CM Punk made his epic return to WWE last Saturday at Survivor Series: War Games. The return marked the first time that the self-proclaimed “Best in the World” appeared on WWE television in nearly 10 years.
Everyone was thrilled to see Punk in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, Punk’s hometown. The way it went down was excellently pulled off and kept a surprise from many, even with plenty of rumors and innuendo around.
So that got us thinking: What are the wildest returns in WWE history? Here are 10 that fit that billing.
Ric Flair – November 2001
‘The Nature Boy’ Ric Flair emerged after the WWF’s InVasion storyline ended. The WWF bought World Championship Wrestling, its primary competitor in the marketplace, in March 2001. Several WCW wrestlers made their way over for a WWF vs. WCW storyline (which eventually turned into a lot of nonsense) but Flair was not among them.
On the Raw after Survivor Series, where the angle concluded, fittingly in North Carolina, Flair returned to WWF programming. He last appeared in the early 1990s before returning to WCW, where he spent the remainder of his career until the sale. Flair revealed he was a co-owner of the WWF as part of an angle, reaffirming his presence on TV. It made for a shocking moment, considering that Flair in the WWF at the time was a rarity as it is. Especially since he wasn’t there very long to begin with.
The nWo – February 2002
When Vince McMahon bought World Championship Wrestling in early 2001 and effectively put them out of business, one of the biggest questions on everyone’s mind was when the New World Order would show up. The nWo, for better or worse, turned the tide of the Monday Night Wars between the WWF and WCW and led to a year and a half of WCW Nitro routinely defeating Monday Night RAW in the ratings.
Since all three original nWo members used to work in the WWF, with Hulk Hogan and Kevin Nash being former WWF Champions and Scott Hall winning multiple Intercontinental Championships, it felt like just a matter of time. The time came in February 2002 when Vince McMahon, fresh off a feud with Ric Flair for control of the company, brought the group in to “inject a dose of poison” into the WWF.
While the group didn’t last long in their return, as the fans wanted to see Hogan go back to his traditional red and yellow, Hall got fired by May, and Nash got hurt, it still was a sight to behold when they showed up to confront The Rock, who Hogan would lose to at WrestleMania 18.
Shawn Michaels – Spring 2002
After his in-ring career was halted in the spring of 1998, Shawn Michaels would make sporadic appearances on WWF television over the next few years. Michaels was dealing with personal issues simultaneously, ultimately disappearing from the company after 2001. The following year, however, proved to be much different.
A new Shawn Michaels re-emerged on television. Michaels joined his longtime friend Kevin Nash as a member of the short-lived WWE version of the nWo.
But of course, many remember what happened after this. Michaels got into a feud with Triple H that led to HBK’s first match in over four years. It’s one of the greatest matches in SummerSlam history and one of the greatest of all time in general.
Bret Hart – January 2010
If you’ve followed professional wrestling at all in the past 25 years, you’re almost certainly familiar with the Montreal Screwjob. In short, Bret Hart was the WWF Champion and planned to leave the company to sign with WCW. McMahon had to get the championship off of Hart, fearing he would take it to WCW with him. Hart agreed to drop the title but wouldn’t do it in his home country of Canada, where he is a national hero. This led to McMahon double-crossing Hart, legitimately calling for the bell, and ending Hart’s match against Shawn Michaels prematurely, awarding Michaels the title.
Hart spat on McMahon and punched him once they got backstage and vowed never to return to the WWF. Technically, Hart’s first return came in 2006 when WWE put out a DVD about his life, career, and best matches and inducted him into their Hall of Fame the night before WrestleMania 22. Still, Hart’s conditions on that return included not having to be around Michaels and not having to appear at WrestleMania itself.
The 2010 return is the one everyone remembers, however, as Hart was live in the ring on Monday Night RAW and confronted Michaels in a moment both men have described as burying the hatchet, which ended with an on-screen handshake in the ring. From then on, Hart has sporadically appeared in WWE, generally for big events or if they’re near his home in Calgary.
The Rock – February 2011
Leading up to WrestleMania 27, WWE began teasing that there would be a guest host for the big show in Atlanta. In February 2011 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, that special guest host was revealed in dramatic fashion.
It was none other than The Rock, who hadn’t appeared on WWE television in nearly seven years. Rock’s reappearance was a huge surprise for everyone involved and was one of the shining moments of an era not often fondly remembered.
Rock went on to be involved in The Miz and John Cena’s main event match before facing Cena at WrestleMania 28 and 29. But before we got there, he electrified the audience in Anaheim with an epic return still remembered today.
Brock Lesnar – April 2012
Few athletes, wrestling or otherwise, have had quite the career that Brock Lesnar has had. Lesnar signed with the WWF in the summer of 2000, fresh off of winning an NCAA championship in wrestling for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. By the summer of 2002, he was bearhugging Hulk Hogan into submission and defeating The Rock to become the then-youngest WWE Champion of all time. Unfortunately for Lesnar, the business wasn’t all he thought it would, and after WrestleMania XX in March 2004, he left WWE.
He wouldn’t be out of the public eye for long, however, as he joined the Minnesota Vikings in training camp after not playing football since high school, and made it all the way to the final round of cuts before getting cut, turning down an invite to NFL Europe. After a brief stop in Japan to wrestle for New Japan Pro Wrestling, Lesnar headed back to America to sign with the UFC. After losing a much-hyped debut fight to Frank Mir, Lesnar won his next four, defeating Randy Couture for the UFC Heavyweight Championship and winning his big rematch against Mir. Lesnar held the title for nearly two years before falling to a barrage of punches from Cain Velasquez.
The entire time he was gone, it felt like Lesnar would be back eventually. Eventually finally came the night after WrestleMania 28 in Miami when he closed RAW by confronting John Cena and hitting him with a massive F5. In the time since, Lesnar has been a fixture in WWE, ending Undertaker’s famed WrestleMania streak, dismantling Cena to win the WWE Championship, and racking up plenty of other accolades along the way.
Ultimate Warrior – April 2014
The Ultimate Warrior’s return to WWE might have been the most surreal of all. Due to multiple issues both in and out of the workplace, Warrior was persona non grata at WWE for decades. Although he built up a connection with fans, his attitude, beliefs, and otherwise, kept him away from the company. Far away from the company, so far, in fact, that they made a DVD surrounding his pitfalls and miseries.
Warrior returned in 2014, though, as he was inducted into their Hall of Fame. The night after WrestleMania 30, Warrior appeared and delivered a promo on Monday Night Raw.
This would be the last time WWE fans would see Warrior, as he passed away the very next day.
Goldberg – October 2016
Much like the nWo, Goldberg was another guy that everyone wondered when he’d show up after WCW closed down. WWE waited two years to bring the big man in, having him confront The Rock the night after WrestleMania 19. What followed was an up and down year concluding with a clearly dissatisfied Goldberg leaving the company after WrestleMania XX, like Lesnar.
In the years that followed, Goldberg insisted he’d never return to WWE. In May 2016 he was announced as a pre-order bonus for that fall’s WWE 2K17, which had Lesnar on the cover. Over the summer, the two traded insults back and forth, with Lesnar’s manager Paul Heyman issuing a challenge to Goldberg on RAW in October 2016 for the next month at Survivor Series. Goldberg accepted and had a pair of unforgettable matches with Lesnar (Survivor Series 2016 and WrestleMania 33) and wrestled at least one match per year for WWE from 2016-22.
Cody Rhodes – April 2022
In 2016, a frustrated Cody Rhodes left WWE. Rhodes embarked on a multiple-year journey that saw him go through the indies and then become one of the founding members of All Elite Wrestling.
After two-plus years in AEW, Cody exited the company in early 2022. Rumors swirled that he was going to return to WWE at WrestleMania 38. He was reportedly planned to face Seth Freakin’ Rollins, one of WWE’s biggest stars. There was some doubt cast on it, though, as WWE seemed to throw cold water on it as denials sprouted up on the way.
But Rhodes did make his extravagant return to WWE at WrestleMania 38. His spectacular entrance drew a huge reaction from the AT&T Stadium crowd and he dazzled in his return match with Rollins. All Cody’s done since then is become the biggest babyface in pro wrestling. So, job well done to him, and bravo on one of the wildest returns ever.
CM Punk – November 2023
These returns all make one thing clear: Never say never. This one is right up there with Hart’s 2010 return however in terms of surprises and unbelievability. After walking out on the company in January 2014 for a handful of reasons including creative differences, CM Punk spent seven years away from wrestling. By 2021, the itch returned and he made his debut with AEW, where it seemed as though he would spend the rest of his career.
Things went well, at first. A May 2022 foot injury cost Punk the entire summer, and upon his return to AEW he recaptured the championship and at the post-show press conference (legitimate, not scripted), verbally attacked AEW Executive Vice Presidents The Young Bucks and their friends Adam Page and Colt Cabana while AEW CEO Tony Khan sat next to him and did nothing to step in. What happened from there will likely never be fully known due to NDAs and other legalities, but there was a confrontation between Punk and The Young Bucks in Punk’s locker room, resulting in suspensions for both sides. Punk was away from AEW until their new show Collision, launched this past June, where he was heavily featured, as it was thought to be a compromise for Punk and the Young Bucks to keep working there without having to cross paths.
That ill-fated idea lasted a matter of weeks, with the final straw coming when Punk got in a backstage fight with fellow wrestler Jack Perry, resulting in Punk’s termination from the company.
In the past 10 years, Punk made it very clear he would never work for WWE again, regularly going out of his way to bash Vince McMahon, Triple H, the promotion itself, and everyone and everything else in between.
Last Saturday in Chicago, Punk returned to close a wildly successful Survivor Series event in his hometown. Finally.