The Royal Rumble is certainly a special event in the WWE. Not only is it entry ramp onto the freeway that is the Road to WrestleMania, but it has a share of memorable moments with a long list of legends having won the match. Shawn Michaels, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Rock and other legends are included in the list of men who have defeated 29 other men to win a guaranteed main event championship match at WrestleMania.
It’s also a fun event that includes some surprises for the fans. Occasionally, we see superstars from yesteryear make a return to the WWE ring. It might only last a few minutes, but these legends have a chance to put some offense into the match and/or gain a few eliminations. Fans cheer when they see an old favorite come out and put a finishing move on another superstar before they leave the spotlight to let the current superstars take over from there.
Those are the great moments that make the Royal Rumble the great match that it is. However, not all surprise entrants in the Royal Rumble go over well with the crowd. There are debuts that fail miserably and returns that felt like they were a waste of time. The following are the 10 best surprise Royal Rumble entrants and another 10 that were terrible.
20 Best – Bob Backlund (2000)
There was a period of time when Bob Backlund fell from the main event picture in the 1990s and into a more comical gimmick that even saw him announce his candidacy for President of the United States in 1995. He wasn’t an in-ring competitor for most of the Attitude Era. It’s a shame for one of the more recognizable names from the 1980s and early 1990s.
19 Worst – Triple H (2016)
While Triple H is certainly deserving of being a future inductee into the WWE Hall of Fame, not all of his surprise appearances have gone the way the WWE had hoped. During the 2016 Royal Rumble, Roman Reigns’ WWE World Heavyweight Championship was on the line. While the fans were happy to see The Game go into the match, the WWE was hoping to put Reigns over as the face when Triple H got the win for the title.
18 Best – Kurt Angle (2005)
There is a belief that most people who compete for a championship at the Royal Rumble are not eligible to compete in the Royal Rumble. After losing in a triple threat match for the WWE Championship at the 2005 Royal Rumble pay-per-view, Kurt Angle was not willing to abide by that rule. He essentially took Nunzio’s spot in the Royal Rumble match behind the scenes, not that anyone was heartbroken by the fact that the Full Blooded Italian was not going to have a chance to headline WrestleMania that year.
17 Worst – Haku (2001)
Haku is certainly known as one of the toughest men in professional wrestling. He had made a career wrestling all over the world in Japan, Mexico and even the WWE from 1986 to 1992. Haku spent several years competing in World Championship Wrestling through the 1990s and into the new millennium. In January 2001, Haku would win the WCW Hardcore Championship.
16 Best – Three Faces of Foley (1998)
This was a different kind of surprise as Mick Foley had been booked to be one of the first two entrants of the 1998 Royal Rumble as Cactus Jack. He actually started out in a hardcore brawl with Chainsaw Charlie before he was eventually eliminated, but it wasn’t the last we would see of Foley in the 1998 Royal Rumble. Mankind would come out as the 16th superstar in the battle royal, which came as a pleasant surprise.
15 Worst – The Honky Tonk Man (2001)
The 2001 Royal Rumble was never really considered one of the best Royal Rumble matches of all time. Not even the man who had the longest-reigning Intercontinental Champion in WWE history could save the match. The Honky Tonky Man decided to come out as a returning legend in the 11th spot in the Royal Rumble, but instead of trying to eliminate the Big Red Machine, he wanted to sing karaoke in front of the sold-out crowd.
14 Best – Rob Van Dam (2009)
While maybe he wasn’t a main event superstar for more than a few months during his time in the WWE, Rob Van Dam is a fan favorite that fans love to see. Appearing as the 25th entrant in the 2009 Royal Rumble, the fans warmly welcomed him back to the WWE. Fans got to see RVD do many of his signature moves like the flying kick off the top rope. He was the type of memorable superstar who the WWE brought in for a small offensive run before being eliminated.
13 Worst – The Godfather (2002)
The Attitude Era has given us a number of memorable superstars that weren’t necessarily main event quality. The Godfather was one of those superstars who did receive quite a positive reaction from the live crowd during the 2002 Royal Rumble. He would come out with a group of women before going back to behind the Titantron to get another group of women to join his “Ho Train.”
12 Best – Bubba Ray Dudley (2015)
For several years, Bubba Ray Dudley had established himself as a main event singles star in TNA Wrestling. As Bully Ray, he won the TNA World Heavyweight Championship, but Bubba Ray made his shocking return to the WWE in the 2015 Royal Rumble match. It was certainly a shock as the fans welcomed him warmly with ECW chants as he got some offense in.
11 Worst – The Godfather (2013)
There’s a trend with The Godfather and mediocre appearances during the Royal Rumble match. The surprise entrance in the 2013 Royal Rumble did receive quite a pop from the crowd. It was understandable considering how popular he was during the 2013 Royal Rumble. Unlike his appearance in 2001, The Godfather didn’t spend too much time walking down to the ring. Unfortunately, his time in the ring didn’t last long.
10 Best – Diesel (2011)
If there’s one thing on which wrestling fans can agree, it's that it’s nice to be legitimately surprised. Kevin Nash made a surprising return to the WWE as Diesel during the 2011 Royal Rumble match. It was a true surprise for the fans who were very loud as Big Daddy Cool’s theme music started to play. Even Matt Striker on commentary voiced what many fans were thinking as he had to stop himself from completing an on-air “Holy s---!”
9 Worst – Mil Mascaras (1997)
The WWE roster in the 1990s was not filled with a lot of great names. In fact, there were a number of Royal Rumble matches where it felt like the WWE was scrambling to find anyone who could help fill the 30-man battle royal. In 1997, they did bring in someone who was actually a legend in professional wrestling in Mexico’s Mil Mascaras.
8 Best – Edge (2010)
The Royal Rumble is sometimes the perfect setting for a returning superstar, especially one coming off a severe injury. Edge had suffered a torn Achilles tendon during a July 2009 house show. That kind of injury usually takes about a year or more to fully recover. However, Edge was able to cut that recovery time in half as a late entrant in the 2010 Royal Rumble match.
7 Worst – Carlos Colon (1993)
Carlos Colon is someone who had developed himself as a big name in his native country of Puerto Rico for decades. He was able to make an appearance in the 1993 Royal Rumble with Gorilla Monsoon on commentary saying that he was a “fiery youngster” looking to make an impact. Granted, some wrestling fans read wrestling magazines penned by Bill Apter that included coverage of Colon’s World Wrestling Council.
6 Best – John Cena (2008)
John Cena has received plenty of criticism from parts of the WWE Universe. He has also become one of the most polarizing superstars in recent history. But whether you love or hate Cena, it’s hard to deny that he deserves respect from fans and peers alike. Cena could be an experiment of the Weapon X project like Wolverine in Marvel Comics because he seems to be able to heal extremely fast.
5 Worst – The Squat Team (1996)
Some of the best WWE superstars have been known to make their debut during big events like the Royal Rumble. While The Headhunters tag team was an established team throughout the United States and Japan from the 1980s and into the 1990s, the two would then be brought into the WWE to make their first appearance in the 1996 Royal Rumble match. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the most impressive debut.
4 Best – Chris Jericho (2013)
In the last few years, Chris Jericho has split his time between wrestling for the WWE and devoting a career to his rock band Fozzy. There have also been times when he’s had a chance to be a game show host and competed on Dancing With The Stars. In other words, Jericho has been a very busy man. This means his returns to the WWE were always a surprise. The most shocking of his returns was during the 2013 Royal Rumble match.
When Dolph Ziggler entered the match as the first participant, fans cheered loudly as Jericho’s music hit to signal he was entering as number two. This played off perfectly, as Ziggler had beaten Jericho five months earlier, a match in which Jericho had put his WWE contract on the line.
3 Worst – Drew Carey (2001)
Drew Carey is a likable guy on television. Whether he had his own sitcom, hosted an improv comedy group or a game show, he had his own special following. He was a special guest at the 2001 Royal Rumble match to promote a pay-per-view event of his own. Vince McMahon decided it would be a great idea to put the comedian into the 30-man Royal Rumble match to impress the fans and also to impress Trish Stratus.
2 Best – AJ Styles (2016)
There was a lot of speculation that AJ Styles was on his way to working for the WWE for several months in 2015. It once seemed like something that would never happen after he spent more than a decade being the top man in TNA Wrestling. In the 2016 Royal Rumble match, fans were surprised as an unfamiliar song was playing and the words “I Am Phenomenal” appeared on the Titantron.
1 Worst – The Announcers (2012)
Sometimes, it seems like the WWE wants to mess with their fans. Michael Cole has a perfect record at WrestleMania, by disqualification, over Jerry Lawler. If that wasn’t brutal enough for the fans to persevere, Cole would enter at number 20 in the 2012 Royal Rumble match. Cole was prepared as he had an ugly orange singlet for in-ring action.
Cole taking a spot in the Royal Rumble didn’t go over well with the crowd, especially when you think of the talented wrestlers who could have been better suited for that slot, but he wasn’t the only member of the announce team that competed. Jerry Lawler had previously entered the Royal Rumble at number 12. Booker T was also the number 17 competitor. At least they had actual wrestling careers before going into announcing. Seeing Cole in the match was just brutal.
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