One of the most exciting elements of professional wrestling is witnessing wrestlers progress after being given fresh opportunities. Learn the spectacular journey of thirteen former WWE mid-card wrestlers (including one choice that sounds silly to think!) who defied the odds and soared to world championship glory after leaving the company.
1 – Matt Cardona, AKA Zack Ryder (NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship)
Formerly known as Zack Ryder, Matt Cardona is widely praised for his post-WWE career. He has won many championship titles in the indies and other major wrestling promotions, including the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), Impact, World Series Wrestling (WSW), and more.
In 2021, he signed with NWA after attacking Trevor Murdoch after his match with Mike Knox at Hard Times 2. Then, Cardona challenged Murdoch for the title at the NWA PowerrrTrip on February 12th, 2022. At the event, Cardona defeated Murdoch to win the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship, which he held for 119 days.
2 – Claudio Castagnoli, AKA Cesaro (Ring of Honor World Championship)
In his WWE days, Claudio Castagnoli, known then as Cesaro, was one of the most underrated and best performers in the company. Fans and wrestlers alike (including John Cena) sang his praises and envisioned a world championship victory in his future in the WWE. But, sadly, that never came to be.
After leaving WWE in 2022, Castagnoli signed with AEW, becoming an important member of the Blackpool Combat Club stable. Not only that, thanks to AEW’s partnership with Ring of Honor, he became ROH World Champion on two occasions, with his first reign lasting 60 days and the second 284 days.
3 – Jeff Jarrett (WCW World Heavyweight Championship)
Jeff Jarrett wrestled for WWE (then WWF) from 1992 to 1996 and later from 1997 to 1999, where he captured the WWF Intercontinental Championship six times and won the WWF Tag Team Championship with the late Owen Hart. Despite that, he was never pushed to the main event and left the company in a controversial fashion in 1999.
4 – Trevor Murdoch (NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship)
Trevor Murdoch was never in the main event scene during his time with the WWE. He primarily worked as a tag team specialist and formed a formidable partnership with the late Lance Cade, with whom he won the WWE World Tag Team Championship three times. However, in 2008, they separated, and Murdoch ultimately left WWE.
After competing in various independent circuits, he retired from wrestling in 2016. However, in 2019, he signed with the National Wrestling Alliance and made a comeback.
At the NWA 73rd Anniversary Show, Murdoch defeated Nick Aldis to become the new NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion. He held this title for 167 days until he lost it to Matt Cardona. Nonetheless, Murdoch did not give up and regained the title at Alwayz Ready, holding it for 154 days before losing it to Tyrus.
5 – Matt Hardy (TNA World Heavyweight Championship)
Matt Hardy is one of the reasons why the WWE tag team division was so good during the Attitude Era. His partnership with his brother, Jeff Hardy, is one of the best of all time. Matt, too, was an underrated singles wrestler, but despite winning the ECW Championship, he was never in the main event scene.
When he left WWE in 2010, he went to TNA as well as the independent circuit, but it was not until his return to TNA in 2014 that he won their world heavyweight championship. At Bound for Glory 2015, Hardy defeated EC3 and Drew Galloway to win the TNA world title for the first time, holding the title for two days. He regained the title the following year, holding it for a further 67 days.
6 – Johnny Mundo, AKA John Morrison (AAA Mega Championship)
John Morrison is often regarded as one of the best mid-carders to ever wrestle in the WWE. He was athletic, had the looks, and had the mic skills to become one of the faces of the WWE, but we hardly saw him main-eventing despite winning the vacant ECW World Championship in 2007, so in 2011, he decided to leave WWE after a bumpy up-and-down run.
He would debut for Lucha Libre AAA Worldwide as Johnny Mundo in 2015, establishing himself as a rudo with an "anti-Mexico" attitude.
In 2017, at Rey de Reyes, Mundo defeated El Texano Jr and El Hijo del Fantasma to win the AAA Mega Championship. Mundo held the title for 313 days before losing it to Rey Wagner at Guerra de Titanes 2018.
7 – Tyrus, AKA Brodus Clay (NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship)
During his time in WWE, Tyrus went by the name Brodus Clay. He is known for his time as Alberto del Rio’s bodyguard-turned-funk-dancer with the Funkadactyls (Trinity Fatu and Ariane Andrew), with the nickname “The Funkasaurus.”
He once formed a tag team with Tensai, but despite their efforts, they never won any championships. He would be released from the company in 2014.
After a period in TNA, Clay signed with NWA in 2021 under the ring name Tyrus. Tyrus won the NWA World Television Championship and held the title for 476 days before vacating it to challenge Murdoch for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.
At NWA Hard Times 3 in 2022, Tyrus defeated Murdoch and Matt Cardona to win the prestigious title, which he would hold on to for 288 days.
8 – EC3 (TNA World Heavyweight Championship)
EC3 competed in both the fourth and the fifth seasons of NXT as Derrick Bateman. He briefly appeared on SmackDown but was never a mainstay on the WWE main roster. In 2013, he was released from the company.
In 2013, he signed with TNA as a villainous character called Ethan Carter 3. Through multiple conflicts with other wrestlers, he eventually earned the position of number one contender for the TNA World Heavyweight Championship in 2015 after beating Mr. Anderson.
On June 25th, 2015, EC3 defeated Kurt Angle and claimed his first-ever TNA World Heavyweight Championship, which he held for 101 days.
9 – Rhino, AKA Rhyno (NWA World Heavyweight Championship)
Rhino, also known as Rhyno, is a wrestling legend who made his name in ECW and hardcore wrestling. Throughout his career, he was known for being an intimidating powerhouse.
Although he was the final ECW Champion before the company’s closure in 2001, he never made it to the main event in WWE and left the company under controversial circumstances in 2005.
Rhino joined TNA in 2005 as a heel and was part of a group called Planet Jarrett. At Bound for Glory 2005, he won a Gauntlet match to earn a shot at Jeff Jarrett and the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship in the main event. Rhino defeated Jarrett to become the NWA World Heavyweight Champion for the first time. However, his reign was short-lived, as he lost the title to Jarrett after just two days.
10 – Drew Galloway, AKA Drew McIntyre (TNA World Heavyweight Championship)
Many fans consider Drew McIntyre to be the best wrestler of WWE’s Thunderdome era. He won the Royal Rumble 2020 and the WWE Championship on two occasions. However, before his main event success, Drew was part of the Three Man Band trio, also known as 3MB, along with Heath Slater and Jinder Mahal. He later left WWE in 2014.
In 2015, he signed with TNA under his real name, Drew Galloway, and became a babyface. In 2016, he won the opportunity to have a match for the TNA top title. On March 15th of that year, Galloway defeated Matt Hardy, becoming the TNA World Heavyweight Champion for the first time. He held the title for 89 days before losing it to Lashley at Slammiversary 2016.
11 – Scott Steiner (WCW World Heavyweight Championship)
Scott Steiner and his older brother Rick formed the highly regarded tag team duo, The Steiner Brothers, one of the best teams in the ’80s and ’90s. During his time in WWE, Scott primarily wrestled in the tag team division until he and his brother left in 1994.
The Steiners reunited with WCW in 1996 but split up two years later. Scott was then given an opportunity to thrive in the main event scene, and in 2000, he defeated Booker T at Mayhem 2000 to become the WCW World Heavyweight Champion, which he held for 120 days.
12 – Cody Rhodes (Ring of Honor World Championship)
Cody Rhodes made a remarkable WWE comeback at 2022’s WrestleMania 38, which thrust him into the top tier of WWE’s main event scene. However, before becoming “The American Nightmare,” he was a mid-carder who rarely got the chance to main-event a weekly or a pay-per-view show. After being rebranded as Stardust, he left WWE in 2016.
Cody joined Ring of Honor shortly after and started challenging Christopher Daniels for the ROH World Championship. At Best in the World 2017, Cody defeated Daniels, winning the ROH World Championship, his first-ever world heavyweight championship. He held the title for 175 days before losing it to Dalton Castle.
At All In in 2018, Cody would also win the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, which he would hold for 50 days.
13 – Hulk Hogan (IWGP World Heavyweight Championship)
It may sound silly to think, but there was a time when Hulk Hogan was not a top wrestler in the WWF/WWE. He was not a main eventer during his first stint in the company in 1979. In fact, he was a heel and wrestled for the WWF Championship against Bob Backlund in a losing effort.
Hogan left WWE and signed with NJPW in 1980. In 1983, he won the inaugural IWGP World Heavyweight Championship by defeating Antonio Inoki in the finals of a 10-man tournament, which you can learn more about here.
13 WWE Mid-Carders Who Won a World Championship in Another Promotion
The experiences of these thirteen mid-carder wrestlers who left the WWE and became world champions elsewhere exemplify the tenacity, skill, and unrealized potential in professional wrestling.
Each of these wrestlers persevered, improved their abilities, and took advantage of fresh opportunities in other wrestling organizations. Their success is evidence of the dynamic nature of the wrestling business, where wrestlers can rise from mid-card obscurity to the top of the sport with the perfect combination of hard work, dedication, and opportunity.
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