The WWE has a habit of seeing something that works for a talent and taking it away. They also have their own homegrown talent whom they can’t quite find the right look for until some trial and error. Today, the WWE seems to be going back in the direction of letting established talents come in and stick with what works for them, rather than branding them with their own gimmick. We saw recent WWE newcomers AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura and Samoa Joe thrive under this new philosophy.
Every wrestler on this list came into WWE with a look that made you question if they would eventually become stars for the company. Some came in after finding success elsewhere and were given a whole new gimmick by WWE. Others were just starting in the business and WWE tried to build them in their own image and failed miserably. Fortunately, all these wrestlers overcame their initial shortcomings and went on to have long careers in wrestling.
Ultimately, most of these talents ended up having their best look when the company simply let them be themselves. In some cases though, it was a matter of finding the perfect gimmick.
Either way, sit back and enjoy seeing how these 15 eventual stars looked in their first year with WWE.
Okay, we get it WWE, John Layfield is a Texan. Needless to say, the WWE went a little overboard with JBL’s first gimmick. He debuted with the company in early 1996 and was known back then as Justin “Hawk” Bradshaw. Part of Bradshaw’s initial gimmick was to brand his opponents with the initials “JB” after a win. Bradshaw would remain undefeated for most of the year until losing a strap match to Savio Vega. Obviously, this was a time when the WWE was going over the top with cartoonish gimmicks and Layfield was one of many victims of the era. Anyone should have seen this gimmick didn’t have a chance of getting over.
The gimmick was dropped soon after and Bradshaw would eventually form The New Blackjacks alongside Barry Windham.
14. The Godfather (Sir Charles)
Charles Wright is the perfect example of someone that simply should have just been themselves from the get-go. Wright’s most famous gimmick was The Godfather and while Wright isn’t actually a pimp, he did go on to manage a strip club in Las Vegas.
Many will remember Wright’s voodoo gimmick of Papa Shango but before taking on that gimmick, Wright was simply known as Sir Charles in WWE. The name was meant to be a play off of both his real life name and the nickname of NBA star Charles Barkley.
He didn’t get much of a shelf life with the gimmick, as he only made one television appearance with it, on a Superstars taping in May of 1991. After using it at some house shows, he was eventually repackaged into the familiar Papa Shango in early 1992.
13. Randy Orton
I think I speak for everyone when I say there’s something unsettling about seeing Randy Orton in jeans and sandals.
After coming out of the legendary OVW class featuring Brock Lesnar, Batista and John Cena, Randy Orton made his WWE debut shortly after WrestleMania X-8. Like Justin Hawk Bradshaw, Orton had his debut match against Bob Holly, facing him on the April 25, 2002 edition of SmackDown. Orton then feuded with Holly, but a shoulder injury sidelined him for several months. While recovering Orton began his own Randy Orton News Network segment. It was meant to be an obnoxious weekly vignette talking about his condition.
That allowed Orton to transition into a self-centered heel and he really found his calling when he was placed in Evolution alongside Triple H, Ric Flair and Randy Orton.
12. Bob Holly
Bob Holly eventually played the role of being the veteran that all newcomers would face, but he was once a newcomer himself. Like many in his era, Holly was assigned a terrible occupational gimmick, billed as Bob “Spark Plug” Holly, a racecar driver. Holly actually had somewhat of an impressive showing in his first Royal Rumble, lasting over 21 minutes. Still though, there was no way anyone was going to take him seriously with checkered tights.
Holly didn’t spend much time in any significant angles or challenging for any meaningful titles. He would be stuck with the Spark Plug gimmick for years, before he was finally rebranded as Hardcore Holly during the Attitude Era and became a decent midcarder for the company. I wonder if any rookies ever had the nerve to call him “Sparky”.
11. Jeff Hardy
Oh God, that hair…
Jeff Hardy spent his first few years in WWE as a jobber, and in 1994 he had some matches with notable names like Razor Ramon and the 1-2-3 Kid. Hardy wouldn’t make too many appearances over the next serveral years, as he was only called upon occasionally to job to someone. He even faced RVD in a match during the ECW’s “invasion” of WWE in 1997.
As we know, Hardy would eventually find success alongside his brother Matt, when they formed The Hardy Boyz. Even then, there were some speed bumps, as their initial manager Michael Hayes, didn’t do much to elevate the tag team.
Going back to Hardy’s WWE debut though, he just doesn’t have the look of a future star here.
10. Mick Foley
While many associate Mick Foley’s rookie year with WWE as the year he debuted as Mankind, he actually wrestled a couple of matches with the company back in the mid 80s before he developed his Cactus Jack gimmick. Foley served as a jobber in a match against The British Bulldogs and he earned the respect of the locker room when he showed he was willing to take some stiff shots and vicious bumps from the Bulldogs. Little did anyone know, that was only a snippet of pain that Foley would take in his career, as he proved to be one of the toughest men in the business.
It’s amazing that 13 years after this insignificant match, Foley would defeat The Rock in one of the most important RAW main events in history.
9. Ron Simmons
Here is the case of a guy that had plenty of success before the WWE, only for the company to screw it all up. While the name Faarooq wasn’t necessarily the problem here with Ron Simmons, it’s that ridiculous helmet and tights that land him here. Ron Simmons was the business’s first African-American world champion having defeated Vader a few years earlier in WCW. Eventually the politics of WCW became too much for Simmons and he went to the WWE only to be saddled with this ridiculous outfit.
Eventually Simmons’ gimmick was revamped and he would form The Nation of Domination where he began to take off as a viable midcard star. He would also have success alongside Bradshaw as one half of The Acolytes.
8. John Cena
A common theme for this list seems to be bad haircuts. John Cena himself makes fun of the way his hair looked when he first debuted with the WWE. That night Cena responded to an open challenge by Kurt Angle and gave the Olympic gold medalist quite the match, earning a handshake from The Undertaker backstage after the match.
Cena was as vanilla as one could get, but fortunately he changed his gimmick to that of a rapper after some company officials overheard him freestyling on a tour bus in Europe. when Cena came down to that ring to face Kurt Angle, nobody could have guessed that they were looking at the next face of the company. All these years later, Cena is still on top and there’s no doubt he looks back at his debut and has a good laugh.
7. Daniel Bryan
Much like Mick Foley, Daniel Bryan worked sparingly in WWE well before his official debut with the company. Back in 2002, Bryan famously worked a match on Velocity against John Cena. Bryan came out in plain white trunks and had the look of an average man. Little did anyone know this match on Velocity would end up being the same matchup as a future SummerSlam main event (2013).
By 2010, his look hadn’t changed much other than the fact he came down to the ring in maroon tights. Bryan found his calling card when he began growing out his hair and his beard, becoming a hero to fans everywhere. It’s amazing to think this match was already 15 years ago. Time flies so fast in wrestling.
Sheamus rose to the top pretty quickly in WWE. He made some cameo appearances back in 2006, posing as a security guard alongside D-Generation X, but he made his main roster debut in 2009. After a quick rise to the top of the ECW brand, Sheamus would eventually make his way to RAW and was pushed quickly (some might say too quickly).
Here Sheamus is sporting his spiked up look along with a handlebar mustache, doing his best Triple H impersonation. Sheamus’s look has changed drastically today, as he now sports a mohawk and a braided beard. While he’s gotten chants of “YOU LOOK STUPID” since debuting that look, at least he has a signature look, unlike this one almost eight years ago.
5. Mark Henry
Back in 1996, the WWE decided to sign Mark Henry to a 10-year contract. After winning the U.S. National Weightlifting Championship three years in a row, and particpating in the 1996 Olympics, McMahon decided that the risk was worth taking.
Henry made his debut at 24 years old and began feuding with Jerry Lawler. Henry was given one of the most ridiculous stars and stripes outfits you could imagine. He had his debut match against Lawler at In Your House: Mind Games after months of training under Leo Burke.
McMahon soon came to regret the contract he signed Henry to and subsequently placed him in every bad angle imaginable. Fortunately, Henry perservered through all of that and is still with the company 21 years after signing that massive contract.
4. Triple H
Triple H boldly took a one-year deal from WCW instead of a multi-year option after telling Eric Bischoff: “after one year, you’ll either think I’m worth double this contract, or you’ll know I’m not worth jack-s***”. Triple H decided to go to WWE because he felt he’d get better with WWE’s heavier work schedule.
Triple H must have immediately regretted his decision when he was given the Conneticut Blue Blood gimmick of Hunter Hearst Helmsley, which was Vince’s way of making fun of his snooty neighbors. Despite the terrible gimmick, Hunter showed a lot of promise and a couple of years later, he tweaked the gimmick until joining Shawn Michaels to form D-Generation X.
He found his true calling and changed his look as he saw fit.
It’s amazing that Glenn Jacobs didn’t give up on the WWE after enduring gimmicks like Dr. Isaac Yankem and having the distinction of going around as the Fake Diesel. Jacobs worked his first match in WWE as Mike Unabomb at an early 1995 RAW taping, and would wrestle sparingly as Unabomb until August of that year. Things could only go up from there, right?
Eventually Jacobs became a regular television character, standing in as Jerry Lawler’s dentist Isaac Yankem. He was also saddled with the most irritating theme in wrestling history. For the next year or so, he would wrestle with that gimmick. After a failed stint as the Fake Diesel, Jacobs would finally be given a career-saving gimmick as Kane, The Undertaker’s half-brother.
2. Stone Cold
Austin’s story is well documented by this point, but considering how big of a star he became, it’s worth repeating. After an injury got him fired from WCW, Austin was able to hone his promo skills in ECW, in which he essentially vented his frustrations about working with WCW. This got him noticed by WWE and Jim Ross convinced McMahon to give him a shot.
Vince then gave Austin the gimmick of The Ringmaster, where he would serve as Ted DiBiase’s million dollar champion. This was a case where the manager only hindered the wrestler, as Austin didn’t need a mouthpiece. The gimmick was a complete failure and Austin decided to come up with his own look, branding himself Stone Cold Steve Austin. Who knew the look that would work would be a bald head, goatee, and plain black boots and trunks?
1. The Rock
It’s easy to look at The Rock and see a superstar. Even when you see old photos of him, if you look past the bad haircut, you can see a future star in the making. The WWE obviously felt this way, but they completely miscast The Rock as the happy, go-lucky babyface. Rocky Maivia would come down to the ring and his whole gimmick seemed to be a lame combination of his grandfather Peter Maivia and his father Rocky Johnson.
Maivia would eventually turn heel and ditch the wholesome good guy image and became an arrogant, obnoxious man known as The Rock. And it worked!
The Rock’s never forgotten his roots, but I suppose when you look as ridiculous as he did in his rookie year, it’s hard to forget that.
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