It’s one of the best parts of the Royal Rumble, counting down the clock and waiting to see the 30 men and women who will be entering. Of course, there are always more knowns than unknowns but not having the entrant order makes every countdown feel the same. You never quite know what surprises you might get, what legends might return for one-offs, or from injury, or in recent years, make their debuts from NXT.
In fact, for five of the last six years, at least one wrestler from the black-and-yellow brand has taken part and made their impact, and in most cases main roster debut, in the Royal Rumble. It started with Bo Dallas in 2013 and continued with Alexander Rusev in 2014, Sami Zayn in 2016, Tye Dillinger in 2017, and Andrade “Cien” Almas, Adam Cole, Kairi Sane and Ember Moon in 2018. This year, a record nine NXT stars (including two from NXT UK) — Johnny Gargano, Aleister Black (who received one of the biggest pops on the night) and Pete Dunne in the Men’s Royal Rumble and Kacy Catanzaro, Rhea Ripley, Io Shirai, Xia Li, Candice LeRae and Sane (who debuted last year) in the Women’s Royal Rumble — all showed up in the over-the-top-rope battle royale.
As NXT stars have begun to occupy more of the 30 spots, another noticeable trend has been developing and that’s been the absence of surprise entries from the legends/returns category. In 2012, just months after Florida Championship Wrestling had rebranded to NXT, there were three WWE legends who entered as surprises: Mick Foley, first-ever Royal Rumble winner “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and Road Dogg. In addition, each of the three announcers, Jerry “The King” Lawler, Booker T and Michael Cole all entered the match as did Kharma, who became just the third woman, after Chyna and Beth Phoenix to enter the Men’s Royal Rumble match. All things considered, that was a rumble stacked with surprises, something that fans have become accustomed to.
It was likely that a year later when Dallas became the first-ever superstar still with the NXT roster to make his rumble/main roster debut, that it was a huge surprise. Now, it wasn’t just legends or returns fans could expect to see. It wasn’t just a glimpse of the past coupled with the present, as now through the rumble, fans could get a look at the future of WWE as well.
And it was a good thing, but at the time, one NXT entrant didn’t mean any fewer legends. In 2013, in addition to Dallas; Chris Jericho, Goldust and The Godfather returned. In 2014, in addition to Rusev; Kevin Nash and John “Bradshaw” Layfield made appearances. In 2015, the one time in the past six years there wasn’t an NXT star in the match, returns were highlighted by Bubba Ray Dudley, The Boogeyman and Diamond Dallas Page. In 2016, Zayn joined AJ Styles and Triple H as the surprises on the night. It was the first time since 2010 that there had been no legends in the match. In 2017, that trend continued as the two surprises came in the form of 205 Live‘s first-ever rumble entrant, Jack Gallagher, and Dillinger, who of course, entered at #10.
As Cageside Seats’ Sean Rueter wrote, in what is really a consensus of what wrestling fans have come to expect from the rumbles, “No major debuts. No shocking returns. Not much in the way of ‘surprise.'”
Likely aware of the fans’ reactions to the 2017 Royal Rumble, which seemed to disappoint in more ways than one, the 2018 edition combined NXT debuts with returning legends, in both the Men’s and Women’s matches. In the men’s match, Cole and Almas joined The Hurricane and Rey Mysterio as the big returns, and in the women’s match Sane and Moon joined 10 returning legends, including Lita, Trish Stratus, Beth Phoenix and more. And while the surprises in the women’s match were less than surprising for most (it was the first-ever rumble, of course, some of the biggest legends would have come back), perhaps what is even more surprising is that WWE didn’t attempt to tap that well again this year.
In fact, of the 60 entrants in both rumbles this year, the closest thing the women’s match had to the return of a legend was when Hornswoggle, who never entered the match, chased Zelina Vega around, forcing her from her hiding spot under the ring apron. In the men’s match, the only legend used was J-e-Double F, J-a-Double R-e-Double T, Jeff Jarrett. And even then, Jarrett’s time in the match was short-lived (1:19) as he was mainly there to run a bit with Elias and get a guitar smashed over his back. You could say that the torch of the greatest singer, greatest entertainer and greatest wrestler, was officially passed.
Outside of the three NXT stars to show up, No Way Jose coming oh-so-close to tying Santino Marella for shortest time in the match, Curt Hawkins getting an elimination and Nia Jax beating up R-Truth, taking his spot and becoming the first-ever woman to enter both the men and women’s rumbles on the same night and get at least one elimination in each as well, there wasn’t much in the way of big returns/legends.
Once wrestled in a field in England in front of two people. Tonight I wrestled in front of 48,000 people in Phoenix, AZ in the Royal Rumble match. Milestones probably. pic.twitter.com/C2ID4mjHUn
— Pete Dunne (@PeteDunneYxB) January 28, 2019
But there are two ways to look at that. Of course, some people were bound to be disappointed, especially given rumors dating back over a year that the Rock would be winning the match and Vegas odds supporting his top-5 odds up until the opening bell. Speculation tends to lead to high expectations and high expectations, when not met, can be somewhat deflating. On one hand, had the Rock shown up, he would have gotten a huge reaction, blowing the retractable roof off of Chase Field kind of reaction. Gargano and Dunne didn’t really get any reaction and even Black’s, which was pretty big, would have paled in comparison to the Great One. But at the same time, did anyone expect that those three would have been in the match? Better yet, did anyone expect that in 2019, now that we have a Women’s Royal Rumble match, that a woman would still take part in the Men’s Royal Rumble?
Surprises come in all forms, even if they aren’t the ones we’re expecting. Take for example the Women’s Royal Rumble, which outside of the six NXT appearances, offered the biggest surprise and pop of the night when Becky Lynch took Lana‘s spot after she had been injured earlier in the show. Lynch went on to win the match, as at that point many figured she would. But that didn’t change that when she came out, the place came unglued, the same way they would have for a legend most likely. Unlike a legend, however, Lynch’s appearance had consequence and is leading into, most likely, a WrestleMania program with Ronda Rousey that it’s not out of the question could main event the show.
We very well could be experiencing a new trend in that the rumbles showcase less of the past and more of the future and the present and that’s not a bad thing. As great as the returns are to provide nostalgia, they don’t offer much beyond that. But with the NXT debuts, we’re seeing guys and girls who one day will be the present and at the 2019 Royal Rumble, all nine got to show why that present is soon going to be incredibly exciting to watch. The rumbles are providing these young wrestlers with a showcase and for fans who may not know them yet, a chance to see why the hype in NXT is as real as it gets. And speaking of NXT and the future, if there was any question about that, just look at the 60-person field from this year’s Royal Rumble. 18 entrants in the men’s match (including Nia Jax) spent some level of time in NXT, many of whom made their WWE debuts through that brand. On the women’s side, it was 29 as Maria Kanellis, who came up through Ohio Valley Wrestling, was the only female entrant not to have spent any time in the black-and-yellow brand. That’s a total of 47 of 60 entrants, including for the second year in a row, the two winners, Lynch and Seth Rollins.
The future is now, the future is NXT. And I’d imagine most people who are fans of the whole product, looking up and down the rosters in NXT, NXT UK and even 205 Live, would be hard-pressed to tell you that in the 2020 Men’s Royal Rumble they’d rather see three more minutes of a less-than-prime Kevin Nash or Bret Hart or even “Stone Cold” Steve Austin than they would a debut showcase of Matt Riddle or Ricochet or Keith Lee or Tommaso Ciampa or Velveteen Dream, and the list goes on.