World Wrestling Entertainment, formerly the World Wrestling Federation, has a prototype for how a “Superstar” should look while in the ring and during media events. The organization has a history of featuring larger-than-life figures, giants of men compared with the vast majority of individuals, in main event spots. Hulk Hogan and The Rock, two men with charismatic personalities that jumped through television screens for years and years, likely never would have had opportunities to become the stars they are to this day had they been half-a-foot shorter and not possessed the physiques that they had during their professional wrestling runs.
That trend continued even past the 1980s and past the Attitude Era. Just compare HHH of his multiple world title runs of the 2000s to the man who was the co-founder of the first edition of D-Generation-X. They almost look like different people. For every HHH, Hogan, Rock, Ultimate Warrior and so many others, there have been some who, in one way or another, broke through the so-called “glass ceiling” and rose all the way to the mountaintop. While many of those runs seemed to come and go in the blink of an eye, it is remarkable that they happened in the first place.
The list of wrestlers who made unexpected runs, considering all of the hurdles in front of them, includes a wide variety of talent. Some of the best performers of their times who were nearly overlooked for one reason or another are spotlighted in this piece. There is also the least likely of World Heavyweight Champions, a diminutive figure who helped innovate professional wrestling in the United States over his decades of work. Last but certainly not least is a man who was never supposed to be anything more than midcard material, a wrestler who was the biggest draw in WWE history.
20. Zack Ryder
Zac Ryder was nothing more than a fill-in tag team wrestler relegated to non-televised events when he used the Internet to get himself over. His “Z! True Long Island Story” YouTube show became a sensation among adoring fans, and Ryder showed those in World Wrestling Entertainment how useful social media could be in promoting talent. While Ryder did go on to win the United States Championship, WWE was simply not interested in giving him a top spot or any real push. He has since fallen back down the card, likely never again to rise anywhere near a main event while with the company.
19. Chris Benoit
The undersized Benoit was never capable of cutting a five-star promo, but he was, during his peak World Wrestling Entertainment run, arguably the best wrestler in the world. The top moment of his career came when headlined WrestleMania XX along with Triple H and Shawn Michaels. Benoit tapped Triple H out on that night, winning the World Heavyweight Championship. His name cannot be mentioned without thinking of the unspeakable crimes that he committed, and Benoit is now a reviled individual who is rarely mentioned by WWE. Scenes from that memorable WrestleMania night at Madison Square Garden now turn the stomach.
18. Spike Dudley
Billed to be 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds, Spike was the “runt” of the Dudley clan in the original Extreme Championship Wrestling promotion. Spike put his body through hell in the former ECW, and he debuted in the World Wrestling Federation in March of 2001 after ECW folded. Despite his lack of size, Spike went on to win several championships while with the WWF/WWE. He had a run in Total Nonstop Action Wrestling after he left WWE. Spike never came close to winning a world championship while with a nationally televised promotion, but just making it in multiple companies is an admirable achievement for a person with his physical stats.
Duane Gill is largely remembered for the Gillberg persona that was handed to him in 1998. While Goldberg was terrorizing the competition in World Championship Wrestling, Gill was turned into a miniature version of the former football player who became a sensation in WCW. Gillberg never had an opportunity to main event while with the World Wrestling Federation, but he did hold the Light Heavyweight Championship while with the organization. Goldberg and Gillberg had a brief showdown after the former WCW champion joined the WWF, but fans never got the dream match involving the two. Gill went on to open a wrestling school, where an unfortunate incident in which a student died landed the then retired pro wrestler in the headlines.
16. Matt Hardy
It is easy to forget that Hardy was a jobber and little more during his early days in the World Wrestling Federation. He was then paired up with younger brother Jeff (more on him later) to form The Hardy Boyz, and that duo along with Lita would become “Team Xtreme.” Matt never evolved into the headline act that Jeff has been in multiple organizations, but the older Hardy enjoyed several solo runs in the company. His “Matt Hardy: Version 1” character deserved way more love than it got from WWE, as the organization did not realize how popular Hardy had become with a portion of the crowd.
15. Jeff Hardy
While Matt never fully made it in World Wrestling Entertainment, Jeff was, for a time, the company’s top star. The younger Hardy had memorable feuds with The Undertaker, Brock Lesnar and CM Punk among others during his runs in WWE, and he has been a world champion for multiple promotions. Hardy’s problems with drugs have been well documented, and they have cost him jobs on more than one occasion. It is hoped that Hardy has defeated those demons once and for all, and he currently wrestles for Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. A return to WWE could be in the cards one day if Hardy is able to remain clean.
14. Dean Ambrose
Of the three wrestlers who made up what was “The Shield,” Ambrose is, physically speaking, the least likely to have a superstar solo run. It turns out that Ambrose may break out as the top wrestler of those three. Ambrose has somewhat of a plain look to him when compared with Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins, but it is Ambrose who is doing well to get himself over via his wild in-ring character. Modern World Wrestling Entertainment crowds do not like to be told which wrestlers they are supposed to get behind, and thus they could help make Ambrose a main event player down the road.
13. Bray Wyatt
Before the days of Bray Wyatt sitting in a rocking chair on Monday Night Raw, Windham Rotunda played “Husky Harris,” an overweight wrestler who flashed agility inside of the ring and not a whole lot on the mic. World Wrestling Entertainment did not give up on the talented performer, though, instead turning him into the evil cult leader that is currently on the verge of beginning a feud with The Undertaker. The Wyatt Family is now a thing of the past, but Bray should be given a chance to prove that he can be a main event wrestler on his own.
12. The Miz
Mike Mizanin was given a shot in World Wrestling Entertainment because of his reality television past, but The Miz came into his own as a heel character; first in tag team action and then on his own. While The Miz has been turned into a comedic bad guy, he was once a WWE Champion who was part of a main event angle involving himself, The Rock and John Cena. Miz and Cena wrestled in the main event of WrestleMania XXVII, and the former “Real World” star went over on that night. While things can change in the future, it seems as if that evening will be the best moment of The Miz’s pro wrestling career.
World Wrestling Entertainment has a long history of giving up on pet projects early into those experiments, and thus it would not have been a shock had the company never given the co-winner of the first ever Tough Enough competition a real chance. While his run within the WWF/WWE was less than spectacular, Maven was responsible for one of the more memorable moments of the 2002 Royal Rumble. He dropkicked The Undertaker from behind during the Royal Rumble match, eliminating the Phenom from that battle royal. That is a feat that not many no-name wrestlers can say they accomplished during their careers.
10. Mikey Whipwreck
Whipwreck had dreams of becoming a professional wrestler when he became part of the ring crew for the original Extreme Championship Wrestling promotion. Billed as the ultimate underdog story once he was given his shot to perform in match, Whipwreck eventually won the ECW World Heavyweight Championship. He even got a shot in World Championship Wrestling for a time before returning to ECW. Whipwreck has since gone on to become a pro wrestling trainer. He is credited with having trained Zack Ryder, Curt Hawkins, Amazing Red, Trent Beretta and Jay Lethal. Whipwreck also makes sporadic appearances on F4W/Wrestling Observer podcasts.
9. Zach Gowen
That Gowen will never headline a WrestleMania card or win a world championship in World Wrestling Entertainment is no reason to keep him off of this list. The in-ring performer lived his dream despite the fact that his left leg was amputated at a young age, and Gowen has competed in WWE, Total Nonstop Action Wrestling and Ring of Honor among other promotions. There has literally never been a WWE wrestler like Gowen before, and we may never again see such an athlete in the top wrestling company in North America. He remains an inspirational story for anybody who is pursuing a goal that seems out of reach.
8. Eddie Guerrero
Guerrero was an undersized and underused aerial artist in World Championship Wrestling, and he made the switch to the World Wrestling Federation with the hopes that the WWF would give him a push that he was never going to see in WCW. Personal demons nearly prevented him from becoming much of anything with the WWF, but he overcame those problems and developed into one of the most beloved wrestlers in the company. His untimely death in November of 2005 shocked the wrestling world, and his passing also resulted in the WWE launching what would eventually become the company’s Wellness Policy.
Christian was the “other guy” in the tag team that also included Edge, a solid in-ring worker who was good but not exceptional on the mic. Seeing the writing on the wall, Christian left World Wrestling Entertainment for Total Nonstop Action, where he won his first ever world championship. Christian eventually returned to WWE, and he became a featured wrestler on Smackdown and on the re-branded Extreme Championship Wrestling show. Whether or not Christian is retired as an active wrestler is up in the air as of the posting of this piece, but it appears that his days working in WWE rings are now over.
6. Mick Foley
The icon of hardcore pro wrestling never had the “look” of a superstar that is often coveted by World Wrestling Entertainment. He was overweight and missing teeth, and yet Foley went from being a sympathetic character who sacrificed his body and years of his life to the wrestling business to one of the biggest stars in the World Wrestling Federation during the Attitude Era. Foley winning the World Championship on an edition of Monday Night Raw remains one of the most memorable moments in the history of that program, and Foley, who makes limited appearances on WWE programming, receives standing ovations from crowds to this day.
5. Shawn Michaels
The Heartbreak Kid broke out at the right time in the 1990s, after the World Wrestling Federation abandoned featuring only muscle-head performers in main events. Michaels would then go on to produce a comeback story for the ages, returning from a serious back injury that sidelined him for several years. It was during that second run that HBK became Mr. WrestleMania, the best performer in the company and a man who tell a story in the ring as well as anybody in the business. Michaels was a once in a generation talent, and it is somewhat of a shame that fans lost him for as long as they did.
4. Daniel Bryan
The leader of the “Yes Movement” is such a legitimate underdog story in the pro wrestling world that World Wrestling Entertainment storylines involving Bryan center around the idea that he should not be a world champion. A former so-called Internet darling, Bryan has overcome tremendous odds and become a true international superstar who gets crowds to leave their feet in anticipation whenever his music is heard inside of arenas. Bryan has already headlined a WrestleMania once, winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at that event. It is close to a guarantee that he will once again be on wrestling’s biggest stage sooner than later.
3. CM Punk
The Straightedge Superstar got himself over in multiple organizations with his incredible in-ring skills and his ability to cut memorable promos on the mic. His “Summer of Punk” runs in Ring of Honor and World Wrestling Entertainment produced must-watch material for any young athlete aspiring to be a pro wrestler. Punk surprised many in 2014 when he walked away from WWE, supposedly for good, to join up with the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Never say never in the world of pro wrestling, but all indications are that Punk’s days as an active wrestler are finished. That is a true loss for the business.
2. Rey Mysterio
Mysterio was a battered version of the iconic and innovative in-ring performer who wowed fans in the 1990s when he joined World Wrestling Entertainment in the summer of 2002. Injuries that had slowed down the aerial artist did not keep Mysterio from becoming one of the most popular wrestlers in WWE, and he went on to win the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania 22. While the company’s writers could have been kinder to Mysterio and made him look stronger during his title reigns, nobody can take away the fact that Mysterio made it to the top of the business on multiple occasions.
1. Steve Austin
Before he was ever “Stone Cold,” Austin was largely a forgettable figure, a performer who put on good matches but one that was not featured in main events. Then came that fateful night at the 1996 King of the Ring pay-per-view when “Austin 3:16” and along with it, the Attitude Era was born. Austin helped propel the World Wrestling Federation past World Championship Wrestling in the battle for pro wrestling supremacy, and Stone Cold became a household name known even to those who did not actively follow the business. Fans are, as of the posting of this piece, still hoping that Austin will return for one final match. Maybe some day.