Ranking the WWE’s Royal Rumble Winners
Royal Rumble season is upon us. Winning the Rumble is a big deal. Not only does it (usually) ensure a Wrestlemania main event, but so many of the winners have gone on to be stars. Even people who were already established could use a Rumble to give them that extra push to superstardom. However, not every Rumble win has been a success. Sometimes stars didn’t take off as the company would like. However, when they got it right, they got it right. This ranking is based on a few different factors – what the win did for the guy, what the guy did for the company, how well it worked in hindsight and other factors. For that reason, I’m ranking each win individually. This is ranked worst to best.
Mr. McMahon – Alas, obvious choice is obvious. McMahon being a non-wrestler is not the only reason this is here. There may have been a time for this but early 1999 was not it, simply because the idea of Mr. McMahon wrestling at all was completely new. The man didn’t even have entrance music yet! (“No Chance in Hell” was the theme for the show and it became his theme.) Matters weren’t helped by the fact that McMahon spent most of the match as observer, and he only eliminated one guy – Steve Austin, in a spot that made the company’s top guy look like a dunce. Oh, and the match itself stunk too. The first half filled with jabronis like Kurggan and Gillberg. Credible entrant Kane eliminated himself early, in one of the many spots that left the ring empty, and there were bizarre backstage cutaways. Plus, McMahon just forfeited the next night. Yeah, it wouldn’t make sense for McMahon/Rock to headline Mania, but wouldn’t it make more sense for the Austin/McMahon cage fight to be FOR the right to challenge?
Big John Studd – I want to be sentimental and give Studd the nod since this was the first Rumble match as we know it – 30 men and the show was a PPV. However, the Mania stipulation was still a while away. Yeah, at this point, winning the Rumble was merely bragging rights. Sadly, nothing was really accomplished by having Big John Studd win so his win meant extremely little in the grand scheme of things.
Jim Duggan – Jim Duggan’s Royal Rumble win was arguably more pointless than Studd’s. After all, Studd won a 30-man PPV Rumble that included Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant and Ted DiBiase. Duggan won a 20 man-cable special Rumble including mostly mid-carders – granted future heavy hitters like Bret Hart and the Ultimate Warrior were there, as were talented guys like Tito Santana – but they were mid-carders. Still I give Duggan the marginal edge because he was the very first. And everything has to start somewhere.
Batista (2014) – Batista’s 2014 Royal Rumble win was one of the most maligned in history and for good reason. WWE putting their man over fan favorites was bad enough, but the whole thing reeked of WWE wanting to take advantage of Batista starring in Guardians of the Galaxy. When his main event push didn’t happen, Batista hit the road. Let’s be honest, with Hollywood calling, Batista was never going to stick around, so his win and any plans to put the title on him were extremely shortsighted. If there is ANY loose justification of his Rumble win, Daniel Bryan eventually winning a triple threat match was definitely a bigger deal than if he just won a one-on-one match.
Sheamus – Ever wonder why someone who’s talented, has the look and is good on the stick never seems to get over? Because stuff like this keeps happening. Sheamus won the Royal Rumble when the booking team was busy trying to book Rock/Cena and the superb Punk/Jericho feud. And boy was it obvious Sheamus was an afterthought. His Rumble win just felt like an excuse to put him in a title match without an actual feud. And the match in question: That infamous squash match. I remember people thinking Daniel Bryan was buried by that squash, but instead he parlayed the loss into being a much bigger heel. Sheamus just came away looking like his win wasn’t important enough to warrant a full match, and had a neverending and heatless feud with Del Rio (The matches were good but lacked drama). Oh, and let’s not forget the Rumble itself was filled to the brim with joke candidates like Ricardo Rodriguez, Jim Duggan and the entire commentary team. Sorry we didn’t get that Michael Cole vs. CM Punk match fans had been clamoring for. There’s a lesson to be learned here: WWE’s booking team has a bad habit of giving people things – championships, Royal Rumble wins – as some kind of substitute for good booking. As of this writing, Sheamus has been more fun as tag champ with Cesaro than he ever was as Royal Rumble winner and world champion.
Roman Reigns – I’ve stuck my neck out for Reigns in the past so it should be no surprise I think he got a bum rap in 2015. I do think he’s talented, and even for the company putting their guy on top, I still think fans were overreacting by cancelling – or threatening to cancel – the Network. Reigns managed to earn even more flack than Batista, and I think that’s fair because Reigns was at least a new guy that the company would have gotten mileage out of. Still, it felt like the wrong time. I think the problem is less Roman Reigns winning, but fan favorites like Daniel Bryan and Dean Ambrose being thrown out like yesterday’s newspaper. Between Bryan’s injuries and the payoff of Rollins cashing in his Money in the Bank contract, hindsight has a way of justifying this decision, but the nuclear reaction of the time hurt. Plus, I realize that this isn’t the only reason Reigns has struggled with fans, but this event seemed to taint Reigns for the fans. Turning what should have been a star performer into someone hated does make this one of the worst Rumble wins.
John Cena (2013) – I have nothing wrong with Cena winning on principal. But the problem is his Rumble win in 2013 was too obvious. The WWE had done a decent job of not telegraphing the winner for a while, but everyone and their mother knew Cena/Rock II was going to headline Mania that year. Even though the Rock winning the championship happened AFTER this match, but it was on the card so there was little doubt Cena was going to win this. Sometimes the obvious choice can be right, but Cena/Rock II amounted to very little.
Triple H (2002) – Triple H had a similar problem with Cena where his win was too obvious to be special. But he has certain points in his favor. His injury return gave his win a little excitement. Plus there was at least a sliver of a chance someone else might have won. He did win the World Title at Mania… in a feud that involved dog mess and domestic abuse… Plus, this was a precursor to the Reign of Terror. But the win itself was satisfying.
Hulk Hogan (1990/91) – This is the ONLY multi-time winner I’m lumping together simply because I feel like Hogan’s wins accomplished ostensibly the same thing. The Rumble was still in its bragging rights phase. The biggest star in the company winning this did add a little importance. Plus, even if the stipulation wasn’t added yet, Hogan did main even both Wrestlemanias – so his wins at these Rumbles gave him a bunch of momentum to Mania.
Triple (2016) – If I were ranking these JUST by the match these guys won, Triple H’s 2016 win might actually be towards the top. 2016 was not only the first Rumble in a while to not get dumped on, but it’s one of the best Rumbles ever (And one of the best PPVs of 2016). Sadly, I can’t say the same about Triple H as a winner. I thought taking a cue from the 92 Rumble and putting the title on the line was a decent idea, because things need changed up every now and then. However, Triple H as champion ended up being a letdown. Obviously, it reeked of hubris, especially with the commentators selling Triple H as a gladiator who earned the championship and not the company owner stealing the win. While his match Ambrose at Roadblock was sleeper classic, his Wrestlemania match with Reigns was underwhelming to say the least. Worst of all, Triple H disappeared from TV shortly after. There are points in his favor. For better or worse, this was the first Rumble winner in a while that didn’t get a nuclear reaction from fans. I chalk that up to the fact that even in defeat, fan favorites like Dean Ambrose and AJ Styles looked like a million bucks. Also, even at 46, Triple H didn’t completely look out of place.
Lex Luger/Bret Hart – No, I’m not lumping these together. This was the ONLY tie Royal Rumble. Naturally, that lead to a bit of a mixed result. Even though Bret was a former WWF champion by this point, he still kind of needed this win. After losing the championship at Wrestlemania IX, he still felt like second fiddle to guys like Hogan and his co-winner Lex Luger. So when he won the Rumble, and won the championship back from Yokozuna at Wrestlemania, it was a sign that Bret Hart really was the top man. As for Luger, I’ve heard various stories about why Luger didn’t get the championship (some indicating he WAS supposed to win). Regardless of what one thinks of Luger’s ring skills, Luger didn’t do much until he jumped to WCW. The tie creates the only Rumble that was good and useless at the same time.
The Rock – The Rock is a prime example of someone who didn’t necessarily need the win, but he was still the right man at the time. Austin and Undertaker were out with injuries. Foley was involved in a blood feud with Triple H and retirement was knocking at his door. Chris Jericho and Kurt Angle still needed grooming. This was another example of when the company would telegraph the winner ahead of time. They did try to spice things up by recreating the 1995 Rumble where only one of the Rock’s feet touched the ground – gotta love the way they played a clip of that, as if to say “Remember this people: It’s gonna be important.” Even if the Rock’s win was nothing special, it was still the right choice.
Yokozuna – Duggan may have been the first ever. Big John Studd may have won the first 30 man Rumble, but I feel like Yokozuna truly set the standard. This was when the match became the Royal Rumble as we know it – with a title shot at Wrestlemania on the line. This was a chance to truly make Yokozuna look like an unstoppable monster. Bret Hart was the defending champion at the time so there was this feeling of “Bret Hart has to defend against this?” Yoko won the title… then infamously lost it to Hogan. Once he gained it back, Yokozuna regained his monster cred. However, after his loss to Hart at Wrestlemania X, Yokozuna suffered the same fate as a lot of monsters where the shine was kind off the apple. Still, for setting the bar for using the Rumble to look dominant, Yokozuna deserves some credit.
Rey Mysterio – Rey Mysterio is one of the best in the business – he’s not just a talented worker, but he also has a unique connection with the fans. Shortly after the passing of Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio dedicated his performance to his late friend. There was an amusing twist where Rey felt his number 2 entrance was one last trick by Guerrero. Emulating performances from Benoit, Rey Mysterio went coast to coast. As Matt Stryker pointed out, number 1 gets all the attention, but number does as much work. Rey Mysterio winning from the spot was all the more impressive when you consider his small stature. With those facts, it sounds like Mysterio would be one of the best, right? Unfortunately, his win lead to horrible storylines that dragged Guerrero’s name through the mud and Mysterio’s world title run that made him look like a complete loser.
Alberto Del Rio – This is another one on paper that sounds like it should have been a big deal. Del Rio was the first winner in a while who had yet to win the WWE Championship. And Del Rio didn’t just win any Royal Rumble, he won the first (and so far only) 40 man Royal Rumble. This was a statement that this man – who at this point debuted less than a year ago – had arrived, and he was going to be a big deal. And then he lost to Edge… in the OPENING MATCH! I wouldn’t call losing to Edge a nail in the coffin on face value, but when it happened in the curtain jerker, it just made both guys look unimportant. Del Rio did eventually win the WWE Championship by cashing in his Money in the Bank. He felt like he belonged (and had some great matches with CM Punk and John Cena) but the way his reign just ended the Summer of Punk cast a pall over what should have been a star turn. Sadly, it was downhill from there: as his career was filled with heatless feuds, misguided face pushes, firings, re-hirings and personal problems.
Randy Orton – Orton is another example of someone who deserved to be a Rumble winner but won it when he no longer needed it. Also, his Rumble win lead to his feud with Triple H which started out strong, but was downhill after that. There are points in Orton’s favor. For starters, he won a solid Rumble where he entered early enough to still look dominant. Plus, this was still a transition: Winning the Royal Rumble seemed to be what took Orton from guy in the main event to true star.
Brock Lesnar – Because how could Brock Lesnar NOT be a Royal Rumble winner? Much like Hart, Lesnar won the Royal Rumble after being a WWE champion. However, there were pushes were completely different: Hart was a smaller athlete known for his technical prowess and presenting as a fighting champion. Lesnar was a monster who somehow managed to combine brutal power moves with his own athleticism. He had a monster push in 2002 where he vanquished Hulk Hogan and the Rock to become WWE Champion. He lost it to the Big Show, who then lost it to Kurt Angle. Lesnar got a measure of revenge by beating Show to even earn his spot in the Rumble. That combination was enough to make Lesnar look dominant. His Rumble win was decent enough, but it also lead to his epic Mania match and feud with Kurt Angle.
Shawn Michaels (1995) – One of the biggest names in the business won his first Royal Rumble and became the first person to win from the number one spot. Sounds like a big deal right? What the company tends to gloss over is that the bulk of the match was a roll call of absurd gimmicks – The Godwins, Aldo Montoya, Adam Bomb and Mantuar. Legit competitors like Owen Hart and (then-former champion) Bob Backlund were ambushed by Bret Hart and eliminated in seconds. The idea of Michaels and the Bulldog being the first entrants and the last survivors was a neat idea, and Michaels surviving because only one foot touched the ground was a memorable moment. Michaels didn’t win at Mania and he wouldn’t see the gold for another year, but this was a sign that Michaels was meant for bigger things.
Edge – This was an emotional win as Edge was coming back from an injury. He went away as a heel, but his return felt big enough that he became an instant face (Edge did have the charisma to pull it off). The internet gave away Edge’s comeback, but the company kept it a secret so I’m not going to give demerits for that. What is head-scratching in hindsight is what happened afterward. His match with Jericho at Wrestlemania was admittedly awesome, but he did lose. Allegedly, Vince McMahon wanted Edge to be the face of Smackdown. He achieved this by moving Edge to Raw and turning him heel. Yeah, try to figure that out. After all, it was important to put charismatic, talented Edge aside so Smackdown’s top title could go to Jack Swagger. Edge eventually did take his spot as Smackdown’s top babyface until his too-soon retirement in 2011. Even if this wasn’t the immediate payoff it should have been, it was the right start.
John Cena (2008) –How awesome was this Cena Rumble win? 2007 was when I REALLY disliked John Cena. However, when Cena’s music hit, I legit marked out (and this was when I started warming up to the guy). Cena had been away with injury, and this was before we knew about Cena’s magic healing powers so his return to the ring was an honest to gosh surprise, and it was a genuine mark out moment. This criticism may sound hilarious in hindsight, but his Royal Rumble win didn’t amount to much at the time. The biggest star in the company made A HUGE comeback to win the Royal Rumble, lost at Mania and spent months in mid-card feuds, not to win the world title until Survivor Series.
Steve Austin (1997) – Austin may be the winningest man in Royal Rumble history, but his first win amounted to surprisingly little. It’s common knowledge by now that Austin was not going to be part of the planned Hart vs. Michaels rematch. Who knows where Austin would have placed (I’m guessing he would have continued his feud with Hart). Plus the Rumble was filled to the brim with AAA Luchadors and mooks like Fake Razor Ramon. However, this was still an important win. Austin wasn’t the A-lister he would become, but this match helped him get there. Austin entered at number 5, which made him look dominant and even gave him a few chances to show off his trademark charisma (the fake watch is good for some laughs).
Batista (2005) – It’s amazing how Batista’s two Rumble wins are Bizarro images of each other. I mentioned what a trainwreck his 2014 win was, but in 2005, it was the exact opposite. Batista was building his way to be main event star, and winning the Royal Rumble was the catalyst he needed to reach that platform. Whether it was planned or not (if it was planned, they did it better than Luger and Hart), there was extra drama with Cena and Batista eliminating each other, causing the match to restart. Batista’s move to the main event proved not to be a fluke. He beat Triple H at Wrestlemania 21 and the two moved on to have an epic feud. Batista had impressive feuds and matches with the likes of Undertaker, Edge and John Cena. Like the Rock, Hollywood eventually came calling, and we got that bungle in 2014, but hey, it was a big deal when he won.
Shawn Michaels (1996) – Once again, the Icon, the Showstopper, Mr. Wrestlemania won the Royal Rumble. The first time it felt like a big deal because he was the first person to win from the number one spot. However, this time, it was different. It was time for the Heartbreak Kid to finally win the big one. He finally beat Bret Hart at Wrestlemania in a classic Iron Match. The boyhood dream had come true. Then he kind of failed to gain momentum as a babyface. The matches may have been good, Michaels may have been the right guy, but PPV buys were dismal and Michaels was not received well as top babyface. On his way to the top title, he showed several cool features. But once he made it to the main event, they were all taken away – something very familiar about that (Most people will interpret that as what they did to Reigns, but I have a feeling that comment will never stop being relevant). Much like Edge, Michaels’ push had stumbling blocks, but it was the right first step to building a legend.
Steve Austin (1998) – Although his win in 1997 didn’t lead to a world title win, the time was right to set Steve Austin up to be a mega star. The match itself was pretty fun, but I have to deduct points simply because the build was too obvious. This was when the company was in a bad habit of telegraphing who would win. The build was ALL about Austin, and honestly there weren’t a ton of serious contenders. Only a handful of people had even challenged for the top title at that point, and guys like Foley and the Rock were being groomed for greatness. Sometimes the obvious choice is the right choice. So for paving the way for the Austin Era to begin, this has to rank high.
Chris Benoit – I had to talk about this somewhere! Putting aside what the man did, Benoit winning the Rumble was a big deal. Shawn Michaels may have been the first man to go coast-to-coast, but Benoit took it to the next level since the 2004 Rumble was a full hour. The match was epic – with always a bridesmaid, never a bride Benoit outlasted heavy hitters such as Kurt Angle, Goldberg, Chris Jericho and The Big Show. It was a classic underdog tale and Benoit went on to win the World Title in one of the best Mania headliners and genuinely feel good moments. Putting aside the horrible things Benoit did later, it’s questionable how long Chris Benoit would last as a main eventer: Talented the guy may have been in the ring, the guy was never the best on the stick, and by 2005 he was back in the mid-card.
The Undertaker – A lot of Rumble winners are up and comers who are finally getting that push while a lot of them are established names who are getting the win to set up a big Mania match. The Undertaker clearly falls into the latter category, but this was definitely a legend finally getting his due. It seems almost unbelievable that Taker had to wait so long to win a Rumble and that nobody had won from the number 30 spot yet, but in 2007, both milestones were met in glorious fashion. The match itself was a damn fine Rumble with Michaels and Taker delivering a true nail-biter of a finish. At the time, the company had a bad habit of telegraphing Rumble winners, but the Undertaker came as a genuine surprise, remaining a top guy until 2010, and still keeping a big presence to this day.
Steve Austin (2001) – Picking between this and 98 was tough. On one hand, the 98 Rumble put Austin on the map, but his 2001 victory felt like the bigger deal. I gave 98 a demerit for Austin’s win feeling too obvious, but in 2001 he outlasted a veritable who’s who of the Attitude Era – The Rock, Undertaker, and especially Kane. This match had great drama with Kane dominating most of the match and ruling the ring (You see WWE booking team: When the heels look good, the faces look like bigger heroes when they overcome them). Austin was ambushed and bloodied by Triple H on his way to the ring. Steve Austin looked like an absolute hero when he finally vanquished Kane to win the Rumble, and it lead to an epic battle against the Rock at Wrestlemania.
Ric Flair – Not to sound like a broken record, but obvious choice is obvious. If I were to base my picks on individual people and not individual wins, I’d probably pick Austin, but Flair’s win in 1992 may have been the best. This match was noteworthy for putting the WWF Championship itself up for winning the Rumble. With no title match preceding it on the card, this meant Flair was competing against a veritable who’s who of the Classic Era: Hogan, Undertaker, Savage, Roberts, Piper, Slaughter, DiBiase. Flair not only won an all-star Rumble, but he set the standard for endurance. Gorilla Monsoon kept hammering home that nobody had won the Royal Rumble from an early entrance. (On the note of commentary, Hennan’s performance in this match is some of his best.) But Flair did it. Surviving a long grueling match like this may sound like a babyface move, but this worked in Flair’s favor: He drew heat by proving he wasn’t just bragging. He was as good as he said he was.
So there’s my list, if you have your own opinion on the matter, feel free to share in the comments.