When it comes to the independent wrestling scene, it's at an all-time high. Whether it's spanned across the United States, in Canada, Mexico, Japan, or the United Kingdom, there are wrestlers that are becoming stars without the help of the WWE.
The thing is, the WWE isn't just a wrestling company. While in-ring action is their bread and butter, charisma, body language, look, and star power are equally as important as wrestling ability. Because of this, not all top independent wrestlers become a success story in the WWE.
There are times when it's the case — after all, CM Punk and Daniel Bryan are two of the biggest stars of the 21st century, and names like AJ Styles and Kassius Ohno are killing it in the WWE and NXT, respectively. But at the same time, it isn't always the case — names like Paul London and Colt Cabana were expected to be stars but, for one reason or another, failed to exceed expectations. Making it in the WWE is entirely different than making it on the independent scene.
Some make it, some don't. Let's take a look at 8 former indie stars who failed in the WWE and 7 who succeeded.
15 Failed — Reckless Youth
Nowadays, the independent scene of the wrestling business is just as, if not more popular than the WWE itself. Back during the Monday Night War, however, the indies were far from as renowned as they are today. But just because it wasn't as publicized doesn't mean there weren't stars that weren't a part of WWE, WCW, or ECW.
Back in the late 90s, there was a man known as Reckless Youth who took the independent scene by storm. Competing for promotions in the Northeast like the East Coast Wrestling Association, Combat Zone Wrestling, and Great Lakes Wrestling, he was considered "one of the most recognizable independent stars in the United States" by esteemed wrestling journalist Bill Apter. Despite a great amount of fanfare, Reckless Youth never made in past the WWE's developmental system. He did end up becoming one of the founders of Chikara but never made an impact on the main stage, something many believed he was destined for.
14 Succeeded — Samoa Joe
Throughout the first decade of the new millennium, there were a ton of great independent stars making a name for themselves across the United States. When it comes to the upper-echelon of the list, Samoa Joe ranks at or near the top. After starring in Ring of Honor, Joe became a household name with TNA, where he became a part of the company's Mount Rushmore while putting on clinics with AJ Styles, Christopher Daniels, Kurt Angle, and Jay Lethal, among others.
For a long time, many believed Joe would never sign with the WWE. That, of course, changed when Triple H took the reigns as the leader of NXT and recognized talents for their greatness inside of the ring, not their look. After becoming arguably the top star in WWE's developmental program, the former NXT champion debuted on Monday Night Raw as Triple H's muscle. Although he's only a few weeks into his Raw career, Joe is positioned to be a main player for the foreseeable future.
13 Failed — Sami Callahan
After Triple H and the WWE realized that NXT could be more than just a developmental brand, they decided to target independent stars to take the brand to the next level. Sami Callahan certainly had the resume to fill that void — after all, he starred on multiple different independent levels, as he competed in top promotions like Combat Zone Wrestling, Evolve, Dragon Gate USA, Ring of Honor, and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, amongst others.
After signing with the WWE in 2013, many believed Callahan was going to be the next star in NXT. Unfortunately, odd booking — he didn't debut on NXT television until over a year after he signed with the company — and injuries lead to Callahan, who went by Solomon Crowe, to ask for his release. His return to the indies worked wonders, as Callahan is in a higher demand than ever, most recently working for Lucha Underground.
12 Succeeded — Cesaro
When thinking of independent stars of the mid-2000s, the man who was on the top of many lists was Cesaro. Wrestling as Claudio Castagnoli at the time, Cesaro excelled both as one-half of the Kings of Wrestling with Chris Hero and as a singles star when he was wrestling for Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, amongst other promotions.
Even though Cesaro has yet to hoist Heavyweight Championship gold in the WWE, it's hard to deny that he's one of their most popular stars on either the Raw or SmackDown Live brands. Whether it was working side-by-side with Paul Heyman, wrestling in tag teams with Jack Swagger, Tyson Kidd, and Sheamus, or wrestling John Cena in the United States Championship Open Challenge, the Cesaro Section has been alive and well everywhere Cesaro has gone. Sure, he's considered one of the most underutilized talents in the WWE — but that doesn't take away the fact that he's found a ton of success as well.
11 Failed — Christopher Daniels
At this point, many of the top independent stars have had — at least — a brief run with the WWE. But outside of a few appearances on Heat and Jakked, Christopher Daniels has stayed true to his independent form. After leaving the WWE after an unsuccessful stay between 1998 and 2001, Daniels became a household name across the globe in smaller promotions and continues to do so to this day.
While he found a ton of television time in TNA — where he wrestled in marquee matches with the likes of AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, and Rob Van Dam — he's become more popular than ever due to his stints with Ring of Honor. A part of their roster for the better half of 10 years, he's been one of the company's greatest mainstays. After winning both their Tag Team and World Television Championships, Daniels completed the Triple Crown when he became the ROH World Champion at their 15th Anniversary show, the promotion's latest pay-per-view.
10 Succeeded — Finn Balor
Known as Fergal Devitt, the Irish star made a name for himself all over the country of Japan, as he trained there and eventually became a member of the New Japan Pro Wrestling's Junior's division. After capturing top accolades — including the Best of the Super Juniors crown, IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships, and IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship — and helping create Bullet Club, Triple H poached him and brought him to NXT.
Changing his name to Finn Balor, he could be credited as the focal point behind the NXT brand's massive success, as he was developmental's flag bearer for nearly two years. His push to the top didn't stop at NXT, as he became the first ever WWE Universal Champion in his WWE pay-per-view debut. While he injured his shoulder in said match, he's expected to resume his place atop of the card once he returns.
9 Failed — Colt Cabana
In the early 2000s, CM Punk wasn't the only highly-touted independent star. Personal friend and longtime rival Colt Cabana, too, was considered a can't miss prospect, especially during and after his rivalry with Punk that passed through Ring of Honor and IWA Mid-South. Because of his build and athletic ability, not many were surprised when the WWE signed Cabana and assigned him to their developmental system, Ohio Valley Wrestling.
After finding success in OVW, Cabana — now working as Scotty Goldman — looked like a star on the rise for the WWE. But after brief appearances on the SmackDown brand, it appeared as though the creative team soured on Cabana and he was released soon after his debut. Once he left the WWE, Cabana found his way back to the independent scene where he wrestled for various promotions before making his triumphant return to ROH in 2016, one that was met with much fanfare.
8 Succeeded — Kevin Owens
While Kevin Owens didn't spend as much time in NXT as Finn Balor, he, too, was a big reason behind the brand's national success. While he was signed at the same time as Balor (and Hideo Itami), he came from a completely different background than the two highly-publicized stars.
Instead of spending time in Japan, Owens — who worked as Kevin Steen — was a mega star in the United States independents. Whether it was with Ring of Honor or Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, Owens was always considered one of the top acts of every card he was a part of. After bulldozing his way through NXT, Owens debuted on the main roster in the biggest way possible — by taking out, and later defeating, John Cena. From there, he went on to win the Intercontinental Championship and also captured the Universal Championship after Balor's injury. Not only did he make Raw enjoyable while working with Chris Jericho but he's bound to put on a show-stealing performance with him at WrestleMania 33.
7 Failed — Paul London
If Paul London piqued the WWE's interest a decade later, it's hard to believe he wouldn't have found success. After all, he was considered one of the top young talents and greatest high flyers when he was wrestling on the independent scene. Making his name known as a standout perfomer in Ring of Honor, he joined the company to bolster the cruiserweight division.
Yes, London did find success — after all, his tag team with Brian Kendrick became the WWE's longest-reigning champions at that time. But he didn't want to deal with backstage politics, so he decided to leave the company instead of being a lower-card act. His return to the indies worked in London's favor, as he became a fixture with both Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and Lucha Underground. But no matter how strong he was in smaller promotions, it never translated on the main stage.
6 Succeeded — AJ Styles
In January, AJ Styles celebrated his one-year anniversary with the WWE. In that span, he had arguably the best first-year run in WWE history, one that was comparable to the likes of Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar. In reality, no one should be surprised — every company Styles was in, he became a star. Whether it was TNA (where he was an X-Division star and figurehead of the brand), New Japan (where he took Bullet Club to bigger heights and revitalized his career), or Ring of Honor (where he took his talents up a notch), it all set the stage for his highly-anticipated signing with the WWE.
After debuting in the Royal Rumble, he got off to a slow start, as his loss to Chris Jericho at WrestleMania 32 was seen as a tremendous disappointment. But once he became the number one contender for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship one night later, he became one of the top names in the WWE. Styles put on tremendous matches with Roman Reigns over the summer and then became the top star of SmackDown Live, an honor that was capped off by his World Title win in the fall. Styles has only gotten better since then and his fans should be ecstatic about his outlook with the company.
5 Failed — Teddy Hart
There may not be a more naturally talented wrestler than Teddy Hart, a member of the esteemed Hart Family. When he signed with the WWE back in 1998, he was the youngest person to ever ink a deal with the company at the time. At 16 years of age, attitude issues led to his release in 2002. It wasn't the end of his career, obviously — from 2002 until 2005, he worked with TNA, Ring of Honor, Jersey All-Pro Wrestling, and many other American and Canadian independent territories before returning to the WWE is 2005.
This time, however, the company had plans. While wrestling in developmental, the idea was for Hart and his cousins Harry Smith, Tyson Kidd, and Nattie Neidhart to become the Next Generation Hart Foundation. While they worked together in developmental, Hart's continued issues led to his release once again, with Smith, Kidd, and Neidhart debuting as The Hart Dynasty soon thereafter. While his demons have certainly gotten the best of him, Hart continues to wrestle in Mexico. Unfortunately, however, it's unlikely he ever becomes a WWE Superstar.
4 Succeeded — CM Punk
CM Punk is someone that's considered as a forefather for the WWE and current independent stars. Before he was signed, the company never cared about people of Punk's caliber, as he didn't have the look and size that they typically targeted. But his in-ring ability with Ring of Honor and other promotions was undeniable, and the fan support led to his massive push.
Punk wasn't always pegged for greatness — after all, it's been said that higher-ups wanted to get rid of him while he was still in developmental. But after he became the star of the ECW brand, he translated that success into becoming a Money in the Bank winner on two different occasions. After sub-par reigns as World Heavyweight Champion, Punk captured the WWE Championship at Survivor Series in 2011, held the title for 434 days, and had an all-time great feud with John Cena. While he left the company on a sour note, fans will never forget the impact he had in the WWE.
3 Failed — Low-Ki
When Low-Ki signed with the WWE, many believed he could follow the footsteps of CM Punk — after all, the two were in the same mold as independent stars that were undersized and overlooked. Starring both with Ring of Honor and TNA, it was seen as a big signing for the WWE. They furthered that sentiment by making him a key component of season two of the NXT show, one that he eventually won.
Despite a ton of fan support and even receiving an Intercontinental Championship opportunity, the creative team squandered Low-Ki's — who worked as Kaval — push and released him by the end of 2010. He returned to the independent circuit with a renewed passion for wrestling and that showed in his work with TNA, New Japan Pro Wrestling, Dragon Gate USA, and Pro Wrestling Syndicate.
2 Succeeded — Daniel Bryan
When CM Punk made it to the WWE, the torch was passed to Bryan Danielson as the best independent wrestler in the world. The decision was an easy one — after all, The American Dragon wasn't only a founding father with Ring of Honor and wrestled in Japan, but was also lauded for his ability to work any style with any wrestler. When he was signed with the company and was a part of the first season of NXT, fans were ecstatic that Danielson — now known as Daniel Bryan — was getting his chance with the WWE.
It wasn't always a smooth ride for Bryan. He was fired after his Monday Night Raw debut but was brought back because of the backlash from fans. He was used in the upper mid-card but was never allowed to get past a certain level. He was a great underdog but never got a chance to truly shine. That was, however, until 2014, when the fans were sick of the main event picture and revolted. The WWE Universe forced Bryan into the main event of WrestleMania XXX, and when he captured the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, it became one of the greatest moments in the show's history. Unfortunately, injuries derailed his career — but you can't deny that Bryan was the most successful and popular independent star to grace a WWE ring.
1 Failed — Mistico
When the WWE signed Mistico, many believed it was one of the biggest coups in recent history. After all, he was one of the most beloved stars in Mexico due to his ability to fight Lucha Libre. While the company didn't necessarily have that style, they thought his high-flying ability could make him Rey Mysterio's replacement as the WWE's top Mexican star. Using the Sin Cara moniker, he was pushed to the moon — but the process never paid off.
Throughout his tenure with the WWE, the original Sin Cara was seen as someone with a bad attitude, one that refused to learn English to make his time easier, failed to adjust to the American style, and simply didn't care. After gaining a poor reputation behind the scenes, the WWE released Mistico and replaced him with Hunico, who works as the character today. Now working as Carístico with CMLL, he's considered the star of the promotion and one of the biggest box office draws in Mexican wrestling history. That's the same plan the WWE had for him; unfortunately, it didn't work out.