Wrestlemania is fast approaching and rabid fans are already salivating over the potential matchup: Brock Lesnar, Braun Strowman, and everyone’s favorite punching bag Roman Reigns are all in the running for the main event of sports entertainment’s biggest and most popular stage.
But hardcore wrestling fans would argue that the greatest matches are already happening outside of Monday Night RAW and Smackdown, and that many casual fans are missing out on many 5-star matches, unbelievable performers, and insane finishers happening all over the US, Japan, Mexico, and the UK. Despite the emergence of social media and a more discerning fanbase, we are seeing a new golden age of performers trying to make their mark across different time zones and promotions.
Here are some of the wrestlers who made their careers outside of mainstream WWE and are poised to shock the world this 2018. This ain’t your daddy’s pro wrestling anymore.
Ricochet AKA Prince Puma
NJPW, Dragon Gate Japan, Lucha Underground
WWE fans won’t have to wait long to discover the genius of Trevor Mann. Ricochet was recently signed by WWE as a marquee performer for enthusiast brand NXT and is poised to do incredible aerial stunts never before seen by the mainstream audience.
Ricochet’s slick move set and gravity-defying stunts have earned him the informal title of the best high-flyer in the entire industry. His recent appearance as the enigmatic Prince Puma in Lucha Underground merely added fuel to a very bright fire that’s scheduled to set mainstream TVs aflame.
Need proof? Watch his 630 senton finisher here.
If Ricochet is the most-established high-flyer, young Brit Will Ospreay can’t be far behind. The promising performer made the jump to NJPW last year and has since been making headlines in its lightweight division, holding his own against Japan’s more established cruiserweights. Ospreay infuses aerial lucha libre with hard-hitting Japanese puroresu sensibilities—and has slowly evolved from a gimmicky act into a complete package and a centerpiece for NJPW’s most exciting division.
LARGER THAN LIFE
NJPW, CMLL (Mexico)
Tetsuya Naito is perhaps the quintessential DGAF character in all of pro wrestling: his apathy oozes out of the screen and his in-ring presence is unmatched. Frequently found lying down lazily in the middle of the ring or throwing his championship titles away in total disregard for authority, Naito channels a level of rebellion not seen since the heydays of DX and Eddie Guerrero; and his NJPW fans are eating it all up.
Charismatic and dastardly, he marches to the beat of '90s technopop videogame music, wears a spiffy suit, and has great work ethic. Naito’s only concern now is taking NJPW’s top title.
WWE Tough Enough, WWE NXT
Who knew that a hybrid of Val Venis, Goldust, “Ravishing” Rick Rude, and Prince would turn out to be WWE’s most promising character of 2018?
Patrick Clark’s natural athleticism and build lends well to the sultry new persona of Velveteen Dream, who often toys with his opponents and demands that they “say his name." Dream knows when to be serious and when to leverage his character’s sexually-obscure mystique—a skill that some performers take decades to master.
With a more solid upper-card push, the Dream is poised to capture this NXT generation’s imaginations one mind-game at a time.
Aleister Black AKA Tommy End
WWE NXT, PWG, Revolution Pro
Aleister Black is what you get when you combine Jean Claude Van Damme with the Undertaker. With a freaky Dracula-inspired cum black metal entrance, Black is a hit-first-ask-later talent with a precise kick-based offense and a unique, engaging look that’s bound to fill in the supernatural gap that the Deadman has since vacated.
Also, his full-roundhouse kick finisher is always a joy to behold.
WWE UK, Progress Wrestling
Tyler Bate recently won the NXT Match of the Year award with fellow Englishman Pete Dunne—and for good reason. At 21 years old, Bate is an incredibly experienced and nuanced performer (with a cool moustache) who can do literally anything in the ring. From the crowd-pumping airplane spin to the fake-out face punch, Bate’s repertoire screams charisma. It's all backed up by a surprisingly mature wrestling foundation that should help him earn his stripes in WWE’s major brands.
Zach Sabre Jr.
WWE Cruiserweight Classic, NJPW, Evolve
Taking the mantle from the great William Regal, Zach Sabre Jr. is a pure wrestling prodigy and perhaps the best technical wrestler of this generation. Sabre showcases his many holds, counters, and submission moves and chains them fluidly—and most importantly, he’s an expert at adapting to the strengths of his opponents to create uniquely memorable matches.
Sabre improvises often and usually in grand fashion. Once Sabre bulks up and gains more experience in Japan’s upper echelon, expect to see more of him in the WWE or NJPW very soon.
Progress UK, Stardom Japan, WWE Mae Young Classic
Despite being just 22 years of age, New Zealand native Toni Storm has been bumping the canvas for 9 years. A rare superstar blend of pretty face, badass attitude, and natural in-ring workmanship, Storm has performed in countless countries and was recently featured in the semi-final round of the WWE Mae Young Classic tournament, where she lost to superstar and pirate princess Kairi Sane.
But Storm’s star is too bright to ignore, and soon we should be seeing her competing against the likes of fellow female superstars Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, and the undefeated Asuka in the WWE with her sweet butt-attack.
Stardom Japan, Mexico, Lucha Underground
The only reason why you aren’t hearing about the best female wrestler in the world is because her WWE contract died out in the midst of a failed medical. But make no mistake, despite having already one dominant and unbeaten female performer in Asuka, the WWE is missing out on a once-in-a-generation talent.
Io Shirai moves fluidly, hits extremely hard, and has a solid ground and aerial offense that very few female performers can pull off. Her most prominent US exposure was from Lucha Underground, where she did a cross body block from three stories above her victim.
Here’s hoping she gets medically cleared soon—the world deserves to see more of Io Shirai’s unbridled, hard-hitting style.
EC3 AKA Ethan Carter III
Impact Wrestling, WWE NXT
A fledgeling Derrick Bateman meandered in a half-formed NXT in the early 2010’s, until he was finally cut by WWE as a failed prospect. After joining Impact Wrestling and fully embracing his inner douchebag, Bateman—now Ethan Carter III became the most entitled and comically condescending heel in his promotion.
Armed with great mic skills and an incredible physique, EC3 will soon be seen tearing it up on NXT a second time while proclaiming to be the top 1% of the industry. With his size and skills, no doubt his stay in NXT will be short and sweet, as he should soon be shipped to RAW or Smackdown.
WWE UK, Progress
Along with Tyler Bate, the Bruiserweight Pete Dunne is taking the WWE world by storm and chaining five-star matches in his wake. Dunne combines his brutish strength and overall nastiness with technical move sets and a penchant for pain, especially when it comes to limbs, fingers, and heads.
As the current WWE UK Champion, Dunne shines as one of WWE’s best young talents and best natural personas to ever grace the screen. Without saying a word, Dunne exhibits an intimdating ring-presence that is backed up with surprising agility and flexibility—a perfect counterweight to Bate’s babyface artistry.
AAA (Mexico), Lucha Underground
Luchador Pentagon Jr. made a name for himself by breaking his opponents’ arms in gruesome (yet kayfabe) fashion. Pentagon has a memorable look, a great grounded offense mixed with awesome submissions, and has a fabulous mean-streak with demonic overtones—typical fanfare in Mexican lucha libre—but is further enhanced by his relentless, aggressive style and willingness to do the most extreme crap you will ever see in a wrestling ring, including cracking fluorescent lightbulbs on peoples’ faces and setting them on fire.
HALL OF FAMERS
Kazuchika 'The Rainmaker' Okada
Kazuchika Okada is the moneymaker of New Japan, and has been for a very long time. He is the alpha dog of the Japanese pro wrestling world: he's 6’3” and has amazing body control and natural athleticism—the prototypical wrestler every promotion dreams of having.
Okada peppers the crowd with prop money as “The Rainmaker”—sort of a money-clad cross between Ted Dibiase and Alberto El Patron. But despite being outfitted by a lavish peacock overcoat, Okada is all business in the ring—a master of the perfect dropkick, an intense, hard-hitting martial artist, and the proprietor of the short-arm wrist-lock Rainmaker lariat that’s devastatingly effective on-screen and can come from anywhere.
Okada is a consistent 5-star performer in Meltzer’s rankings and even crossed the 6-star mark a few times—proving that he is NJPW’s most consistent and reliable superstar today, and one of the key cogs responsible for making NJPW a legitimate threat to the WWE.
Also, he once entered the ring with a giant sword and an animatronic dinosaur.
Johnny Wrestling has a backstory too awesome to spoil. Tune into your WWE network subscription and witness the most incredible feud in wrestling history between Gargano and the Sicilian Psychopath Tommaso Ciampa.
What makes this feud tantalizing is that Gargano sells the babyface role unlike any other in recent memory (perhaps Daniel Bryan comes close). With a great look, an amazing fan following, unmatched charm, a twitchy pop song entrance, and versatile wrestling talent, Gargano is a performer you simply can’t not root for. All these make this Ciampa betrayal that much more sickening and resonant with young audiences. A potential Gargano vs. Ciampa feud at NXT Takeover New Orleans might just be the best match of the Wrestlemania weekend.
NJPW, ROH, PWG
Few will doubt that Winnipeg native and otaku-geek Kenny Omega will always be in the conversation for best wrestler in the world today. Not many performers understand wrestling the way Omega does—he has a well-documented, almost deconstructed view of the industry that rose from his humble beginnings as a midcarder and Japanese comedy act in Japan. Yes, Omega spent his early years wrestling 9-year-old girls and blow-up sex dolls in Japan.
But Omega’s patience, work ethic, and very apparent love for Japan brought about many unique opportunities, including stealing the Bullet Club leadership from AJ Styles—his first step towards greatness. His newfound heel status coupled with a string of incredible matches against the NJPW elite cemented his status as one of the most dynamic, creative, and physically imposing talents in the world, and his legendary 6-star match with Kazuchika Okada simply reinforced his legend status within the wrestling elite.
A unique talker, a colorful persona, and a sucker for Youtube rivalries with WWE performer Xavier Woods, Omega is the perfect wrestler for the socially aware millennial generation.