Top Five Wrestlers Who Were More Successful than Anyone Expected

Craig Wilson, Brian Damage & Jamie Lithgow

In last week’s Top Five we looked at superstars we had high hopes for but were left disappointed. This week, our Top Five sees us flip that around and take a look at superstars we had low expectations of but who ended up exceeding them – some in quite spectacular fashion.


JBL? Is that you?

5. Bradshaw/JBL
I switched off watching WWE regularly around about 2002. By that point, Bradshaw had been with the company around six years and despite some tag team success alongside Farooq – more of him later – like many, I expected him to have already hit his glass ceiling in the WWE. Imagine my surprise, then, that upon renewing my interest in the WWE that I found out he spent some time towards the top end of cards and had a 280 day run with the World Heavyweight Championship. Not bad for a guy that debuted as a tough mountain man…

4. The 1-2-3 Kid
Having made my way through 1993 episodes of Raw for Raw Rewind, I saw the Kid debut and, like many, really didn’t expect much at all. Sure, it was quite flashy and fast but he was losing week in, week out. Add in the diminutive figure, who expected much? But then he beat Razor Ramon and his fortunes changed dramatically. Sure, there’s “X-Pac heat” but he carved out a very successful and long in-ring career after a start that saw him jobbing to virtually everyone.

3. Faarooq
I recently wrote about Farooq for a ‘Well, That Didn’t Work’ piece focusing on his character when he debuted. I won’t completely rehash it but to take a former WCW champion and football star and stick him in a stupid gladiatorial gimmick shows something pretty special when it comes to creative at the time. Anyone watching that, wouldn’t have expected much from Ron Simmons but he’d go on to form the Nation of Domination, be part of the Acolytes and enter the WWE Hall of Fame. Not bad considering he once had to wear a stupid helmet alongside Sunny.

‘So I was thinking of these flowers for the service…’

2. The New Age Outlaws
When Jesse James and Billy Gunn were thrown together in late 1997, very few would have expected much from this. To many, it would have looked very much like two floundering singles guys being thrown together in the hope that it might work. It was a no-risk strategy. But boy did it work. In the end, the New Age Outlaws ended up being one of the most popular acts of the Attitude Era and enjoyed WWE tag team success as recently as January 2014, when they defeated Cody Rhodes and Goldust to start their sixth, and to date final, run with the gold. Not bad for a team that prior to forming was Rockabilly Gunn and “The Real Double J” Jesse James…

1. The Undertaker
This is definitely an ‘in hindsight’ one for me. Sure, back in 1990, when he debuted, the Undertaker seemed a character perfectly fitting with the time period. But, really, did anyone expect him to forge the long career he did in the WWE? Even the most optimistic wouldn’t have expected that character to last through the New Generation, Attitude Era, and beyond and to become one of the most important superstars in the history of WrestleMania and the WWE. But he did thanks to the Undertaker’s efforts in both protecting the character but also evolving and adapting to make it fit. Let’s not mention the American Bad Ass though, eh?


Wrestler, author, comedian… terrible softball player though

5. Cody Rhodes
Let me just say, I always thought he would have a good, long career in this business. I never imagined just how big of a success he would become. To do most of it outside of WWE’s landscape makes it even more impressive. He won several independent titles and became one of the hottest free agents in all of professional wrestling. He then became Ring of Honor world champion, NWA world champion and challenged for New Japan’s IWGP title on a couple of occasions. Now, he is calling the shots of a new upstart promotion with AEW. Quickly making him one of the most powerful people in the business. I never would’ve pictured that at all.

4. Cactus Jack
Here was a guy who was to be nothing more than a niche wrestler. He made his name doing crazy stunts in death matches all over the world. I would have never pictured him becoming what he did in the WWF/WWE. I don’t think WWE did either. He had such an amazing personality and charisma and was willing to sacrifice his body. Fans gravitate to him and he was justly rewarded by becoming WWE champion and one of the company’s top stars in the 1990s.

3. The Honky Tonk Man
When he first debuted in the WWF, my first impression was that this Elvis impersonator gimmick was never going to succeed. Even in the WWF, where silly gimmicks were rampant, I simply didn’t see HTM being anything. Not only did he succeed, he became one of the top heels of the company. To this day, he still holds the record for the longest single reign in WWF Intercontinental title history.

2. Goldberg
Here was a guy who had the look of a bigger version of ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin. He was green and couldn’t cut a promo to save his life. Yet, he would go on to become the biggest star in all of WCW for a short amount of time and rival his popularity with the biggest stars of that era. Leave it to WCW management to mess up the aura that Goldberg created, but I never thought when first watching him he would become as big as he did.


1. Becky Lynch
I know she is a recent pick, but did anybody really think Becky Lynch would become the superstar she became. She is not only the most popular female wrestler in WWE, but she is also arguably the most popular wrestler in all of WWE. If anything, I would have picked someone like Sasha Banks or Charlotte Flair to become that, not Lynch. She is a great wrestler, but I never imagined any of what we are seeing today.


5. Bradshaw/JBL
I don’t like change! Back in 2004 when Bradshaw became JBL I just could not accept him. I mean, it was still fucking Bradshaw who I didn’t even like as a babyface. He was still the same hard-hitting but not particularly exciting wrestler, only with a haircut and a nice suit. As it turns out, it was this character that was far closer to the real John Layfield rather than Bradshaw, whom I had come accustomed to seeing him as. Taking a bang average mid-card guy and repackaging him into a main eventer almost never works, but sometimes it does.

Watch out for splinters from that thing

4. Daniel Bryan
You have to mention The Miz here because it was his feud with Bryan in the original series of NXT – yeah, remember when it was a series? – that helped to highlight exactly what Bryan was and still is about. Less so now because the company is a bit more diverse, but certainly a few years ago, Bryan was not a typical WWE superstar. However, he was very, very good and fans realised that. What surprised me is that WWE went with it. I figured they’d run with the angle for a bit, make some money and re-establish Bryan in the mid-card for the remainder of his tenure in WWE. I think it’s safe to say that did not happen.

3. Rey Mysterio
He’s one of the most recognisable wrestlers in the world and a former WWE and World Heavyweight Champion. We almost take Rey for granted because we are so used to thinking of him as a top guy. However, back in 2002 I for one just assumed he was coming to WWE in order to add some star power to WWE’s Cruiserweight Division. I figured there was no way he could top his run in WCW as their upper mid-card, cruiserweight stand-out who brushed shoulders with the main event guys. I mean, WWE was known as the land of the giants for a reason so there was no way that a guy my size would make it beyond the ‘special attraction’ level. How wrong I was because straight away in WWE he was mixing it with the likes of Kurt Angle and tagging with Edge before putting together a genuinely Hall of Fame worthy run in the company.

The door was open, dickhead

2. The Undertaker
For the exact reasons that Craig has mentioned Taker. There was every chance that if a prison guard or barber could succeed in WWE in the late 80s/early 90s then a funeral worker could too. As time went by WWE strayed away from cartoonish characters but The Undertaker got even more ridiculous and got even more popular! As a character The Undertaker should not really have made it out of 1994 but the planets have aligned and he has been portrayed by the one wrestler who is tailor made for the role.

1. Kane
Like with Bradshaw/JBL, this should not have worked based on the idea of taking a mid-card guy and re-packaging him into a main eventer overnight. Then you have to consider the Kane character and the context with how he was introduced. At a time when Shawn Michaels and Triple H were telling dick jokes and Steve Austin was drinking beer, Kane was using his magical powers to start fires. Unlike his brother, I don’t even know how the Kane character got off the ground never mind how it stuck around for so long.

You can read all previous Top Five pieces here.


One thought on “Top Five Wrestlers Who Were More Successful than Anyone Expected

  1. On the surface, The Undertaker is about as ridiculous a character as wrestling’s ever seen. A Satanic, undead, slow-moving zombie mortician with supernatural powers. Makes a wrestling garbage man look pretty normal in comparison, lol. Kudos to the man for making the character work and becoming one of the most iconic figures in pro wrestling history!

    Liked by 1 person

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