Wrestling is an athletic business and thus a worker can only be as good as their health. It’s also show business, where someone’s career can rise and fall with little warning. So many promising guys never reach the top while others can maintain that top spot for years on end. It can be tricky as so many guys had great careers ahead until injuries ruined it or some bad booking derailed them. A guy can be on top for years but eventually, every star fades and they end up sinking to indie shows.
However, there are cases where, like in regular sports or entertainment, a wrestler you thought was done comes back majorly. They remake themselves, they get back on top and in some cases, they’re actually better than ever. It’s rare but it can happen and it's truly remarkable how someone whose career seemed dead and buried is able to burst back to the big time. Whether it’s from injury, a long absence or various issues, some workers are able to return in amazing ways. Here are 15 wrestlers who managed to rebuild their careers when they seemed done and it shows how you can never truly write someone off.
15 Kofi Kingston
No, he didn’t have a massive injury or drug issue. But by 2014, most thought Kofi’s career had ended, as he was in a major rough patch. A former IC, US and tag team champion, a very skilled worker who wowed with his amazing high-flying moves, Kofi was lost in the lower cards of WWE. He seemed stuck in a rut and many assumed he would soon be given his walking papers with nothing more to do. When he was paired with Xavier Woods and Big E, it looked like a last gasp that would lead to nothing major.
Instead, The New Day transformed themselves into tag team champions as well as one of the most over acts in WWE. They still maintain incredible popularity with Kofi showing his stuff in the ring and being a riot on the mic. He’s hit a better height with them than he ever did in singles work and it shows how a guy who seemed done can reignite his career under the right circumstances.
14 Brock Lesnar
It would be obvious to think Lesnar would never step into a WWE ring again. His exit from the company in 2004 was on really bad terms as he just walked out with WrestleMania coming and the heat on him was intense. WWE would bad-mouth Brock a lot and he would go right back at him as he went to find a new future in UFC, which most thought would be perfect for him. So it was quite the shock when Brock returned in 2012 to lay out John Cena. His first run appeared a bit rough and Lesnar was used mostly to put over Cena and Triple H, perhaps as punishment for his exit years before.
But Lesnar soon got back on top with amazing matches, shocking the world by being the one to end The Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak. Another run as champion has followed and Brock still dominates talk in WWE with who can face him and a match with him is a big deal. For a guy most thought would never come back to WWE at all, The Beast has become a bigger star than ever.
13 Randy Savage
After wowing the crowds throughout the ‘80s as IC and WWE champion, The Macho Man settled down in the early ‘90s doing commentary work. While he had bits like a feud with Crush, WWE seemed to decide Savage's in-ring days were over, just having a few bouts here and there. His exit from WWE in late ’94 is controversial as his WCW run seemed for nostalgic purposes as well. However, Savage ended up winning the title and having some good conflicts with Ric Flair and others. He really took off in 1997 with a sensational feud with Diamond Dallas Page. Given how both guys loved to plan things out, no wonder their matches were sensational as they tore into each other and Savage showcased he still had what it took to wow a crowd.
His last years were slow and sad but the Macho Man still showcased a great comeback to keep his stardom going when it seemed to be done.
At first just a valet, Amy Dumas won fans over quickly with her fantastic appearance of lush red hair, low cut shirts and that great arm tattoo. She got hotter working with the Hardyz and holding the Women’s title and continuing to rise in popularity. But then in 2002, while shooting an episode of “Dark Angel,” Lita suffered a serious neck injury in a stunt gone wrong. She was on the shelf over a year with most thinking her in-ring time was over. She returned in great spirits and then got over as part of the wild Kane-Matt Hardy program.
She drifted to the background but exploded into the limelight when her affair with Edge became the talk of the business. Lita soon turned heel and clicked wonderfully to rile up the crowd, adding to her battles with Trish Stratus and others, as she had another run as champion. Retiring in 2007, she’s settled into a quieter life but showcased that hot streak that made her a hit even after a bad injury.
11 Mark Henry
Signed to a huge 10-year deal in 1996, Henry seemed rough in the ring with a lot of poor stuff. Rumor had it that Vince saddled him with bad stuff (Mae Young’s birth, etc.) in attempts to get Henry to quit his contract but he refused. By 2011, it looked like it was all over, Henry’s ring work continuing to be bad and had no real heat about him. But then Henry suddenly started to get a new push as a monster with his “Hall of Pain” and it actually worked. Wrestling better than he’d ever been, Henry was crushing guys like Kane and Randy Orton, really sold as the monster worker he should have been all along. This led to a run as World champion where he had some major matches with The Big Show and others to get over nicely.
In 2013, Henry appeared to be doing a big retirement speech only to suddenly attack John Cena in what was called one of the best swerves ever. He didn’t win the belt but it gave his career new life and Henry continues to work as this powerful man to finally pay off on his promise when fans figured he’d hit his limit.
10 Jeff Hardy
Hardy was well known for his great in-ring style, a sensational daredevil who clicked with his wild antics and high flying and got fans going nicely. He was also known for being wild backstage with partying that got him into trouble a few times. Let go from WWE, he had a good run in TNA in 2005 but no-showed events yet was welcomed back. He returned to WWE, having a good run and ready for the title only to be arrested for possession of drugs. He managed to come back and hold the title a few times before leaving for TNA again.
In 2011, Hardy hit rock bottom with the infamous “Victory Road” event where he showed up high as a kite and lost in a minute. That should have ended his career but Hardy came back to hold the TNA title more times and continues to be a major name for the company. He may be troubled but Hardy still has managed to come back from stuff that should have crushed any career and remains among the bigger stars in TNA today.
9 Hulk Hogan
Say what you will about Hogan but the man has an uncanny knack for surviving the business. After dominating WWE throughout the 1980s, his act started getting stale in the ‘90s, folks not buying into him as a superhero and he faded away in 1993. After an attempt at Hollywood, Hogan debuted for WCW in 1994 and became champion but turned folks off with his ego and spotlight-hogging. In 1996, he turned heel and once more became the biggest act in wrestling, more over than ever before to lead WCW to ratings glory. It didn’t last with his ego leading to more issues and his walkout on the company in 2000.
In 2002, he returned to WWE where the fans shockingly welcomed him back as a hero and that led to another run as champion as well as matches with The Rock and Shawn Michaels.
His run with TNA was rough but still showcased that star power that made him so huge. Right now, Hogan seems done after being fired for his racist comments but if there’s one thing fans know by now, it’s that The Hulkster is incredibly skilled at comebacks and can perhaps pull it off one last time.
During the entire Monday Night War, Sting was seen as the key man for WCW. He was the one star who never left for WWE, going through various bad angles but still doing his job majorly. He did push his career up majorly with “The Crow” character to take off nicely and it's not his fault WCW kept bungling things that led to the company’s death. Sting was so tied in to WCW that it's no surprise that when the company went under, he also took time away with his family. Most thought it would be permanent as he turned down multiple offers from WWE.
In 2006, he returned, but in TNA and astonished many by showing little ring rust. He would be a central part of the company, enjoying multiple reigns as champion and keeping things going even when TNA could be pretty bad. He finally left and his WWE run was rather bad and led to him retiring for real. But Sting is the rare case of a guy who found true second life in TNA and proved himself still an icon.
7 The Rock
You could be forgiven for thinking The Rock was done with wrestling. Having left pretty much for good in 2004 after reigning as one of the biggest stars in WWE history, Dwayne Johnson had moved to Hollywood and took off there. He was a bigger movie star than he had been in wrestling, he didn’t need WWE and a return was quite unlikely. But he did it in 2011, coming as the host for WrestleMania and instantly getting the fans roaring like before. More appearances followed to set up the big match with John Cena which The Rock did well in. This would lead to another run as WWE Champion and a rematch with Cena and even though some criticized it as just appeasing The Rock, it couldn’t be denied how he still had what it took to captivate fans.
He’s returned to Hollywood once more yet this major return was something only The Rock could pull off to remind folks how he kept WWE as his home and doing his best to electrify everyone.
6 Bob Backlund
From 1978 to 1983, Backlund ruled the WWE as champion. While fans today can see his act as stale and too clean-cut, he was a great worker, defending the belt against various challengers and did good business. He dropped it to the Iron Sheik in 1983 as Hulk Hogan came to power and Backlund left the company. For the next several years, he stayed quiet, working a few indie promotions here and there, but was seemingly done for good.
When he returned to WWE in 1993, it seemed just a nostalgia run, nothing really big or special planned for him. Then in 1994 came his match with Bret Hart where Backlund “snapped” to attack him. Suddenly, Backlund was over as a major heel nutcase, his promos now entertaining rants to push himself up more. It led to a brief run as WWE Champion and continuing on for a while. It wasn’t long-lived but the fact that Backlund got himself over for a ‘90s crowd is impressive and showed that he could still capture an audience well at any time.
5 Terry Funk
Funk’s journey through wrestling has been fascinating to watch. He started off as a clean-cut guy, a great technical worker who reigned as NWA Champion. He turned heel for later runs in WWE as more of a cartoonish figure with a branding iron. After time away in Hollywood, Funk roared back in 1989 by attacking Ric Flair and kicking off an epic feud for the NWA title. He seemed to slump in WCW for a while but in the mid 1990s he remade himself as a hardcore icon to put ECW on the map.
Wrestling like a man decades younger, Funk tore through guys in various brutal battles to help the promotion take off and never backed down from any bloody battle. His WWE run was short but Funk just couldn’t quit this business and showcased age really is a number for a man who came back from anything thrown at him.
4 Ric Flair
Flair has made much of his career bouncing back when folks thought he was done. He started it in 1975 when he was involved in a plane crash that broke his back, an injury doctors thought would finish him. Instead, Flair came back stronger than before to begin his fantastic career as a multiple time NWA champion. In 1990, Flair dropped the title to Sting with various mark magazines leading the charge that it was over. They thought Flair’s time in the spotlight was done and he would never be the same. Instead, Flair kept on being WCW’s main guy winning the belt once more.
He jumped to WWE and dominated there as well with reigns as champion and his feud with Hogan, then Savage.
Another return to WCW brought more reigns as champion as Flair just couldn’t hang it up at all. Then he made another return to WWE in 2001 that led to more title runs and while slower, was still a great talent. Flair has proven that just when you think he’s done, he could pull off a classic match and time did little to slow “the Nature Boy” down.
3 Eddie Guerrero
While a terrific worker, Guerrero was slowed by such things as personal addictions to drugs and drinking. It kept up in WCW with him getting into a near fatal car crash. He did come back quickly but had a dependency on pain-killers that added to his woes. In WWE, he had a good run at first but in November of 2001, was arrested for a DUI and released. Hitting rock bottom, Eddie began to climb his way back up. He got into rehab and made up with his family, then paid his dues in some indie promotions.
When WWE brought him back, Eddie had a great new attitude with his “Lie, Cheat, Steal” persona getting him more over than ever before. It paid off with him winning the WWE title, a fantastic moment for the fans and himself. His sudden death in 2005 was tragic given how he’d turned his life around. The bottom line is, he showed how well a guy can come back after hitting such a rough patch.
2 Becky Lynch
Breaking out in Europe in 2002, Rebecca Quin soon showed herself as one of the best female workers around. From Shimmer to other groups, she was getting raves for her fantastic matches and many were pushing for her to join WWE. Just as things were going well, however, Lynch suffered a severe head injury in a match in Germany. She was diagnosed with trauma to her cranial nerve and she was on the shelf for over a year. While scheduled to return, she announced she just didn’t feel right for it and thus it seemed her career was over.
But in 2013, she took a chance by coming to NXT as Becky Lynch. She barely showed any ring rust as all, stunning fans with her great work and doing a nice job on the mic as well. It’s led to her being boosted up and hitting the big time by winning the SmackDown Women’s Championship. From being seemingly finished to on top of the world, Lynch proves she really has the luck of the Irish on her side.
1 Shawn Michaels
The obvious top pick. At the 1998 Royal Rumble, Michaels suffered a severe back injury in a match with The Undertaker and it was clear his in-ring time was coming to an end. He managed to hang on long enough to drop the belt to Steve Austin at WreslteMania and then went into retirement. He had brief returns as the “Commissioner” of WWE but still did nothing major. Most believed he was done, his in-ring career over and word of his harsh attitude for years had cost him major good will. He sunk into the background and when he did return in 2002, it was assumed he was just a nostalgia act, nothing more.
Instead, Michaels came back far better than he had ever been. He wowed with incredible matches and even held the World title. This time around, Shawn seemed less interested in the spotlight, instead just putting on great battles with Jericho, Angle, Cena and Undertaker. He really cut loose in his matches with amazing work and his personal reputation was far better as he’d turned over a new leaf. He finally hung it up with his standing better than ever with fans and proved how some guys can truly make miracle comebacks.