WWE has been the only major mainstream wrestling promotion in North America for almost two decades, but that doesn’t mean they are the only company to create stars. Other promotions have tried their best to create momentum for alternative products introducing new wrestlers to the world. TNA/Impact Wrestling had arguably the biggest opportunity with a television deal on Spike TV for many years along with bigger names joining the company to help get new viewers.
The smaller rise of Ring of Honor in the 2000s made it get a cult following of fans that truly believed these new rising stars were the best wrestlers in the world. International promotions like NJPW, AAA, and CMLL also featured unique presentations of wrestling that started to find success in North America due to the internet. We will look at ten wrestlers currently on the WWE roster that initially became famous in other promotions.
The great success of Ricochet on WWE television is making him one of the top rising stars on Raw. Ricochet was already a relevant name famous for his work in other promotions as one of the most unique performers.
New Japan and Lucha Underground each would make Ricochet an important part of their product. Ricochet’s controversial match with Will Ospreay received television time on ESPN with shows discussing the moves they did. The fame before WWE helped Ricochet have a good start to his run in the bigger company.
9 AJ Styles
The incredible career of AJ Styles has seen him deliver amazing matches in every promotion he’s appeared in. Styles found his first stint of success with Impact Wrestling when he became their first major homegrown star and the face of the company.
A move to New Japan and Ring of Honor made Styles an even bigger star with these promotions thriving with the popularity of social media. Styles becoming a top name in the wrestling industry without WWE made him valuable enough for WWE to offer a huge contract allowing him to skip NXT.
WWE dropped the ball with EC3 many years ago during his run as the Derrick Bateman character. It was Impact Wrestling that signed him and gave him the EC3 name to get a fresh start with a new gimmick. The role as Dixie Carter’s nephew made him a valuable heel right away.
EC3 also showcased his depth with serious and comedic moments making the top star in Impact with wins over Sting, Kurt Angle and Matt Hardy. WWE re-signed him and surprisingly allowed him to keep the EC3 name due to the fame he achieved with it.
7 Kevin Owens
The success of Kevin Owens outside of WWE is what led to him receiving a tryout at the Performance Center. Many pundits expected Owens to never work for WWE due to his unconventional look and wrestling style.
Fans however decided otherwise by making him one of the top wrestling stars in the world during his run as ROH Champion in Ring of Honor. Owens delivered incredible work that made him a must-see talent. WWE took notice enough to bring him in and push him right away. Owens instantly would have great merchandise sales thanks to his following outside of the company.
6 Zelina Vega
The start of Zelina Vega’s career came in Impact Wrestling under the name of Rosita. Vega joined the company around the time it had its best audience on Spike TV. The best moment of her Impact run came when she won the Knockouts Tag Team Championship with Sarita aka WWE producer Sarah Stock.
Vega showed great potential on the microphone at a young age that made fans and people in the industry take notice. WWE would bring her in years later as the manager of Andrade which became a perfect pairing to add to her level of fame.
5 Finn Balor
The signing of Finn Balor by WWE to join the Performance Center showed that WWE was now completely willing to sign any top names that already proved to be successful outside of the company. Balor did that by becoming a top star for New Japan as Prince Devitt.
The biggest sign of success for Balor came in the form of the Bullet Club taking over wrestling during the early days with him as the leader. Finn also found more fame for his cosplay body painting which inspired WWE to give him the Demon gimmick when signing.
4 Adam Cole
NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn 2017 featured a sold-out Barclays Center reacting with huge support for Adam Cole when he made his debut. It showed just how popular and famous Cole already was within the wrestling industry.
Cole had success everywhere he wrestled as the only three-time ROH Champion, the longest-reigning PWG Champion and a successful member of Bullet Club for New Japan. WWE signed him and he’s already become one of the top NXT stars of all-time partially due to fans already supporting him from his prior work elsewhere.
3 Daniel Bryan
The signing of Daniel Bryan to WWE over a decade ago was a huge deal in the wrestling world. Bryan already had a reputation for being the best in the world thanks to an iconic ROH Championship reign that helped put Ring of Honor on the map.
WWE even utilized his recognition by having other wrestlers and commentators run him down for his success elsewhere. It made fans cheer him and support him to the start of his main roster run as a face. Bryan would find the same success in WWE to once again become known as one of the best performers of his era.
Andrade is a rising star for WWE on the Smackdown roster today, but he has always been a relevant name in the wrestling industry. The work he created in Mexico under the name of La Sombra while wearing a mask made him a top star at a young age for CMLL.
New Japan viewed his popularity as strong enough to bring him in for the occasional shows. Andrade was arguably the top luchador in the wrestling world leading to WWE signing him. The removal of the mask created a new version of the character as Andrade would take some time before excelling in the new company.
1 Shinsuke Nakamura
The incredible work of Shinsuke Nakamura in New Japan made him a noteworthy performer in North America. Fans would get access to his matches in Japan thanks to the NJPW streaming service and social media in general.
Ring of Honor forming a relationship with NJPW helped take Nakamura to the next level as well. A standout match with Kevin Owens at the Hammerstein Ballroom would see fans start keeping up with Nakamura consistently. It helped him debut in NXT with some of the strongest hype in WWE history. Unfortunately, Nakamura’s main roster run has left a lot to be desired after the massive signing.