It’s always a big deal when a major star makes a return to wrestling, especially these days. WWE has been in rough shape for several years and so any old face coming back can be a big deal. Witness the recent returns of Seth Rollins, Mick Foley and Daniel Bryan, all firing the crowds up and fans eager to see more. Even Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns got some interest with their returns as done right, it can elevate a guy back up and boost the entire company. Sadly, as with so many other things, a return is something WWE can easily botch.
Sometimes it’s not the company’s fault as a guy comes back just not ready to compete at the same level. Injuries and age can take their toll to ruin a planned comeback. But other times, the wrestler is subject to some terrible booking that ruins any chance they have to get back over. It's something that can very easily get messed up.
There have been a lot of failed returns in WWE but here are the biggest, 15 times a comeback ended up a huge letdown for those involved and marred the company badly.
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15 Ken Patera
In the early 1980s, Patera was one of the top heels for WWE, a former Olympian who was over with his brash and arrogant manner and great in the ring. His runs as IC Champion were good and fantastic feuds abounding. But in 1983, Patera was arrested after smashing apart a restaurant and sentenced to two years in jail. His return in 1987 was baffling as WWE decided to push him as a babyface with videos of his training and turning him into an inspirational story.
It didn’t fit as Patera was better as a heel and blaming his arrest on Bobby Heenan made no sense. Patera just didn’t get the proper push because of it, the fans never taking to him and he was out of WWE in just a year, showing that “inspirational stories” don’t work for everyone. They only work if the guy was truly likable beforehand.
14 Trish Stratus
One of the greatest evolutions in wrestling history, Trish went from just hot eye candy to one of the most skilled female grapplers around, reigning as Women’s Champion multiple times and helping elevate the division nicely. Retiring as champion in 2006, Trish worked at her yoga studio and even motherhood before making a return to WWE in 2011, now as a brunette.
However, the return of this star wasn’t a great move as she lost a match to Vickie Guerrero and then was set up in a Mania match against Guerrero and LayCool with John Morrison and…Snooki. Yes, Stratus had to allow this reality show TV star to carry much of the match and get the win while her own contributions were ignored. Stratus’ Hall of Fame career hardly ended on a great note for her. Hopefully she returns one day for a proper sendoff match, perhaps against someone like Sasha Banks.
13 Roddy Piper
Piper made much of his career with big returns from retirements and injuries, bouncing between WWE and WCW a lot and it was mostly with Piper’s Pit segments and other interviews. In 2006, he and Ric Flair united as an in-ring team, a throwback to their old team back in the early 1980s and upset the Spirit Squad for the tag team titles. Sadly, neither man was anywhere near the great athlete he once was, Piper in particular, as he was marred by a bad hip and slow as hell. Thus, their reign was short, dropping the belts to Rated-RKO a week later.
Piper’s in-ring work was suffering and he soon stuck to just interviews to sadly remind fans how even the greatest guys can succumb to age slowing them down. Piper wouldn't suit up for another match until WrestleMania XXV when he, Jimmy Snuka and Ricky Steamboat took on Chris Jericho.
Rena Mero truly changed the way women in WWE were perceived, transforming into a fantastic sex symbol with her looks, her Playboy spread and reigning as champion. However, her ego soon took over, leading to issues over more time and money and Mero has acknowledged how she let the fame go to her head too much. After leaving the company amid a lawsuit in 1999, Mero made a surprise return in 2003. However, by this time ladies like Trish Stratus, Stacy Kiebler and Torrie Wilson had become the new sex symbols for the company and Sable’s older act didn’t fit in as well.
She had a feud with Wilson involving a double Playboy spread and had a role as Mr. McMahon’s on air mistress but made nowhere near the impact she once had. She left once more in 2004 and while on good terms with the company, hasn’t made any notable appearances since, perhaps still letting the bad exit and return still affecting her.
11 Rob Van Dam
Much has been made of WWE not letting RVD get the shots he deserved as champion as the heat was clearly on him in 2002 and ’03 and a run as World Champion would have been welcomed. Of course, RVD would ruin his shot with the title in 2006 with his drug arrest to show he was unreliable. While he’d made a brief return to WWE in 2009, RVD intended to do more in 2013, getting some wins and a shot at the US title. However, his reliance on the same old moveset seemed to work against him as he was set to come up short against Alberto Del Rio for the World Heavyweight Championship and was soon moved down the card, losing to Roman Reigns in his last appearances. It just seemed another bad way for WWE to undermine RVD and keep him from scaling to the top as so many of his fans wanted.
While Edge really broke out as a main event star, Christian wasn’t too far behind, also reigning as tag team and IC champion and seemingly ready for more but just couldn’t break through. In 2005, Christian made a huge deal by jumping to TNA and quickly became a main event champion and star, got great on the mic and amassed a good following. So when he returned to WWE in 2009, you’d expect it to be a huge deal but instead of RAW or SmackDown, he made his return to ECW, the announcers treating it like just a minor thing, not a major star returning.
That set the tone as Christian just never was seen as the next main event guy. His shot as World Champion in 2011 came just because Edge retired and was short. It's too bad they never explored an Edge/Christian feud in the latter stages of their careers.
9 Scott Steiner
It’s hard not to see this as a total letdown in every sense. In 1993, Scott and brother Rick were at the height of their skill when they joined WWE and reigned as tag team champions a couple of times to spark up the card. They left to rejoin WCW where Scott soon erupted as singles star and World champion. In 2002, Steiner came back to WWE with the intention of becoming a fantastic main event star and feud with Triple H. It didn’t take long for it to become clear Steiner’s once-amazing athletic skills had atrophied to the point where he was blown up doing a suplex.
Not helping was how Steiner’s promos became more insane and featured more rambling than usual to the point where he was stumbling onto other’s lines. His match with HHH at the Royal Rumble was a complete disaster and he would be gone shortly afterward to showcase how some guys aren’t worth so much trouble.
8 Scott Hall
During his time as Razor Ramon in WWE, Hall finally achieved the stardom long promised him. Tall and skilled, he was great on the mic and with amazing charisma to win over fans and reign as IC champion several times. That carried to WCW as he and Kevin Nash formed the Outsiders but the promise of bigger things faded when Hall’s personal demons came calling. In 2002, he, Nash and Hogan came to reform the New World Order in WWE but the attempt was marred from the start by the fans cheering Hogan as a hero.
It was soon clear Hall’s addictions were taking its toll, staggering and slow in the ring and whispers surfaced of his unprofessional ways behind the scenes. He was finally fired after the infamous “Plane Ride From Hell” debacle and slipped into infamous bad times. He’s rebounded since but it's still notable how Hall’s ’02 comeback was a complete disaster.
7 Legion of Doom
For nearly two decades, the Road Warriors were revered as a fantastic team who changed the wrestling game with their face paint and leather appearance, wild promos and brutal ring style. They held titles in just about every company, taking a break due to injuries in 1992 but reunited in WWE in 1997 for another title run before Hawk’s personal addictions hampered him.
In 2003, they decided to give it one more run, making a surprise appearance on RAW to take on tag team champions Rob Van Dam and Kane. They lost and didn’t get the big contract expected with Hawk dying a few months later. Animal would get a new partner for a badly done LOD with Paul Heidenreich. It's sad that the greatest tag team ever ended with a whimper.
The team was just never quite able to sustain much success when going to the WWE.
6 British Bulldog
While he was never a huge draw, Davey Boy Smith had good runs in WWE, first with the British Bulldogs then as a singles star and his 1997 work with the Hart Foundation was terrific. When the Montreal Screwjob went down, Davey Boy followed Bret to WCW, mostly out of family loyalty but his issues with drug use combined with the always horrible politics of the company kept him down. He ended up suffering a serious back injury after taking a backdrop onto a trap door that the company didn’t say was there. He was then fired while recovering.
He returned to WWE in 1999, now wearing jeans to cover for the braces he had to wear to walk, and his attitude harsher than usual with all the pain he was in. He had some runs as Hardcore Champion but nowhere near the great worker he’d once been, the injuries and pain taking their toll and forcing him out of the company in just a year. Dying in 2002, Smith’s last run with WWE was hardly one to fondly remember him by.
Despite his issues with ego and some bad matches, Batista was still regarded as a major star who could surprise with a great match now and then and was dominant as a champion. His return in 2014 was supposed to be a major deal with a showdown against Randy Orton for the WWE title at WrestleMania. However, from the start, it was a disaster as fans were backing Daniel Bryan and didn’t like the idea of Batista walking in after so long away and being immediately pushed to the main event. His winning the Rumble was booed soundly and carried on as Bryan got the belt and Batista got stuck in an Evolution reunion with reports of him not being happy that his planned title run didn’t happen.
He walked out on the company, ironically just before “Guardians of the Galaxy” made him a major star and showed that trying to push an old favorite doesn’t always work.
4 Daniel Bryan
This one truly hurts. In 2014, against all odds, Bryan managed to take off as a huge main event level star, the crowd loving him and the “YES Movement” boosting him as a true phenomenon. But a neck injury forced him to give the title up and spend months on the shelf. Thus, his return was highly anticipated although WWE failed to do the logical thing and just give him a shot to regain the belt he’d been forced to give up.
Right after winning the IC title at WrestleMania 31, Bryan suffered a concussion and once more had to give up the belt and this time there was no return to in-ring action. While Bryan is back as GM of SmackDown, it’s bitter for many fans that he reached the height of fame only to give it up. There still seemed like so much more for Bryan to accomplish.
3 Superstar Billy Graham
Graham truly changed the game for WWE with his muscular build and his fantastic promos. He brought a lot of explosiveness on the mic to reign as champion and bring fantastic success to the company. In 1981, Graham had been away from the scene with rumors of him dying. He returned with a bald head and a new style based on marital arts. However, it didn’t get him over nearly as well on the mic and he soon faded.
In 1987, Graham attempted another comeback, with hopes high as his mic skills were still good but a hip replacement ended up crushing his career faster than expected. He was soon just doing commentating before leaving the company. It was sad to see a man who changed the business so much unable to bounce back.
Since then Superstar Billy Graham has been pretty bitter to the business, as he's constantly criticized WWE and even said he regrets going into their hall of fame.
2 Ricky Steamboat
In 1987, Steamboat hit the high point of his career with his great feud with Randy Savage that culminated in the stunning WrestleMania III classic. The plan was for Steamboat to be a long-reigning champion but he wanted time off for his newborn son and so had to drop the belt to the Honky Tonk Man. After leaving the business for a while, Steamboat returned to the NWA to win the World title and have the iconic feud with Ric Flair. In 1991, Steamboat returned to WWE with promises of a big push. Instead, he was called simply “The Dragon” in a costume and an entrance of breathing fire.
Steamboat was frustrated as he was simply a mid-card guy, nothing special at all to him and so he left the company after just six months, returning to WCW where he would have great success with multiple titles. His brief return in 2009 actually was better than his ’91 run that didn’t have the Dragon roaring well.
1 Bret Hart
It was a huge deal in 2010 to be sure. After 12 years, Bret Hart was finally making his return on air in WWE. While Bret had worked with the company for a 2005 DVD, it was still something to see him returning full-on for the boss who publicly screwed him back in 1997 and plenty of bad blood between them still. Bret and Shawn Michaels had a tense but good meeting on air and then came Bret and Vince coming to words and eventually a match at WrestleMania. The match was a mess with Bret clearly in no condition to wrestle, smacking Vince around lamely before winning with the Sharpshooter.
Worse was when Bret was put over The Miz to win the US title when he was beyond the ability to properly defend it. He gave it up fast but left the company not long after and a bit sad to see a once-great career fading so badly and how time did not do the Hitman proud.
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