To main event WrestleMania is the dream of anybody who has ever stepped between the ropes of a wrestling ring. Every indie wrestler who travelled across the country to perform for free. Every NFL player who injured their knee and couldn’t play football anymore. Every stupid kid who jumped off a ladder in their backyard. They have all sought to get to WWE, and for good reason. WWE is the premier professional wrestling company in the world and has been for over half a century. It’s only natural that those who love wrestling would want to ply their trade in Vince McMahon’s sports entertainment mega-circus.
However, many professional wrestlers make it to WWE only to realize that the journey was more enjoyable than the destination. They find that they are not allowed to work as they did in the indies or that the constant traveling makes the experience far more draining than exhilarating.
There is a lot more to working for WWE than just lacing up your boots and stepping into the ring for twenty minutes a night, something which has resulted in hundreds of WWE superstars leaving the company to work elsewhere. Some wrestlers have left WWE for smaller companies which offer a high salary with a much less hectic schedule, allowing them to continue earning a living in the business. For others, their experience in WWE proved to be so negative that it turned them off professional wrestling altogether and sent them into an entirely different industry. But just who went where?
Here are 15 professional wrestlers who left WWE to work elsewhere.
15 Shawn Stasiak
The son of a former WWE World Champion, Shawn Stasiak was born and bred to be in the wrestling business, but he failed to make any real impact in the few years he spent in the mat wars.
Stasiak’s initial WWE run came to an end after he recorded a conversation between two of his co-workers without their consent. He then spent some time in WCW before being brought back to WWE in 2001. Stasiak’s return saw him stuck with a series of ridiculous gimmicks and when it became clear he was not bound for the same success as his father, he requested his release from the company.
After leaving WWE in 2002, Stasiak retired from the wrestling business and retrained as a chiropractor. He currently works with the Texas based Advanced Comprehensive Medical team and makes occasional appearances as a public speaker.
Ivory had as long and as successful a career as any of the divas of her generation and held the WWE Women’s Championship on three separate occasions. In her later years with the company, she wrestled only sporadically; devoting her time instead to presenting WWE catch-up shows such as The WWE Experience.
After leaving WWE, Ivory tried her hand in the landscaping industry, but didn’t experience a whole lot of success. During this time, she was volunteering at animal shelters and also worked with the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
In 2007, Ivory drew on her experience working with animals to found Downtown Dog, a daycare and grooming service that also provides training for man’s best friend. Downtown Dog proved a major success and eventually branched out to veterinary care and cat boarding
Rico Constantino was one of the most colorful characters of post-Attitude Era WWE. His character was that of an extremely camp gay man who used his sexuality to get inside his opponents’ heads, a gimmick that would never make it to TV today.
After his wrestling career came to an end, Rico embarked on a career in law enforcement in his native state of Nevada. In August of 2005, Rico graduated at the top of his class in Boulder City and became a Sergeant Inspector for the Nevada Taxi Cab Authority.
A couple of weeks ago, it was revealed by a friend of Constantino that the former WWE superstar was seriously ill with a heart condition and a crowd funding campaign was organized to help him with his medical bills, among the many donors of which was Chris Jericho.
12 Christopher Nowinski
Christopher Nowinski was WWE’s first ever Harvard graduate and when he debuted on the main roster in 2002, he wasn’t shy about letting people know it. He incorporated his impressive degree into his character and became one of those intellectually superior heels.
Nowkinski’s time in WWE didn’t last very long and he was forced to leave the wrestling business in 2003 due to a series of concussions. Thankfully, he had a pretty good fallback.
Since retiring from the ring, Nowinski has dedicated his Harvard brain to the study of concussions in sports. He founded the Concussion Legacy Foundation and is largely credited with bringing greater awareness of the dangers of head injuries to professional wrestling. Thanks to Nowinski’s extensive concussion research, a number of his former WWE co-workers have pledged to donate their brains to science after passing.
11 Kelly Kelly
Kelly Kelly signed her WWE contract before she was twenty (and probably before she ever actually watched any professional wrestling). Despite a lack of in-ring ability, Kelly Kelly was pushed as the top star of WWE’s Diva’s division for a number of years, largely due to her admittedly jaw dropping good looks.
In 2012, Kelly Kelly retired from professional wrestling due to a series of injuries (possibly to her little toe). Speaking immediately after her WWE departure, Kelly said that she had plans to pursue a career as a model.
In 2015, Kelly began appearing on WAGS, an E! reality television series which follows the wives and girlfriends of professional sports stars, a role she earned through her relationship with former ice hockey player Sheldon Souray.
10 AJ Lee
AJ Lee was a breath of fresh air in the Diva’s division during its darker hours. She was a pleasant break from the Bella twins and Eva Marie, who were treated as the stars of the division purely because of their roles on Total Divas. AJ, the anti-diva who actually had some in-ring ability, was beloved by grown men and young girls alike and smashed the record for longest WWE Diva’s Championship reign during her time with the company.
Mainly due to the rocky relationship of CM Punk, her husband, the WWE anticipated AJ’s departure with Vince McMahon and Triple H. She left WWE just five days after WrestleMania 31, announcing that she was retiring from active competition.
Since leaving WWE, AJ has regularly appeared alongside her husband, who made his UFC debut amid much publicity in September of this year. She also completed her autobiography Crazy Is My Superpower: How I Triumphed By Breaking Hearts, Breaking Bones, And Breaking The Rules, which is set for a 2017 release.
9 Ted DiBiase Jr.
Like Shawn Stasiak, great things were expected of Ted DiBiase, Jr. due to his being the son of a WWE legend. Unlike the younger Stasiak, however, Ted Jr. actually had quite a memorable career.
Early in his career, DiBiase aligned himself with Cody Rhodes and Randy Orton to form The Legacy, a faction of second and third-generation superstars out to achieve the success they were meant for. Most of Ted’s time in WWE centered on the group, which cumulated in a Triple Threat between him, Rhodes, and Orton at WrestleMania XXVI.
In August of 2013, DiBiase elected not to renew his WWE contract, having decided the fame and fortune had damaged him as a person. After leaving wrestling, he set out to build a stronger relationship with God and became more involved in his church. Today, he runs a camp for disadvantaged youths, which was recently covered on a Where Are They Now? Feature on the WWE website.
8 Brock Lesnar
Despite the fact he was pushed to the moon from the moment he arrived on the main roster, Brock Lesnar was never all that happy during his initial run with WWE. His victories over Hulk Hogan, The Rock, and The Undertaker, along with his multiple WWE World Championship reigns, were marred by his disdain for the constant traveling and he left the company after his WrestleMania XX bout with Bill Goldberg.
After leaving WWE, Lesnar embarked on a career in the NFL. After a period with the Minnesota Vikings, he was forced to accept that his football experiment had been a failure and left the sport. As everybody knows, he later signed with UFC and became the biggest star in the history of the company, capturing the UFC Heavyweight Championship before being derailed by diverticulitis.
Brock returned to WWE the night after WrestleMania XXVIII to begin a feud with John Cena and has been with the company ever since, reveling in his main event spot and part-time schedule.
7 Roddy Piper
At WrestleMania III, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper took on Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake in what was billed as his retirement match. Though it was just 1987, Piper was already considered a legend in the professional wrestling business and his WWE exit was cause for much heartache as nobody could predict he would be back just two years later.
Piper’s reason for leaving the then World Wrestling Federation was his desire to make it as a full-time actor. Piper racked up an impressive number of acting credits after leaving WWE, including the cult favorite They Live, which spawned the Piper catchphrase "I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubble gum.”
Although Piper didn’t have the Hollywood career he had been hoping for, he continued to score some acting roles after his return to WWE and was active in the entertainment business right up to his death in 2015.
Ryback left WWE earlier this year after growing frustrated with his position in the company. Despite a strong start and main event push in 2012, Ryback wound up losing to Kalisto in pre-show matches with little to no intrigue. After contract negations between Ryback and WWE hit a wall, The Big Guy went home and patiently waited out his remaining dates.
Since leaving WWE, Ryback has sought to “build his brand,” whatever that means. He has openly discussed his plans to release a clothing line, a food line, and a series of self-help books. He has also legally changed his first name to Ryback, so he can continue using his WWE owned name on the independent scene.
Ryback has also expressed an interest in getting involved in MMA, much like Brock Lesnar or CM Punk, though he would probably prefer be compared more to the former.
5 Paul Heyman
Paul Heyman is undoubtedly one of the greatest minds the wrestling business has ever seen, which has caused him to have more than one falling out with Vince McMahon. Heyman was a key figure in the early days of WWE’s version of ECW, but resigned once it became clear his vision for the brand differed greatly from that of Vince McMahon and Kevin Dunn.
After leaving WWE, Heyman went into business for himself and founded Heyman Hustle, a multimedia organization which covers both sports and entertainment. Heyman Hustle is still in business to this day and has grown leaps and bounds thanks to Heyman’s increased television presence.
Like many former WWE employees, Heyman also tried to get involved in MMA, though obviously not as a performer. There were rumours of him making a failed attempt to purchase Strikeforce MMA, which he later confirmed.
4 Kurt Angle
Kurt Angle was a major acquisition for WWE at the end of the 1990s. Having captured a gold medal in freestyle wrestling at the ’96 Summer Olympics, he was one of the most popular sportsmen in America and, as it turned out, one of the most naturally gifted professional wrestlers in history.
From the moment he debuted in WWE, Angle was groomed for the main event and he wound up holding the WWE World Championship on four separate occasions, as well as being a one time WWE World Heavyweight Champion. Talk about a true star that was born to wrest.
In 2006, however, like so many wrestlers before and after him, Angle decided that he would like a reduced schedule, something that Vince McMahon wasn’t willing to give him. In his search for more time off, the Olympic gold medalist left WWE for TNA, which was in the middle of a major upswing.
3 Hulk Hogan
Hulk Hogan has been in and out of WWE so many times that it’s hard to remember when he left under his own accord and when he was fired. The Hulkster first left WWE in 1993 to pursue a career in Hollywood, much like Roddy Piper before him.
While the major picture studios were a tad more receptive of Hogan than they were of Hot Rod, it wasn’t long before he found himself back in the wrestling business. In 1994, Hogan was persuaded by Eric Bishop to sign with World Championship Wrestling, which resulted in a career resurgence for the former face of WWE.
2 CM Punk
In recent interviews, CM Punk has said that he contemplated a career in mixed martial arts a number of times during his WWE run, but didn’t have the nerve to go through with it until he finally walked out of WWE the night after the 2014 Royal Rumble.
Citing burnout and a number of untreated injuries, Punk fled from that night’s Monday Night Raw taping and went home to Chicago to heal up and think about his future. Only a couple of months after this, it was announced that Punk, with a professional record of zero wins and zero loses, had signed a multi-fight deal with UFC.
The former WWE World Champion made his UFC debut this past September at UFC 203, where Mickey Gall handily defeated him. To CM Punk’s credit, he has not let his lopsided loss get to him and is said to already be back in the gym preparing for his next encounter.
1 The Rock
Has any professional wrestler ever been more successful outside of the wrestling business than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson? Probably not.
When The Rock announced his plans to leave WWE to pursue a career in Hollywood, wrestling fans and movie critics alike were skeptical. As mentioned already, several professional wrestlers had tried to break into acting and all of them had failed, including Hulk Hogan, who was the biggest star in wrestling history.
However, through roles in movies such as Be Cool, Fast Five, and GI Joe: Retaliation, and Central Intelligence, Johnson established himself as a force to be reckoned with in the motion picture industry. In fact, The Rock’s film career – which was originally seen as an ill-advised experiment – has made him the highest paid actor in the world today. It appears that his jump from one entertainment platform to another was the smartest move of his career.