The Royal Rumble continues to be one of my favorite events on the WWE calendar each and every year. It’s the start of the road to WrestleMania, the big programs begin to take shape, and we always look forward to the Royal Rumble match itself with the surprise entrances, the crowd reaction, and all the fun that goes along with that.
However, while the Royal Rumble match is the main draw to the event, it’s not the only match on the card. In the early years, the undercard didn’t carry a lot of weight (there were a lot of Brooklyn Brawler matches), but as time went on, we started to get more and more title matches and bigger names involved outside of the big match of the night.
A good example would be the 2014 Royal Rumble, where the best match of the night was undoubtedly the Bray Wyatt vs. Daniel Bryan opener. The WWE would proceed to screw the night up from there, but fans looked at that match as the night’s only saving grace. Last year, the triple threat title match between John Cena, Brock Lesnar and Seth Rollins stole the show, before the Rumble match itself nearly caused a riot in Philadelphia. While the Royal Rumble match is the most anticipated of the year, sometimes it’s another match on the card that fans end up remembering.
In my opinion, there were many cases where a singles match or a tag team match overshadowed the Royal Rumble match. I’m not saying that’s the case with every match on this list, but throughout the nearly three decades that this event has been around, there have been a lot of great moments and matches that had nothing to do with throwing your opponent over the top rope. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights.
15. Rowdy Roddy Piper vs. The Mountie – 1992
Have there been better matches? Absolutely, but it’s hard to ignore the historical significance of this contest. A few days before the pay-per-view, The Mountie won the Intercontinental Championship from Bret Hart at a house show. Unable to compete in his rematch, Piper stepped in to challenge for the championship before later entering the Royal Rumble match.
I’m certainly not saying that the match was terrible, but a five-minute match usually won’t make any kind of “best of” list. The story here is that in a Hall of Fame career, this win was the only win to give Rowdy Roddy Piper a singles title in WWE. That fact alone starts off our list.
14. Edge vs. Dolph Ziggler – 2011
There’s always a lot of pressure to be the first match on the card. It’s the job of the participants to get the crowd going and in most cases can set the tone for the entire night. 2011 was billed as the biggest Royal Rumble in history with 40 entrants. That match was extremely disappointing, but the opener was anything but. Two of the most athletic and entertaining in-ring performers of all time went 20 solid minutes in a great match that had the added stipulation that Edge couldn’t use his spear finisher.
Of course, there was a referee bump near the end which saw him use it anyway, but that’s beyond the point. Actually, he ended up using Christian’s Killswitch for the win in an epic World Heavyweight Championship affair that was really the coming out party for Dolph Ziggler.
13. The Dudley Boyz vs. The Hardy Boyz – 2000
The Dudley Boyz, the Hardy Boyz, and Edge & Christian would redefine the tag team division in the early part of the century and this match was a big part of that. Edge and Christian weren’t involved in this one, but would have plenty of chances later on in the TLC matches, but this particular match at the 2000 Royal Rumble would cement its own place in the three-team rivalry.
The Dudleys’ love for tables was getting over with crowds and if you can believe it, this was actually the first “Tables Match” in WWE history and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The two teams wowed the Madison Square Garden crowd with big spot after big spot with Matt and Jeff picking up the win after a crazy leap from a taxi.
12. Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker – 1998
This casket match would be important in so many different ways that it just had to be on this list. For one, it’s a Shawn Michaels/Undertaker match. Just that alone is usually good enough and this is yet anothe example of what these two could do together. Secondly, this played a big part in the original Kane-Undertaker rivalry. Kane had debuted a few months before during the original Hell in a Cell match between ‘Taker and HBK and inserted himself into this one as well, once again putting the screws to his “brother” in a swerve finish.
Lastly, and most importantly, this was the match that forced Shawn Michaels into retirement, albeit a few months later. A backdrop over the top rope and an unfortunate bump into the casket sealed the fate for Michaels’ oft-injured back. He would make it to WrestleMania XIV to drop the title to Austin, but wouldn’t wrestle again for more than four years.
11. Bray Wyatt vs. Daniel Bryan – 2014
The 2014 Royal Rumble is one of the most criticized events in WWE history, especially the 30-man match itself, as easily the most popular star in the company at the time, Daniel Bryan, wasn’t involved in the match.
The storyline leading up to this match had been solid with Bryan infiltrating the Wyatt Family in order to destroy them from the inside before making the inevitable turn back to set up this match. The two went back and forth for over 20 minutes with Wyatt picking up the win, although Bryan still looked very strong. You thought that maybe the writers opened with this match to give Bryan some rest before coming back out later, but that obviously wasn’t the case. Regardless, Daniel Bryan’s 2014 Royal Rumble should be remembered more for what it was than what it wasn’t.
10. The Rock vs. CM Punk (2013)
The result wasn’t exactly what everybody wanted and was fairly predictable, but that doesn’t mean that CM Punk and The Rock didn’t put on a good WWE Championship match at the 2013 Royal Rumble. Punk’s 434 days as champion came to an end that night, but only after a restart to the match following an attack from The Shield (the lights were out but we know who it was) and a pin from CM Punk.
However, The Rock didn’t want the title handed to him, he wanted to take it, hence the restart. But even before that, there was great back and forth action in and out of the ring (minus the accidental collapse of the Spanish announce table). In the end, The Rock would get his 1-2-3 and a rematch with the Royal Rumble winner, John Cena, at WrestleMania.
9. Chris Jericho vs. The Rock – 2002
The second of three Dwayne Johnson appearances on this list, the 2002 match versus Chris Jericho was excellent. I’ve always enjoyed the pace of this one. The Rock’s WrestleMania matches with Steve Austin will always be considered some of the best of his career, but the ones he had with Chris Jericho are often overlooked. This particular match for the Undisputed Championship is a highlight for both men and the promos leading up to it were epic as well. I’d highly recommend going back and giving this one another watch.
8. The Rockers vs. The Orient Express – 1991
In a forgotten rivalry that spanned years and two organizations, this is one of the best tag team matches I’ve ever seen. Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty as the Midnight Rockers had battled Tanaka and Paul Diamond as Badd Company in great matches in the AWA, including losing the tag titles in 1988 before heading back to WWE. The latter duo would reunite as The Orient Express after Tanaka’s former partner, Sato, left the company. Diamond would don a mask as Kato and at the 1991 Royal Rumble, these two teams would put on a perfect exhibition of tag team wrestling with The Rockers picking up the win and getting their revenge on Badd Company after three years. Great stuff here.
7. Chris Jericho vs. Chris Benoit – 2001
Widely considered to be one of the best ladder matches in history, this 2001 battle for the Intercontinental Championship was certainly one for the ages. Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho, two of the biggest standouts in WCW, had come to WWE to make their mark and this match would certainly help in that regard. The feud went off and on for nearly a year and culminated in this classic that included one of the coolest spots in ladder match history as Y2J put The Walls of Jericho on Benoit at the top of the ladder. The balance and precision that this took from both men was incredible.
In the end, it was Jericho pulling down the belt for the win. The crazy part is that there’s an even better match involving Chris Benoit which I’ll get to in a bit.
6. Shawn Michaels vs. Triple H – 2004
Over the years, Triple H and Shawn Michaels engaged in some of the best matches and feuds in the history of the wrestling business. This Last Man Standing match in 2004 was no different. Some people don’t like how this one ended, but it was actually quite necessary in my opinion, especially with what it led to. HBK and HHH had been feuding off an on for a year and a half after Michaels’ return from a four-year absence and this bloody encounter was one of the best chapters in that story. Back and forth they went with finishers and weapons and just plain brutality.
In the end, Michaels landed Sweet Chin Music but fell down himself due to being exhausted from the match. Think Rocky II, except neither man could beat the ten count and the match was declared a draw and Triple H retained the World Heavyweight Championship. Chris Benoit would win the Royal Rumble later that night and the three men would engage in a great story and one of the greatest triple threat matches in history at WrestleMania XX.
5. John Cena vs. Umaga – 2007
I’m betting you wouldn’t expect these two names to be on a “best of” list, but this match was awesome and is one of the best of John Cena’s career. In another Last Man Standing appearance on this list, this one in 2007 was brutal as well. People seem to forget how athletic Umaga was and like him or not, Cena can put on one hell of a match when he needs to and he did that on this night.
The steel steps were used a lot more than they normally would be in this one, but the standout was Umaga dashing across all of the announce tables in a splash attempt. Yes, Cena got the win in the end, but this is an underrated and underappreciated match in his career and also helped elevate Umaga as more than a squash match type of wrestler.
4. Mankind vs. The Rock – 1999
If you ever watched Beyond the Mat, and I highly recommend that you do, then you’ll remember this match as the one his family couldn’t bear to finish watching at ringside. I remember this “I Quit” match from 1999 where even a hardcore wrestling fan like myself was yelling “STOP” at the TV as I watched it. Yes, we were used to guys taking chair shots to the head back in the day, but this was insanity.
Some guys put their hands up to block some of the impact, but Foley had handcuffs on while The Rock, who is obviously not a little man, just kept going when he was apparently only supposed to hit him a few times. This match actually caused some backstage problems between the two for a while and if you go back and watch this one, it’s easy to see why.
3. Brock Lesnar vs. John Cena vs. Seth Rollins – 2015
It’s extremely difficult to put on a great triple threat match. This one from only a year ago was quite phenomenal as well and firmly cemented Seth Rollins as the future of WWE. Brock Lesnar and John Cena had battled before and we knew what kind of physicality they were capable of and it was curious to see Seth Rollins thrown into the mix, but the end result was gold.
Rollins was able to hit a Curb Stomp and an amazing elbow through the announce table on Lesnar after Cena had hit him with the steps, and both were done brilliantly. Each man was able to get in lots of offense and all came out of this match looking strong, which isn’t easy in this type of match. Lesnar got the win after pinning Rollins, but we all know how Seth would exact his revenge at WrestleMania. An instant classic.
2. Chris Benoit vs. Kurt Angle – 2003
Chris Benoit and Kurt Angle are two of the most technically sound wrestlers of all time, so when they hooked up at the 2003 Royal Rumble for the WWE Championship, we knew we would get a classic match. We were right. I think we all knew that Angle would win this one to set up his inevitable match with Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania, but the show these two put on anyway was extraordinary.
The crowd may seem a little quiet when you watch it, but I think they were just in awe of what they were witnessing. When the match was over, the standing ovation said it all. I’d put this on par with almost any match as one of the best of all time, including Bret Hart vs. Mr. Perfect at Summerslam 1991 and Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat at Wrestlemania III. Yes, it’s that good.
1. Triple H vs. Cactus Jack – 2000
This match had everything we’d come to expect in a Mick Foley match, but the great part about this one was that he wasn’t the only one taking the punishment. In a brutal match that saw weapons and tacks and all the rest, Cactus Jack (who had been resurrected brilliantly in this feud) and Triple H pulled out all the stops and gave the fans at Madison Square Garden an unbelievable encounter.
We all knew what to expect from Foley. He’d take the hits, as we obviously saw a year earlier, but Triple H took himself to a whole new level in this match. Triple H has always been amazing in the ring. He’s got impeccable timing and precision, but the hardcore style was new to him. However, he proved in this match that he could adapt to any style and go up against anybody and make it look good. Not only did this one look good, it looked great, and in my humble opinion is the greatest match in Royal Rumble history that isn’t the Royal Rumble match itself.
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