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While the "Nature Boy" has made his final appearance in a WWE ring and said his final goodbye on Raw, another North Carolinian, Matt Hardy, used Monday night as his long-awaited return to competition.
When the tidal wave of applause and appreciation for Ric Flair ultimately subsided long after Raw went off the air, WWE.com caught up with an emotion-fueled Hardy on his way out of the arena. Though still moved by Flair's farewell address, the SmackDown Superstar readily switched his focus to his reemergence.
"I'm very driven to pay back the people who took away the most precious things to me," Hardy explained, "my health and my WWE career. Get ready for the best Matt Hardy you've ever seen."
Two very big names at the top of Matt's list? WWE Champion Randy Orton along with United States Champion -- and former co-holder of the WWE Tag Team Titles with Hardy -- Montel Vontavious Porter.
It all started more than four months ago during Hardy's forced camaraderie with MVP, his fellow tag titleholder. Porter assaulted his own partner, leaving Hardy with what could have been irreparable meniscus damage. (WATCH) To make matters worse, the relentless Superstar who "will not die" was challenged of this very phraseology when his appendix ruptured and required Hardy to undergo an emergency appendectomy.
Going from worse to worst, in January, it was Randy Orton's malicious attack on Matt -- whose brother Jeff was then-No.1 contender to the WWE Champion -- worsened the war-torn Superstar's condition. A ferocious punt to Hardy's skull left the already severely injured competitor with a concussion. (WATCH)
This combined damage would have broken a lesser man -- his spirit and aspirations. And, in his absence, many believed that this might have been true of Matt Hardy.
Then came WrestleMania XXIV -- when it became clear that his absence was merely a long road back for Matt Hardy, a road leading directly to The Grandest Stage of Them All.
To the resounding enjoyment of roughly 75,000 fans in attendance and millions more watching live on pay-per-view, Hardy made a surprise appearance during a critical moment in the Money in the Bank Ladder Match. Just as MVP was about to claim victory and the biggest contract of his career since signing with SmackDown, the U.S. Champion experienced an unforeseen Twist of Fate -- quite appropriately named in this case -- from the top of the ladder.
"It was a long couple of months," Hardy said with an intent glaze in his eyes. "I don't forget things. MVP did what he did to me and he knows I've got his number; he knows I'm the guy that can beat him for the United States Championship."
In a similar fashion on Raw, it was the Legend Killer's proclamation of the "Age of Orton" that came to an abrupt halt following Hardy's blitzkrieg-like assault. This encounter led to a non-title match in which the returning SmackDown Superstar came within inches of putting away the WWE Champion following his signature Twist of Fate.
Despite coming up short, according to Hardy, it was incredibly gratifying to connect blows with Orton's head and physically retaliate for their last meeting in early 2008.
"Even in defeat, I still feel very satisfied with the beating I gave Orton," Hardy spoke, quite frankly. "He knows he was dominated out there and was just able to squeak out."
Of course, just 24 hours before his rewarding confrontation with the Legend Killer, Hardy made serious impact on his tag partner/rival, Porter, at WrestleMania. However, there is still plenty of unfinished business between the Ballin' Superstar and SmackDown's enduring fan-favorite. But this Friday, these two take a step in the direction of finding retribution in a non-title match on SmackDown.
"I've already sent MVP a message that I'm coming for him," Hardy added. "He took away the most precious thing to me. I'm going to take away the most precious thing to him: The United States Championship."
He continued, "It's an even tradeoff. I'm a fond subscriber to ‘eye for an eye' -- in this case, I'll call it a ‘love for a love'. MVP tried to take away my love for competing and I'm going to take away his narcissistic love for the U.S. Title … and that is my immediate goal."
As Hardy showed against the Legend Killer, he is fully recovered from each and every debilitation he has suffered. Can the conniving U.S. Champion keep his head above hot water against his greatest rival? Exactly what will go down when Hardy finally has his opportunity against the man who has caused him months worth of strife?
Tune in to SmackDown this Friday at 8/7 CT to catch this collision between two of WWE's fiercest adversaries.