WWE superstars often take time away from the company either to explore other avenues of employment or because they need the time of due to injury or exhaustion. This means that whilst WWE have to be without the superstar for a few weeks or months, they can begin planning their huge return and some of these returns have obviously been thought through for months.
WWE loves to make returns as shocking and as exciting as they possibly can, and even though the Royal Rumble match has now become famous for giving WWE fans some of their most exciting returns, it isn’t always the annual battle royal that holds the most heart-stopping returns.
Some superstars return from injury or even suspension, and fans are genuinely shocked to see them come back at that point, whilst this is much harder to do in the new social media era, because fans share all the sightings of superstars so it is no longer a shock. It is still doable and when WWE get it right, it is usually something that fans are talking about for years. Shane McMahon’s return earlier this year was trending online for days, since it was something that fans of WWE who were no longer watching the product were talking about and it built up their fan base for WrestleMania, which is exactly what WWE intended to do.
There have been some incredible returns over the past few decades and the following list will try and name15 of the best.
15. Bret “The Hitman” Hart
You can’t have a “heart-stopping” return list without a Hart involved! Bret Hart was WWE’s marquee superstar in the 90s after Hulk Hogan had departed and was the face of the company. He made a name for himself as the Excellence of Execution, capturing the Intercontinental Championship, Tag Championship and the World Heavyweight Championship numerous times. While he seemed like he would be a WWE member for life, the infamous Montreal Screwjob in 1997 seemingly changed that. He had a bitter departure from the WWE and it was highly doubtful that he’d ever return again.
It took 13 long years but the Hitman would return to take care of some unfinished business in 2010. While it was announced ahead of time that Bret Hart would host RAW, few believed he’d actually show up live, but he surprisingly did. He came back to bury the hatchet with Shawn Michaels and then he started a feud with the boss who crossed him, Vince McMahon.
14. Shawn Michaels
The Heartbreak Kid has several returns that perhaps belong on this list. His return to in-ring action in 2002 after he was pushed into retirement for a bad back is a contender, but it was announced ahead of time and wasn’t a surprise. It was this return after being put out of action for nearly a year after a brutal attack by Randy Orton that is more deserving.
Orton was being given an elaborate championship ceremony for defeating Triple H for the WWE Championship at the No Mercy PPV the night before. Vince McMahon ordered the roster to step out on stage to honor the champion and demanded Triple H to come out and shake Orton’s hand. Shawn Michaels appeared instead and went right after Orton, laying him out with the Sweet Chin Music to the delight of the rabid crowd who were thrilled to see the Showstopper back.
13. The Rock
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson did it all in the WWE. Multiple champion, crossover star and a sure-fire Hall of Famer in the future, the Most Electrifying Man in Sports Entertainment moved on to Hollywood to pursue a career in acting. Rocky transitioned from a WWE part-timer, leaving to film a movie and coming back for appearances and matches. As the Rock’s popularity in Hollywood grew and he became more in demand, he had to choose one or the other. The Rock chose Hollywood and to this day, he’s one of the most successful and highest paid actors there is.
However, the wrestling itch was still in the Rock’s blood and he wanted to come back…when the time was right. That time was in 2011, when after seven years away from a WWE ring, The Rock returned to announce he was going to be hosting WrestleMania. The Rock eventually would do more than host, as he’d find himself in a feud with John Cena and captured the WWE Championship once again, adding it to his WWE legacy.
12. The Ultimate Warrior
Now this was a return that no one ever thought would happen. The Ultimate Warrior had an up and down relationship during his WWE run, leaving and coming back on a few occasions. Contract disputes and money issues with Vince McMahon seemed to always be the problem. In 1996, it appeared that Warrior had burned his bridges with the WWE for good.
In the years that followed, Warrior would disparage Vince McMahon and his time in WWE and the WWE would respond with a very hurtful and legacy-damaging DVD titled “The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior,” which insulted the Warrior’s character and belittled his impact on the WWE’s golden era. This led to hurt feelings and even a lawsuit with the WWE over defamation and the Warrior name. Warrior’s hurt feelings led him to bash WWE and Vince every chance he got.
No one ever would’ve thought that the WWE would have a change of heart and invite the Ultimate Warrior back to the WWE family by inducting him in the 2014 Hall of Fame. Warrior made a triumphant return at WrestleMania 30 and made his final appearance by returning to RAW after 18 years away from the company. Warrior would tragically die the following day, which made his promo that much more special and heartfelt.
11. Kevin “Diesel” Nash
In 2011, the WWE was hosting a Royal Rumble that would be like never before. An unprecedented 40 competitors would compete in the match, making it the biggest Rumble pool ever. Of course this would mean that WWE would have some interesting surprises up their sleeves for the fans to revel in. The interwebs buzzed with predictions on what surprise returns would take place at the Rumble and boy, did the WWE not disappoint.
Big Daddy Cool made his entry at #32 sending the fans into a frenzy when his music hit and out came the seven-foot goliath, putting on his signature black glove as he stepped to the ring to enter the Rumble. Unfortunately, Diesel’s stay in the Rumble was a quick one and he didn’t do the similar damage that he had done in Rumbles of the past, being swiftly eliminated by Wade Barrett.
10. Triple H
Triple H suffered a legitimate career threatening injury in early 2001 on an episode of Raw as the duo of Hunter and Steve Austin defended their Tag Team Championships. He suffered a tear in his left quadricep muscle, which caused it to come off the bone.
This injury would keep him on the sidelines for eight months with many fans wondering if he would ever return. In January 2002, on the first Monday Night Raw of the new year, everything changed. Triple H was last seen as a dastardly heel on WWE programming, but his progress reports and the diligent work he showed in physical therapy (being featured on WWE TV), resulted in a newfound respect for the Cerebral Assassin and a deafening reaction when his music hit.
9. Brock Lesnar
Brock Lesnar was a notable figure of the post-attitude era from 2002-2004. The yearly grind of being a wrestler and all the travel that comes with it wore on the athlete who desired a more simple life. Brock left the company to pursue other ventures like the NFL and even MMA. Not a passionate fan of the wrestling business, many thought Brock would never come back. Brock shocked the world though when he returned to WWE after eight long years and a successful career in UFC back in 2012. It was the night after WrestleMania 28 and John Cena had called out The Rock, but instead it was Brock Lesnar who answered the call. The Beast Incarnate returned as a heel and delivered a thunderous F5 to John Cena.
8. The Undertaker
The Undertaker has made some incredible returns to WWE over the past few decades, but one of his best has to be at Battleground 2015. The Undertaker had made it a trend to disappear after appearances at WrestleMania only to re-emerge annually during Mania season. The main event featured WWE Champion Seth Rollins squaring off against Paul Heyman‘s client, Brock Lesnar. The WWE Universe was convinced that Brock Lesnar was set to become the WWE World Heavyweight Champion after he hit the F5 on Seth Rollins, but the lights went out and The Deadman appeared.
Undertaker then hit Lesnar with a chokeslam and two tombstone piledrivers before exiting the ring and setting up an incredible match between the two at SummerSlam.
7. Chris Jericho
Randy Orton was running riot in WWE in 2007 and it seemed that there was no one who could stop The Legend Killer, until the “Save Us Y2J” viral marketing campaign began and Chris Jericho made an incredible return.
Videos of mysterious subliminal codes had been airing on WWE TV for weeks with the WWE Universe unaware of who was behind the messages. It was revealed to be Y2J who was behind the videos as he interrupted Randy Orton’s “Passing of the Torch” ceremony to challenge him for the WWE Championship. Jericho looked great after being gone for two years, sporting a shorter haircut and a sparkly vest reminiscent to his millennium countdown debut in 1999.
6. John Cena
John Cena was forced out of action in late 2007 when it was revealed that he had suffered a torn pectoral muscle and was scheduled for surgery. It was then stated that he would be out of action for a number of months, but Cena being the hard working superstar that he is, once again healed much faster than doctors estimated.
He shocked the world by showing up to Madison Square Garden in New York as the final entrant of the star studded 2008 Royal Rumble and went on the win the match by eliminating Triple H. This was a return that totally took fans by surprise as WWE managed to keep the return hush-hush in an era where it’s increasingly difficult to keep secrets because of the internet and social media.
5. Vince McMahon
Vince McMahon left WWE in 1999 after he failed to accept the union of Stephanie McMahon and Triple H, so he left the duo in full control of WWF. But Vince made a shocking return to the company the following year as Shane was about to screw over The Rock.
A limo appeared to the arena during an episode of RAW and out stepped the Chairman himself, to the delight and astonishment of the arena crowd. Vince stormed down the arena corridors where he knocked out Triple H backstage before heading straight to the ring and attacked Shane with a steel chair. He then took Shane’s referee shirt and put it on himself and counted the pin fall after for The Rock, allowing him to go to WrestleMania to fight for the WWF Championship.
4. Steve Austin
Back in 1999, Austin was taken off WWE TV in order for him to undergo a long overdue neck surgery stemming from a botched piledriver delivered by the late Owen Hart at SummerSlam 1997. He was knocked down by a car in the parking lot at Survivor Series in November of 1999 as a way to write him off WWE TV.
He reappeared at Backlash six months later in 200,0 attacking Vince McMahon and Triple H after the duo had double teamed The Rock. The glass broke and the arena became unglued, as Stone Cold returned to even the odds and allowed The Rock to retain the WWF Championship. It was finally revealed later in the year that it was Rikishi that knocked Austin down and that he did it for The Rock.
3. Daniel Bryan
Before Daniel Bryan was the leader of the Yes Movement raging against The Authority, he was actually a part of The Nexus. That alliance was unfortunately short-lived as he was fired from WWE after his first alarming appearance on main roster TV when the Nexus was born. This was because of the unsavoury imagery of Daniel Bryan violently choking WWE ring announcer Justin Roberts with his own tie when the Nexus was damaging the ring. WWE fired him, but then brought him back months later for SummerSlam.
He was revealed as the seventh member of Team WWE, going up against his former team The Nexus while serving as a replacement to The Miz (who ironically enough was Bryan’s pro during his NXT competition).
2. Shane McMahon
Shane McMahon had been away from the WWE for seven years, pursuing life outside of his father’s shadow. Shane’s business ventures were successful, but fans had been clamouring for the boss’ son to return.
There were no hints to leading up to it, and it was one that fans didn’t see coming. WWE completely pulled this one out of the bag and they set up the match between Shane McMahon and The Undertaker at WrestleMania perfectly. You have to hand it to WWE – when they get it right, they really do pull it out of the bag!
1. CM Punk
CM Punk was one of the most over superstars that WWE ever had. As a heel, he was hated and as a face, he was adored and never more so than in WWE’s now infamous “Summer of Punk” in 2011. Punk contract with the company was legitimately slated to expired on the night of Money In The Bank and Punk had not yet signed a new WWE contract. The story would be that he vowed to win the WWE Championship at Money In The Bank and leave the company with the title. However, he had signed a contract part way through the show, but this had not been reported to the WWE fans.
Punk then showed up the next week on Raw when John Cena had been crowned the new Champion, but Punk still had his WWE Championship and he came out to Cult of Personality for the first time. This then led to an incredible showdown between both men at SummerSlam.