Over the past couple of years, WWE has become a stickler for intellectual property. It is paranoid about the brand of a performer triumphing over the company’s brand as a whole, as was the case with Hulk Hogan, The Rock, and CM Punk. In an attempt to remain in total control, the company has implemented a number of rules and regulations to make sure its employees don’t have a chance to get themselves over on WWE TV. These steps include scripting promos and fining superstars who stray too far from the words on the sheet, telling certain performers to quit doing spots which are getting the fans to cheer them too loudly and, perhaps most notably of all, refusing to allow wrestlers to compete under their own names.
Many of the biggest stars in the history of WWE competed under their real name – or at least a name which they owned the rights to – during their time with the company. This caused problems for WWE after the performer left the company as it meant he or she could take their brand to a rival promotion such as WCW or TNA and said promotion would benefit from the star’s stock.
In honor of the dying tradition of using one’s real name inside the squared-circle, we have compiled this list of the fifteen WWE superstars who competed or are currently competing under their real name. Let’s get started.
15. Owen Hart
Competing under his real name, Owen Hart of Hart family fame achieved some of the greatest successes of his career. He held the WWE Intercontinental Championship, the European Championship, and won the 1994 King of the Ring tournament. There were also plans in place for him to take the WWE World Championship from his brother Bret, but obviously, they never came to fruition.
Despite his many accolades, the most widely recalled incident in Owen Hart’s career came when he was competing under a different name. At the 1999 installment of the Over The Edge pay-per-view, Hart was performing under a mask as The Blue Blazer. The Blue Blazer was a silly superhero character who stood for all that was good and fought corruption wherever he found it, which was pretty much everywhere during the Attitude Era.
The plan at Over The Edge 99 was for Hart, in his Blazer gear, to make his entrance by descending from the ceiling like a superhero in flight. Tragically, Owen’s harness malfunctioned and he dropped over 70 feet to his death.
14. Randy Orton
When Randy Orton first arrived in WWE, a great deal of emphasis was put on the fact that he is the son of WWE Hall of Famer “Cowboy” Bob Orton. In order to establish him as an extremely talented young man who was born and bred to be inside the ring, Orton competed under his real name.
Using his real name has had its pros and cons for Randy Orton. On the one hand, Orton doesn’t have to worry about coming up with a new name should he ever leave WWE for another promotion. On the negative side of things, however, he cannot get away from his past with the US Marine Corps, from which he was dishonorably discharged.
13. Shinsuke Nakamura
Shinsuke Nakamura is a unique case in that he is a newcomer to WWE but is permitted to compete under his real name. This is because Nakamura became one of the biggest stars in Japan while performing using his birth name and forcing him to adopt a WWE-ized name would have taken away from his big debut against Sami Zayn at NXT TakeOver: Dallas.
Since debuting in NXT earlier this year, Shinsuke Nakamura has had some of the best matches in the brand’s short history. His debut match against Zayn was nothing less than stellar and saw the crowd plead with the two warriors to “fight forever.” Nakamura’s showdown with Fínn Balor was a fantastic way to send Fínn off and give Nakamura the victory he needed to enter the main event.
It remains to be seen if Shinsuke Nakamura will be allowed to use his real name when he is brought up to the main roster, but right now he is the NXT Champion, so we don’t have to worry about that for a while.
12. Brian Kendrick
Had Brian Kendrick only signed with WWE for the first time earlier this year, he likely would have been sent to NXT with a name like “Kenny Briandrick.” Thankfully, Kendrick had a pretty memorable career in WWE in the mid-00s while competing under his real name.
When Kendrick first debuted in WWE, he performed under the ring name Spanky, in a gimmick which saw him, among other things, run to the ring in the nude. After being reintroduced as Brian Kendrick, he began teaming with Paul London, becoming one of the most successful tag team stars of all time.
11. Harley Race
Some wrestlers like to compete under a fake name in order to appear as masculine and as badass as possible. Harley Race is not one of them.
Harley Race is the kind of name that, at first, seems like it cannot possibly be real. However, records show that Harley Race is indeed the real name of the multi-time NWA Champion and inaugural King of the Ring.
For many fans and wrestlers alike, the name Harley Race inspires a number of emotions, the most powerful of which are respect and fear. The man is one of the most notoriously tough competitors to ever enter the wrestling business, fighting back from multiple injuries to become everything a world champion should be. Not bad for a guy whose middle name is Leland.
This one might be cheating a little bit because during his time with WWE, Ryback’s real name was not Ryback.
Ryback was born Ryan Allen Reeves and began using the name Ryback after he entered the wrestling business. Although the name was created by Reeves, he granted WWE ownership of it, presumably under the belief that he was bound for great things in the company and wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon. Of course, it didn’t quite work out like that and Reeves left the company this summer.
Shortly after leaving WWE, Reeves announced that he had begun the process of legally changing his name to Ryback Allen Reeves, which would allow him to continue using the name Ryback to promote himself and his merchandise. The name change was later granted, meaning he didn’t have to go to plan B: changing his name to Skip Sheffield Allen Reeves.
9. Chris Benoit
This is one of the few names that WWE has absolutely no interest in owning. As far as the company is concerned, the further it is away from them the better.
Chris Benoit was undoubtedly one of the greatest wrestlers of his generation and is today considered by many to be among the best of all time. It’s hard to argue with that, because the guy had some serious skills inside the ring, even if he was somewhat lacking on the mic. Benoit’s talent and determination were finally recognized in 2004 when he captured the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania XX.
In 2007, tragedy struck and Benoit pretty much wrote himself out of the history books. On June 24th that year, Benoit’s body was found inside his home in Fayetteville, Georgia, along with the bodies of his wife and child. It was determined that Benoit had taken his own life after murdering his family, spurred on by a series of brain injuries.
8. Eddie Guerrero
Eddie Guerrero was a close friend of Chris Benoit and it is thought that his early death in 2005 contributed to Benoit’s displaceable decisions at the end of his life.
Like Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero was one of the most talented wrestlers of his time. He was agile and charismatic and, best of all, he never murdered a single person. In 2004, Eddie reached the mountain top and became the guy in his profession when he defeated Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship.
Eddie’s WWE Championship win was seen by many as the fulfillment of a prophecy. Eddie was a member of the famous Guerrero family, one of the most successful families in wrestling history. He was considered to be the most talented competitor the family had ever produced and to this day remains the only Guerrero to hold a world title in WWE.
7. Mick Foley
Mick Foley is infamous for his numerous characters, some delightfully wacky, some exceedingly violent, the two most dominant parts of his personality. Prior to entering WWE, Foley competed as Cactus Jack and became known as the single most violent competitor in American professional wrestling. After signing with Vince McMahon in the mid-90s, he adopted the name Mankind, which is perhaps his most enduring character. After Mankind we saw Dude Love, a name which Foley competed under as a teen, and then Cactus Jack returned. Then came Mankind again.
It wasn’t until the final years of his career that he began performing under his real name, so his matches in WWE as Mick Foley were minimal. While in TNA, Foley competed under his real name in a variety of encounters/bleak reminders as to why you should look after your body.
Still, Foley’s most famous match under his real name came at WrestleMania 22 when he faced Edge in a Hardcore match. He was defeated, but not before being speared through a flaming table, in classic Foley fashion.
6. Bruno Sammartino
Bruno Sammartino is one of the most successful professional wrestlers of all time; in fact, he might even be the most successful professional wrestler of all time. He is the longest reigning WWE World Champion in history, holding the title for 2,803 consecutive days, or just under eight years. He made sporadic appearances for WWE during the 80s before growing disillusioned with Vince McMahon Jr. and severing all ties with the company. Bruno finally returned to WWE in 2013 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame that same year. He did all this under his real name.
Bruno Sammartino came to the United States of America 1950 with his mother and was reunited with his father, who had already been living in the USA for some time. As an immigrant, Sammartino knew what it was like to suffer and struggle for money and decided that he would create a better life for himself. He began training regularly while still in his youth, preparing himself for a career inside the wrestling ring, even if that wasn’t what he thought he was doing at the time.
5. Shane McMahon
There really wasn’t any need for Shane McMahon to create a new name for himself when he decided to become an in-ring competitor. Because in the world of wrestling, there really isn’t any name more intimidating than McMahon.
Because he is the son of Vince McMahon, the guy who owns the company, Shane faced a lot of backlash from the guys in the locker room when he entered the ring for the first time. Many of the superstars had worked for years to get to WWE and Shane was given a main event position purely because of family ties.
However, Shane soon proved that he belonged and established himself as a serious competitor through unrelenting determination and a willingness to put his body through punishment completely unnecessary for someone of his wealth. Shane’s most famous moment came this past year at WrestleMania 32. Now in his forties and a successful businessman in his own right, Shane scaled the Hell in a Cell structure and dived some 20 feet through an announce table.
4. Kurt Angle
WWE really had no choice but to let Kurt Angle use his real name when he made his debut with the company in 1999. Just three years prior, he became one of the most famous sportsmen in America when he won a gold medal for freestyle wrestling in the 1996 Summer Olympics. Vine McMahon was wise enough to know Angle’s real name was far more valuable than any moniker the company could give him upon his debut.
Angle was signed to an eight-year deal to ensure he couldn’t go anywhere too soon and went on to have one of the greatest careers in the history of the business. Angle held the WWE Intercontinental Championship, the European Championship, the WWE Championship, and the World Heavyweight Championship during his time with the company.
In 2006, Angle left WWE in favor of TNA, where he could enjoy a lighter schedule. Thanks to Angle’s name, TNA finally had the star power needed to rival WWE as WCW had done years before. Unfortunately, TNA ultimately squandered its talent and failed to create any major stars, ironically due to its over-reliance on already established former WWE stars such as Kurt Angle.
3. Brock Lesnar
Like Kurt Angle, Brock Lesnar was an accomplished amateur wrestler when he came to WWE. Granted, he wasn’t an Olympic gold medalist or anything, but he was big and he was scary and there was no way anybody was going to tell him that he couldn’t use his real name.
Competing under his real name, Brock Lesnar became the youngest world champion in the history of WWE (a record which was later broken by Randy Orton). Lesnar had the potential to be a star for years to come in WWE, but he just couldn’t handle the hectic travel schedule. He left the company in 2004, shortly after WrestleMania XX. After leaving WWE, Lesnar made his way to MMA and became one of the biggest draws in the history of UFC, again under his real name.
After a massively successful career in UFC, during which he captured the UFC Heavyweight Championship, Lesnar signed a new deal with WWE and made his return the night after WrestleMania XXVIII to begin a feud with…
2. John Cena
Without a doubt, John Cena is the biggest star WWE has produced since The Rock. There is nobody in the business today who can rival Cena in terms of star power, despite the fact that many fans aren’t exactly crazy about him.
Cena has held the WWE Championship and WWE World Heavyweight Championship 15 times in total and is currently actively seeking that elusive 16th reign, which would tie Ric Flair’s record for world title reigns.
These days, Hollywood executives are just as enamored with John Cena as Vince McMahon has been for the past decade. This is because these guys, who can smell money like a shark smells blood, know Cena is a major recognized brand and can be featured on movie posters and talk shows under his real name. Vince can breathe a sigh of relief, though, as John Cena has stated numerous times in the past that he does not ever plan to leave WWE.
1. Bret Hart
We started off this list with a Hart, so it only seems right that we end it with one too. While Owen Hart certainly accomplished a lot in WWE, no member of the Hart family has been more successful than Bret “The Hitman” Hart.
Although Vince McMahon did not initially imagine Bret Hart as a major star and stuck him in the Tag Team division, Hart’s talents were too much to ignore and he soon became a favorite of fans from every walk of life. Women, children, and hardcore wrestling fans all adored Bret Hart and so Vince had no choice but to put him in the main event.
The Hitman held the WWE World Championship a total of five times. Everything Bret Hart achieved in WWE, he achieved under his real name, which he must have been thankful for when he left the company for WCW in November of 1997.