It's almost always a sad moment whenever our favorite pro wrestlers have to retire from active competition, or at least from full-time in-ring action. After years of watching these men and women put their bodies on the line against rival after rival after rival, these wrestlers' departures leave a void for a lot of us, as we shout "Thank you _____!", either at live events as they cut their retirement speeches (if applicable), or say those words in our heads from the comforts of home.
But if you stop and look at the big picture, there are some retirements that leave fans thinking that their heroes went out on a positive note, or even ended their careers with a bang and not a whimper. And of course, you've got those retirements that happened due to unexpected events such as in-ring injuries, or followed periods of piss-poor booking and a significant loss of push.
Right now, we shall be looking back at seven times wrestlers had satisfying ends to their wrestling careers, or at least to their runs as full-time in-ring performers. And we shall also be looking at eight times when wrestlers' darkest pro wrestling moments were also among their last as active competitors.
15 Daniel Bryan (WORST)
Indie sensation Daniel Bryan made his official WWE debut as part of the first season of the NXT rookie search in 2010. He made an immediate impact on the main roster after WWE fired, then quickly rehired him that year, but it was in 2013 when he started taking off as an underdog hero. And while he had made his legions of fans happy at WrestleMania XXX with a dramatic WWE Championship win over Batista and Randy Orton, concussion-related issues officially ended his WWE career in February 2016 at the age of 34.
Unlike Edge, who accepted the fact that he had to retire prematurely, it's almost like Bryan was dragged kicking and screaming into retirement, what with multiple outside doctors declaring him fit to wrestle. While we're not in any medical position to do the same, it's clear that Bryan remains heartbroken by the fact WWE's doctors won't let him wrestle, and he did recently stroke rumors of an in-ring comeback once his WWE contract comes up in early-2018. If that happens, it obviously wouldn't be for WWE.
14 Edge (BEST)
From his days as a silent, sullen character who entered through the crowd to his peak as WWE's Rated R Superstar, Edge was one of the most dynamic performers of his time. He didn't speak at first, but when he did, he became one of WWE's best mic men. And there was no questioning his ability in the ring, and his eventual success, as he became an 11-time WWE Champion and 14 Tag Team Championships, most of them with his onetime storyline brother/real-life best friend Christian. Then it all ended in April 2011 with a new haircut and a dramatic retirement speech on Monday Night RAW.
Many Edgeheads were undoubtedly crushed to learn that their hero had retired so abruptly, but there's a reason why we still consider the ending of his WWE career as a happy one. Yes, he was only 37 when he was forced to retire, but he had left while he was on top, and left as a World Heavyweight Champion. And he remains loyal to WWE, occasionally making TV appearances and co-hosting the Edge and Christian Show on the WWE Network.
13 "Superstar" Billy Graham (WORST)
"Superstar" Billy Graham was arguably the first wrestler to successfully combine a powerfully impressive physique with transcendent charisma and promo skills, and he held the then-WWWF’s Heavyweight Championship for over nine months, from 1977 to 1978. By that era’s standards, that was an extremely short reign for a top promotion’s world champion.
Due to a combination with his disillusionment with Vince McMahon Sr. and his creative plans and escalating health problems brought about by his steroid use, Graham was never the same after losing his belt. But in mid-1987, WWE was making a big deal about his comeback after hip replacement surgery, and fans were popped at the prospect of a former champ coming back for one last run. But it was an extremely disappointing one, as Graham’s hips and ankles couldn’t take the strain of his comeback. And when he was shifted to commentary in 1988, he was out-"brother"-ing Hulk Hogan with all those fillers.
While he's now a WWE Hall of Famer, it's sad to note that we often get to hear about Graham when he's making "bitter veteran" rants about WWE and its product.
12 Trish Stratus (BEST)
She was originally a fitness model with little wrestling training, but she would become one of the all-time great women to compete in the WWE. In just a few short years, Trish Stratus became a more than competent wrestler, winning seven Women's Championships and engaging in memorable rivalries with fellow WWE Hall of Famer Lita. But it all had to come to an end just a few months before her 31st birthday, as she retired in September 2006 at the Unforgiven pay-per-view.
Again, it's not always a bad thing in the long run when someone retires from pro wrestling at a rather young age. In Stratus' case, she had actually won her retirement match, done so at her hometown of Toronto, and won it by defeating longtime rival Lita with Canadian hero Bret Hart's trademark finisher, the Sharpshooter. She had clearly gone out on top, and as we saw, Trish did wrestle a few more matches for WWE, including a controversial team-up with John Morrison and Jersey Shore's Snooki at WrestleMania XXVII.
11 Magnum T.A. (WORST)
Wrestling for WCW predecessor Jim Crockett Promotions, Terry “Magnum T.A.” Allen was considered a rising young star in 1986. Then only 27 years old with great charisma and a surplus of wrestling skills, he was one year removed from a highly-rated “I Quit” match against Tully Blanchard at Starrcade 1985, and while he ended up losing the feud, his rivalry with Ivan and Nikita Koloff several months later was quite a memorable one. He was seen as a future world champion, and had his whole career ahead of him.
Then in October 1986, Magnum was involved in a serious car accident that had paralyzed him and left doctors doubting whether he would be able to walk again. While he was able to walk again and live a productive life away from the ring, he never wrestled again, with his once-promising career over well before his 30th birthday.
10 Bruno Sammartino (BEST)
From the 1960s to the 1970s, Bruno Sammartino was WWE’s biggest star, bar none, having enjoyed two multi-year championship reigns that lasted over 11 years combined. But by the start of the 1980s, the “Living Legend” was in his mid-40s, and feuding with onetime protégé Larry Zbyszko. Don’t listen to Hulk Hogan’s self-aggrandizing claims in his autobiography – Sammartino vs. Zbyszko was the biggest draw at 1980’s Showdown at Shea, as fans flocked to Shea Stadium in hopes of seeing the veteran Italian Strongman beat the cocky young upstart in a steel cage match. And he did.
One year later, Sammartino announced his retirement from pro wrestling, wrapping up his North American career with a win over George “The Animal” Steele, then riding off into the sunset with a successful tour of Japan. He then returned to WWE in 1984 to work as a color commentator and occasional wrestler. But this entry ranks low because of the circumstances – Bruno’s return was part of a settlement deal where he sued WWE for unpaid gate percentages. And because of his open criticism of WWE’s direction under Vince McMahon Jr., it was only in 2013 when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, 25 years after his last WWE announce team stint.
9 The Ultimate Warrior (WORST)
We have, time and again, documented The Ultimate Warrior's shenanigans during his WWE run, and on occasion, his lack of technical wrestling ability. But Parts Unknown's most famous resident ever had a great career in the WWE, defeating Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania VI in a classic "passing of the torch" moment that had him winning the WWE Championship. He was hugely over with fans, especially younger ones, and was still a fairly big deal when he was brought back twice in the 1990s after falling out with Vince McMahon over money.
Warrior in WCW, on the other hand, was not over at all. From his rambling 20-minute introductory promo, to his cheesy Batman-inspired "Warrior signal," to his negative-star match against Hogan at Halloween Havoc 1998, Warrior was an overpaid underperformer in WCW, which quickly realized they'd made a big mistake bringing him in. He would quietly retire from wrestling before the end of the year, not long after WCW sacked him.
8 Ric Flair (BEST)
Although he still wrestled in a few matches afterward for Impact Wrestling, WWE canon will naturally tell us that Ric Flair retired as a consequence of his loss to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XXIV. Prior to that, he was still wrestling fairly regularly for WWE despite the fact he was nearing his sixth decade on Earth. In fact, he had appeared on a November 2007 episode of Monday Night RAW to tell fans that he “will never retire.” That had led to a series of career-threatening matches, with the last one coming at WrestleMania XXIV against HBK.
You probably know what happened next. One day after being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, Flair and Michaels faced off at WrestleMania, and for over 20 minutes, the two respected veterans fought tooth-and-nail in an intense match that told a compelling story. Forget the fact that Flair was 58 and Michaels 42 at that time. It was all about the emotion, and no moment said it better than Michaels uttering those famous words – “I’m sorry, I love you” – and hitting Flair with Sweet Chin Music to end his full-time career. Truly a touching moment for anyone who watched that match.
7 Droz (WORST)
Former NFL defensive lineman Darren Drozdov joined WWE in 1998 with a rather unusual gimmick — as he had shown during his time with the Denver Broncos, he was able to regurgitate on command. He was also pushed as a potential replacement for the increasingly-unreliable Hawk on the Legion of Doom, and when that failed to work out for multiple reasons, he took on what appeared to be a street thug-like character, forming a stable with his kayfabe entourage — tattoo artist Prince Albert (a.k.a. Tensai/Jason Albert) and drug dealer Key (a.k.a. Vic Grimes).
Sadly, Droz's WWE career ended in October 1999, after a botched D-Lo Brown running powerbomb had seriously injured his neck, rendering him quadriplegic. It was an unfortunate accident that cut short a young prospect's career and left Brown feeling guilty for a good period of time. But as Droz said in a 2014 interview with Jim Ross, he's never held a grudge against D-Lo for what happened that night.
6 Antonio Inoki (BEST)
Antonio Inoki is one of the few Japanese wrestlers who can legitimately lay claim to being the country’s G.O.A.T. in the sport. He did, after all, found New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1972, as well as win several championships for the company. And while many talk about his divisive “wrestler vs. boxer” match against Muhammad Ali as his best-known moment competing against Americans, he also defeated Bob Backlund in 1979 to briefly, albeit unofficially hold the WWE Championship, and fought Ric Flair in North Korea in 1995, defeating him in a true once-in-a-lifetime match.
Inoki’s swan song as a pro wrestler lasted a good four years, as he went on a series of “Final Countdown” matches between 1994 and 1998. These included matches against WCW main eventers Flair, Sting, and Big Van Vader, and wrestling-rules recreations of matches against MMA fighters such as Gerard Gordeau and Don Frye, among several others. He gave “going out with a bang” a new meaning, going undefeated in the entire Final Countdown series and wrapping up his career in April 1998 with a victory over Frye in his last wrestling match ever.
5 Hayabusa (WORST)
Japanese wrestler Hayabusa was one of Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling’s greatest wrestlers ever. The reputation he built up in FMW’s signature hardcore matches helped him make a few appearances in North America in the ‘90s, including one ECW match in 1998 where he and Jinsei Shinzaki (a.k.a. Hakushi in WWE) won the company’s World Tag Team Championships against Rob Van Dam and Sabu. He was also known for his high-flying maneuvers, including the Phoenix Splash, a move that has since been used by the likes of Seth Rollins.
Hayabusa was only 32 years old when, in 2001, a botched springboard moonsault execution had him landing on his head. This resulted in two cracked vertebrae, and had him paralyzed for most of the remaining years of his life – sadly, he passed away in 2016, not long after he revived the long-defunct FMW and was able to walk again for the first time in almost 15 years. Had he not died last year, he would have potentially made his in-ring comeback on May 5 of this year.
4 Shawn Michaels (BEST)
These days, announcing your retirement from wrestling often means you're going to have to do the job on your way out. And back in his '90s prime, Shawn Michaels was one wrestler who famously hated having to lose, and many still allege that he faked his early-1997 retirement and loss of smile to avoid having to lose his WWE Championship to Bret Hart at WrestleMania XIII. But he did retire for real before the end of the century, only to come back in 2002 and enjoy a sustained main event run for the rest of the decade.
Unlike the younger, pilled-up Michaels who would oftentimes throw tantrums when asked to take the pin, the older, wiser, and mellower Michaels of 2010 willingly did the job for The Undertaker for a second straight 'Mania at WrestleMania XXVI. There weren't too many dry eyes when both men hugged each other at the end of the match, and when Shawn cut his retirement speech on the post-'Mania episode of RAW. Shawn Michaels had, as he said, "left the building," and had done so in the classiest way possible.
3 CM Punk (WORST)
One year after his modern record-setting 434-day reign as WWE Champion ended, CM Punk's sudden departure from the WWE and from wrestling itself was marked with acrimony, with the bad blood between both sides running thick even up to this day.
After an impressive performance at the Royal Rumble, Punk abruptly walked out of WWE in January 2014, and it was soon clear to fans that things weren't right between Punk and his soon-to-be-former employers. Ten months after the walkout, he appeared on good friend Colt Cabana's The Art of Wrestling podcast, and dropped a ton of bombshells, talking about how he was a victim of politics, how WWE allegedly mishandled his injuries, and worst of all, how WWE fired him on his wedding day.
Up to now, any talk of pro wrestling is almost sure to get Punk testy, and despite his impressive eight-year run on WWE's main roster, he's someone the company would almost want you to forget. Throngs of fans still chanting "CM Punk!" whenever bored, annoyed, or in a trolling mood, however, suggest that won't be an easy job to do.
2 The Rock (BEST)
While it can be argued that we're cheating a bit with this entry, we're referring to The Rock's career as an active, full-time professional wrestler, which ended in 2003 just as his Hollywood career was beginning to take off. With The Scorpion King doing good in the box office, he announced on a January 2003 RAW that he was going to focus on acting, with WWE taking a backseat. In true Rock fashion, he leveraged this real-life decision into an effective heel turn in his final run as a full-time WWE talent.
At Backlash 2003 in April, The Rock ended this final full-time run with a loss to Goldberg, and as we found out, he would experience great success as a box office superstar. And he wasn't entirely done with the WWE either, making occasional appearances, and even holding the WWE Championship briefly in 2013.
No, we don't think he'll ever be a full-time wrestler again. But whenever The Rock finally comes back to whatever city WWE is holding a show in, fans are sure to welcome him back warmly. That is, unless he's trying to get Roman Reigns over, as we found out two Royal Rumbles ago.
1 Bret Hart (WORST)
In this list, we've seen careers end on a low note due to bad booking, and careers end abruptly due to freak injuries in the ring. Both of those things happened to Bret Hart in WCW, which he joined in the fall of 1997 despite Vince McMahon warning him that the rival promotion "would never know what to do with a Bret Hart." A lot of us may hold it against Vince for the Montreal Screwjob that, well, screwed Bret out of his WWE Championship, but we have to admit he was spot-on with the above warning.
With "Hollywood" Hulk Hogan and Sting set to fight for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship at Starrcade, WCW had Hart relive the Screwjob by calling for the bell as Sting had Hogan in the Scorpion Deathlock. Then he was placed in illogical storyline after illogical storyline, turning face and heel on a moment's notice, and with the worst possible timing. And to top it all off, an errant kick to the head from Goldberg had severely concussed Hart at Starrcade 1999. WCW still forced him to keep wrestling as Hart dealt with severe headaches and other post-concussion syndromes, and as he remained on the sidelines per doctor's orders for most of 2000, WCW fired him, per tradition, via FedEx.
With Hart announcing his retirement shortly thereafter, his WCW run marked a sad and directionless end to what had otherwise been a legendary career.