Between 10 and 15 years ago, there was a feeling that if you were in professional wrestling, World Wrestling Entertainment was the place you wanted to go. While they call themselves a sports entertainment giant and hate the phrase 'pro wrestling', that’s where the large contracts with big paychecks were to be found.
If you weren’t seen on Monday nights for Raw or whatever night SmackDown happened to be aired, you weren’t a big name wrestling superstar. However, things started to change with the evolution of the internet. Smaller wrestling promotions that once struggled to be seen by fans across the globe can find more exposure through social media and video playing websites.
The WWE still brings in a lot of money with aired on primetime television and still attracts more than three million viewers every Monday night, but it isn’t the same as the popularity that wrestling once had in the 1980s with names like Hulk Hogan and the 1990s with the Monday Night Wars between World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling.
While the WWE will seemingly be the giant of pro wrestling, sports entertainment or whatever they want to call it, there is a lot of money to be found with other companies. Wrestlers can work as independent contractors with the ability to wrestle not only with a company like Lucha Underground or Ring of Honor, but they can work other dates in between television tapings and special events.
Those wrestlers can also sell their own T-shirts and other merchandise that they can have the final say on before going to the online store – no one from Stamford, Conn., standing over their shoulder saying yes or no. When all of these factors are considered, there are more opportunities available to wrestlers who want to have more creative freedom and still make decent money.
The following are the top 15 professional wrestlers who don’t need to become sports entertainers and join the WWE roster.
15 Jay Lethal
The current Ring of Honor World Champion has shown plenty of abilities in the past decade. Remember “Black Machismo” where he did a pretty decent Macho Man impersonation? He has won several championships as one of the best pure athletes in wrestling today, but the WWE might not know how to properly treat someone of Lethal’s charisma.
14 Colt Cabana
While one of the more popular independent wrestlers from Chicago not named CM Punk, Colt Cabana had a chance to shine in WWE between 2007 and 2009, athough the Scotty Goldman experiment didn’t work out and he was let go after two years. However, he has been able to find success outside of WWE.
13 AJ Styles
Before coming to WWE, AJ Styles was the face of Total Nonstop Action with several championship reigns. He was also one of the more popular men in New Japan Pro Wrestling. So why did he come to the WWE? Likely to be able to have dream matches and be able to retire saying he was able to work in virtually every company possible.
12 Sexy Star
While the WWE could use talented female wrestlers on their main roster, that’s part of why many of the best independent wrestlers on the women’s circuit might not necessarily be trying to get a job in Stamford, Conn. In the case of Sexy Star, she is working in one of most profitable hotbeds in the international pro wrestling scene in Mexico.
A majority of the names on this list are going to be independent wrestling stars who many fans would like to see have a run in WWE. Goldberg can be considered a polar opposite as he was a star in World Championship Wrestling in the 1990s and had a short stint in WWE that included a short world championship run.
10 Damien Sandow
Aaron Stevens, who worked as Damien Sandow in WWE for a total of 11 years, spoke with Vince Russo earlier this month about having a revelation during the Andre the Giant Battle Royal at WrestleMania 31. Despite the WWE creative team not giving him a push, Stevens was able to get over with a silly stunt-double gimmick involving The Miz that led to 83,000 fans giving him one of the biggest pops of the night.
The rise and fall of Ryback is a very interesting take when you consider he was initially built in WWE with a run that felt like a rookie year like Goldberg and Brock Lesnar. In recent years, he claimed his first singles championship, but hasn’t had much success since then – and that has obviously bothered the big guy.
8 Jack Evans
The WWE has made some changes in the type of talents that they’ve been brining to their development system in NXT – which is why we are seeing names like Styles, Samoa Joe and Shinsuke Nakamura. Jack Evans is easily one of the more entertaining wrestlers to watch on television and has shown some major improvements overall at Lucha Underground.
7 Ricochet (a.k.a. Prince Puma)
This likely won’t happen anytime soon because of a clause in his current deal with Lucha Underground and another with New Japan Pro Wrestling. However, the WWE seems to be very impressed with what this talented cruiserweight can do. Ricochet has been a part of some decent matches on television and became a viral hit for his recent match with Will Ospreay in Japan.
Another independent talent who has started to build some popularity through Lucha Underground, especially after a spot where he virtually leaped across the building into the ring during the show’s first season. There was apparently a story about the WWE approaching both Angelico and Jack Evans about a deal during a 2015 interview in Spain.
5 Gail Kim
When the WWE had the Divas Revolution and some decent women’s matches at NXT, Gail Kim made comments that it was definitely something she was waiting to see for years. She’s been with TNA Impact Wrestling’s roster and has actually had two runs in the WWE. So would someone like Kim want to return and have matches with talents like Paige and Charlotte?
4 Dalton Castle
Despite being a regular on the independent scene, Dalton Castle doesn’t need to make the jump to WWE. He has developed his own cult following as wrestling’s most flamboyant talent. It’s likely that the folks at WWE wouldn’t allow him to maintain his current character, nor his “boys.”
3 Rey Mysterio
Many older wrestling fans can recall seeing a young Rey Mysterio, Jr., first debut in the United States with Extreme Championship Wrestling before he made the jump to WCW – where he was the leading star of their Cruiserweight division. There was a boost in stock from his with WWE between 2002 and 2015.
2 Cody Rhodes
Similar to the situation involving, Cody Rhodes was not exactly in the best situation in WWE’s booking plans. Then again, he was able to excel at any type of gimmick or character they gave him. But he did post a statement online about asking for his release from the WWE earlier this year, stating that he was tired and frustrated with being stuck with the Stardust character.
1 Brock Lesnar
In his first run with WWE, he had one of the quickest climbs up the ladder to the main event picture by winning the WWE Championship only a few months in 2002. But he left the WWE to pursue the NFL, which didn’t go very well. However, it did lead to Lesnar earning big money matches in Japan before going into the world of mixed martial arts.
While he is currently under contract with WWE, his upcoming fight with Mark Hunt at UFC 200 is likely going to earn him somewhere in the seven-figure range. This leads to wondering why he would ever feel the need to return to a WWE ring again when he can make possibly more money outside of sports entertainment.
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