In 2016, the WWE treaded in uncharted waters. With Triple H gaining more and more influence, his knowledge of the independent scene was never more apparent, as evidenced by the WWE plucking indie darlings by the wayside and placing them in the company.
AJ Styles. Shinsuke Nakamura. Bobby Roode. Roderick Strong. Chris Hero. La Sombra.
The list goes on and on. And as the WWE Network expands, it’s expected that their efforts are ramped up even further.
But just because wrestlers around the world are dying to join the WWE, that doesn’t mean current WWE superstars aren’t chomping at the bits to get a crack on the smaller circuits around the globe. Take a look at Cody Rhodes, for example. After bolting from the company, he went on to compete in almost every top independent promotion, including Ring of Honor, New Japan Pro Wrestling, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, and others.
While it’ll never be said, I’m sure there are a ton of superstars who are jealous of what Rhodes is doing. At the same time, there are indie talents who would take said superstars places in a heart beat.
But who would actually make these moves? Let’s take a look at 10 wrestlers who should be in the WWE and 10 WWE wrestlers who should take their talents elsewhere.
20 Join - Matt Hardy
Who would’ve ever thought that Matt Hardy would be in greater demand than his brother Jeff? That’s what happens when you gain creative freedom on a lower scale wrestling program. Ever since Hardy transitioned to his “Broken” character, his popularity has been bigger than ever — and that’s impressive, especially when you take into account how beloved The Hardy Boyz were in their prime with the WWE. Working with TNA Impact Wrestling, Hardy is the only thing bringing life to the floundering brand as his outlandish look, odd accent, and the “delete” and “obsolete” catchphrases have made him a popular act across the globe.
19 Leave - James Ellsworth
18 Join - Tama Tonga
This won’t be the last time you see a Bullet Club member on this list. Tama Tonga has come a long way from his days training with Bubba and D-Von Dudley and it shows in his worldwide popularity. The adopted son of former WWE star Haku, Tonga has been a fixture in New Japan Pro Wrestling, as he is a two-time IWGP Tag Team Champion. In addition to his time in Japan, Tonga has always gained experience in Mexico, which as also helped his wrestling career.
17 Leave - Oney Lorcan
Before he made his way to NXT, the man known as Biff Busick was rapidly rising up the ranks as one of the independent scene’s brightest young stars. Due to his strong style of wrestling, it was no surprise that the WWE took notice — and in September of 2015, he signed a developmental deal with the brand. Unfortunately, however, it’s been all downhill from there. Despite the Biff Busick name holding some weight, he was renamed Oney Lorcan; and if that name wasn’t bad enough, he hasn’t been booked prominently at all.
16 Join - Ivelisse
Before she became a star on Lucha Underground, Ivelisse was on the fifth season of Tough Enough, and despite not winning, was still awarded a developmental deal. Her time in the company was marred, however, as she was one of the first people to let the company know of how bad of a trainer Bill DeMott was. After her release, Ivelisse gained experience in AAA and TNA, among other smaller companies. However, it wasn’t until she made her way to the Lucha Underground Arena where she became a renowned talent. Known for her emphatic charisma and toughness, Ivelisse has become one of LU’s top stars. Sometimes you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.
And although Ivelisse has taken amazing strides since leaving the WWE, you know they’re kicking themselves from letting her slip through the cracks, as she has the looks and ability that the company craves.
15 Leave - Paige
Unfortunately, Paige has had a far fall from grace. Before Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, and Bayley were taking the wrestling world by storm, it was the England native who worked as the Anti-Diva, a female talent who prioritized in-ring ability over looks. After becoming the first ever NXT Women’s Champion, she debuted on the main roster and won the Divas Championship in her first televised match. But as the foursome worked to the top of the food chain, it was Paige who was put on the back burner.
14 Join - ACH
If ACH wasn’t locked into a contract with Ring of Honor at the time, he probably would’ve been a key member of WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic. Known as one of the best high flyers today, ACH has been a standout performer on the independent circuit as he’s worked with top promotions like ROH, CZW, AAA, Chikara, AAW, and most recently, New Japan Pro Wrestling. With his ROH contract expired, ACH made his debut with NJPW at this year’s WrestleKingdom, working as Tiger the Dark against Kota Ibushi, who wrestled as Tiger Mask W. With his ROH contract expired, rumors are rampant that he could sign with the WWE and come in as a key member of 205 Live.
While the show hasn’t gotten off on the right foot, bringing in someone like ACH — who can put on tremendous matches with Neville, Rich Swann, Tony Nese, Drew Gulak, and others — would provide the new show with some much-needed buzz and star power.
13 Leave - Apollo Crews
When Apollo Crews inked a developmental contract with the WWE back in early 2015, the internet world was buzzing. After all, the man formerly known as Uhaa Nation had the impressive combination of strength and high flying ability, making his in-ring talent like no other. During his time in NXT, Crews was the wrestler that he was in Dragon Gate USA but it was his mic work that needed the most improvement. But with Vince McMahon seeing money in him, he made the call to bring him up to the main roster as he was drafted by SmackDown Live.
12 Join - Jay Lethal
To start, Jay Lethal to the WWE won’t be happening for another two years, at the earliest. Despite rumors of him potentially joining the company as early as 2017, the former ROH World Champion re-upped with the promotion for two years. Either way, he will be the subject of rumors in 2019 — and deservingly so. When looking across the independents, there may be no wrestler that combines top notch in-ring skills with high quality promos and impressive charisma like Lethal does. Whether it was in TNA as a part of the X-Division, in ROH as a main event player, or as a special attraction in New Japan Pro Wrestling, Lethal has always been someone who has fans speaking highly of him. Largely considered someone with the total package, Lethal has everything that it takes to be a big player in the WWE. And although it might not be soon, his switch to the biggest wrestling company in the world seems inevitable. And with Lethal banking on himself, he could be in position to receive an AJ Styles-like deal and skip NXT.
11 Leave - Hideo Itami
Is there any bigger way to be introduced to the WWE audience than by Hulk Hogan bringing you out? That’s exactly what Hideo Itami had, with the company clearly pegging him as their next international star. When he was brought in to NXT with Kevin Owens and Finn Balor, it gave the brand a newfound buzz that changed it from developmental to an indie All-Star platform. Unfortunately, however, bad luck has hindered Itami’s growth. After debuting at WrestleMania 31 and being blatantly positioned as the number one contender for the NXT Championship, he went down with a shoulder injury that sidelined him for over a year. After the lengthy absence, Itami was thrusted into a prominent program with Austin Aries, but the feud never took off due to a neck injury that Itami suffered at the hands of Riddick Moss.
10 Join - Kota Ibushi
Unlike some of the other wrestlers on this list, the WWE Universe knows exactly who Kota Ibushi is. After all, he was the star of the Cruiserweight Classic and put on a legitimate match of the year candidate with Cedric Alexander. But because he refused to lock himself down into a deal with the company, he wasn’t awarded the newly-made WWE Cruiserweight Championship. Ibushi obviously likes his freedom on the independent circuit, as he can have comedy matches with DDT or mat classics in New Japan Pro Wrestling.
With that being said, he has the size, build, and more importantly, the wrestling ability, to make it in the WWE — and not only as a Cruiserweight talent, but as a star on either RAW or SmackDown Live. All indications are that Ibushi has turned down every offer that Vince McMahon and Triple H have given him; but if the WWE is intent on bringing in star power, they will give Ibushi exactly what he wants.
9 Leave - Luke Harper
When looking at the RAW, SmackdDown Live, NXT, and 205 Live rosters, there may not be as much of a unique individual than Luke Harper. While his dirty-looking clothing, bushy beard, and wide eyes make him stand out enough, he’s also a hidden gem inside of the squared circle. While he’s been relegated to power moves, there have been plenty of times where he’s been able to display he agility and quickness, something he frequented on the independent scene. Despite being one of the most well-versed wrestlers in the company, he seems to have a ceiling to due being a lackey for Bray Wyatt as a member of the Wyatt Family.
8 Join - Pentagon Jr.
Taking our attention back to Lucha Underground, Pentagon Jr. may be arguably the best wrestler on their roster — and with a bevy of luchadors employed by the company, that’s saying something. But Pentagon, however, isn’t any old luchador. Mixed in with his high flying style is a vicious move set that includes a variation of stiff strikes, making him stick out more than other masked talents. In addition, his selling ability and charisma are also top notch, making him a wrestler the WWE should want. While his body type slides into the 205 Live category, Pentagon is someone who can come into NXT and be groomed as one of their top stars before making his way to the main roster. A frequent member of PWG and AAA along with Lucha Underground, it remains to be seen when Pentagon’s contract is up. Whenever it is, the WWE needs to be all over him.
7 Leave - Rusev
6 Join - The Young Bucks
If we’re calling Gallows and Anderson the top team in Bullet Club, The Young Bucks would have something to say about it. There hasn’t been another wrestler or team that has worked the independent scene to their advantage as the Bucks are currently making WWE money while working half the dates that superstars do. Currently holders of the World Tag Team Championships for both ROH and PWG — while also being one of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s hottest acts — The Young Bucks' brash demeanor and awe-inspiring move set make them internationally loved.
5 Leave - Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows
It was just a year ago when the WWE pulled off one of the biggest raids since the Monday Night War as they were able to acquire AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows from New Japan Pro Wrestling. While Styles and Nakamura were sure fire stars, many fans were excited for The Bullet Club’s top tag team as it was hoped they would come in, shake up, and reinvent the WWE tag team scene. Unfortunately, however, they’ve been anything but. While Anderson and Gallows were decently positioned with Styles as The Club, they were mostly used as lackeys.
Once the WWE split them up in the draft, the duo has been booked quite poorly. Typically on the end of losing encounters, their long and unsuccessful feud with The New Day over the RAW Tag Team Championships made them out to be a joke. Internet fans are praying that Anderson and Gallows will be reunited with Finn Balor upon his return from injury but that remains to be seen. There’s no denying that the team stood out in NJPW and they would be better off if they were on the independent circuit.
4 Join - Kenny Omega
3 Leave - Dolph Ziggler
Oh, Dolph Ziggler. Has there been a more frustrating wrestler in recent memory? No, that has nothing to do with Ziggler himself. But it has everything to do with The Show Off doing everything in his power to be one of the most beloved and effective stars on the WWE roster, only to be booked like a loser while also being inserted into laughable and/or forgettable programs. A recent heel turn has many hoping that Ziggler can, once again, be a full-fledged member of the main event scene, but there’s no denying that his stock has fallen drastically in the last year or so.
2 Join - Adam Cole
The aforementioned names on this list are impressive. And if the WWE can add one of these talents, they’d be better off. But if they had only one slot open, all their attention should focus on Adam Cole. Sorry, Kenny Omega, but it’s your Bullet Club buddy who’s the star of the indies. Working with Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling, Cole is positioned as ROH’s top star, as evidenced by being the only wrestler in company history to win their World Championship on three separate occasions. He’s one of the best in-ring technicians in the world and can put on a quality match with almost anyone. He’s an impressive talk. He has looks and age on his side. He’s the total package who can take the WWE to the next level.
1 Leave - Cesaro
Look up and down the WWE roster. Seriously, go ahead. Is there anyone who is a better wrestler than Cesaro? Sure, you can make the case for AJ Styles, Seth Rollins, Sami Zayn or Kevin Owens. But when you’re only factoring what goes on in between the red and blue ropes, it’s hard to select anyone other than the Swiss Superman. With that being said, however, that's the problem. Cesaro is a great wrestler, but that’s about it. In the WWE, mic skills are equally as important as in-ring talent, and that seems to be the only thing holding Cesaro back. While he’s typically positioned as a great wrestler in the tag team division, he’s yet to get a true chance as a solo act — and that’s something every wrestler wants.
Would it be a big blow if the WWE lost Cesaro? Yes. But if he wants to be a wrestler, he can join literally any other roster in the world and be positioned as their top star. For Cesaro, that may be what he wants.
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