The wrestling business is volatile, and particularly so at its highest level. The WWE is, first and foremost, a business and as such is driven more by money than metrics like creative storytelling or athletic promise. As such, it’s inevitable that there are falling outs between the company and its talents. Sometimes WWE exhausts what it can do creatively with a performer, or doesn’t think that performer is working hard enough. Sometimes a performer gets fed up with his character’s direction (or lack thereof), tires of life on the road, or gets a better offer to work elsewhere.
There are those wrestlers who leave WWE and stay gone. In some cases, the choice is out of their hands because they’ve done something to get themselves blacklisted, or their time passes and WWE loses interest in them. There are a number of other instances, however, when a performer either feels spurned or walks away of his own volition and never looks back. Maybe it’s a matter of principle. Maybe the performer really does find a greater fulfillment working elsewhere.
For every wrestler who leaves and stays away, however, there are several who find their way back. Whether they earn a spot by developing their skills and marketability elsewhere, or WWE comes up with a new creative way of using them, it’s hard for a wrestler to resist the lure of WWE. WWE has a bigger audience than any other wrestling company in the world, not to mention more money to throw around. While fans can argue all day about which company is truly the best when it comes to quality of in ring action or storylines, WWE remains king when it comes to building a worldwide legacy.
This article looks back at eight WWE Superstars who cut ties with WWE for good, and eight who wound up coming back.
16 Cut Ties For Good: Jeff Jarrett
During the Monday Night War, Jeff Jarrett played WWE and WCW off each other to keep improving his paydays and to keep improving his own place on the card. He went from a silly country music gimmick singer gimmick in WWE, to a Horseman in WCW, to red hot heel misogynist in WWE, back to WCW as a main event player.
On that last transition, Jarrett purportedly held up Vince McMahon for money on his way out the door. He was between contracts and had the Intercontinental Championship, which he was supposed to lose to Chyna to pay off a lengthy storyline. McMahon had no choice but to pay him off, but the incident also effectively put Jarrett on the company’s blacklist.
As if to double down, after WWE bought WCW, Jarrett decided to start his own wrestling company, TNA—the closest thing WWE has had to a US-based competitor in the last 15 years. While we can never say never in wrestling, both sides of this equation seem content to never work together again.
15 Came Back: The Ultimate Warrior
The Ultimate Warrior became one of WWE’s biggest icons in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but his erratic behavior, questions about his drawing power, and purportedly no showing events led WWE to cut ties with him. When the company’s DVD business was just getting started, they released a harsh project, The Self-Destruction of The Ultimate Warrior, which featured his contemporaries criticizing him and younger stars making fun of him. Warrior responded by filing a lawsuit against the company.
In an unlikely turn, WWE and Warrior mended fences in 2014, and Warrior accepted both an induction into the Hall of Fame and a new position as an ambassador for the company. While it wasn’t a return to the ring, it was one of the most surprising returns to WWE ever as he buried the hatchet. Tragically, Warrior passed away mere days after the Hall of Fame induction, but at least seemed to do so with the load of hard feelings lifted from his shoulders.
14 Cut Ties For Good: CM Punk
CM Punk always had a tumultuous relationship with WWE. After years of an up-and-down relationship with the company, he hit pay dirt with his worked shoot pipebomb promo, which played off well known tensions between him and WWE management perfectly, and propelled him into the main event scene for most of his remaining tenure with the company.
Make no mistake about it, the tensions were real. Punk’s frustrations with creative and WWE business practices, paired with allegations that he failed to receive proper medical treatment led him to abruptly walk out on WWE in early 2014. Since that time, he has stayed away and been a vocal critic of the company, most notably recording a two hour podcast with friend Colt Cabana in which he explained his departure and tore WWE apart. He’s been knotted up in legal battles with the company ever since.
Punk is still a young enough man that it’s possible things could still take a turn sometime down the road, but given his level of conviction and heat, it doesn’t seem likely he’ll mend fences.
13 Came Back: Roddy Piper
Heading into WrestleMania III, Roddy Piper’s showdown with Adrian Adonis was billed as his retirement match. He intended to pursue an acting career, and while he did find some work, he hardly took off in his new vocation, and wound up back with WWE just two years later. He’d go back and forth, making sporadic appearances for the company for years, before defecting to WCW only to come back again, then worked for TNA in its earliest days before returning to WWE yet again.
Piper was an icon of the business who was instrumental in launching Vince McMahon’s national brand, not to mention still a magnetic personality for wrestling fans long after his body put an end to his full time wrestling career. He was a big enough legend that WWE was always ready to welcome him back, and he seemed to love wrestling too much to ever stay away from its grandest stage for too long.
12 Cut Ties For Good: Nailz
WWE introduced Nailz as a foil for The Big Boss Man. Boss Man played a correctional officer. So, Nailz was an ex-convict, complete with an orange jumpsuit. While he had an awesome, menacing look, the guy never really took off in WWE. After the Boss Man feud, it became clear he was getting groomed for a feud with The Undertaker, but seemed discontented with his place in WWE. This all led to an ugly incident in which he physically attacked Vince McMahon backstage at a WWE event, which led to legal proceedings.
Nailz is an example of a guy who both caused enough trouble for WWE, and had little enough value to the company that it never made sense for them to think twice about bringing him back. For his part, Nailz didn’t seem interested either. In one court testimony against WWE, years after he got physical with McMahon, he purportedly stated that he still hated McMahon’s guts.
11 Came Back: Steve Austin
In 2002, Steve Austin was, by his own admission, in a bad place. As discussed in the WWE-produced documentary Stone Cold Steve Austin: The Bottom Line on the Most Popular Superstar of All Time, he had issues in his marriage, issues with alcohol, and issues with the way WWE was using him. His creative issues included getting a sub-par spot on the card for WrestleMania X8 and getting booked to put over Brock Lesnar in a match on RAW with no prior build up. Austin infamously elected not to come to RAW at all, and in so doing, ended his tenure with WWE.
Cooler heads would prevail as Austin wound up returning to the fold within a year for one more WrestleMania match and then stints in authority roles on RAW. Down the line he’d accept a WWE Hall of Fame induction and settle into a role of recurring appearances and conducting sit down shoot interviews for the WWE Network.
10 Cut Ties For Good: Randy Savage
After being a main event level star for WWE from the late 1980s into the early 1990s, WWE largely looked to put Randy Savage out to pasture. He was relegated to a broadcast position and only a part-time role in the ring. According to a variety of sources, including multiple shoot interview with his brother, Lanny Poffo, Savage was sensitive about his age and frustrated about not getting to continue to wrestle full time. Purportedly, the straw that broke the camel’s back was when Savage pitched one last, long angle in which he’d put over up and comer Shawn Michaels, but saw his ideas rejected. Thus, Savage signed with WCW.
Savage would wrestle for years for the competition. That WWE poked fun at his age after he left—airing satirical segments featuring The Nacho Man and The Huckster—reportedly stuck in his craw and only deepened the divide between Savage and his former employer. After WWE bought out WCW, Savage was one of the few big names who never made his way back to WWE to wrestle, or be a personality. He passed away in 2011, never having returned to the fold, though you could argue he symbolically did when WWE worked with his brother to posthumously induct him into the Hall of Fame four years after his death.
9 Came Back: Alundra Blayze
Alundra Blayze was the center of WWE’s revived women’s division in the mid-90s. In truth, she was the only consistent face performer, and always either the champion or in hot pursuit of the champion. When money got tight during the Monday Night War, WWE moved toward cutting the division altogether, and Blayze quietly left for WCW with the Women’s Championship still in hand.
In one of the most infamous moments of the Monday Night War, Blayze dropped the WWE title into a trash can, live on WCW Monday Nitro. It was one of the most aggressive shots either company had taken at the other up to that point. Many feel that the moment was a direct precursor to the Montreal Screwjob, in that WWE was desperate to make sure Bret Hart didn’t do the same thing to their world title after he signed with WCW.
When WCW went under, Blayze mostly retired from wrestling and wound up pursuing Monster Truck driving. In 2015, however, she became one of the most unlikely parties to return to WWE. She accepted a Hall of Fame induction, in which she most notably took the old Women’s Championship out of a trash can to provide closure to the earlier incident. She went on to deliver one the best shoot interviews for the Legends with JBL show on the WWE Network.
8 Cut Ties For Good: Alberto Del Rio
After a red hot start as a WWE performer including going over numerous stars, winning the biggest Royal Rumble ever, getting a world title shot at WrestleMania, and winning a Money in the Bank briefcase, Alberto Del Rio saw his star fizzle. While he would still be a world champion multiple times and saw a brief resurgence with a face turn, WWE seemed unsure of what to do with him and, from an outside perspective, Del Rio seemed to grow less invested in his performances.
Del Rio left the company, purportedly beneath the shroud of a racially charged incident with a backstage employee. He became a hot commodity in Mexican wrestling and on the indies before making a surprise return to WWE. Again, he started out hot, making a surprise return and beating John Cena clean for the United States Championship. Again, though, he quickly seemed directionless, and wasted away most of his second tenure in the forgettable League of Nations stable.
Del Rio left again as soon as his contract would allow it. While Del Rio didn’t exactly speak kindly about WWE after his first departure, this second time he’s been even more vocal against the company. Most recently, he released a pair of profanity-filled rants against the company, and specifically Triple H (referring to him as “the one with the big nose”) on Periscope.
7 Came Back: Jim Ross
Jim Ross has had an up and down relationship with WWE. At his best, WWE’s acknowledged him as the greatest play by play man of all time, he was the voice of the product for most of the wildly successful Attitude Era, and he was at one time a backstage power broker in charge of talent relations. However, there have also been a lot of rumors about Vince McMahon not supporting Ross, thinking fans couldn’t relate to his southern drawl, and finding his appearance after a bout of Bell’s Palsy unpalatable for TV.
WWE has let Ross go more than once, and Ross purportedly walked away from his last full time gig after he saw his move to SmackDown as a demotion. Just the same, even when he’s taken work with other companies, he’s never wandered off far. Good Ol’ JR continued to interview WWE personalities on his podcast, and most recently returned at WrestleMania 33 to call The Undertaker’s last match in was reportedly the first of a series of appearances he’ll make for big matches over the year to come.
6 Cut Ties For Good: Ahmed Johnson
Ahmed Johnson looked like a blue chip prospect early in his WWE tenure. His early run featured him body slamming Yokozuna, winning the Intercontinental Championship, and seeming destined for a main event run.
Rumors have abounded about why Johnson never reached any great heights, including ideas about racism, Johnson having a bad attitude, or being dangerous to work with in the ring. The consensus from those closer to the situation seems to be that bad timing and a proliferation of injuries were the real reasons he lost his momentum. In an interview with Bleacher Report, Johnson revealed that he lied about his age to get into the company—that he was nearly a decade older than he claimed—and that contributed to his body not holding up to punishment as well as it might have when he was younger.
Johnson wound up heading to WCW to work an angle with Harlem Heat before finishing out his career on the indies, never setting foot in WWE again. While he doesn’t appear to have burned bridges like some on this list, it does seem that he was a bit of a bust for WWE, and not someone they’re likely to bring back for a cameo or Hall of Fame induction.
5 Came Back: Kurt Angle
After a meteoric rise through the ranks that saw Kurt Angle collect all sorts of honors and quickly emerge as one the very best all around wrestlers, he had an abrupt departure from WWE in 2006. According to a number of shoot interviews, the issue at hand was that WWE wanted him to take time off to recover from a variety of physical ailments and Angle refused. The upshot? Angle left WWE and wrestled in TNA for nearly 10 years.
While injuries mounted and substance issues followed, Angle nonetheless remained a machine in and around the ring—a supreme worker and talker, before finally taking some time away to get himself cleaned up and healed up. In recent years, he began speaking more positively about WWE and about ambitions of one day returning.
Angle’s designs would come to fruition this year when he became the headlining inductee for the 2017 WWE Hall of Fame class. Angle was still over huge with the WWE audience, and so justified an appointment as general manager of RAW, while speculation mounts about whether he might have one (or more) WWE matches left in him.
4 Cut Ties For Good: Chyna
Chyna was not so much a trail blazer as a one of a kind, perfectly timed athlete in WWE. Based on her physical size and joining the roster during the Attitude Era, she was the only woman in WWE to ever make it a regular practice to compete in the men’s ranks.
Unfortunately, Chyna would fall on hard times. While working for WWE, her boyfriend and on screen partner Triple H would leave her for the boss’s daughter, Stephanie McMahon. When it came time for Chyna’s contract renewal, she demanded unrealistic compensation (according to Jim Ross) and so the company let her go. In the years to follow, she’d work in adult films, make headlines for substance issues and domestic abuse of her then-partner X-Pac. Aside from a brief stint with TNA, she was generally out of the mainstream wrestling world.
One might have hoped that Chyna would eventually reconcile with WWE. For all the ground she broke, she was certainly worthy of at least a Hall of Fame induction. She ended up passing away before any such mending of fences could occur. Triple H, now in an executive role, has acknowledged she’s worthy of recognition, but also expressed hesitation about her ever going into the Hall of Fame based on her activities away from the wrestling business.
3 Came Back: Bret Hart
There are few wrestlers who left WWE more pronounced hard feelings than Bret Hart. After over a decade of loyal service and rising through the ranks to become a top tier star, he had Vince McMahon renege on his 20 year contract, and then, on his way out the door, was subject to the Montreal Screwjob. In the years to follow, he spoke very negatively about WWE, including stern words for McMahon, Shawn Michaels, Triple H and other sin his book Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling.
Little by little, however, Hart came back into the WWE fold. After a stroke, McMahon called him, and the two agreed to work on a DVD project together. Next was a Hall of Fame induction, and after four years that, a return to being a part time on air character. He first made peace with Shawn Michaels and to blow off his shoot-turned-worked rivalry with Vince McMahon, before being a part of the Nexus angle. Most recently, Hart made two appearances in Natalya’s corner, besides a WrestleMania 31 cameo.
2 Cut Ties For Good: John Morrison
John Morrison is among those rare WWE stars who left the company in his prime, not due to any major falling out or incident, and not because WWE wanted him gone. On the contrary, the general opinion seems to be that Morrison left simply because the had other things he wanted to do with his life that a WWE schedule wouldn’t allow for.
While it’s not so unusual for a guy to feel a little burned out, then come back to the fold, John Morrison has offered little suggestion that he intends to come back. In an interview on The Steve Austin Show, he was diplomatic in answering questions about if he’d ever come back, not ruling it out altogether, but also demonstrating no interest in a return, content to be working in film and with his new wrestling career in Lucha Underground. Indeed, his work with LU as Johnny Mundo has arguably been the best of his career, and it’s quite feasible he really might round out his wrestling career there.
1 Came Back: Hulk Hogan
There’s a very real argument to be made that Hulk Hogan is the biggest star WWE ever produced. There’s no doubt that he stands alongside names like Bruno Sammartino, Andre the Giant, Steve Austin, The Rock, and John Cena as the most iconic WWE Superstars ever. Still, the guy has had his fallings out with WWE, including testifying against Vince McMahon in the steroid trial, and working as a key player when WCW threatened to put WWE out of business. Even after returning to WWE, Hogan would later sign with TNA in an attempt rekindling competition on Monday nights.
Hogan came back again in 2014 in a part time and ambassador role. WWE would ultimately cut off that run after a tape of Hogan using racist terms made major news. Just the same, his name has started to pop up in on air references recently and it appears we might be on the verge of the two sides mending fences yet again. When it comes to Hogan, WWE has proven more than once that it will ultimately do what’s best for business and put aside any past transgressions in favor of the almighty dollar. Given his legion of fans, there’s certainly still money to be made with Hogan.