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.
But fans were given quite the surprise when Backlund entered the 2000 Royal Rumble match as number 14, complete with patriotic music. Despite staying in the match for only a few minutes, Backlund was given a chance to compete inside Madison Square Garden. The fans gave him a large ovation and he chose to leave through the crowd after his elimination at the hands of Chris Jericho.
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.
But there were reports that the WWE wanted to build towards Triple H vs. Reigns at WrestleMania 32, so Triple H’s “surprise appearance” confirmed what was rumored for months. It just felt predictable and that didn’t sit well with a number of wrestling fans. The fans knew what the WWE was trying to do, so they cheered Triple H as the face instead.
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.
It was a pleasant surprise as there are a large number of Angle fans, even if they tell him that he “sucks.” Angle would enter the Royal Rumble with the 20th spot in the match. Angle went on his usual suplex party before he was surprisingly eliminated by Shawn Michaels after a little more than 30 seconds. This set up their classic match a few months later at WrestleMania 21.
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.
One week later, Haku would be a participant in the 2001 Royal Rumble. This was sort of interesting considering that he was still under contract in the WCW. It certainly caught fans’ attention since it was truly one of the most surprising entrants in Royal Rumble history. But in the later years of the Monday Night War, the WWE was able to do something like this as the WCW was struggling to stay alive. Unfortunately for Haku, the crowd was pretty quiet for his WWE return.
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.
After Mankind was eliminated, that match would continue until fans were surprised to see Dude Love enter the Royal Rumble match at number 28. It was the one time that all three Faces of Foley were booked in the same match on the same night. While not something that would be possible in any other type of match, it was something surprisingly unique at the time.
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.
Granted, it was funny to watch Kane smash a guitar over the head of the Honky Tonk Man before adding another elimination to his then-record of 11 superstars in one match. For someone who is considered one of the best Intercontinental Champions in WWE history, to be squashed within two minutes was a shame.
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.
It had been a few years since RVD was last under WWE contract, although he was very active on the independent circuit. Fans thought this might have been the beginning of a new run in the WWE, but it was short-lived as he would return to the indie scene and then eventually to Total Nonstop Action Wrestling.
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.”
After about a minute of dancing with them, it looked like The Godfather was going to finally enter the ring for the match, but he decided to go back to the stage and dance more. Most of the near two minutes he was officially considered in the match was spent near the stage dancing with his entourage. The WWE brought in a “legend” that seemed more like an annoyance than a competitor.
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.
Now there was no D-Von, so Bubba Ray had to settle for R-Truth helping with the Flying Headbutt and to help him get the tables. We might not have gotten any tables during the match, but we did get a 3-D thanks to R-Truth’s assist. While we didn’t get to see the Dudley Boyz make a return that night, it wasn’t long until the duo would come back in the WWE to challenge for the WWE Tag Team Championships later that year.
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.
As soon as The Godfather got into the ring, he received a dropkick from Dolph Ziggler for an extremely quick elimination. While it wasn’t the shortest, the former Intercontinental Champion lasted only four seconds in the Royal Rumble match. Once again, this type of booking decision felt like a wasted spot that could have gone to a young superstar who could have benefited from being in the match.
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---!”
It was a surprise for many wrestling fans who thought that Nash was likely going to re-sign with TNA Wrestling at the time. Booker T was another person who was in a similar contract discussion and he also made a surprise appearance in the same Royal Rumble match, which featured a first (and only) 40-man format.
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.
There’s just one problem; fans in 1997 were not as informed as today’s fans. There was barely a reaction a reaction from the crowd because fans couldn’t go online to search for videos to see Mil Mascaras to get an idea of what they could expect. The WWE officials meant well, but it was doomed to fail because he was so unfamiliar to fans.
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.
Not only did he make a shocking return, he won the Royal Rumble match and would eventually challenge Chris Jericho for the World Heavyweight Championship. While Edge might not have been in the same category as a returning legend like Diesel or Rob Van Dam, it didn’t make his surprise return any less significant. The fans gave him one of the biggest pops of the night when his music started.
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.
But the crowd was quiet when Colon came out. A large number of wrestling fans weren’t sure who he was and why Monsoon was excited about the Puerto Rican wrestling superstar. Similar to Mil Mascaras being a participant in the 1997 Royal Rumble, a large portion of wrestling fans were not familiar with international wrestling like today’s wrestling fan is.
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.
After suffering from a torn pectoral muscle in October 2007, Cena was the last entry in the 2008 Royal Rumble about three months later. So for the fans to see Cena come out in the match, it was certainly a huge surprise. The surprise was kept quiet from every dirt sheet and wrestling news site imaginable, so even the smarky Madison Square Garden crowd was shocked. In turn, they actually gave Cena quite a pop for his shocking return. Even if some wrestling fans don’t like his in-ring style, Cena showed why he’s considered one of the best.
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.
“Squat Teamer #1” was eliminated by Vader in a little more than a minute, while “Squat Teamer #2” was unable to last a minute before Yokozuna threw him out of the ring. The team lasted just a little bit longer in the WWE before they were released. Consider them part of the mediocre lore of Royal Rumble history that falls in line with the likes of The Warlord and Santino Marella.
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.
There were no expectations among fans that he was going to be coming back to the WWE and yet he was going into the ring with the Show-Off. File this moment under a pleasant surprise that fans weren’t expecting.
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.
Carey didn’t do too much during the actual Royal Rumble match as both Hardy Boyz eliminated each other, leaving the comedian alone as Kane walked to the ring. Give Carey credit, he made a good choice in eventually eliminating himself after nearly taking a chokeslam, but this felt like a wasted spot in the match that could have gone to an up-and-coming superstar.
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.
Styles made his surprise debut in the WWE as the third entrant in the match. He may not have won the Royal Rumble match, but it was a memorable start for Styles. The only thing that hurt the moment was that the cameras weren’t pointed near the Titantron to see what the fans saw. Instead, fans at home saw a confused Roman Reigns as fans cheered.
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.