Seeing the evolution of pro wrestling stars is truly remarkable. Each Superstar has a specific story and changes drastically throughout a given amount of time.
This article will take a look at wrestlers from both the 90s era and the 2000s. The pictures from the 90s show some of the former stars working the territories which was the norm back in the day. Each city had their own unique wrestling promotion and the Superstars gained experience by joining the various companies. Eventually, the WWE became a touring machine and the days of the territories slowly died.
We’re also going to be taking a look at some of the wrestling stars from the 2000s and their time before the WWE (most of which was spent on the Indie scene). Today, it is the norm to work independently, gain experience and hope the WWE notices. This wasn’t always the case, but with the arrival of CM Punk, A.J.Styles and NXT, the company has finally changed their philosophy regarding Indie wrestlers.
Let us now begin to take a look at Superstars from both eras and how different they looked back in the day. Some, you won’t even recognize! Enjoy this list of 21 shocking pictures of WWE stars you wouldn’t even recognize from their early pro wrestling days.
21. Kevin Owens & Neville
Judging by this picture, it’s quite clear that these two NXT alums have done some growing up since this photograph. Both are now in their 30s and working over on the WWE’s Raw brand.
Like several other Superstars, the two worked on the Indie scene before stepping foot in a WWE ring. Both Neville and Owens would join one another in the promotion Pro Wrestling Guerilla. KO entered the company in 2005, while Neville stepped in a year later in 2006. Both wrestlers would eventually depart in 2007 with Owens joining ROH on a full-time basis, while Neville continued to tour the world working for several promotions such as ROH, Chikara, Dragon Gate, New Japan Pro Wrestling and various other promotions.
20. Finn Balor & Becky Lynch
Finn still looks like he’s in his 20s but the truth is, he’s been doing this for a really long time (now at the age of 35). Balor began to wrestle in the UK 16 years ago working the independent scene and opening up his very own wrestling school. One of his trainees, is the current WWE SmackDown Live Women’s Champion, Becky Lynch. When Becky made the decision to pursue a wrestling career, she signed for the training alongside her brother. Shortly after in 2005, Becky began to work the Indies.
The two would both take their very own unique paths to the WWE. Starting with Finn, he was a workhorse and decided to finally stay put with New Japan, becoming the top star for the promotion. After a tremendous run as the leader of the Bullet Club, he finally departed from the company after a seven year stint joining the WWE in 2014.
Becky on the other hand had a rocky road. Lynch quit wrestling at one point in time for a more stable career. She would ultimately make the wise decision to return, joining the Japanese circuit. In 2013, even before Balor signed, Lynch inked a deal with the WWE. What a story for both WWE stars.
19. Sasha Banks
Looking at this picture, it’s quite evident Sasha has come a long way. As opposed to looking like “The Boss”, Sasha looks like a very shy and timid performer; this is likely due to the fact that she actually started training at the age of 16 and would make her pro wrestling debut for Chaotic Wrestling at the age 18. Her body of work at such a young age was truly remarkable. The WWE would take notice of this signing the youngster to a deal in June of 2012, at that point, Banks was still extremely green at the age of 20.
When she made her NXT debut, a star was born. Sasha altered her character and persona turning into “The Boss” and dominating the NXT landscape. Her work ethic in and out of the ring is second to none and she labelled herself as a megastar for the future instantly. Her match against Bayley at NXT: Brooklyn cemented how special she truly was when the two put on the match of the year. Soon after, she was main eventing episodes of Raw and recently partaking in the first ever women’s Hell in a Cell main event PPV match.
Similar to Sasha, it is clear that Charlotte has come a long way looking at this picture. Charlotte looks absolutely petrified alongside her proud father. We’re not even sure the Nature Boy himself could have predicted how big of a star she would ultimately become.
Pretty interesting that Flair was actually signed to a WWE contract without any prior experience. She would stay on board for more than a year without working a televised match, spending time working on her craft. All the practice certainly paid off as Charlotte was a natural in the ring right off the bat.
Following her strong NXT run, Charlotte became one of the faces for the Women’s Revolution. She would ultimately dominate the WWE scene claiming the Divas Championship and later would become the first ever Women’s Champion. Today, Charlotte is already a three-time champion and perhaps the best heel in all of the WWE.
According to Google, that is actually Rusev and not some wannabe Wolverine character. Seriously, why does he continue to portray the weird look? Anyways, before we get too carried away, let’s discuss Rusev and his journey to the WWE.
Pro Wrestling wasn’t always in the cards for the “Bulgarian Brute”. He actually started out as a powerlifter in his native land of Bulgaria. Soon after, he decided to switch fields and give the world of sports and entertainment a try. Rusev worked the Indies for a couple of years as he wisely chose to move to the United States. Shortly after, the WWE came calling taking notice of his work after only two years of experience. He began in FCW and later joined the re-branded development, NXT. His athleticism and power allowed the company to push him without any second guessing. Before you knew it, Rusev was a prominent part of the program feuding with the likes of John Cena and nowadays, Roman Reigns.
16. Seth Rollins
Like we discussed earlier in the article with Balor, Neville and Owens, Seth was predominantly an Indie guy before stepping foot in a WWE ring. His time working the circuit was much less than his peers, but he still put in some great years of work outside of the big company. Seth really blossomed into a star working with Ring of Honor under his previous alias of Tyler Black. He dominated the promotion and later moved on to the WWE.
His domination would continue, becoming the first ever NXT Champion. It was clear, the dude had a bright future. Some would argue, he spent way too much time in development, but at the end of the day, timing is everything in pro wrestling and his main roster debut happened at the perfect time joining forces with his Shield brothers Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose. The group would take the company by storm and the three would later branch off on their own becoming megastars for the company.
Not sure if that’s Cesaro or one of my former University teachers… Nonetheless, the “Swiss Superman” has done some growing up in the last couple of years and looks pretty different nowadays.
His days prior to the WWE were spent all over the world. The Tampa resident enjoyed his biggest success early on working with the Indie promotion Chikara. Cesaro blossomed with the company showing his true creativity with a promotion that loves wacky and out-there personas. Internet rumors discuss the fact that Cesaro may in fact return to that very promotion once his time in the WWE is up.
He pursued several other avenues during his time on the Indie scene, working with the likes of Combat Zone Wrestling, Ring of Honor, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, Pro Wrestling Noah and countless other gigs. He finally made his way to the WWE in 2011 joining the developmental FCW brand. And well, like they say, the rest is history!
14. Chris Jericho
Truly remarkable to think that Chris Jericho is still in the wrestling business over 25 years after this picture was taken. Not only is he still actively wrestling, but he’s a main event star for the Raw brand performing some of the best work of his entire career. How that’s possible at the age of 46, is truly something else.
This picture shows Y2J and a familiar face by his side. If you guessed Lance Storm, we applaud you. The two began together at the age of 19, training at the “Hart Brothers School of Wrestling”. Shortly after, the duo was put together, being named “Sudden Impact”. They worked the Canadian Indie scene for several years and later branched off into the US and around the world.
Chris caught his big break in 1995 joining ECW. WCW would then take note of his work and bring the young star in. He thrived with the company but failed to get the recognition he deserved from his boss which caused him to depart from the company joining the WWE on a cheaper salary. His decision paid off immediately and Jericho would become a household name rather quickly.
13. Roman Reigns
Is that Roman or Adam Rose?
Nonetheless, Reigns would make his NXT debut looking really lean (probably the leanest of his entire career). Roman had lots of baby fat from his football days but that seemed to fall the way side once he made his WWE debut for the developmental brand.
Shortly after his FCW and NXT stint, Reigns was thrust into the dominant Shield Faction that took the WWE by storm. It was evident based on his actions, Roman was billed as “the guy” of the group, rarely getting pinned and usually dominating his adversaries.
Once the group disbanded, Roman was thrust into the main event scene without really evolving his gimmick at all which made fans resent him. You can blame the WWE for the poor reactions he still receives nowadays. Nonetheless, Reigns is a great worker and a face you’ll be seeing a lot of in the future.
12. Dolph Ziggler
With a background as a pure amateur wrestler, the WWE pursued Ziggler quite aggressively following his collegiate days as a wrestler for Kent State University. Dolph would ultimately ink a deal with the company reporting to OVW in 2004 (remember that dump?).
His initial roster call-up was rather premature considering how green he was at that point. Dolph joined the Spirit Squad (as he dawns his former uniform in the picture above). Ziggler was predominantly a background player for the stable and failed to make any type of impact.
Following the lackluster gig, most of the wrestlers within the stable were released. Ziggler on the other hand, was kept and properly repackaged this time as a “show off” type of Superstar. He made his re-debut in 2008 and didn’t look back, winning the World Heavyweight Championship. At the age of 36, Ziggler just had a career resurgence winning the Intercontinental Championship over on the SmackDown Live brand.
11. Randy Orton
Man, does that dude ever look far from the Orton of today. Randy looks to be supporting some baby fat with his rosy cheeks. The picture has inexperienced pro wrestler written all over it.
Despite the fact that he had wrestling in his bloodlines, Orton was actually encouraged to pursue another field of work. He gave the military a try, but ultimately, that was quite the disaster. Orton returned home with the hopes of finally convincing his parent to allow him to join the family bloodline as a pro wrestler. His family obliged and soon after Orton made his debut for Mid-Missouri Wrestling Association-Southern Illinois Conference Wrestling, in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri.
After his abbreviated stint, Orton signed with the WWE and was labelled a megastar right off the bat with OVW. Soon after, Orton became the youngest champion in WWE history being crowned the title holder at the tender age of 24.
10. A.J. Styles & CM Punk
These too were monumental in throwing away the stigma that Indie guys can’t make it in the WWE. Both are seasoned veterans of the wrestling business that travelled the world before they enjoyed immense success on the WWE stage.
The two met one another during their days in ROH, as both began to showcase why they were such huge potential stars. Both men would later join TNA, and while A.J. would stay on board for over a decade, Punk would leave shortly after joining the WWE’s developmental system down in OVW.
Getting over wasn’t easy for Punk out of the gate. The WWE executives weren’t willing to push him, while Paul Heyman constantly had his back. Punk would eventually break through and become the face of the WWE before his bitter departure.
“Why is Batista wearing a wig?” These are the words uttered by wrestling fans after seeing this photo of “The Animal” looking more like Tarzan.
Batista was actually a late bloomer into the wrestling business. He initially worked as a bouncer and pursued a career as a professional bodybuilder. Once that didn’t pan out, Batista set his sights on a career as a professional wrestler.
His first tryout bombed terribly with WCW’s Power Plant. The company basically told Batista he’d never make it in the business. Disregarding their advice, the Animal continued on and shortly after was signed to a WWE deal reporting to OVW. The D.C. native made his debut as Leviathan for the developmental brand and would later transform into a crucial member of the Evolution faction. Batista became a huge star and was one of the most over wrestlers at one point in time, working as a babyface on the SmackDown brand.
8. Scott Hall
Looking like a jacked adult star from the 70s, Scott Hall looked pretty different back in the day.
Hall began his wrestling odyssey working the territories like others did at the time during the 80s. Scott had an immense build and was labelled as a huge star during his time in the NWA and AWA. He caught his first big break in 1992 joining the WWE. Known as Razor Ramon, Hall was one of the most over babyfaces of the early 90s. His work alongside Shawn Michaels, caused Vince McMahon to rebuild the entire WWE putting a new emphasis on the new guard.
Unfortunately for Vince, Scott (along with his buddy Kevin Nash) would allow greed to take over and parted ways with the company seeking some guaranteed dollars with WCW. Hall would not only get richer but he’d revolutionize the wrestling industry taking a part in the infamous nWo stable.
7. Rey Mysterio
Yup, that dude holding a Rey Mysterio mask is in fact the man himself, who unmasked during his time in WCW. Man, what a mistake that was!
For Mysterio, becoming a pro wrestler was always the dream. Rey always wanted to succeed in his homeland of Mexico and got his start there working for AAA Mexico. He would later move to North America joining the ECW promotion briefly. With WCW’s strong connections to Mexico, Rey would ultimately join the company and help to revolutionize the Cruiserweight division in North America.
His WCW success was truly only the beginning. The WWE brought him in during the early 2000s and turned him into a massive star. Rey would go on to work the upper-card scene winning the prestigious WWE Championship once, along with a two-time World Heavyweight Title stint.
Dressed like a dentist and donning a matching brown goatee and brown hair color, perhaps nobody could have predicted that the same dude would become The Undertaker’s brother.
Despite his longevity in the wrestling business, the Spanish born wrestling star went through his fair share of terrible gimmicks which started way back in 1995, using the persona of a dentist. Imagine that being used today… Things went from bad to worse a year later when Kane was re-introduced as the fake Diesel. How he recovered from that, we truly do not know.
Finally in 1997, the WWE got it right using the Kane gimmick as “The Demon” (he was labelled to be Taker’s long lost brother). He rode out the persona for quite some time till he finally moved over as an Authority member under the moniker of “Corporate Kane”. Remarkably, after over two decades of work, Kane is still using his “Big Red Machine” persona feuding with the likes of Randy Orton and The Wyatt Family over on SmackDown Live.
5. Kevin Nash
Like Kane, this big man had to undergo some awful character portrayals before finally striking gold with the WWE under Diesel. Before that however, it was truly slim pickings for Kevin, who struggled to find a sustainable gimmick with WCW. Nash went through two horrendous gimmicks and one mediocre character during his short WCW stint. His role in the Master Blasters was God awful and his portrayal as Oz was probably worse. He finally found a degree of his success under Vinnie Vegas. That would ultimately lead to a position with the WWE.
He thrived with Vince McMahon’s company as a main event star making the big bucks. Eventually however, Nash would turn his back on the WWE, on route to making more money with the company that butchered him years prior. The decision was the right call for Kevin who not only made more money, but changed the business alongside Hall and Hogan, forming the nWo.
4. Shawn Michaels
Trying to make a name for himself on the territorial circuit, Shawn was built up pretty generically when looking at the former Tag Team wrestler. Visually, he had nothing that said “breakout star” and seemed pretty average.
He worked the territories alongside partner Marty Jannetty. The team’s first run was rather awful, but the duo was later given a second chance. They learned the ropes rather quickly and became one of the more popular acts for the company. However, like the old saying goes, “all good things must come to an end”. Shawn would later branch off on his own, turning on his tag partner and reforming a new gimmick under the label of, the “Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels. He gained immense success during his run and became the face of the WWE during the mid 90s.
3. The Undertaker
The picture appears to be a scary foreshadowing of The Undertaker and Paul Bearer, although Taker looks nothing like his future “Dead Man” persona, donning a pair of Dean Ambrose-like jeans. His eyes are on point however, looking creepy as hell, similar to the ones of his Undertaker portrayal.
Before he would strike gold with The Undertaker, Calaway earned his stripes working the territories back in the mid 80s. His great work would eventually propel him to WCW wrestling under the alias of “Mean Mark Callous”. He was basically portrayed as a rip-off of Jake “The Snake” Roberts.
His time was brief and he’d join the WWE in 1990 revolutionizing the company with his Undertaker character. 26 years later, Taker is still thriving with his gimmick performing at WrestleMania events yearly and still leaves crowds in awe during his legendary entrance. His contributions to the wrestling business will go down among the greatest of all-time.
2. John Cena
Not a single person could have predicted the type of star that the former bouncer/ bodybuilder would eventually become for the WWE. Cena began as a jacked up dude who was extremely green to the pro wrestling business. As you see in the picture above, he even had a pretty bad haircut as well. Regardless, John was always willing to learn and eventually rose up the OVW ranks despite the fact that he was a part of one of the greatest classes which featured the likes of Randy Orton, Brock Lesnar and Batista. Cena would eventually crack the roster and show off his skills using a rapper gimmick… of all things. Soon after, Cena became the face of the franchise and carried the WWE on his back during the mid 2000s till this very day.
1. Stone Cold Steve Austin
As much as we poke fun at Cena, who truly could have imagined this dude with long, blonde hair alongside his manager Lady Blossom, would turn into a notorious and reckless beer drinker that had no remorse for anyone in sight?
This picture of Austin was taken during his time in the United States Wrestling Association in Dallas. Austin was accompanied to the ring by his former girlfriend at the time, Jeanie Adams, aka Lady Blossom.
Austin would continue his boy-toy persona with WCW, taking part with the Dangerous Alliance, Hollywood Blondes and the Stud Stable. Steve would finally change gears once he parted way with WCW, joining the ECW brand for a brief amount of time.
He would later join the WWE in 1995 with a new-found confidence and in 96’ he’d recreate himself into Austin 3:16, following his King of the Ring victory. And again, like they say, the rest is truly history.