Sami Callihan bet on himself by leaving WWE and finding success independently

After losing himself and his sense of himself as a performer at NXT, Sami Callihan walked away from the job most wrestlers dream of. After putting his head down, he's become one of the busiest and most highly-regarded performers in independent wrestling. Provided by Sami Callihan

It's hard to make yourself stand out in the ever-expanding world of independent wrestling, but Sami Callihan is undoubtedly one of the hottest names out there in 2017.

The 30-year old has taken his "Worldwide Desperado" moniker literally by traversing the globe for the past two years, making stops at most of the top independent promotions around the world. Despite his blistering in-ring schedule, which has seen him appear at more than 150 shows in the past year for promotions such as AAW, PWG, and even Lucha Underground, Callihan also has the added responsibilities of being the head booker of longtime independent standout CZW, as of July.

Sami Callihan has never been busier and his brand has never been stronger. But in order for Callihan to reach the peak of his 11-year professional career, he first had to endure its lowest point. He had the job that everyone in wrestling strives to have -- a spot in the WWE -- and yet, for Callihan, it turned into a nightmare.

"When I was in the WWE, I'll be the first person to say that I walked on eggshells and I became a shell of the person that I was when I signed," Callihan said of his time as Solomon Crowe in NXT from 2013-2015. "I allowed too many people to get in my brain. Too many people to pull me in different directions. I didn't know who I was anymore. I felt like I didn't know how to wrestle anymore."

Callihan could sense his NXT run wasn't going as planned after he signed with WWE in 2012.

The Ohio native didn't wrestle during his first six months in the company despite being told he'd debut on NXT television right away. After breaking his leg, Callihan missed another six months just as he was about to make his television debut as Kalisto's tag-team partner. NXT started airing vignettes as he neared his recovery to hype the debut, but Callihan's appearance had changed dramatically in that time.

"They were half-assed put together promos," Callihan said of his vignettes that were filmed a year before his TV debut.

In addition to the new look, NXT writers couldn't agree on what character Callihan would debut as. Callihan and Dusty Rhodes meticulously devised a hacker character before his injury. They had planned for fans to scan VR codes at arenas and on the WWE Network to give Callihan the opportunity to "hack" their phones with emails and alerts. However, the writers were undecided on how far to take the unique character.

"People didn't understand the hacker character," Callihan said. "I was debuted as the hacker character and told, 'hey, you're not the hacker'. So people would [say], 'you don't look like you know who you are out there,' because I didn't know who I was because I was told to be six different things from six different people."

Callihan quickly realized he wasn't being used to his potential in NXT. Still, Performance Center trainers Billy Gunn, Norman Smiley, Robbie Brookside, and Terry Taylor continued to endorse Callihan as he floated around without much direction or forward momentum. Among his biggest supporters was Rhodes -- known for his keen eye for finding talent -- who saw potential in the 5-foot-8, 210-pound ball of fury that is Callihan.

"Everyone always said, 'Dusty liked his broken toys,' and I feel like I was one of his broken toys," Callihan said. "He straight up told me one day, 'you can be the next CM Punk, or you could be the next Chris Jericho if they give you the ball and allow you to be you,' but it just never transpired. I never got the chance to truly be me in the middle of the ring."

Callihan can recall, clearly, one of the few chances he was given to shine in a WWE ring when he wrestled his close friend Apollo Crews on NXT TV in September of 2015.

"I remember before the match Apollo goes, 'do you tonight. If we get in trouble I'll take the blame,' Callihan said. "I remember getting pulled to the back from HHH and he was like, 'where has this guy been for the last year'. I kinda had to bite my tongue, but lucky enough people like Norman Smiley and Billy Gunn straight up came up to him and was like, 'this is the guy that's been main eventing a lot of your house shows against Finn Balor and Kevin Owens and having killer matches, but then it comes to TV and you book him like a jobber.'"

Eventually, Callihan could no longer handle the anxiety that had been manifesting inside of him for over a year and did something few wrestlers have the confidence to do when he left WWE in November of 2015.

"I'm not gonna lie, it was scary," Callihan recalls. "When I finally pulled the trigger and really bet on myself that was a scary thing, but I had to bet on myself. I wanted to be a guy remembered for going out on his own way. By leaving on my own terms, it kinda made me a badass character. I quit WWE. Not a lot of people can say that."

Looking to capitalize on the buzz he created from leaving WWE, Callihan turned down a non-compete clause that would have paid him for 30 days after his release. Instead, he grabbed his phone and called three people -- CZW owner DJ Hyde, PWG co-founder Super Dragon, and AAW owner Danny Daniels.

"I said, 'yo, don't let this leak, I'm leaving WWE. I wanna show up this week and next week,'" Callihan said. "And everyone's like, 'hell yeah, let's f******* do it.'"

In the matter of days, Callihan went from sitting on the bench in NXT to appearing on the three biggest indy shows of the year for three different promotions in the span of two weeks.

"It was a no-brainer," Daniels said about booking Callihan's AAW return four days after his WWE release. "We just debuted in downtown Chicago in a new venue and it was our biggest show of the year. It was sold out right away. He told us, 'I want to be the focus of your promotion,' and right away I'm like, 'OK, I'll give you all my dates. Let's do this''.

Any doubts Callihan had about his decision to leave WWE subsided as he quickly ascended to the top of the indies. AAW, Chicago's biggest independent wrestling organization, embraced Callihan upon his return. He would go on to hold AAW's heavyweight title for the better part of two years. Callihan could've relied on his WWE persona and stardom, something many ex-WWE talent do, but he decided to go in a different direction. And this time, there wasn't any second-guessing who Callihan was.

He was now the 'Worldwide Desperado'-- a ruthless, ultra-aggressive brawler unafraid to speak his mind.

"I truly become a different person," Callihan said of his new persona. "That's not Sami myself anymore. That's Sami Callihan the character, who's one of the most disrespectful, vile human beings on the planet."

Callihan uses insults and profanities to get under the skin of his opponents and fans while interweaving real-life storylines into his passionate promos. His newfound edge led to a number of more mainstream suitors including Impact Wrestling and Ring of Honor. Callihan didn't want to make the same mistake twice by joining a company that would potentially rob him of the creativity and uniqueness that makes him so special. That's why he found a place where his maniacal personality would fit right in -- Lucha Underground.

"I knew they would allow me to do what I wanted to do and do some really dark stuff that wouldn't be allowed on a normal television program," Callihan said of his decision to sign with Lucha Underground after being approached by Ricochet, who wrestles as Prince Puma on the show.

Callihan has flourished under the name Jeremiah Crane, putting on arguably the two best matches of Lucha Underground's third season thus far; against his close friend Killshot (Shane Strickland), and Mil Muertes. He's also allowed to wrestle for any other promotion as long as he isn't on TV. Callihan has taken full advantage of that clause, wrestling for companies all over the world. He's even running his own promotion, the Wrestling Revolver, with shows throughout the midwest.

Callihan is always looking for another challenge and hopes to add New Japan Pro Wrestling to his list of stops, which could happen sooner rather than later. But no matter where he's wrestling, Callihan has made his brand stronger outside WWE than it ever could've been inside of it with where things stood at the tail end of his tenure.

"Now, wrestling isn't just one-sided. It's not just about WWE," Callihan said. "There are wrestlers out on the indies making six figures a year. The Young Bucks, Kenny Omega, Cody Rhodes, Marty Scurll now have shirts at Hot Topic. Our generation is proving there is a way to make money and there is a way to become mainstream stars without being backed by the WWE machine."

Even though these past two years have gone even better than Callihan could have ever expected, he still hopes to return to the place that nearly derailed his career, if only to have another chance to prove his critics wrong.

"To say that I don't want to go back [to WWE] would be a lie because one day I truly do believe maybe I will be back and have that WrestleMania moment," Callihan said. "I believe I can be on the forefront and truly do believe I can be a top guy even though I'm 5-foot-8, 210 pounds.

"At the end of the day, you got to bet on yourself. And from now on I'm always gonna bet on myself."