Sometimes things just don’t work out.
When a WWE superstar gets released by the leader in ‘sports entertainment,’ it’s often up to the individual wrestler on whether the release was a good thing or not. Unless, of course, there’s bad blood on either side. For many wrestlers, making it to the WWE is a dream come true. Others find out that a life of rental cars, hotel rooms, and plane rides to destinations across the world can be more of a grind than they’d anticipated. Most hopefuls who get into the business have no idea how much the travel and separation from loved ones can really affect a person on both an emotional and physical level. The grind wears WWE superstars down constantly.
So a parting of ways can be something of a relief. But there’s always going to be a legion of fans out there to second-guess the talent-management skills of the WWE, arguing whether a specific talent should have been released, repackaged, or just given one more shot. Sometimes, despite WWE’s vaunted developmental system, some wrestlers just aren’t ready for prime time. Others flame out because of lifestyle issues. Sometimes the timing just isn’t right, and the talent finds its way back to the WWE after some time in the indies, honing their talents in the ring and on the microphone.
Regardless, there comes a time when hard decisions must be made. Here are 15 wrestlers the WWE was right to release, and why.
15 Brodus Clay
Three words: Funk. A. Saurus. Come ON. Like a modern-day Mantaur, someone must have been pulling a rib, right? But no--fans were subjected to Brodus Clay, first as Alberto Del Rio’s bodyguard, and then repackaged as the fun-loving (funk-loving?) Funkasaurus. Brodus was released after a 2013 run where he turned heel against Xavier Woods. But even though the WWE tried multiple gimmicks and angles for the 6’9”, 375-pound wrestler, they were never able to hide his deficiencies. Clay was big, but he just wasn’t very good.
Most people don’t know that it was Clay’s second run with the company, as he’d been released from then-developmental WWE territory Florida Championship Wrestling in 2008 before it was re-branded NXT. But Clay--real name George Murdoch--has stuck with wrestling, joining rival promotion TNA as ‘Tyrus.’ He also continues to do media appearances as a commentator on The Greg Gutfield Show and other Fox News shows under the Tyrus name.
14 Alberto Del Rio
Like his former bodyguard, Brodus, Alberto was released twice by the WWE. The first time, Del Rio was fired for ‘unprofessional conduct’ in August 2014, when he slapped a WWE employee for a racist joke. Del Rio embraced the indies in his native Mexico, the U.S., and Europe, showcasing a fire that many people had thought he’d lost in his first WWE run.
Del Rio, real name Jose Rodriguez, re-signed with the WWE in October 2015 as a surprise opponent for John Cena. ADR won the U.S. title from Cena, but many of his performances were lackluster, and he simply didn’t look like he was happy to be back after the initial few weeks of his return. After being popped for a Wellness Policy violation, Del Rio and WWE negotiated his release, and he was gone to the indies again--much to the relief of everyone in the situation.
13 Colt Cabana
Former professional wrestling manager, commentator, and promoter Jim Cornette once famously told Colt Cabana that “Funny don’t draw money,” and it’s pretty easy to argue that the WWE and Cornette are in rare agreement on that one when it comes to Cabana. After moving up from developmental territory Ohio Valley Wrestling, Cabana wrestled (unsuccessfully) as Scotty Goldman, but rose to some prominence with a series on WWE.com called Good as Goldman. Still, he never won a televised match in WWE, and was released on the same day that his final match--a loss to Umaga--was broadcast on Smackdown!
Cabana (AKA Scott Colton) went back to the indies, where his one-note comedy matches thrill crowds of dozens. Okay--that’s unfair. He’s had some success in the ring, holding the NWA world title and recently getting a run near the top of the card of Ring of Honor. All in all, Cabana’s making a living in wrestling without the WWE, and they’re not missing him, either.
12 Adam Rose
The real-life Ray Leppan had such a compelling story as the father of a son with a rare abdominal defect. The child, Maverick, had endured four operations by the time he turned three years old. He’d outlived his prognosis, but still had to be fed through a tube in his stomach. Adam Rose was wrestling to give his young family a better life.
Talk about a sympathetic character. But the WWE saddled him with characters that simply weren’t right for Leppan before settling on party animal Adam Rose. The character was fun for about six weeks, but began to stale after that. Things began to go downhill in real life for Leppan, too. He was suspended for 60 days for a second Wellness Policy violation (which he disputes), and then he was arrested for domestic violence and tampering with a witness. Leppan was indefinitely suspended from WWE following his arrest, and eventually Leppan and WWE came to terms on his release. The domestic violence charges have since been dismissed, and hopefully Adam Rose is seeing happier times these days.
11 Damien Sandow
This one hurts to write. It’s easy to be a fan of Damien Sandow, a guy who was often given the short end of the stick by WWE Creative. He took some really awful material, committed to it, and by and large made it work. His stunt double/tag team with The Miz was classic comedy, and the subsequent feud between the two was pure fun. His impersonations of other superstars and wrestling personalities were must-see on Raw.
But the fact is that Damien Sandow (Aaron Haddad) had gone as far as he could go in the modern WWE. He’s the kind of wrestler who would have benefitted from the 1970s/80s territory system, where he could spend months or years in one place, then move on to another, so that his gimmick wouldn’t ever get old. Instead, WWE Creative simply ran out of things to do with him, and he was released. His post-WWE career hasn’t looked great, even though he was TNA’s inaugural Grand Champion. He’s mostly been lackluster in the ring and on the mic since his WWE release.
10 Daniel Bryan
What, you forgot that WWE actually released Daniel Bryan in 2010? As part of the Nexus stable, Bryan participated in an angle where the group destroyed the Raw set. Bryan grabbed ring announcer Justin Roberts and pretended to strangle him with his own tie. In most independent wrestling shows, this would just be another example of a heel being a heel. In the PG-era WWE, it was a huge no-no. Daniel Bryan was fired for being too violent on a wrestling show.
That’s right--too violent on a wrestling show. You can’t make this stuff up. Bryan spent some time in the independents and returned to the WWE when everything blew over. He rose to the WWE World Championship before being forced to retire from concussion-related symptoms. He now appears as the general manager of the Smackdown brand.
9 William Regal
William Regal--Lord Steven Regal, if you’re an old-school WCW fan--should have been a world champion. He’s one of those guys who can legitimately wrestle, and he’s tougher than a two-dollar steak. When he was on, Regal was gold in the ring and on the microphone. Unfortunately, his baser instincts got out of control in 1999, when Regal’s drug use finally resulted in him being released from the WWE.
But there’s a happy ending. Regal went to rehab, got better, and returned to the world of wrestling--first back to WCW, and then again to the WWE, where he’s been ever since. He’s served as a wrestler, a manager of sorts, an on-air authority figure, and a behind-the-scenes advisor for young talent. Regal is proof that sometimes a comeback works.
8 Jake Roberts
At his best, Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts was a sly, crafty wrestler who out-thought more gifted competitors in the ring and on promos. In 1996, an obviously past-his-prime Jake was still a joy to watch, and he was enough of a player that he was picked to make it to the finals of the King of the Ring tournament against ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin. Austin won the match, but also cut the first-ever ‘Austin 3:16’ promo on Jake, effectively launching the WWE into the Attitude Era.
Roberts didn’t last much longer in the WWE. His battles with drugs and alcohol were already well-known, and he relapsed to the point where management felt he was no longer employable. This started a downward spiral for Jake (chronicled in part in the documentary Beyond the Mat) that didn’t stop until Diamond Dallas Page helped the Snake kick the drugs and the booze. He’s sober now and doing well.
7 John Morrison
The former Johnny Nitro looks exactly like you’d want a wrestler to look: He’s got a chiseled, handsome face, and a body with muscles on its muscles. But he’s the definition of ‘all show and no go,’ at least when it comes to his WWE career. Despite his athletic prowess, Morrison had a tough time connecting with the WWE audience, and few people seem to know why.
The WWE and Morrison came to an agreement to let his contract run out in late 2011. Morrison worked the independent scene for awhile, but has found more success as part of AAA’s Lucha Underground, where he wrestles as Johnny Mundo. Morrison is a key example of a split with the WWE being good for a wrestler’s career, as he would likely have never pursued opportunities in the independents or in LU, had things worked out with WWE.
6 Road Dogg
Following Brian James’s WWE career is sort of like watching the balls in a bing hopper--you can’t tell what’s going to come up next. James, who was first Jeff Jarrett’s ‘Roadie’ and then later a part of the New Age Outlaws and Degeneration-X. But Jarrett and his Roadie were pretty quickly bounced from WWE in 1995 until the Road Dogg came back on his own.
His subsequent departure from the company wasn’t pretty. Prescription painkillers, illicit drugs, and alcohol all played a part in his release. James, the youngest son of the Armstrong wrestling family, finally managed to get clean and sober, and--surprise!--he’s back in the WWE, working behind the scenes, producing SmackDown!
5 Rob Conway
Rob Conway has a similar story to Damien Sandow, though he was never as entertaining. But Conway was, at best, a lower mid-carder who wasn’t going to go anywhere in the WWE. He’d held the tag titles three times with Sylvain Grenier, and that was about it. He went on a widely publicized losing streak before getting publicly ‘fired’ by Vince McMahon on Raw and subsequently released in real life, too.
Conway benefitted from his release, though, working small and mid-sized independent shows, finally coming into his own as a singles competitor. He won the NWA world title from Kahagas, and has held that title twice. Looking at Conway’s mostly unsuccessful run in WWE, it’s nice to see that he’s bounced back and continues to make a living wrestling at a pretty high level.
4 Chris Masters
Ah, ‘the masterpiece,’ Chris Masters, and his Masterlock challenge, where he challenged plants in the audience to come try to break his full nelson submission hold. It was a gimmick that could have worked well--and did, in the 1980s. But Masters was wrestling in the mid-2000s, and the audience was much harder to impress than wrestling fans from a generation prior.
Masters tried hard, give him that. But he never seemed like a great fit in WWE, despite his fantastic physique. He became addicted to painkillers and was popped at least twice for violating the WWE substance abuse policy. He’s gone on to wrestle for the indies and TNA. He looks notably less jacked these days, so perhaps removing the pressure of always having a TV-ready appearance has been good for him.
I don’t want to say that the former Ryan Reeves is a reckless meathead in the ring. It’s easier to let his actions speak for themselves. He’s concussed Dolph Ziggler (although at this point, who hasn’t?), nearly dropped Tensai on his head while botching his own finishing maneuver, and C.M. Punk has accused him of purposely breaking Punk’s ribs.
Other wrestlers, like Chris Jericho, don’t see Ryback as unsafe. However, it is safe to say that the lumbering ‘Big Guy’ was never very good in the ring. He’s most known for wearing Rob Van Dam’s tights on Goldberg’s body. A pay and creative dispute led Ryback to sit out the last few weeks of his contract until the WWE released him. He’s available for bookings on the independent scene, but no one is missing Ryback on national TV.
2 Kurt Angle
Kurt Angle would probably be dead right now if he’d stayed in the WWE. There’s not really any other way to say that, unfortunately. The man who won Olympic gold with a broken freakin’ neck found himself hopelessly addicted to painkillers and muscle relaxers in the mid-2000s due to the physical style of his wrestling and the toll of life on the road. Angle needed to stop wrestling such a heavy schedule. He asked for--and received--an early release from his contract in 2006.
Eventually, Angle resurfaced in TNA, taking advantage of their much lighter schedule. Still, years of substance abuse and brushes with the law remained ahead for Angle until he finally entered rehab in 2013. A noticeably smaller Angle continued to wrestle for TNA until his retirement from that company. Clean and sober, Kurt Angle was announced as one of the inductees for the 2017 Class of the WWE Hall of Fame.
1 Bret Hart
Bret Hart left the WWE after the Montreal Screwjob, a development the WWE used to define the evil Mr. McMahon character and position him against Stone Cold Steve Austin in the hottest feud the wrestling industry has ever seen. But how the entire thing came about is fascinating. In 1996, Bret signed a 20-year contract with the WWE. A year later, Vince McMahon was worried about going out of business, so he and Bret worked out a release from the contract so that Bret could pursue a deal with WCW.
You know the rest--how ‘Bret screwed Bret’ and Shawn Michaels ended up with the WWE title, only to lose it at the following WrestleMania to the Austin. And if the WWE hadn’t needed to release Hart from that contract, the wrestling business might look very different today indeed.
That’s the list. Did I miss anything? Hit me on Twitter: @bobbymathews.