WWE is the biggest wrestling promotion in the world. The company has seen a lot of wrestlers come and go. Sometimes it’s a matter of a performer running his or her course only to be let go. Sometimes wrestlers just weren’t cut out for the spotlight. In yet other cases, guys burn their bridges on their way out of the company. There’s never a guarantee anyone will be welcomed back into the WWE fold after leave.
Just the same, there are people whom careful, longtime fans can foresee coming back. Guys like Goldust and Chris Jericho have been in and out of the company enough times that you can never really be surprised when he surfaces again. A guy like Batista is a big enough star to understand WWE wanting him back when he became available, not to mention that he commanded a big enough payday that it made sense for him to come back into the fold for a stretch that would include a WrestleMania in 2014.
For all of the guys we expect to see back again, though, there are those who do catch us off guard. A number of people who know him have touted Vince McMahon’s business acumen and particularly his willingness to put good business ahead of personal issues. After all, this is the guy who gave Eric Bischoff a job after the Monday Night War. Time and again performers who looked done for on the WWE landscape have found their back into the company. Sometimes, the results were great. Other times, they didn’t work out quite so well.
This article looks back at 15 wrestlers fans were especially surprised to see get a second chance in WWE.
15 Alberto Del Rio
To say that Alberto Del Rio left WWE in a huff in 2014 would be a massive understatement. After rumors of him feeling frustrated with his creative direction and the general consensus from fans being that they were bored with the character, Del Rio had a backstage incident. Purportedly, a backstage employee made racist remarks and Del Rio hit him. Del Rio was officially released from WWE for unprofessional conduct, but it seemed he was happy to leave and especially upset with company for not taking his side in that last dispute.
Del Rio was critical of WWE in the aftermath and became one of wrestling’s hottest free agents. He worked for a variety of smaller companies, most notably including AAA, ROH, and Lucha Underground. Then, out of nowhere, he was not only back in WWE, but made a shocking return at the Hell in a Cell 2015 PPV and cleanly defeated John Cena to win the U.S. Championship.
While the return made some sense based on how successful Del Rio had been in his time away and WWE’s need for a Latino star, the partnership seemed doomed to failure. After an uneventful run, Del Rio opted out of his contract as soon as he could, less than a year later. He went back to smaller companies and back to badmouthing WWE to anyone who would listen.
14 Gail Kim
Gail Kim was a noteworthy women’s star in the early 2000s, most memorable for being so small, but being such a deadly submission specialist. She seemed to more or less run her course in WWE, and went on to seemingly find a home in TNA, Their “Knockouts” women’s division took on a distinctive identity for intense, hard-hitting matches, and Kim anchored that roster alongside Awesome Kong.
To the surprise of everyone, Kim did end up back in WWE in between TNA runs. She’s made no bones about the fact that she went back for the money, but always seemed like a square peg among round holes there—super technical, and not a blond bombshell in an era when that’s what WWE wanted. Her second run amounted to virtually nothing besides her quietly jobbing on a consistent basis before leaving the company again.
13 The New Age Outlaws
The New Age Outlaws were one of the hottest tag teams of the early Attitude Era. As was somewhat emblematic of the time, they were terrific character actors and talkers on the front end of that period, only to be replaced by more electrifying workers like The Hardys, Dudleys, and Edge and Christian in the years to follow. Both would carry on in WWE and work with other partners, but there’s a fair argument The Road Dogg and Billy Gunn never achieved as much success apart as they did together.
Post-WWE, the tandem found themselves in TNA where they were ultimately rebranded as the Voodoo Kin Mafia (not subtly matching the initials of Vincent Kennedy McMahon). At the time, their gimmick revolved around blasting WWE and specifically Triple H. It seems they were just doing what they were told, though, because against the expectation of fans, both were welcomed back to WWE years later, first in backstage roles, then as an on air tag team from late 2013 to spring 2014.
12 Alundra Blayze
Few wrestlers have burned bridges more aggressively nor in a more singular, iconic moment than Alundra Blayze. She defected to WCW in the heat of the Monday Night War, and brought the WWE Women’s Championship with her. In her first appearance, at the direction of Eric Bischoff, she dumped the belt in the trash.
While Blayze was, without question one of the best female performers of her generation, there was little surprise that WWE didn’t make any effort to bring her in when they bought out WCW. You had to assume the insult of what she did with the title would keep her blacklisted forever. However, WWE did ultimately welcome her back into the fold just a few years ago for a well-deserved Hall of Fame induction and to give interviews for WWE Network projects.
11 Jinder Mahal
No one was really all that surprised when Jinder Mahal was released from his WWE contract. While he was a competent worker with a decent look, he never really clicked with the WWE audience or made much a mark on the product. He finished out his tenure with the company as part of the silly 3MB stable, grouped with fellow lower mid-card drifter Drew McIntyre and Heath Slater who was at least getting air time as a comedy act.
Mahal worked the indies after he left, got his body into phenomenal shape, and lo and behold, got invited back to WWE around the time the rosters split last summer. Though Mahal was back to a lower card spot for most of his first year back, by all accounts he came back with a great attitude, and that got rewarded when he became one of the most surprising, unlikely WWE Champions in history after he beat Randy Orton at Backlash.
10 Scott Hall
Razor Ramon became a major star under the WWE umbrella, but had a mutually painful exit from the company when WCW offered him too much money to turn down. Under his own name of Scott Hall, he co-founded the New World Order, a stable that was instrumental in making WCW more watched than WWE for a brief period, and, according to some accounts, almost pushing WWE out of business.
In both WWE and WCW, Hall was known to politick alongside his real life friend and frequent on screen associate Kevin Nash. Moreover, Hall was also known to have substance abuse issues. A lot of guys in the WWE locker room were reportedly surprised and upset when WWE re-signed both of them a little less than a year after buying out WCW. Hall and the nWo would have a relatively forgettable run in 2002. Hall would be gone again soon enough but has returned for cameos and one off appearance since.
9 The Dudley Boyz
The Dudley Boyz were a staple team for the Attitude Era and the years to immediately follow, but as that period of time came to a close, they seemed to have done all they could do in WWE. When their contracts were up in 2005, WWE reportedly gave them a lowball offer to renew that included a pay cut and the kayfabe half brothers took their talents on the road.
The Dudleys were successful outside TNA, collecting gold in a number of other promotions before Bubba Ray became a main event talent and world champion in TNA. It looked as though WWE didn’t have much use for the Dudleys, and the Dudleys were that rare act that could thrive away from the WWE machine, and so not many fans expected the two sides to come back together. Bubba Ray was a surprise entrant in the 2015 Royal Rumble, though, and before long he and D-Von returned to the main roster for one more respectable run.
8 Drew McIntyre
Vince McMahon bestowed an unusual honor upon Drew McIntyre when he formally introduced him as a future world champion on an episode of Smackdown. What came across as an anointing in the moment quickly transformed into an albatross as McIntyre failed to live up to hype. He became a bit of a bore to fans, and his booking didn’t help as he stalled out in the mid-card before becoming a member of the largely comedic 3MB stable.
It didn’t seem like a great loss, though it might have appeared to have been an over-correction when WWE released McIntyre altogether. He went on to a truly great post-WWE career. For three years he put on great matches and collected gold no matter where he went. When he resurfaced, unannounced, in the crowd for NXT TakeOver Orlando, it strangely enough felt right. Though no one saw it coming, the newly indie was a perfect fit for the NXT landscape, and it’s not out of the question we’ll see him on the main roster again before long.
Between WrestleMania XIX and WrestleMania XX, Goldberg spent one year in WWE. The conquering hero from WCW, fans justifiably expected big things from him. While he was a main event guy and had a respectable world title run, Goldberg nonetheless lacked a lot of the sizzle he’d had in WCW. Blame it on fans seeing his whole shtick before. Blame it on WWE not booking him properly to get him over. Regardless, the Goldberg experiment wasn’t a complete failure, but neither side really suggested much interest in continuing their partnership when his contract was up.
Fast forward over twelve years and rumors swirled that Goldberg was coming back. It was hard to believe, given the guy was 50 and had scarcely been in a wrestling ring for a decade. Against all odds, however, Goldberg would resurface in late 2016 for a memorable, if odd rivalry with Brock Lesnar. While his matches weren’t great, this nostalgia run catered precisely to Goldberg’s power and dominance, and worked to a reasonable extent for its four-month arc.
Sable was one of the more unlikely megastars of the early Attitude Era. Combining her sex appeal with a hot storyline of her overcoming the adversity of an abusive relationship, there’s a very real argument that Sable was briefly second only to Steve Austin as the most popular act in WWE. Things came to an ugly end though as Sable’s position in the company and ego were each purportedly sources of tension for the roster. After she left WWE, she sued the company for sexual harassment.
Oddly enough, though, Sable returned four years later. She was promptly thrust back into a prominent position, working with Vince and Stephanie McMahon. Over time, her star would fade and she’d settle into the middle of the pack of the women’s division, before leaving the company on far more amicable terms than the first go-round.
5 Hulk Hogan
Hulk Hogan was quite arguably the biggest star in WWE history, if not wrestling on the whole. From the mid 1980s to early 1990s he was the face star of WWE—a dominant multi-time, multi-year world champion and the headliner for a disproportionately high number of pay per views, including closing out eight out of the first nine WrestleManias.
For the late 1990s, however, Hogan was the top star in WCW, playing a fresh heel character who led the New World Order. Between testifying against Vince McMahon in WWE’s steroid trial and playing a key figure in WCW rivaling WWE, it looked entirely possible the two sides would never work together again. Hogan would come back for a well received nostalgia run and recurring role throughout the mid-2000s. Hogan left and went to work with TNA, too, when they tried to challenge WWE. In the aftermath, WWE welcomed into the fold again to host WrestleMania XXX. While Hogan has been on the outs with the company since a tape of him using racist epithets got leaked, you can never say never when it comes to The Hulkster and WWE working together.
4 The Hardy Boyz
The Hardy Boyz were a truly iconic team for WWE during the Attitude Era. After singles runs and brief absences, they’d reprise the act in the late 2000s. While the real life brothers were big draws in their day, there came a point in the 2010s when no one suspected they’d be back in WWE again. Jeff battled substance abuse issues that bottomed out when he came to the ring impaired for a TNA main event match with Sting. Matt seemed to unravel, too, including releasing a series of videos of him hunting ghosts.
The Hardys turned it around though. Given tremendous creative liberties in TNA, Matt developed his unique, quirky, infectious Broken gimmick, and pulled his brother into it. The twosome became one of the most celebrated parts of TNA’s programming and, after they parted ways with the company, became the hottest indie free agents in the world. Still, it was in doubt whether the Hardys would ever go back to WWE, where, if nothing else they’d surely be under tighter creative restrictions.
All of these question marks culminated in an all-time great WrestleMania surprise when the Hardys resurfaced at WrestleMania 33 to win the Raw tag titles.
Rhyno came to WWE hot off of an explosive run ECW. He was a fun act for his explosive power and his signature Gore finisher, and was particularly fun when he backed Edge and Christian. By the time he left WWE, though, he wasn’t exactly the sort of talent fans missed. Mind you, he was popular in his day, but he’d more or less run his course by the time his run was through and wasn’t getting any younger.
Rhyno would remain active in wrestling though, working in TNA and in a range of indies. He staged an unlikely come back in NXT, only to wind up back on the main roster after the new brand split, featured alongside Heath Slater for a great odd ball tag team, anchored in Slater’s comedic stylings as a poor man desperate for a WWE contract.
2 Brock Lesnar
There may be no one greater physical specimen all but designed for the professional wrestling business than Brock Lesnar. He’s got a tremendous look, awesome power, startling speed and agility, and amateur pedigree to round that all out. It makes sense, then, that WWE pushed him to the moon on his first run with the company, including becoming the youngest WWE Champion to date and a WrestleMania main event winner.
Lesnar would leave on bad terms, deciding to pursue a professional football career, before moving on to MMA. By the time he was the reigning heavyweight champ in UFC, there was little reason to think he’d ever work in professional wrestling again, let alone the WWE which he was on strained terms with toward the end.
In a startling turn of events, Lesnar did come back, though, starting a part time run that has changed the business for Lesnar redefining the kind of schedule a top guy can work, and how the company’s top champion can also be a special attraction who is used sparingly.
1 The Ultimate Warrior
Few wrestlers before or since him have gone on the roller coaster ride that The Ultimate Warrior did with WWE. He got a huge push in his first run, reigning over the mid-card en route to unseating Hulk Hogan for the WWE Championship. From there, he purportedly held up Vince McMahon for money and left on ugly terms in 1991. The two sides mended fences for Warrior to return in 1992, but in a half year’s time, he was out the door again. He’d have one more short, relatively uneventful run with the company in 1996, when he was not well liked and the two sides parted ways again, seemingly for good.
A decade after Warrior’s last tenure with WWE, WWE released a DVD documentary that blasted the man and his legacy. Warrior sued and it looked like the rift between the two sides was deeper than ever. Little could they know, about a decade later, they’d end up burying the hatchet. Warrior accepted a Hall of Fame induction and he finally seemed at peace with WWE and the world around, only to wind up passing away mere days after he went in the Hall.