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
14 Derrick Bateman
13 Kassius Ohno
12 CJ Parker
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.
10 Justin Gabriel
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.
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.
7 Rey Mysterio
6 Jeff Hardy
5 Bobby Lashley
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.
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.
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.
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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