2016 was a huge year for the world of professional wrestling. Everyone talks about the WWE happenings, but the industry has grown with wrestlers in other promotions making waves. TNA and ROH both saw ups and downs, but they managed to continue on throughout the year with their television deals intact. Both promotions have brand recognition that gives an alternative for wrestlers leaving the WWE or aspiring to find work elsewhere. PWG and Evolve Wrestling are two of the best independent promotions in the industry today with some of the best matches to take place all year allowing them to grow.
Lucha Underground is still on El Rey and trying their best to put out a unique presentation of wrestling. New Japan and the various United Kingdom promotions have changed the game completely with large followings. Wrestlers are traveling all over the world to improve their reputation despite not working for the biggest company. Some wrestlers have stood out more than others with standout performances and noteworthy accolades all year. We’ll look at the most successful stories of those currently working their way to the top of the wrestling mountain. These are the top fifteen wrestlers that had incredible years outside of the WWE.
15 Cody Rhodes
Cody Rhodes' independent wrestling career has only been going on for a couple of months now, but it's been a huge success thus far. Rhodes requested his release from the WWE after being wasted away on the sideline as Stardust. WWE let him leave and he has started the next chapter of his career. Rhodes made headlines by releasing a list of the names he wanted to wrestle outside of the WWE. Kurt Angle, Mike Bennett and Chris Hero were a few of the wrestlers he’s already checked off the list.
Rhodes has made noteworthy appearances in PWG, Evolve and various international independent promotions in the United Kingdom. His popularit sees him working against top names in front of big crowds with fan support on his side. Cody is going to be the first man to ever appear at WWE WrestleMania, TNA Bound for Glory and ROH Final Battle in the same calendar year. His decision to leave the WWE is already a massive success.
14 Lio Rush
The cycle of independent wrestling sees new stars made every year. WWE signs many of the top names on the market and they're eventually replaced by the hungry talent waiting for an opportunity. Lio Rush has emerged in 2016 as someone to pay attention to. At just 22 years old, Rush is already a hot independent name with the potential to become a significant star for a long time.
Ring of Honor realized his potential and quickly signed him to a deal. Lio won the ROH Top Prospect Tournament to earn a title shot against ROH World Champion Jay Lethal. It was a breakout performance and one of the best ROH matches all year. Rush has continued to put out impressive performances all year. The sky is the limit for the youngster and 2017 should see him move further up the ranks in the wrestling world.
Ricochet has been a top star on the independent circuit for many years now and 2016 was arguably his best year. His international popularity grew thanks to his profile in New Japan Pro Wrestling rising. Between his singles success in his memorable match against Will Ospreay and his tag team work with partner Matt Sydal early in the year, Ricochet added a lot to the Japanese promotion.
His Lucha Underground career continued with his role under a mask as Prince Puma still being a fixture on the television. Ricochet also managed to keep an active independent wrestling schedule with great moments coming in PWG and Evolve. PWG received their first ever “five star match” in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter by Dave Meltzer for Ricochet’s match teaming with Ospreay and Sydal against Adam Cole and The Young Bucks.
12 Adam Cole
Ring of Honor has made Adam Cole the face of the company for the past few years and 2016 was no different. Cole returned to the top of the mountain by defeating Jay Lethal to win the ROH World Championship for the second time in his career. Shortly before the big win, Cole joined the Bullet Club to add another credible name to the New Japan faction that also appeared in ROH.
Cole has started to wrestle in NJPW more frequently as one of the best performers in both promotions. Rumors have been red hot that Cole’s contract expires in the spring of 2017 and WWE will come knocking if he is a free agent. It would make sense considering he has done just about everything one can accomplish on the independent scene. Cole’s success speaks for itself and it was another outstanding year for him.
11 Jeff Cobb
The momentum from Lucha Underground’s first season has dampened as the year went on. We at least still get some compelling television and one of the standout talents is the monster Matanza. As the mysterious masked big man, Matanza does a great job keeping up with the fast talent in Lucha Underground. The man to portray Matanza is Jeff Cobb.
PWG has frequently booked Cobb this year without the mask. Fans have become associated with what he can do without the limitations. Cobb is one of the better in-ring performers with his Olympic wrestling background adding to his appeal. His stock continues to rise with him working in various promotions without the mask. As great as Matanza is, Cobb is even better on his own.
10 Jay Lethal
Jay Lethal represented ROH as their World Champion for the first half of the year. His body of work and professional demeanor made him a highly respected champ. Lethal delivered noteworthy matches against Lio Rush, Kyle O’Reilly and Jay Briscoe before ultimately losing his belt to Adam Cole. The feud between Cole and Lethal was one of the better rivalries in ROH all year. Lethal’s intensity helped convince the fans into treating it like a huge match.
The work of Lethal was consistent all year following the title loss. His improvement through the years following his TNA firing is an inspiring story. Hard work and the ability to adapt to his surroundings have made Lethal among the best wrestlers in the world. WWE has the ability to remove him from this list next year if they offer a contract once he hits the free agent market.
9 Marty Scurll
One of the biggest ascensions on the independent wrestling scene in 2016 has seen Marty Scurll become a fixture in many promotions. Scurll’s “villain” character is highly entertaining and has earned him bookings in the United States all year. The various matches to take place in Evolve and at WrestleCon during WrestleMania 32 weekend saw Scurll gain several new fans that helped his career skyrocket.
PWG’s Battle of Los Angeles event is arguably the biggest non-WWE wrestling event all year. The best independent wrestlers got booked for a three day tournament. Scurll won the 2016 BOLA to cement himself as a top star in PWG and beyond. United Kingdom is his home base and he dominates every noteworthy promotion there. Scurll is undoubtedly one of the biggest stars outside of the WWE today.
8 Matthew Riddle
A rare case of a former UFC fighter entering the world of professional wrestling is actually taking place outside of the WWE. Matthew Riddle ended his mixed martial arts career with the hopes of becoming a crossover star. WWE were the ones to help broker a deal that saw Riddle start wrestling for Evolve Wrestling towards the end of 2015.
The improvement he's shown this early in his wrestling career has been staggering. Evolve has reached new highs with their involvement with the WWE and the Cruiserweight Classic, but the biggest star for them has definitely been Riddle. The fans gravitate towards his genuinely fascinating personality and outstanding in-ring skills. Other promotions like Beyond Wrestling and AAW have started to book Riddle often as well. WWE has to stop wasting time and go after Riddle in 2017 or it will be a huge mistake.
7 Tetsuya Naito
Tetsuya Naito has been a fixture in New Japan for many years but it wasn’t until 2016 that he hit his stride. Los Ingobernables de Japon is the faction led by Naito and has seen his role evolve into an entertaining villain. Naito does every dirty trick in the book and treats no one with respect. The Japanese star is a legitimate main eventer that fans are invested in finally after all his hard work.
NJPW’s shows with Ring of Honor saw Naito get the biggest pop among the Japanese stars visiting the United States almost every single show. Naito won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship for the first time in his career earlier this year. His reign was short, but quite entertaining. Naito emerged as a top guy for NJPW following the departures of A.J. Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura.
6 Drew Galloway
Drew Galloway's career truly blossomed when he left the WWE. 2016 was proof of this with him achieving new accolades. Galloway won the TNA World Championship in March, defeating Matt Hardy for the honor. TNA allowed him to hold the title for three months and he did a good job despite the internal controversy that always goes down in the company.
Galloway’s independent wrestling work was equally impressive. The various United Kingdom promotions have made him a fixture and he has helped make ICW into a thriving company. Evolve Wrestling made Galloway and Johnny Gargano their first ever Tag Team Champions before turning heel. Galloway’s heel run rebelling against Evolve for their relationship with the WWE added a new dynamic to his promos. Everything Galloway did worked to perfection and he had a huge year.
5 The Young Bucks
The Young Bucks signed an exclusive Ring of Honor contract to cut down their dates, but still had an exceptional year. Matt and Nick Jackson worked in ROH, New Japan and PWG dominating the tag division of all three promotions. The Bucks started the year as the IWGP Jr. Tag Team Champions in New Japan and recently won the belts back likely to close the year with the gold.
PWG has been the home of Matt and Nick and they requested they still be allowed to work there when signing the ROH contract. The Bucks have held the PWG Tag Team Championship for the entire year and have a reign going back to June of 2015. The trifecta was completed when The Bucks defeated The Addiction and Motor City Machine Guns in a classic Ladder Match to win the ROH Tag Team Championship. NJPW, ROH and PWG are arguably the top three promotions outside of the WWE. Matt and Nick are champions in all three companies.
4 Zack Sabre Jr.
Zack Sabre Jr. technically wrestled for WWE this year, but he did not sign with the company. Sabre was handpicked to participate in the Cruiserweight Classic due to his success on the independent wrestling scene. The British star has thrived on the independent circuit in the United Kingdom with consistent greatness in Progress Wrestling and RPW. North American promotions took note of his technical wrestling skills and it took his career to the next level.
PWG saw Sabre win the 2015 Battle of Los Angeles and he used his title shot win from the tournament to capture the PWG World Championship from Roderick Strong. Sabre has been the PWG World Champion for the majority of the year. Evolve Wrestling is another one of his homes, with his classic matches against Chris Hero coming from the promotion this year. Sabre may not have been able to win the WWE CWC, but he definitely had the best year of his career in other companies.
3 Chris Hero
Chris Hero has been among the best wrestlers on the independent circuit for the better part of the past decade, if you take away the time he spent in WWE developmental. WWE never viewed Hero as a performer that could succeed in their company and we’re all better for it. Hero returned to the free agent market a couple of years ago to make the most of his new beginning.
2016 saw Hero absolutely dominate the independent wrestling scene all over the world. Hero was arguably the best performer in both Evolve Wrestling and PWG. Both promotions are known for having the best in-ring workers in the world and Hero managed to be the standout star in both. Hero also expanded to the United Kingdom with his recent classics against Japanese stars Katsuyori Shibata and Tomohiro Ishii being of note. There are too many incredible Hero matches from 2016 to list. To the wrestling purist, Hero may very well be the best in the world.
2 Will Ospreay
At the young age of just 23 years old, Will Ospreay saw his star shine bright in 2016. Most consider him the best high-flying wrestler in the world today for his outstanding body of work all year. Ospreay has been a standout in the United Kingdom for quite some time, but his introduction in new promotions changed everything this year.
Evolve Wrestling saw Ospreay steal the show all weekend during their slate of shows during WrestleMania 32 weekend. PWG started booking him as well and he had great matches in BOLA on all three nights. The signing of Ospreay by New Japan is perhaps the most noteworthy to the year. Ospreay against Ricochet had the whole wrestling world talking due to their athleticism putting on a controversial spectacle. The year ended with Ospreay signing a contract with ROH to work more frequently in the United States.
1 Kenny Omega
The biggest star outside of the WWE in 2016 has to be Kenny Omega. New Japan suffered when A.J. Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura left for the WWE at the beginning of the year. Omega used this as his opportunity to take a bigger role in NJPW. The company unofficially replaced Styles with him as the leader of the Bullet Club. Omega then made history on numerous occasions.
New Japan’s first ever Ladder Match took place when Omega and Michael Elgin had a match for the ages. Omega continued to move up the rankings as the first ever non-Japanese wrestler to win the G1 Climax tournament. His incredible in-ring skills and overall talent made him the new breakout star in NJPW to make up for the talent loss. Omega is currently scheduled to challenge for the IWGP Championship at Wrestle Kingdom 2017 in the main event of the biggest non-WWE show of the year. We may see Omega actually find a way to top his year as the best wrestler outside of the WWE.
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