PHILADELPHIA -- Though the in-ring action at NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia stands up against the best TakeOver specials in the event's history, the surprises weren't limited to the action in the ring. Recent debuts Trevor "Ricochet" Mann and War Machine appeared after news of their signings in recent weeks, and Candice LeRae, another new entry to the NXT Universe, even got involved in the main event on behalf of her husband, Johnny Gargano.
But one of the biggest surprises of the night came just before the start of the evening's championship main event as the man known as EC3 made his triumphant return to the WWE Universe by appearing amidst a packed and frenetically excited Wells Fargo Center crowd.
"The moment was vindication. The moment was resolution," said EC3, real name Michael Hutter. "I feel redeemed."
The redemption EC3 feels stems from the fact that this isn't his first time in the WWE. He spent more than six years in various stages of WWE developmental until May 2013, when he was released. Over the past five years, however, EC3 has found himself, winning multiple world championships and redefining himself as a character and as a man.
Though he found success elsewhere, in the back of his mind he was always mentally preparing himself for another chance within the confines of the WWE -- to an almost idiosyncratic degree, in fact.
"It's only been 1,714 days since the last time I stepped foot in the WWE -- but who's counting," EC3 said. "With each day that has passed, I've had one goal in mind -- and that was to be here, in this moment at this time for one purpose.
"Never once, without a shadow of a doubt, did I ever not believe in myself -- believe that I would come back. I came back with vigor and determination. I came back on a mission."
As for the moment he stepped out in front of the crowd, in a similar fashion to a couple of men who ultimately became NXT champion -- Bobby Roode and Drew McIntyre -- the timing and the reaction could not have been better.
"It was built up in my mind, how it would feel and what emotions I would feel," EC3 said. "But walking out there, standing out there, with the crowd recognizing who I am -- who I truly am -- and that I'm truly where I belong, it didn't feel anything but right."
EC3 joins NXT at a time when the top of the roster is as stacked as it's been in a long time. All you have to do is look at how TakeOver: Philadelphia played out and the wave of recent signings to realize there's going to be a lot of competition for airtime and spotlight in the weeks and months to come.
Whether it's the bravado of his character EC3, or the chip on his shoulder that Michael Hutter the man has carried around from the time his first WWE run came to a close, it would be foolish to doubt him.
"For years outside of the WWE, I've been saying one thing -- that I'm the best here, I'm the best there, I'm the best anywhere," EC3 said. "While I was the best 'here' elsewhere, the 'there' I referenced was here [in the WWE] -- and that carries over. I'm the best here, I'm the best there, I'm the best anywhere.
"Competition? Bring it on. Competition? Come get a taste. Competition? I'm here."