There used to be a time where every wrestler who had never worked for WWE aspired to be there one day. Nowadays, those who are actually contracted to WWE are desperate to leave.
In the current, wide world of professional wrestling, WWE is not the only place where a wrestler can succeed nor is it guaranteed that every wrestler who steps through their doors will be successful. There is an endless number of promotions willing to hire a former WWE employee that finds themselves quitting or fired from the company. The same can be said for any and every wrestling organization out there in the world. A wrestler can find themselves with a long list of new opportunities upon being released from their contract no matter how big or small their former promotion was. The problem that a wrestler usually runs into upon leaving a company is usually less that they don’t have anywhere to go, but more that their employer isn’t willing to let them go.
There are a vast number of reasons why a wrestling company wouldn’t want to let their indignant worker go. It may be because that worker is making the promotion too much money at the moment, they’re too big a star to let go, or they still have certain obligations to the promotion; contractual or otherwise. No matter what the reason may be, if a company doesn’t want to let their wrestler go, it’s going to be a real b*tch for that wrestler to find a way out of their contract. The following wrestlers in this list are prime examples of that.
15. Rey Mysterio
Let’s get one thing straight: Rey Mysterio was never supposed to become as big of a star as he did in WWE. In an industry that is notorious with passing over “small guys” in favor of bigger guys, it is a miracle and a testament to Mysterio’s ability to get over as well as his in-ring skill that he’s a former World Champion. The death of Eddie Guerrero also has a bit to do with it, but most wrestling fans try to forget that.
In his final years with WWE, it was obvious that he was long past his prime and needed to either step away from the business or from WWE’s strenuous schedule. Mysterio let it be known that he wanted to leave WWE to return to Mexico where he knew he’d be offered more money with a lighter schedule. The problem was that WWE wasn’t willing to let a big merchandise seller like Mysterio go so easily. The only thing Mysterio could do was wait until his contract expired. When it finally did in 2014, Mysterio ended his 13 year run with the company and has been making huge waves with the likes of AAA and Lucha Underground.
14. Alberto Del Rio
As a 4 time World Champion in WWE, Alberto Del Rio managed to make a massive impact with the company in a short amount of time. Although, before debuting the character on Smackdown in 2010, he could have easily failed just as fast as he flourished.
When he still wrestled in Mexico as Dos Caras Jr., he was offered a WWE contract in early 2010 that promised him both a large sum of money and the promise of skipping developmental territory, FCW, to go straight to the main roster. Del Rio got his money, but was sent to FCW anyway. Already annoyed, Del Rio threatened to quit within a couple of months. Not willing to let his lucrative contract go to waste, WWE fast-tracked him to the main roster by airing vignettes on Smackdown of his new Del Rio character later that summer before his tv debut in August.
While Del Rio later understood the benefits of going to FCW to learn the WWE style, lacking an FCW run did not stop WWE from giving him a major push from the moment he arrived on the main roster scene.
13. Kensuke Sasaki
Before he retired in 2014, Kensuke Sasaki was considered a major legend for his work in the Japanese wrestling world and a brief stint with WCW where he wrestled on and off from 1992 to 1996. He spent a big portion of his career in New Japan Pro Wrestling where he found success as IWGP World Heavyweight Champion. However, a falling out with NJPW company management kept him from staying passed 2002. He actually did manage to quit at the end of that year, but he was having trouble staying away.
In early 2003, he joined the Fighting World of Japan Pro Wrestling, a brand new company owned by Sasaki’s mentor, Riki Choshu. Sasaki became the company’s first and only WMG Heavyweight Champion before that company quickly flopped due to financial issues. When that failed, Sasaki had no other choice but to reluctantly re-join NJPW in 2004. He would retire from professional wrestling 10 years later.
12. Mark Henry
Olympian strongman Mark Henry has been with WWE ever since 1996 where he has since found success as a former 2-time World Champion. One highlight that fans love to note was the night in 2013 on Monday Night Raw where he faked his retirement to gain a WWE Championship match with John Cena. His acting was so convincing in that segment that audiences around the world genuinely believed Henry was ready to retire. Believe it or not, if Henry had it his way, that could’ve very well been his legitimate retirement.
Henry revealed in a 2015 interview that he’s been trying to leave the wrestling business for the better part of 8 years now. While not elaborating much beyond that, he did simply say that the business wouldn’t allow him to walk away and he still has plans to retire the older he gets. Given how much his size and stature has made him a valuable asset to WWE over the years, it’s not surprising why WWE have been reluctant to let him go.
11. Kevin Owens
Before he was WWE’s Kevin Owens, he was ROH’s Kevin Steen. And before he became the company’s breakout star, he was hated by Jim Cornette.
When Cornette joined the company and took over creative control, he didn’t hide the fact that he didn’t have interest in Steen or his feud with El Generico (who, ironically, wrestles just like Steen’s current rival, Sami Zayn). Seeing no star potential in either of them, Cornette booked for Steen to lose their blowoff match at Final Battle 2010 and had Steen disappear for 6 months. As much as he hated the idea, Steen agreed and lost 40lbs before his return. Except Cornette chose to keep Steen off tv for an extra 6 months. Which made Steen depressed and his depression made him eat a lot, which made him gain all the weight back and then some.
Steen strongly considered leaving the promotion, but was skeptical of walking away from his biggest pay roll when he needed a way to support his family. ROH management told him to be patient and eventually, he returned to ROH. When he did, he became ROH World Champion and was booked as one of their top stars until he joined WWE.
10. AJ Styles
AJ Styles was one of the few wrestlers who had been contracted to TNA Wrestling since the company opened it’s doors in 2002. He remained there for 11 years until contract negotiations grew sour.
Near the end of his run, TNA wasn’t paying Styles the amount of money he felt he deserved. He wanted to quit and eventually did, but he would’ve been gone sooner. TNA officials convinced Styles to take part in a storyline that was eerily similar to that of CM Punk‘s infamous 2011 storyline that saw him play a disgruntled worker that publicly berated the company with intentions to leave with the top title. While Punk’s storyline helped convince him to stay with WWE, the same could not be said for Styles.
After winning the title at the 2013 Bound For Glory event, Styles tried to strike a good deal with TNA management, but it never came to be. After returning to drop the title to Magnus, Styles exited TNA’s doors. Things worked out for the best for Styles as he actually made more money on the independent scene than he ever did in TNA. Ultimately, his independent success led to him entering WWE’s doors in January 2016.
9. Michael Elgin
After being with Ring of Honor’s roster since 2010, Michael Elgin’s star rose in 2014 when he won the ROH World Championship. It appeared that Elgin was being polished to become one of ROH’s top stars. That perception would dissipate after a measly 76 days as champion before losing the title. His reign would be one of the shortest in the title’s history and Elgin quickly fell out with ROH management.
After helping Elgin with a work visa issue in October 2014, ROH announced that Elgin was going to return at an ROH show the following weekend. Elgin denied that he agreed to appear and proceeded to quit on Twitter. While it’s still unclear if that was part of a storyline or not, ROH had no problem letting art imitate life. After re-signing with ROH the next month, Elgin returned as a disgruntled employee that wasn’t willing to wrestle on ROH TV.
While he still wrestles for ROH on occasion, he’s made it clear that he’d much rather wrestle in Japan. Thanks to ROH and NJPW’s working relationship, he’s allowed to do so as he’s spent much of his last couple of years wrestling there. He is currently NJPW’s Intercontinental Champion.
8. Seth Rollins
In just the past few years, Seth Rollins has evolved into one of WWE’s biggest new stars. All of that success may not have happened if it were for Rollins’ ego.
Before being called up to the main roster in 2012, Rollins became frustrated with how long he had spent in WWE’s developmental brands of FCW and later NXT. He felt he was more than primed and ready for the main roster and believed that if WWE officials didn’t agree, he’d have to become a top star somewhere else. Rollins’ temper came to a point where he was ready to quit (or worse, get fired), but former wrestler and current producer, Joey Mercury, convinced Rollins that he needed to be patient and his super-stardom would come in due time.
7. Owen Hart
When Bret Hart got screwed in Montreal in 1997, he jumped ship to WCW and brought his family with him. The only one who didn’t go with him was his brother, Owen.
Initially, Vince wasn’t quick to let anyone else from the Hart family walk away from WWF after Bret’s departure. The British Bulldog had to buy his way out of his contract to leave while Vince just let Neidhart leave. On the other hand, Owen still had a few years left on his contract and as much as he wanted to join his family in WCW, Vince wouldn’t allow it. Since Owen was forced to stay in WWF, Vince promised Owen a push upon his return on-screen some months later, but the push went nowhere other than brief feuds with Shawn Michaels and Triple H, which he lost. He would be wasted in the midcard for the next couple of years before his unfortunate death during the 1999 Over the Edge pay-per-view.
6. Chris Jericho
Chris Jericho‘s surprise WWF debut segment with The Rock in 1999 sent shockwaves across the wrestling world. Long time Jericho-holics were ecstatic at the thought of him becoming the big star that WCW wouldn’t allow him to be. Except for the beginning of his run, WWF didn’t do much with Jericho and had no major plans for him.
While not achieving anything substantial at the start of his run, he was slotted to appear in the Wrestlemania 2000 Fatal Four Way main event, but was disappointed to find out that he was being replaced by Mick Foley. Jericho’s dissatisfaction with his spot in the company came to a head when he lost a match to Mabel on an episode of Sunday Night Heat. He went into Monday Night Raw the next night fully intending to quit until a WWF writer told him that he was going to win the World Title that night. He later beat Triple H for the title in a controversial fashion.
While the win was quickly overturned and discarded from the history books, it was enough to turn Jericho’s morale around upon seeing how his WWF career might pay off. He would go on to win 6 world titles with the company.
5. Shawn Michaels
In the mid-90s, Shawn Michaels was prolific as WWF’s top star. It would’ve been heartbreaking for WWF fans to see The Heartbreak Kid go to WCW when he wanted to.
In a 2015 interview with Jim Ross on his podcast, The Ross Report, Shawn Michaels revealed that there was a time when he wanted to jump ship to WCW. Some of the most fun that Michaels had in his WWF tenure was when he and the rest of his Kliq (Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, and Triple H) were all in the same company. When Hall & Nash left, Michaels was miserable and asked Vince McMahon for his release. Since Michaels was WWF’s top star at the time, that obviously wasn’t going to happen. In due time, Michaels saw the bigger picture–realizing WCW wouldn’t have let him showcase aspects of his in-ring style–and was grateful for Vince making him stay.
On the bright side, the fun would come some time later when Michaels created the raucous stable of D-X with Triple H. While highlighting the goofier side to his personality, HBK’s D-X run was also notable for putting over a certain Rattlesnake on this list at Wrestlemania 14.
4. Stone Cold Steve Austin
Stone Cold is arguably the biggest superstar that WWE ever produced, but by 2002, it was clear his days were winding down. He wasn’t getting any younger and WWE knew that they had to look towards the future.
A decision was made for Austin to pass the torch to a young Brock Lesnar during an episode of Monday Night Raw. Already disgruntled with how his character had been handled for the past year, Stone Cold did not see any logic in giving away such a marquee match for free on television without significant advertisement. This was the last straw for Austin that caused him to take his ball and go home where he remained for months.
Austin wanted nothing to do with WWE, but had become too much of a major asset for WWE to let go. After being gone for months, Austin and McMahon would finally come to an agreement by the end of 2002. The deal was that Austin would pay a $250,000 fine, return in early 2002, and then retire from active competition at Wrestlemania 19.
3. CM Punk
Despite being booked as the longest reigning WWE Champion in “the modern era”, it was clear to CM Punk that he was far from the company’s top guy. He had the title, but was frequently shoved aside in favor of guys like John Cena and The Rock getting the main event spotlight. Punk figured he would never be WWE’s guy and that eventually led to his departure in 2014.
According to Mike Johnson of PWInsider, Punk almost quit in early 2013 until being convinced otherwise by WWE officials. When forced to wrestle with nagging injuries a year later and nothing to show for it, Punk walked out before an episode of Monday Night Raw. His 2014 walkout was very similar to that of Stone Cold. The difference being that Punk wasn’t buying what WWE was selling no matter how much time had passed. He took a sabbatical, and in June 2014 was sent his termination papers by WWE. On the day of his wedding. Harsh.
The whole ordeal left Punk jaded enough to retire from the sport altogether. Instead of wrestling, he’s trying his hand at professional MMA; currently prepping for his first UFC fight against Mickey Gall at UFC 203 later this year.
2. Mick Foley
Everyone remembers the Montreal Screwjob that saw a shocking finish in the match between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels at Survivor Series 1997. Shocking to those involved in the match (well, Bret at least), to fans in the crowd and around the world, and to the wrestlers watching backstage. Confusion was a unanimous response to the controversy among the locker room. Some wrestlers were even repulsed that Vince McMahon would stoop to such a low, but none were willing to confront the Chairman on it and quit. Except for Mick Foley.
Foley was outraged and disgusted the night of The Screwjob and felt that was not how any wrestling promoter should do business. As far as Foley was concerned, he quit that night and no-showed Monday Night Raw the next night out of protest. He’d return shortly after his wife brought to his attention that if he breached his contract, Foley wouldn’t be allowed to wrestle for 5 years. He went on to continue his WWE run and to this day continues to show up as the on-screen Raw General Manager.
1. Daniel Bryan
The WWE Universe was heartbroken to see their beloved underdog and surprise Wrestlemania 30 headliner, Daniel Bryan, retire earlier this year. Whether or not that retirement was justified is debatable.
Yes, after 15+ years as an active competitor, it’s unquestionable that his body has been broken down over the years. However, while nursing his concussion injury last year, he was cleared to wrestle by his own personal doctors. It was just the WWE doctors who refused to clear him and recommended his retirement. Bryan openly admitted that if WWE wouldn’t clear him, he’d pack his bags and wrestle elsewhere. He actually tried to hand in his resignation papers, but was refused.
Upon his retirement, it was reported that Bryan had no intention of sticking around. Mostly because at heart, Bryan has always been a wrestler and if he couldn’t wrestle, he didn’t want to be in the industry. Still, WWE had no intention of letting Bryan go as they convinced him to provide commentary for the WWE Network exclusive summer long Cruiserweight Classic tournament and most recently, be the on-screen Smackdown GM. No one knows how long Bryan is staying or if he’s even enjoying his current run.