Before they were bigtime Superstars
March 26, 2013
Dreams aren’t achieved overnight. Every young hopeful believes he is destined to win championships and main event WrestleManias, but it takes years of training, struggling and, oftentimes, losing in a WWE ring before anyone ever gets there.
WWEClassics.com dug deep into the Titan Towers tape library to uncover early appearances of 10 Superstars you’ll definitely know, but maybe not recognize at first glance. These are the struggles of future greats making a name for themselves, just trying to hit the big time.
When Daniel Bryan appeared as a Rookie on the first season of NXT with a boyish face and limitless talent, there was concern among the show’s Pros that he didn’t have the charisma or personality to succeed in the larger-than-life WWE Universe. Three years later and Bryan has proven himself to be one of the squared circle’s most colorful personas and a multi-time champion.
Seven years before beginning his tumultuous tenure in NXT, Bryan was earning a reputation as one of the finest pure athletes in all of wrestling. The eventual World Heavyweight Champion got his first opportunity to perform on WWE television under the names Bryan Danielson and American Dragon. He faced off with Jamie Noble on an episode of Velocity, and the following month, he competed against Rico and an impressive newcomer named John Cena.
Many fans of The Best in the World are familiar with his dynamic debut in summer 2006 in front of rowdy New York City fans at the famed Hammerstein Ballroom. But that wasn’t the first time CM Punk appeared in a WWE ring.
During his days as a standout in the Ring of Honor organization, the eventual long-reigning WWE Champion caught the attention of some WWE fans. The Second City Savior didn’t appear on Raw or SmackDown, but he twice appeared on Sunday Night Heat in spring 2005. Competing under the name of independent wrestling mainstay Chad Collyer, Punk tagged with Chad Russell Simpson as the oddly named Team of CM Punk in a bout against the duo of Maven & Simon Dean.
One month later, Punk was defeated by Val Venis, but the match impressed WWE officials enough to sign the Chicago native to a contract.
The Hardy Boyz
Long before Matt and Jeff revolutionized tag team wrestling with Tables, Ladders & Chairs Matches, the Hardys were two energetic kids from North Carolina just looking for a break. And from 1994 to ’98, WWE gave them several as the brothers saw action on programs like Raw, Superstars and Wrestling Challenge.
As youngsters, Matt and Jeff each faced off with legendary grapplers like Razor Ramon, Owen Hart, King Kong Bundy, The Undertaker and many others. The brothers teamed up for the first time on WWE television in mid-1996 when they took on The New Rockers — Marty Jannetty & Leif Cassidy. On each occasion, the Hardys were unsuccessful in picking up a victory. But that didn’t stop them from becoming one of the most popular duos in WWE history.
While learning how to wrestle at former ECW Champion Mikey Whipwreck’s training school on Long Island, Zack Ryder began competing by the name Brett Matthews. It was at the local New York Wrestling Connection organization where Ryder met close friend Curt Hawkins. Together, the duo became WWE Tag Team Champions, but Ryder’s first opportunity at greatness came solo.
Fed to the returning Matt Morgan on a spring 2005 episode of SmackDown, Ryder — under the Matthews moniker — barely got in any offense during his encounter with the 7-foot beast. Despite the outcome the contest, it was Morgan who departed WWE less than three months later. Ryder’s outing against the monster earned him a WWE contract and he went on to become a United States Champion and social media phenomenon. How’s that for turning the tables? You know it.
Training at the wrestling school of the legendary Dominic DeNucci afforded a young trainee from Long Island, N.Y., the opportunity to perform at WWE events. But even Mick Foley could not have foreseen the remarkable career ahead of him when The Hardcore Legend stepped into the Providence Civic Center in 1986. On the second-ever edition of “Superstars,” Mick — taking his father’s name of Jack Foley — teamed with Les Thornton to take on The British Bulldogs. The youngster got an early lesson when a clothesline from Dynamite Kid badly injured Foley’s jaw.
Jack (sans Cactus) stuck around through the rest of the year for three more WWE contests against The Killer Bees, Hercules and Kamala. In a rematch against The Ugandan Giant, Mick went by Nick, but it was his famous “Three Faces” that catapulted Foley to worldwide stardom in the 1990s.
Former ECW Champion Jerry Lynn is one of the best wrestlers that current WWE fans may have never heard of. Up until his 2013 retirement from the ring, Lynn was known as an extremely talented and respected grappler by peers throughout the wrestling industry.
Before he competed against Rob Van Dam in five-star matches in ECW, Lynn appeared for WWE in both 1989 and 1995, competing against Superstars like Rick Martel, Big Boss Man and The Heavenly Bodies. Although he had been successful in the Dallas-based Global Wrestling Federation, Lynn came up short in his WWE contests but thrived after arriving in ECW. ECW mastermind Paul Heyman gave the Minneapolis native a chance to shine and Lynn did the rest, eventually beating Justin Credible to win the ECW Championship during the company’s dying days.
Following the close of the hardcore organization, the skilled grappler returned to WWE. Despite winning the Light Heavyweight Championship from Crash Holly in his debut match, Lynn departed less than a year later.
Scotty 2 Hotty
Scotty 2 Hotty’s evolution from young Scott Taylor to swaggified hip-hopper is one of the starkest transformations in WWE. And it certainly didn’t happen overnight.
Taylor debuted on Raw early in 1993 to face the monstrous Bam Bam Bigelow. Over the next four years, the New England native battled legendary competitors like Papa Shango, Yokozuna and Crush. When WWE began to build a Light Heavyweight division in 1997, Taylor mixed it up with Japanese and lucha libre stars before joining forces with former foe Brian Christopher. Together, Taylor and Christopher were a little too much, but when they morphed into Scotty 2 Hotty and Grand Master Sexay, they became Too Cool.
Taking a look at the young Japanese athlete with a trim haircut and non-descript white and blue trunks, fans could never have believed this grappler would one day become an unpredictable ECW icon.
Cutting his teeth in the dangerous world of Japanese professional wrestling, Tajiri also competed in several WWE matches during 1996 and 1997 as the company was attempting to ignite its Light Heavyweight division. After failing to impress in his contests, the Tokyo native soon navigated his way to The Land of Extreme.
In ECW, Tajiri spit green mist in the face of his adversaries and induced a tremendous amount of pain with his devastating Tarantula maneuver while picking up both the Television and Tag Team Championships.
When ECW closed, The Japanese Buzzsaw landed back in WWE, where he finally won the Light Heavyweight Championship, in addition to many other titles. For several years, that kid with the plain trunks was WWE’s most unexpected success story.
Whether you know him as Thurman “Sparky” Plugg, Hardcore Holly or simply as Bob, The Alabama Slamma is one of the toughest competitors ever to step inside a WWE ring. But long before Holly revved any engines or brawled with Al Snow through a blizzard, the six-time Hardcore Champion was a long-haired grappler butting heads with WWE fan favorites.
As best we can tell from our research, Holly made his first appearance on WWE television in 1991, teaming with Mike Samples in a losing effort against The Bushwhackers. Still, despite Holly’s loss to the sheepherders from the outback, the two Aussies certainly posed less of a threat than Brock Lesnar, who seriously injured him more than 10 years later.
Before Mr. Kennedy began announcing himself to the ring for his matches on SmackDown, he was a performer going by the name of Ken Anderson on Sunday Night Heat. The charismatic stud struggled in matches against 3 Minute Warning, La Resistance and William Regal, but became a major star once he reappeared as Mr. Kennedy. The cocky loudmouth let his words lead him to intense rivalries with ring greats like The Undertaker, Batista and Ric Flair.
At WrestleMania 23, Kennedy emerged from a field of eight outstanding Superstars to win the Money in the Bank Ladder Match. But before he could win a World Championship, he lost the briefcase and departed WWE never to be seen again.