Professional wrestling may be scripted, but it’s as physical as any sport out there. No brand of entertainment takes its toll on performers’ bodies the way pro wrestling does. In what other industry are you slammed to a mat dozens of times every night?
As a result, many have their careers cut short, including the all-time greats. Be it through a sudden injury, or the grind wearing down on the wrestlers, not many wrestle full-time into their 40s or even mid 30s. It’s one tough business and the performers lay it all on the line when they go into the ring, well aware of the punishment they’re putting their bodies through and what the repercussions might be after their careers are over.
This list will be geared more towards wrestlers whose bodies gradually broke down, and not necessarily one bad bump going horribly wrong. These guys sure have taken their share of tough bumps, and eventually it caught up to them.
10) Santino Marella
Santino Marella was often used as more of a comedic relief character than a serious contender, but he sure had his great moments and to this day, many feel he had untapped potential.
Santino debuted for WWE in 2007 and won the Intercontinental title in his character’s homeland of Italy.
He shockingly finished as the runner-up of the 2011 Royal Rumble and he was the last person eliminated in the 2012 Smackdown Elimination Chamber match.
Santino regularly got some of the most positive reactions from fans, as he was able to make some of the silliest spots entertaining and was often overlooked by WWE management.
Over the last couple of years of his career, Santino had a string of bad luck, having to take several hiatuses due to injury, including one from a car accident. Santino announced his retirement this summer at a house show in Toronto. He underwent successful surgery on his neck, his third, and is actually training for a comeback. However, at 35 years old, the odds are against him.
9) Arn Anderson
Arn Anderson had a long, successful career by all accounts, but eventually the rigours of professional wrestling caught up to him.
While in WCW in the mid 90s, Anderson had to call it quits in his mid 30s, due to a history of neck and upper back problems catching up to him.
By mid 1996, Anderson was used sporadically as a performer, although his official ‘retirement’ didn’t come until 1997. Anderson would mostly be used in WCW as a manager after that and he now has a job in WWE as a backstage agent.
8) Dean Malenko
Dean Malenko was one of the most technically sound wrestlers of his era, but he never quite made it to the top of wrestling. After going to WCW, he wrestled almost exclusively in the Cruiserweight division, stealing the show on a regular basis but unable to progress due to backstage politics in WCW.
Malenko wrestled for the WWE for about only 18 months, involved in a storyline with Lita, teaming up with the Radicalz, but generally in the lower midcard.
He disappeared quietly from WWE television in the summer of 2001, and retired from the ring. A string of injuries and perhaps the realization that he wouldn’t crack the WWE main event sent him into retirement.
7) Bret Hart
On top of the career-ending concussion, Hart had gone through multiple knee surgeries throughout his career, and to this day, still has issues with his knees. He underwent knee replacement surgery last year after multiple surgeries never quite got him back to 100%.
Hart also suffered a stroke shortly after his in-ring retirement while riding his bike in Calgary.
You can’t really count his appearances back in 2010 as Bret Hart matches. Those injuries prevent him from ever putting on one more classic.
6) Shawn Michaels
Shawn Michaels was the best performer in the business right until the day he retired, but it didn’t come without its challenges.
Michaels’ career went on a long hiatus back in 1998, when a backdrop onto a casket severely injured his back, (which he was already having issues with). Prior to that, Michaels had a knee injury which kept him out of the main event of WrestleMania 13.
His back injury included two herniated discs, while one was completely crushed. Michaels underwent multiple back surgeries and seemed to be retired from wrestling, only making occasional appearances as an on-screen character.
In 2002, he miraculously was able to come back and extend his career another eight years.
5) Rey Mysterio
Did any wrestler in history ever impress fans as much as Rey Mysterio did?
Mysterio constantly hit moves that people would never imagine possible. He was the most recognizable superstar of the WCW’s Cruiserweight division and the WWE’s when they introduced it in 2002.
Mysterio is a pioneer for smaller guys in the wrestling industry, proving that even if you are small, you can make it if you have enough talent.
However, Mysterio’s high-flying, springboard offence has left him with many injuries, particularly to his knees. While he has been with the WWE now for 12 years, we have seen him sporadically on WWE television due to a series of knee surgeries and most recently a wrist injury.
It seemed Mysterio would be released from WWE, but WWE has yet to let him go. Mysterio has the intentions of continuing his career with AAA wrestling but what would seem to be best for him would be retirement. He hasn’t wrestled in over a year.
Edge was the kind of performer who left it all in the ring, every single night. He had to earn his stripes in WWE, stuck in the midcard for a long time. The way he made his living was thrilling audiences in tag team matches with Christian, with several of their signature matches involving tables, ladders and chairs. Those matches definitely took a toll on Edge and in early 2003, Edge suffered a serious neck injury that would keep him out of action for over a year.
After his return, Edge really started to blossom as a singles competitor and won his first world championship in early 2006. He would win 11 over the rest of his career.
In 2009, Edge suffered a torn Achilles tendon and underwent surgery. The injury was career threatening, but Edge returned in time for the 2010 Royal Rumble, winning the event.
A year later, after undergoing MRIs, strength tests showed that Edge had a condition called cervical spinal stenosis, meaning he could never wrestle again, at the risk of paralysis. Thankfully they caught the condition before he could risk anything and Edge is now enjoying retirement with Beth Phoenix and their daughter, Lyric.
3) Stone Cold Steve Austin
It’s hard to believe it’s been over 11 years since Stone Cold last competed in a match and it’s likely to remain his last match.
Austin underwent injury problems throughout his entire career, (WCW fired him because of that), but it was his serious neck injury in a match against Owen Hart at the 1997 SummerSlam that left permanent damage on his body.
Stone Cold took a vicious piledriver and was inches away from being paralysed. By all accounts, he was lucky, but from that point on, he was wrestling on borrowed time. He was back from the injury after three months, but two years later, he had to undergo surgery, still dealing with the repercussions of his initial injury. Following successful surgery, he returned after a nine month recovery.
Austin would suffer a back injury in 2001, after taking a bump through the announcer’s table.
A combination of injuries, personal problems and issues with WWE creative led Austin to walk out on the company in June, 2002. He returned for one last hurrah with The Rock at WrestleMania XIX, and that was it. Austin’s neck problems have forced him out of the WWE, but he is enjoying a successful career outside of wrestling.
2) Dynamite Kid
Bret Hart has said Dynamite Kid was the best wrestler he ever saw. A successful career in Stampede Wrestling and a great tag team run as one half of the British Bulldogs made people think Dynamite Kid might one day headline WWE cards, but it was not to be.
Dynamite Kid suffered a serious back injury in late 1986 during a match in Hamilton, Ontario and was never the same. While recovering in the hospital from surgery, Tom Billington checked himself out, against doctors’ orders to drop the tag titles to the Hart Foundation. The Bulldogs were never the same as a tag team, and Dynamite was out in 1988.
Drug problems on top of the constant pain he was in resulting from the back injury, and a stroke resulting in a paralyzed left leg, have confined Billington to a wheelchair.
1) Mick Foley
You name the body part, Mick Foley has injured it at some point.
His reckless style caused the Hardcore Legend’s career to be short, retiring as a full-time competitor in 2000, at the age of 34. To this day, Foley seemingly walks with a constant limp.
Thankfully Foley has been able to make a career for himself with his brain, as he happens to be a terrific writer, writing New York Times bestsellers and now has a stand-up act, which has him tour all over the world, sharing old stories from the ring. With all the injuries he’s suffered, particularly to his head, it’s amazing how sharp and quick witted Foley still is.
While Foley would wrestle occasionally after his initial retirement in 2000, any thoughts of him having any matches at this stage are out of the question. Foley actually had a feud planned out with Dean Ambrose two years ago, but a neurologist informed Foley that he would never be cleared to compete again.