There are few wrestlers like John Cena who have worked in WWE for an extended period and always remained on good terms with promoter Vince McMahon. Even Shawn Michaels, one of the company’s most revered legends, had a stormy business relationship with McMahon. Why, after his notorious backstage fight with Bret Hart in June 1997, a fuming Michaels upped and threatened to join WCW. He never did, of course: Michaels, who was under contract, returned to WWE, once he had calmed down. Steve Austin also walked out more than once and raised the ire of McMahon in the process.
Disagreements between talent and promoters are as old as the wrestling profession. When egos, principles and large sums of money are at stake, dissension is inevitable. It’s equally unavoidable that quarrels will escalate into full-blown bust-ups on occasion. This is wrestling.
What follows is a list of 20 WWE wrestlers who have crossed the boss in some fashion, before, during or after their WWE tenures. Some, like Michaels and Austin, repaired relationships and returned to WWE with the slate figuratively wiped clean of all traces of strife. Others left and were creatively punished, upon their return. Others quit or were sent packing, never to be seen in WWE again. Each entry includes an update on the wrestler’s career or lifestyle, along with his or her status as a “friend or foe” of WWE, if applicable.
It might seem strong in some cases to state that a performer was (or is) “blacklisted” by the company. As you will read, however, the term could not be more appropriate at times.
20 BUFF BAGWELL
“Buff’s been stuffed,” exclaimed Vince McMahon on the March 26, 2001 simulcast of RAW and Monday Nitro, broadcast three days after WWE had purchased WCW.
Some interpreted this to mean that Buff Bagwell, the mediocre and conceited WCW wrestler, would not receive a contract offer from WWE. He was never a performer WWE had been keen to acquire during the wrestling war.
Contrary to expectations, Bagwell was signed by WWE in May 2001. However, he lived down to his WCW reputation by arriving late for training sessions and WWE events, including the July 2, 2001 RAW on which he had an abysmal match with Booker T that essentially torpedoed WWE’s plans to relaunch WCW. Making few friends in WWE, Bagwell was fired by the company on July 9, 2001.
Earlier this decade, Bagwell made headlines when he revealed that he had been employed by an escort agency. More recently, Bagwell announced his forthcoming retirement as a wrestler: his last match will take place in May 2018.
19 MARTY JANNETTY
The senior member of The Rockers tag team, Marty Jannetty’s career faltered after he split from partner Shawn Michaels in December 1991. He was fired by WWE at least three times between 1992 and 1994.
However, his name value from his years as a Rocker and ready-made feud with Michaels, who had memorably turned heel on Jannetty, moved Vince McMahon to continue throwing contracts his way. It paid dividends on the May 17, 1993 RAW: Jannetty’s surprise return and Intercontinental Championship victory over Michaels was one of the great moments in the early years of the programme.
Once the Jannetty/Michaels feud had played out, Jannetty’s career went into steep decline, and he did little in the boom years of the late 1990s.
Nevertheless, McMahon, seeking a nostalgia pop, re-hired him again in 2005 for a match with Kurt Angle as part of the hype for Angle’s match with Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 21.
Now 57, Jannetty can be found on the independent wrestling and convention circuit. He also claimed that he had received an offer of $150,000 to star in adult films but no concrete evidence was ever found that those claims were true.
18 JEFF JARRETT
The Intercontinental Championship was as far as Jeff Jarrett was allowed to go in the WWE of 1999. Consequently, when Jarrett’s ally Vince Russo accepted the head writing job in WCW on October 3, 1999, 13 days before Jarrett’s WWE contract expired, Jeff saw his chance to jump ship and, with Russo’s backing, headline a major organization.
More opportunistically, Jarrett, as IC Champion, negotiated a six-figure payoff from WWE to stay on and lose the title to Chyna on October 17, the night after his WWE contract expired. The next day, Jarrett arrived on Monday Nitro. Russo made good on his promise: Jarrett held the WCW World Title four times.
Vince McMahon never forgot Jarrett’s No Mercy shenanigans. After WWE’s purchase of WCW in 2001, McMahon refused to rehire him. Banished, Jarrett launched his own company, TNA, in 2002.
It’s been a tumultuous ride for Jarrett in the intervening 15 years. In and out of power in TNA/GFW, he’s presently in charge once more. About the only thing that hasn’t changed in that time is his relationship with McMahon. Don’t expect Jarrett to receive a WWE Hall Of Fame invitation in the near future.
17 HARLEY RACE
NWA World Champion Harley Race secretly met with Vince McMahon in November 1983, just before he was scheduled to lose the title to Ric Flair in the main event of the first Starrcade.
As Race disclosed in his autobiography, King Of The Ring, McMahon offered him $250,000 to “back out of Starrcade and take the [NWA] belt to the WWE”. When Race declined, McMahon flew into a rage: “[Vince] dove at my legs in an attempt to take me down,” Race explained in his memoir. “I acted instinctively by cross-facing Vince with my left arm, getting his head in a position where breaking his neck would be easy.”
Harley released McMahon unharmed.
In another incident, Race, who was a co-owner of the Kansas City territory, walked into a WWE event in the Kansas City Municipal Auditorium, armed with a pistol, and confronted Hulk Hogan. Police escorted Harley from the venue.
Race lost so much money on his territory, he had to take a job with McMahon in 1986. Despite prior hostility, Race became a star and battled Heavyweight Champion Hulk Hogan.
Inducted into the WWE Hall Of Fame in 2004, Race is now considered a friend of the company.
16 LEX LUGER
In January 1993, after a stint in Vince McMahon’s WBF, Lex Luger made his WWE debut at the Royal Rumble.
Originally performing as a heel, Luger turned babyface in July 1993 when he bodyslammed WWE Heavyweight Champion Yokozuna on the USS Intrepid in the Stars And Stripes challenge.
Days later, Luger was sent on the Lex Express bus tour to promote his match with Yokozuna at SummerSlam. So robust was Luger’s push, his title victory seemed assured. However, Luger won by count out, and could only sit back and watch as Bret Hart raced past him to become WWE’s lead babyface and Yokozuna’s successor in 1994.
In August 1995, Luger received a call from WCW boss Eric Bischoff, who had learned that Luger’s WWE contract had expired. A deal was struck, and Luger shockingly appeared on the premiere of Monday Nitro the next month. Luger hadn’t notified McMahon that he was leaving for WCW: his Nitro appearance was as much a surprise to Vince as everyone else. Enraged, McMahon never booked Luger as a wrestler again.
A spinal stroke in October 2007 changed Luger’s life forever. Initially paralyzed from the neck down, Luger was able to partially recover and walk again. He now volunteers at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, where he rehabbed, and supports other victims of spinal cord injuries.
Ryan Reeves, or Ryback Reeves as he’s legally known, achieved headline status in WWE matches with CM Punk in 2012 and John Cena in 2013.
Fast forward to 2016, however, and Ryback found himself losing to Kalisto in pre-show matches at WrestleMania and Payback. Unhappy with the direction his career was taking, Ryback left WWE in May 2016, and was released from his contract by mutual consent in August.
Ryback criticised WWE in an interview with Sports Illustrated in September for booking him to “fall flat on [his] face”, depriving him of his “Feed me more” catch phrase and sabotaging his merchandise potential. Ryback continued to rail on WWE in other interviews. The theme was: he felt he should have gone much further in WWE than he did.
In the year since his release, the 35-year-old Ryback has wrestled in Europe, Australia and North America. Outside the ring, he hosts a weekly podcast, Conversation With The Big Guy, and is marketing his own range of supplements.
14 PAUL LONDON
It was Paul London’s dream to wrestle for WWE and, in July 2003, that dream came true. Though London was under contract for five years and held the Cruiserweight Championship and tag team titles, the gifted flyer found the WWE experience extremely trying.
A square peg in a round hole, London fell in disfavour when he questioned the wisdom of management’s decisions concerning the cruiserweight division.
Publicly, however, London’s biggest blunder occurred when he smiled on camera at Vince McMahon instead of looking sombre on the June 11, 2007 RAW as McMahon walked past the WWE roster, just before he stepped into a limousine that supposedly exploded.
“That was it. I was completely written off every show,” recalled London in December 2010. Cut by WWE in 2008, London would view it as a blessing in disguise. A free spirit, London currently works for Lucha Underground and lives life on his own terms.
13 SCOTT STEINER
Scott Steiner and brother Rick never excelled as a tag team in WWE in the early 1990s in the way they had in WCW, and few were surprised when they left WWE in 1994 and returned to WCW.
Going solo in 1998, Scott rose to the summit of WCW in its final years, despite occasional transgressions, which included deviating from the script on live television and intimidating officials. He dropped the WCW World Title to Booker T on the final episode of Monday Nitro on March 26, 2001.
Racked with foot and back problems, Steiner did not return to WWE until November 2002. In hindsight, most, including Steiner, wish he hadn’t bothered. Hampered still by injuries, Steiner’s matches with Triple H were dreadful and his stay was a flop. He was released by WWE in August 2004, while injured again. There were feelings of regret on both sides.
Steiner did redeem himself in TNA matches with Samoa Joe and Kurt Angle from 2006-2007. More recently, he made a well-received appearance in a comedy tag match at Slammiversary 2017.
Rena Mero joined WWE in 1996 as then-husband Marc Mero’s valet Sable. The original goal was that they would become the late 1990s version of Randy Savage and Elizabeth.
Instead, Sable bypassed Mero totally: fuelled by sex appeal and the Attitude era’s permissive standards, Sable became one of WWE’s biggest stars of 1998 and early 1999. During the period, she earned over $1 million. Few performers in WWE history made more money with less talent.
But it all came crashing down shortly after Sable’s first cover appearance in Playboy in April 1999. A dispute quickly escalated into an acrimonious split and civil action: Sable filed a $100 million lawsuit against WWE in June, which was settled out of court two months later.
Given the circumstances under which she departed, many were flabbergasted when WWE welcomed Sable back in 2003. Over the next year, she began a relationship with Brock Lesnar, with whom she shares married life today.
11 CM PUNK
The former Ring Of Honor Champion fought tooth and nail for everything he achieved in WWE after he signed in 2005. He had to endure developmental and ECW and political meddling from those who dismissed his style, physique and straight edge lifestyle.
Even when he attained main event status against Jeff Hardy in 2009, Punk discovered that he hadn’t been truly embraced by his superiors. Suddenly demoted again after a title loss to The Undertaker, Punk was back at square one.
It was only his threat to leave in 2011 that prompted WWE to award him the famed “Summer Of Punk” worked-shoot saga. Subsequently enjoying the longest Heavyweight Title reign in decades, Punk seemed to have it made.
But behind the scenes, resentment was brewing. As a full-timer, Punk felt undervalued in the era dominated by part-time performers. So much so that he had a showdown with Vince McMahon and Triple H the night after Royal Rumble 2014 and quit. When Punk received his termination papers from WWE on his wedding day five months later, it was confirmation that he’d made the right decision to leave.
Punk hasn’t wrestled since. Making his UFC debut in September 2016, he lost in 2:14 of round one. Despite his rough showing in the octagon, it's been reported Punk will return to the octagon.
10 HULK HOGAN
Vince McMahon’s chosen one to lead his national expansion in 1984, Hulk Hogan reigned as WWE Champion for the next four years, and was the company’s premier star until he fled in 1992 to escape the stench of the steroid scandal.
Hogan made a half-hearted WWE comeback in 1993 and then left again for a six-year run with WCW. With Hogan’s help, WCW became the number one organization in the world. McMahon was livid that his former friend and star had done for WCW what he had previously accomplished for WWE.
After the demise of WCW, Hogan returned to WWE in 2002. However, his relationship with McMahon was never as harmonious as it had been in the 1980s. Disputes and separations over Hogan’s role in WWE were followed by shaky reconciliations. Each time Hogan resurfaced in WWE, people asked, “How long will it last this time?”
Hogan returned to a hero’s welcome in 2014 after four years in TNA. This time, they appeared to have an understanding. But the peace was shattered by the racism scandal of 2015; WWE immediately released Hogan from his contract. The proprietor of Hogan’s Beach Shops in Clearwater and Orlando hasn’t returned yet.
9 MATT HARDY
Matt Hardy was fired by WWE in April 2005 after he broke the news that his girlfriend Lita was having a real-life affair with Edge. Seeking to capitalise on the empathy of the public, who were largely critical of WWE for sacking him when he exposed the affair, Matt returned to WWE in July.
This backfired when WWE sided with Edge in the on-screen version of the feud as well. His hopes were swiftly dashed: instead of obtaining vengeance and greater stardom, Hardy was buried by the organization.
Fed up and physically worn down, Hardy requested a contract release in 2010. WWE was reluctant to grant it until Matt’s behavior became so erratic that the company decided it was in its best interest to distance itself from Matt.
When Hardy was arrested for DWI in 2011 and his life spiralled out of control, there seemed no chance that WWE would re-hire him. But a combination of the celebrated “Broken” gimmick in TNA and Hardy’s personal redemption, facilitated by marriage and fatherhood, changed everything. Matt and brother Jeff made their triumphant return to WWE at WrestleMania this year.
8 SHANE DOUGLAS
Shane Douglas had an uneventful tenure as a babyface in WWE in 1990, following his infamous run as one half of The Dynamic Dudes in WCW.
After Douglas reinvented himself and earned plaudits for his work as “The Franchise” in ECW from 1993-1995, WWE came calling again.
Regrettably, WWE reinvented him as Dean Douglas, the wrestling schoolteacher, a dreary character fans rejected outright. Floundering in the WWE system, Douglas bombed in matches with Razor Ramon and others.
The writing was on the chalkboard from day one: Douglas lasted four months in the company. After he left in December 1995, Douglas made it abundantly clear he would never return. He never did. Although Douglas spoke with WWE in 1999 after he had split from ECW, the discussions were fruitless, and Douglas signed with WCW instead.
After WCW was absorbed by WWE, Douglas worked for TNA and participated in ECW reunions, and beat drug addiction. Still appreciating wrestling, Douglas hosts The Triple Threat Podcast and regularly appears on the convention circuit.
7 BROCK LESNAR
In March 2004, less than one year into a seven-year contract he had signed in June 2003, Brock Lesnar announced to Vince McMahon that he was leaving WWE to pursue a career in the NFL.
McMahon was aghast. Still only 26, Lesnar was one of WWE’s biggest names: McMahon was relying on him to headline for years to come.
When Lesnar refused to reconsider his decision, McMahon agreed to grant him a restricted contract release, which would allow Lesnar to play football, but would prevent him from wrestling or fighting for any other organization until 2010, the duration of the contract he signed in 2003.
When Lesnar’s football aspirations proved to be a pipe dream and McMahon refused to rehire him on a part time deal, Lesnar filed a lawsuit against WWE. Much to McMahon’s chagrin, Lesnar won the litigation and was able to return to wrestling for New Japan and fight for UFC, where he became such a gigantic star. After his first retirement in 2011, he was able to dictate to McMahon the terms for his return that he had sought in 2004. What a turnaround.
Currently WWE’s highest paid performer, Lesnar may make a UFC comeback in 2018 when his WWE contract expires.
6 WENDI RICHTER
Linked with singer Cyndi Lauper during the Rock ’N’ Wrestling Connection of 1984-1985, two-time WWE Women’s Champion Wendi Richter received mainstream publicity during the company’s rise to national prominence.
As famous as Richter might have been, thanks to Lauper, she wasn’t treated as a major player by the fans or the company, for that matter.
As revealed in a Grantland story, published in 2013, Richter had repeatedly requested a pay rise from Vince McMahon, but never received it. Perhaps McMahon tired of Richter’s complaints or just tired of Richter. Whatever his motivation, he washed his hands of his champion on November 25, 1985 when he sent Fabulous Moolah, wrestling under a mask as Spider Lady, to relieve Richter of the Women’s title, without her knowledge, in a match at Madison Square Garden. The match was a total shambles. But, in the end, the double-cross was effected, and the title was off Richter and back on Moolah.
A disgusted Richter quit WWE immediately after the match. She continued to wrestle, but never achieved the same level of fame elsewhere and disappeared from wrestling.
Still, time heals all wounds, as they say. Richter was inducted into the WWE Hall Of Fame in 2010.
5 SUPERSTAR BILLY GRAHAM
Vince McMahon Jr.’s favourite wrestler of the 1970s, Superstar Graham was the longest-reigning heel champion in the company’s history when he held the Heavyweight Title from April 30, 1977 to February 20, 1978.
Graham was re-hired by McMahon in 1986. He was supposed to wrestle, but mostly worked as a manager, due to serious health problems stemming from years of steroid abuse. He underwent a hip replacement operation in 1987. As Graham revealed in his 2006 autobiography Tangled Ropes, McMahon lent him the money to pay for the surgery.
But after his departure from WWE in 1989, Graham became an enemy of the state. During the steroid and sex scandals of 1991-1992, Graham made a deeply unpleasant allegation about WWE executive Pat Patterson that Graham later admitted was untrue. Some in WWE never forgave him.
However, McMahon had a soft spot for Graham, and brought him back into the fold and inducted him into the Hall Of Fame in 2004. Graham lashed out at WWE when the company released him from his contract as a cost-cutting measure in 2009, but the two sides reconciled again in 2015.
4 THE ROCK
It’s hard to believe that The Rock, one of the two biggest stars of the Attitude era, fell out of favor with Vince McMahon in the 2000s.
The business relationship between Rock and Vince McMahon grew strained after Rock’s movie career took off in 2002. As the film roles piled up, his WWE availability decreased.
On December 31, 2004, WWE allowed The Rock’s contract to expire. The Rock had worked at WrestleMania that year and been in talks to perform at WrestleMania 21 in 2005. Then the phone calls from WWE stopped. Rock was as bewildered by this development as anyone.
There was an atmosphere backstage when The Rock returned to induct his father Rocky Johnson into the WWE Hall Of Fame in 2008. That presumably explained why McMahon made so little effort to promote The Rock’s new compilation DVD on the June 23, 2008 RAW.
Of course, the frost eventually thawed. Rock returned to live WWE television in 2011, and has received the red carpet treatment from the company since. Dwayne Johnson is now one of the biggest movie stars in the world.
3 BRUNO SAMMARTINO
The biggest star of Vince McMahon Sr.’s WWWF in the 1960s and 1970s, two-time Heavyweight Champion Bruno Sammartino was a beloved figure, the true “Living Legend” of pro wrestling, according to his legions of fans.
After three years in retirement, Sammartino returned to Vince McMahon Jr.’s WWE in 1984, partly to boost the career of his son David, who was attempting to make his mark as a wrestler.
Unfortunately, it was rarely smooth sailing between Sammartino and McMahon: Bruno objected to the direction of the company and the steroid culture, prevalent at the time. Quitting in 1987, Bruno became one of the harshest critics of McMahon and WWE during the steroid and sex scandals of 1991-1992.
Sammartino and McMahon were still at odds 12 years later. A meeting prior to a RAW taping in 2004 only caused further acrimony. The two were as far away as ever from reaching a compromise.
It was Triple H who was instrumental in rebuilding the bridge between Bruno and WWE, and Sammartino returned to take his rightful place in the WWE Hall Of Fame in 2013. Relations between Bruno and WWE remain solid to this day.
2 JUVENTUD GUERRERA
The man whose WCW career ended in October 2000 after his went berserk while high on drugs in a hotel lobby in Australia was signed by WWE in 2005.
Like Buff Bagwell, Guerrera became a heat magnet in WWE. Juvi managed to alienate most of the locker room with his bizarre and conceited behavior. Fearing heat by association, even Juvi’s Mexicools team-mates Super Crazy and Psicosis were reluctant to travel with him.
Alas, Juvi was either oblivious or indifferent to the tension. He took to using other wrestlers’ signature moves without permission and openly questioning WWE’s creative decisions. His agitated demeanour when he learned that he had been booked to lose the Cruiserweight Championship to Kid Kash at Armageddon 2005 was the final straw. Tired of Guerrera’s attitude, WWE fired him on January 5, 2006.
Now 42, Juvi has this year wrestled for WCPW in the U.K., House Of Hardcore and WrestleCircus in the States and in his native Mexico.
1 ALBERTO DEL RIO
José Alberto Rodriguez debuted in WWE to great fanfare as Alberto Del Rio in 2010. Winning the Royal Rumble and Money In The Bank contract in 2011, Del Rio received a colossal push, and was pitted against resident stars Edge, John Cena and CM Punk from whom he won the WWE Heavyweight Championship.
As strongly as he was featured, Del Rio did not bond with the audience and evolve into the star that WWE had anticipated. His departure in 2014 and return the next year failed to enhance his standing with the WWE audience. WWE seemed to lose interest in Del Rio at approximately the same rate as its fans did.
Upon his return, Del Rio began a relationship with Paige to which WWE strongly objected, by all accounts.
Leaving WWE again in 2016, Alberto El Patron has been in the news as much lately for his conduct outside the ring as his exploits in GFW, where he is recognized as World Heavyweight Champion. The instability of his relationship with Paige is common knowledge. Meanwhile, El Patron has made no secret of his hatred for Triple H, whom he has blasted on social media.