Wrestling is a smaller community than most other job markets. If you are a professional wrestler (or, rather, a sports entertainer), there aren’t exactly an overwhelming number of options for you. Sure, you’ve got your independent groups, where you can make a decent enough living, but when it comes to the big time, especially stateside? There’s really only one option at this point and that’s World Wrestling Entertainment. And, for every young Superstar we see on WWE television, who either got there by some great and wonderful stroke of luck or by way of who their father was, we see many people who have taken years to finally get their big break. And, in many cases, these world-renowned stars are getting their first taste of WWE action by way of the WWE farm system, NXT. Or, is it really their first taste?
In many cases, some of them not so surprising, some of them very surprising, some wrestlers who have come through NXT or are in NXT currently (as of December 2016), have actually already worked for WWE and, in most of those cases, they were working on the main roster. That’s right folks, some of the biggest names NXT has ever had, may have in fact already walked down the aisle at a WWE main roster event or served in some other official WWE capacity. It’s the hidden beauty of wrestling. There are a ton of bit roles, jobbers, “security guards” and, of course, old monikers that wrestlers may shed as they get bigger and better and re-packaged by Vince McMahon and the WWE Creative team. And, quite often, we are seeing guys who have become mainstays-true main event players-cut their teeth in WWE years ago as nothing more than a lowly jobber. Sorry…”enhancement talent”. And now, after years of learning their craft and improving their persona, they are emerging as some of the best talent going. So who are they? Let’s find out!
16 Paul Ellering
OK, fine, this one is just about the easiest one on this list, because the NXT announcers bring it up frequently. Paul Ellering is a WWE Hall of Famer, having managed the Legion of Doom in a previous stint long ago. Like, a really long time ago. I don’t even think I had my driver’s license at the time. Man I am old. OK, enough about that. So, Ellering makes the list because he was running in WWE and now, just like that, he’s taking a step back, so to speak, and serving as a manager to the Dusty Classic-winning tag team, The Authors of Pain. The duo is formidable enough without Paul. They become far more dangerous with the crafty Ellering in their corner.
15 Tye Dillinger
The Perfect Ten was not always so perfect, or so cocky and confident either. I mean, even a guy like Tye Dillinger has to start with a bit of humility, right? Of course he does. And, he also got his start under a completely different name, too. He managed to serve as an enhancement talent and shortly after that he got a try-out with the company and that netted him a gig working in their developmental territories, Ohio Valley and then Florida Championship Wrestling, before getting some time in ECW (the re-boot). But you wouldn’t know him as Dillinger back then. Nope, back in his earliest days, he was a Spears. First Shawn, then Gavin, but never Brittany. Eventually his first run ended, but things have a habit of coming back around. He re-joined WWE, got started back in NXT, and got a new name. And with a little luck, his most recent run will go much better than his first one did.
13 Austin Aries
Fans right now are probably like, “wait, what? Aries was never in WWE before!”. And, I would say, you are generally correct. Austin Aries had not performed in or even been seen in a WWE ring until earlier this year. That is true. But he did actually work for WWE before. How, you ask? Simple. Someone in the company was fond of his voice, apparently, so as one of the iterations of the popular video game WWE came out, WWE 12, someone had the bright idea of having Aries provide voice-over solutions for the game. OK, fine, it’s sort of a sneaky, backwards way to say someone worked in WWE before landing in NXT, but the point here is valid. Aries was a WWE employee years ago, and he’s one now.
12 Eric Young
No, we aren’t even talking about how he appeared in NXT, then wasn’t seen for a while, and now is a fixture with SaniTY. Though, I suppose we could, since he did actually wrestle a match against Samoa Joe before going away for a while and coming back as the crazy ringleader. But, no, that’s not the case for this one. For Eric Young, he actually did perform a function on WWE programming prior to really blowing up and, ultimately, finding his way back to WWE by way of NXT. And what was that role? Why, he was a jobber, of course! And, in a stroke of fate, his first appearance-on WWE Velocity-was as one half of a tag team with some glorious guy named Bobby Roode. More on that later…but after his initial appearance, he had a few more before he went on to hone his craft to become the man we know now.
11 Bobby Roode
I kind of just spoiled this one, didn’t I? I mean, I absolutely did. As mentioned above, Roode appeared on WWE television before 2016 and I don’t just mean as a spectator during an NXT Takeover event. Nope, he too found himself serving as an enhancement talent a time or two prior to his glorious evolution to what we’ve come to enjoy today. For Roode, by the time he ran into Eric Young on Velocity, he was practically a long-time WWE veteran, having jobbed on shows like Jakked, Sunday Night Heat, Velocity, RAW and Smackdown! And, man did he get around, working-and losing-in both singles and tag team action. But, it’s certainly a good way to learn the tricks of the trade. It’s also a great way to meet other wrestlers and Eric Young wasn’t the only person Roode would work with who would have a second stint with WWE.
10 Tyson Dux
This one wasn’t one I’d expect, but I fully admit I didn’t know a ton about Dux prior to the Cruiserweight Classic. That’s where he made his WWE return-return being the key word. So, if it was his WWE return, when was he first working for the company? Well, I am glad you asked! Dux worked several matches, spread across the various WWE properties at the time (such as Heat and Velocity). And, as if working matches wasn’t enough, Dux got to work as one of those infamous faux security guards. And in that instance, he was fortunate enough to be assaulted by none other than The Undertaker. Hey, if you are going to do a job, why not job to one of the all time greats?
I know what you are thinking, this is sort of not exactly like the others. Fine, I will grant you that. But, the fact remains that Emma went from NXT, to RAW, to NXT and is now heading back to RAW again. And considering how much she got changed up from the first time we saw her on RAW, to now? I think she’s kind of earned her spot on this list. I mean, who could forget her debut? The goofy, affable Emma was basically the female version of Santino Morella, and the two had many comical moments. Eventually, she was off television and found her way back to NXT where she got rebooted into a coordinated and, honestly, ruthless heel type. It was a complete 180 compared to her previous runs. And now, as we are preparing to meet her newest incarnation, Emmalina, who knows what we will get.
This one is a sneaky one, but I’ve had a few just as sneaky already. So, what’s one more? Charlotte-real name Ashley Fliehr, is the daughter, of course, of The Nature Boy Ric Flair. Her entire actual wrestling career has been, admittedly, spent between NXT and now, Monday Night RAW. I know this. You know this. No one disputes it. So, how has she been a part of WWE before becoming the talented, world class wrestler we know today? Quite easily, as a matter of fact. Just think: if you are being honored, say with a major career award…a milestone…perhaps, say, a Hall of Fame enshrinement? You’d surely have your entire family present in the building, right? And that, my friends, is exactly how we, the WWE fans, got our first look at the young woman who was on the verge of becoming Charlotte.
This one is so obvious, you might hate me for including it. But, oh well, include it I shall! Actually, maybe it’s not entirely obvious. Everyone who’s been watching wrestling for a while knows that Rhyno worked for ECW, both before and after the company and it’s assets were bought by WWE. And, after he went away for a bit, he did return to NXT and now he’s working his tail off on SmackDown, recently one half of their tag team champions. But, at one point, even Rhyno served as an enhancement talent, very early on in his career. Before he ever worked for ECW or TNA. Heck, he was a jobber before he ever become Rhino, let alone Rhyno. But, as with everyone else on the list, he’s made the most of his time in the company. All of it.
This guy is a truly international Superstar and he’s probably worked for nearly as many companies as he has worked in countries. Which is to say, he’s worked in a lot. As for him, he’s appeared in most WWE properties. He first actually officially worked for a WWE-related property when he showed up for the then-South Philly based (and Paul Heyman run) ECW. Which has since been bought and devoured by WWE, so it counts. And now, thanks to the Cruiserweight Classic, Tajiri was back in a WWE ring. Because the Classic was loosely affiliated with NXT tapings and because many of the CWC participants also worked in NXT, this is what lands Tajiri here. It doesn’t hurt his case that he’s rumored to be returning as a more active wrestler as we head into 2017.
6 Samoa Joe
Yes, this is not a typo. Samoa Joe, recent NXT champion (and the first-ever two time NXT Champion), is awaiting the call up to the main roster. And that call up will get him on to WWE television, whether it is RAW or SmackDown. But, it won’t actually be his first appearance on main roster WWE programming. No, not at all. Early on in his career, Samoa Joe found himself working for what was then a WWE feeder federation, UPW. The same UPW that launched John Cena’s career. And, while working for UPW, Samoa Joe was given the privilege of doing a job for mega-star Essa Rios (Yes, that’s sarcasm). After that taste of the big time, you’d think Joe would have been hell bent on making the main roster as quickly as possible, but the reality is he’s taken a long and slow road to get back on the big shows. I think it’s safe to say that Joe is a long way from jobbing to a jobber like Rios.
4 T.J. Perkins
Yes, the winner of the Cruiserweight Classic has also enjoyed a previous stint with WWE before 2016. While many wrestling fans know of his work in TNA under his several personas, not everyone realizes he worked for the company in the earliest parts of his career. Like many others, the early stint was under a different name and also as an enhancement talent, so it’s easy to overlook that time with WWE. But, while you may choose to overlook it, he was indeed there. In 2009, he worked on RAW, ECW and FCW. But, back then, he wasn’t nearly as ready for the big time as he is now. He left WWE, improved his in-ring abilities and came back better than ever, winning the CWC and holding the Cruiserweight title.
3 Tommaso Ciampa
Color me surprised. One half of Team DIY is on the list? I never expected this name to pop up, but indeed it did. This current NXT Tag Team Champion had a previous stint with WWE from 2005 through 2007. Fortunately for him, it started off as a bit more of a high profile enhancement talent, as he was able to work in angles involving The Undertaker. He eventually found his way down to the developmental territory of Ohio Valley Wrestling, where his luck came up short. He got injured, wasn’t able to wrestle as much and ultimately found himself outside of WWE, but, not permanently. Lucky for him, and for the fans, his most recent run with the company is going much better.
2 Johnny Gargano
That’s right folks. Not only was Ciampa previously employed by WWE, so too was his tag team partner, Johnny Wrestling himself. Gargano made a series of appearances in WWE and its territories in the earlier 2000s, sometimes as a wrestler and even once as a security guard for, of all things, NXT. No one back then would have ever predicted that someone who once worked as “Champion of Lichtenstein” on RAW against MVP would work his way up to be adored and revered as Johnny Wrestling, one half of the current NXT Tag Team Champions. Everyone has to start somewhere on their way to stardom, right? So what if Johnny’s was as an enhancement talent in the very company he’s now playing a starring role in? He’s done well for himself, that’s for sure.
1 Daniel Bryan
Everyone and their brother knows that Bryan was one of the key parts in the Nexus/NXT group that really put the new territory of NXT on the map, especially when the faction showed up on RAW and absolutely destroyed John Cena (and the ring, too, for good measure). So, from his time in NXT, to his time in WWE (with some “time away” due to choking Cena with a tie), everyone knows that story. But, what not everyone realizes is that Bryan had actually been there before, working matches on WWE shows. He had the fortune of getting to serve as an enhancement talent for several names in WWE, none of which have become bigger than John Cena. Yes, the same Cena he would later help decimate, he started off jobbing to.