WWE may be the biggest and most popular wrestling promotion in the world, but it’s certainly not the only one. With the independent circuit the best and most accessible it’s ever been, it would certainly behoove pro wrestling fans to broaden their horizons.
Here are five of the best pro wrestlers who don’t work for WWE.
5. Matt Riddle
MMA fans are likely already familiar with former UFC welterweight Matt Riddle, but wrestling fans probably won’t know him unless they pay attention to the indie scene. Nevertheless, he’s proven to be a workhorse who always puts on a good match.
After being fired from the UFC for testing positive for marijuana in February 2013, Riddle opted to trade the octagon for the squared circle. He made his pro wrestling debut for EVOLVE in January 2016, and went on to have one of the most spectacular rookie years in pro wrestling history, facing off against much more seasoned opponents like Drew Galloway (a.k.a. WWE’s Drew McIntyre) and Cody Rhodes. In January 2017, he defeated Rampage Brown to win the PROGRESS Atlas Championship.
WWE has already shown interest in Riddle, but his very public marijuana usage has prevented them from offering him a contract. If Riddle ever wants to make it to the grandest stage of them all, he’ll likely have to clean up his act first.
4. Zack Sabre Jr.
Zack Sabre Jr. got a taste of WWE when he competed in the fantastic WWE Network-exclusive Cruiserweight Classic in summer 2016, and he was my pick to win the whole thing (if you have the WWE Network, do yourself a favor and watch his full match against Noam Dar). Indeed, despite being knocked out of the tournament in the semifinal round WWE still offered ZSJ a contract – but he turned it down. And honestly, given the fantastic year he’s had on the independent circuit it was probably for the best.
ZSJ is known for being a cocky technician who can tie his opponents in a pretzel of pain and make them beg for mercy. He’s the current EVOLVE Champion and is an entrant in this year’s G1 Climax, a near month-long 20-man annual tournament put on by New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW). Whoever faces him is sure to have a bad time.
3. The Young Bucks
I’m treating The Young Bucks as a two-for-one because they are arguably the best tag team in the world right now and one of the best tag teams to never set foot in WWE.
The Young Bucks are members of NJPW’s Bullet Club, which is hands down the most famous wrestling stable outside WWE, and they wrestle all over the world and for a ton of different promotions. At one point in 2014 and again in 2016, they simultaneously held the ROH World, PWG World, and IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships.
And besides being fantastic wrestlers, they’re charismatic as hell. I highly recommend watching their “Being the Elite” YouTube series.
2. Kenny Omega
Kenny Omega is my favorite non-WWE wrestler and if he ever signs with the company I will absolutely lose my mind. But for now, the only place you can see him wrestle is NJPW.
Omega has been wrestling for NJPW full-time since 2014, but he didn’t truly shoot to stardom until summer 2016 when he became the first “gaijin” (foreigner) to win the G1 Climax tournament. Then in January 2017, Omega wrestled in the first-ever six-star rated match when he challenged Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at Wrestle Kingdom 11.
After the match, Omega sparked rumors that he would join WWE when he tweeted that he was “stepping away from Japan to reassess [his] future.” However, in February NJPW announced that Omega had re-signed for another year. I have my fingers crossed that he’ll be WWE-bound in 2018.
1. Kazuchika Okada
Kazuchika Okada is NJPW’s top guy, and because NJPW is the largest promotion outside of WWE, Okada is naturally at the top of this list.
At just 29-years-old, Okada is already a four-time (and the current) IWGP Heavyweight Champion. But his road to success was a bumpy one. In fact, Okada’s first run in the NJPW heavyweight division was so uninspiring that NJPW actually sent him on a learning excursion to work for TNA (now known as Impact Wrestling). He wrestled there for 20 months under the ring name “Okato” before returning to Japan in October 2011 with a completely overhauled villainous image as “The Rainmaker.” His star hasn’t stopped rising since.
So there you have it: five of the best wrestlers who don’t work for WWE. Could we see them in WWE in the future? It’s certainly possible. But do yourself a favor and check them out now!
Are there any other indie wrestlers who you think deserve some recognition? Who are in your top five? Share your picks below!