It's amazing to me how many pro wrestling fans have no concept of anything outside the often sterile WWE Universe. Much of this has to do with the way in which the WWE markets themselves as the be all, end all, but quite a lot of it is just plain, old indifference. I'd wager the majority of WWE fans aren't actually very big wrestling fans, but rather fans of the spectacle. That's really a shame, because for much of the WWE Universe, they remember certain wrestlers a certain way, not realizing that quite a few of those who were buried while under the "sports entertainment" banner, have moved on to other places and become huge stars. One of these places is Japan, where professional wrestling remains a respected form of entertainment, not only for the show aspect of it, but for the athletic part of it as well. It is because of this that many former WWE Superstars have made their way to the Far East, resurrecting careers and, in some cases, finding themselves in the process.
Harry Smith, the son of legendary British Bulldog, Davey Boy Smith, is making quite a name for himself in Japan. As a member of the Hart Dynasty, Smith won the WWE Tag Team Titles with Tyson Kidd, but the reign was underwhelming, thanks largely to the companies unwillingness to make proper use of tag teams at that time. The Hart Dynasty was consistently good, but they simply didn't get any sort of push from the higher-ups, and after a lackluster run, the WWE split the team up, turning Kidd heel on Smith. A few short months later, Smith was gone from the WWE completely. Now a part of New Japan Pro Wrestling, and going by the name Davey Boy Smith, Jr., Smith has again found success with a tag team, winning the IWGP Tag Titles, only this time, his team is actually being used with great effectiveness. Teaming with Lance Archer, the Killer Elite Squad have racked up some impressive title defenses, most recently against the team of Tomohiro Ishii and the awesome Shinsuke Nakamura. The Killer Elite Squad's aggressive, stiff style fits perfectly in Japan, where the fans still enjoy the artform of professional wrestling, and not just high spots and abrasive promos.
Speaking of the aforementioned Lance Archer, he too was once sent through the WWE meat grinder. After tasting success in TNA, first in a tag team with Kid Kash, then as a member of the Rock N' Rave Infection, Archer signed with WWE's developmental territory, Florida Championship Wrestling, ultimately landing on the resurrected ECW program. Under the name Vance Archer, the massive Texan put together a short winning streak, before an underwhelming feud with Shelton Benjamin all but sealed his fate with the promotion. After ECW ended, Archer was moved over to the Smackdown brand, but little was done with his character, and he was released after six months with the show. Freed from his contract, Archer made his way over to New Japan Pro Wrestling, picking up a huge singles victory over former IWGP Heavyweight Champion Togi Makabe, before teaming with Minoru Suzuki to defeat the IWGP Tag Team Champions, Bad Intentions (Giant Bernard and Karl Anderson), winning the 2011 G1 Climax Tournament. Since forming Killer Elite Squad in August of 2012, Archer, along with Davey Boy Smith, Jr., have run rough shot, reminiscent of the The Road Warriors dominant run in All Japan Pro Wrestling back in the mid-80's.
One man who actually enjoyed a nice bit of success in the WWE before moving on to Japan to find even more, was Matt Bloom, aka Giant Bernard. Known as Albert, or A-Train, during his early to mid-2000's stint in WWE, Bernard formed a tag teams with Test, then a stable with Justin Credible and X-Pac, feuding with the likes of the Dudley Boyz, Lance Storm, and Kane, from whom he won the Intercontinental Championship. An injury to his rotator cuff resulted in his inevitable release from the company, but he turned a negative into an extreme positive by making his way to Japan, wrestling first for All Japan Pro Wrestling, then moving over to New Japan, where he teamed up with both Tomko and Karl Anderson, winning the IWGP Tag Titles with each man, as well as the G1 Climax Tag League and the New Japan Cup. After a successful 7 year run, Bernard returned to the WWE as Lord Tensai, a gimmick which was largely panned by American fans incapable of seeing anyone without six-pack abs act in any way other than as a buffoon. The Tensai gimmick was recently scrapped, as Bernard has now been teamed with Brodus Clay, another larger than life character reduced to comedy to get over with WWE fans. That said, Bernard is having the last laugh, as he no doubt parlayed his massive success in Japan into a nice payday from the WWE. While I greatly preferred his work in Japan, I can't argue with the fact that his versatility has enabled him to become a valued member of the WWE roster. Also, a big man busting out dance moves is never not entertaining.
Lastly, I wanted to mention Montel Vontavious Porter, aka MVP, who, like Bernard before him, found great success in WWE before making his way to Japan. The only difference is, at least to this point, he's not chosen to make his way back to the "Worldwide Leader in Sports Entertainment." Though he's stated several times how much he appreciates everything Vince McMahon did for him and his career, MVP has clearly found a home in Japan, and in doing so, has perhaps found a bit of himself as well. In addition to wrestling, MVP is also a recording artist, and has recently released a song called "Tokyo", a track with a strong JPop/Hip-Hop feel. It's very much worth your time. With WWE's schedule, I don't know that MVP would have had the time/freedom to spread his wings the same way he has over the last few years. He might not be bringing in that oversized WWE paycheck anymore, but I'm quite sure he's as happy as he's ever been. He's doing what he wants to do, and for the very small percentage of people able to make such a claim, that surely means more than all the money and/or fame in the world.
The WWE is a big, bad bear of an entity, it's marketing power unmatched in the wrestling industry. I don't know that every other wrestling promotion in the world combined could even sniff their global reach, but that hardly means they're judge and jury over the entire industry. Regardless of what the 'Universe' might see each week, WWE has missed on plenty of very talented wrestlers. Luckily, promotions like NJPW, NOAH, AJPW, and a whole host of others are out there harboring many of these performers. No, the Japanese promotions aren't as easily accessible, but the wrestling is world class. For those content to enjoy WWE's product each week without straying from the herd, that's perfectly okay. Me, I like to take a walk down roads less traveled, just to see what I might see while I'm there.