Once per year, World Wrestling Entertainment offers fans a sports entertainment spectacle only possible through the insane genius of Vince McMahon. Virtually every relevant star on the main roster is all but guaranteed to be involved, all fighting for a chance at glory, fame, and notoriety that could considerable boost their careers in sports entertainment. No, we aren’t talking about WrestleMania, but rather the most important step on the road there—the Royal Rumble.
Near the end of every January, 30 WWE superstars enter the ring for a single match, a brilliantly paced over the top rope battle royal, with the winner earning a WWE Championship shot at the Grandest Stage of Them All. Unfortunately, not all Royal Rumbles have been created equally, and to put it bluntly, a few of them have, well, totally sucked.
When the Royal Rumble is at its peak, there’s genuine potential for it to be the best match of the year, featuring absolutely everything fans love about the sport in one hour or less. Of course, this unbridled potential only makes it that much worse when the match blows, because fans are entirely aware of how good it could have been. To learn what makes a Rumble a success or a failure, keep reading to see our picks for the 8 best and 7 worst WWE Royal Rumble matches.
15 BEST: 2003
Surprisingly, despite the fact there have been 29 Royal Rumbles since the match was invented, it was actually a little bit hard to come up with 8 of them that were truly great. It’s not that the other half of this list was any easier, because the fact of the matter is that there have been a solid dozen plus Rumbles that were just, well, underwhelming and forgettable. In some respects, the 2003 Rumble meets this qualification, as pretty much everyone knew how it was going to end from the start, with Brock Lesnar destined to go to WrestleMania and recapture the WWE Championship. Because the Beast Incarnate didn’t make an appearance until the very end, most of the match didn’t really matter, but that didn’t stop it from being action packed and exciting regardless of the foregone conclusion.
14 WORST: 2017
Spoiler alert: five out of seven of the Royal Rumbles we’re calling the worst of all time took place in the last decade, and a sixth just barely avoids that status. For this reason, the fact the 2017 Royal Rumble is merely the first awful version of the match we’re discussing means it was nonetheless an improvement over the misery of those that came before it. Not that this means it was any good, nor that the systematic problems seen in all recent Rumbles weren’t still present. Any wrestler that fans actually cared about at the time, like Braun Strowman, were eliminated early on and entirely forgotten about by the end, when the same old guard of McMahon pet projects the audience hates were given the glory of surviving to the end. It was bad enough that bland, boring, outdated Randy Orton won the whole thing, but fans were even more upset that Big Dog Roman Reigns played a major role in the finish despite having already bored them to tears earlier in the show.
13 BEST: 1988
Okay, so speaking from a purely technical standpoint, maybe the first ever Royal Rumble wasn’t necessarily one of the best. There were certainly a few downsides—with only 20 participants, it was shorter, faster, and featured less star power than any future events would offer. On the other hand, the experiment was obviously a success on some level, considering that there wouldn’t still be Royal Rumbles to this day if it weren’t. Airing on the USA Network rather than Pay-Per-View, the original Royal Rumble was a huge ratings success, and although he wasn’t a particularly massive star, fans still went wild when “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan picked up an unlikely victory. There were kinks to work out for sure, but the 1988 Rumble immediately revealed just how much potential the concept had, and deserves a considerable amount of praise for doing so.
12 WORST: 1995
Never one to accept a good thing for what it is, Vince McMahon has repeatedly attempted to experiment with the format and structure of the Royal Rumble match. In some years, this meant changing the number of participants, and in others, he switched up the amount of time in between entrants to make the overall match longer or shorter. As it would turn out, promoting the “fastest paced Royal Rumble ever,” which WWE did in 1995, wasn’t exactly something fans wanted to see. With only a single minute in between entrants hitting the ring, the ’95 Rumble was also the most crowded version of the event ever, with dozens of bodies in the ring at a time and no way to follow all the action. This hastened version of the match also greatly diminished any sort of praise fans were supposed to lobby on winner Shawn Michaels for having entered at number 1 and outlasting all the rest—it only took him 38 minutes to do so, while earlier participants had survived the match for over an hour without even winning.
11 BEST: 1990
After two years of landmark albeit relatively forgettable Royal Rumbles, the 1990 version finally proved exactly how much potential the concept had all along. Unlike the first few Rumbles, where the star power was few and far between, rarely lasting more than a few minutes, this version was loaded with main event talent from beginning to end, including Ted DiBiase, Jake Roberts, Randy Savage, Roddy Piper, André the Giant, and winner Hulk Hogan. There was also an unforgettably explosive moment between the Hulkster and the Ultimate Warrior, making the crowd go so wild Vince McMahon would have been a fool not to pair them up again at WrestleMania. Granted, there were a few negatives, like the fact the Hulkster really didn’t need the win, and many fans long believed Mr. Perfect could have gained much more from victory. Ultimately, though, that’s just a minor quibble in a match where almost everything else went right.
10 WORST: 2014
For a crash course in how to disappoint the entire WWE Universe at the same time, look no further than the 2014 Royal Rumble. From beginning to end, all 15,000+ fans in attendance made it extremely clear who they wanted to see win the match: Daniel Bryan. Unfortunately, their hero was relegated to an undercard match against Bray Wyatt, and he didn’t even win it. This means the entire Rumble match was basically pointless, as the one wrestler fans were actually cheering for didn’t even participate in the bout. It also didn’t hurt that the wrestler who went on to win the match, Batista, was arguably the last person anyone wanted to see in the upcoming WrestleMania main event. Nothing against the guy’s talents, but Batista hadn’t been an active wrestler for years at that point, and fans weren’t exactly ready to welcome him back, leading to mass boos when he picked up the win.
9 BEST: 2007
Even the worst Royal Rumbles can be exciting at times, with shocking participants, surprise eliminations, and Kofi Kingston (or someone like him) always providing an insane spot or two that will go down in history forever. However, even some of the best Rumbles can be somewhat lacking in the whole technical wrestling thing. Not so with the 2007 version, which rewarded fans with one hell of a one on one battle at the very end of it all, contested by two of the best in the business: Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker. Truth be told, the action up until the end was standard, with good but not great eliminations and surprises. However, those last few minutes more than made up for it all, with the bonus that they spawned one of the greatest feuds in modern history when the two participants competed in five star classics at back to back WrestleManias.
8 WORST: 2015
In February of 2015, WWE.com held a poll asking fans which wrestler deserved to be in the main event of WrestleMania: Roman Reigns or Daniel Bryan. An overwhelming 86% answered Bryan, which was unfortunate for them considering it was Reigns who won the previous month’s Royal Rumble. While some might try and say WWE’s only mistake in this regard was not holding the poll a little earlier, it’s not like it would have mattered—Vince McMahon was dead set on Reigns winning the big one and going on to the Showcase of Immortals, and no amount of audience complaints were going to change his mind. That poll certainly didn’t do anything to make Vince second guess himself, nor did the fact the entire WWE Universe booed their lungs out at Reigns’s victory, even as The Rock hit the ring to celebrate with him. Is it really fair to call this Rumble one of the worst ever just based on how many people hated the outcome? We would say it certainly was.
7 BEST: 2010
Nine times out of ten, the wrestler who comes out of the Royal Rumble looking best is obviously the winner. Not so in 2010, when the real superstar of the bout was a man who entered at number 3 and got eliminated less than a third of the way into the match: CM Punk. After immediately eliminating the first two entrants with ease, Punk picked up a microphone and became the first and thus far only wrestler in Royal Rumble history to use the match itself as a backdrop for one of his all time greatest promos. He naturally began by claiming his straight edge virtues meant his victory was inevitable, then shifting his attention to new entrants as they were announced and hit the ring. One by one, Punk mocked his opponents until they got close enough for him to fight them, resuming his speech after each subsequent elimination. Even after Punk was taken out of the match, the pace and chaos continued to heavily impress, culminated with a genuine shock victory by the returning Edge.
6 WORST: 2006
In the history of the Royal Rumble, nearly a dozen wrestlers have survived the entire match, entering at either number 1 or number 2 and making it all the way to the end. In many respects, it’s just as impressive when a wrestler enters at number 5 or 6 and lasts the whole time, as this can take 45 minutes to a full hour of serious effort. Well, usually, anyway. The 2006 Royal Rumble proved that lasting the entire match really wasn’t that big a deal twice over, by having entrants 1 and 2 last to the very end, despite doing absolutely nothing of note the entire match. Instead, Triple H and Rey Mysterio spent the vast majority of their hour-plus in the ring literally lying in the corner and waiting until they were the last participants left. Naturally, their extended naps received almost all the focus from announcers and camera angles, meaning fans couldn’t even see the actual action taking place around them. What this meant was an extremely boring Rumble with a winner who didn’t look like he deserved victory in the slightest.
5 BEST: 1998
Oh, hell yeah. The 1998 Royal Rumble wasn’t the first version of the match won by “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, nor would it be the last. When it comes to the Texas Rattlesnake strutting his stuff inside the squared circle, though, this was the year where he did so in more destructive fashion than ever before. Around this time frame, Austin was pissing off every single coworker he had, meaning they were all out for his blood the second glass shattered. More than up for the challenge, Austin raised hell from the second he entered to his ultimate victory, and while he was certainly leading the charge, he wasn’t the only star to shine that night. The Rock also put in a great performance, lasting a solid 45 minutes, and Mick Foley made history by entering three times under all of his different personas. That’s three iconic WWE superstars all at their peak (or five if you want to count Foley more than once), so it should be no surprise this Rumble was a huge success.
4 WORST: 2016
Hands down, the worst part about the 2016 Royal Rumble is how far in advance the average wrestling fan could predict absolutely everything that happened in the match. For the second time in history, the WWE Championship was on the line in the bout, with Roman Reigns defending his gold and entering at number one. Just about everyone knew this meant Reigns would make it all the way to the end, only for Triple H to make a “surprise” appearance at number 30 and eliminate him to win the title. As if it wasn’t bad enough that this was a foregone conclusion no one wanted to see, the way WWE brought fans to this conclusion was downright atrocious—Reigns was “injured” less than halfway through the match, then made a “dramatic” return in the final moments, only to get booed out of the building all over again. There was a minor upside early on in the debut and great performance of AJ Styles, but once the Phenomenal One was out, it was simply a slow trod towards a bland foregone conclusion, and the state of WWE only got worse from there with an awful WrestleMania.
3 BEST: 2001
Technically speaking, there has never been any sort of disqualification rules in the Royal Rumble, meaning any of them could easily become a hardcore affair if the participants are so inclined. For whatever reason, this scenario has only come to pass once, when just about every participant in the 2001 match gleefully used whatever weapons they had to their disposal in winning the bout. The violence began early on, when Raven brought his shopping cart of plunder down to the ring, and the Big Red Machine Kane kept it going for the almost full hour he spent in the match. Eventually winner “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was obviously game to follow suit, repeatedly whacking the Devil’s Favorite Demon with a steel chair en route to his victory. Of course, it’s not just the blood and plunder that made this Rumble so memorable, as WWE was simply firing on all cylinders around this time frame, with the 30-man contest merely offering a succinct explanation as to why that was.
2 WORST: 1999
Okay, so the Royal Rumble hasn’t been all that great over the past 5 years, but there is a mild positive to WWE’s repeat failures in that they’ve never dipped beneath the nadir of the 1999 match. Modern day Rumbles might be a little boring, predictable, or generally forgettable, but only the 1999 match had multiple full minutes of entirely dead air. This is because entrants 1 and 2, Steve Austin and Vince McMahon, immediately brawled to the back, where Austin was ambushed by the Corporation and taken out of the match. From there, all that was left for a solid half hour were jobbers who had no chance of winning. Sometimes, there was literally no one in the ring at all, the crowd left to sit on their hands and wait for the timer to appear back on screen…at which point a new wrestler would walk to the ring and wait another two minutes, because one person alone a Rumble doesn’t make. Worse than any of these missteps in the match pacing was the fact McMahon triumphantly sauntered back to the ring and won the match.
1 BEST: 1992
Was there really any question? The Royal Rumble has been around almost three full decades now, yet most fans have long been in agreement the fifth version of the event will forever be the best. Impressively, the reason for this reputation lies almost entirely on the work of one single participant in the match: “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair. Well, that and Flair’s manager Bobby “The Brain” Heenan absolutely losing his mind on commentary all night long, from the moment Flair entered the contest at number 3 to his incredible victory. Of course, for as great as Flair and the Brain were, they couldn’t exactly make a five star classic all by themselves. Aiding them considerably was the fact the ’92 Rumble was one of the most star-studded affairs in WWE history. Along with Flair, the match featured Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, The Undertaker, Roddy Piper, Sgt. Slaughter, Shawn Michaels, Jake Roberts, The Iron Sheik, Ted DiBiase, the British Bulldog…it’s almost enough to say it wasn’t fair to Flair, but the Nature Boy pulled it off in the end, creating a moment the WWE Universe will never forget.