Like with any other job, experience is needed before you can step foot into the big time. In the world of pro wrestling, experience is certainly required, although it comes in different forms. Having wrestled before is important, but it isn’t a crucial component, believe it or not. The company evaluates several aspects of a performer; one being athletic background and two, their overall look. In various cases, wrestlers with no experience whatsoever have been selected over others with years of experience. Why? For several reasons, with none being athletics as we mentioned; wrestlers have backgrounds in various sports such as weightlifting, football and amateur wrestling. The other factor is straight up image; if you have the “it” factor, the WWE looks past a lackluster resume.
The wrestlers on this list generally pressed the fast forward button for the most part, although many tend to forget that these wrestlers did in fact work for other promotions, albeit brief for some cases of the Superstars on this list. Others have an extensive Indie list that you probably weren’t aware of as well. In this article we’re going to take a look at both examples. Here is a list of 15 current WWE stars you had no clue worked for other companies. Enjoy!
15 Apollo Crews: Dragon Gate
Triple H and avid Indie pro wrestling fans rejoiced when the announcement was made that Uhaa Nation was joining the WWE ranks down in NXT. Even before WWE fans got a glimpse of the super athlete, he was already tearing it up independently.
Adopting a brilliant Japanese style into his routine, Apollo thrived early on, blending a spectacular mix of power and agility to his skill set. Dragon Gate showcased his talents beautifully making Crews a nominee for Rookie of the Year in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter back in 2011.
From then on Apollo never looked back, taking on some of the brightest stars in the entire world like Ricochet, Anthony Nese and even teaming up with Japanese CWC star Akira Tozawa.
After working his final bouts in 2014, Uhaa signed a deal with the WWE at the very end of the year and reported to NXT immediately following the signing. The name Uhaa Nation was scrapped and he resurfaced his brand under the WWE banner with his new name, Apollo Crews (not Creed: Daniel Bryan reference).
14 The Miz: Ultimate Pro Wrestling
A big misconception when it comes to The Miz is the fact that he became a pro wrestler by fluke following his stint as a reality star.
Miz grew up a huge wrestling fan idolizing the likes of Ultimate Warrior, Hulk Hogan and Shawn Michaels. He got his first mainstream gig back in 2001, when he appeared on the MTV hit series The Real World. He’d stay on board with the network for several other programs.
Now what many tend to forget is that Miz did not immediately make the jump to the WWE, he instead made a pit stop at Ultimate Pro Wrestling in 2003, before heading to the company and joining the Tough Enough cast. Miz trained at the Ultimate University camp and debuted for the company in 2003 under his current alias of The Miz. After losing in the finals of a UPW tournament, Miz would ink a deal with the WWE and enter the Tough competition in October of 2004.
13 Kane: Indie Circuit/WCW
We mostly remember Kane during his WWE run flopping around various horrifying gimmicks before finally landing on the 'Big Red Machine' persona, which he still uses two decades later. What most tend to forget however, is the fact that Kane actually travelled the world before landing onto the WWE scene.
He worked the Indies starting from 1992. His first breakout came as a Tag Team wrestler with Smoky Mountain Wrestling, and it was there where Kane captured the Tag Titles alongside future WWE alumni Al Snow. He'd go on to work for several other promotions, including a major breakthrough with WCW. Unfortunately, his run with the company was relegated to one match which was a loss to Sting.
Shortly after the bout, the WWE came calling and the demon would make his debut on Raw under the alias of Dr. Isaac Yankem, the evil dentist (which sounds terrible but was still better than his other gimmick as the fake “Diesel”. Man, was that ever bad).
12 Bayley: Big Time Wrestling
Talk about the power of visualization. Bayley visualized a career under the WWE lights since she was a little girl residing out of California, dreaming to be the next Lita in the WWE ranks. When looking at her progression throughout the years, I think we can all safely assume she’ll be something special for many years.
Her journey took a lot more than just visualization, though. She started wrestling at 11 no less and went pro when she turned 18, joining a local promotion, Big Time Wrestling. She began to train in the company and would go on to make her pro debut in September of 2008. At that time, she was making her name known under the alias of Davina Rose.
Bayley would go on to further her development with Shimmer Women Athletes, which is notorious for building great female wrestlers. After her stint with the company she would join the WWE under the developmental umbrella of NXT in December of 2012. Like they say, the rest is history.
11 Randy Orton: Mid-Missouri Association-Southern Illinois Conference Wrestling
He’s become one of the most popular faces in the world of pro wrestling in that last decade, but that wasn’t always the plan for Orton. Randy had wrestling in his blood, as his father Bob Orton, was a prominent pro wrestler during his time. Randy instead opted for a different route as his family didn’t want him to walk in the same footsteps as his father. The master of the RKO would instead enlist into the Marines. Things went south fast as Orton would leave the base, and he was later scheduled to almost 40 days in military prison for leaving.
Once he returned home, Orton set his sights on pro wrestling. Before making a name for himself in WWE’s developmental in OVW, Randy began with the Mid-Missouri Wrestling Association. He was trained by his father and was an active wrestler for the company for over a month. He was also involved as a referee at one point in time for his uncle’s promotion, which was also based out of St. Louis.
10 Heath Slater: World Wrestling Alliance
Born in West Virginia, Slater aspired to become a WWE star from a very young age. His first type of formal training took place with the World Wrestling Alliance more than a decade ago. After graduating from the school, Slater would work as a performer in the company. He would also later join the Georgia Indie circuit, wrestling for several other promotions in the area.
His Indie experience was cut short after the WWE would offer Slater a deal in December of 2006 to join the company’s former developmental system in Deep South Wrestling. His developmental journey turned out to be quite long, seeing how limited his Indie resume was before joining the company. Heath would spend an additional three years with the FCW development, spanning from 2007 to 2010.
In February of 2010, Slater would finally debut as a member of the NXT show. After the lackluster competition was done, he joined The Nexus, playing a pivotal role in one of the best storylines coming out of the 2000s.
9 Erick Rowan: Japanese Indie Circuit
He signed his first major deal with the WWE back in 2011, and immediately reported to the FCW developmental system. Although he seemed new and rather green, he wasn’t. Rowan was actually actively wrestling since 2003, if you can believe it. He spent the majority of his time in Japan learning the art of pro wrestling in the dojo of Pro Wrestling Noah. The big man would compete in Japan, but later return to the US in 2008 working for various Indie promotions, which included F1rst Wrestling which resided out of his hometown in Minnesota.
Finally after all his years of Indie work he was contacted by the WWE (as we mentioned), joining FCW. His big break came when the company rebranded to NXT joining the Wyatt Family, becoming one of the hottest acts of the developmental system. Before he knew it, Rowan was on the WWE's main roster.
8 No Way Jose: Mid-Atlantic Wrestling
We add some NXT flavor to the list with none other than the Dominican native, No Way Jose. Still only 28, Jose rose rather quickly. Believe it or not, he made his Indie debut in May of 2013, which really isn’t all that long ago. Jose wrestled under the alias of Manny Garcia, making his pro debut with Mid-Atlantic Wrestling. He enjoyed great success in his brief run capturing the TV Championship. Jose also appeared on other promotions such as OMEGA Championship Wrestling and Fire Star Pro Wrestling.
After less than two years on the American Indie circuit the WWE signed Levis to a developmental deal to join NXT. He began as an enhancement talent and would later develop the No Way Jose persona in April of 2016. He’s thrived in the role thus far, taking on the likes of Austin Aries. He looks to be a main roster player in the future.
7 Kalisto: AAA Mexico
He might be only 29, but Kalisto has a formidable body of work wrestling all around the world in the last decade already.
Residing out of Chicago, Illinois, Kalisto got his first prominent gig in 2006, wrestling with Windy City Pro Wrestling (which was located in his hometown). He would also adapt a Luchador style of training to his arsenal, joining the AAA wrestling school as well. The Luchador combined several backgrounds to his bag of tricks, which included a Japanese style, Mexican influence as a Luchador and North American style for his early Indie experiences.
He had great success early on but was taken back after an initial failed WWE tryout. This caused the Superstar to join AAA Mexico on a full time basis in 2011. His year experience paid off beautifully, as he’d later return to North American wrestling for various promotions, which included Dragon Gate USA and Combat Zone Wrestling. During that time, he took on the likes of T.J. Perkins, Ricochet, Rich Swann and Johnny Gargano, just to name a few notable names.
His experiences paid off greatly in May of 2013 when Rodriguez was rebranded as Kalisto, signing a deal with the WWE.
6 Zack Ryder: New York Wrestling Connection
Seems like the New York native has been around forever, yet he’s still rather young at the age of 31. Reason behind this is the fact that Ryder began back in 2004 when he was only 18. Ryder was obsessed with becoming a WWE star and began his journey as soon as he was able to.
Zack looked to his hometown roots when making his pro wrestling debut, signing a deal with New York Wrestling Connection (hey, you gotta start somewhere, right?). He spent the bulk of his time as a Tag Team wrestler winning the promotion's Tag Titles. After a couple of years with the promotion he signed with the WWE and reported to Deep South in 2005. This was his first and only deal with the company. Crazy to think that he’s still going strong more than a decade since signing his first major deal with the WWE.
5 Xavier Woods: TNA Wrestling
He did what? Oh yes, don’t you dare be sour, and clap for your one time TNA Tag Team Champion! In all seriousness, yes Woods did in fact wrestle with TNA and yes, he was a Tag Team Champion with the Indie star Jay Lethal. His run was quite short spanning from 07 to 08, though it was pretty impactful from the get go when he debuted under the name of Rasheed Lucius “Consequences” Creed. The name was pretty painful, but he enjoyed some exposure as an X-Division wrestler. After he failed to win the X-Division Title, Xavier set his sights on a Tag Team Title hunt alongside Jay Lethal; the two formed the team known as Lethal Consequences.
Woods won the Tag Belts and would be released soon after in 2010. He continued with New Japan for a little but would end up singing a WWE deal and immediately reporting to FCW.
4 Big Cass: World of Unpredictable Wrestling
As you can tell judging by the picture above, Big Cass wasn’t always Big Cass. As a matter of fact he looked more like a wrestling version of Kid Rock when he first debuted under the NXT lights.
Before growing into the mammoth he is today, Colin Cassady was known as Big Bill Young, wrestling for a local New York promotion called World of Unpredictable Wrestling. After getting his feet wet with the independent promotion, Cass quickly signed a WWE deal as the company saw major potential in him.
That potential took awhile to blossom, however. Cass spent a year with FCW and the company was very unsure about his future. Then out of nowhere, a Jersey boy comes in to save the day and all of a sudden, Cass & Amore become the hottest acts in all of pro wrestling four years later. Scary how things work out sometimes.
3 Sheamus: Irish Whip Wrestling
Let’s give some props to Sheamus; love him or hate him, the guy's still going strong after 15 years of experience as a pro wrestler. For that, we must applaud the Celtic Warrior.
His roots in the pro wrestling business did not start in the WWE, they actually began a long way down the road with Irish Whip Wrestling over in Dublin. He trained in the school and would later debut as Seahmus O’Shaunessy. Soon after, Sheamus would become the face of the franchise as the dominant Champion; he fought significant names like Vampiro, D’Lo Brown and Drew Galloway, who he’d drop the Championship to in his final match.
He continued on wrestling the British Indie circuit for two more years and would finally ink a WWE deal in 07’, reporting to FCW. Soon after his main roster call up in 09’ Sheamus would become WWE Championship. He’s certainly come a long way since his Dublin days that’s for sure.
2 Rusev: New Wave Pro Wrestling
After a tremendous career as a power lifter out of Bulgaria, Rusev switched his focus to a career as a pro wrestler. He left his country and moved to California joining the Knokx Pro Wrestling Academy, led by former WWE alumnus Gangrel and Rikishi. After his training, Rusev would make his pro wrestling debut under the San Diego based promotion New Wave Pro Wrestling. He fought under the alias of Miroslav Makarov, once again playing off his Bulgarian roots.
He wrestled for other California based promotions for a couple of years, and he later got the phone call from the WWE in September of 2010, reporting to the developmental brand over in FCW.
He made his debut under Alexander Rusev but was quickly put to the sidelines after receiving brutal injuries tearing his meniscus and anterior cruciate ligament. Again, his return was halted a second time after he suffered another severe neck injury.
Thankfully, when the company rebranded to NXT his injury problems were put to rest and he thrived alongside Lana, becoming a hot commodity for the company, something he still is a couple of years later, this time on the WWE’s main roster.
1 John Cena: Ultimate Pro Wrestling
Long before Cena became the face of the WWE, he struggled to find a career path. His youth consisted of jobs as a limo-driver, bouncer and aspiring body builder. He would ultimately put those occupations on hold and give the world of pro wrestling a try. Before joining OVW and making his name with the WWE’s formal developmental company, he got his start with Ultimate Pro Wrestling, a company based out of California. His initial persona was under the role of “The Prototype”. Even back then in 2000, the company saw something in Cena and crowned him as the UPW Heavyweight Champion in April of 2000.
WWE would take notice of his potential and ink the future star to a deal. He’d wrestle his final match for UPW in March of 2001. He had a brief but effective OVW stint and would go on to make his WWE mainstream debut against Kurt Angle on an episode of SmackDown, in June of 2002, only a little more than a year after his final UPW match. Talk about a turn of events!