Being able to make it to WWE is often considered an achievement like reaching the mountaintop. It is viewed by many as the premier wrestling organization in the world. Superstars like Hulk Hogan, “Macho Man” Randy Savage and others from the past help make the argument hold some water.
But in recent years, the WWE has found itself competing, in some ways, with promotions overseas and the growing popularity of independent wrestling. Wrestlers don’t have to work in the WWE to make a living doing what they love. That means there’s less pressure for wrestlers who leave the WWE to be able to find work, right?
Unfortunately, there are a number of former WWE wrestlers who can’t quite find their niche outside of Vince McMahon’s sports entertainment empire. Wrestlers find themselves charging a lot of money and assuming there will be plenty of promoters willing to shell out that kind of cash. Then there are those who think they can call an audible and go into something like mixed martial arts; which often ends tragically rather than triumphantly.
That doesn’t mean that every former WWE wrestler cannot succeed outside of McMahon’s promotion. Some are able to find a new gimmick that works independently of anything the WWE creative staff had, or had not, planned. A few have made the successful jump to MMA and others have found a career in television and film acting.
There will always be a split of success and failure stories for pro wrestlers who leave the WWE. The following are examples from both sides of the coin.
15 Success – Edge
The glitz and glamour of finding success in acting can be quite a challenge for anyone. That’s why earning consistent work on either television or film is considered success in its own merit. Adam Copeland might not have millions in box office sales like John Cena, Dwayne Johnson and Dave Bautista, but he’s likely on his way to earn that kind of money in the near future. The former Edge had an unfortunate end to his career after neck injuries piled up to force his retirement after WrestleMania XXVII.
Copeland found a role in the television series Sanctuary in 2011 on the SyFy Network. Which then saw him earn a role as Al Rothstein, the Atom-Shamser in The Flash on CW. Considering how successful that show has been, along with Arrow, Edge could be found in future DC Comics shows in the future. He’s recently appeared as Ketill Flatnose in the hit show Vikings.
14 Fail – “Wildcat” Chris Harris
In today’s WWE, it seems like the company officials have no problem bringing in and pushing former Total Nonstop Action Wrestling stars. For example, AJ Styles had an amazing year in 2016. Veterans like Samoa Joe and Bobby Roode look poised for success. But it wasn’t always that way. About 10 years ago, “Wildcat” Chris Harris would join the WWE and compete under the name Braden Walker.
Walker’s stint in the WWE seemed quicker than a trip to Starbucks for a cup of coffee. It seemed like a bad idea for Harris to leave TNA. Then again, TNA decided to have him and James Storm split up after six reigns as NWA World Tag Team Champions. Since his failed WWE run, Storm has dealt with some health issues like diabetes. He hasn’t made a return to TNA other than teaming with Matt Hardy at Sacrifice in 2011.
13 Success – Bobby Lashley
While there are certainly a few professional wrestlers who were able to make a great move to MMA after the ring, it’s not the easiest thing to do. Just ask Dave Bautista and CM Punk about how they did in their MMA careers. While not all professional wrestlers have the same success stories like Brock Lesnar and Ken Shamrock, Bobby Lashley may have carved his own path into doing well in MMA.
Lashley hasn’t made an appearance with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, but he has a very strong record of 15-2; seven of his wins via submission holds like the rear naked choke. He’s also made a great run for both Bellator MMA and also with TNA Wrestling. He’s found himself in a position where he can make a case for big fights against the likes of Fedor Emelianenko. With a long winning streak in hand, Lashley could still have a bright future ahead.
12 Fail – Damien Sandow (a.k.a. Aron Rex)
There’s no denying that the man who portrayed the character of Damien Sandow was severely underutilized during his time with the WWE. The former Money in the Bank winner shined as a great heel during the peak popularity as the Intellectual Savior of the Masses. But over time, the WWE officials seemed to lose interest in Sandow. This led to him becoming a joke and eventually evolved into him being a stunt double for The Miz.
He made it work and fans were excited to see what he would do when he left the WWE last year. Fans were even intrigued at his arrival in TNA Wrestling. But his most recent gimmick as Aron Rex saw him dressed in skin-colored trunks, lip gloss and embracing a Liberace-like personality flopped quickly. He has since left TNA.
11 Success – Kenny Omega
One of the best examples of pro wrestler never needing the WWE to succeed in Kenny Omega. He was in Deep South Wrestling, the WWE’s development territory from 2005 to 2006. But there were well-documented issues between Omega and WWE trainer Bill DeMott. Since that time, he’s gone on to become of one of the top indie wrestling stars in the last decade. Most of Omega’s success can be found overseas.
For New Japan Pro Wrestling, Omega has been the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion twice and held the IWGP Intercontinental Championship once. He also captured the attention of the wrestling world earlier this year when reports showed he was thinking between the WWE and NJPW. He picked the latter, citing that he had unfinished business in Japan.
10 Fail – Ryback
The fact that a former WWE Superstar is going to charge a lot of money for independent bookings is not necessarily a big surprise. Casual fans whose eye happens to glance upon a poster with a former WWE wrestler is going to bring them in. When Ryback’s contract with the WWE expired in August 2016, he was going to charge top dollar. According to reports, Ryback has asked anywhere from $4,500 to $5,000.
The unfortunate reality is that someone who could have been a big thing in the WWE has not been able to get any bookings with some of the larger indie promotions like Ring of Honor, Pro Wrestling Guerilla and Evolve. Someone of his size and abilities could have found success going overseas to New Japan Pro Wrestling, like Cody Rhodes. But Ryback has not found the success he might have planned for.
9 Success – Trish Stratus
While today’s WWE features a lot of talented women like Sasha Banks, Charlotte Flair and Alexa Bliss, they all had someone to look up to when they were younger. Trish Stratus was someone who grew a lot from her humble beginnings as a valet and manager in the Attitude Era and then grew into one of the best female wrestlers through the 2000s. There’s a reason she was a seven-time WWE Women’s Champion.
But since her retirement, she’s gone on to find success with her own yoga studio in Canada. She’s also launched her own series of yoga videos titled Stratusphere Yoga. Her interest in the current generation of the WWE shows that there is a chance that she could return to the WWE. There were reports that she was about to return before she announced that she was pregnant with her second child, which was born in January.
8 Fail – Tammy “Sunny” Sytch
It’s hard to believe that one of the sex symbols of the WWE from the mid- to late-1990s would have fallen so far from grace and beauty. Tammy Sytch was the hottest woman in professional wrestling, both in physical appearance and also in popularity. But after her departure from the WWE in 1998, the former Sunny would become addicted to drugs and alcohol. Stories about her infidelity and trading favors for drugs earned her a negative reputation.
She’s also made poor personal decisions. She has been arrested multiple times for driving under the influence and that has obviously taken a big hit against her bank account. Despite years of denying any interest in going into adult films, she signed a deal with Vivid Entertainment last year. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the same sex appeal she had when she was first in the WWE.
7 Success – Shawn Michaels
Maybe finding success outside of the WWE doesn’t necessarily mean making millions in box office draws or through creating a successful line in fitness videos and studios. Instead, it could be found in just finding an avenue with something you are also passionate about. Shawn Michaels seems to have found that happiness in life outside of the squared circle. The Heartbreak Kid would enter the world of outdoor television.
It might not be watched by as many as those who view Raw and SmackDown, but Shawn Michaels’ MacMillen River Adventures has a niche audience of hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts. It shows Michaels in a field that he is just as comfortable in as he was between three ropes and four turnbuckles. Michaels seems perfectly content to live a quiet life.
6 Fail – Mr. Anderson
At one point in 2005, Ken Kennedy looked like he had everything the WWE wanted in a villain. He had a strong voice on the microphone, a confident personality that received boos from the crowd and he was talented in the ring. But several injuries and being accused of a botched suplex on Randy Orton led to his release in 2009. Under his real name of Ken Anderson, he would be a two-time world champion before failing a drug test in 2016.
While he had some success in TNA, his final years with the company saw him as more of a supporting cast member and not the main event star some fans thought he could, or should, have been. Instead, he was let go and he was caught on video during an indie show in Scotland saying “F*** TNA.” Although he later claimed that a longer promo he did was cut down to make it sound like that.
5 Success – Diamond Dallas Page
While his WWE run wasn’t one of the best of a former WCW superstar, Diamond Dallas Page was easily one of the icons of WCW during the Monday Night War. He was a three-time WCW World Heavyweight Champion who should have had a better run in the WWE. But that goofy motivational gimmick actually happened to be something derived from real life. Not only that, but Page was also able to find a lucrative career in the world of fitness.
Page has since launched DDP Yoga. His version of the popular fitness program puts a new twist on stretching and healthy living. It’s worked out for a number of clients who have not only dropped a lot of excess weight, but were also able to transform themselves into healthier people. His list of success stories include regular people and also some of wrestling’s downtrodden - e.g. Scott Hall and Jake “The Snake” Roberts.
4 Fail – Alberto Del Rio
Placing Alberto Del Rio on the list has more to do with the fact that he hasn’t been able to remain consistent with his independent bookings after leaving the WWE. There’s no denying that Alberto Del Rio should have been booked better in his second stint with the WWE; especially after the incident where he was fired for attacking a racist social media employee. But Del Rio was partly at fault for his second release due to a failed wellness test.
Since going into the independent wrestling circuit, he’s been found to no show a few big events. Last fall, he missed a AAA show and was called out by the promotion for having a lack of commitment. He’s also been connected to real fights including a backstage brawl with a Ninja Turtle in Mexico in December. In January, Del Rio also fought with his brother in a bar in Austria, which continued in a jail cell.
3 Success – Batista
Entering WWE as Batista, Dave Bautista was someone who was a bit of a late-entry into professional wrestling. He certainly grew as a powerhouse in the WWE after initially being trained in the WCW Power Plant before going to Ohio Valley Wrestling. In the WWE, he became a six-time world champion and spent time in memorable feuds with the likes of Triple H and The Undertaker.
Batista had done a few films with little success - e.g. The Man With The Iron Fists (2012). But it wasn’t until he was able to land the role of Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 that he really broke through. Fans loved his serious character that didn’t fully grasp the concept of sarcasm. It has since led to more roles that include a villain spot in the James Bond movie Spectre. Expect Batista to earn more as he continues portraying Drax in future Marvel movies.
2 Fail – CM Punk
CM Punk was the Voice of the Voiceless in the WWE, which was an earned nickname after the infamous pipe bomb promo in 2011. He was able to find success in professional wrestling against the odds of not being the biggest or strongest. Punk would be the longest-reigning WWE Champion of the modern-era, but never got a chance to be in the main event of WrestleMania. His departure from WWE and pro wrestling saw him decide to make the jump to mixed martial arts.
This had a lot of hype for pro wrestling fans who wanted to see his training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai kickboxing do well in the UFC. But his debut wouldn’t happen for about two years; which turned into a one-sided loss to Mickey Gall. It led to a lot of criticism about whether he should have had his first MMA fight in the UFC. Punk claims his second fight will be in the UFC; despite the opinions of just about everyone else.
1 Success – Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
The Rock was arguably the most electrifying man in professional wrestling and all of sports entertainment. It wasn’t just stated in his words, but also in his actions and his overall natural charisma. But he’s also been able to become the most electrifying man in all of entertainment. While using his real name, Dwayne Johnson, he made the shift to the silver screen. It all started with a small role in The Mummy Returns (2001).
That has since grown into roles in some of the biggest blockbusters in recent history. Even non-wrestling fans saw what wrestling fans had known for years. Johnson knew how to use his charisma to entertain the audience. THat’s why he earned roles in the Fast and The Furious and G.I. Joe. His singing abilities from the Rock Concerts was on showcase in the recent Disney film Moana. He’s currently named to a number of big movies like Rampage and Shazam!