The professional wrestling business, like so many aspects of life, can be cruel and unfair in certain situations. Many talented performers have, over the years and decades, been forced to hang their boots up and see their careers end suddenly for reasons they weren’t able to avoid for one reason or another. Others who maybe weren’t as talented of in-ring performers or overall talents were able to avoid such career-ending situations and, thus, remained active workers in the business long after their physical primes and after fans wanted to see them perform inside of rings at any venue. In a perfect world, organizations such as World Wrestling Entertainment would find an ideal balance for these two opposite ends of the spectrum, but that hasn’t been the case far too often.
Two of the top babyface acts to work in the WWE over the past two decades, including arguably the company’s biggest ever star, had their careers end suddenly because their bodies betrayed them and prevented them from having official retirement matches. On the other hand, several living legends of the industry continued to be booked for events such as WrestleMania shows long after they should have ridden off into the figurative sunset. While it is easy to understand any wrestler would do well to extend his or her career and receive paychecks while money is still offered by an organization, one cannot help but wonder if a performer possibly tarnishing what was once a proud and significant legacy is worth it when all is said and done.
15 CM Punk: Ended Suddenly
Little could anybody have guessed when CM Punk legitimately walked away from the WWE in January 2014 that his wrestling career had ended suddenly and that he was never going to return to the promotion.
It’s been over three years since Punk made that decision, and he has since completed the transition to the Ultimate Fighting Championship and to a life away from pro wrestling. While the WWE has a long history of performers who left the company on bad terms eventually being welcomed back with open arms, all indications are that Punk is officially retired and looking to continue fighting in mixed martial arts even though he was thoroughly dominated by Mickey Gall at the UFC 203 show in September 2016. Fans may miss Punk, but it appears he doesn’t miss wrestling one bit.
14 Kevin Nash: Dragged On Forever
We applaud Kevin Nash for continuing to receive gigs in companies such as the WWE and Impact Wrestling long after he was a capable in-ring worker. Nevertheless, watching Nash bury the X Division in what was known, at the time, as Total Nonstop Action Wrestling quickly lost any luster it had, and Nash, Scott Hall and Sean Waltman recreating “The Band” in 2010 was yet another reminder TNA/Impact was still just a cheap imitation of the WWE.
While Nash’s appearances on WWE programming have become sporadic, there remains the concern the company could still book him for a one-off such as a Royal Rumble. The former Diesel is now in his late 50s, and neither he nor the company can turn the clock back. Let’s all agree to leave the memories alone with this one.
13 AJ Lee: Ended Suddenly
It seems silly to mention Punk’s wrestling career ended suddenly without also focusing on AJ Lee. Lee, Punk’s real-life wife, worked in a tag team match at WrestleMania 31, but she then retired from the company and from in-ring competition, entirely, less than a week after that show without much explanation at the time.
In her memoir Crazy Is My Superpower that was released earlier this year, Lee explained that damage to her cervical spine played a role in her walking away from the industry in the spring of 2015. While she has somewhat left the door open for a future return to a wrestling promotion, she has stated, in interviews, that she is content with being retired and with the way her stint in the WWE finished.
12 Mick Foley: Dragged On Forever
Knowing all we know about the concussions and other injuries Mick Foley suffered throughout his incredible career, it’s safe to say he probably should’ve retired at some point in the early 2000s well before he ever had a stint in Impact Wrestling or one final run in the WWE in the early 2010s.
Anybody watching the product back in 2011 could see Foley was a shell of his former self, physically speaking, but the WWE nevertheless planned on having him work a program with Dean Ambrose for Summerslam 2012 until company doctors were unable to clear him. Foley later explained a neurologist informed him it would be unwise for him to wrestle again. While he served as the on-air General Manager of Raw from the summer of 2016 through March 2017, his in-ring career is hopefully finally over.
11 Magnum T.A.: Ended Suddenly
Younger pro wrestling fans who are not historians as it pertains to the industry likely do not understand how special Magnum T.A. could have been in the fall of 1986. Magnum was set to become the top babyface in the National Wrestling Alliance booked to win the World Heavyweight Championship when he was involved in a car accident that left him temporarily paralyzed and that permanently ended his wrestling career suddenly and without warning.
The NWA did well to tease Magnum could, one day, make a return to the ring for a program with a heel such as Tully Blanchard, but it was never meant to be. It’s a shame, because customers with an emotional attachment to the product never got to see a final payoff and see Magnum carry the title he deserved.
10 Kane: Dragged On Forever
Go back to a version of yourself watching the WWE during the “Attitude Era” of the late 1990s and tell that person he’ll still be seeing the “Demon” Kane appear on shows such as Raw and SmackDown in 2016. The gimmick was already stale and old by the time Kane was linked with Daniel Bryan for “Team Hell No,” and the “Corporate Kane” character he portrayed as a member of the The Authority in 2013 stopped being entertaining well before it was ditched in the summer of 2015.
Kane nevertheless continued being an active in-ring performer up through November 2016, and it has since been learned he's running for political office. We wish him all the best in his future political endeavors while at the same time hoping the Kane persona is now a thing of the past.
9 Bret Hart: Ended Suddenly
Those who never saw Bret “Hitman” Hart in his prime will never fully grasp how great of a performer he was regardless of if he was working as a heel or a babyface. The beginning of the end of Hart’s career unofficially kicked off in late 1999 when Goldberg accidentally legitimately hit him with a thrust kick to the head during a match.
Subsequent concussions and issues stemming from those head injuries resulted in the former WWE and WCW Champion retiring in the fall of 2000, and any hope Hart could one day make a full return to the ring ended after he suffered a stroke in June 2002. While Hart was heavily protected in a handful of matches and segments during returns to the WWE, he’ll never have a true retirement contest fitting of such an amazing worker.
8 Scott Steiner: Dragged On Forever
As difficult as it may be for some who only follow WWE and no other wrestling promotions to believe, “Big Poppa Pump” Scott Steiner is, in fact, still performing for organizations such as Impact Wrestling and still cutting “shoot” interviews and promos. As much fun as it may be to know Steiner is about to speak with a live microphone in his hand, the harsh reality is that he stopped having great matches during his run in the WWE that ended all the way back in 2004.
Impact nevertheless signed him and then brought him back on multiple occasions, and Steiner’s latest return to the company occurred earlier this spring. One of these days, Impact Wrestling may learn the 1990s and early 2000s really are over and it’s time to move on.
7 Edge: Ended Suddenly
Some out there may remember that it felt as if Edge announcing his retirement from in-ring action in April 2011 following a title defense versus Alberto Del Rio that occurred at WrestleMania XXVII was nothing more than a work, possibly one that would result in the “Rated-R Superstar” turning heel.
That segment on WWE programming, unfortunately, was very real, and the WWE later confirmed doctors told Edge he could be risking “paralysis or even death” due to his history of neck, spine and nerve damage. Obviously, the WWE would never again clear Edge to wrestle or even take a serious bump, and he has since embraced acting gigs and also roles on WWE Network shows. Alongside former tag team partner Christian, Edge is one of the stars of the Network program The Edge and Christian Show That Totally Reeks of Awesomeness.
6 The Undertaker: Dragged On Forever
We mean no disrespect to Undertaker, an icon of the wrestling industry worthy of being inducted into any Hall of Fame. Still, we cannot ignore watching such an important figure work an awful match with Roman Reigns in the main event of WrestleMania 33 was a difficult task for anybody who has been a fan of his work throughout his WWE tenure.
‘Taker looked beaten-up, in real pain and even out of position several times during the match, and the contest put a bright spotlight on the harsh truth that he's no longer the “Phenom” he was when he had five-star WrestleMania contests working with Shawn Michaels. We thank you for everything, Undertaker, and we sincerely hope you’ve wrestled your last match underneath the WWE umbrella.
5 Sting: Ended Suddenly
Some out there may claim Sting’s wrestling career more so dragged on forever than ended suddenly because of his long run in Impact Wrestling. We don’t see it that way, though, as Sting finally made his way to the WWE in the fall of 2014 and had plenty of possible dream matches in front of him when his career ended suddenly after he suffered a serious neck injury during a match with Seth Rollins in September 2015.
It was hoped, at the time, this physical setback wouldn’t be permanent, but Sting announced his official retirement at the WWE Hall of Fame ceremony in April 2016. We now know we’ll never get to see what could, and likely would have been a historic showdown featuring Sting battling the Undertaker at a WrestleMania show.
4 Ric Flair: Dragged On Forever
“Nature Boy” Ric Flair is arguably the greatest overall performer in the history of North American pro wrestling, if not the entire industry, in general, so it didn’t matter to pockets of fans he wrestled well past his prime leading up to what should have been his retirement match, a contest versus Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XXIV.
Flair, as most guessed at the time, couldn’t help himself, though, and he eventually made returns to in-ring action to wrestle on the Hulkamania: Let The Battle Begin tour and later with Impact Wrestling. Flair, who is 68 years old as of the posting of this piece, still appears on WWE programming from time to time, but it's clear his days as a wrestler are mercifully over.
3 Steve Austin: Ended Suddenly
Imagine how differently wrestling fans around the world would’ve viewed the match between “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock from WrestleMania XIX had we known, ahead of time, it would be Austin’s last ever match. Neither man involved with that contest nor the WWE announced, beforehand, Austin had to retire following that encounter because of his history of neck injuries stemming from the piledriver delivered to him by Owen Hart during their SummerSlam 1997 battle, so fans were none the wiser when Rock had his hand raised at ‘Mania XIX.
While WWE has teased Austin could return to the ring on multiple occasions, most notably for a match versus CM Punk, that dream has since become nothing more than a fantasy fans will have to live out in imaginations or via video games.
2 Hulk Hogan: Dragged On Forever
Sure, it was a nice nostalgic moment when Hulk Hogan was given a run with the WWE Undisputed Championship after he defeated Triple H at the 2002 edition of Backlash. By the time Hogan was still competing for Impact Wrestling roughly ten years after that encounter, though, it was actually sad to see the man once known as the Hulkster hobble around rings and try to get through one-star matches.
Hogan has experienced many physical setbacks over the past 20 years, some of which occurred because he delivered literally thousands of leg drops during his legendary career. We don’t know, as of the summer of 2017, if we’ll ever see Hogan back with the WWE for multiple reasons, but we’re confident in predicting he’s wrestled his last match for that promotion.
1 Daniel Bryan: Ended Suddenly
When it was leaked on February 8, 2016 that Daniel Bryan/Bryan Danielson was retiring from the WWE and from in-ring competition because of issues caused by the amount of concussions and head injuries he suffered during his career, fans were left wishing a new storyline had been created or that Bryan would, in time, recover and make a full return to the ring.
As of June 2017, though, Bryan remains retired even though he has dropped hints on WWE programming, in social media posts and in interviews he may one day wrestle again for a different promotion. The hope is Bryan, who became a first-time father in May 2017, will put his long-term health first and think long and hard before having even one more match.