It’s a story that has become increasingly familiar: that a WWE wrestler, theoretically an independent contractor, asks for a release from their WWE talent contract and has the request denied. This time? The wrestler in question is Roderick Strong, who fits the bill of a wrestler who they’d otherwise consider releasing from the NXT roster: a 38-year-old cruiserweight who, in a sane developmental system, would be considered a valued veteran presence, but is more likely seen as an age in a spreadsheet. After all, if you’re not going to keep the likes of Anthony Henry or Mercedes Martinez, why would you keep what amounts to a more expensive version of the same archetype?
Strong, of course, has a mitigating factor, though: letting him go would give AEW the entire Undisputed Era stable that ruled over NXT for years.
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There are other cases of course, recently and otherwise. Mustafa Ali is the next most recent after Strong, but other names from the last few years who were told that they couldn’t quit WWE include Sasha Banks, Bryan Danielson, Brodie Lee, FTR, PAC, Mike Bennett, and Miro. Despite what then-WWE CFO George Barrios told attendees of the Needham Growth Conference in 2018, WWE tends to tell talent they can’t quit. Officially, the only exit door for wrestlers that’s outlined in a WWE talent contract is the language saying the deal “may be terminated prior to the end of its Term by a written instrument executed by each of the parties expressing their mutual consent.” There are exceptions, of course (Toni Storm basically quitting the way you’d quit a “real job” back in December worked perfectly for whatever reason), but “you can’t quit” seems like it’s more or less the rule of the company.
It’s not a new one, though. One instance from the company’s past? “Ravishing” Rick Rude. Though he had come into his own a a main event-quality heel in the previous year or so, his frustrations with his compensation and overall treatment boiled over in October 1990.
“Even though Rick Rude quit three weeks ago, he was still being advertised not only this weekend on television for upcoming dates, but even in certain arenas,” reported Dave Meltzer in the October 29, 1990 issue of his Wrestling Observer Newsletter. “Normal Titan policy is when a wrestler leaves the promotion, they try to pretend that he never existed and erase all mentions of him from television. The Rude situation is unique, however, because of the long time remaining on his contract. Since Titan plans on enforcing the terms, which would mean Rude couldn’t work for another promotion for nearly one year, there is the thought that well before the year is up that Rude will return and thus they can have the suspension lifted. In addition, with, at least theoretically, nearly a year before he can work for someone else, it isn’t like mentioning his name and continuing to talk about him will give publicity for an act that will be working elsewhere in the near future. From Rude’s standpoint, if he can afford to sit out, and if he’s been planning and budgeting for this for a while he probably can since he’s been on top for several months, walking out may in the long-run have been a smart business move.”
In the May 3, 1999 issue of the Observer that featured Meltzer’s obituary for Rude, he added a key detail.
“Rude felt that his name was being used to draw the houses, however McMahon was paying him very little, based on the fact he wasn’t wrestling on those shows, and in those days before significant guaranteed money contracts, injured wrestlers were not well paid until they got back into action,” Meltzer wrote. “He eventually quit the company over that dispute over not getting paid main event money on those shows.”
As noted by Meltzer, the structure of a WWE talent contract used to be much different. I obtained a copy of Rude’s via, of all things, a Freedom of Information Act request for whatever files the Executive Office of the U.S. Attorney had on him from their 1992-1994 investigation into what’s now WWE. (The same applies to all subsequent primary source documents linked in this article.) With very limited exceptions, the modern “downside guarantee” structure (which guarantees a performer a baseline income) didn’t exist yet, with Rude and company guaranteed nothing more than 10 bookings a year at a minimum of $150 apiece. (TV tapings were paid at $50 a shot, an extension of the old school wrestling logic that it was entirely an endeavor to promote the house shows where the real money was being made.) If you were hurt, you only got whatever pittance Vince McMahon was willing to throw at you.
So, how did Vince McMahon feel about it?
“I would like to take this opportunity to remind you that the terms and conditions of the Titan Sports, Inc. Booking Contract which you signed on October 8, 1987 remain in full force and effect,” he wrote to Rude in a letter dated October 22, 1990. “We are currently operating under the mutual agreement that you are taking time off from live wrestling performing until such time as your attitude becomes more positive. I look forward to this change and having you return to action soon. Meanwhile, we will continue compensating you for the time you are not performing.”
Several months later, on May 1, 1991, a WWF lawyer sent Rude a follow-up letter. “Per our recent conversation, Titan reiterates its position that after October, 1990, it continued to pay you substantial monies while you were not working, and that every effort was made on its part to work with you and to offer you bookings throughout the World,” wrote the lawyer, whose name was redacted in the FOIA response. “Nevertheless, you chose to breach and terminate your agreement with Titan and to turn down Titan’s offers.”
For Rude’s part, he would give his side in a letter addressed “To Whom It May Concern” dated July 2, 1991.
“It is obvious from your lack of correspondence with me that Titan Sports A.K.A. Vincent K. McMahon has little or no regard for my well being professionally or personally!” he began. “Referring to your letter dated 10/22/90. I believe it was never your intention to provide me with first class tickets or compensation for upgrades. The compensation for my time ‘NOT PERFORMING’ never seemed to materialize either, but that comes as-no surprise as lies are delt out with such regularity.” He added that “it is unclear to me if such a one sided contract would even be enforceable” while defending his side by emphasizing how “eye witnesses at live events” and “the gate receipts from events in which I was a ‘TOP MATCH’” would show how productive he had been.
(As an aside, to break down Rude’s claims about what he drew: WWF business was down in 1990, something detailed extensively by Meltzer in Observer issues around the time of Rude quitting the company. The only public financial information for the WWF around that time, taken from court records, shows parent company Titan Sports grossing over $138.3 million that year, a $782,246 increase over the banner year that was 1989 with the biggest WrestleMania to date and an incredibly hot Hulk Hogan-Randy Savage house show program. That minor increase doesn’t tell the whole story, though, as 1990 saw a major rollout of licensed retail WWF merchandise, most notably the launch of Hasbro’s action figure line, which points to a decrease in core business. According to the annual survey of retailers by toy industry trade publication Playthings, that action figure line was the #3 best-selling toy line of 1990, which paid off for Hasbro in a big way.)
“Titan[‘]s A.K.A. Vincent K. McMahon’s obligations, although very few and very vague, have by and large been neglected,” Rude wrote while winding down the letter. “In fact, I believe the very premise on which the contract was based is false!! I would be more than happy to go over this fact with Mr. McMahon, but chances are slim that he would take his valuable time to listen to another person’s position on the matter. Furthermore, it is plain to see by your badgering of potential promoters that you not only intend to reduce my stock as a wrestler, but to cause my family harm by creating a lack of income!!” (This was in reference to Titan’s efforts to keep Rude from wrestling for other domestic, televised promotions, like Herb Abrams’ UWF, which left him mainly seeking international bookings for much of 1991, including a tour of All Japan Pro Wrestling.)
“It is hard to believe a man in your position would stoop to such depths after receiving over thre years of faithful service, and millions of dollars in revenues from that service!!!” he continued. ” Having given long and careful thought to the matter at hand, I have decided that it would be much to my advantage both professionally and personally to terminate business relations with Titan Sports A.K.A. Vincent K. McMahon.”
And so concludes Rude’s lone (available) letter about this matter, which seemingly served as him giving formal notice so his contract would not automatically renew three months later. Also in July 1991 would come the last available piece of correspondence: A letter from Vince accompanying Rude’s latest royalties check where the WWF owner wrote that “Despite our differences of opinion in our professional relationship, I would like to think that we still have a personal one.” Rude would go to WCW a few weeks after his contract expired, debuting as a surprise at the Halloween Havoc pay-per-view event on October 27.
Has much changed since then? Well, at least wrestlers have guarantees they’re paid while being held to the kind of ridiculously one-sided contract that Rude didn’t think would hold up in court. Otherwise, though? It certainly doesn’t feel different…