For decades now, the WWE Universe has done everything in its power to instill fans of pro wrestling with the belief they’re the only game in town. Aside from a few short years in the late ‘90s, the truth is, they haven’t exactly been lying, more like exaggerating. There have always been dozens if not hundreds of other options available for would be wrestlers looking to make a name from themselves, from the independent scene to Mexico to Japan.
The downside was that WWE always offered more money and screen time than any of the alternatives, making it hard for the general public to truly acknowledge the competition as, well, competition. This has started to change as of late, with select WWE superstars leaving the company in droves, and voluntarily, at that. Thanks to a few high-profile success stories, wrestlers are increasingly aware they can continue enjoying the spotlight and getting paid for it outside of Vince McMahon’s sphere of influence.
On the other hand, the handful of wrestlers who transcended the business have known this for some time now, which is exactly how they became bigger than wrestling in the first place. Though not all of them went on to greater fame and fortune than McMahon could give them, keep reading for 15 former WWE superstars you forgot left the company entirely by choice.
15 Hulk Hogan
Prior to the 1980s, there was nothing particularly special about WWE versus the many other wrestling companies in existence at the time. Aside from Vince McMahon, the person who had the most to do with this reputation changing was his original number one star, Hulk Hogan. The Hulkster was already pretty popular before he returned to WWE in 1984, but Vince took him to the next level. Or what it Vince who took Hogan to the next level? As the two became increasingly famous and successful, that question likewise raised in importance, with both sides feeling they were the more integral piece to the puzzle. These tensions slowly mounted until finally exploding in 1993, when Hogan voluntarily decided to leave WWE in favor of WCW. He wasn’t the first person to jump from company to company, but usually, it happened because someone got fired or Vince didn’t want them anymore. With Hogan, it was his decision alone to leave WWE and try someplace new.
Despite initially getting rejected from the WCW Power Plant, Dave Batista would eventually turn into one of the most popular and successful WWE superstars of his era. Obviously, Vince McMahon saw something in him that Eric Bischoff didn’t, and the only surprising part about this is that WCW missed out on such a sure thing. Rather than dwell on that company’s habit for failure, let’s focus on Batista’s vanguard career in the greener pastures of the WWE Universe, where he achieved great fame in Evolution en route to becoming a six-time World Champion. Batista last reign as WWE Champion ended mere months before his first exit from the company, his only appearances after losing it rematches for the gold. When he failed to recapture the glory, Batista left WWE in part to pursue a film career and also due to disagreements with the company’s direction. Three years later, Batista made a brief six-month return, only to pretty much go through the exact same thing.
13 Brock Lesnar
It’s easy to forget now that Brock Lesnar is reigning as the WWE Universal Champion, with such an incredibly high status in the company he doesn’t even need to regularly defend his title, but not that long ago, The Beast Incarnate actually walked away from the wrestling business at what many insiders believed was his peak. Back in 2004, Lesnar was already a multiple time WWE Champion who had everything it took to become the biggest name in sports entertainment, and yet he felt something was missing in his life. Therefore, he decided to up and quit WWE immediately after WrestleMania XX and pursue a football career, not even giving the company all that much notice in doing so. Though Lesnar’s dreams of NFL glory quickly faded, he turned his prospects around by transitioning to a career as an MMA fighter, soon capturing the UFC Heavyweight Championship and becoming one of the most dominant names in that sport. After all of that, Lesnar decided to return to WWE, and given his newfound fame and fortune, Vince was quick to let bygones be bygones and rehire him.
12 Rick Rude
Of all the names on this list, we’re pretty sure “Ravishing” Rick Rude put the least thought in his decision to quit WWE. This is because Rude didn’t really have the time to weigh out the pros and cons of such a decision, choosing to leave the company pretty much overnight. Rude came to this harsh and immediate conclusion moments after the infamous Montreal Screwjob, when Vince McMahon and Shawn Michaels conspired to take the WWE Championship away from Bret Hart without his approval. Feeling a close connection to the Hart family and not appreciating what McMahon had done in the slightest, Rude instantly severed his ties with WWE and made a phone call to Eric Bischoff. This lead to one of the most shocking moments of the Attitude Era, when Rude then made appearances on both WWE Raw and WCW Nitro on the very same night, because the former had taped their program the week before.
11 Sgt. Slaughter
Nowadays, if a WWE superstars gets an offer to appear in a movie or TV show, Vince McMahon and company will promote this occurrence at every chance they get to prove pro wrestling is hip, cool, and totally part of the cultural zeitgeist, you guys. Things were a bit different back in the day, though, as in the ‘80s, McMahon wouldn’t let his employees appear in any sort of outside media without his tacit approval. In doing so, McMahon was really just towing the line that other promoters had laid out for decades, as the general feeling was that wrestlers doing anything except wrestling would make fans take them less seriously. One person who strongly disagreed was Sgt. Slaughter, and for good reason—the extremely popular G.I. Joe cartoons he occasionally appeared on wanted to make an action figure in his likeness. When McMahon said no employee of his would be allowed to do such a thing, Slaughter decided he no longer wanted to be McMahon’s employee.
10 Chris Jericho
Was this list to have a patron saint, one name in particular who stood above the rest for repeatedly leaving WWE entirely of his own volition, that man would be none other than Y2J, Chris Jericho. Technically speaking, Jericho has been employed by WWE since he jumped ship from WCW in 1999. However, it’s not like he’s spent the last 19 years exclusively as a wrestler. Jericho is also known to take extended leaves of absence from sports entertainment to tour with his band, host game shows, attempt an acting career, and whatever other extraneous activity he so pleases. The thing that sets Jericho apart from the other wrestlers who does this is that each time he leaves the company, it looks like he might be gone for good. The most classic example of this would have to be his 2005 exit, when he spent an entire two years in Hollywood before suddenly making a comeback. Then and in many other cases, Jericho simply decided he didn’t want to wrestle at the time, and forced WWE to accept it.
9 Molly Holly
Hey, if we were working for a company that constantly body shamed us for no good reason, we’d probably want to quit, too. Not that this necessarily had anything to do with why Molly Holly decided to retire from WWE and thus sports entertainment in general at the ripe young age of 27, but we’re just saying here. Maybe Molly genuinely didn’t care about all the “fat ass” jokes, though, because after all, this was a woman who actually suggested she get her head shaved simply because she knew it would get a reaction. Despite how much that sentence says about Molly’s love for the wrestling business, it apparently wasn’t strong enough to overrule her natural instincts to leave wrestling and start a family, one of the reasons she’s stated inspired her decision to quit WWE. There were also strong rumors Molly didn’t like playing a heel, or didn't like that looks were emphasized over wrestling talent, but other stories about her career imply that probably wasn’t the case. Whatever the reason was, one thing that’s clear about Molly’s departure from wrestling is that it was entirely of her own volition.
8 Johnny Polo
Truth be told, this entry is probably the first time anyone has referred to the wrestler better known as Raven by the name he initially used in the WWE Universe, Johnny Polo. Of course, there’s a method to our madness, in that it was during his stint as Polo that the man actually named Scott Levy decided he no longer wanted to work for Vince McMahon. Years later, Raven would indeed get fired by the company for pretty much no reason, a fact he believes is related to McMahon’s resentment that he walked out of the company entirely by choice almost a decade earlier. Backing up a bit, not only was Johnny Polo a fairly successful manager and color commentator, he was also a WWE producer, a role the real Levy didn’t care for all that much. Because he wasn’t enjoying his job, he quit, choosing to actually get to wrestle somewhere else, like, say, ECW.
7 Jack Swagger
Looking like a bigger and buffer second coming of Kurt Angle, the rise of Jack Swagger must have made Vince McMahon see dollar signs from day one. This is the only way to explain how Vince pushed Swagger to the moon, making the man World Heavyweight Champion after only a few short years in the business. As is the trend these days, Vince figured fame and respectability would come after Swagger won the Big Gold Belt, but unfortunately for all concerned parties, that didn’t quite happen. From the moment he lost the title onward, Swagger’s career was one of harshly diminishing returns, and he never again came anywhere near that top level position. This must have ate the man up inside for years, and it finally reached a boiling point in early 2017, when he repeatedly asked company executives for his release. While they were reluctant to grant it at first, Swagger ignored this and booked a number of independent dates that led to WWE firing him. That said, it was the most intentional case of a person getting fired one could imagine, so it definitely fits this list.
Alright, so technically speaking, WWE is still claiming that (Adrian) Neville is officially under contract with the company throughout the indefinite future. However, the fact remains that the Man Who Gravity Forgot is most certainly trying to leave Vince McMahon’s grasp right now, only for the executive who sanity forgot to prevent him from doing so. To try and convince WWE they should let him go, Neville infamously walked out on the October 9th episode of Monday Night Raw and has apparently avoided the company at all costs ever since. Rumor has it Neville is seriously unhappy about being pigeonholed in the cruiserweight division, which he feels is a step down from the brand he has been building since reigning as NXT Champion. Most of the wrestling community seems to agree, supporting Neville and hoping he gets the release he’s basically begging for.
5 Cody Rhodes
Whenever a person enters the same field as their parents, there’s an extra pressure to succeed, especially if said parent happened to be one of the preeminent legends of his or her industry. Such was the case for Cody Rhodes, son of “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, who thrice wore the NWA World Championship in the 1970s and '80s. Rhodes is also the brother of fellow WWE superstar Goldust, who likewise achieved significant fame before Cody was even old enough to follow in his footsteps. By the time Cody reached an age where he could actually get in the ring, insiders soon felt like he had actually surpassed both his brother and father, at least insofar as in-ring talent was concerned. For whatever reason, though, one person who always seemed to disagree was Vince McMahon, who ignored Cody’s suggestions and ideas in favor of the same Superstars he’d been pushing for the past decade. Eventually, this frustrated Cody to the point where he saw no other option except to ask the company to release him so he could try his hand elsewhere.
Deride him as a mere clone of Goldberg as some critics may, there’s no denying Ryback’s career very much appeared to be on the rise starting around the year 2012. After stints in NXT and as a member of the Nexus, Ryback suddenly found himself repeatedly challenging for the WWE Championship to no avail. While that top prize always eluded him, Ryback later earned a reign with the WWE Intercontinental gold in addition to several other high profile main events. Fame alone wasn’t enough for The Big Guy, though, as Ryback understandably also wanted to make a decent wage as he bounced up and down the card. Unfortunately, he never felt like he was earning one, citing WWE’s practice of paying top tier talent significantly more than anyone else on the roster. Feeling he could make more money elsewhere, Ryback publicly derided WWE for his low wage, and announced he was leaving the company because of it.
3 The Rock
Plenty of the people on this list went on to attain great success after leaving WWE, sometimes as a direct result of making that decision, yet none come anywhere near The Rock when it comes to shining as a star outside of the sports entertainment universe. It took a little while for him to stick the landing, but The Rock eventually transitioned from pro wrestler to the biggest star in Hollywood, appearing in a half dozen billion-dollar movies per year. Of course, he had no way of knowing for sure this would be the case when he left WWE way back in 2002 so he could attempt to pull it off. All The Rock had back then was a minor albeit popular role in The Mummy Returns, which soon led to a starring role in The Scorpion King. While neither of these movies set the world on fire, Rocky remained steadfast in his decision to leave wrestling behind and focus on the movies, and given his status today, there’s really no denying he made the right decision.
2 CM Punk
Quite frankly, it may be erroneous to put CM Punk on this list, as the man himself is quick to point out he never actually quit WWE. In fact, the company was rather public about firing Punk on his wedding day, a move that directly led to Punk’s decision to retire from wrestling outright. All that said, it certainly felt like Punk was sending a message when he just as infamously and publicly walked out of WWE the night after the 2014 Royal Rumble. At that point in time, most insiders believed Punk was making the same move “Stone Cold” Steve Austin did back in 2002, leaving the company behind due to extreme creative differences. Indeed, that’s pretty much what happened, with the small caveat that Punk assumed WWE would eventually ask him back sometime soon. They never did, instead firing him on a special day as mentioned, thus cementing his decision to leave WWE and wrestling for good. While the waters eventually muddied, the fact remains at one point or another, Punk voluntarily decided he was done with WWE.
1 “Stone Cold” Steve Austin
Speaking of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s infamous walkout, let’s recap the moment that made Vince McMahon shout out “Oh, hell no,” in fear, worry, and confusion. The year 2002 wasn’t that great for the Texas Rattlesnake, as he suddenly dropped from WWE Champion to basically being a midcarder. The straw that broke the camel of diminishing return’s back was getting booked to lose against rising star Brock Lesnar on a random episode of Raw, something Austin felt in the very least deserved Pay-Per-View attention. Rather than let the Beast Incarnate tarnish his legacy further in a completely meaningless match, Austin walked out on WWE and didn’t return for the next six months. Immediately, WWE ran a massive smear campaign against their once most popular superstar, deriding him for “taking his ball and going home.” The fact is, though, if a person doesn’t like their job and they don’t need the money, they’re allowed to quit, which is exactly what Austin and everyone else on this list decided to do.