Few things in wrestling can be as thrilling and exciting as a surprise return. Over the years, WWE have had some of the best surprise returns of all time, capitalising on the fans missing their top stars to create huge moments.
Whether it’s a wrestler returning from a career threatening injury, or being a surprise return in the Royal Rumble match, a surprise return will never not garner a huge pop (unless you’re Brian Lawler).
Surprise returns create some of the most legendary moments in WWE history, and the best ones can get fans talking for months.
The surprise return can get the fantasy bookers juices flowing, wondering who these wrestlers will wrestle and get into interesting storylines with next.
However, it is important for a company not to rely on surprises, lest it ruin their return. Jim Cornette famously said about the monthly surprises in ECW “If every show has a surprise, then it’s not a surprise”.
Keeping the surprise returns few and far between makes each one feel even more special than the last.
Here are the top 10 best surprise returns in WWE history. Tell us your favourite, down in the comments section, after reading this article.
10. Chris Jericho’s returns to “Save Us” from Randy Orton in 2007
At No Mercy 2007, John Cena was forced to vacate the WWE Championship, which was then awarded to Randy Orton. No Mercy title change nonsense aside, Orton walked out of No Mercy as WWE Champion, and his title reign began.
He feuded with Shawn Michaels next, losing to him at Cyber Sunday, but retaining the championship due to disqualification. He then defeated Michaels at Survivor Series, but so far his reign was perceived as being less than exciting.
So when Randy Orton had a “passing of the torch” ceremony on Monday Night Raw, someone had enough. Vignettes of a mystery man coming to “save us” had been running for weeks, and fans were on the edge of there seat trying to work out who it was.
So finally, when the man carrying Orton’s torch finally entered the arena, he was greeted by a huge clothesline by the one and only returning Chris Jericho.
Jericho had been gone from WWE for two years, and almost signed with TNA before making his WWE return. He lamented Orton’s boring personality and ring work, before offering to save the WWE universe from having Randy Orton as WWE Champion.
However, the feud would die a death at Armageddon. Chris Jericho defeated Orton by disqualification, due to JBL attacking Y2J and ruining the title match. It wasn’t one of Randy Orton’s best matches, not for the skill of either men, but for the awful booking of the match.
While Jericho’s matches with the pair did nothing to help himself or the show at large, his return as the saviour of WWE was one of the best surprise returns in WWE history.
9. The Undertaker rises from the dead at Survivor Series 2005
At Wrestlemania 21, the Undertaker’s streak was well and truly in tact. He was 12-0 at Wrestlemania, having defeated his brother Kane at Wrestlemania XX in his last outing.
Randy Orton, under his Legend Killer gimmick, looked to vanquish the Deadman by ending his undefeated streak at Wrestlemania 21. It didn’t go to plan for Orton, with the youngster pinned by the Undertaker to extend his streak to 13-0.
While it was a disappointing result for the Legend Killer, it did kick off a brilliant feud between the two that would last almost a year.
The feud seemed to conclude at Summerslam that year. The Undertaker faced Randy Orton and his father, Cowboy Bob Orton, in a handicap Casket match. It was an interesting match, with the father son dynamic of the two Orton’s coming into play during the bout.
The Orton’s would win the match, locking the Undertaker in the casket. Randy Orton then proceeded to light the casket on fire, seemingly killing the Deadman once and for all.
Was the Undertaker dead? That was answered at Survivor Series 2005, when the Undertaker would return to haunt Randy Orton.
Survivor Series 2005
What happened at the pay per views was one of the best, most shocking surprise returns in WWE history.
Randy Orton competed in the 5 on 5 Survivor Series elimination match. Representing Smackdown, he outlasted all 9 other men in the match be the sole survivor, and win the match for his brand.
He was hoisted upon the shoulders of his colleagues, and celebrated for his triumphant victory.
Suddenly, the infamous gong sounded, and the lights went out.
The Undertaker returned, bursting out from a flaming casket on the stage. Orton ran for his life, but the Undertaker laid waste to the entire Smackdown roster that was celebrating with him.
Despite not wrestling on the pay per view, and appearing for barely minutes, nothing else is more memorable from the event than the Undertaker’s shocking return. It is the best kind of surprise return in WWE. It was logical, made sense and furthers an already great story.
8. John Cena shocks the world at the 2008 Royal Rumble
As previously mentioned, John Cena was forced to relinquish his WWE Champion at No Mercy 2007. The Champ had reigned supreme over WWE for a whole year, and seemed unbeatable.
However, he suffered injury in a match against Mr Kennedy on Raw prior to the event. A standard hip toss went wrong, and Cena suffered a complete torn pectoral muscle. The pain on Cena’s face was apparent, and even more so when he was attacked after the match and RKO’s through a table by Randy Orton.
Cena’s injury was horrific. Doctors predicted him to be out for over a year. Wrestlemania was off the table completely, and Summerslam seemed like a pipe dream.
But John Cena is a machine (not the prototype, that was stupid). He has special healing powers that mean he can recover from injuries faster than any normal human. How Good is He at recovering from injuries!
Royal Rumble 2008
The Royal Rumble 2008 was near it’s conclusion. 29 men had entered, and the ring was filled with superstars vying for the chance to main event Wrestlemania. The likes of Triple H, Umaga and Chavo Guerrero stood in the ring, watching as the clock counted down from 10 to 0.
Then, the number 30 entrant was revealed.
John Cena made his incredible return, coming out at number 30 to the shock of the thousands of fans in attendance. He was 6 months ahead of schedule, and nobody could believe that a return this early was even possible, let alone probably.
Cena ran into the ring in a frenzy. He threw superstars out left right and centre, before squaring up with his Wrestlemania 22 opponent Triple H.
The pair would last until the final two, where after a great fight, John Cena would throw Triple H out the ring with his FU finishing move, and was declared the winner. It was one of the great surprise entrances, because it was one people 100% sure was not going to happen.
But it did happen. John Cena would go on to face both Randy Orton and Triple H at Wrestlemania, with the former retaining his WWE Championship in a triple threat match.
7. Chris Jericho is a surprise #2 entrant in the 2013 Royal Rumble
The second entry from the former AEW Champion Chris Jericho on this list comes from 2013.
Chris Jericho had left WWE after Summerslam 2012. He had been a consistent force on Raw and Smackdown since his aforementioned return to WWE in 2007. However, he lost a match to Dolph Ziggler on the Raw after Summerslam, causing him to be fired by Raw General Manager (and Dolph Ziggler’s girlfriend) AJ Lee.
So he left WWE, and spent the time touring with his band Fozzy. The group spent the rest of the year touring, and nobody had any idea when Chris Jericho would return.
His return was one of the best rumble returns of all time. Dolph Ziggler, the man who got him fired 6 months prior, was the number one entrant in the match. He grabbed a microphone, and said that he “didn’t care who number two was, so just send him out”.
Chris Jericho’s music hits, revealing himself as the number two entrant. The crowd erupted, and Jericho would have one of the most memorable surprise returns in WWE history.
He failed to win the Royal Rumble, and went on to lose to Fandango at Wrestlemania 29.
6. Ric Flair announces he owns half of WWE in 2001
It’s not a surprise to see the man who many consider to be the greatest professional wrestler of all time on this list. It seems only natural that “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair is to feature somewhere on the list of the best surprise returns in WWE history.
Or is it? If you think about it, it is. Flair spent the majority of his career, especially his peak years, wrestling in the NWA and WCW. He only spent a couple of years in the WWF in the 1990s, winning the 1992 Royal Rumble and the WWF Championship with it.
He returned to WCW not long after that, never getting the much hyped Hulk Hogan vs Ric Flair Wrestlemania Main event that fans were dying for. In WCW, he was the biggest star in the company, winning multiple world championships and being loyal to them until the last episode of Nitro.
But then, WCW folded when it was bought by WWE. Flair had nowhere to but to return to the competition, the company he had tried to put out of business for so many years.
But this time he didn’t want to put Vince McMahon out of business. He wanted to take over.
At Survivor Series 2001, the WWF was victorious over WCW in the “winner-takes-all” Survivor Series match. This meant that Vince McMahon had won, and has usurped his children Shane and Stephanie McMahon, who owned WCW and ECW.
Vince celebrated being the sole owner of WWF, before he was interrupted by a familiar face that popped the crowd huge.
Flair returned to the WWF for the first time in 8 years. He announced that he had bought Shane and Stephanie’s shares, and was now co-owner of the WWF.
Ric Flair would defeat Vince McMahon to retain his stake in the WWF, in a street fight at the 2002 Royal Rumble. The angle would culminated in Ric Flair taking control of Raw, while Vince McMahon took care of Smackdown.
This resulted in the first ever WWE draft, which became a yearly tradition in WWE and one of the most exciting nights of the year. And it all came from one of the best surprise returns in WWE, from the greatest of all time.
5. Shane McMahon surprises Vince on Monday Night Raw
One of the most recent surprise recents in WWE, and one of the last great returns maybe the company will ever have. Their inability to build stars in the last few years have meant that returns are diminishing, and no-one is going to go crazy when The Miz returns in 10 years to win the Royal Rumble when no-one wants him to.
He returned in 2016, to interupt his father, Vince, awarding his sister Stephanie with the “Vincent J, McMahon Legacy of Excellence” award, live on Monday Night Raw. He returned to the WWE for the first time in 7 years, and is one of the biggest pops of recent times,
4. The Hardy Boyz surprise return at Wrestlemania 33
Prior to Wrestlemania 33, The Hardy Boyz were the biggest thing in wrestling. And this time, it wasn’t because of Jeff.
Matt Hardy had completely reinvented himself as his “Broken Matt” persona. His character was possessed by an ancient God, which gave Matt special magic powers and made him speak with a bad English accent.
It doesn’t sound like it, but it was the best thing in wrestling. The peak of the Broken Matt hype was a brother vs brother encounter, named “The Final Deletion”.
The match was pre-taped at Jeff Hardy’s house, named “The Hardy Compound“. It was unlike any match ever before, and revolutionised the use of pre-taping in matches in WWE.
Without the Final Deletion, we would never have got matches like the Stadium Stampede, or the Undertaker inspired Boneyard Match.
However, when Wrestlemania 33 rolled around, the Hardy’s were free of their TNA contracts. Both men were former TNA World Champions, but sought pastures new to further their careers.
The night before Wrestlemania, they wrestled the Young Bucks in a ladder match at Ring of Honor’s Supercard of Honour event. The Young Buck’s defeated the Hardy Boys, who then told everyone that they were done for the weekend and were going home.
How wrong they were.
The Hardy Boyz returned, seconds before the triple threat tag team ladder match was about to begin. Announced by the New Day as surprise entrants, the crowd roared when the classic Hardy Boyz theme music played, and Matt Hardy and Jeff Hardy made their long awaited surprise return to WWE, in one of the best feel good moments in Wrestlemania history.
3. The Rock makes his surprise return to WWE to host Wrestlemania 27
The Rock is one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and one of the most recognisable people in the world. He is also one of the most famous wrestlers in the history of the business.
Which is surprising, because he actually only wrestled full time for about five years. That is a drop in the ocean, in a world where most wrestlers spend longer than that toiling away on the independent scene before getting a shot at the WWE.
However, the Rock left the WWE for good in 2004 to pursue acting opportunities in Hollywood. He distanced himself from the WWE, dropping his real name (The Rock) for a fake name his agent created (Dwayne Johnson).
Fans were starting to think they would never see the Rock in a WWE ring again. But then, WWE announced a guest host for Wrestlemania 27 to be revealed on Monday Night Raw.
Rumours swirled that Justin Bieber was the man chosen for the role, but luckily for fans that night, there was a big surprise in store. One of the biggest surprise returns in WWE history.
The Rock would host Wrestlemania 27 that year, and start his long term feud with John Cena.
He would wrestle Cena in consecutive Wrestlemania’s, and between that would beat CM Punk for the WWE Championship. It was one of the best surprise WWE returns ever, because it was so unexpected and fans were so happy to see “The Great One” for the first time in seven years.
2. Steve Austin returns from injury at Backlash 2000
Stone Cold Steve Austin returned at Backlash 2000 to potentially the biggest, loudly pop in the history of professional wrestling.
19000 fans in attendance in Washington came unglued from their seats. They had not seen Steve Austin for almost six months at that point, and were frothing at the mouth to see their hero finally give Triple H his comeuppance.
Austin left WWE six months prior to undergo neck surgery he had needed form an injury two years prior. He was at the top of his game and had never been as popular as he was then, but the need for the surgery became too much.
So, WWE needed to figure out a way to write him off TV while keeping the fans excited. So, they decided to do a “whodunnit” story with Steve Austin, involving a mystery attacker.
At Survivor Series 1999, Steve Austin was set to face Triple H and the Rock in a triple threat match for the WWF Championship. However, Austin was run over by a car in the parking lot before the pay per view, and was unable to compete. He would be gone from WWE for six months.
Later on, it was revealed Rikishi was the man who ran over Steve Austin. He was in the midst of a main event heel push, and despite claiming he “Did it for the Rock”, it was actually Triple H who orchestrated the attack, to take Austin out of their title match.
So at Backlash 2000, Austin returned to a deafening pop for one of the best surprise entrances in WWE history. There were rumblings of an Austin return, but nobody was really sure if we going to be there or not.
He returned in the main event, attacking Vince McMahon and Triple H to help the Rock to regain the WWE Championship
Austin would then feud with Triple H, once it was revealed he was the one behind the attack.
1. Edge comes out of retirement at Royal Rumble 2020
The Rated R Superstar Edge was one of the biggest stars in WWE history. He came into WWE as part of his legendary tag team with Christian, and was a part of multiple historic matches, like the original TLC match.
Edge was the first ever winner of the Money in the Bank ladder match, and used it to cash in on John Cena for his first WWE Championship. He went on to win 11 World Championship titles, and is one of the most decorated wrestlers in WWE history.
So, when he announced his retirement the day after Wrestlemania 27, fans were shocked. At Wrestlemania, he had defended his World Heavyweight Championship successfully against Alberto Del Rio. Fans cried in the arena as he revealed his neck injuries were worse than feared, and could cause paralysis if he continued wrestling.
And that seemed like that was that. Fans had accepted that it was the last they’d see of Edge, and it seemed Edge did too. It wasn’t the end of a career anyone would have hoped for, but walking out of Wrestlemania as World Champion is better than most get.
2020 Royal Rumble
Flash forward to the 2020 Royal Rumble. There have been rumblings of Edge visiting WWE doctors, which he shot down immediately. After Daniel Bryan’s sensational return from injury, fans started to believe Edge could do. Edge shot them down too, saying his injury was completely different, and much worse than Bryan’s.
However, the clock counted down, and the number 27 entrant at the 2020 Royal Rumble was set to be revealed.
“You think you know me”.
Edge was back! The crowd exploded like never before. People who had cried nine years ago burst into tears again, though this time it was tears of happiness.
Edge looked as good as he ever was. He lasted until the final three in the Rumble, being eliminated by Roman Reigns. He then feuded with Randy Orton, facing him at Wrestlemania and Backlash, before suffering another injury that kept him out for almost a year.
Edge returned again the next year at the Royal Rumble. This time however, he entered from number one and outlasted 29 other men to win the entire match. He became one of three men to enter at number one and win (one of them is Shawn Michaels, didn’t you know).
He would go on to main event Wrestlemania, sadly in a losing effort to Roman Reigns in a match featuring Daniel Bryan. No matter what happens though, nothing can take away his surprise return, which was the best and most emotional in the history of WWE.
You can click here to read about the best Edge matches in WWE history.
Which is your favourite surprise return in the WWE? Let us know what you think, down in the comments section below.
Hamish is a writer and podcaster and wrestling fan who is a key part of the Atletifo team.
After playing countless hours of WrestleMania X8 on the Gamecube, he discovered Rey Mysterio getting his head crushed by The Great Khali, and thus a love for professional wrestling was born.
He is also a Media Graduate, as well as writing for multiple sites about Premier League football and the culture of Wales – his home country.