By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
Precisely one year to the day that WWE raised some eyebrows by firing a crop of people … during a pandemic … and a record-breaking financially successful year … well, they did it again.
It’s never fun to see people lose their jobs — especially in a business that’s as fickle as pro wrestling is to begin with — and attention must be paid to the uncertainty, sadness, and pain that all the athletes involved felt last week as they received word of their fate. But as the names kept trickling out and the social media buzz took hold of the universe for an hour or two, one reality was prominent among supporters and colleagues. That reality?
It’s going to be OK.
How do we know this? Because the people who went through it last year said it. Which, in turn, inspired me to go back and take a look at everyone cut in 2020, what has happened in those people’s respective careers since that ugly day, and what might happen to those who just endured losing their jobs here in 2021. What did I find?
To begin, I thought I’d start with the marquee names at the top of the lists. Not that everyone isn’t special in their own way, of course. But among many other things, professional wrestling is a bit of a popularity contest. And if you sell more shirts, action figures or any other piece of merchandise than your peers, you’ll make more money, gain more notoriety, and be at the top of the proverbial food chain.
In 2020, that was Rusev and Kurt Angle. An argument could be made for Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows, but we’ll get to that in a second. First, let’s remember Rusev in WWE. He had no problem holding secondary titles and making them mean something (which is an issue the company has today). He was also involved in an awfully polarizing, yet weirdly popular love-triangle angle with his real-life wife that headlined a series of Monday Night Raw shows. And he once drove a tank to the ring.
In other words, there were months where it felt like he was legitimately being pushed to the top of the card, and then there were months where nobody was sure if he was even on the roster. He made it no secret that he wanted out, and when he received his release, it was hard to feel bad for him, because his time in WWE felt like a relationship that had already gone on for too long and either needed to die or reboot itself.
And rebooting itself never felt like an honest option.
So, he left and had a hell of a year. His Internet gaming presence seems to be fruitful and he’s been one of the many to figure out how to grow his brand on Twitch. Then, of course, there’s AEW. And while you can gripe all you want about how he’s been booked, you can’t deny that when he first showed up on TNT, it felt like a big deal. In all, we knew that being released by WWE would serve him well, and it’s done just that.
As for Kurt Angle … well, it kind of felt like he did actually retire for a minute. Earlier this year, he became part of the Conrad Thompson empire and began what appears to be a fairly successful podcast. Outside of that, though, Angle has kept fairly quiet, and color me surprised that he hasn’t popped back up in a wrestling ring yet.
Who was their counterpart in 2021? Samoa Joe. Of all the outrage that was expressed online last week, the most was centered around WWE ousting one of the few guys on its roster that could kick anybody’s ass anytime he wants to kick ass. Not only was he great in the ring, but it turns out, the guy’s a great commentator, too. He excelled at anything the company asked him to do, and to thank him for it, he got his walking papers.
Yet much like it felt with Rusev in 2020, it feels an awful lot like this could ultimately be a blessing for Joe. He’s one of the best talents in the world and for too long, WWE refused to understand what it had at its fingertips. A wide array of dream match possibilities now open up, especially if he lands in AEW. But even if he doesn’t, and he tries to reinvent himself somewhere else and/or in different ways, it’s hard not to think he’ll succeed, right?
BILLIE, PEYTON AND CHELSEA
The same was said about the aforementioned Gallows and Anderson, and they haven’t dropped the ball a second since they got back in the game by leaving WWE. Working in Impact Wrestling, AEW, and even finding time to constantly promote their Talkin’ Shop brand, life has been good for the Good Brothers. So much so that they were among the many who publicly supported those who lost their jobs last week, reminding them that their releases could be for better and not worse.
One tag team that presumably needed to hear that in 2021 was Peyton Royce and Billie Kay, who were let go last week. Timing is never good for any of this stuff to happen in the first place, but to release these two in this way at this time felt curious. Royce just had the match of her life on Raw a few weeks ago while Kay’s resume bit was the most successful use of 15 seconds of TV time Vince McMahon has ever given anybody. Plus, Kay just performed at WrestleMania.
So, come on, here.
Where they go now is anybody’s guess. Both are very talented and I’d think that both could continue to stay in wrestling if they choose to do so. Not that I’m saying something you haven’t already heard, but AEW could use a boost to its women’s roster and ex-WWE talent (cough, Tay Conti, cough) seem to thrive in AEW’s system. Plus, Kay and Royce could be the first formidable female tag-team in the company.
Speaking of a company’s women’s division, perhaps the most unfair release of 2021 came in the form of Chelsea Green. She worked and worked and worked and finally got on Smackdown … to break her wrist and head to the sideline after her first match. By all accounts, she’s been rehabbing her injury, and while doing so, in the interim, WWE fired her. It’s one thing to underperform at a job; it’s another to never even have an honest opportunity to perform at the job.
The only question I have for her, moving forward is this: Is she going to have Mickie James with her wherever she lands?
James and Green have been trading Twitter love for weeks now, so I’ve been thinking they’d show up on WWE television together at some point soon. But now that James and Green are no longer under the WWE umbrella, could they pick that possibility up somewhere else? Only time will tell.
MAD AS HELL
One of the most interesting aspects of The Day WWE Releases People always comes in the form of at least one wrestler who all of a sudden grabs your attention because he or she magically becomes intensely vocal right away. That person last week was Tucker, one half of the former Heavy Machinery. Lest we forget, he was the one who turned on his tag-team partner, only to promptly take a seat in catering.
As head-turning as Samoa Joe’s release was, Tucker’s social media presence came in a close second place as he cried “Freedom!” before insisting that he’s excited to tell his story. I don’t know what that’s all about, but the reaction reminded me of two people who were let go in 2020, EC3 and Lio Rush. While leaving WWE, they weren’t shy about how they felt wronged by the company and I was curious to see how everything would turn out for them under a different light.
Turns out, it was a mixed bag. EC3 returned to Impact Wrestling for a cup of coffee and eventually signed with Ring of Honor. But he hasn’t been doing much. Or, well, at least it’s felt like he hasn’t been doing much. He’s still paying a lot of attention to his narrative, and he looks great, but he hasn’t quite found his footing outside of WWE yet.
Rush, meanwhile, has excelled in New Japan Pro Wrestling and MLW, and recently, he was able to trademark the name Lio Rush, which is a big win in such an independently contracted world. He was among those tweeting support last week, saying it was a “dark day for many,” but that everyone would pull through. He also noted how he believed the company was releasing stars, and speaking of stars …
A BROTHERLY REUNION
… Or at least speaking of somebody whose stardom increased as a result of being released, let us not forget the Drake Maverick story. He was part of the releases in 2020, and after he received the news, he took to his own social media accounts to post a very heartfelt message that included tears. The thing was so affecting that WWE called him back and said, “Nah, it’s cool. We didn’t mean it.”
Since then, Maverick has found himself on NXT teaming with Killian Dain in one of the more endearing NXT tag-teams. His story got me thinking, though: Who among this year’s former employees could do the same thing? Obviously, it won’t happen because it would have had to happen by now, but hell, there’s no harm in exercise.
That said, how about Bo Dallas? We haven’t seen him in years, and don’t we think this whole Fiend thing is winding down? So, why not pair him with his brother and have a true Wyatt Family on the show? It’s simple. All Dallas needs to do is grow a beard, sit in a rocking chair, cut a promo, throw it up online, and wait for WWE to call. Because that’d be too good to pass up, right?
Perhaps I’m just trying to bask in the days when Bray Wyatt was doing something good on television. That, of course, takes me back to Erick Rowan, who, along with the dearly departed Brodie Lee/Luke Harper, made up the muscle of the Wyatt family faction. Rowan was among those let go in 2020, and since then, he’s popped up here and there. The most notable time we saw him, though, came at AEW’s Brodie Lee memorial show. Why AEW doesn’t insert him into the Dark Order is beyond me.
Actually, you know what else is beyond me?
HOW DOES JAXSON RYKER HAVE A JOB?
How the hell Jaxson Ryker still has a job while everyone else he was in a faction with has now been let go. The person let go in 2021 was Wesley Blake, who was informed last week that he would not be needed anymore. Ryker, meanwhile, came under fire for controversial tweets he sent out into the universe right as his team was set to go on a tag-team title run. His tweets changed all that as we didn’t see the Forgotten Sons again for months.
And yet, while Ryker’s stablemates are gone, WWE still has a place for him on the roster? Really? When it was his fault his team dissolved? And because it was dissolved, his teammates had nowhere to go, fell in an abyss, and have since lost their jobs. Is there any justice in this world?
The answer to that is no. I wrote a couple months ago on this website that no one man should have all the power that the guys at the head of wrestling companies have. And while reports are leading us to believe that this was strictly a matter of budget cuts, there are some questions that need to be answered when your discretion is to keep paying someone who offended fans as well as many of his peers in the locker room … while cutting one of the best wrestlers and color commentators in the world.
But I digress. Samoa Joe will turn lemons into lemonade. In fact, I’d be beyond surprised if the majority of the people let go last week didn’t find something to excel at somewhere, even if it’s not wrestling. You don’t get to WWE by not training your ass off and working to get better every day of your life. Making it there forces you to give your life over to it, so merely stepping through the door is an ultimate achievement in and of itself.
The only real question left to answer now is what’s going to happen on April 15, 2022 — which doors will open; and which doors will shut?