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The 20 greatest squared circle returns

Recent returns like Batista and The Undertaker to WWE bring to mind a litany of monumental returns of the Superstars of WWE, WCW, and ECW. No matter the circumstances surrounding a Superstars' previous departure, they have always managed to find a way to make their impression felt immediately upon coming back to their old stomping ground. Here are the 20 greatest returns in the history of the squared circle!

Watch Undertaker's return at WrestleMania XX on WWE Network

20. Goldberg, WCW Monday Nitro 05/29/00

After Goldberg had his historic 173-match undefeated run in WCW broken by The New World Order’s Kevin Nash in 1998, his blind hatred of The NWO got the better of him when he severely gashed his arm by smashing his fist through the faction’s limousine window.

 The fierce competitor missed more than five months before making a surprise appearance on WCW Nitro, coming to the aid of the man who ended his streak during a Handicap Match beatdown against Rick Steiner and Tank Abbott.  A vicious spear and a Jackhammer on Steiner proved that Goldberg was just as explosive as he was during his unparalleled winning streak. Still, Goldberg’s respect for former foe Nash proved to be just a ruse, as he speared him into oblivion during Nash’s WCW Title Match against Jeff Jarrett at The Great American Bash.

19. Raven, ECW on TNN 08/26/99

Raven returns to help his long time nemesis Tommy Dreamer to fight off The Dudleys.

Raven was one of the staples of the original ECW, but left in 1997 after falling to arch-nemesis Tommy Dreamer in a “Loser Leaves ECW Match,” Raven moved on to greener pastures and greater exposure in WCW, but it wasn’t before long he found his way back to the Land of Extreme. Before the ink had even dried on his new contract, Raven appeared on the debut of ECW’s new cable program.

The battler from The Bowery unexpectedly came to the aid of Dreamer who was competing against The Dudleys for the ECW Tag Team Titles without a partner.  Raven was greeted with chants of “Welcome back!” from the ECW faithful after hitting a DDT on Bubba Ray just seconds after entering the ring. It was a bittersweet moment for Tommy Dreamer who won his first-ever championship in ECW, but had to share the titles with a man he despised.

18. Cactus Jack, Royal Rumble 2000

Mankind turns into Cactus Jack during an interview segment with Triple H.

Before the WWE Universe knew him as the lovable Mick Foley, the WWE Hall of Famer competed under the guises of his “three faces of Foley”: the goofy lunatic Mankind, the hippie Dude Love and the fearsome brawler Cactus Jack. After Mankind had been ridiculed and assaulted by WWE Champion Triple H, Foley opted to go back to his roots and bring back Cactus Jack for the first time in two years for a Street Fight against the future WWE COO at the 2000 Royal Rumble.

What ensued would go down as one of the most gruesome WWE Title Matches in history. Triple H ultimately prevailed after connecting with two Pedigrees — the second on a bed of thumbtacks. Still, even when coming up on the short end of the bat covered in barbed wire, the returning Cactus Jack took a pound of flesh and then some from the WWE Champion.

17. Lex Luger, WCW Monday Nitro 09/04/95

Lex Luger shows up on the first episode of Nitro unannounced.

During his mid-90s run with WWE, Lex Luger body slammed Yokozuna, won the 1994 Royal Rumble Match and came extremely close to winning the WWE Title on multiple occasions. Still,The Total Package never reached the heights in WWE that he did while with NWA and WCW where he battled The Four Horsemen and won the WCW World Title.

As a result, it was a major homecoming for Luger when he confronted Hulk Hogan on the debut episode of WCW Monday Nitro just eight days after making an appearance at WWE’s SummerSlam. Luger’s unexpected arrival bolstered Nitro’s buzz and served as the first salvo in what would become The Monday Night War.

16. Chris Jericho, Monday Night Raw 09/24/07

The second coming of Y2J worries Randy Orton.

Beginning in summer 2007, an inscrutable binary code with the cryptic message of “Save Us 222” played on every WWE show. After a firestorm of speculation, the secret was revealed during a “Passing of the Torch” ceremony Randy Orton had conducted in his honor. When the torchbearer was suddenly knocked out cold backstage, the mysterious attacker assumed a pose — back towards the camera with arms outstretched and fists clenched — that could only be one Superstar.

Chris Jericho came out to a thunderous ovation from WWE fans who had missed the first Undisputed WWE Champion since he was unceremoniously booted from the company in 2005 after losing to John Cena in a “You’re Fired” Match. Y2J stood at the top of the ramp and laced into The Viper in a tirade reminiscent of his legendary 1999 WWE debut where he mocked The Rock and promised to excite fans like never before.

15. Shawn Michaels, Monday Night Raw 06/03/02

Kevin Nash makes one of the most shocking announcements in WWE history on Raw when he introduces Shawn Michaels as the newest member of the nWo, marking HBK's first WWE appearance in two years.

It’s difficult to fathom just how many Superstars once donned the black colors of The New World Order. One of these names — and a Superstar not typically associated with the faction — is Shawn Michaels. Yet, HBK was announced as the new member of the retooled NWO by Kevin Nash on Raw in 2002, marking The Showstopper’s first WWE appearance in more than 18 months.

The New World Order soon disbanded following Nash’s quadriceps tear, but Michaels’ return signaled the beginning of the second-half of his incredible career. At SummerSlam 2002, the incomparable competitor returned to in-ring competition after nearly a four-year layoff to defeat former DX partner Triple H. 

14. Sean Waltman, Monday Night Raw 03/30/98

Who could forget the epic WrestleMania moment when special guest referee Mike Tyson turned on D-Generation X to help “Stone Cold” Steve Austin overcome Shawn Michaels?

Those fireworks continued the following night on Raw, when Triple H pinned the blame solely on HBK for not thoroughly vetting Tyson and kicked Michaels out of DX.

The Game’s first order of business was to announce a new addition to the group: Sean Waltman, returning to WWE after a stint in WCW as The Monday Night War reached a fever pitch. The newly minted DX member ripped into Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff on the mic and shouted the two words DX helped make famous. The Kid’s return marked the first in a line of major defections from WCW as the ratings battle began to swing back in WWE’s favor.

13. Dean Malenko, WCW Slamboree 1998

Chris Jericho and Dean Malenko engaged in a spirited rivalry in 1998 for the WCW Cruiserweight Title. After losing at Uncensored 1998, a frustrated Malenko went on sabbatical. The “Ayatollah of Rock 'n' Rolla” went on to taunt “The Man of 1,000 Holds” during his absence, using every cheap shot he could possibly think of to belittle Malenko.

Then, a 15-Man Battle Royal was held at Slamboree 1998 to determine the No. 1 contender to the Cruiserweight Title while the arrogant Jericho had coffee backstage. It was a contest that came down to two competitors — Juventud Guerrera and a masked wrestler named Ciclope. To everyone’s surprise, Guerrera eliminated himself, but it all made sense when Ciclope took off his mask and revealed himself to be none other than Dean Malenko — much to Jericho’s horror. The enraged Iceman avenged his defeat and won his fourth WCW Cruiserweight Championship in a classic WCW moment.

12. CM Punk, Monday Night Raw 07/27/11

The always outspoken CM Punk backed up his big talk at Money in the Bank in his hometown of Chicago, winning the WWE Championship from John Cena in a thrilling match before walking out on the company with the with the title in tow. Eight days later on Raw, Rey Mysterio won a tournament to crown the new WWE Champion only to lose to Cena in another match later in the night.

Just when the Cenation leader was about to bask in the glory of another WWE Title victory, his theme music was cut short by the heavy guitar of Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality” and the reemergence of The Second City Saint. The self-proclaimed Best in the World stepped into the ring and both Superstars raised their identical belts in the air, immediately embroiling the two in a serious title controversy.

11. Tazz, ECW on TNN 04/14/00

ECW makes history when they host a Championship Match featuring WWE and WCW Superstars.

The closest WWE, WCW, and ECW came to a three-way collaboration during the heated Monday Night War went down when WCW’s Mike Awesome was challenged by WWE’s Tazz for the ECW World Heavyweight Championship in an ECW ring. In April 2000, the reigning ECW Champion Mike Awesome appeared on WCW Monday Nitro, making it apparent that he had jumped from ECW’s sinking ship. Awesome may have been done with ECW, but the renegade promotion wasn’t done with him.

Although Awesome was under contract to WCW, the big man said farewell to ECW by defending his title against former ECW Champion Tazz, who was on the WWE roster. The match was a blink-and-you-miss-it affair, lasting little more than a minute before Tommy Dreamer gave Awesome a DDT as a parting gift, and Tazz locked in a smothering Tazzmission to make the champion tap out. Still, it remains a unique part of sports-entertainment history.

10. Edge, Survivor Series 2007

A Hell in a Cell Match is specifically designed to lock out would-be intruders as the only men allowed inside its chilling confines are the competitors, a referee and a few ringside cameramen. This did not prevent Edge from making his dramatic return to WWE at Survivor Series 2007 after a four-month layoff to heal an injury.

In the height of a brutal Hell in a Cell showdown, The Undertaker leveled World Heavyweight Champion Batista with a Tombstone onto the steel steps. However, before The Deadman could pin The Animal, Edge — disguised as a camera man — pulled the referee out of the ring and attacked The Phenom, costing him the title in the process!

Edge soon revealed to the world that he and SmackDown General Manager Vickie Guerrero were an item and this power couple ruled the roost on Friday nights for years to come. However, The Phenom would not be denied retribution for Edge’s sinister actions, and gave the Rated R-Superstar his overdue comeuppance at WrestleMania XXIV.

9. Ric Flair, Monday Night Raw 11/19/01

While 16-time World Champion Ric Flair is one of the most beloved Superstars in the history of WWE, many might not realize he had only spent a year and a half with WWE —September 1991 through February 1993 — prior to the demise of WCW. This made Flair’s return in 2001 after eight years in a rival promotion all the more exciting.

On that night, “The Nature Boy” interrupted Mr. McMahon and Kurt Angle as The Chairman was prepared to strip “Stone Cold” Steve Austin of his WWE Title and award it to Angle after the Olympian had helped WWE defeat the invading Alliance at Survivor Series.

In front of his hometown fans in Charlotte, N.C., Flair reminded the WWE CEO that Shane and Stephanie McMahon sold their shares of WWE to a consortium prior to them purchasing WCW and ECW. To The Chairman’s utter shock, Flair revealed that the consortium was in fact Flair himself, making him co-owner of WWE with Mr. McMahon!  Can somebody say, WOOOOO!

8. The Undertaker, SummerSlam 1994

The Undertaker returns from the darkness to confront the fake Undertaker.

One could make a list consisting strictly of The Phenom’s greatest returns to WWE considering the innumerable times he has seemingly risen from the grave. Still, The Undertaker’s most epic return was 20 years ago at Summerslam when he found himself face-to-face with … The Undertaker?

The Phenom disappeared from WWE after being locked in a burning casket at Royal Rumble in 1994 by Yokozuna. After months of speculation on The Deadman’s whereabouts, The Million Dollar Man claimed that he had brought The Undertaker back— under his control. However, the longtime manager of The Demon of Death Valley, Paul Bearer, disputed DiBiase’s claim. As a result, Summerslam would see the true Undertaker rise again to dispose of the imposter. Now, whenever funeral bells toll at a WWE event, there’s no question who is about to make a chilling entrance.

7. Bret Hart, Monday Night Raw 01/04/10

If a WWE fan in the late ’90s compiled a list of Superstars least likely to return to WWE, Bret Hart’s name would undoubtedly be at the top, due to the dubious circumstances of Survivor Series 1997.

Nonetheless, a dozen years later, the impossible came true. But that wasn’t the half of it. After reminiscing on some of his fondest WWE memories, the “Hit Man” got down to brass tacks and asked longtime adversary Shawn Michaels to meet him face-to-face in the ring. And in a moment that left the WWE Universe absolutely speechless, HBK and Hart embraced, burying the hatchet in an emotional scene of genuine respect.

Hart’s reconciliation with Mr. McMahon was hardly as sentimental as the rivals battled in an ugly bout at WrestleMania XXVI.

6. Brock Lesnar, Monday Night Raw 04/02/12

Brock Lesnar returns to Raw and attacks John Cena.

After falling short in a landmark main event match against The Rock at WrestleMania XXVIII, John Cena swallowed his pride the following night on Raw and asked for The Great One to come to the ring and accept his congratulations.

Instead, Cena found himself face to face with a rock with a capital B. Brock Lesnar — a Superstar who had not been seen in a WWE ring since 2004 — suddenly made his way to the squared circle. The Beast Incarnate did not need to say a word in this memorable return. One declarative F5 to the Cenanation leader was enough to send the WWE Universe into a frenzy and set the stage for a brutal showdown between the two at Extreme Rules.

5. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Backlash 2000

Months after being sidelined with an injury, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin returns to cause chaos for Triple H & The McMahon Family.

A mysterious and unexplained parking lot hit-and-run sidelined “Stone Cold” Steve Austin for six full months. The Texas Rattlesnake’s absence from the main event created a void that Triple H was able to fill with the backing of the devious McMahon family.

When The Game defended his WWE Championship against The Rock at Backlash 2000, the numbers game looked to favor the McMahon-Helmsley faction against The Great One.  With the referee knocked out, The Rock was all but finished after a series of steel chair shots from a craven Mr. McMahon.

That was until the sound of glass shattering echoed throughout the arena and “Stone Cold” returned. Austin’s arrival could not have been more impactful — both literally and figuratively. The Texas Rattlesnake quickly made up for lost time, blasting Triple H, Pat Patterson, Gerald Brisco, Shane McMahon and Mr. McMahon with savage chair shots, allowing The People’s Champion to hit The People’s Elbow on Triple H to win the WWE Title.

4. John Cena, Royal Rumble 2008

John Cena returns from injury to win the Royal Rumble Match - Royal Rumble 2008

A workhorse like John Cena — who lives by the creed of Hustle, Loyalty and Respect — is always willing to fight through an injury. However, when Cena sustained a pectoral tear in a match in October 2007, it carried with it the grim diagnosis of an expected seven-month rehabilitation period.

Someone must have forgotten to tell Cena that, though. To the pure astonishment of WWE Superstars, medical professionals and the capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden, the heroic Cenation leader emerged as the No. 30 entrant of the Royal Rumble Match in January 2008, less than three months into the projected seven-month hiatus.

 Cena didn’t just make a cameo in the match — he won the whole damn thing and punched his ticket to the title match at WrestleMania XXIV. This quick return is perhaps the hallmark of Cena’s persona: a never-say-die mentality and an uncanny ability to defeat the odds no matter how seemingly insurmountable.

3. Triple H, Monday Night Raw 01/07/02

Triple H makes his historic WWE return in 2002.

After a severe rupture of his left quadriceps tendon on Monday Night Raw in 2001 put Triple H into surgery and on the shelf for eight months, the inimitable Game made a much-anticipated return to Raw at The Most Famous Arena in the World, Madison Square Garden.

While The Cerebral Assassin may have been reviled by the WWE Universe when he left, WWE fans showered the former WWE Champion with thunderous adoration. The King of Kings Motorhead-infused march to the ring generated one of the most electric moments in the history of WWE.

Triple H went on to win the Royal Rumble Match before beating Chris Jericho at WrestleMania X8 to capture the Undisputed WWE Title, coating his glorious comeback in championship gold.

2. Ultimate Warrior, WrestleMania VIII

After pinning the immortal Hulk Hogan to capture the WWE Championship at WrestleMania VI, Ultimate Warrior became one of the most renowned Superstars of the early 1990s. However, despite his incredible momentum, the intense competitor departed the company a little more than a year later.

The Warrior’s lengthy absence set up one of the biggest surprise returns in the history of sports-entertainment. At WrestleMania VIII, as Hogan was on the receiving end of a two-on-one beat down at the hands of Sid Justice and Papa Shango — in what was the only WrestleMania main event to end via DQ —Warrior came charging out of the back of the Indianapolis Hoosier Dome to aid The Hulkster in an unforgettable moment at The Showcase of the Immortals.

1. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Monday Night Raw 02/14/11

The Rock made a shocking return to WWE in 2011 to host WrestleMania 27.

When The Rock was revealed as the mystery special guest host for WrestleMania XXVII, it was the culmination of nearly a decade of eager anticipation from the passionate WWE faithful.

Stepping through the ropes before the uncontrollable frenzy of millions … and millions of The Rock’s fans, The Great One announced that FINALLY he had returned “home.”  The Rock then laid the foundation of what would become an iconic rivalry with John Cena while spouting an electrifying barrage of quotable catchphrases.

Over the next 14 months, The People’s Champion defeated CM Punk for the WWE Championship and headlined two WrestleManias against the Cenation leader. Now that’s how you make a return.

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