Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
A battle royal has come down to two competitors. The crowd buzzes as they stare at one another for a few moments. The intensity swells. Then, they go at it. Near-eliminations are teased as the drama builds. Finally, one competitor is able to send the other over the top rope and down to the floor.
The crowd roars as the apparent winner stands tall. But wait! There’s another battle royal entrant you completely forgot about. He/she reappears and steals the victory for him/herself.
It happened again during the Survivor Series 2020 Kickoff show.
If you’re starting to feel like you’ve seen this sort of thing before, you’re not alone. I saw some fans on Twitter saying exactly that.
First I Rant, Then I Research
What makes this more bizarre for me is that I had just unleashed my own rant over WWE’s tendency to run the “hidden opponent” finish in its battle royals just over a month ago.
Here’s what set me off, in case you’d already forgotten.
The morning after my rant, I wondered if I was the one who’s crazy. Is it all in my head? Are there really that many “hidden opponent” battle royal finishes in WWE?
I combed through the results of every WWE-sanctioned battle royal I could find dating back to the beginning of 2015. It turns out I’m not crazy. But the situation may not be as bad as you and some other fans think. Before we begin I should point out that I’m excluding Royal Rumble matches from this exercise.
WWE Keeps It Clean…For A Bit
Up until The Miz and Lana got their battle royal wins, WWE had a clean slate in 2020, running five straight with NO “hidden opponent” endings. In fact, WWE had been on a pretty good run dating back to June 2019.
That battle royal on June 19, 2019 was TEXTBOOK “hidden opponent” booking. It was the NXT UK Women’s Title #1 Contendership Battle Royal. Kay Lee Ray quietly disappears early in the match with an apparent knee injury, only to reemerge at the very end to ambush Xia Brookside.
At WrestleMania, on April 7, 2019, we had a pair of “hidden opponent” attempts in BOTH battle royals! Neither worked out as intended. Carmella successfully surprised, and eventually eliminated, Sarah Logan. Later, Colin Jost and Michael Che tried to sneak up on Braun Strowman. It didn’t work out for them.
We also can’t overlook a 15-man battle royal at the Worlds Collide event that aired in February 2019. You may consider this a borderline entry under the “hidden opponent” criteria, but hear me out.
Jordan Devlin is in the final three, but he ends up down and nearly motionless in the corner for nearly 45 seconds while Velveteen Dream and Tony Nese do battle. Devlin only springs back to life after Dream eliminates Nese and a well-timed dropkick eliminates Dream. In my eyes, this is a “hidden opponent” finish. The key evidence is Dream raising his arms in victory after eliminating Nese. Not great awareness of his surroundings by Dream, but I’m counting this one.
For the next “hidden opponent” finish, we head back to Monday Night Raw on October 8, 2018. It’s the Global Battle Royal. It’s Kurt Angle disguised as The Conquistador getting the drop on Baron Corbin. It is TEXTBOOK “hidden opponent” booking!
Our next stop is April 8, 2018 for the first-ever WrestleMania Women’s Battle Royal and another TEXTBOOK “hidden opponent” finish as Naomi surprised Bayley.
Defining “Peak Hidden Opponent”
Bookending Naomi’s “hidden opponent” victory at WrestleMania and Kay Lee Ray’s on NXT UK in June 2019 allowed me to frame a period in WWE history as “Peak Hidden Opponent”. Between Naomi’s win on April 8, 2018 and KLR’s on June 19, 2019, WWE held 15 battle royals. Six of them featured “hidden opponent” endings. And if my math is correct, that’s 40%. I believe this is where my frustration with more recent battle royal finishes was rooted.
As I mentioned, I dug through battle royal results from WWE dating back to 2015. Here’s how things stacked up for each of those years.
- 2020: 2 “Hidden Opponent” Finishes, 5 Clean Finishes (29%)
- 2019: 4 “Hidden Opponent” Finishes, 6 Clean Finishes (40%)
- 2018: 2 “Hidden Opponent” Finishes, 7 Clean Finishes (22%)
- 2017: 1 “Hidden Opponent” Finishes, 5 Clean Finishes (17%) (*There were also 2 “No Contests” that I did not count for either column)
- 2016: 3 “Hidden Opponent” Finishes, 4 Clean Finishes (43%)
- 2015: 0 “Hidden Opponent” Finishes, 3 Clean Finishes (0%)
Since 2015, WWE has been running the “hidden opponent” ending in about 29% of its battle royals overall. Those peaks in 2019 and back in 2016 really stick out.
So, while it may feel like it’s been happening a lot, WWE’s recent battle royal booking is not out of line with how the company has been operating since 2015. In fact, the past or month or so has been a course correction for the company.