While WWE may still be on top of the wrestling world in terms of overall popularity, there has also been a resurgence with independent wrestling over the last decade or so. With promotions such as PWG and ROH holding down the domestic front, combined with international mainstays like NJPW and AAA (just to name a few) on the international side of things, we’ve never seen so many legitimate alternatives to WWE exist simultaneously. It’s an exciting time for the wrestling industry, and there is a plethora of talent spread out into promotions that fall outside of the mainstream consciousness.
As expected, you can find many former WWE talents appearing in these promotions on a regular basis. It’s difficult to find longevity in WWE, and even some of the most popular stars of the past are now taking their talents to independent and international promotions. With that comes varying degrees of success. Some have been able to turn a new page for their career, and some have floundered without the inherent level of attention they received just for wrestling in a WWE ring. Let’s take a look at some notable examples of both.
Ranked below are 10 former WWE wrestlers killing it on the independent scene, and 10 who are failing miserably.
20. John Morrison (Killing It)
A staple of the mid-2000s WWE scene, first appearing as Johnny Nitro, Morrison was one of the more accomplished stars of his era in WWE. He won a bevy of titles in both the singles and tag ranks, consistently appearing in the upper echelon of the company. Still, in 2011, he decided it was time for a change, and decided to take his talents to Mexico.
He had successfully re-established himself in AAA, Lucha Underground and various other promotions. He’s seen just as much title success as he did in WWE, and overall, Morrison has been able to sustain his career by being a consistent worker, and identifiable figure in the squared circle.
19. Alberto Del Rio (Failing)
Now going by the name Alberto El Patron in Impact Wrestling, it’s been a long fall from grace for Del Rio, who once held the WWE Title, and the United States Title. Drifting into the rough waters of Impact Wrestling has essentially derailed his career, and he’s unlikely to reach the kind of heights that he did during his prime.
Since leaving the WWE for good 2016 after a brief return, Del Rio has failed to make his mark on any one promotion, or produce any noteworthy matches. Impact Wrestling just doesn’t have the kind of audience that is going to garner any attention for Del Rio, who instead gets attention for his outside-the-ring shenanigans. The high point of his career will remain his time in WWE.
18. Rey Mysterio (Killing It)
When talking about the greatest cruiserweight of all-time, Mysterio has to be one of the top names in the conversation. A lucha-styled wrestler taking over American promotions was not at all common during the late-’90s, but Mysterio successfully bucked the trend. Eventually, he became a mainstay in WWE, where he remained a top draw for over a decade.
Having left the company in 2015, he’s transitioned over to the Mexican wrestling ranks, where he’s become a staple on Lucha Underground and AAA. It’s a perfect fit for Mysterio, who is one of the greatest Mexican wrestlers of all-time, and he still has some gas left in the tank. Unlike some others who needed WWE to become noteworthy in the wrestling world, Mysterio has proved time and time again that his talent level is good enough to carry him all on its own.
17. Rob Van Dam (Failing)
Van Dam is one of the most ridiculed AND praised superstars in wrestling history, and his work outside of the WWE ranks has followed suit in fan reaction. Since 2015, he’s essentially been doing one-off events at various promotions, which is fine, but it’s hardly the most groundbreaking work.
Having the reputation as one of the greatest innovators in wrestling throughout the ’90s, it’s clear that Van Dam is just phoning it in at this point. He’s getting by on name-recognition alone, and he isn’t likely to have an important place on the roster of any given promotion, ever again. As RVD is hovering around the age of 50, this should probably be the case anyway, but it still deserves mention.
16. Carlito Caribbean Cool (Killing It)
American audiences will know him from his time in WWE, but Carlito has actually been more prominent in the Puerto Rican wrestling circuit, wrestling for WWC for many years. As the son of Carlos Calon Sr., this makes a lot of sense, and Carlito has won the company’s Heavyweight Title a whopping 17 times over the years.
He’s wrestled for other promotions as well, but it’s in WWC where Carlito has gone on to his greatest heights, and continues to wrestle there today. It’s good that he’s giving an identity to one of the most overlooked promotions in the history of the industry, and also that he’s proven that he can succeed without the level of promotion that WWE inherently gives it’s in-ring talent
15. Chris Masters (Failing)
Masters was a boring talent when he came into WWE, and was just another in a long line of ill-advised, derivative gimmicks that were popping up around the mid-2000s. Masters was a bland, boring character in WWE, and that hasn’t changed in any other promotion he’s wrestled in over the years.
Other than a stint in Impact Wrestling, where he resides now, the promotions he’s worked for are largely irrelevant, even by the standard of independent wrestling. Masters simply isn’t a good talent, in a business where you need to stand out to be successful. There’s a reason why his career in WWE was short-lived, and why he’s scraping the bottom of the barrel right now.
14. Bobby Lashley (Killing It)
Once considered to be one of the up-and-coming stars in WWE, Lashley was a charismatic heavyweight who quickly captured both the United States Title and the ECW Title. While the full scope of his plan in WWE didn’t completely come to fruition, he found success in Impact Wrestling, as well as in the field of mixed martial arts.
Since leaving Vince McMahon’s fold, Lashley has used several avenues in the world of in-ring fighting to extend his career past WWE. Just because Impact Wrestling hasn’t proven to be a great promotion, doesn’t mean that Lashley is a poor talent. He’s good in the wresting ring, as well as in MMA, where he’s compiled a 15-2 record over the years.
13. Adam Rose (Failing)
Rose’s background has been fairly well-documented, bringing to light the many struggles he had growing up. While it’s certainly a story that is worthy of telling to showcase his perseverance, the fact of the matter is that Rose just isn’t a great wrestler. He spent time in WWE several years ago, but was hampered by mediocre talent, and bad gimmicks.
He’s now on the independent circuit, and just not making much of an impact at all, and certainly not anywhere that has a reputation for being a top indy promotion. The promotions he’s involved in are peripheral at best. Rose recently announced that 2017 would be his final year in wrestling, which says it all, really.
12. Raven (Killing It)
Many wrestlers of Raven’s generation have rested on their laurels, doing one-off appearances exclusively. While this is fine, it doesn’t really further a wrestler’s career, and instead makes them an attraction from the past. This doesn’t apply to Raven, who was been working tirelessly for tons of different promotions when not in WCW or WWE, and has excelled in most of them.
He’s accumulated a plethora of heavyweight titles from various promotions over the years. He’s been as successful on the independent scene as he has in the mainstream eye. Raven is still going strong with promotions like NWF, and is one of the marquee names from the past who can still work a solid match.
11. Matt Sydal (Failing)
For as much opportunity as Sydal (aka Evan Bourne in WWE) has gotten over the course of his career, he’s done remarkably little with it. He’s been showcased in ROH and NJPW a lot in his post-WWE career, but it hasn’t yielded much that anyone can get excited about.
Sydal is definitely a great athlete, and has an impressive move-set, but he isn’t the kind of wrestler who can lead a promotion’s main event scene. Sydal has hobbled back to Impact Wrestling, and will continue to serve in the mid-card for as long as he remains there. He’s never been able to transition into the upper echelon of any company, and take his game to the next level.
10. Davey Boy Smith Jr. (Killing It)
When you’re the son of The British Bulldog, you’re going to have heavy expectations attached to your name. Smith has only lived up to them, and he’s been one of the best overall wrestlers that we’ve seen in the past decade or so. He’s a former WWE Tag champion as a member of The Hart Dynasty (as David Hart Smith), but frankly, his best work has come outside of WWE.
Smith is currently with NJPW, and will inevitably become a major player in the tag division, just like he did in Pro Wrestling NOAH as a member of the Killer Elite Squad. Smith is in the prime of his career, and there’s no telling where he’ll go when he returns to the States to wrestle again.
9. Billy Gunn (Failing)
After being one of the longest-tenured WWE wrestlers ever, Gunn had to find new stomping grounds to wrestle in. He’s been overseas to Japan for NJPW, as well as Chikara and other U.S.-based promotions, but nothing has really been able to have any staying power. Gunn hasn’t been able to establish a consistent identity anywhere else.
To be fair, he was in WWE for so long, and now that he’s 53, he is squarely out of the prime of his career. There’s not as much opportunity for Gunn to re-establish himself somewhere else, and be the top guy for a new company. Still, there’s a definite line in the sand between his WWE days, and what he’s done with his career since leaving.
8. Cody Rhodes (Killing It)
One of the wrestlers who was absolutely ruined by WWE’s terrible booking decisions, and lame gimmick ideas, Rhodes has rebounded in good form. He’s been in ROH, and has recently gone over to NJPW, which is probably the best move he could have made for his career right now.
Rhodes will probably return to the States at some point to make another go of establishing himself on a domestic level. After the terrible Stardust gimmick, he had to make a drastic change of scenery to get as far away from the U.S.-based WWE audience as possible, and it was a smart decision to head over to Japan. Currently a member of the Bullet Club, he could be getting a big push in the coming year.
7. Teddy Hart (Failing)
Hart has always been a waste of talent, and has never been able to make the kind of impact that many thought he could have upon entering the business. At one time, he was the youngest wrestler signed by WWE, and his career was a massive flop there, never getting beyond the level of dark matches, and working as enhancement talent.
Though he spent significant time in AAA, he never made an impact there. He’s toiled in other mid-level indy promotions such as JAPW and MLW, which isn’t high praise for someone with the family pedigree that Hart has. Despite all of his opportunity, Hart has been nothing short of a disappointment for nearly his entire career.
6. Super Crazy (Killing It)
One of the best Mexican wrestlers of his generation, everyone remembers when he was in the WWE as a member of the Mexicools, and subsequently went on to singles competition for the company. But Super Crazy is also one of the most well-traveled wrestlers, and has excelled in Mexico and Japan for AAA, Pro Wrestling NOAH, and AJPW.
His style of wrestling was never going to work long-term in WWE, but he’s proven that he has what it takes to rise to the level of the best international wrestlers in the world. He’s slowed his output in recent years, but it’s worth mentioning him as one of the best all-time international talents. Definitely a hallmark wrestler of his era, and one of the most versatile.
5. Ryback (Failing)
Ryback simply isn’t a good wrestler, and has a terrible character to boot. If you took every muscle-bound generic heavyweight that WWE has pushed since their inception, and combined them together, you may get something resembling Ryback. He’s as derivative as it gets, and just isn’t interesting.
So it’s no surprise that he hasn’t been able to elevate his game since leaving WWE several years ago. He’s wrestling on some pretty lame cards, all things considered, and it’s unlikely that he remains anything more than a sideshow attraction for the rest of his career. He was nothing more than another bulked-up wrestler that WWE arbitrarily decided to push, and can’t garner any interest on his own merits.
4. Matt Hardy (Killing It)
One of the biggest storylines in all of wrestling for the past few years has been the “Broken Matt Hardy” persona. It’s a brilliant, innovative and hilarious gimmick where Hardy finds himself taking the piss, and not trying to relive the prime of his career. He’s used the gimmick in various promotions, and it’s been a hit most everywhere it’s gone.
Now back in WWE for the time being, The Hardy Boyz captured the Tag Titles at WrestleMania this year, and remain in their old stomping grounds for now. But it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Hardy resurrect the “broken” gimmick and unleash it on the indys one more time, or take it over to Japan.
3. Yoshi Tatsu (Failing)
Tatsu was only a marginal talent before he went to WWE, and that has stayed consistent in the time since he left WWE. He’s made his way back to NJPW, but with the massive amount of talent in the company right now, he’s not anywhere near the upper echelon. Tatsu is nothing more than a fringe character on a crowded roster, and has been relegated to tag matches almost exclusively.
So this wasn’t a situation of WWE burying a talented wrestler, as they so often do. The fact was that Tatsu was just a body, and not worthy of any kind of a push. He has the ability to stick around NJPW as a filler tag wrestler, but that’s about the extent of his abilities.
2. Drew McIntyre (Killing It)
Though McIntyre just made his way back to NXT this year, he had a couple of massively successful years on the independent circuit. Successful stints in TNA, WCPW and PWG helped keep his career afloat, and he was able to remain relevant without the backing of a WWE ring.
He’s not yet back on the main roster, but it’s only going to be a matter of time before that happens. McIntyre has held both the Intercontinental Title and Tag Team Title in WWE before, and he’ll be slated to likely receive a push sometime in the next year. His return was predicated upon success with other promotions, and he came through with some great performances during his time away from WWE.
1. Jeff Jarrett (Failing)
Ever since Jarrett left WWE for good back in the late-90s, he’s always had an inflated view of his own product, and the promotions that he runs. As the top dog at Impact Wrestling since its inception in 2002, and also the founder of GFW in recent years, Jarrett has made some people think that he’s a credible promoter, and that he’s still an upper-tier wrestler, but it’s all a farce.
Jarrett constantly plays politics, and pushes himself too often on his own promotions. It’s not surprising, since hit father Jerry Jarrett ran promotions in the Mid-South such as CWA and USWA years ago, but it’s one of the main criticisms of his work.
Now simultaneously in charge of Impact Wrestling and GFW, Jarrett is only going to be making more cringeworthy booking decisions, and attempt to merge the two together entirely. He’s shown time and time again that he has a poor eye for talent, and an even worse one for storylines. Jarrett has attempted to take control of independent wrestling over the years, but had become the laughing stock of it instead.
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