Sometimes it takes a couple of years before a wrestling superstar is able to find his or herself as a performer. Not all talents arrive fully formed, and a little experience goes a long way in turning a rookie into a potential legend. For this reason, WWE generally likes to wait a little while between hiring a new wrestler and making them the face of the company, regardless of what they achieved elsewhere. Nine times out of ten, the worker will be able to prove themselves to the McMahon family and earn the push they probably deserved all along.
Unfortunately, that leaves another 10% to fall through the cracks, their talents never recognized on the level they should have been. How exactly this happens differs in every case, though it generally comes down to the whims of Vince McMahon and his executive staff, who rarely admit their mistakes. Maybe the wrestler has an unusual look or accent, gave one bad interview, or simply looked at a McMahon wrong one day backstage. Whatever the case, the real losers in this situation aren’t WWE execs or even the wrestlers, but rather the fans, who then miss out on great entertainment because Vince isn’t paying attention to his roster.
Worst of all are the wrestlers who get ignored and cast aside for longer than just a few months, many of whom were left on the backburner for full years or even decades at a time. In most of these cases, there’s absolutely no explanation for how McMahon ignored what he had for that length of time, leaving countless missed opportunities behind. Keep reading to learn about 15 sports entertainers who WWE wasted for the longest time.
15 Shinsuke Nakamura
Believe it or not, it’s already been over a full year since “The King of Strong Style” Shinsuke Nakamura announced he was leaving New Japan Pro Wrestling behind for a stint in the WWE Universe. Despite Nakamura’s status as a former IWGP Champion and his decade-plus wrestling in main events, WWE decided he needed time to adapt for an American audience and sent him to the developmental territory, NXT. On one hand, their hesitation made sense. American audiences have been notoriously slow to accept wrestlers who didn’t speak English, yet Nakamura wasted no time in proving in English was at least good enough that wouldn’t be a problem for him. The WWE Universe also wasted no time in begging the McMahon’s to bring Nakamura to the main roster, chanting his name during the main event of WrestleMania the night after he debuted in NXT. It’s hard to imagine a more clear cut example of a crowd telling the McMahon family what they want and where they want it, but all WWE has done in response is put Nakamura in back and forth feuds with no real payoff instead of calling him up and pleasing the crowd.
14 Barry Horowitz
One of the most recognizable jobbers in the WWE Universe for the better part of a decade, Barry Horowitz was essentially James Ellsworth in super slow motion. After working for WWE as a jobber to the stars on and off from 1987, Horowitz was almost randomly given some microphone time on Monday Night Raw in 1995, both times earning an incredible amount of audience sympathy for his never say die attitude. In all fairness, WWE never hired Horowitz to be more than an opening match loser, so seeing the crowd respond to him in this way must have been a surprise. Nonetheless, it was a shock that should have come much, much sooner, because all it took was Barry opening his mouth to go from a zero to a potential hero. Once Horowitz finally started winning against Skip, the pops he received were enormous, and WWE very easily could have transitioned him into a role as a real player. Instead, they quickly made him a comedy character in a wacky tag team with Hakushi, wasting him all over again. Hakushi soon left and Horowitz was back to being a full on jobber, making the entire experiment a confusing failure.
13 The Genius
Whether WWE used his talents properly or not, chances are Lanny “The Genius” Poffo was going to forever go down in history as “Macho Man” Randy Savage’s brother. Most certainly a far better talent than WWE or WCW ever gave him credit for, in all reality, Lanny paled in comparison to his older brother, but that doesn’t mean his talents should have been almost entirely ignored. Lanny entered the WWE Universe along with Randy, and McMahon understandably kept the two apart to allow them both to shine. Or, at least he could have, instead choosing only to let Randy become a star. While that might have been the right choice between the two, there’s no reason they Lanny couldn’t have also become an upper midcard talent. Instead, he was a passed over opening act who read silly poems for about five years, and then he turned into a manager with a cartoonish scholastic gimmick. Truth be told, Poffo was pretty great as The Genius, but he would have been even better if treated like a serious wrestler throughout this time.
12 Zack Ryder
There are few active WWE superstars who better represent the company outright refusing to give fans what they want than Zack Ryder. The self-proclaimed Internet Champion has never quite been a main event level performer, but he’s managed to become wildly popular through his use of social media and immersion in Long Island culture. In that vein, starting in 2011, Ryder produced a web series called Z! True Long Island Story, leading to fans chanting “We Want Ryder” on shows he wasn’t even booked to appear. While this has happened for plenty of main event performers in the past, Ryder rarely even won opening matches at this point in his career, showing a huge dichotomy in how WWE and the fans viewed his talents as a performer. Late that year, Ryder finally earned a spot on the card that matched his crowd reactions, becoming close friends with John Cena and winning the United States Championship. Unfortunately, his success wasn’t to last, and some five years later Ryder is now back to regularly losing in the opening match. Especially because they know exactly what they’re missing, the continued misuse of Ryder is one of the most confusing examples on this list.
11 Bubba Ray Dudley
One downside of appearing in a wildly successful tag team is that it can pigeonhole a performer from ever achieving success in the singles division. For every success story like Shawn Michaels or Edge, there’s a misstep like Bubba Ray Dudley, who could have been a much bigger star if his career panned out slightly differently. Granted, more so than most others on this list, WWE did at least try to transition Bubba away from The Dudley Boyz and let him stand on his own. However, the company made a huge mistake in giving Bubba too much too soon, having him challenge Triple H for the WWE Championship within mere months of going solo. It didn’t help that he was still Bubba Dudley, instead of taking some time off to rebrand himself as a new character, like, for example, Bully Ray. Because he wasn’t allowed to change things up in the slightest, Bubba was thrust back into the tag division a few months after going solo, never getting a chance to truly shine in his nearly 7 year WWE career.
10 Booker T
Most wrestling fans still consider The Invasion one of the worst missed opportunities in sports entertainment, and Booker T serves as the perfect microcosm of all the reasons why. In the highly political WCW atmosphere, where virtually no new stars were allowed to eclipse long tenured main eventers of yesteryear, Booker somehow rose above the old guard and became one of the most popular wrestlers in the company. He rode that wave of popularity to four WCW Championships when the company was in business, plus another one under the WWE brand. And then, when the Invasion was over, Booker was instantly thrust into the midcard, all of his prior accomplishments as the last franchise player in WCW completely forgotten about in an instant. Booker did occasionally luck into a WWE Championship feud or high profile angle, but the angles he was used in were either horribly offensive or painfully unfunny that Booker was fast losing all of his potential. Unlike most of this list, WWE was in the very least able to turn things around in 2006, when Booker won the King of the Ring tournament and became one of the longest reigning Kings in company history.
9 Damien Sandow
Every time WWE creates a new brilliant concept like the Royal Rumble or Money in the Bank, they inadvertently set a wrestler up for failure somewhere down the line. If a wrestler earns a title shot through a match like this and goes on to win the championship, a new star is made, but if a wrestler happens to lose that shot, the potential they had to become a main event talent disappear along with it. Case in point, Damien Sandow, the second Money in the Bank winner who failed to cash in. The first such athlete was John Cena, who obviously recovered from the loss, and the difference was Cena had already been a big star for some time before making a rare mistake. In Sandow’s example, the Money in the Bank win came out of nowhere and was followed by constant losses, draining his chances of being a real superstar more and more every week. By the time he lost his WWE Championship match, Sandow had absolutely nowhere left to go but straight down, which is exactly where his career fell until he left WWE in 2016.
8 Lance Storm
If we could be serious for a minute, let’s accept that Lance Storm probably never had what it took to be a WWE Champion or even a consistent challenger to the belt. Storm never possessed much in the way of charisma, yet he was an incredible technical wrestler who could make just about anybody look good when given the right amount of time to do so. With that in mind, WWE was pretty much on point with Lance for the first two years of his time in the company. He briefly won the Intercontinental Championship before appearing in a number of Tag Team Championship winning teams with Christian, William Regal, and Chief Morley. Once Storm’s team with Morley split, his career rapidly flew off the rails, getting publicly derided as boring and forced into extremely broad comedy angles that didn’t suit his capabilities in the slightest. It would have been so easy for WWE to keep putting Storm in tag teams with up and coming partners, and no one would have been calling him boring for boosting their careers.
Become friends with Vince or Stephanie McMahon, and you can inherit the WWE Universe. Influence a young Shane McMahon to annoy the hell out of those two, and it won’t matter how successful and talented you are; WWE just might not be for you. Raven might have been the greatest ECW Champion crowned while Paul Heyman was in control of the company, but he was never allowed to achieve more than a record 27 Hardcore Championship reigns in WWE, likely due to his past with the McMahon’s. Whatever the case, most fans agree that Raven was one of the best talkers in wrestling, and his skills in the ring were top notch, as well, making him worthy of main events no matter where he went. WCW wasn’t entirely kind to Raven, either, but they did at least push him into several high profile feuds as both a solo and tag team performer. The way WWE completely ignored Raven’s talents was nonetheless worse, pushing him further and further down the card until they released him with almost no fanfare after three years of next to nothing. Within weeks, Raven was being pushed as a top star in NWA: TNA, a position he held on to for several more years until injuries and age started slowing him down.
Far and away the most frustrating thing about Cesaro continuing to pop up on lists like this one is that Vince McMahon has offered a completely BS response to why WWE refuses to recognize the Swiss Superman as the potential star he should be. Since making his main roster WWE debut in 2012, Cesaro has won a handful of midcard and tag team titles, all the while showing a complete mastery of pro wrestling and getting fans and coworkers alike to hail him as one of the best in the world today. No less than “Stone Cold” Steve Austin recognized Cesaro’s potential, and confronted McMahon with it face to face on an episode of his podcast, only for McMahon to shrug it off and say he believed Cesaro didn’t have the “it” factor. Anyone who has watched a single Cesaro match knows that patently isn’t true, and nothing McMahon could do or say would convince fans it was. Even when Cesaro was forced to yodel his way down the aisle, fans accepted him as a threat because of what he did in the ring, and it’s hard to imagine what else McMahon could try to do and bury him.
5 Rick Martel
The strange thing about the way WWE misused Rick Martel for the better part of five years is that the McMahon’s already had plenty of firsthand experience of exactly what he should have been doing. Martel made his debut for the company in 1980, quickly earning fame as a rookie sensation and winning the WWE Tag Team Championships with Tony Garea twice. He left WWE for a stint in the AWA, where he reigned as World Champion for over nineteen months, all the while a highly sympathetic babyface. Immediately after losing the belt, Martel returned to WWE and again became wildly popular as half of Strike Force with Tito Santana. And then, Strike Force exploded and it all fell apart. It was inevitable that Strike Force would break up, and we can’t blame WWE for making Martel the heel when they did so, but they should have realized somewhere along the next six years that he just wasn’t suited for the role. Had Martel gone back to being babyface after a year or two as The Model, he could have prolonged his career for years, as seen when he did exactly that in 1998, working for WCW.
4 Drew McIntyre
Out of all the wrestlers on this list who didn’t “make it,” Drew McIntyre came the closest to becoming a huge WWE superstar without actually breaking through to the main event. Shortly after McIntyre made his debut, none other than Vince McMahon himself heralded the young Irishman as a “future world champion.” Technically speaking, Mr. McMahon’s prediction would eventually come true, albeit not while McIntyre was still working for his WWE Universe. McIntyre did earn a short reign as Intercontinental Champion, plus a run as Tag Team Champion with Cody Rhodes, but it wasn’t long before McMahon apparently lost all interest in pushing him as a serious threat. By the end of his time in WWE, McIntyre had become a full on comedy character, the least notable member of the embarrassing to begin with 3MB. Since leaving WWE, McIntyre has started using his real name, Drew Galloway, on the independent circuit and in Total Nonstop Action, earning significantly greater success than he had ever seen working for the McMahon family.
3 Dolph Ziggler
Considering he debuted as a caddy and then spent time as a cheerleader before becoming a regular wrestler with a weird name, it could be said former World Champion Dolph Ziggler achieved far more than it looked like he would upon his first several years in WWE. Somehow, that weird name has managed to bring Dolph a great level of fame, although it shouldn’t be too surprising since an incredibly talented athlete by any other name could still sell like an absolute pro, making himself and his opponents all bona fide stars in the process. In many respects, Ziggler has achieved much greater success than most of the others on this list, with five runs as Intercontinental Champion, one run as US Champ, not to mention two official World Championship reigns along the way. The thing is, he should have stayed on the World Championship level ever since he won his first Big Gold Belt, but instead WWE keeps pushing him further and further down the card, only allowing him to pop up in multi-person title matches to take the losing fall.
2 Shelton Benjamin
Winning the WWE Tag Team Championships with Charlie Haas less than one month into his mainstream wrestling debut, Shelton Benjamin seemed like he was on the fast track to fame. Both Haas and Benjamin had plenty to offer in the ring, but Shelton definitely eclipsed his partner, proving it the second the so-called World’s Greatest Tag Team split and Shelton was drafted to Raw. At first, it looked like Benjamin was headed for the main event with a win over Triple H, yet it wasn’t long before he was put in cartoonish angles that made him look like a joke. Worst of all was when Shelton’s Momma, played by well-known comedienne Thea Vidale, started interfering in his matches. Any plans about Shelton heading towards the main event were instantly halted, and things didn’t get any better when his next big gimmick chance was dying his hair blonde. Truth be told, Shelton was never the greatest on the microphone, so it made sense WWE would try to spruce him up. Unfortunately, they did so in a way that could have killed his career.
1 Cody Rhodes
The grandson of a plumber, offspring of the American Dream, and half-brother of a Bizarre One, second-generation superstar Cody Rhodes had a lot to live up to when he made his WWE Universe debut in 2007. His father Dusty Rhodes was one of the greatest legends in wrestling history, and sibling Goldust achieved a pretty significant deal of success himself as one of the most memorable characters sports entertainment had ever seen. As difficult a task as it was, it actually didn’t take long for Cody to stand out on his own, thanks to his own unique charisma as a performer. Although not quite as charismatic as his family members, Cody may be better in the ring than either of them, especially with his experience level taken into consideration. That said, WWE didn’t seem to think it mattered, or at least chose not to utilize his name and in-ring credentials for what they were worth. Even after Goldust and Dusty started getting involved with Cody’s career, not to mention countless fans supporting him as well, WWE kept ignoring Cody’s ideas and forced him to use the increasingly silly Stardust character. Now that Cody has finally left the WWE Universe, only time will tell how far he could have gone all along.