For the longest time, you could predict the kinds of people that WWE would be looking to hire with ease. Vince’s personal checklist for what makes a top superstar in WWE is pretty well known. It’s common knowledge that Vince prefers larger men with a more muscular tone over smaller, more athletically-inclined wrestlers. He has made this philosophy quite obvious, given his penchant for pushing the musclemen into the forefront of WWE programming at the expense of the tried-and-tested workhorses.
Given that ingrained mentality of his, it is very surprising that Vince actually agreed to sign so many different individuals to his roster over the years. Somehow, Vince has managed to control his ego on several occasions and agreed to sign several wrestlers that most certainly didn’t fit his specific criteria.
In most other circumstances, Vince was very specific on who he wanted in his company. Vince has always hated competition, and never liked the idea of having someone that was an established star elsewhere come into his promotion and be that exact same star in his ring. He wanted his stamp of approval on everything, right down to that wrestler’s very name.
Take Vader, for example. He was an internationally-recognized star who achieved success in NJPW, WCW, and AJPW. When he signed with WWE, Vince immediately wanted to change his name to ‘The Mastodon’ or something along those lines. That said, it wasn’t that surprising that WWE signed Vader. He was a huge wrestler that could work and had surprising agility. It was far more shocking when he signed the following 15 wrestlers, most of whom contrasted far more with Vince’s vision of a top WWE superstar than Vader ever could.
15. Brock Lesnar (For His Post-MMA Return To WWE)
At the dawn of the 2010s, no one expected Brock to return to wrestling, much less WWE. He had left Vince’s promotion on somewhat bad terms, had to endure a lengthy legal battle, and wasn’t that big of a hit when he hit New Japan.
Once he became a major draw in MMA, it was expected that he’d stay there for as long as possible and then retire from professional combat sports. If he did so, he’d retire a very wealthy man.
So imagine everyone’s surprise when Lesnar actually signed a deal with WWE and returned in 2012. Although there were some obvious rumors and leaks that he was in the building the night after WrestleMania 28, the ovation he received when his music played was thunderous nonetheless. Lesnar returned, demolished John Cena, and made millions of people around the world smile while doing so.
Since then, Lesnar won another World championship, ended the Undertaker’s WrestleMania undefeated Streak, and carved a niche for himself as one of the company’s top part-timers.
WWE’s track record regarding Japanese wrestlers has been spotty, at best. Most of their previous stars were turned into ethnic stereotypes or comedy characters, which is a major disservice to the rich and exciting history of Puroresu in Japan. Many of the greatest matches of all time involved Japanese wrestlers, and there was a short period during the 1990s when Japanese joshis were the best female wrestlers on the planet. That tradition remains strong in Japan, with many current joshis being among the most skilled wrestlers active today.
One of those women is Kana, who was signed by WWE seemingly out of nowhere in 2015.
In signing Kana, WWE basically made an about-face on their previous philosophy towards Japanese stars. Kana, now renamed Asuka, was presented as a legitimately-dangerous shootfighter from the moment she debuted. Everything about her was a demonstration of why so many fans love Japanese wrestling: her strikes were stiff and realistic, her selling was strong, and her submissions looked legitimate.
13. Tyler Black/Seth Rollins
If you were to look at Seth Rollins’s wrestling career before WWE, you’d be surprised that WWE signed him back in 2010. Not because he wasn’t a good wrestler, but because he was arguably the best definition of an ‘indie wrestler’ that you could find.
His pre-WWE matches fit into that ‘independent scene’ image that most fans hold when thinking of non-WWE guys: a lot of dangerous and crazy moves you’d rarely find in a WWE ring, very rudimentary storylines, and a major emphasis on in-ring action over anything else.
In fact, when he debuted on RAW as a member of the Shield, there was this belief that of the three of them (Rollins, Ambrose, and Reigns), it would be Rollins/Black who’d be the least-pushed once that trio dissolved.
Fast forward four years and Rollins has proved everyone wrong when they doubted him. He countered the shock and unexpected nature of his WWE signing by becoming a certified top superstar. He has main-evented WrestleMania, won the World Championship twice, and has put on several critically-acclaimed matches.
Rollins is only 30 years old and has already accomplished so much in WWE. given his talents and abilities, it’s likely that WWE will keep him for a very long time, further cementing the notion that his WWE signing was done for all the right reasons.
12. KENTA/Hideo Itami
If there’s one guy that nobody ever expected to wrestle in a WWE ring, it’s KENTA. He’s incredibly small, even by Japanese standards, and based his entire wrestling style on being the stiffest kicker in the world. Given WWE’s favoritism towards bigger guys and softer style, it was pretty much guaranteed that KENTA wouldn’t fit in WWE at any point in time.
And yet WWE signed him in 2014. Not only that, but they brought Hulk Hogan in to his official WWE contract signing to add significance to that event. You know a company has high expectations of you when they bring in their biggest legend (at least, before his racism scandal) to officiate your contract signing.
Unfortunately, KENTA hasn’t lived up to the hype since his signing. He has been sidelined by two big injuries, the first of which put him out of action for over a year. Secondly, the fan reaction to him hasn’t been as stellar as initially expected. WWE must’ve thought he’d get the same Daniel Bryan-like reaction when he was on offense, but the simple truth is that his wrestling style might be too foreign, even for NXT’s hardcore audience.
11. El Generico/Sami Zayn
El Generico was the epitome of the indies wrestler. He was small and a bit skinny, wasn’t the best at cutting promos, and in some respects had an over-reliance on aerial and ‘flippy’ moves. Everything about him ensured that he’d spend his entire career on the independent scene.
So imagine everyone’s surprise when El Generico signed with WWE in early 2013. He arrived in NXT long before many other big names from outside WWE like Kevin Steen, Prince Devitt, Samoa Joe, and KENTA. This signing turned a lot of heads, as many people wondered how WWE would treat someone like the newly-renamed Sami Zayn.
Surprisingly, they gave him the freedom to do what he was best at: crazy technical wrestling with lots of amazing aerial moves interlaced throughout his matches. Before Balor became the spokesperson for NXT during his title reign, it was Zayn who really elevated the show with his stellar matches and undeniable connection with the crowd.
On one hand, it’s excellent to see a wrestler of Zayn’s caliber wrestling in WWE, given how few people thought he’d ever make it there. On the other hand, he’s barely being used at the moment, despite wrestling in two of the best matches this year. This makes some people worry about Zayn’s long-term prospects in WWE, as he has already made some of the more ‘desired’ top guys look worse by comparison.
10. Samoa Joe
Samoa Joe once dreamed of wrestling for WWE. He trained in California, wrestled current WWE top guy John Cena and was in the same group of potential talent as WWE alumni Nathan Jones and Heidenreich. Unfortunately, the mid-2000s was a time when Vince was still being Vince to the fullest, so he chose two tall musclemen over a somewhat chubby-looking worker like Joe.
After that, Joe became something of a legend on the wrestling scene outside WWE. He became a must-see wrestler in TNA and ROH, wrestling in the best match ever in the former promotion and took part in the best match of 2005 against Japanese legend Kenta Kobashi in the latter.
He became a TNA mainstay, winning numerous awards and titles, but was vastly underutilized once the Hogan/Bischoff era began. Once TNA’s downward spiral began, Joe’s future became uncertain, especially since his physique remained pretty much the same.
And yet, WWE signed him in May 2015, which shocked many people. You see, to Vince, physique is a major attribute, as he has been very image-conscious for decades. So for him to agree to bring someone like Samoe Joe to his company was a direct contradiction to the mindset he has been adhering to since before WrestleMania was even a thing.
Many will claim that Joe’s signing was purely a Triple H decision, but one must never forget that every big decision in WWE must get Vince’s stamp of approval. That makes it all the more surprising that Vince would sign Samoa Joe to a WWE contract, especially when Joe doesn’t fit his physique criteria and spent a decade competing against WWE.
9. The Radicalz (Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, Perry Saturn & Dean Malenko)
One of the main reasons WCW began to falter by the end of the 1990s was that many fans became aware of the backstage political environment in the promotion. They knew that smaller guys like the names listed above were never going to be taken seriously as draws because they were small, and the term ‘vanilla midget’ was used to describe them.
WCW were proven just how wrong their mentality was when this foursome of small-yet-technically-skilled wrestlers appeared on the January 31, 2000 episode of RAW, first as attendants in the crowd and later in an altercation with WWE talent. It was a shock to see them in a WWE arena as they were all believed to still be signed with WCW. This was especially true for Benoit, who was still technically WCW World Heavyweight Champion.
WCW’s misconception about the Radicalz was given more condemnation after the ratings came out for that day. WCW’s Nitro on January 31, 2000 drew a rating of 2.79, while RAW drew a whopping 6.59. The segment featuring the Radicalz wrestling drew an 8.1 rating. No wonder WCW was considered such a sinking ship.
8. Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger (For One Appearance)
There might not be an active wrestler more revered by both wrestling fans and wrestlers themselves than Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger. By all accounts, Liger is the man who revolutionized cruiserweight wrestling in the 1990s.
He truly overcame the massive glass ceiling that existed in Japanese wrestling at the time (due to traditions stemming from sumo wrestling) and became arguably a bigger draw than any cruiserweight in Japan before or since, including the original Tiger Mask. He was a real-life superhero both in terms of costume and ability: he could fly like Superman and looked like he was pulled straight out of an anime.
Yet WWE never seemed to grasp the superstardom that followed Liger whenever he went. WWE did sign their own masked superhero in Rey Mysterio, but fans still hoped that one day Rey would be joined by some esteemed colleagues he had great matches with in WCW.
Sadly that wouldn’t happen…until 2015, when WWE signed Jushin Liger for one match.
Liger wrestled a single match against Tyler Breeze in 2015. Even though it was an opening match, it was still something groundbreaking. Liger was, and still is, a true wrestling legend, someone that’s universally-respected wherever he goes.
The fact that WWE made an overture to Liger (who, at the time, was 50 and still quite active), and he accepted, says a lot about how NXT’s image has changed over the years, and how WWE is changing its attitude towards outside stars.
7. Kevin Steen/Owens
Like many others on this list, Kevin Steen wasn’t expected to become a WWE Superstar because of his appearance. He’s of average height, has an average looking face and has a noticeable gut. All of these things contradict what Vince looks for in future talent.
But Kevin Steen has a lot of heart and determination. After all, he cuts arguably the best promos in WWE today, and this is from a man for whom English is a second language (seriously, he learned to speak English mainly by watching old WWE tapes).
In what has become a beautiful story of a person overcoming adversity, Kevin Steen was signed by WWE in August 2014, after spending over a decade wrestling on the independent circuit. Six months later, he won the NXT Championship. Three months after that, he made his main roster debut against John Cena, and then proceeded to have three outstanding matches against him. A year later, Kevin Owens, the man who was once ridiculed on SmackDown for being fat, became WWE Universal Champion.
Now Owens sits atop the RAW roster with that championship around his waist, with the full support of the majority of the roster and the creative team. But most importantly, it’s believed he managed to win over Vince McMahon with his great matches and excellent promo style.
Expect to see a lot of Kevin Owens for years to come. The man has accomplished a lot in two years, and will likely remain in a top spot on RAW given how he managed to take WWE by storm despite not being the kind of superstar Vince was looking for.
6. Shinsuke Nakamura
Ever since he became the flamboyant and eccentric ‘King of Strong Style,’ Nakamura has been one of NJPW’s biggest cash cows. He stands out in a crowd and backs up his inherent wackiness with a legitimately dangerous and stiff wrestling style. He was pushed as one of Antonio Inoki’s top guys in NJPW from the moment he debuted, and it was presumed that, like Tanahashi and Okada, Nakamura would be with the company for a very long time.
And yet, immediately following his stellar performance at NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom X event, news broke out that Nakamura had signed with WWE. Then, a few weeks later, the official video showing his signing was released.
It shook the wrestling world to its core. WWE had acquired arguably the biggest star New Japan had, one that turned far more heads among casual observers than either Tanahashi or Okada. It was a very big deal, and for very good reason.
Of course, there was (well-justified) fear among wrestling fans that Nakamura’s WWE signing would lead him to be ‘molded’ into WWE’s style, which would strip him of key elements of his persona. Thankfully, those fears were put to rest as Triple H gave him permission to do whatever he wanted to do.
That has allowed the WWE/NXT audience to be exposed to one of the wackiest, most brilliant wrestling characters active today, and given his monumental push so far, the future for Nakamura in WWE looks very bright.
5. CM Punk
The story of what CM Punk endured during his WWE tenure is well-documented. He faced so many barriers and preconceptions that few expected him to ever really go far in that promotion. While he was a very good wrestler, his look was in stark contrast to what WWE was looking for.
They wanted big guys that were clean shaven and tattoo-free so that they could make more ‘family-friendly’ stars like John Cena. CM Punk was skinny, covered with tattoos, and according to referee Scott Armstrong, ‘looked like the guy that would steal your car if you gave him the keys.’
While his actual contract signing was in itself a shocking occurrence (he did so in a massive swerve at a ROH event), the things he’d actually accomplish in WWE were even more shocking. Punk won many accolades throughout his WWE tenure, including an astonishing 434-day reign as WWE Champion.
He was arguably the biggest star in WWE during the first half of the 2010s, especially due to what his character stood for. Many people saw him as a newer version of ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, rubbing his achievements in the face of the authority.
Sadly, backstage politics eventually caught up with him, and a frustrated Punk left the WWE on terrible terms. Still, even if he never returns to pro wrestling, one cannot deny how shocking his signing and subsequent WWE career ended up being.
4. Bryan Danielson
Bryan Danielson was always a small man. Under six feet tall and barely hitting 200lbs, he was always being dwarfed by larger wrestlers wherever he went. So to make a name for himself in the highly image-conscious world of pro wrestling, Bryan became the best technical wrestler on the entire planet. This reputation followed him for years, until there was an earth-shattering announcement that Bryan had signed with WWE.
If there was any person fans were afraid would get abused and their reputation destroyed by the WWE machine, it was Bryan. He had cultivated such a huge legacy on the indies as a masterful technical wrestler, and he was entering the world of theatrics and ‘superstars’ known as WWE. With every passing match and every new storyline, there was worry his career would spiral into oblivion.
And yet, Bryan (and the fans) overcame so many obstacles that it’s downright historic. Bryan became unfathomably popular, with his ‘YES’ chants transcending into other sports and into pop culture. The reaction he got and the venomous fan response to the 2014 Royal Rumble caused something to happen that hadn’t in a very long time: it caused Vince McMahon to bow to significant fan pressure and change his plans for WrestleMania.
Bryan has since become one of the most respected and popular wrestlers in modern WWE history. Considering how surprising it was that they’d even have signed him, and how much he lost during the first season of NXT, he really proved everyone wrong.
3. Eric Bischoff
On July 15th, 2002, the wrestling world experienced another earth-shattering surprise as Eric Bischoff, the man who had spent more or less a decade competing with and trying to destroy WWE, appeared on RAW and shook hands with Vince McMahon. It was an unthinkable sight.
These two men had spent an incredible amount of time poaching talent from one another, copying and stealing each other’s ideas, and trading some not-so-thinly-veiled insults at one another. Surely, Vince must’ve seen Bischoff as a man hell-bent on putting him out of business, not someone he could actually work with.
But lo, Bischoff shook hands with the devil and spent three years as the RAW General Manager. He was the same smarmy and power-abusing boss he had been during the Monday Night Wars, the only difference was that he didn’t have the stress of competing with the WWE juggernaut in this role.
The whole thing just screamed ‘surreal.’ Bischoff was actively trying to put Vince McMahon out of business using Ted Turner’s money. Yet somehow, he managed to obtain a contract with WWE after the Invasion storyline ended and all remnants of WCW faded into history.
That just goes to show you that even someone as devilish as Vince McMahon might be willing to work with you as long as he sees the potential for money to be made…even if you’re someone that tried to ruin him in the past.
After WCW folded, one by one the various wrestlers that had worked there made their way to WWE. There were only two that didn’t do so right away. One was the Great Muta, who opted to return to Japan (where he became an even bigger legend). The other was Sting, who refused to sign with WWE, and made his opposition to doing so very vocal.
Sting was afraid (and rightfully so) that if he signed with WWE, he’d be mistreated in a similar vein as Diamond Dallas Page. Sting wanted to be treated with respect, which is why he kept turning WWE down, even as his career in TNA reached its conclusion.
Fans had spent years hoping for a Sting dream match in WWE. Whether it was against the Undertaker, or against another equally-important veteran, most fans wanted Sting to go out on top in the biggest wrestling promotion still standing, but Sting kept declining WWE’s offers.
And then, the unthinkable happened. After months of speculation, Sting debuted in WWE at Survivor Series 2014. The reaction he got was something of unearthly proportions. Fans everywhere thought it was a dream or some kind of imposter. There was no way Sting was in WWE. And yet there he was, baseball bat in hand, on a WWE ramp interfering against the Authority.
1. A.J. Styles
Many people still find it hard to believe that A.J. Styles now wrestles for WWE. Not only that, but that he is the WWE Champion. This is something that no one had EVER expected, not ten years ago, not two years ago, not even at the beginning of 2016.
You see, Styles was, for the longest time, the best active North American wrestler to never work in WWE. He was the wrestler that put TNA on the map, made a huge name for himself in other promotions across the United States, and became an excellent gaijin wrestler in NJPW.
Fans were singing his praise for years, with many claiming that he truly deserved to work for WWE. But when discussing what A.J. deserved, those discussions always returned to the same point: Vince wouldn’t sign A.J. Styles because he wasn’t a WWE guy and didn’t fit their style.
But sign him they did.
In an incredible twist of fate, WWE signed A.J. Styles and basically let him be who he has been for the majority of his career. No silly gimmick additions, no name change, few move-set restrictions. They signed Styles and allowed him to wrestle just like he had been before in other promotions.
If there was ever a person who defined the expression, ‘never say never in WWE,’ it would be the current WWE Champion A.J. Styles.