WWE has already released a whopping 42 wrestlers in 2021. The moves aren't necessarily the end for those wrestlers, though. For many, it's just the beginning.
Matt Cardona (Zack Ryder), Brian Myers (Curt Hawkins), Erick Redbeard (Erick Rowan) and Vik and Big Kon of The Awakening (The Ascension) sat in the National Championship Wrestling locker room preparing for Saturday's Night of Superstars. Each knows the feeling of getting that fateful call. Yet they've rediscovered their passion in other promotions and ventures.
First, each took care of business against this past weekend's opponents.
Cardona starred in the main event against NCW's cowardly heel, Desean Pratt. The newly crowned GCW world champion, who went viral last month thanks to the crowd's vicious reaction after his victory in a deathmatch over Nick Gage, sent everyone home happy with a decisive win to end the show.
Myers battled Breaux Keller in a technically efficient match in which the The Most Professional Wrestler nearly broke his opponent in half with an impressive Spear.
Redbeard matched up against Beastman in a battle of big men. The former Wyatt Family member laughed and chuckled with the crowd as his incoherent opponent attempted to use a large bone as a weapon. A claw-slam ended the throwback character's night.
As for The Awakening, the tag team wasn't quite as successful. In a four-way match to crown the inaugural NCW tag team champions, Vik and Big Kon raced to the back to handle business with an opponent, thus allowing Grapital Vices to claim the gold. But the heels received their comeuppance when The Awakening reemerged after the match and laid them low.
Another exciting night on the indie scene shows what life is like today for many of the wrestlers released from WWE over the last two years.
Before festivities began, the quintet of talented wrestlers sat down with Bleacher Report to discuss how post-WWE progression can be even more rewarding than reaching the pinnacle of the profession.
Bleacher Report: Bray Wyatt's release Saturday is merely the latest in a long line of "cost-cutting" moves by the WWE over the last two years. Despite being one of the most over characters in the company, Vince McMahon and Co. decided to move on, as they did with Braun Strowman, Aleister Black, Andrade, Mickie James et al.
At this point, how surprising are these moves after going through them yourselves?
Erick Redbeard: After the last year-and-a-half with the mass releases, it's not surprising. That company is a multi-billion-dollar company that keeps moving straight forward.
No one person is above the company, and it made examples out of many families. It's the nature of the beast. You can be bitter. You can be mad. Everyone goes through those emotions, especially when this all first started. Myself included. You refocus and do what you want moving forward.
Big Kon: Everyone is replaceable in this business. It's a machine that will continue to go on. Hulk Hogan is a great example. Without Hogan, who would have thought the WWE could have kept running? The Rock is another great example. They moved on to bigger and better things. At the same time, WWE is still here. No matter who you are, it'll continue to go.
I'm sure whatever emotions he [Wyatt] is going through right now, he'll be fine. He's a great talent. We've all gone through it. There will be many more who go through the same. It's part of the business. Everyone gets let go for the most part.
Vik: Personally, I was surprised. But I don't pay attention to anything that's going on there right now. I wasn't really aware of any situation. Considering his spot in the company, it definitely came as a surprise.
Brian Myers: WWE isn't the be-all, end-all in wrestling. If you want a life in wrestling, there's plenty out there. It does take a little more personal hustle and things like that. ... I like wrestling in all shapes, sizes and forms. If you have that perspective and love the business, there's definitely life outside the WWE.
B/R: Obviously, a larger wrestling community exists outside of what fans see on television. Wrestlers today work across multiple promotions—well, those outside of WWE do. Plus, many have worked for Vince McMahon. So, it doesn't come as a surprise when the lines of communication are open behind the scenes.
Knowing how the business is trending and what's going on, are there those you still talk to in WWE to keep apprised of the situation?
Matt Cardona: Yeah. Guys like [Dolph] Ziggler, Miz and [John] Morrison. They're some of my best friends. I keep in contact with them. It doesn't matter what business or company we're working for. There's other guys, like Kofi Kingston and Bobby Roode, who I still talk to.
To be honest, we record the Major Wrestling Figure Podcast during Raw. I haven't watched Raw in years. But you can just go through Twitter, scroll through feeds and see the highlights. I don't need to watch a three-hour show. I can go through just by reading their tweets.
Myers: I have very good friends—dare I say, best friends—in every single major wrestling company. I've been doing this for 18-plus years at this point. Successfully, too. I speak to people every day in every company. I'm aware of what's going on. I want the best for my friends.
Redbeard: It's like any job. You're going to get along with some people and some you don't. But you have to do your job. The other end of that is you trust the person with whom you're working with your life. If you don't trust that person, something's going to go wrong. You definitely develop deep connections with these people. You make sure to keep in contact with them.
B/R: Each of you is more than a year removed from the WWE creative process. As you find yourselves in varying promotions, what's the difference compared to other promotional setups?
Vik: Freedom is the very first thing that pops to mind. Freedom and happiness. It's just how it feels. Unfortunately, a lot of people in WWE get told you're not who you are. No matter how many times you say, 'No, this is who I am,' somebody else says you're not. You're not allowed to be you. It's not always the case. But it's been the nicest thing for us to have complete control and freedom over everything. It's all up to us.
Big Kon: Now we get to create our own itinerary. You get to work with and be around people you love. For a while, you're led to believe there's only one way to be. Once the veil gets pulled back, there's life after that point. You can see a lot of guys succeeding and doing really well elsewhere. There are others choosing to sit back and just enjoy life. Some are pursuing other avenues as well. Sometimes, it's a blessing [to be released]. It's a good thing. It's not a bad thing.
Redbeard: When I was released, COVID caused really strict rules, with everyone stuck at home. To get that news, it sucks. At the same time, that company gave you a livelihood. People say you can't complain about that. You play a certain character for so long and, yes, you have a chance for character development in bits and moments when you're there. Sometimes, they'll reset it and you try to make that character work.
Once released, people say it's a fresh start. Why? You can pursue other things outside of wrestling. You can teach wrestling. You can do other projects outside the world of professional wrestling. A whole new world opens up to you that you may not have followed had you stayed in the company.
Whether it's your choice or not, life takes you to a destiny you don't control. You just keep going out there and make your destiny your reality. There's always something else. Life keeps happening.
Myers: In WWE, it's fair to say I got pigeonholed into a position. I was seen in one light. It was tough to get out from underneath that. At the same time, I probably pitched hundreds of things during my time in WWE. Luckily, the one time they actually went with something is when Matt and I pitched the Edgeheads idea. It was a life-changing experience. That said, you pitch stuff all day long because you never know. It's the squeaky wheel situation.
At Impact, they're much more open to suggestions. You can say something or tweak something and it actually happens. It's pretty refreshing.
Cardona: I just love that I can do whatever I want, really. I'm my own boss. I get to do so in Impact. Impact is great and provides a lot of opportunities.
In GCW, I can show a different side of me. It's not really a different side of me, though. It's still me. But that particular audience doesn't like me. So, I can turn up the aggression and assh--ishness—whatever the word is—because that audience eats it up. I say things I know they're going to hate, including calling them the GCW Universe. So, I'll do it even more.
B/R: Erick and Matt, both of you had an opportunity to make appearances for All Elite Wrestling as well. Matt worked a program alongside Cody Rhodes' Nightmare Family, while Erick showed up to honor his former teammate, Brodie Lee, at December's emotional tribute to the beloved performer formerly known as Luke Harper.
These two experiences couldn't have been more different, but could each of you describe how those plans came together and what being in the AEW locker room was like?
Redbeard: I would have been offended if they didn't ask, but they take care of their people. Obviously, they reached out to me to be involved. It's always unfortunate but certainly at that time when a funeral couldn't be held, it was a way to say goodbye.
I talked to some people there, but I never had discussions trying to go and work there. I have other things I'm pursuing. He knew about what I was pursuing, too, and I know he would be proud of what I'm trying to do.
All you can do to honor him is remember. For me, I got a tattoo. Every morning, I see it. It honors him in the way that's most personal to me.
Cardona: The cup of coffee in AEW was cool. I had a lot of fun. There were so many guys going to Impact I didn't want to be like everybody else. I wanted to do something different to stand out, and I did. AEW was great. It just wasn't the right fit at that time. Will it be in the future? Who knows? Maybe. Maybe not.
Right now, my correct fit is just bouncing around. I hate using the term "free agent," but I guess I am. It's allowed me to go from place to place to place and not ask for permission to do this or that. I'm my own boss. I look in the mirror and ask myself and I say "yes" every time.
B/R: Wait a second. Matt, you don't have an agreement in place with Impact Wrestling to make it your top priority?
Cardona: Nobody has first priority, because I don't have a contract with anybody. My only contract is with the Major Wrestling Figure Podcast. I love Impact and they've been super-great to me. Obviously, I take the Impact dates over everything else. In that regard, it takes priority. But only because I want it to, not because I'm contractually obligated.
B/R: Due to the growing interdependency and interweaving storylines within multiple shows and promotions, what can fans expect next?
For example, Kenny Omega is the reigning world champion in AEW, Impact and AAA. He's working alongside Matt and Brian despite being contracted to a different company. The possibilities seem endless for wrestlers in today's market.
Myers: It's really fun and keeps things exciting. Keeps fans on their toes.
For guys like me, our schedules could be anything. I'm my own boss. Yes, I work for Impact but my contract states I can take any dates. I can work for pretty much anyone on television with their permission.
Whatever WWE is doing by releasing guys, they're helping out everyone else. The more the merrier. The more familiar faces create more interest, more people showing up to other shows and checking us all out.
Cardona: I've been out of WWE for a year-and-a-half. It's been just over a year where I could actually do things and work. I'm very proud of the things I've done in that time—whether it be growing the podcast into a whole network, Impact, the indies and now this GCW thing. It's really, really cool.
The business—whether it be management or fans—have counted me out, but I never did. My real fans never did. Now, it's our time to say, "I told you so."
B/R: With WWE now well in the rearview mirror and each of you making appearances in multiple promotions across the country, what's the next step in your respective careers?
Vik: It's just nice not to be held back anymore. Every day, we're just moving forward. There's no feeling of being stuck. We have so many more opportunities to live our lives and be normal, I guess you'd say.
Big Kon: For me, I never would have become a coach [at The Wrestling Lab] had it not been for the pandemic and all the crazy stuff that happened. Never had an idea of becoming a wrestling coach. Now, we have a school in St. Petersburg, Florida, with me, Jay Lethal and David Mercury, who never gets enough credit. The great thing about being a coach is it's like having 70-plus kids. You think you're going to be there as a coach, but you're forced to deal with real-life stuff.
Redbeard: You work your whole life for one goal. For a lot of wrestlers, that's what they want to do. That's all they want to do. They make it to the pinnacle, and that's been WWE for the longest time. We accomplished it at a high level for a long time. To be thrust away after thinking you'd be there longer, you need to find other avenues and outlets.
Yes, I love wrestling and I'll continue to do it. I have a love and passion for it. But it's amazing the other things in life you find a passion for. I've been fortunate enough to do some acting projects. I've gotten that spark back within myself that I had when I started professional wrestling. I get that same feeling when I act. Now, I'm taking that seriously.
Luckily, I have some projects coming up that will be game-changers for me. I feel like the work is just starting over again. It excites you and makes you happy. That's what I teach my kids: Go for your dreams. No matter how wild or crazy they are, you'll make it if you keep working hard enough.
Check out Redbeard—real name Joseph Ruud—in the upcoming films Ghosts of the Ozarks and Hyde Out, as well as The Home television series.
Brent Sobleski usually covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.