The professional wrestling industry can be a cruel mistress for many. Talented men and women who should be mainstays for an organization such as World Wrestling Entertainment fail to reach their full potential because injuries sideline them, sometimes for good, each and every year. The second half of 2015 up through the first few months of 2016 has been particularly rough for the WWE, as several superstars have been put on the shelf due to health reasons. One man who was a champion but who never had the chance to truly be the top guy in the WWE was forced to retire in February 2016 because of health reasons.
Some wrestlers will only ever be able to dream of being in the main event of a massive show such as WrestleMania. One such individual seemed to be a budding star making his way through the NXT developmental system when he learned that his body had betrayed him and that he would never again be cleared to work a match underneath the WWE umbrella. While he was obviously upset to learn of this news, he has done well to begin a new career with the company, and he could, in fact, be on his way to achieving even more success than he would have as a wrestler.
There are probably some fans out there who would say that a wrestler who was given a run with a championship had an opportunity to reach his full potential and thus does not belong on the list. That, as history has shown, is inaccurate. Truth be told, the biggest money-making star in the history of the WWE technically never reached his full potential because he succumbed to injuries and had to retire as an active wrestler. As much money as he made during a short portion of his career, one can only imagine what might have been for that man and for the industry had he remained healthy.
15. Magnum TA
It could be the ultimate “what if” story in the history of pro wrestling. Magnum T.A. was the top babyface working in Jim Crockett Promotions and on his way to a push as a world champion in the fall of 1986 when he was involved in a serious car accident. While Magnum fortunately survived what could have been a fatal accident, his wrestling career was over following that fateful night. There is little question that Magnum would have been given the opportunity to carry the ball for the company and maybe even for World Championship Wrestling in the 1990s. That car accident changed the industry.
14 Mike Von Erich
Anybody who has read about the famous Von Erich wrestling family is probably aware that Mike allegedly did not want to be a wrestler. Mike was not as athletic as his brothers, but he did want to work in the business in some other capacity. Von Erich eventually became a wrestler, however, because of his last name and because of the death of his brother David. Several injuries, most notably one to his shoulder that resulted in Mike needing surgery, affected him at a young age, and he committed suicide in April 1987. He was just 23-years-old when he took his own life.
13 Rick Rude
Yes, “Ravishing” Rick Rude was a superstar who had already had a great career when a back injury forced him to retire at 35-years-old. Rude was one of the best heels on the microphone in the business during his time and his retirement occurred only a few years before the start of the “Attitude Era.” A fully healthy Rude, one with a tweaked gimmick, could have worked cards with Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart and Steve Austin during the second half of the 1990s. It should also be pointed out that Rude may still be with us today had he never suffered that serious back injury.
Lita unquestionably had a great career, and she is deservedly a member of the WWE Hall of Fame. You may forget, however, that she could have been an even bigger star and maybe even the greatest Diva in history. Lita was so popular in 2002 that she was asked to work on the television program Dark Angel. She suffered a serious neck injury during the filming process, however, and that injury sidelined her for nearly a year and a half. While Lita did manage to make a return to the ring in September 2003, she retired as a WWE wrestler in the fall of 2006.
11 "Dr. Death" Steve Williams
The story goes that “Dr. Death” Steve Williams was going to receive a big push upon linking up with the WWE in 1998, in part because Williams had a reputation for being legitimately tough. Williams was thrown into the “Brawl For All” competition, a tournament that featured real fights and that most thought would be won by Williams. Williams suffered a torn hamstring while facing off with Bart Gunn, however, and Gunn knocked the injured Williams out. That one night would prove to be the end of any push Williams would receive from the WWE. Oh, what could have been.
10 Nigel McGuinness
Nigel McGuinness had an impressive career while working in several companies. Casual fans will most likely remember him for playing the Desmond Wolfe character in Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. McGuinness was, according to multiple reports, on the verge of signing for the WWE when the company pulled that contract because of concerns about McGuinness' health. The public later learned that McGuinness had lingering problems from a biceps injury and that he had contracted Hepatitis B, possibly while working in TNA. McGuinness is now retired from active in-ring duty, having never received a chance to be a star in the WWE.
Edge already had a spot in the WWE Hall of Fame guaranteed to him when he announced in the spring of 2011 that he had to retire because of cervical spinal stenosis. The “Rated-R Superstar” was a multi-time WWE/World Heavyweight Champion, and he worked a WrestleMania match with Undertaker. Had Edge been able to stay healthy, though, the veteran of the business could have worked feuds with the likes of Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Finn Balor, Kevin Owens and others who have made it through NXT. Those programs likely would have expanded on what was already an impressive and historic career.
Darren Drozdov, known as Droz during his days in the WWE, was a solid hand in the ring, but he probably would not have risen to a main-event status during the “Attitude Era.” We'll never know for sure, though, as Droz's life changed forever after he suffered a serious neck injury during a match against D'Lo Brown in the fall of 1999. Droz was accidentally dropped on his head and that moment left him a quadriplegic. Jim Ross, among others in the wrestling world, will occasionally offer updates on how Droz is doing. One such story was featured on FOXSports.com back in 2014.
7 CM Punk
We know, years after the fact, why CM Punk did not reach his full potential with the WWE even though the company did push him as a star. For starters, the company repeatedly botched storylines involving Punk, including the WWE's version of the “Summer of Punk.” Punk also explained, during that infamous podcast that was leaked over the Thanksgiving weekend of 2014, that he was beaten up and dealing with injuries when he decided to leave the WWE and retire as a wrestler. Injuries have prevented Punk from competing in his first ever Ultimate Fighting Championship match. Will that match ever occur?
6 Christopher Nowinski
The Christopher Nowinski character that first debuted in the WWE in 2002 is one that remains underrated. Nowinski played up the fact that he had graduated from Harvard before becoming a pro wrestler, and he was a classic cowardly heel. His WWE career did not last two full years, however, as Nowinski had to step away from the business because of issues stemming from concussions. Nowinski went on to become an outspoken voice on the dangers of concussions and it could be said that he has meant more to the sports world following his career than he ever would have as a wrestler.
5 Richie Steamboat
Richie Steamboat, the son of wrestling legend and WWE Hall of Fame member Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, was only in his mid-20s the last time that he wrestled in a WWE ring. The younger Steamboat was first sidelined because of back problems late in 2012 and he later required surgery to help him recover from those issues. It would turn out, unfortunately, that Steamboat was more injured than he originally believed. The world learned in 2015 that Steamboat had injuries in multiple discs in his back and that those injuries had forced him to retire.
4 Corey Graves
We will never know what Corey Graves could have been as a WWE wrestler. Graves had to retire from in-ring action late in 2014 after he suffered multiple concussions. That, as we would learn, would only be the beginning of the story for Graves. The WWE offered Graves a job as a commentator and as a host for WWE Network shows, and he has been nothing short of excellent in those roles. Graves has been a breath of fresh air calling matches and there is no question that he could be a great heel manager for a wrestler or a faction if he was given that opportunity.
3 Shawn Michaels
Shawn Michaels may, when looking back, say that the back injury that he suffered in 1998 was the best thing that could have happened to him considering all of the issues that he was dealing with at the time. Think, though, of all that could have been had the “Heartbreak Kid” remained healthy and also gotten his life in order. Michaels had only one big match against Steve Austin. HBK never worked a meaningful program with The Rock. Michaels' second run in the WWE was even better than his first, yes, but a lot was lost to our imaginations during the four years that Michaels was sidelined.
2 Daniel Bryan
No wrestler on the WWE roster over the past several years deserved to main event a WrestleMania more than Daniel Bryan. “American Dragon” was, when at this best, respected by wrestlers and journalists alike as one of the best performers of his generation, and Bryan did well to beat the odds and become the top babyface in the WWE when so much was against him. Injuries sidelined Bryan right when he was at the height of his popularity and a return to the ring was removed from the equation for good in February 2016 when Bryan announced to the world that he had to retire.
1 Steve Austin
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin was a rising babyface when he was accidentally spiked on his head by Owen Hart at SummerSlam 1997. Less than six years after that moment, Austin was forced to retire because of injuries following one last WrestleMania match against The Rock. In between that time, Austin became the biggest draw in WWE history and the top act in the industry. While acts such as Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair were able to wrestle as stars for decades, Austin only had a handful of years at the tops of cards. Austin could, and likely would, have been an even bigger star, one who could still be working today if not for his injuries.