Everything has to begin somewhere.
Not so long ago professional wrestling was an ensemble of miniature territories, operated by promoters in different regions of not just North America, but the world. Jim Crockett Promotions would inevitably become World Championship Wrestling, Eastern Championship Wrestling would become Paul Heyman and Todd Gordon’s revolutionary Extreme Championship Wrestling, and Vincent K. McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation whom tore the territorial system to shreds in the earlier 1980’s, signing North America’s top stars to deals at the time who some found indescribable.
Throughout the 1990’s the territorial system was all but dead, but as a Phoenix rises from the ashes, from it rose a new circuit for young stars to hone their craft, labelled the independent wrestling circuit. These promotions initially sought to revive the feel of old school territorial wrestling after former territories either went national or went out of business.
Modern day independent wrestling lacks exposure, whereas back in the territorial or regional systems local television access was easy to come by, nowadays a promotion is lucky to gain a weekly television slot even in their local area. Most promotions survive off word of mouth, social media outlets such as YouTube and Twitter or their respective websites.
Some independent wrestling promotions to have garnered some essence of reputation include Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, renowned for its comedic supershow titles such as “PWG Sells Out,” “PWG Free Admission (Just Kidding)” and their top event, “PWG Kurt RussellMania,” invitational tournaments which features world renowned talent and explicit content.
Combat Zone Wrestling gained notoriety for its comparisons to Extreme Championship Wrestling, even at one stage promoting itself as “the prodigy” of Paul Heyman’s product, before labelling themselves as an “ultra violent” promotion. Combat Zone Wrestling operates predominantly in the Philadelphia region; it was also featured in the highly acclaimed film “The Wrestler,” which features Mickey Rourke’s character facing CZW stalwart Necro Butcher.
Other independent promotions to find success include CHIKARA who offer a comedic brand of PG rated performing, Jersey All Pro Wrestling which has now been steadily holding one show a month for fifteen years, having held matches including the likes of Christian, Booker T, Jushin “Thunder” Liger and Rob Van Dam, and Dragon Gate USA which is operated with a cross promotion from Dragon Gate Japan, by Gabe Sapolsky.
The most prominent independent promotion in modern day professional wrestling is North-eastern based Ring of Honor. Some argue that Ring of Honor isn’t even an independent promotion anymore; most consider it a modern day regional territory, as it operates throughout the North-eastern side of the United States. It can be seen in 23% of American homes and is owned by a national parent company, Sinclair Broadcast Group.
All these promotions have one thing in common however – they produce top quality professional wrestlers. Everyone has to begin somewhere, as a football player would begin with a hometown team, a wrestler begins with an independent wrestling promotion or wrestling school – unless they’re from a wealthy background or have a wrestling lineage.
Current mainstream wrestling stars Antonio Cesaro, Kassius Ohno, Daniel Bryan, Dean Ambrose, Austin Aries, Kenny King, Samoa Joe, Seth Rollins, Doug Williams, Evan Bourne and CM Punk are but a few stars whose backgrounds are forged through several of the independent wrestling promotions noted already.
And as they continue their rise, two recognized as current World Champions and two others being former World Champions, the generation of wrestling stars tomorrow continue honing their craft, stealing the show and building backgrounds of their own in which they can be proud of. We are about to look at the stars of tomorrow with my ranking of the top ten independent wrestling stars of today.
10. Chuck Taylor
If Chuck Taylor has anything going for him it’s a promising career ahead of him. Hailing from Raccoon City, Kentucky, 26-year-old Taylor has been becoming more-and-more impressive with each passing year, truly breaking out in 2010 as a member of the EVOLVE Wrestling roster.
Prior to this Taylor was a regular of CHIKARA and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, still featuring regularly for both promotions as well as Dragon Gate USA.
Gabe Sapolsky has nothing but positive words to say in-relation to Chuck Taylor, stating in a 2011 interview with SlamSports.com, “Chuck Taylor has a natural connection to the crowd and a natural charisma.Some guys either have it or don’t. He has it,” Sapolsky said. “He is a very athletic wrestler capable of many different styles, a very versatile performer. Chuck is a lot of fun to watch wrestle.”
During the CHIKARA invasion of Ring of Honor in the early months of the year, which featured cross promoting iPay-Per-Views, in an online poll hosted by ProWrestling.com on which CHIKARA star fans would most like to see in Ring of Honor, Taylor won with 42% of the vote, the nearest to him being Mike Quackenbush, with 21%.
9. Adam Cole
If his name and likeness seems familiar, all you got to do is scroll upward and look to your right and you’ll notice my upcoming interview with the man who takes the number nine position on my ranking, current ROH World Television Champion, Adam Cole. Just behind Jon Moxley, he is the best product Combat Zone has produced.
Adam Cole has shown potential since his very first match for Combat Zone Wrestling, competing primarily for CZW, Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, Cole has been able to amass an impressive career for someone who is still only 23-years-old.
As noted, current ROH World Television Champion, former CZW World Junior Heavyweight Champion, CZW Best of the Best X tournament winner which featured notable independent names such as Sami Callihan, Kyle O’Reilly and Johnny Gargano, plus Wrestling Observer Newsletter 2010 Rookie of the Year.
Speaking of Kyle O’Reilly, Cole also managed to earn himself an early Match of the Year candidate with their impressive and unique hybrid fighting rules match from Best in The World 2012, which many feel is the match people will look back on in years to come as the one which truly made Adam Cole a performer to be reckoned with.
8. Sami Callihan
With an extensive repertoire of treacherous maneuvers, the sky’s the limit for the crazed “New Horror.”
Callihan first gained notoriety in Combat Zone Wrestling when he won a battle royal on his debut, going on to capture every singles title CZW has to offer, even winning the most recent Best of the Best tournament, and since then, he’s taken EVOLVE/Dragon Gate USA by storm.
“The Callihan Death Machine” recently formed a team with Arik Cannon and Pinkie Sanchez called the D.U.F. (Dirty Ugly F***s) and have become legitimate threats in DGUSA. Callihan’s best known for his deadly Headlock Snapmare finisher the Headlock Driver, and at the rate he’s going, the wins shouldn’t stop for this dormant competitor.
Callihan has featured for several top independent promotions including Ring of Honor, Pro Wrestling Syndicate, as noted Dragon Gate USA/EVOLVE and Jersey All Pro Wrestling. Seemingly adaptable to all styles, Callihan can fly with the best of them, brawl with the most rugged you can find and hit harder than Mike Tyson on the set of The Hangover.
And to top it all off, Callihan is one of a number of names WWE and Triple H‘s new development department have reportedly been taking a vested interest in, during recent months.
7. The Briscoe Brothers
What can be said about Mark and Jay, The Briscoe Brothers? Controversial, loud mouths, entertaining, talented, eye catching, loyal, these two believe more than anybody else that Ring of Honor is where it’s at, they are arguably the best tag team in professional wrestling right now from an overall perspective, I’m talking character, speaking ability, in-ring prowess, you name it.
Mark and Jay have been in Ring of Honor since day one, they are the team that nobody seems capable of prying away from the black canvas of honor.
On several occasions throughout the years reports have surfaced that WWE are interested in The Briscoe Brothers, and each time a report surfaces, “#DemBoys” from Lourel, Delaware take their video camera, head out to the barn and make sure everyone knows where their allegiance lays.
Other than an 18-month absence from August 2004 to February 2006, the brothers have been focal points of the company throughout its history, feuding with some of their biggest stars and holding the ROH World Tag Team Championship a record seven times as a team.
Mark and Jay came close to signing for WWE in the winter of 2009, participating in a tryout before a Smackdown tapings and visiting Florida Championship Wrestling, but much like most things, when The Briscoe Brothers don’t like what they’ve seen, they get their video camera, Uncle Jeffro and tell the world how “#DemBoys” feel.
“Reach for the sky boy!”
6. Joey Ryan
As of late Joey Ryan may be more known for his leadership of the “87%ers” against the “farce” which is Total Nonstop Action Wrestling’s Gut Check segment featured on their Open Fight Night themed monthly show.
But before this and for more than a couple years, Joey Ryan has been one of the most entertaining characters featured on the American independent circuit.
Ryan is one-sixth owner of Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, not for nothing, he also reigned as the longest PWG World Heavyweight Champion, featured for several independent promotions including a brief stint in Ring of Honor. And now “Legalize Sleaze” has became one of the most marketable and supported names on the independent circuit, riding a wave of momentum created by his appearance in the Gut Check segment.
Ryan isn’t one of the most gifted performers in the ring, but he is smart.
Joey Ryan knows how to push himself, his name and his slogans, having trended worldwide on Twitter three times now – ignore your personal opinion of Twitter in wrestling, it’s called smart business – selling hundreds of “Legalize Sleaze” t-shirts and working an angle with a mainstream wrestling promotion, Ryan may soon not feature as a top independent talent and instead as a top mainstream talent.
5. Davey Richards
Despite several factors including his recent shoot interview with Highspots, the incident involving three independent promoters which you can read about here, and his recent admission that he edges closer to retirement, Davey Richards talent is still unquestionable, no matter how poor his attitude gets.
Richards’s reputation and high praise stems not from his impressive microphone ability, his look or his presence, but from what he produces inside a wrestling ring. His style may come under criticism, but when you look at it realistically, Davey Richards could be argued as one of the best wrestlers on the planet right now.
A former ROH World Champion, Richards is no stranger to gold, holding a title belt in every company he’s competed for, not for nothing, Davey is also a tag team specialist, the team of he and Eddie Edwards gained high praise for their performances throughout the independent circuit working under the name “The American Wolves.”
Sadly Richards career is dwindling to a close, as Davey plans to retire in the summer of 2013 in-order to pursue a career as a fireman, he’s turned down a WWE contract offer in the past, admittedly unable to work their rigorous schedule despite being a fan of their product.
4. Colt Cabana
Remember Scotty Goldman? Yeah, me neither, WWE signed Colt Cabana to a deal previously, picking up his contract shortly after the main roster debut of best friend CM Punk.
Cabana was poorly used and implemented in an unfitting position, despite this Colt has been able to attract a passionate following that support him no matter where he competes.
Cabana is an odd combination of comedic ability, charisma and genuine in-ring ability.
Several times during his time with Ring of Honor opponents attempted to take his light hearted personality and exploit it as a weakness, only to be flabbergasted as Cabana out wrestled them no matter what style they utilized.
Colt has featured for damn near everybody who can put on a good show. Ring of Honor, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, Combat Zone Wrestling, Full Impact Pro, Ohio Valley Wrestling, Juggalo Championship Wrestling and was most recently the NWA World Heavyweight Champion, losing it back to previous holder Adam Pearce on July 21st.
Cabana is a name performing on the independent wrestling circuit recognized throughout America by professional wrestling fans, he’s appeared several times at WWE events ringside supporting best friend and former tag team partner CM Punk, hosts the Art of Wrestling podcast which obtains over a million listeners and is currently venturing into comedy. Not bad for a guy who could only feature on WWE’s website.
3. Johnny Gargano
If you’ve not heard the name Johnny Gargano, you’ve been living under the rock for the past year and need to leave Patrick Starr and get on with your day.
Gargano is one of the hottest prospects currently walking the Indies, competing primarily for Dragon Gate USA and CHIKARA, Gargano most recently made headlined due to interest shown from the boys in Connecticut.
Johnny has the look, he has the talking ability and the walking ability, at 24-years of age and almost a decade of experience already under his belt Johnny Gargano can’t go anywhere but upward as he strives to prove he isn’t just hype.
Gargano describes his in-ring persona as, “someone lacking self awareness and living in his own deluded little world”. Gargano is the current Dragon Gate USA Open the Freedom Gate Champion, as previously noted, he defeated former partner Chuck Taylor last weekend in an “I Quit” match which gained high acclaim from wrestling critics and fans alike.
And post match, Gargano would take to the microphone and much like others have to their respective independent promotions, announce he’d turned down a WWE contract offer and would be resigning with Dragon Gate USA.
2. Sara Del Rey
When you think of women’s wrestling chances are the first few names heard would include Beth Phoenix, Trish Stratus, Lita, Gail Kim, Awesome Kong and others.
When in actual fact there has been a female performer tearing up the independent circuit for several years now, earning the acclaim of just about everyone as the single best female wrestler in the world, some stating, of all-time.
Sara Del Rey is 31-years-old and has performed throughout the world, she isn’t just limited to females, on an upcoming show Del Rey will challenge for the CHIKARA Grand Championship, currently held by Eddie Kingston, some may frown upon a woman challenging a male performer for a company’s top prize, but when you’re as good as Del Rey is you can pretty challenge whoever you damn well wish.
Sara may soon be, much like Joey Ryan, exempt from this list if I were to re-evaluate the rankings next month. Sara seems poised, if not destined to voyage into the world of mainstream wrestling when she completes her independent wrestling dates later this month and joins World Wrestling Entertainment, where she won’t simply perform, but train the Divas of the WWE, some things they desperately need to know.
Trained by Bryan Danielson, Del Rey is an asset to independent wrestling promoters throughout the globe and her loss will be felt for some time to come later this month, but before she leaves, she still has dates to work for Ring of Honor, and as noted, CHIKARA.
1. Kevin Steen
Only one man could headline this list, there is a reason Kevin Steen has amassed a cult like following, not only has he received praise from stars such as The Rock and Jim Ross, but he has been labelled one of the hottest things in professional wrestling right now, currently reigning as ROH World Champion and leading the stable S.C.U.M.
“Mr. Wrestling” doesn’t respect authority and it showed in 2011. Unceremoniously dismissed from ROH after losing to partner-turned-rival El Generico at Final Battle 2010, Steen took extreme measures to get reinstated.
Steen then won a match against Steve Corino at Final Battle 2011 to do just that and confronted then ROH World Champion Davey Richards and guaranteed to become ROH champ in 2012.
The big man has made good of his word, winning the title in his home nation of Canada at Border Wars in May, continuing to ride his wave of momentum for as far as it can bring him. Steen has seemingly taken all variables into account, whereas in the past Ring of Honor fans turn on their World Champion once he holds the belt, Steen wants you to hate him, so how can you turn he who doesn’t care?
Ring of Honor’s World Championship isn’t the only title Steen currently holds, also reigning as the PWG World Heavyweight Champion and 2CW Heavyweight Champion. Despite his large frame Kevin Steen’s most admirable feature may be his willingness to go high, having moves such as a Springboard Moonsault, 450 Splash and his Steenalizer, a Fallaway Powerbomb onto the apron.
Kevin Steen is currently “the man” on the independent wrestling circuit, and considering he just turned 28-years-old, it may be a question of how long until you begin chanting “Kill Steen Kill!”
Adam Pearce, World’s Greatest Tag Team, Eddie Edwards, Eddie Kingston, Jigsaw, Steve Corino, Kyle O’Reilly, BxB Hulk, Michael Elgin, El Generico.