THE CROWD AT Minute Maid Park in Houston counted along as the clock ticked down to zero. Twenty people had already entered the men's 2020 Royal Rumble match, and the anticipation of who would step out and enter the bout next was palpable.
Almost no one in attendance could have anticipated the shredding electric guitar riffs of "Metalingus" by Alter Bridge, but as Adam "Edge" Copeland ran out of the dugout, the crowd reached a fever pitch. After almost nine years away from wrestling and triple-fusion neck surgery, Edge made his seemingly impossible return to in-ring action. After a moment of intense emotion during which he stared toward the heavens, he charged toward the ring and reclaimed a dream that had seemingly been snatched away for good.
"Once the music hit, and that reaction ... I mean, I truly feel like I could have beat King Kong's ass," Edge told ESPN. "It was all surreal, kind of like a dream sequence, but everything's so focused and hyperfocused that I can't really explain it. But I think when you look at the video of me walking out, I think you see it in my eyes."
How did Edge, eight years removed from his induction into the WWE Hall of Fame, make his way back to the ring at the age of 46, looking fitter and leaner than he had at any other point in his career?
Strangely enough, it all began after he crashed his mountain bike.
"IT STARTED DAWNING on me that this could be a possibility when Sheamus came to town, and we were filming an episode of his Celtic Warrior workout show. He wants to do different challenging things that he hasn't done before, and I love to mountain bike. ... In the process of doing that -- this stupid competitive thing -- I'm flying down a mountain, I hit this one jump, and I wiped out.
"It's a pretty gnarly wipeout. I was going probably 20, 25 mph, landed on these stones, rolled right up to my feet. But I'm fine. I was all cut up, but my neck was fine. Couple that with doing all of these fight scenes over the years on sets -- some pretty physical stuff, especially with 'Vikings' -- and I thought, 'OK, I feel really good.'"
Edge wrestled until he retired suddenly in April 2011. Even though the thought crossed his mind time and time again, no wrestler had ever come back from triple-fusion surgery.
"My family doctor just said, 'Let's get some pictures on it, just see where you're at, and we'll see a spine specialist here in Asheville.' [I] did that, met with [the specialist]. He said, 'Keep doing what you're doing. Obviously, it's working for you,' and that's when I floated out the, 'But what about wrestling?'"
Edge eventually set up an appointment in Birmingham, Alabama, with Dr. James Andrews' team and Dr. Andrew Cordover.
"That's when we started to realize this could actually happen."
Even with that level of clearance, WWE has a medical team that focuses on head and neck injuries, led by Dr. Joseph Maroon in Pittsburgh. There was also an added level of stress beyond getting cleared.
Once he got the green light from WWE -- and publicly denied the idea of a return to the ring -- Edge still had to get into ring shape.
"I talked to [Triple H, Paul Levesque], and I said, 'I can't go to a ring anywhere because people will start seeing me. I can't go to the PC.' So they sent me a ring. I got a warehouse space, and I set up a ring and basically had my own personal 'Field of Dreams,' and I just got in there and got to work. Thankfully, I'm married to another Hall of Famer who can pick up and body slam me, which you can't say for a lot of wives. The Revival, they both live in Asheville, so they'd come, and they'd get in there with me, and they'd put me through my paces.
"I was keeping up with them. I wasn't tired, and I wasn't sore, and I thought, 'OK, this is going to happen, and this is going to happen at a level that I wanted.' I didn't want to come back and be anything less than what I was. I'm going to have to work differently. I'm going to have different limitations ... I still want to be able to go in there and be able to go half an hour."
EVEN AS HE started feeling good about what was happening in the ring, as the calendar flipped to 2020 and the Royal Rumble drew closer, Edge started feeling something he had never felt before when it comes to wrestling.
"The one place I never had any doubts was in a wrestling ring," Edge said. "That felt like that was my one sanctum that I didn't have questions. I felt like this is where I could go and always have that under control. This was the first time where I felt nervous because there were so many different variables that I never had to encounter before. I'd never wrestled having children before. I cannot get hurt, and I'm also doing it with two neck surgeries under my belt, and [I've been] retired for nine years. Nine years is a long time."
Still, he was committed to the vision that had entered his mind, and he was on a train that wasn't going to slow down. He arrived in Houston, remained sequestered for most of the day and then got himself ready for one of the biggest moments of his career.
"I talked to [Triple H], and I said, 'I can't go to a ring anywhere because people will start seeing me. I can't go to the PC.' So they sent me a ring." Edge
It was time for Edge to write the final chapters as he envisioned. He said goodbye to the small group he was hanging with backstage, which included his wife, Beth Phoenix, who had already performed on the show, as well as his longtime friend and tag team partner Christian, and Shane McMahon.
"I became so hyperaware of everything," Edge said of the moment before his return. "All of your senses go to this different place. Thankfully, the two people that were at the curtain were Lance Storm and Hurricane, who I'm very, very close with. Lance sent me through the first curtain, and then I got to Hurricane, and he's like, 'OK, man.' He saw that I had a different look in my eye that he'd probably never seen before. And he's like, 'You've done this. You've done this a thousand times. You've got this. Go show them who you are.'"
"As soon as I slid in the ring, it went right into just instinct. That's when all nerves dropped and everything just went back to, 'This is what I do. This is what I know better than anything else.' I'm running toward a guy that I just have so much chemistry and history with. It had to start with Dolph Ziggler. He set the entire tone for this whole thing with that one bump he took from the spear."
Without Edge, there is no me.— D. Wheeler (@DashWilderWWE) January 27, 2020
He gave me his time when he didn't have to.
He gave me advice when he didn't have to.
He gave me a friend when he didn't have to.
He gave me a place to live when he didn't have to.
I owe him everything. Tonight made me happy.
Edge reconnected with former tag-team partner Randy Orton as both an ally and an enemy, and he was a factor until late in the match. But his return to the ring wasn't the only big moment for the Copeland family that night.
"What was incredible about it is Beth got asked to do the women's Rumble four days before it. All of a sudden, it goes from, 'Oh, my gosh, I'm getting ready for the Rumble after nine years,' to, 'Oh, man, we're both doing this. Holy crap.' But it was so much fun. What a moment that you'll never have again. As husband and wife, both retired, both Hall of Famers, we had really just assumed it was all done, and for it to suddenly be back in our laps, we both love this."
Edge believes there's no way he could've made this comeback a reality without the support of his wife, with whom he has two daughters, 6-year-old Lyric and 3-year-old Ruby.
"She knows me so well that she was able to pick up on when I needed that boost and when I needed that support. I said through this whole thing, she's my Adrian," Edge said. "She just knew what to do for me to remind me of what I did and what I can still do."
For Beth, the moment she watched her husband reclaim his dream was nearly indescribable.
"It was an out-of-this-world, out-of-body experience to see him again," she said in an interview with WWE after the Rumble. "It was really special and fantastic to share that and just experience Royal Rumble from a different set of eyes. Just share in his joy and see the look on his face because I know the journey that it was to get there."
The return at the Rumble was just the start on the way to a new normal for the Copeland family. Between his appearances on WWE TV and Phoenix's role on the NXT broadcast team, Edge admits that the past few months have been a bit chaotic.
"It's been a lot of juggling," Edge said, "but we're a team. We've always tried to do whatever we can to make sure that one of us is home. ... We need to get those creative things out in order to feel complete and in turn make us better parents, I think.
"Beth would fly to NXT, I'd get the girls ready for school, I'd drop them at school. I'd go home, work out, go to the ring, go back and pick them up. Then on Thursdays, I would drop them off at school. I'd go get Beth, we'd go straight to the ring, she'd be running on two hours' sleep, and we'd wrestle and then go back to the house and work out, then go get the girls. Just mapped it out -- a lot of dry-erase notes on the fridge -- but it was a good challenge because my top priority is to be Dad, and everything else falls behind it."
EDGE NOW STANDS on the precipice of WrestleMania 36 and a "Last Man Standing" match against Orton. It won't be at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa in front of tens of thousands of fans, as originally planned. Instead, it will take place inside an empty WWE Performance Center in Orlando. Although there's obviously some disappointment, Edge is keeping it all in perspective as he has his first one-on-one match in nine years.
"For so long, I never thought this would happen again, right? What that taught me is to appreciate it all," Edge said. "And no matter what it is, you pull the positives. That's all you can do. The positives are always there. ... And it's a strange time, but it's also a time where we can hopefully help people for a few hours enjoy themselves. And for me, as a performer, that's an honor and a privilege, and that's not lost on me after not being able to do this particular form of entertainment for nine years.
"Is it disappointing that it's not in front of an audience? Of course it is. I'm not going to lie. But at the same time, I look at the challenge, and I go, 'OK, how do you tell a compelling story?' And in my mind, I picture everyone at home and how they're going to react and how they're going to come out of their chairs and how they're going to get angry and just get lost in it. And if we can do that, then that's all we set out to do."
EDGE'S ULTIMATE PLAN stretches beyond a single WrestleMania match. He has whet his appetite with his appearances thus far, and even though he isn't joining the road crew once WWE kicks back into gear, he sees big things to come. His second chance isn't ending here.
"Physically, I wouldn't be able to keep up with that grind that all the young 'uns are doing right now. I put in my 15 years of that, so now I can come back, and honestly, more than anything, I just want to help teach. And the best way for me to teach is to be in there in the ring with you and show you how to listen."
While Edge is appreciating every moment he gets to add to his career, he isn't going to sit back and have just a couple of matches, either.
"I have a vision. I believe if you can visualize it, you can make it happen. I have a vision for the whole thing," Edge said. "I'm not going to spoil it, though. When it is time to walk away, I want people to say, 'Oh, my God, I think he was better this time.' That's the challenge. This story has never been written before. No one has ever taken nine years off. No one has ever come back from a triple-fusion. It's a blank canvas, and the story I want to try and tell, I just want it to be compelling. I want it to be fun for everybody.
"Like I said in the first promo back, man, I just hope you come along for the ride with me because I am going to have a blast."