It is never easy to make it in the entertainment industry, much less one as big as the WWE. If you take a look at wrestling interviews and other similar shows (e.g. Breaking Ground), you will realize just how much work it takes to make it in WWE. It takes determination, excellence, opportunity, bravery, work rate, proper booking, charisma, ability to work with anyone, luck, etc...
Therefore, when you actually do make it (even in NXT), then you have achieved something great in your life; something that millions and millions of people all around the world only ever dream of achieving.
Getting into the WWE Performance Center is hard enough. Once you’re there, you will be taken through rigorous routines to prove you are worthy. You may fail once or twice and still get another shot. After getting in, you will then need to get into NXT, which is no easy feat to accomplish. After that, you will need to gain traction and then move up the ranks in NXT. After that, if you are successful, you will be promoted to the main roster, where the rest is up to you. This is where you become a star or you simply fade away.
There have been many big names in the WWE. Many guys have managed to climb to the top thanks to a good story line, necessity or just a simple push. Other guys have earned it through years of hard work and dedication. The latter often tend to stay at the top longer. There have been many Randy Ortons in WWE over the decades, just as there have been many Jack Swaggers.
We will now take a look at the top 15 wrestlers who made it to the top of WWE and then disappeared.
When Ryback made his debut, he came out to some really cool music and as a significant upgrade on the Skip Sheffield character, granted, at that time, he was squashing jobbers. As much as people will speak ill of that, he was made out as a strong guy who could crush anyone.
But, the monster soon grew tired of these guys and wanted bigger fish. So, after winning his matches in seconds, he began to demand for more. “Feed me more,” he cried. It became a rallying cry and the fans got behind it. Those of us who wanted this guy to succeed wanted to see him take on better talent. So he squashed Tyler Reks and Curt Hawkins. And then he squashed Jinder Mahal. This was good. It was good, slow progress.
With hindsight, perhaps WWE should have kept his progress this slow, but, there was no one to take on CM Punk other than John Cena, so WWE saw it fit to push Ryback into that main event slot. Fair enough. The only problem for the Big Guy was that he was in a program with someone who was already booked to lose his title to The Rock.
His losses to CM Punk derailed his momentum and he began a slow and then speedy downward spiral. A year later, they brought him back to battle John Cena for the WWE title at Extreme Rules and Payback. He failed to win on both occasions and he was back on the downward spiral. He was brought back at THAT Survivor Series in 2014 as the difference maker for Team Cena, yet he did nothing of note. Again, he was forgotten. After a couple of team-ups with the Big Show and Kane, Ryback suddenly turned heel and went after Kalisto and his US title. However, he was put in the WrestleMania 32 kickoff and even then he lost that match.
Will he ever be in the main event again?
R-Truth was crazy. He was seeing “black helicopters” (as JBL puts it) and everyone had an agenda against him. The system was broken. There were conspiracies galore. The “corporation” did not like him because he was not a hero like John Cena. So, as the voices in his head instructed him, he destroyed Rey Mysterio and John Morrison. He cut very entertaining promos. He was just about the top heel at the time. He even splashed a drink in a fan’s face (right in front of his kid). He almost got kayfabe suspended for it but managed to talk his way into a WWE Championship match at the one and only Capitol Punishment. He had a great match, but ultimately lost. It wasn’t the end for him, though.
Truth teamed up with The Miz to form the Awesome Truth—a Shield-like team of two that no one remembers (perhaps unfairly). After destroying everyone, they got fired, and then rehired to face John Cena and The Rock at Survivor Series. They lost, obviously, but R-Truth was suspended for real this time for violating wellness rules. He came back, won the Tag Team titles with Kofi Kingston, but after losing to Team Hell No, he plummeted down the card. He’s now simply a comedy act (but a good one at that).
13 Ahmed Johnson
It is unfortunate that not many African Americans make it to the very top of WWE. Ahmed Johnson was one who seemed destined for such greatness (even before The Rock). In 1995, Johnson became the first African American to win a singles title in WWE with the Intercontinental Championship. He was on fire. He looked like going on to much bigger and better things, even earning a shot at the big one.
Unfortunately, he got injured and couldn’t compete for the WWE Championship. He returned to battle the Nation of Domination (and then later join the faction), only to get injured once again. He returned for another feud with the Nation, but in 1998, left the company. His is not an unfamiliar story in WWE.
Umaga was huge and he beat up Shawn Michaels, Bobby Lashley, Triple H, Jeff Hardy, Batista and John Cena. He was a two-time Intercontinental Champion.
His doesn't boast the greatest record when gauging wins and losses in WWE (big matches), but at the time, he was the perfect big man when WWE needed one.
As with many athletes, Umaga had drugs problems and violated WWE’s wellness policy twice. He also refused to go to rehab. That was surely the end for him in WWE. Unfortunately, Umaga passed away, contributed by his drug use. His is a story of what might have been. He had a lot of talent and a lot of potential to go with it.
11 The Miz
The Miz hasn’t quite disappeared. He probably shouldn’t even be on this list. He is, as fate would have it, a five-time Intercontinental Champion, winning his most recent one post-WrestleMania 32 by beating Zack Ryder the very next night on Raw.
The reason Miz is on this list is not because he has “disappeared”. In fact, he is a pretty good wrestler and an even better mic worker and an even better heel. When he retires, we will all realize that. Miz is a success. The only problem for him is that he's still been heavily demoted in recent years.
He was in the main event of WrestleMania 27 (even though it was one of the worst in living memory), where he beat John Cena to retain the WWE title. It’s hard to see Miz in that position again, though you never really know.
10 John Morrison
He once tagged with The Miz and even got a number of shots at the WWE title. He has five Tag Team titles, an ECW title and three Intercontinental titles to his name, yet his is one name that doesn’t get mentioned too often. He had the ability to challenge the company’s top stars, as he did every so often. He had the potential to become one himself.
It is debatable whether the WrestleMania 27 incident (where he snubbed Trish during her celebration of their victory because Melina—Morrison’s girl—claimed she was supposed to have had that spot at the show of shows) led to his downfall. One thing is for sure, though; John Morrison was a wonderful talent that wasn’t taken to the level he deserved.
9 Ricky Steamboat
He is a legend. However, one thing people don’t talk about is that after winning that exceptional Intercontinental title match at WrestleMania III, the Dragon lost his title two months later to the Honky Tonk Man. That match should have put Ricky Steamboat on the path to greater things, but WWE is fickle.
When Steamboat asked for some time to spend with his wife, who was expecting a child, WWE made him drop his hard-earned title to the Honky Tonk Man and then told him he could take his time off. He did not pick up where he left off when he returned. At WrestleMania IV, he was put in the WWE Championship tournament, but was eliminated in the first round. After that, the Dragon left the company. Another story of what might have been.
Chyna: first ever woman to compete in the Royal Rumble; first one to compete at King of the Ring; winner of the Intercontinental Championship on three occasions. Those are the accolades of a WWE star. She was a major draw during the Attitude Era.
She held the Women’s Championship when her problems with WWE reached their apex. Later in 2001, she simply disappeared and hence was stripped of the Women’s title, which she had won earlier that year at WrestleMania.
RIP to the reason we have a Divas Revolution today. She is a legend, even though according to Triple H, it would be hard to recognize her as such.
7 Jeff Hardy
He is hardly a failure; having won the WWE Tag Team Championship, European Championship, Light Heavyweight Championship, Hardcore Championship, Intercontinental Championship and WWE World Heavyweight Championship (he held the WWE and the World Heavyweight titles when they were separate titles). So, he is not a failure. At some point, you assume that WWE will put him in the Hall of Fame (either as an individual or with his brother Matt).
Unfortunately he failed WWE’s wellness policy a number of times and the straw finally broke the camel’s back. Had he managed to stay straight and stay in the company, Jeff would probably be mentioned in the same breath as Randy Orton and John Cena today as a multiple time world champion and a certain Hall of Famer.
6 Bobby Lashley
Bobby Lashley was a big deal from the moment he signed his contract. He came in and didn’t bother jumping through the proverbial hoops before being inserted into the bigger matches. He was competing at the very top of WWE, something that may or may not have been a wise booking decision.
In his very short stint in the company, Lashley won the ECW title, made it to the final of the King of the Ring Tournament, beat Umaga at WrestleMania 23 and won the U.S. title. He did all that in just two years. However, he got injured in 2007 and that, along with a lot of backstage politics, contributed to him being released. What a pity.
There is no discussion that this guy is a Hall of Famer to be. He was a multi time champion throughout his time in WWE. He was a member of one of the greatest factions of all time in Evolution. He was a Tag Team Champion, World Heavyweight Champion and WWE Champion. He won the Royal Rumble. He main evented WrestleMania a couple of times. Batista is a genuine WWE legend.
But, after that title loss to John Cena at WrestleMania XXVI and subsequent failure to win the title back at Extreme Rules, Batista came to the ring in a wheelchair and quit the company. He is by no means a failure. Perhaps his time with WWE came to an end at the time, but he returned in 2014 and after getting politicked out of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania XXX, Batista left again. Hopefully for the fans who do like him, he will return.
4 Kurt Angle
Simply put, Kurt Angle is one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. In WWE, he is a true legend (and not the loose term of the word, either; a real legend). He won everything he could have won when he was with the company. Any wrestling promoter in the world would love to have had him to call on.
After being drafted to ECW in 2006, Kurt Angle was later released after concerns were raised about his physical capability to keep wrestling full time. All good things, as they say, must come to an end.
3 Curtis Axel
He’s still around, but Curtis Axel is the victim of booking gone wrong among many other things. He returned as Curtis Axel after Paul Heyman (of all people) announced he was looking for a new client. JBL would talk up Heyman’s ability to create stars, so you would not be mistaken for thinking Axel was to be the next big thing.
It certainly looked so as he feuded with the likes of John Cena and Triple H. Vince McMahon himself was present to talk him up.
At the inaugural Payback event, Curtis Axel won the Intercontinental Championship on Father’s Day and paid homage to his late great father, Curt Hennig. He seemed destined for greatness, but as we've seen, he's faded badly after that.
2 Jack Swagger
He was once compared to Kurt Angle. Perhaps this is why it got so hard for him to live up to that. Jack Swagger is a phenomenal wrestler. The only thing he lacks is the talking ability that Angle had. But that is something that would have been glossed over had Zeb Colter been utilized properly.
Jack Swagger won Money in the Bank at WrestleMania XXVI and then cashed in on the very next episode of Smack Down to defeat Chris Jericho for the World Heavyweight Championship. But he lost it all too soon. He spiraled down the card from then and disappeared in 2012.
He then returned to qualify for and then win the Elimination Chamber match in 2013 and take on Alberto Del Rio for the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania 29. Had Swagger won that match, perhaps he would be a lot more relevant today. But WWE stuck with Del Rio and Swagger slowly disappeared.
1 Drew McIntyre
He was once referred to as “The Chosen One”. Drew McIntyre was Vince McMahon’s next superstar (kayfabe and real life). He was a star from Scotland ready to make it big in WWE. He was even above the rule of Teddy Long on Smack Down. McIntyre used this relationship with the big boss to earn spots in big matches like Money in the Bank. He even won the Intercontinental Championship.
But all that momentum and really cool entrance music went away. He went on a crazy losing streak shortly after being drafted to Raw. He was taken back to SmackDown but failed to gain any traction. He soon formed part of that “band” 3MB with Heath Slater and Jinder Mahal. Not long after, WWE cut their losses on the Chosen One.