The unfortunate part of the current state of wresting is that World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) is the largest organization. There’s a resurgence of indie promotions and federations that are certainly great alternatives (Lucha Underground comes to mind). Still, once you’re indoctrinated in the WWE, you’re granted a particular status that you can take with you. While the company often likes to tout that they “give opportunities,” the reputation that’s accompanied with it still carries a bit of weight – even if you’ve just done dark matches.
For example, look at the faction known as the Social Outcasts: Adam Rose, Heath Slater, Curtis Axel, and Bo Dallas. All wrestlers whose matches are usually part of Main Event, and when they are on RAW, they’re usually losing. In a way, WWE is still protecting them, though they are firmly placed in the midcard. When Tough Enough winner , Josh Bredi (current ring name Bronson Matthews) mocked the faction on Twitter as “Social Jobbers,” he was reportedly chided by people in charge. While Bredi, a rookie whose opportunity came via a televised contest, had no business taking shots at main roster veterans, they’re still granted a certain shield, unlike, let’s say, Titus O’Neil who was reprimanded with a 60 day suspension for grabbing Vince McMahon during Daniel Bryan’s sendoff. Not necessarily the same, but arguably, O’Neil’s suspension is harsher than having a new wrestler attempt to bury a group who are extremely talented (I realize that this is completely subjective, but trust me, watch their non-jobbing matches. They are rad).
All that said, there are wrestlers who have left the WWE under a myriad of circumstances that would have done better if they stayed. There are glaring omissions from this list – such as Scott Hall – but there are many more who I feel really could have benefited by an extra year or two.
15 Billy Kidman
Admittedly, Billy Kidman was one of my favorite wrestlers from WCW. He had a very similar style to the Heartbreak Kid, Shawn Michaels. Kidman surely could’ve benefited from a manager who could talk, but his wrestling abilities talked for themselves.
After initially being released, Kidman went on to independents, as well as TNA before retiring. He eventually came back into the WWE fold, but as a road agent.
His hasty exit from his first run in the WWE, allegedly due to a disagreement with management over travel accommodations definitely hindered a possible push, at least on the midcard. If he were wrestling today, he could have been on a Daniel Bryan-level of popularity, if only for his wrestling skills alone.
14 Stacy Keibler
You could say that Stacy Keibler did much better after she left the company, but a cameo appearance on How I Met Your Mother, a run on Dancing With The Stars (sorry, Jericho), and being George Clooney’s ex-girlfriend would hardly constitute success.
Despite Jerry “The King” Lawler’s offensive over-sexualized commentary during this period, Keibler made an impact as a manager for Test and Scott Steiner and Randy Orton. Away from management, I felt like she was also improving as an in-ring performer, though the majority of her well-known matches were relegated to gimmicks such as evening gown matches and the Fulfill Your Fantasy Diva Battle Royale.
Apart from a brief appearance on TOUGH ENOUGH, Keibler has largely distanced herself from her wrestling days, which is a shame because had she stayed, she may have had the Trish Stratus-like run. But we’ll never know.
A great talker and awesome wrestler, it’s a shame that MVP never had a real singles championship run in the WWE. He did capture the United States Championship and the Tag Team Championship, the latter of which was with Matt Hardy (we’ll get into that soon), but given his pedigree and talent, MVP certainly should’ve at LEAST had a run with the Intercontinental Championship; he definitely had the chops for it.
After getting the “best of luck with your future endeavors” treatment, MVP had a hell of a run in New Japan Pro Wrestling and a tempestuous run in TNA. Many marks hold hope that MVP will make a return to the WWE, despite the fact that he’s done well in the indies. Still, you have to wonder how far he could have really gotten had he not been released. Surely there was a lull in his career towards the end, but an improved gimmick was all he needed.
12 Bob Holly
His Sparky gimmick aside, Hardcore Holly was a mainstay workhorse during the WWE’s Attitude Era. He was mean in the best way possible. He took bumps and really embraced his hardcore persona as the Hardcore Champion.
Holly also reportedly had a reputation as having a difficult attitude in the locker room, though you really wouldn’t get that sense if you’ve heard his interview on Colt Cabana’s Art of Wrestling podcast.
Towards the end of his 15-year relationship with the WWE, Holly was used to enhance newcomers like Cody Rhodes and Ted DiBiase, Jr before being released following a near year absence from TV.
Holly is still very active in the independent circuit, but he definitely had a few more years in him. At the very least, he could have transitioned into an NXT coach like Norman Smiley, Billy Gunn, and Dusty Rhodes before him. Holly cut some amazing promos, so passing that skill to a new sports entertainer would have been great to see.
This could be a controversial entry by virtue of the fact that Layla’s entrance to the WWE was the Diva Search contest back in 2005. Make no mistake, though. She had quite the presence as a valet for both the Miz and William Regal.
Her in-ring skills improved over time, the proof is in her tag team partnership, LayCool, with Michelle McCool. While Layla got quite a few shots at the Divas Championship Title, it was something that eluded her. In her final years with the company, Layla was used sporadically with her final notable run as a valet for Fandango and a brief rivalry with Emma.
Like nearly everyone on this list, Layla had potential and got better as she went on. Injuries plagued her; this is true, but as leaving as Fandango’s dance partner? She deserved better than that.
10 Curt Hawkins
This is the case of the WWE not knowing with what to do with their great talent. In the Major Brothers, along with tag team partner, Zack Ryder, Hawkins was able to cement himself as a great worker and heater. Along with Ryder, Hawkins also set in comfortably in La Familia, a faction that included Chavo Guerrero, Edge, and Vickie Guerrero.
While Zack Ryder continues to wrestle, largely in mid-card matches, Hawkins was released in 2014. In and out of the indies, Hawkins could have easily been in a position that went from lower to upper mid-card. Like oft-accused less than charismatic sports entertainers like Cesaro, the right push would have Hawkins in a much better position than where he was when he was forced out of the company.
9 Sean Waltman
Sean Waltman aka X-Pac aka 1-2-3 Kid still appears as a talking head on WWE Network shows, but he’ll probably be most known for being the name bearer of “X Pac Heat,” in which the audience will boo the performer simply for just being there.
Waltman is credited with being a cornerstone of the Attitude Era as both a member of the nWo and DX. His partnership with Kane brought us some incredibly awesome matches, as well as just making a great foil for the Big Red Machine.
Much, if not all, of Waltman’s legal and personal issues occurred post-WWE. He did make a splash in TNA, but a public drug addiction, a sex tape with fellow DX member Chyna, as well as a stint on The Surreal Life has made Waltman’s career public fodder.
He is back with the company, but the years in between could’ve seen Waltman taking on some dream feuds with similar cruiserweight wrestlers.
8 Jeff Jarrett
It’s easy to forget that Jeff Jarrett was a part of the WWE roster, save the fact that Debra was his valet. Arguably, Jarrett’s best work was with WCW and later TNA. He’s carried on his redneck character across promotions, but it worked well in WWE, feuding with the likes of Road Dogg Jesse James (during his first run) and Chyna (during his second run). He was also great at smashing guitars. You can’t beat that.
Post-Attitude Era, it would have been interesting to see how Jarrett’s character could have evolved, but, honestly, it’s difficult to see him away from the persona he’s long held onto. Unfortunately, Jarrett's ego has convinced him he's a top star, but he's been nothing but a big fish in small ponds since his WWE departures.
Sure DX was a catapult for Triple H and the New Age Outlaws, but it’s easily synonymous with the group’s heater, Chyna. Only Triple H and Chyna had runs in both the original incarnation of DX (with Shawn Michaels and Rick Rude), as well as its revamped version (with the New Age Outlaws and X-Pac).
Chyna is one of the few wrestlers in the women’s division to have notable feuds with her male peers. She had amazing storylines and matches with both Jeff Jarrett and Chris Jericho battling for the Intercontinental Title. Additionally, she held the Women’s Championship.
At the end of her tenure with WWE, Chyna was placed in strange, albeit amusing, storylines with Eddie Guerrero and Mark Henry as their would-be suitors. She was let go and, like X Pac, her decline was very public, resulting in a widely distributed sex tape, appearances on varied The Surreal World programs, Celebrity Rehab, and well documented drug problem.
Many former WWE wrestlers have had the option of rehab open to them, but because of Chyna’s relationship with ex, Triple H, accusations of physical abuse, and her alleged spat with Stephanie McMahon, it’s easy to see why that offer wasn’t extended. Wrestlers like Tamina Snuka and Nia Jax could have used someone like Chyna as a mentor, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
6 The Hardy Boyz
Matt and Jeff Hardy have had their own respective bad relationships with WWE, but they’ve been repaired. In their current state, it would be great to see the Hardys in the same company as the newly reformed Dudley Boyz, but I don’t see that happening soon, mostly due to injuries.
Matt’s real life and kayfabe problems with Edge had secured his first firing, only to come back as fans rallied for him. Jeff’s drug problem had left him out, which he then sobered and had an amazing run as World Heavyweight Champion, culminating with a fantastic feud with CM Punk.
The Hardys, along with Edge and Christian, and the Dudleyz are often credited with bringing the hardcore tables, ladders, and chairs matches to the mainstream, but along with that comes serious injuries. Both Edge and Christian have retired from active competition and Matt and Jeff have both endured injuries in the different companies they’ve been with since leaving the WWE. I don’t think that they would have had much left in the tank, but seeing Matt Hardy as a manager would be one of the best things ever.
Kharma had only one match in the WWE as a Royal Rumble entrant, but the potential is limitless. She certainly has had quite the career in TNA, as well as the indies. Given the current “Divas Revolution,” it would be interesting to see where Kharma would fit in. The Divas roster is stacked with absolutely great performers, but having someone like Kharma onboard who would just destroy everyone…that’s a storyline that is just waiting to happen.
4 Shelton Benjamin
Shelton Benjamin has everything that a WWE wrestler needs: charismatic on the mic, physically gifted, and can work easily as both a face and a heel. When Benjamin was released in the great exodus of 2010 with five other in-ring talents.
Benjamin should have a run for either the World Heavyweight Championship or the WWE Championship, like his former partner, Kurt Angle. Not that he totally failed – he had an Intercontinental Championship, United States Championship, and Tag Team titles in his resume.
He certainly has made a bigger impact on the independent circuit, but in 2016, it’s easy to say that he could get lost in the shuffle between your Brock Lesnar, Roman Reigns, and Dean Ambrose, or he could be feuding with any one of those guys and hold his own.
We have Goldberg on the current roster…wait, sorry, that’s Ryback. Cheap joke aside, Goldberg is just a beast in the way that Brock Lesnar is. His short run on WWE TV wasn’t enough to warrant anything of note. He was definitely a big dog in WCW, so it’s difficult to enter a promotion against truly household names like Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Rock. That aside, Goldberg could have been used sparingly, popping in when they need someone to really shake up the storyline (see: Lesnar, the Undertaker). The potential matches are an endless list, not to mention that at damn near 50, he still looks really good. Also, he’s quite active in charity work, so a battle with John Cena in who could out-do-good the other would be amusing to me.
As both Virgil in the WWE and Vince in WCW, he flanked the Million Dollar Man, Ted DiBiase and the NWO respectively. He never got to really breakout, which is a shame. The dude could wrestle, but often spent his career in the background. His post-WWE life is racked with sadness as he’s reportedly been seen selling autographs in a subway station.
When you look at how WWE gave screen time to guys like Zeus, it’s a wonder why they never did anything with a full-time worker like Virgil. Even if he didn’t wrestle, a continued role of a bodyguard, manager, or even general manager (thanks, Teddy Long) would have extended his career.
1 AJ Lee
AJ Lee has had some memorable storylines and matches. She’s had the chance to work alongside the likes of Dolph Ziggler, Big E, Daniel Bryan, and some guy named CM Punk. More importantly, the Divas Revolution push could be attributed to her, notably in a tweet to Stephanie McMahon. She has many accolades attached to her name and in her last match, was sent off with a win.
Her promo against the Total Divas cast is a testament to how she could work the mic as well as she could wrestle. The reasons behind her early retirement is probably one of the worst kept secrets in professional wrestling (with a sanctioned WWE doctor suing her husband), but if there was ever a wrestler whose future ended with a big old question mark, it’s certainly AJ Lee.