Being a scripted facsimile of an actual athletic contest, professional wrestling is obviously a whole lot different from all other major sports. For this reason, wrestlers can stay in the industry for significantly longer than the average athlete. In football, basketball, baseball, or any other genuine athletic event, before long, the player’s body will start breaking down and leave him or her less capable when they once were. Of course, that still happens with wrestlers, but they’re nonetheless able to contrive smoke and mirrors that hide their advanced age and diminished skills. Well, the good ones are, anyway.
It’s basically a fact at this point that some wrestlers are sticking around way past their expiration date. There’s no mandated retirement age for a WWE superstar, and the truth is, some performers just kept getting better into their late 40s, so maybe there shouldn’t be. That said, there’s never been a five star match featuring a 60-year-old superstar, and we doubt one will ever take place. On the other hand, there have been a few wrestlers who decided to retire immediately after wrestling one of their best matches ever, going out on top in every sense of the expression. For all the specifics, keep reading to learn about 8 wrestlers who stuck around way too long and 7 who left at their peak.
15 STUCK AROUND TOO LONG: Kevin Nash
According to Kevin Nash’s worst critics, almost his entire career was sticking around too long. While that would be an exaggeration to say the least, one would hardly blame Nash had he retired after the back-to-back-to-back bombs that were the Master Blasters, Oz, and Vinnie Vegas. Doing so would have been a disservice to the industry, though, as it was in his mid 30s that Nash turned everything around by signing with WWE and performing as Diesel. Using that name, Nash found great success in WWE, followed by even greater notoriety in WCW as one of the founders of the nWo. From there, he became the WCW Champion five times and was usually one of the most popular athletes in the company. Unfortunately, that popularity started fading by the time of his first WWE return in 2002, and by the time he made his second comeback in 2011, there was absolutely nothing left in the tank.
14 LEFT AT HER PEAK: Lita
In an era when women’s wrestling wasn’t taken nearly as seriously as it is today, Lita stood out for her extreme athleticism and willingness to use her body as a weapon like men in the cruiserweight division. Granted, Lita didn’t always have the finesse to pull off some of the moves she tried, but at least she was trying, and the result was a career that soon transcended almost all of her contemporaries. By the time she was 30, Lita’s popularity brought her to the center of multiple main event storylines, most notably as the girlfriend and valet of multiple time WWE World Champion Edge. Her profile higher than ever, it was during this time Lita won the last two of four WWE Women’s Championships, and she easily could have kept winning more if she wanted to stay in the business. However, Lita apparently felt like she’d accomplished enough, officially retiring the same day she lost her last title at the young age of 31.
13 STUCK AROUND TOO LONG: “Rowdy” Roddy Piper
Just when his opponents thought they had the answers, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper changed the questions…or at least that’s what happened for the first few decades of his career, anyway. After his first hip surgery, Piper had trouble remembering the original questions in the first place, and he had absolutely nothing left to give in the ring, either. This was a far cry from Piper’s day as arguably the greatest villain in WWE history, a status that brought him to the main event of the first WrestleMania. Piper could also be wildly popular, as seen in the crowd response when he won the WWE Intercontinental Championship at the 1992 Royal Rumble. Unfortunately, the applause had heavily died down by the time Piper was wrestling in main events for WCW, against the same opponents and at maybe 25% speed. His 2006 return to the WWE ring was even worse, as this time fans groaned when he and Ric Flair won the Tag Team gold.
12 LEFT AT HER PEAK: Trish Stratus
Predicting the women’s revolution by several years, Trish Stratus was one of the first females in WWE who refused to be famous solely for her sex appeal. Granted, when her WWE career began, that’s pretty much all Trish had going for her. However, with each match she wrestled, interview she gave, and backstage segment she made an appearance in, Stratus grew as a performer by leaps and bounds. Eventually, she was the best female wrestler on the WWE roster and one of the company’s marquee performers. The only downside was that focusing all her time and effort on expanding her career meant Stratus had no time for a home life, something she pined for more and more as time went on. Before long, she decided to walk away from wrestling altogether to settle down and get married in her early 30s. Still at the top of her game, Stratus won her final WWE Women’s Championship in her retirement match, then gave up the title willingly to literally end her career on top.
11 STUCK AROUND TOO LONG: Mick Foley
Considering the way Mick Foley throws himself around the ring, it’s amazing he lived to see 30, let alone keep wrestling past it. Of course, the wrestling world is extremely lucky he did so, because it wasn’t until his Saturn return that Foley started working for WWE and truly etching his legacy. The first five years Foley worked for Vince McMahon were some of the best of his career, capped off with three WWE Championship runs and an incredible feud against Triple H that was supposed to end with his retirement. Had that actually been the end, Foley would find himself on the other half of this list, but unfortunately old Mick keeps waddling down to the ring to this day, long after he promised to retire. Sure, he doesn’t actually wrestle for WWE anymore, but there was a solid three year stretch where he did indeed grapple for TNA, always in slower, weaker matches that greatly damaged his reputation.
10 LEFT AT HIS PEAK: Ricky Steamboat
Recognized world over as one of the best technical wrestlers in history, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat never once lost his step inside the squared circle. Steamboat won his first major championship way back in 1977, pinning Ric Flair for the NWA Television title when he was 24. It was only 16 years later that Steamboat decided he had enough, despite the fact he won his last piece of gold that same year in the WCW US Championship. The last few years of Steamboat’s career were actually amongst his most decorated, having also recently held the WCW Television title, not to mention playing a role in unifying the WCW and NWA Tag Team titles. Unfortunately, it was the same match where Steamboat won his final US title against Steve Austin that he suffered a severe back injury that would have put him on the shelf indefinitely. WCW being WCW, they decided to fire Steamboat for getting hurt, a move that disheartened him to the point he quit the business altogether.
9 STUCK AROUND TOO LONG: The Big Show
Having survived more than 20 years as the biggest giant in professional wrestling, The Big Show more than outdid the already high expectations many fans had upon his debut. That said, he’s also been involved with more pure wrestle crap than just about any other superstar in WWE history. Was it worth the two WCW World Championships and four WWE World Championships to know he’d one day be dressed as a giant baby, dancing around practically naked for Vince McMahon’s amusement? We have to guess no, especially considering the various runs as champion of the world came first. Show’s career has been a true rollercoaster ride, ebbing in the main event and flowing in, well, diapers, and the sad part is that he hasn’t seen an upswing in quite a few years. The second the baby New Year idea was floated, Show should have realized it was more than over and retired on the spot.
8 LEFT AT HIS PEAK: CM Punk
Skeptics reading this list might shake their heads at this entry, not because CM Punk didn’t leave at his peak, but because they don’t believe he’s actually retired. Punk is only 39, still in reasonably good shape, and could easily become the most popular wrestler in the world should he choose to make a comeback tomorrow. The thing is, we strongly doubt he ever will, considering the man himself considers his career over and done with. Punk’s last official match was a near 50-minute tour de fours in the 2014 Royal Rumble, followed by walking out on the company the very next day. This was only one year removed from his record setting 434-day reign as WWE Champion, which may not have been his last if he stuck out his troubles with Vince McMahon and company. The sad truth is that Punk is too stubborn to ever do so.
7 STUCK AROUND TOO LONG: Kane
When Kane made his explosive debut at the 1997 Badd Blood, fans were amazed by what they saw. However, they weren’t sure if The Undertaker’s new monster of the week would last a few months or a few years. At the time, most of the Dead Man’s opponents up to that point faded away shortly after he dropped them with the Tombstone. Kane’s stuck around more than 20 years since that happened, though. In fairness, a good amount of it wasn’t all that bad, as Kane can put on an interesting show whenever he’s put in the right tag team or stable. On the other hand, he’s never been all that much of a solo star, and at this point, he can barely do any real “wrestling” at all. Unfortunately, it looks like not even running for Mayor of Knox County, Tennessee will convince Kane to stop stinking up wrestling rings around the world.
6 LEFT AT HIS PEAK: The Rock
For the most part, when a wrestler leaves the sport at their peak, fans question the decision. Unless their retirement is due to injury, it tracks that there’s lots of money to be made if they stick around just a little bit longer, making it curious why they would choose to walk away. Usually, anyway. In the case of the most electrifying man in sports entertainment, the decision was almost obvious. When given the choice between putting his body on the line in front of millions of fans in a wrestling ring or getting paid ten times as much money to start making movies, just about everyone alive is going to pick the movies. It didn’t matter that The Rock was less than a year removed from his then final WWE Championship reign, as he could always make a comeback whenever he wanted and win it again. He did exactly that in 2013, proving he was still at his peak in a series of excellent matches, only to walk away and return to Hollywood all over again.
5 STUCK AROUND TOO LONG: The Undertaker
An undead zombie able to withstand all punishment, where Mark Calaway really The Undertaker, there would have been nothing wrong with his career lasting 25+ years. Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t adhere to wrestling gimmicks, and thus the man behind the Phenom gradually lost his touch as the years went by. WWE did what they could to cover this up, giving him extremely talented opponents and promoting the hell out of the few matches he wrestled to make them feel special. However, the moment The Undertaker’s WrestleMania Streak ended with a loss to Brock Lesnar, his career should have done the same. The next three years were abysmal to say the least. It didn’t matter if Undertaker won or lost anymore, because the mystique was all gone, a battered and broken 50-year-old man having revealed himself in its place.
4 LEFT AT HIS PEAK: Blitzkrieg
Even the most attentive wrestling fans during the Monday Night Wars could have missed the entire career of Blitzkrieg if they blinked at the wrong moment. Seemingly coming from out of nowhere (but actually having honed his skills in Japan), Blitzkrieg debuted in WCW on a February 1998 episode of Nitro against Rey Mysterio, Jr. Instantly wowing fans with his incredible athleticism and flashy outfit, it was a matter of weeks before Blitzkrieg rose up the ranks in the cruiserweight division. Challenging Juventud Guerrera at Spring Stampede 1999 for a chance to become number one contender, Blitzkrieg wrestled one of the best opening Pay-Per-View matches in WCW history. Unfortunately, he didn’t manage to win, nor would he win any of his subsequent shots at the Cruiserweight title. The matches were still amazing, though, making it a huge shock when he decided to quit the business altogether later that year at the young age of 24.
3 STUCK AROUND TOO LONG: Hulk Hogan
To some wrestling fans, there will never be another performer with the magnetic energy of Hulk Hogan. Definitely the most famous star of the 1980s, and one of the top names in the ‘90s as well, Hogan remained on top of the business for decades, winning six World Championships each in WWE and WCW. That said, not everyone was entirely happy he did so. In fact, some fans had been sick and tired of Hulk Hogan since the 1992 Royal Rumble, when he was booed out of the building. Four years later, he turned everything around in WCW by founding the nWo, but that only elongated his career for as long as the nWo felt like a fresh idea. By the time Hogan went back to the red and yellow in WCW, his popularity was running on fumes, and even the younger fans of the company who never saw him in action before didn’t want to. And then Hogan stuck around for another decade after that in WWE, TNA, and whatever other company would have him, truly unable to accept he wasn’t wanted anymore.
2 LEFT AT HIS PEAK: Shawn Michaels
Call him the show stopper, the icon, the headliner, or the main event, Shawn Michaels was always at the forefront of the professional wrestling industry. Even when he was a mere tag team jobber, getting thrown around the ring alongside Marty Jannetty as one of The Rockers, his performances regularly stood out as second-to-none. Naturally, as he climbed up the ranks to his eventual status as a four time WWE World Champion, Michaels only got better and better. Until injury struck, that is, cutting his career short when he was in his early 30s. HBK’s first retirement came the same day he lost the WWE Championship to Steve Austin at WrestleMania XIV, thus going out with a bang…for four years. In 2002, HBK made a shocking comeback and reclaimed his status as the best wrestler around for another eight years, at which point he lost to The Undertaker at WrestleMania XXVI in one of the best matches of his career. Despite clearing still having plenty of gas left in the tank, Shawn Michaels then left the building for the last time.
1 STUCK AROUND TOO LONG: Ric Flair
Speaking of epic retirement matches at WrestleMania, it’s hard to find one better than Ric Flair’s final encounter against Shawn Michaels. Taking place at the 24th Showcase of Immortals, just about everyone knew the match would be Flair’s last…but it wasn’t. To great criticism, Flair was back in the ring by the very next year, wrestling Hulk Hogan on his Australian Hulkamania tour. Then, Flair further dragged his legacy through the mud with appearances for TNA, which even The Man himself admits he deeply regrets having done. Truth be told, it could be argued the high quality of Flair’s WrestleMania XXIV match with Michaels was simply an outlier, as the past five or six years of his career really weren’t all that great, either. Quite frankly, Flair should have retired in the early 2000’s, around the first time he transitioned to being Triple H’s manager.
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