The finishes of professional wrestling matches are scripted and predetermined, but the risks that these tremendous athletes take during contests are very real. Punishment that comes from repeatedly taking bumps, in some cases hundreds or even thousands of times a year, can lead to a wrestler experiencing long-term health problems such as back issues, hip injuries and, in some cases, even brain trauma. A plethora of competitors have managed to make returns from injuries and be just as good, if not better, than they were before suffering those physical setbacks. John Cena seems to never miss a step regardless of whatever hurdles he encounters throughout his World Wrestling Entertainment run, and it seems fans around the world are (finally) beginning to appreciate Cena’s greatness during what may be the final stretch of his impressive WWE career.
Unfortunately, some injuries are more serious than others and can limit what a wrestler can do during matches, or even end careers. Three of the best pro wrestlers of the past 20 years all saw their careers end prematurely because of injuries, although the possibility exists at least one of them could eventually return to in-ring action outside of the WWE at some point down the road. Others who were in spots to become top stars and possibly top draws for a company such as the WWE saw their pushes end after they weren’t the same following injury. Pro wrestling will always be at least somewhat dangerous, but those who go out of the way to work “safer” styles appear to be more likely to avoid the types of injuries that would prevent them from being their best or from performing, at all.
15 Sycho Sid
Sid may not have been known as the best in-ring technician at any point during his career, but he was still able to draw big pops and have decent matches up through 2001 until he suffered a gruesome fractured leg while facing Scott Steiner during the World Championship Wrestling pay-per-view Sin in January of that year.
While there were initial reports that moment, which remains difficult to watch over 15 years after it happened, would result in Sid having to retire, he eventually returned and had matches on the independent scene. You didn’t have to be a journalist or passionate observer of the product to see Sid wasn’t the same after that injury, however, as he never again worked, full-time, for a major promotion.
14 Hideo Itami
Hideo Itami/Kenta Kobayashi seemed on the verge of becoming one of the next top babyfaces on the NXT brand in the spring of 2015, but a shoulder injury that required surgery to repair the issue halted that push. Itami was then removed from the 2016 Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic after he was sidelined because of a serious neck injury.
Since those two setbacks, Itami essentially lost his spot on the NXT portion of the roster to the likes of Finn Balor, Shinsuke Nakamura and, most recently, Drew McIntyre. While the company has turned Itami heel in an attempt to resurrect his run in NXT, it’s clear he's much lower on the roster than he was before he suffered the initial injury over two years ago. We wonder if his character can no longer be saved?
13 Rick Martel
“The Model” Rick Martel never won a World Championship in either the WWE or WCW, but he was, nevertheless, one of the most under-appreciated workers of his time and also an entertaining performer who could wrestle as a babyface or a heel.
In 1997, Martel, like so many, made the jump to WCW, but he badly injured his knee early into his stint with the company. Per his own words that he offered to WWE.com during an interview, Martel wasn’t the same after that setback in that he tried to protect his knee during a match with Stevie Ray following his return to the ring. Martel suffered a neck injury during that contest, and he saw the writing on the wall and chose to retire from full-time wrestling duties.
12 The Undertaker
The Undertaker, a living legend of the pro wrestling industry, was seemingly always able to take time off, recover from injuries, reappear before a WrestleMania show and then have one of the best overall matches of the year on such a card. All of that changed at WrestleMania XXX, however, when he suffered a legitimate concussion during his match versus Brock Lesnar.
Whether related to that head trauma or not, it cannot be denied Undertaker wasn’t the same following that setback, as his ‘Mania matches versus Bray Wyatt, Shane McMahon and Roman Reigns all failed to live up to the hype. It is widely believed Undertaker is now officially retired, which may be best for all involved considering the fact that he has nothing left to prove as a wrestler.
In March 2014, we learned that former World Heavyweight Champion Christian suffered a concussion during a four-way match that included Sheamus, Alberto Del Rio and Dolph Ziggler. While Christian remained on WWE programming in interview segments and on panels, fans couldn’t help but notice that he was no longer a part of the active roster.
In December of that year, Jerry Lawler referred to Christian and also Edge as being retired, and it was later explained that Christian was forced to retire because of multiple concussions and other injuries he endured throughout his career. Not shockingly, Christian is not the only wrestler on this list who had to step away from the ring because of brain traumas and issues caused by suffering multiple concussions over the years.
10 Joey Mercury
The trio of “MNM” which included Johnny Nitro, Melina and Joey Mercury made for an incredible team in the mid-2000s, and Nitro and Mercury were one of the top teams in the company until December 2006. It was then, while performing in a fatal four-way match at the Armageddon event, that Mercury took a ladder shot right to his nose. This resulted in a serious facial injury that sidelined him for several weeks, and it also reportedly led to him dealing with personal issues behind the scenes.
While Nitro went on to find success as a solo worker in companies such as Lucha Underground, Mercury’s career was never the same as it was before that fateful night and the unfortunate injury that ended his first run in the WWE.
At WrestleMania XXVII, Edge successfully defended the World Heavyweight Championship against Alberto Del Rio, and those of us not working for the company at the time had no idea the title-holder was dealing with “numbness and uncontrollable trembling” per a story posted on WWE.com.
After he was examined, it was determined Edge would be forced to retire because of his risk for potential paralysis or worse. We now know the spinal fusion neck surgery he underwent in 2003 was ultimately the beginning of the end of his career even though he wrestled through 2011, as he suffered stenosis following that operation. While fans enjoyed watching the “Rated-R Superstar,” all should be glad the WWE banned him from competing before disaster struck in the ring.
8 Chris Nowinski
In a way, former wrestler Chris Nowinski could be seen as the face of concussion research as it pertains to the wrestling industry. According to an interview he gave CNN for a piece published in 2009, all it took was a single kick to the chin to cause Nowinski to black out and never again be the same. While he attempted to battle through post-concussion syndrome, the Harvard graduate eventually realized that he could offer more outside of the ring than as a performer.
He went on to co-found the Sports Legacy Institute/Concussion Legacy Foundation, and he has written and spoken about the dangers of concussions and brain traumas on numerous occasions since his retirement. He's now respected for being an expert on a subject that has changed wrestling and also professional football.
7 Bret Hart
Bret “Hitman” Hart was widely recognized as one of the best and safest wrestlers throughout the 1990s during his stints in the WWE and WCW. That is only one reason why the beginning of the end of his career was so unfortunate. While wrestling versus Goldberg at Starrcade in late 1999, Hart was on the receiving end of a thrust kick that left him with a severe concussion. He finished that contest and attempted to continue his wrestling career, but he was never the same performer or athlete after that head trauma.
Any hope fans had that Hart could somehow make a dramatic full-time return to the ring were dashed after he suffered a stroke in 2002. Hart has participated in matches since that time, but he’s largely been protected from any real danger.
6 Dolph Ziggler
After years of being adored by passionate and devoted WWE fans, Dolph Ziggler was finally given an opportunity to carry the World Heavyweight Championship as a title-holder who deservedly and fairly won the belt in April 2013. Unfortunately, Ziggler suffered a concussion during a match that spring, and the company took the title off of him the subsequent June.
While the two-time World Champion was able to make a full return to action, it’s not a stretch to suggest he’s never been as hot as he was four years ago. In fact, booking decisions have done more harm than good to the character, so much so that we wonder if he wouldn’t be better off attempting to forge a career outside of the WWE at this point.
5 A.J. Lee
It has widely been assumed A.J. Lee retiring from the WWE was inevitable due to CM Punk, her real-life husband, having a public and bitter fallout with the company (more on that later) in 2014. That probably played a role in A.J. leaving the promotion, but her long-term health likely also affected her decision.
In the spring of 2017, it was learned she is currently suffering from what has been described as “permanent damage to her cervical spine,” and that damage led to her retiring rather than just leaving the WWE for a different promotion. While she has since opened the door for her return to either the WWE or to wrestling, in general, all signs seem to indicate she's no longer the same person and athlete she was during her best days in the WWE.
4 Steve Austin
It’s easy to forget “Stone Cold” Steve Austin suffered a legitimate and serious neck injury when Owen Hart botched a sit-down tombstone piledriver during their match at the 1997 edition of SummerSlam. After all, Austin continued wrestling for several years following that evening, but his body, most notably his neck, was never the same.
No wrestling fans knew Austin’s match versus the Rock at WrestleMania XIX would be the last time we would see the “Rattlesnake” perform for the company, but it was later learned doctors advised Austin that taking bumps inside the ring could lead to permanent disability or even death. Those of you still hoping Austin will, someday, have one final retirement match in the WWE should probably put those dreams to bed, for good.
3 CM Punk
So much has been said and written about CM Punk walking away from the WWE and from the pro wrestling industry in 2014 that the alleged status of his health when he left has been somewhat lost to faded memories. Per the explanation he gave on the Art of Wrestling podcast in November 2014, Punk had dealt with a staph infection and also multiple concussions during the final months of his career, and his numerous physical issues, along with other matters, resulted in him retiring.
While Punk may suggest he’s better off today than he was roughly three years ago, there’s no question the injuries he sustained throughout the last months of his career changed how he perceived the WWE and the business. Punk moved on to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and he seems to be happy with that decision even if he does retire with a record of 0-1.
2 Magnum T.A.
The story of Magnum T.A. remains one of the most tragic in the history of North American pro wrestling. Magnum was on the cusp of becoming the National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Champion and the undisputed face of that company when a car accident ended his career in October 1986.
There were concerns at the time of the accident that Magnum would never walk again, but he eventually was able to walk out of a rehabilitation center five months after the wreck. While fans around the country were robbed of what could have been a tremendous title reign, all should be happy that Magnum is still with us and seemingly at peace 30 years after his career ended much earlier than it should have on a fall night.
1 Daniel Bryan
Daniel Bryan sustained multiple concussions and other injuries throughout his career on the independent scene and in WWE, but it was one final head trauma that he suffered in April 2015 that proved to be the setback that left him never the same. WWE doctors have refused to clear him to wrestle since the spring of that year, and he publicly and officially retired as an in-ring worker in February 2016.
There has been plenty of speculation over the past year and a half that Bryan could have at least one more match before he retires on his terms, but there is currently no reason to believe the WWE will allow to him work even a safe contest as long as he is under contract. Bryan may want to reconsider, as those within the WWE are merely looking out for the former champion.