Changing place of employment is normal part of a professional wrestler’s experience. In the territory days, many talents rotated on the regular, wearing out their novelty in one promotion only to freshen their act elsewhere only to eventually make a big return. All the of these moving pieces operated amongs a very finite number of more stable, staple players who rooted as the top heroes or villains of a given promotion. In a more contemporary take, the Monday Night War era in particular saw talents hop between WWE and WCW in pursuit of more money or better creative opportunities, with ECW as a plan C with less money but a lot of buzz and creative liberty available.
The wrestling landscape has, in many ways, changed. Since WWE bought out WCW and ECW, there hasn’t been a company of comparable stature for talents to go to, and thus more talents tend to stay for as long as they’re welcome in WWE. Still, though, there are those performers who go elsewhere in search of more time off the road or more creative fulfillment, not to mention those who walk away from wrestling altogether at unexpected times.
There are those departures we can see coming. Particularly in the Internet era, it’s hard for anything to truly stay secret for long, and a wrestler’s departure is often foreshadowed by the Internet rumor mill working quickly or angles like Ric Flair or Shawn Michaels putting their careers on the line at WrestleMania in scenarios that seemed to all but guarantee they were on their way out of WWE, at least as full time performers.
This article, however, focuses on the big shocks—the departures that no one saw coming. Whether it’s an older example from the Monday Night War or earlier, or a more contemporary example from WWE, TNA, or Lucha Underground, these are the moments that genuinely caught even the most best informed fans by surprise.
19 WWE: Brock Lesnar
Few wrestlers have ever been pushed the way Brock Lesnar was when WWE first promoted him to the main roster. He debuted by destroying the well-established Hardy Boyz. Under three months after debuted he won the King of the Ring tournament, and less than three months after that, he won his first world championship by pinning no lesser star than The Rock at SummerSlam. He’d win his first Royal Rumble and then his first WrestleMania main event to close out his first year.
A year later, he’d wrestle his farewell match.
After being a dominant figure on WWE’s main event scene for two years. Lesnar decided to leave WWE to pursue a spot with the Minnesota Vikings. It’s always shocking when a top star leaves a promotion, but this one was particularly sudden and happened for a particularly young star. The move was all the more shocking because it was a rare defection of this magnitude post-Monday Night War, for a star who was not making his way to another company but rather to another sport. Lesnar wouldn’t make the NFL (though many hypothesize he might have if he’d trained another year), but did go on to an impressive career in MMA before returning to WWE.
18 TNA: AJ Styles
AJ Styles was the definitive star of TNA. While there were bigger names like Sting and Kurt Angle who plied their trade there, Styles was there from the beginning and the company’s first true home grown star.
In addition to Styles’s departure in and of itself being a surprise, the timing was unusual, too, as he went from a loose knock off of Sting’s crow character opposite Aces and Eights as a poor man’s New World Order, to challenging Bully Ray for the title, to a rip off of the Summer of Punk angle as a he teased a departure before, arguably at the height of his popularity, really leaving. Reportedly, Styles wasn’t happy with the money TNA offered him. He’d become a hot commodity on the indies before a star run in Japan that ultimately gave way to his current tenure with WWE.
17 WWE: Edge
WrestleMania XXVII saw Edge enter that rarefied air of stars who not only defended a world championship at ‘Mania, but successfully defended when he turned back a challenge from Alberto Del Rio in a rock solid match, before celebrating with Christian by smashing up Del Rio’s car on the stage. While Edge may have been a smidge past his prime, there was little reason to expect he was transitioning out of the ring anytime soon, and one had to expect that he’d continue his rivalry with Del Rio in the short term.
Shockingly, Edge would retire shortly thereafter, issuing an unexpected farewell on Raw and revealing that he would need to hang up his boots rather than risk paralysis if he were to continue wrestling. To the surprise of everyone, WWE lost one of its top stars in the blink of an eye.
16 Lucha Underground: Konnan
For the first season of Lucha Underground, lucha legend Konnan was a featured player, serving as the mentor to Prince Puma who was largely positioned as the face of the company. In a feud with Mil Muertes, the heel would end up pummeling Konnan and putting him in a casket.
One might have suspected Konnan would resurface, perhaps in a comeback story as he and Puma alike got their revenge. Instead, Konnan would never be seen on the show again. While no one has spoken officially about it, it’s widely rumored there were political differences and personal grudges at stake. To reinforce that, Vampiro has more recently said that Lucha Underground wouldn’t work with any company that Konnan was a part of. In Konnan’s absence, Vampiro became the definitive elder statesman of the LU brand.
15 WWE: Kurt Angle
Kurt Angle positively surged during the Attitude Era, transitioning from an ultra credible upper mid carder with Olympic gold medal credentials to a highly entertaining main event mainstay for over five years. Upon the launch of the new WWE ECW brand, Angle was moved to that show and looked to be a staple star to put on great matches with young talents, offer the third brand legitimacy, and likely become a fixture in the championship picture.
Angle left in 2006. According to Angle himself, he was in a bad way with injuries and edging toward the substance abuse issues that would later take over his life. WWE management insisted he take time off to heal up, but Angle refused. Shockingly, one of the biggest stars in the business opted to leave for TNA to continue his career, rather than listen to reason in WWE.
14 WCW: The Radicalz
While names like Hulk Hogan, Sting, Kevin Nash, and Goldberg may be the first to come to mind when fans reflect on WCW’s biggest stars, there’s a very real argument to be made that talents like Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, and Perry Saturn represented the core of the company. While they were rarely marquee players for WCW, they were consistent presences over a period of years who put on rock solid efforts in the ring.
The four talents named, in particular, purportedly grew frustrated with their position in WCW, consistently pushed behind former WWE talents, and main eventers established decades earlier. Finally Eric Bischoff granted them their collective release and lo and behold, they showed up unannounced on Raw. Beyond the electricity of a surprise appearance by wrestlers from a competing brand, the new faction made an immediate impact for their new employer, starting as faces, then becoming mercenaries for Triple H. The four stars would ultimately each go out on their own. While Saturn and Malenko wouldn’t exactly reach new heights, they seemed happier in their new place of employment and Malenko continues to this day as a backstage employee. Meanwhile, Guerrero and Benoit soared, each winding up world champions and top stars before their respective untimely demises.
13 WWE: Bobby Lashley
When Bobby Lashley debuted on the WWE main roster, he looked something like the prototype for a megastar. He was jacked to the gills, but also super athletic, not to mention that he had an amateur pedigree to back it all up. After a moderated start, he got the big push heading into WrestleMania 23 when he was cast as Donald Trump’s representative going into the Battle of the Billionaires against Vince McMahon’s rep, Umaga. That angle led to an extended feud with McMahon that looked designed to get Lashley over at the highest level.
Lashley would wind up released from WWE after taking a half year off to recover from injury. It’s a strange situation because WWE had enough invested in Lashley to justify waiting as long as they needed to, leading to speculation about Lashley being unhappy with both an absence of communication from WWE while he was hurt, and a perception that WWE wasn’t going to push him the way he felt he should be pushed. This would all lead to Lashley splitting time between MMA and a highly successful run with TNA that has as often as not scene him in or around their world title picture.
12 WWE: The Ultimate Warrior
The Ultimate Warrior got the chance of a lifetime in his first run with WWE, getting a big babyface push that culminated in him defeating Hulk Hogan for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania 6 in what felt very much like a torch passing moment. Warrior’s title run wouldn’t get as over as Vince McMahon had hoped, though, and he’d get pushed down a notch back into the upper card. Still, he was one of WWE’s most popular and increasingly iconic stars, and there was reason to believe he’d be around for years, if not decades.
SummerSlam 1991 featured The Match Made in Hell in which Hogan and Warrior teamed up against Sergeant Slaughter, General Adnan, and Colonel Mustafa. According to a variety of sources, including WWE’s The Self-Destruction of the Utlimate Warrior documentary, Warrior demanded more money from McMahon. McMahon granted the concession to get Warrior to the ring for the main event, and fired him immediately afterward for having the gall to hold him up. So, Warrior was suddenly gone from the WWE landscape. He’d have similarly abrupt departures from WWE twice more, largely proving the widely held belief that Vince McMahon will do business with anyone who can make him money, despite past transgressions.
11 TNA: The Broken Hardys
With the innovation of the Broken Universe, Matt Hardy did the unthinkable—he completely reinvented his persona, nearly twenty years into his career. While he was still popular, largely on the basis of nostalgia, acting as though he’d lost his mind and masterminding a series of vignettes and matches, filmed on location at his compound, made him a remarkable wrestling novelty, largely without precedent. His brother Jeff got in on the act, and together they became TNA’s most distinctive, and arguably most over act.
As the Broken Universe threatened to overtake TNA—specifically with the Total Non-stop Deletion episode of Impact—it was particularly surprising to hear the news that the brothers were on the outs with the company. A change in management largely meant the end of their run, though, and the Hardys would segue into a nasty legal battle over intellectual property with their former employers. The Hardys have now made it back to WWE in a shocking return, and questions linger about whether they’ll retake ownership over their Broken personas, or whether WWE is even interested.
10 WWE: Hulk Hogan
Hulk Hogan has come and gone from WWE multiple times now. The first time, wrestling his supposed retirement match at WrestleMania VIII, WWE outwardly addressed he was on his way out of the company. His 1993 run was largely a flop and given he was already working part time, it surprised few when he left after dropping the title to Yokozuna. Even his early 2000s run felt like it was so driven by nostalgia that it had an expiration date, and while leaving was a surprise, it didn’t exactly shock most fans.
When Hogan returned to host WrestleMania XXX, it looked as though he was with WWE to stay. Getting older, presumably done with actually wrestling, and having had his run with TNA, The Hulkster looked to ride things out as an occasional visitor and part time ambassador for WWE.
The axe fell when a tape leaked of Hogan using the N-word extensively. WWE decided to cut ties with him altogether at that point, even going so far as to mostly scrub his name from their website. While the rationale wasn’t shocking in this case, the turn of events certainly was as Hogan went from a celebrated legend to persona non grata in WWE essentially overnight.
9 WWE: Alberto Del Rio
Word leaked shortly after Alberto Del Rio’s WWE debut that management wanted to make him a big deal very quickly. A clean victory over Rey Mysterio in his debut went a long way toward that effort, and in the year to follow he’d accomplish a great deal, including winning a Royal Rumble, winning a Money in the Bank briefcase, and winning the WWE Championship.
After his initial heel run, Del Rio got a big push as a face. When that didn’t really take, he returned to the ranks of top heels. Unfortunately, for as talented as Del Rio was, he just couldn’t seem to get all the way over with the WWE audience, at least on a consistent basis. Still, it looked as though he wasn’t going anywhere, and might enjoy a solid upper mid-card career for the years to follow.
In a shocking turn of events, Del Rio would get into an altercation with a backstage employee---purportedly hitting him after he used a racial slur. The incident would cost Del Rio his career and he left the company very suddenly and on bad terms. While Del Rio’s return to the WWE fold just a year later was shocking, too, his second and presumably final departure was far less of a surprise given his largely unfocused, largely unsuccessful second run with the company.
8 ECW: Tazz
After his lengthy tenures with WWE and then TNA, it can be difficult to remember that for quite some time Tazz was one of the quintessential stars for ECW. That’s where he got his start, though, and arguably achieved his greatest successes as a regular figure in the main event picture and well protected badass character.
On WWE’s Rise and Fall of ECW DVD, Tazz discussed feeling as though he’d lost his passion working with ECW, and thus decided to move on to WWE. It was a harsh loss for the smaller company to say goodbye to one of its top stars, and all the more surprising to fans because Tazz didn’t exactly fit the traditional WWE model given his short stature and the brutal choke finisher that he used. Tazz would end up having one last brief run with ECW, as a gesture of good will from WWE, defeating newly defected Mike Awesome for the ECW Championship, before dropping to ECW full timer Tommy Dreamer.
7 WWE: Steve Austin
While The Rock has attained greater mainstream notoriety, there’s little question Steve Austin was the bigger star within the confines of the professional wrestling world. He was on fire at the front end of the Attitude Era and though injury, followed by an ill advised heel turn lessened his momentum, he remained a major player well into the post-Attitude years.
Then Vince McMahon booked him to lose cleanly to Brock Lesnar on an episode of Monday Night Raw, with no meaningful build or story. Austin commented on his WWE documentary, and has rehashed multiple times on his podcast that he hated the idea of blowing such a big money match, let alone losing it, for little to no greater good, when he thought he and Lesnar could have done big business in a proper program. He says he regrets it, but he opted to take his ball and go home.
Without the benefit of today’s level of Internet coverage, fans didn’t have a ton to go on when Stone Cold disappeared. All they knew was the biggest star of the preceding generation had disappeared, and McMahon uncharacteristically addressed it head on in a brief monologue on Raw.
6 WCW: Ric Flair
Looking back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hulk Hogan was the definitive star of WWE and Ric Flair was the definitive star of WCW. The idea of pitting the two against one another was a dream match, but no one really expected for it to come to fruition given how quintessential each man seemed to his respective brand.
According to his book, To Be The Man, Ric Flair ran into political differences with management after a change over, and particularly after Jim Herd rose to power with little wrestling knowledge to his name and foolish creative suggestions like rebranding Flair as the gimmicky Spartacus. And so, the unthinkable happened, and WCW’s signature star and reigning world champ defected WWE. He brought the NWA World Championship with him and started billing himself “the real world champion” for a controversial storyline that led to legal issues between WCW and WWE.
5 WWE: Rick Rude
Rick Rude had two tenures a piece in WWE and WCW, so the idea of him hopping promotions wasn’t completely out of left field. The shock factor came in when Rude took flight overnight. In 1997, Rude was infuriated by the Montreal Screwjob and WWE’s treatment of Bret Hart. He was granted his release and timed things so that he appeared live on Nitro on the same night of his final pre-taped appearance on Raw. As a nice finishing touch, Rude shaved his beard in between, underscoring that WWE was using old footage and reflecting poorly on his former employer.
Sadly, Rude would not be a wrestler in either of those last two stints, but rather serve as a bodyguard and manager. He had been injured, but according to shoot interviews with Eric Bischoff, stayed out of the ring in the end mainly so that he wouldn’t be in violation of his Lloyd’s of London insurance policy, because he’d indicated he was incapacitated to collect on it.
4 TNA: Jeff Jarrett
While a lot of the wrestlers included in this countdown seemed like quintessential stars for their companies, Jeff Jarrett was not only synonymous with TNA as a wrestler, but also the company’s co-founder and a long time business and creative head. This made it extremely surprising when he ended up resigning from the company in a move widely believed to be a result of ideological differences with Dixie Carter and her family.
Jarrett would go on to found another promotion, Global Force Wrestling. In one of the great comeback stories in wrestling history from a business perspective, Jarrett would wind up not only returning to but taking a controlling stake of TNA as the two companies he had founded merged this year, and rebranded altogether under the GFW banner.
3 WWE: Lex Luger
In 1993, WWE opted to push Lex Luger as the guy. After months spent as an upper card heel known as The Narcissist, he was rebranded overnight as a patriotic hero was particularly focused on challenging Yokozuna. The character never got fully over with the fans, and management switched gears to transition Bret Hart back into the spot before going full tilt into the Diesel push. While Luger remained in the upper card, he wasn’t in the world title picture anymore and came across as largely directionless before settling into a tag team with Davey Boy Smith.
Luger hadn’t signed a new contract in 1996 and was purportedly working on a handshake deal. In an unexpected twist, Luger became the first major defection of the Monday Night War, appearing on the very first episode of Monday Nitro where he was immediately thrust into storylines with Hulk Hogan, Sting, and Randy Savage. While there were a lot of contributing factors, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that Luger was a key motivator for WWE to stop working handshake deals, and start implementing no-compete clauses in most contracts that kept a performer from showing up on anyone else’s TV for a month or more.
2 ECW: Paul Heyman
What Vince McMahon is to WWE, Paul Heyman was to ECW. The company was Heyman’s creative vision, and transformed a reasonably successful regional independent into a clear cut number three promotion behind WWE and WCW in the 1990s.
There are, of course, subplots to ECW and Heyman’s success, including that the company had payroll issues and received financial help from WWE at key junctures. While it’s overstating things to suggest ECW as a feeder system for WWE, it’s also not totally off base to suggest that’s how WWE saw their relationship. In the end, though, ECW was going under. As discussed in WWE’s The Rise and Fall of ECW documentary, Heyman recognized the company was going out of business. The timeline is fuzzy as to whether the close were official, or if Heyman waited until afterward, but regardless, rather than going down with the ship as some might have expected him to, Heyman transitioned immediately from ECW into a color commentary role with WWE. That’s a fact that a number of former ECW performers held against, suggesting that it represented he wasn’t loyal to the company.
1 WWE: CM Punk
In 2011, CM Punk had one of the all time great fake outs, in terms of a wrestler departing a promotion. His real life contract was running out and WWE went so far as to acknowledge it on air in a storyline that included the famous Pipebomb promo, and that also included Punk engaging in what seemed like one last world title program challenging John Cena.
All parties involved say that Punk really was leaving, only to be convinced to stay the day of Money in the Bank 2011. This whole situation made it all the more shocking when Punk really did leave in 2014, absent any fanfare or kayfabe foreshadowing. He worked the Royal Rumble and spent most of his time in it lying on the mat. Immediately afterward he up and quit, citing he’d already worked his required number of dates under his contract. It took most of the year before he spoke up about all the circumstances surrounding his departure, including not only the anticipated creative frustrations, but also a medical issue he claimed was mistreated by WWE doctors. Legal battles have ensued.
While top stars are going to come and go, and we won’t always see it coming, Punk walking from WWE while he was still near main event status, with no real warning, and in this era, marked one of the most shocking departures wrestling has ever seen.