At WrestleMania 33 fans saw the exit of one of the most influential characters to ever grace the WWE. The Undertaker placed his hat, jacket and gloves in the middle of the ring to signify the end of an era and close the show — the WWE Universe hasn’t seen him since. Popular opinion is that The Deadman is done as a wrestler in the WWE.
Some will suggest that he left at just the right time. He paid the business back by putting over Roman Reigns and walking off into the darkness at the “Grandest Stage of Them All”. Others will look back on that match and realize just how much of a struggle it was for The Undertaker to keep up in terms of a solid worker’s expectations. His body was breaking down and based on the quality of the work inside the ring, Mark Calaway (The Undertaker’s real name) waited one or two years too long before calling it quits.
The debate over wrestlers hanging onto a dying career inside the ring is not new. For every wrestler who leaves at the pinnacle of their life’s work, there is a wrestler who still shows up at dingy old independent house shows, trying to hang on to any semblance of the life they once knew. How does a performer know when to call it quits? Is it injury, money, fame? Is it the lack of knowing any other way to live?
Keep reading to learn about 10 wrestlers who held on too long to their dream and refused to retire. And for every wrestler who fit that description, there is a wrestler who was taken from the sport too early. As much as we’d still like to see them in the squared circle, circumstances have made it impossible and they’ve hung up their boots and called it a career.
20. Hung On Too Long: Kane
Glen Jacobs (aka. Kane) has not officially retired, but he probably should. He’ll be 50 years old in a few days and he just recently announced his intent to run for the office of Mayor of Knox County in Tennessee. Already well immersed in projects outside the WWE, Jacobs has a steady stream of go-to opportunities waiting for him when he’s done.
Jacobs joined the WWE (then WWF) in 1995. His key to fame was as The Undertaker’s half-brother and for years he ruled the WWE as one of the most terrorizing and demonic figures. Like most characters, the gimmick ran out of ways to go. Now, he’s a painful gag as the back-and-forth Kane to “Corporate” Kane that has no relevance to the product whatsoever.
Today he shows up very infrequently. When he does, it’s to put over another wrestler or to get the rub on a performer who likely should be getting the push instead of Kane’s character. He seems to have his foot halfway out the door, yet, doesn’t seem to want to go.
19. Retired Too Early: Corey Graves
Most people know Corey Graves as the heavily tattooed former voice of NXT and current voice of Raw and 205 Live on the WWE Network. At one time, Graves was set for stardom as an up-and-coming wrestling talent. Making waves in NXT and as part of some of the biggest feuds during NXT’s early years, Graves had some extremely terrible luck which took away his ability to compete in the ring.
Suffering two concussions in less than a year, Graves was forced to show up on NXT and officially announce his retirement from in-ring competition. Fortunately for the WWE Universe, his career in the WWE is far from done. He’s now one of the most over announcers on WWE programming and may be in line to be the WWE’s next major commentator.
18. Hung On Too Long: Goldberg
Recently Goldberg made a return to the WWE after a 12-year absence. It wasn’t a total flop but it was clear that Goldberg lacked the stamina to have matches that lasted longer than 60 seconds. Once fans realized he couldn’t have an actual “match” and was booked to possibly headline WrestleMania 33, the WWE Universe began to feel that what was once a nice piece of nostalgia, was now overkill and were starting to turn on him. Fortunately, the WWE realized this and his WrestleMania 33 matchup would be his last.
Goldberg’s return can be excused only due to the fact that he contends to have made the return for his son. His family never got to see the Goldberg of the late-90s who was one of the biggest superstars in wrestling. This may be true, but Goldberg was also known to hold out on potential returns thanks to the financial factor. His return could have happened years earlier, but he wanted and needed too large a payday for both sides to find a mutually beneficial partnership. It was clear he waited too long.
17. Retired Too Early: AJ Lee
Out of support for her new husband CM Punk, AJ Lee left the WWE. It was way too early for most fans liking. Prior to the “Women’s Revolution” the WWE is marketing today, AJ Lee was one of the few female competitors who could actually wrestle. She was cute and crazy enough to be adorable to a ton of fans, but she could hold five-star matches and had earned the fans respect and appreciation.
Today she is keeping busy outside of wrestling and recently published her memoir. In it, while she cites being stuck in the middle of the WWE and CM Punk drama as a reason to leave the WWE, AJ Lee noted that the discovery of permanent damage to her cervical spine was the main motivation behind her early retirement. She was huge in the advancement of women’s wrestling and advocated for equal treatment and pay. She had a lot left to offer, but the WWE Universe won’t ever get to see it.
17. Hung On Too Long: Jerry Lawler
Jerry “The King” Lawler is one of the most decorated professional wrestlers in the history of the industry. He’s won 168 championships over his illustrious career and while he never held a WWE title, is a deserved part of the WWE Hall of Fame. Over the past 25 years, Lawler has been known as the comedic loud-mouth trouble-maker who also announced for the WWE. By 1995, he was almost exclusively an announcer and a very entertaining one.
During that entire span, Lawler wrestled for other promotions. It didn’t matter how large the crowd or really what promotion but in 2012, Lawler collapsed ringside due to a heart attack. The cause was unexplained but his time in the WWE was really never the same after that. Eventually, Lawler became less and less of an asset to the company and is now relegated to pre and post-show banter on television and PPV broadcasts. It’s only a matter of time before he’s quietly released all-together. Yet, he still wrestles on the independent scene at the age of 67.
16. Retired Too Early: CM Punk
CM Punk took his ball and went home. After a major public dispute with the WWE over his unwillingness to continue working under less than safe circumstances and then blasting the WWE for sending his termination papers by fax on his wedding day, Punk has nothing nice to say about his former employer. Strangely enough, it’s this defiant attitude that made him a huge star and still a missed performer in the WWE today.
Despite chants for his name, CM Punk has stated he’ll never return to the WWE. With a budding career at Marvel Comics, regular gigs on television as a show host or his competing in the UFC for decent money, there really isn’t a need financially for him to return. Fans miss him and still talk about him like one day he’ll show up as a surprise entrant in the Royal Rumble. It’s merely wishful thinking.
15. Hung On Too Long: Roddy Piper
It’s possible that “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was the greatest WWE Superstar to never hold the WWE World Championship. An old-school style character and personality, Piper was a central figure in some of the biggest and most memorable feuds in WWE history. From his bouts with Hulk Hogan to his hatred for Mr. T, Piper was one of the leaders in wrestling, but one of the meanest inside the ring.
Unfortunately, Piper’s downward spiral started when he returned to WCW to square off against “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan in a reversal of roles. Piper was now the babyface and Hogan the heel. The feud was a financial success but a wrestling mess. Every return Piper ever made after that ended in a similar outcome. He went to TNA, returned to WWE and did other appearances, but mostly as a comedic sideshow. Eventually, he became the laughing stock of WWE Legends House on the WWE Network. Piper passed away in 2015 after losing his Legend’s deal with the WWE over a public feud with Steve Austin.
14. Retired Too Early: Nigel McGuinness
Nigel McGuinness may be the one wrestler on this list fewer fans are familiar with. That’s because he gained notoriety in Ring of Honor (ROH) and on the independent scene. He tried a number of times to get to the WWE as a wrestler, but injuries derailed that plan and he signed instead with TNA and wrestled as Desmond Wolfe for a while. In that time, he became highly respected by some of today’s WWE’s top performers.
McGuinness may not have the pedigree that the others on this list do and he certainly never reached the heights and celebrity status many of them did; however, he’s important to note because there is a good chance as the new voice of NXT, fans will get to know him quite well. He’s taken over for Corey Graves and NXT is still the hot WWE brand right now.
13. Hung On Too Long: Hulk Hogan
If you ever saw Hulk Hogan wrestle as part of TNA, you would have a hard time understanding why anyone would have allowed him into a ring in the first place. Arguably the biggest thing to ever happen to sports entertainment, Hogan eventually became a physical disaster. He also became a company cancer, leaving whole promotions in ruins as he passed through with his agenda to stay the top-dog and earn big money well past his prime.
His most recent run in the WWE was as an ambassador for the company, in which he screwed up scripted segments in front of the company’s largest audiences. He was eventually terminated for racial comments less than becoming of a WWE Superstar. He recently won a lawsuit against Gawker for a leaked sex tape and because of his repeatedly used get out of jail free card, will probably make a return one day to the WWE. He’s been public about his desire to and just waiting for the green light.
12. Retired Too Early: Tyson Kidd
The final graduate of the Hart Dungeon, Tyson Kidd was going to be something special. He was signed by the WWE in 2006 and in 2009 made his debut as part of the Hart Dynasty. He was known as a terrific in-ring performer and became quite popular as a tag team competitor, especially as the partner of Cesaro.
On June 7, 2015, the WWE announced that Kidd had suffered a severe neck injury as a result of a freak accident taking Samoa Joe’s “Muscle Buster” finishing maneuver. It was expected that Kidd would miss a year due to the recovery time, but that year has turned into a permament absence. While Kidd was taken from the ring way too early, he’s lucky to be alive. Most people who suffer this injury don’t make it or wind up a quadriplegic.
11. Hung On Too Long: Sting
The WWE Universe waited years for Sting to finally make his WWE debut. The franchise of WCW, Sting was the one wrestler the WWE never hired. With the inclusion of Sting in a new video game, he was a shoe-in to be considered as a draw for WrestleMania.
The problem was, like many stars, Sting’s best years were so far behind him that his match against Triple H at WrestleMania 31 was underwhelming and of full of gimmicky surprise returns to distract from how poor the actual match was. In his return match against Seth Rollins, Sting was injured as forced to retire. He was gracious even though it appeared to be a screw up on Rollin’s part and he’s been kind since his retirement, but it was a much less glamorous way to go out than what should have been for such a huge star. Sting should have been smarter about joining the WWE when he could have gotten a few good years out of his body.
10. Retired Too Early: Bret Hart
Bret Hart is known now as a very bitter former wrestler who thinks the world of himself and not much about the state of wrestling as it is today. He’s often been caught putting his foot in his mouth about current Superstars like Seth Rollins and others who “injure” others when Bret never injured anyone. He’s potentially so bitter because his career ended so abruptly.
He left the WWE in a very public dispute with Vince McMahon and went to WCW where his career took a nose dive. The final blow came at the hands of Goldberg who ended Bret’s career with an errant kick, leaving Hart concussed. At that time, he still had a ton left in the tank and a return of the best technical wrestler ever would have been a welcome sight. The WWE could have made huge money off that storyline. Instead, Bret came back many years later in a very poorly done match against Vince McMahon. It tarnished his legacy in a major way.
9. Hung On Too Long: The Outsiders (Kevin Nash and Scott Hall)
For a duo that meant so much to the way fans view wrestling today, both Scott Hall and Kevin Nash had a way of destroying their own legacies like no one else.
In the case of Kevin Nash, he has no qualms about discussing his decision-making process and the role he played in the demise of WCW. At the end of the day, it was always about dollars and cents for “Big Sexy” and as such he stuck around much longer in promotions that simply tried to cash in on his reputation and not his skill level.
Thanks to drugs and alcohol, Hall lived a life that almost killed him. He floated around from independent promotion to independent promotion trying to ignore his problems until finally, he had no choice but to confront them. Had he simply taken some time to look after himself, he would have been viewed as one of the most charismatic WWE Superstars ever. Instead, his name will always have an asterisk beside it.
8. Retired Too Early: Edge
For a wrestler that probably didn’t have a ton of high expectations placed upon him, Edge was one of the most decorated WWE Superstars of all time. He’s won 31 championships in the WWE including the WWE Championship, the World Heavyweight Championship, the Intercontinental Championship, the United States Championship, the WWE Tag Team Championship, and the WWE/World Tag Team Championship a record twelve times. He completely reinvented himself as the Rated-R Superstar and had some of the greatest feuds and matches in WWE history.
In 2011, Edge found out that he had serious complications from wrestling-related injuries and surgeries to try and cope with numbness and pain he was feeling on a regular basis. Tests came back that he was at major risk of paralysis or death if he took another bad fall. With the news, he immediately retired. It was a smart decision for safety concerns, but in respect to his character and position in the WWE, he had so much still he could do.
7. Hung On Too Long: The Big Show
The Big Show is making it difficult to add his name to the list. He’s used the past year to completely reshape his body and get in much better health. And, recently, he had a great match with Braun Stroman that reminded the WWE Universe way he was such a huge asset to the company. That said, he’s clearly in the final years of his WWE career and as many fans that appreciate his turnaround have come forward, so too have those who still chant “please retire” during many of his appearances.
There isn’t much left for The Big Show to do. He’s no longer a serious threat as a giant and his comedic side just isn’t registering with the fans. That the WWE was trying to include him as a gimmick match against Shaq at WrestleMania 33 tells us all we need to know about how they view him.
6. Retired Too Early: Shawn Michaels
Shawn Michaels recently confirmed the rumor that the WWE had asked if he would return at WrestleMania 33 to face AJ Styles. His response was that if it were only 10 years ago, he’d have been all over it. It makes you think about how many dream matches Michaels could have had with the new crop of WWE wrestlers and how many dream matches were never realized.
Michaels went out on his own terms and he’s happy in retirement, vowing never to break the vow that he took to leave. That said, the WWE Universe misses him. Fortunately, he’s got a new role as a talent development agent in the WWE. He’ll have a huge role in the future of wrestling and his stamp will be all over the product fans see for years to come.
5. Hung On Too Long: Ric Flair
Despite his age, if Ric Flair was still allowed to don the tights every night and matchup in the WWE, he probably would. Part of that is because he knows nothing other than wrestling and part of it is likely because he could use the financial assistance. He was one of the greatest wrestlers ever, but he wasn’t exactly wise with his money.
There may be no other former professional wrestler who lives, eats, sleeps and breathes wrestling like Ric Flair does. While some of his latest work can be described as nothing less than in-ring disasters, he simply wants to be around a ring for the rest of his life. This explains why after such a historic WrestleMania match with Shawn Michaels — one in which he retired from the WWE — Flair went on to ignore his “retirement” and stink up the joint in TNA. It also explains why he takes such an invested interest in his daughter Charlotte’s current WWE success.
4. Retired Too Early: Daniel Bryan
If it were up to Daniel Bryan, he wouldn’t be retired from in-ring action. In fact, once his current WWE contract expires, what we may see is Bryan on the independent scene or in Japan wrestling as if he were never injured. That’s a mixture of the love he has for wrestling and pure stubbornness on his part.
The WWE, to their credit, is looking after the future of Daniel Bryan and his family by keeping him out of a WWE ring. They are also protecting their own interests considering he’s suffered multiple concussions and one bad bump could mean serious damage. Bryan’s frustration is understandable. He was at the absolute height of his popularity when he was forced out of action and the reality that he’s done must be hard to comprehend. For fans, the timing is terrible.
Despite not being an active wrestler, Bryan is still one of the most over characters in the WWE. He literally stops a room when he enters it so that everyone can chant “Yes! Yes!” at the top of their lungs.
2. Hung On Too Long: The Undertaker
While it is a moment that will go down in the WWE history books, the match leading up to The Undertaker’s WrestleMania 33 exit will forever be seen as one of the worst matches of The Undertaker’s career. He clearly didn’t have the energy, strength or physical capability to have a match worthy of the main event. Fortunately, people won’t remember the match, they’ll remember what came after.
The Undertaker had arguably the best WWE career in history but some will argue he held on for a few years too long. Had he retired prior to WrestleMania 30, his undefeated streak would still be intact and there are likely a few people in the WWE Universe that would go back in time to change the decision to have him lose clean to Brock Lesnar. That he’s ok with it speaks to his desire and willingness to give back to the industry that made him one of the best ever.
1. Retired Too Early: Stone Cold Steve Austin
Thanks to a botched piledriver from Owen Hart at Summerslam 1997, Stone Cold Steve Austin’s wrestling career was on borrowed time. He was able to extend his in-ring work temporarily, but the injury and complications from it forced him to leave the business as the most over and profitable WWE Superstar in history. There’s not another wrestler alive who sold more merchandise and did better gate revenue than Steve Austin did.
If it weren’t for that one mistake, who knows how successful Austin would have eventually become. The dreams matches that could have happened are too many to count and will make your head spin with anger over what could have been. Perhaps Austin would have been a watered down version of himself in the WWE’s PG era, but something tells me, he would have learned to adapt.