The WWE is known to most of the fans around the world as the apex of the wrestling industry, and wrestlers who grew up plying their craft on the independent scene and dreaming about wrestling on a big stage all want to be in the WWE. For some, that is a dream come true, but for others, it turns into a nightmare pretty quickly. For the following 15 people, their run ended on negative notes, but it’s how you bounce back in life that matters, and 8 of them have bounced back to become stars on the independent scene. But not all are that lucky, as 7 others have fallen into obscurity.
It’s likely that we will see a lot of these performers back with the company in the near future, due to their fantastic performances outside of the WWE, but we can only speculate on the future, so today we will look at what has happened with these 15 recently released WWE performers.
(Authors note: A lot of performers released within the last year haven’t done anything of note, so this relates to the most notable performers that were released or quit between 2015-2017.)
15 Great – Justin Gabriel/PJ Black
We will discuss further the amount of people that WWE have criminally underutilized in the past few years, and that list definitely includes Justin Gabriel, who was a big part of the original Nexus. Once that group fell apart, the South African high-flyer was given little opportunity to succeed. There are rumors (that have been all but confirmed by Gabriel himself) that he was the man underneath Adam Rose’s bunny costume, and although he had many great ideas for his character, he never got the chances, and he was released by the company to little fanfare. Since that point, he hasn’t wrestled for a top promotion like New Japan or ROH, but he has wrestled all around the world to great success, and with his exposure as the "Darewolf" on Lucha Underground, he is showing the world the all around skill and charisma that WWE never let him show.
14 Not So Great – Simon Gotch
Simon Gotch came into NXT as a fairly unknown prospect, and he found success alongside Aiden English as a part of The Vaudevillains, but after the duo were promoted to the main roster, they faltered. After some backstage altercations, Gotch was released.
Unfortunately for Simon, he wasn’t with the WWE for very long, and didn’t do anything of note to make him stand out, and that hasn’t helped him since leaving the company. It’s doubtful that he will make a big impression in the wide world of professional wrestling. He didn’t show that much charisma, and his in-ring ability was bland at best, and with his bad backstage reputation, don’t expect to see Gotch making a name for himself in any big independent companies.
13 Great – Wade Barrett/Stu Bennett
When talking about missed opportunities to create top stars in the WWE, there are two names that come to mind, one of which is Wade Barrett (the other comes in at #1 on our list), and it’s very sad how they treated the hard-hitting English star. He was the winner of the first season of NXT (the game show edition), and as the leader of the Nexus, Barrett led the group of angry rookies right to the top of the industry. With one or two victories over John Cena and Randy Orton rather than them going over, and Barrett could have been the company's top heel. He may not be at the top of any independent promotions as we speak, and it looks like he has completely stepped away from in ring competition. But he is commentating for WCPW on occasion under his real name Stu Bennett, as well as taking up acting to increase his stock. That's much better than a lot of people on this list are doing.
12 Not So Great – Bull Dempsey
Bull Dempsey made a huge first impression in NXT, as he promoted himself as the “last of a dying breed”, and it looked like he could be a key performer for the developmental brand. But when stars like Hideo Itami, Finn Balor, Shinsuke Nakamura and Bobby Roode continued to turn up, Dempsey got passed over, and eventually was released to very little fanfare. Like others we will mention, he is still around the wrestling business, but his style doesn’t lend itself well to becoming a star on the independent scene, and he has struggled mightily to stand out from the crowd. If he can continue to improve on his promo skills and develop a solid body of work, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him return to the WWE in the near future, but for now, he definitely isn’t making a mark on the world of professional wrestling.
11 Great – CJ Parker/Juice Robinson
Throughout the five-year history of NXT, we have seen guys like Seth Rollins, Finn Balor, Samoa Joe, Shinsuke Nakamura and women like Bayley, Charlotte and Sasha Banks all rise to the top, but that’s not to say that WWE’s developmental territory never misses the boat on someone, and the one person that comes to mind when you think of their mistakes is CJ Parker. The in-your-face tree hugger character never got over, and he wasn’t allowed to develop as an in ring performer, so the company released him, and he went to train under the greats in New Japan Pro Wrestling. He still has some time to develop and become a big star in the Land of the Rising Sun, but he is already making big strides, as he had good bouts with Cody Rhodes and Tetsuya Naito on recent big cards, showing that the hottest company in Japan has big plans for the newly-dubbed Juice Robinson.
10 Not So Great – Alex Riley
Chances are, you’ve already forgotten about Alex Riley, but there was a time when it was clear the WWE was high on the youngster, and after a red hot turn on The Miz, you would have bet he was going to be a main event talent in the company for quite some time. The John Cena happened, and it looked like Riley was done for. After a return in NXT was greeted with mixed reactions, he was indeed released to little fanfare, and he hasn’t been heard of since. It looks like the talented Riley has given up on the wrestling business, even though he has the look, skill and name recognition to make it on the independent scene, and that’s quite disappointing given how highly the company thought of him at one stage.
9 Great – Bubba Ray Dudley
After The Dudley Boyz left WWE and joined TNA, they had a phenomenal run, adding to their record 22 World Tag Team title reigns, but they broke up after all those years together. That let Bubba transform into Bully Ray, and under that guise, he became TNA’s top heel, and one of the best in the world. The duo then decided to return to the WWE for a subpar run, and left to little fanfare, and although it seems like he is past his prime, he is still contributing to the independent scene fairly well. He is now working with Ring of Honor after great appearances in Europe with WCPW and ICW, and he is doing some fantastic work. He will prove a valuable asset both onscreen and off for the young, talented Ring of Honor roster.
8 Not So Great – Brad Maddox
Brad Maddox was with the WWE for quite some time, and other than starring in Paige’s unfortunate sex tape leaks and screwing Ryback out of the WWE Championship as the "rogue" referee, he didn’t accomplish a whole lot of any significant note. Despite this, he still managed to make headlines when he was released, as like a lot of Vince McMahon’s decisions, it was a huge head scratcher, as the company took offense to the fact that he called the fans “pricks." Shortly thereafter, it was announced that he would wrestle on the independents under the name Mad Braddox.
That was the last that we heard of Maddox (except for the sex tape leaks), as he hasn’t worked against any great wrestlers or in top great major/indie promotions, but if he can develop and get a head of steam, he could be a key performer for an upstart promotion like WCPW or one of the smaller companies in the United States.
7 Great – Brodus Clay/Tyrus
Brodus Clay had a lot of potential in the WWE, both as a dominant monster, as well as dancing giant, but the company would never push him out of the midcard, instead opting for the old heads like John Cena and Randy Orton, and it frustrated him to the point of leaving so he could show the world his true potential. He reappeared shortly after in TNA/Impact Wrestling as the bodyguard to the companies top heel, EC3, and it’s clear that he had much more talent than he was allowed to show with the WWE. He may not have had a run as the World Champion, but in comparison to his run as the WWE, he is definitely succeeding, as he has been a constant presence in the main event scene, and even challenged for that World Title. There could be plenty more on his horizon.
6 Not So Great – Jack Swagger
As mentioned, a lot of the performers on this list were very underutilized within the WWE, but Jack Swagger is the complete opposite of that, as he went a lot further than anyone expected or thought he would, even winning the World Heavyweight Championship at one time. He has the amateur background that WWE loved with guys like Kurt Angle, Chad Gable, Jason Jordan and even Dolph Ziggler, but beyond that, he wasn’t that good. With poor promo skills, average in-ring ability and a vanilla personality, it’s surprising that he lasted as long as he did. After a few attempts to reinvent his character, he was released by the company, and although he is taking a few indie bookings here and there, he hasn’t done anything of note. Even at 35, he has plenty left in the tank, so there is still time yet to turn it around.
5 Great – Alberto El Patron
Alberto Del Rio should have been a top heel in the WWE for quite some time (that’s a department they are currently lacking in – legitimate, top heels), but the company failed to get behind him and give him proper, enjoyable storylines, and he has now left the company not once, but twice. Once he hit the open market for the first time, he lit the Mexican wrestling scene on fire, and although he hasn’t been as hot this time around, he is still doing great things along with his wife, Paige. Someone with such talent and experience will always land on their feet when leaving the WWE, and although he hasn’t hit those heights this time around, he still has plenty of time left in the wrestling business, and he has other ventures such as an MMA promotion and restaurants to deal with, meaning he will be successful for many years to come.
4 Not So Great - Ryback
Ryback was on his way to becoming a huge star in the WWE, but with the classic start and stop booking that the company goes to, he failed to get over as a top star, and after being disgruntled with his standing in the company, he left after they couldn’t come to terms on a new contract. Since that point, he announced that he would be wrestling as “The Big Guy” on the independent scene, but with an obscene price tag on his bookings, he’s barely been seen in the ring at all. Of course he has other ventures, following in the footsteps of guys like Chris Jericho and Colt Cabana. Ryback has started his own podcast, but he’s not that entertaining, so that will limit his success. So far, he hasn’t done too much of note since leaving the WWE.
3 Great – Batista
A lot of the people that fall under the "great" in this article have pursued wrestling on the independent scene following their departure from the WWE, but Batista has used the star power he gained in the wrestling industry to work on some pretty great movies, making him one of the most in-demand actors in the world today. His most prominent performance was as Drax the Destroyer in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, but he has also taken on roles in a James Bond film, as well as the upcoming remake of Blade Runner. While he apparently still has the itch to get back inside the ring, he is doing amazing things without the help of the wrestling business. We will no doubt see the Animal return to the business in some capacity within the next few years, but for now, Batista’s stock is continually rising in the world of Hollywood.
2 Not So Great – Adam Rose
As Leo Kruger in the first iteration of NXT the promotion, it looked like Adam Rose had a chance to be something unique and special within the WWE. But they wouldn’t let him take that gimmick very far, and he was repackaged as party boy Adam Rose. At first, it finally looked like he had a character with the legs to make an impact on the company.
Unfortunately, the out-of-touch Vince McMahon didn’t see the positives in the character, and after a mini-push to start his main roster promotion, he was treated as nothing more than enhancement talent to the indie stars who were emerging within the company. Since being released, Rose hasn’t really popped up in any big name promotions, and while we don’t know where his wrestling career stands, it hasn’t been too impressive since his departure from the biggest wrestling company in the world.
1 Great – Cody Rhodes
It’s incredibly shocking that the WWE wouldn’t see the potential in such a talented, young, second-generation performer like Cody Rhodes. After not letting him move away from the idiotic Stardust gimmick, the son of the American Dream decided to take a chance on himself, and leave the company he had been with for almost a decade to move to the independents. After a legal battle with the WWE, the youngest member of the Rhodes family began to compete for promotions like PWG, WCPW, NJPW, Impact and ROH, and he has excelled in each and every one, showing the world why he should have been a top star in the WWE. Time will tell whether he returns to the WWE and takes up the mantle of a top draw, but the American Nightmare is killing it wherever he goes, and he will be a made man whether he returns to the company that mismanaged him or not.