John Cena and the 10 Best WWE Returns Since 2000

Erik Beaston@@ErikBeastonFeatured ColumnistJuly 21, 2021

John Cena and the 10 Best WWE Returns Since 2000

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    Credit: WWE.com

    WWE has been home to some extraordinary returns in its long and illustrious history, particularly since the turn of the century. Superstar comebacks, be it from injury or long hiatuses due to other projects away from the squared circle, have become some of the most fondly remembered moments of the last 20 years.

    Sunday night at Money in the Bank, John Cena returned to the company to set up a SummerSlam showdown with Roman Reigns, earning a spot among the best returns in modern wrestling history.

    Who does he join on a countdown of the best returns of the last two decades, though, and what makes the 10 that were selected for this list so special?

    As it turns out, raw emotion, the unexpected and historical significance all play major roles.

10. 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin (Backlash 2000)

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    Credit: WWE.com

    The glass shattered and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin stomped toward the ring at Backlash in April 2000, ready to open up a can of whoop-ass on the McMahon-Helmsley Faction just months after the neck fusion surgery that had sidelined him since November.

    The crowd in Washington, D.C. erupted for The Texas Rattlesnake as he aided The Rock in defeating Triple H to become WWE champion and rectifying several other side stories in the process.

    It was proof to Austin, management and doubters alike that the absence had not, and would not, curtail his overwhelming popularity among the fans of WWE's attitudinal product.

    Throw in some steel chair shots and a post-match sign of respect to The Great One and you have a superb return, even if it was rather short-lived. 

    Austin would not return to television as a full-time performer until the following September.

9. John Cena (Money in the Bank 2021)

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    Everyone knew it was coming.

    For weeks, internet speculation had centered upon an impending return by John Cena just in time for a monumental SummerSlam clash against Roman Reigns.

    Fans should have expected it but the moment the opening horns of "My Time Is Now" played and Cena rushed through the curtain, the fans in Fort Worth, Texas erupted.

    It was a return they didn't know they wanted until it happened.

    The biggest star of his generation, a transcendent star who found success beyond the squared circle, returned to kick off a program with the top performer of today, in time for one of the biggest pay-per-views in recent memory.

    Time will tell what will become of his latest run and whether it accomplishes what he and WWE set out to do, but there is no denying his return at Money in the Bank on July 18 delivered a much-needed shot of adrenaline in the product and reminded even his harshest of critics of the connection Cena has with the fans.

8. Ric Flair (Raw, November 19, 2001)

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    Credit: WWE.com

    Ric Flair had not been on WWE television since 1993 when he stepped through the curtain on November 19, 2001 and revealed himself to be the co-owner of WWE after purchasing Stephanie and Shane McMahon's stock options as part of the Invasion storyline that had engulfed the company in 2001.

    The fans in Charlotte, North Carolina exploded as The Nature Boy made his way to the ring, a smile on his face and a look of shock and awe painted on that of the evil Mr. McMahon.

    It was the start of a run that would be uneven, to say the least, but a reminder of the love fans have for one of wrestling's greatest. It would all culminate seven years later with a magical night at WrestleMania 24, a moment in time that fans may have been robbed of had it not been for Naitch returning to the company on that fateful November night.

7. Brock Lesnar (Raw, April 2, 2012)

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    Just 24 hours after a historic WrestleMania in which he lost to The Rock in a match dubbed "Once in a Lifetime," John Cena took to the squared circle to address his fans and the iconic encounter. Instead of a happy ending where he left with his head held high, he was smashed and left lying by the returning Brock Lesnar, who entered the American Airlines Center to the disbelief of thousands of WWE fans.

    It had been eight long years since Lesnar had set foot inside a WWE ring. A box office smash for UFC, Lesnar had found success away from the squared circles of McMahonland and was returning as one of the most recognizable faces in sports and entertainment.

    That night sparked a return to professional wrestling that is still ongoing, with championship wins and physical decimations of top stars like Cena, Triple H, Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins and most notably, The Undertaker.

    It was a return that absolutely helped shape WWE over the decade and one that still looms large as Lesnar is rumored to factor into every major booking plan the company ever has between its marquee extravaganzas.

    Who knows where the company would be at from a star power perspective right now or more importantly, how the course of its history would have been shaped over the last 10 years had it not been for Lesnar re-signing with the company that made him a prominent star and popping back up on that memorable Raw to obliterate Cena.

    One thing is for certain: The Undertaker’s unbeaten WrestleMania streak would likely still be intact.

    Speaking of The Deadman...

6. The Undertaker (Judgment Day 2000)

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    When Undertaker just suddenly disappeared from WWE television in September of 1999, seemingly walking out on a scheduled main event, not to be seen for many months, no one really knew if and when they would see The Deadman again.

    Then came the May 2000 Judgment Day pay-per-view and a blockbuster Iron Man Match for the WWE Championship pitting The Rock against Triple H. The Great One found himself outnumbered and beaten down by The Game's McMahon-Helmsley Faction while special referee Shawn Michaels recovered from a bump to the arena floor.

    Then, a vignette that had aired numerous times in the weeks leading up to the show inexplicably began playing. From there, Kid Rock's "American Badass" exploded over the PA system and The Phenom rode to the ring on a motorcycle.

    The Deadman unleashed hell on the heels, beating them down before grabbing The Game by the throat and driving him to the mat with a thunderous chokeslam.

    Sure, that instance cost Rock the match when Michaels caught the interference as he returned to the ring apron, but it did not matter. The arena was absolutely electric following the return of a beloved performer, donning a new look and attitude than those fans had ever seen before.

    It was the start of the American Badass era of The Deadman, one that allowed him to set aside the occult and become a relatively normal speaking and ass-kicking babyface in line with the tone the Attitude Era had taken three years earlier.

    It worked, benefiting everyone involved, beginning with the epic return on live PPV.

5. Bret "Hitman" Hart (Raw, January 4, 2010)

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    The Montreal Screwjob in November of 1997 created a schism between Vince McMahon, WWE and one of its greatest champions ever in Bret Hart for well over a decade.

    The tension, heartbreak and anger that existed between the Chairman of the Board and The Hitman prevented them from working together and robbed fans of a homecoming for Hart at a time when nostalgia rode wild in the pro wrestling industry.

    After several significant health issues and a Hall of Fame induction ceremony that he did attend in April of 2006, Hart decided it was time to mend fences and return to the company that he had given so much blood, sweat and tears to and had made him a bona fide Superstar.

    The January 4, 2010 episode of Raw advertised Hart's return, making his entry on this list one of the rarities. Still, despite the fact that the WWE Universe knew Bret would be returning, it did not temper the pop that awaited him as he stepped through the curtain and made his way to the ring for the first time in 13 years.

    Had Bret simply showed up, it would have been a huge success. Instead, he called longtime rival Shawn Michaels to the ring and the two embraced for the first time in well over a decade, showing each other a level of respect they had not had for one another when they last shared the ring.

    It was a magical moment, a healing one even. Later in the night, he would encounter McMahon, who would kick him low and jumpstart a WrestleMania program that would conclude with Hart and his family finally avenging the betrayal of the CEO from that unforgettable night in Montreal over a decade earlier. 

4. Edge (Royal Rumble 2020)

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    In April of 2011, Edge announced his retirement from wrestling, handing over the World Heavyweight Championship in a tearful goodbye, a neck battered beyond repair the reason for his sudden and unexpected departure.

    When he entered the Hall of Fame the next year, it appeared as though the Rated R Superstar's journey in sports entertainment had come to a sad and premature conclusion.

    Success in acting and a beautiful family kept him occupied for a decade, but the desire to return to the ring and end his career on his terms never really dissipated. After a close-call biking accident with fellow former world champion Sheamus, Edge consulted doctors about a potential return to the ring, rightfully concluding if he could take a bump like that and fell no ill effects, why couldn't he give wrestling one more go-round.

    Hard work and dedication, and an unquenchable thirst for an industry he had devoted his life to, fueled him and at the 2020 Royal Rumble, The Rated R Superstar returned to the ring for the first time in a decade as a surprise entrant in the annual battle royal spectacular.

    The crowd in Houston absolutely erupted, the surprise evident in their cheers as he made his way to the ring. Emotion painted his face as he took a deep breath, soaking everything in, the very real possibility that one bump would end it all again.

    He would be one of the final four in that night's match, the fans 100-percent behind him as he waged war with the likes of Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns. A victory was not meant to be but no win would erase the high of the live reaction and the adrenaline that resulted from it. 

    In an industry that lives and breathes on the moment, Edge had created one that would live forever in the annals of the event itself and the company as a whole.

3. John Cena (Royal Rumble 2008)

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    No one saw him coming.

    Unlike his return in 2021, no one imagined John Cena would pop up as the thirtieth entrant in the 2008 Royal Rumble match, seemingly healing miraculously from a neck injury diagnosed just four months early. The same fans who would have booed his ass out of Madison Square Garden months earlier erupted, their cheers fueled by the utter surprise of his appearance.

    And Cena fed off of it.

    The former WWE champion unloaded on Umaga and Batista before squaring off with Triple H, the one man standing between him and a shot at the title he had to forfeit due to injury. The leader of the Cenation and The Game went back and forth before Cena hoisted him in a fireman's carry and delivered an Attitude Adjustment over the top rope and to the floor.

    The victory was greeted by the familiar jeers of the fans that had long denounced the golden boy of Vince McMahon's wrestling empire, but they could not ruin what had been a magical, unforgettable moment just minutes earlier.

    Cena stood tall, victorious in a marquee match in wrestling's most storied arena that January night on the road to WrestleMania. It was not the first time MSG was home to a goosebump-inducing return at the start of the year.

2. Triple H (Raw, January 7, 2002)

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    For weeks, WWE aired vignettes set to U2's "Beautiful Day," advertising Triple H's return to the company some seven months after suffering a devastating quadriceps tear. Fans knew it was coming. WWE even announced ahead of time that The Game would make his first appearance on television since May 23, 2001 on the January 7 broadcast of Raw, live from Madison Square Garden in New York.

    Yet, despite the advanced warning, no one was prepared for the reaction the former WWE champion received as the opening strains of Motorhead's "The Game" exploded over the sound system. The New York fans erupted, jumping to their feet to welcome back a Superstar that had been such a vital part of the company over the previous four or five years.

    As The Cerebral Assassin stepped through the curtain, the cheers grew in volume. Goosebumps formed on the arms and necks of those watching, both live in MSG and at home, as Triple H made his way to the ring, basking in the adulation of fans he just hoped would remember him.

    What followed was a brief tussle with Kurt Angle and a nondescript promo, but it didn't have the be anything special. Fans got exactly what they wanted, and Triple H got the reaction he had earned, in one of the most memorable and unforgettable moments in both Raw and WWE history.

    It is a familiar foe of The King of Kings that keeps him out of the top spot, though.

1. The Rock (Raw, February 14, 2011)

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    For years, Dwayne Johnson told fans that WWE was his home and The Rock would always find his way back there. It became a joke, almost. After all, here was a billion-dollar Hollywood actor, involved in major film franchises and business ventures away from the silver screen. He didn't have time to jump back into the WWE Universe and contribute in any meaningful way.

    Just as he had done his entire career, he silenced doubters.

    Seconds after ring announcer Justin Roberts stood in the center of the squared circle on the February 14, 2011 episode of Raw and announced the special guest host for WrestleMania 27, "IF YA SMELL..." burst through the sound system speakers and the arena came unglued as The Rock returned to the flagship show on which so many of his most memorable WWE moments unfolded.

    The atmosphere was electric, the cheers of the company's faithful fans echoing off the walls of the Honda Center in Anaheim. 

    He made his way to the ring and cut a fan-friendly promo that also included a few swipes at John Cena, laying the groundwork for their inevitable showdown. 

    It was a moment in time so many who grew up watching him spar with "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Triple H, The Undertaker, Kane, Mankind and Kurt Angle were absolutely certain they would never see again. It was also a moment that Hollywood's biggest and most successful actor made good on his promise to come back and create magic for the WWE fans.

    That it was wholly unexpected by even the industry's top insiders, nary a hint that it might occur, only made it that much more special and the undisputed choice for the top spot on this countdown.

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