I wasn’t sure how many wrestling fans visited The Back Row, but since my wrestling-related postings always seem to draw a good number of hits, I figured I’d pull a column I wrote two years ago out of mothballs, touch it up a bit and post it here. This Sunday, World Wrestling Entertainment will be presenting their 24th annual edition of the Royal Rumble, which is always one of my favourite times of the year. My attitude has always been: “Fuck the Super Bowl! THIS is the event I look forward to every January!”. The Rumble is second only to Wrestlemania as the WWE’s biggest pay-per-view of the year, and these are traditionally the only two shows that wrestling fans will watch every year, no matter what the card is like. The Royal Rumble match itself is a unique once-a-year tradition that fans like myself always get very excited to see. It’s a huge draw that can make or break the entire show, as some of the greatest Rumble matches of all time have been preceded by a lackluster undercard, yet were entertaining enough on their own to send the fans home happy and make them remember the whole show with fondness.
For those of you who don’t know (and picture me saying all this in my best Howard Finkel voice), the structure of the match is that 30 participants will draw a number, and those who draw #1 and #2 will start the match. Every two minutes thereafter (or one minute, or minute-and-a-half, or 1:42… it all depends on the year and the attention span of the people backstage), another participant will enter, based on the number they drew, and elimination occurs when someone is thrown over the top rope and both feet touch the floor. The match continues until all 30 participants have entered and one man is left standing. Since 1993, it’s been a yearly tradition for the person who wins the match to go on to have a main event championship match at that year’s Wrestlemania. I’ve always been a huge fan of the concept, as it can showcase the WWE’s bookers and writers at their most creative. The best Royal Rumble matches will always tell a great story, elevate the participants into bigger stars, and spring genuine surprises on the fans. It’s a foolproof formula, but this year, the WWE will be tinkering it with a little bit by putting 40 superstars into the match. Some fans are intrigued by this idea, but many of them are standing by the old adage: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
I’ve decided to use this column to list what I consider to be the best and worst of the 23 Rumble matches. Without further ado, here is how I would rank each of the Royal Rumble matches, from worst to first:
23. 1996 – WINNER: Shawn Michaels
This was the first year where the Rumble match didn’t go on last and had to play second fiddle to a Bret Hart-Undertaker title match as the main event. It’s apparent the Rumble was being treated as afterthought this particular year and it certainly shows. This is a very dull, uninspired Rumble match that is lacking in excitement, suspense, and memorable moments, and it was pretty much a foregone conclusion all along that Shawn Michaels was going to win the thing. It also took place during the WWF’s lean years when their talent roster was very thin, so it’s apparent that they were very desperate to fill all 30 spots in the Rumble, which is stocked with a lot of bad gimmicks (Steve Austin and Kane make their Rumble debuts under their crappy “Ringmaster” and “Isaac Yankem” personas) and random people who were brought in for only one appearance. Surprise entrants have always been a part of the Rumble’s appeal, but did any fans get excited by the unexpected appearances of Takao Omori, Doug Gilbert and the Headhunters?! This also contains the least exciting finishing sequence of any Rumble match, as the amount of time between the appearance of the #30 entrant (Duke “The Dumpster” Droese… I think that says it all!) and Shawn Michaels eliminating Diesel for the victory is less than two minutes. But since no Rumble is without redeeming qualities, I do have to acknowledge that it did succeed at making at least one future superstar look strong, as a young Hunter Hearst Helmsley made a memorable Rumble debut by drawing the #1 spot and lasting 48 minutes. It’s just a shame that, through no fault of his own, Shawn Michaels happens to be the victor in the worst Rumble matches…
22. 1995 – WINNER: Shawn Michaels
This was the year the WWF made the much-maligned decision to lower the intervals between Rumble entrances from two minutes to one. On commentary, Vince McMahon kept saying that this was done to make it “a faster-paced, more exciting Rumble”, but the real reason is that the WWF’s talent roster was at all-time low and throwing all those guys into a match that ran 60 minutes probably wasn’t the best idea. There is no doubt that the 1995 Rumble contains the weakest lineup of participants ever. There were no major rivalries and feuds featured in the match, as all focus was put on the fact that Pamela Anderson was sitting at ringside and would accompany the Rumble winner to their title match at Wrestlemania 11. It says a lot that the semi-retired, 48-year old Dick Murdoch was brought into the Rumble for a one-time-only appearance, and ended up outworking 95 % of the participants! The big story in this Rumble is that Shawn Michaels and “The British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith both drew the #1 and #2 spots, and after outlasting such luminaries as Mantaur, Kwang and the Blu Brothers, wound up as the last two men in the ring at the very end. Michaels would make history by becoming the first person to draw #1 and win the Royal Rumble, but since the actual match only wound up running 38 minutes, it wasn’t quite the big achievement it should have been. The match does contain a fairly exciting finishing sequence and a strong false ending, where the Bulldog throws Shawn over the top and his music starts playing to signify he’s won the match – only for Shawn to come back in and eliminate him since he held onto the ropes and only one of his feet actually touched the floor. Otherwise, this a Rumble match that’s best forgotten, and perfectly symbolizes why my interest in the WWF was at all-time low at this point.
21. 1999 – WINNER: Vince McMahon
This is considered to be the Troll 2 of Royal Rumble matches and I’m sure many fans will consider it sacrilege that I didn’t place it at the very bottom of my list. I do have to admit to enjoying this one at the time, and I do feel that it functions as a fairly entertaining chapter in the “Stone Cold” Steve Austin-Vince McMahon rivalry. However, since the Austin-McMahon feud took center stage and wound up completely overshadowing the Royal Rumble itself, I do have to concede that as an effective Rumble match, the 1999 version absolutely sucks. The story is that Austin had drawn #1 and Mr. McMahon drawn #2, so McMahon fled the ring at his first opportunity, leading Austin into a washroom to be ambushed by the members of his Corporation. Vince returned to ringside later on to do commentary while he was still officially a participant in the Rumble match, but was shocked to see Stone Cold make a miraculous return and clear out the ring, leaving Austin and McMahon as the last two competitors. The other 28 participants in the Rumble were pretty much a complete afterthought, and as a result, the match contained a LOT of dead spots. There were times where the ring was filled entirely with insignificant jobbers, and times when it was completely empty while someone just stood around doing nothing, waiting for the next entrant to arrive. Oh, and Vince wound up winning the damn thing, which kind of defeats the whole purpose of the Royal Rumble match to begin with, especially since Stone Cold got to reclaim the Wrestlemania main event slot at the next pay-per-view anyway. As stated before, the whole thing is weirdly entertaining as a representation of the Attitude/Crash TV era, but it’s definitely a case study on how NOT to book a Rumble match. Pat Patterson has often been credited as being the mastermind behind the great Royal Rumbles, but it’s obvious the man who had the most control over this one was Mr. Vince Russo.
20. 1997 – WINNER: Stone Cold Steve Austin
This was the second straight year that the Rumble wasn’t put on last as the main event and even though it’s pretty lackluster as a match, it did succeed at helping to elevate the man who would become the WWF’s biggest superstar for years to come: “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. After entering the Rumble at #5, Austin completely dominated the first two-thirds of the match, as there were two separate occasions where he cleared all the participants out of the ring, and proceeded to eliminate the next entrants as they came in, one by one. Unfortunately, Austin was pretty much called upon to keep the match interesting all by himself since the roster was still fairy thin at that point, and the WWF was so desperate to fill all the spots in the Rumble that they brought in a bunch of “lucha libre” stars from Mexico (including the notoriously egomaniacal Mil Mascaras, who refused to allow anyone to throw him out and wound up eliminating himself) who entered the match to dead silence since the fans had no idea who they were. In fact, the match doesn’t really pick up until Bret “The Hitman” Hart enters at #22 and the shocked double take on Austin’s face upon hearing his rival’s entrance music is almost worth the price of admission alone. The finish is also pretty strong, as the Hitman eliminated Austin when none of the referees are looking, which gave him the opportunity to re-enter the match without them noticing and to eliminate everyone else in the ring to emerge victorious. Bret’s temper tantrum after the match perfectly planted the seeds of him going heel, leading to the historic “double turn” that would take place during his match with Austin at Wrestlemania 13. And the rest… is history. Though this isn’t the greatest Rumble match ever, you have to give it points for a finish that set off a chain of events that would change the world of wrestling forever.
19. 1988 – WINNER: Hacksaw Jim Duggan
This is the one that started it all, but instead of being shown on pay-per-view, it was presented as part of a prime time television special, and the match only featured 20 participants instead of 30. They had tried out the concept of the Rumble match at house shows before, but this is the first time it was shown in front of a worldwide audience. It may be ranked low on the list, but that’s not because there’s anything WRONG with it. It’s pretty fun to watch, but other than being the first of its kind, there really isn’t anything significant or historically important about what happens in it. The “every man for himself” concept isn’t really put into play here, since faces and heels pretty much just spend the entire match squaring off against each other. It’s best to view this match as an early experiment designed to work out the kinks of the format. It’s also an experiment that’s stocked entirely with mid-carders, with no main event superstars to be found. Even though Hacksaw Jim Duggan wound up the winner after eliminating the One Man Gang, it’s not like the victory elevated his career and propelled him into the WWF title picture. However, the match does provide a little peek at an early test run for Bret “The Hitman” Hart as a singles wrestler since he draws the #1 slot and makes a strong showing by lasting nearly 30 minutes. The 1988 Rumble functions on the same level as Wrestlemania 1 does: it’s far from the best of its kind, but because it is the first, it’s a must-see.
18. 1993 – WINNER: Yokozuna
This was the year that officially started the tradition of giving the winner of the Rumble match a title shot at Wrestlemania. Unfortunately, it was a year that featured a pretty weak selection of genuine star power, so the outcome was never in much doubt. It’s not that the actual lineup of participants was that bad, but very few of them had a genuine shot to win. The WWF had been building up the 500-pound Yokozuna as an unstoppable monster for several months and since the only other legitimate superstars in the match (Ric Flair, Randy Savage) were nearing the end of their runs as WWF main eventers, suspense was severely lacking. In fact, this was the period when the WWF was starting to enter its lean years and had a hard time finding enough people on their roster to even fill all the spots in the Rumble. That’s why international superstars like Genichiro Tenryu and Carlos Colon (whom, despite being 44 at the time, is referred to by Gorilla Monsoon as a “youngster”!) were brought in for one-time appearances in the match, despite most casual fans not having a clue who they were. The Rumble does have its bright spots though. Bob Backlund was in the midst of a surprise comeback to the WWF when he drew the #2 slot and despite drawing no reaction from the fans during his entrance, totally won the crowd over by setting a new longevity record of 61 minutes and being one of the final three participants. And despite being the worst wrestler in the history of the WWF, the debut of the eight-foot tall Giant Gonzalez is pretty effective, as he makes a surprise run-in during the match and eliminates the Undertaker. Unfortunately, the section of the match between Taker’s elimination and Yokozuna’s entrance is VERY draggy, but it does recover for a pretty hot final sequence. However, the finish, where Randy Savage makes the inexplicably moronic decision to try and pin (?!) Yokozuna before being propelled over the top, may be the dumbest of all the Royal Rumble endings.
17. 1998 – WINNER: Stone Cold Steve Austin
Like the previous two years before it, the Rumble match did not go on last as the main event, but there was very little suspense about who the winner would be. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was set to finally win the WWF Title at Wrestlemania XIV and was on the verge of being launched into the stratosphere as the biggest WWF star since Hulk Hogan. The rebellious, bad-ass loner character that drew the company so much money had just been perfected, and because he had raised hell with the entire roster, he was a “marked man” in the Rumble. This was brilliantly personified by his entrance, where the match came to a dead halt and all dozen guys in the ring turned to face the aisle once the sound of the breaking glass was heard and his music hit. Of course, Austin wound up outsmarting them all by coming in through the crowd and attacking them from behind. Despite the predictability of the outcome, however, there were enough memorable moments to make this a fun Rumble match. One of the highlights is Mick Foley and Terry Funk drawing #1 and #2 (in their “Cactus Jack” and “Chainsaw Charlie” personas) and filling the ring with weapons to have a hardcore brawl during their time together in the match. When Cactus was eventually eliminated, Foley actually re-entered the Rumble two more times under his “Mankind” and “Dude Love” personas! This Rumble is also notable for being a strong showcase for The Rock, who entered at #4 and lasted 51 minutes to be left alone with Austin for the finish. By the end of 1998, he would be on his way to becoming just as a big mega-star as Stone Cold and the end of this Rumble provided a brief preview of a rivalry that would light up WWF rings for the next several years.
16. 2006 – WINNER: Rey Mysterio
In this particular year, the WWE made a much-maligned decision to place the Rumble in the middle of the card before the two title matches, and closed off the show with an awful Kurt Angle-Mark Henry match. The main reason for this? So the Undertaker could appear after the match and use his supernatural powers to cause the ring to collapse. Um… yeah. However, this decision actually served to create a lot more suspense about the Rumble’s outcome. My initial theory was that they had placed the Rumble in the middle of the card because, for the first time in years, a heel was being booked to win the match, and they didn’t want to finish the show off on that note. So even though Rey Mysterio had been my original pick to win the Rumble, I had some serious doubts when he was alone in the ring at the end with Triple H and Randy Orton. Since Triple H had drawn #1 and Mysterio drew #2 and both had already lasted an hour, I didn’t think Triple H was going to let someone else set a longer longevity record than him. So when Mysterio actually wound eliminating both of them to win, I marked out like crazy! Most of the Rumble match was entertaining, but nothing overly special, and it should be noted that even though Mysterio did set a brand-new Rumble longevity record of 62:12, it wasn’t a Ric Flair/Chris Benoit scenario of him going head-to-head with every single participants, since he spent a good portion of the match just lying around in the corner doing nothing. However, the dramatic, super-hot final minutes were pretty damn exciting, and even though the pay-per-view as a whole received a lot of criticism at the time, I can’t help but think it would more fondly remembered if Mysterio’s victory had closed off the show.
15. 1991 – WINNER: Hulk Hogan
This was the show where newly-turned “Iraqi sympathizer” Sgt. Slaughter won the WWF Title from the Ultimate Warrior, so it was pretty inevitable that Hulk Hogan would have to win the Rumble match in order to send the fans home happy. Despite the obvious outcome and lack of real star power, this is still a pretty fun match and the consistently hot crowd makes the slower portions of the match easy to take. It functioned as a blow-off of sorts for the rivalry between Hogan and the Earthquake, as their grudge match at Summerslam 1990 had ended in an indecisive count-out victory, but Hogan’s elimination of Earthquake to win the Rumble helped bring closure to the feud. The match also served as an interesting showcase for two of the company’s future main event players. Bret Hart drew the #1 spot for the second time in four years and lasted a fairly long time, and since he was on the verge of finally getting a serious singles push, the announcers constantly put over how impressed they were with his performance. The man who would eliminate Hart from the match was making his first Royal Rumble appearance, only two months after his initial debut at the Survivor Series, and that man was the Undertaker. He was booked to look pretty dominant in the Rumble and eliminated quite a few guys, which helped build him up for later on in the year when he would do the unthinkable and defeat Hulk Hogan for the WWF Title. This was also the first Rumble where the announcers really stressed the importance of the longevity record as “The Model” Rick Martel put in a very impressive performance by lasting 52 minutes. Even though this achievement would not elevate Martel to main event status, breaking his longevity record would playing a major role in elevating someone else the following year…
14. 2000 – WINNER: The Rock
If I had to choose an all-time favourite Royal Rumble show, then the 2000 version would have a good chance at being at the top of the list. The street fight between Triple H and Cactus Jack is the greatest one-on-one match in the history of the Rumble, the tables match between the Hardy Boyz and the Dudley Boyz was a tremendous spotfest, and the Madison Square Garden atmosphere just gave the whole event a very special feel. But even though it’s a pretty entertaining contest, I wouldn’t put the 2000 Rumble match near the top of this list. Its main detractor is a lack of star power as the Rock and the Big Show were the only participants that anyone thought had a legitimate chance to win. The WWF apparently realized this as well since they made a last-minute decision to have a lot of the marquee wrestlers who had matches on the undercard do double duty and replace the bigger jobbers in the Rumble, like Kaientai and the Mean Street Posse (though they’d throw in a cute running gag where those guys kept trying to run into the Rumble several times even though they weren’t official participants). One of the big highlights of the Rumble was the attempt to elevate Rikishi by giving him the famous “Diesel spot”, letting him clear out the ring and throw out guys as they entered the match, one-by-one. Rikishi would chalk up seven eliminations and in one hilarious moment, wound up alone in the ring with his fellow Too Cool members, Grandmaster Sexay and Scotty 2 Hotty, with the three of them proceeding to perform a choreographed dance number in the middle of the Rumble! The Rock’s eventual victory didn’t come as a surprise to anybody, but the wrestlers and bookers did a good job of keeping the proceedings interesting and the match was never boring. Bonus points too, for the surprise appearance of Bob Backlund in the Rumble, whom, after being eliminated, walks through the crowd to start campaigning for a seat in Congress!
13. 1994 – WINNER: Bret Hart/Lex Luger
The mid-nineties were a time when the Royal Rumble match was starting to lose prestige. Because of time constrictions, this was the first year that lowered the number of time between entrants from two minutes to a minute-and-a-half, and because the talent roster was getting thinner, this was the first year where wrestlers who had a match on the undercard were forced to also participate in the Rumble. However, all things considered, this Rumble match still comes across pretty well. Its most lasting impression is the elevation of “Big Daddy Cool” Diesel, as this match single-handedly turned Kevin Nash from a seven-foot-tall mid-carder into a main event star who would be WWF champion by the end of the year. After clearing out the ring early in the match, Diesel proceeded to throw out each participant as they entered the Rumble, one-by-one, until he set a new record with seven consecutive eliminations. The crowd went from feeling completely apathetic towards the guy to giving him a standing ovation. It’s a classic spot that has been repeated a few times in subsequent Rumbles, and it always succeeds at getting said wrestler over with the crowd and elevating him up the card. The two favourites who were pegged to win this Rumble were Lex Luger and Bret Hart. Bret had been double-crossed by his brother, Owen, in an undercard tag team match, which left him with a severe leg injury (and the amount of boos Owen received when he entered the Rumble at #5 showcased what an effective heel turn it was). It was feared Bret wouldn’t be able to compete in the Rumble, but he limped to the ring at #27 and persevered until only him and Luger were left at the end. In a controversial finish, both men went over the top rope and hit the floor at the exact same time, giving the WWF a chance to try an interesting experiment. They had each man announced as the winner to test the crowd reaction, in order to get an idea whom the fans wanted to see in the main event of Wrestlemania 10. The Rumble was eventually ruled to be a tie and both men were declared co-winners, but it was clear that Bret was the one who got the louder reaction. This ending has always drawn mixed reactions from the fans, but if it helped spare the world a Lex Luger WWF Title reign, then it gets an automatic “thumbs up” from me.
12. 2003 – WINNER: Brock Lesnar
The first half of this Rumble match is as super-hot as you can get, though it fails to maintain its torrid pace all the way to the finish. This was the first Rumble to take place after the WWE’s “brand extension”, which split the roster into separate line-ups for Raw and Smackdown, so it was an exciting chance to see wrestlers who hadn’t interacted in months finally cross paths in the same ring together again (as opposed to these days, where the rules of the brand extension are completely disregarded). The match got off to a great start with Shawn Michaels and Chris Jericho drawing the #1 and #2 positions. Jericho pulled off a neat decoy tactic by having Christian take his place in the entrance way, allowing him to sneak up on Michaels and eliminate him right away, effectively building up the feud that lead to their classic Wrestlemania 19 match. The best workers on the roster were given early spots in the draw and they all busted their asses to keep the pace fast and the action furious. The match started to lose a bit of steam when Michaels ran back into the ring much too early to get Jericho eliminated, which illogically killed the storyline of Jericho trying to match Shawn’s achievement of going the entire distance in the Rumble. Unlike the early portion of the match, the ring was filled with the much bigger, less athletically inclined wrestlers on the roster near the end, though they did work hard to keep things interesting. It came down to the WWE’s “next big thing” Brock Lesnar being left alone with the Undertaker and Kane, and it should have ended with Lesnar overcoming the odds to eliminate the two big monsters. Unfortunately, the actual finish was ultra-weak, as Undertaker double-crossed Kane and tossed him out while Brock came over and knocked out Taker with a fluky elimination from behind, an ending that didn’t make their future Wrestlemania main eventer look nearly as strong as he should have. Still, the match does function as an interesting showcase for two other up-and-coming main eventers. Despite being a horribly green worker at the time, Batista was made to look very strong in his Rumble debut, lasting all the way into the final four. John Cena also made his Rumble debut while in the early stages of a brand new hip-hop gimmick, and he made his mark by performing an AWESOME freestyle rap solo during his entrance that lasted a full two minutes. It would only be two years before these two future superstars would be squaring off to decide the winner of the Rumble match.
11. 2009 – WINNER: Randy Orton
I may be ranking this one a bit too high, but I fully admit that personal bias comes into play here. You see, this is the only Royal Rumble that I have gotten to see in person as I took a road trip to Detroit to attend the show that year. Let me tell you, getting to be part of a live crowd as we counted down the seconds for a new participant to enter the Rumble was something I’d been waiting my whole life for! The Rumble match is just one of those things that every wrestling fan must go and see live at least once in their life. Anyway, the Rumble match itself was pretty fun even though it got pretty cluttered at times. Unlike previous years, many of the biggest superstars drew the earliest numbers as Triple H and Randy Orton, the last two guys remaining at the end, drew the #7 and #8 spots. The theme of this match seemed to be creative near-eliminations as it contained numerous spots where the wrestlers came up with very unique and inventive ways to save themselves from being thrown over the top rope. However, the lack of eliminations also meant that there were usually an awful lot of guys in the ring at one time. This is the only Rumble from the past decade where a heel wound up winning, which was a refreshing change, but didn’t make for a very dramatic or exciting finish to the match. Still, this was a very solid Rumble overall, containing a lot of memorable highlights, including a surprise appearance by Rob van Dam, and Santino Marella breaking the record for the shortest amount of time in a Rumble match by lasting a whopping one second!
10. 2008 – WINNER: John Cena
The 2008 Rumble match was moving along pretty nicely, but seemed like it was going to sputter to the finish. The match was paced very well and fun to watch, and the fact that it was taking place at Madison Square Garden added a lot of ambiance to it. The WWE even rewarded the MSG faithful with surprise entrances from Rowdy Roddy Piper and “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka, who had squared off in that building against each other in many heated matches over the years. The two men who finished the Rumble the previous year, the Undertaker and Shawn Michaels, had drawn the #1 and #2 slots, but when they were inexplicably eliminated at the same time late in the match, it seemed to suck a lot of life out of the proceedings. Triple H entered the match at #29 and since he was pretty much the only other participant with a legit shot at winning, suspense about the finish was seriously lacking. But after the clock ticked down one more time, the #30 entrant made his entrance and it turned out to be… John Cena?! In the age of the Internet, it’s VERY difficult to keep anything in the wrestling business from being leaked out to fans, but on this particular night, the WWE had succeeded at providing a legitimate surprise. Cena had torn his pectoral muscle in early October, and it was feared that the injury would be keep him out for a very long time. In fact, Cena had even conducted an interview during the week of the Rumble where he claimed that he definitely would not be ready to return the ring by Wrestlemania. As you can imagine, the Garden absolutely EXPLODED when the supposedly “injured” Cena made his return in the Rumble match, and after a super-hot final few minutes, eliminated Triple H to win. This finish redeemed the Rumble big time and earns several million points for being able to fool the fans so successfully.
9. 1989 – WINNER: Big John Studd
The first Rumble to be shown on pay-per-view, this one still holds up surprisingly well today. It finally hammered home the “every man from himself” concept from the outset, by having the tag team champions, Ax and Smash from Demolition, draw the #1 and #2 spots and be forced to face each other. Believe it or not, this had me marking out HUGE at the time, and was a very effective way to sell the fans on why this new Rumble concept was something unique and special. Unlike the previous year, this Rumble was going to be a lot more than just a showcase for mid-carders as all the big-name superstars participated in the match. The roster for this Rumble is very strong, and (considering the time period) it contains a surprising amount of great workers, who keep the match flowing along very well. However, it is Hulk Hogan who steals the show in his Rumble debut, as he pretty much dominates the match during the time he’s in there and eliminates nine men. The match also effectively set up the main event for Wrestlemania V when Hogan wound up eliminating his friend and partner, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, successfully planting the seeds for Savage’s animosity and eventual heel turn. The match tends to lose some steam and drag a little bit after Hogan is eliminated, and the eventual victory by Big John Studd didn’t end up having much impact since medical problems forced him to retire shortly afterward. However, the match does close off with a very effective storyline as “The Million Dollar Man” Ted Dibiase had used his money to buy the coveted #30 slot, but his plan wound up backfiring horribly when he found himself alone in the ring with Studd. Seeing Dibiase finally get his comeuppance was a great way to end the match and send the fans home happy.
8. 2007 – WINNER: The Undertaker
Despite being constantly hyped as the most “star-studded Royal Rumble ever”, this match didn’t seem like anything special for most of its length and was lacking in memorable moments… until the last ten minutes, which were so exciting that even the most jaded fan had to find themselves marking out. After the seven-foot Great Khali entered at #28 and effectively cleared out almost the entire ring by himself, it was up to the Undertaker to make a dramatic entrance at #30 and eliminate him from the match. He would have to survive a double teaming from Edge and Randy Orton, but after Shawn Michaels resurfaced to eliminate them both, it set the stage for a truly epic finish. The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels were the two longest-running active members on the WWE roster, but they had not been in a ring together for nine years, so seeing them square off against each other was a pretty big deal. And they were prepared to milk this for all it was worth, as these two legends went through multiple attempts to eliminate each other and stretched out the ending as long as they could. What made it work so well is that both of these guys were favourites to win and expected to challenge for a title at Wrestlemania, so there was no way of knowing for certain what the outcome would be. After several minutes of edge-of-your seat excitement, the Undertaker finally emerged victorious. It was obvious that Michaels’ hometown San Antonio crowd would have preferred him to win, but considering the Undertaker’s long and storied career, it just seemed right for him to finally have a Royal Rumble victory on his list of accomplishments. Oh, and after 20 years of hyping up the importance of drawing #30, it was about time that the guy who got that spot finally won the damn thing!
7. 1990 – WINNER: Hulk Hogan
Another early version of the Rumble that still holds up surprisingly well today, as it is efficiently and creatively booked from beginning to end and successfully accomplishes one of the match’s most important tasks: setting up the forthcoming Wrestlemania. One of the drawbacks of certain Rumble matches is when they conveniently allow all their bigger stars to get late numbers in the draw, so that the early portions of the match are mainly just filled with mid-carders and jobbers, making it hard for one to suspend disbelief about the concept of a “random drawing”. However, this Rumble keeps itself exciting from start to finish by allowing some of its bigger stars to draw early numbers, thereby ensuring that the ring would always contain people whom the fans cared about. One of the highlights is “The Million Dollar Man” Ted Dibiase, after having bought his way to #30 the year before, being stuck with the #1 spot this time around, though he’d still put in a strong showing by lasting 45 minutes. This Rumble allowed a lot of Wrestlemania opponents to interact with each other and add heat on their eventual matches at the event, including Ted Dibiase vs. Jake Roberts, Randy Savage vs. Dusty Rhodes, Rowdy Roddy Piper vs. Bad News Brown, and Demolition vs. The Colossal Connection. However, its most important moment is near the end when Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warrior, the two biggest stars in the promotion, are left alone in the ring together, planting the seeds for their epic Wrestlemania main event. It’s amazing to see the crowd go absolutely ballistic as these babyfaces face off for the first time and wind up knocking each other out with a double clothesline. When Hogan “inadvertently” played a hand in eliminating the Warrior and wound up victorious in the end by throwing out Mr. Perfect, every single viewer was pumped up for the chance to see those two giants square off in a match.
6. 2010 – WINNER: Edge
This was definitely one of the tightest Royal Rumble matches of all time as I think the creative team listened to some of the criticisms that had been levied against them in previous Rumbles. The last couple of Rumble matches had periods where the ring got too cluttered up with wrestlers and too many stretches of time where nothing was happening, so the 2010 version decided to trim away all the fat. It moved at a blistering pace and always made sure that something interesting was going on. There were very few sections where there were more than four or five guys in the ring at one time. Their formula was established early on during a terrific opening section where C.M. Punk drew the #3 spot and kept eliminating superstars one by one – and decided to use the downtime to get on the microphone and preach about his “straight edge” lifestyle!
However, the real star of this match was Shawn Michaels, who was in the midst of a storyline where he was desperate to win the Rumble in order to secure a match with The Undertaker at Wrestlemania. After eliminating more guys than anyone else, Michaels would be eliminated in fluky fashion near the end, and his frenzied, heartbroken reaction about his lost opportunity did a great job at making one really hope that his Wrestlemania match with Undertaker would still happen somehow. There was no clearcut easy prediction about who would win, so for the finish, this match pulled off the same surprise as the 2008 Rumble. After tearing his Achilles tendon the previous July, Edge did numerous interviews where he claimed he was going to be out for an entire year and would not be ready in time for Wrestlemania. So, of course, he shocked everyone by entering the Rumble at #29 and winning the damn thing. Remember this lesson, kids: if a wrestler says he’s too injured to compete in the Royal Rumble, never, EVER believe him!
5. 2002 – WINNER: Triple H
This was one of those Rumbles where you could see the winner coming from a mile away, but that didn’t mean the bookers weren’t going to come up with innovative ways to keep the match consistently exciting. Because WWF had purchased WCW the year before and acquired much of their talent roster, this Rumble had one of its best line-ups ever, with a solid mix of established WWF stars and WCW stars who were making their Rumble debuts. Of course, since Triple H was making his big return after being out eight months with a quadricep tear, the outcome wasn’t in much doubt, but this was one of the best Rumbles for showcasing the strengths of its participants and allowing a good portion of them to take the spotlight. Unlike previous Rumbles, there weren’t many stretches where the ring was filled with a lot of guys, and the match was pretty much structured in segments. One of the best moments came when Maven, the winner of the WWF reality show, “Tough Enough”, delivered a surprise dropkick to the Undertaker to eliminate him from the Rumble. The moment may not have elevated Maven into a main event player, but it is responsible for one of the loudest pops in Rumble history, due to it being such a genuine surprise.
In fact, the majority of eliminations in the Rumble were booked as memorable spots: from “Stone Cold” Steve Austin clearing out the ring, looking at his invisible watch while waiting for the next entrant, and deciding to give the Stunner to everyone again in order to kill some time, to Stone Cold and Triple H both eliminating the Hurricane after he tried using his “superhero strength” to chokeslam both of them at the same time. The man who made me mark out the most in this Rumble, however, was “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig, who made his return to the WWF after a five-year absence. Most people expected his appearance to brief, but he delivered a very strong showing and shocked everyone by lasting long enough to be one of the final three participants. He got in all his signature spots, like the Perfectplex and the running snapmare and, in one of the Rumble’s best moments, spit out his gum and punched it away with his fist while people were trying to eliminate him! Even though Triple H eliminated Kurt Angle to emerge victorious, all anyone could think about was how close Mr. Perfect had come to winning the big one.
4. 2005 – WINNER: Batista
This was a show that seemed to be running long as the WWE was cutting it pretty close when it came to finishing up within its allotted pay-per-view time. So when the Rumble match didn’t actually get started until around the 10:00 hour, I was worried it would be a pretty rushed, half-assed affair. It turned out to be anything but. This was a Rumble that was chock full of memorable spots with nary a wasted moment. There was Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero and Hardcore Holly delivering ultra-stiff chops to $1,000,000 Tough Enough winner Daniel Puder as a form of initiation (and an effective one at that since Puder was never seen on WWE TV again). There were four guys from the Raw brand squaring off with four guys from the Smackdown brand, only for them to suddenly band together when the anti-American Muhammad Hassan entered the Rumble, prompting them to join forces to eliminate him. There was Kurt Angle being eliminated from the Rumble by Shawn Michaels in only 30 seconds, only for him to storm back into the ring to attack and eliminate Michaels, setting up their classic Wrestlemania 21 match. There was Paul London taking one of the sickest bumps ever seen after Gene Snitsky clotheslined him in mid-air, causing him to do a nasty 360 from the apron to the floor!
But the pure brilliance of this Rumble came at the end, where the WWF did a remarkable job at averting a near-disaster. Batista and John Cena were the last two men in the ring, which made for an exciting finish since both were on the cusp of main event stardom and either one of them could conceivably win the Rumble. However, both men wound up falling over the top rope and hitting the floor together. Separate referees raised the arms of both men, declaring each of them the winner, and it seemed like they were going to rehash the finish of the 1994 Rumble and declare the match a tie. However, in one of the most surreal moments ever seen on live pay-per-view, Vince McMahon angrily stormed down the aisle and somehow managed to tear both his quadriceps while climbing into the ring! Even though he was now unable to walk and must have been in tremendous pain, Vince never expressed it and ordered the Rumble match to continue while sitting on his ass! Batista eventually threw Cena out to be declared the winner and everyone assumed that this whole ending was scripted. It eventually came out, however, that Batista was supposed to hold onto the ropes while both men went over the top, but lost his grip and completely botched the finish. The fact that the WWE never actually showed a replay of this spot lends credence to the theory that it was all unplanned. That said, everyone involved did an absolutely brilliant job of improvising a new finish on the spot, so that most viewers never even knew that a complete disaster had almost taken place. I will always think of this as the Rumble match that Vince McMahon sacrificed his quadriceps to save.
3. 2001 – WINNER: Stone Cold Steve Austin
It’s always been a big toss-up for me about whether the 2000 or 2001 version is my favorite Royal Rumble show. This event delivers one kick-ass card, and combined with “No Way Out 2001” and “Wrestlemania X-7”, makes up what is probably the greatest pay-per-view “trilogy” in wrestling history. However, as far as Rumble matches go, the 2001 version far outshines the 2000 one, and is booked and structured just perfectly. I’ve always believed they should never announce all the participants for the Rumble in advance, in order to leave room for the anticipation of surprise entrants, which this Rumble delivers in spades. There was the Honky Tonk Man making a surprise appearance to perform a live rendition of his theme song in the middle of the ring before Kane smashed a guitar over his head. There was the Big Show, returning after an eight-month hiatus in Ohio Valley Wrestling to look dominant and chokeslam everyone in the ring. There was Drew Carey (?!) making a guest appearance to promote an upcoming improv pay-per-view, being entered into the Rumble by a vindictive Vince McMahon, and leaping over the ropes to eliminate himself after being left alone in the ring with Kane. Like it or not, it was the perfect model for how a wrestling promotion should use a celebrity since it was fun and harmless and didn’t make any of the actual wrestlers look bad. And while I never thought I’d see the day where I’d mark out like crazy for a surprise appearance by Haku, I wound up doing just that when he entered the Rumble at #29. Since WCW had been stupid enough to put a title on him on their previous weekend’s pay-per-view while he was working without a contract, the WWF relished the opportunity to make them look like idiots by signing him over in what could be classified as the last true case of jumping promotions in the Monday Night War. The surprising star of this Rumble was Kane, whom one would never think of as an iron man, but drew the #6 spot and lasted a whopping 53 minutes until the very end. He also managed to eliminate 11 men from the match, a record that still stands today.
There was scarcely a dull moment in this Rumble, but the finishing sequence was particularly exciting, with a bloody Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Rock squaring off in the middle of the ring in a stellar preview of their epic Wrestlemania X-7 match. Stone Cold had been out of action for nearly a year because of spinal surgery and was ambushed by Triple H during entrance into the Rumble, so seeing him overcome the odds to eliminate Kane and win the match provided huge drama, thanks in large part to Jim Ross’ stellar commentary (“BY GAWD Stone Cold will be in the main event at WRESTLEMANIA!!!”). Austin’s victory also cemented him as the only three-time Rumble winner in the event’s history.
2. 1992 – WINNER: Ric Flair
This is the first and only time the WWF Title had been vacant at the time of the Royal Rumble, with the winner of the Rumble match earning the privilege of becoming the new champion. I wouldn’t mind them trying out this storyline again, as the promise of a new champion at the end of the night added a lot of extra excitement to the proceedings and made this a Rumble to remember. I always find it silly when a Rumble winner cuts a promo saying they “went through 29 other men to win the match” since, most of time, they only come into contact with a fraction of the participants. But in 1992, Ric Flair drew #3 and with the exception of Ted Dibiase, who was eliminated right before him, he LITERALLY had to go through everybody in order to prevail. Before this year, the announcers had always put over how anyone who drew a low number had NO CHANCE in hell of surviving and winning the Rumble, but Flair was here to prove them wrong, lasting a full hour in order to become WWF champion. Flair had always been regarded as the greatest wrestler in the world, but never signed with the WWF until the summer of 1991. For all those WWF fans who never got a chance to see him and wondered what all the fuss was bout, the 1992 Rumble was the best way to showcase Flair’s greatness. The drama was non-stop as Flair pretty much got to go toe-to-toe with every person who entered the Rumble and was on the verge of being eliminated at least two dozen times. A major highlight was when Flair somehow managed to clear out all the participants in the ring at the halfway point, only to grimace in terror when his arch-rival, Rowdy Roddy Piper, entered next at #15 with vengeance on his mind. If there was an award to be given out for “Best Royal Rumble Commentary”, the 1992 version would win hands-down, thanks to the work of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. Because he was playing the on-air role of Flair’s “financial advisor”, Heenan nearly suffered a panic attack when Flair entered at #3 and treated Flair’s survival in the match as if it was a matter of life and death (“Please, let him win! I swear to God, I’ll never say or do anything bad again!”). Gorilla Monsoon did his part by acting like Flair didn’t have a prayer of winning and rubbing it in Heenan’s face. The finish of the Rumble is particularly suspenseful, because with such superstars as Flair, Piper, Hulk Hogan, Sid Justice and Randy Savage amongst the final participants, the winner was really anyone’s guess at the time. In fact, if there’s one thing that keeps this Rumble from the #1 spot on my list, it’s that (perhaps because pay-per-view time was running low) the suspense of the finish isn’t dragged out as long as it could be and the participants are eliminated a bit too quickly. But when Hogan is eliminated, acts like a sore loser by grabbing Sid’s arm, allowing Flair to sneak up and dump him out to become champion while Bobby Heenan excitedly chants “YES! YES! YES!”… well, it’s one of wrestling’s truly perfect moments.
P.S. This montage of the Rumble match set to the Requiem for a Dream theme is AWESOME!
1. 2004 – WINNER: Chris Benoit
I’ll start off with the usual disclaimer about not allowing the horrific, tragic events involving Chris Benoit and his family to affect this list. I’m only here to judge the match, not the man who won it. And, that being said, Chris Benoit just happened to be the winner of the most exciting, brilliantly booked Royal Rumble match ever. The announcers had been putting over for years how Shawn Michaels was the only man who drew #1 and went on to win the Rumble, but would conveniently forget to mention that it happened during the year when there were only one-minute intervals between entrances. No one had ever drawn #1 and truly gone a full sixty minutes to win the match, but who better to accomplish that feat than Chris Benoit? Benoit was being penciled in to finally win the World Title at Wrestlemania 20, a moment that his fans had been clamoring for forever, and what better way to build him up and make him look strong than going the distance in the Royal Rumble? They also made the wise booking decision to build up one of their future superstars, Randy Orton, by allowing him to draw #2 and last a good 33 minutes himself. Anyway, Wrestlemania 20 was set to be one of the WWE’s biggest pay-per-views in a long time, and this Rumble match pulled off the remarkable task of effectively setting up no fewer than FOUR of Wrestlemania’s marquee matches. In addition to securing Benoit a slot in the main event, there was Mick Foley making a surprise appearance in the Rumble and eliminating Orton, and their lengthy brawl afterward helped elevate their feud to the next level. There was the sound of the long-absent Undertaker’s bell tolling in the middle of the Rumble, distracting Kane and causing him to be eliminated, thereby setting up Undertaker’s big return match against him at Mania. There was Goldberg drawing #30 and seeming like the sure-fire winner of the event until Brock Lesnar interfered and caused him to be eliminated, planting the seeds for their new feud. There was Ernest “The Cat” Miller entering the match while Benoit and Orton were down and performing a fantastic dance routine…
Okay, I guess not everything in this match was pure gold! But overall, the Rumble match was booked and paced as perfectly as possible, and came down to five guys banding together to try and eliminate the seven-foot Big Show. Show fought back and succeeded at eliminating four of them, but could not get rid of Chris Benoit. When Benoit eliminated Big Show to finally win the match, it made him look super-strong, because even though five guys working together could not throw this giant over the top rope, Benoit had succeeded at eliminating him all by himself. That finish would be one of my all-time biggest mark-out moments as a fan. I recently re-watched this match, wondering if Benoit’s presence would ruin my enjoyment of it, but I was still able to sit back, suspend my disbelief and view it as the amazing piece of storytelling that it is. That is why I still rank the 2004 Royal Rumble match as the greatest of all time.