Few things get wrestling fans excited and set the wrestling world ablaze quite like Royal Rumble surprises. Every “ninety seconds” (you get the quote marks, or you don’t) the crowd counts down those last ten seconds hoping to either see their current favorites or somebody they haven’t seen in a while.
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder” is an adage that’s an absolute truth in the wrestling business. If, at the 2039 Royal Rumble, Baron Corbin makes his return after a 10-year absence, rest assured. That crowd will come unglued. Assuming we have crowds again by the time 2039 rolls around. The most well-timed and well-executed Royal Rumble surprises shake the building and the business to their core.
Let’s take a look back at the greatest WWE Royal Rumble surprises of all time.
Edge, Royal Rumble 2020
Of all the Royal Rumble surprises, Edge’s return at last year’s Rumble might be the most recent. But it’s also one of the most amazing. This is one that nobody saw coming. The dirtsheets didn’t know, and the fans sure as hell didn’t know. Edge was forced to retire due to a neck injury nine years earlier. And while we had seen Edge come back for one-off appearances and that goofy show he and Christian had on the WWE Network, we never thought we’d see him don the tights and step between the ropes again
When the buzzer sounded on entry 21 in the 2020 Royal Rumble match, the air just dissipated in the arena. It was a long hush that felt like it would last forever. Until it was broken with, “You think you know me.” Minute Maid Park went absolutely insane. And if we as fans thought it was a big moment? That’s nothing compared to how big a moment it was for Edge himself. It was written all over his face. The Rated-R Superstar was overcome with emotion, his eyes saying what we were all thinking.
“I can’t believe this is actually happening.”
Real emotion is something WWE simply does not have the tools to create anymore. They just don’t. Everything they script becomes stilted, and even the most emotional stories just don’t have that same organic feel. That’s what makes Royal Rumble surprises like Edge’s return so incredible. It’s real, it’s raw, and we’re all living it together in real time.
AJ Styles, Royal Rumble 2016
Kevin Dunn, you absolute, complete, total dunce. For those who don’t know who Kevin Dunn is, lucky you. But for those that really want to know, Kevin Dunn is basically the director for all WWE TV productions. He’s the guy in the truck who says, “Camera three. Cut to camera five. Pull back hard camera.” You know, stuff like that.
He’s the guy who missed AJ Styles’s debut at the 2016 Royal Rumble match. And he’s the guy that very nearly ruined one of the greatest Royal Rumble surprises of all time. I guess years of entrance music alone heralding a superstar’s arrival made Kevin Dunn think that we would just automatically know from whom “they don’t want none.” Especially considering WWE was worried (because they always are) that nobody would know who Styles was. The guy made his name in Japan and TNA. Surely nobody in the world will just know who he is, right?
But directorial mishaps aside, AJ Styles’s debut in the 2016 Royal Rumble match was incredible. Put aside the thunderous ovation at his return. Here he was, the former IWGP World Heavyweight Champion, face-to-face with Roman Reigns. WWE’s chosen one, the man who was defending the WWE Championship in the Royal Rumble match. That’s probably what makes AJ Styles’s Royal Rumble surprise such an awesome feat. The story coming in was, “How will Roman Reigns defend the title against 29 men?”
With one entrance under that blue light and that hooded vest, Styles made it all about the debut of the Phenomenal One. It was a surreal moment and easily one of the great Royal Rumble surprises.
Chris Jericho, Royal Rumble 2013
When Chris Jericho made his returns to WWE, they were usually preceded with cryptic riddles wrapped in video packages. But in 2013, Chris Jericho came back with no fanfare, no last-minute tweets, no nothing. In fact, Jericho went out of his way to tell the world he wouldn’t be one of 2013’s Royal Rumble surprises. Y2J was adamant that he and his band, Fozzy, were going to be on tour. There simply wouldn’t be time for Chris Jericho to take part in the 2013 Royal Rumble match.
So when he came out at number two, following Dolph Ziggler, the place just went bananas. And all of a sudden, everything we thought we knew about where the Royal Rumble match was going went out the window. John Cena came in as the favorite, because of course he did. But the arrival of Chris Jericho, who didn’t really have unfinished business with anyone from his previous run, suddenly made 2013 an “anybody can win” year. And for quite a while, it looked like Jericho might actually go the distance.
The guy lasted almost 48 minutes before he was eliminated by Ziggler. Jericho may never have captured a Royal Rumble victory, but the guy is a legend in the match. With ten appearances spanning three eras and innumerable changes in the business, Chris Jericho was a Royal Rumble standard bearer. And that was never more evident than 2013, when he became one of the great Royal Rumble surprises of all time.
Mr. Perfect, Royal Rumble 2002
I still get a little misty-eyed thinking about this one. More so, considering I just did a list of legends who never won the Royal Rumble, and I forgot to include Mr. Perfect on it. But Curt Hennig’s return in the 2002 Royal Rumble match set the standard for Royal Rumble surprises to follow.
Not so much just because he was a returning legend. WWE toyed with one-off returns the previous two years with Bob Backlund’s return in the 2000 Rumble and Haku’s in the 2001 match. But this was another story. This was one of the guys who defined the latter part of WWE’s golden era. The guy who smashed Hulk Hogan’s WWE Championship belt and put on all-time classics with Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart. Ric Flair’s executive assistant who helped the Nature Boy win the greatest Royal Rumble match of all time in 1992. Shut up, yes it is, it still is, and it always will be.
What made Mr. Perfect’s return such a big deal wasn’t just that he was a big name we hadn’t seen in a while. It was that the guy looked great out there AND he was in it all the way at the end. Mr. Perfect, arguably five years removed from the last time he was relevant in the wrestling business, was in the Final Four of the 2002 Royal Rumble match. ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, Kurt Angle, Triple H, and Mr. Freakin’ Perfect. The thought of Angle vs. Perfect alone is enough to make workrate sobs like me absolutely salivate.
It was a blueprint that WWE used for many Royal Rumble surprises since.
John Cena, Royal Rumble 2008
Madison Square Garden wrestling fans are to pro wrestling as Philadelphia fans are to literally anything. If they don’t respect you, they’ll let you know with loud booing and insinuations that you and your maternal ancestor have an inappropriate relationship. From time to time they’ll also throw things.
So when John Cena was a surprise entry at number 30 in the 2008 Royal Rumble match, we learned that MSG fans actually respect John Cena. Because they went absolutely ape poop to see Big Match John walk through the curtain with his Hustle, Loyalty, & Respect shirt and his Hustle, Loyalty, & Respect hat and his Hustle, Loyalty, & Respect jorts. Just the fact that Cena got the notoriously cynical MSG crowd on his side is enough to make this the biggest of Royal Rumble surprises. Cena missed the latter part of 2007 with a torn pectoral muscle. As in torn right off the damn bone.
The early diagnosis in October suggested Cena would be out for up to six months. Maybe longer. But because he’s Super Cena and possibly a cyborg of some kind, Cena returned in a little over two. And he went on to capture victory in the 2008 Royal Rumble. I’ve never been the biggest John Cena fan in the world, but I can’t deny that he had the MSG crowd eating out of the palm of his hand. And I have to respect anybody who can rehabilitate a torn pec in two months, because I tend to fall over and die when I stub my toe.
It was proof positive that Cena could survive the growing backlash against him. The dueling “Let’s go Cena/Cena sucks” chants debut just a few months earlier. For better or worse, Cena’s 2008 return essentially set the course for the next seven years of WWE history. It was big, loud, emotional, and historic. Everything you want out of the greatest Royal Rumble surprises.
All images courtesy of WWE.