WWE is the place for professional wrestlers to make a name for themselves in the U.S., and arguably throughout the world. While recent years have seen a proliferation of very respectable independent promotions, none have the resources or reach of WWE in terms of making someone big money or making them famous. And so, a WWE contract remains the goal that most wrestlers aspire to and the pinnacle of their careers.
After WWE, there are those wrestlers who flounder. Oftentimes, WWE lets them go because it was clear they had passed their prime or would never realize their full potential. In other cases, however, time away from WWE is exactly what a performer needs in order to exercise more creative freedom, work a wider variety of opponents on the indy circuit to hone their craft, and otherwise evolve into talents with a much greater upside than we originally observed in their WWE runs.
Another scenario: increasingly, there are those talents who walk away from WWE of their own volition. These are men and women who have a sense of their own self-worth and who see more opportunities to work great matches or develop unique personas when they aren’t under the WWE’s corporate microscope. Sometimes, these wrestlers’ plans pan out, and they become exactly the sort of unique acts WWE should want back in the fold. Other times, these wrestlers are proven wrong or hit a string of bad luck, and in either case burn any bridge that might have led them back to WWE.
This column looks at 10 talents WWE should bring back, and 10 whom WWE ought to steer clear of.
20 Give Him Another Chance: Matt Hardy
When Matt Hardy left WWE in 2010, it didn’t exactly seem like a profound loss. The guy had assembled a fine career as a tag team wrestler with his brother Jeff, and he’d been an entertaining mid-carder under the Matt Hardy Version 1 heel gimmick, and later as a face feuding with Edge and MVP. While he wasn’t altogether stale or a bad wrestler, it also wasn’t unreasonable to think WWE had gotten everything it could out of him, and I was fair enough to part ways.
In recent years, Matt Hardy has looked as though he might be on the verge of a breakdown, including wild videos he posted to social media of him ranting incoherently or chasing ghosts. But in 2016, these pieces came together for Hardy to emerge as one of the most distinctive figures in TNA history—Broken Matt Hardy who speaks with a terrible British accent, calls people by their middle names, hosts wild spectacles at his compound, and does media appearances in his kayfabe character.
The Broken Matt Hardy gimmick is probably too out there for WWE’s mainstream tastes, and the rumor mill has reported that Hardy is more interested in pursuing his artistic vision than ever re-signing with WWE. Just the same, if WWE could get its hands on this enigmatic talent again and meet in the middle with him creatively, he could offer a bizarre breath of fresh air to the WWE landscape.
19 Don’t: Mr. Kennedy
WWE purportedly tried time and again to build massive angles around Mr. Kennedy, including casting him as the mastermind behind blowing up Mr. McMahon’s limo, revealing him to be McMahon’s kayfabe son, his failed Money in the Bank briefcase run, and a brief run as an anti-authority face against King William Regal that got derailed when Regal was suspended and then Kennedy got injured.
When Kennedy signed with TNA and fully embraced his inner Steve Austin, he looked to be on the path to success, including winning two world titles with the organization. The trouble is that his foul-mouthed character wore thin for lack of depth and development, and over time his in-ring efforts grew less and less consistent.
While Kennedy’s look and ability to talk seem like a good match for WWE, the failure of his first run on account of injuries and political issues, paired with his failure to advance himself outside WWE suggest that WWE’s better off cutting its losses on him.
18 Give Him Another Chance: Ethan Carter III
Under the name of Derrick Bateman, the wrestler who would come to be known as Ethan Carter III had a forgettable run in WWE developmental and on the NXT show. Little did anyone know that he’d move on to TNA under the gimmick of owner Dixie Carter’s nephew, evolve in to one of the very best heels in all of wrestling.
EC3 was great, though, in the ring and on the mic, and lands on the shortlist of TNA’s best homegrown talents. It doesn’t hurt, either, that he matches WWE’s prototypical look, tall and muscular. While he couldn’t break out from the pack in his initial WWE run, now that he’s established himself and refined his skills, it would be interesting to see what he might add to the WWE landscape with another shot on the main roster.
17 Don’t: Kelly Kelly
WWE signed Kelly Kelly when she was just 19 years old, based on her work as a fitness model. At the time, WWE was largely hooked on the model of staffing its women’s roster by hiring pretty faces and then hoping they could learn to wrestle, as opposed to looking at ability first.
Of the experiments at that time, Kelly Kelly worked out reasonably well. While she was absolutely abysmal in the ring in her first outings, like an especially bad mixed tag bout at ECW December to Dismember in which she was pinned by Ariel, she worked her way into being a serviceable worker who wasn’t a complete joke as Divas Champion, particularly in her efforts opposite Beth Phoenix.
After six years, Kelly left WWE, and while she’s done a little work on the indies, she’s focused more so on her modeling career. In the intervening years, WWE has completely rebranded its approach to women’s wrestling, taking the division seriously with talents like Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Bayley, and Becky Lynch at the fore. While I’m not saying its impossible that Kelly might continue to improve in the ring, I’d nonetheless argue that the wrestling business has passed her by.
16 Give Him Another Chance: Cody Rhodes
Last year, Cody Rhodes made the high profile, off beat decision to walk from WWE. While no other market could offer him WWE money or WWE exposure, he gambled on the prospect that he could make very good money on the indies based on his name, and that working there would give him the opportunity to call the shots on his own character and get more opportunities in main event level scenarios.
So far, Rhodes has been right. Rather than being relegated to the lower-mid-card Stardust gimmick, he has emerged as a star for New Japan, TNA, ROH, and in one-off appearances with a range of indies. Throughout his WWE tenure, he proved himself capable of making any gimmick work—getting the most out of his early second-generation rookie gimmick, working as Dashing and then acting like a super villain, playing the underdog opposite The Authority and The Shield, and finally doing his best as Stardust. Back on his own two-feet as a solid worker and exceptional talker with the Rhodes name, he’s proving himself all over again as his own man, and if WWE can ever come to terms with him, I suspect he could do great work with the company again.
15 Don’t: Rob Van Dam
Rob Van Dam’s story is an odd one. In his original run with the legit ECW, he proved himself as a phenomenal talent whose athleticism, violent tendencies, and style of promo were a perfect fit for the audience. While his early work with WWE was also good, the act wore a little thin on the grand stage, particularly as age caught up to him and he was no longer able to wow the crowd physically.
TNA might have gotten the last good years out of RVD via his main event run there; RVD’s return to WWE after that spell was fun for the initial nostalgia pop, but otherwise mostly boring and forgettable. While I wouldn’t rule out the value of RVD in another one-off appearance at the Royal Rumble or in a legend cameo on RAW, I don’t suspect he’ll ever be a worthwhile investment for WWE again on a full-time basis.
14 Give Him Another Chance: Evan Bourne
When comes to startlingly athletic plucky underdogs, Evan Bourne ranks right up there with The 1-2-3 Kid as one of WWE’s finest of all time. Just the same, for his small size, he never broke free from the mid-card and tag team ranks, and issues with injuries and the WWE Wellness Policy ultimately neutered his act.
In the aftermath, Bourne has had a solid run on the U.S. independent scene and abroad. While he hasn’t distinctively evolved since his WWE run, this pick for the countdown has less to do with Bourne’s improvement than with WWE shifting gears to fit better for Bourne. A man of his size and talents could do some outstanding work against the indie alumni in NXT, and better yet, the new Cruiserweight Division would be a perfect fit for Bourne’s style. Bourne’s name could add some additional fan interest and legitimacy to the roster, even if he never lays his hands on the Cruiserweight Championship.
13 Don’t: Brad Maddox
Brad Maddox’s WWE story is a strange one. After a middling career in developmental, he debuted as a referee, quickly set to aligning with heels for a Danny Davis-style evil ref gimmick, then became an in-ring performer who mostly got squashed, after which point he had a brief run as a kayfabe authority figure. Through it all—his nearly three years with the main roster—he never demonstrated any clear reason—in-ring ability, talking skills, charisma, look—why he ought to be a WWE Superstar.
Since his time with WWE, Maddox has worked the independents some, but overall, comes across as the kind of guy with no discernible skill that makes him cut out to work with wrestling’s highest profile promotion. Maybe he’ll prove me wrong and better himself in the years ahead, but for now, he’s not someone I could understand WWE pursuing for a return.
12 Give Him Another Chance: Wade Barrett
Wade Barrett had a topsy-turvy ride with WWE, debuting as the winner of NXT season one and the leader of The Nexus, then moving through gimmicks as a bare-knuckle brawler, heelish prognosticator (Bad News Barrett), and King. While badly timed injuries certainly contributed to his limited success as a WWE star, there remain questions, too, about how far he might have risen if WWE had gone all the way with him winning the WWE Championship off Randy Orton when the odds were stacked in his favor at Survivor Series 2010, or if the Nexus had at least defeated John Cena’s team at SummerSlam earlier that year. As it stands, the pair of losses seemed to suggest a lack of faith in Barrett as a star of true main event caliber.
Why should WWE give Barrett another shot? Despite not doing much to advance his wrestling prospects since leaving WWE last year—he has, instead, focused on acting—he’s that rare wrestler with all of the tools WWE could hope for: an excellent talker with a great look, plus a solid in-ring performer with the charisma to get over with the fans. He could still be an asset for WWE, and it seems like a particularly significant missed opportunity that, despite getting his share of cheers under the Bad News gimmick, Barrett never had a face run in WWE.
11 Don’t: Chavo Guerrero
Chavo Guerrero’s work in WWE was largely unfortunate. While he had a small handful of moments to shine, like teaming with his uncle Eddie, beating JBL in a memorial tribute match for Eddie, and winning the ECW championship, booking over the course of a decade in WWE gravitated toward embarrassment, including working in a white golfer gimmick, an abysmal feud with Hornswoggle, and dressing up like an eagle to play Jack Swagger’s mascot. Given the work Guerrero demonstrated in WCW, his brightest spots in WWE, and since departing WWE, a fair argument could be made that Guerrero was one of WWE’s most profoundly squandered talents—a guy who could have been a solid upper mid card act and possibly even a main eventer who was mostly dismissed as a comedic bit player instead.
While there’s a part of me that would like to see Guerrero get another shot at being a serious talent in WWE, he’s past his prime now and WWE has never demonstrated a real understanding of how to use him. I suspect Guerrero’s best work will remain with small promotions, like his run with Lucha Underground in which he played a veteran outlaw who was respected, reviled, and always scheming. A character like that, particularly as played by Guerrero, doesn’t really fit the WWE landscape. Moreover, WWE already has an abundance of talent to fill out spots in the growing Cruiserweight Division, and I fear Guerrero would do more to slow down the young guys at this point than help them along.
10 Give Him Another Chance: John Morrison
Despite showing some early flashes of devilish personality, by the late stages of his WWE run, John Morrison had become a relatively generic face spot monkey, known for his impressive athletic feats, but with little distinguishable character. Since his voluntary departure from WWE, Morrison has done some film work, and emerged as a bonafide star in Lucha Underground. The LU work has allowed Morrison’s best attributes to shine through— his creativity, charisma, and his wild athleticism.
Morrison is precisely the sort of talent who, since leaving WWE, has demonstrated just how much squandered potential he had. While I wouldn’t expect him to be a long-term main eventer in WWE, I could see him as a breath of fresh air as an arrogant upper mid-card heel or potentially as another star addition to the Cruiserweight Division.
9 Don’t: The Great Khali
When it comes to a wrestler’s look, few performers have been better suited to WWE stardom than The Great Khali—a seven-foot-tall guy with big well-defined, muscles. Unfortunately, that’s about all Khali had to offer. Just the same to his and WWE’s credit, his eight years on the WWE main roster accomplished plenty, working as a main even heel early on and eventually evolving into a loveable giant character who had the credibility of his size to keep him over as he spent most of his time putting over up and coming heels. In the aftermath of his WWE run, Khali returned to India to open a wrestling school.
While Khali’s physical attributes will always make him an appreciable presence for WWE, and the kind of guy I could see being brought back for cameo appearances, his limited in-ring skill, mobility, and talking skills (in English) put severe limitations on what he can do as a full-time professional wrestler, and I don’t foresee much value in signing him again.
8 Give Him Another Chance: Kurt Angle
Kurt Angle has spoken in multiple podcasts and shoot interviews about leaving WWE because they demanded he take time off to heal his many severe injuries, and that Angle refused and promptly signed with TNA because they would let him work.
In a recent appearance on The Steve Austin Show, Angle suggested that he did his best in-ring work with TNA, and Austin pointed out that Angle’s tenure with TNA actually ended up being longer than his time with WWE. It’s a shame, then, that this former Olympian who is widely agreed to be an all-time great wrestler did so much of his greatest work in front of TNA’s limited audience.
Between age and injuries, I don’t expect that Angle could again work a full-time schedule for WWE, but signed to a part-time or short-term deal, it would be a dream to see him go against so many top talents like Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Kevin Owens, or Sami Zayn; a program playing the patriot opposite Rusev could do wonders for the Bulgarian Brute. His past rivalries with AJ Styles, John Cena, or Chris Jericho would probably be comparably great today, if not better than they were the first time around.
7 Don’t: Ezekiel Jackson
With his simply massive frame and even bigger muscles, Ezekiel Jackson looked like he could be real star for WWE, but the pieces never quite came together for him as an in-ring performer.
Since leaving WWE, Jackson has done some good work, particularly as an imposing big man among much smaller talents in Lucha Underground. As he approaches 40 years old, though, and still has yet to demonstrate appreciable progress as a wrestler, I see little reason to bring him back to WWE at this stage. He’s best suited to the roles of bodyguard or immovable mass of muscle, but there are other men with comparable looks who are younger and thus have more potential to evolve into legit top guys at this stage. Jackson can use his name and look to carve out a fine enough career on the indies, but I don’t see him making sense as someone WWE should re-sign.
6 Give Him Another Chance: Bobby Lashley
During his brief tenure with WWE, Bobby Lashley came across as a blue chip talent. Yes, he had a great look, but he also had a legit amateur background and explosive athleticism to go with it to emerge as a truly special in-ring talent, while the only real hole in his game was his ability on the mic.
After his WWE run, Lashley has divided time between wrestling for TNA and pursuing MMA. Through his TNA work, he has demonstrated slow but steady improvement to round out his in-ring skills. While he’ll probably never be a great talker, he’s grown more comfortable in that aspect of performance as well, and best of all, his MMA work has added a new sense of deadly charisma to his act.
If he were to return to WWE, I could see Lashley immediately serving as an ideal opponent for Brock Lesnar who has a similar build and similar (if historically more impressive) real-life background as a wrestler and fighter. From there, I could see WWE’s magic polishing him from a good main event heel to a great one.
5 Don’t: Matt Striker
Matt Striker was a good heel wrestler. Working his teacher gimmick, he moved from in-ring performer to manager, before settling into the commentary booth. Striker was divisive as a play-by-play man, on one hand appealing to hardcore fans with his insider references and technical calls, while alienating some more casual fans and purportedly running afoul of management for showing too much of his wrestling nerd personality.
Since leaving WWE, Striker’s most prominent work has come as the voice of Lucha Underground, and this role suits him perfectly. Calling fast-paced ring work, and telling stories as he calls moves by their real names, Striker does everything LU asks of him and paints a colorful picture for the sort of die-hard fans a product like LU attracts.
In this case, I’m not arguing that WWE should not take the guy back on account of any deficiency on his part, but rather as a matter of fit. While Striker’s WWE pedigree boosts his name value and credibility, his style lends itself far better to indy work and it makes sense for both parties leave the other alone.
4 Give Him Another Chance: Jeff Hardy
Jeff Hardy has had a strange career. While his charisma and willingness to jump off stupidly high structures made him the breakout star of the popular Hardy Boyz tag team, and he has had his time on top—even as a world champion in WWE—he has also faced Wellness Policy suspensions, and more than once made the choice to walk away from WWE rather than renew his contract.
Hardy has built a nice side career with TNA, consistently in or around the main event, though he did run into drug-related issues there, too—most famously blowing a PPV main event with Sting on account of coming to work in an altered state. While Hardy’s personal demons mean that he’s not the guy for a company like WWE to push all the way to the top again, he nonetheless has a unique connection to fans, and outstanding abilities as an in-ring performer that make him a worthy addition to WWE’s roster, at least on a short-term or part-time basis.
3 Don’t: Ryback
Despite having a great physique and good charisma, Ryback seemed to hit a glass ceiling in WWE, never quite making it past upper-mid-card status, and shunted back down the ranks multiple times.
In the aftermath of his 12 years under WWE contract (and six years on the main roster) Ryback has been outspoken on his podcast and in various interviews, discussing broken promises from WWE management, and how other talents were difficult to work with, including John Cena. Reports have also emerged about independent promotions’ reluctance to bring in The Big Guy because his asking price is exceptionally high.
While it’s difficult to know how much WWE actually wronged Ryback, his comments have suggested that he both thinks very highly of himself and is not interested in building bridges. While I suspect Ryback could still be an entertaining player on the WWE landscape if used correctly, he never developed into a great enough worker or popular enough character for WWE to justify taking on his baggage in a comeback.
2 Give Him Another Chance: Hulk Hogan
Hulk Hogan is a founding father of contemporary WWE—the face of WWE for the decade when it launched WrestleMania, not to mention a great contributor, particularly from a nostalgia perspective, when he’s made his multiple comebacks over the decades to follow.
Hogan’s days as an in-ring performer are probably done, and I can only imagine him wrestling again under extremely protected circumstances and on a one-off basis. In addition, his personal reputation has been tarnished through the release of a tape that featured him using the N-word repeatedly—the development that caused WWE to sever ties with him in 2015.
While it’s not fair to say that all should be forgiven, and Hogan certainly comes with his liabilities, he also remains synonymous with the WWE brand and is sure to inspire a huge reaction whenever he appears in front of wrestling fans. Thus, it does make sense for Hogan to return to the WWE fold as an ambassador and part-time character or authority figure fans can still rally behind for all that he used to mean to them.
1 Don’t: Alberto Del Rio
While Alberto Del Rio’s first run with WWE was uneven—he got his share of big wins, but also seemed to lose whenever it really mattered—his second run was an incoherent abomination, as he drifted through the upper mid-card directionless before settling in as a forgettable cog in the forgettable League of Nations stable. Given the man’s great track record pre-WWE, and the very good work he did for AAA and Lucha Underground between tenures, the matter seemed conclusive. Either WWE didn’t know how to use Del Rio, or Del Rio simply wasn’t a fit for the WWE landscape.
The poor fit is reason enough for WWE not to work with Del Rio again, but matters get worse given Del Rio’s story since leaving WWE the second time. Various news outlets have reported a string of violent incidents that have followed him—enough that it’s difficult to believe Del Rio is just the victim. Add onto that second hand reports that Del Rio’s limited success in his second WWE run was tied to partying too much and running afoul of Triple H backstage, and all signs seem to suggest that he’s simply not a guy WWE should want in its locker room.
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