There’s no wrestling promotion quite like World Wrestling Entertainment. The general populace often uses WWE as a synonym for pro wrestling, which is a testament to how much bigger and higher profile it is than any other wrestling company, particularly since they bought out WCW 17 years ago. As such, it’s not surprise that most wrestlers would aspire to work there for a shot at international fame, not to mention the bigger money that comes with those opportunities.
Each year, the company releases talents who don’t fit the corporate culture, under-perform relative to expectations, or whom the company simply exhausts creative ideas for. On the flip side, more and more there are talents who choose to walk from WWE to spend more time with their families, for the freedom of the indies, or to pursue other career opportunities.
Sometimes there’s a clean break. Consider the case of Summer Rae, who had a perfectly acceptable run with WWE, and was released when WWE had done all it could with her. While there’s little reason to think WWE will ever re-sign her permanently, she may well come back for guest spots here and there in years to come. To Rae’s credit, she seems at peace, having posted to social media that she’s not bitter about the release, but rather grateful for having had the chance to live her dream.
Not all splits are that amicable. This article looks at eight talents who walked or were released by WWE whom the company will regret letting slip away. By contrast, we’ll also look at seven performers whom WWE won’t give another chance.
15 Beg To Come Back: Cody Rhodes
According to Cody Rhodes, before his father passed, he advised his son to leave WWE. The rationale was that the company didn’t know what they had in him, so Cody ought to show them by heading elsewhere and proving himself, not to mention getting the most out of wrestling in his prime.
Cody took the advice a little late, but no one can deny that he went full throttle in pursuing the wrestling life outside WWE. Since leaving he has played starring roles for New Japan, Ring of Honor, and a variety of indies. While, in WWE, he was locked into the mid-card, he has been treated like a main event, or at least upper card talent everywhere else he has gone.
With his family lineage, talking abilities, and having increasingly proved his skills in the ring, he’s someone WWE would love to get back under contract. The question is whether Cody will ever give them the time of day again.
14 Banish Forever: Enzo Amore
Enzo Amore was a polarizing and controversial figure throughout his time in WWE. Rumors abounded about him having heat from the locker room and/or management. No one seemed to think he was much of an in worker, and everyone agreed he was outspoken. The only question was whether his big mouth was endearing, a nuisance, or grounds for his job to be at risk.
The final straw to determine Amore’s fate came early this year. Just as WWE was getting set to celebrate the 25th anniversary edition of Raw, news broke that Amore was accused of sexual assault. The behavior itself would be a huge deal for any star, let alone one who was already walking a tight rope of heat. Add onto that that he purportedly didn’t give WWE management any heads up it was coming, and it was grounds for him to be fired pretty immediately. WWE probably won’t have any interest in bringing such a controversial figure back into the fold.
13 Beg To Come Back: Darren Young
Darren Young had a fairly bright start with WWE as part of the original nationally televised season of NXT who would go on to become one seventh of the featured Nexus stable that main evented SummerSlam 2010. The guy was athletic and jacked, and as if all of that weren’t enough, he became the first guy to come out as gay, while actively performing as part of the main roster.
After the initial Nexus story, Young had some experience as half of the Prime Time Players tag team, and later got a character reboot as Bob Backlun’s protégé. Things never fully clicked for the guy, though, and he’d wind up released for lack of other ideas on how to use him.
Young is still very much in his physical prime as an openly gay athlete brings a dimension of diversity to whatever company he wrestles for. If he can, in particular, continue to develop his skills, there’s every reason to think WWE will be eager to bring him back in the years ahead.
12 Banish Forever: Kenny Dykstra
Kenny Dykstra was cast as the leader of The Spirit Squad. While the heel faction was always a little tongue in cheek, they threatened to break out when cast as Vince McMahons henchmen in a program against DX. Dykstra, in particular, got an immediate follow up run as a solo act, but never really went anywhere.
Years later, word came out that Dykstra saw his career stunted because John Cena was sleeping his then-girlfriend Mickie James, and Dykstra didn’t respond kindly to it. He ultimately left the company, still a star with a lot of potential. Interestingly, WWE would bring him back years later, to reprise his cheerleader villain character against former stablemate Dolph Ziggler. Dykstra publicized that he was quitting his normal job to continue pursuing his wrestling passion. Whether WWE simply didn’t see him as a long-term investment, resented him implicitly pushing pressure on the company to hire him full time, or old politics still lingered, WWE didn’t keep him on for more than his short-term role. It looks increasingly doubtful the company will ever bring him back again.
11 Beg To Come Back: Brian Cage
When wrestling fans first saw Cage on Lucha Underground—a remarkably agile, remarkably jacked young performer—the consensus was that WWE was probably salivating at the idea of signing him away. The reality? WWE had actually already had The Machine under developmental contract, but never went all the way with him.
It’s unclear why WWE didn’t make the most of Brian Cage, though some suspect that his insistence on working a more technical and aerial style than WWE typically asks of its big men may have meant he rubbed management the wrong way. Regardless, as WWE has come to embrace more indie-bred wrestlers who worke a faster paced style, there’s reason to believe they’ll make an earnest effort at bringing Cage back into the fold.
10 Banish Forever: Alberto Del Rio
There are those wrestlers who burn bridges on their way out of WWE—talking trash about the company or its top stars, or leaving at a time that’s inconvenient to the promotion’s bigger plans. Del Rio crossed about every line in leaving WWE not once, but twice, first after slapping a backstage employee who purportedly used a racist epithet, then over political differences. He’s made no bones about blaming Triple H in the aftermath of his second departure, insultingly referring to The Game as “the one with the big nose.” Add on Del Rio, in WWE’s view, being a bad influence on Paige and ruining what might have been her last good stretch with the company, and you have a guy WWE will never welcome back again.
Del Rio’s exodus is particularly sad because of a myriad reports that the company desperately wants a Latino star to appeal to that demographic of fans, and Del Rio is a talented wrestler and talker when he’s motivated.
9 Beg To Come Back: Emma
Emma’s WWE tenure was nothing if not tumultuous. She starred alongside Paige in NXT, as the first wave of the company taking women’s wrestling seriously. She went on to underwhelm in her first tenure on the main roster, then go back to developmental to completely reinvent herself in a brilliant heel persona.
Back on the main roster, Emma quickly struggled to find her place. An attempt to reboot her in the Emmalina gimmick went nowhere when management reportedly felt she hadn’t fully committed to the bit. Rumors swirled that she had heat on her, only for her to transition into a featured feud with Asuka upon her debut. As soon as Asuka beat her in back to back matches, Emma was released.
Maybe Emma had a more serious personality clash with the powers that be than anyone has spoken about publicly. Regardless, she’s proven herself as an adaptable and highly skilled talent. While WWE does increasingly have depth on its female roster, she’s someone who has proven herself in WWE, and whom the company may welcome back in the years ahead.
8 Banish Forever: James Ellsworth
James Ellsworth offered one of the more unlikely WWE stories in 2016, as he went from a local jobber, to a cult favorite, to a full time talent. Along the way, he was crushed by Braun Strowman, became a key cog in a world title storyline with AJ Styles and Dean Ambrose, and served as Carmella’s heater when she won Money in the Bank.
While Ellsworth undeniably overachieved, and played his part well, it’s tough to imagine what WWE would do with him from here. He had a year in the limelight that will likely carry his indie career for years to come. As for WWE, it’s possible he’d be brought back for a one off guest appearance, but there’s no reason to think WWE would ever bring him back full time.
7 Beg To Come Back: Chris Masters
Chris Masters is a fascinating case of a wrestler whom hardcore fans and WWE management seem to constantly have opposite opinions of. He debuted on the main roster as a dominant force, quickly plugged into upper card feuds with the likes of Shawn Michaels, Kane, and The Big Show. Fans generally weren’t sold on him, dismissing him as a generic muscleman. After WWE cracked down on PEDs, the Masterpiece did the right thing and went natural. Slimmed down and with more experience, hardcore fans began to respect him a great deal more, only for WWE to lose interest and end up releasing him on two separate occasions.
The thing about Masters is that he is, by all accounts, a standup guy and he’s gone on to perform well with just about every company that will have him. While he’ll probably never be the main event star WWE originally projected he might become, he’d be a rock solid veteran hand to bring back into the mix anytime.
6 Banish Forever: Mr. Kennedy
Mr. Kennedy had a rocket strapped to his back in the mid-to-late 2000s. He became just the third man to win the Money in the Bank briefcase, defeating a star studded field of better established stars including Edge, Randy Orton, and The Hardys. He was lined up to play Vince McMahon’s would be assassin in the Who Killed Mr. McMahon? angle, and when that storyline got scrapped he was originally cast as McMahon’s illegitimate son in that ongoing mystery story.
Somehow, none of these once in a career pushes panned out on account of injury, suspensions, and creative changes. Meanwhile, Kennedy found himself or those who worked with him on the shelf a little too much for comfort, before WWE finally threw in the towel on him ever being the top player he seemed destined to be.
While Kennedy did go on to some better success in TNA, the bloom is off the rose. WWE views him as a wasted investment, and won’t be bringing him back.
5 Beg To Come Back: Jim Johnston
While most of the names on this list apply to wrestlers, this entry, instead, goes to one of the longest tenured, most respected backstage employees in WWE history. Jim Johnston’s work had a part in just about every WWE show from the past three decades. Johnston wrote and often recorded the theme music for most WWE stars, in addition to writing theme songs for some PPV events and oddball WWE projects.
Few musicians have demonstrated Johnston’s range, let alone his uncanny ability to connect with WWE’s characters. WWE seems to have moved on to CFO$, which has written more WWE music of late, and has a bit more contemporary sensibility that Johnston. Still for someone who was so much a part of the fabric of WWE, it’s hard to imagine the company without him. WWE may well angle toward bringing Johnston back, at least in a part time or per project role.
4 Banish Forever: CM Punk
CM Punk made an unlikely ascent from indie guy the WWE brass didn’t really know what to do with, all the way to main event star and longest reigning world champion of the modern era.
Punk’s dynamics with WWE management were never entirely even or peaceful, however, as he butted heads about everything from creative plans to working style to marketing. Just as fans may have thought the two sides reached a balance working together, Punk vanished from the WWE landscape.
It turns out that, after Royal Rumble 2014, Punk had worked the number of dates his contract required him to. Burned out, disgruntled, and suffering from a nasty staph infection that he felt WWE medical personnel under-reacted to, Punk simply stopped coming to work. The choice to walk out, followed by the choice to air his grievances very publicly on Colt Cabana’s podcast ushered the Straight Edge Superstar straight onto the WWE blacklist.
3 Beg To Come Back: Wade Barrett
When you think of wrestlers who had all the tools WWE was looking for, Wade Barrett stands out as a can’t miss prospect. He had the company’s coveted size and musculature. He was a deceptively excellent talker, who went from good to great as a promo man over his time with the company. On top of all of that, he was a rock solid hand in the ring.
Barrett never realized his considerable potential, though, stalling out in the upper mid card. Some of it’s a matter of bad luck as Barrett suffered repeated injuries at the worst time. There was also, however, a strange dynamic that Barrett has commented about in subsequent interviews. His Bad News gimmick started to get over nicely with fans, only for WWE to cut off his promos, saying they wanted him to be a heel and he was getting too popular. Conventional wisdom would say to follow the crowd’s reaction, but management seemed to dig in its heels.
Barrett’s unique set of skills and attributes mean that he could easily succeed if he were slotted back into the WWE roster today or for years to come.
2 Banish Forever: Jack Swagger
Jack Swagger was a prototypical Jim Ross signing—a big, athletic kid with an impressive amateur wrestling pedigree. Heck, he was even from Oklahoma. Swagger had his moments in the sun working for WWE, debuting as the top heel for the ECW brand, later parlaying a Money in the Bank win into a World Heavyweight Championship reign, and, in his last big push, cast as Alberto Del Rio’s arch nemesis going into WrestleMania XXIX.
It tends to surprise fans when they realize Swagger was signed to WWE for a decade. While he did have his accomplishments and they were reasonably spread out, he also had long periods of being stuck in the lower mid card, and oddly long periods when he was kept off TV altogether.
Swagger had an awkward exit from WWE in 2017 that include posting to social media that he’d asked for his release, and accepting independent bookings, only to have to do an about face when WWE didn’t actually let him go right away. The two have since come to terms, and Swagger has been outspoken in more than one interview about how he was the toughest guy in the locker room and had pitched ideas about showcasing his shoot skills that WWE never ran with. In the end, for all of his physical gifts, it seems there was a real personality clash between Swagger and WWE, little reason to think the two sides would want to collaborate again.
1 Beg To Come Back: Jimmy Jacobs
Jimmy Jacobs was a long time independent star whom WWE ultimately signed not as an in ring talent, but rather as a writer. As Jacobs discussed at length on his visit to Chris Jericho’s podcast, he worked closely with Jericho and Kevin Owens throughout their kayfabe friendship and breakup. He was generally a well respected part of the creative team, who combined hard work and good ideas with the credibility of his past as a wrestler.
Jacobs’s split with WWE seems to have been amicable enough. He was ostensibly let go for posting a photo of himself with members of New Japan’s Bullet Club to social media, at the behest of WWE management, and there are hints Jacobs knew what he was doing or, at the least, didn’t object to WWE’s decision. He has since returned to the indies, but given how well liked he was by some big names in WWE, the company may well try to get him to come back in the next couple years.