Legendary playwright Oscar Wilde once wrote, “My first impressions are invariably right.” From Bret Hart, William Regal, Kurt Angle, and more, these wrestlers earned a frosty reception initially behind the scenes in WWE!
1. Bret Hart
The relationship between Bret Hart and Vince McMahon could likely best be described as unstable.
Most famously, tensions boiled over after 1997’s Montreal Screwjob.
Yet this tense relationship was present as far back as Bret’s WWF debut in 1984.
Brett (as it was then spelled) also did little to play up to the hard cam, showing little connection with the fans.
Hart also rejected a cowboy gimmick due to the negative reputation of fake cowboys in Canada.
In Hart’s debut match, he teamed alongside Dynamite Kid in a tag affair against enhancement team Troy Alexander and “Iron” Mike Sharpe at a TV taping.
In his web series Confessions from The Hitman, Bret talks about his sloppy performance resulting from him just coming off a noticeable absence from the ring after knee surgery.
Unfortunately, Hart had returned to action far too soon.
As a result, he did little to stand out, remaining on the apron for most of the match while his partner Dynamite Kid performed the finishing sequence of a diving headbutt and follow-up Saito Suplex.
Hart recalls the backstage scene after the bout.
“Vince McMahon couldn’t wait to shake Dynamite Kid’s hand and praise, slap him on the back, and tell him how the match was ‘beautiful stuff.’ And I remember when I walked by, he didn’t even look at me. I thought I failed my audition!”
Watch Bret Hart’s WWE debut:
2. William Regal
The personal battles of William Regal are well-documented, with his struggles with substance use plaguing his early career. This certainly did not aid him in the eyes of WWE management.
Having been a tremendous asset within WCW, Regal was scouted up by the head of talent relations in the WWF at the time, Jim Ross. Yet the Englishman’s first encounter with Vince McMahon was not positive, as Regal fell asleep in front of the CEO.
On an episode of Grilling JR, Ross commented, “[Regal] created one of the greatest a**-chewings of my career from Vince because I took him in to see Vince… and he fell asleep in the meeting!”
Ross continued, “Vince is sitting there in his chair, I am on his right…and [Vince] kicks me on the shin. I look up and Regal’s dozing off! Obviously, that killed my pitch; that killed Regal’s opportunity at that point in time.”
Similarly, Bruce Prichard recalls of his first meeting with Vince that Regal was “slurring his speech and not in a good way.”
Prichard continues, “[Regal] passed out on Vince’s desk in the middle of the meeting. They were talking to him, his eyes were closing, and he literally just passed out. Not a really good first impression with Vince McMahon in Titan Towers.
“Vince may have written him off at that point, honestly.”
Regal was fired in 1999 after releasing himself from rehab to return to England on a binge that nearly drove his family away.
However, Regal managed to work his way back into the WWF in 2000, cleaning up his act and getting in good graces with the company.
It may be surprising Regal was gifted this second chance after his awful first impression. However, even Regal seemed surprised he was accepted after his first meetings, as documented in his book, Walking a Golden Mile.
He wrote, “I can remember Vince smiling at me saying something like, ‘Being sick must have really knocked you about?’
“‘Yeah,’ I agreed, not knowing I’d passed out!”
Regal also claims, “Jim Ross had never spoken to me about it, but I know he told others. It was one of my most embarrassing moments in the business.”
3. Jim Brunzell
Of all the WWE’s victims, perhaps none suffered from as much pillaging as the American Wrestling Association.
However, one signing Vince McMahon immediately regretted was former Killer Bee, “Jumping” Jim Brunzell.
Brunzell had been a solid in-ring performer in the AWA and he was revered for his dropkicks. He was most famously a member of The Hi Flyers with Greg Gagne, where the duo were 2-time AWA World Tag Team Champions for a combined 1,185 days.
In 1985, Brunzell discussed acquiring a necessary personal contract with Verne Gagne, the owner of the AWA.
Jim’s gym needed to be paid for, so Brunzell asked for an ongoing $95,000 guaranteed contract, to which Verne reportedly replied, “You’re not worth it; go to New York,” with “New York” referring to the WWF.
Brunzell recalls his first day in the WWF in a sit-down with Wrestling Shoot Interviews.
“I’ll never forget my first interview in Poughkeepsie. It was a babyface interview; I had nothing to talk about. I didn’t know where I was going, so it was a normal interview, and I was doing it with Gene Okerlund, who had also just left the AWA.
Brunzell continued, “As I got done with the interview and walked away, I heard Vince McMahon whisper, ‘Oh God, we’ve got another Bob Backlund!’
“I heard that, and I thought, ‘Oh, that doesn’t sound good!'”
Bob Backlund had left the WWF the previous year, and McMahon saw him as a white-meat, plucky babyface with little character or charisma. So the comment was not exactly an endorsement.
The future Killer Bee would state this was the start of a “like-hate relationship” with Vince McMahon.
As a result, he was fired three times in eight years, with Jim commenting, “I just didn’t get along with him.”
Watch Jim Brunzell’s disastrous first interview in the WWF:
4. Chris Jericho
Although Chris Jericho is now considered one of wrestling’s most accomplished performers, his start in the WWF failed to break many walls down.
Jericho’s first year alone was particularly rocky.
The week after his debut, in which The Rock famously buried him, he would interrupt a promo by The Undertaker. The new employee would get himself into hot water after referring to the Undertaker as a “moron,” the “personification of boredom,” and an “idiot.” You can watch this below:
This would annoy not only the veteran Undertaker but also top figures such as Steve Austin, and Shawn Michaels. And due to The Undertaker’s backstage authority, likely Vince McMahon himself.
“I remember the time with Undertaker,” Jericho recalls, “I said something along the lines of, ‘I just interrupted your super boring promo.’ He just happened to be doing a super boring promo.”
Jericho continued, “I remember Shawn Michaels was around and Austin too, and they said, ‘For future reference, you might not want to call the biggest name in the company boring next time!’
“I go, ‘Hahaha!’ Meanwhile, I did not realize that they were giving me a little bit of a heads up, like, ‘Hey, you piece of s***, watch what you’re saying!”
Jericho explained, “Then I buried The Undertaker huge the next night, but that was kind of what my role was. I was the ‘Millennium Man,’ and I was there to save the WWE.”
This backstage pressure and distaste for “The Ayatollah Of Rock’n’Rollah” was likely one of the factors that led to a disillusioned Jericho nearly walking out of the WWF in April 2000.
Chris was also unhappy with his booking, particularly with being jobbed out to Viscera and The Godfather, with his removal from the WrestleMania 2000 main event and initial package with henchman Mr. Hughes.
Not a perfect first year for Chris Jericho by any stretch of the imagination.
5. The Ascension
Chris Jericho was not the last to get immediate backstage heat in their first few weeks, as The Ascension did the same in 2015.
Viktor and Konnor had made a name for themselves in NXT and would hold onto the NXT Tag Team Championship for nearly a year, the longest reign in the history of the belts.
Needless to say then, when they were brought up to the main roster, fans had big hopes for the dominant team.
Vince first pitched the idea to Konnor, with Konnor describing, “Basically, the idea was just a throwback. That was his feeling. He wanted the throwback. He wanted us insulting the veterans. That was my shot at Hawk.”
Konnor continued, “I tried to have that changed. Part of me wishes I could go back in time, and I wish I could have knocked on that door. Instead, I let the writers do it. You’re walking on eggshells. You’re not really sure what to do [and] what to say.”
When the duo arrived on the WWE’s main roster, with the Raw and SmackDown brands seeing Vince McMahon being much more hands-on than NXT, it flopped massively.
In January 2015, on episodes of both main roster shows, The Ascension attempted to fuel their heel heat by berating and mocking classic teams such as Demolition and The Road Warriors, stating how much better they were.
This prompted commentator Booker T to write them off as a joke completely. Even JBL, the heel announcer who should have the side of The Ascension, wanted nothing to do with them, bashing the team as nowhere near as good as the originals.
In particular, JBL remarked, “It’s easy to beat up a punching bag,” after The Ascension beat some local enhancement talent.
Then, when fellow commentator Tom Phillips backed the duo, saying they had not been given good opponents, JBL further implied that The Ascension was choosing deliberately inferior foes.
Road Warrior Animal himself made his voice heard, saying, “They need to go to their merchandise numbers today and see we rank up with the main roster on selling merchandise for a reason.”
After their backstage backlash, The Ascension was officially eradicated in the eyes of the fans after a February episode of Raw saw the supposedly deadly alliance being beaten down by a squadron of retired wrestlers.
Members of The nWo, New Age Outlaws, and The Acolytes beat down Konnor and Viktor, emphasized by JBL – the same person who, for weeks, had denigrated the duo – hitting his Clothesline from Hell, standing tall over both men.
The shine would forever be off The Ascension; the team would dwindle in the lower card for the next few years, losing to teams such as Rhyno & Heath Slater, Breezango, Heavy Machinery, and Chad Gable and Bobby Roode.
In a 2022 interview on The Two Man Power Trip podcast, Konnor revealed that the duo did apologize to all the teams they might have offended.
6. Kurt Angle
Greek philosopher Plato once claimed, “For a man to conquer himself is the first and noblest of all victories.” In the case of Kurt Angle, he had to conquer his national pride to immerse himself in the wrestling business fully.
He may have only mentioned it once or twice, but Angle won an Olympic gold medal (with a broken freakin’ neck)!
A hot commodity after his 1996 victory, Angle appeared at the ECW event High Incident under recommendation from Shane Douglas. Angle would serve on commentary and have an in-ring interview.
While on commentary, Angle disclosed his disgust of the infamous segment where Raven crucified The Sandman. He later stated he would sue Paul Heyman if his appearance was shown on TV.
A deeply religious Christian, Angle was outraged as it alluded to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ ordered by Pontius Pilate.
This event nearly turned him away from wrestling, but he would try out for the WWF and face other issues.
On his Kurt Angle Show podcast, he recalls, “Bruce Prichard interviewed me, and I didn’t understand pro wrestling. I never watched it; I didn’t know what it was about.
“I told him, ‘If I sign with this company, I can never be beat. I’m undefeated, an Olympic gold medallist; I can’t be beaten ever.”
Kurt chuckled as he continued, “Bruce said, ‘Okay, we’ll get back in touch with you.’ And that’s the last time I heard from him!”
Prichard heard this proposal, which left Vince stunned.
Bruce elaborated on Kurt’s insistence on going unbeaten.
“He’s the best there is, and no one could ever beat him. No one would ever believe that he could lose a match. So, I thanked Kurt for his time, wished him very well with his gold medal, and moved on.”
Two years later, after watching the product to learn the spirit of the industry, Angle called up the WWF, who had not called him after his proviso.
In 1998, he underwent training by Tom Prichard and Dory Funk, Jr., with performances so impressive that he was wrestling in front of a live audience in less than a week.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
For more on Angle’s early career: Owen Hart and Kurt Angle – Wrestling’s Current Holy Grail.
7. Eddie Guerrero
It is no secret that Vince McMahon is fond of pushing the wrestlers with larger physiques. As a result, many refer to WWE as “the land of the giants,” illustrated in Eddie Guerrero’s first backstage meeting.
Before The Radicalz, there was The Revolution in WCW. While Guerrero left WCW, Douglas stayed, having a vendetta against the WWF after his troublesome run in the mid-’90s.
The quartet’s move to the WWF, while Chris Benoit was WCW World Champion (a failed attempt to appease Benoit and thus prevent him from exiting), is now seen as another factor leading to the WCW boat capsizing the following year.
None of the wrestlers were above six feet tall, but Vince McMahon was particularly stunned at Eddie’s height.
After their initial meeting, Vince felt only compelled to remark on Eddie’s stature, or lack thereof, which can be a kiss of death for anyone in Vince’s company.
McMahon twice repeated, “He’s so tiny!”
Bruce Prichard had to convince McMahon the investment was worth it, with the purchase being The Radicalz as a collective.
Prichard revealed that he explained to Vince that Eddie was “the Mexican Shawn Michaels,” but Vince’s fears were likely confirmed when Eddie dislocated his elbow in his first WWF match.
Fortunately for Guerrero, he used his in-ring skill and charisma to charm McMahon, with Vince liking Latino Heat. Vince even cried when Eddie won the WWE title in 2004!
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8. The Rockers: Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty
The Midnight Rockers sang at AWA’s WrestleRock event in 1986, “We’re The Midnight Rockers, Shawn and Marty. We love to wrestle and we love to party.”
When Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty dropped their AWA tag straps to the makeshift Boris Zhukov and Soldat Ustinov, a WWF run seemed like a sure thing.
They would make their first appearance for Vince McMahon only five days later.
The group was hired under recommendation by Pat Patterson, who had seen The Midnight Rockers’ iconic 1986 bout with Doug Somers and Buddy Rose – a match that has since been given the title Blood In The Sand due to the heavy blood-shedding in the bout.
Yet, The Midnight Rockers would only have a solitary televised bout in the WWF at the time, having made very few locker room friends.
Shawn Michaels recalls the reason for his firing in his autobiographical DVD Heartbreak and Triumph.
“We came into what we felt was a pretty cold reception. People had heard about us and thought we were young punks, so we just tried to stay under the radar.”
Initially, their reputation for partying didn’t help their cause either.
The duo went to a bar with the locker room to fit in but tried to stay low-key.
“Jimmy Jack Funk starts to antagonize us. I’m getting a little scared. Finally, I grabbed the glass which was sitting on the table, smashed it on my head, and said, ‘There, you satisfied?'”
Jack had been instigating Michaels and Jannetty, asking them to prove their reputation as heavy partiers.
Ironically, Funk (alongside José Estrada) was the opponent of The Midnight Rockers in that televised bout.
Jimmy Jack Funk would tell the office that The Rockers smashed up the bar.
Marty Jannetty recalled Vince saying to the duo, who were wearing snakeskin cowboy boots, “Nice boots, they’re made for walking, you know? Just kidding, come on in.”
He then proceeded to fire them.
Before their second chance in the WWF, Michaels and Jannetty could not go back to the AWA, having burned that bridge, so they went down to the Continental Wrestling Association, but the small crowds and even smaller paychecks left The Heartbreak Kid heavily depressed.
“Seriously, I thought about ending it. I can remember one night sitting there by myself thinking [I could just end it].”
Luckily, in 1988, Vince ultimately brought them back on board.
They had innumerable triumphs to follow. At least one-half of the team. No stranger to controversy, Marty Jannetty was unable to fulfill his full potential while his former partner flourished.
You can learn more about the story of Marty Jannetty in our article, Marty Jannetty – His Turbulent Life After The Rockers.
9. Daniel Bryan
In 1999, Bryan Danielson underwent training under Shawn Michaels at his wrestling school.
Although Bryan originally wanted to attend Dean Malenko’s school, he went to The Showstopper instead.
Bryan was a stand-out in this class, learning quickly despite the physical limitations of the injured Michaels.
High on this trainee, Shawn recommended Bryan Danielson to McMahon.
For the occasion, Bryan purchased a suit – something he states he had never bought before – for $500, knowing Vince’s fondness for suits. However, Bryan claimed he looked stupid and barely knew how to sit in it.
Bryan recalls in an article on WWE.com the following:
“[Vince] asked me things like, ‘What would you like to see happen?’
“I told him that I’d like to come in and be a top guy, but I had concerns about not being very big. I have a very self-deprecating sense of humor and think of myself as a humble person, so it’s hard for me to say that I’m good at something.”
“Vince replied, ‘Shawn tells me you’re very good.’
“And I just said, ‘Well, I’m okay.’
“I could tell instantly he disliked that. It was very awkward and very uncomfortable.”
McMahon reportedly replied, “Just okay?”
Vince was unimpressed.
Who would ever imagine then that Bryan would go on to be the WWE World Champion?
Vince is said to have quizzed Shawn Michaels afterward, asking what he had seen in this young student – a man who went against the very idea of Vince McMahon’s ideal wrestler as a sub-6-foot, indy-established vegan.
10. Terry Taylor
The Red Rooster is one of the more criticized gimmicks in WWE history, with the former NWA National Heavyweight Champion Terry Taylor turned into a clucking joke!
JBL, somewhat of a wrestling historian, states the gimmick was a rib (a ‘rib’ being an insider professional wrestling term for a trick or joke at someone’s expense).
“It was a rib from the office to put him in the gimmick, to begin with,” JBL explained.
“I can’t think of anyone in history that had more heat than the Rooster.
“Before I arrived in WWE, the boys, allegedly, had cut up The Rooster’s suit for being a stooge. What did he do? He stooged and told management about the rib; that’s why he had monster heat.”
Kevin Nash later commented, “It’s just a rib. [Terry] probably was in Vince’s ear every day saying, ‘Oh McMahon, I work circles around these guys.'”
Diamond Dallas Page also confirmed of Taylor that “he also talked a lot and got himself in trouble.”
This claim has been corroborated by various co-workers and wrestlers in the years since, including Bill’ Ax’ Eadie, who described Taylor as “arrogant, cocky, and confident.”
Many have explained how Terry’s strong view of himself as the next Ric Flair caused the infamous gimmick.
The always-vocal Jim Cornette, a good friend of Terry’s for decades, remarked on his Drive-Thru podcast, “I’m surprised he didn’t jump off a f***ing bridge [when the gimmick was proposed to him]. When he heard that Bobby Heenan was his manager, he thought he’d hit the god****ed promised land!”
Cornette continued, “He came off to Vince and whoever, Bruce, Pat – whoever was involved in the meetings, he came off as cocky like he was walking around the cock of the walk, and he did have an odd neck movement. Vince saw this cocky f***ing guy and had ‘Little Red Rooster’, probably The Rolling Stones song, and whatever the f*** Vince got in his mind.
“And instead of just admitting, ‘No, this is just stupidity and stupidness,’ they blamed Terry Taylor for not fully embracing it; that’s why it didn’t get over. No, ’cause it was f***ing stupid!”
Considering Vince’s penchant for ribs, it seems fair to say that Vince did indeed see this overtly arrogant star and pin this gimmick on him.
As few could take this seriously, it was such a hindrance that many regarded it as a career killer. Despite a cult appreciation for his “Computerized Man Of The 1990s” gimmick in WCW, Terry had to carry around the stigma of the Rooster, with Terry jumping various times between WCW and the WWF, struggling to leave the regrettable gimmick in the past.
As Bill Apter once put it, “Terry is a fine quote-on-quote scientific wrestler. He had never been given real gimmicks before. People remember more than what a great wrestler he was, that he was The Red Rooster. He’s never lived it down”
As for why Vince gifted him The Red Rooster gimmick, it answers that long-asked question: the chicken came after the ego.
Yes, first impressions do matter. Especially in pro wrestling, where they can make or break you.
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