Most wrestling fans consider WrestleMania to be the best pay-per-view of the year, but the Royal Rumble will always be my favorite.
Ever since I discovered a VHS tape of the 1992 Royal Rumble at my local video store as a child, I’ve been fascinated by the event. While the title matches on the card are almost always superb, it’s the 30-man Royal Rumble match that initially blew my mind.
The Royal Rumble is like a wormhole in the WWE Universe; for a single night, neither fans nor superstars act normally. During the Rumble, even the most hardened of smart marks are willing to suspend disbelief more so than usual. Hardcore and fair-weather fans alike create pools and take bets as if wrestling were the Super Bowl or FA Cup Final.
Fans argue intensely about who deserves a win to a degree which rarely occurs with other WWE pay-per-views. The Royal Rumble is perhaps one of the last pay-per-views where it truly feels like anything can happen. Retired wrestlers can surprise fans with a cameo, while long forgotten stars, like Booker T, Kevin Nash or even RVD in the past, make surprise returns and be greeted with open-arms.
Jim Ross once suggested that the WWE is run like a precise science. In that sense, I would argue that the Royal Rumble is a complex pro-wrestling equation built upon two crucial elements: everybody has to matter and everything has to matter. Without these two elements, the pay-per-view as we know it is hardly as enticing.
In the Royal Rumble, fairly unknown jobbers are bound to receive the biggest pops of their year. For one night only, these men are no longer relegated to WWE Network-only programmes. Instead, they’re featured prominently alongside main eventers like Brock Lesnar, John Cena and Kevin Owens. Unlike WrestleMania where main eventers have elaborate and pretentious entrances, at the Royal Rumble every guy walks down the ring in a fairly equal manner. The sheer enthusiasm and adrenaline pumping through fans in attendance is enough to make nearly any wrestler receive massive amounts of praise or heat (depending on their character) the second their music hits.
The number a wrestler enters the Royal Rumble is equally important. The wrestler who enters at number 30 is notoriously well-regarded since statistically, it would seem that they have the most stamina to win. Likewise, the person who enters at number one is obviously against insurmountable odds. If the person entering at number one happens to win, it can elevate their image in the minds of fans to staggering heights. However, the wonderful thing about the fictitious world of wrestling is that things don’t always have to make sense; just because a wrestler entered last doesn’t necessarily mean he has to win. To date, only two men have entered at number one and taken the Royal Rumble (Chris Benoit in 2004 and Shawn Michaels in 1995).
History shows that entering last has its merits too. In 2007 and 2008 respectively, Undertaker and John Cena entered at number 30 and won the Royal Rumble. For both men, entering the Rumble at the end proved to be a huge factor in their victories. Fans will recall other memorable late-entry victories such as Edge’s win in 2010, after coming in at number 29. With Edge and Cena, coming in later was combined with the fact that both had been out with an injury and provided wrestling fans with the shock of a lifetime.
Vince McMahon understands more than any other promoter in the world how to pace a pro-wrestling event. Watching a Royal Rumble match can feel like being on a carnival ride with no end in sight. The match itself shifts from moments of high-intensity to simple rest-spots. There is a decent amount of chaos mixed with plenty of filler fighting. At the same time, the Rumble can act as a vehicle for two wrestlers currently in a storyline feud to seek revenge. Obviously, there are moments in the Royal Rumble match when fans will see nothing but a bunch of men trying to haphazardly push piles of other wrestlers over the top rope. However, as time goes on, and the number of superstars in the ring slowly dwindles, the energy among the performers becomes infectious. When the clock strikes zero, every entrant generates a level of speculation and excitement that few other wrestling events manage to accomplish.
Winning the Royal Rumble is one of the last sacred things in the WWE, next to the Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak. Every year, the winner of the Royal Rumble is promised a shot at a major championship title at WrestleMania (except for 1992 when Ric Flair won the vacated WWF title with his Rumble victory). Scroll through a Wikipedia list of Royal Rumble winners and you’ll see a list of the greatest main events in WWE history: Steve Austin, The Rock, Undertaker, John Cena, Shawn Michaels, Triple H, Hulk Hogan, and Ric Flair.
Winning the Royal Rumble means that you’re important to the WWE and they’re willing to give you a shot at the top tier of the biggest pay-per-view in their calendar year. WrestleMania has the potential to change a wrestler’s entire career trajectory, and the Royal Rumble acts as an invitation to that upper echelon. One could argue that Austin’s first Rumble victory at the beginning of the Attitude Era in 1997 cemented his status as the figurehead of a new movement in professional wrestling.
Part of what makes the Royal Rumble such an exciting PPV is the fact that it offers a glimpse into what the next year or so of WWE programming might look like. When Alberto del Rio won last year, many fans felt that it was too soon. Regardless, del Rio still dominated the main spot on numerous pay-per-views throughout the year and even managed to hold the WWE Championship title twice. Likewise, he stepped up on Smackdown during a time when the number of main eventers on the programme was limited. A Royal Rumble win acts as a quick window into the thought process of Vince McMahon and other management figures. Del Rio’s win meant that the WWE infrastructure clearly had plans for the performer.
In that sense, the Royal Rumble serves as an elaborate trailer for the upcoming year in the WWE, not unlike a carefully planned cinematic preview. At the same time, when an established wrestler, like Undertaker or Cena, wins the Rumble there is still an importance behind it. When a veteran wins, fans are sure to see who Vince McMahon thinks deserves a compelling storyline or feud leading into the biggest show of the year. A Royal Rumble win for a veteran is a vote of confidence for a performer who may feel beyond their prime.
Wrestling fans often argue that the biggest difference between WWE and UFC (or even Ring of Honor) is the fact that a win/loss ratio doesn’t matter in the former. A main eventer can lose five matches and then win the belt, leaving many wrestling purists angry over the inconsistencies. The Royal Rumble however is one night when winning means everything. Winning the Royal Rumble is basically a promise that you’re going to mean something that year; winning the Royal Rumble says, “you’re our man; we trust you”. Beyond simply winning, remaining in the match is just as important.
One could argue that Vince uses the Royal Rumble match to test the limits of certain performers to see how well they stand up to pressure. Randy Orton exemplified this theory in 2004, entering at number two and remaining for over 33 minutes, shortly before his elevation into the main event. Chris Jericho did the same in 2003 after entering at number two and remaining for almost 40 minutes. Both Orton and Jericho are prime examples of now seasoned performers who managed to elevate their careers without even winning the Rumble, instead using the match as a proving ground.
Everything isn’t always great
It’s worth noting that not every Royal Rumble has been perfect. Hacksaw Jim Duggan, while a sweetheart, is basically a goof and just happens to have won the first-ever Royal Rumble. Likewise, Albert del Rio’s win at 2011’s Rumble and subsequent mediocre title runs soured many fans to the tradition of the event. Of course, there is also the 2004 Royal Rumble, which to many fans no longer exists given that Chris Benoit – a murderer and monster – won that year.
Of course, there is also the instance when Vince McMahon won the Royal Rumble. In this case, many fans felt slighted that an actual year-round performer didn’t take the prize, but even then, Vince’s win managed to raise his heel status to unbelievable levels. Likewise, there have been men who entered the Royal Rumble early on but were not being tested by Vince McMahon for their main event suitability (see Bull Buchanan in 2001 and Golga in 1999). In the end, these small examples of Royal Rumble follies hardly cloud the importance and prestige of this holy night in professional wrestling.