Luke Winkie ranks the indie wrestlers we would most like to see make the jump to the WWE.
Take a look at the SummerSlam card. You had a former indie star Adrian Neville teaming with a TV superhero, a former Ring of Honor champion Seth Rollins unifying his WWE World Heavyweight Championship with John Cena’s United States Championship, two NXT products Big E and Xavier Woods winning tag-team belts from two other NXT products Titus O’Neil and Darren Young, and Kevin Owens, formerly Kevin Steen, fighting Cesaro, formerly Claudio Castagnoli, in a match they’ve had dozens of times before in abandoned rec centers across America.
WWE is changing. It’s changing rapidly. The success of NXT has opened doors to talent that hasn’t been grown in-house. We live in a world where Kevin Owens is allowed to call John Cena a naive idiot on the USA Network. Indie guys, from Finn Balor, to Sami Zayn, to the recently debuted Apollo Crews, are allowed to bring their legacies and fandoms with them to the performance center. For the first time in decades, WWE is acknowledging, and hiring talent that exists outside of their flock.
The possibilities are endless. If Samoa Joe can ink a deal and keep his name, then anything can happen. Below I gathered 10 indie stars that I’d love to see in WWE. This used to feel like a pipedream, but now? Not so much.
10 - ACH
Let’s start with an easy one. Remember John Morrison? The white-boy high-flyer with the crosses on his sunglasses? Morrison had a ton of flash but none of his offense ever had much of an oomph behind it. ACH is the opposite. Yeah, he does a great 450 but he’s also willing to run his knee into your head. Talents like that have brought him to Ring of Honor, Chikara, and Anarchy Championship Wrestling.
It’s been widely reported that ACH will probably ship off to NXT when he’s done with Ring of Honor, which is awesome. For years old-school wrestling purists have turned their nose up to big, exciting, approachable wrestling, but NXT is slowly turning into a legitimate hub for that sort of stuff. Thank God they’re not signing future Big Shows… oh wait, I forgot about Braun Stowman.
9 - Veda Scott
As it stands, the WWE diva’s division could use a little more nasty. Sasha Banks brings it with her submission chains and diabolical feats of cruelty (R.I.P. Bayley’s fingertips) but the rest of the roster is either boring and nice (Paige, Becky, and Charlotte) or generically bratty (Nikki, Brie, and Naomi.) I prefer my heels to be evil on a very physical level, I like watching them take pleasure in the suffering of others. Veda Scott has that down. She’s not the best athlete, but that doesn’t matter–sometimes wrestlers are magnetic on a very fundamental level.
Veda works for Ring of Honor and a slew of other indies, and she’s only been wrestling since 2011. NXT will have to recharge their diva’s division soon, considering they’ve just called a generation of women to the main roster, and I really hope they give Veda a call.
8 - The Young Bucks
Ah The Young Bucks, everyone’s favorite smarky tag-team of superkicking, heartthrob real-life brothers. It feels like The Young Bucks have been wrestling pretty much constantly for the last 10 years, they’re just so ubiquitous! Last month an indie promotion booked a show entitled “we booked this show because it was literally the only available date for the Young Bucks.” This is the world we live in!
If you like unnecessary flips, poses and super inside-baseball references encoded in move names (their finisher is called the Meltzer Driver, seriously,) you’ll love The Young Bucks. Lately they’ve been making some noise that they’d consider signing on with WWE, something they’ve outright dismissed in the past. We shall see!
7 - Kimber Lee
If WWE is serious about this Diva’s Revolution thing, and I’m not entirely convinced that they are, they’ll eventually need to sign some talent that weighs above 90 pounds. The male talent in WWE come in all shapes and sizes, but the women have more or less looked the same for the last two decades. That’s not a bad thing! Paige, Charlotte, Becky, and Sasha are all enormously talented and great for the division, but it sure would be nice to break the physical mold.
Kimber Lee is one of the best wrestlers in the world right now. You can stack up her matches against anybody, and she actually looks like a real human being. That’s important! Kimber Lee would probably already be in WWE if she looked like Nikki Bella, and that’s a freaking travesty. Kimber Lee doesn’t fit the super narrow column WWE fits its female talent into. But amidst all the other positive upheaval, now is the perfect time to change.
6 - Jay Lethal
Jay Lethal is currently Ring of Honor’s undisputed champion, which makes a debut in WWE pretty unlikely in the short term. However Lethal is still one of the best high-flyers the sport has ever seen, and his Lethal Injection is so awesome I find myself watching it over and over and over again on YouTube. There are reports out there that WWE is very interested in his talents, so maybe when his contract with ROH is up we can watch Cesaro/Lethal matches and the wrestling world will fold in on itself.
5 - Adam Cole
Adam Cole is only 26 years old but he’s already one of the biggest draws on the independent circuit. Catch him logging time with Ring of Honor, PWG, and CZW. He’s also handsome, well-spoken, and a complete menace in the ring. Adam Cole is the kinda guy you can build a company around, like, we’re talking a John Cena, face-of-the-company sort of talent. Expect to see him in WWE before too long, at which point he’ll probably start redeeming Make-A-Wishes and turning all the smarks against him.
4 - Chris Hero
So this is sorta cheating. Chris Hero was actually in NXT for a couple years, 2012 to 2013 to be precise, before he was sent off to future endeavors. Since then he’s been wrestling in Dragon Gate, Ring of Honor, PWG, and other random indie dates across the country. Chris Hero is great. He’s got the height and size WWE usually looks for, and sports the same natural charisma that got guys like Kevin Owens over on the main roster. He’s never been a great athlete, but packs some healthy punches and crunchy suplexes which has been more than enough for plenty of other guys. After his exit Hero said that the door was still cracked open and we could still see him in a WWE ring at some point down the line. I certainly hope so, it’d be a shame if he retired without a couple moments on the world’s biggest stage.
3 - Ricohet
Ricohet is the most exciting wrestler on the independent circuit. There’s really no doubt about it. He’s been around since 2010, working for places like Dragon Gate and Evolve, but he’s gone absurdly Super Saiyan since signing up with New Japan Pro Wrestling and Lucha Underground. He’s the most athletic wrestler in the world. His 450 splash makes Adrian Neville look like a chump. I’m not even joking. Combine that with his size, swagger, and handsomeness, and you’ve got a bona fide superstar.
Also he’s only 26! There’s a whole career’s worth of bumps left for him to take. A lot of the guys on this list might be long-shots, but I personally guarantee you that we’ll see Ricochet in the WWE within the next two years. I want to live in a world where Ricochet and Apollo Crews are gunning for the NXT gold!
2 - A.J. Styles
Is A.J. Styles the last what-if? We live in a world where Sting is challenging for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, where Samoa Joe is wrestling in NXT under his own name, where Ultimate Warrior and Bruno Sammartino buried their hatchet with Vince McMahon, and where Bret Hart was wrestling in a WWE ring as recently as 2010.
So seriously, is A.J. Styles the last what-if? He’s legitimately one of the best of all time, he’s got years of experience and an iconic finishing move. He’s also 38 and making plenty of money wrestling in New Japan Pro Wrestling and Ring of Honor, and might not be keen on accepting a pay-dock for a developmental contract. But man, it sure seems weird that a guy of his caliber might never get an opportunity to make a go of it in the big leagues.
Then again, I thought the same thing about Samoa Joe.
1 - Shinsuke Nakamura
Number one with a bullet. If you’ve never seen Nakamura work, picture an international Japanese rock star with the charisma of peak-Ric Flair and the violence of Brock Lesnar. He trained under Antonio Inoki, he’s got a legitimate MMA record, and he’s absolutely the most likable, colorful, dramatic, thrilling, ring-conscious athlete in pro wrestling right now. WWE doesn’t have a great track record of translating Japanese talent to American shores, but when you got it, you got it.
Shinsuke Nakamura is a three time IWGP champion and routinely makes it out to the American indie circuit about once a year to wrestle guys like Kevin Owens. Shinsuke is now 35 years old with multiple five-star matches under his belt, if a trip WWE is in the cards, it’ll need to happen sooner than later. If you’re a starry-eyed wrestling nerd you’ve probably daydreamed of Nakamura’s entrance theme getting the full WrestleMania treatment. I’m still hoping. He’s got Daniel Bryan’s endorsement at least.