The free agent market is hit or miss for wrestlers leaving WWE and looking to continue their careers. Most wrestlers will attempt to continue making a living after leaving the biggest wrestling promotion in the world. There are a few promotions where wrestlers can make a full-time living, but most of the wrestlers will have to work for a plethora of different wrestling companies. Some performers thrive on the open market while others will have to make the decision to walk away. We will look at the decisions of various wrestlers working outside of WWE.
There are the talents that have quietly returned to the ring in smaller promotions as they look at make big steps forward. Others have realized their time is up or just want to move into a different field. Not everyone gets a big farewell video package in WWE and these specific wrestlers left on their own terms to less fanfare. Both sides will be looked at along with reasons why the wrestlers made these decisions and a glimpse into their future. Find out what your former favorite wrestlers are up to these days with eight former WWE stars that quietly returned to the ring and seven that secretly retired.
15 Returned: James Ellsworth
The underdog hero turned villain in WWE back in 2016 and 2017 is now working for other promotions. James Ellsworth shockingly signed a WWE contract in 2016 after standing out as a great enhancement talent against Braun Strowman. The facial expressions and wacky character of Ellsworth allowed him to find success in storylines with AJ Styles, Dean Ambrose and Carmella.
WWE released him as part of budget cuts towards the end of 2017. Ellsworth’s no compete clause has expired, and he has already returned to the independent circuit. The first big storyline for Ellsworth is emerging as a contender to Nick Aldis’ NWA Championship. NWA is attempting to expand with Billy Corgan running the promotion and Ellsworth will likely be a part of the promotion going forward.
14 Retired: Bully Ray
The Dudley Boyz are entering the WWE Hall of Fame this year after many years of success as a legendary tag team. Bubba Ray and D-Von achieved everything possible as a tag team and will deservingly enter the Hall of Fame. Their team ended when D-Von retired in 2016 to become a producer backstage for WWE.
Bubba continued wrestling for Ring of Honor as the Bully Ray character for one final run. A retirement match took place at Final Battle 2017 when Bully and Tommy Dreamer teamed together in a losing effort against The Briscoe Brothers. Bully is still appearing for ROH as an authority figure and is now entering the WWE Hall of Fame. The end of the road is here as transitions into the next stage of his career.
13 Returned: Kaitlyn
Kaitlyn had a successful in WWE ended faster than anyone could have predicted. Shortly after her run as Divas Champion and one of the top faces in the women’s division, Kaitlyn decided to leave on her own terms. The decision to start her own clothing line business and get married saw her put wrestling in the past. While the clothing line has been success, Kaitlyn has stated her divorce helped her realize how much she missed the ring.
Under her real name of Celeste Bonin, she had her first match back in February against Rachael Ellering in Florida. Bonin plans to continue wrestling on the independent circuit and seems hopeful for a WWE return at some point soon. The impressive first match back showed she certainly has a chance to leave a bigger impact on wrestling.
12 Retired: Summer Rae
The recent release of Summer Rae towards the end of 2017 showed WWE no longer felt she was worth keeping around. Summer showed tremendous personality as a heel character in FCW and NXT before getting called up as Fandango’s dance partner. WWE rarely gave Rae the chance to showcase her personality and she became a forgettable second tier performer in the women’s division.
Summer was campaigning for one more chance after returning from an injury. While she did get cleared, WWE never wrote her back into the show and she got fired. Rae was already starting to set up her career path outside of wrestling at the end of her run. Maxim named her to their hottest 100 women annual feature and Summer continued to take impressive modeling gigs. Her wrestling career has come to an end as she has no interest in taking wrestling bookings.
11 Returned: Wade Barrett
Wade Barrett has not wrestled since leaving WWE, but he has recently returned to the industry as a character. WWE saw Barrett decide to leave at the end of his contract in 2016. Both parties decided it would be best if Barrett found another route as he tried to get into the acting industry. Barrett realized he needed a change as WWE felt he would never get above the mid-card picture.
The decision to leave wrestling saw Barrett take a few acting roles in movies scheduled to be released this year. Wade has found a reason to return to wrestling as UK promotion Defiant Wrestling booked him as the new General Manager. Barrett is a big part of storylines and is running the show in kayfabe, but he is still holding out on having his next match. It would seem to be happening sooner than later.
10 Retired: Matt Morgan
Former WWE prospect Matt Morgan had a few small pushes on the main roster after huge hype in developmental. Jim Cornette claimed Morgan was the best big man to enter the industry since The Undertaker. WWE didn’t feel the same way as they quit on him multiple times before releasing the big man.
Morgan spent most of his prime in Impact Wrestling as a mid-carder. They pushed him in the main event picture multiple times, but it just never worked out. Morgan realized he was never going to get to the level he expected in the industry. It led to him retiring and finding a new career path selling medical devices. Morgan also is now a local politician as the commissioner of Longwood. Wrestling is already in his past shortly after retiring.
9 Returned: Tajiri
WWE signed Tajiri in 2016 as a member of the Cruiserweight division following his spot in the Cruiserweight Classic. The Japanese wrestling legend had a great run in ECW to help put him on the map in the United States wrestling scene. Tajiri signed with WWE in 2001 and had a successful run. A range of serious and comical character roles showed Tajiri could contribute in any way.
Tajiri had an injury issue that prevented him from becoming a fixture on 205 Live after he was gone following a few weeks of action. WWE and Tajiri parted ways due to the injury preventing them from using him as expected. Tajiri chose not to retire and has started wrestling full-time in Japan again. Time will tell if he ever has another run in the United States.
8 Retired: Candice Michelle
Many fans are unaware that former WWE Women’s Champion Candice Michelle returned and retired from the wrestling industry last year. Michelle left WWE in 2009 after a successful run as the face of the women’s division for a short time. Following many years of being on the sideline out of the public spotlight, Candice decided she wanted to have one more match.
Michelle returned to the ring for an official retirement at the end of 2017 in a singles match against Victoria at House of Hardcore. The show took place in her home of Wisconsin in a match with her close friend giving her the ultimate farewell. Most wrestling fans missed out on it, but Candice officially retired in front of her biggest fans. WWE did not bring her in for the Royal Rumble, so she wanted to retire on her own terms.
7 Returned: Simon Gotch
Simon Gotch’s biggest success in WWE came as one half of the Vaudevillains tag team. Along with Aiden English, Gotch played a throwback character for the entertaining team in NXT. Gotch and English won the NXT Tag Team Championship at the first TakeOver: Brooklyn show for a cool moment. The Vaudevillains struggled to get over on the main roster.
Gotch took most of the blame due to having backstage heat. Most of the wrestlers reportedly disliked Gotch leading to his release. Following his no-compete contract clause, Gotch returned to the independent circuit under the new name of Simon Grimm. Ring of Honor brought him in for a few television tapings, but Simon is struggling to gain relevance in the wrestling world outside of the WWE bubble.
6 Retired: Damien Sandow
WWE fans wanted the company to push Damien Sandow for years making him a cult favorite. Sandow thrived in various character roles from the arrogant heel to the loveable stunt double of The Miz. Both runs could have seen him have a bigger push, but WWE always kept him in the lower card. Sandow finally got released in 2016 and fans expected him to have a great run showing his potential in other promotions.
Impact Wrestling signed Sandow in a move that exposed him as being rather overrated. Sandow appeared out of shape and did poor work leading to him parting ways with Impact faster than expected. A decision was made by Sandow to leave the wrestling business and try his hand in a new business. It is a sad way to go out if Sandow doesn’t ever get another chance at redemption in the ring.
5 Returned: Emma
The run of Emma in WWE saw her have great matches in NXT in the early stages of the women’s revolution taking over the industry. Emma and Paige had great chemistry and the stage to deliver their intent on making women’s wrestling credible. The main roster of Emma unfortunately didn’t allow her to have the same impact.
Following a few failed runs on the big stage, Emma was released in 2017 after losing to Asuka in Asuka’s first WWE match. The return of Emma has been complete as she wrestled her first match on the independent circuit against Angelina Love at WrestlePro under her name of Tenile Dashwood. Ring of Honor made a big move for their tournament to crown the first Women of Honor Champion by bringing Emma in. We may see Emma have a great run if she keeps up this pace.
4 Retired: Gail Kim
Gail Kim had a farewell moment in Impact Wrestling last year, but that was not the end of her wrestling career. The legend continued wrestling on the independent circuit after finishing up her Impact run. Kim has been rightfully respected as one of the best women’s wrestlers in the world due to her successful Impact career. WWE dropped the ball with her twice that motivated her to prove her talent in Impact.
Gail worked for numerous independent wrestling promotions to have one final tour connecting with fans in different areas while wrestling talented free agents. The official retirement quietly took place at Southside Wrestling against Kasey Owens in the United Kingdom. Fans at the small show got a part to enjoy a special moment. Kim stated she wanted to end her career on a UK show and got her wish.
3 Returned: Darren Young
Darren Young’s WWE release came as a shock due to the timing. WWE decided to fire Young just one night after he made a public appearance at a Los Angeles Clippers game for WWE Night. Young enjoyed his time in the company, but it was a tough run towards the end. Following the end of the Prime Time Players tag team with Titus O’Neill, Young could not find a successful role to get over.
Young has started modeling as seen by his posts on social. Despite trying his luck in another field, he will be making another run in the wrestling industry on the free agent market. Young revealed he is booked for an upcoming WrestlePro show and will be taking more bookings going forward. We'll see if WWE underrated the talent of Young based on how his work in the smaller promotions delivers.
2 Retired: Mark Henry
It is rare for a WWE wrestler to quietly retire while under contract. WWE legend Mark Henry has decided to hang them up based off reports about his new role in the company. Henry transitioned into a backstage producer role helping WWE in another position. History has seen Henry recruit current stars Braun Strowman, Apollo Crews and a few others into WWE.
Henry clearly has an important spot in WWE and will be a part of the company for quite some time. The in-ring aspect of his career ended out of the blue as Henry didn’t have a retirement match or big farewell match. We may see Mark have another appearance or return at some point in the future, but his status is retired as he works on his new job.
1 Returned: Adam Rose
Adam Rose revealed he was going to retire in the middle of 2017 after having tough luck on the independent circuit. The WWE release from Rose saw him embark on a journey to try to prove he was being held back. Rose however just showed that his name value was unimpressive. Fans and promoters showed no interest in him on the free agent market.
Rose revealed he retired in 2017 with the hopes of putting his time into his other business ventures. The retirement has ended rather quickly as Rose is already taking bookings in 2018. A few smaller promotions have added him to their shows, but it remains unlikely he will get a chance in the top independent companies. Rose must be returning for the love of the sport rather looking for another big run.