In the world of professional wrestling, the WWE is still considered the be-all and end-all for most, if not all, wrestlers. It is to wrestlers what the NFL is to American football players. If you can get into the WWE, you can finally say that you made it. Even the most famous independent wrestler in the world, Kenny Omega, once stated that he hopes to headline a WrestleMania one day.
Sadly, however, there isn’t room for everybody at the top. Just like in other sports, if you aren’t producing for your team, you get cut, and WWE if infamous for cutting people. Wrestlers get released from their contracts or aren’t resigned all of the time. Additionally, with the thriving NXT always in the background, the WWE is always looking to bring in new stars, and they just fiscally cannot afford to keep everyone under their employ at all times.
However, not all hope is lost. Just being in the WWE for a moment can drastically add to a wrestler’s worth on the independent circuit. Even if you never held any gold in the WWE, you are still likely better than 90% of the people in a promotion that haven’t been offered contracts. This happens time and time again, with Cody Rhodes being the best example of a wrestler who left the WWE and now has found success in Ring of Honor. While you likely know the story of Cody, you might not know the status of these 20 other WWE releases and where they are working now.
20 Darren Young: Chikara
Darren Young was one of the members of the groundbreaking Nexus stable in 2010. During his debut, he was most known for his crazy hair style and for being the first member of The Nexus to be exiled on live television after losing his match against John Cena. Young went on to have one of the most successful runs in the WWE out of all of his Nexus members, and the “Make Darren Young Great Again” gimmick with Bob Backlund was fun. However, he was released from his WWE contract in 2017. Young would go on to debut with Chikara Pro Wresting in 2018 as a part of the King of Trios.
19 James Ellsworth: Impact Wrestling
James Ellsworth had one of the strangest WWE runs in recent memory. He was heavily featured in a program with Braun Strowman before playing a major role in the Dean Ambrose/AJ Styles feud for the WWE Championship. He would go on to be Carmella’s valet and infamously won the first Women’s Money in the Bank Ladder Match. However, when he returned briefly to help Carmella defeat Asuka, it was merely a one-off appearance.
After competing in Championship Wrestling from Hollywood and ACW after his first WWE departure, he seems to have found a new home. Following his second departure, he debuted on Impact Wrestling, losing to Eli Drake on October 15, 2018.
18 Summer Rae: Battle Championship Wrestling
Summer Rae’s run in the WWE was received extremely negatively. She was part of the Wrestling Observer’s Worst Match of 2013, as a member of Team True Divas. She also played a part in Rolling Stone’s worst storyline of 2015 as a part of a storyline with Dolph Ziggler, Rusev, and Lana. She never had any significant title wins or even top billing in a high-profile feud. While many thought that she would quit wrestling entirely, she made her debut on the independent circuit in 2017 in Battle Championship Wrestling, losing a match against fellow former WWE wrestler Sofia Cortez, now known as Ivelisse.
17 Tajiri: All Japan Pro Wrestling
Many wrestling fans were excited when Tajiri, a veteran of the wrestling business of over 20 years, was announced for the 2016 Cruiserweight Classic, WWE’s first step in their attempt to revive their cruiserweight division. Tajiri was seen as a safe and reliable hand that many of the younger talents could learn from. However, the WWE would not use Tajiri due to his age, so he left the company after only returning for 10 months. However, after his departure from the WWE, Tajiri made his return to All Japan Pro Wrestling, a company that he had previously worked for twice in the past.
16 Sawyer Fulton - Major League Wrestling
Sawyer Fulton’s run in NXT seemed promising, but it was ultimately lackluster. When he joined Sanity, it seemed like a good fit, as he could hide behind Eric Young’s charisma and work with Alexander Wolfe as heavies for the group. However, following a match in the 2016 Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, Fulton was hurt, and he would never be seen on WWE television after that. Fulton was replaced in Sanity with the much bigger and more experienced Big Damo once he signed with the WWE, now going by Killian Dain. However, in mid-2018, Sawyer Fulton debuted in Major League Wrestling as a part of Sami Callihan’s Death Machines.
15 Sara Lee: I Believe in Wrestling
Sara Lee is probably best known for her time in the 2015 season of Tough Enough. She and Josh Bredl were chosen as the winners, both earning a $250,000 one-year contract with WWE. Lee only competed in two televised matches in the WWE. One match was during the finals of Tough Enough, in a losing effort against Alicia Fox, and the other was in a 6-Woman Tag Match on NXT television. She was released 13 months after being signed. Currently, Sara Lee trains at the Team Vision Dojo in Orlando Florida, which hosts trainers like Scott Hall and Larry Zbyszko and runs the I Believe in Wrestling promotion.
14 Austin Aries: Ring of Honor
Austin Aries' release from his WWE contract came as a surprise to many. He was featured in the top feud in 205 Live against Neville as the cruiserweight division’s biggest babyface. However, Aries felt like he wasn’t being used properly, and it was reported later that his release came after he requested it. Aries had a successful run in the independent circuit following his release, winning championships all over the world. While he was recently under contract with Impact Wrestling, his contract was finished after he dropped the Impact Championship at Bound for Glory. Currently, he seems to work exclusively for Ring of Honor, his old home before the WWE.
13 Jack Swagger: Lucha Underground
Jack Swagger is one of the most accomplished wrestlers on this list in terms of accomplishments in the WWE. Swagger is a former United States Champion, ECW Champion (WWECW), World Heavyweight Champion, and Money in the Bank winner. Swagger had a decade-long run with the WWE, which is more than can be said for most people on this list. However, he was eventually released on 2017, 11 years after his initial signing. Since his release, he made appearances for multiple independent promotions, like 5 Star Wrestling and Championship Wrestling from Hollywood. Currently, Swagger competes in Lucha Underground, coming on in the most recent season as “The Savage” Jake Strong.
12 Kenny Dykstra: Ring of Honor
It is likely that WWE fans will never know the full extent of Kenny Dykstra’s talent. While he was the leader of the group, he was saddled with the Spirit Squad upon his debut in the company, a team of male cheerleaders. While the Spirit Squad did win the Tag Team Championship, they were never treated like a real threat, and Kenny Dykstra was, at first, the only member of the team to stick around and have a solo run in the WWE. He recently returned to the WWE with Mikey to feud with Dolph Ziggler, another former teammate, but he disappeared from WWE television just month later. Dykstra currently wrestles in Ring of Honor, still teaming with Mikey.
11 Rosa Mendes: Maryland Championship Wrestling
Initially coming in to the WWE via the Diva Search, Rosa Mendes would make her television debut as a planted fan, proclaiming herself a fan of Beth Phoenix. Mendes would go on to have a more successful career in the WWE than many of her Diva Search cohorts, lasting nearly a decade in the company, serving as a Smackdown correspondent in the twilight of her WWE career, retiring in 2017 after the birth of her daughter. However, Rosa Mendes did return to pro wrestling in 2018, performing for Maryland Championship Wrestling teaming with fellow WWE wrestler Adam Rose in match in May.
10 Ryback: Combat Zone Wrestling
Since leaving the WWE in 2016, Ryback has become one of the most controversial figures on the independent circuit. Initially citing a pay discrepancy between winners and losers as his unhappiness for leaving the company, Ryback has been very outspoken against the WWE in his short two years away from the company, marking him as one of the few wrestlers that will likely never be contacted to return. After changing his name to Ryback Reeves once the WWE learned they could not copyright the name, Ryback has worked for multiple independent companies, like Revolution Pro Wrestling in the UK and WrestlePro in the states. Most recently, Ryback appeared in a match in Combat Zone Wrestling.
9 Simon Gotch: Ring of Honor
When Simon Gotch was accused of mishandling a potentially concussed Enzo Amore in the Vaudevillians/Enzo and Big Cass match at Payback 2016, it seemed like Simon Gotch’s career with the WWE was soon over. While his Vaudevillian partner, Aiden English, still works for the WWE, Gotch has made his way to the independent circuit. Under the name Simon Grimm, Gotch debuted for Ring of Honor in late 2017, and even faced Silas Young for the ROH Television Championship. In April of 2018, Grimm revealed that the WWE let the copyright on the Simon Gotch name expire, and he still competes in Ring of Honor under the Gotch name.
8 Rich Swann: Impact Wrestling
Rich Swann was removed from WWE television in late 2017 following the developments of personal issues and, even though they were eventually resolved, at the end of January in 2018, the WWE still released him in mid-February of the same year. Swann had a successful run on the independent circuit before his WWE run, so he found a home at with multiple promotions upon his release, such as House of Hardcore and Combat Zone Wrestling. In 2018, Rich Swann signed a multi-year contract with Impact Wrestling, and, due to Impact’s deal with AAA, Swann now makes appearances for both promotions.
7 Big Cass: Big Time Wrestling
As a part of a team with Enzo Amore, Big Cass was one of the most over wrestlers in the company, even receiving a spot in a fatal four-way match for the Universal Championship at one point. However, after he split with Enzo Amore, his popularity dropped steeply. Additionally, it didn’t help that he was extremely unpopular with many wrestlers in the locker room. After reports of disobeying direct orders from Vince McMahon, Cass was released in 2018. Since then, Big Cass, now going by Big C, made his debut for Big Time Wrestling after his 90-day no-compete clause was fulfilled.
6 Emma: Ring of Honor
The end of Emma’s run in the WWE was nothing short of disappointing. The whole Emma/Emmalina fiasco was an utter flop, and her return as Emma was uneventful, with her last match on the main roster being a loss against Asuka on a random October episode of Raw. Emma made a few appearances in several independent promotions after her release, notably headlining a WrestlePro event in a match with Angelina Love. In February 2018, Emma debuted for Ring of Honor wrestling, where she performs under her real name, Tenille Dashwood, and she has become a mainstay of the Women of Honor division.
5 Kimber Lee: World Wonder Ring Stardom
On the independent circuit, Kimber Lee is one of the most decorated women’s wrestlers, winning championships all over the world, most notably the Chikara Grand Championship. When Lee debuted with the WWE, she never had any success, with her most high-profile performance coming as a competitor in the first Mae Young Classic in 2017 under the ring name Abbey Laith. Lee was released from her WWE contract in early 2018. She has since made her debut in World Wonder Ring Stardom in August of 2018 by entering the 5 Star Grand Prix, well after her 90-day no-compete clause was finished.
4 Alberto Del Rio: World Association of Wrestling
Alberto Del Rio is perhaps the only other wrestler on this list besides Jack Swagger to have major accomplishments in the WWE. Del Rio is a Money in the Bank winner, a Royal Rumble Winner, and a multi-time United States, WWE, and World Heavyweight Champion. However, after being unhappy with his treatment after his return to the WWE, he asked for his release, and it was granted.
Going by the name Alberto El Patron, he signed a deal with Impact Wrestling, but was released after no-showing the Lucha Underground/Impact Wrestling show in New Orleans in 2018. He has, however, made multiple appearances for World Association of Wrestling, and he is the current WAW Undisputed World Heavyweight Champion.
3 Wade Barrett: World of Sport Wrestling and Lucha Underground
From one former League of Nations member to another, Wade Barrett decided to take a break from wrestling but said that he would eventually return. After making his return as the on-screen general manager for Defiant Wrestling, Barrett has since made his debut for other companies as well. He has relinquished the general manager position in Defiant and has taken a position in two other promotions.
In the UK-based World of Sport, Barrett has taken a role as an on-screen executive and a commentator. In November of 2018, Barrett made his debut for Lucha Underground, using his old WWE catchphrase and going under the name The Lord.
2 Enzo Amore: House of Glory
Enzo Amore was quickly released from the WWE in early 2018. Due to the nature surrounding his firing, his official release statement lacked the “We wish him the best in all of his future endeavors,” line that is usually present in most release statements. While Enzo has said that he was not interested in pursuing a wrestling career, he made his return to House of Glory at the event Intensity 7 under the new name of Real1. Oh, and let's not forget Enzo showing up at Survivor Series in Los Angeles. Obviously, that did him no favors in perhaps being reconsidered by WWE in the future.
1 Neville: Dragon Gate
When Adrian Neville signed with the WWE, he already had an extensive career on the independent circuit. His run on the WWE main roster was uneventful, as he never captured a championship on either Raw or Smackdown, with the WWE Cruiserweight Championship being as close as he ever came. Neville was reportedly extremely unhappy when he walked out on a Raw taping, in late 2017. While his contract was frozen by WWE for most of 2018, he was officially no longer under contract as of August 2018. Under his former ring name PAC, while he has taken independent bookings, PAC has aligned himself with the R.E.D. stable in Dragon Gate, where it appears that he will be a mainstay.