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.
He’s hasn’t been talked about as one of the WWE’s targets on the independent scene, but maybe it’s not a bad thing. Lethal obviously has no problem finding work in the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan – likely making decent money traveling the world.
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.
Cabana works regularly for Ring of Honor and often travels the globe for various promotions. While finding regular work, he also hosts a very successful podcast called “The Art of Wrestling.” Rolling Stone even did an article about him claiming that Cabana eventually earned the last laugh after his termination from 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.
He even mentioned in his promo recently on Raw where he references that he would easily be welcomed back if he were to go back to Japan. It’s the truth because Styles has one of the most talented and skilled professional wrestlers for nearly two decades for various promotions in different countries.
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.
With a great run with AAA in Mexico and with Lucha Underground in the U.S., she probably has plenty of work coming her way. Despite her contract with AAA having come to an end, she likely will find work with the other Mexican wrestling promotion in CMLL and be contacted by U.S. indie promoters very soon.
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.
But with the announcement of Goldberg being a character on the new WWE video game, there has been some chatter considering Sting had a similar deal with WWE where he was in a game and shortly debuted. With Goldberg, it’s unclear whether there’s any real demand for a comeback to the ring.
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.
Knowing that he was able to stand out despite having no push or support from the company probably proved to him that he doesn’t need to work in WWE to be a star in wrestling. He has been able to find bookings independently and don’t be surprised if he is able to find work in Mexico, Japan or some North American promotions.
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.
In a statement made earlier this year, Ryback wrote a blog about how he wanted a new contract that would earn him more money. It’s apparent the WWE doesn’t view him in that same regard, but don’t be surprised if he finds success in Japan like Lesnar and the former Albert had in the past.
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.
At the same time, he has been accused of working stiff by veterans like Juventud Guerrera. Additionally, Evans would have to make changes to how he performs flips and certain spots in the ring that would take away from his strengths in WWE.
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.
There’s no question he could find success anywhere he decides to go later this year. But the question arises like many cruiserweights that come to WWE regarding how talents would have to change their style in the ring to fit WWE’s demands.
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.
It seems he’s perfectly happy working independently and in Mexico’s AAA. It won’t be the first time said, but there are a number of smaller and agile wrestlers that may not fit well into the type of schedule that the WWE requires of their superstars. Can their bodies handle wrestling their style for 200 shows or more per year?
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?
It's possible, but she’s getting up in age and doesn’t really have anything left she needs to prove as one of the better female wrestlers of the past decade. Additionally, she’s also married to celebrity television chef Robert Irvine. There’s no financial need for her to return to WWE.
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.”
The fans around the world have embraced him, despite pushing the limits of a sexually driven character. He’s also stated in an interview with Rolling Stone that he’s not planning on rushing to the WWE. It’s probably a wise choice, unless the WWE makes some adjustment to return to the TV-14 rating like it had during the Attitude Era.
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.
So when he left the WWE and started taking independents, it was no surprise that his fee would be high. Stories went around that he was charging $20,000 per independent show, and there are promoters who are willing to pay that in belief they can make it back – and more – by hosting an autograph signing.
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.
Later on Rhodes would post a picture of a list of names that he seemingly wants to have matches with, including names known in Ring of Honor, New Japan Pro Wrestling and other extremely popular independent promotions like Pro Wrestling Guerilla. The stars outside WWE have taken notice, including Matt Jackson of the Young Bucks simply asking him “Bullet Club?”
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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