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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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