WWE’s current world champions are Kevin Owens and AJ Styles. That’s something few could have predicted several years ago.
Both Superstars were two of the biggest non-WWE acts in professional wrestling prior to signing with the company. However, each honed their crafts in several other promotions before finally signing.
It did, however, provide both Superstars with a built-in fanbase upon their respective debuts. Owens, formerly known by his real name, Kevin Steen, got a huge ovation when he made his first NXT appearance at TakeOver: R Evolution. Styles received one of the biggest pops of 2016 when he debuted in the Royal Rumble match earlier this year.
Several others have taken similar career paths to Owens and Styles. These Superstars were big acts in other companies and went on to have monumental success in WWE.
Here’s a look at the most successful big name signings in WWE history.
I debated whether to include Superstars from the Golden Era on this list given that many of them were acquired during territorial days. Admittedly, I am too young to remember how popular they would’ve been to the then-WWF audience before signing, but I can’t exclude Hulk Hogan, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Ultimate Warrior, Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart.
It’s more so that the people listed were on nationally televised or internet programs that were easily accessible to a wider audience, not just a geographical region.
Early WCW/ECW signings
“Stunning” Steve Austin
We start our official list with arguably the most successful superstar of the Attitude Era, Stone Cold Steve Austin. While Austin achieved his greatest success in WWE, he gained notoriety as a member of Paul Heyman’s Dangerous Alliance and teamming with “Flyin” Brian Pillman as a member of the “Hollywood Blondes” in World Championship Wrestling.
After being terminated by former executive Eric Bischoff, Austin joined Extreme Championship Wrestling for a brief period before signing with WWE in 1995. Following a brief stint as The Ringmaster, the Texan evolved his character into Stone Cold Steve Austin during the summer of 1996 and went on to become the face of the Attitude Era.
Mick Foley was worked as three different characters, but he made his professional wrestling television debut as Cactus Jack for WCW in 1991. Foley competed in several different promotions before joining WWE, with the most recent being ECW.
The “Hardcore Legend” ironically took on a gimmick where he criticized the brand’s style of hardcore wrestling and used a slower, more technical style to gain heel heat. He signed with WWE in 1996 and debuted as Mankind. Foley won his first World Championship on Monday Night Raw two years later.
Attitude Era signings
The Attitude Era brought the stiffest competition between professional wrestling promotions. World Wrestling Federation was in a weekly ratings battle with WCW and had a then-unknown working relationship with ECW. Naturally, several stars switched brands after their contracts expired. Here’s a look at the Superstars who shined brightest after joining WWF/E.
Chris Jericho is arguably the most successful superstar on this list excluding Austin. He was the biggest acquisition WWE made during the Attitude Era after gaining attention as a cocky, rising talent in WCW.
Jericho immediately became one of WWE’s most entertaining acts as both a babyface and heel. He was the company’s first ever Undisputed Champion — defeating Austin and The Rock in the same night — a six-time world champion, a nine-time Intercontinental Champion (the most of any WWE superstar) and held numerous other titles as well.
To this day, the “gift of Jericho” keeps on giving.
Eddie Guerrero was another key component to the success of WCW’s cruiserweight division. However, like Jericho, he achieved even more success in WWE.
Latino Heat was one of the most naturally charismatic superstars in professional wrestling history. After winning several undercard titles, Guerrero became WWE champion in 2004 by defeating Brock Lesnar on SmackDown.
He remained a fixture in SmackDown’s main event scene until his death on Nov. 13, 2005. Guerrero was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame several months later.
Author’s note: I debated whether to include Benoit because of his incident. WWE won’t acknowledge his existence for understandable reasons. But it would be weird not to include him based on his in-ring work given that he was far more successful in WWE than WCW, ECW or his stints in Japan and Canada.
Benoit joined WWE with Guerrero, Dean Malenko and Perry Saturn in 2000. After several years as a fixture on the midcard, he defeated Triple H and Shawn Michaels for the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania XX.
The Dudley Boyz are one of the most decorated tag teams in professional wrestling history. Bubba Ray and D-Von have dominated the divisions of each promotion they’ve competed in.
But they are best remembered for their runs in both ECW and WWE. The former laid the foundation for the Dudley Boyz. The latter showcased the team on a much larger scale.
The Dudleyz also benefited from joining WWE right around the same time that the Hardy Boyz and Edge & Christian burst onto the scene. The three teams presented the perfect compliment for each other and battled in a series of memorable matches, including the first ever TLC match.
When WWE purchased WCW in 2001, many former Turner employees were booked unfavorably. However, then-WCW champion Booker T was not one of them.
The five-time WCW champion was one of the few original WCW alliance members to have a lasting career in WWE after the invasion angle. He added another World Championship to his resume and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013.
Rob Van Dam
Rob Van Dam was the other standout for the Alliance during the Invasion. Van Dam was one of the few ECW Superstars who debuted after the angle took place — although he appeared on Raw as an ECW wrestler several years earlier.
Like Booker T, Van Dam went on to hold several singles and tag team championships and won his only WWE Championship against John Cena at ECW One Night Stand in 2006, which he turned into the new ECW Championship.
ROH and the indies pre-NXT
Midway through the 2000s, WWE made its first big acquisition from Ring of Honor, a newer Philadelphia-based promotion, by signing its then-champion. The move paved the way for many of the acquisitions we’ve seen debut in NXT over the past few years.
Several years later, WWE signed another former ROH champion. Both Superstars not only exceed expectations, but changed the course of how WWE evaluated talent.
CM Punk signed his WWE contract on the ROH championship in 2005. After a sendoff match against Colt Cabana and a run in OVW, the Chicago native made his debut on ECW in 2006.
Punk’s greatest success came in 2011 after a worked shoot promo now known as the “Pipe Bomb” thrust him into the main event scene. He became a multi-time world champion and was one of WWE’s most popular Superstars before departing in 2014.
“American Dragon” Bryan Danielson/Daniel Bryan
“American Dragon” Bryan Danielson was the king of the indies before joining WWE in 2009. He made his television debut as a contestant on the game show version of NXT as “Daniel Bryan,” which later led to his one-night appearance as a member of Nexus.
Ironically, he won the Money in the Bank briefcase on the same night that Punk won his first WWE Championship in 2011. That led to his first World Heavyweight Championship run and the birth of his “Yes!” chant.
Eventually, he became a fan-favorite with so much support that WWE couldn’t avoid putting him into the main event at WrestleMania 30, which saw him win his fourth official world championship with the company. Despite being forced into retirement, Bryan remains one of the most popular characters in WWE as SmackDown Live’s general manager.