There had been two major wrestling promotions throughout the 1990s, with WWE and WCW competing for television ratings that would draw in millions of fans. There was even ECW, which despite being an independent promotion, had a large following. Things would change in 2001, though, as WWE purchased WCW to bring all of their talent over, as well as ECW.
Those that weren’t a fan of the WWE product (or just the McMahon family in general) were left without a lot of alternatives unless they wanted to see their local town’s wrestlers try their hardest to avoid injury. Then, there was a bit of an independent renaissance in 2002. That’s when Ring of Honor kicked off their promotion, backed by founder Rob Feinstein. The next year, we would see another one in the form of Pro Wrestling Guerrilla.
All of a sudden, there were some solid independent promotions for fans to watch, which spawned a cult following for a lot of wrestlers. Some of them would go on to huge careers, while others didn’t really make the big time. Let’s take a look at the first decade of the 2000s when independent wrestling reached its golden age, and update you on what those wrestlers are doing now.
13 Kenny Omega
We start the list with Canadian native Kenny Omega, who has perhaps had the best career of anyone on our list to not step into a WWE ring. WWE flirted with the idea of bringing Omega onto their main roster, but he never made it past the territorial ranks in 2005 and 2006. Instead, Omega went to Ring of Honor in 2008, along with Pro Wrestling Guerrilla to make a name for himself.
Though he never won Ring of Honor’s main title, Omega would close out the 2000s as the PWG World Champion before losing his title in February 2010. It was then that Omega took his talents to New Japan Pro Wrestling and has been a huge name there ever since. Now the leader of the infamous Bullet Club stable, Omega has won multiple titles with the company and even put on a rare “Six Star Match” against Kazuchika Okada in January 2017.
14. Austin Aries
Those that only follow the most mainstream wrestling promotions will likely only remember Austin Aries’s time with TNA over his two stints with the company. Those that have followed his career know that Aries was a huge deal while with Ring of Honor. Things were especially picking up in the late 2000s, when Aries became part of the Age of the Fall stable that included other future stars.
Aries was a two-time Ring of Honor World Champion in the 2000s, and had a brief third run with Ring of Honor in 2015. In 2016, Aries finally made it to the biggest promotion, joining WWE’s NXT promotion. In 2017, Aries got the call-up to the main roster, and was even involved in a WrestleMania match against Neville for the Cruiserweight Championship.
13. Joey Ryan
Pro Wrestling Guerrilla would breed a lot of future WWE stars in their early days, but so far Joey Ryan hasn’t been among them. Ryan got his start in professional wrestling with PWG, and reached the pinnacle by defeating Kevin Steen for the PWG World Championship in late 2005. What followed was a title reign that lasted longer than 400 days, leading to several different appearances with WWE.
However, Ryan was never a full-time part of the WWE roster, instead getting a few different tryouts in dark matches before being cut. Ryan has been wrestling independently for the most part over the past decade, and even had a run with TNA. Since late 2015, though, Ryan has found a home with Lucha Underground. Ryan also recently got married to fellow wrestler Laura James.
12 Chris Hero
It seems that the career of Chris Hero has been all over the place. Hero spent the 2000s wrestling for small territories, Chikara, CZW, TNA, PWG and Ring of Honor. Most of those stops resulted in Hero winning championships, including a pair of tag team championships with Claudio Castagnoli, who you know these days as Cesaro in WWE. Hero infamously had a run with WWE’s NXT program, but was ultimately let go.
Many of the rumors said that it was Hero’s weight issues as the Kassius Ohno character that led to his release. Hero would return to the independent circuit and draw a lot of praise, leading WWE to give him a second try. In 2016, Hero returned as Kassius Ohno to NXT, and is currently wrestling in the promotion.
11 Kevin Steen
Not many people can say that they have held the main title in Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, Ring of Honor and WWE, but Kevin Steen can. At just 32 years old, Steen has accomplished a lot since making his debut back in 2000. Steen’s first big title came in 2005 when he defeated A.J. Styles for the PWG World Championship, a title that he would end up holding three times for a combined 469 days.
Steen became a main event talent once he headed to Ring of Honor, and had a memorable friendship and feud with someone we’ll get to in a moment. Steen wouldn’t win the Ring of Honor World Championship until the 2000s were over, but it’s worth noting that he held the gold for more than 300 days. Eventually, Steen came over to WWE as Kevin Owens and has been in the main event scene since making his debut in 2015 once he cruised through the NXT division.
10 El Generico
Of course, you can’t talk about Kevin Owens’s early days without mentioning Sami Zayn’s early career. While he was an independent star, Zayn was simply known as El Generico, a luchador that donned a mask and a lot of personality. Zayn wrestled around the world under this character, making stops with PWG, Chikara, Ring of Honor, Dragon Gate and more. Those stops included two PWG World Championships, five PWG tag titles and a Ring of Honor tag title.
In early 2013, El Generico signed with WWE, but was no longer wearing the mask or using the name. He wanted to use his real name (Rami Sebei) at first, but eventually landed on Sami Zayn. Zayn made his main roster debut in 2016 with WWE, and has been part of some notable feuds since then, including with longtime pal Kevin Owens.
9 Davey Richards
After getting his start with some smaller territories, Davey Richards joined Pro Wrestling Guerrilla in 2005. Over the next eight years, Richards would spend his time in between PWG and Ring of Honor. Throughout the first decade in the new millennium, Richards won a handful of PWG World Tag Team Championships with Super Dragon and Roderick Strong.
Once the 2000s ended, Richards became a big name as a solo performer. In 2010, Richards won the PWG World Championship and then the Ring of Honor World Championship the next year. Richards also made a stop in Japan during this time, but eventually came back in 2014. It was then that Richards signed with TNA, and has been a member of the promotion ever since, winning five tag titles with Eddie Edwards.
8 Samoa Joe
Of all of the World Champions that Ring of Honor has had, none have held the title more than Samoa Joe...and he only had one reign. Samoa Joe won the title in March 2003, and held onto the belt for 645 days before dropping it to Austin Aries in late 2004. Joe stuck with the promotion through much of 2008, but at the same time joined TNA from 2005 to 2015. While with TNA, Samoa Joe was constantly in the main event scene.
That didn’t stop Joe from wrestling independently, as he made appearances outside of TNA, as well. That would come to an end in 2015, however, as Joe signed a deal with WWE. For nearly two years, Joe ran through the NXT division, winning two NXT Championships. In 2017, the long wait was over as Samoa Joe finally made his WWE main roster debut, feuding with the likes of Sami Zayn and Seth Rollins.
7 CM Punk
The “Golden Age” of Ring of Honor featured Samoa Joe engaged in a feud with CM Punk. From 2002 to 2005, Punk was perhaps the most well known wrestler in Ring of Honor, and many believed it was only a time before he headed for greener pastures. After winning the Ring of Honor World title from Austin Aries in 2005, before dropping the title to Gibson and then losing to Colt Cabana on his way out.
Punk, of course, would sign with WWE and make his main roster debut in 2006. Along the way, Punk would win five world titles, a Tag Team Championship and an Intercontinental Championship. Since suddenly leaving WWE in early 2014, Punk has been training as a mixed martial artists, but lost his UFC debut to Michey Gall in just two minutes and 14 seconds. Outside of that, Punk has just been enjoying watching sports, reading comic books and being married to former wrestler AJ. All things considered, life has been even better for Punk without wrestling.
6 Takeshi Morishima
The 6’3” 290 pound Takeshi Morishima from Tokyo was quite a sight for fans of the early days of Ring of Honor. Before making his debut, Morishima had been fighting around the world for the likes of All Japan Pro Wrestling and Pro Wrestling Noah. Even though his time at Ring of Honor was brief, Morishima would win the World Championship by defeating Homicide in early 2007.
Morishima would continue to wrestle for multiple promotions, including Lucha Libre AAA World Wide. Like Punk, Morishima is no longer wrestling, but not by his own volition. Instead, Morishima was diagnosed with irregular blood sugar, pointing to possible diabetes. Because of this, Morishima retired in late 2015 and hasn’t returned to the ring since. That doesn’t mean he’s done with the business, though, as he is in the front office for Pro Wrestling Noah still.
5 Nigel McGuinness
Unless you’ve been actively following WWE close, you might not even know that former indie star Nigel McGuinness is part of the company now. McGuinness had a long run with Ring of Honor from 2003 to 2009, including a title reign that lasted for 545 days. McGuinness is actually the man that beat Morishima for the Ring of Honor World Championship before dropping it to Jerry Lynn.
McGuinness would join TNA eventually as Desmond Wolfe, and had some memorable feuds while with the company. McGuinness would retire in 2011, however, before coming back to Ring of Honor as a media talent. McGuinness resigned from his position with Ring of Honor in late 2016 to take a job with WWE. In 2017, McGuinness has been working as a commentator in the NXT division that started with the United Kingdom Championship Tournament.
4 Frankie Kazarian
Frankie Kazarian started off wrestling in independent promotions in his native California before getting more attention as the first World Champion with Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. Then, Kazarian became a member of TNA, and then a very short stint with WWE. After going back to the indies for a bit, Kazarian would return to TNA, where he stuck around through most of 2014. Kazarian would win the X Division Championship five times, and the World Tag Team Championships three times.
In 2014, Kazarian would ultimately leave TNA, while also working with promotions on a one-time basis. The same year, Kazarian announced that he would be heading to Ring of Honor, and has been there ever since. Since starting with Ring of Honor, Kazarian has won a pair of Tag Team Championships with Christopher Daniels. He’s also married to former TNA Knockout Traci Brooks.
3 Low Ki
We go from the first ever Pro Wrestling Guerrilla World Champion to the first ever Ring of Honor Champion, Low Ki. Low Ki won the title on July 27, 2002, which was his only title run with the company. For the most part, Low Ki had spent the 2000s while with TNA, but also had plenty of stints in Japan and with PWG. Low Ki then signed with WWE in 2008, working through the territorial division.
Low Ki debuted on the WWE main roster in 2010, but was released by the end of the year. He would then return to TNA and New Japan Pro Wrestling, while also making appearances with smaller promotions on the side. Still very active, Low Ki is making appearances around the world, and made a return full-time to TNA in April 2017 to mark his fifth run with Impact Wrestling.
2 Bryan Danielson
Not many people know that Bryan Danielson actually got a shot with WWE back in 2000 at just 19 years old, but only made sporadic appearances on the main roster as a jobber for the most part. Danielson would really find his footing in Ring of Honor for the 2000s, winning the World Championship in September 2005. Danielson would hold onto the title for 462 days, and eventually dropped the belt to Homicide.
Danielson got called back to WWE under the name Daniel Bryan as part of NXT, but was let go after an incident during the Nexus invasion. Of course, Bryan would return and eventually become a main event talent that won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania XXX. Sadly, Bryan was forced into early retirement in 2016, but has remained with the company as he General Manager of SmackDown Live! ever since then.
1 Super Dragon
Most of the wrestlers on our list have either retired, made it to the WWE (or TNA) or at least had their shot before returning to the indies. That’s not the case for Super Dragon, one of the founders of Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. Since 2003, Super Dragon has won the World Championship and six Tag Team Championships, cementing his place as the most notable name in the company’s history.
Super Dragon has also made appearances for other promotions that include CZW and Ring of Honor, but PWG is always home. We have not seen Super Dragon in the ring since 2015 at the PWG Battle of Los Angeles, but people never rule out a return to action. Despite not wrestling for a couple of years and never really making it big, why is he still such a memorable name? As one Reddit user said, “He’s the Undertaker of PWG.”