I like Cody Rhodes.
Yes, I still say Cody Rhodes. The fact that he’s no longer in the WWE doesn’t mean that he stopped being the son of “the son of a plumber.” I’ve been a fan of Cody since Legacy. My late father was a fan of the late, great “American Dream” Dusty Rhodes. I met Cody at an ROH show last year and he is, quite literally, one of the most gracious, polite, and humble people I’ve come across. If it sounds like I’m shouting his praises, well…I am. I’m a Cody mark and I’m unapologetic about it.
But…and you knew there would be a “BUT”…
Cody gets too much credit.
Take a look at Wrestling Twitter – a place where I’m repeatedly told I’m not welcome 🙁 – and do a search for “Cody” or “AEW” and you will find a literal smorgasbord of praise, adoration and borderline worship directed at Cody Rhodes. Why? Because he left WWE. He had the courage to try to make it on his own. And now he’s revolutionizing the wrestling world! He’s a hero! He’s saving wrestling!
Arguably, most of this is true. Cody didn’t have to leave WWE. As the son of one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, he could have stayed there for as long as he could tolerate the embarrassing things they’d ask him to do and probably make a seven figure income for the rest of his career. But Cody knew he could do more than they were letting him do. He knew he was worth more. So he struck out on his own and he’s done very well for himself and the people around him. I applaud him for that.
Here’s my problem. Because Cody has such a high profile, people like to very conveniently forget that Cody wasn’t nearly the first person to walk away from WWE and find huge success elsewhere. I’ve seen tweet after tweet about how brave he is and how he will hopefully inspire other wrestlers to do the same thing he did. I mean no disrespect to Cody, but are these people for real? Plenty of people have walked away from the WWE and done just fine! Just because they weren’t the children of Hall of Famers doesn’t mean that their struggles or triumphs are any less important or noteworthy. So instead of writing the 1,000,001th article about how revolutionary Cody Rhodes is, I’m going to profile 5 wrestling superstars who also forged their own path after leaving WWE.
If there are any names I’ve left off this list, or anyone else who deserves credit in general, send your tweets to @WattsUnfiltered. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy.
WWE Career: Callihan bounced around on the Indies for a while before he finally landed in WWE in late 2013. Wrestling under the name Solomon Crowe, he started working in NXT, but was restricted to mainly dark matches and wasn’t on TV for a year after signing. He made a somewhat notable debut at a live event where he assumed the gimmick of a hacker (seriously?) and “took over” the NXT Arena. After a year of dark matches, he finally had a TV appearance, getting a win at the NXT Taping…but the match was cut from the episode. Callihan wouldn’t appear on NXT TV until 2015, where he attacked CJ Parker (more on him later).
He languished for a few more months and was released at the end of 2015. On Colt Cabanas “Art of Wrestling Podcast.” Callihan stated that the creative team didn’t really know what to do with him. Since he was under six feet tall, stocky, and not a high flyer, he was told there was a Cruiserweight show coming that would be perfect for him, but as we now know, 205 Live didn’t premier until a year after Callihan was already gone.
Post WWE Career: I once heard Callihan on Busted Open Radio call himself the most booked wrestler in the country, and honestly, I may have to agree with him. Shortly after leaving, he went back to CZW, AAW, PCW and PWG, winning the AAW Championship. Then, he appeared at Super Strong Style 16 for PROGRESS Wrestling. He also made appearances for Fight Club PRO and House of Hardcore. As for the majors, he worked several seasons for Lucha Underground, tag teamed with Juice Robinson (more on him later) in NJPW and is a mainstay for MLW and IMPACT Wrestling with his OvE faction. Callihan has made himself a top star in several major wrestling promotions, which is a far cry from someone who wasn’t even given TV time in NXT.
WWE Career: It was 2002 and Gail Kim had the unfortunate luck of being a serious and talented female wrestler in the era of the Diva (read: Booty). She spent almost a year in developmental before going to the main roster and winning the WWE Women’s Championship. She had about a month-long run before losing to Molly Holly, but besides that, there is very little of note. This was at a time when WWE did not allow women’s matches to be the center of attention in any way, so TV time was limited. However, Kim was part of a group of serious female competitors that could have changed a lot of peoples minds about women’s wrestling long before the so-called “Women’s Revolution,” like Trish Stratus, Jazz and Lita.
Kim was unceremoniously released in 2004 because WWE wanted to go in a different direction (read: More Booty). She had a successful stint in TNA before returning to WWE in 2008 and having an even worse time, as the Divas Era (read: Never Enough Booty!) was in full swing, Butterfly Belt and all. She stated that she was very unhappy with her time there and that WWE was “holding back the female talents” aka dress in skimpy clothing or you won’t be on TV. She quit the company in 2011.
Post WWE Career: I’m not exaggerating when I say this: Gail Kim is a legend. She is not given the credit she deserves… maybe because of the train wreck that TNA was at the time… but there were long periods of time where Gail Kim and AJ Styles were literally the only thing keeping that boat afloat. Her series of matches against Awesome Kong are amazing and if you sit down to watch them, you won’t be disappointed. She is the first female inductee into the TNA Hall of Fame and a 7 time Women’s Champion. Today, she’s a producer for IMPACT Wrestling and still occasionally steps into the ring.
WWE Career: A lot of people don’t count Neville because he had a serious career before WWE, but I disagree. When you walk away from a company that can literally back up a Brinks truck to your house just to make sure you don’t work anywhere else, that takes stones. And that’s what Neville did. After putting on some amazing matches in NXT and becoming NXT Champion, he was moved to WWE, where he became one of the first to go through the standard Vince McMahon/NXT Treatment: Lose a name, have a decent debut, then disappear. Now just being called “Neville,” he hung around the main event scene, but was never a serious competitor past the lower mid-card, which was ridiculous for someone who was a bonafide wrestling superstar on two continents before coming to WWE.
WWE then sent him to 205 Live to compete as a Cruiserweight, which he considered a step-down and, honestly, who could blame him? Yeah, he’s only 5 foot 8, but have you seen him? He has more muscles than he has skin! No way he clocks in at his billed weight of 180 pounds!
He made the best of it, dubbed himself King of the Cruiserweights, won the Cruiserweight Championship and went on a heel run for the ages. But still, his championship matches were relegated to pre-shows. After being forced to drop the title to Enzo Amore, he walked out on the company. WWE tried to freeze his contract or convince him to stay, but Neville stuck to his guns, staying home and going radio-silent for almost a full year before WWE finally gave up and released him.
Post WWE Career: After almost a year of silence, Neville returned to Dragon Gate in Japan as PAC, winning the Open the Dream Gate championship (their world title) and working with guys like WIll Osprey and Pentagon. He then showed up to the AEW press conference (in full gear) and challenged Hangman Page, meaning we should start seeing a lot more of him soon. PAC bet on himself against the WWE and it looks like he’s winning.
WWE Career: I told you I’d come back to this guy. Robinson was only three years into his career when WWE picked him up and sent him to developmental in 2011. He was given the name CJ Parker and, shortly after, won the FCW Tag Team titles with Donny Marlow (current IWGP Tag Team Champion Tonga Loa). After they lost the titles, he bounced between singles and tag team competition with no significant place on the roster.
When FCW transitioned to NXT in 2012, things actually got worse for him. He was mainly used as a jobber for the next year, until taking time off because of injury. He came back in mid-2013 with a hippie/GreenPeace gimmick (You can’t say the WWE isn’t equal opportunity. They’ll stereotype ANYONE), and he had a feud with the heel character Tyler Breeze, but the fans absolutely hated him, so WWE turned him heel, which also didn’t help. By 2015, he was rarely appearing on TV and losing on the rare occasions he did. In March of that year, he requested his release.
Post WWE Career: In August 2015, Robinson signed with NJPW, choosing to go into the famous/infamous New Japan Dojo, which was a big deal since the Dojo is for training rookies and he was a 6 year veteran by this point. Robinson didn’t use his status as a former WWE Superstar to try to gain any advantages – he did things the traditional way and worked his way up the card. This paid off in a big way. In 2017, he picked up wins over champions like Hirooki Goto, Tetsuya Naito and even Kenny Omega, which earned him three championship title shots. Even though he didn’t win any of them, it was his first introduction to the main event scene. Finally, he won his first singles championship by taking the IWGP US Championship from Jay White, becoming the first U.S. born wrestler to hold the U.S. title. He’s currently in his second reign as U.S. Champion, performing for both ROH and NJPW, leading the Lifeblood faction and, I have to say, he is clearly a fan favorite.
Even though he’s the son of one of the most respected (and feared) wrestlers in history, Haku, he spent 6 years in WWE, being known as Donny Marlow, then Camacho, where they gave him a Mexican thug gimmick even though he’s Samoan (See? Equal Opportunity racism. Way to be, WWE). After being let go, he made his way to NJPW where he and his real-life brother Tama Tonga are in their fifth reign as IWGP Tag Team Champions.
The WWE Schedule destroyed his body, but since he left and healed up, he has lit it up every place he’s been. Winning titles in AAA, Lucha Underground and IMPACT Wrestling, Johnny Nitro/Morrison/Hennigan/Mundo/Impact has a lot left in the tank (did I miss any names? Let me know).
Swagger never got a decent gimmick in WWE, and even when he got a halfway decent story, it got killed pretty quickly. Since leaving, not only is he the current Lucha Underground Champion, he’s going into MMA, got in great shape and won his first fight. Recently, he’s teased that he could show up in AEW.
Well, that’s the end of this incredibly long article. I hope you enjoyed it and I hope it reminded some people that plenty of people have made a living in pro wrestling outside of WWE. And if AEW is successful, I expect this list to grow.