If there’s anything fans of the WWE product have learned over the years, it’s that you can never say never when it comes to top talent returning after falling out with the company.
The best example of this might be Bret Hart, who infamously left the company after refusing to put Shawn Michaels over at Survivor Series 1997, only to have his world title pried away from him following a screw job finish. If CM Punk ever decides he’d like another run as a professional wrestler, he may overtake Hart as “exhibit A.”
While there are a multitude of grizzled veterans the company can lure back if needed, there are other budding superstars who have yet to step foot inside a WWE ring who could do so any day now. Between the two talent pools, here are 15 wrestlers you can expect to return to the company in the next year.
15 Wade Barrett
Even though Wade Barrett just recently finished up a seven-year run in WWE, his departure came before the brand split went into effect in August. It’s become increasingly apparent as of late that the company is looking to bring as many bodies as they can to fill out both brands, and being a guy once thought to be the next top heel, the new landscape could make for a prime opportunity for Barrett to return to.
Barrett mentioned on Twitter that he’d like to continue to pursue more acting jobs while he tries to break in as a European soccer personality. If his heart just isn’t set on wrestling anymore then that’s one thing. But recency bias could point to a Bad News Barrett return sooner than you may think.
14 Ethan Carter III
Ethan Carter III is a curious case of being a guy who spent a handful of years in WWE before hitting the indies and completely changing his gimmick from that of a comedy character to a serious main event player in TNA. Not only that, his gimmick is strongly based on him being the storyline nephew of the disgraced Dixie Carter.
It’s hard to say how WWE would handle him if they wanted to bring him back. He’s certainly gone out and proven that he has the chops to be a contributing player in the world’s top wrestling company. Talent isn’t as much the issue as direction is. Would he continue on as ECIII? Would he go back to being Derrick Bateman? Would he become something new altogether? Does WWE want to deal with the hassle of coming up with something new for him?
ECIII has proven himself competent in all areas of the business, so talent is not an issue. If TNA were to ever fold, he would probably be one of the first guys WWE looks at given his physique and charisma combination. He has also come as far as anybody since his WWE release in 2013 and should be handsomely rewarded for his efforts.
13 Shelton Benjamin
Benjamin was slated to return to Smackdown Live back in August, but a torn rotator cuff has kept him sidelined indefinitely. While it is not a guarantee WWE will still want to bring him back, it would be in their best interest, even if Benjamin is only 70 percent of the athlete he once was. Nostalgia will sell after all, if only for a short while.
At 41, Benjamin does not need a starring role to thrive. As a member of the vaunted OVW class of 2002, Benjamin can bring a lot to the table from an experience and versatility stand point. A former standout at the University of Minnesota (along with one, Brock Lesnar) Benjamin’s base is mat wrestling, though his athleticism allows him to take to the air on occasion as well. Even if it means just putting younger guys over, Benjamin can still be an asset and his path back to the WWE is clearer than most.
12 Drew Galloway
There was a time that WWE thought Drew Galloway (McIntyre at the time) was going to be a star for them in the same vein as Triple H. They gave him a grand entrance theme. They gave him the Intercontinental Championship. They even gave him “The Chosen One” moniker, which is the kiss of death in some ways as it creates unreasonable expectations. But it’s a fact that they company though highly of him.
Eventually, Galloway fell out of favor with management and eventually got his release, which turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to him just like it was with ECIII. He still has the chops to be a serious character, and his success in TNA may serve as a friendly reminder to WWE as to what they can still salvage if they ever decide to bring him back into the company.
If the WWE had the chance to take a long look at ECIII, the only guy they would probably consider bringing back more would be Galloway due to them having shown a strong belief in him in the past. The WWE likes to be right and if they ever decide to wipe the slate clean with Galloway, they might just have the UK foil to Finn Balor on their hands.
11 Cody Rhodes
It would be a quick turnaround if Cody Rhodes were to return to the WWE, but a lot of this depends on the future of TNA, which is volatile at best. Should the company in the next 12 months, Rhodes should have a clear path back to the company where he got his start.
Leaving WWE on his own terms may have been the best thing for Rhodes’ career at this juncture. Departing the company meant him shedding the Stardust gimmick while providing him an opportunity to remind fans (and WWE brass) that he is just entering his in-ring prime. Just imagine him returning as someone’s mystery partner in the third-annual NXT Dusty Rhodes Classic, only to turn heel on said partner after winning, creating a clear path for him back to the main roster as… himself. “No Gimmicks Necessary” Cody Rhodes could get over huge, so if TNA folds a Rhodes return in 2017 should not surprise anyone.
10 Gail Kim
On November 19 of this year, Mickie James will return to the company to take on Asuka at NXT Takeover: Toronto. In case you’ve been living under a rock the past year-plus, the divas division has underwent an unprecedented face lift, and now features the most comprehensive lineup of women the company has ever had. Similar to James, the time might be ripe for a third WWE run for Gail Kim.
Kim has always had a WWE-friendly look, even for the company’s high physical standards in the 2000s, but her look gets easily overshadowed by her work in the ring. Since the work rate of the Divas division was not up to par the last time around, Kim became a square peg in round hole and eventually fizzled out in WWE before a TNA return.
Alas, a lot has changed between 2016 and 2006, though one constant has been Kim’s ability in the ring. Sure, she just became a TNA Hall of Famer, and yes, she is opening a restaurant in Las Vegas with husband Ted Irvine. But even if it means wrestling a handful of one-off matches to put over the likes of Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch, Kim may want to make time in order to cement her women’s wrestling legacy.
9 Kota Ibushi
Kota Ibushi is actually the most recent member of the list to have stepped into a WWE ring. He turned heads at the Cruiserweight Classic to the point that Triple H wanted to sign him and make him a permanent part of the WWE brand. Alas, Ibushi declined in favor of his willingness to continue as a freelancer. He gave the same treatment to New Japan back in February for likely the same reason; he just likes having full control of his career.
It’s hard to blame him. The athletic Ibushi is in demand all over the world so much so that bigger companies like WWE and NJPW don’t mind bringing him in for one-shots and select tournaments. It speaks to his talent in the ring and his ability to dazzle the crowd.
That does not mean that a move to the WWE full-time is not in his future, however. The door is always going to be open for a guy like Ibushi, and when Shinsuke Nakamura inevitably leaves NXT, there will be logically more room for creative to focus on a Japanese wrestler such as Ibushi. A return to WWE may be as simple as Ibushi getting Triple H on the phone and informing him that he has changed his mind.
8 The Young Bucks
There is no argument to be made for a better tag team currently on the indies, and that’s why The Young Bucks are the only package deal on this list. The truth is they would probably be in WWE by now if they weren’t so successful between stints in Ring of Honor, New Japan and Pro Wrestling Guerilla. The duo has carved out a nice niche for themselves. They get to live comfortably outside of WWE while maintaining full creative control over their likenesses and the way their matches are constructed.
The truth is, the more success “The Bucks” have on the indies, the more likely they will be able to come into WWE on their own terms. The more success they continue to have, the more likely it is they will be able to skip developmental, don Dave Meltzer’s face on their tights and maybe even perform an Indy Taker on the grandest stage of them all. There is definite interest there, as “The Bucks,” along with Kenny Omega have exchanged friendly barbs with The New Day over social media, so there is definitely money in that type of program. It might be time for the WWE to acquiesce to Matt and Nick Jackson’s demands for a chance to have one of the hottest tag team programs in years.
7 Matt Striker
Some might be hesitant to include Lucha Underground property on a list like this due to the extravagant contracts they purportedly sign. Matt Striker is an exception, just because announcer contracts are typically a different animal than wrestler contracts.
Let’s not forget Striker’s greatest strength: his ability to contribute in all areas of the business. In a shoot interview with RFVideo back in 2013, Striker claimed that he was offered a job as Senior Director of Talent Relations Mark Carrano’s right-hand man but turned it down as he still felt he had something left to offer in the ring.
The only thing that may be working against a Matt Striker comeback would be his ability to garner real-life heat backstage. Of course, the business has undergone some changes since Striker first came into the fold, so perhaps he’d get a clean slate. Still, he’s always had a great deal of poise on the microphone, has a proven track record for making upper mid carders look like a million bucks and has shown he can connect to the audience. He’s 42, but even if his return to the ring is short lived, I have to believe he would be a natural fit as a coach down at the Performance Center one day.
6 Broken Matt Hardy
A lot of the TNA wrestlers that made this list did so either out of circumstance or because they will have paid their dues enough to warrant WWE wanting to give them another shot.
“Broken” Matt Hardy made this list because he hit the proverbial home run and reached a new level of popularity thanks to his “broken brilliance.” As fans begin to turn their attention to 2017, now is the time for Hardy to cash in on his new character, albeit on his own terms.
Many of the wrestlers on this list could justify a WWE return because they need it to stay fresh, get a foot in the door or to add another chapter to a storybook career. In the case of Matt Hardy, it could be a situation of the WWE needing Matt more than Matt needs the WWE. In any event, this is a return every fan privy to the “Broken” Matt Hardy character should be rooting for, and it has become common knowledge that nearly the entire industry, particularly WWE guys are fans of Matt’s most recent work.
5 James Storm
As odd as it may sound, James Storm has appeared in a WWE ring before. Storm was brought into NXT late last year with the hope of making him a player-coach of sorts, which is a nice role considering NXT needs some guys who they don’t have to worry about being called up to Raw or Smackdown Live.
The problem? Storm and the WWE never put pen to paper, which allowed TNA to re-enter the fray by making an albatross of an offer to retain Storm’s services, which according to ProWrestlingSheet.com’s Ryan Satin was 2 1/2 times more than what WWE offered. It’s probably part of the reason TNA is having all the financial problems they’ve been having over the years. At that money they could have at least endeavored to create three or four James Storms, and lord knows they need the depth.
Money is often the decisive factor in situations like these though, and the door remains open for Storm to return to NXT. His recent affiliation in the BDC indicates Storm may be looking to give TNA one last try, but the door to WWE is probably as tempting as ever now that former tag team partner Bobby Roode is in the fold.
4 Jay Lethal
Jay Lethal has won championships in nearly every modern North American independent promotion and for the past two years or so has hit his stride with his work inside the ring. At this point, what left is there for him to accomplish? Sure, he can rekindle his feud with Adam Cole over the Ring of Honor world championship and maybe even win it back, but the only path for Lethal to continue the forward momentum in his career is to finally try his luck in WWE.
Lethal may have a great reputation for his ring work, but he also has a personality to match. Over the years, he has held a wide array of different personas, including an underdog babyface, a Nick Bockwinkel-inspired heel and Black Machismo, when he flawlessly impersonated “Macho Man” Randy Savage.
Looking at the current NXT roster, a move to the main roster should be imminent for talents like Shinsuke Nakamura, Samoa Joe, Asuka and the Revival, so new faces will be called on to replace them. Given his versatility, experience and team-player personality, Jay Lethal makes a ton of sense in NXT.
3 Jeff Hardy
Lost in originality of the innovative “Broken Matt Hardy” character is the significance his brother Jeff has had on getting both Matt and himself over.
Remember, the genesis of the storyline came when Matt was driven over the edge by Jeff’s spot monkey tendencies and the impact it has had on the popularity of both brothers over the years. Jeff is the Brother Nero that fuelled the hilarity behind his brother’s unique gimmick and if recent matches such as “The Final Deletion” and “Delete or Decay” are any indication, Jeff still loves a good high spot.
Finn Balor, has slid into the role Jeff once occupied as the mysterious babyface that spikes merchandise sales. But come to think of it, that could make for an interesting program, especially if Jeff were to continue piggy-backing off of his brother’s new persona.
2 Kenny Omega
The G-1 Climax winner over in New Japan is currently on a collision course to battle IWGP heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 11. Omega is the total package and ever since he became the defacto leader of the Bullet Club Omega has earned the label as perhaps the greatest modern day wrestler to have never stepped inside a WWE ring.
The last guy to carry that label also perfected his craft in New Japan. His name was AJ Styles and he didn’t turn out so bad when he, along with Shinsuke Nakamura, Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows jumped to the WWE after Wrestle Kingdom 10. There is precedent for Omega’s eventual appearance in WWE.
Omega had previously been bullish on his anti-WWE stance, ripping the company whenever asked about his time in developmental. However, he seems to have changed his tune in recent times, likely due to friends of his holding prominent spots in the company. Size aside, Omega has everything the WWE looks for as far as his ability to hold his own in the ring while connecting to the audience in concerned. If there is mutual interest, which there might be at the end of this year, Omega might just bypass developmental altogether.
1 Kurt Angle
There is a serious thirst for one last run for Kurt Angle in the company that gave him his first big break in the professional wrestling business. Angle is revered as not only one of the all-time greats but also as one of the industry’s quickest learners. To this day, he’s the only Olympic gold medalist to parlay his success into a successful professional wrestling career.
And yet, this isn’t 2006. This is 2016, and Kurt will be turning 48 in less than a month. It’s reasonable to believe his best days are behind him. Combine that with his bouts with addiction (Angle said he took as many as 65 vicodin every single day at the height of his addiction on the Steve Austin Show) and it’s reasonable to believe why the WWE has been leery of bringing him back.
Nevertheless, the Royal Rumble just two months away and it will be emanating from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Angle and his family still reside. The storyline for Angle’s return to the company will never look this good and he won’t have to bump as much in the Royal Rumble match itself. Instead, the match can be used to set up Angle’s final program, which would culminate at WrestleMania 33 while he hopefully gets christened into the WWE Hall of Fame that same weekend.