When you think of professional wrestling, there's always one thing that stands out above the rest — WWE. They're a global brand. They have their own on-demand network. They work with a number of charities for different causes. And they're the most successful wrestling company in history.
At one time, the WWE was the end all, be all. But in recent years, the independent scene has been more prevalent than ever and its emergence has changed the way the WWE is run. Heck, just look at who some of their top stars are today.
Wrestlers like Kenny Omega and The Young Bucks would rather work for a number of smaller promotions than giving it all up for the WWE. The same can be said for Cody Rhodes, who left the Connecticut-based company because he wanted to reignite his love for professional wrestling. And he has done so.
With so many smaller promotions scanning across the globe, more young wrestlers have places to build their brand while former WWE stars try to reinvent their careers.
But when it comes to the latter category, things don't always work out as planned. Let's take a look at eight former WWE stars who are failing on the independent scene and seven who are succeeding.
15 Failing: Jack Swagger
This one can be considered a reach of some sorts, as Jack Swagger just asked for his release and has yet to be granted, as evidenced by being pulled from his originally scheduled match for WAW against Alberto Del Rio. So technically, Swagger has yet to reach the indies — but it’s safe to say there won’t be interest from the big name companies across the globe. And that’s not to say he’s not a strong talent — Swagger is a natural athlete and can go in the ring. But when it comes to top independent stars, he can’t compare. When he’s eventually let go by the WWE, it’s safe to say Swagger won’t be wrestling in Ring of Honor, New Japan, or PWG, amongst others. Instead, he’ll probably wind up being another former WWE star to head to Impact Wrestling without a specific direction.
14 Succeeding: Trent Barreta
A lot of people may not remember Trent Barreta in the WWE, as he was one-half of the Dude Busters that worked on both the SmackDown and ECW brands throughout the late 2000s. After being released in 2013, the future looked dim for the former superstar — but fortunately for Barreta, he took his talents to the next level. He started out rebounding his stock as a standout member of the PWG roster. From there, he’s been splitting his time with New Japan and Ring of Honor and has continued to rise up the ranks.
Wrestling as one-half of Roppongi Vice with Rocky Romero, the duo are three-time IWGP Tag Team Champions and will be competing for the ROH Tag Team Championships at the company’s upcoming pay-per-view.
13 Failing: Yoshi Tatsu
Before Japanese talents like Shinsuke Nakamura, Hideo Itami, and Asuka made their way to the WWE roster, Yoshi Tatsu was a young upstart to get his chance on wrestling’s biggest stage. While he showed potential when wrestling for New Japan, he never made an impact in the WWE. While the creative team tried to book him as a serious competitor on the ECW roster, it wasn’t before long when he became a comedy act. Returning to NJPW hasn’t been successful, either. After breaking his neck, Tatsu has been relegated to secondary storylines and is far from the wrestler that many expected him to be. He’s currently working with Billy Gunn as The Hunter Club, a group that is dead set on taking out Bullet Club.
12 Succeeding: Jeff Hardy
When it comes to the conversation of the most beloved WWE superstars of all time, it’s hard to deny that Jeff Hardy has a spot on the list. Whether it was during his tag-team run with Matt Hardy as The Hardy Boyz, his infamous ladder match with The Undertaker, or his final feud with CM Punk, Hardy was cheered as loud as anyone. When he first hit the independents, he was a rare unsuccessful member of the ROH roster and dealt with personal demons during his original runs with TNA.
Hardy, however, has seen his character get completely overhauled with the Broken Hardys gimmick. Now taking a back seat to Matt, Jeff is thriving in his new role. The duo recently captured the ROH Tag Team Championships and they could eventually find their way back to the WWE at some point in 2017.
11 Failing: Adam Rose
The WWE could’ve had a money character after Adam Rose’s real life hardships were showcased on ESPN’s feature on NXT. Instead, however, the creative team decided to continue on with his party gimmick, one that was fun in developmental but died a slow death on the main roster. His unsuccessful run in the WWE continued as a member of The Social Outcasts, and Rose was released after a dispute with the company over his suspension. Unfortunately, he’s yet to do much of anything on the independent circuit, despite claiming that he would prove the WWE wrong for releasing him.
Rose hasn’t been featured in any big-level promotions and has debuted a number of new names and characters to no avail. It seems to be a matter of time before his wrestling career is done altogether.
10 Succeeding: John Morrison
When John Morrison was still with the WWE, many believed he was on the cusp to stardom. Starting out as a tag-team competitor with Joey Mercury as MNM and with The Miz on ECW and SmackDown, he was always recognized as a standout performer. From there, he had a successful single’s run as an upper mid card talent, as he was constantly in the Intercontinental and United States Championship pictures. Unfortunately, however, he could never break through he glass ceiling and opted to leave for the independent scene.
After starring with Dragon Gate USA and AAA, Morrison found his groove as Johnny Mundo with Lucha Underground, where he’s one of only two Triple Crown winners in company history and turned into one of the their brightest stars.
9 Failing: Chris Masters
Many believe that Chris Masters got the raw end of the deal when he was a part of the WWE. An incredibly inexperienced wrestler with a great look, he was pushed to a prime spot in the main roster but was eventually exposed. When the company forced Masters to change his physique, almost all of his luster was taken away from him and he was released soon thereafter. Because he wanted to continue his dream of being a professional wrestler, he took his talents to the independent circuit. Unfortunately, however, things haven’t worked out as well as he hoped. Masters hasn’t been featured in any big promotions and has been largely relegated to the lower levels on the indies.
He was just signed to Impact Wrestling, so there’s hope — but there’s a strong chance that the ship has sailed on Masters’ tenure as a wrestler.
8 Succeeding: Bobby Lashley
Like Chris Masters, Bobby Lashley was pushed far too early, simply because of his look and not because of his wrestling ability. But Lashley, however, is different from Masters. Not only did he gain more success in the WWE — he was a main event player for the majority of his tenure and even represented Donald Trump in the Battle of the Billionaires at WrestleMania 23 — but he’s gotten even better ever since leaving the company. After brief stints in Japan, Mexico, and as an MMA fighter, Lashley has turned into one of Impact Wrestling’s top stars as he’s grown both in the ring and on the mic. As the company gets a much-needed face lift, they’ll continue to position Lashley — who is the reigning and four-time Heavyweight Champion — as one of the faces of their new movement.
7 Failing: Alberto Del Rio
When Alberto Del Rio ended his first stint with the WWE, he was one of the hottest acts on the independent circuit. Wrestling as Alberto El Patron, he worked with top companies like Ring of Honor and Lucha Underground and was considered one of the most well-recognized talents that wasn’t a part of the WWE. But Del Rio returned to the biggest wrestling company in the world — once again, he wasn’t happy, and once again, he quit. But this time, Del Rio isn’t as hot of a commodity as he once was.
After working with What Culture Pro Wrestling and AAA, amongst others, Del Rio has signed with Impact Wrestling and will be a main event player from here on out. But his reputation outside of the ring has hurt his stance and it’s hard to think he’ll be a true game changer with his new employer.
6 Succeeding: Drew McIntyre
When Vince McMahon himself hand picks you, announces you as the future, and gives you the gimmick of the Chosen One, it’s hard to fail. Unfortunately, however, McMahon and the creative team soured on Drew McIntyre at some point; despite winning the Intercontinental and Tag Team Championships, it wasn’t before long that he was relegated to comedy and enhancement duties and was released. McIntrye returned to the indie scene as Drew Galloway and excelled with top companies like Impact Wrestling, PWG, ICW, and Evolve, amongst others, as he’s become champion at nearly every stop.
With his commitments now complete with Impact, McIntyre is spending a majority of his time with Evolve, a company that many consider WWE’s farm division. Now that he’s grown leaps and bounds, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him end up back in the WWE sooner rather than later.
5 Failing: Brandi Rhodes
Sure, this could be considered cheating — after all, Brandi Rhodes was never a wrestler when she was employed by the WWE, instead working as a ring announcer during her stint with the company. When she followed her husband Cody Rhodes’ footsteps to the independent scene, she didn't want to announce anymore — she wanted to wrestle. Unfortunately, however, things haven’t gone as planned. Brandi signed a contract with Impact Wrestling and has also worked on some spot shows and has been lackluster at best as an in-ring competitor, as her inexperience has been displayed in a major way. Is there time to grow? Sure. But at this stage of the game — and unless something drastically changes — it doesn’t seem like Brandi will be much of anything as a wrestler.
4 Succeeding: Cody Rhodes
His wife may be floundering on the independents but that couldn’t be further from the truth for Cody Rhodes. Everyone knows his story by now — Rhodes was first brought in as a second generation star and found decent success; but once he was put into the role of Stardust, his love for the WWE began to fade and he asked for his release. But by the looks of things, Rhodes is having the time of his life as he’s wrestling for nearly every promotion known to man. In the last year, he’s been featured on Impact Wrestling, Evolve, PWG, What Culture Pro Wrestling, and most importantly, Ring of Honor and New Japan.
Currently a member of Bullet Club, Rhodes has been climbing the ranks in both ROH and NJPW and it’s easy to believe that he will eventually earn gold from one of those two companies.
3 Failing: Damien Sandow
Like many mentioned before him, Damien Sandow never appeared to get a fair shake with the WWE. He was given a ton of gimmicks but always hit them out of the park with fan support growing each and every week. Unfortunately for him, the WWE didn’t see much value outside of comedic relief for Sandow so they released him in the summer of 2016. After appearing on the independent circuit for a short while, Sandow inked a deal with Impact Wrestling and became Aron Rex and captured the Grand Slam Championship soon after his debut.
Unfortunately, the often-used gimmick of disgruntled former WWE employee didn’t do much for Sandow as he floundered in his early months with his new job. Nowadays, he working with a Liberace-inspired gimmick and it remains to be seen if it’s too late to reinvent his stock.
2 Succeeding: Matt Hardy
Throughout his time with the WWE, Matt Hardy was always compared to and overshadowed by his brother Jeff — no matter if they were teaming or not. That trend continued when they were both in Impact Wrestling, as it seemed like the elder Hardy would always been considered the secondary figure. Hardy, however, did a complete 180 on his character and has turned him into arguably the most popular wrestler in the world. Now known as Broken Matt, he’s taken on the role of a crazy and comedic wrestler that is from a different universe.
The gimmick has gone over in such a big way that even Jeff is considered secondary, which is a feat in and of itself. After contract talks with Impact Wrestling broke down, the Hardys made it to Ring of Honor and won their Tag Team Championships on their first night. As they work the independent circuit, they’ll be the most sought-after act in the wrestling world.
1 Failing: Ryback
Ryback was always a upper-tier talent when with the WWE. Although he was never able to capture the elusive WWE World Heavyweight Championship, he was a frequent member of the Intercontinental Championship scene and, for a majority of his career, was featured in strong storylines. Ryback, however, thought he was much more valuable than the WWE believed and the two sides agreed to part ways. Unfortunately for The Big Guy, there aren’t many independent promotions that want his services. Since he left the WWE, he’s been featured in both WrestlePro and Revolution Pro Wrestling — not the bottom of the barrel, but certainly not on par with New Japan, Ring of Honor, PWG, or Evolve.
Now known more for his controversial remarks on his podcast than his in-ring work, it doesn’t look like Ryback will be the wrestling star he thinks he can be.