It's a fascinating time in WWE. The prominent presence of intriguing young talent, capable workers, a deep tag division and a blossoming mid-card offer signs that Triple H has engineered a refreshing re-direction for the company creatively. However, they still remain stuck in a sadly familiar rut of tepid, poorly defined characters, dull feuds and the problematic presence of a fan base willing to take opposition against disagreeable booking narratives (*cough* Roman Reigns *cough*).
One tried and true cure, however temporary, is the engineered return of a past familiar face to build new feuds and create interesting dynamics while meshing with current talent. In just the past half year, WWE has welcomed Alberto Del Rio, The Dudley Boyz and the eternally returning Chris Jericho back into the fold, not to mention the post-WrestleMania comeback of Maryse. While this hardly serves as a long-term solution to the challenges faced by WWE, it does offer a helpful distraction and serves as an effective means of pushing young talent. The Dudleys have been used to get over the New Day and, more recently, Enzo Amore and Colin Cassady. Del Rio dropped the US title to Kalisto and Jericho has feuded with AJ Styles and Dean Ambrose.
No matter who returns, there remains an appetite for more surprises involving more familiar names, particularly around the time of the Royal Rumble. But not just any old face will do. This list will explore 15 names that still have something to offer WWE beyond the nostalgic pop generated by the likes of Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels every WrestleMania. In order to make the list, you must be a capable, entertaining past WWE performer who a) people actually want to see back (sorry, Batista) and b) can be reasonably expected to one day be fit and willing to return (my sincere apologies, Daniel Bryan).
Will we see these 15 superstars back on Raw or SmackDown one day? As they say in WWE, never say never...
15 Derrick Bateman
For all of WWE’s flaws, they don’t often miss when it comes to identifying young talent coming up through their ranks. Through the days of OVW and NXT, they might have ruined a few would-be stars through poor development and bad booking, but they haven’t often been burned by giving up on a talent too early. One rare exception comes with Derrick Bateman, who was a likable, comedic babyface character in NXT before being shown the door when WWE Creative had nothing for him to do. Now, he’s a main event talent in TNA as Ethan Carter III, or EC3, proving equally adept at playing an entitled heel and a likable babyface.
14 Santino Marella
There is something to be said for the superstar who knows his role and his place on the card. Despite winning the Intercontinental title on his first night on the main roster, Santino Marella was never much more than a mid-card comedy act. Still, through the use of funny malapropisms in deliberately broken English and a sock puppet known as “The Cobra," Marella embraced his identity and grew popular as a result. At 42, any WWE return would likely mean a limited role but would surely still be met with cheers from fans. And if he brings former valet and real-life Mrs. Edge, Beth Phoenix, with him, all the better.
13 Shelton Benjamin
Shelton Benjamin’s tenure in WWE serves to highlight that in professional wrestling, athletic ability isn’t everything. One of the best pure athletes in WWE history, Benjamin enjoyed numerous pushes in an effort to bump him up to the main event, but a lack of mic talent and charisma continuously quashed his efforts. Having not appeared on WWE TV since his release in 2010, Benjamin would be a familiar, yet fresh face armed with an almost entirely new stable of wrestlers to feud with. At 40 years old, however, the death-defying athleticism he showcased in matches with Shawn Michaels and Triple H might not be up to the standard that WWE fans remember.
12 Brodus Clay
Few gimmicks have derailed a career as quickly as Brodus Clay’s “Funkasaurus” gimmick. With a debut that had been hyped for weeks after a short stint as a bodyguard for Alberto Del Rio, the monstrous Clay was introduced against all expectations as a silly, dancing face character. Encouraged by an early surprise pop, WWE stuck to the character even as fans lost interest while Clay remained trapped in a role with no potential. Even after a belated heel turn, Clay had nowhere to go after his Funkasaurus gimmick went bust and was released, falling into the waiting arms of TNA.
Though never the most exciting wrestler, Montel Vontavious Porter made a splash in WWE upon debuting in 2006 through a fresh gimmick. Introduced as a coveted free agent, his debut was held off on account of “contract negotiations” to further cement his mouthy, arrogant heel athlete character better known as MVP. Remembered mostly for his ugly Power Rangers-looking in-ring garb, he managed a few US title runs and solid feuds with Chris Benoit and Matt Hardy before his run fizzled out. Although he’s getting up there in age, the mic work that made him a star in TNA could help him make an impact back in WWE.
10 Kurt Angle
When you talk about wrestlers past their peak grappling heyday that could still make their mark in WWE, the list starts with Kurt Angle. Angle is now 47 and would be unlikely to be cleared to wrestle by WWE doctors on account of lingering neck problems. However, in addition to exceptional technical skill owning to his decorated Olympic career, Angle also became a star in WWE and TNA for being able to talk the talk. Few former WWE superstars on this list would generate the nostalgia pop of Angle, but he could also be highly useful in today’s environment as a mouthpiece for younger talent.
9 AJ Lee
Since the days of Trish Stratus and Lita, no Diva has achieved a greater level of popularity than AJ Lee. And while Stratus and Lita might both be a little too well seasoned for any kind of meaningful return, Lee is still in her 20s, making a return plausible. But a return isn’t necessarily in WWE’s control, as Lee retired from active competition in 2015, thought by some to be connected to the earlier departure of her husband, CM Punk. It would be fascinating to see a WWE comeback by Lee amidst a far different landscape of women’s wrestling, one in which promising young talents like Charlotte, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch now reign.
8 Kassius Ohno
Few indie talents received the hype and excitement generated by Chris Hero when he and Claudio Castagnolli (now Cesaro) joined WWE in 2011. While his former Kings of Wrestling tag partner rapidly made his way to the main roster, the newly monikered Kassius Ohno treaded water as a compelling NXT character despite misgivings by management about his commitment to conditioning. Despite engaging in major feuds with Steven Regal and The Wyatt Family, he was released without ever appearing on the main roster. Still, the cult of WWE fans that also follow the indie circuit would mark out for the return of Ohno/Hero.
With Primo and Epico set to debut a newly re-branded tag team that will almost surely be met with apathy, it might be time to bring back another member of the Colon family that actually struck a nerve with audiences. Carlito, the wild-haired purveyor of “cool,” enjoyed a six-year run as an undeniably charismatic mid-card star in WWE. He was released after a Wellness Policy violation in 2010 and was last seen on WWE TV at the 2014 Hall of Fame ceremony, which he attended in support of the induction of his father, Carlos Sr. Carlito would represent a fresh return from someone who might still have something to offer in the ring.
It’s become an annual rite of passage to speculate about the one-off return of Goldberg leading into WrestleMania season. For a company always seeking to inject their biggest event of the year with both a sense of history and some exciting surprises, the dominant former WCW star would certainly generate a pop while also – despite his advanced age – carry the look of someone who could still kick some butt. A feud with Goldberg clone Ryback (if he's ever allowed back on TV) would be a quick way to draw some PPV buys and build a ready-made feud.
5 Drew McIntyre
When he arrived in WWE in 2009, Drew McIntyre looked like such a sure thing as a blue chip prospect that he was actually handed a heelish “Chosen One” character and aligned with Mr. McMahon, a rarity for the WWE Chairman. The high level of promise was owed to the Scot’s WWE-ready build, main event look and aggressive, realistic-looking offense. However, after trying several different characters on both the heel and face side of the ledger, McIntyre failed to put all of his tools together. Since being released in 2014, he has realized some of that potential as the TNA World Champion. At 30, it’s not too late for that success to carry back over to WWE.
Few competitors can boast a stranger WWE legacy than that of Kia Stevens, known in most wrestling circles as Awesome Kong but known as Kharma during her short WWE stint. After serving as a dominant presence in TNA’s Knockouts division, her arrival in WWE was hyped with creepy vignettes and a few post-match attacks that built her up as a monster. Before she could wrestle a match, however, she announced a leave of absence due to pregnancy. Upon returning as a surprise entrant in the 2012 Royal Rumble, she was released from her contract. Fans can still hold out at least some hope of a return, with Stevens stating that she left on good terms with WWE.
3 John Morrison
Despite runs in two red hot championship tag teams, first alongside Joey Mercury and Melina as part of MNM and then with The Miz, John Morrison's WWE run was hindered by the same athletic-but-bland label that held Shelton Benjamin down. Although he ultimately left on his own terms in 2011, his exit was expedited by frustrations over a lack of character direction owed to his inability to generate much fan response. Now known as the hated Johnny Mundo in Lucha Underground, Morrison has found his niche as a cowardly, pretty boy heel that has thrived while getting under the skin of the federation's fan base.
2 Jeff Hardy
Recognizing that Jeff Hardy is quickly approaching age 40 (he's 38 now) and has already made WWE leery with prior drug issues and a reckless track record of putting his body on the line is important when discussing Hard'y potential return. However, The Charismatic Enigma might just have one run left in him. For those paying attention, Hardy is back after a devastating motorcycle injury and is doing inspired work in TNA, so now might be the time to bring him back.
1 CM Punk
In making an argument for my No. 1 selection on this list, just imagine a live crowd in attendance at a WWE Raw or PPV when "Cult of Personality" suddenly hits the speakers. Though a WWE return seems beyond unlikely for the UFC-focused CM Punk, the same could have once been said for Brock Lesnar and Bret Hart, both of whom are presently in the WWE fold. The best part of a Punk return would be how seamlessly he could tie the real-life story into his in-ring character, either as an anti-hero cheered against the evil higher powers or as a villain exposed for his dispassionate betrayal.