Professional wrestling is a business that is difficult to succeed in. Even wrestlers over the years who have garnered admiration and accumulated accolades the world over had to struggle for at least a short period of time before achieving notoriety. Once they did, many of them found that it can be an immense challenge to maintain that notoriety. Times and trends change, and what was popular a decade earlier, will not always be so in the present day.
This can have an implication on an individual wrestler’s personal in-ring style, their technique on the microphone, or the feuds they participate in. Even if a wrestler leaves a promotion, and returns several years later in peak physical condition, they may have found that they are no longer on a relevant tier for the company. Sure, they may receive a brief nostalgic pop from the crowd, but in terms of being a legitimate draw, they have been passed by.
In many ways, this just exhibits the transcendent popularity that wrestling at one time enjoyed. There were relevant promotions everywhere, each pushing young, upcoming stars. The sheer competition in the industry was off the charts, and veteran wrestlers found themselves shifting out of their prime at a quicker rate than ever before. Naturally, they weren’t ready to stop competing, so many of them attempted comebacks to various promotions. Unfortunately, many of them did not have the desired effect, and in some cases, ended their careers.
The caliber of names on this list shows that even professional wrestling’s elite had a hard time maintaining success. That is a certified indication of a cutthroat industry. Ranked below are the top 15 wrestlers who returned and just weren’t the same.
15. Greg Valentine
“The Hammer” was at first a big regional star in various NWA territories all over the country, doing battle with the likes of Ric Flair and Baron Von Raschke. He got his national break when he went to WWE in the mid 1980s and remained there until the early 1990s. Valentine won the Intercontinental title, and was a part of numerous successful tag teams in the promotion.
When he resurfaced in WCW in the late 1990s, wrestling had changed quite a bit since his heyday. No longer was Valentine a significant draw, and was relegated to B-shows such as WCW Worldwide. He still has wrestled in various independent promotions in recent years, but nothing will touch the success he had in the mid 1980s.
14. Bob Backlund
In the earlier days of WWE, Backlund was one of the promotion’s biggest stars, holding the WWE title for five years from 1978 to 1983, when he lost it to the Iron Sheik. His technical wrestling style went over well for the era, and he was a major draw within the company.
When he returned to the promotion in 1992, Backlund wrestled in the same style, which had fallen out of favor, and was slotted into a middle-tier role in the company. He did wrestle several noteworthy matches against Bret Hart and Diesel, but the elite production and drawing ability just wasn’t there anymore.
13. Scott Hall
Hall broke into WWE in the early 1990s as the swaggering Miami tough-guy character Razor Ramon. He found instant success with his unique Razor’s Edge finishing maneuver, and won the Intercontinental title. He departed for WCW, which was growing increasingly popular, and formed The Outsiders tag team with Kevin Nash, which gave way to the formation of the NWO.
He returned to WWE in 2002 in an attempt to bring over the NWO, but the quality didn’t re-surface. Relegated to mid-card duty, and struggling with substance abuse, Hall left the company a short time after, and bounced around the Indy circuit.
12. Mr. Perfect
Another Intercontinental title holder in his heyday, Perfect was a mainstay in WWE for five or six years in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Always a consistent upper mid-card draw for the company, he was one of the most recognizable figures in that time period. He left for WCW in the latter half of the decade for marginal success.
When he returned to WWE in 2002 at the Royal Rumble, he was no longer the draw he once was. Essentially promoted as a nostalgia trip, he was released form his contract after getting in a physical altercation with Brock Lesnar, who was a rising star at the time. He went to the TNA promotion after his released, but sadly passed away early in 2003.
11. Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart
As a part of the famous Hart Foundation tag team, with future star Bret Hart, Neidhart found much success in the 1980s. Widely considered through their heyday as one of the best WWE tag teams, Neidhart was a legitimate draw, and could play either a heel or face character effectively.
When Bret Hart went on to singles success in WWE, Neidhart slowly fell out of favor. He tried forming a myriad of tag teams, but nothing worked. He left for a short while, and returned in 1994 and 1996 respectively, where he tried singles competition, and more tag team combinations. The results were marginal, and he never re-captured the glory that the original Hart Foundation brought him a decade earlier.
10. Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka
Truly a superstar in his prime, there was hardly a more popular fan-favorite in WWE in the early 1980’s. He was a high-flyer in an era where it wasn’t as commonplace as it was today. His defining, groundbreaking moment came when he leaped off the top of a steel cage onto a downed opponent at Madison Square Garden.
Snuka left for the AWA in 1986, and when he returned to WWE in 1989, he was used mainly to put over young, rising talent. His most famous moment in this run was losing to The Undertaker in his first Wrestlemania in 1991. Snuka would leave in 1993, and go onto the Indy circuit, never reaching the heights of his early 1980’s stardom.
9. Honky Tonk Man
Adding to the revolving door of Intercontinental champions who had lackluster returns, Honky Tonk Man resurfaced in 1997 as a spot wrestler, and manager for the up-and-coming Billy Gunn. This was another example of a late 1980s talent, becoming completely out of place in the industry as the 1990s progressed. What was entertaining in his heyday had become over-gimmicky and stale. Fortunately, his second run in WWE lasted less than a year.
8. British Bulldog
Davey Boy Smith went on to both singles (Intercontinental champion, yes, another), and tag team success (British Bulldogs with Dynamite Kid) in mid 1980s to early 1990s WWE. One of the most legitimate powerhouses the company had ever seen, he put down many an opponent with his patented running powerslam.
He left the company in 1997 to go on to work with WCW. When he returned to WWE in the early 1999, he was quickly placed in the mid-card after flirting with the main event scene and never regained his upper-tier status. Another example of the times passing an older talent by. Sadly, he passed away in 2002 from a heart attack.
7. Road Warrior Hawk
One half of what is widely considered the most dominant tag team of all time, Hawk and Animal found themselves as WWE tag champions in the early 1990s after years of dominating other relevant promotions such as the NWA and AWA. When they returned to the promotion in the latter half of the decade, marginal success followed, but Hawk dealt with personal demons.
As he dealt with substance abuse, Hawk became increasingly unreliable in the eyes of management. An embarrassing storyline was promoted in which Hawk’s real life problems were being showcased on national television. Unfortunately, this clearly didn’t represent the Road Warriors of old, and their time with WWE in their second run turned out to be limited. Hawk passed away in 2003.
One of the more unique, mystifying gimmicks in WWE history, Goldust was actually a fairly significant draw in the beginning of the Attitude Era. Fans were intrigued, and even though the persona was “shticky”, his inherent wrestling ability made up for any of those detractors. He even won the Intercontinental title (continuing the running theme here), on several different occasions from 1996 to 1999.
When he came back in 2002, the singles success didn’t resurface. He did have some tag team success with Booker T, but the combination just appeared to be filler. He would wrestle on and off for WWE over the subsequent years, but never seemed to be utilized as anything more than a recognizable veteran presence.
5. Marty Jannetty
Jannetty was one half of the young, high-energy Rockers tag team, which featured a young Shawn Michaels before he became “The Showstopper”. After the team’s initial success, and Michaels’ move to a singles career, Jannetty’s logical singles career quickly fell out of favor. He made some stops on the Indy circuit, and returned to WWE in 1996, this time forming The New Rockers with Leif Cassidy (a young Al Snow), but the duo never gained any real traction. Before long, they were being used only to put over rising tag teams.
Jannetty made a quick stop in WCW, but any real success was not attainable at this point. He faded into obscurity in the Indy circuit soon after.
4. Adrian Adonis
Perhaps the least recognizable name on this list, Adonis is one of WWE’s most underrated talents ever. An established tag team wrestler, In the early 1980s he won the WWE tag belts with Dick Murdoch as one half of the North/South Connection. Before that, he teamed with Jesse “The Body” Ventura in the AWA to win their tag titles.
When Adonis was re-positioned in WWE in the late 1980s as a singles talent managed by Jimmy Hart, the momentum was cut short. He never got over entirely outside of tag team wrestling, and never did much that was notable other than losing at WrestleMania III to Roddy Piper.
Sadly, he was killed in a car accident in 1988.
3. Rick Martel
Martel was a prime talent at one time in WWE. As a part of the Can Am Connection and Strike Force with Tito Santana in the late 1980’s he was a staple of the tag team scene. Soon after, he went on to considerable mid-card success in singles competition, with his surprisingly effective “model” gimmick. Martel ceased wrestling in WWE in 1994.
When he resurfaced in WCW in 1998, he initially won the Television title, but slowly fell down the ranks into low-card status. Not long after joining the company, Martel retired from increasing back injury, never to wrestle again. It was ultimately the right decision, and most of his active years in the business were far from mediocre.
2. Jake “The Snake” Roberts
Roberts was one of the WWE’s most prized upper mid-card talents in the 1980s. He was cerebral on the microphone and entertaining in the ring, highlighted by his influential DDT finisher. He was a fan favorite until his departure in 1992.
When he came back in 1996, he didn’t reclaim his prior role. He was used in a lower setting, and never given the push necessary to make a real, formidable comeback. The most memorable part of his second stint in WWE was probably losing to Steve Austin at the 1996 King of The Ring pay-per-view, which essentially started Austin’s legendary trash talking “Stone Cold” gimmick.
Roberts left the company shortly after and battled substance abuse for years until he got sober in 2013 with the aid of Diamond Dallas Page.
1. The Ultimate Warrior
The Ultimate Warrior came on to the wrestling scene like a whirlwind in 1987, when he debuted in WWE. Fans had seldom witnessed any wrestler with the energy or physical power he possessed when in the squared circle. He was an unprecedented talent, beating Hulk Hogan for the WWE title at Wrestlemania VI.
When he returned to the promotion in 1996, he lasted only three months and never regained his prime time status. He dealt with substance abuse, and management issues, and after a short run in WCW, never did anything notable in wrestling ever again, leaving many fans wondering “what if?”
He passed away in 2014.
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