It’s that time again—Royal Rumble time! Since 1988, the WWE has showcased the biggest battle royal of them all in the month of January. The Royal Rumble turns up the heat for various WWE chronicles during the late winter months on the road to the promotion’s Super Bowl equivalent in the spring, WrestleMania. Why is the Royal Rumble so important? It’s because the Rumble’s winner ascends to main event status and a shot at the WWE or World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania.
We as fans remember the winners, the ones who went the distance from the Number One spot. Or we remember the improbable victors, such as Vince McMahon and Rey Mysterio. We recall those who received more than a certificate of participation and winning in the case of Ric Flair and Triple H. However, what about those who were runner-ups? What was their eventual fate? What was there consolation for finishing second?
Not all runner-ups are created equal. Some runner-ups caused a considerable stir while some didn’t belong there and some were just ‘meh.’ A few second place finishers were all but pawns in a major superstar’s push while others served as stepping stones for subsequent angles and events. With all that in consideration, let’s take a look at some of the best runner-ups who’ve gone over the top at the Royal Rumble.
25. One Man Gang – 1988
The One Man Gang was at the peak of his popularity in the WWE when he entered the inaugural Royal Rumble in 1988. The Gang was a monster heel who was brought in to feud with and enhance the baby face wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage and Don Muraco. But in the first ever Royal Rumble he was a… well, a “One Man Gang,” eliminating six competitors, one of those being the Ultimate Warrior. Gang’s disposal of 30-percent of the 20 entrants appeared to have him on track for winning the match. All that was left for him was a hobbled “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan. However, Duggan exploited the Gang’s size and momentum over the top rope for the win. Nonetheless, the One Man Gang proved a worthy runner-up in the first ever Royal Rumble even though who should have won is debatable. At the end of the day though, One Man Gang wouldn’t achieve anything of note following this Rumble, and thus sits at the bottom of our list.
24. “Macho Man” Randy Savage – 1993
The “Winner receives a WWE Championship shot at WrestleMania” stipulation for the 1993 Royal Rumble served as the template for subsequent Rumbles. The stipulation came at a time of unrest in the WWE. The promotion was rocked with a steroid scandal involving its biggest stars to include Hulk Hogan, who took a leave of absence from the organization. That absence encompassed the Royal Rumble where Yokozuna received a push to main event status. With Yokozuna’s anointed Rumble push someone had to take the fall and that man was “Macho Man” Randy Savage. Savage’s elimination by Yokozuna wasn’t unbelievable but how he was tossed was outlandish. Savage performed his famed flying elbow and went for a pin, only to be “bench pressed” out of the ring by Yokozuna. Savage, who was already a part-time wrestler at the time, was riding out his WWE contract.
23. Earthquake – 1991
Earthquake had a unique path to the 1991 Royal Rumble and to professional wrestling for that matter. Originally a sumo wrestler in Japan—yes, a sumo wrestler—he caught the attention of wrestling legend Giant Baba who trained and thrusted him into the wrestling ring. Earthquake made his way to the WWE where he would feud with Hulk Hogan and later Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Earthquake also gained popularity as one of the Natural Disasters with Typhoon, feuding with the Legion of Doom and other tag teams. But in the 1991 Rumble, Earthquake was continuing his feud with Hulk Hogan. Predictably, Earthquake and Hogan were the last men remaining in the match. And unsurprisingly, Hogan “hulked out” and Earthquake became Hulkster fodder soon thereafter, thus serving as Hogan’s consecutive Royal Rumble win.
22. The British Bulldog – 1995
The 1995 Royal Rumble had an uninspiring roster to say the least: Aldo Montoya, Mo, Mantaur, Eli Blu, Jacob Blu, and Kwang. Kwang—who the hell? One thing is for sure, fans knew who Shawn Michaels and “The British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith were. Both entered the Rumble as the number one and two contestants, respectively. They would both go full circle and end up being the last two contestants as well, eliminating Jimmy Del Ray, Duke Droese and Timothy Well along the way. Who again? Michaels and Davey Boy traded shots until Michaels ousted an unsuspecting Smith to the floor. Given the talent from which the WWE was working with at the time, Smith’s runner-up elimination was as good and it was going to get. Unfortunately, Davey Boy Smith had reached his professional peak before this particular Rumble.
21. “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase – 1989
The 1989 Royal Rumble improved over the previous year’s inaugural event as it featured 30 contestants. Several of the WWE’s biggest superstars participated: Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Mr. Perfect, Andre the Giant, Big Boss Man, Jake Roberts, Big John Studd and Ted DiBiase. The match had several intriguing scenarios with Demolition fighting each other, Hogan accidentally dumping Savage, the Warlord lasting two seconds, Andre eliminating himself because of Robert’s snake and Ted DiBiase buying his Number 30 slot. The latter was a noteworthy set-up as DiBiase and Big John Studd were the last two men. DiBiase tried to buy his Rumble win during the match but Studd dispensed him quickly. Even with all the participating star power, the first pay-per-view Royal Rumble was meant to push Big John Studd, which never came to fruition due to his departure from the WWE—over money. Oh the irony.
20. Diesel – 1996
The WWE was on the cusp of turning the corner with regard to talent in 1996. However, they would be losing talent as well as foreshadowed by individual matches in and the 1996 Royal Rumble match itself. The 1996 Rumble match featured future WWE superstars, fading legends and several lower and mid-card wrestlers. The seeds of the future were planted with Triple H and Steve Austin (The Ringmaster) making their Royal Rumble debuts along with Kane (Isaac Yankem). But the WWE was building Shawn Michaels up after his “retirement angle” and the air of predictability was unbelievably strong with the Rumble’s outcome. Who that win would come up against was answered with Diesel. Diesel—or Kevin Nash—wouldn’t receive much in the way of a push after the Rumble—in the WWE that is.
19. Santino Marella – 2011
Santino Marella already had a battle royal win to his credit before going into the 2011 Royal Rumble—the Miss WrestleMania Battle Royal at WrestleMania XXV. Yes, you read right, Miss WrestleMania! At least Santino Morella’s 2011 Royal Rumble was better than his 2009 Rumble appearance. If you don’t remember that one it’s probably because it lasted all a few seconds at the hands of the entrant repellant Kane. But the 2011 Rumble was a 40-man event which came down to Alberto Del Rio and “The Milan Miracle.” Things were looking up for the Italian Stallion and his “Cobra” hand until Del Rio took him over the top rope in quick fashion. Runner-up wouldn’t be bad for Marella as he captured the United States Championship a few months later.
18. Ryback – 2013
There was an air of inevitability with the 2013 Royal Rumble given The Rock and CM Punk’s match for the WWE Championship. Likewise, fans could see where the Rumble was going given the Rock and Cena’s continued feud culminating in a WrestleMania showdown for the WWE Championship. And if there was anyone that would make John Cena’s Royal Rumble win look strong heading into Mania it would be the surging Ryback who was coming off a solid 2012. Although it can be argued that Ryback’s streak of pay-per-view losses could have been squashed by a Rumble win, such an outcome would have muddled The Rock and Cena’s WrestleMania matchup. After the Rumble, Ryback flirted with main event status feuding with CM Punk and won the Intercontinental Championship before his WWE departure in 2016.
17. Rusev – 2015
Roman Reigns found himself in the same position that Batista was the year before—a chorus of boos that echoed throughout the arena during the 2015 Royal Rumble. And yes, eliciting boos from a Philadelphia crowd is not hard to do. However, cheering, “We want Rusev”? Really Philly, don’t you all remember Rocky IV? Unsurprisingly, fans turned rabid after Daniel Bryan’s and Dean Ambrose’s elimination and latched onto anything that wasn’t Reigns and the WWE’s old-guard in Big Show and Kane. Rusev’s cheers were short-lived as he was manhandled and tossed from the ring by Reigns. The 2016 Rumble was no different, only the order eliminated as Ruev was the first entrant eliminated by Reigns. Rusev has been stuck in the mid-card, save for his United Championship loss—to Roman Reigns.
16. Sid Justice – 1992
The 1992 Royal Rumble may be the best of all-time! It was the first time the WWE Championship was on the line. As a result, the match was an explosion of star power. One of those stars was Sid Justice, who had arrived in the WWE months earlier as a fan favorite. The overall build up with Justice was effective in that he feuded with both the Undertaker and Jake Roberts while teaming with both Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan at various early in his tour. Things got interesting when Justice eliminated both Savage and Hogan during the match, leaving him and Ric Flair. In one fell swoop, Hulk Hogan’s Royal Rumble win-streak was ended and the stage was set for Justice’s eventual heel turn as well as Flair’s WWE Championship win. Sid’s taste of championship gold would come several years later, however.
15. The Big Show – 2000 and 2004
The 2000 Royal Rumble was controversial. The Big Show technically won due to The Rock’s feet hitting the ground first when they both spilled over the rope. However, that angle was not seen or shown on television until later by The Big Show. As a result, the Big Show was included in a Fatal Four Way at WrestleMania 2000 with The Rock, Mick Foley and WWE Champion Triple H. He was vanquished first from the match and from the WWE later in the year for weight and health issues. Being runner-up in the 2004 Rumble proved to be a bad omen as the Big Show lost his WWE United States Championship to John Cena at WrestleMania. Similar to 2000’s events, The Big Show took time off from the WWE later in the year to heal various injuries.
14. Chris Jericho – 2012
The Royal Rumble is famous for surprise entrants, both old-school and returning stars. In the on- and off-again relationship that is Chris Jericho and the WWE, Jericho made his in-ring return in style at the 2012 Royal Rumble. Having made his Rumble intentions known during a late-2011 television return, Jericho participated amongst special entrant likes of Mick Foley and Hacksaw Jim Duggan—the first ever Royal Rumble winner—as well as match commentators, Michael Cole, Booker T and Jerry Lawler. However, the night belonged to Jericho and Sheamus who were the last two participants in the match. Jericho’s return in the Rumble and subsequent ousting by Sheamus helped fuel the Celtic Warrior’s push towards main event status. Given his sporadic WWE tours, pushing young stars would be a trend that Jericho has followed to present.
13. Randy Orton – 2006
Randy Orton’s 2006 was a seismograph of highs and lows. One of his high points was being runner-up in the Royal Rumble in Miami, Florida. Although no stranger to the main event and the championship scene, “The Viper” was on a heel hot-steak coming into 2006 after feuding with the Undertaker for most of 2005. In the first Rumble after Eddie Guerrero’s untimely passing in late-2005, Orton was dealt the coveted Number 30 spot. Rey Mysterio, who devoted his Rumble performance to Guerrero, eliminated Orton, setting up a feud between the two heading to WrestleMania. Orton’s working with Mysterio, who was on track to becoming WWE Champion, amplified Orton’s heel character. However, Orton was suspended in real-life twice for various issues thus suppressing his momentum.
12. Roman Reigns – 2014
Roman Reigns was on the other side of fan disapproval in the 2014 Royal Rumble. Much of the fans’ consternation focused on Batista not to mention Rey Mysterio who came out at Number 30 to a crowd realizing that Daniel Bryan would not be participating in the Rumble. Reigns, who was a heel at the time, dispensed 12 men, besting Kane’s elimination record of 11 participants in 2001. Of note, two of Reign’s eliminations where his Shield counterparts—Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins—which set Roman up for his eventual good-guy turn and resultant push later in the year. However, Batista eliminated Reigns much to the displeasure of the fans at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. As Reigns found out later during his push to the stratosphere, Pennsylvania is a tough place to work.
11. The Undertaker – 2003
The Royal Rumble serves as a great spot for a wrestler’s return from time-off or real-life injury. The Undertaker used his post-injury return card for the 2003 Royal Rumble. In doing so, he directly focused considerable attention on himself and the outcome of the match given his highly anticipated return at the Number 30 spot. However, he returned amid the peak of Lesnar-Mania—a facet the WWE booked and exploited by design. The Dead Man helped “The Next Big Thing” with his proverbial push to the WrestleMania main event by his going over the top-rope as the 29th elimination. No stranger to past headlining events and the championship scene, The Undertaker would experience Rumble redemption as well as recapture WWE Championship glory four years later.
10. Kane – 2001
Wrestlers taking part in the Royal Rumble should avoid Kane like the plague. The Big Red Machine’s Royal Rumble claim-to-fame came during the 2001 Royal Rumble. Kane stole the show in The Big Easy where he tossed 11 competitors over the top rope. However, it was plain to see—even from the nosebleed section where I sat during the event—the match was going to go the way of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin who was attacked by Triple H before entering the Rumble. As Kane laid waste to the Rumble contestants, Austin hobbled his way back to ring and fought off Haku and The Rock before clotheslining Kane out of the ring. Kane remained in the tag-team and individual title picture for the next few years and has been a WWE and a Rumble fixture ever since.
9. Bret Hart – 1997
WWE was starting to boil during the first part of the “Attitude Era” in 1997. As a result, the 1997 Royal Rumble was the perfect showcase for the continuation of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Bret Hart’s feud. Austin was in the infancy of his superstardom while Bret Hart was on the cusp of departing the WWE after real-life issues with Shawn Michaels and contractual disputes only a handful of months later. Nonetheless, the Rumble showcased Austin’s cunningness and tenacity as he reentered the match to unsuspecting referees after his own elimination by Bret Hart. Austin eliminated the remaining contestants in The Undertaker, Big Van Vader and, lastly, Bret Hart. Hart’s elimination intensified an already volatile feud which culminated in their historic match at WrestleMania 13 a few months later.
8. Shawn Michaels – 1994 and 2007
“The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels made amends for his 12 second elimination by the Ultimate Warrior with his runner-up placement in the 1994 Royal Rumble. Michaels’ 1994 runner-up status was murky given the Rumble’s co-winners in Lex Luger and Brett Hart. Both men were deemed to have hit the floor simultaneously when they eliminated each at the match’s conclusion. Controversy aside, Michaels won both the 1995 and 1996 Rumbles on his rise to fame. Michaels’ runner-up in the 2007 Royal Rumble was more apparent as he and the Undertaker slugged it out for several minutes before the prior was tossed over the top. Although Michaels receives considerable guff for picking and choosing his losses, the Boy Toy gets credit for jumpstarting The Undertaker’s last big push.
7. Mr. Perfect – 1990
The 1990 Royal Rumble had significant intrigue and the star power to back it up with legends such as Randy Savage, Andre the Giant, Dusty Rhodes, Roddy Piper and Rick Rude. More importantly, the match gave fans a tease of the upcoming main event at WrestleMania—Hulk Hogan versus The Ultimate Warrior. However, Hogan was in a feud with the upstart “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig at the time. The Rumble seemingly was used to put that feud to end and to focus on the Hogan-Warrior confrontation. As a result, Perfect and Hogan were the last two men remaining in the ring. Curt Hennig’s win at the 1990 Royal Rumble would have been a perfect bump as it can be argued Hogan did not need the win. Nonetheless, the oft-injured Perfect was rewarded the Intercontinental strap for his efforts after WrestleMania.
6. Triple H – 2008 and 2009
Triple H receives considerable backlash for whom he chooses to lose to—or lack thereof. Triple H’s putting over—or going over the top for—both John Cena and Randy in the 2008 and 2009 Royal Rumbles, respectively, was calculated. On one hand, John Cena’s unexpected return to and winning the Rumble made for a great surprise and story for the injured star. But runner-up Triple H still found his way into a Triple Threat Match at WrestleMania with then WWE Champion Randy Orton and John Cena. Similarly, Randy Orton’s win in 2009 was squelched by Rumble runner-up Triple H. Hunter won their WrestleMania XXV match for the WWE Championship. Orton would get the title eventually but it can be argued that his winning it on the WrestleMania stage would have been a loftier accomplishment.
5. Kurt Angle – 2002
The WWE was brimming with talent after its buyout of WCW in 2001. However, the familiar faces—The Rock, Steve Austin, Undertaker, Chris Jericho and Kurt Angle—were carrying the bulk of the storylines post-WCW “invasion.” Lost in the sea of opportunity was Triple H whose real-life quad injury kept him out of action for almost a year. Triple H returned to the WWE in early 2002 and began feuding with Kurt Angle—again—for the start of “The Game’s” big push. The feud carried over to the 2002 Royal Rumble where Triple H and Kurt Angle found themselves as the final two contestants. Triple H ousted Angle and solidified his comeback, ultimately winning the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania. Angle coped with being runner-up as he won the WWE Championship later in the year.
4. Dean Ambrose – 2016
For the second time in Royal Rumble history the WWE Championship was on the line. Yet, this time the champion, Roman Reigns, was in the match and was technically defending his title from 29 other entrants. Reigns was ousted towards the match’s conclusion by “surprise” Number 30 entrant Triple H, leaving “The Cerebral Assassin” and Dean Ambrose as the lone remaining entrants in the ring. Although Triple H’s eventual win was not shocking, Dean Ambrose’s performance in the runner-up spot was laudable. Not only did Ambrose participate in a brutal Last Man Standing Match against Kevin Owens to open the Rumble card, he stood toe-to-toe with Triple H and built match anticipation amid a predictable finish. Ambrose efforts were rewarded with his capturing of WWE Championship gold during the summer of 2016.
3. The Rock – 1998
The Rock and 1998 Royal Rumble winner “Stone Cold” Steve Austin were no strangers given the latter’s feud with the Nation of Domination (NOD) during 1997 and 1998. Amid their battle for the Intercontinental Championship, The Rock was polishing his persona while Austin’s popularity was ablaze. As a result, Austin was being primed for main event and WWE Championship status in early-1998. That’s where that year’s Royal Rumble comes into play. The Rock went the long haul for nearly an hour being entrant Number four, staving off attacks from both his NOD brethren as well as Austin. The Rock’s elimination of NOD leader Farooq and his second-place finish to Austin at the Rumble foreshadowed bigger things for the “People’s Champ.” The Rock won the WWE Championship in late 1998.
2. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin – 1999
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin had no chance in hell winning the 1999 Royal Rumble. Vince McMahon was doing everything in his power to keep Austin from winning three times in a row. In a comical escalation of the feud between the “Rattlesnake” and the Chairman of the Board, McMahon set up a Buried Alive match with the Undertaker weeks prior to the Rumble, ensured Austin received the Number One draw and reserved himself the Number 30 spot. Additionally, McMahon orchestrated a restroom beat-down at the hands of McMahon’s Corporation during the Rumble match. Austin returned to the ring only to be eliminated by McMahon with help from the Rock, the then WWE Champion. Austin won his Rumble rights back from McMahon at the next pay-per-view. As a result, Stone Cold faced and beat the Rock for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania XV.
1. John Cena – 2005 and 2010
Rumored to be a bungled finish, the 2005 Royal Rumble conclusion looked to be a repeat of the 1994 Rumble with co-winners in Batista and John Cena. However, Vince McMahon restarted the match and Batista commenced to throwing Cena out. What did Cena get as consolation? He faced John Layfield at WrestleMania 21 for the WWE Championship, which Cena won. Cena’s runner-up at the 2010 Royal Rumble netted him the WWE Championship at the 2010 Elimination Chamber a few weeks later. Cena held the title for 13 minutes before losing it to Batista the same night, however. Cena then regained the title on the grand stage of WrestleMania XXVI. Suffice to say, John Cena proves that one doesn’t have to win the Royal Rumble to get a push.
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