In recent months, it seems like not a week goes by without hearing about another big name from the independent wrestling scene signing with WWE or being in talks to sign soon. Just in 2018, we’ve seen the signings of EC3, Ricochet, and War Machine just to name a few. All four of these men have made their impact outside of WWE and earned their name recognition, but now they’re finally working with the premiere company in sports entertainment. It’s the dream come true, right?
Before I get to the specifics of why WWE needs to stop signing so many indie talents, let’s take a step back and get some perspective on the talent that WWE already has. Between Raw, SmackDown Live, 205 Live, NXT, and live event talents, a quick count from this personnel listing shows nearly 150 signed talents, and that’s just male competitors. Needless to say, WWE has no shortage of talent.
In many ways, it feels like an overcorrection to an issue WWE had as recently as five or ten years ago. There was a time when WWE struggled to create homegrown talents and yet shunned already-established names if they showed up in WWE. One obvious example would be CM Punk, who spent years trying to be recognized in WWE despite his indie following. With Triple H’s creation of NXT and the WWE Performance Center, it’s a whole new world.
Now, instead of talents WWE was interested in working a podunk promotion in south Florida, NXT boasts some of the best wrestling (and production) in sports entertainment today. On top of that, the WWE Performance Center is truly state of the art when it comes to all aspects of professional wrestling. These changes combined with a renewed focus on scouting talents from outside WWE have led to an overabundance of wrestlers.
Every week, we even have a feature that records which superstars weren’t shown on Raw, SmackDown, and 205 Live. You might think it’s mostly filled with competitors that are recovering from injury, but the truth is that’s only a fraction of the talent WWE fails to use. Let’s take a look, brand by brand, at superstars that simply aren’t being fully utilized by WWE. To start, I’ll focus on talents we’ve seen on television that aren’t being utilized properly or often enough.
Monday Night Raw: Curt Hawkins, Goldust, Heath Slater, Rhyno, Dana Brooke
SmackDown Live: The Ascension, Breezango, Mojo Rawley, Tye Dillinger, Zack Ryder, Lana, Natalya
205 Live: Akira Tozawa, Ariya Daivari, Hideo Itami
NXT: Kassius Ohno, Lio Rush, No Way Jose, Wesley Blake, Wolfgang, Aliyah, Billie Kay, Peyton Royce, Taynara Conti
While an argument can be made for some of these superstars having been used in the past, none have managed to remain consistent pieces of WWE’s current product as of late. This argument isn’t made to imply they need to be immediately placed on television or suddenly released, but rather that WWE has no shortage of talent already established and likely ready for an opportunity if they’re given one.
Out for injury
Before I get to the unseen signings, it’s worth recognizing the amount of talent that WWE has out for injury. Unfortunately, it’s just the nature of the beast when it comes to professional wrestling. Injuries happen, and they can happen to the absolute best at the worst possible times. While not able to be used at the moment, these talents can’t be forgotten as they’ll need to find somewhere to fit back in upon recovery.
On the shelf: Big Cass, The Big Show, Dean Ambrose, Jason Jordan, Jeff Hardy, R-Truth, Samoa Joe, The Brian Kendrick, Noam Dar, Alicia Fox, Epico Colon, Mike Kanellis, Samir Singh, Tamina, Drew McIntyre
Again, these are all capable and established stars that will have to fit into the gaps once medically cleared and ready to return to in-ring action.
The unseen signings
It’s one thing for a talent to make it to television and then get lost in the shuffle, but there are plenty of talents that have been signed and have yet to even debut in NXT, much less sniff the main roster. The following talents have signed with WWE, but have yet to be seen outside of photo ops about their signing. On top of that, there are talents that have been rumored to sign with WWE or return in the near future, which I’ve also listed below. This does not include the many talents WWE has signed that have no background in wrestling and are working at the Performance Center to get ready for in-ring competition.
More unseen talent: Brennan Williams, Gunner, Donovan Dijak, EC3, Axel Dieter Jr., Ricochet, War Machine, Sage Beckett, Keith Lee (rumored), WALTER (rumored), Rey Mysterio (rumored return), Bobby Lashley (rumored return)
The dangers of oversaturation and unused talent
Now that I’ve thoroughly expressed the sheer volume of talent that WWE has or will soon have, and still doesn’t use, let’s look at what makes this pattern so dangerous. To start, there’s the sheer financial irresponsibility of it from a business perspective. Even if WWE offers lower salaries to incoming talent, the volume means they’ve got that many people earning money without earning them money.
On a recent episode of his podcast, former WWE talent and former lead booker for their old developmental territory Ohio Valley Wrestling reported how much money NXT has lost WWE. Cornette alleges that NXT has lost approximately $32 million just since 2016. While Cornette isn’t exactly the most reliable source, if he’s even close to correct, that’s an alarming amount of money for a publicly-traded company to lose.
It also reeks of the mistakes made during the fall of WCW. During the heat of the Monday Night Wars, both WWE (then-WWF) and WCW were scratching at the bit to get any slight advantage over their competition. For WCW, any talent was worth signing if it meant they wouldn’t be in WWE. One of the most notorious examples of this was Lanny Poffo, best known for his run in WWE as The Genius and for being the real-life younger brother of “Macho Man” Randy Savage.
Poffo signed a WCW contract in 1995 and continued to be employed by the company through 1999. The only problem is that, in all that time, Poffo never once appeared on WCW television. He was simply left on the payroll without being utilized. WCW continued to pay him, and therefore he didn’t go back to WWE. WCW made the same mistakes when they began signing cruiserweight talents and didn’t properly use them.
Today, some are beginning to wonder if WWE’s actions have similar motives. While WWE has become more open to signing independent talents for occasional dates and allowing them to continue working on the independent scene, they often require those talents only work at specific promotions that WWE has a cordial relationship with.
Then of course there are those I’ve already mentioned, talents who aren’t used enough or have never been used despite being signed. There are also some male and female athletes who are new to the world of professional wrestling that are also signed to the WWE Performance Center where WWE is still working to get them ready for in-ring competition.
While it’s unlikely that these issues will cause WWE to have the kind of catastrophic financial collapse that WCW had back in 2001, they still have a negative effect on the company and the talents who sit unused despite their contracts.
Wrestlers don’t need WWE
There was a time when you had to be in WWE to be taken seriously in the wrestling industry, but things have changed. In the past few years, independent wrestling has experienced a renaissance and truly risen to the next level. With on-demand streaming changing the game as far as distribution, promotions like NJPW, Progress Wrestling, Evolve, and others have become more and more accessible to fans.
With those respective platforms growing, talents have more opportunities to make their marks and begin to grow their name recognition even without going to WWE. We’ve even seen established stars leave WWE and thrive, most notably Cody (Rhodes). One of the biggest differences in this new landscape is purely financial. In the past, the only real money to be made in wrestling was with WWE.
It’s a perfectly understandable reason to want to join the company. In WWE, wrestlers can hope for job security and a massive machine to help them along. The only problem is that most of those benefits are superficial. WWE still treats their talent like independent contractors, meaning their “benefits” are minimal, especially on the lower end of the pay scale.
To provide one example, The Washington Post reported in early 2016 that Mojo Rawley’s starting salary in NXT was only a dismal $37,000 per year. While Rawley’s salary has certainly increased since then, and the low end salary in NXT could be higher now, it’s unlikely that there’s been a drastic change. Keep in mind that lower end talents have to handle their own travel, including rental cars, flights, hotels, etc.
In comparison, the base salary in the NFL is above $400,000 per year, and comes with major benefits and compensated travel. Even practice squad players make significantly more than the lower end NXT talents. With all of this taken into account, it comes into clarity that joining WWE isn’t exactly the financial windfall some might perceive it to be.
In reality, wrestlers stand to make significantly more if they can become big names on the independent scene. After leaving WWE, Cody was asked by a fan what he missed most about the company. His first two points were WrestleMania and working with organizations like Connor’s Cure, but he emphasized that the money wasn’t something he missed. On the contrary, he’s allegedly now making almost triple what he was when in WWE.
With merchandising now easily accessible for indie talents, the evolution of on-demand, and the continued growth of social media allowing them to connect to easily connect to fans, WWE’s massive media machine no longer carries the same monumental value it once did. And with all of that, wrestlers still make the decision to come to WWE for one crucial thing: opportunity.
That’s the name of the game. Signing with WWE is about getting a chance. Anyone who loves this business, especially if they’re a competitor, knows the meaning of competing at WrestleMania or becoming a mainstay on Raw or SmackDown Live. There's no denying the allure of WWE, and it's no surprise that many superstars hope to one day reach that level, but how many have had those dreams squashed by a system that forgot about them?
Unfortunately, the likelihood of a signee ending up in those situations continues to dwindle as WWE signs more and more talent. With so many capable superstars waiting in the wings for their moment, more and more get left by the wayside without anything more than their contract guarantee and the inability to work in any promotion that isn’t WWE.
When it all boils down, WWE’s continued spree of signings and inability to use them represents their most reckless business and creative decision today. Not only is WWE wasting money, but they’re suffocating unused talents who could be growing their name outside of the occasional NXT live event. Stars like AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura, the potential main event for WrestleMania 34, may not have been so successful had it not been for their work before coming to WWE.
If they’d joined WWE much earlier in their careers, even unbelievable talents like them would have hit roadblocks in WWE’s massive developmental system. If WWE wants established stars to scout in the future, and not to stifle the potential of future main eventers but letting them sit in developmental purgatory, they need to be more calculated with their talent roster.
Do you think WWE needs to stop signing so many independent wrestlers? Let us know in the comments below!