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WWE’s Latest Round of Cuts Comes at a Difficult Time for Performers

The company has now released 80 wrestlers in 2021, meaning the free-agent market is flooded with talent.

Just three days before Survivor Series, WWE made another round of cuts. The eight wrestlers let go were a surprise since it had been only two weeks since 18 other wrestlers were released.

With the eight Thursday, that made 80 wrestlers that the company had released since the start of the year. That list wouldn’t include Bryan Danielson and Adam Cole who left on their own when their contracts expired, but does include Samoa Joe, who was quickly hired back, and Andrade and Gran Metalik, who asked to be let go, and eventually were.

Those releases, along with the decision by Ring of Honor to change the way it does business, shutting down for several months and no longer offering contracts, has led to a market flooded with solid available talent.

From a WWE standpoint, some of this was course-correcting, as for years it had tried to sign anyone with potential, whether it needed them or not, stockpiling talent to keep them from rival groups such as AEW and New Japan Pro-Wrestling.

But Thursday’s releases included some real surprises. John Morrison (real name John Hennigan) was a featured star on Raw just a few months ago, when he and The Miz had their weekly talk-show segment. When Miz went on Dancing With the Stars, Morrison at first was given the talk-show segment on his own. But then the segment was dropped, and his television time became more limited.

Hennigan’s tenure with the company dates back to winning a contract during the third season of the reality show Tough Enough in 2002. He left the company in ’11 when his contract expired in an attempt to get into acting, and then became a main-event player with Lucha Underground and Impact Wrestling before returning to WWE at the start of ’20.

The other surprise was the dropping of the Hit Row group consisting of Isaiah “Swerve” Scott (real name Stephon Strickland), Top Dolla (6' 5", 330-pound former NFL player A.J. Francis) and Ashante “Thee” Adonis (real name Tehuti Miles, a former running back at the University of Maryland).

With the latter, the surprise firing came at the end of a confusing day and weeks. Hit Row was originally a four-person group, with B-Fab (real name Briana Brandy). They had been put together doing a rapper gimmick on NXT, the developmental brand. The act showed real charisma and they were rushed to the main roster, with great fanfare, even though Francis had only a few matches under his belt.

Brandy was shockingly let go two weeks earlier. Just six days before they were let go, the other three had started a program on SmackDown with Jinder Mahal and Shanky, who did a mock rap interview to insult them.

According to Miles, in an interview on Busted Open radio, the group was called Thursday to not only come to SmackDown in Norfolk, Va., as would be expected Friday, but to come to New York for Survivor Series on Sunday, and Raw on Monday, both at the Barclays Center.

SmackDown talent on Raw is somewhat unusual, but as it turned out, it’s part of an angle for Monday night’s show where all the wrestlers in the roster were to be interrogated for the story-line theft of a valuable Cleopatra egg that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson gave to WWE chairman Vince McMahon as a gift. Essentially, as a way to up ratings this week, the idea was for McMahon, historically a huge ratings draw, to be on Monday’s show.

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Later in the day Miles was told that his bookings were canceled for all three dates. Then after that, he was told he was back on all three dates. Then he was told his entire group was getting released, citing budget cuts.

The notable part of all these cuts is that WWE as a company is, by far, the most profitable the company has ever been, due to television deals with Fox and NBCUniversal worth $470 million per year. The company is projecting $305 million to $315 million in OIBDA (operating income before depreciation and amortization) for the year 2021. All the layoffs will improve the bottom line, whether it would help the stock price or make the company look better financially to a prospective buyer.

There have been many different reasons for the mass releases. Most of the talent being released wasn’t being used at all. Others had been in developmental for years, and the feeling was they would never pan out to be stars. Others were victims of a changing direction. WWE has gone from focusing on signing the best new talent that had gone through smaller independent promotions, to wanting to focus on recruiting younger, bigger and more muscular (in the case of men), or those with higher-level real sports credentials or more attractive (in the case of women). The company accepted the criticism that the main roster had gotten old and felt it needed to be replenished with youth.

Hennigan, who is 42, even though he still had one of the best physiques in the company and had a history of being a strong talent in the ring, was likely a victim of age.

Before the pandemic, talent let go by WWE had a number of places they could go. AEW was just starting out and still building a roster. Impact Wrestling loaded up on talent WWE cut in 2020. Ring of Honor was paying better than it ever had. NJPW was reaching new levels of popularity in Japan. It was looking at running regularly in the U.S. after a sellout event at Madison Square Garden and successful California shows. And the independent scene had never been healthier, as name wrestlers were able to easily fill up their schedules with multiple shows per week.

AEW is bursting at the seams when it comes to names under contract, although it likely will pick up some. Tony Nese, Santana Garrett and Ariya Daivari, who were part of rounds of WWE cuts in the summer, have all wrestled in AEW in recent weeks. Other cuts, Bobby Fish and the tag team of 2.0, have recently signed full-time AEW contracts. Andrade, Aleister Black (now Malakai Black) and Ruby Riott (now Ruby Soho) from prior cuts, are now major players on the AEW roster.

Impact has also added a few of late, notably Steve Maclin (Steve Cutler of the Forgotten Sons tag team) and the tag team The IInspiration, formerly known as The IIconics.

New Japan can’t get working visas for new talent to work in Japan due to governmental restrictions. Without the kind of television-rights fees that WWE or AEW get in the U.S., or being fully owned by a television network like Impact and ROH, it was largely a live event, merchandise and streaming subscription channel company. The latter revenue stream is fine, but restrictions on live-event attendance in Japan are far more strict than the U.S., and those in Japan are also more cautious than those in the U.S. when it comes to attending mass gatherings. As a result, its budget when it comes to signing new talent is very limited. Still, last week NJPW debuted Buddy Matthews (who was Murphy in WWE) and Jonah (who was Bronson Reed in NXT) and have been using Alex Zayne (who was Ari Sterling in NXT) and Tyler Rust.

As a general rule, the wrestlers with NXT contracts have a 30-day noncompete while main roster talent has 90 days. Thursday’s main-roster cuts cannot wrestle for a rival company until Feb. 16, and those from the prior cut until Feb. 2.

Many will land on their feet, and for some, like Black and Soho, being released by WWE ended up being the greatest things that could have happened for their careers.

But for most of the former ROH talent and WWE talent, there are not enough open jobs available in the industry right now.

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