Much like other professional athletes, the career length of professional wrestlers can range greatly from a couple months to multiple decades. Longevity can be important in the world of wrestling, but there are some superstars who have managed to make an incredible impact in a limited amount of time. Similarly, there are longtime WWE members whose contributions have been largely forgotten.
In order to analyze this paradox, this list will countdown 8 Wrestlers Who Left WWE In Their Prime (and 7 Who Stayed Too Long). Using a variety of factors, we will track down those superstars who left WWE when they appeared to have so much more to give, as well as those who held onto their WWE paychecks well after they were done being valuable members of the roster.
With the ever changing nature of the WWE roster, by this time next year, some of these wrestlers who held on may be retired, and others may have realized their mistake and returned to WWE.
Included in this article will be a discussion about several current and former WWE wrestlers. All facts and storylines related to this piece are taken from WWE.com or are from the first-hand knowledge of the author.
16. Left In Their Prime – Daniel Bryan
To quote one of the greatest movies of the past ten years, “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain”. Daniel Bryan is perhaps the most widely beloved superstar that I have ever witnessed in my lifetime. I wonder, however, if Bryan’s popularity would be so perpetual if his career hadn’t been cut so tragically short. Bryan was forced to retire from in-ring competition in 2016 due to a series of neck injuries. He has since become the fictitious General Manager of Smackdown Live. While Bryan’s WWE performer career appears to be over, it is important to note that other independent doctors have cleared him to compete, thus opening the door for Bryan to make a return for some other organization.
15. Stayed Too Long – Kane
Kane has been praised throughout his wrestling career for the steadiness that he brings to the company both in and out of the ring. Despite the consistency of this athlete, however, it is apparent that the “Big Red Machine” has lost a step or two over the years. This was especially apparent during Kane’s time with the Authority, as he was continually used in big spots which could have been saved for younger talent. Whether it was when he took the mask off or his time spent as the fictitious Director of Operations, Kane simply doesn’t carry the same aura that he once did. Depending on the results of the Knoxville Mayoral race, Kane’s time as a full-time wrestler may be all but over.
14. Left In Their Prime – John Morrison
With the high number of superstars that the WWE keeps on its roster, it is inevitable that some talented wrestlers will eventually seek out other opportunities. Rarely though, does the WWE let a superstar with the kind of main event talent of Johnny Mundo (John Morrison with the WWE) slip through their fingers. As stated earlier, Mundo was the beneficiary of Benoit’s untimely death, which allowed him to seize his first world championship with WWE, the ECW Championship. Following the demise of ECW, however, Mundo was very much treated as a second class citizen on Raw. As such, Mundo decided to leave WWE and would eventually join an independent circuit upstart, Lucha Underground. Lucha has since become the talk of the wrestling community, and Mundo an important part of their success. Talk about WWE missing the bus.
13. Stayed Too Long – Mark Henry
A sad fact of professional wrestling is that so many of these wrestlers become completely reliant on their WWE paychecks. With few avenues outside the company, these wrestlers become so indebted to the WWE that they’ll do just about anything to keep their jobs. I fear that this will be the underlying story of the career of Mark Henry. Due to his size and strength (Henry won the 2002 Strongman competition), Henry was portrayed as an incredibly formidable competitor in his early career. As Henry has aged, however, WWE has utilized him more and more as a comedic teddy bear character (don’t even get me started on the Sexual Chocolate storyline). Recently, Henry has been absent from WWE TV but continues to make regular appearances at live shows.
12. Left In Their Prime – AJ Lee
The lone female on this list, AJ Lee may be the superstar whose loss was most strongly felt by the WWE. At the time of her departure, Lee was not only the WWE’s top female competitor, but it’s fair to say that she was the only female competitor whose character WWE had spent any time developing in the past year. Therefore, upon her departure, WWE was left with a field of women who had done nothing recently except to provide fodder for Lee’s historic rise. Lee’s departure was primarily the result of the disintegrating relationship between the WWE and her husband, CM Punk. If WWE is ever to mend fences with Punk, I suggest that they try to make it a package deal and bring back Lee as well.
11. Stayed Too Long – Virgil
Most of the wrestlers in this section of our list are once great stars who have stayed around so long that they have started to lose their edge. Virgil is different in that he was never that talented. Instead, Virgil gets included on our list of wrestlers who stayed too long because his story is just so damn sad. It is a sad fact that many wrestlers from the 1980’s are forced to do appearances for small organizations to make money (wrestlers were paid less back then, combined with poor money management). Virgil has taken this a step further and will show up literally anywhere if you pay him enough. I’m talking mall signings, wrestling events in gymnasiums, I’m pretty sure you could score him at your next birthday party if you wanted to. I guess it’s true that “everyone’s got a price”.
10. Left In Their Prime – Batista
Unfortunately, most of the superstars who left WWE in their prime were forced to do so by unforeseen circumstances. Such is not the case with Batista, a talented superstar who left the WWE for a successful movie career in Hollywood. Batista, like many other superstars, dabbled in minor film roles during his time with the WWE. Unlike most other superstars, however, Batista was able to make the jump to mainstream stardom thanks to his role in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. Batista would make a comeback to the WWE in 2014, but his being placed in such a prominent role upon his return angered many hardcore WWE fans. Following this brief stint (which included the reforming of the Evolution stable) Batista would once again leave the WWE for Hollywood.
9. Stayed Too Long – Vince McMahon
For so many years Vince McMahon has been the engine behind the WWE Corporation. Not only does he handle many of the companies business dealings, but he is also the lead producer of its flagship programs, Raw and Smackdown Live. With that being said, the evidence is beginning to emerge that the WWE product would be better off without Vince at the helm. Reports have surfaced that several parties within WWE (including Vince’s son-in-law Triple H) are unhappy with the way Vince has booked the talent from NXT. The main roster product has faced heavy criticism in recent years, so the hope was that these incoming talents would be able to replicate some of the magic that they created down at Full Sail University. If Vince is in any way hindering this, it may be best if he gives the reigns over to someone more willing to usher WWE into the new age.
8. Left In Their Prime – Chris Benoit
I knew when I began this list that it would eventually delve into one (or several) of the incredible tragedies that have occurred in the WWE. Perhaps the saddest of these is the untimely death of Chris Benoit and his family. Over the course of three days, Benoit murdered his wife and 7-year-old son, before committing suicide with a weight machine. Multiple drugs were found in the system of both Benoit and his wife, and an autopsy of Chris’ brain determined that he had a progressed form of dementia. The doctor that performed the autopsy claimed that Benoit’s brain resembled that of an 85 year Alzheimer’s patient. Both Benoit’s life and career were thus cut tragically short.
7. Stayed Too Long – Sting
It breaks my heart to write this entry because Sting was my favorite wrestler as a kid. Once WCW closed its doors I didn’t get to see him on a weekly basis anymore (I can’t bring myself to watch TNA and their terrible storylines on a regular basis), but I still kept tabs on the painted vigilante. When Sting officially signed with WWE in 2014, however, I was elated to have the chance to witness Sting duke it out with WWE’s best. Aside from his awesome debut at the 2014 Survivor Series, I was mostly disappointed with Sting’s short WWE run. Admittedly, a lot of this is due to the fact that Sting never got to square off against the Undertaker, but a bigger component was how Sting had regressed as a wrestler. Once one of the most athletic wrestlers in the world, the 57-year-old no longer had enough left in the tank to wow a WWE audience.
6. Left In Their Prime – CM Punk
Of all the entries on this list, this one may be the oddest. We have already seen several superstars who left WWE in their prime due to injury, as well as John Morrison who left because he didn’t feel that he was being properly valued by the company. CM Punk would likely argue that he also left because he wasn’t being valued by the WWE, but his prominent place in high profile storylines devalues this argument. Punk has publicly expressed his anger at not being placed in the main event at WrestleMania XXVIII. This may have been a valid argument if it weren’t for the fact that the main event that year was the first Rock–Cena “once in a lifetime match”. Whatever the reason, it was sad to see the WWE lose such a talented wrestler in his prime.
5. Stayed Too Long – Ric Flair
If you can boast of a wrestling career that lasts 4 decades, chances are that you stayed in the business way longer than you should have. This is true even if you are a 16x World Champion and one of the greatest wrestlers to ever put on a pair of boots. When Ric Flair retired following his loss to Shawn Michaels XXIV, it was a bittersweet moment for many Nature Boy fans. While you hated to lose this icon of wrestling, it was nice to not see him regress any further as a performer. Flair, of course, didn’t stay gone long, following a brief stint with TNA he returned to WWE as his daughter Charlotte Flair’s manager.
4. Left In Their Prime – Eddie Guerrero
Along with fellow entry Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero’s departure from the WWE cannot be characterized as anything other than tragic. In November of 2005, fellow WWE superstar (and his nephew) Chavo Guerrero found Eddie unconscious in his hotel room in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The ambulance was called, but Guerrero was pronounced dead by paramedics when they arrived at the scene. It was later revealed that he had died as a result of acute heart failure caused by cardiovascular disease. The loss suffered by the WWE Universe, of course, pales in comparison to the loss felt by Eddie’s friends and family, however, for the purposes of this list it is important to note that Guerrero was in the midst of the World Heavyweight Title picture at the time of his death.
3. Stayed Too Long – The Undertaker
Never before have I seen a wrestler age before my eyes in the way that I have the Undertaker. I didn’t begin religiously watching wrestling until 2004, and even then, the legendary Phenom was not a newcomer to the WWE. Despite him being older than some of the other competitors, however, Taker never seemed to miss a step with them in the ring. All of this has changed in the past 2-3 years. If his becoming a part-time superstar was the cause is unclear, but it seemed like the Undertaker aged ten years in between the last few WrestleMania’s. It was because of this that I was glad to see him hang up his boots at WrestleMania 33. Here’s hoping he doesn’t return to the ring.
2. Left In Their Prime – Edge
Long before Daniel Bryan ended his wrestling career due to an irreparable neck injury, Edge was forced into an untimely retirement as a result of his own series of neck surgeries. Before the age of Total Divas and social media coverage, the WWE Universe didn’t know a whole lot about Edge as a person prior to his retirement. Even so, the emotion Edge displayed during his retirement speech was so palpable as to move even the most hardened WWE fans. If Edge was heartbroken himself about leaving WWE, the faithful Edge Heads were even more so. After so many years of watching such a talented superstar toil as a tag and mid-card competitor, it was certainly unfulfilling to see him retire after only a handful of years as a main event talent.
1. Left In Their Prime – Austin Aries
It is a disturbing trend that many of these superstars who left WWE in their prime have done so fairly recently. A perfect example of this is the release of Austin Aries from the company. You could argue that Aries was never properly valued by the company (he was never given significant momentum at NXT and lost his WrestleMania debut to Neville), but up until the day of his release he was garnering the type of crowd reactions that made him incredibly valuable to the company. One of the few recognizable faces in the Cruiserweight Division, I was very surprised to see WWE part ways with this talented (albeit older) superstar. Unless WWE expects an influx of under 205 talent, their failure to capitalize on Aries could come back to haunt them.
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