Pro Wrestling

10 Wrestlers Who Left WWE Forever…Then Came Back Source:

While WWE is probably not the worst company in the world to work for, at certain times, for a variety of reasons, wrestlers have decided that they just can’t stand being a part of it anymore. And when wrestlers leave WWE on bad terms, they tend to say and do things that you should really only do if you never plan to work for someone ever again. Unfortunately, as WWE is the biggest wrestling company on the planet, very often wrestlers who have sworn never to work there again often find themselves returning. It’s hard to blame them, after all, if you want to be involved in wrestling and, more importantly, get a guaranteed paycheck, WWE is where you’re most likely going to have to go. This became especially true once WWE Network launched, making WWE the curator of most the record history of pro wrestling, and through that, the ability to determine the legacies of every wrestler to ever work for them. As a result, there is a fairly long list of wrestlers who have parted ways with WWE, seemingly for good, that somehow eventually ended up finding their way back.

10. Steve Austin

In mid-2002, just after WrestleMania X-8, Steve Austin, the biggest star the industry had ever seen, suddenly walked out of WWE. It was initially seen as a negotiating ploy by Austin, who was reportedly unhappy with being stuck in a mid-card match against Scott Hall at WrestleMania while The Rock got the big main event match against Hulk Hogan, and wanted out of the floudering nWo storyline by any means necessary. Austin actually returned a week later, and looked like he was headed for a feud with Eddie Guerrero, a great wrestler who Austin allegedly wanted to work with. Then, he left again, after vehemently disagreeing with plans to have him lose to Brock Lesnar in an unadvertised King of the Ring qualifying match on Raw (in Austin’s defense, he had no issues losing to Brock, but felt their first match should have been a big deal, and on PPV, and he was almost certainly correct). WWE went out on Raw and absolutely buried Austin, claiming that he “took his ball and went home”, and spent several months basically erasing him from existence, ascribing the successes of the Attitude Era to “loyal” employees like D-Generation X and The Rock. Admittedly, more than a few WWE employees felt that Austin was just taking a much-needed break and would return when things cooled down, which is exactly what happened, just before WrestleMania XIX. Source:

9. Mick Foley

Foley has been in and out of WWE so many times since his retirement that many people forget there was a point where he was so fed up with the direction of the company that he basically quit on live TV, in front of Vince McMahon. On the Raw after Survivor Series 2001, where WWE vanquished the Alliance to conclude one of the biggest blunders of an angle in wrestling history, the cold open of Raw featured GM Mick Foley meeting Vince McMahon’s private jet and having a frank conversation with him, which resulted in Foley resigning from WWE. What fans didn’t know is that Foley’s resignation was also real, as he decided to take a stand over what he saw as the horrible creative direction of the company, and walked away. Foley would not return to the company until late 2003, where he was given the freedom to book his own angle intended to put over an young upstart by the name of Randy Orton. Foley would actually quit WWE a second time in 2008, after a brief stint as Smackdown color commentator. Once again, Foley left due to creative differences, specifically the fact that he couldn’t stand having Vince McMahon in his ear, telling him what to say. Source:

8. Dusty Rhodes

These days, Dusty Rhodes is treated by WWE as one of the greatest minds in the history of wrestling, and it’s almost certained a deserved honor. However, back when Dusty was a big star and had backstage power in the territory days, he was one of WWE’s most hated enemies. In fact, the character of Virgil, the servant of the Million Dollar Man, was an inside jab at Dusty (Virgil being Dusty’s real name). Then, when Dusty found himself on the outs with WCW and came to WWE for a job, he was put into an incredibly humiliating gimmick, complete with an infamous yellow polka-dotted costume. To his credit, Dusty still got over in WWE through the force of his massive charisma, but the instant he had a chance to return to his old stomping grounds down South, he disappeared from WWE, and many expected he would never, ever return. In fact, Dusty stayed clear of WWE for over two decades, sticking with WCW until its untimely death, then moving through independents, including working to get Jeff Jarrett’s TNA promotion off the ground and into a position as the ostensible #2 wrestling company in North America. In 2005, Dusty finally accepted a Legends contract with WWE, complete with a Hall of Fame induction, and eventually moved into a major role in NXT, teaching the next generation of wrestlers, right up until his death in 2015. Source:

7. Alberto Del Rio

A multiple-time World Champion and entrenched main event star almost from the moment he debuted in WWE, it was a shock to many when Alberto Del Rio was suddenly released in 2014. Eventually, the story came out that Del Rio had struck an employee from WWE’s Social Media division over a racist joke, and was released due to what was called “unprofessional conduct”. People quickly rushed to Del Rio’s defense (especially after the employee who made the joke was not also released), and he found himself the hottest free agent in wrestling. Del Rio returned to Mexico, where he received a hero’s welcome both in AAA and on the increasingly popular Lucha Underground program. Del Rio spoke regularly and publicly about how he had been grievously wronged by WWE, and became a beloved babyface to fans, doing some of the best work of his career. With both a seemingly guaranteed spot on Lucha Underground going forward and a position as the AAA Mega-Champion, many felt there was no reason for Del Rio ever to return to WWE. However, in late 2015, Del Rio signed a reportedly incredibly lucrative contract to go back to WWE, returning in an unannounced appearance at the Hell in a Cell PPV and defeating John Cena for the United States title. Source:

6. The New Age Outlaws

You would think two wrestlers who were basically best friends with Triple H would have secure positions for life in WWE, wouldn’t you? However, that wasn’t the case, as Road Dogg would find himself fired for substance abuse issues in 2001, and Gunn was simply released in 2004 after several failed pushes and long-term injuries. The two would re-unite in TNA, however, and at one point, formed a blatantly anti-WWE team known as the Voodoo Kin Mafia, or VKM. If you think the name doesn’t make any sense, just look at the initials of WWE’s CEO, Vincent Kennedy McMahon. The former Outlaws (who now had a suspiciously similar intro, but legally distinct from version of their famous opening spiel), would relentlessly mock WWE and Vince McMahon, as well as Triple H and Shawn Michaels, who had recently re-formed D-Generation X, seemingly burning any bridges they could have had with the company. Unfortunately for them, the reunited D-X made a lot of money from merchandise sales, allowing WWE to basically ignore any detractors. Eventually, due to the chaotic nature of TNA’s power structure, James and Gunn found themselves crawling back to their former best friend for jobs, with Road Dogg becoming an agent, and Gunn finding work as a trainer for NXT (before being fired again, in 2015, for failing a drug test). Source:

5. Hulk Hogan

It would almost be faster to list the times Hulk Hogan wasn’t either involved in an acrimonious departure from WWE, or making his triumphant return to the company. The most famous departure Hogan, of course, would have to be in 1993, when he jumped ship for WCW. To say that WWE responded poorly would be an understatement, as they spent way too much time over the next several years overtly mocking Hogan on their programming, from the Huckster character in the “Billionaire Ted’s Wrasslin’ Warroom” sketches, to giving Hogan’s Real American theme to the geriatric team of Pat Patterson and Gerald Brisco, right up to the 2000 Backlash PPV, where The Big Show came out as a parody of Hogan called “The Showster.” If one thing was certain, it was that Vince McMahon would never, ever forgive the betrayal of Hulk Hogan. Until Hogan returned in 2002 to a thunderous ovation. Then he left again after losing to Brock Lesnar (reportedly after WWE shot down his idea of beating Lesnar in a re-match). This pattern continued for several years, as Hogan would return for short periods, then leave after trying to play political games and failing, culminating in the most recent debacle, where Hogan was summarily fired after racist audio from his sex tape was leaked. Even after the storm from that mostly died down, there are still no apparent plans to bring him back. So expect him to show up on WWE TV any day now. Source:

4. Superstar Billy Graham

Superstar Billy Graham has received some of the highest accolades possible in WWE, including both a run as WWE Champion and being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004, but has also been one of WWE’s most vocal critics, often earning ire for his constantly shifting position on the company. After Graham retired in 1988, he would proceed to break all ties with WWE. During the steroid trials, Graham sued WWE, claiming that they had forced him to take steroids in order to keep his spot. The lawsuit was unsuccessful, as it was easily proved that Graham had taken steroids for years before signing with WWE. Graham would also appear on several talk shows as an advocate against steroid use, including an infamous appearance along with Vince McMahon on The Phil Donahue Show in 1992, when he claimed that he knew about WWE officials sexually abusing children. Graham later admitted he had made the story up in order to extort money from WWE. Graham also made statements against Linda McMahon’s Senate campaign, before offering to be a spokesman for it in exchange for a Legends contract. Currently, Graham is once again on the outs with WWE, having earned more public disgust for asking for Dusty Rhodes’ NXT job only days after Rhodes passed away. Source:

3. Bruno Sammartino

In the era before Hulkamania made WWE a national wrestling powerhouse and essentially killed the old territory system, one of the biggest stars of the company was inarguably Bruno Sammartino. At one point, Bruno held the record for selling out Madison Square Garden more than anyone else, and he is still the longest reigning WWE Champion of all time, with his first reign lasting an incredible (and unthinkable in this era) seven years, eight months, and one day. Sammartino was so beloved that when he lost the title to Ivan Koloff, the fans were so upset that the referee did not publicly give Koloff the belt, and Bruno stayed in the ring to distract the irate fans and allow Koloff to escape. Unfortunately, Bruno cared little for the McMahon family, especially once he learned that Vince McMahon Sr. had screwed him out of money for years, eventually suing in order to get his rightful payment. Sammartino left WWE in 1988, and became a crusader against Vince McMahon, publicly claiming that Vince was the cause of the drug problem in pro wrestling, as well as fighting against the increasingly mature content that McMahon’s company presented. Sammartino refused to even talk to anyone from WWE for years, until the conciliatory efforts of Triple H saw Bruno accept an induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. Source:

2. Bret Hart

We’re not going to recount the Montreal Screwjob for you, because we’re pretty sure it gets taught to every wrestling fan the day they get into it at this point, but suffice to say, after that happened, it pretty much guaranteed that Bret Hart would never again, in any way, shape or form, work with anything involving Vince McMahon, the man who had quite literally publicly betrayed him on WWE programming. Things got even worse for Hart-WWE relations when Bret’s younger brother Owen was tragically killed in an accident during a WWE Pay Per View, with the family placing the blame pretty squarely on McMahon. However, while time didn’t necessarily heal all wounds, it did offer perspective, especially when Bret saw his in-ring career come to an end thanks to a major concussion, and also watched WCW go down in flames, at which point he began considering how his legacy in wrestling would be remembered, with WWE now the only game in town. In 2005, Hart worked with WWE on a career retrospective DVD, and then in 2006, he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, although he did not maintain a working relationship with the company. Finally, in early 2010, over twelve years after Montreal, Bret Hart stood in a WWE ring and was welcomed back by the fans. Hart has made several appearances in WWE since then, although he often remains critical of aspects of the company in public. Source:

1. Brock Lesnar

When he debuted in 2002, Brock Lesnar was pretty much expected to be the future of WWE, even receiving the tag “The Next Big Thing”. And Brock certainly did his best to live up to those expectations, putting on great matches and becoming a multiple-time World Champion over the next two years. Then, citing burnout and a desire for a lighter road schedule, Brock announced three days before WrestleMania XX that he was leaving wrestling forever the day after the PPV, with dreams of becoming a starter in the NFL (despite having not played football since high school). In exchange for letting him out of his contract, WWE forced him to sign the most restrictive non-compete clause ever seen, preventing him from being a pro wrestler or competing in MMA anywhere in the world for the next decade. After failing to make it in the NFL, Brock would sue WWE over those restrictions, forcing them to cut it down to preventing Brock from wrestling in North America. At this point, and after Brock went on to become a sensation in UFC, it was believed that every bridge between Lesnar and WWE had been burned for good. However, after medical issues forced Brock out of UFC, he signed an incredibly lucrative deal (both in terms of money and number of dates he would have to work) with WWE, and returned to the company in 2012, becoming one of the biggest stars in wrestling thanks to his UFC credentials. Source:

Stephen Randle

Stephen Randle

Stephen Randle is an avid wrestling and film fan. He's been writing about WWE, movies, and video games for Goliath since 2015.