Wrestlers have the freedom to compete for whichever company is interested in their services. From the 1950s to the early 1980s, wrestlers would travel between different territories, which allowed them some semblance of professional freedom. Similarly, today, independent wrestlers aren't necessarily tied to one promotion, but rather are free to take different bookings with multiple companies. That freedom isn't always the case, especially when it comes to WWE. After purchasing the WWF from his father Vince McMahon Sr., Vince McMahon rebranded his promotion and brought in wrestlers who had been touring the territories, and signed them to compete exclusively for him. In return, the WWF would have exclusive use of their services until their contractual obligations were met.
However, a number of wrestlers throughout the company's existence have left the company regardless of their obligations. In fact, a number had been so distraught at some of the decision making behind the scenes, or have had creative differences with the promotion, and thus have left WWE without warning. While some may argue that their actions weren't justified, they certainly had their reasons for leaving. Here are fifteen popular wrestlers that have abruptly quit the WWE.
Did we include everyone who left the WWE without forewarning? Feel free to share with us what you think below.
15 AJ Lee
In April 2015, April Mendez, better known as AJ Lee, retired from WWE. Without warning and without explanation, she called it a career not simply from WWE, but wrestling in general. It was a rather strange occurrence as she was only 28 years of age at the time. It was an even bigger surprise since she was considered among the top women wrestlers and was leaving while on top of her game.
Speculation as to why she left the company is that it was because her husband, CM Punk, is involved in an ongoing legal proceeding involving WWE physician Dr. Chris Amman. Amman, with the tacit support of his employer, is suing Punk for public comments alleging he falsely diagnosed him as being able to compete when he wasn't physically able. These proceedings had to have caused a strain in the relationship between Lee and WWE during this time. Her departure, while rather unexpected, is understandable.
14 Sgt. Slaughter
Before Hulk Hogan emerged as the poster boy for the WWE, Sgt. Slaughter was America's greatest hero. In the early part of the 1980s, he was considered among the biggest names in the company. In the past, he had feuded with the like of Pat Patterson and World Champion Bob Backlund. Then he turned babyface and had a storied feud with The Iron Sheik. However, when Slaughter left the WWF in 1984, it was the worst possible time. Why? Because it was in 1984, when the foundation was being laid for the greatest event in wrestling history, WrestleMania.
Slaughter left the company after demanding paid vacation, plus the company's resistance to having Slaughter take advantage of the G.I Joe toy merchandise line which was growing in popularity at the time. After returning to the WWF years later, Slaughter didn't have the mass appeal he did years earlier when defending America's pride.
13 Lex Luger
As part of the NWA and WCW, the Total Package, Lex Luger was a highly decorated competitor and champion. After spending some time in the WWF, he came back to WCW in 1995 on the debut episode of Monday Night Nitro, much to the surprise of the fans in attendance. The shock was due to Luger's sudden departure from the WWF.
While his contract had expired, he did briefly compete for the company without a written agreement. With that said, Luger was able to coordinate a deal with WCW and not inform Vince McMahon. The agreement left a bad taste in the mouth of McMahon, and with Eric Bischoff not being the biggest of Luger's supporters, one had to wonder how this would ultimately play out. As it turned out, Luger's departure from the WWF allowed him to work happily alongside his old friends in WCW once again.
12 Mick Foley
It's hard to believe that the former WWE champion and beloved Hardcore legend was ever in a scenario where he abruptly left the company. However, the night after the Survivor Series, when the Alliance faction came to an end, Foley and Vince McMahon had a meeting on McMahon's private plane where it's alleged that Foley resigned amidst differences with the current state of the product. It seems the failed run of the Alliance was a predominant reason for his departure.
He returned to the company in 2003, two years removed from his resignation, with the freedom to coordinate his own storylines and feuds, and did so against Randy Orton. While his departure from the company in 2001 was abrupt, it wasn't the only time he left the promotion. In 2008, Foley once again left the company due to creative differences with McMahon, and apparently didn't pull any punches with what he had to say.
11 Alberto Del Rio
The Del Rio departure being referenced here isn't what some may be thinking. We aren't talking about his 2014 departure, when he was terminated due to an incident involving a member of WWE's social media team. On that occasion, as some may remember, he was released because he struck a WWE employee who had been provoking him with slurs towards him and the Mexican culture. However, after legal action was taken, cooler heads prevailed and Del Rio returned nearly a year later.
However, in 2016, less than a year after returning, Del Rio was unhappy with the direction of his character since his return and abruptly asked for his release. Some speculate his relationship with WWE superstar Paige contributed to it. Del Rio left the company after failing to compete for them for 90 days.
10 The British Bulldog
The late Davey Boy Smith had a number of different runs with the WWE. He first burst onto the scene alongside his cousin The Dynamite Kid as The British Bulldog. When he returned years later, it was initially as a spectator for a match between his brothers-in-law, Bret Hart and Owen Hart. Soon after, he returned to the ring as a face and defeated Bret in an incredible match for the Intercontinental Championship in Wembley Stadium.
Later on, he turned on his then-partner Lex Luger and had a run as a heel. He then allied himself with Bret and Owen as part of the new version of the Hart Foundation. Smith's second departure from the company came after the Montreal Screwjob. In the aftermath of the event, in a show of solidarity Smith would walk out on the company that had done his family member wrong.
9 Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart
Neidhart's greatest success in the WWE came as part of the Hart Foundation, alongside his brother-in-law Bret Hart. Together they captured the tag team championships on several occasions, and were considered among the best teams of their generation. When they split, Bret went on to achieve success on his own, but Neidhart didn't follow suit. Without the backing of Jimmy "The Mouth of the South" Hart, Neidhart didn't have someone leading him in singles action.
Later, he teamed with another brother-in-law, Owen, but the New Hart Foundation failed to achieve the success he had with Bret. When the Hart Foundation reformed in 1997, Neidhart was part of the collection of Hart family members that formed the faction. Much like his brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith, Neidhart too walked out on the company after the events of the 1997 Survivor Series.
8 "Ravishing" Rick Rude
By the late 1990s, Ravishing Rick Rude's wrestling career was limited to simply serving in the role of hired muscle for Degeneration X. However, when he rejoined WWE in 1997, Rude was signed to a pay per appearance contract. At the time, this was rare to see, though it appears more common with the likes of Goldberg today. Then, a particular incident took place in ‘97 that left a bad enough taste in Rude's mouth that he departed the company because of it.
The incident was the famous Montreal Screwjob at Survivor Series involving Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. The result led Rude to decide to leave. A week after the controversial event, Rude appeared on a pre-recorded edition of Monday Night Raw, and that same evening was on a live edition of Monday Nitro as well. Rude had been able to negotiate a contract with WCW since there was no full-time deal with the WWE.
7 The Ultimate Warrior
Fans will remember that the Ultimate Warrior was on the trajectory to superstardom. At WrestleMania VI, he faced Hulk Hogan in a champion versus champion match up with both titles on the line at the time. The result saw the Warrior defeating Hogan and walking away as the new WWF champion. It had also been stated that the Ultimate Warrior was rather difficult to work with. And after the Warrior started making increased demands to the WWF and Vince McMahon, a scenario played out prior to his match against Sgt. Slaughter at SummerSlam.
After his WrestleMania VII match against Randy Savage, the Warrior demanded a raise of more than half a million dollars on his new contract. McMahon agreed to his demands to ensure he met his contractual responsibilities, but once SummerSlam came to an end, the Warrior was suspended. Rather than respecting the suspension, he quit the company in response.
One of the most hyped returns in wrestling towards the end of 2013 was that of Batista. It was heralded as a former WWE champion returning after four years being away from the company. During his tenure with WWE, Batista had achieved a great deal of success as both a heel and a face. When he competed at the 2014 Royal Rumble, he was initially met with a warm welcome for his match against Alberto Del Rio earlier in the evening.
However, later that evening, when it appeared that he would be winning the Royal Rumble, it wasn't met with the most positive of reactions. Daniel Bryan was the overwhelming favorite among the fans to become the champion. The anger of the fans at the Rumble result forced a heel turn by Batista, and changed plans for a championship win over Randy Orton at WrestleMania 30. Disappointed with the direction of his character, Batista quit the company the night after Evolution lost once again to The Shield, citing creative differences as the reason for his departure.
5 "Macho Man" Randy Savage
During his time with the WWF, Savage was a self-made superstar. The most imitated voice in wrestling history had all the qualities to make him a champion, including his promos, his ring attire, and his matches, he had been among the biggest stars for the company in the 1980s, but by the 1990s, Savage wasn't pleased, as he had been removed from his role as an in-ring performer and made a colour commentator. He had last competed for the company in any significant way as part of WrestleMania X.
It was evident that he wasn't going to be used as a focal point, as the company was heading in a different direction with the focus on the likes of Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart. When his contract ended in the fall of 1994, Savage abruptly quit the company and went to World Championship Wrestling. Savage continued to give high calibre performances during his time with WCW, proving he still had it.
4 Bret "Hitman" Hart
The Excellence of Execution was among the biggest stars in the WWF during his time there. His abrupt departure is among the most notorious, as it is tied to one of the most memorable moments in wrestling history. At the 1997 Survivor Series, Hart was defending his title against Shawn Michaels. While it was slated to be Hart's last match, he refused to lose the title, wanting to simply relinquish it after defeating Michaels.
The company feared that they would have a repeat of what Madusa Miceli had done years earlier when she threw the WWF women's title in the trash upon joining WCW. Thus, they devised a plan where Hart would lose the title. Abruptly during the match, Hart was put in his own move, the Sharpshooter, and lost without actually tapping. After the match, Hart spelled WCW in the air with his fingers and destroyed the television equipment at ringside.
3 Brock Lesnar
The Beast Incarnate has been a hugely marketable commodity since his return to WWE. Upon his return, he immediately took aim at John Cena and laid out the former champion. However, nearly 13 years ago, when Lesnar was set to face Goldberg at WrestleMania XX, word was going around that Lesnar was going to be leaving the company. Jim Ross actually even reported this during the match, leading to those watching on television to be as disappointed as the live audience.
Fans mercilessly booed Lesnar and his opponent Goldberg on that evening, as in fact both were slated to leave after they completed their contractual obligations on that evening. While it may not be considered abrupt to some, as his departure was decided upon, for fans there had been little forewarning that he was leaving to pursue other interests.
2 CM Punk
He called himself the best in the world, and in order to call yourself that you need to be pretty confident in your ability. As part of WWE's roster, Punk had seemingly achieved it all. He captured multiple championships, had memorable feuds, and was a perennial main eventer. However, not only had the years of competition taken on toll on Punk's body, with the direction of the WrestleMania main event being focussed elsewhere, Punk wasn't pleased with the creative direction of his character.
It had been rumored at the time that Punk would face Triple H at WrestleMania. While has never been confirmed to be the case, it was likely a contributing factor to why Punk abruptly walked out on the company in January 2014. The sudden departure surprised many, there had been other bumps in the road for his relationship with the McMahons. However, between creative differences and the toll on his body, he decided he had had enough.
1 "Stone Cold" Steve Austin
The Texas rattlesnake was among the biggest stars not just in WWE's Attitude era, but the company's history. Austin captured the WWE championship on multiple occasions, and his ability to entertain audiences was unmatched at the time.
However, as his career was nearing its end, a match between he and Brock Lesnar was slated to take place in what some may say was a changing of the guard. Austin was fine with the idea that the company was moving in a different direction, as wrestling had taken a physical toll on him. He wasn't, however, pleased with the decision to have his match against the young Lesnar be on television on Raw rather than on a pay-per-view. After all, the match could have easily been built to a big money match. Austin abruptly quit the company that day and did not even show up for Raw.