The WWE has been the biggest player in the wrestling game for decades, and during that time, many talents have walked through the doors of Titan towers, and just as many have walked out of the promotion with a sour taste in their mouth. Since WWE purchased WCW, killing off their biggest competitor WWE has been the last remaining large scale wrestling organization to operate in the United States. Whereas, decades prior there were several large promotions operating in the United States with each having their own designated turf or territory.
With the rise of Ring of Honor and the invasion of New Japan Pro Wrestling to American shores, as well as the creation of All Elite Wrestling after the success of All In, the days of WWE being a hegemonic superpower in wrestling may be coming to an end. With many superstars looking to leave WWE to join other promotions, and the growing opportunities for wrestlers to make their names and earn a decent paycheck on the independent scene.
Many wrestlers have left the WWE with a bitter taste in their mouth, often swearing that they will never return to the company, or that the company refuses to take them back due to the bad blood. However, while some wrestler like Cody Rhodes and CM Punk who have managed to make a name for themselves outside of the WWE maintain that they won't return, there are plenty of wrestlers who returned to the WWE despite the historical issues that have occurred between themselves and the company.
Despite tension existing between the company and certain former talents, either on the superstar's end or on the companies end, many who promised they wouldn't come back and many who believed that the company had blackballed them for life have returned to the company, and back into Vince McMahon's open arms.
#9 Kurt Angle
The former Olympic Gold Medalist from the 1996 Games, originally crossed from Amature Wrestling to the WWF in 1998. After learning the trade under Dory Funk Jr at the Funkin' Dojo, Angle was quickly brought up to the main roster and made his TV debut at Survivor Series 1999, defeating Shawn Stasiak. Angle would regularly appear on Raw and Smackdown with a series of wins against the Godfather, Gangrel Mark Henry, Val Venis, and D-Lo Brown, without a major program. Angle would suffer his first televised defeat at the 2000 Royal Rumble against Tazz after Angle passed out while locked in the Tazzmission hold.
Angle's stock in the WWF would continue to rise, winning both the European and Intercontinental title, becoming the second wrestler in the history of the promotion to defend two solo belts at once, after D-Lo Brown. First winning the European title from Val Venis, and defeated Chris Jericho at No Way Out to win the Intercontinental title. He would hold the two titles until Wrestlemania 2000, where he would drop the belts to Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho respectively. Angle would then go on a losing streak, including his title rematch against Chris Benoit and shots at Eddie Guerrero's European title and the Tag Team titles against Edge and Christian.
Later the same year, Angle would be pushed into the Main Event scene after winning the King of the Ring tournament and challenging for the number one contender spot against the Rock. Angle would be put in programs against the likes of the Rock, Stone Cold, the Undertaker, and Triple H at the top of the card within a year of making his WWE debut. Angle would then go on to be a major player during the Invasion storyline, siding with the Alliance of WCW and ECW despite never wrestling for either brand. Angle would turn on the Alliance at the pivotal Survivor Series PPV, hitting Stone Cold Steve Austin with the title belt allowing the Rock to pin Austin and winning the match for the WWF.
After the Invasion angle settled down, Kurt would be transitioned to be one of Smackdown's top stars and a big part of the infamous "Smackdown Six", the six were responsible for a large amount of the Smackdown main event angles. Angle was joined by Edge, Eddie Guerrero, Chavo Guerrero, Chris Benoit, and Rey Mysterio Jr at the top of the Smackdown card and saved the show from being scrapped. Angle would eventually leave the WWE in 2006 after 8 years in the company and becoming a Grand Slam champion.
After leaving, Angle became one of the lynchpins for TNA and became one of their biggest stars overnight. During his time with the company, Angle would win the TNA Heavyweight title and the IWJP title, and would also become a part of the companies "Main Event Mafia" stable alongside other legends such as Sting, Kevin Nash, Booker T, and Scott Steiner. They would later be joined by Christian Cage and TNA originals Traci Brooks and Samoa Joe. Angle would also transition into a backstage role with the company as his health began to fail him.
After 10 years at TNA, Kurt Angle announced that he would not be renewing his contract with the company and started wrestling for independent promotions such as Insane Championship Wrestling, Revolution Pro Wrestles and What Culture Pro-Wrestling in the United Kingdom as well two matches for Northeast Wrestling against former WWE talent Cody Rhodes.
After 11 years away from the WWE, it was announced in 2017 that Angle would be inducted into the promotions Hall of Fame. Angle would return to the company on a more permanent basis when he was announced as the new Raw General Manager on the Monday Night following Wrestlemania 33. Angle has continued to wrestle part time with the promotion, but looks to be dialling back his in-ring career for the final time.
#8 Stone Cold Steve Austin
This seems like a strange one, Steve Austin was the biggest star for the WWE during the Attitude Era. Whether he was feuding with the likes Triple H, the Rock, Bret Hart, Kurt Angle, the Undertaker, or his greatest nemesis Vince McMahon, Stone Cold usually occupied the prime position at the top of the card for the majority of the late 90s and early 2000s. The 6-time WWF Champion, 3-time Royal Rumble Winner, 1996 King of the Ring and Hall of Famer was the biggest face of the company for a long stretch of time.
However, after participating in the Invasion storyline as the leader of the Alliance faction between WCW and ECW stables, Austin was relegated to a more subdued role after Vince McMahon resigned Hulk Hogan, Scott Hall, and Kevin Nash to form their NWO stable in the WWE. Austin, who had issues with Hogan in the past was not given the opportunity to wrestle the returning Hogan. After the angle with the NWO, Austin didn't appear at a Raw that he was scheduled to be at, without informing the company first. This would quickly become a trend as Austin grew tired and restless with his position.
After returning to the company, Austin was positioned to feud against WWE's newest rising star Brock Lesnar. According to reports both at the time and after the fact, Austin refused to participate in a match with Lesnar in which he would lose. Instead, Austin chose to walk out of the company, once again no-showing several shows that he was scheduled to appear at. Austin's merchandise and profile were removed from the WWE website. Vince and the Rock both went out in front of the live audience and claimed that Austin had "taken his ball and went home".
However, Austin returned to the company in 2003, having patched things up with Vince McMahon. Austin and McMahon would discuss their issues years later on an episode of Austin's podcast with Austin comparing the situation to McMahon's issues with CM Punk. McMahon stated that while the situation was similar, as both had chosen to walk out on the WWE, the difference was that Austin was reachable through Jim Ross, whereas Punk was more isolationist and didn't have a Ross-type figure in the company.
#7 Hulk Hogan
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hulk Hogan elevated wrestling in general and the WWF specifically into mainstream popularity. From 1984 to 1993, Hogan would hold the belt on 5 separate occasions with a cumulative reign of over 2000 days, including his first run of 1,474 days. The 1980s would see the rise of "Hulkamania" in the WWF as both Hogan and the promotion would gain international success.
Hogan would eventually leave the promotion in 1993, originally intending to pursue an acting career. While working at Disney's MGM studios on "Thunder in Paradise", Hogan would be contacted by representatives of the WCW and would enter into negotiations with Eric Bischoff. Hogan would work for the promotion from 1994 to 2000, including Hogan's first run as a heel in the company signing with fellow WWF alumni in Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, forming the popular faction the New World Order.
Despite WWF buying out WCW, Hogan had a guaranteed contract with Time Warner and chose to sit out his contract with Time Warner and receive payments as opposed to signing with the WWF. After the contract expired, Hogan would return to the WWF in 2002 and 2003, with New World Order stablemates Scott Hall and Kevin Nash. The run would last for a short time with Hogan facing The Rock and turning face in the process during his run. Hogan would once again leave the WWE following issues with payments.
Hogan would then bounce around from the WWE to TNA and back again. However, Hogan's contract with WWE would be terminated in 2015, after tapes had surfaced of Hogan using racist slurs. Hogan's profile with the company and any merchandise relating to Hogan was removed from the company's online store. It would take a further 3 years before Hogan would controversially be brought back into the company, first backstage with the wrestlers and then with fans in stadiums. Upon his return, Hogan would host the controversial Crown Jewel PPV in Saudi Arabia as well as returning to Monday Night Raw in 2019 to present a tribute to Mean Gene Okerlund.
#6 Matt Hardy
While Matt Hardy was not the biggest star in the WWE during his initial time there, his partnership with his brother Jeff and relationship with fellow female wrestler Lita was well known by the audience at the time. The Hardy Boyz had combined to win several tag team championships and with the likes of the Dudley Boys and Edge and Christian, had several incredible matches that many fans count as being amongst their favourite.
After splitting with his brother Jeff, Matt would be involved in several other tag team factions and occasionally wrestle as a singles competitor but would never reach the same heights as his brother. In 2005, Matt Hardy would be released by the WWE following Hardy publicizing an affair between Lita and former friend Edge. However, on the back of overwhelming fan support, Matt was brought back and feuded with Edge in a storyline that blurred the lines of reality.
After the feud, Matt was moved on to Smackdown programming and would eventually reunite with his brother Jeff again to reform the Hardy Boys. The two would win a 10 team battle royal for the World Tag Team Championships, but would eventually lose the belts to Lance Cade and Trevor Murdoch. The two would split again and Matt would once again pursue singles competition. Five years after being brought back to the company, Matt Hardy was again released after he had been sent home from a European tour with the company and began posting videos asking for his release on Youtube.
This would lead to Hardy returning to the independent circuit and his greatest success as an individual wrestler, appearing at both Ring of Honor and TNA. It was at TNA where Hardy would begin his "Broken Matt" gimmick, which would become incredibly popular. Following several years at TNA, including World title reigns, Matt Hardy left the company.
Together with Jeff, Matt would reappear in the WWE at Wrestlemania 33 as surprise entrants in the ladder match for the Raw Tag Team title match. Matt and Jeff would win the belts before losing it to the team of Sheamus and Cesaro at Extreme Rules. Matt would later feud then team with Bray Wyatt before going on his latest hiatus from the company.
#5 Jeff Jarrett
Jeff Jarrett worked for the WWF on multiple occasions throughout the 1990s, during his first run with the company he would defeat Razor Ramon for the Intercontinental title at the 1995 Royal Rumble. Jarrett would feud with Bob Holly for the title before dropping the title back to Razor Ramon. Jarrett would win the title again from Ramon before dropping it to Shawn Michaels. Jarrett's first run with the company would leave the WWF over a contract dispute, and he would cross over to the WCW.
Jarrett's second run would come within a year and a half of his first run ending. His second run with the WWF would be arguably more successful. Not only would Jarrett come into the company as the NWA Heavyweight Champion as a part of an NWA invasion into the WWF, but would also team with Owen Hart to win the tag team titles and win his 4th Intercontinental title reign and his first European title to unify the belts.
Towards the end of his second run, Jarrett was still the intercontinental champion after his contract had expired, leaving Vince McMahon to negotiate with Jarrett for another appearance to drop the belt before he could leave. According to reports, Jarrett negotiated a large pay for the one-off match before heading back to the WCW.
Rumours suggest that after McMahon purchased WCW, there was still enmity between the two when Vince addressed a camera claiming that Jarrett would have to change the spelling of his name to "capital G- double O- double N- double E. GOONNEE". Though others have suggested that Vince cut it as a promo and had no personal grudge against Jarrett despite their past dealings. Jarrett would later form TNA a promotion that would become the second biggest promotion in the USA and arguably the WWE's biggest rival.
However, Jarrett would be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2018 by Road Dogg to the surprise of many WWE fans. Jarrett would also wrestle in the 2019 Royal Rumble and have a match on Raw against current WWE superstar Elias the week after. Reports also indicate that Vince McMahon and the WWE covered Jarrett when he went to a rehabilitation facility in 2017.
#4 The Ultimate Warrior
After Hulkamania was winding down Vince McMahon and the WWF were looking for the next wrestlers that they could have as the face of their company. Hogan, who was losing his lustre after a long time at the top, and was looking to transition into movies, was on his way out and Vince needed some new blood to take his place. The primary candidate at the time was an up and coming wrestler who bounded around with unending levels of energy. That was the Intercontinental Champion of the time The Ultimate Warrior. While Warrior wasn't the best in-ring talent, he was extremely popular with the fan base, had the body type that McMahon was looking for and the unlimited energy that seemed to constantly power him.
This lead to a confrontation between the WWF Champion, Hulk Hogan, and the Intercontinental Champion, the Ultimate Warrior, in the main event of Wrestlemania VI at Toronto's Skydome. Warrior would defeat Hogan to claim the WWF Championship and rise to become the new face of the WWF. He would hold the belt until the following year's Royal Rumble, where he would lose the match to the villainous Sgt. Slaughter following interference from Randy Savage's valet the Sensational Sherri. Even during his time with the WWF, it was well known by many in the business that the Ultimate Warrior wasn't the easiest to work with.
Warrior would eventually be released before Survivor Series 1992 but would return to the company for another run in 1996, including a squash match against an up and coming Triple H at Wrestlemania 12. He would go on to challenge Goldust for the Intercontinental title, winning the match but via count-out. The Warrior would once again be released by the WWF in the lead up to WWF's pay per view "In Your House 9".
After being released, the WWF would begin a series of lawsuits against Warrior over the rights to the Ultimate Warrior name and license. In 2005 the WWE would release a DVD called "The Self Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior". The DVD was heavily critical of the Ultimate Warrior, and his time in the WWE. Warrior retorted by attempting to sue the WWE for libel over the DVD but was unsuccessful.
Despite his decorated career, many believed that Warrior and WWE would never patch up their differences and that he would never return to the company. However, in 2013, 17 years after his last run with the company The Ultimate Warrior once again returned to the WWE and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014 and appeared for the final time at Wrestlemania XXX. He would also address the WWE Universe on the Raw following Wrestlemania. Unfortunately, it would be the Warriors last event with the company as he passed away a day later
#3 Bruno Sammartino
Bruno Sammartino remains to this day the longest reigning champion in the WWE and one of it's best champions. Bruno first came to the company when it was called the WWWF under Vince McMahon's father Vince James McMahon, or Vince McMahon Senior. Sammartino would sign and immediately get a shot at inaugural champion Buddy Rogers title, Sammartino would defeat Rogers in 43 seconds to claim the title.
Sammartino would reign for over 2000 days with the belt, and hold it for almost 8 years before dropping the belt to Ivan Koloff at Madison Square Garden in January 1971. Sammartino would win his second reign with the belt at the end of 1973, unseating champion Stan Stasiak. The Working Class hero would go on to hold the belt for over 1000 days, taking his total combined reign time to over 4000 days holding the belt meaning that Sammartino remains the longest reigning champion, both cumulative and single reign.
Sammartino's second and final run with the belt would come to an end at the hands of Superstar Billy Graham. He would soon retire from full-time wrestling, but still, play bit parts in wrestling NWA Champion Harley Race and serving as the colour commentator for certain WWF Shows. Sammartino returned to the company between 1984 to 1988 for one last in-ring run, initially appearing as the cornerman for his son David, but would also return to the ring mainly for tag team action, but also wrestled against Randy Savage for a stretch of time after Savage bragged about injuring Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat.
After 1988, Bruno Sammartino would heavily criticize both Vince McMahon and the direction he had taken the WWF, including the use of steroids by wrestlers and the vulgar nature of the storylines that were being played out on WWF television.
The WWE reached out on several occasions to invite Sammartino back to the company and induct him into the Hall of Fame. Sammartino would decline the invitation every time, he eventually accepted the invitation from Triple H, 25 years after he last appeared in the company. Sammartino was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013 and included in WWE's 2K14 video game. He would also return in 2015 to induct his protege Larry Zbyszko into the Hall of Fame. Sammartino passed away on April 18th, 2018, and a few days later the WWE would release a touching documentary on Sammartino and his career in wrestling
#2 Bill Goldberg
Goldberg first made a name for himself as a player in the NFL before making the switch to pro-wrestling, following a career-ending injury. What many people aren't aware of is that when Goldberg was looking to transition to pro-wrestling, that he went to meet with Vince McMahon prior to signing with the WCW. While McMahon and the WWF would pass up the opportunity to sign the former footballer, he would go on to sign with their biggest rival WCW and become one of their top stars.
Goldberg would go on a record-setting undefeated streak during his time with the WCW, leading to Goldberg becoming a World Champion within a year of signing for the company. Goldberg would eventually lose a match, and the title, in December 1998 in controversial fashion. Meanwhile, the WWF was ridiculing Goldberg through a wrestler called Gillberg, a skinny wrestler who would constantly lose matches on WWF TV.
After the WWF purchased the WCW, Goldberg was one of the many superstars that had a guaranteed contract from Time Warner and therefore did not cross with the initial purchase, like Kevin Nash, Hulk Hogan, and Sting. Due to the payments, Goldberg, like other WCW stars chose to sit out of wrestling and receive payouts from Time Warner as opposed to working at the WWF.
Finally, three years after WCW was purchased by the WWE, Goldberg appeared for the first time interrupting the Rock on the Monday Night Raw after Wrestlemania 19. Goldberg had a short run with the company, lasting only a year before leaving the company to transition into acting. Goldberg's last match during this run was against Brock Lesnar at Wrestlemania 20. The crowd, aware that the match would be the last for both Lesnar and Goldberg, reacted poorly to the match and were happy to see the match end.
Goldberg would return to the WWF 12 years later after it was announced that he would be a playable character in WWE 2K17. During the promotional material for the video game, Goldberg and Brock Lesnar would trade insults leading to a match between the two at Survivor Series. Goldberg defeated Lesnar in a minute and 25 seconds, much to the surprise of the crowd. Despite promising the match to be his last, Goldberg signed up for an additional period of time, allowing him to defeat Kevin Owens for the Universal Championship at Fastlane. This would set up a third match against Brock Lesnar at Wrestlemania 33.
Goldberg would be inducted into the Hall of Fame the following year but has not ruled out having another run in the WWE. Goldberg stated during his speech that his second run in the WWE had been a much more pleasant time, and he left this time with no anger or resentment towards the business.
#1 Bret Hart
By now, every wrestling fan will know about the infamous Montreal Screwjob with Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. While the jury is still out on whether it was a work or a shoot is still in the air. The infamous match between the two at Survivor Series in November 1997 in Montreal, would be Bret Hart's last match with the WWF as it was already known that he had agreed to a contract with WWF's biggest rival at the time WCW.
While the deal between Hart and McMahon would be that Hart would retain the WWF Championship at Survivor Series but lose the belt the following night on Monday Night Raw. McMahon, worried that his champion would appear with the belt on WCW's Nitro program, decided to call the finish of the match and have Shawn Michaels win the belt at Survivor Series instead. While Hart was always leaving the WWF, the incident seemed to put a bad taste in Hart's mouth, and many of Hart's friends would follow Bret out the door.
Hart would go on to wrestle for the WCW for several more years, often in the championship picture against the likes of Goldberg, Sting, Ric Flair as well as other former WWF superstars Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Lex Luger, and Sid Vicious. However, due to a concussion injury, WCW would release Bret Hart towards the end of 2000 as Hart had been unable to perform in the ring.
Despite his release and WCW's subsequent sale to the WWF, it would still take several years for Bret Hart to return to the WWF. Eventually, Hart would come back to the company in 2005 to collaborate on a DVD, Hart would be inducted into the Hall of Fame a year later in 2006, and would make his first appearance on Monday Night Raw in 2007, 10 years after leaving the company where many figured he would never return.