From the 1980s to 1992, professional wrestling enjoyed a boom because of the kids-friendly product and larger-than-life characters of WWF’s Golden Era. However, there was a significant shift in the product by the Ruthless Aggression Era (2002-2008). Despite the novelty of seeing a legend return to the wrestling scene in the modern era, these return runs were not always successful. What follows are times Golden Era wrestlers returned to WWE during the Ruthless Aggression Era!
1. The Road Warriors / Legion of Doom
When many think of the greatest tag teams, The Road Warriors likely spring to mind.
The Road Warriors, or Legion Of Doom (as rebranded in the WWF/E), became the only team to win tag team championships in AWA, NWA, and the WWF.
Four years after having left the WWF in 1999, Hawk and Animal made a one-off return, billed as “one of the best, if not the best, tag team in the history of our industry.” They would challenge then-tag titleholders Rob Van Dam and Kane.
The duo arrived in their patented Max Mad-esque spiked shoulder pads; although they sported less imposing physiques, they still looked the part; the short three-minute match saw the champions retain.
Hawk and Animal reportedly were given this match as a tryout to earn a full-time contract. However, this was never offered. This was likely due to Hawk’s no-selling a chokeslam/five-star frog splash combination, getting back onto his feet within a matter of seconds before Kane gave Hawk a darting glare.
Sadly, Hawk passed away less than six months later.
A Legion of Doom revamp would occur in 2005, with Animal teaming with Heidenreich to lesser success and acclaim than the original devastating duo.
Earthquake, real name John Tenta, was a prominent heel of the Golden Era, seeing a memorable feud with Hulk Hogan before moving into the tag team scene with Typhoon in the Natural Disasters.
Earthquake was well-regarded for his in-ring skill for his size, able to combine dominant super-heavyweight maneuvers such as the Earthquake Splash finisher and surprisingly agile offense such as his dropkick.
In 2001, the ex-Natural Disaster would compete in WrestleMania X-7’s Gimmick Battle Royal.
Later that year, Tenta would have his last match on US soil, competing on an episode of Sunday Night Heat, defeating Tank Meloche.
Tenta had trimmed down by this time but was still able to fit into his ring attire.
Earthquake received a great crowd reaction, with the audience happy to see a name of yesteryear re-emerging.
Sadly, he’d pass away a mere five years later.
3. Bob Orton Jr.
“Cowboy” Bob Orton was one of the main antagonists of the early Golden Era and an essential component of the inaugural WrestleMania.
In 2005, Bob Jr. returned to the company to work a program with his son Randy Orton (“The Legend Killer”) against The Undertaker.
Orton Jr.’s return involved five televised matches, including a pay-per-view handicap casket encounter at No Mercy 2005, which saw the father/son duo set a casket alight while the Undertaker was still alive.
A mini-feud also saw Orton face long-time partner and subsequent rival Roddy Piper. The two fought three times, with Piper winning each time.
During this time, Bob was involved in a Hell In A Cell match which caused a backstage stir.
In the book Wrestling’s Sinking Ship: What Happens To An Industry Without Competition, author Ian Hamilton recalls, “It emerged that Bob Orton had hepatitis – and amid the blood-fest of a match he’d participated in, there were genuine fears he could have passed the disease onto someone else.”
This scenario was not exactly what a promotion was looking for in a returning legend.
One of professional wrestling’s more bizarre gimmicks, Kamala returned to the ring a few times in the modern day.
The first was a surprise return in August 2005 for an episode of SmackDown! When he challenged Randy Orton.
Randy was then enveloped in a feud with The Undertaker (the one also involving his father Bob Orton Jr.), so ‘Taker’s old rival Kamala was brought in; the duo fought at SummerSlam and Survivor Series 1992, the latter in the first casket match.
Another match occurred in 2006 on the Raw after Vengeance against a modern-day foreign savage: Umaga. “The Samoan Bulldozer” was advised by handler Armano Estrada not to fight Kamala at the pay-per-view after a brief face-to-face encounter, but they would compete the next night.
Umaga squashed “The Ugandan Giant” in short order to continue his undefeated streak. Not exactly a grand return for the former headliner.
Although both saw an appearance of handler Kim Chee (portrayed by Steve Lombardi, aka The Brooklyn Brawler), only his match against Orton saw Kamala bedecked in his tribal mask.
While the match wasn’t a return to glory, Kamala still looked incredibly similar to the character he portrayed a decade and a half earlier.
Before his sad passing, Kamala opened up about what he claimed was his poor pay and treatment in the WWE.
5. The Honky Tonk Man
The longest-reigning Intercontinental Champion ever, The Honky Tonk Man “Shake, Rattled, and Rolled” his way into a few throwback segments during WWE’s Ruthless Aggression Era.
In 2008, Santino Marella won his second IC title reign, with the Canadian-Italian going on to create the Honk-A-Meter, where he documented his reign compared to Honky’s.
At Cyber Sunday 2008, Honky Tonk Man was voted to be Santino’s championship challenger, walking out with his classic jumpsuit, pompadour hairstyle, and acoustic guitar. The opponents even had a brief dancing exchange in the ring.
Honky Tonk Man won the match by DQ, with a feel-good ending the next night when cracking his guitar over Santino’s head.
Both men have complemented each other in interviews since, with Santino calling HTM a “consummate professional,” while Honky Tonk Man admits he wished the angle would have lasted longer.
6. Mr. Perfect
Despite not quite being the same athlete he had been a decade earlier, “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig was still a top worker with strong name value when he was snatched up by the WWF in 2002.
Perfect was in the final three of the Royal Rumble and was signed after his quality performance and rousing fan reception.
Hennig was often put to work with younger stars such as Randy Orton and Brock Lesnar when not losing to then more prominent names such as “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Rob Van Dam, and Kane. His role was to give credibility to rising talent.
As if having moved through a time warp, Ruthless Aggression Era fans experienced a tag team of Mr. Perfect and The Big Boss Man. The WrestleMania VII opponents teamed twice on television, facing The Hardy Boys and The Acolyte Protection Agency (APA).
Unfortunately, Hennig was let go for his role in the infamous Plane Ride From Hell, in which the Minnesotan endangered the lives of many by nearly opening the emergency door mid-flight during a sparring scuffle with Brock Lesnar at above 33,000 feet in the air.
It wasn’t exactly a glorious run for the all-time great.
7. Roddy Piper
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper was one of the brightest legends of the ‘Golden Era’ as both a heel and babyface. The Scotsman main-evented the first WrestleMania won the Intercontinental title and saw a high-profile retirement storyline at WrestleMania III (after which he saw a successful film career, including the famous They Live).
Piper had his fair share of return matches over the 21st Century. The first of which saw him compete three times in 2003 when managing “Devil’s Advocate” Sean O’Haire.
Piper faced Rikishi in a feud alluding to Jimmy Snuka’s famous Piper’s Pit segment, rekindled an old rivalry with Hulk Hogan when he was under his Mr. America guise, and even had an unsuccessful tag title bid against Tajiri and Eddie Guerrero.
More memorable, however, was Piper’s Ruthless Aggression Era tag team title run.
In 2006, fans selected Hot Rod to team up with real-life friend Ric Flair to challenge The Spirit Squad.
After Flair forced Mikey into submission, Dusty Rhodes and Sgt. Slaughter came out for a celebratory dance as Jim Ross shouted on commentary, “It’s 2006, and Flair and Piper are the tag team champions!”
Piper developed Hodgkin’s Lymphoma during his time off, which could explain some of Piper’s weight gain during this period. According to Bruce Prichard, his Lymphoma diagnosis was known before the title win.
Roddy made a few more appearances even after the Ruthless Aggression Era, including competing at WrestleMania XXV against Chris Jericho in a three-on-one handicap that featured Jimmy Snuka and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat.
His last appearance in the WWE would come in 2011 in a match against The Miz.
8. Marty Jannetty
In March 2005, Marty Jannetty turned back the clock to portray his most famous role in The Rockers by teaming with Shawn Michaels against La Résistance.
A one-off reunion, it was to serve as an exhibition for the returning former Intercontinental Champion ahead of a clash with Kurt Angle before the Olympian’s match with Michaels at WrestleMania.
Marty got the win for his team with his Rocker Dropper finisher. But, unfortunately, the middle-aged Rockers didn’t quite gel as they did in their youth.
After his 20-minute showdown with Kurt Angle, Jannetty was on track for more work with WWE until his notorious extra-curricular activities saw plans flushed down the toilet on multiple occasions.
Bleacher Report commented that after Jannetty’s personal life led to scrapping plans, “Vince has…severed all ties with the former Rocker.”
The forgotten ECW star would go on to have later encounters with Mr. Kennedy and The Miz, losing in both matches.
It was a far-from-great last WWE run for the once high-flying Rocker.
Although technically not a star of the then-WWF’s Golden Era, having debuted with the company in 1996, Vader was still one of the most popular wrestlers in the world in the early 1990s due to his high-caliber work in New Japan and WCW.
“The Mastodon” was hired in October 2005 by Jonathan Coachman as back-up alongside Goldust in The Coach’s rivalry with Batista.
Batista, then the WWE World Heavyweight Champion, replaced Steve Austin, who had walked out after being told he would lose to Coachman.
It was not a great return for Vader, who looked like a shadow of his former self and infamously tripped on the outside. The hobbling heavyweight was hard to treat seriously and was easily manhandled by “The Animal.”
Vader had his first mainstream match in nearly fifteen years in 2012 when he made a surprise Raw return as the first face of the past to squash Heath Slater during the latter’s squash match spree against past icons.
Vader fared far better when he made appearances for the WWF in a non-wrestling capacity at Raw 1,000th and the 2016 Hall Of Fame ceremony when inducting on-screen enemy and off-screen friend Stan “The Lariat” Hansen.
10. Greg Valentine
Greg “The Hammer” Valentine was a constant presence in the WWF, working in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.
Despite aging, Valentine kept wrestling and was one of the first major stars from WWF’s Golden Era to utilize the independent scene. Valentine has, incredibly, worked since 1970.
Without ring rust, having remained an active wrestler, Valentine was called back to the WWE in 2005.
The first holder of both the IC and US title belts wrestled on Sunday Night Heat. His opponent was Rob Conway, who was in a program fighting past stars, including Koko B. Ware.
Valentine wore a classic pink robe with a relatively unchanged physique. He primarily relied on chops, nearly able to apply the Figure Four in the match.
In the end, however, Valentine would lose by disqualification after Conway’s storyline rival Eugene interfered, which was the main focus.
Valentine shoved Eugene down afterward, able to walk away with some heat at the very least.
While it may be nice for fans to see an old face from the past in the modern era, those final return runs, while fun from a nostalgic standpoint, often disappoint on far too many occasions. Sadly, no wrestling hold exists that can submit Father Time.
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