I’ve been working on this post off and on for a couple weeks now, trying to find the right hook for it. So much has happened recently with NXT and big time independent wrestlers that it’s still hard to get a grip on. Independent wrestling fans watch for years as our favorites work in gymnasiums in front of dozens of people while everyone from anti-indy fans to anti-indy promoters tell us that they will never find mainstream success. The term “vanilla midgets” gets tossed around as an insult to anyone who doesn’t fit the 80’s style of big muscles and big personalities.
And then a guy breaks through. He signs that WWE contact and makes a name for himself on TV and then a different famous indy wrestler is on TV, then another, and the floodgates have opened and suddenly Kevin Steen is powerbombing John Cena on Monday Night Raw. How did we get here?
First, I’m going to list some names.
Kevin Steen – Kevin Owens
Jon Moxley – Dean Ambrose
Tyler Black – Seth Rollins
Claudio Castagnoli – Cesaro
Bryan Danielson – Daniel Bryan
Brodie Lee – Luke Harper
PAC – Neville
This list composes some of the best guys in the WWE for the past 5-10 years. Some like Owens and Neville, haven’t been there long enough to say for sure. Others, like Cesaro and Harper, haven’t really been given the push I feel like they deserve, but they impress in the ring each time they get between the ropes. There are two names on there though that took the phrase “vanilla midget” and turned it on it’s head.
It was obvious that Daniel Bryan and CM Punk were special long before they reached WWE television. I wrote an entire post about Bryan, and eventually should do one on Punk as well. Punk broke down the wall for the smaller, independent wrestlers to succeed in WWE, whether anyone will admit it or not. He won Money in the Bank matches, he won titles and had hot programs. He proved a guy could succeed and main event without having the WWE “look”. Then, of course, he led the hottest angle since the Attitude Era when he beat Cena for the title in Chicago and left. Yeah, I really need to write a CM Punk post.
Anyways, there’s no way a guy like Kevin Steen or Samoa Joe was watching CM Punk kiss Vince McMahon goodbye and leave with the WWE title and didn’t think “That should be me.” But as hot as Punk was, it wasn’t him that main evented Wrestlemania. Punk didn’t beat HHH, Orton, and Batista in one night. That privilege went to another indy darling, perhaps THE indy darling: Daniel Bryan.
Go read my post on Bryan to get all my thoughts on him. Though guys like Seth Rollins were already on the roster when Bryan’s popularity shot through the roof, there had to be a sense of relief that a guy like Bryan was able to get that kind of push. And there are tons of things I didn’t like about Bryan’s push, I don’t think the WWE did anything maliciously. I think WWE simply had no idea how to harness what they had in Bryan. They made fun of him because they had no idea what else to do.
Punk broke down the independent wall, and Bryan swept away the debris. The effect they have had is obvious just by listening to the announcing. Two years ago, JBL and Michael Cole would have been making fun of Adrian Neville’s big ears and tiny stature. Now they treat him like a big deal. Two years ago, Kevin Owens would have been mocked for his less then stellar physique. Now they make him out to be a threat. You would think it would be Announcing 101 to not mock the people in the ring, especially when they debut and first impressions are so important. Look how the Ascension are treated. But while the Ascension will never make the WWE money, a guy like Owens will, and should be treated importantly.
The current crop of indy talent in NXT is a dream come true for a fan of the golden era of independent promotions like PWG and ROH. Neville is already on the main roster and impressing almost every night, and Kevin Owens made one hell of a debut by pinning John Freaking Cena. Pinned him clean. No shenanigans, no excuses. Punk never pinned John Cena completely clean. Bryan kinda-sorta pinned Cena clean, but considering Cena took time off immediately after, it took some luster out of his win. But now Kevin Owens, Kevin Freaking Owens, pinned Cena clean.
Then there’s Finn Balor, formerly Prince Devitt, still sitting in NXT. The man could be a huge star, but for a long time I’ve been uncertain if he will be treated with the amount of respect needed to make him appear credible. With the way guys are being called up, I have a lot of hope for him and the other indy guys down there, Hideo Itami and Sami Zayn. Then of course, there’s Samoa Joe. Joe just agreed to a full-time contract with WWE, so almost anything is possible going forward.
There’s several topics here I want to get more into, but that will have to wait for a later time. CM Punk deserves his own retrospective post, and there’s so many thoughts bouncing around about Owens vs. Cena that I have a hard time keeping them coherent. What’s going to happen with Joe? I have no idea, but the WWE hasn’t been this unpredictable since… well, since that awesome night in Chicago when John Cena had to defend his title against the hometown hero CM Punk.