Can something still be a surprise if the entire internet is talking about it? It depends. Just because every wrestling site and message board has been speculating about something happening doesn’t mean it’ll actually happen. Take four big names that have been bandied about as possible Royal Rumble surprises this year.
If WWE hadn’t announced that Kurt Angle was going into its Hall of Fame this year, his return during this weekend’s Royal Rumble would be one of the most surprising moments in the history of the event, even though everybody has been speculating about his return to WWE for the last year. Kenny Omega popping up in the Rumble has dominated online wrestling conversation all month, spurred on by Omega working us all about his contract situation in New Japan, but it’ll still be shocking in the extremely unlikely situation that it actually happens. Neither Shinsuke Nakamura nor Samoa Joe should be a surprise—they’re both under contract to WWE—but they’ve been stuck in NXT for so long already that it’s hard to expect either of them. (But, like, Joe has to be in the thing this year, right?)
Fans would still have been talking about all four of them potentially showing up in the Rumble, though, even if we had even less reason to think it could possibly happen. That’s natural this time of year: the Royal Rumble is built on surprises, and one of the most powerful surprises in all of wrestling is when a superstar debuts in a new promotion.
When that Rumble counter hits zero, we have no idea who’ll be coming out until their music pipes up. That level of suspense almost ensures a good match every year, but it cuts both ways: when number 28 hits and it’s Jack Swagger or Jinder Mahal, you’ll have the rare opportunity to hear 40000 voices groan in unison. (And, if this year’s event follows the track record of the last three, prepare yourself for another Rumble ending with a sea of boos.) When it works, though, you get the debut of AJ Styles. You get Mick Foley’s unexpected run-in in 2004. You get John Cena’s shocking return from a major injury in 2008. You get the kind of moment that reminds you why you still watch WWE and why you became a wrestling fan in the first place.
Here are 10 surprise entrants in the 2017 Royal Rumble that could make us feel that way again. We’re not just tossing out names, here—we’re limiting this to people who we know are either available to WWE at the moment, from talent already under contract to notable freelancers, or wrestlers whose contracts with other companies reportedly expire at the end of the month. Clearly if somebody is signed until February with another company they wouldn’t be able to appear in the Rumble on Jan. 28, but this is wrestling: if a wrestler says they’re signed until February, who knows how honest they’re being?
We’re going to rank this from most likely to least likely, starting with a certain former NXT champion…
1. Samoa Joe
You wouldn’t want to bring somebody up from NXT and beat them in their first match. That’s why the Rumble maybe isn’t the way to call up Shinsuke Nakamura, unless the plan is for him to win it all. Samoa Joe doesn’t have to be as protected in his main roster debut as Nakamura does, though, or as much as other NXT stars, because he’s more familiar with the American audience and has a more physically imposing look. And now that he doesn’t have a whole lot cooking for him in NXT, this would be the perfect time to finally call Joe up. Having him debut in the Rumble, eliminate a whole slew of wrestlers, and then eventually get tossed out by a legit top guy he could then feud with could make Joe an instant threat to WWE’s main event scene.
2. Kurt Angle
Again, the Hall of Fame announcement yanked the rug out from beneath this possible surprise. Still, whether it’s expected or not, Angle’s return to WWE after over a decade will be an unforgettable moment for many fans. The Rumble is a perfect opportunity to reintroduce Kurt Angle to WWE’s fan base: he’d get a monstrous pop that would make his return look like the huge deal that it is, and it’s a low pressure environment for a noted perfectionist who hasn’t wrestled in a WWE ring in forever. Instead of having the 48-year-old with chronic injuries who only worked a dozen matches last year make his comeback with a high-profile Wrestlemania match, where he would probably try as hard as he could to steal the show like he did in the old days, Angle could dust off his signature spots as soon as he hit the ring and then share the spotlight with the rest of the wrestlers in the ring. If he came in late he could easily last to the final four without putting too much stress on his body, and would be as believable of a possible winner as almost anybody else currently announced for the match.
3. Shinsuke Nakamura
The problem with bringing the current NXT champion up for the Royal Rumble is that you don’t want to beat him in his first main roster appearance. Of course winning the Rumble in his very first WWE match would make Nakamura into an instant main eventer, and with his innate charisma and sterling in-ring acumen there should be no worries about him not maintaining that buzz after the Rumble. It wouldn’t be that huge of a surprise—again, he’s been under contract with WWE for almost a year, and should’ve been on the main roster from the day he signed—but it would be a major moment for Nakamura and his legions of fans.
4. Tyler Bate and Pete Dunne
Seeing Bate and Dunne, the finalists from WWE’s United Kingdom Championship Tournament, in the Rumble would only be a surprise because they haven’t been announced for the show and have never wrestled on a main roster WWE event. It probably wouldn’t be the best way to introduce either to the millions of WWE fans who didn’t watch the fine UK tournament—as with Nakamura, both need to be handled carefully and booked strong at first, and getting tossed out of a battle royal that will expose how much smaller they are than most WWE wrestlers wouldn’t make either the champion Bate or the “bruiserweight” heel Dunne look good. Still, it’d be a great way to capitalize on the buzz of the tournament, which was held in a single weekend two weeks before the Rumble, and it’s entirely feasible, as both men are under WWE contract and have been pulled from the London show they were scheduled to appear at the day before the Rumble.
5. Hulk Hogan
It’s been a year and a half since Hogan was effectively blackballed from WWE over the racist comments in his leaked sex tape, and according to numerous wrestling journalists his return to the company in the promotional role he previously held could happen any week now. If he came out during the Rumble it would probably get one of the biggest pops ever. Of course he’s in no physical shape to ever wrestle again, and even if he was it would make no sense to let him win at 63. It’s very likely he simply couldn’t take the over-the-rope bump necessary to be eliminated from the Rumble. The crowd ovation and another fondly remembered moment for future clip packages are the only reasons to ever try this, and as slim as those justifications are, they’re probably still enough to get the idea rolling inside the head of Vince McMahon. Hulk Hogan shouldn’t—and almost definitely won’t—be in this match, but if “Real American” does somehow blare through the Alamodome on Sunday, it’ll be an incomparable surprise.
6. Kota Ibushi
The Cruiserweight Classic standout has embraced his freelance status over the last year, working a light schedule in 2016 that included dates for WWE, New Japan (under the guise of Tiger Mask W), Kaiju Big Battel and WWNLive. If both sides were interested, nothing legal or contractual could keep him out of the Royal Rumble, and it would lend the event an international flair that it might otherwise lack. Your standard issue WWE fan may be completely oblivious to Ibushi’s stature, diminishing the impact of this surprise, but hardcore fans would love to see the Golden Star in the Rumble. If WWE ever wanted somebody who could outdo Kofi Kingston’s annual close call elimination spots, Ibushi’s the best man for the job.
7. Kyle O’Reilly
Kyle O’Reilly is most likely WWE-bound, and given the company’s track record it makes sense that he would spend a solid year or more in NXT before cracking the main roster. Of course, he was the Ring of Honor champion as recently as three weeks ago, when he unceremoniously dropped the title to Adam Cole at Wrestle Kingdom 11. That impression of stealing a rival company’s world champion could drive WWE to debut him at the Rumble. That would probably be a major mistake—although the most devoted of wrestling fans at the Alamodome will know who he is, O’Reilly doesn’t have the name value of AJ Styles or the white-hot buzz of Kenny Omega, which could lead to an especially muted response when he walks through the curtain. Although a tremendous technical wrestler, O’Reilly doesn’t have the superstar look or flashy moves needed to get over with an unfamiliar crowd in one night. He needs to be handled carefully, and given time both to build compelling matches but also to acquaint the WWE audience with him and his skills. He’s one big name indie superstar who would benefit from a short stay in NXT, if only just to cultivate the same kind of buzz that Kevin Owens did during his short NXT stay. He would probably just get lost in the shuffle if he debuted in the Rumble. Still, it would certainly be a surprise if we see him on Sunday night.
8. Cody Rhodes
Okay, this clearly isn’t going to happen. We aren’t even a year removed from when Rhodes unhappily left WWE. We only bring it up because he is a known quantity for WWE fans, he is actively wrestling for as many promotions in as many countries as he can book, and it would be a genuine shock to see him return. Cody is a rare commodity today, a genuine freelancer with a big name, and although he’s probably in no hurry to return to the company he just escaped from, it would be another amazing twist in the weird year Cody’s had. The traditional rules of wrestling contracts don’t seem to apply to Cody Rhodes—he works for TNA, Ring of Honor, and New Japan simultaneously, while also picking up independent dates throughout the world. In the last year he’s wrestled at Wrestlemania, Wrestle Kingdom, and Ring of Honor’s biggest show of the year, Final Battle. He’s basically everywhere all at once, and although it contradicts everything we know about his relationship with WWE and how WWE handles its talent, if Cody Rhodes really wanted to be in the Royal Rumble this year, we have no reason to think he couldn’t make it possible. We just aren’t making any bets about it.
9. Kenny Omega
Don’t get your hopes up too much about this one (or, conversely, don’t stress out too much about it). There’s almost no chance Kenny Omega will be at the Rumble. His current contract with New Japan Pro Wrestling reportedly doesn’t expire until the end of January, he’s rumored to have already resigned with the company anyway, and he’s also booked for another event in Chile the day before the Rumble. Sure, it’s possible all the reports are wrong, and his New Japan contract expired early enough for him to sign with WWE. And yeah, perhaps WWE would rush him onto a flight from Chile to San Antonio (a flight that takes about ten hours) just so he could get a big pop for his Rumble entrance, or get him to pull out of that show altogether. Despite the intense speculation about his Rumble debut earlier this month, the odds of Omega being at the Alamodome on Sunday are so remote that this has actually circled all the way back around to being one of the most shocking things that could possibly happen at the Royal Rumble.
10. Broken Matt Hardy
A number of top TNA talents are set to hit the open market soon, assuming new owners Anthem Sports can’t get them resigned in advance. The two WWE would most likely want to sign are no strangers to the company. It’s been almost a decade since either Matt or Jeff Hardy have wrestled for WWE, but that’s still the work they’re best known for, by far. In the past Jeff Hardy would clearly be the more likely to make a WWE return—he was perhaps the most popular babyface in the company during his last run there, and it ended with him as a credible World Champion on Smackdown. Of course something huge and unexpected happened in the last year which has shifted that dynamic. Matt Hardy recreated himself with the best gimmick in wrestling today, playing a campy, melodramatic, “broken” version of himself ripped right out of old UHF “creature feature” matinees. Broken Matt Hardy almost single-handedly made Impact worth watching in 2016, and caught on so huge that his signature “delete” chant can be regularly heard at wrestling events both major and minor throughout the world. He is, at this moment, probably the biggest pro wrestler in North America not currently signed to WWE. It’s incredibly unlikely that he could enter the Rumble—his TNA contract reportedly runs into February, and with the level of micromanagement that WWE does on the creative end, it’s possible he wouldn’t want to give up the freedom that allowed him to develop this beloved new character. If that contract ends sooner than Hardy has indicated, though, the highlight of this year’s Royal Rumble could be Broken Matt Hardy heading to the ring with his wife, toddler son and trusty drone as an entire arena chants “delete” in unison.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s wrestling, comedy and games sections. He doesn’t expect any of these wrestlers to actually be in the Rumble, outside of perhaps the first two on the list. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.