Since 1988, the Royal Rumble has marked the beginning of the ‘Road to WrestleMania’ for WWE and its fans. Every year, crowds have piled into arenas across the United States to see who will stamp their ticket to the ‘Mania main event, as well as keep an eye on any potential surprise appearances from stars new and old.
The show brings with it an aura of mystery, with a plethora of potential debuts and returns on the cards every single year. 2020 saw Edge return from a nine-year hiatus, 2016 welcomed AJ Styles after his NJPW departure and 2018’s inaugural women’s Royal Rumble match brought back a collection of former female superstars. As the end of January is almost here, it seems apt to take a punt at predicting some of the surprises that may pop up during WWE’s first PLE of 2024.
1. Jade Cargill
Despite officially signing with WWE in September 2023, Jade Cargill has yet to wrestle on TV. She’s appeared backstage on various occasions, with every brand keen on landing her signature. However, despite the high-profile nature of her signing, Triple H has been eager to temper expectations, with her absence reportedly being due to her undergoing extensive training as preparation for her eventual debut. Therefore, the perfect place for her to finally compete would be in the Royal Rumble match.
With 29 other competitors involved, it would be a useful way of hiding any potential “rustiness” that the former TBS Champion may have after so long away. An appearance at the Rumble would likely see Cargill establish her place as one of the most dominant women on the roster, undoubtedly notching up a decent number of eliminations. Winning the entire thing on your WWE debut would certainly be an incredible statement, although a story-building elimination from the likes of Becky Lynch, Nia Jax or Bianca Belair is the more probable outcome.
2. Brock Lesnar
The ‘Beast Incarnate’ hasn’t been seen on WWE programming since his loss to Cody Rhodes at SummerSlam 2023. Although he’s taken some time away as of late, Lesnar is usually a safe bet for WWE’s biggest events. There’s been a lot of discussion regarding the immediate future of the ‘Next Big Thing’, with reports seeming to suggest a return to television is imminent.
A shock appearance at the Royal Rumble would be sure to send the crowd wild, especially as it’s been almost six months since he was last seen. A potential return would likely be used to service an inevitable WrestleMania appearance for Lesnar, with a huge clash against Gunther being a fan-favourite idea. Nothing is certain, of course, but having the ‘Beast’ pop up this weekend would surely be a popular decision.
3. AJ Lee
It’s been nine years since the ‘Geek Goddess’ last stepped into the squared circle, with the assumption being that she has no plans to return to action, instead focusing on her acting and writing career. A social media post by AJ Lee in late 2023 showcasing her in-ring prowess sparked excitement amongst WWE fans eager to see her return. Unfortunately, she swiftly shut them down, explaining in the comments of this post that she “went back into retirement” after shooting this footage.
However, when Lee’s husband, CM Punk, unbelievably returned to WWE in November, the rumour mill began to swirl. A return for Punk at Survivor Series showed that you can truly “never say never” in professional wrestling, and it shouldn’t be out of the question to expect the three-time Divas Champion to appear at the Tropicana Field on January 27th, 2024. Whether she shows up to help Punk pick up the win, or appears in the Women’s Rumble match, she remains a fan favourite and would undoubtedly pick up a huge reaction from the attending WWE Universe.
It’s been common knowledge for a while that Andrade El Idolo’s contract with AEW expired at the end of 2023. With that in mind, it would be logical to suggest that the former NXT Champion could be eyeing up a return to WWE sooner rather than later.
Andrade was one of the stars of NXT that thrived under Triple H’s watch and, ever since joining AEW, felt a little like an afterthought. Heading back to work with ‘the Game’ would be a logical step for El Idolo, and a surprise entry at the Royal Rumble would be one to liven up the crowd (and those at home) that have followed his career thus far.
Just under two years after leaving WWE, it’s highly likely that the former TNA Knockouts Champion is set to appear at the Royal Rumble. Naomi, a.k.a Trinity in TNA, has been rumoured to be finishing up with her current employer for a few weeks now, and her loss to Jordynne Grace at TNA: Hard to Kill seemed to all but confirm the recent reports.
Her time away from WWE has been undeniably excellent and it’s hard to deny she deserves a notable return at this year’s over-the-top-rope extravaganza.
6. The Rock
If you had asked any WWE fans six months ago whether they expected an appearance from The Rock at the Royal Rumble, they’d have laughed in your face. Then, on January 1st, he turned up on Monday Night Raw and suggested he had Roman Reigns in his sights, and the landscape changed entirely.
As a former Royal Rumble winner, The Rock could pop up in Florida and become the tenth man in history to win multiple Rumble matches. This would set up an electrifying showdown between ‘The People’s Champion’ and the Undisputed WWE Universal Champion at WrestleMania 40, which would have the eyes of the wrestling world watching. If he’s not in the match, an appearance at the climax of Reigns’ likely title defence would cause the crowd to erupt. Either way, you’ll likely be hearing that famous “If You Smell…” before the night is done.
7. Mickie James
During an episode of “Gabby AF” in December 2023, Mickie James suggested that a return at the Royal Rumble would only happen if she went on to win the event. Teasing a match-up with Rhea Ripley, she claimed that “Mami needs to take on the Mother”. Based on this interview, speculation began to grow and many WWE fans are hoping that this is a nod to a surprise appearance by the six-time Women’s Champion at the ‘Rumble.
James did show up at the 2022 event, notably wearing her Knockouts Championship, but her cameo was only a one-time occurrence. Could she be open to a more regular schedule now, given that her husband (Nick Aldis) is on-screen as the Smackdown GM? It’s a possibility that many have suggested may happen, and a shock return at the event would undoubtedly be one that fans in attendance would be excited about.
8. Tye Dillinger
Another name on this list that could (and should) make the jump from AEW to WWE is the ‘Perfect 10’, Tye Dillinger. More recently known for his work as Shawn Spears, he hasn’t been seen in WWE since early 2019, amid reports of his dissatisfaction with the company. However, on 28th December 2023, he announced his departure from AEW, with rumours immediately beginning to swirl of a potential return to WWE.
In a recent post on Twitter, Spears was seen referring to the Rumble itself, with a simple, but suggestive, emoji appearing to indicate his potential arrival at the event. Of course, this is currently only speculation, but a return at – you guessed it – the number ten position would be a fitting way to reintroduce Tye Dillinger after five years away.
9. Liv Morgan
It’s been quite some time since WWE fans have seen Liv Morgan on their TV sets, with her last appearance being on the July 17th, 2023 edition of Monday Night Raw. Since then, Morgan has spent the past six months rehabbing a shoulder injury and is reportedly nearing a return, as per PWInsider.
The alleged plans are to have the former Smackdown Women’s Champion featured in the build to WrestleMania, which would see her involved in a “high profile program”. As a fan favourite whenever she shows up, Liv Morgan should be on the shortlist for a potential return to action ASAP and provided that she’s fit enough to do so, a Rumble appearance would be very well-received.
10. Matt Cardona
You know it.
Matt Cardona has been the centre of attention on the independent scene, with the ‘Indy God’ showing up in just about every promotion possible. Since being unceremoniously released by WWE in April 2020, Cardona has gone on to showcase how foolish that decision was by making a name for himself around the globe. His social media popularity, combined with his in-ring talent has made him a figurehead for independent wrestling over the past four years.
The former ‘Broski’ remains open to the idea of a WWE return, however, stressing during an appearance on Fightful’s “The Hump” podcast in late 2023 that “cash and creative” could persuade him to reappear in WWE. With the Royal Rumble around the corner, WWE would be wise to at least suggest the idea with Cardona. After all, his popularity is undeniable, and a shock return for the former Zack Ryder would undoubtedly draw eyes to their product.
Let’s wait and see how many (if any) of these come to fruition, as the road to WrestleMania 40 officially starts with the 2024 Royal Rumble on January 27th, 2024.
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