It’s one of the greatest feelings as a wrestling fan when a big name returns. Whether it’s due to injury or time off from the ring, the absence of a top star can help them come back fresh to much anticipation, and the moment of their return is usually memorable.
You can easily tell how popular a superstar is based on the reaction they get when the audience hears their music hit for the first time in months, even years. Returns are always fun and it’s those types of moments when you remember why you love wrestling. Here are the top 10 returns in WWE history.
10) Ric Flair, RAW, 2001
When the Invasion storyline fell flat, the WWE needed something to give them a jolt. The night after the 2001 Survivor Series event, in which WWE put an end to the WCW/ECW alliance, Vince McMahon came to the ring to grant Kurt Angle the WWE title as a reward for saving the WWE the night before.
The show happened to take place in a certain legend’s hometown of Charlotte, NC. Familiar music hit the speakers, and Ric Flair came strutting down to the ring. Fans were excited to see their hometown legend back in a ring, but was this just a one-time deal?
Well, the shocking revelation came; Flair had bought Shane and Stephanie‘s WWE stock (in storyline), giving him 50% control of the company to share with Mr. McMahon. The crowd’s reaction to the shocking news, coupled with Vince’s hilarious over-the-top reaction made for a great moment. It all led to Flair having a very successful return. He went on to compete in the WWE for over six years.
9) Bret Hart, RAW, 2010
You never say never in wrestling, but if there was one guy you would’ve guessed would never come back to the WWE, it was Bret Hart. After what happened at Survivor Series 1997, Hart had said on multiple occasions that he would never go back. However time proved to heal all wounds and the Hitman returned on January 4, 2010.
On that RAW, he made peace with Shawn Michaels and began his feud with Mr. McMahon leading up to their WrestleMania match. It was great to see the Hitman back and the anticipation for his return puts it in the top 10, but the crowd just didn’t seem to have the buzz you’d expect from such a big return.
Had this RAW taken place in Canada, or even a bigger market like New York or Chicago, the moment would’ve been amplified. Bret’s return to Montreal in 2012 provided a more fitting reaction to such an important return.
8) Hulk Hogan, No Way Out/RAW, 2002
The nWo’s WWE debut was underwhelming in 2002, the group’s act clearly having worn thin. The nostalgia proved to provide an initial buzz, but really the only return that mattered was Hulk Hogan‘s return to the WWE.
He far and away got the loudest reaction when the trio debuted at No Way Out, but Hogan’s solo return came the night after, where he got to address the WWE fans for the first time in nine years.
It didn’t disappoint. Fans showed that they were still loyal to Hulkamania, and as hard as Hogan tried, he couldn’t get the fans to hate him. The respect factor was just too great and to top it off, this return segment set up one of the greatest moments in WWE history. The moment where The Rock came out and challenged Hogan to a dream match at WrestleMania. The segment was so simple, yet executed so flawlessly by both Hogan and Rock.
The renewed love affair between Hogan and the fans was a great moment for all parties.
7) Stone Cold, Backlash, 2000
The fact that the WWE was able to keep pulling away from WCW despite having lost Stone Cold to injury just proves how vastly superior their product was in 2000. The Rock was proving he was more than capable of carrying the company and Triple H was in the prime of his career as a top heel.
Yet, there was just one thing missing and Austin’s anticipated return to pay-per-view had fans itching to see the Texas Rattlesnake accompany The Rock to the ring. In typical Attitude Era fashion, it didn’t happen the conventional way, but rather the far more impactful way.
Stone Cold simply came out and bashed Triple H, McMahon and their cronies with chairs. The pop from the crowd makes the moment as does Jim Ross‘s usual flawless commentary, particularly when Stone Cold is involved. Couple that in with the fact that it led to The Rock winning the WWE title and you’ve got yourself a helluva moment.
6) The Undertaker, Judgement Day, 2000
Undertaker had been out since the previous fall from injury and no one knew when he’d be coming back. The Undertaker saw this as an opportunity to reinvent himself, shedding the Deadman gimmick which had brought him so much success. His American Badass character proved that Mark Calaway has a lot of range as a performer.
The Rock was once again being ganged up on by DX and the McMahons as the conclusion of his Iron Man match with Triple H was coming. All of a sudden some strange music played, followed by a motorcycle revving up and a familiar figure rolled down to the ring. It was The Undertaker in biker gear and he cleaned house. While Triple H won the match, the Undertaker’s impact was felt and began a new chapter in his career.
5) John Cena, Royal Rumble, 2008
John Cena‘s return from a torn pectoral muscle came so early and was done in such a great way that the usually hostile MSG crowd forgot to boo him.
Cena was supposed to miss WrestleMania that year, but he shockingly came out at the no.30 spot in the 2008 Royal Rumble. In the age of the internet, it was so impressive that the WWE was able to keep the return of their top star a secret. You wish they’d be able to execute surprises this big more often.
It’s unlikely that the WWE will ever be able to do this again, or get the same impact out of a similar situation.
4) Triple H, RAW, 2002
There’s just something about Madison Square Garden that makes moments like this seem that much bigger. Triple H‘s return from a torn quadricep muscle was no exception. Triple H’s career was in question after suffering the tear midway through 2001 and he left as one of WWE’s top heels.
No one, including Triple H, knew how the fans would react to his return. Any doubts were erased the second his music hit and the crowd exploded, embracing the return of a guy who had been such a dastardly heel, but someone the crowd had grown to respect.
3) Chris Jericho, RAW, 2007
Chris Jericho has had his share of returns in recent years, but his best executed one was in 2007 when mysterious codes kept creeping up on RAW for weeks. Finally on RAW, the code fully unscrambled, reading “Save us Y2J”.
Jericho came out, sporting a glittering jacket, a new haircut and was instantly a renewed fan favourite. While his Y2J act began to grow stale a few months later, it led to him becoming a whole new kind of heel than he’d ever been and some would argue it was his best career work.
His return was as memorable as it gets.
2) The Undertaker, WrestleMania XX
While The Undertaker had done well as the American Badass, fans were beginning to miss the Deadman. After being buried alive by Kane at Survivor Series 2003, fans saw it as a chance to revive the Undertaker’s classic gimmick.
Gongs began to hit, mysterious events began happening to Kane over the next several months. It was announced that The Undertaker would return to face Kane at WrestleMania XX, but WrestleMania came and we still hadn’t seen the Phenom.
Finally the time came for the match. We heard Paul Bearer shriek an “Oh, yes!” and the gongs hit, the druids lined up and we saw The Undertaker in his element. Again, this was a return in Madison Square Garden.
It was a reminder of how great the Deadman persona is and proved to be pro wrestling’s best gimmick in history.
1) The Rock, RAW, 2011
The Rock hadn’t set foot in a WWE ring in seven years. He had left the world of wrestling and had established himself as a bonafide box office star in Hollywood. Many were starting to wonder whether the Great One would ever return to the WWE.
When the WWE was looking for a WrestleMania XXVII host, there was one man many were calling for. When the lights went down in Anaheim on Valentines Day 2011, you knew something big was about to happen. You saw electric bolts percolating on the titantron, giving you a hint.
Finally we heard the familiar, “If Ya’ Smell… What The Rock… Is Cookin'” blast through the arena and The Rock sauntered out of the curtain. The reaction was the loudest heard on RAW in years. As far as big names returning, you can’t get any bigger than that.
What made it even better is The Rock proceeded to cut one of his best promos ever, providing everything fans have loved about him. It only heightened the fans’ desire to see him return to the ring. It all led to matches against John Cena at back-to-back WrestleManias. This segment planted all the seeds and provided the greatest return in WWE history.