The American sporting world witnessed a dark day on April 15, 2020. World Wrestling Entertainment announced a slew of employees would be losing their jobs due to nationwide events having to be called off. But the cuts were not limited to lower rung talent, and some extremely prominent superstars were let go.
Most major sporting events in the U.S. had been forced to shut down by April. However, because it is considered to be “sports entertainment,” pro-wrestling can be adjusted and controlled more than a standard sport. As a result, WWE was declared “essential business” by the governor of Florida Ron DeSantis, and this allowed the company to run scaled-down events from its performance center in Orlando.
WWE announced the wave of releases following a conference call headed up by CEO Vince McMahon. And it came the very same week that the sport was considered essential. A statement was released which explained how the company had gone through “an extensive evaluation of its operations over the past several weeks.” Furthermore, it added that the cuts would save it around $4 million on a monthly basis.
WWE also sought to improve its cash flow by delaying spending on a new headquarters. But, it added, “Additionally, the company has substantial financial resources, both available cash and debt capacity, which currently total approximately $0.5 billion, to manage the challenges ahead.” This begged the question: why were people losing their livelihoods when WWE was not in dire financial straits?
Then on April 23 WWE published its financial report for the first quarter of 2020, and it included an interesting quote from McMahon himself. He started by saying that the performance was still strong – despite worldwide events. He continued, “Now we are in the midst of unprecedented times which require us to be especially nimble, creative and efficient in order to ensure the long-term value of WWE.”
This particular round of cuts was unusual in its scale and timing. In the past, WWE would often have a purge of talent in the months following Wrestlemania – its biggest show of the year. For example, May 2016 saw the release of eight talents and 11 were let go in June 2014.
The cull in early 2020 was much more extensive, however. It ranged from developmental superstars who had barely been seen on television to established stars who had worked on Wrestlemania 36 less than two weeks earlier. All in all, 22 wrestlers were let go, along with three coaches, ten producers and six creative staff. Nine match producers were also furloughed – presumably with the intention of being brought back at a later date.
Aleksander Jaksic and Alyssa Marino were two developmental talents who ended up being released before they’d even been featured on TV. Jaksic was a semi-professional basketball player in his native Germany and only began wrestling at untelevised NXT house shows in late 2019. For her part, Marino was announced as a new member of the NXT brand in the following January, but she only worked untelevised live events before she was let go.
Dan Matha was a talent who eagle-eyed WWE fans may have been familiar with. Promotional vignettes aired hyping his NXT debut in October 2016, so the company clearly saw something in him. However, his only TV exposure wound up being in the WWE Greatest Royal Rumble match in Saudi Arabia. His ring name was changed to Dorian Mak in June 2019, but he never made it to TV under that moniker.
MJ Jenkins and Deonna Purrazzo are two young female talents who were also released. The former had mainly performed on NXT house shows, while the latter had made some main roster appearances as an enhancement talent. However, Purrazzo said after the event that she actually welcomed the decision. She wrote on Twitter, “The people closest to me know this is something I’ve been struggling with wanting for the better part of the last year.”
Meanwhile, two tag teams with some pedigree in the company were also let go. Bidding farewell were Primo and Epico – two members of the legendary Colón wrestling dynasty and real-life cousins who enjoyed one reign as Tag Team champions in WWE. The former’s employment with the company had been particularly long-lasting: he debuted in 2007 and won the tag titles with his brother Carlito twice prior to teaming with Epico.
Also among the wave of releases were Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows – a team who had played a prominent role in a Wrestlemania 36 storyline in March 2020. They were a big part of the “Boneyard Match” between their compatriot AJ Styles and The Undertaker and had also signed new five-year contracts in summer 2019. They held the Raw Tag Team Championships twice in WWE.
Mike and Maria Kanellis had also signed new deals with WWE in summer 2019, but they were released as well. This was less surprising than Gallows and Anderson, however, as Mike had gone public with his desire to leave WWE in October 2019 – only a few months after re-signing. The real-life married couple had also welcomed their second child only nine weeks before receiving their releases.
Another duo to go were Curt Hawkins and Zack Ryder. They made their WWE debuts in 2007 as The Major Brothers and would go on to experience mixed fortunes in the company. The former was rarely used as more than an enhancement talent, aside from when he re-teamed with Ryder in 2019 and they captured the Tag Team Championships. This was the second time Hawkins had been let go from WWE; he was previously fired in 2014 and re-hired two years later.
Ryder fared much better than Hawkins, though his tenure in WWE was still frustrating at times. In 2011 he captured audience’s attention with his YouTube series Z! True Long Island Story and became hugely popular with fans as a result. He also became a United States and Intercontinental champion during this period and it looked like the sky was the limit.
However, Ryan soon settled into a stop-start career. The wrestler would go through long periods where he wasn’t featured on TV and would lose matches when he was. Ryan still maintained his popularity with fans, though, and he captured the Intercontinental Championship at Wrestlemania 32 being watched by the largest WWE crowd on record.
Disappointingly, Ryder lost the title the very next night – ruining any momentum the win might have built for him. Ryder spoke to YouTube interviewer Chris Van Vliet in May 2020 and revealed that he initially believed the title win would be his start on the road to a main event spot. He lamented, “I really thought this was gonna be it. It wasn’t.”
Eric Young, Lio Rush and No Way Jose are three other released talents who never fully managed to find their footing in WWE. The former is a TNA original who came to NXT in 2016 to lead the stable SAnitY. But the group failed to make an impact when they were brought to the SmackDown roster. In the end, they were quietly broken up and Young did some backstage producer work before his release.
No Way Jose spent two years on the main roster but had few highlights of note. However, Rush experienced many highs and lows in his relatively short time with WWE. He held the NXT Cruiserweight Championship for 63 days and worked on Raw as Bobby Lashley’s hype man. But he found himself in some controversy after being accused of insulting industry veterans.
Another release that surprised many fans was that of Rowan – a member of The Wyatt Family. He had been in the midst of a push on Raw and even recorded a singles victory over Roman Reigns at Clash of Champions in September 2019. Rowan had also won the SmackDown Tag Team Championships on two occasions.
Ethan Carter III – aka EC3 – was also released, and this one simply struck fans as a missed opportunity. He went by the name Derrick Bateman in a previous run with WWE and was fired before going to Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA). The star then resurrected his career after changing his gimmick to EC3. He was re-signed by WWE in 2018 but, yet again, his career just never caught fire.
EC3 allegedly fell out of favor after a match he was booked to win easily against Jon Moxley – aka Dean Ambrose. The latter said on the Talk Is Jericho podcast that he knew the booking would hurt EC3. He explained in 2019, “The crowd does not like this, because it’s transparent what’s happening and this is not a – this is not good for EC3, because now he’s gonna get the backlash.”
“So it was an unfair position for him to be put in,” Moxley continued. “We get to that weekend, I’m working with EC3 on house shows, now I’m the biggest babyface on the show. I’m a heel, I’m thumbing him in the eye, I’m making fun of the town, it doesn’t matter, they’re violently rejecting him as the babyface and they’re cheering the hell out of me. It’s got nothing to do with him, it’s like anti-WWE.” For his part, EC3 tweeted that he would not post a motivational quote and was not a victim, writing, “I am not the first, I will not be the last.”
Heath Slater was another star to be released, and this one stung fans. He had been employed by WWE for 14 years and had become a part of the scenery at the company. Slater is most fondly remembered for his tag team run with Rhyno in 2016 and the “I got kids” gimmick that saw him positioned as a father desperate to provide for his many children. He is also associated with the Three Man Band stable alongside Drew McIntyre, Jinder Mahal.
The Three Man Band – aka 3MB – only truly became notable due to the later accomplishments of McIntyre and Mahal. Both were released by WWE in the past but reinvented themselves outside the company. And when the two were re-hired they both won the WWE Championship.
Slater was asked on The Wrestling Inc podcast in May 2020 why he thought that WWE decided not to push for a 3MB reunion. He responded, “Maybe because I wasn’t ready… because I wasn’t. I mean, I could have [performed] and [gone] through the motions. That could have been alright but maybe it was all on me and was my fault.”
Overall, Slater knew he had become jaded, adding, “It’s one of those things where – I ain’t gonna lie – I was burnt out for a little bit. That was all on me and I don’t blame anyone as I could have easily stepped it up at any time. I guess I needed that smack in the face just like [McIntyre] and [Mahal] got.”
On the other hand, Sarah Logan had wrestled on the April 13 edition of Raw only a few days before finding herself caught up in the mass releases. She is married to Erik – one half of WWE tag team The Viking Raiders – but had struggled as a singles competitor after her stable The Riott Squad was broken up. In June 2020 she announced on Instagram, “A lot has changed in my life recently and I have stepped away from wrestling for the foreseeable future.”
The release of the “Bulgarian brute” Rusev was arguably the highest profile firing of a current main roster star. Fans had been clamoring for the three-time United States Champion to be elevated into the main event scene for several years. His most popular gimmick – in which he amusingly declared every single day to be “Rusev Day” – became massively popular with the fanbase.
Rusev had apparently been frustrated with WWE for a number of years, but the star clearly still enjoyed the role. He told The Sun newspaper in November 2019, “It doesn’t matter about storylines or things like that. One day you ride a tank but the next day, you do nothing but main event dark matches so it’s a big wave, you just gotta ride the wave and do the best with anything that is given to you.”
Rusev went on, “You gotta enjoy everything you do, and you gotta control what you can control because some things you can’t. And there’s no point being mad so whatever I can control, I do, and if not, I’m just having a blast with it.”
Interestingly, two of the April releases have already returned to WWE. Legendary Hall of Famer Kurt Angle had been employed in a producer role following his in-ring retirement match with Baron Corbin at Wrestlemania 35, but he was part of the mass cuts. Less than two months later, however, he returned to television as a special guest referee for an NXT match with Matt Riddle and Timothy Thatcher.
Angle then appeared on the May 29 episode of SmackDown Live to introduce NXT superstar Matt Riddle to the main WWE roster. Paul Davis of WrestlingNews.com revealed at the time that people within WWE expect Angle to be rehired in a new capacity. Indeed, the whole curious situation led many fans to wonder why Angle had even been released in the first place.
The other released superstar who has already returned is Drake Maverick. And his situation was actually turned into a storyline. As of early June 2020 Maverick had re-signed with WWE on an NXT contract, which is reportedly less lucrative than his previous main roster contract.
Maverick had posted a moving video to his social media after finding out that he’d been released, and fans latched on to it. At that point, he was already booked to compete in a tournament for the NXT Cruiserweight Championship on his way out of the company. However, Maverick’s emotional outpouring lead to a campaign from supporters eager to keep him on.
Supporters began pushing for Maverick to be rehired and WWE took note. The star then wound up making it to the tournament finals. He lost, but was then immediately offered a contract by NXT head honcho Triple H and gratefully signed it.
A few more superstars were then let go by WWE in the weeks following the mass releases. On April 30 Curtis Axel was fired – ending 13 years of employment. The son of wrestling legend Mr Perfect Curt Hennig was a multiple time Tag Team champion and one-time Intercontinental Championship winner. However, he had struggled for TV time and relevance in the years preceding his release.
WWE also released two high profile acquisitions from outside wrestling – despite paying vast sums to bring them into the company. Mixed martial arts star Cain Velasquez had debuted in October 2019 and wrestled Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship at the Crown Jewel event in Saudi Arabia on October 31. However, the match was lacklustre, and he then went down with an injury in January 2020. Sadly, his employment was terminated that April.
Finally, lifelong wrestling fan and NFL legend Rob Gronkowski was released just ten weeks after debuting with WWE. He is hailed as the best tight end to ever play professional football, and the retired “Gronk” was brought in to lend some celebrity credentials to Wrestlemania 36, which he hosted.
In the end, Gronk reportedly asked for his release as he had decided to come out of football retirement to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He had allegedly rubbed people the wrong way backstage during his short time with WWE. Sources within the company told the website Fightful that he was difficult to work with and that they were better off without him.