As most of us know by now, Randy Orton won this year's Royal Rumble and will be heading into the main event of WrestleMania 33. Or will he? Surely, he's still going to have a World Championship match at the Show of Shows, but with the reinstatement of the Brand Split and a new World Championship on the horizons, the Universal Championship could indeed take center stage in favor of Orton's WWE Championship match. It wouldn't be the first time that a Royal Rumble winner didn't get their promised spot in the main event of WrestleMania. After all, a spot in the main event of WrestleMania was never a guarantee for the winner until Royal Rumble 1993 when Yokozuna won it. Before that, Royal Rumble was just a fun thing to win without any reward involved. Kind of like King of the Ring. With that said, there are a good handful of Royal Rumble winners who did not main event WrestleMania. Given the wide range of credentials that each Mania-less winner has (or doesn't have), these are superstars worth ranking.
The main criteria that I'm basing these rankings on is whether or not these winners deserved to main event WrestleMania to begin with while also considering the match that took place the year that they won the Royal Rumble. I also tried to consider just how over these wrestlers were at the time and if they were over enough to warrant being placed in the biggest match on the biggest wrestling show of the year. Agree or disagree, this is just what I think and here is how I would rank all of the Royal Rumble winners whose wins did not get them a main event spot at WrestleMania.
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12 Mr. McMahon
Dead last on the chopping block of this list has to be WWE's Chairman of the board. As a non-wrestler, Vince McMahon had no business in the main event of WrestleMania. His feud with Stone Cold Steve Austin was the hottest thing going in wrestling for the late 90s, but it wasn't worth the sake of a WrestleMania main event. When Austin and McMahon entered the 1999 Rumble respectively as entrants #1 and #2, they spent the majority of the match brawling all over the arena. That didn't stop Austin from eliminating 8 participants. McMahon only eliminated one, but it was the one who mattered. When he was the only man left in the ring, McMahon tossed out his rival to win. Thankfully, McMahon isn't egotistical enough to book himself into the main event of WrestleMania (though he has no shame in booking himself to win the WWE Championship). McMahon came out the next night to vacate his place at Mania so that his Corporate Champion, The Rock, could have a night off. Instead, Commissioner Shawn Michaels announced that by forfeiting his spot, that spot would be given to the runner-up, Austin. We then got Austin vs The Rock which turned out to be more classic of a main event than Austin vs McMahon ever could.
11 Big John Studd
Big John Studd has the misfortune of being the second man to win a Royal Rumble match. Everyone remembers the first person to do something, but we usually struggle in trying to remember the second person to do it. In addition to being perhaps the most forgettable Royal Rumble winner, Studd in 1989 was a man passed his prime. There was a time when Big John Studd was one of the biggest stars to ever grace professional wrestling, but that time had long came and went by time he won the Rumble. He couldn't possibly have had enough momentum to head into the WrestleMania V main event as a legitimate challenger for the WWE Championship, especially compared to the match we actually got of Hulk Hogan vs Randy Savage. Studd couldn't even carry enough momentum to get himself a proper match at Mania. Instead, he played special referee to the Andre the Giant vs Jake Roberts contest.
10 Lex Luger
Any Roman Reigns haters out there should be grateful that Reigns isn't being shoved down our throats nearly as badly as Lex Luger was. The seemingly never ending Lex Express saw McMahon try to push Luger as the next Hulk Hogan, but fans weren't buying it. In fact, they actively resisted it by booing Luger every week. One guy who they were cheering was Bret Hart. Things came to a head at Royal Rumble 1994 when Luger and Hart were the last men standing and ended up eliminating each other. As refs raised each man's hand in the confusion finish, fans venomously booed Luger while raucously cheering on Hart. This was a moment where the fans basically chose who they wanted to see in the WrestleMania X main event. While both men got their WWE Championship shot against Yokozuna, Hart was the one to main event the show. Luger wrestled and failed against Yoko halfway through the show. Given how badly the fans turned against Luger's push, this was the right decision. We all remember how badly the fans turned against Reigns in the main event of WrestleMania 32. The same would've happened if Luger main evented WrestleMania X.
I'm tempted to put Sheamus up a little bit higher. To be fair, even though Sheamus' babyface was so ill-executed that Sheamus himself has criticized it in the past, his 2012 Royal Rumble win came as a shock to everyone. Granted, that was mostly because rumors leading up to the show heavily hinted at Chris Jericho winning it and Sheamus may have very well been a last minute call to win it, but he was still over enough at the time to warrant a babyface role in the main event. He didn't start getting booed as a babyface until he beat Bryan in 18 seconds and perhaps if he was given a main event World Championship match, that wouldn't have happened. Given the kind of push he was given at the time, it would have made sense to see Sheamus main event WrestleMania at some point in his WWE career. The factors made to give Sheamus this spot on the list have less to do with Sheamus himself and more the factors that prevented Sheamus from main eventing in the first place. First off, no World Title match was going to main event the show over "Once in a Lifetime" Cena vs Rock. If Punk didn't have a chance to do so, neither did Sheamus or Bryan. Second, it's kind of better that Sheamus' title match opened the show as it allowed him to be booked to beat Bryan for the World Title in 18 seconds. This proved to be the most significant moment in Bryan's career as he started to get massive reactions from fans in protest of seeing him deprived of a proper Mania match. Without this moment, he wouldn't have become the superstar he was near the end of his career. I'm not willing to sacrifice that moment in favor of a Sheamus main event spot. So sorry, Sheamus, but you've got to be this low on this list.
8 Edge (2010)
Another entry who I'm tempted to list higher. In this case, it would have made for a perfect comeback story for Edge to main event WrestleMania XXVI. After suffering a career threatening injury in July 2009, Edge was expected to take up to a year out of action, maybe longer. To everyone's surprise, he returned in January 2010 for the Royal Rumble and won the whole thing. He then challenged former tag team partner, Chris Jericho, for his World Heavyweight Championship. Edge lost his match, but things may have been different if the two were in the main event. Things would have come full circle for Edge to not only come back from an injury no one expected him to come back from, but to reclaim the World Championship in the main event of WrestleMania. The only thing stopping it from happening was the long-awaited rematch between Undertaker and Shawn Michaels, which considering the stakes of Streak vs Career, was more than deserving of main eventing over both World Title matches.
7 Jim Duggan
In 1988, Hacksaw Jim Duggan was the first man in WWE history to win the Royal Rumble match. At the time, the match had only 20 participants instead of the now traditional 30, but that doesn't make this win any less significant. After coming in at lucky #13, Duggan managed to eliminate 3 men before winning the match. To be honest, though he didn't main event WrestleMania this year, he wouldn't have looked out of place in the main event. Let's not forget that Duggan was insanely over in the 80s and much of the 90s. That good ole American glory ideology accompanied by a trusty 2x4 won over the audience every week. At the time, people would've gladly welcomed this pro-American hero into the main event and eaten it up. If not for the actual main event of Randy Savage achieving his WWE Championship coronation against Ted Dibiase at WrestleMania IV, Duggan would have made sense in the babyface role. Tell me you can't imagine Hulk Hogan raising Duggan's arm as the two pro-Americans celebrate in the ring with Duggan's new WWE Championship.
6 Rey Mysterio
It may not sit well with people seeing Rey Mysterio so high considering him and WWE used the cheap pops of the memory of the late Eddie Guerrero to push Mysterio into the main evented, but it worked. Distasteful storylines aside, Mysterio was crazy over and fans ate it up every week. WWE sold their fans hope for an underdog story and we all bought into it. It led to a mega-reaction when he won the Royal Rumble in 2006 and lasted over an hour in the match from the #2 spot onwards. He received an even bigger pop at WrestleMania 22 when he survived both Kurt Angle and Randy Orton to win his first World Heavyweight Championship. That pop would have been even louder if it was in the main event. It certainly would have gotten a better reaction than the main event we got. Fans furiously booed babyface WWE Champion John Cena in favor of the heel challenger Triple H. It's nice to send the whole crowd home happy on a night like WrestleMania and so Mysterio's Championship win would have done just that.
5 John Cena (2008)
This had to be one of the most shocking returns in not only Royal Rumble history, but WWE history. After the Doctor of Thuganomics came down with an injury in October 2007, he was expected to take at least a year off to heal. He returned in January to one of the most positive reactions the divisive character has ever received from fans. As the #30 entrant, Cena cleared house until he won the match. For the sake of the comeback story and considering that Cena was the face of the company after all, it's actually surprising that his WWE Championship Triple Threat match with Randy Orton and Triple H did not main event WrestleMania XXIV. The only reason I can think as to why they weren't in the main event is because Orton won. WrestleMania can't end on the downer of a heel winning. So, instead, we saw Undertaker play the winning face when he beat Edge for the World Heavyweight Championship in the main event. Both World Title matches were strong enough to warrant the main event spot, but for the sake of ending the show on a babyface win, WWE made the right call on this one. That isn't to say that either match deserved the spot over the other. Really, it could have gone either way. If nothing else, if the Triple Threat got the main event, Cena would've had to get his comeback win.
4 Alberto Del Rio
Considering how Alberto Del Rio's WWE career was kind of a flop, it's hard to remember just how over he was when he debuted in late 2010 and how he kept that wave of momentum going into early 2011. By time he won the first and only 40-man Royal Rumble match, he was one of the most hated guys on the roster. At the time at least, a legitimate argument could be made to validate Del Rio's presence in the WrestleMania XXVII main event. Maybe not against Edge, but I'd go as far as to say he could have been the third banana in the program between The Rock and John Cena. Maybe he didn't deserve it as much as The Miz did—let's not forget that The Miz busted his ass off to get to the main event with Cena—Del Rio surely would have had a better main event caliber match against Cena. Miz delivered in the promo department, but not so much the actual wrestling. Del Rio could have done both. Plus, Cena would win the WWE Championship a month afterwards so why not have him go into WrestleMania with the title, this time against Del Rio? Given the ultimate goal of having The Rock cost Cena the match, anyone could have been inserted in that role. It could've been Del Rio's destiny to be in that role.
3 The Undertaker (2007)
In 2007, The Undertaker made history when he became the first man in Royal Rumble history to win the match from the #30 spot. Afterwards, he was set to go to WrestleMania, but not into the main event. His World Heavyweight Championship match against Batista was relegated to the midcard while John Cena and Shawn Michaels' WWE Championship contest took over the main event. At the time, the decision was a reasonable one given how WWE were still prepping Cena as the face of the company while Batista had a bad track record for putting on lackluster World Title performances. Plus, this was before an Undertaker Mania match was guaranteed to be an annual show stealer. Batista and Undertaker surprised everyone when they did in fact steal the show. In retrospect, given how they had the clear match of the night, Undertaker's title win would have been a more fitting way to end WrestleMania XXX to send everyone home happy opposed to half the crowd booing as Cena retained against HBK. WWE would make it up to Taker the next year when he main evented WrestleMania XXIV against Edge.
2 Stone Cold Steve Austin (1997)
In 1998, the Austin Era began after Stone Cold won the Royal Rumble and then defeated Shawn Michaels for the WWE Championship in the main event of WrestleMania XIV. But a year earlier, Stone Cold also won, but was left out of the main event. From the moment he entered in at #5, The Rattlesnake cleaned house at the 1997 Royal Rumble. He was tossing guys out left and right for 45 minutes straight. At the time, he even tied Hulk Hogan's record for most Rumble eliminations at 10. In the match's climax, Bret Hart eliminated Stone Cold, but the refs were too preoccupied in dealing with an outside brawl between Terry Funk and Mankind to notice.
Seizing the opportunity, Austin stormed back in the ring to eliminate the remaining participants—Hart, Vader, and Undertaker—and as the sole man in the ring, was declared the winner. With the finish drenched in controversy, a WWE Championship was made at In Your House 13: Final Four where the final four Rumble participants duked it out to claim their spot in the WrestleMania main event. Hart won, but lost the title to Sycho Sid the next day. Given that the WrestleMania 13 main event was Sid vs Undertaker in a slow slugfest, maybe WWE would have been better off putting Austin in the main event. Or better yet, if Hart retained his title long enough to push his Submission classic with Austin into the main event. Then again, maybe it was for the best that Austin wasn't coronated as the top guy until Mania XIV. After all, the endurance he showed where he'd rather pass out than submit to The Sharpshooter instantly turned him into a made man in the company. Would the same impact have been made if Austin managed to defeat Hart for the WWE Championship on this night? There's some interesting food for thought.
1 Shawn Michaels (1995)
There seems to be somewhat of an irony in that one most played moments from the Royal Rumble comes from a Rumble that Shawn Michaels won, but didn't main event WrestleMania for. This is the year where Michaels entered at entrant #1 and endured 39 minutes worth of punishment from 29 other combatants. In the end, it appeared that British Bulldog won the match after last eliminating the Heartbreak Kid and had a first class ticket to WrestleMania. That is until HBK snuck up from behind and eliminated Bulldog himself. Replay footage revealed that only one of Michaels' feet touched the ground. And technically, since both feet needed to touch the ground for an elimination to count, Michaels was still in the match, which he subsequently won. Except he didn't go on to main event WrestleMania. Although he had a fantastic WWE Championship match against Diesel (who went on to retain), the main event was reserved for Bam Bam Bigelow and NFL linebacker Lawrence Taylor. While Taylor gave a surprisingly decent wrestling performance, no celebrity showcase is more important than the WWE Championship. The company would make it up to Michaels a year later when he won the Royal Rumble again and then defeated Bret Hart for the WWE Championship in the main event of WrestleMania XII.
1. Ric Flair
Ric Flair's Royal Rumble win in 1992 was a monumental one for The Nature Boy. Coming in at #3, Flair styled and profiled his way through 29 other men to win the vacant WWE Championship. Such a historical win should have amounted to a spot in the main event of WrestleMania VII. The sad thing is that it nearly did until plans for him to defend the title against Hulk Hogan were scrapped at the last minute in favor of Flair vs Randy Savage and Hogan vs Sid Justice. Even then, the former should have rightfully claimed the main event spot over the latter. The performance and legacies of those matches are telling enough given that Flair vs Savage stole the show. Meanwhile, Hogan vs Justice was a forgettable bout highlighted by a botched finish and an Ultimate Warrior return used to mask ending WrestleMania on a disappointing DQ. It's baffling to think that Flair never in his long illustrious career ever main evented a WrestleMania while Sid Justice went on to main event two Manias.
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