While the WWE can be accused of being a monopoly these days, that also means that there are less places to work for performers than in previous years, meaning fewer examples of a wrestler shockingly jumping ship to a rival company. But that’s not always been the case. Back in the day there were many more wrestling promotions, including WWE’s huge competitor, WCW. Anyone remember Monday Nitro, for example?
Throughout the history of the pro wrestling (see: sports entertainment) business, there have been some truly shocking and game-changing departures from the WWE by some major, major names. Departures that maybe no one, even the wrestlers themselves, saw coming until they happened. Whether it’s injury, moving to a rival company, or just simply walking away from the business altogether, fans have been left with their jaws agape many a time over the decades when it comes to shocking superstar departures. Here, though, we’re going to leave injuries out of the equation, meaning there’s no place on this list for the likes of Daniel Bryan, Edge and Shawn Michaels.
Instead, it’s a case of looking at the WWE departures that caught us all off guard as the company itself surprisingly chose to get rid of a top-tier performer, or a talent simply butted heads with the company and eventually saw a brighter future elsewhere. It may not happen much anymore (sorry, Lucha Underground, but grabbing Rey Mysterio may have been a once-in-a-lifetime event) but once upon a time it certainly did.
So with all of that in mind, let’s have a look at the fifteen most shocking departures to ever be seen in WWE history.
15. Ricky Steamboat
Having defeated Randy Savage for the Intercontinental Championship in arguably the very best professional wrestling match of all-time at WrestleMania III, it seemed as if there were huge things ahead for Ricky Steamboat in the then-WWF. Instead, The Dragon would actually leave the company only a year later.
The initial plan for Steamboat, like plenty of names before him, was to give him a lengthy run as the IC Champ. Many presumed that a top level, main event spot, and possible WWF Title run would be in Steamboat’s future.
Unfortunately, The Dragon asked WWF management for some time off to be with his wife whilst they were expecting their first child. Vince McMahon and WWF brass didn’t take this request all that well, and had Steamboat shockingly drop the Intercontinental Championship to Honky Tonk Man in June. He’d then be gone from the company until the Survivor Series ’87 PPV.
Several months of nothing matches followed before Steamboat left the company completely following WrestleMania IV. Many were hoping for a Savage/Steamboat rematch during the ‘Mania IV tournament for the vacant WWF Title, but instead The Dragon lost a first round match against Greg Valentine.
After that, Steamboat would shockingly turn up in WCW in early 1989. He would return to the WWF in February 1991, but that run would come to an abrupt end when the former IC Champ switched back to WCW in November 1991.
14. Rick Rude
“Ravishing” Rick Rude is one of the greatest heels to ever lace up a pair of boots. That said, by 1997 his in-ring days were sadly behind him.
A 1994 back injury caused Rude to call an end to his in-ring career, although he did compete in a six-man tag match during a later, brief stay in ECW. Having wrestled in the WWF up until 1990, he returned back to Vince McMahon’s company in 1997 as part of the original D-Generation X stable. He’d serve purely as the apparent “insurance policy” of DX, but it was down to the beef between one of DX’s founding members and Bret Hart that caused Rude to shockingly leave the WWF once more.
Following the infamous Montreal Screwjob at the 1997 Survivor Series PPV, Rude was so disgusted by the treatment of Hart by McMahon and those involved that he walked out on the organization. The former Intercontinental Champion was only operating under a pay-per-appearance deal with the WWF, and this gave him the freedom to show his disdain for the company by leaving and re-signing back with WCW.
What made Rude’s departure even more shocking and memorable was that, due to Raw’s pre-taped shows at the time, he appeared on both Raw and the live Monday Nitro shows on November 17th, 1997. He also actually made an appearance on ECW’s Hardcore TV show that week, too, to add further notoriety to the legend of “Ravishing” Rick Rude.
13. Kurt Angle
When Kurt Angle left the WWE in 2006, many a wrestling fan shed a tear. After all, he’d become one of the focal points of the relatively new ECW, where he was dubbed The Wrestling Machine; a fitting moniker for an Olympic gold medalist with countless World Championships under his belt. But just like that, Angle was gone from the WWE.
It was clear to all that Kurt still had plenty in the tank – as shown by a further ten years in TNA – but there were plenty of issues where the talented technician was concerned. Direct from Angle’s mouth, he’s talked about how he was burnt out and his body was breaking down due to the tough WWE schedule. For the WWE, though, they wanted the Pittsburgh native to seek help and go to rehab for his growing pain pill problems.
This all came to a head in 2006 when Kurt was granted an early release from his contract. He was burnt out, he was battling demons, and it seemed that Kurt Angle just needed some downtime to get his head right and stay away from the squared circle for a little while. So what happened? He signed for TNA almost immediately.
Angle has since banished the demons that troubled him for years – most notably pain medication and alcohol – and he’s now just working a few select matches over the next few months before what one hopes will eventually be a final run under the WWE umbrella before he finally calls time on his legendary career.
12. Lex Luger
A hulking babyface forced down fans’ throats by Vince McMahon regardless of how little audiences wanted to see of him? Yep, sounds a little familiar right? But it’s not just Roman Reigns who has struggled with getting accepted by crowds, for the same thing happened with Lex Luger back in 1993.
Having been turned from the nefarious Narcissist into a flag-waving all-American hero, Luger was constantly rejected by WWF fans as they instead made their voices heard to champion Bret Hart as the figurehead of the WWF’s New Generation movement.
Even though Luger was lumbered alongside Davey Boy Smith in the tag ranks by the time he’d leave the WWF, it was still a huge surprise to see him jump ship and make an appearance on WCW Monday Nitro’s premiere episode.
Luger hadn’t informed anybody at the WWF that he was leaving the company, although his contract had actually expired by the time he turned up on Nitro. He’d appeared at WWF’s SummerSlam show only eight days prior to his WCW return, and he’d even wrestled at a WWF live event the day before his shocking arrival on Nitro.
Lex was never the greatest wrestler or the greatest talker, but turning up during the main event of the debut of WCW’s brand new flagship show was a huge signal of intent from WCW as they looked to challenge the WWF for supremacy.
11. Alundra Blayze
Female wrestling in the WWF during the 1990s was largely kept to a minimum until Alundra Blayze burst onto the scene in 1993 as part of the company’s decision to relaunch the Women’s Championship that had laid dormant since 1990.
Blayze had been seen previously by wrestling fans under the guise of Madusa in WCW, and her WWF arrival saw her win a tournament to name a new Women’s Champ. The entire women’s division was built around the talented and charismatic performer.
Less than two years after joining the WWF, Blayze would depart the company after they lost interest in their female wrestlers. She’d informed WWF brass of her intention to let her contract expire at the end of 1995, but the company took matters into their own hands by releasing her.
Immediately signing back with WCW, Alundra Blayze would show up on the December 18th edition of Nitro back under the mantle of Medusa. Of course, she’d famously dump the WWF Women’s Championship in the trash live during her WCW re-appearance.
10. Brock Lesnar
Going into the match, it was well-known that this would be Goldberg’s final match with the company, but it then came out that Lesnar was also leaving, opting to pursue a career in the NFL rather than in the squared circle. As a result, the match itself was famously a complete farce, with the Madison Square Garden crowd booing both competitors out of the building.
Lesnar had only been on the WWE main roster for two years by the time he called it a day, although his impact was immense. Becoming WWE Champion within six months of his debut, Lesnar became an iconic figure in the wrestling business and engaged in a legendary rivalry with Kurt Angle.
For Brock to then just decide to call time on his in-ring career was a massive shock that came out of nowhere. Unfortunately for him, his NFL dream wouldn’t materialize, although he would make another huge mark when he turned his hand to MMA and the UFC.
9. Sgt. Slaughter
To many wrestling fans, Sgt. Slaughter is just an old legend who gets wheeled out for nostalgia shows. To others, he was an authority figure who was the brunt of many a DX prank. And to others, he was a villainous traitor who turned his back on the USA in 1990. Before that though, there was a stage where he was one of the most popular superstars on the planet.
In 1984, having stood up for Uncle Sam against The Iron Sheik, Slaughter’s popularity skyrocketed. Forget Jimmy Snuka and Andre The Giant, Sarge was the second most popular babyface in the WWF, and some would argue he was even as popular as Hulk Hogan. In 1985, however, he’d leave the company under a cloud of controversy.
From Sgt. Slaughter’s own mouth, he was fired by Vince McMahon for no-showing a live event over a vacation dispute. Slaughter wanted six weeks of paid leave. McMahon told him where he could stick that request.
Then there was the G.I. Joe issue, where the WWF wouldn’t allow Slaughter to be a part of the G.I. Joe toy line. Sarge took umbrage to missing out on what would be a nice little payday, and it’s believed that this was the real reason as to why Slaughter left the company to head to the AWA. There were also stories that Slaughter saw his days numbered once Hogan beat The Iron Sheik for the WWF Championship, with it clear that nobody was going to dislodge The Hulkster as the face of the company any time soon.
When Diesel vanished from WWF TV shortly following In Your House: Good Friends, Better Enemies, it was a major moment in wrestling history to see Big Daddy Cool turn up in rival company WCW.
Diesel leaving the WWF was a huge blow for Vince McMahon and his company- so much so that they even tried to bring the character back with Glenn Jacobs (you may also know him as Isaac Yankem… or maybe even Kane) taking on the Diesel moniker. In the meantime, the real Diesel was making waves under his real name of Kevin Nash in WCW.
Even though he’s openly talked about how he was hesitant to leave the WWF, even asking Vince to just match WCW’s offer, Nash making the jump to WCW was a huge part in the Monday Night Wars and in having WCW dominate their rival organization for a good chunk of time.
Of course, whilst Kevin Nash jumping ship was a huge kick in the teeth for the WWF, it also in turn would lead to room at the top of the card for other talent to step up. One such talent would be a guy by the name of Stone Cold Steve Austin.
7. Razor Ramon
Much-like Diesel’s departure from the WWF, Razor Ramon’s jump to Ted Turner’s dollar-driven wrasslin’ company was a true game-changer.
Whilst seeing Kevin Nash turn up in WCW was a huge moment in wrestling history, having already seen Scott Hall teasing a hostile takeover of World Championship Wrestling lessened the genuine shock around that move. But seeing the former Razor Ramon step out of a WCW crowd was undeniably a monumental moment.
Hall leaving the WWF came as a big shock, with him being one of their best performers and also a multiple-time Intercontinental Champion. In later years, Hall himself has revealed that he had grown frustrated with being overlooked for a main event spot in the WWF and that, as ever, Billionaire Ted’s ever-large paychecks were also a nice incentive to jump ship.
For two weeks, Hall would tease something big ahead for WCW, that something huge was coming to change the industry. That, of course, would be the New World Order and the ensuing dominance that WCW would soon have over the WWF.
6. The Ultimate Warrior
Really, were do you begin when it comes to Warrior?
Having toppled the Immortal one himself, Hulk Hogan, at WrestleMania VI to become the WWF Champion, The Ultimate Warrior would lose the gold to Sgt. Slaughter at the 1991 Royal Rumble and would initially end up leaving the company later that year.
Demanding an improved contract from the WWF, Warrior missed a host of scheduled appearances whilst his new deal was ironed out. Vince McMahon would agree to Warrior’s demands, although this was only in order to make sure he competed at SummerSlam ’91. Following that show, McMahon suspended the Parts Unknown native, ultimately leading to the former WWF Champion departing the company.
Of course, The Ultimate Warrior would make a triumphant return at WrestleMania VIII, coming to the aide of Hulk Hogan after he was attacked by Sid Justice and Papa Shango. With Hogan shortly taking some time off himself, the road was clear for Warrior to become the company’s top guy, right? Right?! Wrong.
The government crackdown on steroids, coincidentally timed with Warrior experimenting with growth hormone and failing some drug tests, resulted in him being suspended by the WWF before ultimately leaving the company once more in November 1992.
A further return would follow in 1996, but this barely four-month run came to an end after further missed dates by Warrior led to his final departure from the WWF. He’d stay away from the company until his Hall of Fame induction in 2014.
5. CM Punk
To say CM Punk is a salty individual is an understatement. So when the Straight-Edge Superstar walked out on the WWE, whilst it was a massive shock, it was also an understandable move from a frustrated Punk.
It was early 2014, CM Punk had just been eliminated from the Royal Rumble match by Kane, and the plan was for the “Best in the World” to go on and face Triple H at that year’s WrestleMania. The problem was, a match with Hunter had no appeal to Punk.
When the Chicago native was on top of the world and the hottest star in the industry, for no reason whatsoever Triple H once more put on his boots in order to get a win over CM Punk at 2011’s Night of Champions PPV. Given Hunter’s position with the company, he and Punk were often at odds purely because of the former ROH Champion’s beef with the WWE brass in general.
Feeling as if he’d hit his head against one too many walls, the proposal of a match against Triple H at WrestleMania XXX was the straw that broke the camel’s back. As such, Punk walked out on the company and never looked back, instead switching his focus to MMA and the UFC.
4. Randy Savage
When WCW started to aggressively try to sign up big name stars from the then-WWF in the mid-90s, “Macho Man” Randy Savage was one of the first to make the jump.
Savage was a WWF mainstay and a former two-time WWF Champion, with his time under the WWF umbrella enabling him to become one of the most instantly-recognizable figures in the industry. His distinct voice, unique charisma, legendary intensity, vibrant outfits, and famed catchphrases saw Randy Savage become a true icon of the game.
But whilst Monday Night Raw’s debut in January 1993 saw Savage positioned behind the commentary desk, the Macho Man himself still felt that he had plenty left in the tank and wasn’t ready to call time on his in-ring days just yet. Unfortunately, Vince McMahon saw things differently, and saw Savage as part of the old guard that he was looking to move away from with his New Generation direction.
Savage would leave the WWF when his contract expired in late 1994. Within a month, he’d turn up as an in-ring talent on WCW television. The wrestling world was in shock, and this marked just the start of talent regularly switching between the two companies as the early seeds for the Monday Night Wars were being sown.
3. Bret Hart
The departure of Bret Hart from the then-WWF was a major shock for a variety of reasons. Not only was it shocking because Bret’s loyalty to Vince McMahon meant he didn’t want to actually leave the company, but it was obviously spectacularly shocking for how his final match in the WWF resulted in the Montreal Screwjob.
Regardless of who screwed who, wrestling fans had their worlds rocked by what went down, and the events of that fateful Survivor Series PPV in 1997 have gone down in infamy as one of the most memorable nights in wrestling history.
Adding to the shock, WCW in their ever-wise wisdom decided not to debut Hart, the hottest name in wrestling at the time, immediately and instead held off on him turning up on WCW for a few months. Genius logic, I know.
From the Wrestling with Shadows documentary, to Bret’s book, to interviews since with Bret, Vince, Shawn Michaels, and Triple H, we’ve heard many different sides to this infamous story, and what made things even more tragic is that Bret Hart’s move to WCW left a sour taste in the mouth for numerous reasons; Ted Turner’s company simply had no idea what to do with the Bret Hart character. Hart would have his career brought to an end thanks to a stiff kick from Bill Goldberg, and Bret has even openly talked about how if he was still in the WWF at the time then he’d have never let Owen Hart go through with the stunt that tragically resulted in his death.
2. Steve Austin
Stone Cold’s famous falling out with the WWE stunned the wrestling world.
Here was Steve Austin, the hottest star on the planet, walking away from the WWE. In the aftermath of WrestleMania XVIII, Austin took a one-week unplanned and unsanctioned break, citing exhaustion. After growing frustration with the direction of the company and his character, Austin would then completely walk away from the WWE in June after he was booked to lose to Brock Lesnar in an unannounced Monday Night Raw bout.
The rest of the year would see a Stone Cold-shaped hole on WWE TV, bar the company using The Rock to let fans know that The Texas Rattlesnake had taken his ball and gone home. In turn, the company also stopped selling Austin merchandise and would even remove him from WWE.com.
Ultimately cooler heads would eventually prevail and The Bionic Redneck and Vince McMahon would hash out their differences in a meeting put together by Jim Ross. Austin would return to screens in early 2003, but he would retire from in-ring competition following his WrestleMania XIX defeat to The Rock.
Steve Austin, the hottest star of wrestling’s hottest period, walking out on the company was a huge shock that sent ruptures through the industry. Austin and the company have long been on good terms, but his 2002 departure is still regularly discussed to this day.
1. Hulk Hogan
To many, Hulk Hogan is the face of professional wrestling. As the business was thrust into the mainstream public eye with the rock ‘n’ wrestling boom of the ‘80s, The Hulkster was front-and-centre, transcending the industry and becoming a household name whilst Hulkamania was firmly running wild, brother!
Hogan had a brief run in the WWF in 1979 under Vince McMahon Sr. before heading to the AWA, but it was his return to the WWF in late 1983 under the stewardship of Vince McMahon Jr. that saw Hulk explode. Hulkamania running wild was more than just a catchphrase, it was very much a real thing. And that continued through until the moment when Mr. WWF, Mr. Wrestling, Mr. Hulkamania himself shockingly left the WWF in mid-1993.
Sure, Hogan’s final year or two in the WWF saw fans growing weary of his whole “eat your vitamins, say your prayers, train hard” shtick, but him leaving the company completely caught many off guard, with his June ’94 WCW debut another big money switch that would change the game for the wrestling business.
Again, though, Hogan’s whiter-than-white, all-conquering babyface act was still stale in his early WCW tenure, but the dawn of the nWo and the badly-needed Hogan “heel-turn” were just around the corner.