2017 has been an incredible year for professional wrestling. Some might say the best the business has ever seen. Yes a lot of that is down to WWE, but perhaps for the first time since they had WCW and ECW to compete with it’s also been because of some other companies. New Japan Pro Wrestling have put on some unmissable matches, and look set on continuing that trend into 2018 with the announcement of Chris Jericho versus Kenny Omega. The continued growth of Ring Of Honor is also helping the industry. Certain names in the business are successfully proving that you no longer need to make it to WWE in order to claim that you’ve made it in wrestling anymore.
That is certainly good news for a lot of people on this list. In any sport there is a not very appealing grey area where athletes who aren’t good enough for the big time but too good for the minors spend much of their careers. Pro wrestling is no different in that regard. WWE is very much in the business of hiring all of the top talent from the independent circuit and a few of those hires are discovering that they fall into that grey area. Some wrestlers simply can’t cut it in WWE yet everywhere else in the world they are one of the biggest draws, though they get less money or exposure than they would in WWE. It’s a frustrating but common spot to be in, and here are 15 stars who currently find themselves within it.
15. Jack Swagger
Earlier this year Jack Swagger was released from WWE. The All American former amateur wrestler was picked up by WWE right out of college and never had a chance to spend any time on the independent scene like most pro wrestlers do. Since his release he has had time to do that, but it’s quickly becoming apparent that Swagger is one of those that fall into the limbo between the indies and WWE that make up this list. The brass pushed him at one point and even made Jack their World Champion, but like with so many Superstars, that started his descent down the card. Swagger may be enjoying being a big deal in the indies but now he is on a path to conquering another world, signing a contract with Bellator recently.
14. Sami Zayn
There has been a lot of talk during this list about big time independent stars who have been brought in to WWE and managed to work their way to the top of the pile. Sami Zayn is unfortunately only the first part of that statement. The Underdog From The Underground is unquestionably one of the greatest in ring performers on the planet right now. For some reason though that just hasn’t come across in WWE, at least not to some of the powers that be backstage. Zayn has watched his real life best friend Kevin Owens surpass him and become a World Champion, they’ve even made a story line out of it. Hopefully Sami’s recent heel turn will be a sign that things are about to change, but it doesn’t seem likely. We may eventually see him return to Ring Of Honor to chase some respect.
13. Tye Dillinger
Tye Dillinger recently made a name for himself in NXT. It took a long time right? Well it actually took a lot longer than you might realize. Dillinger’s latest run in WWE isn’t his first. Years ago, before NXT even existed, The Perfect Ten was a WWE Superstar and was simply known as Gavin Spears. He wrestled in WWE’s developmental territories and even made a couple of appearances on the company’s rebooted ECW brand, which would ironically go on to be replaced by NXT. Between then and now Dillinger has spent a lot of time on the indies and proved how great a wrestler he can be. As you can see from how he’s being used on SmackDown Live right now, it’s clear he’s still not considered good enough to be a big deal in WWE.
One of the most news worthy issues that is still ongoing within the realms of WWE is their relationship with Neville who at the time of typing this is still under their employ. Over a month ago the former Cruiserweight Champion apparently walked out on an episode of Raw, and although there have been rumours circulating, it’s still unclear as to exactly why he did so. Chances are that Neville isn’t happy with his current lot in WWE. There was a time when it looked as if he may be the UK’s first ever WWE Champion, now though he is stuck on 205 Live. Somewhere that Neville is appreciated for the talent that he has is the independent circuit. There he is known as Pac, and don’t be surprised if he returns to that life sometime soon.
11. The British Division
There is only one man that WWE have shown interest in following their United Kingdom Championship tournament and who has a bright future in WWE: The Bruiserweight Pete Dunne. Outside of the UK Champion the future doesn’t look too bright for the stars from across the pond. It’s a shame as many of them really are too good to remain on the indies for the rest of their careers. Tyler Bate, Trent Seven, and even the extremely talented Wolfgang are all wrestlers with potentially great futures. The trouble is WWE doesn’t seem in any sort of hurry to do anything with them and that doesn’t bode well for them. Hopefully that British show which has been talked to the moon will start airing sooner rather than later.
10. Bobby Lashley
Some of you reading this may want to throw a flag on this entry as the definition of what exactly qualifies as pro wrestling’s independent circuit is often debated. If you’re like me then you’re of the belief that anything outside of WWE counts as the indies. With that in mind that’s why Bobby Lashley qualifies for this list. Lashley has really made a name for himself in TNA – or GFW or Impact Wrestling or whatever it’s called now – and also in MMA for Bellator. There was a time though when Lashley looked like he could be the next big thing in WWE. Vince McMahon clearly took an interest in Bobby and that is the biggest compliment you can be paid in WWE. It didn’t work out though and instead Lashley has had to dominate as an independent wrestler.
9. Austin Aries
WWE have made a number of big name signings that were considered extremely big coups to other promotions over the last few years. One of the biggest was Austin Aries. A-Double has been wrestling for 17 years and in that time has done just about everything there is to do. A Ring Of Honor and TNA World Champion among other things, the only world that was left to conquer was WWE. Aries’ time in NXT started off well but a serious face injury derailed him. While WWE gave him an opportunity that seemed like a good one when he was sidelined, it quickly became clear what they had planned for Austin. The self proclaimed greatest man that ever lived was seen as a cruiserweight by WWE and nothing more. Not a good enough position for Austin and he has since returned to the indies.
8. Gallows And Anderson
The career of Luke Gallows has been an extremely interesting one. Some younger fans may not know that he was actually under the employ of WWE a long time ago, before he made a name for himself in New Japan, and that’s because WWE never reference it. Most of Gallows’ first stint in WWE involved him playing the character Festus, a big man who flew into a fit of rage when the bell rang and returned to his catatonic state once it rang at the end of the match. Considering his and Karl Anderson’s popularity in Japan you’d have thought that this time around things would have been better for Luke. Him and Anderson have quickly become something of a comedy act and it’s clear that Vince still doesn’t see much potential in either of them. This is a shameful waste of one of the best tag teamsin the business.
7. Shelton Benjamin
Shelton Benjamin was a part of the greatest developmental class in the history of WWE. The former Intercontinental Champion was brought in alongside Brock Lesnar, John Cena, Batista and Randy Orton. Despite being unquestionably talented, Shelton is the only one of that Hall of Fame bound group that isn’t a multiple time World Champion in WWE. In 2010 Benjamin left the company and tried his luck elsewhere. For seven years he wowed crowds in Ring Of Honor, New Japan, as well as a whole host of other independent promotions. Now he’s back in WWE and he is a part of a lacklustre tag team. Not great, and arguably below the athlete’s ability. We’ll see how long this run lasts and how long Shelton will put up with being under utilized.
6. The Young Bucks
It would be fair to say that The Young Bucks aren’t exactly the biggest fans of WWE. They have become extremely famous on pro wrestling’s independent circuit and have effectively built that fame on the back of openly mocking WWE and its Superstars. Matt and Nick Jackson have had their brushes with the company, aside from being issued a cease and desist by them. The brothers once portrayed Triple H and Shawn Michaels during a segment so that they could be laid out by John Morrison and The Miz. They’ve also had a try out with the company but apparently appeared to not take it very seriously. The Bucks are one of the biggest acts on the indies, but they may never be a big deal in WWE.
5. John Morrison
Speaking of John Morrison, onto the next entry. Morrison is quickly becoming the non-WWE endorsed version of Chris Jericho. He wrestles all over the place and is attempting to break into the movie business. His latest venture, Boone The Bounty Hunter, is effectively the former WWE star’s baby and he sold his house in order to fund it. Naturally that means he needs the film to do well. For quite a while John felt like he was going to be a big deal in WWE. He kept ascending up the card and was a terrific in ring performer for the company. Clearly it wasn’t enough and in 2011 he and WWE couldn’t come to terms on a new contract. His impressive showing in the big time has certainly aided his career though and he is basically a big deal wherever he wrestles nowadays. Big fish, small pond.
4. Roderick Strong
Vince McMahon may not be as connected with the fans as he was 20 years ago, but WWE certainly has a guy that is. Triple H knows what’s good and what isn’t on the independent circuit. That’s why he signed the likes of Kevin Owens and Finn Balor to NXT, both of whom have gone on to be World Champions on the main roster. In the indies, Roderick Strong is right up there with those two names as well as all the others at the top of the pile. For some reason though he hasn’t been treated the same way as other big names who have arrived in NXT before him. Strong has been there or thereabouts, but it’s quickly becoming clear that WWE don’t necessarily see him as World Championship material.
Ryback is the definition of a stereotypical WWE guy. With his look and his muscles, you’d have thought that as soon as Vince McMahon laid eyes on him he fell in love. Well, The Big Guy actually revealed recently that while wearing a singlet in WWE, Vince thought he was too fat. He soon realized that wasn’t the case and forced Ryback to start wearing trunks instead. Great look or not, Ryback very much believed that he could be WWE’s next John Cena. For a short while it seemed like WWE might very well have believed that too. Ryback fought big names and competed for the WWE Championship, but the push didn’t last long. Towards the end of his time with the company he could only get in matches on the PPV kick off shows. On the indies however he’s a different animal and seems to really be enjoying himself. Another big fish in a small pond.
2. Colt Cabana
Colt Cabana may very well be one of the most respected men on the independent circuit. He has been wrestling on it for the majority of the past 15 years. The only time that he wasn’t was for a brief two year period when he managed to get himself signed by WWE. Despite the respect he had outside of the company and the talent he possesses, it did not work out. As happens to many performers who walk through the doors at WWE, Colt had to change his name. For most of his run with the company he was known as Scotty Goldman. Cabana wrestled a few matches on SmackDown but his career there never really got going. In 2009 he returned to the indies and has gone from success to success ever since. This is a shame because he should have been huge in WWE.
1. Cody Rhodes
Cody Rhodes has had one heck of a year on the independent circuit and the success he’s currently enjoying shows no sign of slowing down. He was ushered into the Bullet Club, won Ring Of Honor World Champion, and wrestled pretty much everyone on his wish list. Surely even in his wildest dreams Cody couldn’t have imagined things going this well. Rhodes’ success makes him the epitome of a wrestler who is too good for the indies but not good enough for WWE. While under Vince McMahon’s guidance Cody just drifted from gimmick to gimmick not doing much of anything. Despite his success away from the company it’s hard to imagine that things would be any different if he were to return, not in the long run anyway.
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