Boy have times changed. With the dynamite popularity of NXT, the WWE’s willingness to scour the globe and host a tournament of top Indie talent via the Cruiserweight Classic and its sudden cosmic shift of signing wrestlers that were once blacklisted by WWE, now is as good a time as ever to be an Independent Wrestler—especially one who gains a respectable following on the internet.
WWE used to HATE the terms “internet fans” and went out of their way to insult what they deemed a small subsection of their target audience. It used to be seen as a big negative if you had an indie background because the philosophy was that “you’re not a star unless you make it in the WWE.”
In recent years there’s been a sort of cosmic shift in philosophy, maybe because the company can’t really knock the internet anymore when EVERYBODY is on the internet these days and fans are more in tune and well informed than ever before as to who’s hot and who’s not.
There have been some stars like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan who carried reputations of “Indie Internet Darlings” who had to overcome resistance in WWE but were able to break through and earn respect from the higher ups by demonstrating that they could succeed on the big stage. However, for every CM Punk and Daniel Bryan there have been dozens of indie stars with cult followings who bombed with the WWE. The following list covers 15 of those failed indie legends.
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17 Christopher Daniels
Better known as "The Fallen Angel", Christopher Daniels was a long-time veteran on the independent scene and carved a loyal following with fans who enjoyed his work in ROH, Japan and TNA. Unfortunately, the WWE would never give Daniels a serious look after giving him a developmental deal between 1998 and 2001 where Daniels largely worked as a jobber on WWE’s syndicated B shows.
In a recent podcast interview, Christopher Daniels would lament about the lack of chances the WWE gave to him while his independent peers like AJ Styles, Samoa Joe and CM Punk enjoyed success under the WWE umbrella.
Daniels attributes things not working out for him and a fair opportunity to timing, “"If WWE had softened their perception of the independent scene five years earlier than they did, maybe.” Daniels would then go on to say that the time where he would have had the most appeal to the WWE audience, he was contracted to TNA so things just didn’t fall into place when he would have liked them to.
15 Amazing Red
A combination of poor timing due to injuries and being ahead of his time are prime reasons why a phenomenal wrestler such as Jonathan Figueroa, better known as the Amazing Red was never given a WWE deal.
Red was an innovator of offense in the squared circle and was in a class of his own as a high-flyer. Red became a hit with the internet crowd in the early 2000s who gushed over his body of work on the indie scene. Eventually Red would move on up landing gigs with Ring of Honor, All Japan Pro-Wrestling and TNA and many touted him as being the 'next Rey Mysterio'.
Unfortunately outside a few dark match tryouts over the years, Red was never signed to a serious deal with the WWE. Injuries would slow down Red and force him to tone down his style but that hasn’t stopped Red from trying to get noticed by WWE. Red was even slated to be part of the Cruiserweight Classic tournament but again the injury bug reared its ugly head when he suffered a broken ankle which kept him from competing in the tournament.
14 Reckless Youth
When one of your nicknames is the “King of the Independents” you have to make this list right? Thomas Carter, better known under his ring name as Reckless Youth, was an independent start in the late 90s, when the internet was in its infancy. In 1998, Bill Apter of Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine called Reckless Youth was on the “most recognizable stars of the independent scene” and put him at number 50 on the PWI 500 so it wouldn’t be long before the WWE would take notice.
WWE signed him to a developmental deal in 1999 but it didn’t lead to much as he would leave the d-league after a year. After a brief run in CZW, Carter would suffer a serious back injury which put the kibosh on any chances of another opportunity with WWE. Carter would retire in 2003 and would become one of the founders of independent promotion Chikara. He’s not out of the wrestling business entirely but he may be known as one of the biggest “what ifs” by internet fans.
13 Sara Del Ray
While Sara Del Ray didn’t necessarily fail in WWE, she unfortunately was never given a serious look by the WWE until she was already past her prime.
Sara Del Ray may be one of the greatest female pro wrestlers to never wrestle for the WWE. Her wrestling peers have long gushed over her in-ring ability and technique for ages and she even earned a spot on the PWI 500, a rarity for a female wrestler.
Del Rey started her career in Northern California where she became a mainstay in Chikara and Shimmer for several years while also working for ROH and stints in Japan. Del Rey is a seasoned veteran at the age of 35 and is now actually a head trainer for the NXT women at WWE Performance Center.
While fans of hers complain that she should be a competitor on television rather than a trainer, Del Rey is at peace as a trainer and is living her dream working full-time for the WWE training the next generation of women wrestlers.
12 Jerry Lynn
Jerry Lynn has been long regarded by his wrestling peers as the greatest pure in-ring worker to never get a fair look in the WWE. Lynn put himself on the map in ECW after developing his craft in Japan and stints in the GWF and Smoky Mountain wrestling. Lynn’s technical skill particularly stood out amongst the blood and carnage that ECW was stereotyped and earned him a star making feud with ECW TV Champion Rob Van Dam.
After the ECW folded in April of 2001, Lynn was hired by the WWE and captured the Light Heavyweight Championship on his first night. The victory meant little however as the title was rarely given a spotlight and after dropping the championship to Jeff Hardy and not even being featured during the Invasion angle, he was quickly released.
11 Matt Bentley
When you’re an actual blood relative to a WWE Hall of Famer in Shawn Michaels, shouldn’t your chances of being given a serious look by WWE be a guarantee? Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way for Matt Bentley who was better known by his wrestling name Michael Shane for the majority of his career.
Bentley is the Heartbreak Kid’s actual cousin and was trained by Michaels at the Texas Wrestling Academy where he took the ring name of Michael Shane as a play on his cousins wrestling moniker. Bentley would start working in Japan and in ECW just before it went under. He would make some appearances on WWE television as a jobber during dark matches and B-shows but unfortunately would never be offered a developmental deal.
Bentley would enjoy some notoriety in ROH and TNA as a part of the X Division but WWE was where he wanted to be but alas, WWE didn’t share the same interest.
10 Matt Cross
Matt Cross may have found a home with Lucha Underground as the masked wrestler “Son of Havoc” but he had a chance of a lifetime with the WWE as the most experienced contestant on the 2011 revival of Tough Enough.
Cross, who had made a name for himself and gained a popular internet following wrestling for promotions like CZW, ROH and Wrestling Society X, was heavily favored to win the Tough Enough competition because he was the only established wrestler amongst a group of WWE hopefuls with no previous wrestling experience.
Surprisingly, Cross was eliminated two weeks into the competition after being told by the judges that he wasn’t doing enough to stand out from the pack charisma-wise despite 9 years of wrestling experience.
8 Gail Kim
Another name who created a respectable body of work outside of the bright lights of the WWE yet wasn’t appreciated for her talents while on the roster was Gail Kim who went through an underwhelming run with the WWE not once, but twice.
Kim was first noticed for her talent under the Canadian Independent wrestling circuit and in 2002 the WWE would sign her. Unfortunately after a largely disappointing stint, Kim was surprisingly released in 2004 due to a cost cutting measure.
Kim would rejuvenate her career in TNA as she along with stars like Awesome Kong and The Beautiful People put TNA Women’s wrestling on the map. Kim would resign with WWE in 2008 hoping the company would utilize her better the second time around but after another disappointing stint, Kim would quit the WWE out of frustration.
Kim may have been before her time in the WWE and would have fared better in today’s revamped landscape for women.
Low-Ki’s story of his failings with the WWE largely have to do with his poor attitude and his unrelentingly stiff in-ring style that he refused to tone down, which is a shame because he is a phenomenal talent that had potential to be a megastar if he wasn’t such a headcase.
Low-Ki was an OG of ROH, debuting on their inaugural show and eventually becoming crowned as the first ROH champion. It is in ROH that he gained the respect of veterans like Eddie Guerrero and rose in the ranks as one of the best in-ring competitors in the nation. Low-Ki’s stiff style took him around the world where he became a household name everywhere except for the WWE.
WWE would finally come knocking, signing Low-Ki to a developmental deal and having him be a rookie participant on the second season of NXT in 2010 where he would ultimately win the competition under the name Kaval. Unfortunately, his stint with the WWE would be a short one as he was released only a couple of months largely due to disagreements with management about his direction and in-ring style.
6 Paul London
If Paul London were first discovered and signed by the WWE in 2016, he’d probably be groomed as one of the biggest cruiserweight stars in company history. However, while London dazzled crowds during his stint in WWE between 2003-2008 but he may have been signed before his time as he was not appreciated for his abilities during his time there.
During his time with the company, London disliked the politics and was put in the doghouse a few times because of his resistance to playing the political game backstage. Ultimately, his run was a huge disappointment and he was released in 2008. A comeback is very unlikely to ever happen as London has been quite vocal about his dislike for his former employer. He has gone out of his way to throw the company under the bus for their business practices, calling the WWE a miserable place to work.
5 Evan Bourne
The highflying Matt Sydal was seen as the next big thing via the internet crowd when he dazzled audiences on the independent scene with his innovative offense. He was first noticed by WWE scouts during his stint with ROH where he competed with the likes of AJ Styles and Samoa Joe.
The WWE brought Sydal in under the name Evan Bourne and he quickly gained popularity on the ECW brand with his exciting style which had many saying that he could be the next Rey Mysterio for the WWE. Bourne would move up to the RAW brand shortly thereafter and would capture the tag team championship with Kofi Kingston.
Unfortunately a combination of badly-timed injuries that killed his momentum and repeated wellness violations due to his affinity for smoking marijuana would signal a disappointing and premature end for Bourne’s run as he would be released in 2014.
4 Teddy Hart
If there’s anything we’ve learned from this list so far is that being related to a WWE legend doesn’t mean crap to the WWE. There will be no special treatment or second chances if you don’t play nice and that’s in large the story of Teddy Hart.
Teddy, the eldest grandchild of Stu Hart, gained a measure of notoriety early on in his wrestling career when he became the youngest wrestler ever signed to a developmental deal by WWE in 1998, at age 18. Despite being a natural in the ring, Teddy was hampered by his immaturity and poor attitude. Hart’s time in developmental would end after a few years due to his hothead demeanor as he would be released.
Teddy’s checkered reputation would follow him to ROH and TNA as he would be ousted by both companies for not getting along and poor conduct with his peers. One such incident which contributed to his release was his fight at a diner in Nashville with CM Punk. Teddy would get another look by the WWE in 2006 but once again would burn his bridges with the WWE because of his attitude.
3 Colt Cabana
Colt Cabana is a classic case of failing just because creative (namely Vince McMahon) didn’t get his appeal. Known famously as being the best friend of CM Punk, Cabana established himself on the independent scene as a witty comedic wrestler who could adapt to various styles and had notable feuds with Daniel Bryan, Punk and Austin Aries while in ROH.
Cabana would be signed to a developmental deal by the WWE in 2007 and after a year in OVW adjusting to the WWE style, Cabana would debut on the Smackdown brand as Scotty Goldman. After a short stint on the WWE roster where he was given no time to showcase his personality outside of a forgettable WWE.com video series, Cabana was released.
Cabana’s career on the big stage flopped terribly which is a shame because it was not of his own doing but rather WWE’s own failure of not wasting good talent and not playing to Cabana’s strengths.
2 Brian Kendrick
A product of the Shawn Michaels Wrestling Academy much like his fellow classmate and friend Daniel Bryan, Kendrick gained notoriety under the name “Spanky” and impressed in promotions like ROH, MCW and Zero-1.
When it came to the WWE though, Kendrick was subject to various start-stop runs with the company who would sign and release twice between 2000 and 2004. His longest and most successful run with the WWE was between 2005-2008 as part of a tag team with Paul London, followed by the forgettable singles run as THE Brian Kendrick which never went anywhere.
An undersized talent, Kendrick just wasn’t appreciated by the WWE for what he brought to the table like he would have been had he been discovered under the new philosophy change by WWE today. Now with the new Cruiserweight reboot where Kendrick impressed during the CWC tournament, he may get yet another shot at stardom.
1 Chris Hero
A mainstay of the Independent wrestling scene since 2000, Chris Hero has done it all when it comes to his wrestling career—except make it in WWE. Hero was cut from the same cloth of guys like CM Punk and Cesaro and had the same love from hardcore internet fans but seemed to be the only one that WWE was overlooking while signing developmental deals to other indie darlings. Hero would finally get his shake when WWE signed him in 2012.
Performing under the name Kassius Ohno, Hero was given a fair amount of spotlight in NXT but was released in less than 2 years, never making it to the main roster. A combination of struggling with the WWE’s way of doing things and struggles with keeping a respectable weight were main factors for his disappointing exit.
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