Matt and Jeff Hardy made a surprise return to WWE at tonight’s WrestleMania 33, just a few days after Jeff tried to throw fans off the trail by saying during an interview that they were not WWE-bound, and only one night after losing the Ring of Honor tag team titles to the Young Bucks at Supercard of Honor XI. The brothers were added to the Raw tag team title ladder match at WrestleMania, and went on to defeat Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson, Sheamus and Cesaro, and Enzo Amore and Big Cass to win the titles.
It wasn’t the most shocking return—despite Jeff’s feint during that recent interview, it’s been assumed they were headed to WWE ever since their relationship with Impact Wrestling collapsed at the end of February. It’s since been revealed by Dave Meltzer and other wrestling journalists that the Ring of Honor feud between the Hardys and the Young Bucks was originally going to run for much longer than it did, and include appearances by both the Hardys at Ring of Honor events and the Young Bucks on Impact’s Thursday night show on Pop TV. That feud was condensed into a handful of appearances at three Ring of Honor shows, culminating in the Bucks regaining the ROH tag titles in a brutal ladder match in Lakeland, Fla., on Saturday night.
Once the Hardys lost those belts in Lakeland, their WWE return was basically assured. The only questions involved the timing—would it be at WrestleMania or at the Raw or Smackdown shows this week?—and what gimmick the brothers would be doing. The problem with bringing the Broken Matt Hardy and Brother Nero personas that have helped revitalize their careers with them to WWE was the threat of legal action from Impact, who claim ownership of all the creative ideas generated by the Hardys while they were under contract. That’s complicated by the fact that the Hardys themselves personally funded some of the TV tapings conducted at their homes in North Carolina, and that two of the Hardy family members who played notable roles in that story, Matt’s father-in-law Senor Benjamin and son Maxel, were never under contract to Impact. Of course WWE historically is reluctant to import gimmicks or characters from other promotions without changing or “enhancing” them in some way, and there’s recent precedence for ignoring a former employee’s post-WWE character growth when WWE brought Bully Ray back in his ‘90s-era Bubba Ray Dudley gimmick. It was hard to imagine WWE bringing the Hardys back as anything other than the classic Hardy Boyz, but equally hard to imagine Matt Hardy having to drop his career-defining Broken gimmick, the massive popularity of which among wrestling fans is considered one of the major reasons WWE wanted to bring them back in the first place.
WrestleMania answered those questions tonight, although not conclusively in terms of the gimmick. When the New Day announced that a fourth team was being added to the ladder match, the tens of thousands of fans in Camping World Stadium were hoping it’d be the Hardys. When their classic WWE entrance music hit, the stadium erupted with one of the loudest reactions of the night, including loud, sustained “delete” chants. And although the brothers largely avoided the trappings of the Broken gimmick, Matt Hardy does still have that distinctly colored and coiffed hair, and he did perform his signature “delete” arm gesture a few times (although apparently they weren’t captured by WWE’s cameras).
After the match WWE posted two different interviews with the Hardys to its YouTube page. In one Matt clearly slips into the Broken character, using the specific speech patterns and accent is known for, along with some of his catchphrases.
In the other interview, though, he’s basically just Matt Hardy.
Jeff never shows any hint of the Brother Nero gimmick, but that was mostly just a matter of costuming for him. He didn’t see nearly the level of reinvention that Matt did when he adopted the Broken gimmick.
If you’re wondering why we’ve just devoted so much thought and so many words to this subject, well, it’s because Broken Matt Hardy was responsible for perhaps the best wrestling television of 2016, and is one of the few recent examples of a famous wrestler completely reinventing himself while still maintaining a clear connection to his past. Matt Hardy went from being practically unwanted by anybody outside of regional independents to becoming the biggest non-WWE wrestler in America in just a few years, purely through his own ingenuity and commitment to a character and concept that probably shouldn’t have worked. In the process he finally outshone his younger brother for the first time in their careers, and paved the way for a WWE return that always felt more unlikely than with most stars who had left the company over the years. Also, and this is key: stories about the Broken Hardys always do well when it comes to traffic. People are into these two and their characters, and would read about them even when they were wrestling on a show that drew relatively few viewers.