In the space of two short years, AEW has gone from non-existent to one of the two biggest companies in professional wrestling – in turn igniting a tribalistic rivalry between fans of their incredibly exciting product and those who watch WWE, the standard-bearer of the industry for decades. While watching both is also a thing people can do, obviously, but those who profess loyalty to one over the other will find ways to jab at the “opposition” in any way they can.
One such criticism that’s come the way of All Elite Wrestling is that they only sign former WWE Superstars, which isn’t true from a literal sense with the likes of Kenny Omega, Jungle Boy, MJF, Darby Allin, Britt Baker and many others making waves in the industry having never signed a WWE contract – but simple mathematics and logic dictates that most of the free agents and biggest names in wrestling, particularly this year, would come from the biggest company.
Wrestling, after all, has been somewhat of a monopoly for the past two decades with WWE snapping up talent left, right and centre – and, of course, simple mathematics yet again would dictate that not all of those talents can make it to the summit of the industry if they’re competing against one another, nor sustainably remain part of a company making budget cuts.
Former WWE Superstars In AEW
One shift, of course, is that this past month has seen AEW acquire three stars who can by-no-means be cast off as WWE “rejects” with Daniel Bryan and Adam Cole debuting at All In having not re-signed with WWE when their contracts expired, actively choosing to become All Elite, and CM Punk joining the company eight years after his last WWE appearance with the common thought being that he may never step foot inside a wrestling ring again. The narrative, of course, has to change due to these moves, and the fact that many of the stars in AEW are soaring higher than they ever managed in WWE.
Of course, some wrestlers have performed in one-off matches for WWE, or attended tryouts, but we’ll only be listing wrestlers who have signed contracts with both companies with Britt Baker and Big Swole both wrestling in WWE, despite never signing with the company. For that reason, Tully Blanchard is an honourable mentions as his match in AEW seemed to be a one-off, and Arn Anderson and Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts aren’t featured due to not having matches in AEW – at least thus far. For the same reason, WWE Hall of Famer Mark Henry is also omitted due to not yet wrestling for AEW with no confirmation that he will return to the ring after retiring.
Many unsigned former WWE talents have also wrestled on AEW Dark, such as Ariane Andrew – formerly Cameron – but are not signed, and of course members of the broadcast team such as Jim Ross, Taz, Justin Roberts and Dasha Gonzalez will not appear on the list either. Neither does Mel who has since left the company.
The Forbidden Door has also seen Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson, as well as Kenta, formerly Hideo Itami, wrestle in an AEW ring. Two other misnomers would be Shaquille O’Neal, who has wrestled a match in both companies technically, and Brandi Rhodes, who HAS competed in an AEW ring, but her only match while signed to WWE came in 2011 at FCW SlamaRama. Rhodes would work for WWE as a ring announcer, but didn’t compete in a match on NXT or in WWE. Wrestling frequently after her departure in 2016.
Another name, of course, we need to mention before continuing is the late Brodie Lee, who won the TNT Championship and made a giant impression during his short run with All Elite Wrestling having wrestled as Luke Harper in WWE. Lee’s tragic and untimely passing in December 2020 left a chasm in the wrestling industry felt in WWE, AEW and beyond.
So just how many former WWE Superstars are currently wrestling in AEW, and who are they? Let’s take a look…
Dustin Rhodes, formerly Goldust
Dustin Rhodes seemed like a WWE lifer until AEW came to fruition. As Goldust, Rhodes was undoubtedly a legend of WWE. However, unlike many legends who come back and compete for world championships, Rhodes found himself languishing in the lower midcard during the twilight of his run.
Having wrestled in WWE on-and-off from 1990 with a combined tenure of over two decades, Rhodes is a former Intercontinental, Hardcore and Tag Team Champion. While he’s yet to win gold in AEW, Dustin Rhodes had arguably the greatest match of his career in his first outing with the company against his brother Cody Rhodes at Double Or Nothing 2019.
Rhodes isn’t just an on-screen performer in AEW, he also works in a multitude of roles, as he told me in December 2019 via SK Wrestling.
“Here in AEW, I look forward to going to work every single week because I coach the girls, me and Brandi [Rhodes], and Kia [Awesome Kong] and Kenny Omega. I hold this training session every Wednesday with the girls, I’m a backstage producer and coaching for promos, teaching these kids how to talk on camera, and to get them comfortable with a camera in their face – because some of them have never had the television experience so it’s a learning experience for them and also I had to have a little patience with them because this is their first time doing it – and I love to teach so I consider AEW and these kids, they are kind of my kids, man. I love them.”
If there was one word to describe Chris Jericho’s AEW run from the very start, it would be “marquee” – but if you can afford another few, “Le Champion” and “The Demo God” would likely be preferred by THE biggest name in the company – at least until 2021.
Chris Jericho was AEW’s first major signing, and the first BIG surprise to come from WWE. Shocking the world with his appearance at AEW’s premiere press conference, it was announced that Chris Jericho had signed a three-year contract with the company and seems to be having the time of his life, as Miro recently told Inside The Ropes.
“I think he’s having the most fun of his life! You can just tell… Just being around him, you can just see that this is it for him, that he’s not thinking of going anywhere else. He’s not thinking about anything else. He’s just 1,000 percent dedicated to AEW. He’s giving it all out there – but he’s not saving it all for himself. If you notice, the people that he’s been working, he’s been wrestling against, he had angles with, it’s all people that he’s trying to bring up.”
Jericho, of course, is no stranger to world titles. A first-ballot WWE Hall of Famer, at least while he was with the company, the Fozzy frontman has won it all. A Grand Slam and Triple Crown Champion Jericho was WWE’s first-ever Undisputed Champion, as well as being a nine-time Intercontinental Champion.
While Jericho has only held one title in AEW, it’s perhaps the most important single reign in the company – holding the AEW World Championship as the inaugural champion. Jericho’s AEW run, of course, hasn’t been limited to JUST being their first-ever champion, though, with the 50-year-old coining new catchphrases like “A little bit of the bubbly”, creating the Inner Circle faction, wrestling in a Death Match with Nick Gage and the first-ever Mimosa Mayhem Match with Orange Cassidy, as well as turning his hand to commentary.
PAC, formerly Neville
PAC is the first name on this list which “casual” fans may not know at first glance due to him never wrestling under the moniker in WWE. However, the man formerly known as The Man That Gravity Forgot was actually one of AEW’s first-signings – appearing at the very same press conference as Chris Jericho.
WWE fans, of course, would know him as Neville, but PAC has picked up right where he left off after a contract dispute saw him depart the company where he held the NXT Championship and the Cruiserweight Championship.
While the Covid-19 pandemic took PAC out of action for the best part of a year, matches with Kenny Omega and wrestling as part of Death Triangle have shown there’s much more to come from PAC.
Jon Moxley, formerly Dean Ambrose
Much like Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley is another WWE Grand Slam and Triple Crown Champion who has indeed jumped ship to All Elite Wrestling and won the AEW World Championship.
Wrestling as Dean Ambrose in WWE, Moxley won the WWE Championship once – holding the title on the same night as his other two Shield brethren, Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns, after the implosion of one of wrestling’s most dominant factions. Moxley is also a three-time Intercontinental Champion and a former United States Champion, as well as holding the Money In The Bank briefcase and being a two-time Tag Team Champion.
The era of The Lunatic Fringe came to an end in WWE as it was announced Moxley would not be signing a new contract with the company, amidst some odd storylines which saw him wear a gas mask and get a vaccine in his backside. Needless to say, Moxley’s time in AEW means that short stint now feels like a fever dream as Moxley hasn’t just held the AEW World Championship, but has also defended NJPW gold in All Elite Wrestling.
For anyone unfamiliar with Moxley’s work pre-WWE, think “Dean Ambrose but more violent” and you’ll be just about there. More lunatic, less fringe as the AEW star boasts a new shaved head, making his way to the ring through the crowd, to the cover of The Troggs’ Wild Thing by X, made famous in the movie Major League.
With the Forbidden Door open, though, might we see Moxley – and others – back in WWE and vice-verse? Moxley told Inside The Ropes it won’t happen.
“That would never happen. That’s not even worth wasting any mental energy to… You know. I mean, if you want to fantasy book some cool s**. You know, maybe you could fantasy book it for, like, fun magazine, stuff. You know, Like back in the day, in magazines, you used to always have, like, ‘Dream match. Bill Goldberg versus Steve Austin,’ in ’98. But that ain’t gonna happen. It’d be cool to think about the cool s**t that could happen, you know, like a big summit at the Tokyo Dome, AEW, NJPW, WWE or some s**t but that s**t ain’t going to happen. So, you know, they do their thing. They stay over there.”
Now, Matt Hardy to AEW just seemed like a matter of time. While Hardy, at one point, may have seemed like a WWE lifer and the former Team Xtreme man has made his way back more than once to rapturous ovations, anyone who saw Matt Hardy in TNA and the attempt to replicate The Broken One in WWE probably expected, if not hoped, Hardy would become All Elite. In fact, Hardy recently confirmed that Vince McMahon “knew nothing” of his Broken persona upon rejoining the company.
“He didn’t know anything about it. We worked out the deal with Triple H, on the down low. Triple H was great. Really, I think we came back because Vince was like, “Why are all these people saying, ‘Delete’? Explaining the Broken Matt story to Vince McMahon in 30 minutes was one of my favorite moments of all time. I had to sound like a madman to him. But he stayed open minded. They said they’ve give us a compound deletion fight, and he kept his word.”
Now, Hardy is no stranger to gold – and even held the ECW Championship, United States and European Championships in WWE – but it more often than not came in tandem with brother Jeff. Upon joining AEW, Matt split from Jeff to go at it alone.
The one complete shame for Hardy’s debut, much like with the late Brodie Lee, is that it came in an empty arena when the reaction such an appearance would have elicited from the rowdy AEW crowd would have made it a completely different proposition altogether. In AEW, Hardy has continued to be the master of reinvention, beign introduced in his Broken gimmick and latterly becoming Big Money Matt – while cycling through other characters in between, sometimes even in one night!
FTR, formerly The Revival
Arguably one of the best tag teams in the world, FTR – formerly The Revival – had been expected to wrestle in AEW at some point, even while contracted to WWE. The Revival were heavily pushed in NXT and became one of the brand’s best-ever pure wrestling teams, having several classic matches on the black and gold brand.
While in WWE, The Revival collected their fair share of accolades, becoming two-time NXT Tag Team Champions, two-time RAW Tag Team Champions, and SmackDown Tag Team Champions to complete the Tag Team Triple Crown as the first-ever tag team to achieve the feat.
With such a lengthy history of speculation that they and The Young Bucks wanted to face each other, Dax Harwood and Cash Wheeler became All Elite shortly after their WWE contracts ended, before holding tag team gold and inevitably having one of the company’s greatest matches when they stepped foot in the ring with The Young Bucks.
But are FTR the best tag team in the world? Arn Anderson told Inside The Ropes he certainly thinks so.
“I will say, and I have said for probably a year and a half now, they’re the best team in the world! And they’ve done their homework, and I’m so flattered and honoured that they’ve said they patented themselves after Tully and I. Well, I want – on record – to say as well, they’re much better than Tully and I. They’re just more athletic.”
One of the more surprising names on the list for many younger fans is likely Christopher Daniels. Better known for his time in Ring of Honor and IMPACT Wrestling, Daniels had a brief stint in WWE – then-WWF – in the late ’90s and early ’00s.
Signing a developmental deal before NXT was even bounced around as an idea, Daniels wrestled many matches as an enhancement talent on Sunday Night Heat and Shotgun Saturday Night, before becoming one of Los Conquistadores. Daniels also wrestled on WWF Jakked in 2021.
Almost two decades passed between Daniels’ WWE and AEW runs, becoming one of the company’s first signings, spending two years helping build the tag team division as part of SCU before seemingly retiring in May 2021. Daniels also works as head of Talent Relations in AEW.
Daniels is a true veteran of the industry, and recently opened up about comparisons between AEW and TNA, noting how his personal experience means the former won’t make the same mistakes as his new employers.
“The one thing that I do feel is different and where I don’t think we’ll make some of the same mistakes that TNA made was, in the creative process, I feel there is a collaboration rather than a feeling of exclusion. There are many times where I tried to comment on things happening with me and there was immediate push back. Not always, but often enough to where I ended up getting a reputation as being a guy who asked too many questions. It ended up hurting me at TNA. […] In AEW, there is a feeling of collaboration. They want to hear opinions. All I wanted [in TNA] was to be heard. I had an opinion and if you had an opinion that negated mine or convinced me to [see a different way], then at least I was heard.”
Another name who really just qualifies for the list based on a technicality. Frankie Kazarian has been signed with, and wrestled for, WWE – but is much more renowned for his time in pretty much every other promotion in the States.
Kazarian signed with WWE in 2005, joining OVW before wrestling on WWE Velocity where “The Future” enjoyed an undefeated run. However, the run would end abruptly when Kazarian left, due to the company apparently having no plans to revamp its cruiserweight division.
Kazarian’s WWE run, by his own admission, came too soon – with the AEW star saying he wasn’t ready for it.
“So for me, when I got to WWE, my short stint there, I never really took wrestling seriously as a business. What I mean by that is, wrestling was my passion. It was what I always wanted to do. What I loved. I worked my ass off, moved across the country to train to do it. I did every show. If you set up a ring, I would be there. I worked so hard at it, and all the sudden I started getting paid to do it. Then all the sudden I got a contract. Then all the sudden I was getting weekly pay checks, and it was just like, ‘Cool, this was all part of it.’ When I got to WWE, I realised quickly, ‘Oh, this is a business.’ At that time of my life, I don’t think I was mentally mature enough to handle the professional wrestling business on that level.”
Following stints in Ring of Honor and IMPACT, Kazarian – like Christopher Daniels – became one of AEW’s first signings and even became one of the company’s inaugural Tag Team Champions. Following his split from Daniels, Kazarian has adopted the moniker of ‘The Elite Hunter’ – targeting the dominant faction.
Colt Cabana has wrestled absolutely everywhere on the independent scene, but also featured for WWE in the late ’00s. Wrestling as Scotty Goldman. Cabana wrestled in WWE for two years, predominantly in OVW and FCW before wrestling on SmackDown and at Unforgiven. Bizarrely, Cabana had wrestled in WWE as Chris Guy – the real name of his trainer Ace Steel – beforehand, with Steel wrestling as Scott Colton – the real name of Colt Cabana. Cabana lost against The Great Khali before being repackaged and appearing on a WWE.com show. Cabana’s final ever match in WWE was an Elimination Chamber Qualification Battle Royal in 2009 where he was released first. A final match, vs. Umaga, was aired the day he was released from his contract.
Cabana actually recently revealed how he took a pay cut to be in WWE.
“Yeah, I took a 50% pay cut. That’s just what it was. My friend who was in the same boat as me a year and a half before told me it was the sacrifice you have to make. This is because the potential is there and it isn’t on the indies. Years later when I started my own thing, I was making more money than some mid-carders in WWE. At that point in 2006, there was a ceiling in independent wrestling to most people. I said if I’m going to become a millionaire, WWE is the only way I can do it. So let’s give it a shot.”
In AEW, Colt Cabana signed after making several appearances and has largely featured as a member of The Dark Order having been recruited following a losing streak against the late Brodie Lee.
There’s no doubt about it, Lance Archer is best known for his time in Japan, wrestling in All Japan and NJPW, and he looks like exactly the kind of star you’d call “the one that got away” for WWE. A huge man who has incredible power and agility, Archer actually did wrestle for WWE – despite looking very different.
Lance Archer did wrestle in FCW under his current moniker, before transforming into the short-haired, clean-shaven Vance Archer in ECW in 2009 and going on a dominant winning streak. Archer’s first loss came to Shelton Benjamin, but the powerhouse went on to compete in a battle royal on the pre-show of WrestleMania XXVI. Archer went on to the SmackDown brand and teamed with Curt Hawkins, forming The Gatecrashers. After losing to The Big Show, the pair split and Archer wrestled a handful of singles matches before being released.
After signing a multi-year deal with AEW in 2020, Archer debuted on Dynamite alongside the legendary Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts and went on a dominant run before losing to Cody Rhodes at Double or Nothing. Archer did end up winning the Casino Battle Royale to book his shot at the AEW World Championship, but was unsuccessful. Archer has won gold in AEW, though, in the form of the IWGP United States Heavyweight Champion, defeating Jon Moxley before losing the title three weeks later at NJPW Resurgence.
Archer recently opened up about why he decided to sign with AEW.
“The opportunity that All Elite Wrestling was providing, All Elite Wrestling was changing the professional wrestling world. I don’t even think, to a degree, I would have received the offer from New Japan if AEW didn’t exist. They didn’t even know that AEW offered me the deal. I’m just saying that AEW was changing the wrestling world completely from how everybody was doing business, and so that’s kind of where that came out with me.”
Known simply as Trent, followed by a question mark, in AEW, the former Trent Beretta actually cut his teeth in WWE – signing with the company three years after his professional debut. Trent signed with the company and became Greg Jackson in FCW, before becoming Trent Beretta and also wrestling as The Girl From Mexico, but the less said about that, the better.
Beretta wrestled as one half of The Dude Busters in ECW in 2009, defeating Lance Archer and Curt Hawkins, before moving to SmackDown when his partner, Caylen Croft, was released. Trent wrestled on SmackDown as somewhat of an enhancement talent, before moving to NXT where he defeated Tyson Kidd in his first match after losing to the Canadian on the blue brand several times. Trent spent a year in NXT before being released from his contract.
After a lengthy career outside of WWE, Trent landed in AEW alongside Chuck Taylor in a continuation of Ring of Honor team Best Friends. The pair have since joined forces with Orange Cassidy and Kris Statlander and have become a staple of the product. However, Trent has been out of late with a neck injury.
“It’s been like two weeks and I feel great, but I know that in between my vertebrae, I like don’t have bones or anything. It’s kind of just dust waiting to grow into bone. It doesn’t feel like anything, but it’s going to be a while before I come back. Surgery-wise, it was way easier than I expected. I feel good.”
Now, Luchasaurus may just be the most surprising name on the list – not least of all because of the name. Luchasaurus just doesn’t sound like a WWE character, and that’s because he isn’t. The man under the mask, though, Austin Matelson, signed with a WWE developmental contract in 20212 and even shared the ring with Corey Graves, wrestling in FCW and NXT. However, a severe hip injury meant Matelson was released in 2014. A short independent stint, a run on Lucha Underground, and even being a contestant on Big Brother followed.
In AEW, Luchasaurus has been a revelation, being paired with Jungle Boy, and sporadically Marko Stunt, as The Jurassic Express. The larger-than-life star recently divulged the support he received from Dusty Rhodes in NXT.
“[Dusty] was one of my only supporters down there. I was always trying to find a way to put my Master’s Degree stuff in a wrestling context. In promo class with Dusty, you would try different things all the time and he always had me try different ways to pinpoint how to do that and we couldn’t figure it out. A lot of the stuff I do now, and the way I just talk, is just me being myself, which is what he liked. As soon as I became a dinosaur and stopped trying to be a human, my sense of humour became an absurdity kind of thing and we made it work.”
Arguably THE best example of a star who seemingly always had a ceiling in WWE, but has smashed through it and then some in AEW, is Tay Conti.
Signing with WWE in 2016, Conti always seemed like she had almost everything needed to succeed – but largely appeared in short matches and in losing efforts. Being released in April 2020, Conti’s future in wrestling looked uncertain, with the Brazilian saying she had ambitions of going to Japan, but also following her martial arts interest keenly.
In fact, Conti recently told the story of how unexpected her AEW venture was, with WWE refusing her release because they thought the Brazilian was AEW-bound.
“Of course, they said no a couple of times. We had a bunch of meetings. I was like, ‘Nope, I’m just done. Please let me go.’ So at the last one, they told me, ‘No, you’re not going,’ and they mentioned AEW. I remember they told me, ‘No, you’re not gonna go to AEW. [We’ve invested a lot of money in you]. You are a star.’ I’m like, ‘Yes, you guys don’t use me here. So I’ve got to go somewhere, but it’s not there. I know nobody there. I have no plans to go to AEW.’ I had no plans because I had no contacts at all. At the end of the day, we figured it out. They said no, and I still had two years in my contract. I was like, well, [what can I do?] I’m gonna be here. They told me, ‘Okay, you can be at home. We’re going to pay you. You can be at home.’ I’m like, ‘No, because I know everybody’s going to forget about me, and I won’t be able to work.’ I was like, ‘No, it’s okay. I’m going to make it two more years.’”
However, becoming All Elite followed after an impressive showing in AEW’s Women’s Tag Team Cup Tournament, and a partnership with Anna Jay and the Dark Order followed. Conti had since become one of AEW’s most promising women, earning an AEW Women’s World Championship match and impressing every step of the way.
Jake Hager, formerly Jack Swagger
Perhaps one of AEW’s most surprising acquisitions when he arrived in the company was Jake Hager, formerly Jack Swagger. An accomplished amateur wrestler and having tried his hand at MMA, Hager didn’t fit the typical style of AEW when the main critique of the company was that they didn’t have enough “big” men, and that they followed an independent style for the most part.
However, the former Jack Swagger, who boasts a World Heavyweight Championship reign, an ECW Championship reigns and a United States Championship reign, as well as being a former Mr Money In The Bank, has become an integral part of the Inner Circle faction since being brought in. Aligning with Jericho has allowed Hager to pursue professional wrestling and MMA since joining AEW.
Hager recently told the story of how John Cena “refused to do the job” for him for the WWE Championship.
“I had a little inclination, but I had no idea what was going to happen. The night before, I teased it on Raw. I hit Cena with the briefcase, I snuck up on him when he had one of his brilliant promo segments. Later, come to find out, he refused to do the job for me for the [WWE] Championship. We won’t talk about that. Ugh. ‘The most unselfish top man in the business”.
Matt Sydal, formerly Evan Bourne
Having been wrestling for over two decades, Matt Sydal is one of the strangest names on this list as he has been practically everywhere – yet is both pretty much equally well known for his WWE run and his non-WWE run despite wrestling under two different names.
A TNA, Ring of Honor, NJPW, Evolve, PWG and IMPACT post-TNA veteran, Matt Sydal is also a former WWE Tag Team Champion alongside Kofi Kingston having wrestled as Evan Bourne for almost seven years. The latter part of the run saw Bourne off TV for a year due to a motorcycle accident and being released before reappearing on television, but Bourne still appears in many highlight videos for doing a Shooting Star Press into a Randy Orton RKO.
Despite a largely impressive run in AEW thus far, Sydal’s start was a bizarre one – but showcased an incredible “turn lemons into lemonade” mentality from both Sydal and AEW. Sydal appeared as The Joker in the Casino Battle Royale of All Out 2020, but slipped on the ropes almost immediately as he attempted a Shooting Star Press. Thankfully, only Sydal’s ego was hurt, but the story which played out allowed Sydal to start his run off strongly when it was revealed that Michael Nakazawa had “oiled” the ropes and made them slippy, starting a feud between the pair.
Sydal officiailly signed with AEW in November having already wrestled several times on Dark and Dynamite, stating it was the “PWG spirit” that brought him.
“I always feel like what AEW is going for is the PWG spirit. That mentality is sort of the heart, is in the right place. I believe in what they do and there’s a lot of good wrestling and I love being in AEW. And there’s definitely benefits to being with these companies that are taking care of the wrestlers during this time.”
Nick Comoroto, bizarrely, usually falls into the same school of thought as Tay Conti. An NXT star who seemingly had all the potential on the planet, but never broke through. However, Comoroto was actually trained by AEW’s QT Marshall before debuting back in 2013. A six-year independent career saw Comoroto sign with WWE and compete as Nick Ogarelli after impressing during live events and at the WWE Performance Center combine – before being released in April 2020.
Comoroto wrestled in a losing effort against Darby Allin on AEW Dark in October of the same year, before wrestling on the show several times and subsequently facing Jon Moxley on AEW Dynamite. Comoroto has since joined the Nightmare Factory and is now part of The Factory with QT Marshall.
Shawn Spears, formerly Tye Dillinger
Shawn Spears wrestled for almost two decades before landing in AEW – including two separate stints in WWE. Way back in 2006, “The Canadian Sensation” Shawn Spears wrestled in OVW and even defeated then-SmackDown star Simon Dean in his OVW debut before teaming with Cody Rhodes. Spears went on to wrestle in FCW before moving to ECW as Gavin Spears for a year, being released in 2009.
Spears returned to WWE in 2013, wrestling as Tye Dillinger in NXT. Dillinger lost to Mojo Rawley on his debut before teaming with Jason Jordan, but the partnership fizzled out and Spears was used mainly as an enhancement talent before debuting his new “Perfect 10” gimmick. Despite never winning a title in WWE, that new character propelled Spears to a fan favourite, wrestling on SmackDown after making his main roster debut as number 10 in the Royal Rumble.
Spears requested his release and left WWE in February 2019, telling Inside The Ropes of the six-month process of thinking every day that he had to “take a shot” on himself, before arriving in AEW at Double or Nothing and signing on June 12th.
“I’m a big believer in you know, you’ve heard the saying before, ‘The first step is always the scariest’ – and it is. It’s petrifying, but that first step turns into a second step, a third step, a fourth step, and now all you’re doing is you’re just walking. All it depends on is are you walking in the direction of your happiness? That’s it. That’s all boiled down to. It didn’t boil down to money. It didn’t boil down to being in the main event of anywhere. It didn’t boil down to being a world champion anywhere. It boiled down to being able to wake up every day, be excited to go to work and get to wrestle. And every time I’ve gone to AEW, I’ve wrestled – whether it be on Dark, Dark Elevation or AEW Dynamite, I get to wrestle and I get to wrestle the way I want.”
A short rivalry with Cody Rhodes saw Spears established as a firm heel, pairing with Tully Blanchard and trying to recruit a tag team partner – but the storyline was nixed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Spears used a black loaded glove shortly thereafter and has since joined The Pinnacle.
Most WWE fans will remember Leva Bates as “Blue Pants” in NXT but, like many of the big names in wrestling, Bates first appeared as one of Adam Rose’s Rosebuds. Blue Pants was born shortly thereafter when the name was coined by Enzo and Big Cass, with Bates becoming a Full Sail favourite under the moniker.
Bates shared the ring with Carmella and Sasha Banks, among others, as well as managing The Vaudevillians at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn, feuding with Alexa Bliss as a result and wrestling her final match against Nia Jax.
Bates has been part of AEW since April 2019, but only wrestled sporadically. Joining as The Librarian, Bates was paired with Peter Avalon, but turned face when she slapped her fellow on-screen intellectual. Bates has only wrestled three times this year, and hasn’t wrestled on AEW Dynamite in over a year but, much like with Blue Pants, has managed to turn a small-part character into an established one.
Miro, formerly Rusev
The acquisition of Miro for AEW was undoubtedly a huge one. As Rusev, Miro became a staple of WWE having never wrestled on TV elsewhere. A dominant heel, the Bulgarian tore through the entire NXT roster before becoming the United States Champion shortly after debuting on the main roster. Rusev’s Bulgarian identity was switched out for a Russian one whereby he fought for Russia, against America, with wife CJ Perry, AKA Lana, by his side.
After a dominant run where he wrestled John Cena many times, including at WrestleMania where he entered in a tank, Rusev found himself in the League of Nations – a faction set up purely to get Roman Reigns over – and as part of a love triangle with Lana and Dolph Ziggler. Despite falling down the card and seeing his ceiling drastically lowered, “Rusev Day” was born and the Bulgarian organically got over with the crowd, but the three-time United States Champion could never reach that upper echelon for which he seemed destined.
After a brief hiatus, Rusev returned to WWE – to find himself in another love triangle storyline where his wife left him for Bobby Lashley – which ended in a messy love square storyline involving Liv Morgan that’s been long-forgotten, and Rusev would be released in April of 2020.
Just a few months later, Miro was born as the Bulgarian used a shortened version of his real name which he’d used for Twitch, and joined as Kip Sabian’s best man, wearing a Mickey Mouse t-shirt – much to the disdain of fans. Despite being happy to see him, Miro’s debut was panned due to the wedding segment being used and his lack of seriousness, but Miro told Inside The Ropes that the story had to be allowed time and that him jumping the queue to become World Champion on day one would have been met with even more critique.
Now TNT Champion, having defeated Darby Allin, Miro calls himself The Redeemer and has been dominant – even changing the TNT Championship to represent the colours of his home country of Bulgaria and feature Plovdiv’s Coat of Arms.
In his interview with ITR, Miro spoke about the difference between WWE and AEW.
“The biggest difference, as I said, the creative freedom, the freedom. The freedom is different. It’s there, but also the talent that we have in AEW is just unmatched, the styles that we have in AEW is unmatched. We have styles from all over the world. We don’t have one particular style, we don’t have one formula. We have every individual bringing their style of fighting, of performing, of wrestling. And we put that in AEW and we create the greatest professional wrestling show on Earth.”
Serena Deeb’s WWE career started over a decade ago in FCW after being spotted backstage on an episode of WWE’s ECW on Sci Fi, being named Serena Mancini then Mia Mancini – a mafia boss’ daughter. In 2010, Deeb would be propelled to SmackDown fame, shaving her head bald after joining CM Punk’s Straight Edge Society as a planted fan. Deeb only had one televised match during the run, being released in August of the same year.
Seven years later, Deeb returned to WWE to wrestle in the Mae Young Classic, progressing to the second round. While those two matches were her only bouts in WWE upon returning, Deeb stayed for three years as a coach before budget cuts saw her leave.
The departure meant a resurgence in Deeb’s in-ring career, though, with the gifted technical wrestler facing Thunder Rosa in September 2020, signing in the same month, then defeating Rosa for the NWA World Women’s Championship in a United Wrestling Network’s Primetime Live event, defending the title on AEW and holding the belt until NWA’s When Our Shadows Fall against Kamille.
Deeb’s old friend and foe, IMPACT legend ODB, recently told Inside The Ropes she thinks the AEW star is better than ever.
“I love how she went away for a little bit to refocus and do some stuff and then came back. She’s better than ever. I mean, everything happens for a reason. I believe that. And I would love to get back in the ring with her.”
One of the most recognisable names on the list, Billy Gunn’s would have been a childhood favourite for many during his WWE career. Whether it was with D-Generation X, The New Age Outlaws, Chuck and Billy or The Smoking Gunns, the former “Mr. Ass” was a stalwart of WWE for over a decade between 1993 and 2004, before returning in 2012.
Chuck Palumbo recently recalled working with Billy Gunn while speaking with Inside The Ropes.
“Fantastic time. A lot of fun. Obviously, I’m working with Billy Gunn, very talented guy – taught me a lot. The whole idea behind the character, I don’t know if this started from day one, but once the characters were developed, I knew they were going to use us for cable television network ratings week.”
That second run in 2012, which saw Gunn become an NXT trainer, ended due to the Hall of Famer allegedly testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. It wouldn’t be the end of his WWE appearances though, as Gunn appeared on RAW 25 as part of D-Generation X before being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
In January 2019, Gunn joined AEW as a coach. Despite not seeing him all too often in AEW, Billy Gunn has wrestled his fair share of matches in All Elite Wrestling – facing off against MJF among others. While some have been singles appearances, the former New Age Outlaw is more often than not seen teaming with sons Billy and Colten as The Gunn Club.
IT’S STING! And he may be over 60 years old, but The Stinger isn’t showing any signs of slowing down in AEW. Sting signed a “multi-year agreement” with All Elite Wrestling and hasn’t just wrestled cinematic bouts as expected, recently performing on Dynamite for the first time in 20 years.
While Sting is best known for his WCW career, a short stint in WWE saw the Hall of Famer face off against Triple H and Seth Rollins after feuding with The Authority. It seemed like Sting would never wrestle again but, six years later, he returned to the ring. The Icon starred directly alongside and against AEW’s rising stars, teaming with TNT Champion Darby Allin against Ricky Starks and Brian Cage, with Powerhouse Hobbs and even 21-year-old Hook getting physical with one of the most legendary figures in wrestling history. Not only that, but one of those talents, in Allin, actually directed 90% of the match.
However, as Jon Moxley noted to Inside The Ropes, it’s not just seeing the WCW legend wrestle that’s beneficial, even the presence of Sting is enough to elevate AEW’s younger talent.
“Oh, yeah, man, he’s the Stinger, he’s a legend. What more can you say that’s not already been said? He’s just a great guy to have in the locker room for younger guys to see walking around backstage, or to see in the ring on the same show as they are because that’s just not one of their regular old peers they see every week – that’s f***ing Sting! Sorry for that, but that’s a real bona fide wrestling superstar that’s here to chose to be here at AEW because it’s a great platform to maybe… Maybe this is where he’s going to close out his career, and the fact that he’s chosen to do it here at AEW is telling that we’ve got a really good thing going on here that people like Sting want to be a part of it. It’s a place where people can come to excel and get the best out of themselves. Sting wants to be here and wants to help out this next generation of guys, and this special group of generation of guys AEW has is really cool.”
2point0, formerly Ever-Rise
Arguably THE most surprising turnaround between WWE and AEW was 2point0, formerly known as Ever-Rise and 3.0. Having wrestled on NXT and 205 Live without ever really being pushed, the tag team found themselves facing the legend that is Sting for his first match on TNT in over 20 years.
The WWE release of Ever-Rise came in June 2021, having joined the company in 2019. Before signing, the pair performed as two French-Canadian local wrestlers called Jean-Paul and Francois, before becoming fully-fledged Superstars. The team struggled to win many matches outside of 205 Live but found a very high-profile fan in Kevin Owens.
Despite being released late in June from WWE, a 30-day no compete clause meant Matt Lee and Jeff Parker’s AEW debut was just over a month later on the first Dynamite of August, where they teamed with Daniel Garcia to take on Jon Moxley, Eddie Kingston and Darby Allin. Two weeks later, following their Texas Tornado Match against Sting and Darby Allin, the team officially signed with AEW.
While Chavo Guerrero has recently appeared in AEW, he’s yet to wrestle a match – but Vickie Guerrero makes the list due to recently wrestling in AEW, having wrestled in WWE previously.
Vickie Guerrero actually competed in 20 matches in WWE, wrestling on RAW, SmackDown, NXT and even entering a Royal Rumble. Despite mainly being used as a valet in AEW, for Nyla Rose and Andrade respectively, Guerrero made her in-ring debut in tag team action in June on AEW Dynamite alongside Nyla Rose against Dr Britt Baker DMD and Rebel.
While the match may have been a one-off, you really can’t rule out Vickie Guerrero stepping back through the ropes and competing again in AEW, given her abrasive demeanour and the likelihood of someone taking umbrage with her. However, leading a faction may be more likely at this point.
“My dream is to have an all-women’s faction… That’s my goal that I’ve been talking to Tony Khan about. There are some incredible women on the women’s roster and I’d love to bring some more in. The purpose of my job is to get all the bad girls on my side so they listen to me and I can delegate them to kick everyone’s ass. Diamante, I would love to have her on. Abadon, because she scares the hell out of me. Thunder Rosa, I think she would be an incredible addition to my stable. That’s who I have my eyes on right now.”
Andrade El Idolo
Andrade El Idolo was released from WWE in March, after reportedly requesting to leave. During his time with WWE, Andrade’s fortunes were mixed. The Mexican star’s initial time in NXT was largely spent in the midcard before a pairing with Zelina Vega soon saw the third-generation star launched into the main event scene, capturing the NXT Championship from Drew McIntyre in the process. Renowned as a gifted in-ring performer, Andrade was part of WWE’s first Wrestling Observer Newsletter five-star match since 2011 when he defeated Johnny Gargano at NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia.
A main roster debut in 2018 saw Andrade lost in the shuffle somewhat, with only one United States Championship reign to his name. Despite being touted as WWE’s potential next Eddie Guerrero or Rey Mysterio, Andrade found himself in a faction with Angel Garza and Austin Theory, led by Zelina Vega, but things never quite took off from there.
A lengthy hiatus was followed by Andrade’s eventual release, and a Dynamite debut and Lucha Libre AAA match against Kenny Omega soon followed – where Andrade was accompanied by Ric Flair. Andrade was first accompanied by Vickie Guerrero in AEW, and more recently Chavo Guerrero.
Malakai Black, formerly Aleister Black
Not only has Malakai Black joined the lengthy list of stars to jump ship from WWE to AEW, but Black actually is unique on the list as the former SmackDown star successfully carried over a storyline between the two companies with near seamless fluidity due to a “clerical error” regarding his non-compete clause.
The departure of Aleister Black from WWE wasn’t much of a surprise in the big picture due to the former Tommy End being missing in action for much of the last year of his run. However, the bigger surprise was that Black was seemingly being prepped for a big return with heavy investment through top-tier production value vignettes.
A former NXT Champion, Aleister Black’s downfall seemed to be being moved to the main roster. While the mystique surged initially, Black would soon have his head smashed into a staircase by Buddy Murphy and seemingly lose an eye like Rey Mysterio had in storyline around the same time. Black’s commitment to kayfabe meant his initial comeback saw him wear an eye patch and have black liquid pouring from the damaged eye, as well as a white contact lens.
Rather than revert to Tommy End and go for a complete reset, though, Black has appeared in AEW with the same surname as well as still selling the damage to his eye, and boasting all the same production values and aesthetics his WWE character did.
A clerical error on WWE’s part also meant Black only had a 30-day non-compete clause as opposed to the typical 90 days for main roster talent, and a high-profile introduction saw Black dominate Cody Rhodes in both his attacks and also in a very short match to establish him as a major player in the company.
“I got my notice and it read that I had a 30-day out versus a 90-day out, and that gave me a ton of ideas. Those ideas were received very well by a certain Mr. Khan. The rest is history. I made that move because I wanted to make that move and I wanted to make that move for a little bit. I’m glad I did it because, even though it’s only been a month, it’s been a great month. I feel this was the right step and the right move for me. It makes a lot of sense on a personal level.”
Paul Wight, formerly The Big Show
While there are many big names on this list, Paul Wight’s may have been the biggest surprise! Size puns aside, many thought Paul Wight was a WWE lifer with the World’s Largest Athlete seemingly winding down his career with the company.
Throughout his 20-year WWE career, Wight did it all. He was a two-time WWE Champion, a former ECW World Champion, two-time World Heavyweight Champion – the same belt he held in WCW twice – and won the United States, Intercontinental, Hardcore and Tag Team Champion – becoming a Grand Slam and Triple Crown Champion.
Numerous face and heel turns saw the Big Show character devalued, but Paul Wight was the ultimate pro and an incredible ambassador for the company – so the attraction of the giant Superstar seemed secondary to Wight’s other value. The 49-year-old, though, was determined to prove he had much more to offer – and he seemingly already has in AEW!
Wight quietly left WWE at the beginning of the year, before signing with AEW as a commentator and in-ring talent. Speaking of the move, Wight said:
“It’s been amazing to watch what AEW has built in just a couple of years. AEW Dark is an incredible platform to hone the skills of up-and-coming wrestlers, but I also love that established AEW talent can build out their personalities and showcase themselves in new ways on Dark. It’s no exaggeration when they say that AEW is boundless.”
The World’s Largest Athlete signed with AEW in February, and wrestled his first match for the company against QT Marshall at All Out but has been a major attraction thus far in a variety of roles. Wight also recently opened up about his WWE departure and speaking to Vince McMahon on the day he signed with AEW.
“Vince actually called me the day that it was announced that I signed with AEW, wished me a lot of luck, agreed that I’m a huge asset at AEW, thanked me for all the years that I worked in WWE. There’s no animosity, there’s no anger, there’s no dirt, so to speak. It just came down to contract negotiations and opportunities. Let’s face it, over 20 years at WWE, I have done everything there is to do and WWE. I needed a fresh start. For me, I think Vince understands that and understands that, for me, as a talent, this was the opportunity to do that. But, you follow the rules.”
The announcement of Paul Wight came with the tease that a “Hall-of-Fame-worthy” star would be introduced to All Elite Wrestling as the company’s newest signing at AEW Revolution by Wight himself.
While Cage isn’t in the WWE Hall of Fame as a point of much controversy, there’s no doubt he is worthy. A Grand Slam and Triple Crown Champion having held the ECW Championship twice, World Heavyweight Championship twice, European, Hardcore and Light Heavyweight Championships once and the Intercontinental Championship twice as a singles star, not to mention nine Tag Team Title runs, Cage is an upper echelon talent on paper who sadly had to retire too young.
After a shocking Royal Rumble return saw Christian return to action for the first time in almost seven years, the return of Christian Cage happened shortly thereafter in AEW with Jon Moxley naming Christian to Inside The Ropes beforehand as the one signing he would love AEW to make.
“I’ll tell you, a guy I’d like to see here is Christian. I don’t know if that was a one-off for him in the Royal Rumble but he looked frigging good to me, looked like he was in great shape, he looked sharp, man. I tell you, he’s one of the guys that’s – the wrestlers know it more so than anybody – Christian is so good. Like, his brain and his execution, and his mind for wrestling is just like next-level.”
Not only has Christian competed in some barn-storming matches in AEW thus far, he’s even pinned the AEW World Champion to win a World Championship. That isn’t as straightforward as it sounds, though, as it was the IMPACT and TNA World Championships Cage picked up with the victory.
Arguably the biggest coup of the list is CM Punk. The Best In The World seemed to be completely done with professional wrestling after his WWE departure eight years ago, but a sold-out United Center at Chicago bore witness to one of the wrestling moments of the century, arguably of all time, when CM Punk made his monumental return to wrestling.
Making quick work to set about an in-ring return, CM Punk wrestled his first match in AEW at All Out against one of the company’s biggest “organic” stars in Darby Allin who did wrestle elsewhere prior to becoming All Elite, but has never wrestled for another major promotion and has been with All Elite Wrestling since the very start.
While CM Punk has been out of wrestling for the best part of a decade, his WWE run saw Punk become a Triple Crown winner. The Best In The World is a two-time WWE Champion three-time World Heavyweight Champion, former ECW Champion and former Intercontinental Champion, as well as a two-time Mr Money In The Bank.
It was a monumental return filled with cheers, ice cream bars and record-breaking t-shirt sales – but was CM Punk always AEW-bound? Well, apparently WWE did reach out to their former champion but Punk stated that he joined AEW because of freedom, creativity, and working with AEW’s younger stars.
“What I mean is, it’s not all about the money for me because if it was, I would have probably been the main event of WrestleMania this past year. Or I would have been at the Royal Rumble. Everybody is different. Every situation is different. There’s some people that don’t like me, so all they’re going to hear is ‘Oh, he’s just doing it for the money.’ And I could give a s—. The proof is in the pudding. Does it matter why I’m doing it? Do you really care? If you don’t like me, don’t watch. It’s a perfect storm. It’s a lot of everything. It’s the money, it’s the freedom. It’s the creative, and it’s the possibility of working with young, talented people that excite me.”
While Punk has only wrestled one match for AEW, it certainly looks like he’s back for the long haul and ready to step back in the ring in the near future. In fact, Tony Khan even confirmed as much following the return, with the AEW CEO calling it a “full-time thing” in his comments.
“I don’t really know if you want to know how the sausage is made. I think one of the biggest appeals of AEW is everybody here looks like they show up to have a good time. You don’t want to know details of my contract, just know that I’m here. It’s not a part-time thing short-term thing and I’m here to have fun and help if anybody wants help. This isn’t a short-term thing or a part-time thing. This is a ‘full-time and we’re very excited’ type of thing.”
Ruby Soho, formerly Ruby Riott
After numerous teases on social media in recent weeks, Ruby Soho’s destination was known at AEW All Out.
Despite spending five years in WWE and impressing almost every time she was in the ring, Ruby Soho – then Ruby Riott – never got her hands on gold across RAW, SmackDown or NXT. Riott’s WWE run saw her wrestle some solid matches in NXT and lead The Riott Squad on the main roster, but even an outstanding performance in a Gauntlet Match on RAW never kick-started her singles career.
After being released by WWE due to “budget cuts”, Soho took to social media to post some wonderfully-produced vignettes after being gifted her name from Rancid’s Lars Fredriksen, a member of the band who created the song. With Ruby Soho born, The Runaway’s story could be told and the former WWE star missed trains, stole cars, and drank in bars before reaching her destination.
Appearing as The Joker in the Casino Battle Royale, Soho was visibly moved by the thunderous reaction from the fans as she made her way to the ring, later saying it felt like she was home.
“I have never experienced anything like that before. To have people have that anticipation for me and for people to want that and for people to get it, and getting excited is something that I think all of us in the wrestling industry thrive for. That moment of just being accepted and wanted and welcomed at this new Incredible company that you work for. That’s always a scare, right? You’re working in a new place, ‘Am I going to be accepted? Am I going to fit in?’ It just felt like home immediately from the moment I walked out there and it was just incredible.”
Inside the ring, it was all business. Soho put in a dogged performance, mixing it up with all of AEW’s stars and battling to a final three of herself, Thunder Rosa and Nyla Rose. Ruby Soho won the match on her AEW debut to earn a shot at the AEW Women’s Championship against Dr Britt Baker DMD in the future.
“Adam Cole is All Elite, Bay-Bay!” A sentence no-one thought possible just over month or so ago.
During his four years with WWE, Adam Cole remained an NXT Superstar, but it always seemed like a matter of time before a RAW or SmackDown move with him even competing on both brands in the lead-up to Survivor Series. An NXT Triple Crown winner, Adam Cole boasts being a former NXT Champion, the inaugural NXT North American Champion, and a former NXT Tag Team Champion – as well as a Dusty Rhodes Classic winner. In The Undisputed Era, Cole ran roughshod over the entire NXT roster and picked up many accolades – including seven NXT Year-End Awards.
However, the Adam Cole contract saga began in August 2021 after it emerged that his WWE contract had expired in July much to the surprise of the company. While WWE thought that his contract ran until December, they did realise their error in the days leading up to Cole’s deal coming to an end. Cole and WWE then came to terms on a new short-term contact that saw see him through SummerSlam weekend, which crucially included NXT TakeOver: 36 where Cole would lose to Kyle O’Reilly in the third and final bout of their series.
In the weeks leading up to the show, Cole reportedly met with Vince McMahon to discuss his future with the company. It was later reported that these talks went well and Cole was wanted for either SmackDown and RAW – but no new contract was agreed, even though WWE believed that Cole would put pen to paper on a fresh deal.
Cole’s short-term WWE agreement came to an end on August 27th, 2021, leaving the way clear for him to sign with AEW – a company he had prior links with due to a longstanding friendship with The Elite and his real-life partner, Britt Baker, being the current AEW Women’s World Champion.
After his WWE contract expired on August 27th, Adam Cole wasted little time in finding a new wrestling home. After Kenny Omega and Christian Cage went to war over the AEW World Championship, The Elite came to the ring to dish out some more punishment before Adam Cole stunned the crowd by walking to the ring and re-joining The Elite.
Bryan Danielson, formerly Daniel Bryan
While Adam Cole re-joining The Elite would have definitely been a shock big enough to end any AEW pay-per-view, it wasn’t over there at All Out 2021. The biggest shock of the night – which is a huge boast when CM Punk has wrestled his first match in eight years, and Ruby Soho, Minoru Suzuki and Adam Cole have debuted – was still to come as Daniel Bryan came to the aid of Christian and Jurassic Express to face off against The Elite.
Just five years ago, Daniel Bryan was retired. Medically disqualified from competing inside the squared circle. Two years later, Bryan was cleared for a return to action. For how long, no-one knew. While it seemed like Bryan was ready for one last hurrah and to wind down his career to become a part time performer, Bryan became WWE Champion in January of 2019 and even enjoyed a complete career resurgence of having his own custom belt as the vegan star refused to wear a leather strap, and turning heel.
Earlier this year, Daniel Bryan won the Elimination Chamber, receiving an immediate Universal Championship match against Roman Reigns. Despite losing the match, Bryan found himself headlining WrestleMania in a Triple Threat Match with Reigns and Edge. The clash was the culmination of three miracles, with Reigns overcoming leukemia, and both Bryan and Edge overcoming career-ending injuries to compete on the Grandest Stage of Them All.
Bryan, of course, lost the match, with Reigns pinning both men simultaneously, and Bryan subsequently put his career on the line against Reigns which saw him banished from SmackDown. Having declined a new contract, that match was Bryan’s final WWE appearance.
— All Elite Wrestling (@AEW) September 6, 2021
During his time in WWE, Daniel Bryan did everything. Not only a Grand Slam Winner, but only the sixth under the new format, a Triple Crown winner, and a four-time WWE Champion. Add to that a World Heavyweight Championship, an Intercontinental Championship, a United States Championship, and a Money In The Bank win, as well as Tag Team Championships – and that’s without mentioning the on-screen miracle that was WrestleMania XXX when Bryan overcame all the odds thanks to immense fan support.
Speaking after his All Out debut, a humble and grateful Daniel Bryan spoke about his WWE departure and why he joined AEW.
“I loved where I worked before and I’m very grateful. I’m one of the people who loved where they worked before and still left, and there’s a couple of reasons why.
“One, the incredible talent that’s here in AEW. One of the reasons that makes it so appealing to come to AEW is because of the work these men [pointing to Luchasaurus and Jungle Boy] the last two years. It’s because of the people who have been here since day one, from the people who came here early and believed in AEW. I’m talking about Chris Jericho who came here from day one. I’m talking about Jon Moxley who came here. I’m talking about young men and women who are busting their asses on the independent circuit and AEW gave them a chance and boy have these guys delivered. So when you see me here, and you see CM Punk here, and you see Christian Cage here, and when you see Ruby Soho here, when you see all those people here, who I really want you to thank is the original members of AEW.”
“The second reason I came here is because Goddamn you guys are the best fans in the world. So I’ve been hidden in a trailer in the back and I’ve been watching the show and you guys have been great for every single match and as a performer, you have no idea how much that means to us so I just want to say thank you and that’s the second reason [Danielson joined AEW].”
“Which brings me to the third reason I’m here. I am a wrestler. I never left wrestling, I took wrestling wherever I went, I said wrestling when I wasn’t supposed to say wrestling and now I am here to Goddamn wrestle!”
After appearing in AEW at Double or Nothing 2021 during the Casino Battle Royal as the Joker, Rush announced his retirement from professional wrestling – citing his health as the reason. While the high-flyer said he would fulfil his NJPW obligations when healthy and step away, Rush appeared on Dynamite saying Tony Khan has been “calling him nonstop” and called himself LBO. AEW put out a graphic shortly thereafter saying Lio Rush is All Elite.
During his time in WWE, Lio Rush was an NXT Cruiserweight Champion, having won the title after a hiatus away from the company. Rush was initially on NXT before being called up to Monday Night RAW to become Bobby Lashley’s hype man, but took time away with much speculation that he had “backstage heat” after refusing to carry luggage for veterans. Rush’s return saw him win gold and spend some time on the black and gold brand in a run where Rush got to show the world what he could do, before being released in a wave of departures in April 2020 due to budget cuts.
Former NXT Tag Team Champion Bobby Fish was a mainstay of WWE, much like Undisputed Era teammate Adam Cole. Rumours of moving to the main roster always swirled, but were combatted by rumours of a switch to another company the longer they went on.
Bobby Fish wrestled a one-off match for AEW in October, challenging Sammy Guevara for the TNT Championship in a losing effort. However, Fish was signed shortly thereafter and has since joined Adam Cole in The Elite.
While Kyle O’Reilly’s name may seem unsurprising after reading that of Bobby Fish, the pair didn’t join at the same time by any means, with O’Reilly enjoying a spell in the main event scene of NXT before his WWE contract expired.
O’Reilly debuted for AEW on the Holiday Bash episode of Dynamite, attacking Orange Cassidy to help Adam Cole be victorious, reuniting with Cole and Bobby Fish.
During her time in WWE, Mercede Martinez plied her trade largely in NXT with a brief stint in flop faction Retribution, before returning to the black and gold brand. However, the former Mae Young Classic star was released by WWE on August 6th alongside a number of NXT Superstars as part of the brand’s overhaul.
Since leaving WWE, Martinez headed back out onto the independent circuit, AEW and also appearing in IMPACT Wrestling. At Turning Point in November, Martinez challenged Mickie James for the Knockouts Title but was ultimately unsuccessful. However, Martinez has since returned to AEW.
Jake Atlas joined WWE in 2018, signing a deal with the company a year later. He went on to appear on both NXT and 205 live before being released on August 6th 2021. Atlas actually retired from in-ring action following his release.
Atlas has been open about his metal health struggles since leaving WWE, praising the company for saving his life. The California native revealed that during his time with WWE, they had paid for him to attend therapy for six months.
Atlas made a shock debut on a recent episode of AEW Dark, defeating Serpentico in under three minutes before being greeted by Tony Khan as he made his way back up the ramp. Posting on social media, Khan congratulated Atlas on winning his try-out match, adding that he was looking forward to seeing him at Dynamite.
In February 2022, Keith Lee made his AEW debut after a very surprising WWE departure.
Keith Lee hadn’t wrestled in WWE since defeating Cedric Alexander on the October 25th 2021 episode of Monday Night Raw after being given a new gimmick and renamed Keith “Bearcat” Lee. However, despite coming back to TV after a lengthy hiatus due to medical issues, Lee was released on November 4th.
Keith Lee spent almost four years in WWE, appearing in NXT until the summer of 2020 where he won the NXT and North American Championships. However, Lee failed to make a mark on Raw much to the bemusement of fans and was teased as a huge signing by AEW owner Tony Khan.
Buddy Matthews, formerly Buddy Murphy, made his AEW debut at the end of January 2022.
On the February 23rd episode of AEW Dynamite, Malakai Black and Brody King teamed together to take on PAC and Penta El Zero Miedo, who had reverted to his darker persona, Penta Oscuro. After a back and forth match it was Penta who picked up the win, preventing Malakai Black from using his ‘mist’ which had blinded PAC previously. However, the action from bell to bell was only part of the story.
With the match won, PAC and Penta were left little time to celebrate as the House of Black attacked, looking to exact instant revenge. With the beatdown in full effect, the lights went out, only to reveal Buddy Matthews stood in the ring. While it initially looked like Matthews was going to help Death Triangle, he instead joined forces with his former rival Malakai Black.
The segment closed with Matthews laying out Penta with a chair, at the behest of Black and Brody King.
Buddy Murphy found some success during his eight years in WWE, having become both an NXT Tag Team Champion alongside his partner Wesley Blake, and eventually going on to with the Cruiserweight Championship when he defeated Cedric Alexander in October of 2018. After being drafted to the main roster in 2019, he aligned himself with Seth Rollins and went on to win the Raw Tag Team Championships before their eventual split.
He also found himself involved in a story with the Mysterio family that saw him romantically involved with Rey Mysterio’s daughter Aalyah. The storyline with the Mysterios was dropped in late 2020, and after a few sporadic appearances in the following months, Murphy was released from WWE in June of 2021.
Formerly known as Zayda Ramier in NXT, the Booker T-trained AQA debuted almost as an afterthought, seeing as she came in on the same night as Keith Lee. She had been announced to be answering Jade Cargill’s TBS Championship open challenge in the hours before Dynamite went on air, though she’d ultimately come up short against the undefeated champion. Her official signing was confirmed by Tony Khan two days after.
As Ramier, she wrestled just five matches under the WWE banner, with her most notable coming as she defeated Toni Storm in April 2021. It was there that, for a short while, she went viral on wrestling Twitter for her awe-inspiring Shooting Star Press execution. The agility and finesse shown by the Gilbertown, Alabama native in performing the manoeuvre left many bewildered, serving as a fine highlight for her short WWE career.
She’s been restricted almost exclusively to AEW’s YouTube programming ever since signing, perhaps indicating that Tony Khan offered her a contract solely because of this jaw-dropping move with no creative direction in mind for her.
Shane ‘Swerve’ Strickland
Following a spectacularly chaotic Face of the Revolution Ladder Match, Tony Schiavone made his way to the top of the ramp contract in hand before introducing AEW’s newest signing. Shane “Swerve” Strickland.
Schiavone welcomed Strickland to AEW, before the company’s newest addition reminded everyone just whose house it is.
Back in early February, it was reported that Shane Strickland was wanted by both AEW and New Japan Pro Wrestling, following his release by WWE the previous November. This was then followed by a report just 24 hours before AEW Revolution that he had signed with AEW. Not only that he was expected to make his debut “imminently.”
Shane Strickland signed with WWE in 2019 after successful stints with MLW and Lucha Underground among others. He initially appeared in the NXT Breakout Tournament before transitioning into the Cruiserweight division. In early 2021, Scott turned heel and formed the Hit Row stable.
The group were drafted to SmackDown in October 2021, but despite much fanfare were released by the company just a few weeks later.
By the time Jeff Hardy arrived in AEW on March 9th 2022 where he came to the rescue of his brother Matt. The Charismatic Enigma first appeared in WWE all the way back in 1994, before spending the first years of his career getting demolished by more established stars.
However, things changed in 1998, where the Hardy Boyz signed their first real WWE contracts. Over the next four years, the pair established themselves as one of the most beloved teams in history, helping pioneer the TLC Match.
Hardy later moved into the singles ranks, while also enjoying multiple stints in IMPACT Wrestling. Jeff Hardy became World Champion for the first time in December 2008, later reigning over WWE on two more occasions.
The star’s latest run with the company began in 2017 at WrestleMania 33 where he won the Raw Tag Team Championships alongside his brother. He went on to win the Intercontinental Title for a fifth time, before being released by the company after reportedly acting erratically at a live event. It was later confirmed that Hardy turned down an induction into the WWE Hall of Fame.
Toni Storm made her first appearance in WWE when she took part in the Mae Young Classic in 2017, making the semi-finals, only being defeated by Kairi Sane.
After impressing there, Storm moved to NXT UK, before winning the 2018 Mae Young Classic. The star captured the NXT UK Women’s Championship in early 2019, switching to NXT in 2020. Although Storm failed to capture championship gold, she did engage in memorable feuds with the likes of Ember Moon (Athena) and Io Shirai.
Toni Storm made her main roster debut in July 2021 where she defeated Zelina Vega. By the end of the year, the Kiwi star was feuding with Charlotte Flair over the SmackDown Women’s Championship. However, she was unsuccessful in her efforts to win the title, and left the company altogether in late December, flying herself home after a live event.
The star made her AEW debut on the March 30th edition of Dynamite where she defeated The Bunny in a qualifying match for the Owen Hart Foundation Tournament.
After his first stint with WWE came to an end in late 2011, John Morrison went on a wrestling tour of the world, seemingly on a mission to wrestle in as many places as possible. The star, real name John Hennigan, appeared in numerous independent promotions, AAA, Lucha Underground and IMPACT Wrestling, before heading back to WWE in early 2020.
Back in WWE, and performing as John Morrison once again, the star reunited with The Miz. For the following year and a half, Morrison, dutifully played Miz’s high-flying sidekick before the A-Lister turned on him in August 2021. However, a feud was never able to properly develop after Miz left to appear on Dancing with the Stars.
Stuck in no-mans land, Morrison was released on November 18th.
With WWE in his rear-view mirror, Morrison returned to what he knew, touring the wrestling promotions of the world. After appearances in AAA and GCW Morrison appeared in AEW under the name Johnny Elite as the ‘Joker’ entrant in the Owen Hart Foundation Tournament.
Athena formerly Ember Moon
Ember Moon made her WWE debut in October 2015 after impressing on the independent scene. However, the star wasn’t given the ‘Ember Moon’ name the following year. Moon made her televised debut at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn II in August 2016.
Following her debut, the star embarked on a lengthy winning streak, before being beaten by NXT Women’s Champion Asuka in April 2017. However, Moon regrouped and in November, after Asuka had to relinquish her title due to injury, claimed the NXT women’s crown.
Despite her strong form on the black and gold brand, Moon’s arrival on the main roster failed to yield the same results when she made the move in April 2018. After an injury hit two years, Moon returned to NXT in October 2020.
A little over a year later the former NXT Women’s Champion was released alongside Keith Lee and Karrion Kross. After reverting to her Athena name back on the independent scene, the star was highly critical of WWE, hitting out at the company over their presentation of female wrestlers in NXT 2.0.
Athena made her AEW debut at Double or Nothing confronting TBS Champion Jade Cargill.
Stokely Hathaway formerly Malcom Bivens
After performing all over the independent scene, including stints in Ring of Honor and Major League Wrestling, Stokely Hathaway arrived in WWE in March 2011. The star initially appeared under the name Court Moore, before becoming Malcom Bivens.
Under his new name, Bivens founded ‘Bivens Enterprises’ in NXT, before assuming control of the Diamond Mine in June 2021. As the group lost momentum and a number of NXT stars were released, Bivens saw his own run with the company come to an end in April 2022.
Interestingly, following his exit it had been reported that Bivens had been pitched to join the Raw roster as a manager for Omos, before WWE decided to go with MVP in that position. After his WWE exit, the star didn’t keep fans waiting on his next move, making his AEW debut at Double or Nothing on May 29th.
Performing once again as Stokely Hathaway, the star came to ringside during Jade Cargill’s TBS Championship match with Anna Jay. Following the match, Hathaway became Cargill’s on-screen manager.
Saraya Formerly Paige
Known as Paige, Saraya signed with WWE in 2011 initially appearing in Florida Championship Wrestling before it was rebranded and relaunched as NXT. While with the Black and Gold Brand Paige became the first-ever NXT Women’s Champion.
The star debuted on Monday Night Raw the night after WrestleMania 30 and defeated AJ Lee to become Divas Champion. In the process she became the youngest Divas Champion in history, and the only woman to hold the NXT and Divas Title’s at the same time.
The Anti-Diva became a firm favourite with fans as she helped usher in a new era of women’s wrestling in the company, paving the way for the Four Horsewomen to rise to the top of the card.
However, Paige’s momentum was halted by a serious neck injury which meant she was forced to undergo surgery in 2016. This proved to be a turbulent period in the star’s career as also fell foul of WWE’s wellness policy, while nude photos and an explicit video were also leaked online.
Paige returned to the ring in September 2017 only to suffer another neck injury on December 27th. The British star announced her in-ring retirement following WrestleMania 34 and subsequently had stints as a manager and SmackDown General Manager.
The Brit’s contract with WWE expired on July 7th 2022, leaving her free to become All Elite at Dynamite Grand Slam in September.
AEW Dynamite airs every Wednesday Night and AEW Rampage airs every Friday night via AEW Plus on Fite TV