6 WWE and WCW Wrestlers Who Bloomed Late in Their Careers
WWE fans are always looking for the next great wrestler, hoping for one to emerge onto the big stage and take the company to a new level of brilliance.
Many are heralded as such a revolutionary figure, but few actually make it.
Most hit a glass ceiling that never allows them to become a consistent member of the main event elite, let alone create a lasting legacy.
These performers often see the audience enthusiasm that surrounded their early career turn into frustration, and then annoyance as they fail—whether their own fault or not—to achieve what was expected of them. Often, this leads to a wrestler losing his way, and finding himself out of the WWE and even out of the wrestling business entirely.
Yet there are some wrestlers who buck this trend and break into the top echelons of the business at a much later stage in their careers. These athletes often fulfilled different roles in wrestling, then found the gimmick adjustment that suddenly changed the way the audience perceived them.
Here are 6 classic tales of wrestlers blooming late in their careers:
John Bradshaw Layfield
Few people could have predicted that this brawling, gambling, beer-drinking Texan would turn into one of the most hated heels of the past ten years, but that was the transformation John Bradshaw Layfield made in the spring of 2004.
Now best known under the acronym JBL, the Grand Slam Champion had been a tag-team specialist ever since entering the WWE in 1996. He was first a part of the New Blackjacks, and then became a multiple time tag-team champion with partner Faarooq as a member of the Acolytes.
By 2000, JBL looked to have cemented himself a position as a transitional tag-team champion and developed a reputation as a tough opening feud for younger wrestlers.
What would change everything for JBL and give him his big break was the WWE’s decision not to renew his tag team partner’s contract. This meant the end of the Acolytes, and forced Bradshaw to change his gimmick to reflect his new role as a singles competitor.
Like most great gimmicks, JBL brought out a side of his own personality that could be enlarged to connect with the audience.
In his case, the big, brawling Texan was actually an astute businessman with his own successful company outside the WWE.
Inside the WWE, this turned the once beloved redneck into a New York-loving businessman who was willing to spend his money and assert his influence in any way he could to get and then maintain his position as WWE Champion. JBL did this so effectively that he became longest reigning heel champion in one continuous run in WWE history.
JBL even assisted the rise of John Cena, as it would be the WWE’s resident Superman who would eventually end JBL’s run at WrestleMania 21.
JBL never ascended to become WWE Champion again, but high profile feuds against Rey Mysterio and ECW, as well as taking the role of color commentator for SmackDown, has kept his character in fans’ mind ever since.
Even after semi-retirement, JBL was immediately considered a championship contender when he made his last run as a wrestler through 2008, before finally officially retiring in 2009.
Many aspiring wrestlers would be delighted to achieve what Bradshaw the Acolyte had in his career, so it shows the drive that must be part of JBL’s core personality for him to make such a monumental change so late.
He is also the one who has reaped the benefits, as a good run in the WWE has been transformed into a Hall of Fame-worthy career.
Diamond Dallas Page
Diamond Dallas Page may have become successful relatively quickly, winning the WCW Heavyweight title after only five years as a singles wrestler, but the fact that he did not start his full-time wrestling career until he was 38 means he is still one of the oldest first time champions in wrestling history.
As a former nightclub owner, and manager of multiple tag teams through the late 80s and early 90s, he may have had a unusual road to the squared circle, but this experience was one of the underlying reasons for his success.
This worldliness was most noticeable in the way Page possessed easy charisma in front of the camera, and how he had a natural rapport with the crowd.
The "Original" People’s Champion caught his big break when he stood up to The Outsiders and the rampaging NWO. With the help of his devastating finisher, the Diamond Cutter, Page was the first man to have a mild amount of success against an NWO member—Randy Savage—and even had the odd opportunity to go for Hulk Hogan’s title belt.
Page was replaced as WCW’s lead face with the emergence of Goldberg, but a World Heavyweight Championship run came his way at the age of 43, after Goldberg got injured.
He never left the title hunt after that, and held the belt twice more before WCW closed in 2001.
By the time Page joined the WWE in 2001, he was 45 years old, the same age that Kane is today. A high profile feud with Undertaker was the highlight of Page’s time with the company, and he retired after a brief stop in TNA in 2004.
Fans will always wonder what Page could have done if his career had not been stilted when he originally went to train in 1978, but there is no doubt that he packed a lot into his short career and is the ambassador for late bloomers in wrestling.
This athlete’s tale is perhaps more about the problems that lead to the demise of WCW than a comment on the man’s particular talent, yet Eddie Guerrero can definitely be put into the category of wrestlers who reached their potential late in their careers.
Guerrero began his career in Mexico, Japan and the ECW, but only really made it into the thoughts of most fans when he became a perpetual challenger and champion for both WCW’s United States and Crusierweight titles.
His popularity peaked during a well-received feud between himself and Booker T involving his grown up nephew Chavo. Yet, WCW never propelled him to a World Heavyweight Championship feud, so Guerrero left the company for several months after demanding his release in a shoot interview on a live episode of Nitro.
Guerrero never obtained the same levels of success in WCW when he returned, and so he, along with three other notable wrestlers, left to try his luck in the WWE.
Mid-level feuds and an Intercontinental Championship run were the limit of his success in this first WWE stint, during which personal demons slowed down Guerrero’s career.
Therefore, it was not until Guerrero turned 35 that he started to get the recognition that he deserved.
Major tag team feuds alongside his nephew Chavo lead to his new "lie, cheat and steal" gimmick resonating with the crowd. His career skyrocketed from there, culminating in beating Brock Lesnar at No Way Out 2004.
Headlining WrestleMania XX can be considered the highlight of his career, and his status as a main eventer was never questioned after that moment.
His sad death in 2005 means that Guerrero’s most successful period as a wrestler was really at the end of his life.
Big Poppa Pump may well have been a top tag team competitor with his brother Rick for many years, and then become a staple of the WCW vs. NWO feud that dominated WCW television throughout the late 90s, but Scott Steiner did not become the World Heavyweight Champion—and a standout member of the company—until November of 2000.
This seems remarkable, considering that Steiner had feuds with all of WCW’s top faces throughout that time period, with particularly intense rivalries with Goldberg and Diamond Dallas Page, who both held the World Heavyweight Championship at the time.
For a long time, it looked like the highest honor that Steiner would receive would be the United States Championship, as he held that belt when the likes of Jeff Jarrett, Vince Russo and even David Arquette possessed the Big Gold Belt.
Steiner’s first and only run as champion will also go down as the penultimate reign of any WCW belt, as he lost the title on the final episode of Nitro. The then 38-year-old Steiner chose to sit out his contract with Time Warner until it expired, rather than go to the WWE, and this cost him his momentum.
Still active ten years later, Steiner has never won a major belt in either WWE or TNA, but maintains a certain level of kudos from being the WCW Champion.
This, his moment in the sun as the top guy in the world’s second biggest wrestling promotion, is his reward for many years of service as a regular performer in WCW.
Scott Steiner is a classic case of a wrestler who had the ability to be a star, but for whom only one window, late in his career, opened up where he could shine.
Commonly acknowledged as the “World’s Strongest Man,” despite an injury robbing him of a legitimate opportunity at winning the super heavyweight weightlifting gold medal at the Olympic games, Mark Henry was one of the most hyped prospects to ever join the WWE.
Not only did Henry have the legitimacy of many weightlifting titles behind him, the 6"4", 420-pound behemoth looked the part as well.
This prompted Vince McMahon to sign him to a ten-year, multi-million dollar contract.
To say his career was a flop is a huge understatement.
Slow to understand ring psychology, Henry struggled in the ring by himself and so was used as an enforcer. As he continued to learn the trade, Henry was then used in a comical role, as he was transformed into Sexual Chocolate, the woman-loving giant.
Needless to say, this ill-judged angle lead to the infamous Mae Young giving birth to a hand storyline.
The following ten years can be summarized by the two words: mediocrity and injury, as Henry struggled from brand to brand in his search for a place in the company.
A brief run for the SmackDown title in 2006 looked promising, but was cut short by injury, and his time as ECW Champion in 2008-09 could have been interesting had it been seen by more people, but none of this made up for so many months as the "World’s Strongest Jobber."
It really looked like Henry was going to go down as one of the biggest busts in wrestling history.
Yet, last year, Henry turned it around with a shock win over the Big Show and the introduction of the Hall of Pain. Finally, Henry came across as a legitimately scary individual who was willing to use his size and strength to crush the opposition. WWE cleverly used the fact that he had been so unsuccessful despite the expectations as part of the reason why he had suddenly found his way.
This rise in stock lead to Night of Champions, where he defeated Randy Orton for the World Heavyweight title at the age of 40.
Injury has once again halted Henry’s time in the ring, and rumors have circulated that his career in the WWE may be coming to an end, however, Henry has finally lived up to expectation and had one moment in his career where he was the most feared wrestler around.
It just took a lot longer than people expected.
The sight of Mankind running around Raw’s set with the title held high above his head was a moment that changed professional wrestling forever.
That night has gone down in history as the night WCW made its fatal mistake— announcing Mick Foley’s victory on their program before it happened, prompting thousands of people to turn over to the competition—but it is also the moment that a 15-year veteran of the business was finally awarded the top prize a wrestling company could give him.
It should be noted that Foley was not particularly old, in fact at 33, he would fall into the typical age for a first time champion, but this first title was only 14 months away from his retirement.
Considering his time in the ring was cut short, Foley could be considered the ultimate late bloomer, as two years before, he was nothing but a character brought in to help bolster The Undertaker.
In fact, Mankind was a remarkable success, considering that he was originally a schizophrenia-sufferer with a pet rat named George.
In a move away from the darkness of Mankind, the multiple natures of Foley were emphasized, allowing his other personas—the hippie Dude Love and his original WCW and ECW persona Cactus Jack—to feature on WWE television, as well.
Many believe Foley’s breakthrough moment was the Hell in a Cell match against The Undertaker where he was thrown off and through the cage, however not until the invention of Mr. Socko did everything come together.
The sock-puppet, which was used to entertain the hospitalized Mr. McMahon, became the identifier for Mankind’s rather unusual mandible claw finisher. It also allowed the more comical side of Mankind come to the fore, leading Foley to excel on the mic alongside The Rock.
This, ultimately, allowed Foley to become important enough to be awarded the championship belt after a long career across many nations and companies. Yet the damage that he caused to his body in the attempt to get noticed meant that this was nearly the end of his career, and Foley’s name goes down in the list of late bloomers.