Over the years, WWE has always looked into making the most of their on-screen talent by accentuate their strengths, while negating any of their weaknesses. Some of the wrestlers they’ve been able to get over have come up from their development, but have also worked in other promotions for far longer, honing their craft just get a chance to work with the WWE. This list will go over some of the more entertaining wrestlers that WWE has hired, mainly because they have been so successful in outside promotions.
Even though we will focus mostly on newer personalities, this was a common occurrence during the Monday Night Wars where (primarily WCW) would sign away WWE’s talent to boost their product. Guys like Scott Hall, Lex Luger, Kevin Nash, Macho Man, and Hulk Hogan were only a fraction of the names WCW scooped away, mostly because they were a known commodity, a “name” that could be easily recognizable to fans.
Today, WWE has really focused on the indies where they are signing up the best talent and bringing them to NXT. Thanks to things like the Cruiserweight tournament, even smaller wrestlers (who previously had a much tough time getting to the WWE) now have a chance at doing great things for the biggest promotion in the world. Enough talk though, let’s check out the 15 quality WWE wrestlers who did even better outside of the company.
15 Shinsuke Nakamura
Even though most fans hadn’t heard of him until recently, since 2002, Nakamura has been doing big things over in Japan for New Japan Pro Wrestling. Aside from winning some of their biggest titles like the IWGP Intercontinental and IWGP Tag Team title, he was the youngest ever to win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at only 23 years old. He also won their most prestigious tournament, the G1 Climax, which is a round-robin style tournament that has two blocks with 10 wrestlers in each block. The win came in 2011, but he had performed in the finals an additional three times during his career.
At 36, Nakamura needed a new challenge and decided to take his talents to the WWE, a place that has been looking for international superstars to help bolster their promotion. Like all new talent, Nakamura has started out in NXT, where he has gone undefeated and has already put on some classic encounters against Sami Zayn and Finn Balor. It won’t be much longer though before WWE brings him up to the main roster to show the WWE Universe just how talented he is.
14 Maria Kanellis
Starting with the Diva Search, Maria spent six years with the WWE, leaving in 2010 for outside ventures that she felt WWE was keeping her from. While not really known as a great wrestler, Marie was constantly booked as a girlfriend or just the “ditzy girl” gimmick for most of her tenure, think Amanda Seyfried in Mean Girls; yeah, that was basically Maria.
Leaving WWE was probably the best thing she could have done as she was quickly picked up by Ring of Honor and was given a much more serious heel gimmick. From there on she became one of the best heel managers in the world by cutting solid promos, putting over her guys, and doing all the usual distractions you would expect out of an attentive manager. From there, she continued to impress in promotions like New Japan Pro Wrestling (check out her dancing distractions, they are great) and TNA showing much more versatility than was allowed in the WWE.
13 AJ Styles
Backstage chatter has been that Vince McMahon wished he signed AJ Styles 10 years ago after seeing how he’s performed in 2016. That’s really all you need to know about how Styles has transitioned to working for the biggest wrestling promotion in the world. At 39, AJ was long overdue for a run with the WWE, spending much of his time in TNA, where he basically built the company from its inception. When you think of TNA, for years Styles would always be one of the first things people would talk about, thanks to his 19 title runs with the company.
His excellence didn’t stop there though as he went off to Japan to work for NJPW from 2014 until 2016, winning the IWGP Heavyweight Championship on two occasions. He also became incredibly popular, thanks to his part in leading The Bullet Club, which he took over once Finn Balor (the former leader) headed off to WWE himself.
12 Gail Kim
Probably the best example of WWE not knowing what to do with a wrestler is Gail Kim, all you have to do is look at her achievements to see how she was mismanaged in both of her runs. In the WWE, she had one Women’s Championship reign that lasted only 28 days, and yet, where she really shined was being a major part of TNA's roster.
There she was a five-time Knockouts champion (for a combined 703 days, most all-time, almost double the person behind her), a one-time Knockouts Tag Team champion, and a 2016 Hall of Famer. She was the focus of their women’s division on a number of occasions, putting on some classic matches including a ladder match against Taryn Terrell. At 39, Kim is still going strong with TNA and has shown that if given the chance wrestlers can show just how great they are without WWE’s influence.
A wrestler that has truly traveled all over the world, Vader has worked for All Japan Pro Wrestling, New Japan Pro Wrestling, World Championship Wrestling, American Wrestling Association, and the WWE, among a number of other promotions over his 31-year career. Winning the IWGP Heavyweight Title three-times, he was a huge favorite in Japan. Vader’s aggressive style worked exceedingly well with the crowds as he fought against guys like Stan Hansen, Great Muta, and Antonio Inoki.
Most U.S. fans will remember his time in WCW (1990-1995) where he feuded with guys like Cactus Jack, Sting, and Ric Flair as one WCW’s top heels. Here, Vader also won the World Heavyweight Championship three times and the US title once. While with the WWE he was booked big against guys like Shawn Michaels and Undertaker, but never really got that big final push to make him a big deal within the company. Apparently, Vince wanted Vader to go by a WWE owned named, “The Mastodon” and Vader was not down with that, so his booking was stunted partly due to this.
10 Sami Zayn
Before coming to the WWE, Sami Zayn was an indy God, simply known as El Generico, a masked luchador from Mexico, who typically yelled “Olé!” Starting back in 2002, Zayn worked in a number of promotions like PWG, Ring of Honor, Chikara, and Dragon Gate (just to name a few) before being signed with NXT in 2013. His run with the WWE has been solid with plenty of awesome matches against guy like Cesaro, Neville, Kevin Owens, and Nakamura along with a short NXT Championship run.
His time on the main roster is without a title run, but he continues to have awesome matches basically every time he steps in the ring. With plenty of time left in his career, it’s still not a given that he will become WWE Champion (or Universal Champion) and probably won’t ever reach the status he did on the indy circuit. Sure, it was a smaller crowd, but he was the most popular guy out there for years and could headline on a number of promotions, thanks to his gimmick and in-ring abilities.
9 Austin Aries
Amazingly, Aries has worked in the wrestling business (at a high level) for 16 years, and is just now getting to the WWE at age 38. Aries proved himself not once, but twice in Ring of Honor and in TNA as a versatile wrestler that could work good/bad and serious/funny, which is not easy to do. In Ring of Honor he was able to win the World Championship twice, along with the Tag titles once. His time in TNA was just a good as he was a one-time World Heavyweight champion, a six-time X-Division champion, and a tag champion along with Bobby Roode, who also recently signed with NXT.
In January 2016, Aries came to NXT where he went right into a feud with Baron Corbin, eventually winning a match against him at NXT TakeOver: Dallas. Aries then moved on to a huge match against Nakamura, which he ended up losing before going into his current feud against No Way Jose. Currently owning his heel persona, Aries will be a nice name to have in NXT before most likely moving to Raw’s Cruiserweight division down the road.
Catrina was lucky enough to start her wrestling career under WWE’s tutelage as Maxine from 2009 until 2012. She spent all three years in their development and decided they weren’t going to do anything with her, so she chose to ask for her release, and go for it herself. To be clear, she had talent (especially with gimmick work and while on the mic) and could have been used more prominently.
After leaving, she took acting classes, hoping to find better luck in Hollywood and she did, but just in another wrestling promotion. Starting in late 2014, Catrina debuted with Lucha Underground as the on-screen girlfriend and manager of Mil Muertes. With her “Lick of Death,” Catrina helped put Lucha Underground on the map almost immediately. Her popularity grew so much that she became a very prominent part to the show, actually taking over The Temple for a period of time, giving her weekly segments with multiple wrestlers.
Raven had two runs with the WWE (the first as Johnny Polo) and neither were particularly great considering his amazing talent. After leaving WWE in 1994 to ECW, his “Raven” persona was created; a nihilistic, depressed, grunge-wearing philosophical thinker captured a huge following. During this time, he won the ECW World Heavyweight Championship twice, and the Tag titles on four occasions.
He spent some time in WCW, before heading back to WWE with his Raven gimmick, which never got him much higher than the midcard. Yes, he won the Hardcore title 27 times, thanks to their 24/7 rule, but that is not a good indicator of how the WWE booked him. Afterwards he went to TNA, but his last gasp of genius came when he worked with CM Punk in Ring of Honor as the two battled in some brutal matches with Punk’s straight edge lifestyle versus Raven’s drug/alcohol usage as a catalyst. Yes, that was the original storyline that was somewhat borrowed from when Punk and Chris Jericho went head-to-head in the WWE.
6 Samoa Joe
Joe came to NXT in May 2015 and instantly made an impact by working with the top names in the promotion. He quickly teamed up with Finn Balor in the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic tournament, where they were able to win in the finals against Baron Corbin and Rhyno. From there, Joe went on a mission to take the NXT title from Balor, it was an extended feud that saw Joe lose multiple times before finally defeating Balor at a live event in Massachusetts.
As good of a start Joe has had in NXT, it still doesn’t compare to his efforts in Ring of Honor when he literally put the company on his back. He had a number of five-star matches against CM Punk and Kenta Kobashi, while also becoming their World Heavyweight champion for 645 days! After ROH, Joe spent about 10 years with TNA, and even though some felt he wasn’t booked quite right, he was able to capture basically every title and achievement a wrestler could get with them.
5 Ethan Carter III
It’s always interesting to see when WWE helps train young wrestlers for years, decide they aren’t going to work out, and let them go to another company. That’s exactly what happened to Ethan, when he was known as Derrick Bateman with the WWE. It should also be mentioned that he spent a good chunk of that time with Catrina (who played his girlfriend, Maxine) who also made this list. After spending years in development, Ethan was released from his contract and quickly scooped up by TNA.
Clearly, TNA saw something in him as he was booked as Dixie Carter’s spoiled nephew and brought in as a member of Team Dixie. Becoming one of the top heels in TNA (and all of wrestling, really) EC III was eventually booked to become TNA’s World Heavyweight Champion not one, but two times. Amazingly, Ethan also showed up on EVOLVE (who has ties to WWE) for a match, so in a weird roundabout way, he was able to get back in the WWE circle after being previously cast out.
4 Drew Galloway
Much like EC III, Drew has a somewhat similar story when it comes to success outside of the WWE. Drew was able to make it to the main roster and in a big way, being announced as “The Chosen One” by Vince himself. Even though he was able to capture the Intercontinental and Tag titles, he sunk down the card to becoming a member of the comedic rock duo, 3MB. After being released, Galloway was able to win the EVOLVE Championship (holding it for 336 days), the Insane Championship Title (holding it for 378 days), and eventually, the TNA World Heavyweight Championship Title... not too shabby, huh?
With changes to his look, Drew added a gritty brawling style to his resume that fans couldn’t get enough of seeing. He went from being basically a nobody in the WWE to becoming one of the most popular indy wrestlers out there today. It’s a true testament to hard work and changing with the times, to reaching such a high level of prosperity. It would not be a big surprise at all if WWE ever decided to bring him back, with the brand split they will definitely need talent like this.
3 Bam Bam Bigelow
When you talk about underrated wrestlers, Bam Bam Bigelow better be somewhere on that list, not only was he talented, but at 6’4,” 390 lbs. he was able to do things that no man that size should even consider. With spinning heel kicks and moonsaults in his repertoire, Bam Bam was also quite good when it was time to talk as he had a nice mix of intensity and smarts.
Bigelow had two runs with the WWE and neither really showed off the elite skills he had that could have easily made him a top heel within the company. Not winning one title, most of his time was spent on the mid-card dealing with clowns (literally) like Doink. Even though he bounced around multiple companies during his career, his time with ECW was his most fruitful; here he was able to truly be himself, destroying everyone in his way. Winning both the World Heavyweight and Television titles, Bam Bam finally got a chance to show why he should be at the front of the line.
2 Johnny Mundo
This might be the weakest choice on the list as Johnny (then John Morrison) had a pretty solid nine years with the WWE. There he won a total of nine titles, having success both in the tag division and in singles’ competition staying in the mid to upper-midcard for most of his time with the company. Some would argue that he could have been a WWE Champion though, he had everything minus amazing speaking skills, which is probably what kept him back.
That changed once he hooked up with Lucha Underground, who initially gave him a good guy gimmick, it’s when he turned heel his personality really shined through. With only two seasons in the books, he’s already had a number of fantastic matches and it’s likely that he will be an even bigger deal when season three rolls along.
1 Johnny Gargano
This one is a touch unfair to the WWE as Gargano has only worked part-time for them over the past year, but just last week he signed a full-time deal with them. Much of his work has been done alongside his tag mate, Tommaso Ciampa, and thanks to a number of excellent matches fans have latched onto the duo in quick fashion. So even though he’s off to a good start, it’s unlikely he will top what he did for Dragon Gate and EVOLVE as the Open the Freedom Gate Champion.
Gargano held the title for an amazing 873 days and if you follow EVOLVE Booker, Gabe Sapolsky on Twitter, he constantly talks about how much the promotion owes to Gargano. He was one of the first really popular wrestlers that helped the promotion basically since its inception. Winning titles is a great thing, but to be a major reason for a promotion’s growth is something not many wrestlers get credit for.