In professional wrestling, and sports in general, injuries are just a way of life. Seriously, when men and women are doing things their bodies aren’t meant to do, at extremes above what a normal person can accomplish, things are gonna happen.
One of the reasons I never pursued an athletic career, besides being 5’6” and 140 pounds soaking wet, was that I couldn’t stomach the risk of injury. All it took was one look at Joe Theismann’s leg getting obliterated to know that sitting behind a desk was how my bread was going to get buttered.
Depending on the injury, many athletes are able to come back and perform near the same level. Others who go through months of recovery show flashes of what once made them great, but never get back to that superstar level. Remember how good Derrick Rose was for the Chicago Bulls before both of his knees exploded? On the other hand, you have Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who blew out his knee and eight months later was back starting an MVP season.
But it’s different for professional wrestlers. Consider Mr. Wonderful, Paul Orndorff. He injured his arm during the biggest run of his career, but failed to get it repaired. He knew that if he took the time off he needed to heal, he’d lose his spot and lots of cash in the process. He finally got the surgery but was never back in the main event picture. You always hear about athletes wanting to go out on their own terms, but for some, they don’t get that chance. For the following wrestlers, an injury meant the push was over.
15 Sami Zayn
Zayn looks to be in line to do some great things with WWE, but his first opportunity to prove himself didn’t go as planned.
As a surprising answer of John Cena’s U.S. Open Challenge, Zayn made his debut on Monday Night Raw in May 2015, but wouldn’t wrestle again until the following January. A shoulder injury during that match shelved the NXT star just as he was getting ready for a push on the main roster. Considering how many injuries the company has dealt with over the past year, Zayn may have been near the main event now instead of having to start over if not for the bum wing.
14 Chris Nowinski
If it weren’t for Chris Nowinski suffering a concussion in 2003 and dealing with post-concussion symptoms, who knows if we’d even be aware of the dangers of head injuries or CTE. We have more knowledge than ever over how they affect athletes in different sports, especially football players.
At the time, Nowinski was Chris Harvard, an arrogant heel with a better-than-you attitude. His run as a professional wrestler in the WWE only lasted about a year as the head injury forced him to retire. We never got to see what the character might have become. It seems as if Nowinski had a greater calling, dedicating his life to finding brains to help in research of CTE, and for that, the brain-studying community is grateful.
13 Mr. Kennedy
Mr. Kennedy seemed destined to be a world champion in WWE but injuries and suspensions always seemed to derail him. Shortly after winning Money in the Bank at WrestleMania 23, Kennedy suffered a torn triceps muscle in a match with Edge. Kennedy lost the opportunity to Edge and he was never quite able to regain his momentum when he returned from injury. He would then be suspended later that year for violating the WWE's Wellness Policy and he never quite recaptured the fire he had built up.
12 Ashley Massaro
Massaro won the 2005 Divas search and with it a one-year contract with the WWE, but within that span she broke her leg in a match with Mickie James and was out for months. Massaro was able to return to the ring but never was able to win the Women’s title, getting injured a number of other times in the process before finally leaving the WWE in 2008. Who knows if she would have won the title but staying healthy is a big part of getting there.
11 Dolph Ziggler
Remember when Dolph Ziggler was coming to the ring with AJ Lee & Big E Langston? He was super heelish but also super over with the fans. At the Raw following WrestleMania XXIX, Ziggler blew the roof off the Izod Center in East Rutherford, NJ when he cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase, defeating Alberto Del Rio and began his second run as the World Heavyweight Champion. The following month, Ziggler sustained a concussion and hasn’t returned to the main event picture.
Ziggler has had some runs with the Intercontinental Championship in the time since, but it doesn’t look like he’s making his way back to the top of the card anytime soon.
It's been frustrating for wrestling fans to watch Cesaro go one step forward and two steps back for several years in the WWE. When the roster ravaged with injuries late last year, it looked like Cesaro was finally going to be given a bigger opportunity, but the injury bug caught the Swiss Superman as well. Cesaro tore his rotator cuff and was forced to miss WrestleMania 32. Considering how thin the card was, Cesaro could have played a big role in the event. We'll see if Cesaro is now able to regain his momentum going forward.
9 Bret Hart
In November 1999 Bret Hart won his first WCW World Heavyweight Championship. Less than two months later he was handing the title back to officials during his second reign after a stiff kick from Goldberg ended Hart’s career. It was the end of a forgettable run with the company that had begun two years prior. He was never a main event player like he was with the WWE and just as he hit the top of the mountain, it was all over. Just think if Bret was able to save the company as champ how much different the pro wrestling landscape might be.
Lita had first of four title runs in 2000, but dropped the Women’s Championship after two and a half months. It would be years before she’d be back in that spot. She attempted to win back the title through 2001, and was later stuck in the middle of a Hardy Boyz feud. In April 2002, while Team Xtreme was falling apart, Lita suffered a neck injury while filming the show Dark Angel. She was out 17 months after cracking three vertebrae and went through surgery and rehab. She finally won the title for a second time in December 2004 and retired in 2006.
Droz’s career was barely off the ground when he sustained a career-ending neck injury. He had a stint with the Legion of Doom before a singles career in 1999, but an awkward landing after a powerbomb by D’Lo Brown left him as a quadriplegic. Who knows what might have become of Droz had he had a longer career. He was a relatively well-liked character, but never had the opportunity to hold a championship during his time in the WWE.
6 Rick Rude
For my money, there aren’t many heels better than Ravishing Rick Rude. His feud with Jake the Snake Roberts across 1987-88 is the stuff of legends. Rude never won the top prize in the WWE, but was in his third run as the WCW International Heavyweight Champion when he injured his back and was forced to retire.
Rude was away from the ring for a few years but returned, first as a commentator for ECW, then as a bodyguard for Degeneration-X. He later appeared with the nWo on Monday Nitro and is the only person to appear on Raw, Nitro and ECW television in the same week.
5 Mr. Perfect
Many people are still perplexed to this day as to why Mr. Perfect was never a world champion. He had the charisma, was amazing in the ring and he had the 'it' factor. One major reason that he never reached the summit was he suffered a career threatening back injury. He worked through the pain to put Bret Hart over at SummerSlam 1991, but had to spend the next year and a half recuperating. This took a major chunk out of his career, a time that could have been spent building Perfect up as an eventual world champion.
Perfect acted as Ric Flair's "Executive Consultant" and also worked as a color commentator. He eventually returned to the ring in late 1992 after turning on Flair. Perfect would wrestle until 1994, but his back injury flared up again, forcing him to step away from the ring for another couple of years. Had Perfect stayed healthy, there's little doubt he would have gotten a title reign.
4 Seth Rollins
Since winning the WWE title at WrestleMania 31, nobody was hitting their stride quite like Rollins. Holding onto the Money in the Bank briefcase for nearly a year prior to that, Rollins cashed in and started one of the best heel reigns of recent memory. Unlike part-time champs like Triple H, Brock Lesnar and The Rock, Rollins was out there every week, defending his title and winning the United States Championship from John Cena in the process.
He was putting on the best matches on the card and was named 2015 Wrestler of the Year in the PWI 500, but in November, he blew out his knee attempting a sunset flip powerbomb and had to forfeit the title.
3 Tyson Kidd
A Muscle Buster from Samoa Joe in June 2015 basically destroyed Tyson Kidd’s neck. The injury was so severe that a very low percentage of people even survive. It happened as he and Cesaro were really starting to take off as a tag team. Tyson Kidd and Cesaro were a hot tag team at the time, with a reign as the Tag Team champs earlier that same year. It looked as though the pair was going to get some time at the top of the division but Kidd’s injury put a stop to that possibility. The fact that he can even walk is amazing, but he’s reportedly determined to get back in the ring.
2 Magnum TA
While it wasn’t an injury inside the squared circle, Magnum TA was well on his way to becoming the NWA Heavyweight champion in 1986 when a car accident ended his career. Injuries to his spine forced Magnum to walk with a cane for a few years, never to wrestle again.
Magnum’s loss was felt by the NWA much like Daniel Bryan’s loss was felt by WWE, with the entire locker room lending their support. His return during the 1987 Great American Bash was a huge deal at the time. Magnum was twice the NWA United States Heavyweight Champion but was never able to claim the world title.
1 Daniel Bryan
Daniel Bryan was on top of the world in 2014 having won the WWE World Heavyweight championship at WrestleMania XXX. The following month he was dealing with an arm injury and then in June, he was stripped of the belt. He returned the following January at the Royal Rumble and won the IC title at WrestleMania 31, but within a month, he was out with another injury and vacated that belt. It was the end of the road for Bryan in a WWE ring as he retired in February 2016.