Pick-Six: Best Royal Rumble matches in WWE history
Towards the end of January every year, there are a few specific, annual events that sports fans can count on to pique their interest.
For football fans, nothing beats the intensity of a Championship Sunday, as NFL teams from the AFC and NFC compete for respective Conference Championships and spots in that year’s Super Bowl.
For professional wrestling fans, there are few things that can match the excitement that WWE’s annual Royal Rumble match brings, and the feeling that comes when the Road to WrestleMania truly kicks off.
With more than 30 years of history behind it, the Royal Rumble match has quite the lineage. Household names like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, John Cena, Hulk Hogan, Triple H and Shawn Michaels have each won the match on more than one occasion, while legends like The Undertaker, The Rock, Brock Lesnar, and dozens more have etched their names in the history books with their own victories.
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Heading into the 2021 edition of the event, there have been 33 Men’s Royal Rumble matches held at the annual pay-per-view, with three Women’s Royal Rumble matches since 2018 and one 50-man Royal Rumble, known as the “Greatest Royal Rumble,” held in Saudi Arabia in 2018.
All in all, counting each of those matches (yes, even that Saudi Arabia event), 2021’s will mark the 38th and 39th renditions of arguably WWE’s biggest match of each year.
With so many to pick and choose from, it may seem just as impossible to pick a favorite as it is to actually win the match itself. But, similar to superstars like Drew McIntyre and Charlotte Flair, you never know if you can do it until you try.
So, that’s exactly what we’ve done. Similar to the Rumble itself, it’s time to sort through a group of around 30 to pinpoint the one that sticks out from the rest as the best of the best.
6. 2018 Men’s Royal Rumble
Older WWE fans may not be a huge fan of this pick and may view it as recency bias, but the 2018 Men’s Royal Rumble match was everything it needed to be and more.
You want new stars to be showcased? How about Andrade “Cien” Almas and Adam Cole showing up from NXT to make their respective Royal Rumble debuts. Or, how about names like Shinsuke Nakamura and Finn Balor showing up in the final four remaining participants, with Nakamura winning the whole thing by eliminating Roman Reigns?
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You want nostalgia? How about the massive return of Rey Mysterio, and his presence alongside John Cena and Randy Orton in the match’s final six?
No, the match didn’t have a litany of surprise entrants like others have relied on in the past. Nor did it have many household names that the casual fan may recognize.
But, it served its purpose by shining the spotlight on talented, younger stars, and was the catalyst behind a phenomenal WrestleMania matchup between Nakamura and then-WWE Champion A.J. Styles.
Oh, and it wasn’t even the main event, if you were wondering how solid that show was.
5. 2003 Royal Rumble
Looking back at this Royal Rumble is like looking back at one of the NBA or NFL’s craziest draft classes.
When you think about the trajectory of WWE programming through the decade that followed this match, it’s remarkable how many superstars the company was able to pile into this installment of the Rumble.
Fans were able to see Shawn Michaels and Chris Jericho as the match’s first two entrants, albeit with some outside interference to keep everyone waiting for their match at WrestleMania a few months later.
The audience was able to watch wrestlers that either are now in the Hall of Fame or will soon be, like Eddie Guerrero, Edge, Booker T, Rey Mysterio, and Matt and Jeff Hardy, along with a who’s who of other talents that own their own place in the company’s history.
The match introduced some to Batista and John Cena, and showcased the company’s superstars at the time in Brock Lesnar and The Undertaker. Never again would all four of those top-tier men compete in the same match.
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And, after the dust settled, fans bore witness to Lesnar’s first (and only) Royal Rumble victory, which set him down a path that ended with a WrestleMania classic against Kurt Angle for the WWE Championship.
The talent level was off the charts, the suspense was there as Lesnar’s meteoric rise continued, and stars were born in their own ways. The match set the tone for an all-time stretch for WWE, which ultimately culminated with WrestleMania XIX, one of the best WrestleMania events in the company’s history.
4. 2001 Royal Rumble
Winning three Royal Rumble matches may seem insane, likely because only one wrestler has ever been able to pull it off. It’s only fitting that that one man is “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
The build-up to this Royal Rumble was one of the more predictable in the match’s history in a sense, as all of the attention heading into the match was centered around just a few possibilities.
Austin, combined with legends like The Rock, The Undertaker, Kane, and Rikishi, seemed like the match’s biggest threats leading up to the event, but the question centered around which beast would come out on top when they all wound up in the same ring.
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In the end, Austin ended a record-breaking performance from Kane, which lasted almost 54 minutes and included a then-record 11 eliminations, by smacking him over the head with a chair multiple times and tossing him out of the ring to win his third Rumble.
While the rest of the talent was overshadowed in this top-heavy Rumble, it’s tough to argue against a match where some of the biggest names to ever grace a WWE ring were all fighting in true Attitude Era-style for a title shot at WrestleMania.
3. 1992 Royal Rumble
Old-school, die-hard WWE fans generally put the 1992 Royal Rumble as their greatest of all time. In this case, it winds up at the bottom of the podium with the number three spot on this countdown.
The first Royal Rumble match to ever have true stakes, and the only Royal Rumble match to ever guarantee that a new WWE champion would be crowned at the end, the 1992 Royal Rumble holds a special place in the hearts of many because of its winner: Ric Flair.
The match included wrestling royalty like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Roddy Piper, Jimmy Snuka, Sgt. Slaughter, Jake Roberts and The British Bulldog, and even had young versions of Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker in the fray, as well.
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In the final few minutes, Flair eliminated Savage, Sid Justice eliminated Hogan, and Hogan followed that up by helping Flair eliminate Savage to win the vacant WWF title.
“With a tear in my eye, this is the greatest moment in my life,” Flair proclaimed after the match with his new belt in hand, all in the beginning of one of wrestling’s all-time great promos.
It was a Hall of Fame-worthy Royal Rumble match for sure, but just like Hogan in the match’s final three, the 1992 edition comes up just short in our all-time rankings.
2. 2008 Royal Rumble
The top three for this countdown was among the hardest to figure out in Pick Six history, evident by the fact that the 2008 Royal Rumble match took home a silver medal.
Just a year after a historic clash in the 2007 Royal Rumble’s finale (which we’ll get into a bit later on), The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels drew the first two spots in this Rumble match, which shows you just how stacked this match was.
Each lasted 32 minutes, and their performances were outdone in the most positive way by the trio that wound up as the match’s final three participants: Batista, Triple H and the returning John Cena.
When I tell you that Cena’s surprise return, coming less than four months after the WWE legend suffered a torn pectoral muscle, elicited possibly the loudest crowd reaction ever created by a moment inside Madison Square Garden, you may think the statement is an exaggeration. Believe me when I tell you: it’s an absolute fact.
The shock in the arena when the countdown stopped for the match’s 30th entrant and Cena’s music began was unmatched. The rise in the crowd’s volume as Cena emerged into a spot where the entire audience could actually see that it all was a reality would make you think there were 80,000 people packed into Madison Square Garden that night.
The whole situation even garnered a “Holy sh–” from Cena himself as he stood on the entrance ramp and absorbed the magnitude of the moment.
“The roof is exploding off of Madison Square Garden,” Jim Ross yelled as the event’s announcers tried to react over the ear-shattering crowd reaction.
WWE capitalized on the historic moment, as Cena eliminated Triple H to win the match and earn his first of what would turn into two career Royal Rumble victories.
It was one of the last true surprise returns in recent memory, and created one of the greatest crowd reactions WWE could ever ask for. It continued a year-by-year stretch of Royal Rumble matches that made the event feel larger-than-life, and seems well-deserving of a top-two spot on this list.
1. 2007 Royal Rumble
Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker put together arguably the greatest WrestleMania match of all time when they went to war at WrestleMania 25. They continued the magic a year later when they battled for the last time in the main event of WrestleMania 26.
But, one of the duo’s most underrated encounters didn’t even come in a one-on-one match, even though the two made it seem like one at the end of the 2007 Royal Rumble.
Injuries seemingly derailed plans for a Triple H-involved WrestleMania main event rematch against John Cena in 2007, and it appeared as if the 2007 Royal Rumble match itself would suffer as a result.
But, since these things have a funny way of just working out sometimes, Triple H’s injury somehow led to arguably the greatest Royal Rumble ending of all time, and the greatest Royal Rumble in the match’s history.
In a match that included the likes of CM Punk, Jeff Hardy, Kane, Booker T (then known as King Booker), Matt Hardy, Ric Flair and Rob Van Dam, Michaels himself stole the show as usual.
After eliminating Edge and Randy Orton, Michaels’ rivals at the time, in the match’s final four, he and The Undertaker went one-on-one for eight minutes for a shot at a title of their choosing at WrestleMania 23.
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After their back-and-forth, The Undertaker was able to counter Michaels’ signature Sweet Chin Music to eliminate the Heartbreak Kid, earning his WrestleMania main event in the process.
The Undertaker went on to face Batista for the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania 23, while Michaels separately earned a shot to face John Cena for the WWE Championship at the same event.
Those circumstances may diminish the ending a bit in some fans’ minds, but when you consider what Michaels and ‘Taker were able to achieve at the end of that Rumble, it’s tough to focus on any negatives.
It was a star-studded match with a picture-perfect ending, and is a Rumble any fan would be more than happy to watch year-after-year if WWE was able to replicate it on an annual basis.
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