The independent wrestling scene has thrived over the past few years with the WWE taking note of the impressive talent. CM Punk and Daniel Bryan becoming two of the biggest WWE stars in recent memory opened up the door for guys like Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens and Dean Ambrose to get signed and receive important roles on the main roster. The fact that they developed fan bases and made a living without the machine behind them added a dynamic that wrestlers signed from other avenues don’t have. Independent wrestlers have to grow as performers and sacrifice less money to create success. Those are just some of the reasons we’ve seen indie stars shine bright in the WWE over the past couple of years.
With the bigger success on the horizon, we have witnessed quite a few farewell moments involving many of the current top stars in the WWE. The former independent wrestlers made their home in various promotions all over the world. Ring of Honor and PWG stand out as the two most popular smaller companies that saw stars blossom more frequently, but there were quite a few others. A wrestler’s final match before signing with the WWE is special to close that prideful chapter of their life and so that they can enjoy one more moment with the fans that supported them through the tough times.
We’ll look at those tales of the top 15 farewell moments featuring independent wrestlers’ last match before heading to WWE.
15 Apollo Crews: Teamed Up with Ricochet vs. Austin Aries and Roderick Strong
Apollo Crews is currently one of the exciting new stars on SmackDown trying to make a name for himself thanks to the brand split. The big smile has been on Crews’ face since his days traveling the world under the name of Uhaa Nation. Always athletically gifted, Crews worked in various promotions and really made his name in Japan’s Dragon Gate. Gabe Sapolsky frequently booked him in the United States for the joint Dragon Gate USA promotion and Evolve.
The final match of Crews’ independent wrestling career took place on one of the Evolve branded shows during the weekend of WrestleMania 31. Crews teamed with his best friend Ricochet and squared off against two independent wrestling legends, Austin Aries and Roderick Strong. The match was exciting and a great farewell for Crews, but Aries and Strong picked up the win. Independent wrestling fans got to appreciate Crews' efforts one more time before he headed to the Performance Center and NXT.
14 T.J. Perkins: Matt Riddle
The most recent final independent wrestling match for a star heading to WWE saw T.J. Perkins’ appearing in Evolve one final time. Perkins has been one of the standout performers in WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic series. At one point though, the wrestling career of TJP appeared to be in dire straits when TNA refused to push him despite having him under contract. Perkins wanted to ditch the mask and character of Manik to wrestle as himself. TNA refused and he hit the free agent market when his contract expired.
Evolve would give TJP a chance to remind the wrestling world just how great he could be. WWE’s relationship with the promotion also opened a new opportunity that Perkins would not allow to pass him by. As one of the most impressive performers in Evolve, TJP hit a home run in the CWC and signed a contract to become a part of the Cruiserweight Division on Raw.
His final independent wrestling match took place in early September, as he lost to Evolve’s new top star Matt Riddle. Both men were amazing and gave us a tremendous final memory of Perkins on the indies.
13 Drake Younger: Joey Ryan
The WWE Universe knows Drake Wuertz as a mild-mannered referee that calls it right down the middle during the big NXT matches. Hell, even Steve Austin has complimented his officiating skills when breaking down NXT on The Steve Austin Podcast. The shocking truth is Wuertz wrestled under the name of Drake Younger for many years and was pretty successful. Younger made his name in brutal hardcore matches by brutalizing his body using weapons like barbed wire and thumbtacks.
WWE looked at Drake, but didn’t feel he would be a good fit as a wrestler for the company. The reputation of Wuertz has always been that he’s one of the kindest people in the industry. Winning over WWE personally, Wuertz was offered a contract to become a referee. The wrestling intelligence landed him a role, but he had to give up the independent wrestling scene.
Younger’s final match took place against one of his best rivals Joey Ryan at PWG in California. Ryan scored the win and took the Television Championship from Drake, but fans treated the WWE-bound referee as a wrestling hero.
12 Samoa Joe: Big Damo
Samoa Joe took one of the biggest risks of his career when he decided not to re-sign with TNA following a long stint with the company. TNA never used Joe to the best of his abilities, but he became a mainstay in the promotion. Joe bet on his talents and thrived once again on the independent wrestling scene. Triple H took note of Joe’s free agency and offered him a role in the growing NXT.
The original deal was shocking as it allowed Joe to work the independents while appearing on NXT most weeks. WWE finally made him sign an exclusive contract after realizing he would be a big asset to the future of NXT.
Joe finished his commitments with an exciting matchup against Big Damo in Scotland’s PWE. As an independent wrestling legend, Joe dominated the scene for many years in the early portion of his career and everyone cheered him on in respect for his new life in the WWE.
11 Sara Del Rey: Teamed Up With Eddie Edwards vs. Maria Kanellis and Mike Bennett
The name Sara Del Rey may not stand out to all readers, but she plays a very important role in the WWE today. Del Rey was regarded as the top North American female wrestler for many years and fans wanted to see her make the jump to the WWE. While the dream would come true with her getting signed, Del Rey was hired as a trainer and helped train the women hoping to make it in the Performance Center.
Triple H and others credit Del Rey for her work in teaching new things to the likes of Charlotte, Sasha Banks and almost every female worker to come into NXT. Sara holds a valuable position in WWE and has thrived in the company.
The sad part is her in-ring career ended, but she did have a cool last match in Ring of Honor. Del Rey teamed with Eddie Edwards to defeat Maria Kanellis and Mike Bennett in a mixed tag match. The big win on PPV felt provided a touching moment for the underrated female star to close that chapter of her life.
10 Cesaro: Icarus
The independent wrestling career of Cesaro is remembered most for his excellent work in Ring of Honor and PWG. With a tremendous body of work in both promotions, Cesaro shined as one of the top in-ring workers in the industry. There was one other promotion that Cesaro called home before signing with WWE and that was Chikara. The fan base for Chikara is smaller, but their audience is extremely passionate. With a comic book type atmosphere and silly characters indulging in fantasy, Cesaro had a lot of fun.
It only made sense his final match on the independent wrestling scene took place in Chikara rather than the other top indies. Cesaro lost to Icarus shortly before reporting to the WWE. The Chikara fans embraced him as one of their own and treated him well on his final night there. Cesaro went on to have an impressive career in the WWE, but there are rumors of him possibly leaving before his career ends. Chikara will welcome him back with open arms, as will many others.
9 A.J. Styles: Corey Hollis
A.J. Styles making the decision to leave TNA after being the face of the franchise was one of the best moves in wrestling history. The company took him for granted and treated him lesser to the former WWE stars coming over. Styles left TNA after the final straw of being requested to take a pay cut. Betting on his own skills and talent allowed him to once again remind the wrestling industry why he was arguably the best in-ring performer in the world.
WWE finally signed Styles after he had a tremendous stint in New Japan, Ring of Honor and various independent promotions. His debut at the 2016 Royal Rumble created a special moment for fans, as they lost their minds for his groundbreaking debut.
WWE allowed Styles to work the last date of his commitments at GPW in Georgia. Styles defeated local standout Corey Hollis in his final independent match before heading to the WWE and becoming a top star.
8 Jimmy Jacobs: B.J. Whitmer
ROH has been home to most of the names on this list and created a movement that is paying off today for the wrestlers who worked there. Someone that flies under the radar when discussing independent wrestling legends is Jimmy Jacobs. His storytelling and character work was at the top of ROH and many other small independent promotions. WWE finally signed Jacobs in 2015, but it wasn’t in a wrestling role like his peers.
Jacobs is currently a member of the WWE writing staff. The final match of Jacobs’ career fittingly took place in Ring of Honor against his rival B.J. Whitmer. Jacobs’ former on-screen love interest Lacey made a shocking appearance and walked off with Jacobs in a touching moment.
As great as he was in the ring, here’s to hoping Jacobs never has to wrestle again and has a successful career writing for many more years in the WWE.
7 Finn Balor: Jimmy Havoc
The WWE signing of Finn Balor has proven to be one of the better signings in recent memory. Balor had an outstanding run in New Japan as Prince Devitt and wrestled all over the world. The popularity made him a top name outside of the WWE and he could have made a comfortable living for the rest of his career, but wanted the challenge of performing in the biggest promotion. WWE signed Balor and made him the face of NXT for quite some time to help it grow into what it is today.
Balor started to take bookings in the United Kingdom more often in his final year as an independent wrestler. His final match before heading to WWE took place in England for PROGRESS Wrestling putting over Jimmy Havoc. It helped make Havoc even more credible as one of the top names in the UK. Balor actually had Havoc sit front row for his big match at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn 2015, showing the two remained close.
6 Seth Rollins: Roderick Strong
Seth Rollins has been talking a big game since his independent wrestling career, claiming he would one day main event WrestleMania. The fact that he won the WWE World Championship to close WrestleMania 31 proved he knew what he was talking about all along. Rollins had an outstanding tenure in Ring of Honor as Tyler Black. ROH gave him a big push right away as one of the youngest members of the roster with the most natural talent.
Rollins didn’t spend as much time on the independent wrestling scene as Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens and others to get signed, but he racked up quite a bit of accomplishments in his time there. The news of WWE offering him a contract came at the worst time for Ring of Honor. Rollins was the ROH Champion and the company had to hotshot the title off of him in his final appearance against Roderick Strong. He also had to lose the AAW Tag Team Championship before moving to WWE, which took place a couple of weeks after his loss to Strong, but this match was more meaningful. Very few can say they left ROH at the top of their game, but Rollins did having his final match as the champion.
5 Dean Ambrose: Austin Aries
The independent wrestling career of Dean Ambrose is less celebrated than some of his peers due to the fact he never got booked by Ring of Honor or PWG. Ambrose worked as Jon Moxley and achieved the most of his notoriety in CZW, Dragon Gate USA and Evolve. Gabe Sapolsky is known for having an eye for talent after giving the ball to guys like CM Punk, Samoa Joe and Daniel Bryan in ROH.
Sapolsky made Ambrose one of the focal points of Dragon Gate USA and Evolve. WWE eventually saw something special in Ambrose and signed him to a contract.
The final independent wrestling match of Ambrose saw him lose to Austin Aries at Evolve 7. Ambrose was celebrated after the match with the locker room coming out to thank him for his work as he went on to bigger things in WWE.
4 Sami Zayn: Teamed Up With Kevin Owens vs. The Young Bucks
NXT truly started to take off with Sami Zayn’s outstanding matches creating a buzz online. Fans gave the developmental brand a chance to see Zayn’s classics and fall in love with other aspects of the show. WWE made an interesting move by signing Zayn, considering he wrestled on the independent wrestling scene under a mask as El Generico. The masked character captivated fans all over the world with the majority of success coming in Ring of Honor and PWG.
The feud between Kevin Owens and Zayn/Generico has been going on for years and manages to steal the show in every promotion. PWG booked Generico’s final match by having him team with his former best friend turned enemy one more time in the DDT4 tag tournament. They won two matches and got to the finals before losing the last match to The Young Bucks. It was truly perfect with Generico and Owens teaming again and embracing once more before he went on to the WWE turning into Sami Zayn.
3 Daniel Bryan: Shelton Benjamin
The popular consensus would show Daniel Bryan is the greatest independent wrestler of all time. Bryan helped make Ring of Honor a popular product and pulled out unbelievable matches in just about every promotion he worked for. The news of his signing with the WWE was bittersweet. Bryan deserved the money and spotlight for all he did in his career, but you just knew the independent wrestling scene would never be the same.
Bryan had multiple “final” matches due to WWE releasing him and re-hiring him within a year. The first farewell took place against Nigel McGuinness in ROH as a fitting exit to the company the two had many battles in.
The WWE fired Bryan due to the controversial tie incident during tTe Nexus beat down and he returned to the indies for a few months. Following a couple of matches in various promotions, WWE decided to bring him back. The final independent match took place in a smaller promotion named NEW against Shelton Benjamin. Bryan won in his final commitment before going on to have a legendary WWE career.
2 CM Punk: Colt Cabana
CM Punk was the first top independent wrestling star to get a realistic chance at the top of the WWE. There was something special about Punk from day one and it shined brightest in Ring of Honor. His classic matches against Samoa Joe helped put the promotion on the map as a company to pay attention to. Punk also was able to showcase the gift of the gab with unbelievable promos making him one of the best talkers in the business.
WWE signed him to a developmental deal with high hopes from many pundits and fans. ROH pulled off a tremendous storyline of Punk trying to take the ROH Championship to WWE before losing it to James Gibson (Jamie Noble) in his second to last show.
The final match saw Punk wrestle his best friend Colt Cabana in an emotional match in their hometown of Chicago. Punk cried during the entrance and after the match in one of the most touching ROH moments. The friendship between Punk and Cabana is rumored to be on the outs these days, but that match will always be special to those who watched it.
1 Kevin Owens: Jerry Lawler
The most bizarre final match of an independent wrestling legend before heading to WWE has to be Kevin Owens facing off against Jerry Lawler. Owens is arguably the most beloved wrestler in ROH and PWG history, and that’s not even factoring in the other independent promotions he regularly worked for.
The final Owens match for ROH placed him against close friend mentor Steve Corino. His last PWG appearance saw him put over young rising star Trevor Lee. Both shows provided special farewell moments, but it wasn’t his last indie match.
Owens was booked to appear at a NEW show on a baseball field in front of a pretty big crowd. With the attraction show having the main event of The Hardys vs. The Young Bucks, Owens received a wacky match as well, facing Jerru Lawler. The legend occasionally wrestles and appeared on this show to face Owens in a Piledriver vs. Piledriver Match. It is rather funny to stumble upon this match knowing Owens is currently the WWE Universal Champion and Lawler often provides insight on his matches during the pre-show.