Like with all scripted television programs, WWE occasionally uses the element of surprise to try and add some excitement to their shows. Sometimes that involves a surprise upset win, like we saw at WrestleMania 32 when Zack Ryder won the Intercontinental Championship and sometimes it involves a superstar returning from a long layoff.
Typically, we'll hear about a surprise return days, weeks, or even months in advance, thanks to the Wrestling Observer, among other "dirt sheet" publications. But, there are times when a return is able to be kept under wraps and when that's the case, the roar of the crowd is often times substantially louder than if the secret would've been spoiled in advance.
A returning WWE superstar always has the potential to make a gigantic impact in the short-term if they're booked properly. But, unfortunately, WWE hasn't always been the best at keeping a returning star hot, like when CM Punk returned to the company prior to SummerSlam 2011. Sure, he was a main-event player from the time he returned to the time he left. But, was it really the best idea to, as Punk put it on the Art of Wrestling podcast, feed him to Triple H at Night of Champions '11? Probably not.
This list won't be focusing on how a returning star was used following their triumphant return, but rather, it'll be about the impact their return had that night, and, of course, the element of surprise will be a factor here.
15 Diesel (Royal Rumble 2011)
Sure, people knew that Kevin Nash was going to be in the 2011 Royal Rumble match well-ahead of time. But, nobody knew that the former WWE Champ would be returning to the company as Diesel.
14 Daniel Bryan (SummerSlam 2010)
The internet wrestling community was outraged after WWE fired Daniel Bryan for choking ring announcer Justin Roberts during The Nexus invasion angle. But, Bryan returned just a few months later to face the Nexus at SummerSlam 2010.
13 Ric Flair (Raw 2001)
The WWE vs. WCW / ECW invasion angle had just concluded, once again giving Vince McMahon full control of World Wrestling Entertainment, or so we thought.
McMahon was about to crown Kurt Angle as the new WWE Champion, but, before he could do that, Ric Flair's music hit and Flair went on to reveal that he and Vince would be the co-owners of WWE.
12 Batista (Raw 2003)
Much like with the return of Daniel Bryan in 2010, Batista wasn't yet a big star in WWE, as he had primarily been Reverend D-Von's lackey.
"The Animal" suffered a pretty severe injury shortly after WWE had decided to break him away from D-Von. At the time, the plan was for both Batista and Randy Orton to join Triple H and Ric Flair, and the four men would form the Evolution faction.
11 The Ultimate Warrior (WrestleMania VIII)
The Ultimate Warrior had been away from WWE for quite some time following a dispute with Vince McMahon. But, in the spring of '92, the WWE Chairman and the former WWE Champion were able to come to terms on a return.
10 Diamond Dallas Page (WrestleMania 32)
Diamond Dallas Page has made a handful of returns to WWE over the last couple of years, but none of them were more shocking than when he returned for the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at this year's WrestleMania 32.
9 Hulk Hogan (Raw 2005)
Both John Cena and Shawn Michaels needed a tag-team partner for their six-man match against Chris Jericho, Tyson Tomko, and Christian, which closed out the June 27, '05 edition of Monday Night Raw.
After a long setup, Michaels revealed that Hulk Hogan would be their partner for the main-event. Hogan had been on WWE television several times earlier that year and he had even been partnered up with Michaels a few times.
8 Sting (Raw 2015)
Sting shocked everyone when he showed up in place of Seth Rollins' statue to close out the August 24th edition of WWE Raw. It was even more shocking to find out that, at 56 years of age, Sting was going to be in the WWE World Heavyweight Championship picture.
7 Shawn Michaels (Raw 2002)
Shawn Michaels had been on and off of WWE television following his retirement in the spring of 1998, most notably as the on-screen commissioner, and in the summer of '02, WWE decided to add Michaels to the New World Order.
The nWo faction had pretty much been gutted at that point, as Hulk Hogan and Scott Hall were removed from the faction. So, it definitely needed some star-power and, at the time, adding Michaels to the group seemed like a great idea.
6 D-Generation X (WrestleMania 31)
Most knew that the Sting vs. Triple H match at WrestleMania 31 would be a smoke and mirrors match due to the age and inactivity of both performers. But no one really expected that D-Generation X would get involved in the match.
5 Cesaro (Raw 2016)
Prior to this year's WrestleMania 32, it was public knowledge that Cesaro would be making his return from injury at some point after the event. But, it was believed that it would be several weeks after the event's conclusion.
4 New World Order (WrestleMania 31)
Hulk Hogan, Scott Hall, and Kevin Nash had appeared on WWE television as the nWo a few times prior to WrestleMania 31, but none of those appearances got the reaction that their run-in during the Sting vs. Triple H match got.
Almost immediately after DX ran in, many began to expect that someone would come out and assist Sting, however, the nWo doing so seemed like a longshot. But, that's exactly what happened.
3 Seth Rollins (Extreme Rules 2016)
It had been reported that Seth Rollins was well-ahead of schedule prior to his return at this year's Extreme Rules. However, most were expecting his return to be held off until the summer time.
At the end of the fantastic Roman Reigns vs. AJ Styles main-event, Rollins interrupted Reigns' celebration, and his run-in was met with a massive ovation from the crowd at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
2 CM Punk (Raw 2011)
We all knew that CM Punk was going to be returning to the company after his contract "came to an end" in the summer of 2011. But, what we didn't know was when it would happen.
The reason why no one saw Punk's return coming is simply because it was only a few weeks after he had, in storyline of course, left the company as WWE Champion. In fact, after his departure, WWE did a two-week tournament to crown a new Champion and Punk ended up appearing immediately after the new Champ was crowned.
1 John Cena (Royal Rumble 2008)
John Cena had been out of action for several months due to a pectoral tear and he wasn't expected to be back for another several months. But, in typical John Cena fashion, he returned way earlier than everybody expected and, shockingly enough, word of his return didn't leak out ahead of time.
Cena's return received a thunderous ovation from the Madison Square Garden crowd initially, but as soon as he began wrestling, most of the cheers changed to boos. But, there's no question that Cena's return in January of '08 completely shocked everyone.
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