Everyone loves a good underdog story. Watching the “little guy” overcome seemingly impossible odds to succeed. It’s the basis for some of our greatest movies from Star Wars to Dodgeball. Hell, it’s the basis for pretty much all of the Boston Red Sox fandom. Well, it also crosses over in some very real ways in the predetermined world of Sports Entertainment.
Sometimes the wrestler you love had to go through the ringer just to get a chance to show what they can do. Other times they were stuck in the shadow of another, stuck in the constant underdog role just by virtue of being related to or associated with someone else.
In light of WWE World Heavyweight Champion Daniel Bryan’s year long run as an underdog, right up until his ultimate Wrestlemania moment, we thought it would be fun to look at some other underdogs in the world of wrestling. Not just guys who were small in stature, but guys who had the decks stacked against them in a number of ways and still got the crowd behind them, whether for a short run or for the long term.
Honorable Mention: Chris Jericho
One of the biggest names in wrestling now, the podcaster and Fozzy frontman was one of many talented performers constantly held back while in WCW. Even while playing the part of a whiny prima donna, he always had the respect of the fans and the other guys in the locker room. It was the higher-ups who didn’t think Jericho had what it took to be “the guy,” even going so far as to scrap a feud he was to have with WCW star Goldberg. Big guys got pushed in WCW, and at 6 ft, 220lbs, he wasn’t exactly fitting their “superstar” mold.
Even when he finally went over to WWE, he had some dues to pay, but money talks, and creative couldn’t ignore the crowd for long. Now pretty much a made man with fans, the 6-time World Champion is THE example of “little” guys that could.
10: Zack Ryder
Long Island Iced Z has the internet to thank for his fun, albeit brief, notoriety in WWE. After languishing at the bottom of the card for a few year, Ryder started to produce his own comedy videos for YouTube while in character. He may have been getting little to no TV time, but his Z! True Long Island Story videos have racked up millions of hits.
He crowned himself the Internet Champion, and was eventually put into some high profile feuds for a short while. Internet celebrity status can only take you so far, but he was able to use a back door to sneak into the party. Hopefully they find a place for the Z-Man again.
9: Spike Dudley
He was the tiniest Dudley, though what Spike lacked in size he more than made up for in gusto. The real meat of his underdog story comes from his pre-wrestling life. Spike was a third grade teacher before becoming part of the “hardcore revolution” that was ECW in the 90’s.
During an interview in the documentary Beyond the Mat”, he is asked about his favorite Shakespeare quotes ,and blood poured down his face, he looked at the camera and said “I shall, I do”.
Over the years he was given the nickname of “Giant Killer” for his matches with much larger opponents. He also had a total disregard for his own body when it came flying around the ring. His success may have been made possible by his connection to the Dudley Boyz team, or the popularity of “Extreme” wrestling, but he took full advantage the opportunity given, and left an indelible mark on that era.
8: Zach Gowen
Zach Gowen may be one of the most forgotten footnotes in WWE history. His record wasn’t that impressive, with losses well outnumbering his wins. He did have a feud with Vince McMahon, and a win over the seven foot giant, The Big Show.
But, all of that is made all the more impressive when you realize he did it on one leg. Cancer led Gowen to have his leg amputated above the knee when he was just eight years old. A lifelong wrestling fan, he didn’t allow his condition to stop him from living his dream.
After years of training, he made his WWE debut in 2003 while interfering in a Brock Lesnar match. Even better, he chose to wrestle without his prosthetic, saying that it slowed him down. He stayed around for several months on and off, putting on some decent matches all things considered.
Yes, his wrestling style did shine a gigantic light on the “fakeness” of pro wrestling, but it was still a man out there doing what he’s always wanted to, when everything was going against him. You can say his condition was being exploited, or you can say he was able to do what so many of us wish we could. I belong to the latter group.
7: Eddie Guerrero
Known more by casual fans for his “Latino Heat” run in WWE, Eddie Guerrero was one of the best all-around wrestlers in the business. Much like Chris Jericho, he was never allowed to fully flourish in WCW, even though he came from a well-known wrestling family.
When he finally made the jump to WWE, he wasn’t given the go ahead right away, and was the mid-card villain for quite some time. He’d also had some substance abuse issues that resulted in his release from the company after a drunk driving incident.
When he did return, even though he was a villain, his popularity could not be ignored, and he was eventually rewarded with the WWE Championship in 2004 after defeating Brock Lesnar. Overcoming racial and size boundaries in an industry rampant with both, Eddie had made it. Sadly, he passed away in November of 2005. It was rumored that he was in line for another run with the title that would have only done more to secure his rightful place in wrestling history.
6: Stone Cold Steve Austin
Hard to believe, but one of the most recognizable and bankable stars in the history of pro wrestling is an underdog story, but it’s true. Stone Cold Steve Austin bounced around each of the major promotions (WCW, ECW, WWE) for years before he became the anti-hero known the world over.
From his days as Stunning Steve, with the Hollywood Blondes, to his blue collar days in ECW, he was the quintessential workhorse. Always heralded for his ring work, but constantly told he’d never “make it”, it was an act of desperation that finally allowed him to break free.
During the Monday Night Wars, WWE was hemorrhaging money, and Vince was known to let guys just throw things at the wall to see what stuck. One of those things was the Stone Cold persona. Even then, he wasn’t safe, as he had his neck broken in a match with Owen Hart that almost took him out. Austin clawed his way to the top of the company, and almost single-handedly saved the business. All that from a guy who was told repeatedly he wasn’t a star.
5: Jeff Hardy
You could say that Jeff, Matt, and Lita belong together on this list (Lita especially). As a team they were the hottest thing around (even though that was also unexpected), which is actually why Jeff’s solo career is so astonishing.
There have always been guys who broke from a popular team to become successful solo performers, but none were ever as popular as the Hardy Boyz. Jeff was the obvious choice as the breakout star, but his style was very much suited to a team. As a company, WWE was torn; do they push this guy, even though they don’t fully believe in his skill, or do they just let things run as they always have.
Turned out Jeff had enough confidence in himself to go for it, and proved to be a solid solo act. He’d altered his style just enough to put on great matches, and racked up several championships. After some high profile run-ins with the law and a substance abuse problem, he went over to TNA, where he was pretty much “The Guy”. He may never step foot in a WWE ring again, but the Charismatic Enigma definitely made his mark.
4: Owen Hart
The King of Hearts, Owen Hart has a different kind of underdog story. While technically sound, he was never overly popular. Whether in a team or solo, no matter how much success he gained, he was always in the shadow of his older brother Bret “The Hitman” Hart.
Even if it wasn’t explicitly stated, there had to be an immense amount of pressure to compete. Imagine if Michael Jordan had a younger brother who also played for the Bulls and that’s probably what it felt like for Owen. That’s definitely how it was treated by fans.
Owen did win a great match against his brother at Wrestlemania X, but that win was slightly overshadowed as Bret would go on to win the WWE Championship later that night. Owen was on an upswing in popularity when he died tragically before an event; falling from the top of the arena while practicing an entrance. For a lot of young fans, that is the only memory they may have of Owen Hart, but for those old enough to have seen him work, he was an awesome presence within the company.
3: CM Punk
The self-proclaimed “Best in the World”, CM Punk is one of the most popular wrestlers today(I’m fully aware of his “retirement,” but a man can still hope, right?). It may seem like living the “Straight Edged” lifestyle and being vegetarian (for a while) wouldn’t interfere with a wrestling career, but to the gatekeepers, wrestlers had to be a “man’s man” which meant having a beer or two, eating meat, blah, blah, blah.
McMahon and others couldn’t believe that a guy that looked like Punk could convincingly beat someone up. Keep in mind this is the same company that at one point had a one-legged man actively wrestling. Punk proved time and time again that he could put on great matches, and his mic work was second to none, and even though he toiled around the upper-mid level for a while, grabbing the World Heavyweight title a few times, it was his “Shoot heard round the world” that shot him to the next tier.
Finally able to air his grievances and it struck a chord with fans. Punk eventually got his hands on the WWE title, and held it for a record 434 days. How’s that for the squirrely looking kid from Chicago?
2: Rey Mysterio
Yet another little guy who made it big. Rey had a long, hard road to travel through WCW. Like many others on the list, he was left in mid-card purgatory for that company. He soon became one of the most popular stars there, but never got his due in terms of titles or TV time. He was even disrespected by having to lose his mask in a match, a Mexican wrestling no-no.
When he eventually went over to WWE, he was allowed his mask again, but was deemed too small to really be anything other than an attraction. Rey wouldn’t accept that, and just as he’d done before, he outshone many of the people he was in the ring with. He went on to become one of the Superheroes of the company. His mask, and persona plastered on cups, shirts, and toys. He won the title in 2006 and was even billed the “Underdog Champion.” Standing at just 5’6″, Rey Mysterio is still one of the biggest men in wrestling.
1: Mick Foley
Mankind. Cactus Jack. Dude Love. The Hardcore Legend. No matter what you call him, Mick Foley is the biggest underdog in wrestling. He had most everything going against him. He wasn’t that big, his physique was doughy at best, and his ring technique wasn’t the best. Even he wonders why people like his earlier matches so much, as he considers them to just be “stunt shows”.
He went from promotion to promotion; Japan, Mexico, ECW, WCW, WWE – there wasn’t a place on Earth he didn’t wrestle. Eventually making it to WWE as Mankind, he played a demented, tortured soul-like character, but there was something about him that worked with fans.
The character was lightened up a bit, and Foley’s real personality was allowed to come out. Also, thanks to early internet, his back catalogue was becoming more widely known. The fans respected him, and in a case of right place right time, he was going to be given a title shot at a taped event, which WCW purposefully leaked on their own competing show as a jab at not only WWE, but Foley.
It turned out a lot of people wanted to see that, and hundreds of thousands of people switched over to watch Mick Foley finally accomplish his childhood dream. He’d gone from backyard wrestler, to NY Times Bestseller, to World Champion, and gave his entire body to the business he loved while no one expected him to succeed. There needs to be a Mick Foley movie ASAP.