Triple H once stated that “talent is the most important natural resource we have”, speaking about the latest batch of recruits to the WWE Performance Center at the time. Although it sounds like a cheesy line, easy enough to throw out there when trying to hype up your newest signings, it really does hold true when you consider just how many professional wrestlers have come through the WWE.
For every one that sticks around, there are a heck of a lot more who don’t, and the lucky part is that they’re never going to run out. The WWE can take a Mojo Rawley or a Baron Corbin from a different sport and mold a WWE Superstar out of them, but there is always going to be a sea of talent already at their disposal as well, when you consider the sheer amount of independent professional wrestling promotions that are out there – each filled with athletes who just want to be noticed.
Take a look at some of the most well-known faces in WWE today and you’ll see that most of them honed their craft elsewhere. Because as much as WWE likes to create stars from scratch in their own personal breeding grounds, the roster will always need a healthy supporting foundation of true-and-true wrestlers to really keep the business alive for future generations.
That being said, when WWE does pick these names up from the independent scene, they can often be a little rough around the edges. Some remain exactly the same, but there are a lot of guys and girls who go through a hefty transformation when they sign up to be a WWE Superstar. Let’s take a look at twenty of the company’s most well-known names and flash back to when they were in the indies.
20 Maria and Mike Kanellis
For those unaware of Maria and Mike Kanellis’ time on the independent scene, and as part of The Kingdom with Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling, it must be quite confusing to see two people show up on SmackDown Live and start spouting nonsense about “The Power of Love”. But rest assured that when these two finally break out, it has the potential to be very special.
Although Maria had a 6-year tenure with WWE starting in 2004, she never hit her stride as a wrestler until making it to the indies and joining forces with then-Mike Bennett. The two have posed as a fearsome power couple everywhere they’ve gone since then, and Maria acts as the perfect heel manager to complement Bennett’s in-ring abilities. They just have a natural chemistry together.
It may seem for now that they’ve yet to accomplish anything within WWE, but the fact that they may be settling into a rivalry with fan-favorite Sami Zayn will do them wonders as they attempt to flourish on Tuesday nights and show the WWE Universe exactly what the power of love can do.
19 Kurt Angle
Since Kurt Angle weaved his Hall of Fame career during his time with WWE - the company in which he currently hangs his hat - it’s easy to forget that right before he was acting general manager of Monday Night Raw, he spent quite some time as an active competitor elsewhere.
A lengthy spell with TNA held Kurt Angle down from 2006 to 2016, with sporadic AAA and NJPW appearances during that period, but he made it a point to wrestle in a number of independent federations when he departed from the company last year.
He found himself against the likes of Rey Mysterio, Zach Sabre Jr, Cody Rhodes, Joe Coffey and Alberto El Patrón with URFight, Revolution Pro Wrestling, Northeast Wrestling, Insane Championship Pro Wrestling and WCPW respectively, putting on tremendous shows every night.
During that time, he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s still got it, and although he currently portrays a non-physical role as the sheriff of Monday nights within WWE, this consistency and excellence within the squared circle should be enough to show the company that they’d be foolish not to harness his in-ring prowess for at least one more active run as a singles competitor.
18 Apollo Crews
Although the physical difference between the Uhaa Nation pictured above and the Apollo Crews we now know on Monday Night Raw is hardly discernible, the man has indeed gone through significant change since signing with WWE, and unfortunately, it isn’t one for the better.
Upon being recruited to the WWE Performance Center in 2015, Crews was pegged as one of the most prospective independent signings the WWE had seen in years. His time with Dragon Gate, Evolve and Full Impact Pro had developed him into one of this era’s most physically impressive athletes.
With his unparalleled strength and power, paired with an agility and high-flying technique on par with Neville and Kalisto, Crews appeared as the perfect hybrid of styles that both the WWE and its fans could get behind. But much to his dismay, a miscalculated call-up from NXT to the main roster would be detrimental to the man’s development as a personality as well.
Throwaway feuds with Sheamus and The Miz would see him progress at a snail’s pace before WWE seemingly gave up and proceeded to harbor him with humiliating beat-downs by Dolph Ziggler. The destruction he suffered at the hands of Braun Strowman on the go-home episode of Raw before WWE Great Balls of Fire shows that the promise that once glimmered in the young man’s eyes in the above photograph cannot be salvaged – no matter how hard Titus O’Neil wants to argue otherwise.
WWE’s self-proclaimed “King of the Cruiserweights” first started training to become a wrestler at the tender age of 17, and made his debut for Independent Wrestling Federation in 2004 under the name “Pac”. He wrestled for IWF and 3 Count Wrestling primarily in his early years, but soon transitioned over to bigger promotions in Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, Ring of Honor, Chikara, Dragon Gate, Dragon Gate USA and American Wrestling Rampage throughout the next eight years of his career.
He also wrestled brief periods for TNA and NJPW. He was picked up by WWE in 2012 and we know by now that the man became the face of NXT as it just began picking up speed with its TakeOver events in 2014. He held the NXT Championship for very close to a year, which at the time was the record for longest-reign before Finn Bálor would oust it starting from the following summer.
Neville main-evented every TakeOver event in 2014 before dipping down the card and debuting on the main WWE roster after WrestleMania 31. It can be heavily argued that he didn’t truly start making an impression until he again became the face of a brand earlier this year, winning the WWE Cruiserweight Championship and making 205 Live a thrill to watch each and every week.
16 James Ellsworth
James Ellsworth is perhaps the most unlikely success story in the current era of WWE. Forget Daniel Bryan winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania 30, the fact alone that James Ellsworth has a contract is a phenomenon in and of itself. That’s not meant to knock the man, but his look, size and skills are completely disassociated with the kind of athlete WWE usually hires.
Luckily for Ellsworth, his performance as enhancement talent for Braun Strowman and the coining of the phrase “any man with two hands has a fighting chance” took the internet by storm in 2016 and the WWE decided to capitalize on his newfound popularity with a contract offer.
With the brand extension having recently taken place, WWE seemed to be in a position where they could try new things and have fun for the simple sake of entertaining the fans. It just so happened that James Ellsworth - who’d been competing on the independent circuit for fourteen years with companies such as American Combat Wrestling, Big Time Wrestling and CZW, while also running his own promotion Adrenaline Championship Wrestling - was there to reap the benefits.
A few WWE Championship matches later, as well as a huge hand in one of 2017’s biggest controversies during the first women’s Money in the Bank ladder match, and Ellsworth is now a recurring heel character in the unlikely position of Carmella’s manager. This man’s entire WWE career is a testament to what kind of crazy opportunities one good performance can open for you.
15 Erick Rowan
SmackDown Live’s mysterious Erick Rowan may be one of the most cryptic individuals on Tuesday nights, but we do know that the man started wrestling as early as 2003 when he was trained by Eddie Sharkey. He wrestled for various different promotions in the Midwest before being invited to wrestle and live in Japan for Pro Wrestling Noah in 2007. Upon his return to the states the following year, he performed for F1rst Wrestling, a Minnesota-based company, as seen pictured above.
Rowan then came to WWE under a developmental contract to FCW in 2011, and when the show re-branded to the NXT you’d be more familiar with today, Rowan joined The Wyatt Family, donned the ever-haunting sheep mask and settled into his role as one of the most creepy competitors in all of WWE – and some would also say one of the most underrated big men in the company today.
Based on the image, it feels really unnerving to see Rowan without the long, scraggly ginger beard that has grown synonymous with his character over the years. We can theorize that perhaps the beard is Bray Wyatt's psychological means of controlling him from afar, but it's unproven.
14 Sasha Banks
Although it isn’t much, Sasha Banks didn’t come to NXT without any experience. She began training to be a wrestler in 2010 at eighteen years of age, and made her debut for Chaotic Wrestling alongside Nikki Roxx against Alexxis and Danny E in an inter-gender tag team match, in a losing effort.
She competed under an abbreviated version of her real name Mercedes Kaestner-Varnado, simply as Mercedes KV. Banks would go on from this point to defeat Alexxis in an “I Quit” match to win the CW Women’s Championship, becoming the longest-reigning champion at the time with 260 consecutive days, before the title was vacated as she left to go to WWE in 2012.
Throughout her stint, she had also competed for New England Championship Wrestling, and the National Wrestling Alliance. Naturally, it wasn’t until Banks made it to WWE that she became “The Boss” that we now know and love, and a multi-time Raw Women’s Champion, breaking out of the shadow of her cousin Snoop Dogg and creating a name for herself beyond her family.
13 The Hardy Boyz
Okay, so The Hardy Boyz are still fresh off the independent scene after their stint with TNA ended badly, and before their triumphant return to WWE in a ladder match at WrestleMania 33. But there is a significant difference between the Hardys pictured above and those on Raw today.
The current iteration is just as awesome as ever, coasting on their worldwide fame and continuously putting on a great show every single night, but there was something seriously entertaining about the characters they portrayed in TNA and continued to do so on the independent circuit before their former employer slapped them with a lawsuit due to claims that the “Broken” gimmick – which gave life to the infamous Final Deletion phenomenon – was created under their roof.
The latest news is that the two parties are nowhere near a settlement for Matt and Jeff to use the gimmick within WWE, which is a real shame. Although the two are known for being ultra-cool and death-defying as it is, adding in the Broken brilliance to their current run would turn it up a notch from a throwback to a continuation of their Hall of Fame-worthy WWE career.
With a bit of luck, the two men will be able to come out of this lawsuit with something to show for it, and a new direction to go down once their championship rivalry with Sheamus and Cesaro ends.
12 Samoa Joe
Samoa Joe is the definition of a veteran within the ropes of the squared circle. Having made his debut in 1999, he has close to two decades of experience in the ring, with a plethora of different independent promotions doing well to support his ten years with TNA as well.
Throughout his time, he has wrestled with AAA, PWG, IWA and German Stampede Wrestling to name just the smallest handful, but he made no bigger impact on the indie circuit than the one he made in Ring of Honor. Now, after about a year and a half with NXT and six months on the WWE’s main roster, Samoa Joe has become a mega star as a result of his performance during the build to his WWE Universal Championship match against Brock Lesnar at WWE Great Balls of Fire.
It’s amusing to think that the young individual with an undeniable fire in his eyes in the accompanying photo would someday be a formidable opponent to the world renowned “Beast Incarnate” in a match of epic proportions, but it goes to show that the payoff can be incredibly rewarding when you put your nose to the grindstone and strive towards greatness like Joe has.
Bayley began wrestling in 2008, after attending Big Time Wrestling’s training classes led by Jason Styles. She wrestled for the same company for four years, under the moniker of Davina Rose.
In 2011, she started competing for more companies such as Shine Wrestling, NWA Championship Wrestling from Hollywood and Shimmer – where she competed alongside Serena Deeb, whom many will remember from CM Punk’s Straight Edge Society, in a feud with the Canadian Ninjas.
It was from here that Bayley would be signed to WWE and the fun-loving, huggable character we would soon fall in love with was created – before of course being ruined by WWE’s inconsistent and rather insulting booking of the woman since her debut on Monday Night Raw last August.
Bayley, who was once known for her jaw-dropping performances against Sasha Banks in NXT, is now known for a throwaway Raw Women’s Championship reign and arguably the worst segment the show has produced in years with Alexa Bliss’ “This is your Life” tribute to the former champ.
Due to his swift push and subsequent WWE Championship win upon his debut in 2009, as well as the old rumors that he and Triple H were workout buddies behind the scenes, a lot of fans seem to forget that “The Celtic Warrior” isn’t actually an original product of WWE, or even FCW.
He began training under Larry Sharpe in 2002, and started wrestling on the European independent wrestling circuit two years later, becoming a two-time IWW International Heavyweight Champion for Irish Whip Wrestling. He competed for a number of British-based promotions such as Wales’ Celtic Wrestling, All Star Wrestling, British Championship Wrestling and Real Quality Wrestling, where he took on such familiar faces as Drew Galloway and Stu Bennett.
The man would be signed to a WWE developmental contract after a couple of tryout matches in April 2007, and the rest is history. Sheamus may not be universally loved but the man is a consistently solid in-ring performer with rather underrated mic skills. His early accolades may still leave a sour taste in some fans’ mouths but he’s well worth his current position in the company as a multi-time WWE Champion, a former Mr Money in the Bank and the 2012 Royal Rumble winner.
9 Seth Rollins
Looking back even as recently as the days of The Shield, it’s funny to think that if anyone from that trio was expected to become one of the WWE’s biggest heels in 2014, it wasn’t Seth Rollins.
We were of course incorrect, however. The first ever NXT Champion would be the first of the three to win Money in the Bank, and subsequently become WWE World Heavyweight Champion. This all coming after his five year spell in the independent scene, where he would become ROH World Champion, among a multitude of others. Rollins, then known as Tyler Black, was simply cool.
He had a cool look and an even more exhilarating move-set, which unfortunately has seen its wings clipped within WWE with moves like God’s Last Gift and The Curb Stomp being dropped from his arsenal and the Phoenix Splash being a rarity. Even his powerbombs are a hazard.
Nevertheless, Rollins has come an extremely long way from his days in the indies, and although his career may seem somewhat stagnant at the moment, the fact that he’s on the cover of WWE 2K18 is a huge deal and could see the man in the limelight around the game’s release time in October – with a championship opportunity potentially on the horizon for "The Architect".
8 Luke Harper
Starting his career as a backyard wrestler, Luke Harper wrestled with his brother and friends before being formally trained by Kirby Marcos and Rik Matrix at the age of 23 in Rochester, New York.
He wrestled for Roc City Wrestling, before then working for Rochester Pro Wrestling - which soon became NWA New York - as Brodie Lee. From 2007 onward, he wrestled for a number of promotions such as Ring of Honor, Dragon Gate – as well as its USA counterpart – Evolve, Jersey All Pro Wrestling, Squared Circle Wrestling and Chikara. He was picked up by WWE in 2012, and almost immediately got paired with Bray Wyatt under the name Luke Harper – the cult follower we know and love for his cryptic tweets about what day it is, and what it means.
Though Harper appears as somewhat of an afterthought on SmackDown Live right now, he kick-started the year with some great exposure by leaving The Wyatt Family and coming awfully close to a WWE Championship match at Wrestlemania 33 against his former cohorts. With some luck, the company will realise the value in Harper as a tough, mysterious babyface and push him towards any form of championship picture before the year draws to a close.
Claudio Castagnoli, better known now by his ring name “Cesaro”, has always been known as a workhorse both inside and outside the ropes. He was trained in his homeland of Switzerland in 2000, making his debut in Essen, Germany for Westside Xtreme Wrestling.
From there, he would compete in a number of promotions in Europe, as well as the United States – including CZW, ROH, PWG, Pro Wrestling Noah and Chikara, where he formed The Kings of Wrestling with Chris Hero (NXT’s Kassius Ohno). It was this tag-team that really put Cesaro on the map, as well as select singles feuds including one with Nigel McGuinness, whom he came very close to defeating for the ROH World Championship on a number of occasions.
Known for being one of the strongest men in WWE today – pound for pound – Cesaro is considered as one of the hardest working individuals in the company. He speaks five languages and has tremendous respect for his body so that he, in turn, can continue to do the thing he loves; wrestling.
He has often been looked down upon for his lacking promo abilities, but his in-ring technique has more than been enough to get him the U.S. Championship and a number of tag-team titles in WWE, both with Tyson Kidd and Sheamus. Perhaps if Kassius Ohno ever debuts on the main roster he’ll be able to make it three-for-three with a Kings of Wrestling reunion.
6 Finn Bálor
It’s hard to think of any new signing that came to WWE with more anticipation than Finn Bálor.
The Irish sensation had made it big in every possible wrestling region, with his incredible technique and unparalleled showmanship with regards to his signature body paint, which he would break out for special occasions – as with his WWE run, where he’s only used it once on the main roster.
He made it to stardom under the bright lights of New Japan Pro Wrestling, but his times spent in a number of independent promotions such as ICW and Revolution Pro Wrestling are also commendable, having won titles in multiple companies and boosting his stock around the globe.
As a result, he became arguably the biggest name in wrestling never to have gone to WWE – until 2014. Bálor has only been in the company for a little under three years, but in that time he became the longest-reigning NXT Champion in history, and the first ever WWE Universal Champion having only appeared on Monday Night Raw for the first time the month prior. An injury completely derailed whatever plans WWE had for him at the time, but given the right booking, it shouldn’t be long before “The Demon” can re-emerge to take back what he never officially lost.
5 Becky Lynch
Since Becky Lynch came up through NXT alongside Bayley, Sasha Banks and Charlotte Flair, her lengthy spell as an independent wrestler kind of slipped under the radar. But you may be surprised to hear that SmackDown Live’s resident “Lass Kicker” has a very commendable fifteen years of experience under her belt – more so than any other member of the Four Horsewomen.
She was trained by Paul Tracey and WWE Superstar Finn Bálor in Bray in 2002, and wrestled as Rebecca Knox in Ireland, the UK and around Europe for several years - with a brief stint in Japan in there too - before leaving the wrestling business in 2006 due to a head injury. She returned several years later as a manager – with such clients as fellow WWE Superstar Paige and her mother Sweet Saraya in Shimmer, as pictured above, shortly before the two were ever offered contracts with WWE.
Given her humble beginnings and the fact that she has more than “paid her dues” in the wrestling industry, it feels rather befitting that Becky Lynch became the first ever SmackDown Women’s Champion last year. It was her first real accomplishment since joining the WWE, even after each of her fellow Horsewomen had already been met with championship gold both in NXT and on Raw.
Becky’s character has been known for getting screwed out of big career highlights, so even if she doesn’t reach those heights again, nobody will ever take away that huge win at Backlash in 2016.
4 Sami Zayn
It’s sort of a wild thought that fans were actually mad at WWE for unmasking El Generico when he was first picked up by WWE, because it’s probably safe to say that Sami Zayn – which is essentially the same underdog persona but with a lot more personality – is a much more suitable fit for WWE.
Zayn instantly flourished upon being signed to NXT by putting on phenomenal performances against Cesaro in one of 2013’s hottest rivalries, which would open the door for him to climb the ranks of the brand through sheer grit and determination, before finally claiming the NXT Championship.
Zayn had spent over a decade prior wrestling for promotions such as the International Wrestling Syndicate, Chikara, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and Ring of Honor to name just a few, and had made a good name for himself for his ability to read a crowd before a show, and to gauge exactly what would and wouldn’t work – though some found it irksome. He shined particularly in his tag-team and subsequent feud with Kevin Steen that prompted a renewal later in NXT and on WWE’s main roster. The two men now seem inseparable despite their status as bitter enemies on-screen.
3 Kevin Owens
The great thing about the way Kevin Steen looked on the independent scene before he finally got the call to come to NXT to become Kevin Owens, is the fact that he didn’t look that different at all.
The man wrestled in a t-shirt and shorts as he does now – although he did attempt a singlet and it just wasn’t for him – and despite his larger frame, he didn’t let naysayers like Vince Russo and Jim Cornette prevent him from chasing his dream. He knew he was good in the ring, and he wasn’t going to let the way he presented himself stand in the way of making it big in the wrestling industry.
Owens may have been a little more intimidating if anything back in his tenures with International Wrestling Syndicate, CZW, PWG and Ring of Honor, due to his “Kill Steen Kill” slogans and his use of more hasty maneuvers like the Package Piledriver, but otherwise he's more or less the same.
His aforementioned rivalry with Sami Zayn – or El Generico – helped put him on the map, and in his mere two and a half years with the company he’s managed to become an NXT, Intercontinental, Universal and United States Champion, already creating quite a reputation in such a short time.
2 Dean Ambrose
There are plenty of images of Dean Ambrose’s trials and tribulations within CZW on the web, but if any of them can sum up his experience with the independent promotion it has to be this one.
Here we see the man formerly known as Jon Moxley covered in blood – more than likely his own – with a beer in hand and, perhaps most importantly, a huge smile on his face. If this photograph tells us anything at all, it’s that the character Ambrose portrays on WWE television is much more than that. It’s a way of life - if anything, a significantly toned-down version of the wrestler he wants to be.
Think of the most sadistic, badass wrestler you can, who would put his body through untold terrors in order to entertain the fans – and then slap a PG rating on him. It really puts a lid on the kind of crazed antics that guy can get up to, as we’ve seen with Ambrose’s match against Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 32 being a fraction of the mayhem that the “Lunatic Fringe” was hoping to deliver.
Some call Ambrose lazy and repetitive both as a character and a wrestler, but when you’re trying to market somebody as the next “Stone Cold” Steve Austin – with a much more heightened proclivity towards reckless behavior – you can’t expect it to come off well when you limit said character with rules on using coarse language and being overly cautious in the ring. When that happens, the man shown above loses the smile and is transformed into a much less exciting version of his former self.
1 Daniel Bryan
We may be used to seeing Daniel Bryan as the general manager of SmackDown Live by now, but given how passionate the man has always been for the art of professional wrestling, it must seriously hurt to work so close without being able to lace up his boots. So much so that when his contract with WWE expires – potentially as early as next summer – Bryan has hinted that he could be departing the company in order to finally get back to action without WWE doctors holding him back.
As sad as it will be to see him turn his back on the company after so long, it’s a necessary sacrifice for the man if he wants to pursue his dream once again, especially when you consider how every outside medical source Bryan has sought has assured him that he is in good physical condition.
Which means, if we’re lucky, we could be seeing Bryan back in his element like in the picture above, applying a hold like only he can as one of the greatest technical wrestlers of his generation.
Bryan has said openly in the past that he enjoyed wrestling on the independent circuit more so than in WWE, what with the heightened pressure and added limits and rules in the global corporation, so it would be a major blast from the past to witness Bryan take to the ring and compete once again for the first time in years without a filter – no matter which promotion it happens to be for.