Where would the #WWE be without Kevin Owens, Daniel Bryan or AJ Styles?
I'll tell you where: It would be a world full of guys like Roman Reigns. But not as good looking, and with less greasy hair.
The independent wrestling scene is to the WWE, what independent music is to Top 40 radio. Just because it's not in the mainstream rotation, doesn't mean it's not good. In fact, some of the wrestlers on the independent scene are really good, and even better than some of long-haired, Superman-punching, canvas-sleeping guys who entertain our Monday nights in the WWE.
Guys like Owens, Bryan and Styles got their starts somewhere other than the WWE. They were great before they got there. It's not just that specific trio, either. Finn Balor, Sami Zayn and TJ Perkins got their starts elsewhere, too.
The indie wrestling scene has been so successful at creating new talent that the WWE has attempted to mimic it, in the form of its developmental territory, NXT. Filmed at Full Sail University in Florida, #NXT features veteran independent wrestlers, and some just starting out, honing their craft, preparing for the WWE. Some of NXT's biggest stars are veterans of indie shows. Bobby Roode, Austin Aries and Samoa Joe are great examples of the grass roots scene. The NXT champion, Shinsuke Nakamura, is a veteran of New Japan Pro Wrestling.
So, who are the guys on the independent wrestling scene that may one day main event Wrestlemania? There are many, but we've selected a few to get you started.
10. Ricochet/Prince Puma
Little guys rule inside the professional wrestling ring. In the 1980s, Richochet would have been doing jobs for the likes of King Kong Bundy. Today, he's one of the greatest professional wrestlers in the world. He rose to fame in Lucha Underground, becoming the organization's first world champion. After having dozens of great matches there, he left last summer and now wrestles for New Japan Pro Wrestling. Whether it's the corkscrew moonsault plancha or the shooting star press, Richochet puts on a show every time he steps inside the ring. Will he enjoy his successful and lucrative independent wrestling scene career until he retires, or will he find his way to the WWE? Richochet represents one of the reasons people love pro wrestling. An athlete. An artist. A performer.
9. The Young Bucks
These young brothers are the definition of a successful tag team. They work well together like a combination of The Midnight Rockers and The Brainbusters. These incredible workers have developed a cult-like following as they have wrestled around the world, becoming simultaneous tag team champions in New Japan Pro Wrestling, Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Guerilla. The Young Bucks are veterans of the indie scene and have engaged in epic battles with Sami Zayn (as El Generico) and Kevin Owens. They have also performed in TNA, and are widely respected in New Japan Pro Wrestling, where they are the IWGP tag team champions. The Young Bucks re-signed with Ring of Honor, so it's not likely that they are heading to the WWE anytime soon, but that's okay, for now. Even though they are not in the WWE, they are members of The Bullet Club,the organization formed in Japan that also includes Kenny Omega, Adam Cole, AJ Styles, Karl Anderson, and Luke Gallows.
8. Hiroshi Tanahashi
Quite possibly, Tanahashi could be the greatest professional wrestler in the world. The New Japan Pro Wrestling star has performed in classic match after classic match, year, after year after year. He has a charisma about him that comes across on camera. Japanese pro wrestlers are known for their realistic style of wresting. The moves are stiff. They hurt. Only the tough can make it in Japan. Tanahashi could have a career in the WWE someday, particularly of Shinsuke Nakamura, another former IWGP world heavyweight champion continues his success. Tanahashi isn't exactly an independent wrestler, but he also doesn't wrestle for the WWE. He should have at least one run with the company and bring more of the Japanese flavor to the rest of the world.
7. Christopher Daniels
For several years Christopher Daniels was the greatest wrestler on the planet. A high flyer with considerable size, Daniels knew how to pummel his opponents and sell for them. We can talk all day about Ric Flair and his 16 world championships, but Daniels has won 18 different world championships from all around the globe. Daniels is now 46 years old, so his best days are behind him, even though he still wrestles and puts on great matches in Ring of Honor. Daniels is known as "The King of the Indies," and has battled AJ Styles, Daniel Bryan and Kurt Angle. Unfortunately, Daniels wrestled for three years at the end of the 1990s in the WWE, but the WWE booked him terribly, using him as a jobber, so the WWE audience never saw what he could do. By now, everyone else has. He may never go to the WWE, but he's still regarded as one of the best wrestlers in the world.
6. Adam Cole
ADAM COLE Bay-Bay! Cole is the Ring of Honor world champion and another honorable member of The Bullet Club. Cole is technically one of the best wrestlers in the world. His timing and ring awareness bring life to his matches. Cole also wrestles for smaller promotions such as Combat Zone Wrestling and Pro Wrestling Guerilla. At 27 years old, it feels like just a matter of time before he lands in the WWE. Cole's Panama Sunrise finisher, where he jumps from the top rope and somehow flips his opponent into a piledriver is the kind of move that seems to defy logic and gravity. Remember the name, he'll be main eventing a Wrestlemania one day.
5. Kyle O'Reilly
If the WWE were to ever add a third guy to the Vaudevillans throwback tag team, Kyle O'Reilly would be that guy. He's a grappler and mat wrestler, who probably would have been world champion in the AWA. He looks like the guy from the old AWA logo. A great technically wrestler, O'Reilly shows of the catch-as-catch-can style of wrestling, making his opponents look good, while also getting himself over as a superior athlete. A veteran of Ring of Honor, he also has competed in New Japan Pro Wrestling. At 29 years old, his future is full of potential. While many of the talented independent wrestlers are under smaller guys, O'Reilly is muscular with a good look, and might be finding his way to NXT in the near future.
4. Jay Lethal
Jay Lethal is perhaps the definition of an "indie darling." A TNA and Ring of Honor veteran, Lethal has held 11 world championships -- but never the big one, the WWE championship. Lethal first turned people's heads with his impersonations of Randy "Macho Man" Savage and "Nature Boy" Ric Flair. He used that charm and charisma to get people to notice his matches. And Lethal hasn't stopped delivering. He possesses a combination of big guy offensive moves and little guy aerial moves. Lethal has been wrestling since he was 18 years old. Now that he's 31, he's a polished, crisp professional who undoubtedly would make the WWE better. The WWE hasn't signed him yet, but no doubt they know who he is. If he never signs with them, he'll be remembered as an indie darling that the WWE overlooked.
3. Kenny Omega
Kenny Omega shines as a pro wrestler, but his real money maker is his promo ability as shown above. Omega knows how to connect with his audience, which can be the difference between an average career and a great career. Omega has won all sorts of championships in New Japan Pro Wrestling and Ring of Honor. His biggest pro wrestling accomplishment was becoming the first American to win Japan's G1 Climax, New Japan Pro Wrestling's greatest tournament. The Canadian-born Omega wrestles a lot like Nakamura, mastering athleticism and showmanship. He's 33 and certainly has time to make it to the WWE. AJ Styles became world champion at 39 years old, during his first year with the company. Omega is entertaining and one of the brightest independent stars out there. Omega is also a member of the elite Bullet Club.
2. Matt Sydal
You may know Sydal better as Evan Bourne, the former WWE superstar. Bourne enjoyed a successful career in the WWE before failing a Wellness test -- twice. Bourne never recovered from his suspension, and left the WWE in 2014. But, like so many independent wrestlers, things only got better once Sydal left. He's an aerial wrestler, known for his moonsaults, dives and ability to wow the crowd with his spectacular jumps through the air. Sydal has earned a great deal of respect on the independent scene. As a WWE wrestler, he was somewhat of a cartoon; the little guy who could take a beating. On the indie scene, he still is among the sport's best sellers, but the fans who watch independent shows are smart and appreciate his ability put his body on the line for the sake of the match.
1. Will Ospreay
Ladies and gentleman, the future is here and his name is Will Ospreay. At 23 years old, Ospreay is a kid, but he's a kid who is probably going to get Triple H's attention really, really soon. Osprey started training for wrestling in his backyard, flipping and falling on his trampoline. He has wrestled for Revolution Pro Wrestling and New Japan Pro Wrestling, and is the kind of wrestler that makes the fans clap wildly after he does a series of moves. The scary thing about Ospreay is, at just 23 years of age, he is still learning. A master of moves like the corkscrew shooting star press, the 450 splash and the Senton bomb, Ospreay is a rising star who is going to be headlining NXT and the WWE one day. Watch out for the guys who haven't done anything but wrestle since they got out of high school. CM Punk, AJ Styles and now Ospreay are on that list.
Matt Riddle and Shayna Baszler
These two former MMA fighters are to pro wrestling what CM Punk is to MMA. Yes, you can walk into the Octagon and have a fight, but that doesn't mean you are a good fighter. Riddle and Baszler have had matches, but it takes years to master the art of professional wrestling. They do have the most important quality, however: passion. Baszler and Riddle may find themselves in NXT or the WWE one day, but it will take a lot of work to earn the respect of the WWE fans.