When it comes to professional wrestling, surprises — truly unexpected, jaw-dropping events — are hard to come by. Over the past 25 years, fans of the medium can most likely count on one hand the moments where they were genuinely left in shock and awe by what transpired in front of them.
The major exception to that notion comes every January as WWE holds arguably its second-biggest pay-per-view of the year, the Royal Rumble.
Beginning in 1988, the event was built around an over-the-top-rope battle royale between 30 men (Female performers have sporadically appeared in the Rumble and, starting in 2018, received their own version of the match).
For more than three decades, the match’s structure has remained mostly unchanged.
The match starts with two entrants and at regularly timed intervals, another participant enters the ring. There is no limit to the number of participants in the ring at once and the only way to be eliminated is to be tossed over the top rope and having both feet touch the ground — this rule results in some of the most fun moments in the match’s history, just ask Kofi Kingston.
Simply put, at some point every year the match becomes controlled chaos, with the winner earning a championship opportunity at that year’s WrestleMania.
Welcome to WWE, A.J. Styles
The beauty of the Royal Rumble is that WWE purposely leaves some of the match’s participants unnamed. The air of unpredictability has resulted in several shocking moments, mostly in the form of injured stars making their triumphant return, a la John Cena in 2008 and Edge in 2010.
In January 2016 however, the Royal Rumble match featured a much different type of surprise, the third participant in the match wasn’t a superstar returning from injury nor was he a talent that was working with the then-developmental NXT brand.
The entrant was A.J. Styles.
“You have to think about it all,” Styles told Yahoo Sports. “Not only is it one of the biggest pay-per-views in WWE, it’s WWE in general. It was my first time under contract, working for a company that is easily the biggest in the world. Was I a little nervous? Oh yeah. Was anybody going to remember A.J. Styles? I had worked at this little place in Orlando, I was in Japan a lot, so I was a little nervous because I didn’t know what to expect.”
To hardcore wrestling fans, Styles coming to WWE was viewed as a near impossibility. At 38 years old, Styles was a well-known and respected veteran of the industry. It’s rare someone with the stature and reputation Styles had garnered doesn’t find him or herself in WWE at some juncture in their career, but to that point the Georgia native had worked primarily with competitors TNA and New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Styles’s celebrated run with NJPW had just ended earlier that month and, while it was known he was leaving the promotion, booking pre wrestling’s hottest free agent into the Royal Rumble match needed to be something that was pulled off perfectly and covertly.
In retrospect, having Styles enter in one of the earliest possible positions made absolute sense. Fans who knew him would instantly become more engaged in the match, and those who were unfamiliar with his work were able to get a close-up look before the ring became too crowded.
“I was in a position that gave me the opportunity to really shine,” Styles recalled. “When I walked out for the Royal Rumble, there was only one man in the ring. I went No. 3 and the spotlight was on me. The fans had no idea whose music was playing and then when they figured out who it was, it was even more exciting because they had no idea what would happen and they had no idea that AJ Styles was coming to WWE.”
Styles was also able to get his own anxiousness out of the way early.
“It couldn’t have been any better. Once I step into the ring, those jitters and that nervousness goes away, that doesn’t exist anymore. Walking down the aisle, yes, you’re still feeling it.”
‘Unexpected’ reality of the Royal Rumble match
Despite this being Styles’s first match with WWE in his career, there was little to no learning curve for the veteran star when it came to the technical aspect of the job. Traditionally, professional wrestlers will “call the match” while in the ring. This process entails one of the athletes essentially choreographing the match in real time. The participants will always know the outcome and will discuss major spots, but it’s on them to figure out how to get there.
In the Royal Rumble, where there can be more than a dozen people in the ring at once, this is a near impossibility.
“The way the match plays out is a little of both [forms of planning],” Styles said. “I had an idea of what was going to happen and what we were going to do, but once you get into that match, there are so many guys in there, you don’t know who you are going to face when you’re in there. It’s unexpected. I had been in the business for 16, 17 years at that point so I was comfortable, all things considered.”
Styles would last nearly 29 minutes in his first Royal Rumble, good for the 4th longest time in the hour-long match. It was his introduction to WWE and, while he didn’t earn the spot in the main event of WrestleMania that April, Styles quickly skyrocketed to stardom in Vince McMahon’s company.
The three Royal Rumble events since his debut, Styles has either been WWE champion or challenged for the top title in the company, meaning he hasn’t taken part in the pay-per-view’s signature match. This year, nearly four years to the day since his surprising debut, Styles gets another shot at winning the iconic match.
“For me, even right now as we speak, I’m excited because I’ve only done one in my career in WWE,” Styles said. “I think it would be cool to be in it again because of the stature of the pay-per-view. We know WrestleMania is the biggest one, but which one comes second? I don’t know. I find that more people think that the Royal Rumble is second. It’s a big deal.”
“Royal Rumble” takes place on January 26 at Minute Maid Park in Houston and can be seen on the WWE Network starting at 7pm ET.
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