The narrative today is you can only achieve great success and fame as a pro wrestler in the WWE. Vince McMahon’s global brand is definitely the biggest fish in the pond and the place you want to be to achieve the most important wrestling goals but it is not the only option. The past few years have shown us the alternatives are becoming a viable option for other performers to make a living. A great deal of stars have been made in ROH, PWG, New Japan, AAA and many other wrestling promotions all over the world. The internet and social media have completely changed the game.
Many consumers will look to the online world to find information or share their love for whatever they are passionate about. Wrestling just happens to have one of the most passionate and popular online communities. Fans easily pass along opinions and even the most casual of fans will get a sense of what is popular. New promotions and wrestlers are easily passed along through word of mouth and the easily accessible matches online. New Japan World, ROH’s IPPVs and Highspots subscription website all give you a convenient way to find new talent that other wrestling fans are hyping as being equally impressive to the WWE.
This has led to many wrestlers finding fame outside of the WWE before even entering the promotion. There are also situations where WWE signs someone that has achieved success and fame in another field. Most of the current talent became famous when working for WWE, but there are rare stories of those coming in with big name value and they will be looked at here. The stories of wrestlers being self-made or finding a way to make a name for themselves outside of the WWE system is always to be commended. Enjoy the rare club of wrestlers that didn’t need WWE to become famous.
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15 Mark Henry
Mark Henry's signing by the WWE all the way back in 1996 was due to his slight celebrity as an Olympian. Henry represented the United States in the Olympic Games as a weightlifter and power lifter. WWE gave him the nickname of “The World’s Strongest Man” based off his background. While Henry may not exactly be the strongest man in the world, he still has to be one of the strongest to accomplish what he has. WWE had high hopes for Henry and it took him a long time before he reached his peak in 2011. Henry became a big star thanks to the company, but the big man was already famous in his own field.
Cesaro is definitely one of the most gifted athletes in WWE today but he made his name in the wrestling business traveling the world first. Cesaro's body of work caused WWE to give The Swiss Superman a chance to shine on the biggest stage. Cesaro wrestled under his real name of Claudio Castagnoli in Ring of Honor and various promotions all over the world becoming a top talent fans fell in love with. Around 2009, Cesaro progressed into a top independent wrestling name and became very well-known with the internet starting to make the smaller promotions a bigger deal in the wrestling community.
13 David Otunga
Most of the names on this list feature stars made by hard work in other wrestling promotions or in another field. David Otunga is the exception to the rule as his journey to WWE was quite bizarre. Otunga was widely recognized by any reality television junkies as he was featured on VH1’s I Love New York. Otunga luckily didn’t win the competition to date New York (Tiffany Pollard) and ended up falling in love with hit singer Jennifer Hudson. That added more fame to his name and helped him land a job with the WWE. Otunga's WWE career never took off and he’s barely on television as a broadcaster. Most still know him as Hudson’s husband.
12 Brock Lesnar
Brock Lesnar's amateur wrestling career is well documented. Lesnar was making a name for himself and the WWE was the first to market his talent by signing him at a young age. The once in a generation skillset of Brock allowed him to become an instant superstar for the WWE. Lesnar would achieve even more fame outside of the company by becoming a massive draw for UFC. Lesnar's fights were among the top PPV buyrates in MMA history at the time. There’s no doubt Lesnar’s star power and athletic ability made him a star outside of the WWE. If Vince never signed Brock Lesnar, we would still be talking about him today.
11 Sami Zayn
Most wrestling fans are aware of the big secret, no matter how many times Sami Zayn tries to avoid it. Zayn entered WWE with a world of hype due to his fame as El Generico. The Generic Luchador was a top act in ROH, PWG and various promotions all over the world. Zayn’s popularity as Generico reached a peak when he feuded against Kevin Owens in ROH. Both stars took their games to the next level and became the kings of the independent wrestling circuit. There was a large group of fans upset when Generico was unmasked to become Sami Zayn in NXT, but everyone is completely happy with the change now.
10 Alberto Del Rio
The American wrestling fan will never truly be able to understand how big of a deal Alberto Del Rio can be, unless they watch his work in Mexico. Del Rio is the son of the legendary Dos Caras and became an absolute superstar in Mexico before and in between his WWE stints. At his best, Del Rio is arguably the biggest AAA star of the last decade. Del Rio also had a decent tenure in MMA with a 9-5 record in various promotions. Del Rio's career was impressive before WWE and it will be impressive when he eventually leaves again. Del Rio did not need the company to become a star and, at this point, they are probably hindering his star power.
9 Finn Balor
Finn Balor is NXT’s hottest star, but he was a pretty damn big deal in Japan before signing with WWE. New Japan pushed Balor as the most successful non-Japanese talent in years for the company. Balor had a very exciting career with various roles but the top moments came with The Bullet Club. As Prince Devitt, he started the faction and it became the hottest act in Japan before becoming relevant in North America as well. Balor is a special talent that can never be held down and his fame as an international talent before coming to WWE shows it.
8 Seth Rollins
Many would argue Seth Rollins is the best WWE signing of the past ten years. Rollins would become the first ever NXT Champion, an instant star with The Shield and win the WWE World Championship in the main event of WrestleMania 31, all before turning 30-years-old. Rollins' career was booming under the name of Tyler Black before he ever signed with WWE. Rollins was a main eventer in ROH around the time the promotion secured a television deal and started to become more popular. The signing of Rollins to WWE was met with a world of hype due to his fame on the indie circuit and everyone knew him once he arrived in developmental.
7 Big Show
Big Show signed with WWE over seventeen years ago, but he was already one of the top stars in the wrestling industry. The seven-foot-tall giant was an established main eventer in WCW and held the World Championship. Not only was Big Show a big star in WCW but he was entering the movie world. You can find him in cult favorite films The Waterboy and Jingle All the Way, if you check them out today with a keen eye. Big Show’s career was excelling and he was a famous performer before WWE signed him and took his image to another level.
6 Samoa Joe
We all love to make fun of TNA, but the promotion did have some success during its better years. Impact averaged an impressive one million viewers per show for years before things started to take a downturn and they lost their Spike TV deal. Samoa Joe was one of the biggest stars on TNA television for the majority of their best years. Everyone in the wrestling industry respected Joe and wondered what it would be like when he arrived to WWE. 2015 finally saw the impossible happen. Joe signed with WWE for the NXT brand. The fans all knew him and his t-shirts were selling like hot cakes, proving his fame in pro wrestling before ever stepping foot in the WWE.
5 Kevin Owens
The same success that Samoa Joe achieved with selling t-shirts and instantly making an impact paled in comparison to Kevin Owens. Owens' debut was one of the biggest moments in NXT history and showed how important NXT was becoming. Owens’ merchandise numbers are off the charts and his loyal fan base from the independent wrestling days have proven that he was a famous wrestling name before coming to WWE. Kevin Owens' successful career in ROH, PWG and other promotions showed he didn’t need the WWE to make a living or achieve fame but it has definitely been the right move. Owens’ star is shining and he continues to become a bigger star every week.
4 Chris Jericho
Wrestlers that travel the world and learn their craft on an international level are becoming top stars in the industry today, but you could argue Chris Jericho was the first to do that on a high profile level. Jericho was a big name in Mexico and Japan before signing with WCW. The lower card guys didn’t get to showcase much personality in WCW, but Jericho was a rare breed that shined on the microphone. WWE fans erupted with excitement during Jericho’s epic debut in 1999 and this was a nice reminder of how famous he was before signing. Chris Jericho was always going to be a big name in pro wrestling, regardless of any specific promotion pushing him.
3 The Miz
The career path of The Miz is unlike any other wrestler. No one else in the world can say they starred on MTV’s The Real World and retained the WWE Championship at WrestleMania. Miz’s first brush with fame came when he was cast on The Real World reality show and was one of the more loud personalities. WWE would give The Miz a chance, hoping his personality would pay off in wrestling and it sure did. The Miz overcame being outcasted and humiliated in the locker room during his early years for his reputation as a reality television star. WWE’s risk paid off and The Miz has been a model employee.
2 A.J. Styles
TNA’s best years drew a great deal of attention and the most impressive performer on the show was A.J. Styles. The Phenomenal One earned his nickname with some of the best wrestling matches you’ll ever watch. Styles was looking like one of those rare stories of a legend that would never get to wrestle in the WWE. Styles still had a great deal of success in ROH and Japan over the past couple of the years, earning even more fame as one of the biggest stars in the business. This led to WWE finally signing him and introducing him at the 2016 Royal Rumble. Styles was one of the very rare cases of a new star getting to skip NXT and appear on the main roster as a top name right away.
1 Shinsuke Nakamura
The recent signing of Shinsuke Nakamura has led to a world of excitement from fans all over the world. Nakamura is arguably the biggest wrestling star in Japan and a definitive celebrity. He was even selected to be in Pharell’s Japanese music video version of his hit song Happy. Nakamura isn’t only famous in Japan but North American fans have become infatuated with his charisma and talent. There’s a reason thousands of fans at NXT TakeOver: Dallas were going nuts for him and the record setting WrestleMania 32 crowd even chanted for him on the show. Nakamura is a one a kind performer, bringing his fame and star power to the WWE rather than vice versa.
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