Five surgeries later, Big Show returns with hopes of one more WrestleMania moment

The Big Show's power was on display last Monday night, with this clothesline on Seth Rollins. WWE

It was a classic wrestling setup: Samoa Joe and Kevin Owens, ready to battle Seth Rollins and AOP on Monday Night Raw with a mystery partner. They stood on the ramp, their backs to the entranceway, the crowd quiet in anticipation of the needle drop of theme music which would trumpet that partner's arrival.

Suddenly, the silence was cut with a single, instantly recognizable word: "Wellllllllllll ..."

After a nearly two-year absence, the Big Show (real name Paul Wight) raised his fist, clapped his hands and made his way toward the ring with a giant -- in size and in sentiment -- grin on his face.

"I was very humbled and overwhelmed by the reaction. About the kids who were excited to see me, the fans who were excited to see me and the opportunity that was given to me to help out Samoa Joe and Kevin Owens," Big Show told ESPN on Friday.

So where was he? And why did the 47-year-old return to the ring now?

"I've been chomping at the bit, actually," he said. "I was in a pretty rough patch the last two years. I needed five surgeries in a year and a half. You're trying to do recovery therapy, and then there's a setback. It was very frustrating for me for a while. This opportunity came up, and I was blown away by it. Right fit, right time."

Big Show only learned about the opportunity less than two days before he appeared on Raw. "It's like they said, 'You haven't wrestled competitively in two years, but in 36 hours you're going to be on Raw and, oh yeah, don't tell anybody,'" he said with a laugh.

It's been a long, painful road back. The first of the five surgeries was a resurfacing of his hip, putting a titanium cap on his ball joint and a titanium receptacle on the pelvis. But then he developed a surgical infection -- a low percentage occurrence, but something that happens now and again. There was another surgery meant to clean it up, coupled with a PICC line that connected through his arm to his heart to pump him full of antibiotics, three times a day for six weeks.

"But the problem with an infection is that once it gets on the metal, you kind of have to take the metal out and start over. The infection is so smart now that it literally hides from antibiotics," Big Show said. "I've learned more about infections and antibiotics and physical therapy than I ever, ever wanted to know."

In hindsight, Big Show says he may not have required five surgeries were it not for an error in judgement. He was concerned that a full hip replacement would have hurt his ability to compete in the ring. "I was angry I had to have the surgery done, and I felt like my career was getting pulled away from me. It wasn't on my terms," he said. But he now admits that doing a full replacement from the start would have been the correct course.

"Everything happens for a reason. It tested me. It tested my faith. It tested my commitment to myself as an athlete and a performer to push myself," he said. "Monday night was the culmination for two years of headaches. Two years of stress. Two years of doubt, and other people having doubt about whether I could be competitive again."

That's what made this comeback different for The Big Show. He's gone away before and come back to surprise the crowd, but not after this kind of absence. He was out of circulation for so long that what now seems like an obvious choice for a surprise tag-team partner -- talk about your reinforcements -- wasn't a name mentioned by fans on social media or in the wrestling media in discussing the mystery partner.

It's the kind of surprise that used to happen more frequently, around the time when Big Show debuted in WWE in 1999 after years as a star with WCW -- bursting forth from under the ring at a WWE pay-per-view match between Steve Austin and The Undertaker.

"A lot of the mystique that we had in the business 20 years ago is gone because of access and informational overload," Big Show said. "There are so many websites, social media outlets, podcasts, people involved that tell a friend who tells a friend. There's so many more people involved now. Everybody has access to information."

His return to Raw was known by three people, and information about his return was kept pointedly off the grid. WWE performers have what's called a "talent app" on their mobile devices where details of their travel plans are uploaded for them. But Big Show's details were texted to him, rather than shared in the app.

"If I had had a fax machine, they probably would have faxed it. I'm surprised a pigeon didn't drop it off at my front door," he said, laughing. "It was really old school. One of those 2 a.m. phone calls from someone who never sleeps and also built a billion-dollar company."

The timing of the comeback was hectic, but Big Show was a model of calm as he waited for his music to hit.

"I've had plenty of butterflies before WrestleMania or some of the bigger shows we had around the world. But there were so many little battles that I had in the last year and a half that I fought and won, that this moment for me was ... I was calm. Calm when I got the phone call, on the flight to Oklahoma City, on the way to the arena and waiting to come out. I knew I had fought for this. I had earned this. This moment is yours," he said.

It was another memorable moment in a career that now spans four different decades. And while The Big Show has enjoyed more than enough career-defining moments to earn a spot in the WWE Hall of Fame, much of that time didn't include a run with a world championship belt. As WWE senior vice president and executive director of SmackDown Bruce Prichard has said on his podcast "Something to Wrestle With," there are some talents like Big Show, Undertaker and Kane who don't require a world title to get over with fans.

It's something that The Big Show had to come to grips with.

"I was always what you called an interim champion. If I was a heel, I'd take it off one babyface to pass it to another babyface, you know what I mean?" Big Show said. "But I'm not a John Cena or a Hulk Hogan or someone that's going to lead the charge. I'm the guy trying to get them over so they can do that. It's really one of the oldest stories: the hero overcoming insurmountable odds. It resonates with people on a basic level that if something bigger is attacking something smaller, you naturally root for the underdog. For me, it was an easy role to assume to create validity for the other guy."

Just like his return on Monday, Big Show has long been one of the WWE's best utility players.

"People give me grief about my heel and face turns -- 'Oh my god, Big Show's had more turns than a NASCAR race!' -- but I sure have, because at some point WWE needed me to be a heel or a face depending on what talent they needed me to work with, because that talent was moving on to do other things," he said.

As for his match to come Monday night -- a "fist fight" rematch with the same six men as last week -- he's taking that all in stride as well.

"I have no idea. I learned about it after Raw," said Big Show "I've had thumbtack matches and barbed wire matches and cage matches and inferno matches and casket matches ... never had a 'fist fight' match. Is it free-for-all brawl like in the Old West, and we're taking off the doors of the saloon? Am I allowed to throw a front kick? It is Queensbury rules? We'll see. In the evil creative genius' mind at WWE, I'm sure they've come up with something and we'll find out on Monday."

The timing of Big Show's return has stoked speculation about a WrestleMania appearance. "That's every competitor's dream," he said, having missed the previous two. "I'd love to get one more in. Especially because it's in Tampa, where I have a house, so I can drive home after the show."

An appearance at 'Mania would be a boon to his new project on Netflix: "The Big Show Show," a multi-camera family comedy in which an outsized version of his wrestling character deals with a wife and three daughters after his retirement. The 10-episode series, produced in conjunction with WWE and featuring other wrestlers, is expected to hit the streaming service this spring.

"A show like this has been a dream of mine," he said. "I think I've driven Vince [McMahon] nuts about doing something like this since, you know, we were on 'Saturday Night Live' with The Rock [in 2000]."

An appearance at WrestleMania would also extend the Big Show's happiness with this comeback from a two-year absence.

"The planets aligned. The universe aligned. It feels right to be back in the WWE and be competitive again. Not just an ambassador that says hi and cuts ribbons at county fairs. That's all cool, too," he said. "But to walk into that locker room and look at the guys and know that I'm in the trenches with them again and being competitive, that's what did it for me."