Cody Rhodes made news recently when he claimed that since leaving WWE, he has been getting paid a lot more. In a way it makes sense. While WWE pays more to the average wrestler, the pay gap between say a midcarder in WWE and a top star like John Cena or Brock Lesnar is very significant. For someone who was in Cody's shoes, it is quite possible the paychecks weren't as satisfying as one would think.
Rhodes is claiming that he's making almost double with ROH than he was back in WWE. Rhodes could be an exception, as he's become a top draw all around the world and is a bonafide superstar on the indie scene. Additional rumors have been circulating that many WWE Superstars are unhappy with their position in the company and have asked Cody how he left and managed to become so successful.
Not all WWE Superstars struggling would be able to just leave and make a better living. For every Cody Rhodes, there's dozens of former WWE stars that don't find success outside Vince McMahon's umbrella of sports entertainment. However, there are definitely some on the roster who could make it on their own. Additionally, there are former stars who did in fact go off on their own already, to mixed results. Here are eight WWE Superstars who should go along the Cody Rhodes path and seven you forgot already left WWE before.
15 Needs to - Dolph Ziggler
When we review internet lists of “The Most Underrated Wrestlers”, there are several names that are very commonly found (others we will find later on down this list), and one that frequents the top is is Dolph Ziggler. Debuting in WWE in this character in 2008, he was quickly flagged by fans for his athleticism and charisma. It was not until 2011 when Ziggler became involved in the main event scene that he won the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Award for “Most Underrated” wrestler that it became apparent that WWE did not share the fan’s sentiments about Ziggler’s talent. Ziggler has had numerous brushes with main event status – whether it is having the World Heavyweight Championship reigns cut short, or being the sole-survivor in a Survivor Series match without any creative follow-up – but they have not materialized into anything for his career.
Now imagine if Dolph were to apply his talent outside of WWE – the marquee independent matchups for him vs. Cody Rhodes, Kenny Omega or a number of top tier talent are mouth-watering. Dolph has never been able to apply his professional wrestling “show-off” talent outside of WWE, and with his career seemingly in a stalled position with his current “frustrated wrestler” storyline, this may be the best time for him to apply his trade on the independent circuit.
14 Already did - Jinder Mahal
While Jinder Mahal’s current WWE Championship run is not without controversy or criticism, there is no denying that his “Cinderella story” of returning to WWE is inspirational. A previously mentioned member of the 3MB (Baby!) group known for its jobbing tendencies, Mahal was not on anyone’s radar for a WWE Championship run, which led to his release in 2014. However, upon resigning with WWE in 2016, Mahal took a renewed focus to wrestling and improved both his physique and charisma. Obviously, his time away from WWE was beneficial to his mind and body, because his renewed focus has given him enough clout to deserve a shot in the main-event spotlight. The above listed talent who should consider a move outside of WWE should look at Mahal’s story and take it into consideration for their own career.
13 Needs to - Luke Harper
I may be slightly biased when it comes to this entry – I was a big fan of Harper while he was on the independent circuit as Brodie Lee because he was consistently booked in promotions in Canada, and was able to put on spectacular matches that are still talked about today (here is one of him wrestling Michael Elgin in a promotion called C*4. That is why when I see Harper not achieving main-event status, despite the ability and charisma that he possesses, it is very upsetting to me as a fan.
If Harper was to leave his current “Bludgeon Brother” status, and return to promotions like Chikara and Jersey All-Pro Wrestling and put on athletic matches like during his previous independent run, he would be able to show the world what he is able to do when he is not confined. Harper is one of the most genuinely talented wrestlers I have ever seen, and would easily be able to create the same amount of buzz upon leaving WWE that Sami Callahan did last year when he returned to the independent circuit.
12 Already did - Christian
Imagine being the kayfabe little brother of one of the most decorated champions in WWE History? What would that do to your ego when your brother is just starting to become pushed as one of the next main-event level stars? Well, Christian went through exactly this in 2005 when Edge was beginning his rise as the “Rated R Superstar” and did one of the most sensible things in his wrestling career – he saw that things were not progressing in the way he had hoped, so he moved on to a stint in TNA, where he became one of the decorated champions and stars for their company from 2005-2009. Christian was one of TNA’s first big acquisitions and helped put them on the map, while also being one of the most beneficial moves that Christian made for himself.
11 Needs to - Curtis Axel & Bo Dallas
I grouped both of these two wrestlers together because not only are they part of the “Miz-tourage”, but they both suffer from the same issue professionally – they are both plagued by their past characters. Whether the crowd is changing “McGill-i-cutty” or “I Bo-Lieve”, both Dallas and Axel will not be able to reach any type of success in WWE while their former gimmicks and characters haunt them.
The unfortunate part of this is that both Dallas and Axel have significant wrestling talent, but without the fan support they are unable to gain any traction as performers. Some time away on the independent circuit to shed the previous stigma of their personas would benefit the both of them. Being able to make a name for themselves apart from WWE programming, and then returning with a renewed focus will allow fans to forget their former characters, and perform with a clean slate.
10 Already did - Eddie Guerrero
One of the less-remembered (and unfortunately dark for him personally) aspects of Eddie Guerrero’s wrestling career was during 2001-2002. Guerrero had been released from WWE, but still continued to wrestle on the independent circuit, even famously appearing on Ring of Honor’s debut show in 2002. Guerrero wrestled for several promotions during this time with many notable opponents, including wrestling CM Punk and Rey Mysterio during that time.
While the focus on independent wrestling was not as prominent in 2002 as it is now, Guerrero’s time spent on the independents gave him a renewed focus on wrestling, which allowed him to be catapulted into the main event scene upon his return, leading to him capturing the WWE Championship in 2004.
9 Needs to - Cesaro
Previously, we discussed Dolph Ziggler’s unfortunate win of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Award for “Most Underrated” wrestler, and how it would justify his decision to leave WWE. If that is the case, than Cesaro’s record breaking four wins of this award from 2013-2016 is a (red siren) sign of his status. Prior to entering WWE and wowing crowds with his athleticism, Cesaro was a main-stray in independent promotions, such as Ring of Honor, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and Combat Zone Wrestling. Anyone that has seen his work with Chris Hero (or Kassius Ohno) and Mike Quackenbush knows that Cesaro is definitively one of the best wrestlers on the planet.
If Cesaro were to return to the independent circuit, he would be welcomed back with open arms to a series of marquee matches which would allow him to display all of his talents. Imagine the buzz that Cesaro would create if he left WWE while being featured on programming every week? He is currently a corner-stone of the RAW roster, but is not reaping to rewards of his work, and him leaving would create gap in programming that would be difficult for WWE to fill. If he was able to leave amicably, and then make a triumphant return after a couple years’ time, there would be no way his main event spot could be denied to him.
8 Already did - Brock Lesnar
Our current reigning and defending Universal Champion Brock Lesnar has obviously not spent his entire career in WWE, nor has he spent his entire career in professional wrestling. While Brock’s initial run in WWE is what most rookie stars dream of, considering he dominated the scene from 2002-2004 quickly becoming the youngest WWE Champion of all time, it was only after he left WWE for a tenure in the Ultimate Fighting Championship that he became the box-office draw that he is today. Following a storied career in the UFC as Heavyweight Champion and selling out numerous events (including UFC 100), Lesnar returned to WWE in 2014 to much fanfare (as you can hear from when he returned in 2012) as a genuine star.
Without his run outside of WWE (NFL career notwithstanding), Lesnar would not have been able to achieve this level of status. Granted, not everyone of the wrestlers on this list could achieve this type of status, but it is worth aspiring to.
7 Needs to - Heath Slater
Heath Slater is a call-back to wrestling “jobbers to the stars” of the 1980s – while he has a solid character behind him and has achieved lower-mid card success in the tag-team division, fans do not view Slater as someone who can legitimately be a threat to anyone that has a significant wrestling resume. As a result of his time spent being beat up by returning legends, comedy matches and status in 3MB, Slater’s reputation has suffered during his time in WWE.
Speaking of 3MB, both of his former members – Mahal and McIntyre – left WWE for a period of time, and have now returned with a renewed focus and a much higher status. Who’s to say that if Slater did not attempt the same feat that some time on the independent circuit would not garner him similar success. Frankly, given the way that Slater’s career has been circling the drain over the past years, it is certainly worth a shot (especially considering the size of his family!).
6 Already did - Jeff Hardy
While Jeff Hardy is currently experiencing a renaissance of his career after returning to WWE during this past year’s WrestleMania, he was able to capitalize on his own name recognition upon leaving WWE multiple times. Through the periods of 2004-2006 and 2010-2017, Jeff Hardy was not a part of the WWE roster, and instead wrestled for both Ring of Honor and Total Nonstop Action promotions, achieving considerable success in both. Particularly interesting is that during his first run in TNA, Jeff was quickly catapulted into the main event level, feuding with their top stars of Jeff Jarrett, Abyss and Scott Hall (yes, he was a main-event star during this time). While he went on to become WWE Champion multiple times during his return, Hardy did not receive this level of consistent opportunity in WWE until he had taken time away in TNA to assist his craft.
5 Needs to - Nia Jax/Naomi/Tamina Snuka
With the advent of the WWE Performance Center, all wrestlers are able to be given a high-level of training to assist in them honing their craft. However, there is no real substitute for the “on-the-job” experience that independent wrestlers receive when they travel the world wrestling outside of WWE. For many female wrestlers on the WWE roster, they did not receive that opportunity because they were brought up wrestling in WWE only.
If any of the above women were to leave WWE and apply their craft in a promotion that features women prominently, such as Shimmer or Women of Honor, they would be able to connect with fans on a different level, and learn from those that have spent time wrestling in a different way.
4 Already did - Sycho Sid
When we look at the rest of this list, it is filled with either some of the most underrated wrestlers of all time, or big stars that have become legends over time. In a different book but on the same page, Psycho Sid is also one of the wrestlers who made the decision to remove himself from WWE programming, and then made a return to find more success during his next run. In 1992, Sid was a part of the WWE roster, and did not achieve much of note in regards to his legacy (besides feuding briefly with Hulk Hogan). However, upon returning to WWE in 1996 after a stint in WCW, Sid returned to his first, and only WWE Championship run.
While Sid was not well received during his first run, his return to WWE was the highlight of his career, and without leaving WWE the first time and shaking the stigma of his first run (sound a little familiar, Bo Dallas and Curtis Axel?), he would not have been able to achieve the highest point in his career. Unfortunately for Sid, this also included a rumor that he pooped his pants during a match with The Undertaker (see the match here, and you be the judge!), so take that for what it is!
3 Needs to - Hideo Itami
Hideo Itami’s wrestling legacy outside of WWE is one to be shared – with Heavyweight Championship runs in Pro Wrestling NOAH and appearances in Ring of Honor’s Heavyweight Division, Itami (or KENTA as he was previously known) was a fixture of Japanese wrestling before transitioning to NXT and the United States in 2014. Itami’s signing created a fair bit of buzz in the wrestling industry, with numerous press-conferences leading up to his debut. Unfortunately, Itami was side-lined due to a shoulder injury early on during his time in NXT, which removed him from action. While an injury is always dis-heartening for a performer, it was incredibly bad timing as Itami was injured while NXT was hitting its peak in popularity. Upon returning him injury, Itami has not been able to make a similar impact on the brand as initially hoped.
With fans not connecting to him as hoped, perhaps it is time for Itami to return to his roots of wrestling, and leave the WWE to remind the world how talented he is. The buzz around him leaving would create the talk needed to get people looking at him again, which means the stigma around his injury-plagued NXT run would be gone. If this were to pan out, an eventual return to WWE programming on either RAW or Smackdown would mean Itami would be ready to impress the world again.
2 Already did - Cody Rhodes
This entry is more of a prediction than a current example - when Cody Rhodes asked for his release from his WWE contact in 2016, people thought he was out his mind for giving up his WWE career. However, Cody was certain he would find happiness and success on the independent circuit, and he was absolutely right. Cody has been a fixture of high-profile independent matches for the past year, including a main-event status spot in New Japan Pro Wrestling, Ring of Honor and TNA, among many other guest appearances across the world. Cody has also gone on record to call himself "the biggest draw in wrestling today", which you can see here in a Sportster Article. Cody is the prime example of taking destiny into your own hands, and there are many current WWE stars that can follow his lead.
1 Needs To: Neville
Neville recently made headlines when word got out that he walked out of Monday Night RAW recently, shortly after being booked to drop his cruiserweight championship to Enzo Amore. Additionally, news also broke out that Neville was left off the main card on the WrestleMania 33 DVD, meaning his WrestleMania royalties were far lower than he initially anticipated. Overall, he has realized that he's never going to be treated like a top star in WWE and he feels that he's going to have the chance to be a bigger star outside of WWE, much like Cody Rhodes has become. Speaking of which, that wouldn't be a bad matchup to see in say, ROH. Rhodes may very well have just paved the way for a mass exodus in WWE.