Over the years, the wrestling industry has proven itself to be unstable at times. For a multitude of reasons, rosters turn over and we are constantly seeing wrestlers shift from one promotion to the next. It can almost be overwhelming at times. There are instances when we see established stars, or burgeoning up-and-comers, leave their familiar territory only to re-appear years later, or not at all. Again, this is a relatively common occurrence in professional wrestling, but some cases over the years haven’t made much sense. Star in-ring performers leaving a promotion while in their prime may be a questionable move at the time, but it generally signifies a change in attitude and marketing for the promotion, which we have seen happen to WWE in several key instances over the years.
In many cases, a wrestler won’t just stop performing all together, but will scale down, working smaller and smaller shows until they decide to retire, or take another occupation within the industry. This could be for the simple reason that they are out of their prime, or that their run with a major promotion like WWE or WCW didn’t go as well as management expected. It usually spells a premature exit, leaving them to alter their initial plans, and work independent shows until they get another shot at the big time, or are forced to retire.
So it may be inexplicable at the time, but there is usually a worthwhile reason for it. In any event, the names on this list had established themselves with a major promotion at some time during their careers, but were unexpectedly absent from programming at some point in the future. Ultimately, it’s just the nature of the business.
13. Tony Atlas
All but forgotten now by wrestling’s mainstream audience, Atlas was one of the most popular tag team wrestlers of the early 1980s in WWE. While teaming with The Rock’s father, Rocky Johnson, the pair defeated The Wild Samoans for the WWE tag titles, and were the first African-American team to win the belts. He also had success in various NWA affiliated territories across the country. In the late 1980s Atlas started suffering from drug abuse, and quietly stopped appearing on WWE programming. He would make a short return in the early 1990s with the Saba Simba character, but was largely never seen again by the mainstream wrestling world, after a start that was full of potential.
12. Paul London
London was one of the most popular cruiserweights in WWE during the turn of the century, and figured to be a mainstay for that division for years to come. The promotion however never really developed a solid plan for London, and he was gone by 2008. He found most of his success in the tag division, winning titles with Billy Kidman, and after his retirement, Brian Kendrick. Ultimately, there just wasn’t a demand strong enough to warrant his staying with the company, and he gradually just wasn’t seen on TV anymore. He eventually went to PWG, and has performed there on and off for the past five years, with a greatly decreased workload.
11. Bob Backlund
Backlund’s absence after his first title run in early 1980s WWE, signified a vast change for the company at the time. His overt technical style in the ring, and bland (to put it nicely) gimmick worked, and was over with the fans of the time. Backlund held the WWE title for four years, until he lost it in 1983 to the Iron Sheik, which soon gave way to, you guessed it, Hulk Hogan’s first reign. In a quick turnaround from his recent success, Backlund slowly left the company by 1984. Hogan’s newfound dominance ushered in a new era for WWE, which obviously focused more on “entertainment” than the technical aspects of in-ring performing. Backlund would return for a bit in 1992, but his initial departure remains almost unprecedented since he was a huge star, and left the company almost immediately after losing the title.
10. Chris Masters
In many ways, Masters was the prototypical wrestler that Vince McMahon loves to push. His debut in the mid-2000s was hyped for weeks, and when it finally materialized, most realized that he was just another muscular figure with little in-ring substance. Masters was on the roster until 2011, with intermittent absences, before slowly fizzling out altogether in the lower mid-card ranks. Ultimately, his character just offered too little to separate himself from the pack. He did some Indy shows following WWE, and spent some time in TNA, but only appears sparingly for any relevant promotions at all anymore.
9. Buff Bagwell
Given that Bagwell was granted a ton of opportunity in the waning days of WCW, most figured that he would be an integral part of WWE’s roster, when the promotion shift initially occurred. He spent some time in WWE in 2001, when all the other WCW mainstays did, but was released from his contract the same year, which really signified the end of Bagwell’s career. He did some Indy shows here and there, but for all intents and purposes, his prime, mainstream wrestling career was over, at a relatively young age for the industry. Considering his lack of in-ring ability, some would say that this was a good thing, but it is notable nonetheless.
8. Jerry Sags
As one half of The Nasty Boys, Sags saw much success in the tag ranks for years in the NWA, WCW and WWE. The duo captured tag titles in all three promotions, and were widely considered one of the most successful teams of the 1990s. Sags however had to retire due to injury in 1996, and has only made sparing appearances and one-off matches over the years since then, other than a brief re-emergence in TNA several years ago. Still, Sags hasn’t made much noise since his retirement, occasionally working as a trainer while living in Florida, leaving his main body of work in the early 1990s, during the prime of The Nasty Boys.
7. Dean Malenko
One of the best technical wrestlers of his time, Malenko had many classic matches in ECW and WCW throughout the 1990s. When he went to WWE in 2000 to form the Radicalz with Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit and Perry Saturn, his in-ring prowess continued to be recognized, and Malenko was seen as one of the best wrestlers in the word, by the promotion with the largest audience. Abruptly, he retired in 2001, right around the time WWE bought out WCW and the mass exodus of wrestlers from that promotion transpired. It was a surprise move by Malenko, but one that was accepted given his outstanding ability, and other than several one-off appearances, he has enjoyed retirement in comparative solitude to his in-ring days.
6. Afa (The Wild Samoans)
One half of one of the most popular tag teams of the day in the early 1980s, Afa and The Wild Samoans, managed by Captain Lou Albano were a WWE mainstay at the time. In addition, they did plenty of work with NWA affiliated promotions, and won many titles in that spectrum as well. At the height of their popularity in 1984, Afa left WWE, leaving tag team partner Sika to hang on for a few subsequent years in the mid-card singles ranks. Afa would rejoin the company in 1992, as manager of the Headshrinkers, but his initial departure was one of the most surprising of the time, and remains a curiosity to this day.
5. Dynamite Kid
The British Bulldogs had a chance to be atop the WWE tag division much longer than they ultimately were, and their separation due to Dynamite Kid’s departure in 1988, is considered an unfortunate event in the spectrum of late 1980s WWE. Beginning in 1984, Dynamite Kid and Dave Boy Smith quickly established themselves as certified fan favorites, who had an athletic, physical style in the ring. Due to a dispute, with management, Dynamite left the company in 1988, and while Davey Boy Smith went on to reasonable success in singles competition, it was a big loss for fans at the time. He went to Japan, wrestling on NJPW and AJPW cards, but largely remained absent from the public eye following his stint in WWE.
When he came onto the scene in WWE in 1992, no wrestling fan had scene anything like Yokozuna’s presence in the ring. The true definition of a super-heavyweight, his massive size garnered much attention, and he received a nice initial singles push, winning the WWE title on several occasions. In several years though, the novelty wore off, and after a brief tag title run with Owen Hart, he was relegated to the mid-card. By 1997, he was gone from the company entirely, having gained even more weight, and was not legally allowed to wrestle in most states. Following his departure, Yokozuna made little noise, and worked few shows in other promotions, until he unfortunately passed away in 2000.
3. Taka Michinoku
One of the most popular light-heavyweights in WWE history, Taka, against many odds, actually gained a lot of popularity when he debuted for the company in 1997. At a time when not many Japanese wrestlers were featured on WWE programming, he carved out a sizeable niche for himself, winning the newly instituted WWE Light Heavyweight Title. In just several years however, he was relegated to the mid-card, and the gimmick tag team Kaientai with Funaki. Eventually, they were all but fizzled out of the company, and left in late 2001, before returning to Japan to wrestle almost exclusively. Perhaps not the most high profile departure, but certainly relevant, given that Michinoku was a title holder for the promotion.
Always a familiar face in mainstream wrestling, Raven has worked for ECW, WCW, WWE, and TNA, finding considerable success with all of those promotions. Recently, since about 2010, he’s been doing mostly smaller Indy shows, and has remained out of the mainstream wrestling sphere. Not entirely surprising, given that he’s been active in that realm since the early 1990s. His pronounced hardcore style, and Evenflow DDT finishing move will continue to resonate with fans throughout, and warrant the reduction of his workload in recent years. Still, it’s a bit odd not to see him on some weekly TV taping, since that’s been the case for most of the last 30 years.
Perhaps no wrestler in the history of the sport started their career off with such overwhelming dominance. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Goldberg’s initial run in WCW was an utter phenomenon, and captured the attention of not only the wrestling world, but also various other sectors of the mainstream television audience at large. It’s curious why it never held up in WWE several years later, but by 2006, he was off WWE programming, and dabbling in MMA, along with other ventures. The gimmick just never had enough shelf life to really make a long-lasting impact. He’s recently done some nostalgia-based Indy shows, but by and large, Goldberg has remained off the wrestling map for the last decade or so, after a beginning that was unprecedented in the history of the industry.
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