By Joe Pollock
While it seems that no domestic company currently poses a serious threat to the juggernaut residing with Titan Towers in Stamford, CT, this does not mean that the IWC is completely beholden to Vince McMahon’s takes on sports entertainment. New Japan has seen increased buys for Wrestle Kingdom and interest in English broadcasts. Stu Bennett (f.k.a. Wade Barrett) has jumped in head-first with ownership of Defiant Wrestling, joining ICW, Progress Wrestling, and PCW in the re-birth of British Strong Style. Lucha Underground has battled back from critical condition to begin taping episodes for Season 4. Although neither has a strong distribution machine behind them, Ring Of Honor and Impact Wrestling (f.k.a. NWA/TNA, TNA, Global Force, Anthem) have become a proving ground and safe landing spot for those spurned by the ‘E. Since ROH and NJPW ask their wrestlers to sign exclusive contracts, here are free agents that have shown they require a second chance.
My bias for CZW comes shining through in this selection. Having lived in New Jersey for six underwhelming years, my life consisted of work, sleep, and trying to find rides to wherever the circus freaks were barnstorming next. To see someone like Jon Moxley rise from Voorhees through the ranks and evolve into Dean Ambrose, it meant a lot that His H-Ness would sign someone as unorthodox as the Death Machine. His rebranding as Solomon Crowe, a computer hacker bent on chaos, was, um… at least original as a gimmick. However, “the Songs of Solomon” would be muted when the original Crow, Sting, was signed to the main roster as a conquering vigilante. Callihan was buried in NXT dark matches after refusing surgery for a cracked tibia and requested his release from Full Sail.
His following work in both Lucha Underground and Impact, not to mention a strong showing in New Japan’s tag tournament with Juice Robinson, has propelled him to the top of free agency. No, I seriously doubt his previous partnership with Ambrose in Switchblade Conspiracy will be reprised. But there is definitely room for someone with Callihan’s ability in the ring and on the mic somewhere in WWE. Perhaps he would be a future member of Creative, similar to Jimmy Jacobs’ former role backstage..
Before he became The Man That Creative Forgot, the artist formerly known as Adrian Neville was the indie darling of Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and Dragon Gate. While at times unintelligible on the mic due to his thick Geordie accent, his high-flying yet stiff offense more than made up for this. After dominating NXT for nearly three years, he was called up to the main roster… and promptly made into a comic book character because we can’t have nice things.
The Cruiserweight Classic was a fine tournament, but felt incomplete due to the absence of Pac in lieu of outside talent being utilized. His career received a jolt by ditching his superhero cape and turning heel on new CW champion Rich Swann. A dominating title reign ensued, culminating with an excellent feud with Austin Aries (more on the banana lover later). The fact the rivalry peaked with a pre-show WM match highlighted the frustration that both men had with management. Pac became disgruntled upon learning he would be dropping the title to accused rapist Enzo Amore (management actually thought The Zo Train equaled ratings on 205 Live), and walked out three weeks later. Due to the resurgence of the Cruiserweight division of late, Pac may be hearing his phone ring soon.
Zack Sabre Jr.
Is there a promotion on God’s green earth that ZSJ hasn’t wrestled for? The technical specialist has been crippling opponents in both Europe and North America and now has brought his British Strong Style to New Japan. His work there is as an independent contractor in the Suzuki-Gun stable, so he is able to fulfill previous commitments.
His dominating work in the Cruiserweight Classic took WWE by surprise, as he was not immediately offered a full-time deal until after the tournament began. When the deal was finally presented, Sabre Jr. refused to sign (and was subsequently jobbed to Gran Metallik). ZSJ has become more recognized internationally for spurning Vince McMahon, and may decide to rise through the ranks in NJPW. With 205 Live creating a tag-team division soon, the roster may be stretched so thin that Vince may be forced to give Union Zack (trademark pending) another offer.
This may be an instance of “one bridge burned too many.” Trained in Shawn Michaels’ wrestling school, London is widely considered as one of the best workers in the world. He and pre-THE Brian Kendrick immediately clicked as a tag team, and they hold the record for WWE Tag Team champions as a duo (Demolition and New Day can claim longer reigns under Freebird Rules). The team was broken up due to Kendrick’s unstable attitude backstage, and London was released soon after Kendrick’s second firing.
London hit the dirt sheets, blasting the booking practices of WWE and Triple H’s implied belief that London was “an RVD guy.” While he would still get work in PWG and various indies, major companies shied away from him until 2016. He debuted in LU as leader of the entertaining Rabbit Tribe, perhaps as a dig at his former “pothead” reputation in WWE. This persona could work wonders in the CW division, provided that Trips gets over London’s burn job.
Lashley is currently without a storyline in Impact, and a return similar to EC3 may be in the works. Walking Armageddon (I really hate that Josh Matthews came up with this tagline, but I have to respect the creativity) could have had a potential Hall-of-Fame career in the ‘E, but a Roman-esque push from Vince was seemingly rejected by the fans, and Lashley had an itch he needed to scratch in MMA. This is usually at least celebrated by fans, but Lashley’s decision to utilize TNA’s partnership with Bellator instead of the mainstream UFC meant there would be zero interest in his cage adventures.
The man is still young enough to be a main-eventer in WWE, should he decide to leave the minor leagues of MMA behind. His feud with Drew McIntyre in Impact would be tempting to reprise on the main roster, as both bring out the best in each other. It’s hard to imagine Vince would entrust a major title run to Lashley, but the man deserves to end his career where it began.
If the WWE ever took my advice and changed the weight designation of its cruiserweight, the idea of Johnny 220 invading Network screens every Tuesday night is at least an intriguing proposition. The lone resident of Slamtown, USA has dominated at every stop of his career but has not seen many championship reigns. Perhaps this is due to his non-traditional Parkour training. Perhaps it is due to his seeming insistence on bringing his girlfriends into promotions with him. Whatever the reason, he was only given a few Intercontinental Championship title runs, back when the IC belt meant as much to Vince McMahon as I do.
However, make no mistake: The Man Of 1,004 Surnames is an attraction for wrestling fans. What the WWE needs more than anything is a full-time roster member eliciting fan responses. Add in the possibility of his inclusion into the CW division (not to mention that Taya Valkyrie would add to the Smackdown women’s roster depth), and it’s a no-brainer to call up the pilot of Starship Pain. All hail the Shaman Of Sexy!
Here is the ultimate underdog story. Striker began utilizing sick days at his teaching position to moonlight on the indie scene and ROH. He got signed to a developmental deal, but immediately became an overnight celebrity due to being Kurt Angle’s jobber du jour and his journey being documented by the New York Times. He would essentially reprise the “Dean Douglas” gimmick made infamous by Shane Douglas, but with even less success than Douglas. A stint in WWECW went over like, well, WWECW, and he was transitioned into a color commentator.
He maintained his learned aura through many changes in play-by-play. Eventually, Vince decided that Booker T was better for ratings, and Striker was demoted to NXT in 2011. He eventually left in 2013 and became a stellar play-by-play voice for such promotions as New Japan and Lucha Underground. Not every announcer can tolerate having Vince scream directives into their headsets during matches, hence why Michael Cole is still gainfully employed by McMahon. There is also no doubt that Cole has never been qualified to fill the shoes of Jim Ross. Striker already has the seal of approval from “good ‘ol JR,” having done English re-broadcasts of NJPW with him. We can only hope…
Speaking of hope, The Greatest Vegan That Ever Lived hoped to use his CW feud with Neville in 2017 to vault onto the main roster of WWE. He had done it all, having become an unlikely champion in TNA and ROH due to his size and backstage arrogance. His arrival in NXT drew a rockstar response, and subsequent feuds with Baron Corbin and No Way Jose could not extinguish his momentum. A Kinshasa from Shinsuke Nakamura did, as he was put on the shelf with a fractured orbital socket. Tremendous commentary work followed, and five months later, he made his return to the ring by attacking the King Of The Cruiserweights.
As usual, his ego got the best of him. He was unsuccessful in multiple title challenges and was fired/quit (depending on the source) after learning he would not be working outside of the 205 Live roster. Aries stormed the indies, collecting title belt after title belt, and currently holds the top Impact belts as well. While there is likely still bad blood between the two parties, it’s hard to imagine Aries not holding out hope for a return to Stamford, CT.