Legacy is something that lingers in the back of the mind of every entertainer. The question of how, or if, they will be remembered by the public is integral to the motivations of those in the public eye. Even those motivated by money rely on manipulating public image in order to profiteer.
This is especially true in the world of professional wrestling. A crowd’s reaction to a wrestler can make or break the career of even the most talented of individuals.
That is not to say that they cannot influence how people look back at their career. Each performer is faced with the dilemma of when to call it quits. One of the more famous quotes in modern cinematic history states “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” This may seem an exaggeration but the general principle is applicable.
If a wrestler is fortunate enough to end their career on their own terms they must decide whether to retire at the top of their game – leaving fans wanting more – or continue with the risk of fans tiring of them or performing below par.
Sometimes there is no choice to be made, with injury dictating an early stoppage or financial status forcing them to continue far beyond what is wise. Worse still are the cases where addiction, either to the sport or substances, sees career continuation to the point of sheer embarrassment.
Here we take a look at those surprisingly rare cases of wrestlers who retired while still at the top, leaving all of us craving for more.
When people think of female wrestlers one of the first names that comes to mind is that of Lita. As a part of Team Xtreme, Lita would gain a huge fanbase and begin her most famous rivalry with Trish Stratus. The story of the frenemies is historic and changed the face of women’s wrestling, but Lita has managed a few iconic feats in her own right. In 2000, Lita captured her first of four Women’s Championships by defeating Stephanie McMahon in the first female main event in WWE history during an episode of Raw. Three years later, Lita and Victoria would take place in the only female Steel Cage match in WWE history to date.
Her career came to an end in 2006, unsuccessfully defending her championship against the new face of the division, Mickie James, at Survivor Series. At 40 years of age and still in terrific shape there is little surprise that fans still clamor for her to step foot inside the squared circle again.
14. Fritz Von Erich
When the subject of wrestling families arises it is impossible to overlook the von Erichs. The family dominated the South West territory, specifically World Class Championship Wrestling. Arguably none more so than the patriarch of the family and master of the dreaded Iron Claw, Fritz von Erich.
Trained by the legendary Stu Hart, Fritz was a true world star throughout the 1960s and ’70s – as a top draw for the NWA and later in Japan, where he played a major part in rebuilding the industry following the tragic death of beloved local hero Rikidōzan.
Fritz ended his in-ring career in 1982 in a televised retirement match against King Kong Bundy in WCCW. That was far from his final contribution to the industry though, as he was running the recently rebranded territory and led it to be one of the most respected and popular in wrestling history.
13. Bret Hart
Bret Hart was never shy in his belief of his own abilities and where they would place him in the annals of history. ‘The best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be’ is a big title to set up for yourself, but one way to ensure the best chance of fulfilling such a lofty claim is to retire on top.
After Hart left WWE for WCW he was instantly thrown into the thick of things and his tale there ended up centring around the company’s biggest star – Bill Goldberg. The two rivaled over both the United States and World Heavyweight Championships, as well as capturing the Tag Team Championships together, but unfortunately for both men a stiff kick from the former NFL player gave Bret a career ending concussion.
Granted, this decision was taken out of the hands of The Hitman but it doesn’t change facts. Hart retired as a a Triple Crown Champion in both WWE and WCW, and had the rare honor of retiring as World Champion.
12. Verne Gagne
An acclaimed amateur wrestler, Verne Gagne became one of the earliest stars of televised professional wrestling. Huge in the Chicago and Tri-State area, the NWA awarded him the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. However, due to being one of the highest paid wrestlers of the era, Gagne found himself so wealthy that he rarely wrestled and instead founded his own promotion – the AWA.
Gagne would place himself as the flagship star of his promotion, winning the AWA Championship a record 10 times and had the longest reign in the 30 year history of the company. He would have an epic feud with the late Nick Bockwinkel that saw the two keep an exclusive hold on the AWA Championship for 14 years.
Like Hart, Gagne would retire as World Champion, undeniably leaving the sport, at least as an active competitor, at the top.
11. André The Giant
André was literally the biggest star in professional wrestling. At seven foot and four inches and over 500 pounds there is little surprise that the Frenchman became the top attraction for Vince McMahon Sr. and his WWWF promotion throughout the 1970s and ’80s. His appeal even extended to the big screen, most notably in The Princess Bride.
‘The Eight Wonder of the World’ was undefeated for 14 years, only seeing his first loss in his first heel match at WrestleMania III where he passed the torch down to the WWE’s brightest star, Hulk Hogan.
As health issues began to pile up, André formed the Colossal Connection tag team with fellow Heenan Family member Haku. The team split after losing the championships to Demolition at WrestleMania VI, with André embracing the fans one final time by countering an attack from his partner and manager after the match.
10. Ricky Steamboat
A true wrestler’s wrestler, Steamboat is most often remembered by modern fans for his legendary show stealing match with Randy Savage at WrestleMania III but his work stretches considerably further than that.
Despite being an Intercontinental Champion, the majority of Steamboat’s legacy comes instead from the NWA and WCW. A Triple Crown Champion, his decorated career hit its peak during his NWA World Heavyweight Championship feud with Ric Flair.
It was a reignition of this feud years later that led to his final rivalry, as then ‘Stunning’ Steve Austin cost him a championship match against Flair. Steamboat then feuded with Austin over his United States Championship, successfully winning the belt. Unfortunately, a back injury suffered during the match saw Steamboat forced to vacate and retire.
9. The Rock
What can be said about Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson that hasn’t already been said? The third generation wrestler became a star within the industry but his leap to movies has made him a worldwide brand.
During a time where he had only dipped his toe into the Hollywood game, Rock returned in early 2003 with a new egocentric attitude. He won two high profile rematches, first against Hulk Hogan and then finally defeating his arch-rival Stone Cold Steve Austin at WrestleMania.
As he proclaimed himself as having achieved everything, Goldberg made his WWE debut. The WCW star would go on to defeat Rock at Backlash, and Rock would announce his retirement from wrestling during a time many considered to be the best evolution of his character.
8. Harley Race
Harley Race is one of the most legendary performers, having performed in every major company and a very decorated competitor, as well as enjoying success in Japan. He was the first ever NWA United States Champion and an eight-time World Heavyweight Champion, then a record number of titles that would get broken by current frontrunner Ric Flair. Race’s success was so significant that he represented the NWA Championship in the only Champion vs. Champion match between the promotion and the WWE.
WWE would finally sign Race and he would soon win the first ever King of the Ring tournament and become known as ‘The King’ Harley Race. McMahon had big plans for utilizing the star power of Race, with him entering a rivalry with Hulk Hogan but a mistake by Hogan left Race with a hernia.
Despite Race attempting to continue his in-ring career, he soon realised that the injury was career ending and instead enjoyed great success as a manager for the NWA.
7. Rick Rude
Another member of this list to be managed by the great Bobby Heenan, ‘Ravishing’ Rick Rude was one of the greatest all-rounders of all time. Despite being paired with the two greatest managers of all time in Heenan and Paul Heyman, there was absolutely no reason for a mouthpiece, Rude was more than capable on his own.
Despite never capturing the World Championship in WWE, Rude won the top prize in many companies, including the WCW International World Heavyweight Championship on three occasions.
On his third time of capturing the belt, in a match against Sting, Rude injured his back and was forced into retirement.
6. Stone Cold Steve Austin
If The Rock is the biggest star to come from wrestling, Stone Cold is the biggest star within it. ‘The Texas Rattlesnake’ is still to this day the best merchandise seller and the top star during the biggest boom in wrestling. It wasn’t always that way for Austin, despite being a talented in-ring worker he struggled to find an character that truly clicked, until Stone Cold came to mind.
As the ruthless loudmouth Austin would tear a streak throughout WWE and despite being a heel, get a massive crowd following that eventually saw the career making double-turn at WrestleMania 13. His rivalries with boss Mr. McMahon and The Rock are known by both wrestling fans and mainstream audiences, and as such his career was brought to an almost poetic end in 2003.
At WrestleMania XIX, Austin and Rock went at it one last time to complete their trilogy on the grand stage. This would be Austin’s final match, as his neck problems had grown too serious to continue wrestling. Having your last match against WrestleMania against your best rival? It’s a safe bet many wrestlers would take that.
5. Trish Stratus
Trish Stratus is the most beloved female in WWE history. While the likes of Sasha Banks look destined to take women’s wrestling to new heights and become major stars, Trish can lay claim to being the most popular diva to date.
The Canadian fitness model was chosen by WWE with no wrestling background but through hard work she progressed to become the ‘Diva of the Decade’ for the 2000s. Her rivalries with Lita and Mickie James are fondly remembered by fans and her heavy involvement with the Chris Jericho and Christian storyline came a decade before AJ Lee received plaudits for her role in the male storylines.
The record seven-time Women’s Champion also holds another unique distinction, as she is one of only two women to retire as champion. She accomplished that by capturing the belt in her hometown during her retirement match against her long-time rival Lita.
4. CM Punk
CM Punk managed many achievements in his WWE tenure, becoming a Triple Crown Champion and the only man to win two Money in the Bank ladder matches. Additionally, his ‘pipebomb’ promo shook the industry and gained mainstream attention and saw him win his first WWE Championship despite his contract legitimately expiring that night. Furthermore, Punk is the only man since the domination of John Cena began to outsell him on the merchandise front.
Backstage displeasure with several issues – including booking, broken promises, health concerns and an alleged conspiracy that saw him turned heel as soon as he overtook Cena’s merchandise sales – saw Punk walk out of the WWE before an episode of Raw in 2014 and he has vowed to never return to wrestling.
Despite only competing for one major promotion, Edge is one of the most decorated competitors of all time. As part of the legendary team with his childhood friend Christian, the Canadian racked up seven Tag Team Championship reigns, plus another seven with other partners. This was just a part of his 31 championships in the WWE, including 11 World Championship reigns, a Triple Crown and Grand Slam Champion. In addition he is also the only superstar to have won the Royal Rumble, King of the Ring, and Money in the Bank.
The Rated R Superstar did find an opponent he could not defeat though in the form of his own body. He had suffered a neck injury in 2003 that required surgery and in 2011 he was diagnosed with cervical spinal stenosis, and doctors told him that if he wrestled again there was a strong risk of neck-down paralysis and even death – obviously leading to Edge retiring. He did, however, get to retire as World Heavyweight Champion, leaving his final match as a title retention at WrestleMania.
2. Bruno Sammartino
There is no arguing the clout of the Italian Superman. The top draw in the Tri-State Area, particularly New York’s Madison Square Garden, there is little surprise that Vince McMahon Sr. was so desperate to build his WWWF around him.
As such, Sammartino holds the record for longest reigning WWE World Heavyweight Champion with a reign of 2,803 days. His combined reign total is over 11 years. During his second reign he suffered a neck fracture after a botched bodyslam by opponent Stan Hansen, but finished the match after wrestling another 15 minutes. This led to the reign coming to an end.
This didn’t cause the end of his career but it did lead to him passing the torch down to his former student Larry Zbyszko in a classic feud that culminated in the legendary Steel Cage Match between the two at the Showdown at Shea. The following year Sammartino would hang up the boots for good.
1. Shawn Michaels
Shawn Michaels has many monikers – most importantly, The Showstopper, and Mr. WrestleMania. HBK built up a reputation for always delivering a great match no matter where he was placed on the show and in doing so, became one of the most popular wrestlers in the world. He even managed to gain the same reputation backstage after his return in 2002 as a born again Christian, making amends with those he had wronged.
Despite the acclaim, Michaels was never really given much in the way of World Championships or placement as ‘The Man’ within WWE. So it seems only natural that his career would come to end the way it did.
At WrestleMania 25, in their home state of Texas ‘Mr. WrestleMania’ challenged the undefeated streak of The Undertaker. Despite fans seeing this is the natural main event, the two went on third from last. The two put on what is considered by many to be the greatest match in the history of the event, and in some minds the best match of all time.
The following year Michaels was consumed by the loss and went to great lengths to get a rematch with Undertaker at WrestleMania 26, eventually agreeing to put his career on the line. This time WWE learnt from their mistake and the match closed the show, allowing Michaels retirement match to take place in the grandest way possible.
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