The Royal Rumble is repetitive. Wrestling is repetitive. We watch fully aware of the patterns and archetypes that make up the form, praising the stories and wrestlers that successfully pull off what we expect, and losing ourselves in the moment when they pull off something surprising or exciting. We know that the first two entries in a Rumble match will usually include at least one guy who will still be hanging around near the end. We expect feuds to be advanced, surprise returns from long-gone wrestlers, and comedy sections that are actually funny sometimes. We know that every year one tall, muscled, physically imposing monster will get pushed as a total beast and eliminate a quarter of the field by himself. When done well wrestling is powerful, not in spite of these conventions but because of them. A great Rumble is able to combine the expected and the shocking more easily than any other kind of match, which is why it’s the greatest tradition in the sport.
Of course they don’t always work out. The Rumble formula isn’t a guaranteed recipe for success. This year’s Royal Rumble airs this Sunday night on the WWE Network, and as a prelude we’ve ranked, in chronological order, the five best and worst Rumbles in wrestling history.
The Five Best Royal Rumble Matches
1992 is still the model all Rumbles are compared to. It had perhaps the most star-packed line-up ever, with the cream of the territorial crop converging in a single ring under the WWF banner. Few matches have ever approached this level of star power, with 1980s legends Ric Flair, Roddy Piper, Ted Dibiase, Kerry Von Erich, Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan taking part, future superstars Shawn Michaels and the Undertaker starting to forge their legacies, and classic “what if” case Sid Vicious enjoying one of his highest profile matches.
Of course the unquestioned star of the show is Flair. The greatest pro wrestler ever had just recently arrived from WCW, and the entire Rumble match was basically set up as a showcase to introduce him to the WWF audience. He entered at #3 and lasted almost an hour, winning not just the Rumble but the vacant WWF World Championship in the process. There’s only one major storyline throughout the match, and it’s every single guy gunning for Flair, the arrogant outsider looking to win the big title after only a few months in the company. The only blemish is that Flair doesn’t single-handedly eliminate the final man, with Hogan perpetrating one of the most selfish and immature moves in a career full of them by pulling Vicious out after already being eliminated. It makes a kind of sense for the Dirtiest Player in the Game to win in such a fluke fashion, though. Between unforgettable commentary from Bobby “The Brain” Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon, and one of the greatest performances of Ric Flair’s legendary career, 1992 remains the best Rumble match of all time.
The 1998 Rumble is a great snapshot of the WWF on the cusp of the Attitude Era. It’s an awkward mix of the old and the new, with on-their-way-out New Generation holdovers like Ahmed Johnson and the Godwinn brothers mixing it up with the sort of edgier characters that would soon take over. The latter includes Marc Mero, the former Johnny B. Badd in his new Sable abusing heel mode, and a Goldust who wore bondage gear over his bodysuit. You can tell by the roster that it’s a transitional phase, with more Nation of Domination members than any person could ever care to see, an entire retinue of Boricuas who aren’t even officially in the match, and a few big names that the WWF dropped the ball on, like Vader and Ken Shamrock. Oh yeah, and the Honky Tonk Man’s in it, too. It also offers a glimpse at the headliners of the future, with a young Rock just starting to figure out the character that would launch him to megastardom, and a run-in from a Triple H still a few months away from escaping Shawn Michaels’ shadow.
Today this Rumble is best remembered for three things, though. It’s the Rumble that Mike Tyson watched from Shane McMahon’s skybox, marking hard for Owen Hart and Stone Cold Steve Austin. It’s also the Rumble where Mick Foley entered three different times, once each as Mankind, Cactus Jack and Dude Love. And of course, most importantly, it’s the first Rumble won by Steve Austin, which propelled him to the main event of Wrestlemania XIV and his first WWF World Title victory. There was no doubt that Austin was the future of the company, but this Rumble victory confirmed that the WWF was all in on the Texas Rattlesnake.
What makes this a great Rumble, and not just a significant one, is the storytelling. Owen Hart sees two feuds advanced in a single Rumble, with Jeff Jarrett attacking him on the way to the ring, only for Hart to later return and eliminate Jarrett to one of the loudest pops of the night. And then Hart is quickly pulled out of the match by the illegal interference of Triple H and Chyna, furthering a feud that could’ve cemented Hart as a main eventer if it had gone in another direction. Small touches like Foley immediately eliminating the person who had previously tossed him out when he returns under a new persona make this one of the most detailed Rumbles. And at the end we get a small milestone in the off-and-on feud between Austin and the Rock that carried the company through its most popular years, with a false elimination of the Rock that was almost gasp-worthy to those of us who watched the match live. This might be the best booking of any Rumble ever.
If you watch all of these back to back, like I’ve done this week, one of the first things you’ll notice about the 2000 Rumble is the heavy roster turnover just from 1998. Only seven men were in both matches, and three of them had gone through drastic gimmick changes in the years between. (Mosh of the Headbangers, shockingly, is one of the few to appear in both as essentially the same character.) That line-up would’ve seen even more new faces if the Rumble happened eight days later, after Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Perry Saturn and Dean Malenko jumped to the WWF from WCW.
The Rumble is a series of distinct storytelling units building up to dramatic set-pieces and resulting in a single, satisfying, hour-long story. The 2000 match isn’t a perfect example (it’s dragged down a bit by a dull middle portion featuring no legitimate contenders), but its highlights nail what the Rumble should be. The first portion sees a random assortment of wrestlers from the lower and mid-card establishing the mercenary nature of the match, resulting in one of the most beloved Rumble comedy bits when Rikishi and Too Cool are alone in the ring and pause for one of their patented dance breaks. It then immediately segues into a concerted effort to get Rikishi over as a killer, starting with him simultaneously eliminating his two friends before taking out a couple of formidable opponents by himself. Eventually he gets the Andre the Giant treatment of only being eliminated when every man in the ring works together to toss him out. Next comes a nice mix of the past and the future, with the final Rumble appearances from ‘80s/’90s stalwarts and then-roster members Big Boss Man and Davey Boy Smith, and a surprise appearance from Bob Backlund, combined with showings from future World Champions Chris Jericho and Edge. Jericho is eliminated too quickly, removing the only guy in the field that the fans actually believed could win, and kicking off that dead zone I mentioned above. Throughout the match run-ins from Kaientai and the Mean Street Posse provide bits of comic punctuation (and one of the Rumble’s sickest bumps, inflicted upon Taka Michinoku.)
It picks up when the Rock, the odds on favorite to win, finally comes out at #24. If there was any doubt who would win, the crowd’s reaction to the Rock eliminates it as quickly as the Rock eliminates the Boss Man. The Big Show complicates expectations in his first Rumble appearance—Vince loves his big men—but the Show’s size couldn’t block the Rock’s momentum during the match’s exciting final moments. Despite its obvious flaws, the 2000 affair is one of the best because of the Rock’s uncanny connection with the audience and because of its structure, with the thrilling bookend performances from Rikishi and the Rock.
It’s not just nostalgia for wrestling’s latest golden age that sees three Rumbles from the Attitude Era make this list. The WWF was on the streak of a lifetime, with 2000 perhaps the best year in the company’s history. (Even a diehard NWA/WCW partisan like myself had mostly given up that ghost, still flipping between Raw and Nitro out of habit and a sense of responsibility, but mostly watching WCW like I was taking my medicine.) That creative energy lead to a streak of smartly booked, wildly entertaining Rumbles, with the Vince Russo-style disaster of 1999 the only outlier.
On paper 2001’s Rumble shouldn’t work. The first third is taken up with the kind of aimless, post-ECW “hardcore” brawling that quickly wore out its welcome in the WWF and WCW. (The trash cans bend so easily you’ll think they’re made of tinfoil.) And yes, this is the Rumble that Drew Carey entered. These both actually work in the match’s favor, though. The hardcore stuff was bad wrestling but something different for the Rumble, and is smartly contained to a concrete section early in the match. The Carey stuff isn’t a focus but a small bit of comedy built around making Kane look like a monster, which was one of the match’s major stories. (If this was WCW Carey probably would’ve won the match and the World title.) Oh yeah, and the Honkey Tonk Man’s in it, too.
2001’s ultimate success comes down to the basics of a good Rumble. It had a good roster, a legitimately shocking appearance in the form of Haku (who was an active titleholder in WCW when he jumped with no notice), a hot finish and a winner who was a true legend beloved by the fans. It ends with an all-time final four of Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Kane in the type of match he’s dominated more than anybody else, and… uh, “The One” Billy Gunn… okay, so it ends with an all-time final three, then. When The Rock locks eyes with a blood-covered Austin near the end of the match, the crowd lets out one of the greatest pops in Rumble history, the rivalry between the WWF’s two greatest stars still able to captivate an audience after four years of sporadic feuding. And it all builds up to Wrestlemania X-Seven, one of the single greatest shows in the history of wrestling. This is pivotal Rumble.
John Cena is bewildering. He’s a riddle, as two-faced as Janus, a complex duality trapped in the body of a beefed up Wahlberg. He’s one of the most beloved wrestlers ever, and also one of the most hated. He’s responsible for some of the most cloying and obnoxious promos ever delivered in a ring, but when he’s serious he can sell a match and story with his words better than almost anybody else working today. He’s a never-say-die Superman babyface who routinely screws over his supposed friends and sits idly in the back while they get destroyed by the bad guys. Smart fans loathe his character and his decade-plus grip on the main event, but respect his wrestling ability and consider many of his matches to be among the best in WWF/WWE history. Cena is a weird anomaly at the heart of wrestling, simultaneously confirming and refuting almost every bit of commonly held wisdom about the sport.
No matter how you feel about him, you probably agree that Cena’s responsible for one of the most shocking and memorable Royal Rumble moments ever. In October 2007 Cena suffered a torn pectoral muscle while performing a routine hip toss during a match. He wasn’t expected back until the following summer, with recovery time usually taking between seven months and a year. So when the buzzer for the 30th man went off near the end of the Royal Rumble less than four months later, and the familiar intro of Cena’s theme “The Time is Now” rang out, over 20000 fans in Madison Square Garden collectively lost their minds at his unthinkable return. It’s guaranteed to make every Cena and Rumble highlight reel from now until whenever he does something to piss off the McMahons. Best of all it meant that the past-his-prime Triple H, who came out one slot before Cena, and is perhaps the only top WWE star to split the hardcore fans as passionately as Cena, wouldn’t take home the win. It was a tremendous end to a fast-paced match.
On the next page, we look at the five worst Rumble matches.