The dubious politics of WWE’s Greatest Royal Rumble card in Saudi Arabia have taken center stage in the sport over the last week, but there were still some bright spots on the card itself. One of those was 2018's second WWE guest appearance from Rey Mysterio, this one coming in the titular 50-man Royal Rumble match; it played as something of a follow-up to his surprise participation in January’s traditional 30-man Rumble. So far, Mysterio’s WWE cameos been one-offs, and while WWE seems like a likely destination for the legendary high flyer, he also has ties to both New Japan Pro Wrestling and a start-up promotion, AroLucha, that is trying to build around him. Wherever he winds up, any Rey Mysterio news is good news. The 43-year-old Mexican-American legend with 29 years as a pro is in great shape and his long-damaged knees are seemingly reinvigorated by stem cell treatments, and he seems poised to make one last big run.
Mysterio has been gone from WWE since February 2015, when his contract expired. Well, sort of. In the March 29, 2015 issue of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Dave Meltzer wrote that the contract had expired on paper in April 2014, at which point Mysterio and Paul “Triple H” Levesque agreed they would part ways amicably. Shortly thereafter, Vince McMahon called Mysterio to tell him that, due to the amount of time that he had missed with injuries, WWE was exercising a contractual provision that let the company unilaterally extend the term. Meltzer wrote that he had “never heard of it actually being used,” although he conceded that the low number of wrestlers who leave WWE voluntarily resulted in a small sample size. The same clause was subsequently used on Daniel Bryan, but the clock started ticking again when he once again became an onscreen character as SmackDown General Manager. In Mysterio’s case, it was reportedly a negotiated release with the belief that there was a non-disparagement clause.
Mysterio’s prospects outside of WWE were intriguing for a number of reasons. He is a massive attraction, for one thing—especially popular among kids and Latinx fans, but beloved enough all around to move tickets, merchandise, and autographs in a way that few others do. During one of those last layoffs from WWE, he started to get stem cell treatments on his knees and the word began to circulate that he felt better than he had in many years. Rey was, at that point, both well off enough and old enough that he was asking $20,000 a shot. He wanted a lighter schedule, and had the leverage to get it, especially from European promotions. Dream matches were booked and did excellent business, and Mysterio really did perform better than he had in years. He returned to his original home promotion in Mexico, AAA, later joined its American offshoot series Lucha Underground, and scored a Mexican brand ambassador deal with Paramount Pictures. He had no reason to go back to WWE and clearly enjoyed the reduced schedule, but the AAA deals dried up before too long.
In the last couple years, Mysterio has become the go-to star for promotions wanting to make a mark in the west. British startups 5 Star Wrestling and WCPW booked him pretty regularly in spite of his large fee, and New Japan Pro Wrestling booked him for March’s trek to California (he got hurt); AroLucha is trying to use him as a centerpiece. Specifically, they’re trying to crowdfund for shareholders, and even with Mysterio (who is clearly not exclusive) on board as a purported minority owner, that does not seem to be clicking. That two of the promotion’s founders, former wrestlers Ron and Don Harris, have inadequately explained Nazi tattoos probably doesn’t help matters. With Mysterio’s Mexican prospects not looking great, 5 Star closing, WCPW on indefinite hiatus, and AroLucha unlikely to ever get completely off the ground, a run with NJPW or a part-time return to WWE makes a lot of sense. He would have numerous fresh opponents in both promotions, and NJPW’s use of Chris Jericho shows that they are willing to get creative to gain a foothold outside of Japan. WWE would obviously keep him closer to home, but whether the promotion would agree to the kind of part-time schedule that Rey clearly prefers is a very big “if.”
If he stopped today, Mysterio would be a legend, and one of the most influential wrestlers of his era. Rey’s athleticism, adaptability at multiple styles worldwide, and massive popularity changed how small, Mexican, and masked wrestlers were viewed. He opened WWE’s doors wide enough that, even as he was increasingly besieged by knee injuries en route to his eventual departure from the promotion, the company repeatedly sought a new Mexican star. So far, none have really clicked, though Andrade “Cien” Almas seemingly has a better shot than most.
Mysterio deserves something of a victory lap, and given the how oddly his last real WWE run ended, one last ride wouldn’t hurt from a legacy point of view, either. The last truly memorable appearance of his dozen years in WWE came during the titular match from Royal Rumble 2014. Daniel Bryan was clearly the guy who should win the match and headline WrestleMania; everyone knew he was there because he was in the opener, where he lost to Bray Wyatt. Whether wrestlers on the undercard can appear in the Rumble match or not is never a set rule, so even though it was never outright said that Bryan would or wouldn’t be in, his ongoing underdog storyline guaranteed that every fan expected it. So when Bryan hadn’t shown up yet and the final entrant was Mysterio, the Pittsburgh crowd took their anger out on him. There was always a faction of WWE fans that held a somewhat inexplicable hatred for Mysterio, and that group was never close to as loud as it was that night. Mysterio had just 10 more matches in WWE before leaving, so the reaction at the Royal Rumble left a lasting impression.
He deserves better, both because he’s such a great wrestler and such a great story. Despite standing no more than 5’3” tall, he completely revolutionized the wrestling business in the 1990s—despite lacking the bulk of some of the previous diminutive Mexican lucha libre stars like Super Astro, he was so spectacular and charismatic that he redefined what “small” was. As a teenager, he did math homework in locker rooms before later dropping out of high school; when he showed up in WCW, he was greeted by incredulous laughter in the locker room. And then he left both his peers and American fans with their jaws on the floor, simply by being the most spectacular wrestler they’d ever seen.
He reinvented himself in WWE out of necessity—it was a different style and a more size-prejudiced promotion, and his increasingly worn down knees forced numerous changes upon him. He was still recognizable as the spectacular Rey Mysterio, but with the help of Ricky Steamboat as his personal producer, he reinvented himself as a more theatrical, sympathy-generating good guy and became the biggest children’s hero in the business. He was a wrestler who could leave WWE, ask for $20,000 a match, and have no real problem getting it. If he wants one last run, we’re all luckier for it.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix