As wrestling fans, we get goosebumps when we learn that one of our favorite wrestlers has been signed to the WWE. Maybe we have followed that wrestler’s career from their earliest days on the independents, or have witnessed their ascent through the ranks of rival organizations. When we believed that it was only a matter of time before the right person got their eyes on that athlete and brought them to the top tier, it’s very discouraging to see them fail to succeed on the world’s grandest stage.
For many wrestlers, securing a contract with the WWE is their ultimate goal, but few realize that getting there is only part of the battle. Once you’re within the ranks of the WWE, any number of things can negatively impact your fate. Some of the best wrestlers in the world, with all the talent and visibility behind them couldn’t carve out a successful WWE career even those who have been wildly triumphant elsewhere.
Sometimes it may be a case of poor timing, in others injury or illness has stifled their big opportunity, and for others still, it’s simply a matter of poor creative direction from the WWE writers that impedes their ability to cement their legacy. Let’s face it, not every wrestler is given the opportunity to ride out dead end gimmicks like “The Ringmaster” to evolve into “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, or shed their “Sparky Plugg” ring handle for something more menacing. This list will explore the top 20 wrestlers that failed to catch fire in the WWE.
20 Colt Cabana
It’s hard to imagine, given the visibility that Colt Cabana has generated internationally both through his active appearance schedule and the following he has generated with his “Art of Wrestling” podcast that Colt Cabana would not be seen as the asset that he is to the WWE. Here is an articulate and creative talent who can deliver in the ring and also doesn’t require a script writer to develop compelling content that is connecting with fans. The first edition of the WWE Encyclopedia truly reflects that the WWE creative team had no idea what they were working with when they packaged Scotty Goldman for audiences in 2008 and 2009.
19 Al Perez
If you picked up any wrestling magazine in the 1980s, you were almost guaranteed to find a photo or an article on the “Lation Heartthrob” Al Perez. Particularly in World Class, Perez was a marquee player with a great look, solid skills and the charisma to charm audiences. However, when he arrived in the WWE in October 1989, very little of that translated into box office success on a national level. In fact, unless you page through old issues of WWE Magazine, it’s easy to forget that he was even with the company at all.
18 2 Cold Scorpio
Some fans may remember 2 Cold Scorpio’s dynamic debut in WCW as a mystery partner for World champion Ron Simmons at a Clash of Champions. Scorpio wowed audiences immediately with his high risk style and over the top bravado. However, something got lost in translation when he arrived in the WWE as Flash Funk in 1997. Even later, when he was re-packaged under the name by which he was better known, he failed to connect with the WWE audiences.
17 Matt Borne
On paper, Matt Borne looked like a surefire hit for the WWE as they launched into their international expansion in the mid 1980s. A second generation wrestler with a seven year track record in some of the most reputable territories in the country, it looked like he was in the right place at the right time in 1985 when he signed with Vince McMahon. He even had a match on the undercard of the first WrestleMania. But he was gone within a year, not to return until 1992 disguised as an evil clown. Despite creating something really unique as Doink the Clown, Borne was gone again from the company after a year, this time attributed to drugs.
16 Chris Hero
Ring of Honor fans had to be elated when the news broke that Chris Hero had signed with the WWE and even thought he would be faced with a name change, it didn’t take away from the fact that one of the most talented wrestlers of his generation had ascended to the upper ranks of the sport. Unfortunately, as Kassius Ohno, he failed to mount significant enough momentum to carry him from the NXT purgatory to the main roster. Was it his look? Was it his style? We can’t escape the idea that it may simply have been his name – which appeared to be an ethnic hybrid that had no resemblance to the character represented that really left fans stymied.
15 David Schultz
Some will be surprised to see David Schultz on this list as the circumstances around David Schultz’ WWE career and its sudden end are much different than most. Schultz was a dominant wrestler across the United States and Canada, headlining most places where he appeared, including headline feuds in Stampede Wrestling and Montreal’s International Wrestling. Set in place to become one of the WWE’s major villains leading into WrestleMania I, Schultz was abruptly dropped from the roster after an on-air incident where he slapped 20/20 reporter John Stossel. Was it a publicity stunt? Perhaps. Was Schultz directed to do it? That’s still disputed. Regardless, the WWE was a household name overnight and Shultz was sacrificed and never brought back.
14 Terry Taylor
In fairness, how many wrestlers can we name could survive being assigned “The Red Rooster” and mount any level of credibility beyond that. In the case of Taylor, it seems like his career was an ongoing case of right place/wrong time. Prior to the WWE, he was slated to partner with Stan Lane, a role that was instead given to Steve Keirn and the duo became the wildly successful “Fabulous Ones”. Next, he was paired with Bobby Fulton just prior to the latter’s run with Tommy Rogers as “The Fantastics”.
In fact, in the WWE, it has been heavily rumored that Taylor was being considered for the “Mr. Perfect” moniker, but that went to Curt Hennig instead – and Taylor became the cock of the walk, The Red Rooster. Taylor’s 1988-1990 run was the most dubious, we almost forgot that he was back a second time from 1992-93.
13 Chris Kanyon
With endorsements from some of the most respected wrestlers in the game like Chris Benoit, at the time, it would seem that Chris Kanyon was well situated to make the transition from World Championship Wrestling to the WWE following the buyout of the former. Kanyon was initially a key player in the WCW-WWE Invasion angle in 2001, but was sidelined by a series of injuries that caused him to lose momentum and eventually be released from the company.
12 Tom Zenk
Few fans may realize that in his haste to find a way into the wrestling business, Tom Zenk had actually falsely reported that the WWE was calling him to get Verne Gagne to open the door for him in the AWA. That said, when the WWE did get interested and signed Zenk and Martel to a contract in 1987, Zenk quickly grew disillusioned with his position in the company. Zenk has frequently reported that he was unhappy with the financial deal that he had negotiated, which he says was less than what he could make on tours of Japan and asked for his release. Zenk was replaced by Tito Santana, forming the measurably more successful “Strike Force” with Martel, who would go on to a WWE World tag team title run.
11 Doug Furnas/Phil Lafon
As we looked over this list, we couldn’t escape the feeling that very few North American wrestlers whose greatest career successes took place in Japan, were ever able to translate that into a success in the WWE. Such is the case with the tag team of Furnas and Lafon, who collectively spent close to a decade as one of the top teams for All Japan Pro Wrestling before entering the WWE during the Attitude Era. Perhaps they weren’t colorful enough compared to those sharing the locker room with them at that time, and despite thrilling matches against teams such as Owen Hart & Davey Boy Smith, the duo failed to make their mark.
10 Buff Bagwell
Laying claim to probably one of the shortest contracts in the history, Bagwell made a splashy and visible debut and eight days later was gone from the WWE locker room. As one of the most successful wrestlers in WCW over the previous decade, Bagwell seemed poised to continue his career ascent in a new environment in 2001. However, he was gone as suddenly as he arrived. Reports are conflicting about the reason for his departure. Jim Ross has reported that it was related to calls his office received from Bagwell’s mother to excuse him from work, other reports indicate that the WWE felt he was faking an injury. Bagwell himself has gone on record to say that he still doesn’t know what happened.
9 Kenny Omega
This name may surprise you, as Kenny Omega is a talent that is oft-discussed as someone that the WWE has missed the boat by not signing. However, Omega was under contract with the WWE after being discovered by John Laurinaitis at a Harley Race training camp. Omega was dispatched to Deep South Wrestling in Georgia to develop his skills and prepare to be called up to the main roster. However, when weeks turned into months and Omega felt that he was being molded into a “cookie cutter” of other disposable names trying to break into the roster, he saw the writing on the wall. There was no game plan for him and he asked for his release. Has that soured the WWE on extending their hand with a more substantial offer?
8 Terry Gordy
Another successful wrestler in the American territories who ascended to the top of the ranks in both World Class Championship Wrestling as well as Bill Watts’ Universal Wrestling Federation, Gordy is perhaps best known for his work in Japan. Gordy, alongside his Fabulous Freebird tag team partners debuted in the WWE in 1984, but were gone almost as soon as they arrived. When he returned in 1996 as the masked “Executioner”, he was doomed from the moment he first put on the black cloak. In this case, the WWE may have missed the boat because of aesthetics alone. Gordy never possessed the greatest physique, but has been well acknowledged by peers like Ted DiBiase as one of the smoothest performers of his era.
With daredevils like Mick Foley taking risks to the extreme such as his 16 foot fall from the top of a cage through the broadcast table, you would think that the stage had been set for Sabu to find success in the WWE. It would not be the case, though. Sabu, best remembered as one of the featured stars of ECW before it became a brand under the WWE’s umbrella, had generated a cult following around the world for his almost suicidal antics between the ropes and the lore about his self-remedies of injuries to avoid missing scheduled appearances. However, Sabu fell short when the ECW contingent was launched into the mix of the WWE’s claim to a North American monopoly in 2001.
Many fans won’t even remember that Konnan even darkened the doors of the WWE, that’s how briefly he was there. In Mexico, he is a revered legend, where his fame afforded him not only marquee status as a wrestler, but also as a featured actor on local soap operas. Konnan was introduced to the WWE in 1992 and a few different ideas were explored. However, when he balked at the plans set out for him, it led to Tom Boric aka Paul Diamond, becoming Maximilian Moon in his place. Konnan later went on to a high level of notoriety in WCW.
5 Dan Severn
As the UFC started to emerge as an entertainment alternative for fans of sports entertainment, few stars of the Octagon held greatest prestige than Dan Severn. A well-schooled amateur wrestler who had ascended the ranks of free-for-all mixed martial arts, Severn cast an impressive shadow which would seem to afford some of his fame to draw audiences back into the squared circle. Organizations like the National Wrestling Alliance latched onto his pedigree and reputation to crown him World champion on multiple occasions, but Severn failed to catch on like his rival Ken Shamrock under the glare of the ring lights in the WWE environment.
4 Shane Douglas
It’s quite possible that Shane Douglas was considered too generic and “vanilla” when he was first touring for the WWE in 1990. Often cast in a tag team role to replace the injured Shawn Michaels, it may have been felt that Douglas had the look, but lacked the gimmick to truly catch fire in the ultra-colorful ranks of the WWE. However, after he was post in a headline position as the franchise villain for Extreme Championship Wrestling, fans were exposed to a whole new side of Douglas that we hadn’t seen as a “Dynamic Dude”. His work in ECW should have created something greater than what the WWE came up with as “The Dean” in 1995, which was a character doomed to fail from the beginning.
3 Dory Funk Jr.
In fairness, Dory Funk Jr. had already been wrestling for twenty years by the time he graced the WWE ring alongside his brother in 1986. However, Dory was well recognized by his contemporaries for his aptitude on the mat, and as a former NWA World champion, certainly brought with him an impressive main event track record. Yet, labelled “Hoss Funk” during an era when the self-egrandizing WWE wasn’t acknowledging wrestlers’ credentials outside the company itself, Dory wasn’t given the opportunity to excel.
2 Steve Williams
Straight off the College football field and into the ring, Steve Williams' track record for dominance as both a solo and tag team competitor were very well known by the time he arrived in the WWE in 1998. A former UWF Heavyweight champion, and multi-time title holder in the NWA, WCW and All Japan, few wrestlers could boast the success that Williams brought with him as a 14 year veteran upon arrival. Williams was intended to rocket to the top of the ranks in a “Brawl for All” competition which was to show his overall toughness. However, when an injury occurred during a semi-final bout in the tournament and he succumbed to Bart Gunn, he was never able to regain his footing with the company. Instead, he closed out his career, and life, as a trainer working behind the scenes for one of the WWE’s developmental territories.
1 Lex Luger
Don’t misunderstand, we’re not saying that Lex Luger is the most talented of the 20 wrestlers identified on this list, but he was certainly the most highly touted wrestler to be signed by the WWE and then fall short of the mark. In the late 80s and start of the 90s, few wrestlers had more visibility than Lex Luger in WCW. Featured in championship contention and headline matches against the best the company had to offer, we suspect that the offer from Vince McMahon was very attractive for Luger to jump. Their first attempt to package Luger as the self-obsessed “Narcissist” fell short because Luger was too well known to be re-packaged. However, fans couldn’t get excited about the re-packaged flag waving patriot either, even when accompanied by a “Lex Express” bus tour for months to try to get the fans behind him. After two years, it probably wasn’t felt as a loss when Luger departed without notice to return to WCW.