Under the bright lights and explosive production of the WWE Universe, every single superstar to walk down the aisle looks like the proverbial million bucks. Should a given superstar happen to be near the main event, they may even be earning a seven-figure salary, which the smart ones have been able to turn into gigantic fortunes with the right planning and investments. Of course, this all happened after they became famous. While it obviously takes a little bit of capital to chase any dream in life, there’s no specific amount of money required to become a pro wrestler, and several future superstars didn’t have any of it at all when their career’s began.
Disadvantaged though these wrestlers were, they never let a lack of funding get in the way of their dreams. This isn’t to say some of them didn’t make some seriously awful decisions when trying to get by, but it’s always a moral grey area when a person is caught stealing bread because they genuinely can’t afford to eat. Other wrestlers were too noble to break the law, instead fighting back against poverty as best they could, putting in long hours to pull themselves up from the bottom all the way to the top.
Thankfully, due to the way WWE handles it’s biggest stars, chances are few of these wrestlers will ever go hungry again. Even so, none of them will ever forget the hardship that defined their early days, and will never stop working their hardest to ensure it never returns to their lives. Keep reading to learn about 15 wrestlers you had no idea grew up poor.
15 AJ Styles Had To Deal With A Difficult Family
To most disadvantaged children who later became WWE superstars, no matter how bad things got for them, they always had wrestling. Even if they didn’t have any food on the table or their parents abandoned them, at least they could tune into Raw or some other sports entertainment spectacle at least once per week. Not so for the extremely impoverished AJ Styles, who had a family so poor they couldn’t afford cable, and thus could never watch all that much WWE. Part of the problem is that AJ’s father was reported to be abusive.
Somehow, though, Styles would inevitably learn how to master the sport he was rarely able to watch as a child, and the hardships he faced instilled a phenomenal spirit of determination that persists to this day.
From the beginning of his career, Styles could be described as an overachiever, albeit in a completely positive way, meaning it was almost impossible for the guy to have a bad match, no matter his opponent. Recognizing this talent, Jeff Jarrett and then Dixie Carter both pushed Styles as the top superstar in Total Nonstop Action, a status he easily transitioned to New Japan Pro Wrestling and now the WWE Universe.
14 Booker T Was Orphaned Before His Teens
Always wearing a huge smile on his face when interacting with fans, Booker T is the last person one would expect to have a terrible childhood. Surprisingly, his might have been one of the worst on this list, with the hardship starting when the future WWE and WCW Champion was only 10 months old. Before Baby Book could even walk, his father passed away, leaving his already impoverished mother very overwhelmed raising her eight kids. Things only got worse from there, when Booker’s mother passed away as well when he was only 13 years old, leading to a complete downward spiral that saw his life rapidly leave his control.
Without any parental help or supervision, and his older siblings too busy fending for themselves to help him, Booker quickly dropped out of high school and started getting himself into trouble. He eventually got a real job at Wendy’s, but that went away very fast when Booker and his friends serially robbed at least 12 fast food restaurants throughout the early 1980s. Booker served 19 months, where he also started to turn his life around. While his co-conspirators served longer sentences, Booker got off relatively easy due to good behavior. Never letting that mood falter, Booker only became more and more likeable, turning into a WWE Hall of Famer.
13 Adam Rose Was Homeless In South Africa
Unfortunately for any Rosebuds left in the WWE Universe, chances of their Ultimate Party Animal leader Adam Rose making a comeback are pretty much nonexistent. Then again, overcoming hardship had been part of the poor kid’s life since he was only 14, so he may be used to pulling himself up from the bottom. Despite being born to a relatively well off South African family, Rose ran away from his parents when he was only 14. Right before leaving, he also dropped out of school, which began a downward spiral that soon included fights, homelessness, and personal struggles. Surprisingly, for as terrible as it all sounds, Rose shows few regrets about the situation in hindsight. Accepting that he got to that point entirely on his own, Rose later stated,
“I chose the lifestyle I wanted to live when I was there. I had loving parents. I just didn’t choose to be part of the family. I chose to go out on my own and do my own thing.”
Yes, Rose had what he admitted were “a very difficult two years,” but without them he probably wouldn’t have become the person he is today. Of course, with WWE showing no further interest in him, that may not be the best position to be in.
12 “Rowdy” Roddy Piper Ran Away From Home
Redefining the idea of a person marching to the beat of their own drummer (or maybe bagpipes), “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was truly one of a kind in every manner. His reputation for outrageous originality began very young, when he was caught with a switchblade in junior high, leading to his father kicking him out of the house. Piper was 13, uneducated, unruly, and incapable of calming down his act even as his life basically depended on it. Luckily, while bouncing around from one youth hostel to the next, the Hot Rod ran into a couple wrestlers who would soon break him into the business.
By the time Piper was in his early 20s, he was already selling out arenas as the most hated man in any territory that would hire him. Before long, this lead to international and then global fame in the NWA and WWE. As per usual, it was working for Vince McMahon that Piper truly cemented himself as an icon in the industry by serving as Hulk Hogan’s greatest rival as his WWE Championship began. Despite the immense fame that would follow for the rest of his life, Piper was reported for being a frugal man to the end who saved his money and spent it mostly on family, likely because he knew what it was like to be without.
11 Willie Mack Was Literally Born Into Tragedy
For the most part, no matter how disadvantaged a wrestler was as a child, it’s not until adulthood that they realize how bad they had it. Willie Mack didn’t have this salvation, as the poor guy was likely in extreme pain brought on from his mother’s poverty the day he was born. Okay, so simply being poor doesn’t hurt on a physical level, but falling victim to substances does. Mack called himself a typical '80s baby because of how widespread the terrible phenomenon was at the time. The struggle didn’t end there, as Mack’s mother never seemed to kick the habit, burning their house down one nigh.
Mack only survived that incident by grace of his sister, though he was far from in the clear as of yet. Unsurprisingly, the kids were taken out of their mother’s care and put into a foster home run by a family friend. After 14 years as a foster child, Mack’s caregiver passed away, and neither his mother nor sister were prepared to take care of him. Finally, by the time Mack was a teenager, his father stepped back into his life and provided him the support needed to pursue his wrestling dreams.
10 Dawn Marie Lived In Her Car
When a person looks at Dawn Marie, they see a gorgeous and glamorous woman with a strong fashion sense and a better than average knowledge of wrestling. While half of this came from her upbringing, it’s probably not the part you expect. Believe it or not, Dawn’s poor family would often crowd around the television screen watching WWE when she was younger, which she later called some of her fondest childhood memories. Impoverished, feisty, and Italian, it’s easy to see how the young Dawn could relate to Bruno Sammartino, or any other disadvantaged hero trying to pull him or herself up from the bootstraps.
Dawn herself would definitely experience that struggle at the age of 17, when she was homeless and living out of her car. In order to make ends meet, she took a mildly demeaning job as a waitress in a “bikini bar,” slowly working her way through school. From there, Dawn found an agent and sought acting gigs, noting she would also be interested in wrestling basically as a joke. It started feeling more serious when she was actually booked for gigs, and even felt like a career when her act with Lance Storm was at its peak in ECW. Unfortunately, Vince McMahon would later drop Dawn right down to the bottom by firing her when she was pregnant.
9 Ken Shamrock Had Troubles Before UFC
“Life hasn’t always been easy, but you have to believe in yourself. That’s very important.” So says WWE superstar and UFC legend Ken Shamrock in a statement that almost feels a little cliché, but given his story, it’s hard to argue it applied. When Shamrock was only five years old, his father abandoned their family, leaving behind a single mother that struggled at paying to raise her kids. Stepfathers and boyfriends would step in to help, but none seemed to like Ken all that much, and one kicked him out of the house when he was 13.
After a year of fighting on the streets, Shamrock was adopted by Bob Shamrock’s Boys’ Home and rapidly started turning his life around.
Even before meeting the elder Shamrock, the athlete known as “The World’s Most Dangerous Man” claimed the only time he truly felt comfortable was when involved in physical competition. In school, regular sports would generally do the trick, but eventually Ken realized his true calling was violently tearing his enemies apart. This mindset is what made Shamrock the first true superstar of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and it wasn’t long before Vince McMahon came calling, inspiring a transition to wrestling. While Shamrock’s career fizzled out faster than anyone expected, his penchant for survival means a comeback is always possible.
8 Rich Swann’s Problems Go Way Back
If you thought Rich Swann’s life was nearing rock bottom after he lost his “dream job” with WWE after he got in trouble with the law, just wait until you hear about his childhood. Obviously, bad things happening in the past can’t negate Vince McMahon’s zero tolerance policy, and Swann’s past certainly suggests he’s capable of making questionable decisions. The catch is that he was initially put into an unwinnable situation, and his problems got worse through efforts at fixing it. When Swann was still a preteen, both of his parents passed, leaving the kid completely alone, and essentially unable to support himself.
Clearly in a downward spiral, Swann reacted to the passing of his parents with substances, which easily could have cost him his life. Oddly enough, it was the death of someone in his circle via a heart attack that made him realize just how dangerous the lifestyle was becoming. Soon, distant family members stepped in and helped Swann support himself a little, allowing him to finish high school and begin his wrestling career. Of course, Swann’s day in the ring looks over despite all charges against him being dropped, so it’s as of now unclear if the hard work will pay off.
7 CM Punk’s Family Scared Him Straight
Every single wrestler on this list overcame adversity in one way or another to become superstars, and many of them used the struggle in their characters. However, none used their rise from the bottom to such an extent as CM Punk, whose laurels as the Straight Edge Messiah followed him everywhere he went as a face or heel. Okay, so abstaining from substances doesn’t always prevent someone from falling into poverty, but theses temptations definitely played a role in Punk’s family drama.
Speaking years later, Punk explained, “It never made any sense that my parents couldn’t afford Christmas presents, but they could buy three cartons of cigarettes apiece a month.” Based on that one short story, it’s pretty clear the issue isn’t so much that Punk’s parents were unemployable, but rather that they were extremely irresponsible with money, spending the decent amount they had entirely on unnecessary intoxicants. Knowing the full story, it’s no wonder Punk preaches against this destructive lifestyle at every chance he gets. Because Punk is hardly the only person to have gone through something like this, his words often powerfully resonated with audience when he talked about it, which coupled with his ring skills made him five time World Champion.
6 Batista Had It Rough
Terrible as it is to be poor, the situation doesn’t always necessarily mean these wrestlers were in danger of anything other than going hungry for a couple nights. Obviously, there’s no way to undercut how atrocious that can be for a child with no control over the situation, but it could be worse — they could live in an area so rampant with crime three unrelated homicides took place on their front lawn by the time he or she was 10. That’s what happened to Batista when he was living with his single mother in Washington, D.C. Not only did these terrible incidents in front of his home, but he often witnessed it happening, which may have contributed to his intensity as a performer.
Wanting to get out of that terrible environment as fast as he could, Batista left home at the age of 17 and never looked back.
Finding work wherever he could, Batista sought employment in mildly physical careers like bouncing, lifeguarding, and bodybuilding, with that last job finally linking him to the world of sports entertainment. In a little under a decade, Batista became a six-time WWE Champion, and now he dominates the box office as Drax, one of the Guardians of the Galaxy, in Marvel’s latest blockbuster film series.
5 AJ Lee Had To Support Herself Through School
The type of personality who turns every negative she can into a positive, after leaving the WWE Universe, AJ Lee earned secondary fame as the author of her memoir, Crazy Is My Superpower. Chances are the “Geek Goddess” wouldn’t go quite that far with the fact she lived near the poverty line, but she definitely didn’t let the hardship define her. Speaking with ESPN about her book after it was released, AJ was quote as saying,
“You can come from the poorest, weakest background and you can make something of your life. You really just have to have the guts to try.”
As the title would imply, AJ’s comments were mostly about her struggle with mental illness, but that was hardly the only issue her family faced. AJ also came from an extremely poor background, and the only way she could get through school was by supporting herself with whatever odd job might be available. This included stints as a cashier and janitor, neither of which exactly inspired confidence in the young wannabe wrestler. Always a wrestling fan, AJ was too poor to even attend WWE events for years, and was shocked she could afford it once she finally could. One can only imagine how shocked she was to overcome it all and start winning Divas Championships.
4 Bruno Sammartino Escaped
In classic Bruno Sammartino fashion, this next story is pretty much unbeatable. Terrible as everyone on this list clearly had it, only one future WWE superstar we’re aware of spent his childhood literally running away from Nazis. Born into Italy a mere five years before the country joined Germany in World War II, Bruno hid in the mountains of Valla Rocca to hide from soldiers. His father had left for America years earlier to build a new life for the family, while Bruno’s mother would attempt sneaking into town and stealing food from the German-occupied town. Despite the mountain of a man he would become, this unwanted lifestyle predictably left the future Living Legend in pretty terrible condition. To quote the man himself, “I was a 90-pound weakling, but not because I was anemic. It was because of the war. We hid from the Nazis in the mountains.
Sometimes there was nothing to eat but snow.
Whole families were wiped out. We were among the lucky ones.” When asked years later why he didn’t share this story more often or include it in his wrestling character, Sammartino noted that wrestling journalists have a tendency to lie and exaggerate this sort of thing, and he didn’t want to trivialize his journey by giving people reasons to not believe it.
3 Dean Ambrose Was In Low-Income Housing
When a person is living on the so-called “Lunatic Fringe,” chances are something happened in their lives to make them that way. This was certainly the case with the WWE Universe’s resident madman Dean Ambrose, who was driven mad by a government that clearly didn’t care about him or his friends. For the most part, Ambrose grew up in the worst part of Cincinnati, Ohio’s East End, an extremely poor neighborhood filled with people who couldn’t afford the rent. As Ambrose puts it,
“My neighbourhood was pretty much a big stretch of government housing and all these torn up apartment buildings all owned by different people. It was easy to get the feeling like all the garbage from the city ran down and washed up there.”
It’s very easy to see how this mentality could lead to some questionable choices, which also happened to Ambrose. In some cases, he was forced to deal to get by, or even because it was the only way to save himself a beating from a bigger, stronger lunatic. On the plus side, this lifestyle made Ambrose an incredibly tough character, leading to his current ability to withstand extreme amounts of pain and keep on fighting. Based on that quality, Ambrose is a former WWE Champion, and could easily win that belt a few more times.
2 Vince McMahon Lived In A Trailer Park
At this point, it’s unlikely anyone in history will ever come close to Vince McMahon’s record as the man who made the most money from sports entertainment. Hovering around “certified billionaire” status ever since the Attitude Era, and already pretty well off immediately after purchasing WWE from his father, it also happens that McMahon has been in this position for a long, long time, and his bank account just keeps getting bigger. However, it wasn’t always this way, as Vince didn’t even meet his dad until he was 12 years old, and life wasn’t easy in the slightest before that point. Speaking to Muscle & Fitness, Vince explained,
“I grew up dirt poor. When you’re in that class, a lower economic class, everyone is, quote, ‘above you.’ And there were a number of individuals who thought they were above me because of their economic situation.”
To elaborate a little, McMahon is talking about how he lived in a trailer park with his mother and a series of questionable and borderline abusive stepfathers. The neighborhoods weren’t great either, filled with rich kids looking down on little Vinnie and his mobile home. Things seriously started turning around when junior met senior, though, and before long, both men were on the fast track to pro wrestling history.
1 The Rock Couldn’t Afford Thanksgiving Dinner
While Vince McMahon might always have more money tucked away in his bank account, there’s no denying Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has become the biggest mainstream celebrity in the history of the wrestling business. It’s been a while since the millions (and millions) of Rock’s fans chanted his name, but now billions (and billions) of dollars are getting thrown at his movies, which is arguably a much better state for him to be in. Granted, The Rock’s been firmly on this path to greatness since the late '90s, when his comedic jock persona was a key element of the Attitude Era. That said, to imply it was all so simple from day one wouldn’t entirely be accurate. Yes, The Rock’s father Rocky Johnson was also a wrestler, and a reasonably successful one at that. However, Johnson wasn’t always there during The Great One’s upbringing, and his mom didn’t always have the bank account of a superstar. In an emotional Instagram post, The Rock revealed
“there was a time back in ’87 when we couldn’t even afford Thanksgiving dinner and was praying someone would invite us over to their house to eat.”
At this point, The Rock could probably pay for the entire extended Anoa’i family feast, but he never forgot where he came from.
References: WWE, ESPN, Pro Wrestling Torch, Fightful, Baltimore Sun, The Undefeated, Muscle & Fitness, Post and Courier, Record Net, Today, Deadspin, Slam! Sports
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