When looking at the world of professional wrestling, there are many that believe there is only one end all, be all: World Wrestling Entertainment.
And for the longest time, that was the case. As the wrestling business exploded in the late 1990s, everyone wanted to work for the then-WWE — even wrestlers from rival promotions like WCW and ECW. Once Vince McMahon bought both companies, the WWE truly was the holy grail of wrestling.
But as time has gone on, things have changed. And for many talents, the WWE is the dream job they've always wanted. Sure, their ultimate goal may still be to end up in the number one company in the world. But unlike in the late 90s-early 2000s, there is a way to get better on a smaller stage.
The independent circuit.
Once — and in many ways, still is — seen as a farm system at most, the independents have garnered more and more of a fan base for fans who enjoy pure professional wrestling over sports entertainment, something the WWE is. And as the internet has risen, so has the word of the indies. That's why it can be said that Ring of Honor, New Japan Pro Wrestling, and Evolve, amongst others, are more popular than ever.
When looking at the WWE roster, a majority of their top starters got their start on the indies. But for others, the WWE wasn't all that it was cracked up to be, and instead, they became stars on the independent scene.
Let's take a look at the top 15 wrestlers who used to call the WWE home but have found more success on a smaller stage.
15 Kenny Omega
I'm sure many readers are saying, "wait, Kenny Omega was in the WWE?!" Yes, technically he was. And if he made it to the main roster while with the company he'd certainly be higher on this list. Wrestling under his current moniker, Omega signed with the WWE back in 2005 and spent two years in their developmental system known as Deep South Wrestling. While he was primed to break out, Omega was one of the talents to speak out against trainer Bill DeMott and was eventually released from the company. After cutting his teeth in various independents including PWG, Omega became a top tier star with Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestler as a member — and eventually the leader — of Bullet Club. He will be in the main event of NJPW's Wrestle Kingdom 11, the promotion's equivalent to WrestleMania, in January.
14 Derrick Bateman
Due to his athletic look and athleticism, he didn't last long on the independent scene. The man now known as Ethan Carter III signed with the WWE in 2007 and was assigned to Ohio Valley Wrestling. After working there and in Florida Championship Wrestling, Bateman was an integral member of the original NXT competition shows that aired on television. Despite appearing like the total package, Bateman was released from the WWE and resurfaced in TNA soon thereafter. Now ECIII, he has become one of their top talents, as his mic work, in ring talent, and appearances make him the total package. A two-time TNA World Heavyweight Champion, ECIII has feuded with nearly every top talent in the company. Besides his work in the Florida-based promotion, he's also working with Evolve.
13 Kassius Ohno
Before the WWE was looking at nearly every independent talent, they had Chris Hero. Before signing with the company in 2011, he was one of the top stars on the circuit as he was featured in Chikara, CZW, PWG, and Ring of Honor as both a singles star and as one-half of the Kings of Wrestling with Cesaro. Changing his name to Kassius Ohno, Hero appeared in FCW and was one of the first stars to be a member of the current NXT product. Unfortunately, however, he wasn't what the WWE wanted and the time and lasted just 21 months. Hero returned to the indies and has worked for Dragon Gate USA, Evolve, and House of Hardcore and has continued to be the face of the smaller brands. But for fans that always wondered "what if," those questions may be answered. Reports have been circulating that Hero will be returning to the WWE in early 2017.
12 CJ Parker
Unlike many fellow wrestlers, CJ Parker didn't last long on the independents before catching his big break. Just three years into his wrestling career, Parker inked a deal with the WWE and was assigned to FCW in 2011. His time, however, wasn't well spent. Whether it was in FCW or in NXT, Parker was relegated to jobber status, with one of his highlighted moments coming at the opposite end of Kevin Owens' NXT debut at NXT TakeOver: R-Evolution. Realizing he couldn't rise up the card, Parker asked for his release and immediately took his talents to CZW and the UK indie scene as CJP. But ever since he joined New Japan Pro Wrestling in 2015, he's never looked better. Using the name Juice Robinson, Parker has had a renewed energy overseas, and the booking committee is rewarding him for his efforts. At Wrestle Kingdom 11, he will be taking on Cody Rhodes in one of their marquee matches.
11 Trent Barreta
If you weren't a fan of the WWE in the late 2000s, you may not remember Barreta. After working his way through the independent scene in New York, he signed a contract with the WWE and was assigned to FCW in 2007. After learning the new style for two years, Barreta debuted on the ECW brand and formed a tag team with Caylen Croft, known as the Dude Busters. Once the brand stopped running, Baretta and Croft were signed to SmackDown and continued their tag team act. There run didn't last long, however, as Barreta was released by in 2013. The move to the independents was a blessing in disguise, however, as Baretta was a standout performer in PWG and Global Force Wrestling.
Now a member of the Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling working relationship, Barreta is one-half of Roppongi Vice, one of the most popular tag teams in those companies. Throughout his time in Japan, he's on the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships on two different occasions.
10 Justin Gabriel
During the inaugural season of NXT and his early days with the Nexus, there was no man that looked to have a brighter future than Justin Gabriel. The resident high-flyer of the group, the South American native had a unique look and skillset that was unmatched at the time. Although he won the Tag Team Championships while also competing for the Money in the Bank, as well as Intercontinental and United States Championships, Gabriel was never able to get past a certain spot on the card. Gabriel quit the day before the Royal Rumble in 2015 and immediately made his mark on the indie circuit. After working for Evolve and Global Force Wrestling as PJ Black, he took his gimmick to Lucha Underground where he has found his niche. The Darewolf captured his first championship with the promotion, as he was one-third of the Lucha Underground Trios Champions.
9 Alberto Del Rio
It's acceptable if you don't know Omega, Ohno, Parker, Barreta, or Gabriel. But if you're a current fan of the WWE product, you'll certainly know Alberto Del Rio. Before signing with the WWE (for the first time), he was known as Dos Caras Jr. while appearing in Mexico's AAA and CMLL. Sure, his first stint came with much success; not only was the newly named Del Rio a WWE Champion, World Heavyweight Champion, Royal Rumble winner, and Money in the Bank winner, he was also a frequent member of the main event scene. Unfortunately, however, a run in with a WWE employee made him quit in 2014. While he did perform on some pretty big stages as Alberto El Patron (Ring of Honor and Lucha Underground, just to name a few), Del Rio returned to the WWE in late 2015.
It was same old, same old, however, as Del Rio was booked poorly in his most recent stint. Quitting once again, Del Rio has most recently wrestled for the World Wrestling Council and What Culture Pro Wrestling.
8 Evan Bourne
Before Neville graced the WWE with his acrobatic ability, there was a man known as Evan Bourne. A mainstay in Ring of Honor and Dragon Gate, as well as MTV's Wrestling Society X, Bourne signed with the WWE in 2007 and debuted on the ECW brand just a year later. Due to his in-ring ability, he became one of the show's biggest stars and was eventually traded to Raw due to his popularity. While he was a Tag Team Champion with Kofi Kingston and also competed for the Intercontinental Championship and Money in the Bank, various injuries hurt his stock and eventually led to his release in 2013. From there, Bourne reverted to his former name — Matt Sydal — and worked for PWG, Dragon Gate, Evolve, and Ring of Honor.
His biggest accomplishments, however, came as a member of the New Japan Pro Wrestling roster where he captured the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship twice and the NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship once. Legal troubles brought a premature end to his stint in NJPW, but it won't be long before Sydal is back in the US scene.
7 Rey Mysterio
Is there a star that was more beloved than Rey Mysterio? After starring in ECW and WCW in the mid-to-late 90s, the Lucha star made his way to the WWE. Despite the company's nickname of "land of the giants" during that time period, Mysterio's wrestling ability and likeable personality made him universally loved. He may have been small, but that never held him back, as Mysterio went on to win the Royal Rumble and the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania 22, his crowning moment. Although he was one of the most respected members of the locker room, multiple injuries led to a parting of ways after his 13-plus year run with the WWE. After wrestling for AAA and some smaller companies, Mysterio made the move to Lucha Underground, where he won their Trios Championship. While he isn't their top star, he is arguably the most popular character.
6 Jeff Hardy
Okay, Jeff Hardy may have something to say about the most beloved character comment from the Rey Mysterio slide. From his time wowing crowds in TLC matches as one-half of Hardy Boyz, to his time spent in the mid-card, all the way to his ascension to the WWE Championship, Jeff was never booed and was always a crowd favorite no matter what city he was in. Like many before him, though, injuries and substance abuse was his downfall and the WWE decided that it was best for one of their top stars to leave the company in 2009. Upon his departure, he immediately made his way to TNA where he has gone through many facelifts. Whether it was a part of Immortal, as Willow, or reuniting with his brother, Hardy continues to be loved. But it's his unique portrayal of Brother Nero that has put him back on the map, as the Hardy Boyz' uniqueness and willingness — as evidenced by Total Nonstop Deletion — has been a lone positive in the maligned company.
5 Bobby Lashley
Oh, what could have been... Despite having no prior wrestling professional wrestling experience, the massive Bobby Lashley was assigned to FCW and after one short year, was called up to SmackDown. Despite being inexperienced, Lashley was pushed to the United States Championship scene where he captured the belt and replaced Eddie Guerrero on the SmackDown team at Survivor Series after his untimely passing. From there — despite the backlash of fans — he went on to become the face of ECW and represented Donald Trump at WrestleMania 23. Although Lashley was positioned as a main eventer, an injury (a current theme on this list) ended his WWE tenure. After short stints in TNA, Mexico, and Japan, Lashley made his return to TNA and became one of their top stars in an instant. Between 2014-2016, he captured the World Heavyweight, X-Division, and King of the Mountain Championships, among others.
4 John Morrison
Like Lashley, John Morrison didn't have any prior wrestling experience before trying out for WWE's Tough Enough. While he lost his in his first showing, he was invited back during the following season and was a co-winner. After working with Eric Bischoff, Morrison — who was going as Johnny Nitro — he went on to have two successful tag team runs, one with Joey Mercury as MNM and the other with The Miz. From there, Nitro — now named John Morrison — became a singles star on the ECW brand and eventually captured their World Championship. Seeing his potential, the WWE put him on both Raw and SmackDown where he competed for the Intercontinental and United States Championships and even fought for the WWE Championship. Wanting creative control, Morrison left the WWE and competed in AAA, Juggalo Championship Wrestling, Dragon Gate USA and Pro Wrestling Syndicate, among others, before signing with Lucha Underground.
Now working as Johnny Mundo, he is one of LU's top stars and is one of two Triple Crown Champions in history. On top of his commitments to Lucha Underground, Mundo has also appeared in What Culture Pro Wrestling and House of Hardcore.
3 Cody Rhodes
Despite being a part of the WWE family 2007, there may be no wrestler that's gone through so many gimmick changes and character tweaks than Cody Rhodes. Beginning his career in teams (one with Hardcore Holly and one with Randy Orton and Ted DiBiase), Rhodes gained valuable experience before turning his sights on single's championships. Working as "Dashing" Cody Rhodes, he became Intercontinental Champion and, to the delight of fans, brought back the original design of the title. He returned to tag competition with both Damien Sandow as The Rhodes Scholars and with Goldust as The Brotherhood. Unfortunately, however, the teaming with his brother was also the downfall of his WWE career, as they stuck with the Stardust character for too long. Once he left the company, he set his sights on taking over the independent scene — and has done just that. Rhodes has dipped his hand in multiple companies, including Evolve, PWG, TNA, and Global Force Wrestling.
Now, he's taken his talents to the upper echelon of the indies as he's working with the Ring of Honor/New Japan Pro Wrestling connection. Rhodes turned heel during his match with Jay Lethal in debut with ROH and has been announced as the newest member of Bullet Club. He will make his NJPW debut at Wrestle Kingdom 11.
2 Drew McIntyre
It doesn't get much better than getting a ringing endorsement from Vince McMahon, saying you're the "chosen one". That's the treatment Drew McIntyre got while in WWE. However after an unceremonious end to his Intercontinental Title reign, not much more was done with him. Eventually McIntyre got relegated to the comedic stable of 3MB and was soon released.
It didn't take long for him to find his footing elsewhere. Shortly after, he made his debut in TNA as Drew Galloway and before long, he won the TNA World Heavyweight Championship. In addition to that, he's also wrestled for Evolve, Pro Wrestling Guerilla and ICW. He has no shortage of work and his schedule is still very busy. Perhaps now that he's found himself as a performer, he can return to WWE one day.
1 Matt Hardy
If this was 10 years ago — hell, even five years ago — there would be not one wrestling fan that would believe Matt Hardy would be more popular than Jeff, let alone being arguably the greatest act in wrestling today. While The Hardy Boyz found much success as a tag team, it was Matt who floundered once the duo split. Sure, he had an entertaining run as the WWE Cruiserweight Champion, a highlight feud with Edge, and stint as the ECW Champion, but Matt was never viewed as championship material. While he did have short stints in Ring of Honor, Pro Wrestling Syndicate, MCW, and Extreme Rising, he has spent most of his wrestling career — outside of WWE — in TNA. As of early 2016, Matt reached the pinnacle of the company as he won the TNA World Heavyweight Championship. But when he was beaten badly in an I Quit match against Jeff, his character made a stark change.
When Matt returned to television, he had a whole new look which featured a streak of blonde hair, a unique accent, and a change of attire. He became obsessed with making his brother lose the Hardy name, which is where the "delete" and "obsolete" chants stemmed from. Now, Matt is one of the most popular wrestlers in the world due to his impressive creative ability, which includes creating the shows The Final Deletion, Delete or Decay, and Total Nonstop Deletion. It may have taken years, but Matt is finally at the top of the wrestling world — and it's well deserved.
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