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.
Since the turn of the millennium, one of the most anticipated aspects of the WWE special has been surprises associated with the Royal Rumble. Over the years, WWE has run back historic feuds like Jimmy Snuka vs. "Rowdy" Roddy Piper. They've brought back legends of the calibre of Chris Jericho, Mr. Perfect and Diesel. They've debuted NXT favorites and highlighted incoming superstars, and they've had the first appearances of non-WWE legends like AJ Styles.
The Royal Rumble has served as a launching pad for some of those names. A loud reaction and stellar performance for a big return can lead to a huge run. MVP came back in 2020 after over a decade out of the company and wound up becoming one of the most prominently featured characters on WWE TV. "Hurricane" Shane Helms had departed WWE eight years prior before his 2018 Rumble appearance and would find himself in WWE's employ the following year.
How do those surprises come about? How do they keep the secrets?
Shane Helms told Fightful in 2018 "30 minutes before the Royal Rumble, we were hidden. A lot of the people in the actual match didn't even know we were going to be there. The pay-per-view had already started, and they sneak us in the building. That was a cool moment too because I get to see the boys' reaction to me. Some of the guys lit up and guys from production that I knew from nearly a decade before. That was a super special moment on a personal level. The fans didn't get to see that, but that was very cool. The idea was for me to get in there with Cena. There was going to be a couple of other guys. 'Think about who you could do something best with.' So of course I pick Cena (laughs). It was a play off of my Rumble moment with Steve Austin and Triple H. They were two of the top guys. If I'm gonna be in there, that's what I would do," At first Cena was like 'Ah, I don't want to be the one to throw you out.' I said 'whether I'm King Kong or not, I think I am. I have to go after Godzilla.' He started laughing and I knew I had him there. He's the ultimate good guy, but when I explained it to him, you could see him grinning. I would have been cool if he said no. I was going to swing for the fences. Here's how cool Cena is -- if he'd have said no, it wouldn't happen. It's going to be quick, in and out, but if Cena says no, it doesn't happen. It just worked out perfectly, and that pop was ridiculous. As far as us being one-on-one, that was the first time we touched."
Then there's the dreaded swerves. With technology advancing and leaks (sorry!) happening with such frequency, sometimes WWE has to keep fans on their toes. In 2020, such a fan was leaking Titantron videos from within the rehearsal of the Royal Rumble. One of those was since-retired Victoria, who hadn't appeared for WWE in over a decade. There were no plans for her to appear, either.
"I found out from social media as well. I was like, “What?” I go, “Maybe my Titantron had a lot of coloring.” I don’t know, but maybe they did that to throw people off. I don’t know because it’s hard to keep a secret in wrestling. Something always leaks, you know what I mean? Which is a shame," Victoria, real name Lisa Marie Varon explained to Fightful.
Not only was Victoria absent from the Royal Rumble, but she was also nowhere near the city at that point!
"I was (just getting off) the Jericho Cruise. Yeah, I was in Miami. I was trying to stay off my phone because I wanted [to be] in the moment. I was visiting family, I was like, “We’re always glued to our phone,” and so I went back and I had missed a ton of e-mails, text messages, everything. I was like, “They must be testing out the coloring on their Titantron because my picture came up there.” But, I was already in Miami, the following day I was going to go on the Jericho Cruise. So, I couldn’t," Victoria clarified.
Social media exploded with speculation. To that point, the story behind the moment -- or lack thereof -- was the most requested heading into our interview. The former Tara in TNA never heard from anyone within WWE about why her Titantron graphic was used.
"No. Not in the company, no. Nuh-uh. Just on social media, just going, “Oh, you know…” I didn’t respond because I didn’t want to… I don’t know what to say ‘cause I don’t know the back scene because I’m not part of the company anymore. So, I couldn’t tell you why they were testing it out," she stated
Even women who were a part of the match itself heard the buzz...but also subsequently heard that they were simply using the legend's Titantron for a test run.
Such is life!
Factoring in someone who isn't a regular part of the roster can prove to be a battle for the writing team. With such a typical focus on week-to-week programming, the surprises are often one-offs that don't require a lot of creative juice. Pitching them, however, can be a matter of preference. Sometimes that matter of preference can turn a famed "one-shot deal" into a full-time return and contract as we've seen happen numerous times in the past.
"It’s just something that will pop up from random people," Court Bauer noted. "There’s people like Brian Gewirtz that was a fan of Bob Backlund. So, he pitched sometimes, ‘Hey, maybe we can find a way to get Backlund in this?’ He’ll have an idea that’s possibly humorous and then you just have talent relations dial him up and see if they can get him in. I always loved those kind of surprises. Sometimes you’ll have a receptive audience from the chairman, etc. Sometimes he’ll bark and say, ‘Goddamn. It’s about our stars, not the stars of yesteryear,’ or guys that maybe our fan base today doesn’t know. Then there’s sometimes validity to it. You have to balance the star power and the surprises and it has to be the right balance. Too many and it’s kind of funky. The wrong star coming out is like, ‘Oh. That’s random.’ You just never know. Hopefully, they have a purpose. You know what I love about it, too? Guys like Goldust, they’ll trigger a whole resurgence for their career, a revival for them just off of that kind of randomness. I think it happened for a lot of guys over the last ten / fifteen years where guys like Mr. Perfect were anticipated to come back. They were just a one-off and, man, they got a big pop, it looked like a million bucks, let’s bring ‘em to TV. Then TV turns into the next week, then they’re offered a deal. So, I like that. It’s a wildcard component. Sometimes you can bring in a veteran when you realize you needed him and missed that."
Announcers are an integral part of the Rumble match itself and aren't always clued in on the surprises themselves, as Matt Striker told Fightful.
"WWE’s great at this, they hide people. It’s not like everyone’s backstage, herd in a pen and we see, ‘Hey, you’re Stone Cold Steve Austin. I guess you’re here tonight.’ No. You don’t see certain people the whole entire night. So, when they pop out through the curtain you’re like, ‘Holy sh—I didn’t know he was here.’ But, you don’t finish your sentence.’ Yeah, it is nice when the reaction can be genuine. Look, when I can be a seven-year-old kid that watched wrestling with his dad, that’s when I think people enjoy me the most. When I become this overproduced mechanism of something other, then people have different opinions," Striker said, having served as a color commentator for multiple Rumble matches.