizard act that totally killed his heat.
In 2001, Awesome was one of the first members of the “Invasion” force, pinning Rhyno for the Hardcore title. However, Awesome soon fell by the wayside as Rob Van Dam was soon winning the fans over and the entire messy Invasion hurt Awesome’s standing. He was released in 2002 and bad-mouthed his time in WWE although he did return for a fantastic match at the first One Night Stand. Passing away in 2007, Awesome’s WWE tenure came nowhere close to living up to his name.
To be fair, Race was at the tail end of his career when he signed with WWE in 1986. A famous story is that Vince went to Race the day before Starrcade ’83 and offered a major amount for Race to jump to WWE with the NWA title. Race refused and kept at his work. A fantastic worker who held the NWA title seven times, Race was hailed as a terrific heel who managed to keep up a tight schedule across territories while facing the best of the time. He passed the torch to Flair at Starrcade and sunk a bit afterward.
He signed with WWE who gave him the gimmick of “The King” and Bobby Heenan as a manager. Race did his best but was saddled with a bad program with the Junkyard Dog and passed the “King” mantle to Haku. It was a bit sad to see Race end his amazing career in such a poor way.
The only brothers to each hold the NWA World title, Terry and Dory Funk Jr were fantastic athletes. Dory was more the skilled technician while Terry became famous as a fantastic brawler. Together, they ran roughshod in Florida and other territories and it was expected they could do something in WWE. Instead, Terry got a push as the wild Texan but nothing too special overall. Dory (billed as “Hoss”) was partnered with him, both doing okay but nothing as they should have been, given their fantastic talent.
Terry would end up leaving with “Jimmy Jack” being paired with Dory but he soon left as well. Both men complained about WWE’s schedule and weren't able to get the opportunities to take off as they deserved. Terry had another run in WWE as “Chainsaw Charlie” that was forgettable and each were far better off without the company.
This remains puzzling. For years, Luger was hailed as a new Hulk Hogan, a man seemingly perfect for the main event. While he had his shortcomings, he had his bright spots and could win over fans easily. In WCW, he held several titles, great as either a heel or a face and a long run as champion proved he could make it in the main event. In 1993, he debuted as The Narcissist, a great egotistical villain that played to Luger’s strengths he and seemed ready to rise up. But then WWE decided they wanted to make Luger the next Hogan for real and gave him a mega-push as a patriotic hero against Yokozuna. They then committed the horrible mistake of not having Luger win the belt, ruining all his fan heat.
Luger himself seemed to lose a lot of his own passion, his last years featuring bad feuds and teaming with Davey Boy Smith. Thus, when WCW made an offer, Luger jumped and clearly enjoyed it more. It remains one of the biggest surprises that a man seemingly perfect for Vince McMahon could never make it work in WWE.
Douglas had been rising up, showing his stuff right out of the gate in the UWF. In WCW, he shined more with a great partnership with Ricky Steamboat to get the tag titles. It was in ECW that Douglas took off, winning over fans as a main eventer and a fantastic heel that fans loved to hate. Douglas proved himself a great worker and became a mainstay of ECW and most thought he could carry that to WWE. Instead, he was first saddled with the gimmick of “Dean Douglas,” a schoolteacher character that muted his drive. He still had skill but Douglas ran afoul of The Kliq who were determined to push him down. Thus, the plan to have Douglas win the IC title was changed as Shawn gave the title up and Douglas lost it 15 minutes later to Razor Ramon. It was no wonder Douglas thus left WWE and headed back to ECW as his tenure was a bitter one to highlight a bad year for the company.
On his DVD, Sting notes he was offered plenty of chances to come to WWE but turned them down. It was partly due to the company’s ultra-intense schedule as Sting wanted to be with his family more. However, he was also worried that “they wouldn’t let me be Sting”. WWE offered but he kept turning them down, refusing to come after WCW’s fall. He finally showed up in 2014…and it was a total letdown despite all the promise.
Instead of the dream 'Mania match with The Undertaker the fans wanted, we instead got Sting vs Triple H. And instead of Sting winning, Triple H went over to “end” the long-over war with WCW. Most saw it as Vince wanting to “punish” the only major star who didn’t work for him despite how it wasn’t what fans wanted. That led to Sting against Seth Rollins where Rollins ended up injuring Sting to the point he declared his career was over. Fans waited years to see Sting in WWE and it ended up being the worst part of his career, proving that staying away from WWE for so long might well have been a smart move on Sting’s part.