Despite all the retirement matches and times Vince McMahon yells “you’re fired!”, no one ever really wants to see a superstar’s career end prematurely. Even the most hated heels or lost causes could always have their careers reborn or repackaged into something great. Some of the wrestlers on this list were before their prime, right in the middle of it, with some slightly past their prime as well. One uniting theme here is that most wrestling fans wish they could see more matches with these wrestlers.
It can happen for many reasons, with injury being the most common. Even though wrestling is scripted, it’s still incredibly dangerous. Unfortunately, that danger is at the forefront of the WWE universe these days with Daniel Bryan still injured and possibly never competing again. His injury problems since the miracle WrestleMania 30 win have been well-documented. Tyson Kidd has also suffered a back/spinal injury recently that many are describing as career-threatening. Time will tell for these two, but it would be a huge disappointment to have to see these two talented names on a future version of this list.
The following list also shows a great lineup of what-if stories. Who knows how the wrestling world would have been changed if these guys had stayed as full-time superstars for a longer period of time? Some of these Superstars sudden retirement shook the wrestling world to its core and left ripples of change extending years into the future, though they didn’t leave for physical reasons. While for some of these wrestlers, retirement was tragically necessary and they made the conscious decision to walk away.
Droz might be the least accomplished wrestler on this list, as his WWE career ended after only two years. Droz had one of the most public WWE injuries and became a company spokesperson and example of the “Don’t try this at home” campaign that came about in the Attitude Era when organizations like the Parents Television Council were breathing down Vince’s neck.
Before the injury, Droz had come into his own in a storyline as the third Legion of Doom member and another where he led a small stable of “freaks” and body-piercing enthusiasts. This all came to a halt when he became a quadriplegic following a botched D’Lo Brown powerbomb on Smackdown. He’s become an inspirational story and has even regained to his upper body.
14. Joey Mercury
Joey Mercury is pretty famous nowadays as half of J&J Security, so it might be argued that he’s still semi-active. However, he had a promising singles and tag team career cut short by a couple of serious injuries and a painkiller addiction. During a 4-way Tag Title ladder match, Mercury suffered a very bloody broken nose and orbital bone. The injury itself wasn’t career-threatening, but the painkiller addiction he developed during his recovery led to Vince releasing him from the WWE for his own well being.
Mercury was ascending prior to his injury. In addition to his three reigns as a tag team champ, he was expected to be a singles star of the future. He had a brief return after getting his addiction under control, but after a pectoral injury, he moved into training, road agent work and his current limited role.
13. Christopher Nowinski
Nowinski boasts being the youngest WWE Hardcore champion ever, but he’s more known for his post-WWE wrestling career than what he did in the ring. After his own concussions, and the death of Chris Benoit, the WWE’s only Harvard graduate retired after a year of post-concussion symptoms not subsiding.
After wrestling, Nowinski has done extensive research into concussions and how CTE relates to professional sports, along with how it affects wrestlers. He has received widespread credit for leading the movement for trying to be understand the issues involving CTE.
12. Brian Pillman
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the “Loose Cannon” Brian Pillman lived his life as wild as his on-screen persona. Unfortunately, this would mean his star burned very bright, but for a short period of time. Pillman died at the age of 35, just a few months after a severe ankle injury that grounded his high-flying style.
Pillman showed his talents as a rising star in WCW and ECW before joining the WWE with his real-life friend, Steve Austin. Before his injury and death, Pillman was working with Austin and it’d be easy to see these two coming up through the Attitude Era and having classic matches together.
11. The Von Erichs
This wrestling family unfortunately has a lot in common with the doomed Kennedy family in politics. Patriarch Fritz Von Erich was a successful pro with the iconic “Iron Claw” finisher. Sadly, things took a dark turn for his family. Two sons died before ever getting into the wrestling business, the first via accident and the sixth via suicide.
Third son David Von Erich died of a believed drug overdose at the age of 26 and it was on the eve of a NWA World Title match with Ric Flair that many believed he was slated to win. Fourth son Kerry Von Erich was in a severe motorcycle accident also at the age of 26 that saw him lose his foot. He would commit suicide a few years later due to depression and painkiller addiction. Finally, fifth son Mike was pushed into the wrestling industry, and after an injury and painkiller addiction, he committed suicide as well at age 23.
10. Magnum TA
Magnum TA was an upcoming NWA star, US Champion, and likely future World Champ at the age of 27. He already had a career-making match, when he fought Tully Blanchard in an “I Quit” match and seemingly his entire future ahead.
However, Magnum would suffer a severe spinal injury after a car accident. Magnum would walk again and make appearances for various events as a wrestling legend, but he would never return to the ring.
9. Shane McMahon
Shane McMahon might seem like an odd choice for the list, but he did make a big impression in the late 90s, when he became somewhat of a full time wrestler during the Invasion and Alliance angles. After an impressive run of great hardcore matches, Shane walked away as The Alliance dissolved in storyline. There was no injury forcing him out – Shane just seemed to have other business interests.
Shane returned briefly for the DX and Legacy feuds with his father in 2007-2008, but the prodigal son left the WWE for good in 2010, to become the CEO of a video streaming service.
Goldberg made a huge impact during his short time in WCW. Goldberg was on top of the wrestling world from 1998 through WCW’s demise in 2001. He voluntarily missed several years after the buyout and then again left WWE at a relatively young age after his disastrous WrestleMania match with Brock Lesnar.
After 2004, Goldberg would make no further major wrestling appearances, despite no major injuries and less wear than many other wrestlers because of his late start into pro wrestling. He says to “never say never” about a potential return to the WWE, but he definitely left the wrestling scene earlier than he could have.
7. CM Punk
CM Punk’s very public and messy breakup with the WWE has been well-documented. He didn’t walk out with the title like he threatened during the 2010 storyline, but Punk’s abrupt exit was a huge shocker.
Before his early retirement, Punk had become a world champion several times over, including breaking the modern record for longest WWE Title reign. He was widely regarded as a top performer on the mic and in the ring, whose fanbase was only growing. It would be a huge overstatement to assume he won’t be inducted into the Hall of Fame (they recently inducted The Ultimate Warrior and Macho Man), but it’s entirely possible that we never see Punk wrestler professionally again.
6. Owen Hart
Overshadowed by his brother during his career and likely one of the best wrestlers ever to never win the world title, Owen Hart was a great WWE star who could do it all and fill any role in the card. He had great technical matches with his brother, Bret, and at the time of his death, he was lighting up the lower card as the comedy “Blue Blazer” character.
When he passed, it was a huge loss for the wrestling world and it’s incredibly sad that we hadn’t seen Owen have the championship run he so richly deserved.
5. Eddie Guerrero
Speaking of heartbreakers, after Eddie Guerrero beat his addiction demons, it was tragic for him to die from complications just a few years later. Eddie was one of the older people on this list, dying at the age of 38, but he was also scheduled to win the world title at the next Smackdown! event.
After jumping from WCW to WWE, Eddie was one of the top stars of the 2000s, winning 10 different championship reigns en route to becoming a Triple Crown and Grand Slam champion. His death was a huge loss to the wrestling world.
In April of 2011, Edge retired from the ring permanently due to cervical spinal stenosis. After the high-flying tag matches that made his name, Edge went on to become one of the best singles wrestlers of all time, winning eleven world championships on his own.
Edge also retired fairly late in his career, at the age of 38, but he was still involved in world title feuds and matches at the time of his diagnosis.
3. Bret Hart
The Excellence of Execution retired in his early-40s in 2000, but he could have had several further great angles and matches later in life due to his relatively low-impact style. However, those hopes were dashed after he suffered two severe concussions and torn muscles in his neck during matches with Goldberg. It was a sad ending to his impressive career.
Despite some sporadic matches after that (including a US Championship run in the WWE), Bret Hart was never the same after those injuries.
2. Stone Cold Steve Austin
Stone Cold had to famously alter his style after a piledriver that injured his neck, but as the Bionic Redneck’s career continued and injuries kept nagging and mounting, it was obvious Stone Cold’s time was limited.
However, his first WWE hiatus came about in 2002 as a result of creative differences and disagreements on his storylines. He would return for a final match at WrestleMania XXIX against longtime rival The Rock, but retired immediately afterward. The pain from the injuries had gotten to the point that doctors advised him that one wrong move could result in paralysis or death.
1. The Rock
After most of these sadder stories, it’s nice to end with a slightly uplifting tale. The Rock left wrestling because he was on the way to becoming a huge movie star and couldn’t balance the two aspects of his life. There was no catastrophic injury that ruined his quality of life or ability to keep wrestling. As his movies killed at the box office, The Rock’s return became less and less likely.
It’s true that The Rock still wrestles sporadically and hasn’t missed many WrestleManias, but the WWE would be a different place if he never left full-time duty in 2004 at the ripe age of 32.
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