Standing behind the curtain, impatiently awaiting his chance to stomp down the ramp and into the ring, Steve Austin found the perfect method to prepare for the Royal Rumble.
“Man, by that point, you know what you need to do,” Austin says. “To sit there and try to process everything just freezes you up, so I’d clear my head.”
Austin is WWE’s only three-time Rumble winner, getting his hand raised in 1997, 1998 and 2001. For him, entering the match with a clear state of mind was a necessity, allowing him to fully immerse himself in the moment without any distraction.
“When you’re back there behind the curtain, it’s just another day at the office,” Austin says. “That given night, the office just happens to be the Royal Rumble with 29 other cats. I was talking to a buddy of mine a long time ago, Zakk Wylde, who played guitar for Ozzy Osbourne, one of the greatest guitarists of all time.
“I said to him, ‘Zakk, what are you thinking when you’re playing all that stuff? I mean, your fingers are moving so fast.’ He goes, ‘Steve, first of all, you’re not thinking. When you’re thinking, you’re stinking.’ And it’s the same thing with wrestling.”
A tremendous amount of thought has been put into this Sunday’s Royal Rumble pay-per-view, which features a Rumble match for the women and another for the men. Austin’s words are prescient, but that does remove the burden placed on standing out in a unique match.
Whether a performer is slated to last 30 seconds or 30 minutes, an appearance in the Rumble is an opportunity to leave a mark on a global audience. That responsibility comes with all sorts of pressure, the kind so powerful that it can seize up the strongest of performers.
Bianca Belair made her Rumble debut last January. After not learning she was even going to be in the match until that weekend, Belair dazzled with a spectacular performance that captured her resilience, charisma and power. She eliminated eight opponents and made a lasting memory for herself and the audience, despite the way she felt as she waited to enter the match.
“Those few seconds before my music hit felt like minutes,” Belair says. “That moment behind the curtain, that’s the moment that no one gets to see. I was overthinking everything.”
A favorite to win this Sunday’s Rumble, Belair plans on making the most of the knowledge she gained from last year to help elevate her to a new level.
“When I was waiting, all my nerves were building up,” she says. “Everything was moving almost in slow-motion. But as soon as my music hit, my body took control and the moment was mine. And I can’t wait to do it again at this year’s Rumble.”
Nine years ago, Sheamus was in a similar spot to Belair when he was expected to win the Rumble. Yet he placed such massive expectations on himself that it caused more harm than good.
“I was super nervous before I won in 2012,” Sheamus says. “I did that to myself, getting in my own head. I always work myself up, but I was so excited before that Rumble that I wasn’t even getting enough sleep. I wanted everything to be perfect, but the harder I went, the more I felt like I couldn’t get out of third gear.”
Sheamus credited a great deal of the success of his Rumble triumph to Chris Jericho, who was the match’s runner-up. Jericho was eliminated by Sheamus’s Brogue Kick, ending a back-and-forth sequence that brought electricity to the finish.
“When it got to me and Jericho, we got into the rhythm of the match,” Sheamus says. “For me, I love a long match to get settled in, but that’s not what happens in the Rumble. I was fortunate to work with him. He’s so intricate about how he works, and he knew how to make the most of all of those close calls. I thought that part was fantastic.”
The unknown also places a substantial burden on performers in the Rumble, even for legends returning as a surprise. A year before Sheamus’s win was the first-ever 40-man Royal Rumble. That show marked the return of the great Booker T, who was back on WWE television after a four-year absence. Despite decades of brilliance in the industry and a larger-than-life persona on screen, Booker revealed he was genuinely worried that the crowd would not react for his return.
“I can still remember feeling the sweat on my hands when I was busy trying to remind myself to feel and look like Booker T,” Booker Huffman says with a laugh. “I always feel connected with the crowd, but that’s something I also never take for granted. Before I walked out the curtain that night, I was very, very apprehensive.”
The crowd erupted for Booker T, and the decibel level did not decrease until he stepped back through the curtain after he was eliminated from the match.
“When the crowd responded, everything that had been working against me backstage suddenly began working in my favor,” Huffman says. “It meant so much to be reassured by the crowd. That night was a moment for me.”
A first appearance in the Rumble is a memorable night, which was certainly the case for Finn Bálor. He lasted more than 57 minutes at the 2018 edition, soaking up the chance to be part of the famed match created by the late Pat Patterson.
“The Royal Rumble is the coolest match in wrestling, and to me, it’s the coolest night of the year,” Bálor says. “I really got to live in the moment, which you don’t always get to do in other big matches. When I was in the ring, I heard the crowd reactions each time the buzzer went off. I loved that. Waiting to see who was coming next was one of the coolest experiences for me, seeing legends return and then kick ass in the ring.”
Before the match, Bálor was informed he would enter early and that he should prepare for a marathon of a night, which worked to ease his nerves.
“I entered second, so I wasn’t necessarily waiting behind the curtain waiting to enter a big melee of a brawl,” he says. “When I knew that I was going to go out there and last a long time, there was no way to prepare. I had to let go, be free and live in the moment. There are so many other variables when you get out there. You don’t know what’s going to happen or when it’s going to happen, or if things are going to be timed out properly.
“So often in big matches, you get lost in making sure everything is done correctly and you forget to experience the moment. But I went out there and, in terms of having fun and enjoying it, that was one of the greatest nights of my career.”
This year will mark the first time that the Rumble matches will take place without a live crowd. With the pandemic keeping fans at home, wrestlers have been forced to find new ways to communicate with the audience and become even more sophisticated with the display of their craft.
The 2021 Rumble will be the first of its kind. It will not be enhanced by a live crowd, which so often carries the match, conjuring up a rare element of magic throughout each entry, elimination and surprise. For the wrestlers, who are trained to listen to the crowd and adapt, it changes the playing field. And even though the ThunderDome setting has added an animated and bright backdrop for the WWE product, there is simply no way to replicate a live crowd—which is a notion supported by an overwhelming majority of wrestlers, including AJ Styles.
“I don’t know what else to say about not having a crowd, other than to say it sucks,” Styles says. “Fans make it more fun. That’s just the way it is. We feed off the crowd and everything we do is based off that response. The atmosphere, everything, it’s so important. So it will be different without them.”
After a handful of matches in the company 15 years before, Styles effectively made his WWE debut at the Royal Rumble in 2016. (He had an untelevised tryout match with the company in 2001.) Even though he was only 20 days removed from a phenomenal bout against Shinsuke Nakamura at New Japan Pro Wrestling’s signature Wrestle Kingdom show, one of his worst fears as a performer was spinning through his head: Would he draw a reaction from the crowd?
“I didn’t know if I was a big enough name,” says Styles, who was petrified that the crowd would not react to his surprise arrival. “Even though I’d been wrestling for 16 years by that point, I was so nervous. I wasn’t concerned that I couldn’t perform. That wasn’t the case. That’s not how it is looked at in WWE. The question is, can you bring eyes to the product? I didn’t know if I was able to do that.”
More than eased, Styles’s fears were erased after the crowd exploded with pure joy upon seeing him appear.
“When the crowd went nuts, it was a relief,” Styles says. “I milked that moment as much as I could. I always wondered what Vince McMahon was thinking as I was walking—not running—to the ring and taking my time. I knew I only had a certain amount of time, but I couldn’t rush that moment.”
While everyone’s experience at the Rumble is unique, the crowd has served as the one constant presence. Steve Austin added that was his secret weapon at every Rumble for a confidence boost, allowing him to turn his work from good to great.
“I fed purely off the crowd,” Austin says. “Once the glass broke, I was in go mode.”
Even without a crowd this Sunday, Austin still expects to see an exceptional level of intensity and precision in the ring. He believes the current roster will be undeterred by the lack of a crowd, using their wide range of skill and versatility to put on a magnificent night in the ring.
“Listen, all the guys and girls in WWE are professionals at the highest level,” Austin says. “They’re ready to go out there and put on a show, and that’s what you’re going to see at the Royal Rumble.”
Austin is not alone in his belief. The legendary Shawn Michaels also sees this year’s Rumble matches as a platform to showcase the type of talent that defines the current generation of WWE stars.
“These performers have adapted incredibly to this new normal in wrestling,” Michaels says. “It’s not something we ever had to know, but they’ve come to peace with it and adjusted. I’ve found that incredibly impressive.”
Michaels’s Rumble performances are some of the most memorable in the history of the event. There was the 1992 Rumble, when “the Heartbreak Kid” was just beginning to find his stride as a singles star, as well as the ’95 event, when he entered first and was the last man standing after what appeared to be certain elimination from “the British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith. Michaels won his second Rumble in a row in 1996 as part of his boyhood dream, which later saw him dethrone Bret Hart at WrestleMania 12. Despite not winning, two of his most compelling moments took place over a decade later in 2007 and ’08.
The ’07 Rumble had a final four of Michaels, Randy Orton, Edge and the Undertaker, but that quickly changed when Michaels eliminated Orton and Edge. That was the moment when the Undertaker rose from the mat with his signature sit-up, which was followed by the Michaels kip-up. ’Taker won that standoff, claiming his first-ever Rumble, then continued his undefeated streak at WrestleMania 23 against Batista. A year later in Madison Square Garden, ’Taker and Michaels entered first and second, respectively, laying the groundwork and setting the stage for their eventual WrestleMania showdown in 2009.
“The Royal Rumble was different for me,” Michaels says. “I always thought it was fun and enjoyable, even if I was going in first or second. It was a lot more free and easy. There are elements in that match where every second isn’t focused on you. There was more calm and peace, at least for me, than I had before any of the other pay-per-views. It allowed for a lot of improvisation, which you just wouldn’t have in a singles match against one opponent where everything had to be spot-on.
“The Rumble is one of those pay-per-views that captures that enjoyment for a lot of us. It captured all those things that are fun and enjoyable about the wrestling business.”
Michaels notes that there is the perfect blend of veterans and rising stars in the two Rumble matches on Sunday. He believes that those involved will be so immaculate about their work in the ring that the viewing audience will suspend disbelief, dismiss the fact there is no crowd and enjoy an evolved version of a match that has existed for more than three decades.
“I often wonder if everybody who’s watching has the proper appreciation for the incredible challenge that it has been for this entire group of men and women,” Michaels says. “I’m amazed at the way they’ve adapted.
“And once again, I will be one of those people, having been on the other side and never had to deal with anything like this, that will continue to be impressed by this generation’s adaptability to this once-in-a-lifetime aspect of wrestling. They will go out there and knock it out of the park. It’s going to be fantastic.”