It seems like some WWE superstars get chance after chance to get over. Guys like Roman Reigns, John Cena, and Randy Orton seem to always get opportunities despite having difficulty connecting with the audience. They are constantly shoved in front of the crowd. It makes it very difficult for new wrestlers to break through the ranks and get the support of the fans. It’s pretty simple, if the higher ups in WWE don’t get behind a wrestler, it can be nigh on impossible for them to get over.
If a wrestler isn’t showing up on TV regularly, they sometimes have to get creative to make an impact on the audience. Some have taken to social media to connect to fans, others went through experimental gimmick changes that the brass never thought would work. Sometimes, they simply make the most of the little television time they have and make sure to put on the best matches imaginable.
Good wrestling helps make a wrestler popular? Go figure.
Here, we’re going to take a look at 15 wrestlers who tried to get over without WWE’s help. Ten of these superstars were able to achieve success through their unconventional means. Five, on the other hand, failed miserably.
15 Over – Rusev
What day is today? If you answered, “Why it’s Rusev Day, Mr. Kerstetter!” Then you deserve a treat. Go fetch the fattest goose in all the village, you’ve earned it!
Behind the scenes, Rusev has been one of the funniest wrestlers on the WWE roster. This can be witnessed on twitter and Total Divas. His impeccable comedic timing was hardly showcased throughout his early career. After moving to SmackDown Live as part of the Superstar Shake-up, Rusev was thrust into feuds with John Cena and Randy Orton. After making up for a loss in ten-seconds to the Viper, things began to change for the Bulgarian Brute. He declared the day of his victory to be Rusev Day. As well as every day after. In perpetuity.
Currently, cheers of “Rusev Day” emanate throughout whatever venue WWE is in. Even if the man isn’t on the show.
14 Over – Matt Hardy
Throughout the bulk of his 26 years in the wrestling business, Matt Hardy was generally seen as the “lesser Hardy.” He seemed to lack the flashy, death-defying moves and general charisma of his brother Jeff.
It wasn’t until 2016, while in TNA, that Matt made a drastic change in character and came into his own. After a being pushed to the edge, something in Matt…broke. He dyed a lock of hair blonde, began wearing long sleeveless robes, and spoke in an indecipherable accent. It was amazing. Broken Matt Hardy began producing strange videos from his compound that introduced a cabal of characters like Señor Benjamin and Vanguard 1, his trusty drone. The act was such a success in TNA and Ring of Honor that WWE resigned the Hardys just to get their hands on the gimmick. Hardy’s broken state is now woken in front of an even larger audience.
13 Failed – Ted DiBiase
Here is an example of a former tag team wrestler trying his best to succeed without the help of writers. Unlike his former Legacy brethren (keep reading!), Ted DiBiase’s grassroots attempt at getting the crowd behind him was a failure. In 2011, The Million Dollar Boy had turned babyface and was having a difficult time reaching the crowd. His gimmick went from entitled rich kid to handsome hunting enthusiast(?). To connect with the audience Teddy would host “DiBiase Posse” tailgate parties before shows.
The events always seemed like forced and contrived. About a dozen or so fans would pose for photo ops with the former Tag Team Champion while wearing oversized, bland #DiBiasePosse shirts and holding free copies of The Marine 2. Most importantly, the parties didn’t have any beer. That’s the first rule of tailgating!
12 Over – James Ellsworth
To paraphrase the recently released James Ellsworth, any man with two hands and a microphone has a fighting chance. Like Blue Pants before him, Ellsworth was brought in as cannon fodder for a wrestler WWE was trying to make look strong. In James’ case, his opponent was Braun Strowman. In addition to his pre-match pep talk, the David vs Goliath matchup was enough to endear the scrawny jobber to the audience.
By the time he made his second appearance two months later, Ellsworth was a bonafide sensation. His less-than-athletic look made him appealing to fans who could not only see themselves in his shoes but could also see themselves scoring victories over him. His fighting chance ended up lasting 16 months with the company. Not bad for, as JBL described him, a “turtle without a shell.”
11 Over – Cody
The man formerly known as Cody Rhodes is proof of the benefits of knowing your worth. After years and years of believing he was mistreated and never getting the opportunities he deserved in WWE, the second-generation superstar left the promotion in 2016.
Immediately, Cody started racking up bookings for independent promotions like Evolve, Pro Wrestling Guerilla, and Global Force Wrestling. Things would really heat up when he joined Ring of Honor and debuted at their biggest pay-per-view of the year, Final Battle. This is where he would meet the Young Bucks and eventually join the worldwide phenomenon, Bullet Club. The added star power propelled the stable to heights it had never imagined. Two years ago, who would have thought Hot Topic would have a hard time keeping Cody Rhodes shirts on the shelf?
10 Failed – Paul London
The smile that tanked a career. In 2007, Raw was set to create a storyline that involved the death of its creator, Vince McMahon. On the eve of what was dubbed “Mr. McMahon Appreciation Night,” the chairman walked backstage through a sea of jobbers to his limousine once he shut the door of his car, it exploded into flames. Fans noticed something very strange during the backstage segment. All of the superstars had blank or confused looks while McMahon passed them. All of them, except for Paul London. London was wearing a big, goofy grin the entire time.
After this, a lot of eyes were on London. Some blogs at the time even reported that London was the culprit and was in line for a mega-push. London, who was indeed hoping to get some extra attention, was eventually fired for taking away from the supposedly somber story.
9 Over – CM Punk
Here, we have what will go down as one of the greatest wrestling promos of all time. CM Punk’s pipe bomb took the superstar from talented wrestler to cult hero. Despite already having three reigns as World Heavyweight Champion, CM Punk struggled to reach the status of John Cena.
On June 27, 2011, tired of start and stop pushes and scripted dialogue written by writers who had never wrestled, Punk took matters, and the mic, into his own hands. Adorned in a “Stone Cold” Steve Austin shirt, the Straight Edge Superstar sat cross-legged at the top of the stage, and, for six minutes, spoke from the heart. He lamented on the state of the WWE, his issues with backstage politics, and even used the fabled W-word. It was a dream come true for fans the world over and cemented Punk as the “Best in the World.”
8 Over – Zack Ryder
In 2011, Zack Ryder was one of the first superstars to really grasp the concept of social media. He understood that it allowed him to not only make inexpensive content but to reach millions and millions of fans instantly. Since Ryder wasn’t being utilized by WWE, he had a lot of free time on his hands to experiment with YouTube. This lead to the creation of Z! True Long Island Story. The web series was a hit with fans, who watched as Ryder try and do a litany of things like getting over…a fence.
Fans were hooked and their chants of, “We want Ryder,” were finally answered when he won the United States Championship at 2011’s TLC pay-per-view. Although he’s been unable to reach the same level of success, Ryder is always an underdog that wrestling fans love to cheer.
7 Failed – Curt Hawkins
Curt Hawkins saw the success that his former partner Zack Ryder had with Z! True Long Island Story and tried to replicate it. Using a crude animation program, Hawkins poorly ripped off South Park with simplistic designs and crude humor. The show, Midcard Mafia, starred Hawkins, Tyler Reks, and Tyson Kidd as themselves trying to get succeed in the business. Hawkins also voiced Drew McIntyre and a talking cane. I guess that’s why he carries one around. It’s his friend?
The unfunny comedy quickly caught the ire of WWE and Hawkins pulled every episode from YouTube, sparring unsuspecting fans from accidentally stumbling upon the abomination. This wasn’t the Star Maker’s last foray into the world of online content. After his first release, he produced Making Towns a vlog about the life of an independent wrestler. The show was much better than his previous effort but failed to find an audience.
6 Over – Dolph Ziggler
Since (re-)debuting in 2008 as a heel, Ziggler busted his butt and constantly put on some of the best matches, night in and night out. While teaming with Jack Swagger as reigning United States Championship, Ziggler would often pull double duty and wrestle two matches in a night. This allowed fans to see a lot of the Show Off and grow to love him, simply by watching him steal the show.
There is always a certain pop from the audience when a wrestler attempts to cash in their Money in the Bank Briefcase. They’re either cheers, like when CM Punk cashed in on Batista, or boos, like when Randy Orton cashed in on Daniel Bryan, but they’re always massive. None of them, however, have been as colossal as the one Dolph Ziggler received when he cashed in the night after WrestleMania 29.
5 Over – Hulk Hogan
This might come as a surprise to a lot of readers, but Hulk Hogan wasn’t always the McMahon’s golden child. In fact, before his recent stint as public enemy number one for his post-coital racially-charged tirade, Hogan was in the doghouse once before. The reason? For filming Rocky III. The company at the time was owned by Vincent J. McMahon, the father of the company’s current chairman.
According to the Hulkster, Vince Sr. said, “If you go and make that movie, you’ll never work here again.” The McMahon’s were bent on keeping their promise until the movie came out in May of 1982. Rocky III was a huge success, it was the fourth highest-grossing movie of the year and made Hulk Hogan a worldwide phenomenon. Hogan would return to the WWF in December of that very year.
4 Failed – Daniel Puder
There are a lot of different ways wrestlers have tried to get over. Some opted to put on the best matches on the card, others showcased their personalities on the mic or on the web, Daniel Puder tried by attempting to break the arm of an Olympic hero.
During the fourth season of Tough Enough (aka, the one with the Miz), Kurt Angle challenged any of the contests to a shoot fight. Puder, an MMA expert, jumped at the chance. He was quickly taken down by the Angle but synched in a kimura lock. He had planned on legitimately injuring Angle, but the ref quickly counted Puder’s shoulders for a pin.
He would eventually win Tough Enough, but his only TV appearance was during the 2005 Royal Rumble match where he was chopped and beaten by Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, and Hardcore Holly. Punishment for how he treated Angle.
3 Over – Blue Pants
Leva Bates wasn’t even signed to an NXT contract when she was the most over talent on the show. All she had to do was wear blue pants.
Originally brought in as a jobber to lose to Carmella, there was something in the air at Full Sail on the night of October 16, 2014. Once the match began, the crowd was chanting, “Let’s go Blue Pants,” from bell to bell. A month later, B.P. would make her return to NXT in another losing effort to Carmella. This time, the crowd was even more excited.
After losing most of her matches with the crowd soundly behind her, the reaction Bates received at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn nearly blew the roof off of the Barclays Center.
2 Over – Daniel Bryan
Daniel Bryan came in last on the first season of NXT. He was fired upon the Nexus debut. His first WrestleMania match was on the pre-show and his second lasted sixteen seconds.
Despite all of this, through incredible wrestling and an infectious personality, he created a movement. Granted, the Occupy Raw segment was 100% staged, but you can tell by the looks of the fans in the ring that they really did love and support Bryan. This reaction was taken to the next level when Daniel Bryan won the WWE Championship at WrestleMania XXX. It gave the fans a feeling that they help accomplish something by supporting a hero they could believe in.
We all know how the story ends, but for a moment in time for wrestling fans, Daniel Bryan was the most important man in the world.
1 Failed – Judas Devlin
The fact that there’s a good chance you don’t know the name Judas Devlin is a testament to how he was unable to get himself over. Devlin, real name Austin Matelson, claims that he was the first choice to portray Bryan Wyatt’s prodigal son in NXT. It makes total sense, the 6-foot-four and 230-pound Devlin has a heavily tattooed and bearded look that would have fit right in with the backwoods cultists.
What happened? He suffered an injury that kept him on the self when the Wyatts took off. After healing, Devlin apparently tried to jump the line with the tweet, “I feel the pain of Sister Abigail…” Obviously, this never came to fruition. Some believe he was punished for revealing this before WWE was ready.
Devlin would go on to be the main whistleblower behind the poor treatment of NXT trainees that lead to the release of Bill DeMott.