There’s no bigger stage for a professional wrestler to ply his or her trade than WWE. It’s an international promotion that that draws tens of thousands of viewers to live events and hundreds of thousands to tune into their primetime TV offerings. Accordingly, WWE’s performers make money, travel the world, and benefit from perks like merchandise revenue and full catering backstage.
The independent wrestling scene is different. While payoffs vary, performing in front of an audience of over a thousand fans can be a big turnout for most indies, and there’s little consistency to the independent wrestler’s life. While a handful get regular gigs with promotions like ROH, many work show to show trying to scrape together a living, hoping for big opportunities.
Waiting on an opportunity can be even tougher when you’ve already been to the top of the mountain. While a lot of indie wrestlers are youngsters who are trying to find their place in the wrestling business, and others are lifers who are already past their prime and don’t dream of anything more, former WWE stars find themselves in a different position. They know exactly what they’re missing out on, while they might make more money based on their WWE name recognition, many of them are also just waiting for the next call from WWE to welcome them back into the fold (or regretting having burned bridges on their way out of the company.
This article looks at 15 former WWE stars who are currently plying their trade on the independent scene, and largely failing in the process.
Ryback had an up and down career in WWE, starting out with a silly cowboy gimmick as Skip Sheffield, before he discovered the Ryback character—a badass powerhouse who annihilated heels. Through face and heel turns, he saw his stock rise and fall, a main eventer more than once, then lost in the mid-card shuffle multiple times. Finally, Ryback wound deciding not to re-sign with WWE. In some interviews he comes across as very level headed about the business decision to pursue what he felt was best for him. In others, he sounds bitter about WWE’s creative decisions and about the way guys like John Cena wielded power.
In any event, Ryback, decided to start multiple business ventures while working independent dates. Given his recent WWE work and his look, there’s little doubt he’s a draw at the independent level. Unfortunately, he reportedly set his asking price so high that very, very few independent promotions can afford or justify bringing him in. It’s understandable for a star to want to value himself highly, especially when he still has WWE momentum. Unfortunately, for Ryback the bar seems downright prohibitively high, not to mention that, for those who do book him, he’s still not exactly five-star worker who will send the fans home based on match quality.
14 Brian Knobbs
Brian Knobbs is one of those guys who you see on a list like this and automatically think—that guy’s still wrestling? While this half of The Nasty Boys has slowed his pace of working wrestling matches, he was still taking independent dates in recent years.
Knobbs was never known as a particularly great worker, and aging tends not to bode well for an in ring performer. He got his last, biggest shot back with Sags for a Nasty Boys reunion in TNA, out of which they were reportedly fired due to rubbing Spike TV executive the wrong way at a professional event. From there, Knobbs last made headlines for an incident with New Jack at an indie show. PW Insider reported that Knobbs disrespected a number of talents before getting in the former ECW star’s face. New Jack purportedly responded by punching out Knobbs then kicking him in the head to knock him unconscious.
13 Jack Swagger
Jack Swagger was a guy with a lot of tools—great size, a great look, and a real amateur pedigree—who never quite clicked in WWE. Despite getting a handful of main event opportunities, his pushes never lasted along and he never managed to climb the ladder with any consistency.
While it’s too soon to really call Jack Swagger’s tour of the indies a failure—he only left WWE recently and is waiting out a non-compete clause—things got off to a rocky start. Swagger made headlines in March when he publicly announced that he had asked for his release from WWE. He was subsequently announced for a match with Alberto El Patron for a UK show, only for WWE to get involved. It turned out WWE hadn’t yet granted a release, much less granted any exceptions to their standard 90-day non-compete clause for departing talent, so Swagger had to pull out of the deal. Fellow WWE alum Chris Masters would end up replacing him. Swagger does have his release now, and does have to the tools to make an impact on the indie scene or abroad, but we’ll have to wait and see what happens after that initial snafu.
12 Brodus Clay
Brodus Clay looked as though he had the makings of a major star. He debuted on the WWE main roster as the protégé of main event star Alberto Del Rio and was quickly treated like a very real threat. Given his style, body type, and size he felt something a throwback monster heel along the lines of a King Kong Bundy. After a few months off TV, he redebuted not as a monster, but as a Funkasaurus.
While Clay, as a dancing face, was actually reasonably successful, he was never treated as more than a mid-card property. He saw his stock continue to drop over the years to follow, through a tag team with Tensai, and then an ill-fated heel run.
A man of Clay’s size, paired with decent in ring skill and WWE name recognition, ought to be a big deal on the independent scene. Unfortunately, Clay hasn’t made major waves, and has spent a lot of his time post-WWE as a placeholder challenger on TNA Impact Wrestling, repeatedly involved in high profile situations, but never winning any matches of significance.
11 Tyler Reks
Tyler Reks had a disappointing run with WWE. While he was introduced as a monster heel and picked up some early momentum, his character quickly fizzled and he wound up most memorable for a lower card tag team with Curt Hawkins. Rumors abounded that he ran afoul of John Cena (the prevailing rumor suggesting that Cena thought Reks’s finisher was too similar to Cena’s, and politicked against him because of it) and that led his severely limited run, and ultimately asking for his release.
Reks’s work on the independents proved similarly stunted, reuniting with Hawkins for a short run before Hawkins got re-signed by WWE. Reks publicly stated upon leaving WWE that he wanted to retire, and it looks like the former WWE star, now in his late 30s, might be edging in that direction in earnest at this point.
10 Jim Neidhart
As one half of the Hart Foundation with Bret Hart, Jim Neidhart was a positively iconic tag team wrestler from the late 1980s and early 1990s. He went on to further prove his value throughout the 1990s, playing Owen Hart’s henchman, and later working as a the perfect fall guy for the Hart Foundation stable who could absorb losses on behalf of the group without really losing any standing with the fans.
After a long wrestling career, Neidhart is pretty solidly retired now. He still makes wrestling related appearances, though, and most recently was caught on camera during WrestleMania weekend, talking about his daughter and about the WWE Hall of Fame at a non-WWE autograph session. Neidhart came across as largely incoherent, struggling to focus and really address questions. When he did snap to attention, it was about the Hall of Fame, when he expressed a lot of bitterness about not being a part of it. Needless to say, Neidhart’s best days seem to be behind him.
9 Bull Dempsey
Bull Dempsey was an unlikely success for a spell in NXT, working an undefeated streak gimmick for a period of months, and getting over as an aggressive monster heel. In the end, though, this run may have been less about pushing Dempsey than setting him up to push Baron Corbin. The two dominant big man would clash in a hoss battle that really put over Corbin for his first big time win in developmental.
Dempsey never did make it to the main roster. WWE released him in early 2017 and he’s since made his way through a series of indie promotions, perhaps peaking with ROH. Unfortunately for Dempsey, while he does have some name recognition from NXT and he’s not a bad in ring talent, neither is he a true WWE superstar or world class worker. Thus, he’s an awkward fit on the indies and has yet to really find his place in them. It’s quite arguable that the biggest news he’s made since leaving NXT was selling his NXT gear on eBay.
8 Jim Duggan
Jim Duggan is nothing if not a pro wrestling iron man. He’s 63 years old and wrestled his first match in 1979. While he’s far removed from wrestling’s national spotlight at this point, he remains a super recognizable character who has worked independent shows on and off in between brief returns or cameos with WWE. Despite not being a technical wizard, he’s a true icon of the business and can still squeeze out a payday, even at his advanced age.
Unfortunately, Duggan doesn’t look as good as he once did. It’s a testament to his toughness and commitment that he overcame kidney cancer and continued his career. Just the same, Duggan’s most famous work on the indies is most certainly a match gone awry with fellow WWE alum, the now deceased Matt Borne, playing Doink the Clown. Their match turned into an ugly real life fight in front of the fans, before spilling backstage, where Duggan claims Borne retreated. The story of these two legitimate stars brawling as old men in front of a few hundred fans is sad epilogue to their respective legacies.
7 Mason Ryan
Mason Ryan occupies the awkward space of a guy with a positively awesome look, such that WWE clearly wanted him to be a star, balanced with not having much in ring acumen or personality to ever realize his potential. Ryan is probably best remembered for his work under CM Punk’s tutelage as part of the Nexus stable. Unfortunately, his work never allowed him to break out as a true singles star.
Since leaving WWE, Ryan has consistently found work, but his limitations are still on display in smaller wrestling markets. While he has had some success, including title wins in smaller, regional independents, he’s struggled to get more than passing opportunities in bigger promotions. Ryan’s biggest appearance post-WWE was quite arguably a February 2015 dark match for TNA.
Since then Ryan has turned to a completely different avenue, starring in Cirque du Soleil, using his wrestling training to perform certain stunts. If you're a wrestler and you end up in Cirque du Soleil, is it a failure in wrestling, or a success in entertainment?
Snitsky took a strange route to fame in WWE. He debuted inauspiciously and quickly becoming embroiled in a feud with Kane. The deal was that Snitsky knocked Kane into his kayfabe (heavily coerced) bride Lita to miscarry. The Big Red Machine would stalk after Snitsky, who opined, “It wasn’t my fault,” for one of the oddest, least intimidating catchphrases a wrestler ever tried. After this feud, Snitsky mostly fizzled and wound up the kind of character it would be easy enough for a fan to miss altogether if they weren’t watching religiously.
Snitsky has worked the indies on and off since leaving WWE, aside from a brief spell with TNA. While his physical size and the face he had a WWE run will probably mean that he’ll always have a place in the wrestling world. On the flip side of the equation, however, Snitsky’s never proven himself as worker, nor does he have enough WWE name recognition that he’s likely to ever get a big shot on the independent level.
5 The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express
The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express is one of the most iconic tag tams in wrestling history, and this past spring they garnered a well deserved induction into the WWE Hall of Fame. It was a feel good moment, but amidst all the celebration of a legacy and trading of stories, an interesting factoid came out courtesy of their inductor, Jim Cornette. While he waxed nostalgic, he also dropped in that he’d worked a show with Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson four months ago.
Once again, for clarity, the year was 2017.
I get the appeal of wanting to catch The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express live. Older fans remember them fondly and there’s a certain curiosity that goes with seeing an act like this, twenty five to thirty years past their prime. Gibson’s over 60 years old now, and Morton’s not much younger.
As much as this team can still draw, it’s also a bit sad to see them in a ring at this point, slower and as physically broken down as they are. They’re not the team they once were and fans who do catch them on the independent scene are likely to be disappointed.
4 Orlando Jordan
It could be said that Orlando Jordan was the ultimate right place, right time wrestler who arrived on the main roster in the early days of the first brand split, got appointed as the second in command for new WWE Champion JBL (also in the right place at the right time) in his new Cabinet stable. From this spot, Jordan shored up regular TV time for a year and even a few months as United States Champion (not to mention that he got to beat John Cena for that title). The trouble with Jordan was that he was so forgettable—not an awful talent, but not great in the ring, not great on the mic, and not a particularly memorable personality.
Aside from a quick stint with TNA, Jordan has wandered the indies for most of the last decade, making a living, but rarely accomplishing anything of note. His biggest claim to fame since leaving WWE is probably being used for a brief program with The Ultimate Warrior in Spain—which included what was, according to most, Warrior’s last match.
3 Yoshi Tatsu
Yoshi Tatsu quickly made some headway as a mid-carder in the WWE version of ECW. There, he was a fresh face and seemed like he could be successful within the context of that show. In those days, ECW had started to resemble sort of an NXT-lite product—featuring new talents who weren’t quite ready for the main roster, mixed with veterans who would help them get there. When ECW dissolved, Tatsu proceeded to wander the lower ranks of WWE’s main card, rarely making much of an impact.
Since his release from WWE, Tatsu has worked U.S. indies and abroad. He’s another in a string of guys who weren’t treated like a big enough deal in WWE to really be a draw outside it. Moreover, he Americanized his style enough while working with WWE (besides just getting older) such that he can’t really hang with top Japanese talents anymore.
Shelly Martinez is that rare talent who may actually be better known by her ring name outside WWE than the one she used in it. Nonetheless, she did spend the better part of a year under WWE contract, mostly working alongside Kevin Thorn as Ariel in a vampire gimmick.
Since leaving WWE, Martinez has had some success working with TNA and various independent promotions. She’s the kind of talent whose wrestling work is all but inextricable from her sex appeal, and that’s led her to do a lot of wrestling work that borders on pornography and, well, some outright pornography. That’s well and good for someone who needs to make a living, but also a bit sad for someone who was a legitimate wrestler and won’t be welcomed back to the WWE fold on account of her extracurricular activities since leaving.
Virgil is an instantly recognizable character from one of WWE’s most successful periods in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Playing The Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase’s bodyguard and then rival brought him plenty of notoriety; moreover, he was in the right place at the right time to transition from that work to a spot with WCW as part of the nWo years later.
Since his time in the limelight, however, Virgil has been a bit exposed for what he is—an old man who, even in his prime, was always more of a sidekick or bit player than a star in his own right. He has become an Internet meme in recent years—fans capture images of “lonely Virgil” waiting around at independent shows and autograph signings with no one lined up to meet him.