The Circle of Life: A Look at WWE’s Indie Signings and the Indie’s Replenishing (VIDEOS)

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Photo: WWE Network

For years now, around the fall, indie wrestling fans go online to lament the amount of stars that the indie scene lost that year to the WWE Universe. And every year they complain that it’s WWE’s attempt to “kill off” the indie scene and that now there’s “no one left” on the indies. But this is not something knew. The WWE didn’t just start signing indie wrestlers this year, last year, or even 2012. They’ve been doing it since the fall of WCW and ECW in 2001 and the rise of the indie scene the following year, when promotions like Ring of Honor, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla (PWG), TNA/IMPACT Wrestling, CHIKARA, and SHIMMER started popping up. During the Monday Night Wars, when WWF and WCW were feuding, while the feisty pup ECW was nipping at their heels, the major promotions just keep the roster fresh and refortified by signing away each other’s talent. While WCW would try and sign WWF’s bigger name guys, like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, the WWF signed WCW’s underappreciated midcard guys, like “Stunning” Steve Austin, Cactus Jack, Eddie Guerrero and Chris Jericho instead. ECW played both – being regularly mentioned on both RAW and Nitro – while creating the strongest independent promotion in the United States and the first true major indie promotion.

Photo: WWE

But with the fall of WCW and ECW, the talent pool at the top had few options to continue, and with WWE’s roster now full of the most talented known performers on the planet, it made it tougher for younger stars to get a glance. This conundrum led to the rise of the existing indies from the end of the 90s, like Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW) and Maryland Championship Wrestling (MCW, now MCW Pro Wrestling), and the emergence of the aforementioned promotions, as well as Major League Wrestling (MLW), EVOLVE, Shine, Ohio’s Absolute Intense Wrestling (AIW), and Chicago’s All American Wrestling (AAW) (to name a few). With a new higher standard indie promotion, the talent began to move beyond regional locals to working circuits, akin to the old NWA territorial days. Instead of joining the WWF machine as an early 20 green wrestler, performers could hone their craft, cement their athletic imprint, and truly find their potentials, by working in these rapidly gestating independent promotions and then heading to the WWE Universe in their late 20’s or even mid 30’s. This lead to a backlog of truly incredible talent that were competing on levels as good as – and in many cases better than – the ones in the WWE, that simply didn’t have the enormous platform that the WWE’s financial clout could provide. Matches like Bryan Danielson vs. Samoa Joe in early Ring of Honor were easily superior athletic contests and stories than John Cena vs. Randy Orton. But only a minute fraction of the WWE Universe was even aware of Ring of Honor’s existence.

The first major shot in the arm came from the rise of Total Nonstop Action (TNA) in the early 2000s. Formed by Jeff Jarrett and his father, Jerry (who ran legendary Memphis promotion Continental Wrestling Association (CWA) with Jerry Lawler in the 1970s and 1980s) in 2002, TNA created it’s flagship program (and later brand name) “Impact Wrestling” and immediately came out with the most diverse roster in years. There were some WCW and ECW stars who the WWE didn’t pick up, like Scott Hall, Jerry Lynn, Steve Corino, and Konnan, mixed with former WWF stars like Ken Shamrock, Brian Christopher, Gangrel, and Ron “The Truth” Killings. But most of the top stars where either sitting out their guaranteed contracts from Time Warner or signed to the WWE. So for the bulk of the roster, they had to fill it with stars from the indies. Alongside their veterans, they had young names like Samoa Joe, James Storm, Low Ki, Puerto Rico’s Apolo, Christopher Daniels, and a phenomenal prospect named AJ Styles. As TNA got more mainstream coverage, through the likes of deals with FOX and Spike TV, these indie stars got more notice and created a ground swell of new fans heading to see TNA’s AJ Styles in Ring of Honor, or Samoa Joe in PWG. They were thus exposed to more of these unique and maverick performers – both men and women – that would form the foundation of the new American indie scene.

As with any large sized beast or bulky ship, it takes them longer to turn around than the wolves or the speedboats. It would be nearly half way through the 2000s before WWE would have a glimpse into what the indie scene could provide for the WWE, but when they did, it only snowballed. But what was initially a great concern in 2006, soon became one of the indies saving graces. With the WWE snooping now, a lot of top stars were being removed after hitting main event status on the indies. A lot of holes were created and suddenly the opportunities became more and more prevalent on the indie circuit. While WWE could work feuds and stars for decades, holding on to high level spots for great periods of time, the indie scene’s time was far more finite. Meaning that as long as you hustled, windows were going to open a lot. You had to be ready to seize those spots and make a name for yourself on the indie scene. When UK wrestler Chief Deputy Dunne was recently asked by The Mirror in Britain about his thoughts on the WWE raiding the indies for talent, Dunne was against the notion altogether.

“I don’t think it’s killing the scene because there are always more wrestlers. The wrestlers that are being signed up by WWE have been busting their backs to do it as a full time career for a long time and they are now getting that opportunity. But when they move up, there are so many more wrestlers waiting in the wings.”
Chief Deputy Dunne, The Mirror UK, September 1, 2018

IT BEGAN WITH THE WOMEN

If we start in 2002, the year after WCW was acquired by the WWE, the first foray into the indie scene was with emerging Canadian indie star Gail Kim. Kim was trained in Toronto by legendary trainer Ron Hutchinson and wrestled for his Apocalypse Wrestling Federation (AWF), Toronto’s top indie promotion, and with Border City Wrestling (BCW) in Windsor. She was a natural and she was signed by the WWE a year after making her debut. She was pushed to the moon quick, winning the WWE Women’s Championship in her first televised match, but in two years she would be frustrated withe company’s lack of focus on the women’s division and left for TNA. Just prior to Kim’s departure, they signed another indie wrestler, this time a wrestler named Alexis Laree, who had worked with both TNA and Ring of Honor amongst other indies. She was repackaged as Mickie James and has become of the most decorated women’s wrestlers of the past two decades. In 2004, they brought in two other girls, Beth Phoenix (who was also a veteran of Ron Hutchinson’s AWF and an early SHIMMER star) and Melina Perez, an indie star with California’s Empire Wrestling Federation, where she was trained by EWF owner and former wrestler Jesse Hernandez, who had a journeyman career in the WWF in the mid 80’s to mid 90’s (under such names as Jesse Cortez and The Invader), in 2002. Two years later, she was signed to the WWE in 2004 along with Beth Phoenix, adding such needed athleticism to a division run by the likes of models and cheerleaders.

THE SECOND CITY SAINT

Photo: Ring of Honor

In 2005, perhaps after seeing the success of TNA with it’s own indie signees, the likes Styles, Samoa Joe and Daniels, saw the WWE make it’s first big plunge into the world of the indie superstar. They’d signed a regional indie star in Aaron Stevens the previous year, but even though he’d emerge to become Damien Sandow, Stevens was more of a regional star than a national buzz. The same could be said for the three women as well. But signing former ROH World Champion CM Punk would become a game changer, for both the WWE and the independent scene, much more so than “The Pipebomb”.

Beginning his indie career in 1999, CM Punk had become an indie megastar by the time the WWE came calling in 2005. He was arguably Ring of Honor’s biggest star, coming off a ROH World title run and two reigns as ROH Tag Team Champions with Colt Cabana. He was also a 5x IWA Mid South Heavyweight Champion, when IWA Mid South was itself becoming a strong breeding ground for talent, featuring the likes of Seth Rollins and Daniel Bryan in their fold. His matches were classics, against the likes of Samoa Joe, AJ Styles, Austin Aries, Roderick Strong and Daniel Bryan, and his Summer of Punk story is essential viewing for the power of US indie storytelling. The WWE signed him in 2005 and sent them to WWE “finishing school”. In other words, developmental. Then, it was at Ohio Valley Wrestling (OCW), where Punk was immediately pushed to the moon, winning the OVW Television title, then the Heavyweight title. He was called up to the WWE a year later as part of the resurrected ECW brand (the blueprint for the current NXT television show). Again he was pushed heavy, winning the ECW Heavyweight Championship. He made his main roster debut a year after that, after winning the MITB ladder match, cashing in to become World Heavyweight Champion and making his RAW debut. He would go on to become a 5x World Champion with the WWE in his six years on the roster (3x World Heavyweight, 2x WWE Champion) and one of the most popular anti-heroes since “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Now that the WWE saw what can be gained by signing wrestlers already mostly trained, confident in their character and their ringwork, and hungry to take down the status quo in the locker room, the wallets began to open. And more and more scouts began to look away from the collegiate scene and start checking out the growing indie scene as well.

Photo: WWE

THE POST-PUNK ERA

Kofi Kingston, pre-WWE indies

The following few years after Punk’s signing and successes, saw the WWE chance a few more chances. In 2006, they brought in an athletic New England indie wrestler called Kofi Nahaje Kingston, a trainee of WWE Hall of Famer Killer Kowalski who worked Chaotic Wrestling and New England Championship Wrestling (NECW) and two Canadian kids – a Southern Ontario indie wrestler named Shawn Spears and the son of the British Bulldog, Harry Smith, who had been competing with his family’s Stampede Wrestling and MLW. Smith was joined by two other cousins, Nattie Neidhart and Teddy Hart, a year later, alongside close family friend TJ Wilson. Teddy would be released shortly, but the other three would make their main roster debuts as The Hart Dynasty‘s DH Smith, Tyson Kidd and Natalya. And Kofi Kingston has become one of the most decorated WWE Superstars of the 2000s and member of the New Day.

They’re next two bigger names from the US indie scene were also in 2007, with Punk’s friend Colt Cabana and another ROH star in Matt Sydal. Sydal would find success as Evan Bourne, but Cabana last but a year, but departed shortly after his main roster debut as Scotty Goldman. They also brought in their first two major UK indie stars, Ireland’s Sheamus O’Shaunnessy from Irish Whip Wrestling (IWW) and Drew Galloway (soon to be McIntyre) from Glasgow’s Insane Championship Wrestling (ICW). As ROH and TNA both began to build on their own momentums, their loose alliance ended by the end of the 2000s and stars like Samoa Joe and AJ Styles would chose to go exclusive to TNA, taking more stars off the indie scene. It was around this time in 2007 and 2008, with the losses of Punk, Joe, Styles, Daniels, Sydal, Cabana and others, that many thought the writing was on the wall. But that vacuum at the top allowed the next wave of indie stars to assume that top spot, such as Kevin Steen, El Generico and Tyler Black.

FLORIDA CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING

Photo: WWE

For most of the 2000s, the WWE had been creating wrestlers through their developmental deals with certain indie promotions. These promotions would utilize a multitude of WWE contracted developmental talents and get them ready for the main roster TV landscape. They went through Deep South Wrestling (DSW), Ohio Valley Wrestling (OVW) and finally Florida Championship Wrestling (FCW). Alongside Steve Keirn, the WWE created FCW as a solely WWE operated developmental, and thus needed to add more indie talents to their pool. They signed South African indie star PJ Black, Midwest indie star Michael Hutter from AIW, Mexican star Incognito from AAA, and Miss April from Women Superstars Uncensored (WSU), who would become Justin Gabriel, Derrick Bateman (later ECW), Hunico (later Sin Cara II) and AJ Lee.

After a year of learning the ropes and setting up FCW, they opened the floodgates a little more. In 2010, they signed three more of ROH’s top stars and three former ROH World Champions, in Tyler Black (Seth Rollins), Low Ki (Kaval) and “The American Dragon” Bryan Danielson (Daniel Bryan), and TNA’s Consequences Creed came on board as Xavier Woods. The next year they brought in even more, including CZW favorite Jon Moxley (Dean Ambrose), Mexican sensation Mistico as Sin Cara I, and arguably the top indie tag team in the world, The Kings of Wrestling, that featured Chris Hero (Kassius Ohno) and Claudio Castagnoli (Cesaro).

The departure of stars from these promotions allowed other stars like Ricochet, Adam Cole, Kyle O’Reilly, and a young tag team who were just heading back into the indies after a disappointing two year tenure with TNA as Generation Me. Brothers Matt & Nick Jackson, collectively known as the Young Bucks, headed back to win two more PWG World Tag Team titles, three ROH World Tag Team titles and seven IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team titles, becoming one of the greatest tag teams of the past 20 years. Once again, when the WWE would snatch off a few heads of the indie hydra, multiple more stars emerged to fight for their spots on the cards for ROH, PWG, and others.

THE NXT BOOM

Photo: WWE

In 2012, WWE closed down FCW and created their first fully consolidated and operated developmental facility, rebranded as NXT. With a weekly episode to be syndicated internationally (and then put on the infant WWE Network), the WWE once again had to invest in more performers in his farm system. They got even more aggressive first few years, signing top men’s talent like Brodie Lee (Luke Harper), Sami Callihan, El Generico (Sami Zayn) and Samuray del Sol (Kalisto), and women’s indie stars like SHIMMER’s Mercedes KV (Sasha Banks), Davina Rose (Bayley), Rebecca Knox (Becky Lynch), Tenille Dashwood (Emma) and UK royalty in Britani Knight (Page) of the notorious Knight family. They once again went international as well, signing UK indie megastar PAC (Neville) and Australia’s Matt Silva (Buddy Murphy).

In 2014, they signed arguably the top three indie performers in the world at the time, in former ROH World Champion Kevin Steen (Kevin Owens), former Pro Wrestling NOAH GHC Heavyweight Champion KENTA (Hideo Itami) and NJPW’s Irish Junior Heavyweight Prince Devitt (Finn Balor), who was hitting his peak as the founder of the most popular faction in the indies, Bullet Club. Once again, the naysayers were prophesizing the fall of the indie boom, but instead we saw the rise of Jay Lethal, Dalton Castle, Roderick Strong, Kyle O’Reilly and others.

THE RISE IN INTERNATIONAL ACCESSIBILITY

Photo: PROGRESS

In the past few years, the rise of international promotions getting global notoriety – thanks largely to streaming networks like NJPW World and various On-Demand services – has brought global promotions to a global audience like never before. The emerging UK indie scene exploded, with promotions like PROGRESS, RevPro, Ireland’s OTT, Defiant and Pro Wrestling: EVE finding fans beyond the British Isles. NJPW’s decision to launch it’s own network like WWE’s, including English commentary on marquee events, expanded their presence to an international market, leading to their recent expansion of running shows on US soil. Their partnership with ROH in 2014 helped them increase brand recognition by leaps and bounds. All of these created more opportunities for North American indie stars to find work beyond not only their local regions, but beyond their home countries. And it worked both way. Now North American fans were as hungry to see stars like Pete Dunne, Zack Sabre Jr., Jimmy Havoc, Will Ospreay, and Mark Haskins as the UK was to see the likes of Ricochet, Adam Cole, David Starr, and Chris Hero.

In 2015, the WWE continued to restock NXT. It would become an annual process, as NXT Superstars were called up throughout the year, that new blood would be brought in to fill the holes. Longtime TNA veteran Samoa Joe arrived in NXT, along with the return of Rhyno. Indie stars like Biff Busick (Oney Lorcan), Rich Swann, Manny Garcia (No Way Jose), Uhaa Nation (Apollo Crews), Athena (Ember Moon) and Jasmin Areebi (Aliyah) were brought in from the North American indies. Internationally, Japanese joshi sensation Kana, one of the best women’s wrestlers in the world, was signed and renamed Asuka, while the Australian duo of Jessie McKay and KC Cassidy came to NXT to become Iconic, in Billie Kay and Peyton Royce respectively. The first member of Germany’s top faction, Ringkampf from Westside Xtreme Wrestling (wXw), Axel Tischer, headed to the WWE, where he became Sanity‘s Alexander Wolfe. Two other indie superstars arrived in the WWE as well, but not as performers. ROH veteran and “Zombie Princess” Jimmy Jacobs joined creative, while hardcore legend Drake Younger took a position as an NXT referee.

The loss of such cruiserweight stars from the indies opened up spots for the likes of Shane Strickland, AR Fox, and many more, as the midcard and main event positions in promotions from EVOLVE to PWG where being shifted and opened up with the departures.

THE CRUISERWEIGHT CLASSIC AND THE WOMEN’S REVOLUTION

Photo: WWE

In 2016, the WWE began to prepare for multiple annual tournaments for the WWE Network, beginning with the WWE Cruiserweight Classic that summer. While the Classic featured 32 talents from around the world, nearly half of them signed on for the debuting Cruiserweight Division that fall, including Cedric Alexander, TJ Perkins, Drew Gulak, Akira Tozawa, Mustafa Ali, Noam Dar, Jack Gallagher, Mascara Dorada (Gran Metalik), Lince Dorado, and Tony Nese.

Three more longtime TNA veterans, Austin Aries, Bobby Roode and Eric Young, also joined NXT, as well as the man many perceived as the heart and soul of ROH, Roderick Strong. Former Tough Enough contestant and indie star Patrick Clark was signed to NXT (where he would become the Velveteen Dream). They even brought back a former WWE Tag Team Champion who was still hot on the indies, in The Brian Kendrick. Two other indie stars, who had been working on a per appearance deal for the past several months in NXT, officially signed with the yellow brand, with both Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa working heavily into NXT’s future.

Internationally, the WWE went big. From the UK indie scene, they brought in Ireland’s Big Damo (Killian Dain) and from Mexico they brought in one of the best junior heavyweights in the world (and Los Ingobernables co-founder) La Sombra, who would lose his mask to become Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas. From Pro Wrestling NOAH, they signed one of the hottest tag teams in Japan, the Aussie duo of The Mighty Don’t Kneel (who became TM-61).

With talk of a women’s tournament arriving in 2017, they also stocked up on some of the top women’s indie wrestlers, including Scotland’s Nikki Storm (Nikki Cross), Crazy Mary Dobson (Sarah Logan), Heidi Lovelace (Ruby Riott) and Kimber Lee (Abbey Laith). This created a huge shift in the women’s landscape, with new stars like Tessa Blanchard, Deonna Purrazzo, Viper, and many more jumping to the top of the cards.

But it was the New Japan Four that dominated the headlines of 2016. In the fallout of Wrestle Kingdom 10, NJPW’s Shinsuke Nakamura and three members of the Bullet Club – former TNA veteran AJ Styles and the tag team of Karl Anderson & Luke Gallows – all made their jumps to the WWE. The seismic shift in Bullet Club alone led to the ascension of Kenny Omega from midcard star to main event superstar, and the Young Bucks moving up to become the Bullet Club’s principle tag team.

THE LATEST STORM AND INTO THE FUTURE

Photo: WWE

Last year saw even more ROH defections, as the tag team reDragon (Kyle O’Reilly & Bobby Fish) jumped ship to NXT, followed by Donovan Dijak, Lio Rush, and former 3x ROH World Champion Adam Cole. The changing of the guard with TNA/IMPACT ownership caused several stars to leave and head back to the WWE, like the Hardy Boyz and Drew Galloway, as well as Rockstar Spud signing at the end of the year.

Internationally, Ringkampf’s leader Axel Dieter Jr. (Marcel Barthel) made the jump to WWE, leading to the enforcer, WALTER, to emerge as the one of the greatest European stars of the past decade. Dutch sensation Tommy End, who had captivated the mainland Europe and UK indie scene, arrived as well, under the new moniker of Aleister Black. Mickie James and Maria Kanellis (with husband Michael Bennett of IMPACT/ROH) also returned to the company after years away.

The Mae Young Classic lead to an influx of new women’s signees as well, as Stardom’s Kairi Hojo (Kairi Sane) and international women’s stars like Evie (Dakota Kai), Nixon Newell (Tegan Nox), Thea Trinidad (Zelina Vega) and Demi Bennett (Rhea Ripley) all headed to NXT.

This year saw some of their biggest signings yet, as international superstars like Ricochet, Keith Lee, War Machine (Hanson & Rowe), Candice LeRae, Matt Riddle, Deonna Purrazzo and Io Shirai all arrived in the WWE Universe, as well as the return of IMPACT stars EC3 (formerly Derrick Bateman) and Bobby Lashley to the company. UK star Martin Stone, who had been working off and on as Danny Burch, finally signed a full time deal with the company, and emerging Mexican star Ultimo Ninja recently made his debut as Humberto Carrillo. Young stars MJ Jenkins and Lacey Lane also joined the NXT Women’s Division.

But this rush of losses the past two years has opened the indie scene up wide, allowing a flurry of younger stars to rise to the top, such as WALTER, Shane Strickland, Pentagon Jr., Fenix, Brian Cage, Brody King, Darby Allin, Austin Theory, OvE (Jake & Dave Crist), LAX (Santana & Ortiz), Bandido & Flamita, Flip Gordon, Adam Page, and so many more. On the women’s front, Tessa Blanchard leads a new generation of stunning stars in the making, like Jordynne Grace, Momo Watanabe, Candy Cartwright, Su Yung, Maria Manic, and many more, just as women’s wrestling is hitting its peak both in the mainstream and indie world.

The reality is that as long as the WWE continues to grow its international presence with regional NXT projects, they will need more stars. Stars that only the indie world can fulfill on a regular basis. There will be some that chose to remain elsewhere, like NJPW or IMPACT, but there will be a lot that chose to go. And if that is their dream, as a fan you should be happy for them.

But don’t lament the fall of the indie scene, as all indications show that its only getting more popular each year, with more promotions getting an online viewing presence, and each region producing stars that are finding work beyond their geographic roots, beyond state lines, and beyond their ocean barriers. As one star is signed, there are five emerging stars fighting to take that spot. Or as Deputy Dunne said in his interview with the Mirror, “I guess it’s like a step ladder, once one person goes up one rung, another goes up. Once people go to WWE, others now have the opportunity to headline shows and I think it’s a positive thing for wrestling in general.”

 

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