Vince McMahon mocked the notion of a Royal Rumble when WWF creative consultant Pat Patterson initially broached it.
"I sat down with Vince and I gave him the concept," Patterson told CBS Sports.
"He goes, 'Pat, that is stupid. It's not gonna work!' I said, 'Vince, it's going to work!'"
Although McMahon criticized Patterson’s idea, the duo agreed to try the event without cameras present at the Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis on Oct. 4, 1987. Because there is no footage of the spectacle, and less than 2,000 spectators witnessed it live in The Lou, the first Royal Rumble essentially never occurred.
"We tried it in St. Louis on a smaller scale," Patterson confirmed.
"I was not there. I wish I would have been there. They got [the Rumble concept] all mixed up. It didn't work. Then Vince says to me, 'It's not gonna work, Patrick.'"
Shortly after the unseen debacle in St. Louis, McMahon and Patterson met with NBC Sports bigwig Dick Ebersol to discuss upcoming extravaganzas. McMahon was uncharacteristically adrift and he said, “Pat, why don't you tell Dick that stupid idea you had?”
"I said, 'First of all, it's not stupid.' Then I gave the concept to Dick Ebersol about one guy comes in, then two minutes later another guy comes in. Dick Ebersol was going crazy. He says, 'My God, this is the greatest thing for television!'"
McMahon finally accepted Patterson’s vision and announced that the “inaugural” Royal Rumble would transpire at the Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Ontario, on January 24, 1988. Accordingly, this list will rank the 15 first Royal Rumble victors from worst to best.
However, a wrestler who won multiple bouts won’t be repeated and, because it had co-winners, the 1994 Royal Rumble will be altogether omitted.
15 VINCE MCMAHON (1999)
Competing as the villainous Mr. McMahon, the revolutionary wrestling promoter scored his greatest in-ring triumph over “Stone Cold” Steve Austin at the January 1999 Royal Rumble at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, California. A 54-year-old McMahon employed a series of underhanded tactics to remain in the contest. Eventually, the 6-foot-2, 250-pound McMahon and 6-foot-2, 252-pound Austin were the only surviving competitors. Austin’s primary nemesis, The Rock, then approached the ringside area to serve as a distraction. When Austin attempted to assault The Rock, McMahon ambushed the antihero and tossed him over the ropes.
Needless to say, it was a debacle and it turned out Vince winning was just to set up a cage match between Austin and McMahon the following month on PPV, where Austin could win his no.1 contender spot back.
14 HACKSAW JIM DUGGAN (1988)
Hacksaw Jim Duggan eliminated the One Man Gang to emerge triumphant in the first televised Royal Rumble in January 1988.
“(The Royal Rumble) was a pretty unique idea,” said Duggan, 63, who was briefly employed with the Atlanta Falcons.
“Of course, Vince McMahon is a groundbreaking guy. He comes up with a lot of ideas, some work, some don’t, like the XFL. It’s something that I can still hang my hat on. I was never world champ, I was never tag team champ, I was never Intercontinental champ. But people remember that Royal Rumble winner thing.”
The 6-foot-3, 270-pound Duggan, who was trained by Fritz Von Erich and debuted as a professional wrestler in 1979, became a WWE Hall of Famer in April 2011.
Duggan was certainly a noteworthy character during wrestling’s “golden age” in the 1980s. Still, Duggan was never an overly impressive performer.
13 REY MYSTERIO (2006)
As the event’s second entrant, Rey Mysterio lasted more than an hour before he finished Randy Orton to win the Royal Rumble at the American Airlines Arena in Miami on January 29, 2006. Yet, rather than the 5-foot-6, 175-pound Mysterio, WWE’s creative team originally wanted Triple H to be the prizewinner.
"It came down to Hunter or Rey [Mysterio] winning, and obviously most people were pushing for Hunter," said former WWE creative writer Court Bauer.
"Very few people were pushing for Rey, but the right guy was able to push that through and get it into the end zone, and that guy was Pat Patterson. Pat Patterson, Bruce Prichard and myself obviously wanted Rey to win. Pat had the most influence because he's Pat Patterson, and [he] really was the most influential in getting that decision and getting Rey over... But that was something that came down to the last ten days."
Thanks to Bauer, Patterson and Pritchard, a 31-year-old Mysterio won the 19th Annual Royal Rumble. While the tribute to Eddie was touching, Mysterio didn't really work as champ, so you have to wonder if the WWE was just prisoners to the moment.
12 BIG JOHN STUDD (1989)
Big John Studd was an early winner of the Rumble, and WWE was still experimenting with just how much they wanted a victory to mean. So of course, the early winners weren't necessarily the company's best workers.
Big John Studd premiered in the WWE in mid-1972 as a vile heel who was managed by “Classy” Freddie Blassie. The 6-foot-10, 365-pound Studd decimated his opponents and relished watching them vacate the squared circle on a gurney. Approximately 17 years after debuting, a 41-year-old Studd manhandled the “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase to secure a victory at the Royal Rumble at The Summit in Houston on January 15, 1989.
Big John Studd, who died from liver cancer and Hodgkin’s disease at the age of 47 in March 1995, was posthumously inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004.
11 BATISTA (2005)
In an extraordinarily controversial match, Batista was declared victorious over John Cena to win the Royal Rumble at the Save Mart Center in Fresno, California, on January 30, 2005. Referee Jimmy Korderas discussed the disputed ending that saw the 6-foot-6, 290-pound Batista and 6-foot-1, 250-pound Cena eliminate each other almost simultaneously.
“John Cena was supposed to be landing on the floor and Dave (Batista) was going to be hanging on to the rope but it was just so… I can’t explain exactly what happened for Dave not to hook that top rope like he wanted to but it didn’t happen that way,” said Korderas.
“When you watch the replay, it’s incredible that they almost landed precisely at the same time.”
Ultimately, a 36-year-old Batista was declared the 18th annual event’s winner. Looking back at it, the WWE likely would have preferred Cena winning, as he went on to be the face of the company in the coming years.
10 YOKOZUNA (1993)
In a business brimming with massive individuals, the 6-foot-4, 640-pound Yokozuna was almost always the largest grappler in the squared circle. Hence, it’s unsurprising that a 27-year-old Yokozuna conquered all foes to win the sixth annual Royal Rumble at the ARCO Arena in Sacramento, California, on January 24, 1993. Yokozuna, who eliminated a record seven competitors, heaved former WWE Champion Randy Savage over the ropes to succeed. Thanks to the enormous Samoan-American’s conquest, Yokozuna earned a title bout versus Bret Hart at WrestleMania IX.
At "The Grandest Stage of Them All," with assistance from the devious Mr. Fuji, Yokozuna became the first fighter of Samoan descent to capture the WWE Championship. Yokozuna unfortunately, would grow complacent as champion, and his performance in the coming years would slip as his weight kept ballooning.
Tragically, Yokozuna passed away from pulmonary edema at the age of 34 on October 23, 2000.
9 CHRIS BENOIT (2004)
Chris Benoit is the darkest figure in the annals of the WWE. The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Benoit, hailed as the “Canadian Crippler,” slayed his wife and 7-year-old son at their home in Fayetteville, Georgia, on June 22, 2007. Two days after the murders, Benoit committed suicide. His unforgivable actions notwithstanding, Benoit was a tremendously talented and decorated sports entertainer. Among his vast achievements in the squared circle, the “Canadian Crippler” handled all adversaries to win the Royal Rumble at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia on January 25, 2004. Famed wrestling commentator Jim Ross discussed Benoit’s crimes and downplayed his moment in the City of Brotherly Love.
“If I had a way to communicate with Chris Benoit today, no matter where he is, and I asked him, ‘Hey, Chris, it’s JR. We’d like to know your thought’s on the WWE Hall of Fame. Do you think you’d belong in it?’ I truly believe this in my heart, that he would say, ‘Absolutely not,’” Ross said.
“It wouldn’t be about his wrestling career. It wouldn’t be about him going wall-to-wall in Philly at the Royal Rumble. It’d be about what happened in that house outside of Atlanta, that was unspeakable.”
8 BROCK LESNAR (2003)
Brock Lesnar is a freakish athlete and one of the most physically imposing people on Earth. The 6-foot-3, 280-pound Lesnar, who conquered MMA superstar Randy Couture to win the UFC heavyweight championship in only his third scrap for the promotion in November 2008, was called by ESPN “the most accomplished athlete in professional wrestling history.” Although not his signature win, a 26-year-old Lesnar emerged triumphant at the 16th annual Royal Rumble at the Fleet Center in Boston on January 19, 2003. In a bit of unknown foreshadowing, “The Beast Incarnate” vanquished The Undertaker to finalize his victory.
At WrestleMania XIX, Lesnar pinned Kurt Angle to gain the WWE Championship. The WWE was in the process of pushing Lesnar to the moon as the next big star in the company, but unfortunately for them, Lesnar would leave the WWE just 15 months after his Rumble victory.
7 SHAWN MICHAELS (1995, 1996)
Shawn Michaels, a four-time world champion who won the Royal Rumble in 1995 and 1996, is a WWE Hall of Famer who many insiders consider to be history’s premier in-ring competitor. Of Michaels’ two Royal Rumble victories, winning the 1995 event as the first entrant was particularly impressive. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Michaels and Davey Boy Smith were the final two contestants remaining. The 5-foot-11, 260-pound Smith was certain that he’d eliminated “The Heartbreak Kid” to cement a win. However, Michaels never fully landed outside of the squared circle and he proceeded to toss a clueless Smith over the ropes.
“My prediction is true! They're saying that Shawn Michaels has won the Royal Rumble!” screamed commentator Jerry Lawler.
Michaels subsequently celebrated his victory with a 28-year-old sexpot named Pamela Anderson. However, over 1995 and 1996, Michaels wouldn't draw as a top babyface the way WWE had hoped.
6 TRIPLE H (2002)
After being sidelined for roughly eight months due to injury, Triple resurfaced at Royal Rumble and won the event at the Philips Arena in Atlanta on January 20, 2002. The 6-foot-4, 255-pound Triple H, who has captured 25 championship belts, outdid Kurt Angle to enjoy a dominant return to the squared circle. Triple H’s conquest also secured his title match against Chris Jericho at WrestleMania X8 in Toronto.
As called by Jim Ross, “(Triple H) went through eight months of hell just to make it back, but many said he'd never make it! And now Triple H is going to WrestleMania! Triple H is going to meet the Undisputed WWF Champion at WrestleMania!”
Triple H defeated Jericho in Canada’s most populous city to gain another title. However, his subsequent title run was short, as Hulk Hogan would beat him for the title a month later and Triple H would turn heel a few months later, ending his babyface run prematurely.
5 HULK HOGAN (1990, 1991)
Despite his polarizing nature, Hulk Hogan is widely lauded as history’s preeminent wrestler. The 6-foot-8, 300-pound Hogan, a 2005 WWE Hall of Fame inductee, amassed a total of 12 titles performing for McMahon’s promotion and the now-defunct WCW. Although not for gold, a 37-year-old Hogan won the third annual Royal Rumble by eliminating Curt Hennig in Orlando on January 21, 1990.
“Hulkamania will live forever!” exclaimed WWF broadcaster Tony Schiavone.
Hogan’s victory in O-Town led to his memorable fight against The Ultimate Warrior at WrestleMania VI in Toronto. The Ultimate Warrior cleanly pinned Hogan to seize the WWF World Heavyweight Championship.
"(The Ultimate Warrior’s) claim to fame was our match at WrestleMania,” said Hogan, 64. “If he didn't have that, I'm not sure what he's done.”
A loss to The Ultimate Warrior and various scandals notwithstanding, “Hulkamania will live forever” to many wrestling fans.
4 RIC FLAIR (1992)
Wrestling icon “Nature Boy” Ric Flair is a 16-time world titleholder who was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in April 2008. The 6-foot-1, 240-pound Flair obtained one of his titles at the fifth annual Royal Rumble at the Knickerbocker Arena in Albany, New York, on January 19, 1992.
“I went for my work out on Sunday morning on January 19, 1992,” said Flair.
“I’ve always had a soft spot for Albany, New York, and that’s exactly where I found myself. That night was the night of the Royal Rumble in a building called the Knickerbocker Arena, and that’s the night I became officially recognized as a 9-time world champion. Jake the Snake first told me that morning that I was getting the belt and winning the Rumble. I honestly had no idea. Then, as soon as I arrived in the building, Vince McMahon and Pat Patterson called me in Vince’s office and told me I was going over.”
A 44-year-old Flair returned to WCW the following winter in February 1993. However his Rumble victory is what really began to make the event as important as it was.
3 THE UNDERTAKER (2007)
The Undertaker, a future first ballot hall of famer, may be the premier performer in the history of sports entertainment. Still, despite his vas array of accolades, The Undertaker had never won a Royal Rumble until the event at the AT&T Center in San Antonio on January 28, 2007. As the 13th entrant, The Undertaker officially prevailed when he tossed Shawn Michaels from the squared circle. The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels' exchange at the end of the match would foreshadow some epic WrestleMania matches they would have a few years later.
The Undertaker overcame Batista to capture the World Heavyweight Championship and advance his record to 15-0 at WrestleMania. Taker getting that kind of opportunity was long overdue for a deserving legend.
2 THE ROCK (2000)
At possibly the height of his popularity as a rassler, The Rock defeated The Big Show to win the 13th annual Royal Rumble at Madison Square Garden in New York City on January 23, 2000.
“The Rock! The Rock has won the Rumble,” screamed Jim Ross.
“How in God's name did THAT happen? It looked like the Big Show is gonna eliminate the Rock! The Rock guaranteed a victory at the Royal Rumble! And the Rock has kept his word! He has done what he said he was gonna do!”
Approximately two months following his achievement in Gotham, The Rock lost a Fatal 4-way elimination match to Triple H at WrestleMania 2000. Still, The Rock winning the Rumble kicked off an amazing business year for WWE in which The Rock emerged as WWE's top star, in our next entry's absence.
1 ‘STONE COLD’ STEVE AUSTIN (1997)
The legend of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin arguably commenced after his win at the Royal Rumble in San Antonio on January 19, 1997. The 6-foot-2, 252-pound Austin eliminated Bret Hart as a prelude to the impending Attitude Era.
“Well you know it always gives you that platform to get you into the WrestleMania main event,” said Austin, 52.
“One time I didn’t get to the main event, but I won it in San Antonio in ’97. It meant everything to my career, and the timing always just happened to line up right for where I was as a character of Stone Cold or what storyline or whatever was going on.”
In a bloodbath, the beer-swilling, anti-authority badass fell to Hart at WrestleMania 13. Nevertheless, wrestling was about to enjoy an unprecedented surge in popularity. It's just a little ridiculous that WWE had Austin win the Rumble, only to move him down the card a few pegs.
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