If WrestleMania is the “Grandaddy of them all” in WWE then the Royal Rumble is the younger, but much more popular uncle. Easily the fan-favorite pay-per-view, the Rumble is must see event every year and appropriately starts the Road to WrestleMania for WWE. With that being said, not all Royal Rumbles, and certainly not all Royal Rumble winners are created equally. As such, this article will list the 8 Best and 7 Worst Royal Rumble Winners.
Ranging from the first Rumble in 1988 to last year's battle royal won by Triple H, this is meant as a fairly comprehensive look at the Rumble as an annual phenomenon. In grading what’s good and bad we will look at the strength of the winner as a performer, other possible winners who were available, how the winner figured into relevant WWE storylines, and the level of surprise in regards to the winner. All facts and dates featured in this article are from WWE.com.
All facts and dates featured in this article are from WWE.com.
15 Best: Chris Benoit (2004)
It’s a pretty bold choice nowadays to start off any list with Chris Benoit, however, I decided not to ignore the “Rabid Wolverine’s” monumental 2004 Royal Rumble win the way that WWE has largely done. Prior to 04, Benoit was a longtime worker in WWE (and for other wrestling organizations) but had not yet had that one shining moment atop the WWE mountaintop. The Rumble that year, therefore, would serve to be Benoit’s coming out party as a legitimate main event player in WWE. Not only would Benoit serve as the underdog for most of the match, he would make the final two with the colossal Big Show. By eliminating the near 500 pounder, and following it up with a defeat of two all-time greats (Shawn Michaels and Triple H) at WrestleMania, Benoit would pave the way for other undersized superstars like Daniel Bryan.
14 Worst: Rey Mysterio (2006)
Rey Mysterio serves on this list as the perfect foil to the good Royal Rumble winner of Chris Benoit (#15). WWE would, for the second time, try to catch lightning in a bottle by placing Mysterio in the ultimate underdog role with his win at the 2006 Rumble. WWE would, in fact, go so all in with this strategy by not only having Mysterio win from the #2 spot, but he would also remain in the Rumble for a record amount of time. In the process, he would break the previous record held by Benoit in an effort to erase him from the history books following his controversial death.
The difference between the two was that Mysterio was simply not up to the task. Leading up to WrestleMania, and afterward as World Heavyweight Champion, it became obvious that the master of the 619 was not up to the task of his new main event stature.
13 Best: The Rock (2000)
A fatal flaw in the WWE organization is their unwillingness to move on. Whether this is unsuccessful storylines or aging superstars, the professional wrestling industry is heavily reliant on a changing culture and philosophy to maintain its fan base. One instance where WWE did show this willingness to change was with the 2000 Royal Rumble. Prior to this, Stone Cold Steve Austin had won three recent Rumbles on his way to becoming the top face in WWE.
The issue, however, was an injury that had sidelined Austin for much of the past year. Thus, it was admirable of WWE to pull the trigger on the Rock winning the 2000 Rumble. Not only is The Rock one of the hardest working guys in the history of the business, but the decision also cemented his status as the new top guy in WWE. Good for #13 on our list.
12 Worst: Jim Duggan (1988)
It saddens me to place the very first Royal Rumble winner, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, on our list of bad Rumble winners. Duggan won the inaugural battle royal in 1988, but it was very different from the Rumble spectacular that we know today. The simple fact is that the event was an experiment for WWE (WWF at the time) and they simply had no idea where it was going to go. While this is an interesting bit of history to go with the Rumble, these facts showed with their selection of Duggan as the winner. Though often a fan favorite, he certainly was not a top star in the company. Should WWE have chosen someone more prominent to win the first Rumble, it would have received much faster recognition. As it stood with Duggan as the winner, it would be quite a few years before the Rumble would begin to amount the acclaim that it receives today.
11 Best: Edge (2010)
It’s always nice to see a longtime veteran be chosen to win the Rumble match. While the Rumble is often (and I think effectively) used as a coming out party for new superstars, I think that it can also be used to validate the career or main event status of an established star. I think the best example of this is when Edge won the Rumble in 2010. Not only did Edge have the surprise factor on his side when he returned at the Rumble from a career threatening injury, but it also served to validate his status as a top-tier main event talent with WWE at the time. Since winning his first world title at the 2006 Elimination Chamber pay-per-view, Edge had been treated as a second class main eventer. Therefore, I think the choice of Edge in this Rumble was a nod to him as a legitimate top guy and that is enough for him to make the good part of our list at #11.
10 Worst: Alberto Del Rio (2011)
If you want to talk about great Royal Rumble wins, you should probably include the largest Rumble of all time, the 2011 forty man Royal Rumble. The issue with this Rumble, however, was that it was in many ways wasted as an attempt to prop up Alberto Del Rio. At the time, the choice of Del Rio to win the Rumble was a well informed choice. He was a skilled in-ring performer, and he was bolstered by his status as a Hispanic performer. For those unaware, the WWE has a large Hispanic fan base both inside and outside the U.S. so the company tries very hard to push through Hispanic superstars. However, over the next few years in the main event is was revealed that Del Rio wasn’t at quite the status of other young wrestlers. Then backstage issues would lead to his suspension and eventual release, meaning there is no way we could leave him off our list here of bad Royal Rumble winners.
9 Best: Batista (2005)
I wonder if WWE looks back on the days of 2005 with fondness when it had two young emerging stars with main event potential at their disposal. The 2005 Royal Rumble concluded (with a variety of hi-jinx) with Batista of the Raw brand and John Cena of the Smackdown brand as its final two contestants. Batista, would eventually win the Rumble, setting him up for a main event collision course with fellow Evolution member, and World Heavyweight Champion, Triple H. 2005 was the Rumble at its best. A star-studded event with several established stars in the mix, it was eventually won by a man who had the potential to be WWE’s next big star. As such, this event went over much better with fans than did the next time Batista would find himself atop this tournament in 2014.
8 Worst: Batista (2014)
If there was ever a “dark ages” in regards to the Royal Rumble it would have to be in the past few years. The first of these atrocities was the 2014 Rumble won by a returning Batista. The main problem with this Rumble was how incredibly predictable it was. Batista had just returned from a multi-year hiatus from WWE, and it became painfully obvious in the weeks leading up to the Rumble that he was handpicked to win and resume a longtime rivalry with former Evolution teammate Randy Orton. The next part of this scenario which led to the overall terribleness of this Rumble, was the rising supernova that was Daniel Bryan. However, instead of going with the obvious fan favorite, WWE decided to go with a guy who hadn’t wrestled a meaningful match in over three years. This obvious result was so evidently hated in Pittsburgh that the fans were actually cheering for Roman Reigns in the final two.
7 Best: John Cena (2008)
As we talked about in the introduction, one factor that makes the Rumble so successful is the possibility for surprise entrants. Perhaps the most famous of these was John Cena’s dramatic comeback at the 2008 Royal Rumble at Madison Square Gardens. The unquestioned top guy in WWE at this time, Cena returned from a torn pectoral muscle (which usually requires twelve months of recovery) in a mere four months. This, combined with an impressive amount of secrecy on the part of WWE made this one of the most memorable Rumble moments of all time. Considering Cena’s star power, his winning was an easy choice and it set up a marquee matchup with other top stars Randy Orton and Triple H. As such, Cena’s win in 2008 would be a much better decision than his win a few years later in 2013.
6 Worst: Big John Studd (1989)
The more recent Royal Rumbles feature more prominently on this list because it has only been in the last twenty-five or so years that the winner of the Royal Rumble has been such a big deal in shaping the future of WWE storylines. Thereby, unfortunately, some of the early winners of the Rumble represent the second-hand status of the pay-per-views early years. For example, the decision by WWE (WWF) to choose Big John Studd to win the 1989 Royal Rumble wouldn’t have been bad, if it wasn’t for the fact that they had a bonafide main event stud (see what I did there) in Hulk Hogan who could have been chosen. Not to knock on Studd who was an established veteran and fan favorite, but he simply didn’t bring the type of star power that Hogan did which could have legitimized the Rumble in its early years.
5 Best: Shawn Michaels (1996)
If you’re going to pick someone to win the Royal Rumble, you can never go wrong with choosing the most talented guy in the ring. Shawn Michaels is one of the greatest performers of all time and in 1996 was at the top of his game in WWE. Though Michaels would win the Rumble multiple times in his career, his win in 96 makes it onto this list because of who the other option was to win that year. Kevin Nash (Diesel) was still in the midst of a significant push with WWE during this time, and was one of the final two contestants to get eliminated. By choosing the much more talented wrestler for the huge accolade of winning the Royal Rumble, Shawn Michael’s 1996 victory makes the good part of our list here at #5.
4 Worst: Triple H (2016)
Triple H’s win in 2016 is the final example on our list of a superstars Rumble Win just not being as good the second time around. Triple H won his first Rumble in 2002 as part of an ongoing process of turning him into a legitimate main event talent, however, his Rumble win this past year in 2016 was solely for storyline purposes. For whatever reason, WWE Creative was adamant this past year that the main event at WrestleMania should be Triple H vs. Roman Reigns for the WWE Title. However, hoping to avoid negative fan feedback on back-to-back Rumble wins for Reigns, WWE decided to let a 46-year-old Triple H win the Rumble. To make matters worse, the title itself was also on the line in the Royal Rumble.
3 Best: Brock Lesnar (2003)
Perhaps the best way for WWE to use the Rumble as a tool to improve its product is to have it serve as a “coming out party” for a young star. One of the most successful instances of this was when the Beast Incarnate, Brock Lesnar, won the Rumble in 2003. At this point, WWE itself was almost entirely sold on Lesnar as its next big star, however, him beating twenty-nine other superstars on such a prominent stage was able to sell him in this role to the WWE Universe at large. Following an almost unprecedented rise, Lesnar would leave WWE for UFC, leaving a bad taste in many decision makers mouths. However, with his recent comeback and huge drawing power, WWE has once again started to receive the fruits of this good Royal Rumble decision.
2 Worst: Vince McMahon (1999)
With our last bad entry, we talked about the perils of choosing a forty-six-year-old executive as the Royal Rumble winner. The difference between Triple in 2016 and Vince McMahon in 1999, of course being that at one point Triple H was a legitimate main event star in WWE. Vince McMahon meanwhile has never been a full-time wrestler and there is simply no plausible reason why he should ever have won the prestigious Rumble tournament. To be fair, the McMahon win was meant as a stunt to further his rivalry with Steve Austin and his status as the top heel authority figure in WWE. Despite the storyline excuses associated with this choice, VKM should never have come close to a Royal Rumble win, and its moments like this that have served to devalue the Rumble and Rumble winners over the years.
1 Best: Stone Cold Steve Austin (1998)
I will admit that on principal I am usually against a superstar winning multiple Royal Rumbles. It just seems that their second run of things never reaches the level of success that their initial foray into Rumble success did. Batista and Triple H’s second Rumble wins were a mess, and even Cena's 2013 win was seen as somewhat as a disappointment in comparison to his 08 victory. The exception to this rule, however, was Stone Cold’s win in 1998. Current WWE fans complain about Roman Reigns (and John Cena before him) racking up constant wins, but they don’t understand that it’s these high-profile wins that establish top stars. As such, the influence of Austin’s record three Royal Rumble wins cannot be overestimated in regards to building him up to be the national phenomenon that he was in his prime.
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