World Wrestling Entertainment is viewed by many to be the grandest stage in all of professional wrestling; or as they prefer to call it, “sports entertainment.” It’s a justifiable claim. WWE has a history of being part of the American pop culture. Wrestlers like Hulk Hogan, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and John Cena being able to transition from the wrestling ring to the silver screen.
A majority of the best pro wrestlers in the world want to work for the WWE. However, the trend seems to be that not everyone needs the WWE to find success. There are a number of talented wrestlers who find themselves buried in the WWE’s mid-card rank or lower. It’s through no fault of their own. Names like Cody Rhodes, Ethan Carter III and Johnny Mundo (formerly John Morrison) had the seemingly perfect blend of athleticism and charisma.
But they leave the WWE and help other promotions. They find a decent wage working for promotions overseas in Europe and Japan. They don’t need to work for the WWE to be huge wrestling stars. But not every former WWE Superstar is able to make a successful transition out to working on the independent circuit.
Professional wrestling is arguably one of the hardest jobs to find a niche. There is so much competition beyond the WWE Universe that it can be hard to stand out. If you aren’t on your A-game almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week, someone is going to pass you by and earn the big payday.
The list looks at the pro wrestlers who have gotten better since leaving the WWE and also those who have gotten worse since departing the WWE.
20 Better – Matt Sydal (Evan Bourne)
Matt Sydal was a major independent wrestling star before being signed to a WWE contract in 2007. After a few years in developmental, he would debut in WWE as Evan Bourne. There was some potential with a number of good matches. However, he wasn’t able to win more than the WWE Tag Team Championship with Kofi Kingston. Bourne’s WWE run ended in 2014 after he had returned from a 2012 car accident that broke his foot in several places.
Ever since going back to work for independent promotions, Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling, Sydal seems to have rediscovered his passion for wrestling. This has led to his in-ring work steadily improving with several great matches. It could be that being able to work his own schedule as opposed to WWE’s strenuous workload might have something to do with Sydal’s resurgence.
19 Worse – Brad Maddox
Remember when Brad Maddox was relevant in the WWE? Remember when he was the general manager of Monday Night RAW? This isn’t a Pepperidge Farms commercial. There was some potential in a comedy gimmick, but he was unable to really capitalize on the opportunities given to him on the WWE main roster. Eventually, he would cause his own demise by calling a live crowd “cocky pricks” on a microphone.
Maddox has been pretty invisible since he was let go in 2015. On top of that, there has only been one documented independent booking last October in a six-man tag team steel cage match. Maddox hasn't seemed to improve much since his WWE departure and might be better suited pursuing another line of work.
18 Better – Ethan Carter III
There were a few fans who found humor in watching Derrick Bateman’s run on the fourth season of NXT; especially the double date involving Daniel Bryan and the Bella Twins. However, the Bateman character never quite got the supportive push despite being very entertaining. Eventually, he would be released in 2013 and spent time developing a new character through TNA.
Ethan Carter III was debuted as Dixie Carter’s nephew. Over time, he would gain traction as one of the best heels seen on Impact Wrestling. This would lead to winning the TNA World Heavyweight Championship on two occasions. No longer having to rely on comedy to get over, EC3 was able to showcase all of his talents in the ring. Some wonder how things could have been different given an actual push by WWE officials.
17 Worse – Bull James
Bull Dempsey was someone in NXT who had a hard-hitting offense, but wasn’t able to show much as a villain. Eventually, he was turned into a comedy act that made fun of his weight with the “Bull-Fit” gimmick. It had a few good moments but didn’t show that he had a lot of upside and potential in the WWE. He would eventually be released in early 2016 with hopes of showing what he can do on his own.
However, he hasn’t shown a lot of upside working on the independents. Despite some excitement for matches against the likes of Sami Callahan and other good talents, he’s shown that he can’t carry a longer match. Considering that his pro wrestling career started back in 2008, one has to be worried if he will be able to improve enough for another opportunity with WWE or another major promotion.
16 Better – Maria Kanellis
The WWE Diva Search gave us a few memorable women to grace the WWE ring. Not all of them ever made major contributions to the competition. Maria Kanellis was one of the competitors of the 2004 WWE Diva Search that was ultimately won by Christy Hemme. Kanellis was still offered a contract and spent most of her WWE career as a ditzy backstage reporter who had a few relationships and a couple of matches here and there.
However, she has improved with a heel persona as the manager of Mike Bennett. Between time spent in Ring of Honor, New Japan Pro Wrestling and now TNA Wrestling, Kanellis has finally found her niche in wrestling. She won her first major women’s championship with the TNA Knockouts Championship and has been very solid on the microphone.
15 Worse - Eugene
In 2004, the WWE debuted possibly one of the more insensitive gimmicks possible in Eugene. Nick Dinsmore portrayed a mentally handicapped wrestler who was Eric Bischoff’s nephew. It shouldn’t have gotten over, but Eugene was certainly able to become a big star very quickly. The character eventually started to falter and led to Dinsmore’s eventual release in 2007. He had a brief return in 2009, but the WWE noticed that he had gained some weight and wasn’t in good conditioning.
He has aged, so he’s not a youngster in wrestling. After a few more appearances in the WWE, he’s remained on the independent circuit. He also formed his own promotion in South Dakota called Midwest All Pro Wrestling. Since then, he’s focused on training the next generation of professional wrestlers. His athletic prime has passed by.
14 Better – Jeff Hardy
Jeff Hardy historically has been the more popular brother in the Hardy family. That has changed a little bit this past year as Broken Matt Hardy has shown his “broken brilliance.” However, Jeff Hardy has continued to find success as one of the bigger draws for TNA Wrestling and also in various independent promotions. While his professional wrestling career has maintained a level of success, it’s his personal life that has seen improvement.
Shortly after leaving the WWE in 2009, Hardy was arrested on charges related to the possession of numerous substances including cocaine, steroids and additional paraphernalia. He also had well-documented incidents involving substance abuse. His personal turning point came at TNA’s 2011 Victory Road pay-per-view – the infamous 90-second match with Sting. Since then, he seems to be in better health and a better state of mind.
13 Worse – “Wildcat” Chris Harris
In recent years, a number of TNA Wrestling superstars have made successful transitions into the WWE. Granted, Samoa Joe and AJ Styles sort of worked elsewhere before going to WWE. “Wildcat” Chris Harris was one of the best tag team wrestlers in TNA, which included being a six-time NWA World Tag Team Champion with James Storm. But after a singles run in TNA, he would sign a contract with WWE in 2008.
His run as Braden Walker in ECW lasted less than two months despite a 3-0 record. Walker blamed his struggles on WWE presenting him “like a bag of crap.” Since then, he was only seen on TNA Wrestling twice in 2011 and hasn’t been able to appear on television on a consistent basis. Harris showed that he declined in WWE’s ECW and has yet to bounce back after that disappointing period.
12 Better – Johnny Mundo
One of the most gifted all-around athletes the WWE Universe had ever seen was John Morrison. He was a favorite among many fans for his parkour abilities that would translate into the wrestling ring. However, he was barely able to get beyond the mid-card status in the WWE with mostly WWE Tag Team and Intercontinental Championship reigns before leaving the WWE in 2011.
Now repackaged as Johnny Mundo, he’s been able to do his own version of the Hollywood A-lister competing in the world of wrestling. Mundo has found success competing in Mexico for Asistencia Asesoria y Administracion (AAA) and also for Lucha Underground on the El Rey Network. Fans can agree that leaving the WWE was probably one of the best things he could do to reach his full potential.
11 Worse – Yoshi Tatsu
One can’t completely blame Yoshi Tatsu for his struggles in the WWE. For one, he had possibly one of the silliest theme songs that sounded like it came from a children’s video game. They also kept that when he first debuted a darker character in 2011; because that didn’t feel awkward for the audience at all. But he was able to find work after his departure in 2014 with New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Due to the familiarity with the WWE name and trying to avoid trademark infringement, he would be billed as Yoshitatsu. He would suffer two broken bones in his neck after he didn’t move his head properly receiving the Styles Clash from AJ Styles in late 2014. In addition to that, he then started mimicking Triple H with a faction called the “Hunter Club.” It’s just another example of how he hasn’t been able to do anything creative since leaving the WWE.
10 Better – Chris Hero
Chris Hero just made his return to the WWE and plenty of wrestling fans were buzzing at the video of him confronting current NXT Champion Shinsuke Nakamura. His previous run in NXT as Kassius Ohno ended in 2013. There were some concerns about his weight, but Hero said there were multiple things that led to the decision of being released back in 2013 – including how he worked matches.
Since that time, Hero has been one of the best wrestlers on the independent circuit with five-star matches against the likes of Cody Rhodes, AJ Styles and Drew Galloway. Sure, he put on some extra weight. But Hero has not let the extra pounds affect his ability to be one of the best performers in the ring. He’s earned his second chance in WWE NXT and many fans hope this can lead to an eventual main roster call-up.
9 Worse – Awesome Kong
Awesome Kong was certainly one of the most dominant women in professional wrestling. She spent several years through the independent circuit and TNA Wrestling as a force to be reckoned with. So the fact that the WWE signed her to a contract got fans pretty excited; especially with her vignette showing her ripping a Barbie doll to pieces. But her run as Kharma was cut short due to being pregnant; which later turned into an unfortunate miscarriage.
She would be released by the WWE in 2012. In recent years, Kong has been involved in some backstage incidents. The most recent was involving Reby Sky, Matt Hardy’s wife, during a 2015 tour in the United Kingdom with TNA Wrestling. A once popular name in wrestling has not been able to maintain the same dominance she once had; which is a shame for someone who had plenty of opportunities.
8 Better – Drew Galloway
There was once a time when the WWE debuted Drew McIntyre in 2009; the man chosen by Vince McMahon to be the next big superstar in the WWE. Early on, it seemed there was some truth behind that claim. But McIntyre would quickly fall down the card and have to settle being in the 3MB faction with Heath Slater and Jinder Mahal. It wasn’t that it was a collection of bad wrestlers, but more a collection of guys the WWE didn’t know what to do with.
Since his departure in 2014, Drew Galloway has found a new spark to his pro wrestling career. The Scottish star has had highlight matches in the United Kingdom and Mexico with names like Rey Mysterio, Chris Hero and Brian Cage. He’s also had some success in TNA Wrestling which included a reign as the TNA World Heavyweight Championship.
7 Worse – Sin Cara/Mistico
Before coming to the WWE, Luis Ignacio Urive Alvirde had become one of the biggest stars working for Mexico’s Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre. He had an exciting move set which led to WWE officials having an interest in him and led to his WWE signing in 2011. The WWE tried to make him a big star under the Sin Cara gimmick. Unfortunately, the original Sin Cara was unable to adjust to the WWE style and was eventually replaced by another wrestler before his 2014 release.
Since then, the former Mistico was unable to use his old ring name. He would wrestle under Sin Cara before signing with Asistencia Asesoria y Administraction. He was unable to draw excitement as either Myzteziz or Mistic 2.0 as his in-ring skills continued to diminish. His beef with Alberto Del Rio didn’t help as he left AAA in 2015.
6 Better – Cody Rhodes
Like many pro wrestlers who are often held back in WWE despite having a lot of potential, it wasn’t a surprise to see Cody Rhodes leave the WWE in 2016. For nearly a year, Rhodes wore face paint and ring gear similar to his brother Goldust. The Stardust character never went anywhere beyond the mid-card and spent most of the time on the lower-part of the WWE talent totem-pole.
The potential was always there for Cody to do great things. Leaving the WWE has allowed him to do things different. Now with the nickname “The American Nightmare,” Rhodes has been involved in a number of dream matches fans have loved. The list is continuing to grow with great independent wrestlers like Shane Strickland and Juice Robinson. He’s also found a lot of success after joining the Bullet Club in New Japan Pro Wrestling.
5 Worse - Rikishi
Rikishi is one of the better mid-card superstars the WWE had through the late 1990s and into the 2000s. Plenty of that has to do with coming from the successful Anoa’I family that has produced a number of great wrestling stars. He had a few runs as a Tag Team Champion in the WWE and even held the WWE Intercontinental Championship near the end of the Attitude Era. But he was let go from WWE after he was not able to lose the weight the WWE wanted him to drop.
Changing his name to Junior Fatu, he could have been a successful wrestler in TNA Wrestling in 2007. Unfortuantley, he wanted to be paid more and ended up being released about a month later. Since then, he hasn’t been on television much except to beat up Heath Slater in 2012 and 3MB in 2014 and to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2015.
4 Better – Bobby Lashley
During his time with the WWE from 2005 until 2008, Bobby Lashley felt more like a Goldberg rip-off who never had to develop a lot of personality. He was definitely a talented wrestler with a background both at Missouri Valley College and through the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program. However, fans didn’t get too sad when he left the WWE. They also weren’t initially excited when he first came to TNA Wrestling.
However, Lashley’s second run in TNA has seen a lot more growth in the dominant powerhouse. He’s become a better athlete overall, thanks in part to his training in mixed martial arts. Overall, Lashely has done well since leaving the WWE. He’s won the TNA World Heavyweight Championship four time and also holds a 15-2 pro MMA record – winning his last eight fights.
3 Worse – Mr. Anderson
There was once a time when there was a bright young star in the WWE that competed under the name Mr. Kennedy. Ken Anderson was given quite the push that included winning Money in the Bank in 2007; only to lose to Edge shortly thereafter. Throw in a supposed botched suplex to Randy Orton and his time in WWE was done after a 2009 release.
Anderson would then go to TNA Wrestling. While he won the TNA World Heavyweight Championship twice in 2011, he was never really a main event star. He had poor booking with the Aces and Eights faction, but it’s not like he ever really grew in the ring. Anderson has shown a lack of maturity by calling out TNA after his release in 2016 and also taking shots towards the WWE.
2 Better – Matt Hardy
There’s an old saying that if something isn’t broken, don’t fix it. However, Matt Hardy in his “broken brilliance” is something fans hope doesn’t get fixed. What initially seemed like the stupidest idea in pro wrestling history has turned out to be one of the biggest things in wrestling outside of the WWE. He’s gone from someone who struggled to get beyond the mid-card in WWE to someone who initially struggled in TNA Wrestling.
But sometimes, a drastic change in character is all you need. However, drastic might be an understatement for Matt Hardy’s transformation that has even gained mainstream attention. Everything he’s done from naming a dilapidated boat and having a drone and a gardener get over shows how good the gimmick is. It will be interesting if Matt Hardy does eventually make a return to WWE at some point in the future.
1 Worse – Alberto Del Rio
Alberto Del Rio has had his share of backstage incidents that led to him leaving the WWE not once, but twice. Most recently, he left the WWE in the fall of 2016 after there were problems stemming from a WWE Wellness Policy violation and his relationship with WWE Superstar Paige (note: he’s not officially divorced from his wife). But it seems that Del Rio can’t stay out of trouble.
Beyond being a no-show to a show for AAA in Mexico last October with promoters saying he “failed Mexican public,” he’s also been in fights outside of the ring. The most recent situation involves a fight with his brother El Hijo de Dos Caras on Dec. 30. It also continued when both were taken to a nearby police station where the fight got bloody with Del Rio knocking his brother out. It’s a sad situation that continues to unfold.