Three…two…one…BUZZ. Every 90 seconds throughout WWE’s Royal Rumble match, the imagination runs wild. That’s because the January classic has become wrestling’s premier shock factor spectacle, as much about returns, debuts and surprises as it is about a shot at the main titles in the company. In fact, due to the general predictability of the winners of each year’s Rumble, the surprises have grown to be THE draw for fans both in attendance and watching at home. With every buzzer, you could be seeing anything from a current favorite, to an unexpected oddity, to an iconic legend from years gone by.
That hasn’t always been the case, as surprises really only became a huge part of the Royal Rumble at the turn of the millenium; before that, you would generally know every competitor in the match beforehand. Sure, there were surprises before that (such as Mick Foley bringing out all three of his personas in 1998), but the history of modern Royal Rumble surprise entrants truly begins in 2000, when Bob Backlund rocked the Madison Square Garden entrance ramp at the tender age of 51. In case anyone thought that was a fluke, the following year saw a much less exciting shock, when the Honky Tonk Man showed up to get hit in the head with his own guitar. Some of the shockers since those early days have been more Honky Tonk than Backlund, such as Boogeyman in 2015, the Godfather in both 2002 and 2013, or maybe the worst waste of Rumble slots in 2012, when Michael Cole, Booker T and Jerry Lawler took up a tenth of the match. But when WWE gets a surprise return right, there are few things better in professional wrestling.
Booker T and Diesel in 2011. Rob Van Dam in 2009. Chris Jericho in 2013. These are just some of the best surprises from the last decade and a half of Royal Rumble matches. Each of those shocks had two things in common: 1) they featured beloved stars (for one reason or another) and 2) they were not spoiled in any way beforehand. When a true surprise of that caliber occurs, the crowd in attendance reaches a new level of excitement; a dull roar becomes an excited bellow, and the energy in what is a very long and boring in-ring match climbs several notches. Even when the surprise is heavily hinted at, such as AJ Styles debuting last year, the right set-up can create drama that will carry the match for the next 10 to 15 minutes, until the next big moment comes across. WWE’s spacing of these returns has generally been impeccable, and they know when they have someone big in the back ready to go.
As an example, you can look at the best surprise entrant ever, whether you liked him or loathed him at the time: John Cena’s superhuman return from a torn pectoral at the 2008 Royal Rumble is one of the loudest pops you will ever hear, even if the wise New York crowd realized just moments later that they should be booing him for his inevitable victory. Cena’s return had everything a surprise needs: it was high energy (watch him coming down the ramp like a man possessed), and it was someone fans actually cared about, one way or another, and it wasn’t telegraphed or spoiled. It’s not a coincidence that 2008 was one of the last years before the Royal Rumble landed squarely in the Twitter era, which has made surprises rarer while making the payoff for a successful one so much sweeter.
The aforementioned AJ Styles debut is a prime example of the pros and cons of the social media era. While it was heavily rumored that Styles would be crossing into WWE after his departure from New Japan Pro Wrestling at the beginning of January 2016, both Styles and WWE did a great job of keeping him out of sight of fans on the day of; there’s a great video of Styles being rushed into a bus with a hoodie and hat on to preserve the mystery. The reward, too, was fantastic; the Orlando crowd, home of TNA (where Styles made his first real national mark), popped huge for the Phenomenal One’s entrance at #3, and a new star was immediately born.
That also speaks to how WWE might be using the Rumble now; with its acquisition of independent talent from all over the world, anyone who is main roster ready could theoretically pop up at the match. Styles might have been the first, but he almost certainly won’t be the last indie star to make their debut at the Royal Rumble. The rumor mill has been churning as it does every year for a couple of months now, with people like Kota Ibushi, Kyle O’Reilly and any of WWE’s UK Championship tournament competitors being talked about for a slot. Hell, Broken Matt Hardy could return to the WWE, considering he’s more popular with wrestling fans than ever AND the fact that TNA is in a state of flux after being purchased. However, the big get would, without a doubt, be Kenny Omega, who just had one of the greatest matches of all time at NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom 11. Since that match on January 4th, and Omega’s subsequent kayfabe-but-maybe-not assertion that he is done in Japan, hearts and minds have turned to his possible debut on Sunday. It’s a long shot, but in the same way that Styles debut shook up WWE in 2016, Omega making an appearance would set the tone for 2017.
Looking inward, other surprises could come from NXT, just as Sami Zayn did last year on his way to moving upwards to the main roster. Samoa Joe is the clear-cut frontrunner for an NXT spot in the Rumble; word has it that it’s not just a certainty that Joe will be up, but he will also have a great performance that will lead to something big at WrestleMania 33. Less likely is current NXT Champion Shinsuke Nakamura, who is wasting away in front of tiny crowds in NXT when he should be in front of sold-out arenas on SmackDown Live or Raw. Finally, there has been some minor buzz for a Tye Dillinger call-up at #10; the Perfect Ten not popping up at the tenth spot would surely see the crowd hijack the next few minutes at the Rumble, but that might be a risk WWE is willing to take.
Finally, we have the true surprises that would make mainstream noise: the nostalgic returns. It’s no secret that the Attitude Era was WWE’s most popular time, so any star from that era returning would surely create a huge buzz. The only problem is that there truly is just one guy left from that era that is a) available and b) big enough to be worth pursuing. It’s just so happens that that guy has been confirmed for this year’s Hall of Fame class, and he has also been pulled from his independent shows this weekend. I’m talking, of course, about Kurt Angle. It’s true, it’s damn true that Angle, telegraphed return or not, would get the pop of the night as soon as his theme hits, and even though his body has been breaking down on him, I would be shocked if he doesn’t hit the ring to a medley of cheers and “YOU SUCK! YOU SUCK!” singalong chants. Kurt Angle returning after an 11-year absence is exactly the type of moment that the WWE looks to create with the Royal Rumble, and it would instantly become a landmark memory for everyone watching. That is now the event’s calling card, and you can expect Sunday to be no different. The clock for #1 starts now.