NXT at WWE Royal Rumble 2016

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One of World Wrestling Entertainment’s marquee events, the Royal Rumble takes place this Sunday. It is an event that many look forward to, primarily due to the Rumble match itself. Always a high stakes affair, the Rumble has traditionally seen the winner receiving a major championship opportunity at that year’s WrestleMania. This year the stakes are even higher with current WWE World Heavyweight Champion Roman Reigns defending the title against all comers.

NXT at WWE Royal Rumble 2016

One of the appealing aspects of the Rumble match is the surprises they often provide. Many superstars have returned from injury or hiatus at the Rumble, while others are simply familiar faces not seen in along while. Sometimes these surprises are impactful, such as when John Cena returned after pectoral surgery months ahead of schedule during the 2008 edition. Sometimes they make us shake our heads such as the time Jerry Lawler, Booker T, and Michael Cole all entered the 2012 Rumble match, only to be ceremoniously tossed out in fast order.

One new element of surprise that is becoming a tradition at the Rumble is the appearance of NXT superstars. The first incident occurred in 2013 when Bo Dallas won a tournament, giving him the opportunity to be a part of the big match. While he didn’t win the whole thing, he did make the most of it by eliminating then Intercontinental Champion Wade Barrett. While WWE failed to capitalize on that shocking moment, they did continue to have NXT be a part of the Rumble. The next year, a burly Burgarian named Alexander Rusev walked out to little reaction with a buxom blonde named Lana. While he didn’t eliminate anyone and lasted less than ten minutes, it took four of WWE’s elite athletes (C.M Punk, Kofi Kingston, Cody Rhodes, and Seth Rollins) to toss him over the top rope. Within a year, the Russian Super Athlete would shorten his name and be in the middle of a win streak as the United States Champion. Last year there wasn’t an NXT presence, and given the popularity of NXT in 2014, it was a real surprise.

This year could see the men and women of WWE’s developmental system make a return to the Royal Rumble. With so many eyes on WWE this Sunday, the choice of which players to put into the game could make for an interesting main event. We won’t know for sure until Sunday, but there are plenty of strong candidates that could spice up what is already turning into a hot ticket show.

Sami Zayn

The Montreal, Quebec, Canada native was NXT’s most popular superstar in 2014, and that popularity continued into 2015. Despite losing the NXT Championship to Kevin Owens, Zayn looked poised to move up in the world on an episode of RAW where he accepted John Cena’s United States Championship Open Challenge in his home town.

Sadly, it was during this moment of glory that brought everything around him crashing down. While pumping up the crowd, Sami injured his shoulder. He valiantly carried on with the match, but the damage had been done. After surgery fans wouldn’t see Zayn in an NXT ring again until October.

Zayn is still riding a wave of popularity with the NXT Universe, and many feel as though he should already be on the main roster. An appearance in the Rumble could be a good test to see if he can bring that same connection with him from Florida to the world stage.

Baron Corbin

On the opposite end of the popularity spectrum is Baron Corbin. Once loved by the fans for his winning ways and aura of mystery, these days Baron would be lucky if his own mother said she liked him. His arrogant attitude and nonchalant style make him easy to despise, especially if you watch WWE Network’s reality program Breaking Ground and you realize that his real life persona isn’t all that different from what you see on screen.

Despite many feeling as though Corbin is not ready for the big time yet, WWE officials are not among them. Corbin has been toiling away in NXT for quite some time, and this Sunday might be the perfect opportunity to let Baron sink or swim. Would his massive ego make him an easy target for WWE veterans who don’t appreciate his approach to the business? Or could WWE fast track the Lone Wolf to the WWE World Heavyweight Championship and have us all hailing Baron by the night’s end?

Apollo Crews

Making his television debut at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn after years on the independent scene, Apollo Crews was packaged and touted as a guy that was a star in the making. Normally this kind of in your face trumpeting of their future stars leaves a bad taste in the mouth of fans, but in the case of Crews, he has been everything advertised and more.

Apollo could be considered a total package. His athleticism for a man his size is jaw dropping, his physique is magazine worthy, and he has a very likable and charismatic personality. Ironically, in the age of the internet, this should make him the most hated man on the NXT roster, but Crews is so good that he actually makes the average jaded fan forget that by all accounts, they should hate this guy.

Crews is so likable and yet so relatable that it wouldn’t surprise me at all to throw Apollo into the deep end of the WWE pool at the Royal Rumble, just to see if there is more truth to the hype than originally imagined.

Hideo Itami

One of Triple H’s pet projects, the man formerly known as KENTA took a while to build steam in NXT before finally finding his groove and making a connection with the audience at Full Sail University. He seemed to be poised for greatness heading into the NXT Takeover: Unstoppable event where he was slated for a triple threat match, the winner of which would become the #1 contender to the NXT Championship. Sadly, Itami was injured before the night even began for him and was left to wait on the shelf for months while men like Finn Balor and Kevin Owens rose above him.

Now fully healed, Itami is ready to make a triumphant return. What better way to do so than at the Royal Rumble? WWE has also shown confidence in Itami and his abilities in front of a WWE crowd. Hideo won a tournament during WrestleMania 31 weekend and earned a spot in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal. While he didn’t win, he did leave an impression. Who’s to say he couldn’t do the same on Sunday?

Finn Balor

If you want to put your best foot forward, look no further than your champion. It would be difficult to argue that Balor didn’t have all the tools to make a huge impact in the Rumble match, were he to enter. He has years of experience behind him and in addition to being the NXT Champion, he also recently won Best Male Competitor and Best Overall Competitor in the fan voted NXT awards. No one has the same recognition as does the Irish born champion.

Of course, there’s always the matter of the demon. If Finn was to unleash the demon at the Royal Rumble, it would certainly create a spectacular moment. More than that, it could create some interesting match ups. Imagine Heath Slater reacting to seeing that, or the showdown between Balor and Bray Wyatt? The possibilities are more than intriguing.

Who’s Coming Out Next?

There are more than a few extra names that could be quickly added to this list as there is no shortage of talent at least ready for a peek at the world under the bright lights of WWE’s main roster. The duo of Enzo Amore & Big Cass could add some high entertainment value, while Samoa Joe could inject some internet credibility into the contest. Even the ladies of NXT can’t be ruled out, as the likes of Nia Jax or even Asuka are tough enough to stand toe to toe with anyone on the roster, not just the ladies.

One thing is clear, WWE has a tremendous opportunity on their hands this Sunday. A chance to show anyone watching the WWE Network for the first time what they’ve been missing on Wednesday nights and maybe even create some memorable moments while they’re at it. They have a shot at adding a new dimension to the Rumble, something they haven’t been able to do for years. A new badge of honor for their NXT stars to wear, and another reason for NXT fans to get excited each year for the Royal Rumble.