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.
The Diesel character hadn't been seen on WWE television since 1996 and he always said that he would never return as that character because he "didn't want to be owned again." However, there's no question that he made the right decision here, as the return of "Big Daddy Cool" completely blew the roof off of the TD Garden in Boston.
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.
Back then, Bryan wasn't the star he turned out to be, so the live crowd didn't give him a massive ovation. But, the WWE audience was happy to see him back, and, of course, he went on to save WrestleMania XXX. So, it was a good call on WWE's part to bring back the "YES! man."
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.
At the time of his return, Flair hadn't been seen of WWE programming since the early 90s, but the fans certainly hadn't forgotten about him, as the live crowd was more than happy to see The Nature Boy back in a WWE ring.
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.
WWE nearly gave up on Batista, as he re-injured himself during his time off. They actually considered replacing him with Mark Jindrak. But, thanks to Triple H, who pushed for Batista to remain in the group, WWE stayed patient and when "The Animal" returned in the Fall of '03, the Evolution faction finally formed.
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.
Warrior returned in the show's main-event, which saw Hulk Hogan go one-on-one with Sid Justice, a.k.a Sycho Sid. During the bout, Papa Shango interfered, as he teamed up with Sid, but The Warrior made his big return shortly thereafter.
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.
Other than Shaquille O'Neal, DDP was the most popular person in the match. Of course, he didn't end up winning, but he did hit a handful of Diamond Cutters, which always pleases the crowd.
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.
Hogan's return was, of course, to setup the famous Hogan vs. Michaels match that took place at SummerSlam later that summer.
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.
The return ended up leading to Sting's final professional wrestling match, as he badly injured his neck during 2015's Night of Champions main-event. But, his return that night created a lot of buzz and it was something that not a whole lot of people saw coming.
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.
Michaels' return got a huge reaction from the live crowd, as nobody saw it coming. Of course, the real question at the time was, would HBK wrestle again? At the time, the answer seemed like it was going to be no. But, after the nWo disbanded just a few short weeks later, Michaels returned to the ring to face his longtime friend Triple H.
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.
Luckily, all three men - Billy Gunn, Road Dogg, and X-Pac - were still in fantastic shape, so they could do more than just run in and stand around. They ended up making a huge impact on the match, and later on, another DX member, Shawn Michaels, made his presence felt 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.
Cesaro shocked everyone by replacing Sami Zayn in the number one contender's fatal four way main-event on the April 4th edition of Raw. His return was met with a huge ovation, as you would expect. He also debuted his new entrance, where he comes out in a suit and rips it off on his way to the ring, which was fitting, seeing as his nickname is "The Swiss Superman."
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.
When you can get past the fact that Hall, Nash, and Hogan helping Sting makes absolutely no sense, then, and only then, will you be able to fully enjoy this return.
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.
Rollins' return showed that he has massive legs as a babyface, should WWE ever decide to go in that direction.
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.
Punk's 2011 return marked the first time that we heard Living Colour's hit song "Cult of Personality" hit the speakers at a WWE event. Will we ever hear it again? Well, we can all hope so!
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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