The rosters of major wrestling promotions change with time, but some changes are more heartbreaking than others. Some talent are much harder to recreate (and in the case of Razor Ramon, it can be an utter failure). In extreme cases, losing top talent can lead a company to its demise. The worst departures, however, are those that are unexpected.
There are many reasons why some wrestlers decide to leave their jobs. Wrestlers may find a better, more flexible contract elsewhere. They may just lose their passion for the sport. Or sadly, they may have to hang up their wrestling boots due to a career-ending injury. In unusual cases, the WWE has to cut wrestlers from its roster due to budget cuts, even when they are in their prime. Regardless of the reason, the departures of top stars make many fans sad, especially when they don’t have the time to accept the loss beforehand.
Many of these losses happened during wrestling’s peak period: The Monday Night War. Many wrestlers jumped ship from the WWE to the WCW. The WCW’s purchasing power nearly put the WWE out of business. However, WCW didn’t properly invest in its next generation of talent. When its older stars retired or went to pursue other opportunities, the tactics it previously used backfired. That’s not to say that wrestlers today don’t get burned out from being on the road 300 days a year. Plenty of wrestlers have received releases from their contracts after realizing the business wasn’t a good fit for them. But that doesn’t take away the shock value associated with their departure.
Plenty of departures have made fans’ jaws drop, but here are the 15 most shocking departures in professional wrestling history.
Fans (and Edge himself) had no idea that his WrestleMania XXVII main event against Alberto Del Rio would be his last match. After the event, Edge underwent some strength tests after feeling numbness in his arms. After having an MRI, Edge was told that he had to retire. It didn’t help that Edge sustained a neck injury in the early 2000s, either. Doctors would not clear Edge for fear of him becoming paralyzed if he took a hard enough bump.
Edge would then vacate the title, which he would help his former tag team partner and long time friend, Christian, win. Edge would also make sporadic appearances throughout the next year. The night before WrestleMania XXVIII, Edge was inducted into the WWE’s Hall of Fame as one of the youngest inductees ever. While we knew that Edge would be inducted into the Hall of Fame at some point, no one expected him to retire before he was 40 years old.
Trish Stratus and Lita had their official main roster debuts within two months of each other. They would also end their careers within that same amount of time. Two months after the WWE’s Unforgiven pay-per-view, Lita announced that she would be leaving the WWE as Women’s Champion, competing in her last match against Mickie James at November’s Survivor Series. Unlike Trish, whose announcement was leaked well ahead of time (ironically, by Lita), Lita gave fans less than a week’s notice.
Lita wasn’t popular among wrestling fans at the time, with many fans still holding a grudge against her for cheating on Matt Hardy. When she had her supposed last match in the WWE against James, not only did she lose, but Cryme Tyme came out and threw out her underwear in a truly degrading segment. For a pioneer of women’s wrestling, it was truly shocking (and more so disappointing) to see the WWE go so low, even for someone as disliked as Lita.
13. Rick Rude
Rick Rude infamously appeared on both WWE’s Monday Night Raw and WCW’s Monday Night Nitro on the same night. How was that possible? The WWE’s program was, at the time, pre-taped, while the WCW’s program was on live television.
Rude was working with a pay-per-appearance deal with the WWE at the time, and was not tied down by an exclusive contract. As a result, he negotiated a contract with the WCW with Eric Bischoff during that time. While Rude was a great mouthpiece for D-Generation X, he was upset at the WWE for the Montreal Screwjob. He would end up leaving the company days after the incident. Hart mentioned in his book that while a lot of guys in the locker room talked about leaving following the screwjob, Rude was the only one (besides Bret’s brothers-in-law the Bulldog and Neidhart) who actually signed with WCW.
12. Alundra Blayze
At the end of 1995, Alundra Blayze was the WWE Women’s Champion. She would receive a memo informing her that she was released from her budget due to budget cuts. With her release, the women’s division of the company folded until Sable and Luna began feuding two years later. Many of the WWE’s top stars were jumping ship to WCW at the time, and Blayze would soon follow suit.
While Blayze’s release from the company was shocking, it would be what she did days later that would make her one of the most infamous wrestlers of all time. After some persuasion from Eric Bischoff, Blayze returned to WCW, reintroduced herself as Madusa (her previous WCW name) and threw the WWE Women’s Championship into the trash.
At the end of the 1990s, Sable was easily the most popular woman in the history of professional wrestling. It was because of Sable’s popularity that the Women’s Championship was restored. After a long reign as champion that lasted nearly six months, she suddenly dropped the title to Debra in an Evening Gown Match that, under traditional rules, Sable would have won.
Not long after this, Sable wouldn’t just leave the WWE. She would also file a sexual harassment lawsuit against the company while also citing unsafe working conditions. The lawsuit would end up being settled outside of court. To see the second-most popular superstar in the company (next to Stone Cold Steve Austin) leave the company, especially just months after having one of the highest-selling covers of Playboy, was completely unexpected.
10. Kurt Angle
Recently inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, Kurt Angle is one of the best technical wrestlers in the WWE’s history. However, when he first left the company in 2006, he was working while injured and wasn’t able to take time off. As a result, Angle asked and was granted his release from the company. There was no celebratory last match. His last match on WWE programming was a singles match against Sabu. No one saw Kurt Angle leaving the WWE coming.
After Angle left the WWE, he would show up on TNA programming within less than two months. While TNA’s work schedule was less strenuous than WWE, it still brings into question the severity of Angle’s injuries. It’s one thing to not want to work hurt and not have time off to heal your injuries. It’s another thing to want to work a lighter schedule. Regardless, Angle is back in WWE, and hopefully, he’ll be able to have that last match he deserves.
9. Lex Luger
In the eyes of many, Lex Luger is viewed as one of the most overrated wrestlers of all-time. He wasn’t terrible, but he certainly wasn’t as marvelous as he was made out to be. Yet that didn’t make his WWF departure less shocking by any means. Involved with a tag team with the British Bulldog, Luger competed at SummerSlam in 1995 and also worked house shows after the event. One day after working a house show, Luger popped up on the premiere episode of WCW Monday Night Nitro.
Luger would be one of the first big stars from the WWE that WCW would acquire. With the presence of Luger, Macho Man, Madusa and eventually, The Outsiders, WCW would lead the Monday Night Wars for 84 straight weeks, nearly pushing the WWF out of business. But as talent like Luger left the company, its ratings fell.
8. Razor Ramon
A member of The Kliq, Razor Ramon once held a major amount of influence backstage in the WWF. Yet when Eric Bischoff was working to get the WWF’s top guys over to WCW, Razor Ramon would put that power aside and move on over to the competition. Hall would later say that he didn’t leave the WWE for the money, but for the lack of days off that the WCW was able to compensate for.
Ramon would later show up in WCW has Scott Hall, cutting a promo as “an outsider.” Within weeks, Kevin Nash would join him, and The Outsiders would form. Shortly after that, Hulk Hogan would join forces with The Outsiders at Bash at the Beach, and the nWo was born.
Big Daddy Cool was yet another WWE star from the New Generation Era that ended up in WCW. The WCW was offering higher amounts of money to WWF stars, and the WWE’s stars were happy to take it. The future Kevin Nash would make his last WWF appearance in a match against his good friend, Shawn Michaels.
Yet Nash’s departure would be one of the first (and most notable) times wrestlers would break kayfabe, adding to the shock value of this departure. Nash, along with Michaels, Razor Ramon and Triple H, got into the ring and did a celebratory hug, despite the fact that not all of the wrestlers were of the same alignment at the time. The incident, often referred to as the Curtain Call, blurred the lines between programming and reality. His departure was very similar to Razor Ramon’s, but his lack of troublesome behavior is the only thing that bumps Diesel one spot higher on this list.
6. Brock Lesnar
Brock Lesnar was widely regarded as the next big thing in wrestling in the early 2000s. No wrestler had exploded on the scene as quickly as Lesnar. Yet his initial run with the company wouldn’t last very long. He was only on the main roster for two years, his last match (at the time) being against Goldberg at WrestleMania XX.
That match definitely wasn’t the best match ever, and many fans were left disappointed. Rumors began to surface shortly before Lesnar’s departure that he was leaving the WWE to try out for the NFL. While fans were more than aware of Goldberg’s departure, many fans were shocked to find out that a young star with so much potential was throwing his career away.
5. AJ Lee
After Trish Stratus and Lita left the WWE, the company struggled to produce female superstars that were just as popular as the men. AJ Lee was the first female in a long period of time to reach such levels of popularity. For years, women of the WWE went underrepresented in terms of merchandise, and they were poorly booked. Despite AJ’s name not being mentioned in discussions of the Women’s Revolution, it was arguably her feud with Kaitlyn that started it all.
In the year before her retirement, AJ began taking extended periods of time off. Some felt it was due to tensions between her employer and her partner, CM Punk. One night after WrestleMania 31, AJ announced her retirement from in-ring competition, which left fans stunned. AJ discovered that she had permanent damage to her cervical spine, and realized that she needed to retire to protect her body. While AJ Lee is no longer in the ring these days, she has definitely earned herself a spot in the WWE’s Hall of Fame in the future.
4. CM Punk
It’s no secret that CM Punk and the WWE have had a history of disagreements, tension and contract disputes. It’s the origin behind the infamous Pipebomb promo that will go down in history as one of the best microphone segments ever. Yet after working the 2014 Royal Rumble, CM Punk walked out of the company, telling Triple H and Vince McMahon that he was going home. He was shortly removed from future events, but he would remain on the company’s roster until the middle of the year.
Punk has since said in interviews that he was working events with a potentially fatal MRSA infection, along with multiple concussions. Fans clearly wanted to see CM Punk, however, and frequently chanted his name at shows. While Punk has ventured into other endeavors (including an arguably embarrassing UFC performance), he has yet to reappear in a WWE ring. At this rate, I wouldn’t hold your breath on that happening, either.
3. Bret Hart
The Montreal Screwjob is one of the most real incidents in wrestling history. Management knew that Bret Hart was planning to leave the WWF for WCW, and they didn’t want him to leave the company as champion. Despite booking Bret Hart to retain the championship in the match, the match’s finish was changed, and Shawn Michaels walked out of Montreal as the new WWE Champion, despite Bret Hart not submitting to the Sharpshooter.
The next month, Bret Hart would show up in WCW. Bret Hart was seen as one of the most loyal superstars to the WWE. For him to show up for the WCW, which was dominating the Monday Night War, only gave the WCW more power. Unfortunately, WCW proceeded to do absolutely nothing interesting with Hart and wasted that opportunity…
2. Stone Cold Steve Austin
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Stone Cold Steve Austin was the face of the WWE. There was no superstar that was nearly close to his level of popularity, and Austin was untouchable. In 2002, when Brock Lesnar made his debut, the company wanted Austin to lose a match in a clean way to Lesnar on Raw. Austin, not agreeing with this booking, walked out from the company and went home.
Not many people were happy with Austin walking out. The most notable of those people was Jim Ross, who described Austin’s actions similar to a little kid taking his ball back home. Fans were more than disappointed. The top star of the top wrestling company in the world walked out from his job without any notice, leaving many wrestling fans confused. Austin would return to the company the following year, yet his in-ring career wouldn’t last much longer.
1. Hulk Hogan
Besides Steve Austin (and MAYBE The Rock), it’s hard to argue that anyone else in professional wrestling has ever had as much star power and mainstream exposure as Hulk Hogan. Yet Hulk Hogan’s unexpected departure from the WWF in the mid-1990s was a sign for future things to come.
Many wrestlers on this list were offered higher-paying contracts by WCW’s Eric Bischoff, and they had every right to take those contracts. However, Hogan was arguably the first major name to defect from the WWE to the WCW. After being the face of the WWE for nearly a decade, Hogan’s move felt like a betrayal to the company and fans. Yet for Hogan, it proved to be absolutely necessary in order to truly revive his career.
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