Let's face it, as much as WWE's developmental system has turned around under Triple H, and as much as I think yesterday's opening of the WWE Performance Center is a game changer, there were reasons to be hesitant.
Too many guys were called up too soon, either before they were ready as performers, or when they were ready as performers but before WWE had a role for them.
Too many guys were left in the developmental stage forever, even if they were seen as great talents by both fans and the WWE office alike.
Too many guys who were clearly ready got fired.
And too many guys were ready and called up, but were given the stupidest gimmick possible.
In light of the success of The Shield, The Wyatt Family, and so on, I think we all have reasons to have a positive outlook. Still, there are plenty of reasons to have reservations based on previous experiences. In no particular order, here are some of the biggest blunders WWE has made with top developmental talent.
Yes, I know Daniel Bryan is a top guy now and Brian Kendrick did fairly well for himself, especially in his tag team with Paul London. This isn't about those runs.
In 2000, WWE signed the four best students from Shawn Michaels' Texas Wrestling Academy: American Dragon (Daniel Bryan/Bryan Danielson), Spanky (Brian Kendrick), Lance Cade, and Shooter Schultz. They all reported to Memphis Championship Wrestling, which had recently become WWE's newest developmental territory.
With William Regal, Robbie Brookside, and Tracy Smothers as their main trainers and plenty of ring time, they improved dramatically. Cade and Schultz were good, but Spanky and Dragon were at another level. For fans who weren't following MCW, they were in for a shock when they showed up in ECWA's Super 8 Tournament in 2001.
ECWA was a Delaware-based independent promotion that had developed a small working relationship with WWE, though it was nothing close to a full-fledged developmental promotion. The Super 8 was their annual junior heavyweight tournament, which had been gaining popularity every year.
Dragon had an incredible one-night performance. He beat Spanky in the first round, beat long-tme indy standout Reckless Youth in the semi-finals, and lost to Low-Ki (eventually Senshi in TNA and Kaval in WWE), the hottest indy prospect of the moment, in the finals. All were great matches that featured a shift in the style of independent wrestling that was popular, leading indirectly to the formation of Ring of Honor the following year.
In spite of being the talk of the hardcore fans, both wrestlers were released within weeks. WWE bought the assets of WCW, adopting a bunch of new wrestlers in the process, and cleaned out developmental. In the meantime, they were off to fend for themselves on the independent scene.
In lieu of five repetitive slides, how about one that tells basically the same story?
When Jim Cornette was in charge of Ohio Valley Wrestling, he pushed whoever the best wrestlers were regardless of their contract status. This didn't sit well with WWE, but the truth is it made the shows better and helped the WWE talent learn faster by having them work with the experience veterans who had been in OVW for years.
These wrestlers, referred to at the time as "The OVW Originals," were:
- Doug Basham
- Nick Dinsmore
- Rob Conway
- The Damaja (Danny Hollie)
- Flash Flanagan
- Trailer Park Trash (Frank Miller, now seen sometimes on Impact Wrestling and Bellator MMA broadcasts that visit OVW).
The whole group, with the exception of Trash (who was as talented as the rest but had the worst look) got signed to developmental deals. Here's how the best all-around performers in developmental ended up:
- Doug Basham and The Damaja were called up to WWE as The Basham Brothers, while they were in the middle of a heated OVW main event feud against each other. Yup. The Bashams were managed by Tough Enough 2 winner Linda Miles as a dominatrix named Shaniqua, presumably because they wore pleather pants. Again: Yup. While the Bashams did win Smackdown's tag titles and served in JBL's "cabinet," they never got a chance to show their personalities at all. Their last role in WWE was behind masks as Paul Heyman's riot squad security guards who never wrestled.
- Rob Conway showed up as an American turncoat and master of disguise (again, I am not making any of this up) who sided with evil Frenchmen La Resistance. He even had his own tag title reign in the process. Being on Raw and not dark aged Smackdown kept him in a better place than the Bashams, and he at least had a lot of solid tag team matches to his credit. Conway and Rene Dupree were actually a hell of an underrated team, while the very green Sylvain Grenier improved dramatically when teaming with Conway. Eventually he was made over as Rob "The Con Man" Conway, a narcissistic bodybuilder with amazing entrance music. At least he did better than the Bashams.
- Nick Dinsmore, a serious technician in OVW who felt stuck and wanted to be called up as soon as possible, pitched his own idea to WWE: A childlike wrestling savant named Eugene. Amazingly enough, it worked. Well, almost. He got off to a great start, and then they rushed the angle where his hero Triple H turned on him. Then Triple H squashed him repeatedly and he never reached the heights of his debut again.
- As for Flash Flanagan, who may have been the best all-around performer of the group in addition to being Randy Orton's best opponent in developmental, he was never called up to the main roster. Oh well.
In 2001, the face of the wrestling business changed forever, as ECW and WCW both closed within weeks of each other. Well, sort of.
ECW ran their last shows in January. At the last show, it seemed like most of the wrestlers did, in fact, realize it was the last show, with the locker room emptying for an in-ring beer bash. Still, many of the wrestlers were optimistic that ECW would go on with their March pay-per-view event even though they were no longer running house shows and stopped producing television programming. Interviews shot at the time that made it into John Philpavage and Kevin Kiernan's "Barbed Wire City" documentary bear this out.
To his credit, E.Z. Money (Jason Broyles) was one of the wrestlers who realized ECW was dead before the company filed for bankruptcy. WCW was rebuilding their cruiserweight division in their dying days, so he was brought in.
At the March 5th TV tapings, wrestling as "Jason B." and teaming with Scotty O, he made his debut by losing a first round match in the Cruiserweight Tag Team Title tournament to Shannon Moore and Evan Karagias.
He clearly made an impression on management, as he was brought back a week later as Jason Jett to defeat veteran WCW cruiserweight contender Alex Wright. He followed that up with a pay-per-view win over Kwee Wee (Alan Funk) the following Sunday. He added TV wins over Disco Inferno and the debuting Cash (Kid Kash, also having departed the remnants of ECW) at the TV tapings the next night. He was quickly getting over with live crowds and became a favorite of hardcore "internet" fans.
And then WCW's television shows were cancelled by Jamie Kellner of Turner Broadcasting. The Eric Bischoff-led Fusient Media Ventures had no more interest in buying WCW without a TV outlet. The only buyer left was Vince McMahon.
When they reported to WWE, the WCW talent that was kept on was either sent to the main roster or to the developmental system by way of the Heartland Wrestling Association. Jason Broyles went to the HWA, where he started wrestling as E.Z. Money again.
While he was one of the best performers in the system, the HWA was, for whatever reason, not being followed as much as OVW was by both fans, and seemingly, the WWE office. He was released in 2002. His short period as the hottest rising star in wrestling was forgotten. Since he's also talented with a sewing machine, he's been selling ring gear to wrestlers since then.
Jason Arnhdt had basically the same path into WWE as his friends Matt and Jeff Hardy. He started as a WWE TV jobber, improved dramatically as a wrestling on independent shows in the southeast US, and got signed. He was brought up as Joey Abs, a one third of Shane McMahon's Mean Street Posse, because WWE needed an actual wrestler in the group.
He only got to have a few matches on TV, which were short but good. When the Posse gimmick was dropped, he was sent to Memphis until he was ready to be repackaged. That day never came. He continued to be a great heavyweight wrestler (a rarity on the independent scene at the time), most notably feuding with Steve Bradley, and was fired to make room for WCW talent in 2001.
So he quit wrestling and never returned.
Well, that sucks.
Matt Morgan was a tall, muscular Tough Enough 2 contestant who was eliminated when he blew out his knee.
Matt Morgan was considered physically impressive enough that he was still signed to a WWE developmental deal.
Matt Morgan never became a great in-ring wrestler, but he developed into a very strong interview, and that was his calling card.
Matt Morgan was called up to the main roster with a stuttering gimmick.
Matt Morgan floundered and was released by WWE.
Sucks to be Matt Morgan.
CM Punk has always said that he figured Colt Cabana, who broke in with him, would get signed by WWE long before he did. The (sort of) opposite scenario is what actually happened.
Cabana was hired in 2007, two years after Punk. A year later, he was called up to the main roster as Scotty Goldman (his real name is Scott Colton) at the same time as Jay Bradley, who was working as Ryan Braddock. For some reason, WWE decided they needed new wrestlers for glorified jobber roles. They were gone from TV within a few weeks, with Goldman returning in a similar role months later.
Around the time of his return, he tried his best to build a following among WWE fans with a blog on the old WWE Universe website (WWE's attempt at social networking), and a weekly show on WWE.com called "What's Crackin' with Scotty Goldman". He later tried his luck with "Good as Goldman." This is how WWE.com described the show:
"SmackDown's up-and-coming Superstar, Scotty Goldman, covers the WWE in his new Video Original series like a schmeer of Nova cream cheese covers a poppy-seed bagel - with bite. 'What's Crackin' with Scotty Goldman' premieres today as WWE.com's newest 'Kosher' series, featuring the titular Goldman kibitzing about recent happenings in WWE. Some of this Superstar's matzo ball-flavored musings are sly, some are caustic and some are downright schmeer campaigns irreverent enough to make a rabbi blush. Oy! To see what that Goldman mensch is kvetching about this week, watch WWE.com's latest Video Original series, 'What's Crackin' with Scotty Goldman.' Mazel tov."
I think they may have been suggesting that he's Jewish.
He was released as the show was picking up steam. WWE didn't get his style of humor or his style of wrestling (heavily inspired by British wrestling, which Vince McMahon is not a fan of). He's since been carving out a niche for himself by building up his social media presence and doing a number of multimedia projects, including the highly popular Art of Wrestling Podcast, which you can check out at WeLoveColt.com.
Steve Bradley was the standout on the New England independent scene when he was signed to a WWE developmental contract in 1998. Seemingly as soon as he showed up in Memphis, he was also being touted as the best all-around performer in the developmental system.
In Memphis, he became the regular opponent of Kurt Angle, who was being trained from scratch. Bradley was so instrumental in Angle’s development as a pro wrestler that even ten years later, Angle told ESPN that:
“Dory Funk and Tom Prichard started teaching me, but I'd have to say that Steve Bradley, an independent wrestler from the northeast, he was the guy who was with me every time, no matter where I went because WWE sent him there to help me. He was always teaching me. He was a phenomenal wrestler who really taught me a lot.”
Angle was sent to the main roster in November 1999. Bradley went from Memphis to Louisville to Puerto Rico and back to Memphis. He then went to Cincinnati, which brought him back to Louisville, since the Cincinnati-based Heartland Wrestling Association taped their TV at Ohio Valley Wrestling's school. Even with Angle being around as a top star who could theoretically be his rabbi to the office, he never got a shot and was released in 2002, around the time that WWE cut ties with the HWA.
Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer noted (subscribers-only) that while there are plenty of reasons commonly given for why Bradley was fired (knee injury, an increasingly worse drug problem, an average physique by WWE standards at the time, and his resemblance to the recently signed Rob Van Dam), the impression he was given was that none of those were the case. More likely, asthma limiting his stamina and the idea that there was no room for a “Bull Durham” type in WWE were more responsible.
After leaving WWE, his drug addiction worsened. He couldn’t manage the finances of his wrestling school and independent promotion (which had gained good reputations because of everything he learned while in WWE developmental), while also turning down well-paying tours of Japan. Eventually the school closed and he fell off of the radar of the pro wrestling business.
In 2008, he asked WWE for help and went to rehab for his drug addiction, but relapsed soon after being discharged and was arrested on a heroin possession charge. On December 4, 2008, Steven Richard Bisson was found dead in the parking lot across the street from the former location of his wrestling school in New Hampshire of a suspected drug overdose.