WWE has always been the end goal for wrestlers – working your way through the indie circuit for smaller promotions in the hope that you’ll get a call from Stanford, Connecticut from big Vinny Mac, and suddenly you’ll have a job with the biggest company in sports entertainment.
Obviously, that has changed as the years go by with the likes of The Young Bucks and Will Ospreay making their names in alternative companies competing with WWE for global dominance of the wrestling world. You also have people who wrestled for WWE 10 or so years ago, with it not going as well as they expected but finding their feet and stardom in an alternate location; in a company where they can be appreciated for their talent and not slammed with a terrible gimmick because ‘it’s good sh*t’.
We all think we know the inner workings of the wrestling world thanks to the creation of podcasts and people like Jon Moxley giving us all a wonderful insight into the mental brain that Vince possesses, but what really happened to make these following wrestlers leave the WWE and become more successful away from the glitz and glamour? I won’t be including people who made part time appearances as jobbers, but the wrestlers who had full WWE contracts.
Hearing Sami Callihan in WWE can come as a surprise considering the character and look change he’s gone through since 2015. Working under the name Solomon Crowe in NXT from 2013 to 201, he was relegated to dark matches for about a year, debuting under the name in August of 2013 at a live event and not being given a solid gimmick until December of the same year, again at a live event. He would be portrayed as a hacker, quite a clever gimmick but it wasn’t planned very well.
He would use a tablet to seize control of the arena lights, giving him the advantage to attack his opponents whilst they were distracted, the first being Kalisto. He made his NXT debut in February 2014, defeating Sylvester Lefort, before it was removed from the taping, intending to air the following week. He suffered a chipped tibia in August 2014, teaming with the man he attacked eight months prior in Kalisto, facing The Ascension. He was lucky and didn’t need surgery, but it kept him away from the ring until November and would continue to wrestle dark matches. Finally, he would be given a hype package, setting up his imminent TV debut in 2015, arriving on the February 18th, 2015 episode, attacking CJ Parker. He would have his first match, defeating Bull Dempsey in March before disappearing from TV and being released from his contract in November 2015.
He would continue to wrestle on the independents in the following two years under the name we know him to be, Sami Callihan, before signing with Impact Wrestling in 2017 where he was always a constant in the main event scene, holding the Impact World Championship until losing it to Tessa Blanchard at Hard to Kill. Seeing what Callihan has done since he left WWE is insane: he has wrestling for Impact, MLW, Lucha Underground, NJPW and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla making his name known to independent fans and having a bit of a cult following. His stock is continuing to rise, and I guarantee, he’ll be on WWE’s radar very soon.
CJ Parker! What a name this man has made for himself since leaving WWE as Juice Robinson. Signing with WWE in 2011, he moved down to FCW and formed a tag team with Donny Marlow to win the FCW Tag Team Championships, holding them from July to November 2011. He would continue to team with different wrestlers until FCW closed its doors, winning the tag titles one more time alongside Jason Jordan.
Juice would be used as a jobber for his early NXT career until he suffered an injury that cost him several months during a tag team match against The Ascension (not saying they’re bad, but they’ve injured two men in this list. Bloody Victor). Juice would return, portraying another fresh gimmick in that of a hippie, trading wins with Tyler Breeze. He was meant to be portrayed as a face but fans didn’t get behind his gimmick and they quickly turned him heel by calling the fans ‘sheeple’ and gave us the grass roots for ‘The New’ Daniel Bryan’ as Juice would portray an eco-warrior and berate the fans for destroying the environment.
He wouldn’t pick up any momentum and was mainly fodder for bigger stars like Cesaro, The Miz as well as Mojo Rawley at NXT Arrival. He was fed to Baron Corbin in Corbin’s debut match, which you should not be surprised at based on his NXT tenure. His most famous moment in NXT would be legitimately breaking the nose of Kevin Owens in Owens’ debut match via a palm strike, which left a huge gash on his palm. His final appearance was losing to Hideo Itami in April 2014 before being released a year later. He would debut for New Japan in August 2015 as a young lion and became a phenomenon, winning the IWGP United States Championship twice, defeating Jay White and Cody respectively, before forming a tag team with real life friend David Finlay, going on to win the 2019 World Tag League and the IWGP Tag Team Championships at Wrestle Kingdom 14.
It comes full circle; Donny Marlow was mentioned in Juice’s section and now he gets his own as another wrestler who found his feet in Japan under the name Tanga Loa. He signed with WWE in 2009, moving down to FCW where he wouldn’t do much that can be recognised except for his tag title win alongside CJ Parker. He would appear on WWE Superstars as the enforcer for Hunico, the future Sin Cara, under the name Camacho.
He and Hunico would bounce between WWE and NXT mainly on the losing end of their matches and being squashed by main event talent like Ryback and the Brothers of Destruction. After Hunico was injured, Tanga would continue on as a singles wrestler attempting to claim the $5,000 bounty that was put on Big E Langston, in order to ‘get Hunico out of Mexico’ but was easily squashed. Once Hunico was back, they began a program with The Ascension (no one was injured this time), but they did lose to them in a NXT tag title match. Once Hunico began to portray Sin Cara, Camacho defeated Oliver Grey in a rare win on NXT before starting a feud with Adam Rose in which he lost at the first NXT Takeover before being released in June 2014. What happened after he left WWE; I hear you ask?
Well, he went to TNA for two years before becoming an insane tag wrestler alongside his adoptive brother, forming the Guerrillas of Destiny. Alongside Tama Tonga, they are five-time IWGP Tag Team Champions, as well as holding the NEVER Openweight Six-Man Tag Titles three times with Bad Luck Fale, Tama Tonga and Taiji Ishimori in different incarnations. He is an unreal tag team competitor and was able to show it alongside family in Japan with his stock rising unbelievably high, always near the main event scene as one of the members of Bullet Club.
Another Japan star who once wrestled for the land of the giants is Lance Archer, but he’s a giant himself, so it fits. He was only with WWE for a year between 2009 and 2010, following a tenure in TNA alongside Jimmy Rave and Christy Hemme as The Rock ‘n’ Rave Infection. After a short-lived tenure in FCW, he was moved to the rebooted ECW sporting new gear and shorter hair and he was given quite a large push as a monster, squashing local competitors and big names like Tommy Dreamer and Goldust. He would begin a feud with Shelton Benjamin, suffering his first loss in WWE by disqualification as well as being eliminated by Benjamin in ECW’s ‘Homecoming Battle Royal’.
His unpinned streak was eventually broken by Benjamin in 2010 on Superstars before they continued to trade wins. Once ECW disbanded, he was moved to SmackDown where he teamed with Curt Hawkins as ‘The Gatecrashers’ and were given 30-day contracts to make an impact. The impact they made was attacking MVP and Christian on two consecutive SmackDowns before defeating them in tag action. After wins and losses as a tag team, the team would come to an end when Lance accidentally collided with Hawkins during singles competition, causing an argument between the two and Hawkins to assault Archer post-match.
Archer would be released from his contract in November 2010 and would not appear in a wrestling capacity until May 2011, joining Suzuki-gun and forming a tag team with Davey Boy Smith Jr. called Killer Elite Squad. During his NJPW career, he would hold the IWGP tag titles three times with Smith as well as winning the G1 Tag League 2011 with Minoru Suzuki and late last year, he would win the IWGP United States Championship after the belt was relinquished by Jon Moxley.
Veteran wrestler Low Ki signed for WWE in 2008, competing in a dark match in a losing effort against Primo before winning against Trent Baretta in FCW. He would begin wrestling under the name Kawal, translated to mean ‘soldier’ in the Tagalog language, before being tweaked to Kaval. After a leg injury sidelined him for nearly a year, he would return in a dark match and defeat Paul Burchill. He would continue to compete for FCW, only winning the Tag Titles alongside Michael McGillicutty once and holding them for a day, dropping them back to former champions Hunico and Epico.
Before NXT was the show we know and love, it was a ridiculous game show and Kaval would be announced as one of the competitors in season two, mentored by Team Lay-Cool (Layla and Michelle McCool). He would go onto win the entire competition and would be attacked by the rookies that competed alongside him. He was moved to SmackDown following this victory, going on a losing streak to the likes of Drew McIntyre and Chavo Guerrero Jr. Kaval gained a spot on Team Smackdown for Bragging Rights by lasting five minutes in the ring with the Big Show before losing his spot to Tyler Reks who defeated him for that spot after Reks would challenge Kaval. After a losing streak that Curt Hawkins would be proud of, he won a match against then Intercontinental Champion, Dolph Ziggler.
By winning NXT, he was given a guaranteed title shot, which he used to against Ziggler at Survivor Series in 2010 but ultimately would lose. Before continuing his losing streak, he would be released on December 23rd 2010 from WWE. Following his release, he would return to NJPW returning to his original ring name, Low Ki.
In his second tenure with New Japan, he would once again win the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title from Prince Devitt in May, losing it back to Devitt in November in his first title defence. Low Ki would adopt a gimmick, like Agent 47 from the Hitman franchise, wrestling in a suit. His run with NJPW would end due to a disagreement between himself and management, stemming from health and safety reasons and concerns about competing in Fukushima following the nuclear disaster there. That would signal the end of his tenure in Japan, with officials coming out and saying that they would sign anyone but Low Ki. Since then, he has competed for MLW, Impact and All Japan.
It is crazy to see all the talent that WWE let slip from their grasp due to poor gimmick ideas and booking but it does just show that WWE is not the be all and end all it used to be. So many wrestlers have made bigger careers outside WWE and I’m sure there will be more to come in the not so distant future.
You can find the author of this article on Twitter @George_Geal_. Thanks for reading!