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The Animal and the Daredevil: A tale of two WrestleMania returns

The Animal and the Daredevil: A tale of two WrestleMania returns

Batista and Jeff Hardy come from opposite ends of the sports-entertainment spectrum. But when both Superstars walk through the curtain at Detroit's Ford Field this Sunday and hear 70,000 screaming WWE fans, they will realize a mutual dream -- a return to the grandest stage of them all, WrestleMania.

For World Champion Batista, his return to the crown jewel of sports-entertainment is much like his in-ring style: powerful, straightforward and an opportunity to forge his legacy. The Animal will defend his championship against Undertaker, a man who has never lost in his 14 appearances at WrestleMania. He sees The Deadman as not only the greatest challenge to his championship reign, but as an opportunity to make up for lost time. Last year, Batista missed WrestleMania 22 because of torn triceps.

"It [his reaction to having to miss WrestleMania 22] was sour. It hurt," Batista told WWE.com. "I was on a roll, [preparing] to go in [at WrestleMania 22] and defend my World Heavyweight Championship at a WrestleMania for the first time. It's a bitter memory in my career."

The powerhouse from Washington, D.C. never dreamed he would spend WrestleMania 22 on the sidelines. He had just main-evented WrestleMania for the first time in 2005, defeating his former Evolution stablemate and mentor Triple H for the World Championship. Then, nine months into his reign, he suffered a devastating injury that forced him to relinquish the title.

The Animal had to watch from home as Rey Mysterio and then King Booker claimed the championship he never lost during in-ring competition. He rehabbed his triceps and made his return to the ring by the summer, ultimately taking back his championship from King Booker at the Survivor Series.

But Batista's hunger didn't end at just winning back the World Title. He wanted a chance to perform in the main event at WrestleMania again, and defend the championship before thousands and thousands of WWE fans. When Undertaker won the Royal Rumble in January and challenged him for WrestleMania, The Animal saw it as an opportunity to show the world that he is truly at the top of the food chain. The Phenom would be his greatest conquest, and a chance for him to erase the ghost of the WrestleMania he missed.

"It [competing at WrestleMania 23] feels good for a lot of reasons, even more so because I'm going into a dream match. The Undertaker is a complete unknown for me, but a dream match, nonetheless," Batista said. "He's a legend. And to defend the title that I regained against the Undertaker in the main event, it's special."

Injury and lost opportunity have only fueled Batista's desire to be the best and make his return to WrestleMania personally gratifying. But a long absence from sports-entertainment's biggest event -- and memories of stealing the show in past WrestleManias -- will make Jeff Hardy's return this Sunday highly anticipated.

Hardy is one of the eight Superstars in the Money in the Bank Ladder Match at WrestleMania 23. Sunday will be his first WrestleMania appearance in five years as he last competed in WrestleMania X8 with his brother Matt in a Fatal Four-Way Match for the World Tag Team Titles.

Burnout from years on the road and ring wars led to Jeff's departure from WWE in 2003. When he returned last year, one of his main goals was to return to WrestleMania. Congratulations, Jeff -- mission accomplished.

"It's pretty thrilling," he told WWE.com. "It's pretty exciting and motivational…. I know what it's like to be part of such a big show. It's just great to be back on the greatest stage of them all, WrestleMania."

Jeff doesn't employ Batista's power game. He is more leopard-like and demonstrates a reckless abandon that has made him a show stealer at WrestleMania.

WWE fans still talk about his WrestleMania X-Seven dive through a table during a Three-Way Tables, Ladders and Chairs Match with brother Matt against Edge & Christian, and The Dudley Boyz. His Swanton Bomb off a ladder at WrestleMania 2000 has become a WrestleMania Moment.

But Jeff doesn't regret his time away from WWE or lament lost opportunities.

"It was good to rejuvenate," he said. "I watched all the other ones [WrestleManias he missed] from home, all the ones Matt was in. And even if Matt wasn't in them, I would have watched them. It was good to be on the other side for a while. Now that I'm back in the groove, it's good to be on this side."

Outside the sports-entertainment world, Batista and Jeff Hardy are also polar opposites. Perhaps in homage to -- or a reflection of -- the stylin' and profiling of influence of Ric Flair while under his tutelage in Evolution, Batista looks like could be on the cover of GQ. He has a love for shades and expensive suits. Jeff prefers sports jerseys, baggy pants and Nikes, working on his own works of art and recording music in his studio in Cameron, N.C.

Perhaps that's the magic of WrestleMania. Only one event could inspire such mutual passion from two different people.

"That [wanting to compete at Wrestlemania] is a desire that never goes away," Batista said. "That's what everybody here strives for. Anybody in this business who doesn't strive for that doesn't belong in this business."

Catch WrestleMania 23 on pay-per-view on Sunday, April 1 at 7 pm ET/6 pm CT.

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