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THE FINAL COUNTDOWN - The Top 10 WORST Free Agent Signings in Pro Wrestling
By Mr. Tito
Mar 2, 2014 - 10:05:21 PM
IT'S THE FINAL COUNTDOWN! Many of you are enjoying past WWE, WCW, and ECW Pay Per Views on the WWE Network right now. The best thing about WWE Network is that it will allow newer and younger wrestling fans to experience seeing actual competition between multiple promotions. With competition came big money deals to steal major talent away from another promotion. However, like in professional sports when a free agent is signed and things can go wrong, it has happened in pro wrestling as well.
Lately, you rarely see a big free agent signing. WWE outright refuses to sign TNA homegrown talent while TNA has tried to make big free agent signings when possible. TNA, for example, has done well with their signings as the Dudleys, Kurt Angle, Sting, and Christian have all fared well in TNA. TNA, unfortunately, is far away from being a legitimate competitor to the WWE and thus free agent signings just aren't as impressive as they used to be.
Back in the day, free agent signings occurred often because of the heat of competition and wrestlers had a financial incentive to put both WWE and WCW against each other for better deals. Things really took off in 1993 when Eric Bischoff became the WCW leader and freely spent Ted Turner or Time Warner's money on superstars. From there, and also with the growth of ECW, free agent signing became a regular thing and with the growth of the internet through 1995, the news and rumor mills of wrestler movement created added excitement.
As noted, many of those free agent signings went wrong or just never lived up to the hype. Sometimes, it was the promotions dropping the ball on how the wrestlers were marketed or booked. Other times, the wrestlers were overhyped in their previous promotions and just weren't a good fit in another promotion. WWE, based out of the Northeast, and WCW, based out of the Southeast, had much different audiences and many wrestlers just didn't translate well when joining a new promotion. In fact, part of the magic of the whole New World Order (NWO) gimmick was from the allusion of a WWE invasion occurring and turning the established WWE star, Hulk Hogan, into a heel was a major success.
For today's FINAL COUNTDOWN, we'll review the WORST Free Agent signings. The wrestlers had to join another promotion from a legitimate competitor. As for most of the countdowns, we'll keep it simple and stick within the "Wrestlemania Era" or since 1985. And as always, you can only enjoy this column further with the awesome "Final Countdown" cover.
TOP 10 WORST FREE AGENT SIGNINGS IN PRO WRESTLING
#10 - Bill Goldberg - WWE - His WWE tenure should have been huge. Starting out, Goldberg was able to immediately feud with the Rock at Backlash 2003 and that was huge considering it was following Wrestlemania 19 where the Rock just defeated Steve Austin. Goldberg was then able to feud with Chris Jericho and then began to chase the World Heavyweight Championship that was around Triple H's waist at the time. Many thought Goldberg would win the World Title at the SummerSlam 2003 Elimination Chamber, but Goldberg would come up short. However, a month later at Unforgiven 2003, Goldberg would win his own WWE World Championship by defeating Triple H. Goldberg would hold the title for a few months before ultimately dropping the title back to Triple H.
Goldberg signed a 1 year deal with the WWE and wasn't extended afterward. With the WWE, he just wasn't drawing. The potential Dream Match with Steve Austin wasn't happening and Goldberg appeared to be in the WWE for a nice payday. We didn't exactly see much in-ring improvement from Goldberg and it's not like Goldberg was booked horribly. Some would suggest that he should have been booked to win the World Title at SummerSlam, but ratings weren't exactly popping with Goldberg on the roster. Many wrestlers at the time were citing a lack of passion for the business by Goldberg, as he may have been in it only for the money. They were also upset by his limited appearance contract with Goldberg only scheduled to work RAW shows and Pay Per Views with a nice upper 6-figure salary. In fact, it was a major source of contention for Brock Lesnar who eventually left after Wrestlemania 20 in 2004. The ironic part is that because of Brock's departure, the WWE booked Goldberg to defeat Brock Lesnar at Wrestlemania 20.
#9 - Lex Luger - WWE - Sometimes, you just have to keep things basic. Certain wrestlers don't need a gimmick. With Lex Luger, just let the ripped muscles speak for themselves and sell that he has the best submission hold around in the Human Torture Rack. That's all you need to do with Lex Luger. WWE tried to over-complicate things with Luger. First, the WWE tried to involve him with the World Bodybuilding Federation (WBF) but that side WWE venture went belly up quick. Then, the WWE debuted him as a wrestler with the Narcissist gimmick where Luger would pose in front of a mirror. With the WWE not having much faith in Bret Hart as a babyface draw through 1993, the WWE turned Luger babyface by having him bodyslam Yokozuna on the 4th of July on the deck of an aircraft carrier after many other wrestlers couldn't.
Luger was then branded as "All American" and began riding around the country in the "Lex Express" bus that was painted heavily with red, white, and blue colors. Vince McMahon was hungry for a top babyface and thought that Lex Luger could have been the guy to carry the company next. But Luger failed... By Wrestlemania 10 in 1994, the WWE went back to Bret Hart and put Luger back in the midcard for the rest of his WWE career. Once Luger's contract was up during mid-1995, Luger immediately joined WCW to debut on the first ever edition of WCW Nitro. That was possibly the BEST Free Agent signing...
#8 - Barry Windham - WWE - During his tenure in Mid-Atlantic NWA, which would soon become World Championship Wrestling (WCW), Barry Windham was hitting his peak through 1988. He had incredible matches with Ric Flair, including a 60 minute battle which many have seen on a Flair DVD. While the original Four Horsemen group of Ric Flair, Ole and Arn Anderson, and Tully Blanchard were famous, most note the Horsemen with Flair, Arn, Blanchard, and Windham as the best version. Windham was a fine United States Champion as a member of the group. During late 1988, a booking dispute between then-WCW booker Dusty Rhodes and Ric Flair caused Rhodes to leave the company. Barry Windham, who was close with Rhodes, opted to follow Dusty to the WWE.
Branded as the "Widowmaker", Barry would wrestle for the WWE only a few months during 1989. He didn't do much other than winning a few jobber matches on WWE Superstars or Challenge. Windham was later granted a release from his WWE contract to tend to family matters later during 1989. It's hard to say if the WWE ever had any serious plans for Barry or if they just kept him on the roster to keep him away from WCW. Windham would return to WCW during 1990 where he'd remain there until 1994. Some would argue that Barry's WWE return during 1996 as "the Stalker" deserves a spot on this list. At the very least, Barry found a decent role with Bradshaw as the "New" Blackjacks tag team. Barry should have NEVER left WCW during 1989! Had he stuck around, we could have seen a Windham vs. Ricky Steamboat match in their primes... WOW! Windham vs. Great Muta, anyone?
#7 - Mike Awesome - WCW - Although this guy's style did not translate well from ECW to WCW, WCW owns a bit of this guy's failure for the way he was booked. Great story behind his WCW jump, however... Awesome had some contractual disputes with Paul Heyman, as Awesome argued that he was owed money for certain shows by Heyman. Thinking that he wasn't contractually bound to ECW, Awesome took an offer from WCW and appeared on an edition of WCW Nitro. Awesome was actually ECW Champion at the time, too, and his WCW debut was quickly cooled by ECW threatening legal action. WCW and ECW came to a financial settlement and Awesome had to agree to appear at 1 more ECW show to drop his ECW Title. WWE lent Tazz to ECW to win that match...
Mike Awesome never panned out in WCW. It was soon realized that Awesome looked "awesome" by inflicting power moves on much smaller wrestlers. Masato Tanaka and Spike Dudley sold Awesome's offense like champs and WCW didn't quite have bumps guys like that for Awesome to wrestle every night. WCW then gave Mike Awesome some awful gimmick... First, he was the "Fat Chick Thrilla" in which he was a guy in love with overweight women. Then, he was "That 70's Guy" and even had a goofy interview segment. The same guy who used to murder other wrestlers with powerbombs was made into a mockery. What was an actual upgrade compared to his other gimmicks, WCW had Mike Awesome join Team Canada. Seriously. Awesome would join WWE during 2001 but just didn't pan out there as well. Sadly, Awesome is no long with us due to an apparent suicide in 2007.
#6 - Tazz - WWE - Tazz was the "Human Suplex Machine" in ECW and was one of the company's biggest stars through 1999. The WWE was looking to expand its roster during late 1999 and actually raided ECW of its best tag team (the Dudley Boyz) and its top singles wrestler in Tazz. WWE, for weeks, hyped the "13" with a heart beat with orange and black colors. It was assumed to be Tazz... Tazz's debut was in New York City at Royal Rumble 2000. ECW fans were there in attendance and marked out when he made his big entrance. Tazz was booked against Kurt Angle and was set to choke Angle out for Angle's first WWE loss.
Something was quickly noticed, however... While in the ring with a 6'0" tall Kurt Angle, Tazz looked very small. Billed at 5'9", he looked tiny against a taller Kurt Angle and in the larger WWE ring. In ECW, Tazz was a God and was booked as having a "low center of gravity" as his psychology for grappling and attempting suplexes. He was in the land of the giants now and was quickly exposed for his size. Almost immediately, he was depushed after his big debut and Kurt Angle would become the much bigger star. Eventually, the WWE would test Tazz out on commentary where he's had a very successful career. He called matches for Smackdown for 7 years and later joined TNA as a commentator where he remains to this day. That's actually a pretty damn good gig to have and helps lessen his "bust" on this list.
#5 - Davey Boy Smith - The British Bulldog - WCW - Davey Boy Smith's 1992 exit was controversial but at least it freed him up for new WCW boss, Eric Bischoff, to sign for 1993. Bischoff's policy was to open Ted Turner or Time Warner's checkbook and sign the WWE's top guys. Maybe because he saw the reaction of the SummerSlam 1992 match, Bischoff pushed Davey Boy as a top guy in WCW. Little did he know that Davey Boy won the Intercontinental Title at SummerSlam because a) Bret Hart was going to win the WWE Title later, b) Bret Hart begged management to let him drop the title to Davey Boy, and c) SummerSlam was in London. The Intercontinental Title run didn't amount to much for Davey Boy, but Bischoff must have seen something.
WCW tried to push him towards the WCW Title and even had him become buddies with top babyface Sting. But it just didn't matter... The Southern WCW fans did not care for this WWE product and he was not getting over. Later during the year, Davey Boy got into a bar fight and WCW used this as an opportunity to cut their losses. About a year later, Davey Boy rejoined the WWE and had a decent singles career there through 1997. One could argue that his second WCW free agent move during 1998 was equally as bad, as Davey Boy was able to get out of his WWE contract following Survivor Series 1997. As Bret Hart would also find out, it was a crowded field of former WWE veterans in WCW and Davey Boy was just a midcarder there. Worse yet for Davey Boy, he was slammed on a trapdoor put in the ring for Warrior's entrances and it badly injured his back.
Davey Boy would return to the WWE during late 1999 for one last run before his untimely death in 2002. One of the more classic scenes from British Bulldog's return was when he was furious backstage and he threw a trashcan at what he thought was the wall... No, it was Stephanie McMahon! This gave her amnesia and made her then-relationship with Test complicated. It would later explain why she may have accepted the Triple H marriage...
#4 - Big Van Vader - WWE - Vader was one of the lone brightspots of WCW during the first half of the 1990's and was relied on heavily for the main event scene. Some of his matches in WCW against the likes of Sting, Ric Flair, and Cactus Jack were legendary. When he bolted from WCW to join the WWE, fans were pumped... He was set to debut at Royal Rumble 1996 and was thought as a legitimate contender to win the WWE Title shot at Wrestlemania. While he didn't win the Rumble, WWE had him viciously attack WWE wrestlers afterward and tried to push him as a monster. WWE had goals of pushing him strong as a heel against Shawn Michaels during the Summer. In fact, the two headlined SummerSlam 1996 together.
But the WWE didn't get the incredibly talented and intense performer from WCW. What they got was a heavier version of Vader who irritated fellow wrestlers by NOT washing his tights. It did not translate well in the ring and his feud with Shawn Michaels quickly ended after SummerSlam 1996. In fact, if you watch during the match, Shawn is actually yelling at Vader during the match because of Vader's positioning on the mat for Michael's flying elbow. There's a good chance that Michaels was quite vocal about Vader backstage and that pretty much ended any chance of Vader becoming WWE Champion. WWE didn't get the same Vader from WCW and thus why he was a free agent bust. At the very least, WWE got a few years out of Vader and Vader didn't seem to have a problem putting other wrestlers over after SummerSlam 1996.
#3 - "Dr. Death" Steve Williams - WWE - Heading into 1998, the WWE was rather thin on Main Event talent to oppose the top babyface "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. One guy that the WWE did sign, however, was former WCW and international wrestling superstar "Dr. Death" Steve Williams. Williams had a longstanding reputation of being a badass and it was thought that his WWE run would take him to greatness as a top heel challenging Steve Austin. However, it never happened...
Dr. Death was foolishly entered into the WWE's Brawl For All contest which was an attempt by WWE to bring legitimate fighting onto a pro wrestling show. Wrestlers wore boxing gloves and mixed it up with legitimate boxing and MMA style takedowns. Little did the WWE know that a guy named Bart Gunn was legitimately tough outside of the wrestling ring and Dr. Death got his ass handed to him by Gunn. Worse yet, Steve Williams tore his hamstring during the fight to add insult to injury. The injury could have been a blessing in the disguise for the WWE, however, as it allowed the likes of Mick Foley and Kane to step up and get the spots with Austin.
#2 - Buff Bagwell - WWE - Buff Bagwell had a pretty good career in WCW once the promotion turned him heel and renamed him to "Buff" Bagwell instead of just Marcus Bagwell. He was one of the better NWO additions and WCW had some legitimate main event plans for the guy. Then, Bagwell hurt his neck in a freak accident and he just never seemed to be the same. Upon his return, he returned to being a heel and seemed to get way too into the "Buff" character. The booking in WCW didn't go Buff's way, either...
But, he was a decent name that the WWE acquired during the purchase of World Championship Wrestling (WCW) during 2001 and the WWE thought seriously enough of him that they put him in a match with WCW Champion Booker T to officially begin the WCW Invasion. But the match SUCKED HARD! Reportedly backstage, Vince McMahon was furious at the reaction of the match and of the performance specifically of Bagwell's. One week later, Bagwell was released! There were reports that Bagwell's ego from his WCW days carried into the WWE locker room and he had several conflicts with various wrestlers for both the RAW and Smackdown tapings during his 1 week employment with the WWE. Bad debut match and issues backstage led to a quick release. Bagwell has not been seen on Cable televised wrestling since.
Funny thing is that the Booker T vs. Buff Bagwell match was so bad that it completely derailed Vince McMahon's split brand idea until another year. Vince wanted to create a WWE brand and a WCW brand to be kept separate on RAW and Smackdown. However, booking plans were quickly changed to have both WCW and ECW promotions "invade" WWE with Shane and Stephanie McMahon as the "Alliance" leaders against their father, Vince McMahon. Months of planning were flushed down the tubes and WWE would endure a summer of chaos with the WCW/ECW invasion angle that seemed to have nothing logical about it. All it took was one bad match to change everything...
#1 - Ultimate Warrior - WCW - After WCW gave away their big Bill Goldberg vs. Hulk Hogan match for FREE on WCW Nitro, WWE's Monday Night RAW began to regularly beat WCW Nitro in the ratings. After WCW's several attempts at involving big name celebrities in pro wrestling feuds (seriously, Jay Leno?!?), WCW became desperate. They looked around the wrestling world to see if there were any other former WWE free agents to acquire. They found one... Former WWE Champion, the guy who recently renamed himself from Jim Hellwig to "Warrior".
In a last ditch effort to keep the adult fanbase around to relive their 1980's/early 1990's WWE memories, WCW booked Hulk Hogan vs. Warrior for Halloween Havoc 1998. On paper, that sounded great... But actually hyping the match for weeks on Nitro and then having the actual match, it was a disaster. Never mind that the last time these two wrestled was at Wrestlemania 6, more than 8 years ago... Ditto for the fact that WWE, who was desperate for big names during 1996, just let him go after his brief stint with the promotion following Wrestlemania 12.
The feud started off wrong... Hulk Hogan was in the ring and then Warrior made his WCW debut! As an older fan, you had goosebumps... But then the Warrior grabbed the microphone and began to talk nonsense for about 15 minutes. He went from speaking to a pumped WCW crowd that the Warrior actually returned to a dead silent one. The speech, alone, probably made him the worst Free Agent signing of all time. However, there was more... Instead of running to the ring like the Ultimate Warrior, WCW had to take liberties with the Warrior character to not have copyright issues with the WWE. Instead of running to the ring like a maniac, he had to disappear in and out of the ring. WCW had smoke effects in the ring and seriously utilized a trapdoor in the ring for the Warrior to appear and disappear. This trapdoor actually hurt other wrestlers, as I believe that Davey Boy Smith badly injured his back when slammed on it.
If anything, the best part about this free agent signing was the WCW Nitro match of Sting/Warrior vs. Bret Hart/Hulk Hogan. Talk about a surreal match-up! But after that, Hogan and Warrior had an awful Halloween Havoc 1998 match-up which received nothing but bad reviews. Hogan even tried to create a fireball to throw at Warrior with flashpaper but it went off on Hogan instead. After Havoc, Warrior tried to steal Hogan's trusted friend, the "Disciple" (Brutus Beefcake) to form the One Warrior Nation, which had an abbreviation of NWO spelled backwards. After forming that group, Warrior just disappeared from WCW. Bischoff cut his losses and moved on. Warrior hasn't worked with a bigtime promotion until his recent WWE video game promotional work and now the WWE Hall of Fame. Such a damaging part of his career.
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