The Royal Rumble is this weekend. If you haven’t listened to our Royal Rumble preview podcast, you can do so below. Here, Andy Marshall looks at the state of the big show and what it means for talent who win.
The history of World Wrestling Entertainment can be traced back to the huge gamble Vince McMahon made on the success of his now-famous supercard, WrestleMania. Without this all-in type of wager on his company and the talent involved, who knows what the modern professional wrestling landscape would look like.
Man and woman cannot survive on WrestleMania alone, however. This would eventually lead to three more yearly supercards being added to the then-WWF’s pay-per-view schedule. First came Survivor Series in 1987. In 1988, we got the first SummerSlam. While the first officially recognized Royal Rumble show also took place in 1988, the first Royal Rumble on pay-per-view wouldn’t happen until 1989.
While all four shows remain important for their own special reasons, none of them is as important to WWE than the Royal Rumble, and I’m including WrestleMania in that statement. The Rumble is also very much the hipster wrestling fan’s choice of favorite show. So casually they’ll mention “Oh, I actually prefer the Rumble,” and for good reason!
The Royal Rumble remains perhaps the only way WWE knows how to present a wrestler as a really, really, big deal to their audience. It’s either this, or defeating Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania, and lately those ideas have come in a convenient combo pack. This wasn’t always the case. Take for instance the first two winners of the Rumble, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and “Big” John Studd respectively, were both important wrestlers for their time but not quite main event superstars.
That all changed in 1990, when Hulk “Freaking” Hogan would win the next two Rumble matches. In the late 80s and early 90s, there was no more high profile wrestler than Hogan, and the Rumble was a showcase of everyone on the roster before literally showing you who was the best of them all by the end of the night. It only made sense. Legend has it that Mr. Perfect was scheduled to win the 1990 Royal Rumble to extend his mini-feud with Hogan. While a Curt Hennig Rumble win certainly appeals to me as a nostalgic fan, it’s hard to argue it was the wrong decision for business: Hogan would go on to defend the world title he also happened to be holding at the time against The Ultimate Warrior in the main event of WrestleMania 6. It did okay.
Early in his run with WWE, Ric Flair really had not been established as a main event player aside from the audience simply being told as such on the magazine shows and on commentary. That all changed when he captured his first world title, which happened to be on the line in the 1992 Rumble. In one afternoon in Albany, New York, the company had Ric go the distance, entering the match at #3 and lasting all the way to eliminate Hulk Hogan and Sid Justice to prove he belonged.
The very next year, the winner of the Royal Rumble would automatically receive the world title opportunity at that year’s WrestleMania. This unofficially happened in 1991, when Hulk Hogan won his second consecutive Rumble and also happened to face Sgt. Slaughter at WrestleMania 7 by what I could only assume was total coincidence. This was the first time it was declared prior to the match, which saw a young, monster heel Yokozuna be positioned to challenge Bret Hart later that year.
This was a formula that proven to work very quickly, especially with the company suddenly without, and eventually competing against, a certain red and yellow and orange personality. So of course, in 1994, the company tried their best to carny it up real good, with the story going that Bret Hart and Lex Luger both won the match via simultaneous final elimination. Here is a great example of a time when Vince McMahon simply could not make his mind up and the build to WrestleMania X suffered from being split between both wrestlers. It’s fun to imagine if Luger would have actually gotten a run at the top if Vince had decided to go with him that night.
Shawn Michaels also got the winning consecutive Royal Rumble treatment in 1995 and 1996. While these are both considered to be pretty unremarkable matches, Shawn was the first to unsuccessfully challenge for the title before winning as a big, smiling babyface the next year. They would do pretty much the exact same thing in 1997 (sort of) and 1998 with Stone Cold Steve Austin. Then in 1999, Vince McMahon won the match.
It took them almost ten years, but finally the match had been sullied to the degree that the promoter of the company could not resist winning his own marquee gimmick match. Sure, it led to Austin and McMahon in a cage for the right to go to WrestleMania on the line the next month, but with the level of storytelling at that point in the company, there had to have been so many other ways they could have gotten there.
In 2000, we had another screwy, botched finish which saw The Rock win, which as a result is a very glossed over accomplishment when considering his biggest moments. Was the match running out of steam?
Short answer? Not quite. The next two Rumbles would be among the most fondly remembered to ever take place. In 2001, Stone Cold Steve Austin won his record-setting third Rumble, which also saw Kane set a then-record for eliminations with 11.
Then, Triple H kind of ruined things, like usual. In 2002, while the match was again considered to be one of the best in the show’s history, Hunter’s win felt a bit too forced. He had just returned from a devastating quad injury and was suddenly…a good guy? He was the exact same character, just, we cheered now? There’s only so much shine winning the Rumble can put on a guy, and here they were putting that theory on max.
Instead of Triple H winning again the next year, the match wouldn’t see a repeat winner until John Cena paired his 2008 win with his inevitable march back to the top in 2013. This included the likes of Brock Lesnar, [REDACTED], Batista, Rey Mysterio, Edge, Alberto Del Rio, Randy Orton, and even The Undertaker added the accolade to his resume.
After that, three of the next four winners joined the two-win club: Randy Orton, Edge, and Batista. The only first-time winner in that span? Some guy named Roman Reigns. The company has only let its truly elite talent win this match. There hasn’t been much in the way of a fluke win beyond McMahon’s in 1999. Even with the establishment of the women’s Royal Rumble in 2018, the three winners have been Asuka, Becky Lynch, and Charlotte Flair. The winners are all on a different tier than everyone else.
So when Shinsuke Nakamura won in 2018, last eliminating that pesky Roman Reigns, it was met with considerable surprise. Was WWE going to run with the new, charismatic personality they lured from New Japan as a top guy? No! Weirdly. Nakamura lost to AJ Styles in a ho-hum match that was never really allowed to get going and Nakamura was banished to the US title scene within a few months, and has recently been slumming it with Cesaro in a tag team of unbelievably wasted potential.
The next year, Seth Rollins would win a pretty boring Rumble match and go on to defeat Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania for the Universal Championship. This all worked out the way it was supposed to for main event babyface Seth Rollins, but unfortunately any actual goodwill with fans was torched during his incredibly poorly booked feud with The Fiend.
The next year, Drew McIntyre would win a pretty exciting Rumble match and go on to defeat Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania for the WWE Championship. Time is a flat circle. This represents the latest high note in the history of made men and women being established by a huge Rumble win. McIntyre seems like the main event guy that they envisioned Roman Reigns becoming following his win in 2015. There is the proof that it still works, when cold feet or bad booking don’t come into play, that is.
By now, it’s pretty clear there is a different tier of wrestlers allowed to win a Royal Rumble match. There’s even a tier within a tier, as two-time winners of the match are all among the absolute biggest stars the company’s ever promoted. Are you really a star to Vince McMahon if he doesn’t pick you to win the company’s signature match?
Superstars such as Mick Foley and The Ultimate Warrior never really got close to winning. Randy Savage was the last eliminated in 1993, but otherwise never fared particularly well either. Chris Jericho was rumored to win in 2012, but Sheamus won that year instead. CM Punk had some memorable moments in the Rumble, the most infamous being his final in-ring appearance for the company before walking out the night after the 2014 show. Kane has been a dominant force in the Rumble for the entirety of his career, but never got the big win. Many fans are still waiting for Daniel Bryan to get the nod too. Dean Ambrose/Jon Moxley will likely remain the only member of The SHIELD never to win a Rumble.
The only match that WWE has come close to replicating the success of the Royal Rumble with is Money In the Bank. The MITB concept has become so watered down since its inception in 2005, the comparison even feels hollow for this very point I’m trying to make. That match says “Here is who’s next.” The Rumble says “This is where we’re at right now.”
With the 34th edition of the show set to take place this weekend, a majority of the field for both men’s and women’s matches remain in-play as potential winners. Is this the year they pull the trigger on Bryan or Sami Zayn? Could we see the first two-time match winner since Randy Orton in 2017, when Edge, Shinsuke Nakamura, and even old Rey Mysterio have a chance to join the exclusive club? Can Charlotte Flair make it two-in-a-row to join an even rarer company?
Fans love this event because it’s the one time of year where WWE quits screwing around and points with big arrows and flashing lights THIS IS OUR GUY AND GAL THIS YEAR. We get at least half of our WrestleMania main event showcased and there’s a new, concrete piece of the story told. Come to think of it, if the rest of the year wasn’t so uncertain, would we really care as much?