Before there was a Performance Center, a WWE Network that showcased inexperienced stars, and before the glitz and glamour of WWE’s NXT brand, the company we all love and hate dealt with developing talents quite differently. NXT has certainly transformed from an episodic television series on the Syfy Network to a 24/7, 365-day brand in just a couple of years. With its success, some may have forgotten, or never knew, the other crop of WWE stars developed before NXT.
The WWE would sign these budding wrestlers to different minor league promotions that was affiliated with the WWE. The matches wouldn’t take place in a sold out crowd of 500 screaming fans, but rather in a high school gym or small venue. If you didn’t watch the matches in person, it would be very hard to watch any of the material from home.
A few organizations stick out more than others when talking about the developmental territories. Ohio Valley Wrestling is the most famous because it produced stars like Batista, Brock Lesnar, John Cena, and Randy Orton. Other promotions like Heartland Wrestling Association, Deep South Wrestling, Memphis Championship Wrestling, and IWA Puerto Rico usually don’t get the same recognition as OVW. Let us also not forget Florida Championship Wrestling, which transformed into the NXT brand you see today.
TheSportster would like to challenge you to a game, let us see if you can remember who these wrestlers were without the use of Google. Enjoy the list!
15 Afa Anoaʻi Jr.
Wait! There’s an Anoaʻi family member who isn’t a part of a major wrestling organization around the globe? If you aren’t familiar with the Anoaʻi name, then you need to get your wrestling history game up. Here’s just a quick list of some of them: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, The Usos, Roman Reigns, and Yokozuna.
Should we list more?
How about Rikishi, Umaga and Naomi. So what happened to Afa? WWE decided to make him FCW’s Southern Heavyweight Championship before they merged the belt with the Heavyweight Championship in 2008. He had small success in the WWE after his stint with FCW, becoming the forgotten member of the stable Legacy. He still works the indie circuit today and can be seen at several wrestling conventions.
14 Mike Kruel
Mike Kruel had the look of a psycho that could crush anything if he got his palms on it. He made his wrestling debut in 2004 and signed with WWE in 2006. His WWE debut came under the OVW brand and he began to feud in tag team matches against the likes of CM Punk, Shawn Spears, and Cody Rhodes.
He would move on to a singles career and win the OVW Television Championship twice before moving on to a more prestigious title. In convincing fashion, Kruel beat Vladimir Kozlov to win the OVW Heavyweight Championship in 2007. He defended the title once and lost it to Matt Sydal before the WWE broke its relationship off with OVW. Kruel would move with the company to FCW, but failed to make an impact. He retired from professional wrestling in 2009.
13 Richie Steamboat
Many hardcore wrestling fans know that Ricky "The Dragon Steamboat" has a son who was in the WWE’s development organization, FCW. However, there are many fans who aren’t acquainted with the story of Richie Steamboat. Richie was given the keys to the city when the WWE made him the second FCW Grand Slam Champion, winning the Florida Heavyweight Championship, Florida Tag Team Championship, and the Jack Brisco 15 Championship.
He was the last wrestler to hold the Heavyweight Championship in FCW before the transition to NXT in 2012. His stay was short-lived as a back injury would force him out of action. Due to the injury, Steamboat could never wrestle again and was eventually released by the WWE. He retired from wrestling in 2015 and we will never know if he could have lived up to his father’s legacy.
12 Chris Cage
You may know him as Cage or by Caylen Croft, either way, the guy did a lot of work during his time with the WWE’s developmental territories. He was signed by WWE in 2003 and quickly won OVW’s Southern Tag Team Championships on four separate occasions; once with The Miz and three times with Tank Toland. WWE scouts must have seen something in the young man as he would win the OVW Heavyweight Championship less than a year after his debut.
In 2006, he was released due to nefarious behavior, but returned to FCW in 2008. He would win the FCW Florida Tag Team Championship three times, twice with Trent Barreta and once with Curt Hawkins. Croft and Barreta would be called up to the big leagues but it was a short stay. He would later retire from the industry and is now an elementary school teacher.
11 Lucky Cannon
He was also known as Johnny Prime and worked for both the FCW and NXT brands before leaving the WWE. During his time with the company, he started out in the tag team division before earning the FCW Heavyweight Championship in 2011. He defeated Bo Rotundo, WWE’s Bo Dallas, and held the belt for 105 days. After Bo won the title back, Cannon would never see gold in the company again.
He would appear on season two and five of NXT on WWE television. In season two, Mark Henry would be his coach and he would compete on a Raw episode with the other NXT rookies. In the fifth season of NXT, Tyson Kidd would be his coach and he ended his tenure in the company with a feud against NJPW’s Yoshi Tatsu. You can still find Cannon on the independent circuit today.
10 Chad Toland
Charming Chad had one of the shortest runs as OVW Heavyweight Champion in 2004, defending the title for just seven days. Toland started his training at the Chaotic Training Center in North Andover, Massachusetts and worked his way into NJPW’s Young Lions Cup. He even teamed with legendary Japanese Superstar Jushin Thunder Liger.
Liger’s rub must have helped him get a developmental deal with WWE’s OVW organization because it didn’t take him long to win the title. Before you knew it, Chad Toland was making his SmackDown debut as Chad Dick in 2005, as part of one of the worst gimmick tag teams of all-time, The Dicks. His career in the WWE ended as quickly as it started and he would eventually retire on the indie level.
What’s worse? Getting released by the WWE or having a gimmick with your last name rhyming with kick?
9 Mason Ryan
Mason Ryan had the looks to be a Superstar in the WWE with his 6'5" and 300 pound frame. After working the European circuit for three years, WWE signed Ryan to a five-year contract in 2009. Following the footsteps of fellow European stars like Stu Bennett (WWE’s Wade Barrett) and Sheamus, Ryan was poised to have a solid career. He would go on to win the FCW Heavyweight Championship in 2010 and hold it for 196 days.
He would be brought up to Raw in 2011 and make his television debut by interfering in a contest between John Cena and CM Punk. Injuries would take a toll on his body and, before you knew it, he was sent to the repackaged NXT brand in 2012. Ryan never made an impact and was released by WWE in 2014.
8 Briley Pierce
Briley who? Maybe you know him by his real name, Ryan Nemeth? The name still isn’t ringing a bell? How about Dolph Ziggler’s little brother? Ziggler’s little broski started off in OVW before moving to FCW and then finally NXT during his WWE tenure. He would never find single’s gold during his time with the company, but did make a small name for himself as a Tag Champion.
He would win the FCW Florida Tag Team Championship with Brad Maddox just a few months after signing with the company in 2011. In 2013, he left the company and worked the independent scene for a few matches before taking a break.
Maybe Dolph can get him a new deal because Ziggler’s little brother just got back in action this year.
7 Seth Skyfire
Seth Skyfire had some bright spots while working for OVW during his time with the company from 2005 to 2007. He would win the OVW Southern Tag Team Championship on four separate occasions and with three different wrestlers. You may have heard of one of his teammates, he goes by the name of CM Punk. His other teammates were Mac Johnson and Chet the Jet.
Skyfire moved away from the tag team division by setting his sights on the OVW Television Championship. Skyfire won the Title in 2006 and held it for 168 days. When your predecessors of the title are CM Punk and WWE’s Damien Sandow (TNA’s Aron Rex), you better bring your "A" game. Skyfire’s success was smothered and he was released after less than two years with the company.
6 Jake Carter
Jake Carter had the same pressure that Richie Steamboat had during his time with FCW. A large shadow loomed over both due to their father’s legendary careers. Carter is the son of all-time great Vader and was trained by his father and icon Harley Race. The second generation wrestler would sign with the WWE in 2011 and he made his televised debut for FCW in March of 2012.
A few days later he would be one-half of the Tag Team Champions. Carter and his teammate, Corey Graves, would hold the titles for 93 days before losing it to Roman Reigns and Tyler Breeze. It was the last time Carter held any type of gold for the company. His transition to NXT would be a forgettable one and he was ultimately released by the WWE in 2013.
5 Steve Bradley
His real name is Steven Bisson and he spent several years in the WWE’s developmental territories. In a stretch of three years, he performed for OVW, HWA, MCW, and even IWA Puerto Rico. He started wrestling at the age of 15 and was coached by Les Thatcher and Tom Prichard. His WWE debut came under Power Pro Wrestling which was an affiliate of MCW in 1999.
His first taste of gold came in IWA Puerto Rico where he became one-half of the IWA World Tag Team Champions. After his stint with the development over in Puerto Rico, Bradley would keep his tag team success rolling, winning the HWA Tag Team Championship four times, once with Val Venis and three times with Lance Cade. Sadly, Bradley was found dead in 2008 at the young age of 32.
4 Derick Neikirk
It seems Derick Neikirk had more success in collegiate baseball than he did in pro wrestling, but that didn’t stop the WWE from putting a title on him in their developmental territories HWA and DSW. He trained under well-known coach, Les Thatcher, and quickly showed promise. In 2002, he won an unofficial Tag Team Title match in HWA with his former partner Chet Jablonski before getting called up in a squash match against Test on WWE’s Sunday Night Heat television program.
Neikirk would bounce around different indie organizations before coming to DSW in 2005. He would win the Heavyweight Championship and Tag Team Championship on separate occasions. WWE moved him to FCW before suspending him for violating their Wellness Policy in 2008. He was later released and would start a new career in Hollywood.
3 Jacob Duncan
Jacob Duncan is one of the more interesting cases on this list, as he first started working for WWE’s competition, TNA, before becoming a WWE developmental talent. The guy looks like an absolute monster with his 6’10” body and being billed at over 300 pounds. WWE probably celebrated with the mindset that they found a diamond in the rough. Duncan was assigned to OVW in 2005 and originally went under the name Tytus.
His gimmick was that of a lumberjack who spoke to his invisible mother. We guess the WWE's creative team was thinking Mick Foley 2.0, but stronger and taller. Duncan would win the OVW Heavyweight Championship a year into his contract, but lost momentum by 2007. He was released by the WWE that same year and hasn’t been in an significant matches since.
2 Joey Abs
Jason Arhndt or Joey Abs should be known by any and every fan of Stone Cold Steve Austin. He had the privilege of selling the first ever Stone Cold Stunner as an enhancement talent during an episode of Raw in 1995. He was a staple of Matt and Jeff Hardy’s OMEGA organization before signing a full-time deal with the WWE in 1999.
He would make up one third of the heel faction, Mean Street Posse, before being sent down to the development organization MCW. His career was a bust but the WWE thought it was fitting that he would win the prestigious MCW Southern Heavyweight Championship twice. That belt was held by greats like Jerry Lawler, Tommy Rich, Paul Orndorff, Jimmy Valiant, and Randy Savage.
1 Chet the Jet
Ever wonder what The Miz would look like on enhancements? Just look at Chet the Jet and your curiosity may be satisfied. Neil Bzibziak or Chet Douglas is another former wrestler trained by Les Thatcher. He worked for HWA, FCW, and OVW during his time under a WWE developmental contract.
He is one of the more successful wrestlers on the list, winning HWA’s Heavyweight Championship, the Tag Team Championships seven times, OVW’s Heavyweight Championship twice and Southern Tag Team Championships twice.
His career is the epitome of a successful wrestler on a developmental contract who just couldn't carry his success outside of the developmental system. He was even ranked #135 out of the 500 best singles wrestlers in 2006 by Pro Wrestling Illustrated. With all that credit, you would think he would become a Superstar. Nope. He would never reach the major leagues in the WWE and his career fizzled out in 2010.