When it comes to a place where a wrestler can make his or her WWE debut, there are few better venues than the annual Royal Rumble event and its 30-person over-the-top battle royal matches.
It’s really just simple logic. First, everyone loves the Royal Rumble, so you’re coming in with a lot of goodwill. It’s one of the most popular annual events on the WWE calendar, and it’s undeniably fun to see 30 of your favorite Superstars battle it out with a WrestleMania title shot on the line. Also, surprises are built into the experience—each time you count down from 10, who knows who’s going to come out next?
Following our look at the biggest returns in WWE Royal Rumble history, here’s a look at some of the biggest debuts that happened during Royal Rumble matches. (Well, technically one of them happened right after a Royal Rumble match, but we’re guessing you’ve may have already figured out which one we’re talking about
By 1996, Vader was already an international superstar, following celebrated stints in New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) and WCW—but what he hadn’t done yet was wrestle for WWF. Rather than a surprise debut, Vader’s arrival was highly-anticipated, and he entered Royal Rumble 1996 at #13, accompanied by manager Jim Cornette. Vader had a solid Rumble run—eliminating Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Savio Vega, Doug Gilbert, and a member of the “Squat Team,” who didn’t merit individual names—before Shawn Michaels, the eventual winner of the match, simultaneously eliminated certified big boys Vader and Yokozuna. That was an impressive feat from a wrestler of any size.
Instead of calmly heading to the back, Vader (who passed away last June) illegally returned to the ring post-elimination—attacking Shawn Michaels and a bunch of other still-legal participants (including Triple H, then known by the full “Hunter Hearst Helmsley”). Vader had another impressive Royal Rumble match a year later, ending among the final five along with legends Bret Hart, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and The Undertaker.
Following a dominant tenure in Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA) that helped define that company’s women’s division, the wrestler once known as Awesome Kong headed to WWE, rechristened as Kharma. In May 2011, she began a string of brutal post-match attacks on high-profile WWE women’s performers including Michelle McCool, Maryse, and Alicia Fox, but just a few weeks later, Kharma was off of WWE television, delivering a very personal promo where she announced she was pregnant.
Kharma made an unannounced return in January 2012 for that year’s Royal Rumble—the men’s Royal Rumble, natch, as the women’s Rumble didn’t exist before 2018—and though she was only in the match for about a minute, she eliminated Hunico, scared Michael Cole into eliminating himself (hey, 2012 was a wild time), and hit her Implant Buster finisher on Dolph Ziggler.
The 2012 Royal Rumble ended up being Kharma’s only official match in WWE, as she parted ways with the company shortly after—but she’s since had significant success pursuing a different path, albeit one that’s still wrestling-related: She stars as Tammé Dawson on Netflix’s GLOW, known in the show-within-a-show as “The Welfare Queen.”
2013: Bo Dallas
While Bo Dallas has spent the last few years as a comedic figure in various iterations—inspirational “Bo-liever,” Social Outcast, Miztourage member, B-Teamer—he played a very big part in getting NXT to where it is today, as the third-ever NXT Champion (following Seth Rollins and Big E, pretty good company), and holding that title for 280 days.
During Dallas’ NXT era, he won an eight-man tournament for a spot in the 2013 Royal Rumble, where he entered at #16 (though his actual entrance was overshadowed by Kofi Kingston using JBL’s chair as a pogo stick in order to get back in the ring). Dallas lasted a little more than 20 minutes in the match and eliminated Wade Barrett, sparking a feud between the two in the following months.
Though Bo Dallas had an auspicious Royal Rumble debut, he hasn’t gotten an opportunity for an encore performance—he hasn’t even been back in a Rumble match since. Maybe he’ll truly inspire with a Rumble return this month in Phoenix?
Following Bo Dallas’ debut at the 2013 Royal Rumble, Rusev—make that Alexander Rusev, as he still had a first name back then—jumped from NXT to the main roster a year later, as a surprise entrant in the 2014 Rumble match. Coming in at #6, Rusev didn’t eliminate anyone in the seven minutes he was involved, but he did get to show off the skills that made him one of NXT’s most buzzed-about names—hitting a spin kick on Seth Rollins and a fallaway slam on CM Punk (in what turned out to be his final WWE appearance).
While Rusev may not have put any eliminations on the board, it took the combined efforts of CM Punk, Cody Rhodes, Kofi Kingston, and Seth Rollins to get him out of the match, a clear visual indicator that he was a major threat. This momentum continued in the form of a year-long undefeated steak and a Rumble near-victory in 2015, where he scored six eliminations and ended up in the final two, before being tossed out by Roman Reigns.
2016: AJ Styles
For nearly 15 years, it seemed like AJ Styles was destined to be “the best wrestler to never wrestle for WWE.” But never say never in pro wrestling, and the stars aligned in January 2016, where the former TNA and NJPW star made his WWE debut as a surprise entrant in the Royal Rumble.
The 2016 Royal Rumble was
Styles lasted nearly 30 minutes in the match, before being eliminated by Kevin Owens. And while he wasn’t a winner that night, he’s gone on to have a highly-decorated WWE career, and just a year later was in a WWE Championship match with John Cena at the 2017 Royal Rumble.
2018: Ronda Rousey
Didn’t think we’d forget about this one, did you?
After revolutionizing the world of women’s mixed martial arts, reports surfaced that Ronda Rousey was looking to change her focus to professional wrestling. Yet it didn’t seem quite real until it was, when Rousey made her official WWE debut moments after the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble match in 2018, three years after she and The Rock got into it with Triple H and Stephanie McMahon at WrestleMania 31.
Shortly after Asuka eliminated Nikki Bella to win the match, Rousey—wearing a jacket once belonging to her wrestling idol, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper—came to the ring and had her own “point to the WrestleMania sign” moment, making her intentions known with RAW Women’s Champion Alexa Bliss, SmackDown Women’s Champion Charlotte Flair, and Asuka all in the ring.
Fast forward to a year later, and Rousey is RAW Women’s Champion—and defending against Sasha Banks at the 2019 Royal Rumble in Phoenix.
WWE Royal Rumble 2019 takes place January 27 on the WWE Network.