Without a doubt, the Royal Rumble match has created some of the greatest wrestling memories of all time. Originally conceived as a unique twist on the traditional battle royal, the Rumble match has increased in importance over the years, and now sits as one of the biggest annual events in WWE, and the official start of the Road to WrestleMania. Along the way, the Rumble match has constantly evolved, and when combined with the high levels of talent that have been in WWE over time, has occasionally produced some excellent matches. And since we already covered the worst Rumble matches ever, it’s only fair that we present to you the 10 Royal Rumble matches that we feel are the absolute best of the best.
10. 2002 – Game On
To be fair, the result of this match was never in doubt. Triple H had just made his triumphant return at MSG, after over eight months on the injury list due to a torn quad muscle. The entire direction was clear: Triple H returns as a massive babyface, wins the Royal Rumble, and becomes the new Undisputed Champion at WrestleMania. Some things would go awry in the execution, but for the Rumble at least, Triple H was the consensus pick to win. In addition, while the WCW Invasion had failed on basically ever level while Triple H was on the shelf, this was the first Rumble since WWE’s acquisition of their former rivals, and as a result, the roster was at the deepest it had ever been in history, with the absolute cream of the crop showcased in a stacked Rumble lineup. Not satisfied with just relying on the remnants of WCW, four big returns were advertised ahead of time, leading to surprisingly good showings from Mr. Perfect and Goldust, which earned them longer-term contracts as a result. Ultimately, this match was the Triple H show, as he would survive challenges from competitors including Kurt Angle and Steve Austin in order to take the Rumble victory.
9. 1997 – The Rise Of 3:16
Steve Austin wasn’t quite the biggest Superstar on the planet that he would become, but a Survivor Series match with Bret Hart had set him on the path, and his appearance in this Rumble would show that WWE was aware of just how popular he was becoming. Austin entered the match early and, as he’d promised in weeks leading up to the show, was suitably dominant, ending up alone in the ring awaiting challengers. To the shock of no one, but the delight of everyone, Bret Hart finally emerged to continue his war with Austin, one which would continue for the balance of the match. While the overall talent pool for the Rumble was fairly thin, Hart and Austin carried the match on their backs with their combined intensity and wrestling abilities. Then came the shocking finish, as Hart thought he had finally gained the upper hand and eliminated Austin, only to see the sneaky Rattlesnake re-enter the match thanks to the referees all being distracted and missing his elimination completely. Austin would dump a surprised Hart and claim the tainted victory, to the general appreciation of the fans in attendance. Austin’s stolen win would, of course, lead to the infamous Austin-Hart match at WrestleMania 13 which saw Austin turn face and Hart turn heel on America, establishing Austin as the future star of the company. And the future was coming sooner than anyone could have believed…
8. 1998 – “Do Unto Others Before They Do Unto You”
If 1997 was the rising action, this year’s Rumble was the beginning of a climax that would turn WWE into the wrestling behemoth we know and love. With Bret Hart off to WCW, The Undertaker tangled up with his recently revealed little brother, and Shawn Michaels about to suffer what was at the time a career-ending back injury (although we didn’t know that going in to the Rumble, obviously), the stars were aligned for Austin to take his place on top of the company. In the weeks leading up to the Rumble, Austin, who had weeks earlier forfeited the Intercontinental title to The Rock in order to enter the WWE Title picture, made it clear that he wouldn’t be backing down from anyone, randomly attacking announced Rumble participants on a weekly basis, and even turning the drawing of entrance numbers into an all-out brawl. Every wrestler in the company was rabid to get their hands on Steve Austin, and in the Rumble match, he outsmarted them all, taking every opportunity he could and eventually emerging victorious, to the rousing ovation of wrestling fans the world over. This Rumble also featured a tour de force performance by Mick Foley, who entered the match three times, once as each of his vastly different personas. In addition, The Rock, who had quietly begun making waves since becoming Intercontinental Champion, continued to impress by lasting over 50 minutes in the Rumble, setting him on his own path to greatness.
7. 1994 – All Right, We’ll Call It A Draw
This was the year where WWE’s search for a replacement for Hulk Hogan began in earnest. On one side, you had Lex Luger, who had spent much of the past year being built up as an ultra-patriotic face, a carbon copy of the traits that had helped create Hulkamania, and the only person on the planet capable of lifting then-WWE Champion Yokozuna off the ground and body-slamming him. Unfortunately, his popularity had waned since a failed attempt to dethrone Yokozuna at SummerSlam, which, when combined with a pre-match stipulation, left a Rumble victory his only means of getting a re-match. On the other side was Bret Hart, who had lost the WWE Title to Yokozuna at WrestleMania the previous year, and was embroiled in a feud with his younger brother Owen, which would actually explode earlier on the Pay Per View, with Owen kicking Bret in his already-injured leg following a loss to WWE Tag Team Champions The Quebecers. In the end, WWE decided, in part, to let the fans decide who would be chosen to topple Yokozuna at WrestleMania X. For the first and only official time in Rumble history, the match ended in a tie, as Hart and Luger tumbled out of the ring together. After initially declaring each man the winner (and listening carefully to the crowd reactions), WWE declared a draw, setting up a mini-tournament of sorts at WrestleMania, where Hart would emerge victorious as the new WWE Champion.
6. 2005 – Vince McMahon Cripples Himself
Up until the finish was massively messed up, this Rumble match was actually a really fun affair, headlined by rising stars John Cena and Batista, right before they would both be catapulted into promotion-carrying main event stars. The dual ascension of both men, combined with a field full of cagey veterans, led to fans being truly unable to predict who would win. In the end, as it should have, it did come down to Cena and Batista, representing their respective brands (believe it or not, there was a time where John Cena was on Smackdown all the time). Unfortunately, an accidental over-rotation on a powerbomb attempt caused both men to tumble out of the ring in a completely unplanned finish that threw everyone into confusion. To make matters worse, Vince McMahon decided the best solution was to have him run out to the ring himself and oversee the decision-making, and in the process of trying to slide into the ring like a man twenty or thirty years younger, he managed to rupture both of his quad muscles and collapsed in the corner, where he attempted to maintain his composure. In the end, the match was restarted, and Batista claimed the victory, but the glorious chaos of the finish has remained fresh in wrestling fans’ minds for years afterwards.
5. 2000 – The Rock Survives The Threat Of Headbanger Mosh
In their old stomping grounds of MSG, WWE put on one of their best Rumble matches, and in fact one of their best Royal Rumble Pay Per Views, in history. A hot crowd, already hyped up from the debut of Tazz, the very first tables match in WWE history, and a classic Triple H-Cactus Jack Street Fight that ranks as one of the best matches ever, was ready for an enjoyable Rumble match, and that’s exactly what they got. The first part of the match was dominated by surprisingly hot act Rikishi, who eliminated many of the early participants and treated the crowd to his incredibly popular (for reasons no one has ever fully understood) dance routine. Once the ring began filling up with more bodies, the countdown was on for the heavy favorite to win, The Rock (who had blithely said earlier in the evening that his only obstacles to victory were Crash Holly and Headbanger Mosh). His entrance gave the crowd someone to unite behind, and while the path to victory was far from easy, in a match full of non-stop action, The Rock survived all the way to a final one-on-one confrontation with The Big Show. While Show was initially dominant, a single miscalculation saw Rock use leverage and momentum to eliminate his mammoth opponent. Although Show would later contend that Rock’s feet had touched the ground during the finish, in the moment Rock was victorious, in the arena that had long been the center of WWE’s power.
4. 2004 – Oh Right, That Guy
We can completely understand those who can’t watch this match ever again, but at the time, this was definitely one of the best Rumble matches ever. First of all, it had the main, overarching story of an underdog being forced to enter at #1 who ends up winning the whole thing while eliminating all of the largest wrestlers in WWE at that point, in an emotional climax of a long and (at the time) respected career. But throughout the match there were many other stories told, including Mick Foley getting a small measure of revenge in his escalating feud with Randy Orton, Brock Lesnar screwing over Goldberg in the former WCW star’s only appearance in a Rumble match ever, the slow spiral of Kurt Angle back into his heel persona after failing to win this match “for the troops”, and the struggle as most of WWE’s top wrestlers united in a desperate attempt to eliminate the Big Show, only to be eliminated one by one, until just Benoit remained. The whole match was masterfully booked, and featured some of the best wrestling ever seen in a Rumble match. It’s truly unfortunate this, and many other great matches, have been permanently soured by the events centered around Chris Benoit.
3. 2010 – Rated “R” Rumble
One of the biggest complaints about the Rumble, ever since WWE began awarding the winner a title shot at WrestleMania, is that it limits the potential winners and ruins the unpredictability of the event. Well, that wasn’t the case this year, as the man who won wasn’t even announced as an entrant in the match beforehand! In the meantime, however, WWE had a multitude of potential winners to choose from, all with different motivations. There was John Cena looking to regain the WWE Title he’d lost on a fluke to Sheamus in a Tables Match the month prior. There was CM Punk looking to spread his Straight Edge message to the masses. There were the usual assortment of always dangerous veterans who could easily be slotted into the title picture in the form of Chris Jericho, Batista, and Triple H. And most importantly of all, there was Shawn Michaels, desperately seeking another shot at the then-World Heavyweight Champion Undertaker, who refused to grant Shawn a WrestleMania re-match after Michaels failed to end the Streak the year prior. Punk was dominant early, but eliminated mid-way through by Triple H, and the ring began to fill with potential victors. Then, at #29, Edge shocked the world by making his return from a six-month absence due to injury, instantly becoming the crowd favorite (well, once Shawn Michaels was eliminated to the devastation of the fans), and persevering to last eliminate John Cena and secure one of the few accolades that had eluded him in his decorated career.
2. 2001 – Austin’s Comeback
Possibly the most star-studded Rumble since 1992, taking place at a point where WWE was at the peak of its powers, with Steve Austin having finally made his return after a year-long absence, The Rock hitting new heights while preparing to go film his first starring role in a major movie, and a dozen other supporting players all capable of carrying the main event scene. This Rumble had everything, including an unforgettable celebrity appearance from Drew Carey, an entire section of the match devoted to the Hardcore division, the return of The Big Show from having his attitude adjusted in developmental, and a finale that featured at least six different Superstars who could have conceivably won the match (even though Steve Austin was the clear favorite). Nearly everything that happened in this match (and at this Pay Per View in general) was part of the set-up for WrestleMania X-7, considered by many to be the very best WrestleMania of all time, and it was a showcase of everything that had turned WWE from an underdog fighting against the ascendant WCW, into a true international wrestling megalith: talented wrestlers, good wrestling, and smart booking.
1. 1992 – A Flair For The Gold
For the longest time, this was the only time where the WWE Title was on the line in the Royal Rumble match, but since that’s no longer true, it’ll have to just hang its hat on being the first time that ever happened. As a result, every main event star in the company was an entrant in the match, including Hulk Hogan and The Undertaker both guaranteed all with legitimate claim to becoming the new Champion. And to the shock of color commentator Bobby Heenan, his pick to win, Ric Flair, entered at #3, facing a field full of wrestlers who didn’t particularly like the abrasive Nature Boy. The story of the match played out beautifully, with Superstar after Superstar going after Flair, while Flair stubbornly evaded elimination and Heenan had panic attacks on commentary. Unbelievably, Flair survived an all-star field right to the very end, and when Hulk Hogan took issue with Sid Justice shockingly eliminating him (ignoring the fact that the Rumble is supposed to be “every wrestler for themselves”), Flair was in the perfect position to capitalize, completing a gutsy performance and emerging as the new WWE Champion.