Cagematch.net is the preeminent online database for the pro wrestling industry. On the site, they have countless things organized, making research and comparisons easy for nerds like myself. One thing though has always bothered me about Cagematch, and that was that they never seemed to fully organize wrestlers by either where they were trained, or by the region they first broke into the wrestling business in.
A few years ago, I was interviewing an indie wrestling promoter who said he was concerned that WWE was poaching some of the premier wrestling trainers in the world—his two examples were Pat Buck and Lance Storm—to train their talent in the performance center. By taking those teachers away from the independents, it would hurt talent development at the grassroots level.
That discussion originally got me thinking about what training schools, and in relation, what areas of the country, were currently producing the most talent? Cagematch didn’t organize that data in a useful way, so I decided that I would attempt to organize it myself as a research project to see what wrestling schools and local independent scenes were producing the most (and best) talent.
Organizing wrestlers by where they were trained is an impossible task; many wrestlers were trained by multiple teachers/schools and each individual wrestler probably has a strong opinion on how they were trained and who was ultimately responsible for training them. What seemed more manageable was to look at the early careers of pro wrestlers and see what region of the country they seemed to perform the most in. Basically, I wanted to see what wrestling scenes at the grassroots level were providing the national promotions with the most talent. Where were these future stars spending their formative years learning the ins and outs of the industry?
So I looked at the careers of 262 different wrestlers who are listed on the official rosters of WWE, AEW, ROH, Impact and NJPW, since those are the promotions that seem like the most likely to be hiring wrestlers on a full-time basis. I went onto Cagematch and looked at where they spent their first few years in wrestling, and organized the wrestlers by region. The result was I got a lot of information that highlights the best areas of the country for talent development.
Cagematch of course, is not a perfect site with always accurate information. Particularly for very small promotions, where many wrestlers are likely to first get their start, that information is not always documented. I could only use the data that was available to me, although I did search outside of Cagematch to confirm a lot of the information that I got from the site. The idea here is not to nail down the starting location for every American and Canadian wrestler, but rather to get a general overview of what areas of the country are producing the most talent.
On the spreadsheet linked here, I wanted to clarify that information such as “in-ring debut” and “first match” were merely what Cagematch had listed and were likely NOT the actual debuts for this talent. I think it would be fair to estimate that in a lot of cases, the first listed match on Cagematch was probably a year or two after they first step foot in a ring. Still, I believe the spirit of what is presented here is accurate, as it’s pretty clear for most wrestlers where they broke into the industry.
A few other notes:
- I only used wrestlers who had listed matches no earlier than 2000. For wrestlers like Chris Jericho, Rey Mysterio, Christopher Daniels, etc. the industry they were breaking into was completely different than the industry wrestlers are breaking into today. Realistically, the most accurate way to do this project would be to only use wrestlers who started after 2010, since that will better reflect the current indie scene, but I wanted to have a more historical outlook as well so I included almost everybody.
- I did not use wrestlers who broke in outside of the United States and Canada. The geography and talent development systems are so different in other countries that I didn’t think it would be an accurate comparison to include them.
- If a wrestler started and then stopped for a long period of time (greater than a year) I simply ignored that first period and used the data from when they picked it up again. It’s possible that those wrestlers were in fact working that entire time, but I can’t confirm that so instead I just looked at when it was clear their career was picking up steam and used that data.
- I only used talent that had a listed match in the past year. People like Jason Jordan are listed on WWE’s official roster, but I don’t consider him an active talent.
- I did my best to break this down by metro areas and regions. For example, New York City contains what is generally recognized as the New York metro area, which includes Long Island, northern New Jersey and parts of Connecticut. In some parts, particularly in New Jersey where the proximity to New York City and Philadelphia is almost equidistant, it’s tough to make a call where someone goes, but I tried to do my best to keep it simple.
Without further ado, here is what I found, organized by the number of talent that broke into that region:
Unsurprisingly, Central Florida is the best place to be if you are looking to break into wrestling. If you want to make it in wrestling, just go to a bunch of different gyms in the Orlando area and walk around with your shirt off and talk to people…chances are someone will take a look at you.
Obviously, this number is grossly inflated by the fact that WWE, through both the Performance Center/NXT and Florida Championship Wrestling, has used Central Florida as developmental for more than a decade. So it’s not like there is a thriving indie scene and tons of local talent, it just happens to be the place where WWE sends talent that they recruit. Roman Reigns, Braun Strowman, Bray Wyatt, Charlotte and Bianca Belair are just some of the names WWE has trained and broke in working house shows in the area.
There are, however, other aspects of Central Florida that have made it such a hot spot for talent outside of WWE. The Team 3D Academy (Tama Tonga, Tanga Loa, Leva Bates) and the Wild Samoan Training Center (Jimmy and Jey Uso, Miro) have also drawn talent to the area. Local indies like Big Time Wrestling, Southern Championship Wrestling Florida and World Xtreme Wrestling gave non-WWE trainees an outlet to practice their craft.
New York City
Coming second place in New York City, the largest metro area in the US. With plenty of wrestling schools and a long history of thriving independents, it’s not a surprise New York City is ranked so highly. The New York Wrestling Connection is a long-running indie that has given a lot of first breaks to talent, in addition to running a successful wrestling school, with Mikey Whipwreck often serving as trainer. Pat Buck’s Create-a-Pro Wrestling Academy has provided a similar role in recent years, as has Amazing Red’s House of Glory.
An interesting nugget I discovered was that out of the 24 wrestlers who broke into the business in New York, only two of them (Damian Priest and Tony Nese) are in WWE. On the contrary, 13 talents in AEW established their careers in New York. Joey Janela, MJF, Sonny Kiss, Trent and Kris Statlander are all from the area. Another notable thing is the number of tag teams in AEW with NYC roots: Alex Reynolds and John Silver, Proud and Powerful, Private Party and The Acclaimed are all from the New York area.
Philadelphia is so close to New York that the scenes tend to blend together, but Philadelphia has some distinctive elements going for it. The first is that two of the larger indies of the past 20 years (CHIKARA and Combat Zone Wrestling) are based in Philly and have/had wrestling schools that have churned out a lot of talent. Unlike contemporary indies, like ROH, EVOLVE or PWG, those two promotions also frequently used their trainees on shows, and since they ran more frequently than smaller indies, it gave that talent a lot of ring time from an early stage of their career. Adam Cole, Eddie Kingston, Orange Cassidy, Rich Swann and Tracy Williams are just a few of the names to come through those schools.
Really, if you ignore the anomaly of Central Florida, the best place to start out as a pro wrestler is New Jersey. Jersey’s proximity to two major metro areas means there are a lot of indie promotions and wrestling schools nearby and talent can find work more easily than in other, more isolated parts of the country. Many of the wrestlers who fell into the New York City or Philadelphia bucket really cut their teeth working for shows in Jersey.
Southern California contains approximately 24 million people and has a long history of a vibrant indie scene. While Pro Wrestling Guerilla is the indie most associated with SoCal, as a prestige indie it wasn’t necessarily going to be a hub for wrestlers first starting their careers. Ultimate Pro Wrestling in the early 2000s produced a lot of big talent, most notably John Cena, who missed the 2000 cut-off date for this list, but other names such as Samoa Joe and The Miz first started out working there.
The Santino Bros. Wrestling Academy offers a school and a small indie for talent to train and grow at, including Brody King and Jake Atlas. The Young Bucks created their own indies as teenagers, which launched their own careers as well as their friend’s, Brandon Cutler. Longtime trainer Jesse Hernandez has broken in a lot of names over the years as well, including Rocky Romero, Candice LeRae and Peter Avalon.
Similar to Central Florida, the Ohio Valley is home to Ohio Valley Wrestling in Lousiville, which was a WWE developmental territory in the 2000s, gives it an unnatural boost. Brock Lesnar, Shelton Benjamin, Cody Rhodes and Dolph Ziggler are just some of the names to come through that area on their way to the main roster.
However, the area is home to more than just OVW. In particular, Les Thatcher’s Heartland Wrestling Association as a school and promotion to train and develop young talent, has put a number of names on the pro wrestling map, including Jon Moxley, The Blade and Sami Callihan. Kentuckians Chuck Taylor and Ricochet were trained by Brandon Walker and also hail from the region.
Georgia has been home to a lot of small indies, such as NWA Anarchy and World Wrestling Alliance 4, that have been early stomping grounds for a lot of talent, including Xavier Woods, Jaxson Ryker, Leon Ruff, Kiera Hogan and Heath Slater. WWA4 also has a school, previously run by Curtis Hughes and now run by AR Fox, which has produced a lot of young talent in recent years. The connection with QT Marshall’s Georgia-based wrestling school in AEW has led to several names from the area, including Preston Vance, Lee Johnson and Alan Angels, getting signed.
New England ranking this high is almost entirely due to Chaotic Wrestling, a promotion that runs a wrestling school that still uses Killer Kowalski’s name, even though the original school in Malden, Massachusetts is long gone. Kofi Kingston, Tomasso Ciampa, Ivar, Oney Lorcan, Flip Gordon, T-Bar and Eddie Edwards all got their starts in that system and working on those shows. Top Rope Promotions, out of Fall River, Massachusetts, has also been home to some notable ROH-based talent, including Matt Taven, Vincent and Mike Bennett.
The Toronto area also contains border cities such as Buffalo, New York. Always a huge wrestling city, Ethan Page, Shawn Spears, Dalton Castle and Angelina Love all broke into wrestling while working in the region. Border City Wrestling, in Windsor, Ontario, is just one of the several indies in the area to give young talent a chance.
The smallest region so far that did not contain a WWE developmental territory, the area around Cleveland and Pittsburgh has been a hotbed for talent. International Wrestling Cartel and Cleveland All-Pro Wrestling are two indies that have been instrumental in helping out local young talent, and deserve a lot of credit for placing this area so highly. Johnny Gargano, Britt Baker, Wardlow, EC3 and Shane Taylor are some of the natives who have come out of the Cleveland/Pittsburgh area.
The All Pro Wrestling Bootcamp and Stoner Brothers University are two Northern California training schools that have produced a good amount of talent, including Will Hobbs, Shotzi Blackheart and Timothy Thatcher. Bayley is probably the biggest star to come out of the region, and John Morrison first got started while working for Supreme Pro Wrestling in Sacramento.
While it was never known for being the hottest area for pro wrestling, the Pacific Northwest, which contains Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, has produced some notable talent, including Darby Allin, Kyle O’Reilly and El Phantasmo. Elite Canadian Championship Wrestling has been a key indie in the area for helping young talent.
An area synonymous with wrestling history, the area still has produced some talent in recent years, including Adam Page, Dax Hardwood, Cameron Grimes and Cedric Alexander. Carolina Wrestling Federation Mid-Atlantic is a local indie that has done a good job pushing young, local talent over the years.
Chicago was one of the most interesting regions to look at, since I was shocked at how low it ranked. Chicago is the third-largest metro area in the US and is home to arguably the most passionate fans, and has been home to some notable indies that I thought would have fared better in this project, particularly IWA-Mid South. However, according to my research, I only have Seth Rollins, Shayna Baszler, Mustafa Ali, Mel, Kalisto and Juice Robinson as names to break into the business via Chicago. I’m probably missing a few names, but I was surprised to see how much better a place like Cleveland/Pittsburgh did.
You could make a case that the Detroit scene could be a part of the Cleveland/Pittsburgh scene or the Toronto scene, given its proximity to both. I gave it its own section due to there being some small Michigan independent promotions that have broken some talent in. Alex Shelly and Chris Sabin are the most notable, with Danhausen, Jake Something and Rohit Raju also breaking in around the motor city.
If the AWA was still around Minnesota might still be the talent capital of the world, but those days are long gone. In more recent years, the city has broken in two pairs of brothers, Dante and Darius Martin of Top Flight, and the Davari brothers. Chad Gable would be the most notable current name from Minnesota.
Similar to the Twin Cities, Calgary was once a hotspot for wrestling due to Stampede Wrestling, but that was a long time ago. The talent that has come out of Calgary (Natalya, Jack Evans, Jinder Mahal and Tyler Breeze) all came out through the time when Stampede Wrestling was revived as a local indie in the early 2000s. The Lance Storm Academy in Calgary has trained a lot of talent, but few seem to stick around Calgary once their training is complete as there just doesn’t seem to be a local indie scene that can support ambitious talent.
Almost 20 years ago, the independent scene around Ottawa and Montreal produced two tag teams that would go on to find success in the US. Kevin Steen and El Generico, and the Super Smash Bros. (now Stu Grayson and Evil Uno). It might not be the biggest scene, but that is something to be proud of.
The Washington DC/Baltimore area might be penalized due to its proximity to the Philadelphia area, which due to its vibrant indie scene, probably has attracted natives, like Rich Swann, to break in up north. DC has broken in Velveteen Dream, Lio Rush and ROH’s Kaun and Moses.
As you are about to see, Texas has kind of a scattered indie scene due to the distance between its largest cities, so no one city will really jump out for producing a ton of talent. I could lump Texas into one region, but I don’t think that would be very accurate since the cities are so far apart. Ricky Starks, Jordynne Grace and Sammy Guevara broke in on a scene that could be on the rise.
See explanation for Austin. Lance Archer, Keith Lee and Ember Moon first got started in Big D.
St. Louis has a fairly significant indie scene with some noteworthy promotions, but not a ton to show for it as far as locally trained and developed guys making it to any of the national promotions. Matt Sydal, Marko Stunt and Delirious first broke out in St. Louis.
Without another major city within reasonable driving distance, Denver is not the best place for talent to get started if they want to find consistent work. Abadon and Otis, which is a really random pairing, got started in Denver.
The pandemic has caused AEW to hold all of their shows in Jacksonville over the past year, meaning talent they have started to break in themselves, Jade Cargill and Colten Gunn, can claim the city as their breaking ground.
Like Calgary, Memphis was once a hotspot for wrestling talent and while Jerry Lawler’s USWA was kicking around in the 90s, it was a developmental territory for the WWF and home to a bunch of talents first matches. By the 2000s that period was over. Brian Kendrick, who almost definitely started his career before 2000 but does not have a Cagematch listing for before that date, and Su Yung, got started in Memphis.
MVP and Red Velvet, who started their careers generations apart, both cracked into the business in South Florida.
Silas Young and Beer City Bruiser are probably the only active wrestlers most fans could name from Milwaukee, so they are unsurprisingly the only two people I found to have broken in via Milwaukee independents.
Bobby Roode is definitely someone who started their career before 2000, but I set these parameters so I will stick to them. A native of Toronto, Roode’s first significant stretch of matches on Cagematch came for Real Action Wrestling in Nova Scotia.
I legitimately did not know there was still wrestling in Hawaii, but Cobb spent the first few years in wrestling working for Action Zone Wrestling in Waipahu.
Like Chicago, I was shocked to see that Houston, the fourth biggest city in the US, fared so poorly. MACE, formerly of Retribution, is the only person who I can tell was broken into the business in Houston. Talent like Sammy Guevara are from Houston and were trained by Booker T’s school in Houston, but seemed to really establish himself for independents in Austin. Like Chicago, I don’t have all the information so I could be missing some stuff, but it appears to me that despite Houston’s size, it doesn’t have a strong indie scene to support wrestlers just starting out.
Like Denver, Las Vegas being isolated from other major cities probably hurts its chances at producing a vibrant indie scene that could compare with the cities on the East Coast. Karrion Kross was trained in Vegas and started his career with Future Stars of Wrestling in the city.
It’s been a long time since the glory days of Bill Watts and Danny Hodge. ROH’s Bateman is the only wrestler to my knowledge to actually break into wrestling by working regularly in Oklahoma.
The fact that Kenny Omega is as successful as he is today while starting on a scene that has not produced any other talent of note (from his generation, at least) is pretty remarkable.
In the latest edition of the Gentlemen’s Wrestling Podcast, Jesse Collings (@JesseCollings) and Jason Ounpraseuth (@JasonOun95) discuss the end of the Wednesday Night Wars. The guys go over the partisan rivalry that divided wrestling fans, the impact going head-to-head had on each product, changes to each show we may see now that the war is over, and more.