One of the more interesting phenomena in Hollywood is when a television actor starts to think they are a big deal and are going to cross over and start making movies. This rarely succeeds and some years later, that person comes slinking back to the small screen - or these days Netflix or Hulu - having realized there’s a big difference between what they want and what they can actually achieve. A similar event happens every year in wrestling.
There are three ways you’re out of a job with WWE. First, you do something stupid - or do nothing of note at all - and get released. Maybe it’s a violation of the wellness policy or maybe you’re just sitting backstage for months, not even trying to get over with the crowd. Either way, you’re dead weight dragging the company down and it’s time to go. Second is the wrestler who feels that they are either being mistreated or aren’t living up to their creative potential. This wrestler feels if they can leave the company and go elsewhere, WWE will see what they were missing all along. It’s like when a baseball player is traded to a different team and wants to come back to his old home stadium and hit a homerun just to show them. Finally are those who leave by their own choice. Generally this means retirement, but these days retirement doesn’t always come because of an injury. A lot of wrestlers leave before the tank is empty.
For the fans, it just leaves us shaking our heads. There aren’t two or three major companies like there were in the 1990s. There aren’t dozen of territories like there were in the 1970s. Even in places like Europe and Japan there are less full-time jobs for wrestlers now than there ever have been. If you made it to the big show and you do anything, or make the decision to leave the WWE, you’re crazy. But every year people do it and 2016 has been no different. Here are the Top 15 wrestlers Who Left WWE in 2016, But Will Regret It.
15 Alberto Del Rio
Alberto Del Rio is a strange cat. He had a good thing going with the WWE for years, but left to pursue options in Mexico and on the independent scene. He appeared to be doing well for around two years until he made a return to the WWE in mid-2015, quickly winning the US Title from John Cena. That was the highlight of his return as he got lost in a boring storyline with the League of Nations. In early 2016, Del Rio tested positive for a banned substance and was suspended 30 days for violating the WWE’s Wellness Policy. He decided he was fed up and asked for his release, which the WWE granted him. Now, he’s back to trying to find gigs around the world on weekends and learning to live life with Paige as his fiance. Maybe the third time will be a charm if he ever returns.
14 Cody Rhodes
Cody Rhodes apparently forgot that the wrestler formerly known as Cody Rhodes is boring. His brother got Dusty’s charisma while Cody got the lisp. For years Cody has been a solid wrestler, but has never had that something special on the microphone or in the ring that would get him completely over with fans. His biggest push came after morphing into Stardust and teaming, then breaking away, from his brother. Cody has said that following the first Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Invitational in NXT, when he appeared out of character for the first time in a couple of years, he asked the WWE if he could return to being Cody Rhodes. They said no. It might have been a good storyline for a month or two, but once it was over, we were back to being stuck with Cody Rhodes. Frustrated, he left the company looking for a place he could be more creative as himself. We don’t so much miss him as his sexy ring announcer wife, Eden Stiles.
13 Brie Bella
We’re not going to come down too hard on her because she had been telling anybody who would listen for the last couple of years that she wanted to retire and have a child with Daniel Bryan. Shortly after leaving the WWE following WrestleMania 32 in Dallas, Bella became pregnant, a reward for all of those traumatic years of seeing Bryan naked and probably thinking, “I’m a freakin’ Bella Twin...what am I doing with this guy?” We’re sure she’s going to love being a mother for the first year or two, but she was far from spent physically when it came to her in-ring career. If Nikki, Daniel, Cena and Johnny Ace are all talking about wrestling around the dinner table, we have a feeling the itch to get in the ring again may return. It’s noble to want to be a parent and it’s a more important and harder job than wrestler, but we think we’re going to see Brie again. You just can’t walk away from Then. Now. Forever.
Sting’s last match was rough to watch especially the final few minutes. In a world title match with Seth Rollins at Night of Champions, Sting took Rollins’ running turnbuckle powerbomb the wrong way, causing momentary paralysis. When Rollins tried to throw Sting into the ropes, Sting fell down and it was clear it wasn’t part of the act. A small package a couple of seconds later and Rollins retained the belt. At the Hall of Fame ceremony the night before WrestleMania 32, Sting announced his retirement to the world, but also has said in interviews that it was his idea to retire, not a direct order from doctors or Vince McMahon. He never got that one great last match and he never got to face The Undertaker as we’d all hoped he would. Sting is beyond being a full-time wrestler, but he could pull part-time duty like Triple H or The Undertaker. We just don’t think we’ve seen his last match because he didn’t go out on his own terms and is going to regret it.
On one hand, you can say that this guy had a WWE career 10 times longer than he ever should have. On the other hand, you can say he probably would have had a job for life had he not violated the WWE Wellness Policy and been caught on videotape so drunk at a wrestler’s wedding that he fell down a flight of stairs. He may have been given his walking papers by the WWE, but he earned them and we can’t imagine he’s not going to regret it. There will be a small window of time he can get good money on the indie circuit and making the rounds signing autographs at events like Comic Con, and at that point he’s just an out-of-work little person who is going to be left sitting on the couch wondering why he made the mistakes he did. The guy probably made more money for doing next to nothing than almost anybody else in the locker room. Big mistake, little man. Big mistake.
10 Santino Marella
We never liked this guy and never understood why anybody would, but he did get over with a lot of fans who like the sillier side of wrestling. He was never going to be a world champion, but he was making a decent living as a part-time wrestler and making special appearances with WWE while also running his own school. Perhaps the WWE cut Marella from the roster because he was costing too much, to which we say Marella should have offered to work for travel costs and $200 per day. Simply being seen on WWE TV now and then is huge to keeping anybody in the spotlight and while they probably figured he wasn’t worth his current pay check, he should have come back with another offer because the WWE knows they’ll sell $200 in stupid cobra sock puppets. It’s just hard to understand certain business decisions wrestlers make.
9 Sara Lee
Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee. It’s why she won the horrible Tough Enough reboot we had to suffer through last year. Make winner ZZ already has been released and female runner-up Mandy Rose is on Total Divas, but the winner of the female division, Sara Lee, was recently released by the WWE because she made the decision to get pregnant with NXT co-worker Wesley Blake, best known for the Blake and Murphy tag team. Her pregnancy announcement came on the same day she was given her release. Maybe she decided the WWE wasn’t for her and motherhood was. Maybe she didn’t get pregnant on purpose. Whatever the reason, Sara Lee was handed an amazing opportunity on a silver platter and she basically kicked it out of the server’s hands. We wish her and Blake the best, but she’s going to be kicking herself for a long time over this one.
8 King Barrett
Wade “King” Barrett is going to end up a footnote in wrestling history, which is too bad because he had a skill set few wrestlers can bring to the table. Unfortunately, he’s had so many injuries, so evenly spaced throughout his career that he just couldn’t get the kind of traction needed to sustain any long term storylines. The kiss of death was likely being included in the League of Nations, which was synonymous with “We have no idea what to do with these foreign guys.” At the end of his last contract, the WWE and Barrett decided to not continue working together, but left the door open for the future. He’s probably put away a few dollars, but for someone who seemed to love wrestling and was so good at it, we think Barrett will be back in a WWE ring before too long. Maybe taking an extended break with help heal whatever his latest injuries have been. If this is the end, Barrett is walking away from his career far too early.
7 The Dudley Boyz
We’ll give Bubba Ray and Devon credit. If their plan was to come back for a decent final-year run and show the younger wrestlers that you leave on your back, not on a throne, the Dudley Boyz did exactly what they planned. If they were just trying to cement their place in the WWE Hall of Fame, it was unnecessary, their spot was already guaranteed. No, the Dudley Boyz were never going to go on a long tag team championship run, nor should they have, but as a solid mid-card veteran team who could teach the younger guys how to work, it was nice to see a couple of wrestlers giving back to the business. But why walk away after one year? There was still plenty of gas left in the tank and with the brand split, there are a lot of younger workers who could use their veteran experience. It was a good last run, but they shouldn’t have walked away after a year. They’re not going to be able to stay retired.
6 Damien Sandow
The Internet Wrestling Community couldn’t get enough of this guy, but he was just never going to get over with the audience in any long term meaningful way. He has an amusing run as The Miz’s stunt double, mimicking every move he made, but that gimmick could only last so long. He then was paired with Curtis Axel in a Hulk Hogan/Randy Savage tribute act that ended immediately after Hogan said some not-so-cool things. He was OK at the typical smarter/better/richer than you character early in his career, but it was never above lower-middle card status. Nonetheless, he was a solid hand working for the biggest and best wrestling company in the history of mankind. There are only a few dozen people who can say that. When you’re in that situation, you do everything you can to stay there. Maybe Sandow has a great life outside of the ring, and an argument can be made he had plenty of time to make a difference, but until WWE calls security, you stay in the room.
The dumbest thing any WWE wrestler can do is ask for his release. Well, actually it’s killing your wife, kid and then yourself like Chris Benoit, but second dumbest is asking for release, especially when the problem isn’t the WWE, but you. Ryback was brought in with a house of fire tearing through competition but quickly showed he was more show than go, a situation that reared its ugly head again and again and again. Ryan Reeves, the guy behind Ryback is a B+ entertainer and that’s being nice. The WWE gave him chance after chance to break through and be a top guy but he just couldn’t do it. How does he reward them with years of sticking by his side? He asks to be released following a program where he was asked to put over Kalisto. Maybe the writing was on the wall and it’s probably better he’s not there while Goldberg is doing his thing, but asking to leave the WWE was just stupid. He’s doing the indy thing. Maybe he’ll figure out how to entertain when he’s only in front of crowds of 300.
4 Brooklyn Brawler
There’s a story behind this one and we want to know what it is. Steve Lombardi started with the WWE in the early 1980s as “enhancement talent” who lost to the big stars on Saturday morning matches. He was loyal and earned a job behind the scenes as a low-level producer while still appearing as a punching bag. His most notable characters were Abe “Knuckleball” Schwartz and The Brooklyn Brawler, but you can count the wins both had on your hands and toes even if there had been an amputation. Since stepping away from full-time action about 15 years ago, Lombardi worked with wrestlers backstage as the producer of promos. When people said, “He’s got a job for life” about WWE workers, Lombardi was one of a very few who qualified. And then, in early 2016, he was quietly released. Why? The biggest speculation is that he called into Taz’s radio show without permission. Really? If that was it, we’re guessing it was the stupidest phone call of his life. Who knows what he fills his days with now, but whatever he did wrong, we’re guessing he’s sitting at home deeply regretting it...at least his Twitter makes it look that way.
3 Adam Rose
This one bothers us a little bit because ESPN did a fantastic documentary on a couple of NXT talents a couple of years back and the story of Adam Rose is a compelling one, and we’re not just talking about the wrestling character. Ray Leppan was a homeless teen on the streets of South America, fighting every step of the way to be a WWE wrestler by his early 30s. Along with a long, long developmental career, he also had a son born with a rare abdominal defect who has lived longer than anybody thought he would, but who needs 24/7 medical care. Rose was nailed on a second wellness violation in April 2016 as he was part of the just-forming Social Outcasts stable. He took to Twitter, posting a doctor’s note showing he was taking Adderall as prescribed, but a couple of weeks later was arrested for domestic assault. Charges were dropped, but Rose asked for his WWE release and is trying to make a living on the independent scene. Sometimes people can just be their own worst enemy.
2 Daniel Bryan
But he’s not gone, you say. True, we’re talking about regretting leaving the ring, in this case. Yes, he was forced by WWE to retire and since he was under contract, he didn’t have much say in the matter. Bryan’s concussion issues were enough for WWE to pull him out of the ring, but not release him from his deal, currently holding him hostage as the SmackDown commissioner. So where’s the regret? We guarantee Bryan will be in a wrestling ring again within a year, be it for WWE or someone else. He claims his doctors have given him medical clearance to wrestle and he continues to talk about how much he misses it. By allowing the WWE to take him out of the ring and not immediately canceling his contract, Bryan has missed at least a year of in-ring time he'll never get back. Is it the smartest thing he get back in the ring? Probably not, but we know he is going to and we know he’s going to regret ever letting WWE sideline him for so long.
Supposedly, technically, in the legal sense Paige is still with the WWE. You wouldn’t know that based on the last 6-8 months of 2016 and we have a feeling there will probably be a contract release sooner than later. Paige was caught violating the WWE Wellness Policy twice in 2016, claiming it was not her fault either time and that she just couldn’t make it to the testing facility in time. She also, much to the dismay of many in management, started a public relationship with Alberto Del Rio, who is almost 20 years older than her and also had a Wellness Policy violation in 2016. Paige used her time off for needed surgery, but also to propose to Del Rio at an independent show. She’s always been a bit of a rebel, but in 2016, she’s just been acting like a petulant child in love. Even if they are married for 50 years, that excitement wears off. While she’s away from the ring people like Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch are redefining women’s wrestling and causing people to forget about Paige. Something tells us there will be an a-ha! moment in her life that makes her wake up and see the error of her ways. Hopefully she’s still under contract at that point.