The Royal Rumble approaching at the beginning of the year has wrestling fans getting ready to raise their excitement level for WWE. It feels like a new season is starting for the product every time Royal Rumble comes around. Bill Goldberg is the first man to enter the 2017 Royal Rumble match. Many are speculating Royal Rumble is when The Undertaker and Triple H will return to the ring to set the table for WrestleMania 33. The Rumble match is arguably the most important, considering all of the matches it typically sets up for the WrestleMania card each year.
WWE started to put emphasis on the Royal Rumble match in 1990 by adding the stipulation that the winner gets to challenge the WWE Champion for the title in the main event of WrestleMania. The match has been a foolproof system since then. Many of the wrestlers to win the Rumble went on to become huge stars with a big WrestleMania title win and a great legacy to follow the rest of their career. A few have bottomed out, with their win clearly being the wrong decision thanks to disappointing results. We’ll look at both stories by naming the eight best and seven worst winner of the Royal Rumble match.
15. Best: The Rock (2000)
The 2000 Royal Rumble match is a much underrated one in the history of the event. There were a few entertaining moments in the battle royal. Rikiski danced with Scotty 2 Hotty and Grand Master Sexay before eliminating his partners. Taka Michinoku and Funaki kept invading the Rumble and getting beaten down. The Rock won the match in front of an excited Madison Square Garden crowd to earn a title shot at WrestleMania 2000 that turned into a fatal four way match.
Despite Rock being one of the biggest stars of all time and this match being entertaining, it often gets lost in the shuffle due to a few reasons. This was one of the best Royal Rumble shows of all time with Mick Foley vs. Triple H and the Hardys vs. Dudleys both having spectacular matches that overshadowed the Rumble historically. Still, it perfectly summed up the popularity of The Rock and showed he stepped up as “the guy” with Steve Austin injured for most of the year.
14. Worst: Batista (2014)
Wrestling fans will always remember the end of the 2014 Royal Rumble match with Batista eliminating Roman Reigns to win the match. The story wasn’t who won or who lost, but rather who wasn’t even in the match. The most popular star in the company at the moment was Daniel Bryan. Following a loss earlier in the card, Bryan was not chosen to be in the Rumble match by WWE.
Fans started booing everyone in the ring as a sign meant towards the company for slighting Bryan. The chants of “Daniel Bryan” showered the ring and Batista unfortunately was the target of the disdain when he won the match just a few weeks after returning. Batista looked out of shape and had no momentum with a cold return to WWE. Fans turned on Batista due to this and WWE was forced to add Bryan to the main event of WrestleMania 30 having him win the WWE World Championship. We can thank the bust of Batista winning the Rumble for it.
13. Best: Triple H (2002)
The legendary moment of Triple H returning to a massive ovation at Madison Square Garden following the torn quadriceps injury made it clear he had to win the Royal Rumble match weeks later. Fans were in love with Triple H after he continued wrestling a match when the painful injury occurred. The toughness made him an instant face and the Royal Rumble 2002 win provided the perfect pay off when he eliminated Kurt Angle to earn a title shot.
Things didn’t ultimately work out for Triple H as a face. The WrestleMania 18 match against Chris Jericho for the WWE Undisputed Championship was a disappointment and the fans love affair with him ended. Triple H turned heel months later, but the short lived return gave enough memories to make it one of the better Rumble wins. The passion shown from fans for Triple H’s journey is one of the most underrated stories in wrestling history.
12. Worst: Alberto Del Rio (2011)
Alberto Del Rio’s star shined during his first year in WWE on the Smackdown brand. The heel character of Del Rio was outstanding and it placed him towards the top of the roster. WWE decided to go all the way with him as the man to win the 2011 Royal Rumble match. Not only did Del Rio win the legendary match but this was the first and only time the Royal Rumble had 40 participants instead of the usual 30.
The execution of Del Rio’s journey is what made it a failure. Del Rio lost his World Championship title shot to Edge in the opening match of WrestleMania 27. Fans started to grow tired of his heel character. There’s only so long an arrogant wealthy heel character can go without having to evolve. Del Rio stayed the course and turned into one of the most boring main-eventers in recent history. Everything went downhill for him following the Royal Rumble victory.
11. Best: Rey Mysterio (2006)
The biggest upset in Royal Rumble history came in 2006 when Rey Mysterio defeated Triple H and Randy Orton in the final moments to win it. WWE went with a storyline that revolved around Mysterio paying respect to the recently passed away Eddie Guerrero. Many fans despised the story exploiting the death of Guerrero, but Mystero wrestled his backside off to make it work as best he could have.
Mysterio spent a record breaking 1 hour and 2 minutes in the match after entering second overall. The underdog overcame all of the odds to get the title shot against Kurt Angle and Orton at WrestleMania 22. Fans were genuinely surprised by the moment and Mysterio executed the win perfectly to shock the world. WWE never did right by Mysterio during the subsequent World Championship reign, but the fans respected him for making history as the smallest world champion in WWE.
10. Worst: Yokozuna (1993)
Monster heels were still a big deal during 1993 and WWE tried to churn out one more success with Yokozuna. The heel working a sumo wrestler gimmick won the 1993 Royal Rumble match to challenge Bret Hart for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania 9. Yokozuna dominated the match and won with ease as a way to cement him as the next top heel. The WrestleMania 9 title shot saw him defeat Hart for the title… for a few minutes.
Hulk Hogan challenged Yokozuna to win the title to close the show. The title changed back to Yokozuna months later when Hogan left the company. Yokozuna failed to become a compelling champion and it felt like the Rumble win was wasted on him. The following WrestleMania 10 main event saw Yokozuna lose the title back to Hart. We could have had a dream match of Hart facing off with Randy Savage at WrestleMania 9 instead of the flopped Yokozuna run.
9. Best: The Undertaker (2007)
The Undertaker joined WWE in 1990 but didn’t win his first Royal Rumble match until 2007. WWE rarely put him in the World Championship picture during his prime because he was one of the few performers over with or without the belt. The brand split positioned him back into the title picture. Undertaker won the 2007 Royal Rumble match with the incredible ending of him and Shawn Michaels going back and forth for the title shot.
Fans reacted overwhelmingly positively to Undertaker winning the match. Undertaker defeated Batista for the World Championship at WrestleMania 23 in a great performance. WWE started to market “the streak” for the juggernaut it was becoming. The term “better late than never” was proven to be true with Undertaker achieving his only Royal Rumble match win seventeen years into his WWE career. Could he possibly make history once again in his home state of Texas in the 2017 Royal Rumble?
8. Worst: Sheamus (2012)
One of the worst main event experiments in recent history has to be Sheamus. The talented wrestler definitely deserved a noteworthy spot on the roster, but WWE tried to force him as world champion. It never worked, with fans consistently rejecting Sheamus as champ every single time. The worst instance came when he won the 2012 Royal Rumble match as a face. Unfortunately for him, many fans were livid when returning legend Chris Jericho was the man eliminated by him.
Things got worse for Sheamus when he defeated Daniel Bryan for the World Championship in 18 seconds at WrestleMania 28. Fans rejected the idea of Bryan getting embarrassed on the biggest stage and, in turn, took their frustration out on Sheamus. The title reign of Sheamus featured him playing a face that got booed most nights. Sheamus was the wrong choice to win the Rumble and it actually hurt his career in the long run.
7. Best: Steve Austin (1997)
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin won the Royal Rumble on three occasions in 1997, 1998 and 2001. The controversial pick of 1997 being his best win is debatable, but it helped make him a star. Austin was eliminated, but the referees missed it. This allowed Austin back in the ring to sneakily eliminate Bret Hart and be named the official winner of the match. Fans started to adopt Austin as the cool heel in his first steps towards the main event picture.
Austin and Bret saw their feud intensify here. The controversial finish saw Austin lose his title shot at WrestleMania 13 and he faced Hart in an I Quit Match instead. Austin was better off for it and the match culminated in a star-making performance. The infamous King of the Ring speech is what people remember when thinking of his ascension, but the Royal Rumble win is what truly took him to a new level.
6. Worst: Lex Luger (1994)
The 1994 Royal Rumble featured the first and only occurrence of two men being named co-winners. Lex Luger and Bret Hart eliminated each other at the exact same time. WWE was still producing corny content and the finish here is a perfect example of it. Luger and Hart went on to each challenge Yokozuna in separate singles matches at WrestleMania 10, with Bret leaving the show as the WWE Champion.
WWE badly wanted Luger to become a top face. The bodybuilding physique of Luger was similar to the stars of WWE past. Unfortunately, he couldn’t connect with the fans the same way those wrestlers did. The original plans were for Luger to win the title, but WWE changed plans due to him not being over enough. They went with Hart to save the day. Quite frankly, Bret should have won the Royal Rumble instead of the convoluted co-winners idea making them share the victory.
5. Best: John Cena (2008)
Royal Rumble is home to the surprise return. It is the perfect match for wrestlers to come to the ring for the battle royal and shock the world. The most shocking return definitely has to be John Cena coming back in 2008 to win the Royal Rumble match. Cena was on the shelf and expected to be out until the middle of the year long after WrestleMania. Madison Square erupted when Cena arrived at the 30th position to win the match.
Cena faced Triple H and Randy Orton for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania 24. The return program against Orton and Triple H didn’t necessarily provide great memories, but the Rumble appearance was worth it. Internet rumors started to grow in popularity around this time and every surprise would get spoiled. Somehow no one realized Cena was cleared and the entire wrestling community was stunned to see him return in dramatic fashion.
4. Worst: Vince McMahon (1999)
The feud between Steve Austin and Vince McMahon became the hottest thing in wrestling. McMahon actually found his way into the squared circle due to the heel heat he was generating. That was fine, but things went a little too far when the non-wrestler actually won the 1999 Royal Rumble match. McMahon and Austin brawled all over the arena while the other wrestlers competed in the match. They returned to the ring towards the end with McMahon eliminating Austin to win the match.
It would be one thing if they went all the way with McMahon and Austin having a street fight at WrestleMania 15, but it was clear it would be Austin vs. The Rock. Austin won his title shot back and defeated Rock at WrestleMania. Going back on the stipulation always makes a match look terrible. McMahon winning came off like a joke and just harmed the legacy of the Rumble match.
3. Best: Ric Flair (1992)
The best Royal Rumble match actually featured the vacant WWE Championship on the line rather than an opportunity at a future match. Fans were excited about the importance of the match being upped with the star power in the ring. Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage were the favorites heading into the match. Hogan in particular dominated the title picture and it was stunning to see him get eliminated by Sid Justice.
Ric Flair eliminated Sid to win the match and shockingly become the new WWE Champion. The execution of the entire match was nearly spotless, aside from Hogan looking like a jerk unintentionally helping Flair win by going after Sid. Flair cut an outstanding post-match promo that made it all even better. It is still one of the most discussed Royal Rumble matches of all time. Flair was at the top of his game and the show will live on in infamy.
2. Worst: Roman Reigns (2015)
There will likely never be another moment as terrible in Royal Rumble history as Roman Reigns winning it in 2015. For the second consecutive year, fans rooted for Daniel Bryan to win it all, but he was eliminated early in the match. The deafening boos reigned the ring, no pun intended, when Roman walked to the ring. Everyone knew Reigns was winning the match, but they desperately wanted to be wrong.
The boos consistently lasted the entire time Reigns was in the ring and reached a new level when he eliminated Rusev to win it all. WWE thought they had a brilliant game-changer by having The Rock come out to endorse his cousin. It didn’t work as the fans continued to boo Roman out of the building. That night officially changed the career of Reigns, leading to him getting booed almost every single night. The match being a stinker in general didn’t help. If WWE could change anything in Roman’s past, it would be having him lose the Rumble and organically rise to the top.
1. Best: Shawn Michaels (1995)
Shawn Michaels won consecutive Royal Rumble matches in 1995 and 1996. The 1995 win was the greatest star-making performance in Rumble history. Michaels entered the ring as the first overall entrant and Davey Boy Smith was second. Both men lasted the entire match as the final participants in the ring. Michaels delivered an iconic moment when he looked eliminated, but skinned the cat to come back in the ring and eliminate Smith.
The in-ring talent of Michaels was always on a top level, but the Rumble win cemented him as a legitimate top star. It also helped that bombshell celebrity actress Pamela Anderson appeared on the show and celebrated in the ring with The Heartbreak Kid. Michaels did not win the WWE Championship at WrestleMania 11 and had to settle for winning it one year later. Still, the Rumble win made him the icon we remember today and put the match on another level.