Alex has been an online sports and pop culture writer for five years. When he's not writing about sports, Alex is an aspiring screenwriter.
The Royal Rumble is one of the biggest events in WWE. Since its inception in 1988, the show has undergone a few changes. But ever since the Royal Rumble was revamped to grant a title shot at Wrestlemania, it’s been a stepping stone. Most winners have gone on to do big things.
But how do we decide the best of the winners? There are different factors. For one, what did the wrestler accomplish at the time? After that, how were they perceived in the long run? Were they just a flash in the pan or did they have a long, fruitful career? Lastly, the Rumble itself will be considered when necessary. After all, some Rumble matches struggled to fill the 30-person mark while others featured a dream team of the era.
Big John Studd (1989)
Studd accomplished nothing after this. At the time, the Rumble was nothing but bragging rights. In fact, this was the first PPV Royal Rumble. According to rumor, Studd winning the Rumble was meant to be the catalyst for a big push. But it just didn’t happen. He only refereed a match at Wrestlemania V and retired by the end of the year. He came back after years of being absent only to bail shortly after.
Mr. McMahon (1999)
Ah, here’s the obvious choice. McMahon is a non-wrestler. He won after being an observer for most of the match and only eliminated one person. Lastly, 1999 was one of the worst Rumbles ever as it was filled with a lot of mooks. So why isn’t McMahon the absolute bottom? This was part of his red-hot feud with Austin. So at least it accomplished something. Also, for better or worse, he did win the WWE Championship in the same year he won the Rumble—not something all winners can say.
It’s hard to shake the impression that Batista winning the Rumble was just WWE trying to cash in on his appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy. Batista’s return as a babyface didn’t exactly win over crowds. When he won the Rumble, fans weren’t exactly enthralled. WWE eventually course-corrected and inserted Daniel Bryan into the Wrestlemania main event. If I can give any faint praise to this win, Daniel Bryan having to face two titans was a much better story than if it had just been Bryan-Orton redux. Even after Bryan abdicated the title due to injury, Batista didn’t win the gold. Instead, he took his ball and marched off to Hollywood.
Randy Orton (2017)
Orton winning the Rumble was basic enough storytelling. He was working for Wyatt but only to take him down from the inside. This was also the first time in years a Rumble winner wasn’t despised. But there was more wrong with this. For one, when an established star like Orton won the Royal Rumble, it showed WWE’s lack of willingness to take risks. More importantly, Orton’s feud with Bray was not good. Even before the notorious House of Horrors, the two had the worst match at Wrestlemania 33. Orton did win the title, but he ended up being cannon fodder for Jinder Mahal’s maligned world title run. Orton didn’t begin feeling like a star again until his savage heel-turn on Jeff Hardy.
At the time, everyone thought Chris Jericho was a lock. I wish I could go back to the beginning of the season and put some money on Sheamus! After rocketing to the WWE Championship in his debut year, Sheamus had fallen into the midcard. But a Rumble win can jumpstart someone’s career. Yeah, he won a Rumble that was stuffed to the gills with comedy entrants, but it’s still a win. Sadly, WWE bookers decided that winning the Royal Rumble was an excuse to not actually book a feud. Sheamus squashed Daniel Bryan at Wrestlemania, which hurt Sheamus more than it hurt Bryan. Sheamus was a directionless champion and he was back to the midcard after losing. I talked about this in my Money in the Bank article, but this was just another cog in the Sheamus stop-start push machine.
Roman Reigns (2015)
Voting Roman Reigns as one of the worst Royal Rumble winners is probably one of the least controversial statements I could make. His Royal Rumble victory was hated. Fans in the arena hated it, WWE had to give away a free month of the Network to placate fans. It doesn’t help that fan favorite Daniel Bryan—who never lost the title—was dumped out halfway through the match. The real problem is the blowback from this match tainted Roman. Re-watch Money in the Bank or TLC from 2014. Fans liked him. At the previous year’s Rumble, he received protest cheers. After this Rumble, he became public enemy number one. It took real life tragedy with his leukemia diagnosis to get fan respect again.
Triple H (2016)
If I were ranking this exclusively by match quality, Triple H’s 2016 might be towards the top. He won a hell of a good Rumble match. Give WWE some credit: bookers mixed things up by putting the title on the line. But all we got was a real authority figure putting himself on top again. For crying out loud, the commentary team built up Triple H as some conquering gladiator rather than a heel absconding the title. All we got was Roman Reigns beating Hunter at Mania in a move that felt like total McMahon hubris.
John Cena (2013)
Not a lot to say about this one. Everyone and their mother knew WWE was redoing the “Once in a Lifetime” Rock vs. Cena for Wrestlemania. So, it was pretty clear that Cena was going to win the Royal Rumble that year. Sometimes the obvious choice is right, but this just felt too obvious to be satisfying.
Alberto Del Rio (2011)
I feel like I said this in my Money in the Bank article, but this seemed like a good idea at the time. In 2011, they had every reason to propel Del Rio the win. And this wasn’t just any Royal Rumble win. Del Rio won the first 40-man Royal Rumble, the biggest up to that point. But he choked at Wrestlemania and didn’t get that push until he won Money in the Bank. An injury killed his momentum, but there were dozens of attempts to make him a top star. Just as Del Rio has gotten zillions of opportunities by WWE and other companies despite being a garbage human.
Shinsuke Nakamura (2018)
Shinsuke won another barn burner of a Royal Rumble. It felt so refreshing to see WWE use the Rumble to build a new star. Not just a new star but a fan favorite. Plus, it was built up as a dream match where he faced off against AJ Styles. Nakamura lost his Wrestlemania match. However, as we’ve established, not everyone wins their Wrestlemania match. Unfortunately, he didn’t win any of his subsequent matches. Nobody did, not even the fans. As he faced AJ, there were BS finishes and Nakamura became a man who loved hitting people in the family jewels. When Styles got an actual win, Nakamura was in the US title picture. Not the worst idea: Cena and Styles both reinvigorated the US Title. But Nakamura just started feeling like another guy on the roster.
Braun Strowman (Greatest Royal Rumble)
I debated if I wanted to even count this. The so-called Greatest Royal Rumble was more of a gaiden event than an official entrant in the canon. There have been a few of those—including a 12-man Rumble before the ’88 show. The difference is that while those were house shows or TV matches, this was a 50-man Rumble, the centerpiece of a major show. With that name, why isn’t this the greatest royal rumble winner? Well, Braun Strowman didn’t really get anything for this. So why isn’t this the worst? Simply put, nothing was promised. Still, Strowman was the right choice. Plus, by winning a 50-man rumble, he knocked Del Rio off his perch. So there’s that.
Triple H (2002)
Even if Triple H didn’t exactly need the win in 2002, it was good storytelling. After being away for injury, Triple H returned to win the WWE Championship. Unfortunately, the aftermath sinks this one. It can’t be too surprising fans were more interested in Rock facing off against Hulk Hogan. But Triple H’s feud with Jericho involved spousal abuse and dog mess. This was also the first step toward the Reign of Terror. Though realistically, that was inevitable. So maybe it’s not fair to blame this win.
Hacksaw Jim Duggan (1988)
It’s tempting to gripe that Duggan accomplished nothing as Rumble winner. Duggan spent most of his career as a mid-carder before leaning into his role as a comedy act. But like the GRR, nothing was promised. The first Rumble was like a proof-of-concept. It was a TV special and the match only had 20 entrants. But hey, being first gave him some bragging rights.
You’d think this would be a slam dunk. Asuka was undefeated for years. She survived the first all-women’s Royal Rumble to earn a title shot at Wrestlemania. Then like so many Royal Rumble winners, she lost. For what it’s worth, Charlotte Flair was a worthy adversary to hand Asuka her first loss. That’s not the problem. The problem is the aftermath. After the Wrestlemania match, Asuka feuded with new women’s champ Carmella. Now, certainly WWE wasn’t going to nerf their new women’s champion. It stinks Asuka had to bite the bullet. But what salted the wound was that she lost straight-up comedy matches. Asuka looked like a complete klutz when she was duped by future sex offender James Ellsworth. After that, Asuka spent months as just another woman on the roster. If there is one good thing about the women’s division being smaller, it is possible for women to rise to the top out of nowhere. And Asuka did just that. At TLC, she did grab the gold in dramatic fashion. So, she did eventually get where she needed, and being the first woman to win the Rumble is a big deal. But the road there was bumpier than it should have been.
Bret Hart and Lex Luger (1994)
In the 31-year history of the Royal Rumble, only two men have been co-winners of the annual event. It should be no surprise that WWE was trying to have their cake and eat it too. Word on the street is that after his previous year’s push was a bust, WWE wanted to take another crack at making Luger, but Luger shot himself in the foot—as he did. Hart had already been a WWE Champion, but it looked like he may be taking second fiddle again. But after Luger gave away his win at a bar, Hart was able to march his way to stardom. Luger’s career in WWE was a flop, but he still became a big deal in WCW. Though he also once jobbed to a t-shirt. 1994 has the unusual distinction of being one of the best and one of the worst Royal Rumble wins.
I thought about ranking Yokozuna higher. After all, he was the first Royal Rumble winner with the stipulation of challenging for the title at Wrestlemania. He started off strong by winning the WWE Championship from Bret Hart. Then it went downhill. On the same night—THE SAME NIGHT—he lost the title to Hulk Hogan. And for younger fans, this was over a decade before Money in the Bank. Still he rebounded quickly enough. Hogan wasn’t long for the company and dropped it back to Yoko. Yokozuna’s true reign of dominance began and he didn’t lose the title until Bret Hart regained his win at Wrestlemania X. Sadly, Yokozuna had the classic big guy lament: He started on such a high note that once he sustained that big loss, it was all downhill. The fact that Yokozuna lost to Bret by virtue of being fat was the first red flag. He hung around for only two more years. He had a few big wins, mostly as a tag partner for Owen Hart. But he barely sniffed the main event again.
Hulk Hogan (1990/91)
I tried to avoid lumping people together, but Hogan’s two wins tell the same story. After Jim Duggan did nothing and Studd somehow did less, the Rumble needed someone big to establish its importance. Hogan was WWE Champion when he won in 90, giving him plenty of momentum when he defended against the Ultimate Warrior. In 91, he chased the title against Sgt. Slaughter. Even if it wasn’t the official stipulation, it may have planted the seeds. So, Hogan may not have needed the Rumble. But the Rumble needed him.
Randy Orton (2009)
In 2009, Randy Orton was in a position where he didn’t exactly need it, but he was still the right man. The immediate aftermath of this left a lot to be desired. Despite great build, Orton had a beyond underwhelming match against Triple H at that year’s Wrestlemania. Though the man has been in the main event ever since this. By this point, Orton had already had a full career, but winning the Royal Rumble propelled him from star to superstar.
This set-up had been done a few years earlier, but it was still good storytelling. Edge had been away with injury since the previous summer. He came back at the Royal Rumble, and won it. Word of his return was leaked early, but this felt like a better version of Triple H’s comeback story. Edge had such a cool factor that he could go away heel, come back as a babyface and fans accepted it. The plot was thickened when Edge was seeking revenge against former partner Chris Jericho. Edge surprisingly lost his Wrestlemania match. According to Jericho’s book, McMahon wanted Edge to be the top face on Smackdown. He accomplished this by having Edge move to Raw and turn heel. Yeah, I don’t get it either. Okay, Edge did get there when he moved back to Smackdown and won the World Title. Sadly, Edge would retire less than a year later. Still, the fact that he spent the tail end of his career on top is an accomplishment totally reeking of awesomeness.
John Cena (2008)
Like his old rival Edge, Cena was away with injury. The difference is WWE managed to keep Cena’s a return a secret. He was expected to be out for longer, and we didn’t know about Cena’s magical healing powers yet. So, when those horns hit at number 30, we were in disbelief. Was it really him? Full disclosure, I disliked Cena at the time. But the thrill of seeing him in such a surprise spot was such a feel-good moment I started warming up to him. Cena challenged early but still got into the Wrestlemania main event. He lost both and spent a large part of the year in the lower card. It’s Cena so he wasn’t long for that world. I feel like this win accomplished something else. WWE had a way of telegraphing the Rumble winner. Lesson learned: The Rumble could still surprise.
Brock Lesnar (2003)
Lesnar was in a slightly different position from the Rock and Orton when they won. They were both multi-time champions. At this point, Lesnar was a one-time champion. Granted, he had huge wins over Hulk Hogan and the Rock. Having already discussed Yokozuna, we’ve already seen how flash pushes can fizzle out. Lesnar winning the Rumble was affirmation that he was not just a fluke. From a certain point of view, he was because he ended his original run more than a year later. Though he became a bigger star by proving he can hurt people for real (not the biggest plot twist ever) in UFC. His WWE return has had mixed results, but he’s had enough highlights that I’d still say his comeback was for the best.
The Rock (2000)
Once again: Didn’t need it, but still the right man. Though Rock needed it slightly more. The Rock may have already been a multi-time WWE Champion. But remember the position the company was in: Steve Austin and the Undertaker were injured. Retirement was knocking on Mick Foley’s door. Chris Jericho and Kurt Angle were new to the roster. So, it was wise for WWE to find a new guy. Big Show probably felt like the second-best choice, but his lukewarm response as WWE Champion proved he was no replacement for Stone Cold. Considering The Rock has gone on to become an A-list movie star, WWE clearly backed the right horse.
Rey Mysterio (2006)
Matt Stiker once brought up a great point. There’s so much hoopla about the number one spot, but the number two spot is at the same disadvantage. Rey Mysterio not only started from that unlucky spot, but he set a longevity record. This was even more impressive considering Rey’s stature. But the good storytelling didn’t last. Having Rey win in tribute to his recently departed friend Eddie Guerrero was a good idea. Soon the company began running Eddie’s name through the dirt, with Randy Orton destroying his low-rider and saying Eddie was in Hell. Rey Mysterio did win the World Title… only to become one of the most maligned champions ever. He lost. All. The. Time. Mysterio’s career has had dozens of peaks and valleys since 2006—both in and out of WWE. It’s a shame Rey was treated like a loser during his time, but many didn’t think he’d even make it that far.
Chris Benoit (2004)
Christopher Plummer won a Royal Rumble? Apologies if this strikes a nerve with some readers. I’m aware that it’s impossible to talk about this man without discussing the awful things he did. However, pretending we live in a world where that never happened, Benoit’s Rumble win was great storytelling. Tough, underdog gladiator claws his way from starting at the number one spot. Then he wins the World Title in a brutal match against two legends. Benoit had his moment in the sun, but let’s get real: Even in that same perfect world where his crimes never happened, Benoit did not have a ton of staying power. WWE has grown into a company that will push smaller, more athletic guys. But the truth of the matter is, guys like Daniel Bryan and AJ Styles just have more character and connection with fans that Benoit didn’t have.
Shawn Michaels (1995)
There are a lot of things WWE likes to gloss over with Shawn Michaels’s first Royal Rumble win. For one, to hide a thinning roster this was one of the fastest Royal Rumble ever. And who was in that Rumble? A veritable Wrestlecrap role call: Kwang, Duke “The Dumpster” Droese, Mantuar. Still, this was the first time anyone had won from number one and WWE crafted a great story. HBK and Bulldog were the first ones in and the last two out. Plus, we got the iconic image of Michaels saving himself by just one foot. Shawn Michaels didn’t win at Mania, but this was still his first step into a larger world.
Steve Austin (1997)
Every legend has to begin somewhere. It was only a year prior was the Ringmaster. But now he had reinvented himself as Stone Cold Steve Austin: a cool, vicious character that fans were supporting. Austin had already won the King of the Ring. That may not have been part of the plan, but a certain promo helped Austin gain star power. Strangely, this seemed to be the opposite situation. Despite winning the Royal Rumble, Austin did not main event Wrestlemania. It’s a pretty open secret that he was NEVER part of the plan. (For those who don’t know, Michaels-Hart 2 was the original plan.) Then again, Austin’s dramatic “I Quit” match helped make him a bigger star than winning the title may have. Still, these factors helped solidify Austin as a star. Even as a heel, Austin exuded coolness that fans loved him. The bit where he pretends to check a nonexistent watch is still good for laughs.
It’s not always about making new stars. Sometimes it’s about a legend getting his due. For those who don’t know, the Undertaker has had carte blanche over his career for a large chunk of it. Mostly using his powers for good, this still managed to be his first Rumble win. And this was also the first time anyone won from number 30. Undertaker was mostly just defending his streak at this point. But winning the Rumble re-established him as a top guy. He was close to being a 20-year vet by this point. Most people lose steam by that point. But with world title war with Batista, Undertaker began possibly the best phase of his career. And it began with a Royal Rumble win that was an absolute nail-biter when he squared off against Shawn Michaels.
And with this, Batista has the unusual distinction of being the only man in the top five best and the top five worst Royal Rumble winners. His two wins are practically mirror images of each other. In 2014, he robbed more deserving victors of their spotlight. In 2005, he was the right man. He and John Cena were easily the two best options they could have picked. Batista was wiser because they were building toward a red-hot feud with Triple H. Winning the Royal Rumble and winning his first World Heavyweight Title at Wrestlemania propelled Batista into the stratosphere. While he wasn’t always booked perfectly he remained a top draw in the company until he left in 2010 to become a Hollywood draw.
Steve Austin (1998)
The Austin Era officially began. Winning the Royal Rumble in 1997 put Austin on the path to stardom. Winning the Rumble in 98 is what made Austin a star. Consider the picture, Austin spent 1997 as a top star but hadn’t won the top title. He overcame having his neck broken. Going back to an earlier point, Austin’s win was telegraphed. Pretty much the entire build for the Rumble was Austin vs. Everyone. But why beat around the bush? Austin toppled a retiring Shawn Michaels to win the WWE Championship, and the rest—as they say—is history.
Shawn Michaels (1996)
The boyhood dream came true. After testing the waters the previous year, this was Shawn Michaels’s true rise to stardom. Michaels made his way through the Rumble and overcame Bret Hart in a grueling Iron Man match to win the WWE Championship. Unfortunately, hindsight doesn’t completely defend HBK as champion. Fans were lukewarm to babyface Michaels. But it was necessary. Austin wasn’t ready, Nash and Hall were taking the WCW money, and Bret Hart needed time off. So, WWE needed a new star. Even if the booking at the time was questionable, HBK did prove his worth as a top guy.
Steve Austin (2001)
It was harder to decide how to rank Austin’s individual wins. While his ‘98 win is the won that set Austin on the road to stardom, winning in 2001 is what established Austin as the all-time Royal Rumble champion. And he did it with one of the better Royal Rumble matches too. He was bloodied up before even entering the match. Kane had dominated the Rumble that was filled with a dream team of the Attitude Era—Rock, Undertaker… and Drew Carey. He had one of the matches of his lifetime against the Rock at Wrestlemania X-Seven. This may have led to a maligned heel turn, but the one-two punch of the Rumble win and beating the Rock made sure Austin deserved a spot on wrestling’s Mount Rushmore.
Ric Flair (1992)
If I were ranking individual winners, Austin would be would be on top. But in terms of a single match performance, sometimes you have to be the man. Ric Flair’s Royal Rumble victory was a masterclass in storytelling. At that point, NOBODY had won the Royal Rumble from the top five position, a point bemoaned by Gorilla Monsoon. It was a subtly brilliant touch that Flair didn’t enter from number one: Keep it secret just long enough that there was some suspense he’d go the distance. Flair outlasted a who’s who of the era—Savage, Hogan, Roberts, Piper, Undertaker, DiBiase, Slaughter, and future legend Shawn Michaels. Flair didn’t just get a title shot, he won the WWE title . The story worked so well because Flair, but a different kind of a heel. He was cocky and arrogant, and you just wanted to hate him because he was as good as he claimed. (And let's not forget Heenan's legendary commentary.)