There was a time, not too long ago really, when a young WWE performer began to hear his name attached to a pretty flattering label: the next Shawn Michaels. Not everyone bought into it at the time, but there were enough similarities, enough parallels, that even the cynical fan had to give it a thought before dismissing it.

Like Michaels, the wrestler in question rose to fame as part of a successful tag team, capturing the tag titles five times in all. Both men were similar in build, a little on the small side for “heavyweights,” and both employed memorable finishing moves. You couldn’t help but get the feeling that both guys felt right at home in any match involving a ladder. And like the man known as the Heartbreak Kid, the up-and-coming grappler had more than his fair share of female fans.

For Jeff Hardy, comparisons to one of the greats of the business didn’t seem all that outrageous back in late 2001 or early 2002. They did, however, prove to be a bit premature. Seemingly the more charismatic of the Hardy brothers, Jeff got a stronger initial push than Matt, culminating in a shot at the undisputed world championship then held by The Undertaker (in, appropriately enough, a ladder match). Jeff lost that bout, but there was the feeling that it was only the beginning of a singles career that had many highlights yet to come.

Instead, it was the beginning of the end of Hardy’s WWE run. There was a short, strange storyline with Michaels himself, and a few other unmemorable feuds. In April of 2003, the WWE released Hardy, with only a short blurb and a good luck wish on the company website to mark the departure of someone who, with all respect to Brock Lesnar’s gimmick, seemed set to be the Next Big Thing. As they tend to do, rumours flew of lateness or drug use, and Hardy himself to have lost his zest for the business, speaking of his desire to put more energy into his music career.

If that would have been the end of the Jeff Hardy story, he would have assured himself of entry into the “Whatever happened to?” hall of fame, and fans would have been left wondering what might have been. But Hardy never quit wrestling, jumping over to TNA for a spell where he found himself in the heavyweight title mix several times. The latest twist may be the most interesting yet, as a little over a week ago, the WWE announced that it was bringing Jeff back.

The deal certainly seems like one that could benefit both parties. If the WWE adds Hardy to the Smackdown roster, it will be a shot in the arm for a program painfully short on star power and suffering from months of injuries and neglect. Raw wouldn’t be a bad fit either, as it’s easy to imagine Jeff in matches with younger guys like Carlito or Shelton Benjamin as he works his way back up the WWE ladder. It’s even possible that he could reunite as a tag team with Matt — and the brothers spoke of this very scenario recently on — though even the return of the Hardy Boyz probably wouldn’t be enough to revive the federation’s dilapidated doubles division.

On Jeff’s end, he’ll get the chance to learn the truth about himself. In his first interview with the WWE, Hardy said he felt like the substance problems that eventually led to his firing were the effect rather than the cause, that he was looking for an excuse to get out of the spotlight. Only he knows how much honesty is contained in that statement, but there’s no question that the best way to find out is to be back in it. Others have tried and failed to confront their personal issues while continuing to wrestle, but that doesn’t have to be Jeff’s fate.

There’s no guarantee that Hardy will be able to achieve the stardom that once seemed maybe not quite a certainty, but at least a very safe bet. The wear and tear of his high risk style is always a lingering cloud, as injury could rear its ugly head at any time. Fans seem to be especially hostile right now to anyone thought to be catering specifically to the females in the audience — Jeff only has to seek out John Cena in the locker room to get confirmation of that — so not everyone in the crowd may welcome him back with open arms. Jeff’s TNA stint also didn’t seem to do anything special for his microphone work, which wasn’t a strength to begin with, so it might be the non-wrestling things required of a WWE champion that prove to be his undoing.

For now, those hypothetical negatives are all shoved to the side by the promise of starting over. If there’s something that people in general, and wrestling fans in particular, all seem to pull for, it’s someone getting a second chance. It’s a common theme that runs through all types of entertainment, so why should sports entertainment be any different? Assuming that Hardy really is “refocused and rehabilitated” as his once and future employer claims, he’s certainly someone worthy of support as he goes forward with his career and his life.

It may turn out that WWE fans aren’t getting the return of the next Shawn Michaels, but that’s alright. They are getting the return of the first Jeff Hardy, and that’s good enough.