If there’s one thing that’s for sure in wrestling is that the “sure thing” is often a myth. Yes, every now and then you get someone who explodes in their very first year in the business to become a star. Kurt Angle, Goldberg and Brock Lesnar all rose up fast after breaking out to be superstars. But they’re the exceptions and not the rule. Steve Austin was someone most thought would be a star when he started out but it took a while to get there. Yet others looked just like anyone else or even worse with no hints of the superstars they’d be. That’s the more common occurrence as other guys have to spend years finding themselves before they take off and go through a lot of changes.
It is remarkable to watch these evolutions, often needing a change in character, outfits and often attitudes before they really click. While some folks show promise early on, they don’t seem the type to turn into true megastars and that shows why it’s harder to figure out who will work and who won’t. It’s almost laughable to look back at these people in their first years and see how massively different they look from their future fame. Here are 20 stars that didn’t look good at all in their first years and not showing how they would dominate the scene in years to come.
20 Diamond Dallas Page
Page is in a unique place as he had actually been in wrestling for years without stepping into the ring. In the late 1980s, he worked as a manager in the AWA for Badd Company and “The Diamond Exchange.” He was good on the mic as an arrogant New Yorker and showed some good style as a commentator as well. Still, it was a surprise when he started as a wrestler in 1994 and looked pretty terrible with it as WCW officials openly stated he was worse than most jobbers. So, Page basically spent every day he could at the Power Plant to improve and began adapting himself to plan matches out. That would click with runs as TV Champion and he would improve more on the mic too.
It wasn’t until his war with Randy Savage in 1997 that DDP became a true star and eventual WCW Champion. His late start contributed to him not lasting too long on the top but DDP still showed how hard work can pay off from a bad start.
19 Kevin Nash
Some might argue that in terms of in-ring skills, Nash didn’t improve that much. However, wrestling is far more than just work rate. You also need charisma and in that regard, Nash showed massive improvement. Tall and strong, he started off as one of the “Master Blasters,” a mohawked tag team that went nowhere with him lumbering and not seeming to know what to do in the ring. In WCW, he was saddled with the absolutely ridiculous character of Oz, coming down in green robes and beard complete with “munchkin” sidekick. That was followed by Vinnie Vegas, a suited mobster type. In each case, Nash was rough in the ring and was lacking the right gimmick.
In WWE, he was simply Shawn Michaels’ bodyguard, Diesel, just standing and glowering. But as he wrestled more and impressed with his jackknife power-bomb, fans responded to his cool act and he got more support. That led to him winning the WWE title and it’s not totally his fault business was bad as the company smoothed over the edges that made him popular in the first place. In his second WCW run, Nash cut loose more and while he has his share of haters, it can’t be denied how huge a star he was and showing you can’t totally dismiss a guy for his bad ring work starting out.
18 AJ Styles
Frankly, Styles wasn’t that “phenomenal” when he first started out. He didn’t even know if he had any skill for it and just started training as a lark. He started out in Georgia as the masked Mr. Olympia, showing none of the high-flying and technical work he would become famous for. His indie stuff was okay as he was showcased in 2001 WCW as “Air Raid,” part of a team that wore G-suits and sunglasses and acted cocky. A brief WWE run led to nowhere and so Styles worked the indie scene more. When ROH and TNA started up, he began splitting time between them and soon unlocked his amazing skills as a worker, winning championships in both promotions. That would lead to his rise as “Mr. TNA,” a fantastic multiple champion who became the heart of the company.
His runs in Japan followed but many doubted WWE would give him a real break. He’s proven that wrong as WWE Champion to prove himself to be a top star in any promotion. A nice rise for a masked man to become a true major star of today.
17 The Hardyz
Jeff and Matt adored wrestling as kids, and daredevils from the start complete with their own backyard federation. They basically trained themselves with stuff that goes totally against the “do not try this at home” warnings WWE puts up. OMEGA had them in various incarnations, usually masked like Willow the Whisp, The Wolverine, High Voltage and more. While they had tons of energy, their skills were still rough and so when they signed to WWE in 1995, they were treated as jobbers with a pretty boy persona complete with headbands. Their first major exposure was Jeff being beaten by Razor Ramon and then opening doors at the 1996 King of the Ring.
It took a while before their high-flying antics started to really win fans over and elevate them more with Michael Hayes as manager. Adding Lita was the ingredient that shot them both up the ladder.
As singles guys, Jeff is the bigger star as multiple champion but Matt has done well too. In fact, Matt is the hotter star of the two today. They started slow but came into their own as a pair of very unique stars.
Like others on this list, Adam Copeland was a guy who wanted to be a wrestler for years but didn’t seem to have the makings of real stardom at first. He actually learned ring work by the fact his training gym had a ceiling too low for high-flying stuff. His early work in Canada had him going by names like Sexton Hardcastle and Adam Impact, his blonde hair flowing as he worked various matches. He had a shot in WCW as Damon Striker on some TV programs, your typical “pretty boy” who got crushed in some matches against Kevin Sullivan.
WWE saw his potential to push him but his early stuff pandered too much for him as a babyface to let him take off. It took the partnership with Christian and the great tag team feuds to elevate him as a star. Even then, it wasn’t until his affair with Lita became public in 2005 that he used the heat to become a main eventer. It shows how the “pretty boys” can become major stars in the end.
15 Dean Ambrose
Jonathan Good always wanted to be in wrestling, going so far as to work setting up rings and selling popcorn at indie shows at 18. Jon Moxley had a “grunge” look to start out, rocking messy hair and jeans with a dark shirt. His work in the ring was just okay and nothing really promising. He started to show off more on the indie scene and got a shot at WWE with a match featuring his bright pink hair and smirk. That led nowhere for more time in the indies as he rose to a favorite with CZW with his brutal, physical ring work.
That led to FCW and becoming Dean Ambrose, as he improved massively in the ring and got better on the mic. With The Shield, he hit stardom as U.S. champion although most thought he would be dropped to the side when they split. Instead, he exploded as a fan favorite and eventual WWE champion and showed that from a grungy start came one of the biggest current stars in the company.
When the Road Warriors debuted in the mid-1980s, they sparked slews of imitations such as the Powers of Pain and Demolition. Among them were the Blade Runners, two guys who had started out as the Freedom Fighters, a pair of muscle-bound workers. Fans didn’t take to them as faces because of their bad ring work. They were slow and sloppy. So they took a new name and makeup, one called Rock and the other Sting. Rock would end up becoming The Ultimate Warrior with many saying his ring work never got much better.
Sting, however, would end up becoming more than some muscleman; a skilled technician, high-flyer and absolutely stunning in his charisma. He would become WCW’s biggest star, a huge name to carry the company and was smart in adopting the “Crow” look. His runs in TNA and WWE added to the legacy and showcased how this was a “copycat” who ended up becoming a major star in his own right to stand among the greats of the business.
13 Triple H
Hunter had potential from the start, that was clear, but looking back at his early days is pretty funny. Trained by Killer Kowalski, he started off as “Terra Ryzing,” a wildman gimmick in the IWF, not bad but still very rough and not showing much besides crazy antics in the ring. In WCW, he started with the same gimmick before being saddled with the gimmick of “French aristocrat” Jean-Paul Levesque. Again, the potential was there but he wasn’t given much of a chance to show it off due to the politics of the company although rumor was Ric Flair was pretty impressed by his promise.
In WWE, he was the “Connecticut Blueblood,” pushed as an arrogant rich guy just because Vince McMahon had a beef with his neighbors. Again, he showed potential but was saddled with acting up as this snob, complete with bows and a pampered presence in the ring. It wasn’t until he and Shawn Michaels united as DX that Triple H became more of himself and really exploded as a star. He was always going to be one, even without the relationship to Stephanie but it showcases how even the folks you dismiss in the early going might become the biggest powerhouses in the business.
12 The Rock
As the grandson of High Chief Peter Maivia and the son of Rocky Johnson, it was only natural Dwayne Johnson got into wrestling. His first run showed promise in Memphis, despite the terrible name of Flex Kavana, showing the arrogant side that would become famous. But, in one of the most infamous moves of history, WWE decided to present him as Rocky Maivia, a smiling, high-flying babyface in a bad outfit. It was a terrible move as he came off too bright and cheerful, with even a run as IC champion not able to overcome the bland presentation.
He wasn’t bad in the ring but just not anything special, as he just seemed so vanilla and not able to handle the constant boos from the fans. An injury was the best thing that happened to him, as he shifted his style and came back as an arrogant heel that suddenly fans loved. Johnson has proven himself as a star in both WWE and Hollywood, dominating the box office just as easily as he did in the ring and showing how even the biggest stars can have a slow start.
From the start, Glenn Jacobs had to put up with some odd names and personas. He started off as Angus King in St. Louis and played a tall and built guy who could be pretty bad with some of his work. That led to turns as “The Christmas Creature,” Doomsday and (yes, this is true) Unabomb in Smokey Mountain. He even worked as Unabomb (now that’s a name that would never be touched today) for a dark match in WWE who saw how raw he was but also saw a little potential. But then they gave him the character of “evil dentist” Isaac Yankem and put him in a feud with Bret Hart. That was followed by a turn as the “fake Diesel” fans loathed.
In 1997, Jacobs hit the jackpot at last as Kane, the masked monster who would become one of the longest-lasting stars of the company. Able to shift the character from masked to open-faced and back, heel and face and strong in matches, Kane has shown himself to be a real professional and one of the company’s biggest names. All the more remarkable given how many stupid personas he had to put up with in the start.
10 The Undertaker
Born and raised in Texas, it should be no surprise Mark Calaway would get into wrestling there, working for World Class. His first persona was “Texas Red,” a brawler whose outfit wasn’t even that red in the first place and lost to Bruiser Brody. While tall, Calaway was rather gangly and didn’t carry himself well in the ring. Other bits followed like the Master of Pain in Memphis and then “Mean Mark” in WCW as a member of The Skyscrapers. As the latter, he was showing a bit of promise but WCW just didn’t see it and let him go.
Thus history was made with WWE giving Calaway the gimmick of The Undertaker and while at first he was just slow and ponderous in the ring, he would soon transform into a really good worker. More importantly, he showcased a great aura that made the character stand out from the start. Thanks to his work, Calaway turned into one of the icons of the business. It was a remarkable rise for someone who started off with such a bad name.
It’s risky to get into wrestling when you’re over 30 so Batista was facing an uphill battle. However, he managed to make it work as his stuff in OVW showed some potential, although Leviathan was little more than the typical monster seen countless times before. In WWE, he was given the completely ridiculous gimmick of “Deacon Dave,” the sidekick to D-Von Dudley during the time he was running a minister gimmick as a singles guy. While the potential was there, he almost never spoke and showed little real charisma. Adding him to Evolution was a surprise and the fact he was sidelined almost a year by the first of many injuries also hampered him.
But he managed to build himself up in that time, taking off more as a guy who could handle surprisingly good matches. His reigns as World Champion made him popular and he could pull off great stuff like his fantastic bouts with The Undertaker. Batista has left wrestling but showed he can handle stuff with his fame in movies and it's impressive that a guy who started so late got so much done.
8 Randy Savage
As the son of Angelo Poffo, Savage actually resisted getting into the family business, wanting to play baseball. That didn’t work out so he started off with training and then worked his way into his dad’s Florida-based promotion. He started off as The Spider, a masked wrestler and thus really a jobber to many, a skinny guy who kept to the mat constantly. He considered using his real name but Ole Anderson suggested a change and Savage just sounded better. While Poffo pushed his sons hard to the point of creating the ICW to make them stars, Savage was improving himself, not just in the ring but on the mic.
By the time he reached Memphis, he was already taking on his great promo style with the headbands and robes to stand out nicely. With WWE, he came with wife Elizabeth as his manager and his sensational flying elbow got fans going. A master of crowd control, Savage took off with a long IC title run, then WWE Champion and feuds with Hulk Hogan that sold out the house. It took a bit for him to find his place but Savage showed that dropping a mask can help nicely with a great star going forward.
7 John Cena
On one of Cena’s DVDs, JBL talks of seeing Cena in his rookie year and laughing “this kid doesn’t have a chance in hell.” With blonde hair and an overly muscular build, “The Prototype” was your typical muscleman but just did not stand out. True, he had a fun promo style (his “rewind” talk was a highlight) but still nothing much different than a dozen other guys. In WWE, he was given a good push from the start debuting against Kurt Angle but was seen as bland, with no real character and too much on the mechanical side for fans to get behind.
It took the famed Halloween episode and his Vanilla Ice impersonation for Cena to suddenly click with fans. It led to his rise as multiple champion and the face of WWE today. It’s truly amazing how that one party changed so much and how Cena went from some forgettable muscle guy to the man most associated with WWE today.
6 Ric Flair
Even the greatest have to start somewhere. Flair started out in college with Greg Gagne before dropping out and spent time as a bouncer among other random jobs. When Ken Patera brought him to Verne Gagne’s training camp, Flair considered quitting because of the brutally hard work Gagne put his recruits through. But he persevered and eventually graduated with a class including Ricky Steamboat. Believe it or not, Flair’s first idea was to have him be “Rambling Rick Rhodes,” a “cousin” of Dusty Rhodes, complete with cowboy outfit and he weighed nearly 300 pounds. Dusty himself suggested Flair was better off as his own person and Flair took that advice well. He shifted to a new technical style, losing weight and was inspired by Buddy Rogers to adopt the “Nature Boy” attitude.
Soon taking off as both a face and heel, Flair would win the NWA title, his lavish robes and fantastic promos boosting him to stardom as one of the biggest in the business. Pretty remarkable to see how one change in persona can shift so much in wrestling.
5 Shawn Michaels
Michaels had some okay skills when he started in Texas but nothing like The Showstopper he would become. He was the typical jobber with blonde hair showing up in World Class and other small promotions. He looked okay and had flashes of that cocky smile we know and love today, but still, he was just utilized to be crushed by bigger guys for much of his time. True, some like Terry Taylor saw some potential but for his first year, Michaels was just another guy on the roster. It took a bit for him to get to Minnesota where he and Marty Jannetty formed The Midnight Rockers and won the tag titles. Even then, their early stuff took a bit to really get going to become a sensational team with double-team moves never seen before and looking amazing.
Their run in WWE was terrific before Shawn became a singles heel and there too he needed a bit of time to develop into the cocky champion we know today. It showed the struggle it took for him to reach the top and how you don’t become “Mr. WrestleMania” overnight.
4 Trish Stratus
In 2000, Stratus was pretty much what fans expected from the women in WWE. Incredibly gorgeous with a stacked figure, she showed off her stuff in tight shorts and long jackets with a cowboy hat and looked terrific. She initially managed T&A (Test and Albert) and showed off in steamy videos and then the crazy storyline came with her as Vince McMahon’s “mistress.” But overall, Trish was nothing more than eye candy, no sign of doing anything better than showing off in a bikini. Word was that Hugh Hefner threw some big cash for her to do a Playboy spread only to have her rebuff it, wanting to be taken more seriously, which most thought was a losing battle.
But after some training, Stratus was suddenly turning into one of the best female workers around. She became a multiple champion, wowing crowds by pulling off great matches and invigorating the women’s division in WWE. Still looking terrific today, Trish showed some real guts and is one of the best evolutions of a star in modern WWE.
3 Hulk Hogan
It wasn’t that Hogan looked bad when he started out, he was just too bland. A muscular man, his mustache and hair were worse and he frankly looked horrible in the ring. He actually fell into wrestling as he wanted to be a rock star instead but it didn’t work out. Plus “Terry Boulder” isn’t exactly a name to strike fear in the hearts of opponents and he mumbled a lot. It took Verne Gagne to help Hogan build his frame and use his skill set well. He also helped Hogan unlock his inner charisma, taking off massively in promos and captivating audiences.
Gagne made the massive mistake of refusing to let Hogan have a run with the AWA title and so Hogan left for WWE. The rest is history as he became one of the single greatest stars this business has ever known. Hogan may have been huge in the end but it was ironic that he showed so little of that promise in his early going.
2 Roddy Piper
Piper was always the first to state he was nothing but a skinny shrimp from Saskatchewan when he got into wrestling. Indeed, he started at just 15 years old, lying about his age to get into training. He had almost no muscular build, was rough as hell and had a terrible haircut to boot. Yet he kept at it, training harder and found himself with a fantastic skill on the mic to fire up crowds. It took a bit for him to really get the “Hot Rod” personality down but he rose high in Mid-Atlantic with feuds against Ric Flair and his classic dog collar match with Greg Valentine.
That led to the WWE and his massive fame with feuds with Hulk Hogan, Piper’s Pit and more. While his death last year was a shock, it showcased how far Piper had come as this skinny little kid became one of the best talkers the business has known.
1 Mick Foley
Foley loves to talk about his changes as a wrestler. He grew to fame as the stocky Cactus Jack, amazing with taking insane amounts of damage and coming back for more. That led to his success in WWE as Mankind and Dude Love on top of other personas as well as being a famous author. But when he started out, Foley (going by “Jack Foley”) was a very skinny kid who barely knew anything about the business. He learned well as he went but it's still laughable to see him as this jobber with some bad jackets. His first TV appearance was in 1986 in a tag match against the British Bulldogs where Foley got his lip busted by a clothesline and a hard suplex finisher. Foley himself loves to chuckle about it and show how his dedication got him to become one of the biggest stars around.