Considering it’s the only profession in the world where getting hit in the head with a steel chair is an everyday occupational hazard, maybe it isn’t too surprising that professional wrestling doesn’t exactly require a degree. There’s only been one Harvard graduate in WWE history, and he didn’t last too long, so a strong academic background clearly isn’t the most important part of being a wrestler. That said, plenty of wrestlers are extremely well educated, maybe not with Harvard degrees, but with other collegiate degrees and honors to show for it. This list isn’t about those wrestlers, though. This list is about the wrestlers who didn’t even graduate high school.
We’re not trying to pass judgment on these wrestlers, or even imply they aren’t “smart.” They’d probably all agree the fact they became a success in a field they loved means a lot more than book smarts, anyway. These wrestlers generally showed their intelligence in other ways, through their marketing or their high level performances, which actually do require a certain level of psychology. Others still literally just hit each other in the head with chairs, and probably wouldn’t mind being called a dropout in the first place. Read on to learn which 15 wrestlers didn’t graduate high school.
10. Axl Rotten
Axl Rotten was a popular ECW tag team wrestler in groups with names like The Bad Breed and The Hardcore Chair Swingin’ Freaks, so maybe it isn’t surprising he didn’t quite find his way through high school. Axl dropped out of Southern High School in Baltimore when he was 11th grade in order to fully commit to his dream of becoming a wrestler. It almost seemed like it may have been a decision that paid off, as Axl was briefly hired by WCW in the early 90s when he was only 20 years old. Unfortunately, Axl also battled a heroin addiction the majority of his life, which started shortly after the WCW job. Axl left WCW for ECW, which had a far more liberal drug policy, and what started as a painkiller addiction branched out to every drug imaginable. Axl tragically passed away due to a heroin overdose in February of 2016.
9. Rey Mysterio, Jr.
Rey Mysterio, Jr. has been wrestling professionally since he was 14 years old, so maybe it isn’t surprising he didn’t exactly have time for high school. The second-generation superstar made a serious effort to do both for the first few years of his career, but quickly his passion for wrestling heavily outweighed his desire to earn a degree for the sake of satiating his parents, and he turned to an unusual source to help convince them. Unusual for most people that is, but anyone who knows the career of Rey Mysterio might not be too surprised to learn it was his mentor and lifelong friend Konnan who helped him convince his parents they should let him leave school and hit the road as a wrestler. Rey at least stuck around until he turned 17, at which point he officially dropped out. A reputation as arguably the greatest cruiserweight wrestler of all time followed, so it’s possible Rey made the right choice.
8. “Superstar” Billy Graham
“Superstar” Billy Graham is one of the most influential wrestlers of all time. He is a WWE Hall of Famer and former WWE World Champion, but he’s unfortunately made a great deal of controversial statements since his retirement that pretty much preclude him from getting mentioned anymore on TV. Maybe it shouldn’t be too surprising controversy followed the original Superstar his entire life, considering he dropped out of high school during his junior year. At the time, Graham was an incredibly successful track & field athlete. By dropping out, Graham was also opting out of a college scholarship in discus. Graham kept working out despite losing the scholarship, and eventually was introduced to Stu Hart, and decided to start a wrestling career.
7. Dean Ambrose
Dean Ambrose is WWE’s resident crazy person, or as they call him, The Lunatic Fringe. We’re hardly implying all high school dropouts have mental issues or violent tendencies, but some certainly do, so maybe it makes sense enough when you put the two together. Ambrose was also raised in Cincinnati’s East End projects, meaning his family didn’t exactly have enough money to send him to fancy schools where he could truly excel in the first place. Ambrose started ignoring school to instead begin working for Les Thatcher while he was in his late teens, and the legendary trainer finally allowed Ambrose to begin his training after his 18th birthday, which was Dean’s cue to officially drop out of high school. These days, Ambrose is on top of the WWE, and stands as the current best example you don’t necessarily need traditional book smarts to dominate the psychology of wrestling.
6. Buddy Landel
“The Nature Boy” Buddy Landel was known as an intentional knock-off of Ric Flair, but he must have been doing his “Superstar” Billy Graham impression when he dropped out of Fulton High School at the age of 16. Similar to Graham, Landel had a variety of scholarships on the table, including letters of intent to play both baseball and football at the University of Tennessee, amongst others. Landel was also an accomplished amateur wrestler in high school before he dropped out, and that was the one skill he relied on when entering the professional world. His career had a very promising start in Mid-South Wrestling and the NWA, but he quickly squandered and ruined his talents through years of serious drug abuse. Landel eventually turned his life around and attempted to educate people against drugs and prevent them from making the same mistakes he made, but his efforts were tragically cut short when he passed away in June of 2015.
5. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper
As usual, we’re cheating just a little bit on this list. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper didn’t drop out of high school—in a fate much more befitting of one of the greatest villains in wrestling history, he was expelled. Like Rey Mysterio, Jr., Piper was wrestling as a pro in his early teens, but unlike Rey he didn’t have the loving family support keeping him in school. Piper was expelled in junior high allegedly for carrying a switchblade to class, and he claims he started living on his own and succeeding as a wrestler almost immediately after. True success wouldn’t come until his 20, and it clearly didn’t take long before Piper was the valedictorian of the school of hard knocks, regardless of the fact it didn’t come with a diploma. He went on to become one of the most popular, charismatic, and when appropriate, absolutely despised superstars of all time. Piper passed away in July of 2015.
4. Gorgeous George
Gorgeous George is such an absolutely iconic name in the history of wrestling, it’s hard to imagine a wrestling fan who doesn’t at least appreciate his influence in some way, whether they know it or not. Wrestling had good guys and bad guys before Gorgeous George, but the archetype of a true wrestling heel as it’s known today was invented by “The Human Orchid.” Like Piper and Mysterio who followed him, George dropped out of Milby High School to become a wrestler when he was only 14. George was always a talented wrestler, but he wasn’t very successful until he married his wife Betty in a wrestling ring in the late 30’s. From that bombastic event, George and his wife worked together to create an exponentially flowery, ornate, and, well, gorgeous persona, which George would then take into wrestling history. George was diagnosed with a serious liver condition in 1962 and passed away after suffering a heart attack the following year.
3. George Zaharias
George Zaharias is an obscure name in wrestling history and he even predates Gorgeous George, but that doesn’t change the fact like everyone else on this list, he chose wrestling over a traditional education at a very young age. Zaharias dropped out of high school when he was 16, and just a few short years later he was known as “The Crying Greek From Cripple Creek,” a villainous crybaby who was in the public consciousness due to his battles with the legendary Jim Londos. Zaharias continued his passion for quitting at a young age by leaving the wrestling business in his 30s, but we can’t fault him for his reason. Around this time, Zaharias married Babe Didrikson, arguably the greatest and most popular female golfer of all time. Zaharias decided managing his wife’s career was more important than his wrestling career, and her unrivaled success as an athlete should let the decision stand for itself.
2. James Mitchell
James Mitchell, also known as James Vandenberg and The Sinister Minister, always seemed a little bit creepy and devilish, so maybe it’s a good thing he stepped out of school before they gave him full access to the chemistry lab. While wrestlers clearly don’t need degrees, it might seem like a manager kayfabe actually should, but with an evil smirk like Mitchell’s, it isn’t too hard to buy mind control as an explanation for how he controls his charges. And Mitchell’s clients were often pretty weird—Mortis, Glacier, Abyss, Mikey Whipwreck after he completely went off the rails—so these guys didn’t need a genius guiding them, they just needed someone who wore flashy suits. We’re just being hard on Mitchell anyway, since he’s one of the few people on this list who actually went back to school and earned his GED after he dropped out.
1. Adam Rose
Adam Rose, whose real name is Raymond Leppan, is from South Africa, where high school graduation rates are generally lower than in the countries where these other superstars hail from, but his story is hardly typical. Leppan dropped out of school as a teenager and left home to live on the streets, sleeping in abandoned buildings for several years. He later admitted that he was already a heavy drinker at this point in his young life, and he realized the only thing that could possibly turn his life around was the dream of becoming a pro wrestler. He worked his way through the South African independent scene for several years, before finally getting noticed by WWE and signed to a contract in 2010. He wrestled for FCW and NXT for several years as NXT before reinventing himself as Adam Rose, the gimmick that brought him to the main roster in 2014.