Taking a break from the Mania Main Thoughts series for a minute (I had a great write-up on Lesnar/Angle from WMXIX nearly finished, but it didn’t save. If it didn’t save, it didn’t happen).
Last night was everybody’s second favorite WWE PPV of the year, the Royal Rumble. I’m not going to write any sort of review (Ty Dillinger and Roman freaking Reigns are your big “surprises”?), but I did want to look at an interesting stat when it comes to Royal Rumble history.
The big draw of the Royal Rumble match is that the winner goes on to get a main event title match at Wrestlemania. In fact, the Rumble usually sets off multiple angles that give us an idea of how Wrestlemania will look in April.
Last night marked the 30th annual Royal Rumble, but the “#1 Contender” stipulation didn’t enter the picture until 1993. There was also last year, where the match was actually for the WWE Title. So that leaves us 23 Royal Rumble matches where the winner was promised the ultimate prize – a headlining spot at the biggest show on the WWE calendar.
So it may come as a surprise that I can give you TEN TIMES out of that 23 when the winner of the Royal Rumble did not headline Wrestlemania. 10 out of 23 matches. That’s almost enough to call bait and switch. But it happened, and here they are.
#1 LEX LUGER
This one is a little bit of a cheat. In 1994, WWE was still at a loss for direction after losing Hulk Hogan. They had two ways they could have decided on. First, you had the bodybuilder, Lex Luger, a guy who they had repackaged as the All American good guy. Basically a new Hogan without the charisma. Second, you had the Canadian veteran Bret “Hitman” Hart, a smaller wrestler but a technician who was becoming known as the best wrestler in the world.
They still weren’t sure at the Royal Rumble, so they just had both guys eliminate each other at the end. The result? Two Royal Rumble winners. Both would go onto face the WWF Champion, the behemoth Yokozuna, at Wrestlemania X. A coin toss decided that Lex would get the first crack at Yoko, and Bret would have to face his younger brother Owen in a match to make things fair. As it stands, Lex turned up short and Bret recaptured the title in the main event. The WWF had made their decision, and Lex would jump ship to WCW the next year.
#2 SHAWN MICHAELS
HBK had one of the greatest careers in WWE history, but he still had a lot to overcome in his early years. Shawn won his first Royal Rumble in 1995, becoming the first guy to do so after entering #1. He would also create one of the most iconic moments in Rumble history when, after the British Bulldog tossed him from the ring, he managed to hold onto the ropes and keep one foot from hitting the floor. While the Bulldog celebrated, Shawn rolled back into the ring and tossed him out, thus winning his Mania title shot and also prompting Howard Finkel to make his “BOTH FEET MUST TOUCH THE FLOOR” announcement.
Shawn would go on to get his Wrestlemania XI WWF Title shot against Diesel, but the match would play semi-main. The WWF had managed to acquire a huge celebrity willing to step into the ring (read more about that here), so it would be Bam Bam Bigelow and retired NFL linebacker Lawrence Taylor main eventing WMXI.
If you’re not the last match, you’re not the main event. No worries for Shawn though, who would repeat at the 1996 Rumble and go on to main event WMXII in a classic against Bret Hart.
#3 STONE COLD STEVE AUSTIN
Like HBK, Stone Cold had arguably the greatest wrestling career of all-time, and also like HBK, he did it with a giant chip on his shoulder. So getting screwed out of main eventing his first Wrestlemania was par for the course for the rattlesnake.
At the 1997 Royal Rumble, Stone Cold managed to be the last man standing. Nevermind the fact that Bret Hart had already thrown him out, because the refs never noticed that. So it was easy for Austin to sneak up on Hart and toss him, thus winning his first (of three) Royal Rumble matches.
The truth came out though, and with the WWF title picture in disarray (HBK would relinquish the title in search of his smile), the WWF Presient ordered a Fatal Fourway match for the WWF Title at the In Your House PPV before WM13. Bret Hart would defeat Austin, Vader and The Undertaker in that match, but go on to lose the WWF Title the next night on Raw, thanks to interference from Stone Cold. So Austin would end up facing Bret in a classic Submission Match at WM13, while new champion Sycho Sid would have to deal with The Undertaker in the night’s main event.
#4 MR. McMAHON
Yep, Vince McMahon once won the Royal Rumble. It was 1999 and the Austin-McMahon feud was in full swing. Vince had put a huge bounty up for anyone who could eliminate Austin from the match, and even went as far as to enter the Rumble himself to try and get the job done.
Austin and McMahon entered at #1 & #2 and Stone Cold laid a huge beatdown on the boss. Vince rolled out of the ring to try and escape, but Austin brought the fight after him. The brawl lasted the entire Rumble match and included ambushes, an ambulance, a jug of water and a well timed low blow. In the end, WWF Champion The Rock provided a distraction, allowing Mr. McMahon to toss out Stone Cold and be declared the winner.
Since all Vince wanted to do was keep Austin away from a Wrestlemania title shot, he relinquished his #1 contendership. WWF Commissioner Shawn Michaels then awarded the WMXIV title match to Stone Cold anyway, which led to a particularly nasty steel cage match between Austin and McMahon at the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre PPV.
#5 REY MYSTERIO
Rey Mysterio made history when he outlasted everyone to win the 2006 Royal Rumble. With his small size, he certainly would never be an odds on favorite for winning a battle royal. Rey dedicated his victory and his WM22 title shot to his late friend Eddie Guerrero.
Randy Orton, who was feuding with Rey at the time, goaded him into putting the #1 contendership up for grabs in a match at the No Way Out PPV. Rey accepted, but came up short in the match thanks to a dirty pin by Orton. SmackDown! General Manager Theodore Long would use the controversial pin to book a Triple Threat Match – Mysterio vs Orton vs World Champion Kurt Angle at Wrestlemania 22. The match would be the 7th on the card, however, with the Triple H/John Cena WWE Title match main eventing.
#6 JOHN CENA
Even The Face That Runs The Place can get screwed sometimes, but in 2008, John Cena actually screwed himself. Cena went out with a torn pectoral in late 2007 and was scheduled to be gone for several months. So when he made his surprise return as #30 in the ’08 Rumble, the crowd went crazy. Eight minutes later, Cena had dumped Triple H and looked to be headed on to main event his third Wrestlemania.
However, Cena announced that he didn’t want to wait until Wrestlemania to get his title shot. He was granted a WWE Title match against Randy Orton at No Way Out and won. Unfortunately, it was because Randy Orton got himself disqualified so he could retain the title. That same night, Triple H won an Elimination Chamber match to get a WWE Title shot at WMXXIV.
Thanks to the Orton shenanigans, Cena was able to make it a Triple Threat Match for the WWE Title at Mania, but the match would play second fiddle to Edge and The Undertaker.
#7 THE UNDERTAKER
#9 ALBERTO DEL RIO
The last four are a little bit of a cheat, but I’m putting them there for two reasons. First reason, ten is a great number. Second reason, you can’t put a match anywhere but last on a card and call it the “main event”. A lot of these guys were pretty heinously shafted, too. The Undertaker won the 2007 Rumble and would go onto face Batista for the World Heavyweight Title in the fourth match on the card. They’d play second fiddle to not only the Cena/HBK WWE Title match, but also the whole McMahon/Donald Trump Battle of the Billionaires silliness. Rumor has it that when Taker found out how early they were going on, he and Batista agreed they were going to tear the house down.
Edge made his big surprise return at the 2010 Rumble, going on to win a match against World Heavyweight Champion Chris Jericho at WMXXVI. That match would play semi-main to a Cena/Batista WWE Title Match.
Edge would be double disrespected the next year, when he would defend his World Title against 2011 Royal Rumble Winner Alberto Del Rio in the OPENING MATCH of WMXXVII, which featured a pretty awful Cena/Miz WWE Title main event. Worse still, it would end up being Edge’s final match.
Sheamus would have the same problem the next year, when he won the 2012 Royal Rumble and ended up facing World Champion Daniel Bryan in the WMXXVIII show opener. Sheamus and Bryan had a history together, as their US Title match had been dropped from the main WMXXVII card the year before. A groundswell of fan support led to high expectations for the match – which lasted all of a kiss and one Brogue Kick.
It would be a nasty 3 year run of disrespect for both the World Title and the Royal Rumble winner, and really the only cure was the end of the first brand split and the unification of the WWE and World Title.
Which brings us to this year, where we find everything split again. History shows that the Royal Rumble may shape Wrestlemania, but it’s only the first draft. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with 2017 winner Randy Orton and the rest of the WWE roster as the road to Wrestlemania officially begins.