By Keith Elliot Greenberg
The Royal Rumble is unlike any other WWE pay-per-view. The brainchild of WWE Hall of Famer Pat Patterson -- WWE's first Intercontinental Champion -- the Rumble match begins with two WWE Superstars tangling between the ropes. But the intimate collision doesn't last long. Every 90 seconds, a buzzer sounds and another combatant enters the battle -- one after another, until 30 wrestlers have checked in at the Rumble
Prior to the match, the Superstars draw numbers. But with certain exceptions -- R-Truth and Carmella will each come in at number 30 this year in the male and female Rumbles, based on their victory in WWE's Mixed Match Challenge -- both the order and the identities of the competitors are a mystery. Because of this, fans are left with a feeling of uncertainty as the clock ticks down, followed by elation when a surprise entrant appears.
Often, spectators are uncertain of the athlete's motive for participating in the match until the moment is dissected on Monday Night Raw (seen on USA Monday at 8/7c) or SmackDown Live (broadcast on USA on Tuesday at 8/7c).
Among the bigger surprises over the years:
The Three Faces of Foley (1998):
At the height of WWE's “Attitude Era,” Mick Foley seemed to be going through something of an identity crisis. He entered the 1998 Rumble as Cactus Jack, a character some fans remembered from his days in Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW). After elimination, though, he returned twice: first as Mankind and, later, as Dude Love.
Mil Máscaras (1997):
With the exception of the legendary El Santo, whose face graces a stamp south of the border, Mil Máscaras was the most recognizable wrestler from Mexico. During his heyday in the 1970s, he was said to own 1,000 masks -- and had a hold to match each one. But he proved to be just as relevant two decades later when he appeared in the 1997 Rumble, captivating the audience by diving off the top rope onto fellow luchador Pierroth, Jr. on the arena floor.
All Three Members of the ‘English-Language Announce Team’ (2012):
Although former champions Booker T and Jerry “The King” Lawler had largely confined their duties to calling the action in 2012, both kept in shape and fans knew each was ready to mix it up at any time. At different points during the match, each man rose from the announcer's table as he was summoned between the ropes. Then, the unthinkable occurred: Michael Cole, the third man behind the microphone, was also called to the ring to wrestle.
Bubba Ray Dudley (2015):
Dudley had been missing from WWE for 10 years when the hardcore brawler re-emerged at the 2015 Rumble. Fans remembered Bubba and brother D-Von smashing foes through tables -- as well as the thrilling Tables, Ladders & Chairs matches the pair had with the Hardy Boyz, Edge, and Christian in 2000 and 2001. Following his Rumble appearance, Bubba united with D-Von in WWE. The pair were inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2018.
Mr. Perfect (2002):
One of the most recognizable personalities during the 1980s, Mr. Perfect had been shown participating in a number of sports -- and always succeeding. “Everything I do,” he'd boast, “is absolutely perfect.” After a long unbeaten streak, the second-generation legend captured the WWE Intercontinental Championship. But he'd left for rival World Championship Wrestling (WCW) in 1996. Now, months after WCW folded, Perfect not only returned, but was also one of the final three -- along with Kurt Angle and eventual winner Triple H -- at the end of the match.
Rey Mysterio (2018):
A multiple champion, Rey Mysterio had been an inspiration for cruiserweights everywhere, merging lightning quick aerial skills with a deep knowledge of technical wrestling. The masked luchador had departed WWE three years earlier, and sought to refine his talents in Mexico and other locales. When he made the decision to return to WWE, he did it with characteristic flashiness, blazing down the entrance ramp to a thunderous ovation. He remains a vibrant part of the WWE roster.
There had been much buzz about the “Bulgarian brute” even before the 2014 Rumble, as reports circulated about the former powerlifter's blaze through NXT, WWE's developmental league. No one ever could have predicted that fans would one day wear “Rusev Day” shirts and cheer the strongman as he entered the match and started to dismantle everyone in his path. Aware that the newcomer was too treacherous to stop one-on-one, a combination of competitors momentarily pooled their energy to dump him over the top rope.
Triple H (2002):
The Cerebral Assassin had been gone from WWE for eight months after tearing his quad in front of a shocked audience on Monday Night Raw. His appearance at the Rumble seemed to come out of nowhere. Showing not even a hint of ring rust, he put on a Hall of Fame performance, powering through his fellow Superstars to win the Rumble. Following up on the conquest, he unseated Chris Jericho at WrestleMania X8 to become the Undisputed WWE Champion.
AJ Styles (2016):
Up until this moment, the “Phenomenal One” was known as the greatest wrestler unsigned by WWE. Styles had won championships around the world, where he'd mastered a number of fighting forms. His appearance at the 2016 Rumble was a warning to other WWE Superstars to step up their game. Entering at number three, Styles stayed in the Rumble for close to 30 minutes before being eliminated by Kevin Owens. Proclaiming himself the “face that runs the place,” AJ would begin the first of two WWE Championship reigns later in the year.
John Cena (2008):
Cena's endurance as one of WWE's most storied figures was solidified with his heroic showing at the 2008 Rumble. Just four months earlier, Cena experienced a pectoral tear so severe that doctors predicted a recovery period lasting seven months to a year. How Cena managed to recuperate so quickly is considered nothing short of a miracle. Shocking the crowd at New York's Madison Square Garden by entering at number 30, Cena plowed through the competition until his hand was raised in victory. If Cena's motto “never give up” ever applied, it was on this historic night.
Royal Rumble comes to Phoenix this Sunday and will stream live on WWE Network beginning at 7 ET/4 PT!
Keith Elliot Greenberg is the co-author of the autobiographies of WWE Hall of Famers Ric Flair, Freddie Blassie and Superstar Billy Graham, and the third edition of the WWE Encyclopedia of Sports Entertainment.