Every wrestler dreams of spending the majority of their career in the WWE and ending on their own terms in the biggest promotion in the world. Following the death of WCW, there’s no other juggernaut in the business to provide legitimate competition or have the platform to showcase your skills to masses like WWE can. The sad facts are not everyone can last in the WWE and most of the performers will find themselves on the outside. A vast majority of wrestlers get released when the company no longer has use or interest in promoting them. Some select others, just get fed up of the the WWE lifestyle and choose to leave.
This applies to even the most popular wrestlers that just couldn’t hold down a roster spot as long as they wanted. WWE likes to say fans dictate who gets pushed and who remains employed but agendas or a long tenure can cause a fan favorite to leave. Wrestling outside of the big company is a tough way to make a living but some can pull it off with enough hard work and intelligent marketing. We’ll look at a slate of wrestlers that used to be beloved among WWE fans and are still going at it today. These are the top fifteen former WWE stars we loved that still wrestle today.
15 Tommy Dreamer
Everyone loved Tommy Dreamer for his work ethic and desire to give the fans the best of his ability every time he stepped foot in a wrestling ring. The best of Dreamer’s library took place in ECW but he became a fan favorite in WWE as well. Dreamer shined as the lovable "loser," putting over others for the majority of his career in the WWE. Fans could see his passion and connected with him due to it.
Following years of employment in both in-ring and backstage capacities, Dreamer was let go by the company but continues to wrestle. You can catch Dreamer at independent wrestling shows, particularly his own promotion House of Hardcore. The hardcore spirit still lives within him as most of matches feature weapons. Dreamer puts his body through pain at an older age to continue to live up to his legacy as the hardcore legend. WWE still brings him around every now and then to get a pop from the fans still investing in Tommy Dreamer.
14 Scott Steiner
The wrestling world will never forget the magic of Scott Steiner. No one was as unpredictable or dangerous as Steiner. WWE signed him to a huge contract in hopes of making him a main event performer but the experiment flopped terribly. Steiner believes Triple H sabotaged him during their feud and tried to ruin his career by abusing power gained from his relationship with Stephanie McMahon. The in-ring career of Big Poppa Pump has lived on following the release from WWE.
Steiner’s older age and slower speed limits him, but he still entertains fans at the local independent shows. The bookings of Steiner are a bit more selective due to holding out for bigger pay days than the average free agent wrestler. Steiner owns a Shoney’s restaurant in the Atlanta area and has less time for wrestling, but he still keeps an active schedule. You don’t want to get too close to him as Steiner has engaged in shoving battles with fans pushing him at local shows.
MVP had one of the more improbable journeys to the top of the WWE. His late career start in pro wrestling came after spending years in prison, but he truly turned his life around due to his passion for sports entertainment. WWE signed MVP and gave him one of the best pushes for a performer debuting on the main roster. MVP played an exaggeration of an entitled athlete showing heel tendencies due to signing a large contract with SmackDown.
MVP skyrocketed with his character being one of the most interesting on the SmackDown brand in quite a few years. MVP won the United States Championship but his career peaked there with a slip into irrelevance once on Raw. WWE eventually released him but he’s maintained a great slate of work in other promotions. MVP spent time in New Japan and TNA but is a free agent today. The veteran wrestles in various cities on smaller shows most weeks.
12 Al Snow
Al Snow's popularity in The Attitude Era is underrated considering he was a midcarder at best. Snow’s gimmick of talking to a “Head” led to fans enjoying his antics for giving them the ability to think of creative chants. The matches of Snow were consistently entertaining but the next stage of his career was becoming a trainer. WWE made him the lead trainer for the Tough Enough reality show and it led to other job opportunities for him.
TNA would hire Snow in a backstage role but he has returned to the ring as an active performer. Snow has been working at a high level in the gym and appears to be in the best shape of his career. TNA placed him in a feud with Grado and Mahabali Sheera to get him back on television in the past year. Snow also wrestles on independent shows now, taking more bookings than he has at any point since departing from WWE.
11 Evan Bourne
WWE fans fell in love with the aerial display shown by Evan Bourne in his early days as a WWE star. The talent was unlike any other high-flyer and Bourne’s general likeability led to him becoming a fan favorite. Things fell apart for Bourne as his WWE career ended with two suspensions and a long term injury sidelining him before the company officially released him. This ended up being the best thing for his career in the long run as he has completely reinvented his brand.
Competing under his real name now, Matt Sydal has taken his game to new levels as one of the best wrestlers in the world. Sydal is a regular for New Japan, ROH, PWG and various other independent promotions all over the globe. The spirit and energy of Sydal has changed following his sad WWE demise and his passion for wrestling was reborn with his great string of work getting fans to appreciate his greatness again.
10 Billy Gunn
A recent WWE release has given us the unlikely story of Billy Gunn returning to active competition. The most “Bad Ass” member of D-Generation X wrestled outside of the WWE for years following his bitter release from the company back in 2004. Gunn said some harsh things about Triple H and the rest of the staff, but all was forgiven. WWE hired him once again to work as a trainer for NXT along with the occasional nostalgic appearance on television.
Gunn unfortunately made a horrible mistake to once again get fired from a sweet job with the company. The veteran was quietly competing in powerlifting competitions outside of his job and failed a drug test informed the world he was using performance enhancement drugs. WWE didn’t realize he was even powerlifting and decided to give him the boot for not being honest with them. Gunn quickly transitioned back into work mode. You can find him at independent wrestling shows every week as he travels all over the world looking to make more money before his window in the business closes.
Carlito delivered great excitement among WWE fans and the company itself. Carlito was treated well early on with a noteworthy push as one of the stronger midcarders from his debut win over John Cena for the United States Championship. The problem is Carlito never improved his standing in the company from that point. WWE wanted the son of Carlos Colon to follow in his father’s footsteps in the wrestling world, but a lack of motivation prevented him from fulfilling his promise.
Following a few failed opportunities to grab the brass ring, Carlito was released from WWE and has failed to prove his critics wrong. Life outside of WWE has not been kind to Carlito with lack of a presence in any of the noteworthy promotions. Carlito still does wrestle for various promotions and mostly takes international bookings but it’s hard to find him unless it’s local to you. The guy everyone once thought could be the future of WWE is an afterthought in the independent wrestling world.
8 The Hurricane
Shane Helms is overlooked when discussing the better in-ring performers in the WWE during the early stages of the 2000s. The talented cruiserweight delivered in any role he was placed in. Helms’ greatest success came as The Hurricane, a comedic superhero character. WWE fans showed their love of Hurricane by making him among the talents with the top selling merchandise at a hot time in the company. We even saw him have stellar matches as a heel character without the mask.
WWE eventually let Helms go and he has gone on to continue making a living in wrestling. The majority of Helms’ work today is as an agent backstage and mentor to Trevor Lee on air for TNA Wrestling. Helms still wrestles on the independent wrestling scene usually as The Hurricane. The bookings aren’t as frequent as many of his peers but Helms works enough to be considered an active competitor for those wanting to find him.
7 Rob Van Dam
There were very few wrestlers as beloved as Rob Van Dam during his stint in WWE. RVD instantly connected with the WWE fans during the Invasion angle as the top star on the ECW side of things. The unique style of Van Dam was unlike anything else in pro wrestling at the time and his quiet confidence added a star appeal to him. WWE allowed him to become one of the most popular stars in the company but never truly committed to pushing him as hard as he deserved.
RVD chose to leave WWE with less interest in working a full time schedule at his age. The company maintained a relationship with him that has given him short spurts of time on television lasting a few months at a time. Not many know, due to the lack of hype behind the events, but Van Dam still wrestles on the independent scene selectively. Basically, you’re going to pay a fortune to have him on your shows unless you’re a close friend like Tommy Dreamer with House of Hardcore.
The most physically intimidating person on this last has to be Vader. Everyone enjoyed the big man being among the most overpowering performers in the WWE but still being able to pull off agile maneuvers with seeming ease. Vader always had a ceiling preventing him from reaching World Champion levels in the WWE. Many stories have circulated through the years that Vince McMahon had a personal disdain for Vader.
The older age of Vader makes it nearly impossible for him to move around the ring like he used to, but yet he still takes bookings. There’s a slim chance you’ll see Vader do anything more than throw a few punches and try his best to pull off a second rope Vader Splash. Vader has been in the news lately for criticizing the work of New Japan high-flier Will Ospreay. Ospreay and Vader insulted each other for weeks on Twitter before a match was booked between the two in the United Kingdom for August. The match will be highly entertaining and likely lead to more work for Vader.
5 Rey Mysterio
Rey Mysterio is going to go down in the history books as one of the most influential and downright entertaining performers in wrestling. No one did more for the smaller wrestlers getting future opportunities in WWE than Mysterio. Vince McMahon used to be adamant against pushing anyone that didn’t look like a bodybuilder but Mysterio becoming a big draw changed that. Young fans connected with him and allowed him to thrive in the WWE Universe.
The fast-paced style and years of grueling matches added up leading to a string of heartbreaking injuries. Mysterio wanted out of his WWE contract to become a free agent taking fewer bookings on a lighter schedule. The company granted him his wish and Mysterio now wrestles elsewhere. Lucha Underground is his home promotion, making Mysterio the face of the company’s marketing. Mysterio wrestles for various promotions and states meeting the fans one on one is his favorite part of working outside of the WWE.
4 John Morrison
There was always something special about John Morrison from his early days on the the WWE roster partaking in his role with MNM. All three performers were talented but he had an athletic ability that was on another level. His singles run showcased just how good he could be with stellar matches against the likes of CM Punk, Dolph Ziggler, Sheamus and many others during a long stint in the WWE. Morrison seemed to be the kind of guy that would be a “WWE lifer” but shocked the world by leaving the company.
Acting has become his top passion and he is hoping to make waves in the entertainment industry, but wrestling is still what he’s most known for. Morrison wrestles under the name of Johnny Mundo in Lucha Underground and may just be the MVP of the promotion. Two seasons have aired and Mundo has been the major consistent source of great content. Mundo is better than ever finding a way to somehow top his WWE tenure.
3 Taka Michinoku
How could you not love Taka Michinoku during his time in WWE in the midst of a crazy Attitude Era? The language barrier definitely limited him from ever being anything more than a lower card performer or a comedic act but his expressions were priceless. Michinoku delivered a style of wrestling ahead of its time for WWE but the fan base still enjoyed his antics. Many were upset he didn’t get a spot in the recent WWE Cruiserweight Classic, considering he still performs at a high level.
Taka wrestles full time in Japan and entertains the fans like it's 1999. His ridiculous moves have slowed down a little with the aging process starting to hit him but he’s found new ways to reinvent himself. Michinoku is hard to find unless you pay close attention to Japanese wrestling but is worth seeking out for the nostalgia still providing great entertainment value. WWE should at least bring him up for a one-time NXT appearance similar to Jushin Liger to celebrate his career.
2 Shelton Benjamin
No one could compare to Shelton Benjamin's pure athletic ability, but it wasn’t enough to take him to the promise land in WWE. Benjamin did receive a big time singles push with wins over Triple H and later capturing the Intercontinental Championship from Chris Jericho. His matches were spectacular, as he became one of the most entertaining performers on the show. Fans still remember the visual of Benjamin springboard diving into Shawn Michaels’ Superkick.
Benjamin just couldn’t up his promo game and was incredibly weak on the microphone. His momentum would fade quickly causing Benjamin to get hit with the midcard ceiling. WWE would split from Shelton when both parties realized they couldn’t go any further together. Benajmin still wrestles full-time in Japan under contract with NJPW to compete for Pro Wrestling NOAH. His potential was never truly met but Benjamin at least found a way to continue making a living in pro wrestling after getting released from WWE.
It's actually just been announced to be returning to the WWE on SmackDown Live!
The always underrated Sean Waltman was responsible for stellar matches in WWE during a time when the work rate didn’t deliver frequently. As the 1-2-3 Kid and X-Pac, Waltman had two successful stints in the company. His best matches took place against the likes of Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon and Owen Hart. X-Pac could hold his own against the best talents in the industry but never could get to that level with the company as a main eventer.
The prime days of Waltman have long been gone, but he still wrestles a regular schedule. X-Pac loves meeting fans and trying to help the younger performers at independent wrestling shows enough to continue working. The veteran turned back the clock a few years ago for a legendary match against Sami Zayn (formerly El Generico) at Chikara.
Waltman has also encountered terrible luck on the independent wrestling scene by literally tearing his backside trying to execute the Bronco Buster during a match. That’s dedication for the wrestling business. Waltman still loves everything associated with pro wrestling and won’t let it go.