10 Indie Stars Who Underperformed In WWE

Since the mid 1980s, WWE has been a mainstream staple for professional wrestling. The WWE quite literally created and cornered the national wrestling market. Vince McMahon achieved dominance by buying out all the competition and building a television audience. He did this on the back of stars like Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, Steve Austin and The Rock (to name a few). 


Naturally other promotions popped up, but few were seen as a viable threat — except, of course, WCW and recently AEW. Despite not being credible challengers, though, many of these companies became hotbeds for breeding talent. ROH, PWG, Chikara, Dragon Gate and many others created indie stars. A lot of WWE main event talent came from the indie scene. Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, Seth Rollins and AJ Styles are all examples of indie stars who made it in WWE. 

It is also fair to say that there is a division between WWE wrestling and the indie scene. In fact this division has worked its way into WWE promos. These promos feel like a look behind the curtain — that WWE perhaps sees the indie stars as less then. For every AJ Styles that made it, there are many who don't. It could be an issue of timing, injuries, the gimmick they used or something as simple not getting a push. This piece will examine those stars who didn't quite reach the heights.


Keith Lee

Keith Lee is essentially a "WWE 2K" created wrestler come to life. Given his size it's objectively ridiculous what he can do inside of a wrestling ring. Keith Lee broke into the indie scene in 2015 when he signed with Ring of Honor. Keith's time there was brief but he demonstrated clearly that he is a one of one. After some time in Evolve, Keith Lee went to Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. This is where he put himself on the indie map.


At the 2017 Battle of Los Angeles Keith was matched up against Donovan Dijak. It is a brain breaking match full of spots that shouldn't be possible for those two performers. In many respects, it is the big man version of Ospreay vs Ricochet. At one point Keith lands on his feet out of a Monkey Flip. The match was awarded 5 stars by Dave Meltzer. It is safe to say that Lee was now in the upper echelon of indie wrestlers.

Keith Lee signed with WWE in 2020 and spent some time in NXT. His highlight moment would certainly be at the 2020 Great American Bash. That night, Keith Lee defeated Adam Cole to win the NXT Championship. His call up to the main roster, however, was anything but remarkable. After a semi push on "Raw," Lee was off for four months due to contracting COVID-19.  When Keith returned, he was given a new gimmick: "Bearcat Lee." The gimmick flopped and Lee was released November 4th of 2021. Keith Lee was snapped up by AEW and has been a draw there ever since. WWE must be kicking themselves for "limiting" him.


Colt Cabana

For WWE fans, Colt Cabana is probably most famous for being named dropped in the "Pipebomb" promo. More recently Colt is known as the guy CM Punk verbally ran down at the 2022 All Out media scrum. Cabana and Punk's careers are for better or worse linked now for as long as either of them wrestle. All of that aside, Cabana is an excellent wrestler who's had a long and prolific career.


Colt Cabana's indie career began in 2002 in Ring of Honor. Teaming with Punk as the Second City Saints, he won the ROH Tag Titles twice. He also had an excellent program with Brian Danielson in 2006 that featured a 60 minute two out of three falls match. Danielson and Cabana each earned one fall and the match ended in a 60 minute draw. That is something not a lot of wrestlers can do. In April of 2007 Cabana signed with WWE and took his shot at superstardom. 

His time in WWE was simply put, awful. Rebranded as Scotty Goldman he debuted on "Smackdown"" August 15th 2008. He lost to The Brian Kendrick. He jobbed for The Great Khali and Umaga before being released in February of 2009. Colt returned to the indie scene and ever since has been successful. He won titles and also put out an excellent podcast. Colt signed with AEW in February of 2020. In AEW he eventually became a member of The Dark Order. Cabana seemed primed for a hot run with that faction before the tragic and sudden passing of Brodie Lee in December of 2020. Colt clearly has skills and a love of wrestling. It will be fascinating to see what his next chapter is.


Toni Storm

Toni Storm is pretty good. This might feel like an oversimplification, but it's true. She has been a professional wrestler since the age of 13. This means that at the ripe old age of 27, she has around 14 years of in-ring experience. Toni brings a complete package. She can talk, she can wrestle and she is able to get over with an audience. Toni's finisher, Storm Zero, is one of the scariest looking moves in wrestling today. A look at any of her matches will confirm that Toni is excellent at her craft.


Toni came onto the indie scene in PROGRESS Wrestling, where she was the first ever Women's Champion. Toni eventually made her way to Stardom. Her time in that promotion is littered with bangers and tournament wins. She had an absolute peach of a match against Io Shirai at Stardom Gold in 2017. Soon after, WWE came calling.

Toni Storm entered WWE via the Mae Young Classic in 2017. She didn't win that tournament but she established herself. Toni entered it a second time the following year and won. This was followed up by a run as the NXT UK Women's Champion. In 2021 Storm was called up to Smackdown and things quickly went sideways. On a recent episode of "Talk is Jericho," Toni describes being "in catering most of time." She also talks about an angle involving her being "in love" with Rick Boogs. Unsurprisingly, Toni left. 


She went to AEW and won the (interim) AEW title. She has been 1,1A or 1B (depending on where you land on Brit Baker and Jamie Hayter) since Thunder Rosa's injury. Clearly, she's pretty good.

Matt Sydal

Matt Sydal has been wrestling professionally for two decades. As an in-ringer performer, he is special. Sydal is gifted on the mat and even better in the air. Wrestling as Evan Bourne, Matt Sydal was named Best Flying Wrestler of 2008. What makes Sydal stand out is that he can have a great match with any style of opponent. He started to shine on the indie scene In 2006. His runs in Dragon Gate and ROH got him on the map, and WWE came calling


His time in WWE is full of stops and starts. Injuries, wellness policy violations, and bad booking are all to blame. His run on the main roster started out hot. Rebranded as Evan Bourne, he defeated Matt Hardy for the ECW Title at Cyber Sunday 2008. Sadly, this is the highest he ever climbed in WWE. In 2010, Bourne injured his shoulder and required surgery. Bourne returned later that year, but it didn't go well. In November 2011, he was suspended for violating the WWE Wellness Policy. 47 days after being reinstated, he was suspended for two months after a second violation. A 2012 motorcycle accident shelved him again and essentially ended his time in WWE. He was released in June of 2014.


Since his release, he has won titles and had bangers everywhere he has gone. Matt has competed in ROH, New Japan, EVOLVE, PWG, and most notably Impact, where he was a double champion for a time in 2017. He even managed to be part of a 5 star match at PWG Battle of Los Angles in 2016. Sydal currently works for AEW. Quite a second act for a wrestler who could just as easily have flamed out.

Sami Callihan

Sami Callihan has been wrestling professionally for more than a decade. He is also a legitimate "hardcore" legend. Not the WWE style hit-a-guy-with-a-chair kind of hardcore. He is a pizza cutter using, glass pane shattering indie madman. What makes Sami an outlier is that actually he's a very skilled wrestler — he just likes paper cut mouth spots.


After a brief stint in ROH, Sami debuted in CZW in June of 2008. He spent the next five winning titles and having grimy bangers in front of rabid fans. He had great chemistry with Adam Cole and won the World Junior Heavyweight Title from Cole in November 2011. Sami also spent time in EVOLVE and Dragon Gate before taking his shot at WWE.

Sami's time in WWE was tepid. He debuted on NXT in August of 2013 rebranded as Solomon Crowe. His gimmick was that he could hack computers to manipulate the arena lights and technology. A chipped tibia knocked him out of action in August 2014. After a brief return in February of 2015 did not do much for him, Sami asked for his release.

Sami has gone one to have a legitimate post WWE career. He has worked in PWG, New Japan, MLW, Lucha Underground, and Impact. Callihan has picked up the Impact standard and is one of the main wrestlers on that roster. He won the Impact World Title in October of 2020 and is a weekly staple of Impact TV. A happy ending for a wrestler who doesn't fit the mold.


Chris Hero

A photo of Chris Hero should appear in the dictionary next to the term "indie star." Chris had a 20 year career that took him across the globe. He competed in CZW, Chikara, ROH, TNA, PWG and WWE (twice) amongst others. On the indies, he faced Adam Cole for the ROH title, CM Punk in IWA Mid South, and Tomohiro Ishii in RevPro. His career when given the longview is incredible. 


After a decade of killing it on the indies Hero signed with FCW (WWE's developmental territory) in 2012. Wrestling as Kassius Ohno, Chris made some appearances with FCW before the promotion was rebranded as NXT.  His run in NXT was middling and he spent the latter half of 2013 being fed to The Wyatt Family. Chris Hero was released in November of 2013 reportedly in part due to "conditioning issues."

Hero went back to indies for a few years. He won the EVOLVE Championship in January 2014. After some more time wrestling indies he returned to WWE in December 2016. Outside of a program with Hideo Itami (KENTA), Hero didn't really do much. It could be argued age caught up with him. It could also be argued that given his talent he clearly wasn't utilized correctly. A brief run in NXT UK came to an end when Hero was released in December 2020 as part of the COVID-19 WWE releases. An ignominious end for one of the brightest indie stars of his generation.


Gail Kim

Gail Kim's career spanned 20 years and was ahead of its time. Gail had a clean move set and excellent in-ring skills. She finished opponents with her patented "Eat De-Feat" which is just a terrific name. A Toronto native, Kim got her start on the Canadian indie scene. She signed with the WWE in October of 2002. 


Kim got a quick push, winning the title on the June 30th 2003 episode of "Raw." Kim held the title for all four weeks before dropping it to Molly Holly. This was about as good as it got for Kim during her first run with WWE. She broke her collarbone in the ring November 2003. A year later she was released, with WWE telling her that they wanted to go in a different direction.

Kim moved on to TNA (Impact) which clearly was a better fit. Kim won the first ever TNA Knockouts Championship at Bound For Glory 2007. Gail went on to feud with Awesome Kong and have some great matches in the process. Kim eventually dropped the title to Kong on a January 10th episode of "Impact."

Kim returned to WWE in late 2008 and described being in "random matches that meant nothing" to Fight Network. Her frustration boiled over on the August 1st 2011 episode of "Raw." During a Battle Royal, Kim chose to eliminate herself after one minute in the ring. She announced she was leaving the WWE four days later on Twitter.


Gail went back to TNA (Impact) and has been there in some capacity ever since. At Bound For Glory 2017, Kim won the Impact Knockouts Championship for the 7th time. Gail retired that night as the most decorated female wrestler in the history of Impact. Gail Kim is without question a legend.


KENTA is an indie and international superstar. For fans outside of the WWE, he is synonymous with hard hitting Strong Style matches. KENTA's resume outside WWE is untouchable. In ROH, All Japan, Pro Wrestling NOAH, and New Japan, KENTA has put on bangers. KENTA also popularized the "GTS" finisher which was later adopted by CM Punk (and sometimes Danhausen). Over his career Kenta has matched up with wrestlers like Bryan DanielsonTyler Black (Seth Rollins), and Hiroshi Tanahashi just to name a few.


KENTA got his start in Pro Wrestling NOAH where he dominated for over a decade. His accomplishments there hard to list in total but here are some highlights. He won the GHC Junior Heavyweight Title (July 2005 and March 2009). He also held the GHC Junior Tag Titles. KENTA had dozens of 4 star+ matches in that time. In 2014, KENTA came to WWE.

KENTA entered into the WWE with a new name, Hideo Itami. The English translation for that name is "Hero of Pain" which turned out to be tragically prophetic. KENTA had some up and down moments on the NXT roster and eventually was sidelined in January of 2016 due to a shoulder injury. A year on the shelf led to KENTA landing in "205 Live" as a cruiserweight. Once again, KENTA didn't get much of a push. In January of 2019, KENTA asked for his release.


KENTA returned to NJPW where sadly the injuries have continued to mount. A concussion at Royal Quest 2019 and a gruesome bunch of injuries at Wrestle Kingdom in 2022 have set him back. Hopefully this gifted athlete can stay healthy and go on a good run.

Low Ki

It is difficult to describe how influential Low Ki is. He has wrestled and held titles everywhere. He is also one of the godfathers of the modern indie style. Low Ki is quick, he can fly, and he is legit on the mat. He is currently two decades plus into one of the greatest careers in the history of indie wrestling. There is a good chance your favorite wrestler's favorite wrestler is or at one point was Low Ki.


Low Ki had a very brief run in WWF in 2000 before finding his home in Ring of Honor. Low Ki won the first ever ROH main event at The Era of Honor Begins on February 23rd, 2002 (where he hit an obscene Twisting Phoenix Splash). Low Ki was a staple of that company, regularly competing against wrestlers like Samoa Joe, Jay Lethal, and Austin Aries. Low Ki also competed in a number of promotions and won a number of titles before taking another crack at the now WWE in 2008. 

Now wrestling as Kaval, Low Ki's highlight in WWE is winning the second season of NXT in August of 2010. His call up to the main roster was, in a word, bad. Outside of an IC title shot, he was essentially a glorified "enhancement talent". He lost to Chavo Guerrero. He lost to Jack Swagger (twice). He lost to Drew McIntyre (a lot). His final WWE appearance was at a "SmackDown" taping December 21st 2010. He was quickly squashed by (wait for it) Drew McIntyre. Three days later, he was released.


Low Ki went back to the indies and did what he does. He had more great matches, won more titles and inspired a generation of new talent.


Mistico is a member of the "Luchadores who didn't enjoy their time in WWE" club. Mistico comes from a family of Mexican wrestlers. He is the son of Dr. Konate and has brothers, uncles, and cousins who all compete in the ring. In Mexico, Mistico is a wrestling legend. He has won titles, collected star ratings and lit it up since the early 2000's.


Mistico burst onto the Mexican wrestling scene in 2004. He was given an elaborate and wonderfully overwrought backstory and a strong early push. 2006 was Mistico's year. A series of incredible matches earned him "Wrestler Of The Year," "Best Box Office Draw," and "Best Flying Wrestler" from the Wrestling Observer Awards. He was also ranked third on PWI's list of the Top 500 wrestlers.

After some time in NJPW, Mistico signed (with much fanfare) a contract with WWE on February 4th, 2011. Renamed Sin Cara, he debuted on "Raw" before being drafted to "SmackDown" later that same year. Mistico started well. He picked up a win over Chavo Guerrero at the Over The Limit PPV event in May. What should have been a good run was derailed when he was suspended for thirty days on July 18th after violating the WWE Wellness Policy. Less than a month later, Sin Cara was sent home from a "SmackDown" taping. After returning, 2012 saw Sin Cara paired with Rey Mysterio. That team should win tag titles, period. Instead they were fed to Team Rhodes Scholars a few times. In March 2014, he left.


Mistico has since returned to CMLL (and other promotions), winning titles and wowing fans in the process. Clearly he is incredibly talented, it just didn't work out.