In many instances over the years, wrestlers have used WWE as a point of aspiration. They view the company as the holy grail of promotions that they could work for. Due to its massive popularity and world-renowned name, this is understandable. However, in the days when WWE had legitimate competition in the form of rival promotions (NWA, WCW, etc.), this wasn’t always the case. There are many examples of wrestlers who only stayed for a brief period in WWE, going on to produce the bulk of their work for other companies. Talent was dispersed equally in the regional days of the industry, and each territory has their own established stars.
It’s not that the names on this list couldn’t have found success in WWE, but rather that they were more successful elsewhere. They likely would have had to toil in the mid-card for at least some of the time if they worked for WWE, and the opportunity for championship success was much more streamlined in other promotions, where they were a bigger draw. It’s difficult to imagine today, but since WWE shared space at the top with other promotions at one time, it wasn’t a necessity to be under the Vince McMahon umbrella in order to be successful.
Ranked below are 15 wrestlers who were in WWE for a short time, but found their success in other promotions.
15. Jeff Jarrett
Double J may have been a former Intercontinental Champion during his time with WWE in the mid-90s, and certainly was a productive member of the roster, but he would go on to greater heights elsewhere. He’s a former champion in WCW and USWA, as well as TNA, which he founded after WCW folded. Jarrett’s greatest asset was his connections in the industry (his father, Jerry Jarrett, was a well known regional promoter) , most of which resided outside of the WWE realm. As a result, he achieved at his peak in places where there was more incentive to give him multiple title runs. He was around a WWE ring for five or six years in the 90s, but the IC Title was as far he got in the ranks.
14. Road Warriors
Animal and Hawk spent multiple brief runs with WWE, but it’s fair to say that their best work overall came in the NWA and AWA. That was when they were fully in their prime, didn’t have to deal with questionable booking, and had their best matches. Only their first WWE run comes close, as the second was marred by too many bad management decisions and Hawk’s ailing health. Of course, the Warriors were a huge draw wherever they went, so they maintained that level of popularity in WWE, but the quality was a notch down from what they had produced before. Go to the Road Warriors of the 80s for their prime material.
13. Brian Pillman
While his story is absolutely tragic, and his death came just as he was beginning to make an impact in WWE, Pillman is still one of the biggest names of his era in Jim Crockett Promotions and WCW. Truly one of the promotion’s top stars, he captured multiple titles, and was several years ahead of his time, with a high-flying style that would become commonplace in mainstream promotions just a few years later. His tag team with Steve Austin, The Hollywood Blonds, was also one of the tops in the company during that time. In his short time in WWE, he never won a title, and was still trying to find his place. His time in WCW however, showed how much of a star Pillman was destined to be, if not for a cruel twist of fate.
12. Arn Anderson
Often forgotten today, “The Enforcer” had a short stint in WWE during the late-80s, when he and Tully Blanchard transported their tag team to the roster, under The Brainbusters name. Arn was renowned as a member of The Four Horsemen at the time, and while he was able to capture a WWE Tag Title, the run was short lived. He just always fit better in an NWA/WCW ring, and didn’t draw quite as well with a WWE crowd. He was also relegated almost strictly to tag wrestling, when he could double as a singles competitor in the NWA. It wasn’t a complete failure, but Anderson was ultimately better served in his familiar stomping grounds, and returned in 1989.
11. Super Crazy
Chalk Super Crazy up on the list of luchadores and light-heavyweights that WWE completely misused. He was on the roster from 2005-’08, and was seldom able to show off the full capacities of his talent. Crazy was much better utilized in ECW a few years prior, or during his runs in Mexico for AAA. He’s won light-heavyweight titles all over the world, but was slotted strictly in the WWE mid-card with no chance for elevation. It’s to be expected, but this is a practice that has hindered WWE for a long time, and only now do they seem to be revising it. While he never was put to good use in the big-time, Super Crazy is still a world class, world-traveled wrestling talent.
10. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat
Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat certainly achieved success in WWE, and it may even be his most well known work, but he was equally successful both before and after his run there. He had already proved his worth in Jim Crockett Promotions for nearly a decade before joining WWE, and had prime years left in the NWA, Japan, and WCW after leaving. In the grand scope of it all, he was only in the WWE ranks for three or four years, and was seen in other promotions for about 75% of his career. All things considered, Steamboat’s WWE days were just a pit-stop for a career that saw most of his battles coming against the NWA/WCW crop of talent.
9. Kerry Von Erich
The story of the entire Von Erich family is one of wrestling’s saddest, but it doesn’t diminish just how much of a star Kerry was in his prime. One of the Texas region’s biggest draws, Von Erich dominated WCCW and USWA before making his way to WWE. While he achieved marginal success in WWE during his 1990-91 run, his problems were becoming more apparent, and he never was able to live up to all of the hype, despite having both the look and in-ring ability to make it big in the mainstream. He passed away several years later, but remains to this day as one of the top wrestlers in the Texas region. Unfortunately, much of his immediate family suffered a similar fate, and died far too young.
8. Harley Race
When most WWE fans got their first glimpse of Race in the late 80s, he was out of his prime, and not performing at his top level. A legendary figure for years in both the AWA and NWA, he captured dozens of titles, and was one of the biggest stars of his era. Unfortunately, in WWE he was slotted squarely in the mid-card, with the much recycled “king” gimmick that had run its course even back in the 80s. It was understandable why this was done, considering Race’s age, but it doesn’t represent the best of what he had to offer in the ring. Nevertheless, fans who had seen his work for the bulk of his career, knew that Race was a main event talent, and one of the best in the industry for roughly 15 years.
7. The Steiner Brothers
Rick and Scott had considerable success in WWE, but again, it’s a case of simply reaching greater heights in other promotions. They were one of the most popular tag teams in the business before going to WWE, and after leaving both embarked upon successful solo campaigns that carried them through the next ten years of their career. While Scott did eventually return to WWE, it’s still safe to say that the most remembered and iconic times of the Steiner Brothers as a whole came in a WCW ring. They were a bigger draw, won more titles, and spent most of the prime of their careers there. That’s where most of their legacy lies.
6. Terry Funk
The Funker had two runs in WWE, one coming in the mid-80s, and one in the late-90s, under the Chainsaw Charlie moniker. Needless to say, neither of these represented his best work, as his success in Japan, ECW and the NWA, was all far more pronounced and noteworthy. Not that his time spent in WWE was bad, but the best moments of his career, such as his historic NWA Heavyweight Title run and brutal deathmatches in Japan and ECW, all came elsewhere. He was never an ideal fit to main event for a WWE audience, and as such his growth was capped from the beginning. His time there was certainly an important part in the scope of his career, but Funk’s best moments were found in other promotions.
5. Rock N’ Roll Express
Yes, this actually happened, as a part of the short-lived NWA/WWE feud in the late 90s. Unquestionable out of their prime, and not at the top of their game, the Express found their way onto the WWE roster as part of Jim Cornette’s stable of NWA talent, and toiled in the mid-card until making a swift departure. Of course, they’re legends within tag team wrestling for their years spent in Jim Crockett Promotions, but never translated that success into a WWE ring. Granted, that wasn’t really the point of the angle, but it still fizzled out too soon for them to really make an impact. Still, it did happen, and for obvious reasons, everyone remembers the earlier days of the Express more fondly.
4. Stan Hansen
Hansen was America’s greatest import to the Japanese wrestling scene, and is one of the greatest Triple Crown Champions of all-time in All Japan. Seldom remembered now, he spent a brief amount of time in WWE during the early-80s, and feuded with Bob Backlund over the WWE Title. Hansen’s stiff, impact style (of the day at least) was a better fit for the Japanese audience, and as such he spent the bulk of his career there. His look was distinctly American, which could have been utilized well in WWE, but he never was really around long enough for it to materialize. No one can argue with his title success, and Hansen is one of the best to ever step in a Japanese wrestling ring.
3. The Great Sasuke
He had a signed a working agreement with WWE in the midst of the burgeoning light-heavyweight division during the late-90s, and Sasuke should have been one of the foremost stars of the division. For one, he’s one of the greatest Juniors to ever wrestle in Japan, and had a kind of gimmicky look by nature, that could have fit in WWE. He would leave after disputes with WWE management, and return to Japan, where he’s captured too many titles to count. It may have been a blessing in disguise, as he would have been relegated to the mid-card in WWE, but was a certified star in Japan for years, where the light-heavyweight technical high-flying style was much more embraced.
2. Diamond Dallas Page
After the WCW/ECW buyout of 2001, DDP began showing up on WWE programming, but quickly fell out of favor. He was considered one of the rising stars in WCW just a few years earlier, and seemingly had the look and charisma to succeed on the main event stage for years to come. That wasn’t the case, and Page departed WWE in 2002, never to return in full. It was a somewhat murky situation, and the details aren’t fully known, but it was undoubtedly an unfortunate event, as Page seemed to be primed as one of the biggest stars of the future. He remained mostly away from the ring after that, just doing one-offs or brief runs with only several companies. Still, he remains one of the biggest WCW stars of the 90s, and had many successful title runs there.
1. Ric Flair
Flair had multiple runs with WWE, but only spent a year or so there while he was in his prime. He was already a legend by the time he had signed with WWE in 1991, having spent years dominating and selling out just about every promotion in the country. Flair won the WWE Title, but his greatest highs undoubtedly came in Jim Crockett Promotions, NWA and WCW. He only had a few marquee matches in WWE, as compared to dozens just about everywhere else. In the scope of his entire career, Flair was really only in WWE for nothing more than a cup of coffee, and his legendary status was earned on the back of the matches and promos he produced elsewhere.
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