The WWE is the top dog in the pro wrestling industry and nothing will change that. WWE defeating WCW in the Monday Night Wars and buying their competition was the final nail in monopolizing the rest of the industry. The years have gone by and the stranglehold has tightened with no other promotions being able to achieve enough success to compete against the juggernaut. TNA had a small chance but made poor decisions every time they had a chance to grow. New Japan, ROH, Lucha Underground and other promotions offer the chance to make a living outside of WWE, but it can still be rather difficult.
Wrestlers have to hustle and use multiple platforms to gain success if released from WWE. The name value and television time are immeasurable, but it is up to the talent to earn more success off of that. Wrestling every weekend on the independent circuit and building a reputation to get to the highest paying and most popular alternatives is the way to get it done. Social media has helped in spreading the word of performers with buzz along with marketing from them. It is easier than ever to sell t-shirts or engage with the fan base. These are tools to create success.
Not everyone has been able to hit the magical formula in life after WWE. Plenty have failed in a new environment without the safety of a WWE contract to fall back on. The heart, determination and risk taking have helped a few talents blossom outside of WWE. These stars have used their name value to help rising promotions or create an even bigger brand outside of WWE. The ones that couldn’t are struggling to remain relevant and receive bookings on consistent basis. We’ll look at both sides of the landscape, as we look at the special stories of eight wrestlers that thrived outside of the WWE and another eight that didn’t.
16 Thrived: Matt Sydal
The timing of Matt Sydal coming to WWE as Evan Bourne was a bit too early. WWE still viewed smaller performers as less valuable and there was always a ceiling on his position in the company. You would see him as a fixture in the midcard division or in tag team action, but his potential was wasted. Following a release thanks to violating the wellness policy and getting injured, Sydal has reinvented his career. The high-flying master has upped his game into becoming one of the best wrestlers in the world with great success in New Japan, ROH, PWG and various other independent promotions. Sydal is the perfect example of how to thrive in a post-WWE life in pro wrestling, by letting your work do the talking.
15 Didn’t: Justin Gabriel
The missed opportunity of The Nexus was a huge mistake in recent WWE history. The heel faction of youngsters invading WWE seemed like a “can’t miss” idea that ended in lackluster fashion. Justin Gabriel’s aerial display spotlighted him more than the other members of the faction due to the flashy move set. However, WWE managed to do absolutely nothing with him and he toiled away in irrelevance until his eventual release. Gabriel appeared to have the makings of a star on the indie circuit at first with impressive showings in EVOLVE. Sadly, he has stalled since then with his only notable work taking place in Lucha Underground as a background player on the program.
14 Thrived: Chris Hero
Independent wrestling legend Chris Hero signed with WWE in hopes of becoming a television star like Seth Rollins, Cesaro or Kevin Owens have become, but it just wasn’t in the cards. Rumors circulated that his weight gain in NXT as Kassius Ohno caused his ultimate demise in the company. WWE released him and sent him back to the indie scene. Hero has excelled once again to make a living by having stellar matches on a weekly basis in PWG, EVOLVE and various promotions all over the world. The true sign of success is doing what you love to make a living and having fun doing so. Hero has that down pat and continues to rack up the classic matches to give us lasting memories as well.
13 Didn’t: Yoshi Tatsu
Japanese wrestling has boomed in the past few years, but Yoshi Tatsu has not been able to be a big part of it. Yoshi wrestles in New Japan but has a secondary role nowhere near the top of the card. WWE hoped Tatsu would become their next big star from Japan but a silly gimmick limited his potential to get over. Yoshi’s time in the WWE ended after years of obscurity and he transitioned into a role with NJPW. During a match with A.J. Styles, Yoshi suffered a broken neck injury from taking the Styles Clash. A recent return has given him hope but it doesn’t appear he will have a good chance at moving up the card any time soon.
12 Thrived: Jim Ross
No one wants to get fired from WWE. It’s the only stable job in pro wrestling, but that applies even more to the broadcasters. Wrestlers can work for any promotion if their work is good enough, but the announcers have only a few jobs available. Jim Ross is luckily the greatest broadcaster in wrestling history and his years of greatness has helped him secure success outside of WWE. The Ross Report podcast has accumulated millions of downloads showcasing a strong interest in his show. JR also has a one-man tour that features him telling stories about his time traveling the world and answering questions about the business.
11 Didn’t: Josh Mathews
The broadcasting side of things rarely works out for those leaving the WWE. Jim Ross was afforded nearly two decades worth of television time in the WWE before getting the boot, so he had an advantage on the open market. Josh Mathews represents the other side of the spectrum. WWE employed Mathews for years and had him on the main commentary team with Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler for a short time period. It didn’t work out and his time with the company ended once they realized he wouldn’t be a top three commentator on the show. TNA has made Mathews the voice of their show and it’s been a huge failure. Mathews has been accused of taking away from the action – the worst sign of the work of an announcer.
10 Thrived: Trent Barreta
Fans will have very few memories of Trent Barreta’s time in the WWE. You are a great fan if you can fondly look back at any of his time in WWE as special. The company just didn’t understand his personality or believe in his talent, which obviously led to a release. Trent has saved his career by making a big name for himself all over the world. The tag team of Roppongi Vice with Rocky Romero is one of the best in New Japan and ROH. Trent also stands out among the top stars in PWG. Fans love him now more than ever and it’s leading to huge financial success outside of WWE for him.
9 Didn’t: Curt Hawkins
Many expected Curt Hawkins to follow the path of Trent Barreta following his departure from WWE, but it didn’t work out in the same way. WWE was the dream job for Hawkins and he earned the right to work with Edge as a henchman tag team with Zack Ryder. Hawkins would not get any opportunities after that chapter and WWE let him go. While WWE is the goal, Hawkins was a big independent wrestling fan and looked to work for the likes of PWG. He did get a few shows with them but the matches were a bit disappointing and he no longer appears. You can only find Hawkins on Global Force Wrestling and lower tier indies these days.
8 Thrived: Ethan Carter III
WWE completely dropped the ball with Ethan Carter III during his time in the company as Derrick Bateman. The talented young man was stuck in development for years with his big break coming in the pointless NXT competition show. TNA signed him as soon as possible after his WWE release and introduced him as EC3. The overall state of TNA is in shambles, as they;re struggling to gain relevancy once again but Carter has become a diamond in the rough. EC3's character work is up there with anyone else in the business and he is the best thing going on in TNA today. No one else can say they turned their career around as quickly as Carter.
7 Didn’t: Ezekiel Jackson
Ezekiel Jackson's WWE run was around the end of the “body guys” being able to obtain success without having the talent to back it up. WWE made him the final ECW Champion and hoped to push him, but his horrible work caused it to end abruptly. His release saw him try to continue his in-ring career, but he's struggled. Jackson spent a few months in TNA as an enforcer for Dixie Carter and was a part of Lucha Underground’s Season 1 as Big Ryck. Both instances saw him underperform and fail to hold down a spot. Jackson still appears on lower tier shows across the country, but the fat lady has already sung.
6 Thrived: Catrina
Lucha Underground’s bombshell was actually once in the WWE ranks. Catrina dazzles us weekly as arguably the best performer on Lucha Underground’s El Rey show due to her outstanding acting and unique look. WWE employed her in the developmental system for years and she was a favorite of the legendary Dusty Rhodes. For whatever reason, they never saw how special of a performer she was and let her go. Lucha Underground picked her up to portray the Catrina character and they've hit a home run. The acting career of Catrina is gaining steam as well and she has a bright future ahead of her, including her work in LU.
5 Didn’t: Ted DiBiase Jr.
Ted DiBiase Jr. entered WWE with a world of potential to follow in the footsteps of his father. It can add plenty of pressure when your father may have been the greatest villain in wrestling history and you are a youngster entering the industry. The pressure of WWE’s hopes for him to become a future World Champion mounted and he hit a ceiling in the midcard. DiBiase Jr. surprisingly left the company and has been a hard man to find. Following a few secondary independent wrestling shows, DiBiase Jr. found a career in selling college textbooks and has unofficially retired from the industry.
4 Thrived: Rey Mysterio
The legend of Rey Mysterio will be remembered for years. Between his trailblazing persona in both WCW and WWE, Mysterio has influenced most of the stars entering today’s wrestling business. Mysterio grew unhappy with WWE due to the road schedule and his injuries piling up with the hectic workload. The masked icon was granted his release and has been working on his own time. Mysterio is a fixture in Lucha Underground and has appeared on huge media platforms like ESPN to promote the show. His star power is being used to help build his new home. You can also find him on various independent wrestling shows, where he'll make solid amounts of money, making life sweet for Mysterio outside of WWE.
3 Didn’t: Brad Maddox
The story surrounding Brad Maddox’s release is definitely one of the more shocking ones in recent memory. WWE let Maddox go for breaking a rule of saying terms not allowed on television during a dark segment promo. Maddox calling the fans “cocky pricks” saw his demise following a disappointing run as a wrestler for the company. The force of a name change caused him to change his name to the very clever Mad Braddox. This name has not been used anywhere, as we have yet to see him wrestle outside of the WWE. Aside from selling t-shirts online, Maddox (or Braddox?) is nowhere to be found these days.
2 Thrived: Drew Galloway
How did the WWE manage to screw this one up? Drew Galloway had everything you’d want in a main event star as a good looking monster of a man with great in-ring skills and a passion for the business. WWE abandoned all hope after one short push flopped during his early stages as a performer. Galloway has thrived big time since leaving WWE, earning titles all over the world and putting together a great body of work. TNA’s momentum is nonexistent but Galloway is still thriving as their champion. Galloway’s best work takes place in EVOLVE and Scotland’s ICW. The star is currently involved in anti-WWE storyline in EVOLVE feuding against NXT star Johnny Gargano.
1 Didn’t: CM Punk
It may not be completely fair to rate CM Punk’s time outside of WWE as a failure at this stage, but you have to look at the facts. Punk’s UFC fight has been postponed longer than anyone could have imagined and he is predicted to get slaughtered if he makes his debut in August as expected. Punk's overall brand has suffered with very little presence in the public. Punk’s new hobby writing comics have been met with mixed reviews and it’s not something he will likely be able to continue. The embarrassment of his UFC career not thriving and the passive aggressive comments about WWE are not a good look for Punk.