AEW is changing the game as we speak, there is no two ways about it. They have grabbed “sports entertainment” by the throat, given it a good old shake, slapped it around a little bit and said, “the people want pro wrestling damn it.” The interesting thing is AEW has been around a lot longer than just the last few years, it just hasn’t been called AEW. Ring of Honor has been around since 2002 highlighting the best professional wrestlers not signed to the WWE, while other Indy promotions such as PWG and Chikara had great wrestling while showing the lighter, more ridiculous, and funny side of the sport we all love. Now I know some of our favorites cut their teeth on the Indy scene then made their way to WWE and became true superstars while others got chewed up and spat out by the entertainment juggernaut or they simply didn’t like their creative direction or lack thereof anymore and so decided to try pastures newer and potentially greener. The Jericho’s, Danielson’s and Moxley’s of the world have all found their way to AEW and with-it bring legitimacy to a newer Company that is just starting to find it’s feet. What about the “home grown” talent? I.E talent that never made it to WWE, why should you care about them? I will list 10 wrestlers signed with AEW that never made it to WWE that you should get behind and why, keeping in mind I am not counting being used as enhancement talent or working for FCW (before it was NXT) or OVW. Let’s get cracking.
10) Orange Cassidy:
Starting off with one that probably has a few of you punching your computer monitors right now but here me out for a second. Orange Cassidy is SO entertaining! The former Fire Ant of Chikara pro wrestling knew that his slender frame was never going to let him stand out and get noticed just on his skill alone, he needed something else. That something else is what you currently see now, rucksack with title belt inside it and all. He dares to be different for the sake of your entertainment, just check out his match with PAC at Revolution 2020. The fact that he cracked himself up mid match by slowly rolling away from PAC multiple times to frustrate his opponent was one of the most entertaining things on a show packed with amazing pro wrestling (whoever said wrestling has to be serious ALL the time anyway.) There is just so much to like about the king of sloth style. Who else can do the things he does with their hand in their pockets? NO ONE.
9) Hangman Adam Page
The 2 year story arch of Hangman chasing the World Title and finally winning it has to be up there with one of the greatest pro wrestling story’s of all time. With a move set that varies from cruiserweight to the power game Page can do it all, while his frame doesn’t look overly menacing the guy is ridiculously explosive and strong which is one of the reasons his Buckshot Lariat is so over with the fans, you really believe he wants to take someone’s head off. Adam Page is also very relatable, as wrestling fans we have probably all struggled with anxiety and depression at some point and failed when we should have succeeded. This is who Adam Page is, the beer drinking everyman wrestling fan that no matter how many times he fails he gets back up again and finally succeeds. He is an inspiration to everyone. Speaking of inspirations…
8) Eddie Kingston
Just take a look at that beer gut! Now who can’t relate to that? Don’t let the look fall you though, Kingston is a bad ass wrestler that’s not much sizzle but a hell of a lot of steak. His mic skills are out of this world whether it’s in front of a live crowd or if it’s in a pre-tape promo, the guy is money, but why? Because you truly get the sense that everything, he says is real, its him, no one telling him what to say or think, no filter just unapologetic truth. With barely 2 weeks build Kingston and Punk talked peoples butts into seats or convinced them to part with their hard-earned money because you truly felt there was some genuine animosity there on Kingston’s part (and to be fair there is.) He made me believe, I was a die-hard CM Punk fan and Eddie Kingston had me cheering for him at full gear, the guy is THAT good. His love for Japanese strong style wrestling is infectious and has had classics against the likes of Tomohiro Ishii and Jun Akiyama.
7) Darby Allin
AEW’s resident Emo kid, Darby Allin is nuts, he is just friggin nuts! Think early 2000s Jeff Hardy and then dial it up to 100 the man just has no fear AND he can wrestle, just watch him vs MJF at full gear 2021 for proof. While he isn’t the best on the mic he doesn’t have to be as his matches do the talking for him, besides if he talks too much then he would lose that dark mysterious side to him. In a world where nearly every wrestler does a Tope Suicida, Darby has made it his own with his total reckless abandon of the dive through the ropes, he comes at you like he is shot out of a cannon and hits you just as hard, the move looks brutal but so awesome. His pairing with the icon Sting shouldn’t really work but it does thanks to both men’s commitment to the partnership. You can feel the bond and respect for each other from the brooding duo.
6) Dante Martin
21 years old! I repeat, this kid is 21 years old. While he hasn’t been given much time on the mic yet he has been dazzling fans with his ultra-high flying style. This dude gets some serious hang time coming off the ropes (gravity really forgot this young man,) its no wonder his tag team with his brother is called Topflight. Speaking of his brother, while Darius was out with a injury after a near fatal car accident, AEW gave Dante the opportunity to shine as a singles wrestler which is great news for his fans. Now Darius is good and healthy watch for the team to climb up the tag ranks quickly whether its for AEW or for the soon to be revamped Ring Of Honor.
5) Hikaru Shida
There is a very good reason crowds chant “holy Shida,”and that’s because everything this woman does looks like it hurts either her opponent or herself. A very gifted athlete between the ropes Hikaru Shida can have a great match with anyone, from the light as a feather, quicker than lightening Riho or the rough and rugged Native beast Nyla Rose, Shida can adjust her style to suit. Carrying the Women’s world title in the dark, crowd less ages of the pandemic, Shida still performed at such a high level that it is difficult not to cheer for her, hopefully she will get a chance to be champion again in front of a crowd.
4) “Jungle Boy” Jack Perry
Son of the late, great Hollywood actor Luke Perry, Jungle Boy is carving out his own path, but don’t expect to see him on the silver screen anytime soon, he is a professional wrestler and a damn good one too. Still only 25 years old JP has been wowing audiences with his agility, guts, determination, and technical prowess for a few years now and the scary thing is he is only getting better. Jack is becoming more and more comfortable in front of a camera each week and I’m sure his promos will get better with time too but for now his is a really great wrestler. His catchy crowd participation theme song is just a small part of the package that makes JP so loved by the fans, his heart and fighting spirit against long-time friend turned bitter rival Luchasaurus inside a steel cage at full gear 2022 was Jungle Boys coming out party so to speak. No longer a boy but now a man!
3) Britt Baker
Dr Britt Baker D.M.D went through un-imaginal punishment in her lights out match with Thunder Rosa even taking a bump in the dreaded thumb tacks, this woman is committed to her craft, which says a lot given the bumpy start to her life in AEW. Hinder by a string of unfortunate injuries, a role model gimmick that didn’t really take off and the horrible “tooth and nail “match against Big Swole at All Out 2020 the future didn’t look to bright for AEW’s resident real-life dentist and then the lights out match happened and a star was born! We are meant to hate her but somehow we love her, and when she won the woman’s title from Hikaru Shida she didn’t look back, along with her super fan Rebel (not Reba) and her British muscle Jamie Hayter by her side, Baker was a force to be reckoned with. Now things have changed however and the good Doctor appears to be playing second fiddle to a newly crowned Women’s World Champion in Hayter, but look for the seeds of jealousy to be planted as Baker will not take a back seat to anyone.
2) Kenny Omega
The best bout machine Kenny Omega is the best professional wrestler in the world in any organization. A mega star in Japan and amongst die hard wrestling fans, the whole world is now just starting to see the brilliance of this man. While his style has the tendency to divide people’s opinion on whether he really is the best or not. you have to understand that it is 2022 and pro wrestling has evolved, maybe then you can allow yourself to enjoy this man’s body of work. His story telling is great and his move set is one of a kind, it doesn’t matter if he is coming off the ropes with a beautiful Phoenix splash, trying to take your head off your shoulders with a thunderous V-Trigger, snapping your neck with a whiplash like dragon suplex or putting you down for the count with the spine jarring One winged angel, all of his moves look like they hurt and that’s why he is so believable. Omegas character work is so underrated too, as well as being the best bout machine he is also very entertaining as the cocky, egotistical, arrogant heel using his cronies to do his dirty work.
It pains me to put this guy at number 1, I physically feel sick doing it. Maxwell Jacob Friedman’s sole purpose is to be the most hated guy on the planet, MJF doesn’t just cross the line in his promos he goes so far past the line that the line becomes a dot and In this day and age of “cancel culture” and with people getting too easily offended it is a breath of fresh air. After all this is professional wrestling and the bad guy Is not meant to be liked. MJF is the type of person to slap his own mother and then hide behind what ever cronies he has hired for his protection, he has a sharp tongue capable of spitting poison filled barbs at anyone and everyone and generates the kind of heat that makes people want to jump the guardrail and kill him. The guy can wrestle too but what good would a heel be if he didn’t cheat to win in the most underhanded of ways, his knockout of Darby Allin with his dynamite diamond ring behind the refs back only to then grab Allin in a headlock take over for the 3 count is the stuff of slimy, underhanded legends. MJF is the best heel in professional wrestling. Call him what you want though, but as of this writing you can call him CHAMP!