When they're inside WWE many wrestlers offer up the compliment that Vince McMahon is a genius. They give him praise for turning wrestling and in particular WWE into worldwide entertainment that makes millions every year and whose vision has made hundreds of millionaires out of its talent over the decades. From Hulk Hogan to Stone Cold to John Cena, Vince has utilized these superstars to enrich his wrestling circus as it travels the globe, with their huge presentation and production unlike anything else.
Then there are those who know that Vince, for all his attributes, can often not see what the entire fandom is seeing. Sometimes, Vince will not only underutilize a great talent while they're under contract, he'll actively cut them from his roster without a look back to see where they landed. To add insult to Vince's injury, a fair few times those superstars find their feet outside WWE and show that there are other ways to become big in wrestling without the McMahon seal of approval. Not always though, since at other times those wrestlers who were showing great promise in WWE prove Vince right, faltering without the WWE machine to keep them in line, turning out to be only memorable for what they did while Vince was promoting them.
Making it in WWE sometimes appears to be a crapshoot, with timing and luck having more to do with success than talent. Jinder Mahal is right now, in the right place at the right time and has ridden it to a WWE Championship while several superstars from this list will be far superior in almost every aspect on paper. But Vince has his own plans, and whether people agree with it or not, ultimately he will decide if you make it in WWE, but not if you make it at all.
These former WWE Superstars are the ones that Vince let go when everyone thought they should have been a huge deal, and what they are up to now.
15 Damien Sandow
Damien Sandow had the entire WWE universe clamoring for him to be given a bigger role at two separate points. His initial stint as the Intellectual Saviour Of the Masses was an excellently portrayed throwback to the superior, insufferable heels of yesteryear, and was poised to become a World Champion when he won the Money In The Bank briefcase. It wasn't to be.
Cue a mauling at the hands of John Cena and relegation far down the card and Sandow could've faded away without notice. Instead, we got the Mizdow phase of his career and he rocketed into being the most entertaining and funny thing on WWE programming each week. If only Vince McMahon had capitalized on that moment when Miz and Mizdow parted, Sandow may have been a WWE mainstay, but as it was he was mishandled, relegated back to the bottom rung, and subsequently released.
Immediately after leaving WWE, Sandow came into Impact Wrestling under the name Aron Rex, shooting on his former employers with little upside before capturing the newly invented Impact Grand Championship. He was clearly spinning his wheels, however, soon adopting a Liberace inspired effeminate gimmick that got no traction, and soon enough he was gone from Impact Wrestling as well.
In this case, it appears that Vince was right not to put too much faith in Sandow because outside of his original gimmick and the excellent Mizdow phase, he seemed lost and missing key ingredients towards truly breaking through to superstardom. We may not have heard the last of him, but Vince can claim to be vindicated on this one.
14 John Morrison
This guy could have been huge if a few things had gone his way backstage. During his stint with WWE, John Morrison captured every title except the big one, challenging for it several times. His wrestling skills were among the top in the company and his athletics made him a completely unique superstar. His promo ability wasn't the stuff of legend but like Jeff Hardy, he could've worked around that with his enigmatic presentation to be WWE's poster-boy that men wanted to be and women wanted to have.
Vince reportedly lost respect for Morrison over his dealings with on-again-off-again girlfriend Melina hooking up with other guys. Other versions of the story have Morrison and her being separated when these alleged dalliances happened, but as with so many things in wrestling Vince's perception becomes their reality and Morrison was hamstrung before being able to reach the top. Ultimately The Shaman Of Sexy left on good terms when his contract expired in late 2011.
Morrison has since gone on to be a World Champion in several promotions including Lucha Underground and AAA and has a World Title Shot at Impact Wrestling's Bound For Glory. He made and starred in a movie called Boone The Bounty Hunter, appeared in Netflix's GLOW, and he's wanted the world over in other promotions. In this case, Vince's loss is the greater wrestling world's gain.
13 Justin Gabriel
For those who saw Justin Gabriel through NXT and when he debuted in The Nexus as their lethal aerialist, it seemed like the sky was the limit for how good he could be. He had a cool look, he was of a size like Jeff Hardy and Shawn Michaels where he wasn't dwarfed by the larger athletes so seemed a viable opponent, and his 450 Splash looked like it had real weight and brutality compared to most top-rope finishers. Despite all those possibilities in one package, Vince McMahon evidently saw little more than a useful utility jobber and the South African's WWE success was very limited.
The end in WWE came for Gabriel when after years of being hardly used, his final months were inside a bunny costume tormenting Adam Rose. Needless to say at that point in 2015, Gabriel was fine with parting ways with the WWE and Vince's lack of faith in him.
Now under the name 'The Darewolf' PJ Black, he has been an integral part of Lucha Underground's WorldWide Underground with Johnny Mundo (Morrison), winning their Trios Championship as well. He, unfortunately, lives the 'dare' part of his name though, recently suffering a second BASE jumping injury that saw him lose a finger and break an ankle, after the first incident saw him break both ankles. When he recovers, it'll be curious if Vince comes calling after messing up with him the first time around or if PJ will continue to fly high outside of WWE's purvue.
12 Austin Aries
The first of two cruiserweights to recently fly the coop, Austin Aries did nothing but impress his entire time in NXT and WWE, not only in the ring but on the mic and even on commentary. Aries fans could have been safe in concluding that he had earned lengthy job security based on his excelling all over WWE, yet after being told the plans for him didn't extend beyond 205 Live the notoriously temperamental Aries up and left WWE halfway through this year. Subsequent reports on Austin's split with WWE vary from him asking for the release to him rubbing several people the wrong way en route to being quickly let go, but the result for fans of his is much the same.
Now with the WWE in his rearview mirror, Aries has released his book 'Food Fight', and recently tweeted "Upcoming 6 weeks of "bingo hall" $ >> Last 4 months of "big league" $", which illustrates that Austin may be very financially comfortable having tested out the WWE and simply decided he's better off without them. Once more Vince was not able to work with one of the best talents in the world, and so didn't get everything out of Aries that he or the fans wanted to see.
11 Derrick Bateman
One of those stars who only got to show a glimpse of his talent in WWE, Derrick Bateman was prominently featured in the original competition seasons of NXT, having hilarious moments with his mentor Daniel Bryan and even funnier interactions with the future Fandango, Johnny Curtis. Alas, Bateman was cut despite showing a lot of promise as a character and clearly having the look.
In one of Impact Wrestling's greatest cases of taking a WWE castoff and truly making them their own, Bateman was recast as Ethan Carter III, or EC3, where he was revealed as the nephew of the company's owner and played a cocky, athletic prodigy. He used his familial connections towards beating a bunch of no-names and moving upward in the promotion, his humorous character and win-at-all-costs attitude resulting in an extended unpinned & unsubmitted streak that led to winning the World Championship off of none other than Kurt Angle.
EC3 is now a multiple time World Champion, a centerpiece of the company and a priority signing for them each time his contract comes up. It's safe to say that Vince missed this potential big-time player.
10 Evan Bourne
Evan Bourne has the distinct misfortune to simply arrive in WWE too early. Were he around today he'd surely be one of the cornerstones of the new 205 Live division and be a valuable commodity. As it is though, he played the part of the plucky high-flyer who could never truly compete with the heavier wrestlers and an easily forgotten Tag Team Championship reign with Kofi Kingston as Air Boom is his sole notable accomplishment during his time under Vince's promotion.
Bourne wowed WWE audiences with his athleticism, but most notably his gorgeous Shooting Star Press, easily the best-looking version of the move before Neville upped the ante with the Red Arrow variant.
Before and after his WWE stint, Bourne wrestled as Matt Sydal, competing on MTV's Wrestling Society X, Ring Of Honor where he became a Tag Champion, Impact Wrestling, Dragon Gate, and NJPW, so he is certainly in high demand. While traveling to and from Japan he did rack up a marijuana-based arrest, so it's not been all roses for the 'high' flyer. Currently back in Impact Wrestling, he recently challenged for their Heavyweight Championship, so he's certainly not being idle in his pursuits away from Vince.
9 Wade Barrett
Wade Barrett is almost like the Zack Ryder of this list, except Ryder has remained employed the entire time. Barrett has gotten over several times and either through unbelievably poorly timed injuries or mystifying neutering of his gimmicks, Barrett was unable to achieve the levels of success many predicted for him all the way back when he won the first season of the original NXT competition.
Wade Barrett was earmarked to win that initial NXT season the moment he got a mic and completely outshone the rest of the field, and since then proved that it was no fluke. During The Nexus' initial rampage he was seriously considered to win the WWE Championship, and there were talks of him facing The Undertaker at a WrestleMania, perhaps being the 'up-and-coming rookie' to beat him. It seems nonsense knowing how it turned out, but Wade Barrett was a huge part of WWE's big plans for a while.
However the aforementioned injuries kept occurring, his entertaining run as Bad News Barrett (established on the surprisingly entertaining JBL & Cole show on Youtube) was replaced by a king gimmick, then he was a Cosmic King in a short-lived pairing with Cody Rhodes, and finally, Barrett simply got released. According to Barrett, it was a mutual parting, and so a return is not unfathomable, but with the way Vince used him so poorly it is a wonder if Barrett would even want to return.
Currently working on his film career, Barrett has made some appearances in other small promotions and is healing up from his lengthy WWE run.
8 CM Punk
While CM Punk was a top star in WWE, Vince refused to let him cut loose to his absolute potential. CM Punk eventually got driven out of WWE due to consistently being undervalued among other reasons, spent only to further Vince's pet projects
CM Punk's main contention for leaving was a mixture of being run into the ground and not seeing his ultimate career goal of main eventing WrestleMania come to fruition. Even when setting the record for the longest modern day WWE Championship reign he was portrayed as a distant second to whatever shenanigans Cena had going on, and that couldn't have sat well with the Straight Edge Superstar.
After he left WWE, he had his infamous UFC bout, with Punk losing, although Punk's payday surely eased the physical pain. He seems perfectly fine either ignoring or outright bashing WWE when the subject comes up so it's safe to say that even though Vince would no doubt bend over backward to get him to return, it is on the immediate horizon.
Montel Vontavious Porter, or MVP for short, made a huge splash in WWE with his 'celebrity sportsman' gimmick, winning the United States Championship and the Tag Team Championship concurrently in highly entertaining feuds throughout his first year. With a mouth that wrote checks the same way Enzo Amore's does today you could be expected that MVP would be highly lucrative and one of Vince McMahon's favorites, but alas the ballin' superstar went on a ridiculously long losing streak, teamed with Mark Henry to no avail and by late 2010 was released.
MVP didn't stop there though, immediately heading to NJPW where he became their first IWGP Intercontinental Champion. After a successful three-year stint, he returned to America and joined Impact Wrestling, where he led the Beat Down Clan and ran roughshod over that promotion as well. He was rumored to be in line for a World Championship but an injury led to Bobby Lashley instead getting the nod, and MVP never captured the gold.
MVP has also released a few rap songs, some of which have served as his entrance music in various promotions. MVP may not have had the success in WWE that his promo ability warranted, but if Vince is ever looking for a future GM for either of his shows he could do a lot worse than bringing MVP back into the fold.
6 Alex Riley
Some people say Alex Riley was an average superstar who left hardly a blip on the WWE radar. Others say he was on the cusp of breaking out as a huge face hot off of his excellent feud with The Miz, with a great look and entrance music, until he got on the wrong side of John Cena backstage and was buried as badly as anyone has been this decade. It's no secret that Vince listens to Cena and even Roman Reigns brought this incident up on Raw recently.
Rumors have gone around for years that the aforementioned altercation with WWE poster boy Cena negated any chance Riley had of succeeding, and although he tried to restart his fire with twitter campaigns like #RAGE and #FreeRiley, the damage was done. After languishing in NXT without much fanfare Riley found himself let go in the mass releases of May 2016.
Riley hasn't been seen much in a ring since his WWE departure, at least not as an active competitor. He did make a notable showing in the Netflix series GLOW as the hilariously (or awesomely) named 'Steel Horse', so while it wasn't much of a stretch for him to play a wrestler, he at least has his foot in the door for potentially more acting jobs, perhaps even in GLOW's next season.
Carlito ('Caribbean Cool' as well early on) shocked the wrestling world by defeating none other than John Cena for the United States Championship on his Smackdown debut, instantly becoming a player on the brand and obviously having Vince's initial seal of approval.
Carlito was often outspoken about his displeasure whenever he wasn't being pushed to his satisfaction and was also seen as 'phoning it in' by several within WWE, which led to his roles being reduced. He and his brother Primo formed the tag team of The Colons and were moderately successful, even unifying the Tag Team Championships on the Wrestlemania XXV pre-show. Carlito didn't last much longer though, being outed on a wellness violation and when he refused to attend a rehab facility was released. Needless to say by that point, Vince had decided Carlito was more trouble than he was worth.
Carlito returned to his former promotion, WWC and has been taking independent dates to this day. He also appeared in Netflix's GLOW series as one of the casts brothers, alongside Brodus Clay.
4 Mr. Kennedy
Not many prospects break onto the scene as hot as Mr. Kennedy did. Even his name was specifically chosen because Vince liked having a wrestler sporting his middle name.
Kennedy looked to be on the fast track to big things after a United States Championship run, a Money In The Bank win without the shot to cash-in due to injury timing and was even suggested as being revealed as Vince McMahon's illegitimate son during the course of that angle. However, injuries and a few choice words from certain other wrestlers to Vince over Kennedy being perceived as a dangerous worker halted those plans. Kennedy returned one more time from injury but after over-rotating Randy Orton on a slam causing the recently injured shoulder of The Viper to come down awkwardly, Kennedy's luck ran out. He was fired the next day, allegedly when Orton and Cena spoke directly to Mr. McMahon.
Kennedy (Now going by Mr. Anderson) went on to become a two-time World Champion on Impact Wrestling, although the success wasn't held in high regard from fans as both reigns came at odd times and with weird circumstances surrounding them. He had some good feuds with Sting and the like until he left in 2016 over a failed drug test. He debuted for Ring Of Honor this year.
Outside of competing Kennedy had a podcast from 2014-2016, and has recently opened a wrestling school with Daivari, older brother to 205 Live's Ariya Daivari.
3 The Dudley Boyz
When The Dudley Boyz returned to WWE it was a massive surprise and everyone thought it was going to not only usher in a famous 10th Tag Team Championship win for the most decorated team in wrestling history but also give Bubba the chance to finally have that singles run in WWE that people have been clamoring for. When it was over a year later, neither had happened and The Dudleys left WWE for the final time with a whimper rather than any kind of bang.
The return for The Dudleys was eerily similar to what the current Hardys are going through. Both Bubba and Matt totally reinvented themselves in Impact Wrestling, Bubba getting in ridiculously good shape and winning two World Championships, setting the stage for a triumphant return to the WWE. Like The Hardys, The Dudleys returned to a thunderous ovation and fanfare, and immediately targeted the tag team titles with the crowd salivating for it, and hoping for the Bubba run to follow. Instead, they petered out and the reactions dwindled and the last legacy of them is a lacking chapter in WWE, thanks to Vince not wanting to try anything new. With Jeff injured and Matt still having zero signs of becoming 'Broken', perhaps this Dudley run was a bad portend for The Hardys as well.
Bubba went on to Ring Of Honor to have a fun run before recently announcing his retirement, while Devon returned to WWE in a backstage role.
2 AJ Lee
Not unlike her now-husband CM Punk, when WWE had AJ Lee on their roster they somehow didn't know what to do with her despite her showing she was a versatile, valuable commodity that was a shining light among the women around her. AJ Lee has since recounted the story of a then member of Talent Relations proclaiming her 'unf***able', which gives you an insight into how badly Vince and his cohort misjudged AJ Lee's value with such shallowness.
She developed incredibly, not only into the best female wrestler they had by a wide margin on the main roster but also her scathing ability on the mic, illustrated when she cut the 'PipeBombShell' on the entire Women's division. If we'd gotten a few more years of her we could've seen her mixing it up with the Four Horsewomen, Alexa Bliss's, and Naomi's of today, but it wasn't to be.
Unfortunately, as high as she rose as quickly as she did, fans didn't get to appreciate her for long. Vince's mistreatment of CM Punk and marginalization of AJ led to her leaving the company later the same year he did, citing injury and accomplishing her career goals in WWE. She has since written a book, 'Crazy Is My Superpower' about her upbringing and living with mental illness, and is working on a follow-up.
The other recent cruiserweight defection from WWE, Neville eclipses Austin Aries and all others for being a missed opportunity on Vince's ledger by virtue of Neville having never been better as a character immediately prior to his release. When he saw the writing on the wall that Enzo Amore had supplanted him as the premier heel on 205 Live, Neville likely saw that as the straw that broke the camel's back, leaving within weeks of the shakeup.
Upon graduating to the main roster Neville surprised WWE by winning the 2015 Slammy award for Breakout Superstar Of The Year, which WWE had assumed would be won by Kevin Owens before the fan vote decided otherwise.
Neville's return from injury last year and Cruiserweight Championship reigns were the highlights of 205 Live and many Raws, however like Aries, Neville saw himself as being more than a corralled cruiserweight competitor. After his and Aries WrestleMania 33 match was left off of the DVD, they lost a lot of potential royalty money despite putting on a great performance. Neville stuck it out a bit longer but the Enzo development saw Vince McMahon marginalize a great competitor one time too many, and now Neville is poised to be huge wherever he lands once his no-compete clause expires, barring an 11th-hour deal is struck by Vince to keep The Man Who WWE Shouldn't Have Forgotten.