Once a year since 1988 (and for some reason three times in 1994), WWE has treated fans to what many consider the most special match of the year, a unique 30-man over the top rope elimination match called the Royal Rumble. Initially, the contest was merely a unique twist on the battle royal, and by 1993 it was one of the most important of the year, deciding who would get to challenge for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania. Regardless of what was at stake, the glory of defeating 29 top competitors in one match speaks for itself, and is an accomplishment only a hallowed few are great enough to deserve.
Despite the Royal Rumble’s legendary status, looking at the specifics, it can feel like WWE only picks the right winner about half of the time. The 2017 Rumble will be the 30th, and early rumors are indicating the mistakes could easily keep on happening. As we compile our picks for who should’ve won in the past, keep in mind these are merely opinions and weren’t based on any particularly plausible theories or alternative histories. That in mind, if you’re willing to hear our suggestions out, we predict you’ll find WWE regularly had options available that could’ve changed some of the weaker Rumbles into memorable affairs simply by offering a more exciting winner.
In many cases, the worst part of about who WWE picked was that it was too predictable, and sometimes all it takes to make things interesting is to go against the grain and give someone new a shot. Of course, there were some wild cards that totally backfired, too, so this is hardly a science and thus we can’t blame WWE for missing the mark a couple times. Keep reading to learn 15 times the wrong wrestler won the Royal Rumble, along with our suggestions on who should’ve earned the victory instead.
15. Who Should’ve Won In 1988: André The Giant
In all fairness to WWE, there was nothing wrong with choosing “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan as the winner of the first Royal Rumble. Hindsight has made Duggan appear like less of a star than he was at the time, and giving him the big win allowed him a place in history without an unnecessary championship run. That said, considering what the Rumble ultimately became, we can’t help but notice a serious lack of star power at the inaugural event. WWE Champion Hulk Hogan and his rival André The Giant were tied up with a contract signing, and future star “Macho Man” Randy Savage was simply nowhere to be seen. A win from any three would have made the first Rumble even more historic than it already was. André seems like the best choice overall thanks to his standing as one of the best battle royal wrestlers in history, the fact it would further his feud with Hulk Hogan and make him look like an even greater threat. Lastly, the unique match stipulations could also cover for André’s declining health, putting the gimmick over on multiple levels.
14. Who Should’ve Won In 1989: Hulk Hogan
The second Royal Rumble slightly improved upon the first by expanding from 20 contestants to 30, but the problem of an unmemorable winner persisted until the third. The easiest way to fix this problem would simply be moving up the 1990 winner to 1989, and knowing Hulk Hogan’s backstage reputation, it’s almost surprising he didn’t demand that happen. Instead, Hogan dominated the Rumble with 9 eliminations, but still fell short to a returning Big John Studd. The prevailing wisdom is that Studd was in line for a revived push, and perhaps history would shine more favorably on his win if it actually came to pass. As is, though, Studd was a huge dud, so there’s no logical reason The Hulkster shouldn’t have just gone all the way with it. Then WWE Champion “Macho Man” Randy Savage also would have been a better winner, considering the ongoing storyline with him and Hogan in The Mega Powers eclipsed any of Studd’s antics in the match, and could have finally allowed Savage a win outside of Hogan’s spotlight.
13. Who Should’ve Won In 1990: Mr. Perfect
Leading up to the 1990 Royal Rumble, conventional wisdom stated Mr. Perfect was the obvious winner. He had been experiencing an undefeated streak since his WWE return in 1988, was the Intercontinental Champion, and the only thing stopping him from becoming a true star was a main event win at an event like the Rumble. Unfortunately, Hulk Hogan’s infamous politics came into play and he allegedly vetoed all plans for Perfect to win at the last minute. Despite our belief Hogan should have won in 1989, he no longer needed to do so the next year. At this point, Hulk was the WWE Champion again, and the Rumble had already established its importance by surviving to a third year with increasingly big stars as entrants. Hogan demanding he win was a move that only sated his ego, hurting everyone else in the company and leaving the top face of the company without any viable challengers. If not Perfect, The Ultimate Warrior also would have been a better choice than Hogan, with the brief encounter the two had against one another arguably the highlight of the match, winner notwithstanding.
12. Who Should’ve Won In 1991: “Macho Man” Randy Savage
As Hulk Hogan’s second vanity Rumble in a row, seeing red and yellow reign supreme at the end of the 1991 Royal Rumble must have been an oddly demoralizing sight to most WWE superstars. This was only ten months removed from when he was supposed to step away from the spotlight, and the fact Hulkamania still ruled the WWE main event was directly responsible for The Ultimate Warrior and then Sgt. Slaughter completely bombing as WWE Champions. The scene this year was so slim that not many Rumble entrants could feasibly stand against Hogan, and the person with the best shot, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, didn’t even show up for the match due to earlier antics on the show with the aforementioned Slaughter and Warrior. Said antics made Savage the biggest heel in the company, and winning the Rumble would only solidify that status while giving him a huge win to back it up. Of course, the flaw is that Savage was trying to phase himself out of the ring at the time, so perhaps an alternate idea would need to be considered. Either way, the point remains Hogan definitely didn’t need to win, already the top star in wrestling for almost a decade, and with absolutely nothing to gain by squashing the entire roster at once.
11. Who Should’ve Won In 1994: Bret Hart (solo)
1994 was a very special year for Royal Rumbles, with a running theme proving in this case more often felt like less. In addition to muddying the waters with two house show Rumbles that are generally ignored in hindsight, WWE made a huge mistake with the official Pay-Per-View version by naming two winners. Granted, one of the two was our pick for who should’ve won, Bret Hart. Unfortunately, forcing Bret to share the honor with Lex Luger forever marred what turned out to be The Hitman’s only Rumble victory. In declaring two winners, both Hart and Luger looked weak, and only through his incredible work ethic and dedication to the industry was Bret able to fight back and become a bona fide main event star by the end of the year. Given his slow descent down the card throughout 1993, he seriously needed to win the Rumble up front and instantly solidify him as a challenger for his rematch against Yokozuna. Because he was simply a co-winner, Bret’s second WWE Championship win wound up looking like his second great fluke, part of why he never achieved the same fame as icons like Hulk Hogan before him or “Stone Cold” Steve Austin later on.
10. Who Should’ve Won In 1995: Owen Hart
Once again, we need to be fair to WWE and acknowledge that the real problem with the 1995 Royal Rumble wasn’t the winner. Shawn Michaels was just as good a pick as Owen Hart; the much bigger issue was the 60-second intervals between entrants opposed to the usual 90 or 120 second intervals, leading to the speediest and thus most disposable Rumble of all time. That said, perhaps Shawn wasn’t the best pick after all, especially considering he lost to WWE Champion Diesel at WrestleMania, and wouldn’t get another shot at the main event until he won the Rumble again in 1996. Owen Hart’s 1995 went much differently, starting with a shockingly short 3 seconds in the Rumble itself. Appropriately, Owen had been rocketing up the card all throughout 1994, feuding against his brother Bret and becoming that year’s King of the Ring. His ascent up the card could have continued with a Rumble victory, and given an extra edge to his feud with Bret. HBK could also benefit from Owen winning, because unlike Michaels, Owen wouldn’t suffer much from a loss to Diesel, cutting down the amount of time required before Shawn could reestablish himself as a star and win the big one.
9. Who Should’ve Won In 1999: Ken Shamrock
If one was to put Ken Shamrock’s name amongst the list of actual Royal Rumble winners he might seem out of place, and we don’t deny he’s the least likely pick on our list for a replacement victor. At the same time, however, the 1999 Royal Rumble is generally considered one of the worst ever, and having an unlikely name make it to the end definitely wouldn’t make it any worse. The biggest complaint about the Rumble that year is that the real winner was Vince McMahon, a non-wrestler in his 50’s who spent all of three minutes in the ring despite entering at number two. Having Shamrock win on Vince’s behalf would achieve the exact same results as having the boss win himself, and Ken’s reputation as a legitimate bad ass and The World’s Most Dangerous Man would make it more than believable he could pull it off. While his wrestling career ultimately wasn’t one of legends, Shamrock was the Intercontinental Champion at the time and the previous year’s King of the Ring, both qualities that reaffirmed he was more than ready to win the Rumble.
8. Who Should’ve Won In 2002: Kurt Angle
Reflecting on the WWE career of Kurt Angle, winning the Royal Rumble is pretty much the sole accomplishment that alluded the only Olympic Gold Medalist in sports entertainment history. Two weeks removed from his big return at Madison Square Garden, it made sense at the time for Triple H to win in 2002 due to his popularity, but The Game soon made it clear he wasn’t quite ready to perform at the level he previously had been and all of the wrestling world greatly suffered for it. Had Triple H waited only a short time longer to make absolutely certain he was still capable of performing in main events, the WWE Universe might have been saved his various reigns of terror with the Undisputed and World Heavyweight Championships. Angle was always a steady hand in the ring, and at the start of 2002 he was arguably the most promising star in the company, only needing a small push to reaffirm himself in the Undisputed Championship scene after a series of losses to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Triple H could even make his comeback before WrestleMania and steal the main event from the Olympian, barely changing the storyline they would actually undergo with the added bonus of admitting how the Game’s injury affected his abilities.
7. Who Should’ve Won In 2006: Randy Orton
In a less cynical world, there would have been nothing wrong with Rey Mysterio using the 2006 Royal Rumble to catapult himself into the main event. Rey had been gradually growing his popularity since making his WCW debut in 1996, and nearly a decade later was one of the top faces in the WWE Universe. His small size made him an unlikely contender, but as the old adage goes, despite being the smallest dog in the fight, he might’ve been the dog with the most fight in him. Unfortunately in every sense of the word, Rey’s 2006 Royal Rumble victory will forever be marred by the fact it was a pity win, given to Rey as a consolation prize in the wake of his good friend Eddie Guerrero’s death. For the next several months, or perhaps the rest of Rey’s WWE career, everything he did was treated as having been done in Eddie’s memory, the Royal Rumble and his subsequent World Championship win at WrestleMania being the tips of the iceberg. Standing against the cynical nepotism of the era, Randy Orton was poised as a Legend Killer, ready to break out in the main event after repeatedly losing to The Undertaker. Shortly after the Rumble, he became a huge heel by making controversial remarks about Eddie’s death while feuding Rey, and all of that could have been avoided if he simply beat Rey in the Rumble.
6. Who Should’ve Won In 2009: William Regal
Despite a handful of flaws, we have to acknowledge that the 2009 Royal Rumble did several things right. Randy Orton made sense as a winner, and having The Legacy dominate as a group from the start was a unique idea that surprisingly had never quite been tried before. That doesn’t mean it was the absolute only option available, though. Another potential winner could have easily been William Regal, and in fact it may have been his last true chance at stardom. Regal is open in the admission he ruined his previous “last chance” by getting nabbed with a Wellness Policy violation, but the reality is he could always shoot back to the top of the card with a big win. The timing of the Rumble that year would’ve been perfect for him, as he just lost the Intercontinental Championship and was ready either to skyrocket to fame or slowly fade away. Oddly, WWE decided to go with the latter option, and Regal transitioned into roles as an announcer and later the GM of NXT. Again, it’s hard to fault this choice since he’s been fantastic in the role, but it doesn’t hurt to think back on what could have been.
5. Who Should’ve Won In 2011: CM Punk
It was a given that the 2011 Royal Rumble would be special in one way or another the second WWE announced there would be 40 entrants for the first (and thus far only) time. The increase in potential participants meant a surge in possible winners, as well, and at the time Alberto Del Rio looked like a good choice as any to take the prize. However, hindsight being what it is, Del Rio didn’t turn into a big enough star to justify such a major accomplishment. Granted, revisionist WWE history hasn’t been too kind to our suggestion, either, but his performance at the 2011 Rumble more than speaks for itself. Punk already proved he was a master of the genre by talking throughout the first half of the prior year’s Rumble, and was controlling things again in 2011 despite entering at number one thanks to his cohorts in The Nexus. Had they assisted the self-proclaimed best in the world all the way past 39 other superstars to make him the winner, it wouldn’t matter what came next; the match alone would have been historic in and of itself.
4. Who Should’ve Won In 2012: Chris Jericho
Similar to the rumors of Mr. Perfect winning the Royal Rumble in 1990, it felt like a foregone conclusion that Chris Jericho was going to win heading towards the event in 2012. His gimmick at the time was receiving great fanfare with a smile and flashy jacket, then doing absolutely nothing until the crowd slowly realized he was just being a jerk. Because his big comeback was only weeks before the Rumble, many fans had the idea he would enter the match last and win basically by mistake, taking all the glory without having to lift a finger. On one hand, we understand why this could have made the Rumble concept feel cheap, but on the other, creativity and uniqueness is key in a yearly gimmick match, and something like this has still never been done before. More important than that, Jericho has been working for WWE as a top level athlete for nearly 20 years now without ever winning a Rumble, and 2012 was probably his best bet at getting to do so. Sure, not every top star deserves every top prize, but when the circumstances are this ideal, it doesn’t make sense to deny them sweet desserts.
3. Who Should’ve Won In 2014: Daniel Bryan
Is there even a point to complain about how WWE misused Daniel Bryan anymore? Without a doubt the most popular babyface in the company when 2014 began, Bryan wasn’t even in the Rumble match, wasted during the show’s opening in a loss against Bray Wyatt. Fans were so disappointed they chanted Bryan’s name throughout the entire show, adding side-thoughts like “This Is Awful” whenever WWE-appointed main eventers were in the ring. As the person to actually win the Rumble this year, Batista arguably suffered even worse than Bryan, since fans so desperately didn’t want to see him in the role when it meant Bryan getting snubbed. Rey Mysterio had it even worse, getting booed out of the building simply for entering the ring last, making it clear Bryan wouldn’t be making any sort of surprise appearance. In a rare admission of failure, WWE righted this wrong over the next few months by having Bryan’s Yes Movement #OccupyRaw and slowly interject himself into the WrestleMania WWE Championship match through a feud with Triple H. Even so, it would have been much easier to just have Bryan win in the first place, and we still have trouble understanding why that’s not what they did.
2. Who Should’ve Won In 2015: Daniel Bryan
Oh, come on, WWE. Sure, neck injuries notwithstanding, the first half of 2014 turned out just fine for Daniel Bryan despite losing the Rumble. Regardless, WWE was obviously aware of how big a mistake it was to have anyone other than Bryan win, and they had to know doing so again was going to have the same result. Somehow, though, Bryan was nonetheless eliminated from the 2015 Rumble barely halfway into the match. The reaction was much the same as last year, if not even worse, with fans harshly rejecting absolutely everything to follow his exit. Roman Reigns and any other WWE approved talent seen as taking Bryan’s place got it especially bad, with even the legendary People’s Champion The Rock getting booed out of the building for daring support The Big Dog over The Beard. Given Daniel Bryan’s long term health, it may have ultimately been a mistake to give him the win at this point, but at the time, it seemed like the only logical option available. Defying all conventional logic, it was probably for that reason he never had a chance.
1. Who Should’ve Won In 2016: A.J. Styles
One year ago today, we never would have suggested A.J. Styles win the WWE Championship in his debut match by shocking the world at the 2016 Royal Rumble. Then again, we never would have predicted Styles would somehow end up with the belt barely nine months later, either, but the Phenomenal One’s powers know few bounds, and that’s exactly what he went on to accomplish. The second A.J. debuted at number three, it was evident the live crowd at least was well aware of his legend, and easily could have propelled him all the way to victory. Truth be told, in 2016, there were dozens of other worthwhile contenders, as well, with names like Kevin Owens, Chris Jericho, Dolph Ziggler, or even a wild card like Bray Wyatt all creating interesting possibilities that would change the course of company history for the better. Unfortunately, however, WWE cares more about its executives more than its fans, and since Triple H’s stepfather is in charge and loves Roman Reigns, the WrestleMania 32 match was predestined to be as horrible as everybody but those three knew it would be.