Everyone likes to give second chances, and that’s no different in the WWE, which has become famous for giving their stars another go in the company, whether they were successful the first time around or a complete failure. This allows performers to go onto the independent scene and turn their career around, which will in turn make them more valuable to the company. We've also seen midcarders turn themselves into main eventers, but some guys have come back and the changing times have made them struggle.
This list will look at performers who have gone into other ventures, worked on the independent scene or left the wrestling business entirely after a run with the WWE, and have come back either stronger or to failure, and although success may be seen as an individual thing, differing for all people, it should be obvious by reading what success can be defined as in the WWE.
15 SUCCESS: Rey Mysterio
Rey Mysterio Jr. made his name in ECW and WCW, and was quite possibly the most famous luchador in the world, and once WCW folded, the WWE picked up his contract and he became incredibly successful, winning the WWE Tag Team Championship and the World Heavyweight Championship in an emotional tribute to his friend Eddie Guerrero at WrestleMania. He left the company for a few years following this due to injuries and wanting a reduced schedule, but he returned later and found some success. He may not have been the crowd favorite he once was, but he was again one of the top merchandise movers in the company, and although it only lasted less than a day, he won the WWE Championship for the first time, which will always be seen as a success.
14 SUCCESS: Bray Wyatt
Bray Wyatt first appeared on our screens as Husky Harris, a member of the second season of the NXT rookie search, and the subsequent group known as the Nexus. Unfortunately, he was never going to succeed on his own, so he went back down to developmental and began working on his newest and perhaps the most unique character in wrestling — take note we are counting this as his second run because he was off the main roster for an extended time. He then came back on NXT (the developmental company) under the Bray Wyatt guise, with his followers Luke Harper and Erick Rowan in tow, and straight away the fans knew it would be a great gimmick. The booking hasn’t helped him in the slightest, and he will no doubt struggle with RAW’s booking team behind him now, but for the nine months on SmackDown Live following the brand split, Wyatt was one of the most interesting and successful characters in wrestling.
13 FAIL: The Dudley Boyz
The Dudley Boyz are without a doubt the most successful tag team in the history of wrestling, winning titles in ECW, WWE, TNA and even New Japan, with over 20 title wins as a duo. Their biggest successes came during the Attitude Era where they innovated the TLC match with Edge and Christian and The Hardy Boyz. They returned to a huge pop in 2015, and fans definitely loved seeing them, but once the nostalgia wore off, the fans realized that these two weren’t in the shape they were in back then, and their Attitude Era-type gimmick just didn’t work in the WWE today. Instead of breathing new life into a struggling tag team division, the duo struggled and didn’t make much of an impact at all, and they left after just a year back in the company, as the WWE finally realized that nostalgia, while good, can’t keep fans hooked forever.
12 SUCCESS: Brian Kendrick
The Brian Kendrick may only be in his second run with the company now, but after he admitted he was complacent his first go around, he has certainly managed to pick up his game this time around, even though his talent is now being squandered in the cruiserweight division. Sure, his first run had him winning WWE Tag Team Championship with Paul London, but after many years on the independent scene, he returned for the Cruiserweight Classic, and it was clear he was a changed, motivated man. The arrogant young star was now transformed into a cunning veteran who would do anything to win, and that helped him to the quarterfinals of the CWC and to becoming the second Cruiserweight Champion, and it seems like he has much more left to give.
11 SUCCESS: Matt Hardy
It speaks to the ability of Matt Hardy and the wrestling knowledge that he possesses that the best work of his career was done at this late stage, with his “Broken Brilliance” in TNA. As for WWE, he had quite a successful time throughout, despite never quite being able to step out of the shadow of his charismatic, daredevil brother, Jeff. He began his career with Jeff as a member of The Hardy Boyz and Team Xtreme, and after their breakup, Matt had an entertaining Version 1 gimmick, but it didn’t make him an integral part of WWE programming, as that came before his very brief and public release.
As the story goes, his real-life girlfriend Lita cheated on him with Edge, and he was fired after making it public, but Vince McMahon saw money in this heated rivalry, and brought Hardy back quickly after. What ensued was the best rivalry of Matt and perhaps Edge’s career, and it catapulted him into stardom, and while Hardy never got to that level, he did have an incredibly successful run.
10 FAIL: Luke Gallows
Luke Gallows has had one of the more interesting wrestling careers of anyone in the past decade, and it began in the WWE with one of the worst characters to ever grace the company, and that’s saying something. He formed a tag team with Jesse (Ray Gordy), using the name Festus. Gallows' Festus gimmick is hard to describe, so if you haven’t seen that disaster, go check it out.
After another WWE run and some time in TNA, Gallows went overseas and became a huge success in Japan as part of the Bullet Club. His latest run may still be a success if the WWE can find a way to book The Club in the manner in which they deserve, but his second WWE run came as the right hand man of CM Punk and the Straight Edge Society. It wasn’t too bad, as he was in the main event spot because of Punk, but Gallows found no individual success, something which he has yet to rectify this time around.
9 SUCCESS: Christian
Christian shot to fame with Edge during the Attitude Era, as they were the most successful of the three teams involved in innovating the TLC match. Still, it was Edge who shot to the main event following this time, and Christian ended up leaving the company to join the second-hottest promotion in the U.S. at the time, Total Nonstop Action. He became a huge star and a World Champion there, but like all who leave, he couldn’t resist coming home to the WWE, and he did that to some great success. He first arrived in WWE’s reboot of ECW where he put on great matches with everyone, eventually capturing their biggest title, before going on to win Edge’s recently vacated World Heavyweight Championship twice, a lot of well-deserved success for Captain Charisma.
8 SUCCESS: Goldberg
Bill Goldberg was a horrible wrestler from the traditional standpoint back in WCW, but the company pushed him to the moon, and he became quite possibly the biggest star in the history of the now-defunct promotion. Sadly, that didn’t carry over to the WWE. He was treated poorly, and after a run of a year or so, he decided to leave, and his final match was one of the worst in the history of WrestleMania. After a decade away, there were rumblings that Bill may return to the company, and when he was announced as the feature star for the WWE 2K17 video game, it was all but confirmed. He may have only wrestled four matches after the return, including two against Brock Lesnar, the 2017 Royal Rumble match and one against Kevin Owens, but he managed to win the WWE Universal Championship and have a feature match at ‘Mania, which can only be seen as a success.
7 FAIL: Curt Hawkins
Curt Hawkins has had an interesting run with the WWE, starting as one of Edge's lackeys with Zack Ryder, and including some moderate success in the tag team division. When he was let go by the company, no one thought too much of it as he was never a standout performer on the promo or in the ring. Then the brand split happened in 2016, and the WWE began reaching out to former employees, and they brought back Hawkins to help their midcard division. That wasn’t exactly successful. Hawkins has dropped down to the point where he is nothing more than enhancement talent, and while that may be paying the bills for Curt, it will never turn into a successful run with the WWE.
6 SUCCESS: Jeff Hardy
Jeff Hardy is one of the most popular stars in WWE history, as he rose to prominence with his brother Matt while innovating the TLC matches, and he is still loved worldwide today, as evidenced by the thunderous ovation the brothers received with their surprise entrance at WrestleMania 33. This recent run isn’t his second, though, as that came after a successful stint in TNA from 2004-2006, and he returned to the best success of his career in WWE. It was during this time that he won the Intercontinental, Tag Team, World Heavyweight and WWE Championship, along with some incredible programs and moments that will be remembered for a lifetime. His parting words after an incredibly emotional rivalry with CM Punk were “it’s not goodbye forever, just goodbye for now,” and that prophecy has rung true. Still, no matter how good he goes this time around, it will never replicate his run from 2006-2009.
5 SUCCESS: Brock Lesnar
Brock Lesnar made his WWE debut in 2002, and he became a huge star despite guys like The Rock and Stone Cold still being active. That didn't stop him from having one of the best debut years in WWE history, but the Beast wasn’t long for the wrestling business. He went on to try out for the NFL and then went on to have a victorious stint in the UFC, which saw him win the UFC Heavyweight Championship. But after that career venture came to an end, he returned home to the WWE in 2012, eight years after his final match with the promotion. He has won the company's top title twice, and has been involved in key matches at every WrestleMania since, even ending the Undertaker's undefeated streak. All told, he has been one of the most successful performers in the entire company since his return.
4 FAIL: Batista
Batista emerged from the crop of young stars in WWE that also included Randy Orton, Brock Lesnar and John Cena, and he went on to become one of the biggest names in the wrestling industry, so good in fact that he ended up leaving after quite a successful run to pursue other ventures in Hollywood, much like the Rock. He couldn’t resist a return, however, and in 2014, the WWE welcomed Big Dave back with open arms. But after a questionable booking decision at that year's Royal Rumble event, the fans quickly turned on him. He won the match against their will, and turned him into “Bootista,” and despite main eventing that year's WrestleMania, he left just a few short months later, meaning the run wasn’t close to the success he would have liked.
3 SUCCESS: Shawn Michaels
Shawn Michaels will go down as one of the greatest wrestlers in the history of the wrestling business, and his last run from 2002-2010 is a big part of that, which makes it even more shocking that he almost called a complete end to his career after a serious back injury in the late-1990s. He returned to shockingly join the nWo, and went on an amazing run that saw him capture the WWE Tag Team Championship and World Heavyweight Championship. He also had very memorable programs with the likes of Triple H, John Cena, Kurt Angle and had some legendary matches with The Undertaker. His legacy was set after his first run as the Heartbreak Kid, but his final run made sure that people remembered him as one of the greatest wrestlers, if not the greatest of all time. His retirement match was perhaps the greatest match in WWE history.
2 SUCCESS: Daniel Bryan
Bryan Danielson made himself a huge star on the independent scene, and it got to the point where the WWE had to bring him into the fold, and after appearing on NXT and then the main roster with the Nexus, Daniel Bryan was let go by the company after choking Justin Roberts with his tie in a "non-PG act." He returned at that year's SummerSlam to join WWE in defeating the dominant Nexus, and after being defeated a year later at WrestleMania by Sheamus in 18 seconds, he began a rise to superstardom that was the biggest and best-told story the WWE has told in quite some time. His exit from the company may not have lasted that long, but in his second run with the WWE, Bryan went from a good wrestler to one of the biggest stars in the game, one who made history when he won the WWE World Championship in the main event of WrestleMania XXX.
1 FAIL: Alberto Del Rio
Alberto El Patron was one of the biggest stars in Mexican wrestling, as he had a long, successful and very illustrious career, but he pushed himself to make it in America, and signed a high profile contract with the WWE. He won the Royal Rumble match, World Heavyweight Championship and the Money in the Bank match in his short stint as one of the top heels in the company, but they had no idea how to book him in the years following, and his heat died down, which forced him out of the biggest promotion in the world.
Instead of being disappointed, he went out and again became a huge star on the indies, wrestling for AAA and Lucha Underground, and the company lured him back with big money. He won the U.S. title from John Cena in an electric return in late-2015, but ridiculous storylines and a non-committal attitude towards him forced him again to leave, this time for good after such a disappointing return.