The following is an excerpt from Fightful's Inside The Royal Rumble feature. For the full story an additional context, please visit the full article at this link, and when posting quotes from this piece, please link to the original article.
The surprises go hand in hand with the soundtrack that walks them to the ring, and not just the music. Ah yes, the production of the Royal Rumble. There's so much going on at any given time, how do announcers parse what to focus on? Striker would go deeper to explain.
"You basically are trying to create thirty magical moments that last about twenty seconds for an entrance. You want to, on the entrance, make it like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this person can do it.’ That’s how I tried to approach it, but I got great advice from Jerry Lawler who said, ‘You don’t want to look at the list. You don’t want to know.’ A lot of times there isn’t really a list. You don’t want to know who's coming down. You want to genuinely react and some of my most famous reactions were, let’s say, genuine," Striker told us.
Matt Striker was only 13 when the first Royal Rumble happened and grew up on the match. Getting to call one, was a daunting task, an intimidating one. How does it evolve as experience is gained?
"The first one I did, I over-prepared. I had every note of everything you ever did and where you did it and so on and so forth, and by the second one it was about halved, and by the third one, honestly, it was one of my favorite nights of the year because I didn’t have to do any prep. If they handed me a show sheet, I folded it. All I needed to know was times. Because as an announcer there’s also a producer counting you to different types of cues and business. So, that was when I got really comfortable calling my Rumbles or being a part of Rumbles. When I have fun with something when I enjoy something, the more of it the better. I remember as a kid growing up playing guitar if I learned a song, I wanted to learn more. So, it gave me more chances to use more words, to look more things up, to say something silly or infuriating," said Striker.
For a shock-heavy show like the WWE Royal Rumble, Striker says that not only is being less prepared better in this situation for him, it's better for the viewer as well.
"I knew enough to know I don’t want to know unless I have to know. You also have to remember, never was I tasked with the ‘responsibility’ of a, say Michael Cole, who probably needed more of that information than I. I had a luxury of being able to straight-up react. If you knew all the different things that were going on, it’d make your head explode. Because if they open up my ear channel, I’m going to hear all sorts of things. Yes, as a timed show, when that train gets going it’s really about just keeping it on the tracks and knowing when we have to throw this graphic up, lose this graphic, throw up this sponsor, layout over here. That is one thing. But, also, there’s a trust to the people that are at the announce desk. There’s a trust to the people in the ring. You’re going to do that part, and we’ll tell your story. Let the guys in the truck worry about if you’re well lit enough or that punch maybe didn’t land as well as we wanted it to," said Striker.
Even today's WWE announce team prefers that method. A decade after Striker was calling Rumble matches, WWE's go-to color commentator Corey Graves likes the surprise factor.
"Honestly on any night, I prefer to know as little as possible regarding anything that happens on TV. I enjoy being able to react as genuinely as possible. I find that if I need to know too much, it sounds prepared. When this place wants to keep a secret from us, they can do a pretty good job!" Graves told us.
The aforementioned Striker got to call some of the biggest surprises in Royal Rumble history, and those calls got some polarizing reactions. Booker T, Diesel and others had the soundtrack of Striker's reaction announcing them walking to the ring. The latter caused Striker's most memorable moment in working commentary for the Rumble
"For me, it’s the one where I almost cursed on internationally broadcast [television]. Because bless her heart, my grandmother was still alive at that time and she called me afterwards. The second one has to be for Booker because for so many people, I don’t know why it’s remained with a lot of people. I think that’s nice if it empowers their love of pro wrestling," said Striker. "I guess by the time this rolls around I was fortunate enough that either that or they were silly enough to leave me to my own devices, to be honest with you. But, I think at the end of the day it was about making every single person that came down that ramp for at least ten to twenty seconds, in every fan’s mind, they have to have plausible doubt to say, ‘This person can do it. There’s a logical path to victory for this fifth party candidate.’ So, there you go."
The commentary team isn't the only one that is capable of slip-ups. Stuff happens with things from audio cues to camera work, and it did in 2016 as one former production employee told us.
"That Royal Rumble was one of the biggest 'oof' moments I was ever a part of," the former employee stated. "AJ Styles was set to make his debut, and he did. It was incredible. It was perfect, except for us leaving the camera on Roman Reigns for about 15 seconds too long. We missed Styles' entire Titantron video, and there were some heads rolling over it. We had to put together a video that was more fitting to release the next day. The same thing happened with Edge when he made his return, but it was the opposite. Instead of one static shot, it was 'cut cut cut cut cut' and missed his first Spear. We had to do the same edit for that as Styles. Other than that, there weren't many blunders in my years. They're not the easiest matches to shoot, and we were on top of our game for them."
The magic moments created are often remembered for a few people, but it takes an army to fine-tune them. One of the more popular aspects of "Royal Rumble season" has been WWE's own "by the numbers" videos. Sometimes the stats, facts, and history behind the Rumble ends up playing to a story within the story inside the ring.
"The TV department does a phenomenal job and they’re looking for that information, they’re trying to pull stories into and enhance the attraction," Court Bauer said. "Very rarely you’ll have a directive from the creative team saying, ‘Hey, make sure we have this, this and this.’ Sometimes, if it’s a well organized year or week, they can anticipate that and co-ordinate with the TV, and sometimes TV builds it regardless. They do a phenomenal job of building content like that. Sometimes too much. You’ll see a pay-per-view and you’ll be like, ‘Oh, my God. There’s so many video packages in this.’ Maybe it’s a benefit for people that don’t want to watch that content on a week to week basis. But, if you watch it as a die-hard fan, it’s like, ‘I’ve already seen all this, can we get to the action and get some the interviews?’