If there’s one thing in life that’s certain, it’s that you’ll go through changes — no matter what age you are. But it’s one thing to do it in everyday life; it’s another thing to do it on television, in front of a worldwide audience throughout someone’s adult life.
That’s something that wrestlers have to go through.
Throughout their careers, characters, attire and hair colors will change just as much as body types and muscles. Before Steve Austin was stone cold, he had long blonde hair. Before Daniel Bryan had long hair and a very long beard, his head was shaved to a near-bald length while he was clean shaven.
But that’s not all. Years before Kevin Nash was Diesel, he had an orange mohawk as one-half of the Master Blasters. Roman Reigns was accustomed to wearing basic trunks before he wore his Shield garb. Even CM Punk wore basic basketball shorts before he wore tights once joining the WWE.
Wrestling is the simplest form of evolution that happens before your eyes, as things change on a weekly basis. With that being said, let’s take a look at 15 former and current WWE stars and see what they looked like before they were signed by Vince McMahon.
15 Mick Foley
By the time Mick Foley made his way to the WWE, he was already a star in multiple countries. While he toned down his hardcore act a considerable amount, he also reached the highest ceiling of success working as Mankind. While he also worked under his old moniker (Cactus Jack) and childhood character (Dude Love), it was Mankind who went on to win the WWE Championship three times while also holding the WWE Tag Team Championship with all-time greats in Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock.
But before he wrestled for the Vince McMahon-led promotion, Foley was the recognized as the King of the Death Match, as he competed in Japan, ECW, and WCW. In the picture above, Foley was just beginning to test out his Cactus Jack character in the now defunct Universal Wrestling Federation.
14 Dean Ambrose
Similar to Foley, Dean Ambrose made a name for himself all over the globe before stepping foot inside a WWE ring. But it’s hard to deny that he’s as big of a star that he ever could’ve been ever since joining the biggest wrestling company in the world. After being a part of one of the best stables in wrestling history with The Shield, the Lunatic Fringe has gone on to become one of the top acts in the WWE, as evidenced by his multiple runs as champion and by his reactions each time he wrestles in front of a live audience.
But Ambrose is reminiscent of Foley in more ways than one. During his time on the indies, Ambrose — who worked as Jon Moxley — was seen as one of the top hardcore wrestlers on the planet, as he would put his body on the line each and every time he wrestled. As you can see above, Ambrose was never afraid to shed some blood, either.
13 The Big Show
Ever since The Big Show debuted in the WWE in 1999, he was positioned as one of the biggest stars the company had ever seen. While his size did play a huge factor, it was his athleticism in his earlier years that made him stand out as well. Throughout his later years, The Big Show was relegated to upper mid-card feuds while swapping from face to heel at a moments notice but he also been a consistent hand for the WWE and will be a Hall of Famer once his career comes to a close.
Unlike plenty of wrestlers, The Big Show didn’t have to start his career as a jobber and work his way up. Instead, Show — who worked as The Giant — debuted in WCW in 1995 and won the WCW World Heavyweight Championship upon arrival. While it helped that he was friends with Hulk Hogan, it’s still a testament to his skills that he was pegged as a main eventer from day one.
12 CM Punk
When the WWE finally pulled the trigger and signed CM Punk, it was obvious they didn’t know what to do with him. He was one of the biggest stars in independent wrestling history but first appeared to be a lost cause in the company. But by the time Punk walked out on the WWE, he became one of their biggest stars since the Attitude Era, as he was a five-time Heavyweight Champion and was as relatable wrestler as there was at that time.
Punk, however, was a star well before WWE came calling, as he was one of the top draws in IWA and Ring of Honor, amongst others. As evidenced by the picture above, Punk never changed to conform to his new jobs, as, outside of his gear, his look largely remained the same throughout his wrestling career.
11 Scott Hall
Scott Hall was a well-traveled veteran before he made his way to the WWE — but it was there where he finally found his niche and became a household name across North America. Donning the gimmick of Razor Ramon, Hall’s cool factor and in-ring ability made him a top draw, despite never holding the WWE Championship. While he went on to become a focal point when he signed with WCW in 1996, it was with the WWE where Hall found his place in wrestling.
Before Vince McMahon signed him, Hall did have a great look but was as bland as they come. Pictured above was his time spent in the American Wrestling Association, where his physique was unparalleled but his lack of character hindered his growth. While he went on to become one of the biggest deals in wrestling, Hall was nothing but a blip on the radar in his early days.
10 Kevin Nash
On the topic of Hall, let’s go with his Kliq buddy and Outsider partner in Kevin Nash for our next selection. Similar to Hall’s career, Nash had trouble breaking out before finding his way to the WWE. But once he did, Vince McMahon put a rocket on his back and shot him to the moon. Wrestling as Diesel, his size alone put him into the main event and kept him there up until he decided to sign with WCW.
Let’s go back to his pre-WWE days, shall we? Nash was always pushed a considerable amount due to his size but poor character development was his downfall. Pictured above was his time spent as “Steel,” who was one-half of the Master Blasters. His time spent as Steel was almost as bad as his days as Oz and Vinnie Vegas…
9 Roman Reigns
Whether fans like it or not, Roman Reigns is positioned as the top draw in today’s WWE. While a lot of the WWE Universe enjoys booing Reigns’s superhero-like antics, it’s hard to deny that he’s a very good wrestler inside of the squared circle and has the look Vince McMahon loves. While his push can get tedious, he’s someone who’s going to be on top of a majority of the cards for the foreseeable future.
Unlike a number of other current WWE Superstars, Reigns didn’t go through the independent circuit as he signed with the WWE’s farm system — FCW — to begin his career. Using the name Leakee, Reigns always had the it-factor but struggled to find his groove inside of the ring. He did, however, win the FCW Tag Team Championships with Mike Dalton, now known as Tyler Breeze.
8 The Undertaker
Let’s shift our attention to the other half of the WrestleMania 33 main event, The Undertaker. Before he was retired by Roman Reigns at the Showcase of the Immortals, ‘Taker was recognized as WWE’s flag bearer and one of the greatest superstars to ever step foot in the ring. He was able to take a somewhat goofy character and turn it into his own, making it one of the most memorable gimmicks in WWE history.
But before he wrestled as The Deadman, The Undertaker struggled to find his way in the early days of his career. Whether it was in WCCW, the USWA or WCW, he displayed a tremendous amount of agility for a big man inside of the ring but never had the character nor the backing of the decision makers to make him the total package.
7 Daniel Bryan
Is there a greater success story in WWE history than Daniel Bryan? After being signed off the independent circuit, he was a focal point of the first season of NXT — but after choking out ring announcer Justin Roberts with his tie, Bryan was released shortly thereafter. Bringing him back a couple of months later was one of the best things the company has ever done, as Bryan ascended from mid-card talent to arguably the most over superstar since Stone Cold Steve Austin. His World Heavyweight Championship win at WrestleMania XXX is one of the greatest moments in the show’s history.
But before he stepped foot inside of the WWE ring, he went by his real name Bryan Danielson, The American Dragon. A star in Ring of Honor, he was seen as one of the top independent stars around the globe. While he looks vastly different without the long hair and longer beard, he was as talented as he ever was back in the day.
6 Seth Rollins
A company-wide mindset change that started with the aforementioned CM Punk and Daniel Bryan paved the way for Seth Rollins to succeed in the WWE. After working with Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns in The Shield, he went on to become The Authority’s top star, en route to his first World Heavyweight Championship win. Now featured as one of the top faces on Raw, Rollins continues to star as one of the most talented wrestlers in the entire company.
Like Punk and Bryan, Rollins was a focal point on the independent circuit. Working as Tyler Black, he went on to become one of the biggest stars to come through Ring of Honor. The picture posted above was even before his ROH days, as Rollins wrestled for multiple promotions across the U.S. As you can see he had to pay his dues by performing with ridiculous gimmicks.
5 Shawn Michaels
There aren’t many people who were blessed with two massively successful stints in the WWE but Shawn Michaels is one of the exceptions. Throughout the 1990s, Michaels went from a rising star as one-half of The Rockers to the face of the company before he left in 1998. When he returned in 2002, he was better than ever as Michaels was able to use his old school wrestling mindset and athleticism to compete with the top stars of that era.
But before The Heartbreak Kid became one of the WWE’s top stars, he was quietly rising through the ranks throughout different territories. His picture is a familiar one, as he was teaming with Marty Jannetty in the American Wrestling Association, well before they signed with Vince McMahon.
4 AJ Styles
For years, AJ Styles was the poster child of someone who could succeed without the help of the WWE. But once he finally signed on the dotted line and joined the company in January of 2016, his star level has reached heights that he hadn’t reached previously. Despite being with the WWE for less than two years, he’s become arguably the top star in the company and has made Smackdown Live into must-see TV.
While Styles tried his hand in many small independent promotions in the late 1990s, he made it to the big time by signing with WCW in 2001. While the company closed shortly thereafter, it showed that Styles had the ability to wrestle on the biggest of stages. That case was proven even further as he became a bonafide star everywhere he went, including but not limited to Ring of Honor, TNA, and New Japan Pro Wrestling.
3 Brock Lesnar
One of the biggest complaints about the current product is that the WWE fails to have any true stars on their roster. While he isn’t a full-time talent, there is always one exception to the rule — and in this case, it’s Brock Lesnar. After a successful stint in UFC, Lesnar returned to the company a bigger star than he’s ever been and went on a streak paralleled by no one, including ending The Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak, squashing John Cena en route to winning the World Heavyweight Championship, and currently holding the WWE Universal Championship.
Similar to Roman Reigns, Lesnar didn’t have his talents tested on the independent scene, as he made the jump from collegiate star to WWE developmental. Pegged as a star from day one, he worked with big names like John Cena and Batista and was fast tracked to the main roster, as he made his WWE debut just two years into his career.
2 John Cena
When it comes to the WWE’s Mount Rushmore, there will be a place for John Cena. After losing stars like Steve Austin and The Rock, it was John Cena who took the ball and ran with it. After starring with a rapper gimmick, Cena went on to become the face of the WWE during a time when it wasn’t as popular as years prior. Despite getting mixed reactions for a majority of his career, it’s clear that the entire WWE Universe respects everything Cena has done.
Cena, however, wasn’t always pegged to be a star. After working as a bodybuilder out in California, he made the jump to the wrestling business and joined Ultimate Pro Wrestling to train. Despite being rough around the edges, it took him just two years of experience to sign with the WWE.
1 Steve Austin
Speaking of the Mount Rushmore for the WWE, Stone Cold Steve Austin has a cemented spot as well. While he wasn’t on top for long, Austin was the biggest star to ever step foot inside of a WWE ring. He came along at the right place at the right time, as his anti-authority character struck a chord with the rebellious crowds of the late 90s. His beer-chugging and middle finger saluting nature was beloved by everyone, making the six-time WWE Champion one of the greatest ever.
While he always possessed the it-factor to make it in the wrestling business, he never took that next step. Whether it was in the earlier days of his career in WCCW and USWA (pictured above) or with WCW, he was relegated to mid-card duties. It wasn’t until Paul Heyman brought him into ECW when it was obvious Austin had star power.