WWE superstardom isn't always guaranteed to the best, hardest working, or most talented wrestlers. There is a long history where it was simply the current biggest star who would maintain prominence at all costs, no matter who came along or who caught the attention of the audience. Some people grew up during the Hogan era, others grew up with Bret Hitman Hart and then Shawn Michaels, after that, Stone Cold, The Rock, Brock Lesnar, all exceptional in their ways held the mantle. All exceptional in their own ways. But then came the John Cena era, and the screeching halt of anyone else's chances to ascend to the top that persists to today.
Between John Cena and now Roman Reigns, every competitor who has graced Smackdown or Raw has had a cap on their potential. Wrestlers who get too hot for their station get cooled off. Wrestlers getting big reactions are used to siphon that response upward instead of propelling themselves in that direction. It could be argued that only Daniel Bryan eclipsed this barrier, and his story is littered with obstacles that we don't have time for here. Suffice to say that WWE's track record of capitalizing on some potential megastars is recently woeful, be they flashes in the pan or real deals waiting for the right ingredients to boil over. We've compiled the 15 most egregious examples since 2010 and a handful of outliers who WWE correctly dropped from their plans.
20 Lost Star: CM Punk
You can't look past the most obvious answer to this question, and CM Punk is undoubtedly the one who got away. Cutting the types of engaging promos that brought eyes and mainstream attention to WWE, Punk nevertheless was capped at a certain ceiling. CM Punk rankled and boiled beneath it until that fateful January night when he called it quits.
WWE not only lost out on a vital superstar, but Punk had his form of revenge after WWE twisted the knife by sending his official termination papers on his wedding day. Months later Punk revealed the Roman Reigns plans that were so far working, and fans immediately turned on Vince's next pet project. WWE missed a chance here despite all he managed in his time.
19 Lost Star: Ryback
Ryback may have ended up a bit of a punchline but at his height, he was massively popular, a fresh powerhouse, and was main eventing PPVs for the WWE Championship. Where it went wrong was that Ryback was first a replacement for an injured John Cena in main events and those main events were during CM Punk's lengthy championship reign that was always destined to end at the hands of The Rock.
Bumping off of the ceiling as hard as Ryback did messed up his momentum.
There was also a baffling WrestleMania loss to Mark Henry and a heel turn so Cena could once again sap momentum. After that, he was never the same and spiraled slowly down until he was gone.
18 Lost Star: John Morrison
The Prince of Parkour, The (insert day of the week) Night Delight, The Man Of A Thousand Surnames, and ridiculously one of WWE's most mishandled potential megastars. He's gone on to international success in every company he's worked for, he's about to be on Survivor, he looks and wrestles at an unfairly high level, but in WWE he was the also-ran tag partner of The Miz.
Morrison may yet make his return to WWE one day, and ideally, fans would hope his second stint would be like Shawn Michaels' in its quality, but for a myriad of reasons, it always stalled previously. Morrison had so many sharp tools to work with that his misuse still baffles to today.
17 Right To Let Go: Damien Sandow
Time has proven WWE wise on this one, where despite massive fan support for Damien Mizdow, WWE didn't go all in on him. Outside of one tremendously entertaining gimmick, he couldn't capture fan interest and his wrestling never held up to his mic work. Sandow soon reverted to the Macho Mandow gimmick, then was gone from WWE altogether. Fans were perplexed at the perceived 'dropped ball', but WWE was vindicated.
Fans' hopes that he'd click when he went to Impact Wrestling were soon quashed by his underwhelming Aron Rex persona.
Middling at best matches, promos that missed the mark, and an eventual grasp at a 'stunning' flamboyant turn all produced little for fans to latch on to.
16 Lost Megastar: Neville
The man who inspired this particular list, Neville was finally able to get out from under his WWE contract and is free to work elsewhere after more than a year stuck in limbo. WWE so badly mishandled one of their brightest unique performers that he planted his feet and refused to dance their dance whatsoever. Relegated to 205 Live, Neville had the show trending upward in quality from his vicious heel persona alone, until Enzo Amore was positioned as the centerpiece. That was the final straw.
Electing to sit out the remainder of his contract until he was released rather than be subjected to becoming an also-ran, Neville stuck to his guns. No agreement was reached and Neville has now become an instant hot commodity.
15 Lost Star: Batista
You mightn't think it at first glance but Batista himself has lamented the many ways WWE eventually drove him out of the company with their nonsensical decisions. Batista is pretty happy these days with his lot in Hollywood (James Gunn controversy aside), but where he is expressing his creativity and nuanced acting onscreen he was feeling stifled, mismanaged and sidelined in WWE.
Batista has been massively fined, relegated to a middle match at Wrestle<ania despite facing The Undertaker for the World Title, and was badly misused in his 2014 return to the point he couldn't take it anymore. WWE once again overlooked one of their biggest stars in favor of their own goals, and it ended in failure.
14 Lost Star: Sami Callihan/Solomon Crowe
A case of two philosophies mixing like oil and water, the volatile, explosive Sami Callihan came to WWE's developmental programs and immediately looked out of place. Triple H and Callihan himself have described the relationship as not working, with Sami feeling like he wasn't himself and Triple H at one point seeing a glimmer of the performer he thought he'd hired and proclaiming about it, only for both sides to let the opportunity slip away.
Sami never looked quite right in a WWE ring, his stature and ring-style looking nothing like his work outside WWE.
The moment he was released, however, he recaptured a lot of what he'd lost and both in Impact Wrestling and Lucha Underground he has proven a lightning rod.
13 Right To Let Go: Alberto Del Rio
Alberto Del Rio was perpetually positioned at or near the top of SmackDown despite some flaws that eventually became crippling. Given World Championship reigns, prominent feuds, and every accolade like the Royal Rumble and Money In The Bank victories, Del Rio nevertheless floundered when it came to maintaining interest inside and outside the ring.
WWE actually brought him back once after parting ways, only to have him peter out even quicker the second time. Del Rio clearly didn't care and was collecting paychecks by that point, and finally, WWE got the hint and the two parties went their separate ways. Del Rio proved them right many times over since leaving, so WWE isn't sweating this loss.
12 Lost Star: Wade Barrett
The Nexus is forever going to be looked at as the time WWE had a whole stable of potential that they flushed away in favor of maintaining the status quo. The centerpiece of that missed opportunity, Wade Barrett.
Not only was Barrett a very good mic worker, he could go solidly in the ring and had impressive poise and stature to round out his presentation.
Many had him tipped to be the first England native to finally hold the WWE Championship, but bad decisions and a few horribly mistimed injuries cut him off from that accolade.
Barrett's injuries weren't WWE's fault, but their purposeful hamstringing of his successes when they came most certainly is. WWE neutered him over and over until he finally left.
11 Lost Star: MVP
Montel Vontavious Porter was solid in the ring, and amazing with the microphone, and that usually results in World Titles aplenty in WWE. Not so here, with MVP somehow ending up squandered. MVP's 'millionaire sports acquisition' gimmick was immediately hot on SmackDown, and he backed it up with compelling feuds with Matt Hardy and Chris Benoit in particular and seemed destined for more, but a diagnosed heart condition and WWE putting him in a lengthy 'losing streak' storyline busted his chances.
The man from the 305 still to this day has something to offer, definitely at least as a character on the microphone, but WWE seems done and it's a waste.
10 Lost Star: Alex Riley
This one is part-WWE's, part-John Cena's fault. Alex Riley was another good-looking, good-talking wrestler straight out of the mold WWE loves. He was hot as hell coming off of a feud with his former mentor The Miz but ran headlong into some backstage difficulties. The evidence is plain, with several instances of Cena going out of his way to make Riley look bad, backstage reports of Cena tearing him down at every opportunity, and Riley himself stating that the reason is there but he's keeping it to himself..
Riley could have been a big deal, his combination of attributes along with a tremendous theme song had fans reacting big every time he came out for a good long while but it wasn't to be.
9 Right To Let Go: Sin Cara (Mistico)
The first major signing accredited to Triple H, the former Mistico was given the red-carpet treatment by WWE. Big press conference signing, special entrance, special lighting for his matches, but the crucial mistake is widely believed to be his skipping of developmental. He almost instantly showed his inability to acclimate to the U.S. approach when a series of botches and injuries constantly halted his momentum.
He was then outed for a wellness violation, replaced by an alternate Sin Cara and returned in a reduced role and seemed to refuse to fix what wasn't working.
He hung around for a lackluster pairing with Rey Mysterio, but eventually went back to Mexico and WWE kept the mask on Hunico thereafter.
8 Lost Star: Kharma
Before WWE got properly serious about their women's division they flirted with bringing in someone involved in some of Impact Wrestling's highest rated segments, renaming her Kharma. With an impressive, unique stature and presence, and the experience of having a division built around her dominance, it seemed a natural fit.
What happened instead was that WWE got a single match out of her. After that she remained on the sidelines and when WWE gave her a timetable for her return, she didn't make it and WWE cut her. Both sides never seemed on the same page, and she's proven WWE the loser in this relationship by going on to star in Netflix series GLOW.
7 Lost Star: AJ Lee
When you talk about women during the Divas Era, AJ Lee stands like a colossus that belies her diminutive frame. Excellent on the mic, endearing as a babyface and malicious as a heel, she could do it all. She was so good that she got elevated into prominence as the Raw GM after being critical in many main-event feuds.
AJ Lee was, of course, wrapped up in the CM Punk saga, marrying the Straight Edge Superstar and leaving the WWE a little over a year afterward. She cited having accomplished all she wanted to, but no doubt WWE's mishandling of women up to that point, combined with her husband's disputes led to WWE losing one of the best they'd had in a decade.
6 Lost Megastar: Cody Rhodes
What's left to be said after Cody just ran the most successful American independent show of all time? Cody was a classic WWE case of assuming someone in a middle role was happy to stay there and wouldn't rock the boat when told of their fate. Since then Cody has done everything to prove WWE wrong, even if he holds no outward resentment for his marginalization.
Now Cody is the NWA World Heavyweight Champion, ROH World 6-Man Tag Champion, a soon-to-be author, and the most talked about wrestler in the country outside WWE.
He only seems to be getting started with his greater ambitions, and WWE missed out by viewing him as little more than a cog in the machine.
5 Right To Let Go: Enzo Amore
The former two-time Cruiserweight Champion apparently rubbed everyone in WWE the wrong way and that meant he was on thin ice quicker than almost anyone since NXT began. No amount of mic skills could cover for his erratic behavior, caustic personality, and lack of in-ring improvement. When even the Cruiserweights can't drag you to decent matches consistently, you're not pulling your weight.
Enzo's legal troubles (regardless of the outcome) ended WWE's willingness to put up with him, and Enzo didn't do himself any favors. He has released a rap song that is difficult to listen to even if you like that type of music, and vowed that his wrestling career is over. It's actually astounding he lasted as long as he did.
4 Lost Star: Bray Wyatt
Breaking some rules here but if you can look at Bray Wyatt and see anything but the biggest missed opportunity character to come from WWE in years, you're crazy.
Wasted and burned by WWE's need to feed any credible force to their perpetual main eventers, Wyatt is now irrevocably damaged.
Worse than being a bolster just for the elites of WWE, he was actively positioned as the stopgap feud for anyone they wanted to keep in busy without progressing them meaningfully. He'd ramble about their sins and a few months later move on to the next immobile story. Elias has taken even that job now, so Wyatt can be officially declared a lost cause.
3 Lost Megastar: Eli Drake
One of the times WWE cast off someone very early, Eli Drake was under the rubbish name Slate Randall in NXT before leaving in 2014. This can apparently be laid at the feet of now disgraced former head trainer Bill Demott, who Drake blamed for his departure. It didn't stop the man with The Undeniable Kavorka though, showing up in Impact Wrestling as one of Drew McIntyre's lackeys before breaking out with his silver-tongued exuberance.
If WWE had their time over again they'd most definitely lock down Drake, as he's solid enough in the ring that they could make big money with someone with a mouth like his. Impact recently offered him a big contract extension so WWE lost out. Dummies? Yeah.
2 Lost Star: Austin Aries
Austin Aries has taken his brief WWE stint as near to an insult as one can. He was excelling in every avenue, be that in NXT, as a commentator, and as a face challenging Neville for the Cruiserweight championship, yet WWE balked at his sense of self-worth. Aries is notorious for holding himself in high esteem and demanding the same from companies he works with.
There are conflicting stories over Austin's actual release, whether he requested it, or was too difficult to work with, but the man undoubtedly has gone on to bigger and better things regardless. Besides having a stranglehold on the Impact Wrestling World Championship, he's released a book and now works wherever he wants. Winner: Austin Aries.
1 Right To Let Go: Kaval
Another notoriously 'difficult to work with' wrestler, Kaval won the second season of WWE's NXT competition after Wade Barrett.
He has a completely unique and brutal style, WWE didn't think much of him though leading to a lackluster run on SmackDown and an eventual release.
If he'd come in a few years later he'd have been a likely candidate for 205 Live or as the high-flying sensation of the day, although considering Neville and Austin Aries' troubles it's not likely WWE would ever have found a way to use him properly. Either way, another missed chance that in this case brought some of it on himself, and ultimately WWE and he couldn't mesh, so he went off to work elsewhere.