The ‘Biggest Party of the Summer’, SummerSlam, is just around the corner and an epic main event has been set with John Cena returning to face Universal Champion Roman Reigns in his first match since being defeated by ‘The Fiend’ Bray Wyatt at WrestleMania 36 in April 2020.
John Cena isn’t the first man to make his return to the ring in the 33-year history of SummerSlam, and in this feature, we will look at five of the biggest comebacks that have occurred at the annual extravaganza.
5. Hulk Hogan 1990
Back in 1990, Hulkamania was still running wild with Hulk Hogan being WWF’s megastar. Meanwhile, a new monster had joined the company in the form of the massive Earthquake. Managed by ‘The Mouth of The South’ Jimmy Hart. Earthquake tore through the company, taking out the likes of Hercules, ‘Hacksaw’ Jim Duggan, and Koko B. Ware.
During an episode of WWF Superstars that May, Earthquake set his sights on the Hulkster, attacking from behind with a chair and then continuing with multiple Earthquake Splashes to Hogan’s chest in front of a shocked and disgusted crowd. Hogan was taken away from the arena in a stretcher, with the company later announcing he had been hospitalised with crushed ribs.
During Hogan’s absence, WWF teased that his loss to Ultimate Warrior earlier in the year at WrestleMania VI and now the beating he had taken from Earthquake had left him broken and considering retirement. They encouraged fans to send in letters of support to the multi-time WWF Champion to persuade him to come back, in return fans received a postcard thanking them. Bruce Pritchard later revealed on an episode of his podcast, Something to Wrestle, that WWF also used the provided addresses to create a mailing list to send out catalogues and advertisements for events.
On July 14th, two months after Earthquake’s attack, an emotional Hogan thanked the fans for their support, saying this had been the hardest thing he had ever been through. revealed on WWF Superstars that he would indeed be returning at SummerSlam to take down the man who had put him out of action.
“Hell no, I’m not retiring. I’ve been reborn again, man, I’m a reborn Hulkamaniac. I’m the stark raving Hulkster that you’ve known for so long, man. I’m alive again, man! The purple mountain majesties, the amber waves of grain. Truth, justice and the Hulk Hogan way!
“Just before the broadcast Jimmy Hart, I signed on the dotted line to wrestle the Earthquake at SummerSlam, brother!”
When SummerSlam came around on August 27th, Hogan entered to a deafening reaction from the 19,000 fans in attendance. Hogan was accompanied by Big Boss Man to counter Earthquake’s cornerman, Dino Bravo. The match saw Earthquake overpowering Hogan for some time before he was able to mount a comeback. The crowd went wild when Hogan was able to knock Earthquake to the mat. The action quickly spilled to the outside with the cornermen getting involved causing a chaotic scene. Back in the ring, Earthquake was unable to put Hogan away with Earthquake Splashes. Hogan managed to bodyslam the big man and hit his patented leg drop, but Hart distracted the referee. Undeterred, Hogan took Earthquake back outside and slammed him on a table, getting back in the ring in time to win by count-out to an ecstatic reaction from the fans. Earthquake launched another attack on a celebratory Hogan, but Boss Man saved the day with a steel chair.
While the end of the match may not have been as decisive as some might have liked, it was enough to send the crowd home happy and give a revitalised Hogan the triumphant return he deserved.
4. Roman Reigns 2020
Late in 2018, Roman Reigns shocked fans when he revealed that he would be taking time off for treatment for leukaemia. He would be absent from WWE TV for four months before announcing in February 2019 that he had gone into remission and was able to return to the ring. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Reigns made the decision to take time away from the ring to protect both himself and his family. This meant missing a major match at WrestleMania 36 against Goldberg, but Reigns told Corey Graves on After the Bell that his family had to come first.
“For me, it was about putting my family first. And right there, if I had to retire and that’s what was gonna be asked of me, I was willing to do it. For one of the first times in a long time, I put my family—they were 1A. There was nothing that was gonna change my mind.”
The ’Big Dog’ would be gone for four months before making a huge impact when he returned at that year’s SummerSlam and laid waste to both ‘The Fiend’ Bray Wyatt and Brawn Strowman, who had just been through a gruelling battle over the Universal Championship. Reigns appeared out of nowhere and speared the Fiend who was celebrating his victory in the ring and then set his sights on the ‘Monster Among Men’ on the outside and speared him too. Back in the ring, he hit another spear on Wyatt for good measure and held the Universal Championship above his head, telling Wyatt he “couldn’t handle this responsibility” and that the title was always going to be his.
Following his actions at SummerSlam, Reigns aligned himself with Paul Heyman and defeated The Fiend and Strowman for the Universal Championship after leaving them to battle it out amongst themselves for much of the match, before making his way to the ring and hammering both men with a steel chair, then taking Wyatt down with a low blow and finally finishing Strowman with a spear for the win.
His heel turn complete, Reigns reinvented himself as the ‘Tribal Chief’ and forced his cousins, The Usos, to acknowledge him as such. Since solidifying his position in his family, Reigns has dominated everyone who has come for his championship over the last eleven months, whether it be forcing Braun Strowman to submit, choking Kevin Owens out in a ‘Last Man Standing’ match, or pinning both Daniel Bryan and the winner of the 2021 Royal Rumble, Edge, at the same time in a triple threat match at WrestleMania. Reigns’ return at SummerSlam was just the beginning, and we may still not have seen the best of the ‘Head of the Table’.
3. Edge 2019
Just over a decade ago, at WrestleMania XXVII, Edge successfully defended the World Heavyweight Championship against Albert Del Rio in the opening match of the night, and it seemed like his seventh reign with the title would continue for some time to come. However, it was not to be, as the ‘Rated-R Superstar’ revealed during an emotional speech on Raw the following night that he had, in fact, wrestled his last match as he had been diagnosed with cervical spinal stenosis, in his case a career-ending neck condition.
Edge made a few appearances for WWE over the following months, occasionally being in the corner of his best friend Christian and appearing on an episode of SmackDown in his hometown of Toronto, Canada, after which WWE held a special ‘Edge Appreciation Night’ in honour of the ‘Ultimate Opportunist’.
Following his induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2012, Edge mostly distanced himself from wrestling, telling Sam Roberts in 2016 that he didn’t want to appear since WWE wouldn’t clear him to get physical in even minor ways.
“Like, ‘if I’m going to show up, at least have me do something’. ‘Nope, you can’t’. ‘Alright, well then don’t have me show up because why bother?’ That’s why I’ve distanced myself from even watching the product too much. It’s like, ‘well, I can’t do it.’”
“If you want me to come back and cut a promo on all this stuff, I can’t really further stuff along too much because there’s no physical payoff. Nobody’s going to get heat from attacking me because they’re not allowed to attack me.”
During this time, he turned to acting and was a regular in Syfy’s ‘Haven’ from 2011, and later took on a regular role in the History Channel series, ‘Vikings’. He would also return to the world of WWE in 2016 when he and his former tag partner created ‘The Edge and Christian Show That Totally Reeks of Awesomeness’ for the WWE Network.
By 2019, few fans thought there was any chance of Edge returning to action in the ring. That all changed at SummerSlam when he made his first appearance for the company in months to interrupt Elias as he insulted the crowd in Edge’s hometown. The ‘Master Manipulator’ stared down the ‘Drifter’ and then ran through him with his first Spear in eight long years to a huge reaction from the audience. While this wasn’t a full comeback, I’ve included it in this list because it marked a return to physicality in the ring for Edge and started him on the path to once again being an active WWE Superstar only a short time later at the following year’s Royal Rumble.
2. Undertaker 1994
At the 1994 Royal Rumble, The Undertaker faced Yokozuna in a Casket Match. The conclusion of the battle would see Yokozuna claim victory when several other members of the locker room came out to assist him in sealing the ’Phenom’ in the casket. Shortly after, the lights went out in the arena and Undertaker appeared on the video screen from within the coffin, ominously announcing that “Soon all mankind will witness the rebirth of the Undertaker. I will not rest in peace.” before appearing to ascend high into the rafters.
The Undertaker would not be seen again in WWF for seven months. During his absence, the WWF aired videos of people who claimed to have seen the ‘Deadman’ in various places, but he still hadn’t resurfaced in the ring. That changed in the lead up to SummerSlam, when ‘The Million Dollar Man’ claimed he had found The Undertaker and would bring him back to the company. When he introduced ‘his’ Undertaker as the newest member of the Million Dollar Corporation, though, it was clear that it wasn’t the same man (it was, in fact, ‘Prime Time’ Brian Lee, who would later appear again in WWF as ‘Chainz’). Undertaker’s Manager, Paul Bearer, retaliated by promising to bring the real Undertaker back to face DiBiase’s doppelganger at SummerSlam.
At the event, DiBiase confidently strode to the ring claiming he didn’t know what Paul Bearer was going to bring, but he would give us the “The one, the only” Undertaker. However, once the fake Undertaker was in the ring, the lights went out and Paul Bearer appeared and beckoned two druids to follow him with a casket. At ringside, he produced an urn from the coffin and used it to summon the real Undertaker who, amid flashing lights and the sound of thunder, appeared in the entranceway to a huge ovation from the fans in the arena.
The match itself was only eight minutes long and ended with an emphatic defeat for the Underfaker after three Tombstone Piledrivers from the true ‘Deadman’. However, while the match might not have been a technical masterpiece, it was a great way for The Undertaker to show he was back and as dominant as ever.
1. Shawn Michaels (2002)
By WrestleMania XIV in 1998, Shawn Michaels had done it all in WWE. He had gone through legendary feuds with the likes of his former friend Marty Jannetty, The Undertaker, and Bret Hart. He pioneered innovative matches in WWE such as the first Hell in a Cell, first ladder, and first Iron Man matches in the company’s history. He helped ignite the Attitude Era with the formation of D-Generation X with Triple H, Chyna, and Rick Rude. He was also the first Grand Slam Champion in company history, having won all of the available championships at least once, and was going into WrestleMania in his third reign with the WWF World Heavyweight Championship. At the end of the night, however, he has lost everything. Not only did ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin defeat him for his first WWF World Heavyweight Championship, but a back injury he sustained earlier in the year had become so severe that was forced to retire following the event.
The ‘Heartbreak Kid’ would make sporadic appearances over the next few years, notably becoming WWF Commissioner for the first half of 1999, costing The Rock his chance to win the WWF Championship from Triple H, and taking on the role of Special Guest Referee for Triple H and The Rock’s Iron Man match at Judgment Day in 2000.
Michaels resurfaced in 2002 as part of an ill-fated storyline that saw him become the leader of the beleaguered NWO, which at that point had lost founding members Hulk Hogan and Scott Hall, at the behest of his long-time friend Kevin Nash. The storyline didn’t last long as a few weeks after Michaels joined, Nash tore his quadriceps and, seeing the writing on the wall for the group, Vince McMahon unceremoniously announced their break-up on the following episode of Raw.
Soon after, it appeared that Triple H and Michaels were going to reform DX, appearing on the stage in DX t-shirts are posing at the entrance and in the ring. However, Triple H shocked the world when he kicked his best friend in the gut and dropped him with a Pedigree. ‘The Game’ escalated things further the following week when he rammed Michaels’ head though a car window from behind. When Michaels returned, he revealed he knew his former friend was the culprit and challenged him to an unsanctioned fight at that year’s SummerSlam. While technically not official, this would mark the first bout for the ‘Showstopper’ in WWE in over four years.
The match itself was brutal and bloody, with Triple H focusing on Michaels’ back throughout. For his part, Michaels looked like he had never missed a step, utilising weapons, fists, and high-flying moves to put the ‘Cerebral Assassin’ on the backfoot, including a perfect diving elbow from the top of a ladder. The match came to an end when Triple H avoided Sweet Chin Music to go for a Pedigree, but Michaels reversed it into a pin for the victory. Unfortunately, his celebration was to be short-lived as Triple H recovered enough to land two heavy shots to Michaels’ back with his trademark sledgehammer to seemingly end this comeback story in its tracks.
However, while SummerSlam was meant to be a one-time deal, it actually marked the beginning of a revival for HBK’s career. He returned again a few months later at Survivor Series to claim the World Heavyweight Championship by surviving the first-ever Elimination Chamber match, fittingly pinning Triple H last to re-establish himself as ‘The Headliner’ in WWE, a nickname he lived up to for a further eight years before finally retiring on his own terms at WrestleMania 26 in 2010.