WrestleMania is the centerpiece of the WWE calendar—but given the choice, I’d take the Royal Rumble every single time. The pro wrestling organization’s January event has always been my favorite, specifically because of the titular match that serves as its headliner.
For the unfamiliar: The Royal Rumble involves 30 competitors (except that one year where it had 40), with each one entering the ring at regular intervals. (Sometimes they’re two minutes, sometimes a minute, sometimes 90 seconds. Most of the time, they take however long it takes for a mini-narrative to play out.) Elimination from the match can only occur when a man (and the occasional woman) is thrown over the ring’s top rope to the floor; both feet must make contact. (That last stipulation leads to all sorts of nonsense like this.) The last man standing is the winner, a victory that typically entitles him or her to a championship match at WrestleMania.
You can tell a lot about the state of the WWE during the Royal Rumble. It forces the company to incorporate a large chunk of the current roster—and tends to lay out the primary storylines that will run through the coming months, as well as the Fed’s biggest shows.
The 2015 version of the Royal Rumble will air this Sunday—and for the first time in awhile, it doesn’t seem explicitly clear who will walk away the winner. The plan may be to give a big push to Roman Reigns, but a series of terrible promos and tepid crowd reactions could have derailed his forward momentum. Daniel Bryan could be the victor—or they could go with an old, safe choice like Randy Orton. Regardless, I’m mostly excited because this means another one of these matches will enter into the pantheon. The Royal Rumble is almost always great because it’s so well-designed—and if something sucks, you only need to wait a minute before things get shaken up.
Below are the all-time Royal Rumble rankings, broken up into seven tiers. It should be noted that these are judgments on just the Rumble match itself, not the event with which it shares a name. (So the 2003 edition doesn’t get bonus points for having a great Kurt Angle championship match on the same card.) And keep this in mind: Even the Rumbles in the “Total Garbage” tier are still mostly watchable.
Too Early To Count
1988 (Winner: Hacksaw Jim Duggan)
1989 (Big John Studd)
1990 (Hulk Hogan)
Like many of WWE chairman Vince McMahon’s early events, the Royal Rumble began as a way to mess with the National Wrestling Alliance, which was McMahon’s biggest competitor in the ’80s. The NWA had a pay-per-view event called the Bunkhouse Stampede scheduled for January 1988—so McMahon counter-programmed with the first-ever Royal Rumble, which was broadcast for free on the USA Network (the Fed’s longtime cable home).
Because the WWE was still trying to figure out what it was, the early Rumble matches are intermittently entertaining but don’t quite wrap their bulky arms around greatness. The first two are fascinating if only because they represent some of the only events in the Hulkamania era that Hulk Hogan didn’t conquer, though he did right that wrong with his first of two consecutive victories in 1990. It really didn’t make any sense for Hogan to win that match—he was already the champion at the time, and there were plenty of other people who could have used the rub. But I’ll let it slide because the WWE was still learning, and because when Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior squared off for a few minutes mid-Rumble (which led directly to their classic match in the main event of WrestleMania VI), it planted the seed for the greatness that the Rumble could achieve.
1994 (Bret Hart & Lex Luger)
1996 (Shawn Michaels)
2002 (Triple H)
2009 (Randy Orton)
The Royal Rumble’s nature prevents any one event from being truly terrible—though these matches come pretty close. Sometimes the winner just doesn’t make any sense, like when Sheamus was the last man standing in the 2012 edition. (The fact that it began with a series of Miz-related story beats doesn’t help its cause either.) It made perfect sense for Yokozuna to win in 1993, as the Fed was busy building him up as an unstoppable monster—but because he was a fat man who couldn’t move, the action suffered. Roster thinness really hurt the 1996 and 2002 versions, while 1994 is undone by its ultra-stupid tie ending (and the relatively sluggish action leading up to that point). Randy Orton’s victory goes in the garbage because I have never liked Randy Orton, and while the Rumble itself is fine, his victory was such a profound foregone conclusion that it completely robbed the match of any drama.
Overbooked But Reasonable
1995 (Shawn Michaels)
1997 (Stone Cold Steve Austin)
1999 (Mr. McMahon)
2011 (Alberto Del Rio)
The Royal Rumble is a naturally excellent storytelling tool, though sometimes the sheer mass of narrative threatens to undo an otherwise solid match. These are all perfectly reasonable, though they are each flawed in their own way. It’s a shame that a pair of Stone Cold Steve Austin-centric matches are included here, but they were both victims of too many threads. The 1999 match is particularly guilty of this crime: In the storyline, Mr. McMahon doesn’t want Austin to win the Royal Rumble, so he placs him at the number one position and then puts a $100,000 bounty on his head. Through goofy machinations, McMahon himself ends up in the number two slot. So the two of them brawl and chase each other into the arena, where Austin gets ambushed and taken from the venue in an ambulance, only to return later, presumably having carjacked an ambulance. Then he gets back in the match—only to ultimately lose to McMahon, who was mostly hanging out at the announcers’ table after Austin’s first dispatch. In the meantime, there’s also a bit where the Undertaker kidnaps Mabel (this would lead to his transformation into Viscera), and a long stretch of this match that is a showcase for Road Dogg. It’s not a good time.
The ’97 Rumble is a little more fluid, though Austin’s dominance in the match is undercut by the silly ending that saw him re-enter the match after referees missed his elimination (though it did lead to his WreslteMania XIII match against Bret Hart, perhaps the best contest the WWE has ever put on). In the 1995 Royal Rumble, Shawn Michaels became the first person ever to enter at number one and win, though he did it with one minute intervals in the shortest Rumble on record. It was a cool idea, but the rush to turn Michaels into a legend made for a lot of low-impact action. In 2011, the Royal Rumble expanded to 40 participants—and while the WWE at the time almost had enough top-tier talent to fill such a match, it still felt overlong and overbooked, with too few peaks and way too many valleys (and a sort of non-sensical victor in Alberto Del Rio).
The One That Chris Benoit Won
2004 (Chris Benoit)
Everything involving Chris Benoit seems to require its own category, and this list is no different. The 2004 Royal Rumble was a huge deal at the time, as it sent one of the most talented (and underutilized) men on the roster into the stratosphere. Benoit entered at number one, then tore through the rest of the competitors to win the match (and then went to WrestleMania and won the main event in an incredibly emotional contest). And Benoit didn’t disappear for stretches, either—he was pretty much at the center of the Rumble for the entire hour he was in the ring. But like most of the goodwill Benoit built up over his career, his Rumble victory has been understandably undone by the fact that he killed his family and then committed suicide in 2007. In a vacuum, the 2004 Rumble is one of the better ones—but you have to decide for yourself whether or not you can still cheer for Chris Benoit.
2003 (Brock Lesnar)
2006 (Rey Mysterio)
2013 (John Cena)
Make no mistake: These matches are pretty entertaining, but that’s mostly because of the efficiency of the match itself. The mid-aughts were kind of a trying time for the WWE’s roster depth, so a lot of the entrants in 2005 and 2006 are goofs who never really made a long-lasting or positive impact—people like Kenzo Suzuki, Gene Snitsky, Mark Jindrak, Daniel Puder, Simon Dean, Orlando Jordan, and the members of the Mexicools. But both of those years are pretty entertaining, if only because the entry numbers are totally on point (there’s rarely too long a run between top-tier stars) and because the finishes are both pretty great (watch for Vince McMahon to actually tear both of his quads at the end of the 2005 match). Lesnar’s victory in 2003 was a foregone conclusion, but that didn’t stop the Rumble from being pretty entertaining thanks to guys like Chris Jericho and Rob Van Dam. Neither Edge’s win in 2010 nor John Cena’s score in 2013 felt all that meaningful at the time, but at those Rumbles, the roster was used efficiently and pacing was once again on point.
1991 (Hulk Hogan)
1998 (Stone Cold Steve Austin)
2000 (The Rock)
2001 (Stone Cold Steve Austin)
2007 (The Undertaker)
2008 (John Cena)
These seven events are truly exceptional. The 1991 match represents the Rumble coming into its own as a great event. It also shared direct connective tissue to that year’s WrestleMania—and though the stipulation that the winner would receive a title match was not yet in place, it basically felt that way with Hulk Hogan winning, then challenging the newly-crowned champ Sgt. Slaughter, who was an Iraqi sympathizer during the Gulf War. Both of Austin’s wins here are phenomenally satisfying—especially the 2001 Rumble, which featured a nice little bit of storytelling surrounding a record-breaking run by Kane. Despite the fact that Austin missed it due to injury, the 2000 Rumble might actually be the best of WWE’s “Attitude” era, as it has a well-balanced group of participants, all of whom are used exactly how you’d want them used. (Interestingly, Big Show proved after the match that he was actually the winner, and even though this was acknowledged on TV, the Rock is still considered the victor in continuity.)
The Rumble matches in 2007 and 2008 are both transcendent, especially considering that the WWE’s onscreen product during those years was pretty middling. The 2007 match came down to a great sequence between Shawn Michaels and the Undertaker that would feed into their epic WrestleMania feud in the coming years. The return of John Cena in the 2008 match is, without a doubt, the best surprise WWE has ever pulled off. And while the live crowd in Pittsburgh turned on the 2014 Royal Rumble and rejected winner Batista because fan favorite Daniel Bryan did not participate in the match, it’s still a heck of an entertaining hour of pro wrestling, highlighted by a transcendent run by CM Punk.
1992 (Ric Flair)
All Royal Rumble matches aspire to be this one. Of course, they’ll mostly fail, and not just because this is the only Rumble wherein the winner became the champion. No, the 1992 Rumble is the absolute platonic ideal because it combines the right winner with the correct narrative (party crasher Flair goes nearly an hour to score the victory), then augments it with a great series of satellite story lines (the early dominance of the British Bulldog, the Sid Justice/Hulk Hogan confrontation, the perfectly-timed appearance of newly-crowned Intercontinental champion Roddy Piper, the Randy Savage/Jake Roberts saga) and tops it off with perhaps the best bit of commentary in wrestling history (Bobby Heenan, who was sort of managing Flair at the time, absolutely loses his mind, and Gorilla Monsoon has never been a better antagonist for him). It’s a gloriously satisfying wrestling match that has no dead spots, even when the likes of Repo Man and Col. Mustafa show up. It’s doubtful that the 2015 Royal Rumble will hold a candle to the one from ’92, but if surpasses it, then it’ll be an all-time treat.