When CM Punk abruptly exited WWE at the onset of 2014, it was pretty apparent that he was burned out on wrestling. He said so himself in his tell-all interview with Colt Cabana that November, but that had already been obvious before he even left the company. Personally, I enjoyed the final stretch of his run when he was battling The Wyatt Family and The Shield, but he appeared to be working hurt and the same fire and drive that got him over huge in 2011 and 2012 was no longer there.
Punk has since come out and admitted his passion for wrestling is gone thanks to how he was handled by WWE and the many factors that contributed to his departure. Whether he will ever resurface in a squared circle down the line remains to be seen, but it is entirely possible for that passion to be rekindled. Look no further than Cody Rhodes.
I didn't have the same sadness about Cody leaving WWE in May 2016 that I did when Punk quit two years prior. Rather, I shook my head and thought to myself, "What a shame," knowing he could be of much more value to the independent scene than to WWE. By that point, I had all but given up on my dream of Cody one day breaking the proverbial glass ceiling and winning a world championship. Granted, he had time on his side at 30 years of age, but WWE had dropped the ball on him so many times that it was unlikely they saw him as the star I (and many other fans) knew he was.
I could write a whole article (and I have) about the countless occasions he could have amounted to more than midcard status in WWE, but even despite Cody's desire to ditch the Stardust character and become himself again, the company didn't grant him that request (this was never explained), and decided to keep him in the black-and-gold face paint. What they did grant him, however, was his release, and I can guarantee you that if they hadn't, he would still be a fixture on WWE Main Event to this day.
It was unknown how he would fare on the independent scene, especially considering he had never before wrestled in "bingo halls" and high school gymnasiums (his career basically began in WWE's developmental system, Ohio Valley Wrestling), but he got people buzzing when he released "a list" on Twitter that included everyone he wanted to face, regardless of what promotion it was for. The rest, as they say, is history, and he slowly but surely has become a success story since leaving WWE.
From capturing multiple championships to journeying over to New Japan Pro Wrestling and wrestling for TNA/GFW and Ring of Honor concurrently, Rhodes has accomplished quite a bit in his time as an independent wrestler, and in the process, has seen his stock skyrocket compared to when we last saw him in WWE. Now, if he eventually returns to the company that made him (and I firmly believe he will), he will be an infinitely bigger star and perhaps win that WWE world title I always hoped he would.
Not only has Rhodes benefited big time from this, but others who have toiled away in the WWE midcard for years on end have as well, wrestlers who were obviously unhappy with their position in the promotion.
I attended a Northeast Wrestling show this July (which you can view photos from here) and headlining the event was Cody Rhodes vs. Ricochet for the N.E.W. Championship. By this point, I had already met the son of a son of a plumber twice and on both occasions he couldn't have been nicer. When he emerged from the back for his main event match with Ricochet, he was showered with cheers and chants of "Too sweet!" It struck me at that moment just how popular he had become (despite being a heel as a member of The Bullet Club right now, which played a role in his resurgence), as well as how happy he looked compared to his final few years with WWE.
To no one's surprise, Rhodes and Ricochet contested a hell of a matchup, but they weren't the only ones who had an enjoyable outing on the show. Earlier in the evening, Jack Swagger (who requested and was granted his WWE release as well back in March) did battle with Donovan Dijak, a recent WWE pick-up. Their bout was by no means an instant classic, but it was well-wrestled and entertaining for what it was. More importantly, Swagger was clearly having fun, both while making his entrance and interacting with the fans and while wrestling in the ring, and he expressed as much to me when I talked to him beforehand.
I'm sure I wasn't alone in feeling this way, but I told him how disappointed I was by WWE's usage of him at various points throughout his career. He agreed and said there were times (most notably after he turned babyface in what was a hot angle with Rusev in the summer of 2014) that he would want to pull his hair out because he was on the verge of super stardom... and then he would have the rug ripped out from underneath him. He hadn't been on television for many months before officially leaving WWE, and a lot like Rhodes, I was thrilled he took it upon himself to depart the company on his own terms. He knew his worth and decided he didn't want to be wasted any longer.
Another example that comes to mind is Sami Callihan, better known as Solomon Crowe in NXT. He showed plenty of promise early on and had a reputation for being brilliant on the independent scene, but for whatever reason, he never clicked with the audience on the black-and-yellow brand. For the most part, it wasn't Callihan's fault; they made him a babyface from the get-go (he works better as a heel), never fleshed out his character or gave him much mic time and never allowed him to showcase his skills in the ring to the fullest extent.
I couldn't tell you how many people I saw complaining online about how "dull" he was in the ring and didn't understand his hype, yet I would love for those same people to check out his recent work in Lucha Underground as Jeremiah Crane. His string of matches in the Cueto Cup tournament was unreal, and I've also had the pleasure of chatting with him at various shows since he quit WWE in late 2015.
WWE is in an interesting place these days where it seems they don't like to let talent go in massive chunks like they used to back in the day (i.e. the dreaded "Black Fridays"). It's almost as if they hoard talent and force them to stay, not to bolster their own roster but to take away talent from other organizations. WWE is and has always been a monopoly, but that has never been more true than it is today.
I don't wish to paint WWE as this "evil monster" who kills the passion of any wrestler who chooses to sign with them, because that isn't accurate, either. AJ Styles has been a major focal point of the product for the past two years, Shinsuke Nakamura has been positioned as a main event player and Adam Cole was cemented as NXT's top heel from the moment he first stepped foot in an NXT ring. Of course, with such a deep talent pool, not everyone is going to be a world champion at the same time, so wrestlers need to know that there are other options outside of WWE where they can thrive and fulfill their potential. Cody Rhodes, Jack Swagger, Sami Callihan and countless others have proved that, and now that they've become big deals without WWE, I wouldn't be shocked to see them return to their old stomping grounds down the road.