It’s hard to believe it’s that time of year again. The time when wrestling fans start noticing how close April really is. Wrestlemania season. Do you feel it? More importantly, do you smell it?
Some would argue that Wrestlemania season doesn’t kick off proper until the annual Royal Rumble PPV at the end of the month. The day someone points at the sign. The day the “Road to Wrestlemania” begins.
But even in these weeks leading up the Rumble, it’s hard not to start fantasy booking Mania. So much begins to take shape. And the #1 question on everyone’s mind is the same: Who will win the Royal Rumble?
As every wrestling fan knows, to win the Royal Rumble match is to punch the first ticket to Wrestlemania for a guaranteed title shot. It’s better than walking into the year as champion – it’s money in the bank before Money In The Bank was a thing.
As of this writing, only 5 men and 8 women have been announced for the 2019 Rumble matches, so we still have a ways to go. As those matches begin to fill up, let’s take a moment to look back on the winners of the past. Who was the greatest Royal Rumble winner of all time?
(Not to be confused with the Greatest Royal Rumble, which is a whole ‘nother thing)
We’ve looked back at the entire 30+ year history of the Royal Rumble PPV and ranked all 33 wrestlers who have stood tall and pointing at the end. From worst to first, these are the Rumble winners ranked by not only their performances, but what they did with the opportunity that winning the Royal Rumble match affords you.
So on with the show!
#33 – BIG JOHN STUDD (1989)
It’s kind of unfair to judge the early Rumble winners on their post-Rumble merits, seeing as how the “Wrestlemania Title Match” clause didn’t go into affect until 1993. However, even back then, winning the Rumble should have afforded you some sort of momentum. It did not for Big John Studd.
Studd returned to the WWF in late 1988 as a face, feuding with the Heenan Family. He won the first ever 30-man Royal Rumble match, tossing Akeem and The Million Dollar Man in the process. And how did Studd use his momentum? He was the special guest referee in a Wrestlemania V match between Jake The Snake and John’s old rival Andre The Giant. The match ended in a DQ. Studd would be gone from the WWF a couple of months later.
#32 – MR. MCMAHON (1999)
Statistically, Mr. McMahon is one of only 4 competitors to go bell-to-bell in the Royal Rumble match. Of course, he spent a lot of that 56 minutes outside of the ring, hiding from his arch-nemesis and tormentor “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. The Chairman would return at the very end to sneak attack Austin and toss him over the top rope.
McMahon forfeited his Wrestlemania WWF Title shot the next night on Raw, but after goading from WWF Commissioner Shawn Michaels, ended up on the receiving end of a Stone Cold Ass Kicking at the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre PPV.
#31 – ALBERTO DEL RIO (2011)
Alberto Del Rio is notable for winning the first and still only 40-man Royal Rumble match. Del Rio entered #38 and endured a post-bell sneak attack by Santino Marella to earn his shot at Wrestlemania immortality.
In a shocking first, Del Rio and World Heavyweight Champion Edge would CURTAIN JERK Wrestlemania XXVII. Thanks to the presence of Edge’s buddy Christian, Del Rio would be unable to capture the gold on that night. Notably, this was Edge’s final match before his retirement.
#30 – “HACKSAW” JIM DUGGAN (1988)
Hooo! While ol’ Hacksaw will always hold claim to being the first Royal Rumble winner, it comes with a lot of asterisks. First, Hacksaw’s Rumble wasn’t even on PPV, it was on free TV. Second, with only 20 participants, it was the shortest Royal Rumble match of all time, clocking in at just 33 minutes.
Duggan used his momentum to gain entry into the Wrestlemania IV 14-Man WWF Title tournament, but he was eliminated in the first round by Ted DiBiase.
#29 – ASUKA (2018)
Like Hacksaw, Asuka is another trail blazer who just failed to follow-up with success. Asuka was the winner of the first ever 30-Woman Royal Rumble Match. Not only that, but she walked into the Rumble undefeated for over 2 years.
Asuka would go on to face Raw Women’s Champion Charlotte at Wrestlemania 34 in New Orleans. Unfortunately, the Empress of Tomorrow would lose both the match and her winning streak in an early-night barnburner.
#28 – EDGE (2010)
The bearded Rated-R Superstar made a shocking appearance at the 2010 Royal Rumble, returning from injury after 6 months. Edge entered at #29 and eliminated both John Cena and Chris Jericho to win the Mania title shot.
Sadly, Edge would come up short in his Wrestlemania XXVI World Heavyweight Title match with Jericho, which was the 8th match on an 11 match card.
Edge’s Royal Rumble return was one of the Rumble’s greatest moments, but his follow-up was kinda weak.
#27 – “STONE COLD” STEVE AUSTIN (1997)
Stone Cold is legendary for being the only man to win THREE Royal Rumble matches, but his first victory was not his best. Stone Cold lasted an impressive 45 minutes in the match and tossed out an unprecedented 10 guys. Austin was one of the final five men in the ring when he was thrown out of the match by Bret “Hitman” Hart. Fortunately for the Rattlesnake, the refs missed his elimination. Austin would return and dump a celebrating Bret Hart to score the victory.
Later on Raw, WWF officials reversed the decision and Austin lost his Mania title shot. He’d come up short in a WWF Title Four Corners Match at In Your House, then go on to face Bret Hart in a starmaking Submission Match at Wrestlemania 13. In an iconic Mania Moment, Austin passed out due to loss of blood rather than submit.
#26 – JOHN CENA (2008)
In one of the Royal Rumble’s most memorable moments, John Cena made a surprise return as entrant #30 at the 2008 Rumble. Cena had been out with a torn pectoral muscle and rumors had him questionable for even Wrestlemania.
Cena set the record for the shortest winning time, just 8 minutes and 28 seconds, but he eliminated 4 men in the process, finishing up with Triple H. On Raw, Cena would announce that he didn’t want to wait for Mania and challenged WWE Champion Randy Orton at the No Way Out PPV. Cena won by DQ, which of course means Orton would hold on to the title. Cena would worm his way back into the title picture for Wrestlemania XXIV, where he’d lose to Orton in a Triple Threat WWE Title match (with the lights out).
#25 – LEX LUGER (1994)
Ah, the 1994 Royal Rumble. The one where both men hit the floor at the same time. Rumor has it that the WWF was unsure who would be the best babyface to send in to face heel champ Yokozuna at Wrestlemania X. Their idea? Let the crowd decide. So WWF had both Lex Luger and Bret Hart go out at the same time in an unheard of finish to the 1994 Royal Rumble. The company then gauged the crowd reaction to each man being announced as winner. I guess Bret Hart won.
With co-winners, both men would decidedly get a shot at the WWF Title at Mania. Lex got the first shot of the night and, thanks to some shenanigans by guest referee Mr. Perfect, came up on the losing end.
#24 – BATISTA (2014)
Good ol’ Boo-tista. The Royal Rumble winner that no one wanted. 2014 was the year of Daniel Bryan. The year of Occupy Raw. So it made absolutely no sense when WWE booked the returning Batista to win the Rumble Match. As a face no less!
Batista tossed out an impressive 8 men on his way to Royal Rumble victory. Between the Rumble and Mania, the fan outcry was too much for WWE to ignore. Daniel Bryan would be added to the Wrestlemania XXX WWE World Heavyweight Title Match with Batista and champ Randy Orton. Daniel would walk out champion and Batista would walk around wondering what the heck happened.
#23 – THE ROCK (2000)
In the absence of Steve Austin, The Rock truly stepped into the role of WWF’s greatest star in 2000. Unsurprisingly, Rocky would kick off the year by winning the Royal Rumble match. The Great One went nearly 15 minutes in the match and eliminated 4 guys, including the mammoth Big Show.
The Big Show would debate that The Rock’s feet actually hit the floor first, so the two faced off at the No Way Out PPV to determine the WWF Title #1 Contender. The Big Show won the match, but The Rock still ended up in a Wrestlemania 2000 Four Corners match for the championship. Unfortunately, Rock aligned himself with Mr. McMahon, who turned on him during the match, causing The Brahma Bull to walk out empty handed.
#22 – HULK HOGAN (1990)
The Royal Rumble Match became a big deal fairly fast in the WWF, so it’s no surprise that the Hulkster was one of the early winners. Hulk entered the 1990 Rumble at #25 and managed to toss 6 guys in just 12 minutes to walk out the winner. Hulk even teamed with heels The Barbarian and Rick Rude to toss out the Ultimate Warrior. Hmm.
This was before the “Mania Title Shot” rule, but it didn’t matter – Hulk was already champion. Instead, he’d face Intercontinental Champion Warrior at Wrestlemania VI in an epic Title vs Title match. In an unthinkable moment, Warrior defeated Hogan for the WWF Title in a torch-passing classic.
#21 – SHINSUKE NAKAMURA (2018)
Nakamura had an impressive showing in his first ever Royal Rumble match. The King Of Strong Style lasted over 45 minutes after entering at #14 and ousted 3 men, including John Cena and Roman Reigns, on his way to victory.
Shinsuke would challenge WWE Champion AJ Styles at Wrestlemania 34 in New Orleans in what was a hotly anticipated WWE dream match. Unfortunately, Nakamura was unable to capture the championship, and the match’s most memorable moment was a surprise low-blow to Styles after the 3-count.
#20 – ROMAN REIGNS (2015)
Roman Reigns suffered the same fate in 2015 as Batista in the 2014 Rumble. The crowd really wanted Daniel Bryan to win. Even the endorsement of The Rock couldn’t get Roman cheers after his big victory. Reigns tossed six men and lasted nearly 28 minutes in the match, but after he eliminated Rusev to win, there were nothing but boos.
Roman would go on to face Universal Champion Brock Lesnar at Wrestlemania 31 in Santa Clara, CA. It was the match that WWE had been booking toward for over a year. So you could call it more than a surprise when Seth Rollins cashed in his Money In The Bank contract during the Mania Main Event and walked out of Santa Clara as the new champ. If the Rumble wasn’t the ending the fans had planned for, Mania certainly wasn’t the ending Roman planned for.
#19 – SHEAMUS (2012)
Sheamus is the lowest ranked person on this list to go on to Wrestlemania and actually win the title. The Irishman entered the 2012 Rumble at #22 and tossed 3 men on his way to victory.
Like Alberto Del Rio, Sheamus would face World Heavyweight Champion Daniel Bryan in the OPENING MATCH of Wrestlemania XXVIII. Sheamus won the match in just 18 seconds – a dominating statistic but not the performance the crowd was anticipating from two workrate favorites of the time.
#18 – THE UNDERTAKER (2007)
In 2007, The Phenom would become the first man to ever enter the Rumble at #30 and win. Taker had an exciting sequence with Shawn Michaels before dumping HBK for the victory and the Wrestlemania 23 title shot.
Unfortunately, Taker suffered from the same issue as Sheamus in 2012. His World Heavyweight Title match with Batista was placed right in the middle of the WM23 card. Rumor goes that when Taker and Batista heard their match placement, they made an agreement to steal the show. Some would argue they did.
#17 – RANDY ORTON (2009)
2009 was a big year for Randy Orton. Randy started his WWE career as part of the legendary Evolution faction. By 2009, the established 3rd generation superstar created his own stable of 3rd genners, which they called Legacy. Orton entered the Royal Rumble at #8 and lasted over 48 minutes, utilizing help from his Legacy underlings to end up as the last man standing.
Orton would go on to face WWE Champion Triple H in the 25th Anniversary of Wrestlemania’s main event. Orton antagonized Triple H and the McMahon family for months, saying he suffered from IED and that his violent actions upon provocation were not under his control (therefore the McMahons couldn’t fire Orton when he attacked them). So the stipulation was added at Mania that, if Triple H were disqualified, he would lose the title. In the snoozer of a match, H managed to keep his sledgehammer in check and ultimately walk out with his title.
#16 – SHAWN MICHAELS (1995)
1995 marked the first of back-to-back Royal Rumble victories by the Heartbreak Kid. While the ’95 Rumble is notable for being the shortest 30-man match in history (clocking in at under 39 minutes), it’s possibly more notable for the finish. Shawn and The British Bulldog drew numbers 1 & 2 for the match, and both men stood standing as the final competitors. Bulldog was able to toss Shawn and began his victory celebration, but HBK skinned the cat and came back in to eliminate Davey Boy. It was the famous “only ONE foot touched the floor” call.
Shawn would go on to face his ex-bodyguard Diesel for the WWF Title in the Wrestlemania XI semi-main event. Sadly, Mr. Wrestlemania was unable to capture the gold on that occassion, as Big Daddy Cool walked out with the belt, Pamela Anderson and Jenny McCarthy.
#15 – RANDY ORTON (2017)
In 2017, Randy Orton became the 7th man in history to win multiple Royal Rumble matches. Like his win in 2009, Orton leveraged his strength in numbers, getting help via his membership in the Wyatt Family. Entering #23, Orton only eliminated one man – Roman Reigns – to get the victory.
Bray Wyatt ended up winning the WWE Title at the Elimination Chamber PPV, so Orton and Wyatt squared off at Wrestlemania 33 in Orlando. Though likely more memorable for Orton’s interesting looking “viper” graphic on the entrance way, Randy would defeat Bray in a late-card match to earn his 13th world championship.
#14 – “STONE COLD” STEVE AUSTIN (2001)
Stone Cold survived a bloody pre-match attack by Triple H to win his third Royal Rumble match. Entering at #27 (the position that has yielded the most victories), Austin dumped Billy Gunn, Haku and, finally, Kane on his way to scoring a spot at Wrestlemania X-Seven.
WMX7 would end up with a main event rematch between Austin and The Rock for Rocky’s WWF Championship. In a shocking twist, the No DQ match would end with the Rattlesnake getting help from none other than arch rival Mr. McMahon to win the match and the gold.
#13 – TRIPLE H (2016)
The 2016 Royal Rumble match would mark the first time a reigning WWE Champion would have to defend his title against 29 other men. Champion Roman Reigns fought valiantly, though it was always an uphill climb since the Big Dog entered at the #1 position. Entering at #30 was Triple H, leader of the evil Authority. Hunter tossed 4 guys, including Reigns and Dean Ambrose, on his way to victory and the WWE Title.
Reigns would go on to win a #1 Contender Triple Threat Match at the Fastlane PPV, which earned him a shot at The Game’s title come Wrestlemania 32 in Dallas. Triple H was unable to beat back Reigns’ rage on that night and found himself counting the lights at the close of the show.
#12 – BROCK LESNAR (2003)
Has anyone ever had a more impressive first year in WWE than Brock Lesnar? Among The Beast’s accomplishments in his first 12 months was winning the 2003 Royal Rumble match. The night kicked off with Brock defeating The Big Show just to qualify for the Rumble match proper. Lesnar entered at #29, eliminating four guys including The Undertaker to punch his Mania ticket.
At Wrestlemania XIX, Brock took on WWE Champion Kurt Angle in the night’s main event. Though he might not remember it thanks to a botched moonsault, Lensar ended the show with the WWE Title.
#11 – BATISTA (2005)
The Animal had an impressive showing at the 2005 Royal Rumble, tossing five other competitors in just over 10 minutes. In the end, Batista attempted to powerbomb John Cena from the ring, but Cena countered, sending both men to the floor. No camera angle showed a clear victor, so WWE Chairman Mr. McMahon ordered the match restarted rather than have another debacle like in 1994. Batista was able to get Cena over the ropes again to score the victory.
Batista’s win caused dissent within Evolution. Since Evolution leader Triple H was already World Heavyweight Champion on Raw, many assumed Batista would challenge for SmackDown’s WWE Title. Instead, Evolution imploded and, at Wrestlemania 21, The Animal took on Triple H for the World Heavyweight Title in the main event. Batista walked out as a first time world champ.
#10 – YOKOZUNA (1993)
1993 would mark the first time that the Royal Rumble winner was guaranteed a WWF Title shot at Wrestlemania. To say this was a Rumble game changer is an understatement. Unsurprisingly, every big name in the WWF was lined up to get their shot in the 30-man match. This included newcomer Yokozuna, a 500+ lb sumo who had only debuted 4 months earlier. Due to the nature of the Rumble match, Yoko was an early betting favorite, and the big man did not disappoint. Yokozuna entered the match at #27, but managed to eliminate 7 men, including WWF Hall Of Famers Bob Backlund, Carlos Colon and “Macho Man” Randy Savage, on his way to victory.
Yoko would challenge WWF Champion Bret “Hitman” Hart in the main event of Wrestlemania IX. Thanks to help from his manager Mr. Fuji, Yokozuna was able to defeat Hart and earn his first WWF Championship. Unfortunately, Fuji’s mouth got Yoko into some trouble, and he would drop the belt to Hulk Hogan in an impromptu match about five minutes later.
#9 – BRET “HITMAN” HART (1994)
We’ve already talked about what a cluster the 1994 Rumble finish was above with its co-winners. Bret Hart was that other winner. Bret lasted over 15 minutes on his way to winning the match while eliminating the likes of Tenryu, Fatu, Sparky Plugg and Crush. Sorry, I thought that list was going to be impressive.
Bret would get a shot at the WWF Title in the main event of Wrestlemania X, but the match would come after a crushing loss to brother Owen Hart in the night’s opener. Somehow, Bret was able to overcome adversity and defeat Yokozuna to win his second WWF Championship.
#8 – TRIPLE H (2002)
Triple H’s victory at the 2002 Rumble is part of one of WWE’s great comeback stories. The Game suffered a quad injury in 2001 that kept him out for over 8 months. The Rumble was his big return on his way back to the championship picture. H entered at #22, lasting 22 minutes before last eliminating Kurt Angle.
The Game would go on to main event Wrestlemania X8 against Undisputed Champion Chris Jericho. Y2J was seconded by Triple H’s storyline ex, Stephanie McMahon, and fans may have been even more excited to see Steph take the pedigree than they were to see Hunter holding up the gold at the end. They got both.
#7 – “STONE COLD” STEVE AUSTIN (1998)
After being stripped of his Mania title opportunity the year before, Stone Cold was bound and determined to win the Rumble a second time in 1998. In spite of a pre-match beatdown from Ken Shamrock, Austin entered the match at #24 and managed to eliminate an impressive seven competitors. In the end, it was The Rock who would eat the final stunner and end up on the floor.
Stone Cold took the Royal Rumble momentum with him to Wrestlemania XIV, where he would take on WWF Champion Shawn Michaels, but also face threats from D-Generation X and special enforcer Mike Tyson. In the end, Austin stood tall holding his first WWF Title, completing one of the greatest ascensions to the throne of any era.
#6 – HULK HOGAN (1991)
Hulkamania was still running wild in the 1991 WWF, and the Hulkster had just wrapped up a big feud with the Canadian Earthquake when the Rumble came around. Entering at #24, Hogan topped his previous Rumble-winning performance by eliminating seven superstars during his 21 minutes in the ring. Hogan tossed both members of Demolition, half the Nasty Boys and his good friend Tugboat before last eliminating his arch nemesis Quake.
The Hulkster would go on to be named the #1 contender to the WWF Title, which was snatched away from the Ultimate Warrior by Sgt. Slaughter at the Rumble PPV. This would lead to a controversial Wrestlemania VII main event, which used the recent Gulf War as background to the story of a patriotic Hulk Hogan saving the WWF and all of America from the turncoat Slaughter. In the end, Hogan stood proud with Old Glory and his third WWF Title.
#5 – JOHN CENA (2013)
John Cena was so headstrong to win the 2013 Rumble match that he was the first person to declare entry. Cena was itching to regain the WWE Title, and winning the Rumble guaranteed his shot at the belt. Big Match John entered at #19 in the match, lasting over 26 minutes before finally eliminating Ryback, who put on a dominant performance in his own right.
At the same Rumble PPV, The Rock defeated WWE Champion CM Punk. This victory set up a rematch at Wrestlemania 29 between Cena and Rock. In the main event, Cena was able to avenge his Mania XXVIII loss to The Great One and walk out with his 11th WWE Title.
#4 – SHAWN MICHAELS (1996)
In ’95, Shawn Michaels won the Rumble in controversial fashion and went on to lose a WWF Title match against Diesel at Wrestlemania XI. The Heartbreak Kid wasn’t about to let that become his Rumble legacy. In ’96, HBK became just the second ever back-to-back Rumble winner. HBK scored an impressive 8 eliminations, which included huge guys like Vader, Yokozuna, and Diesel.
At Wrestlemania XII, Shawn would face WWF Champion Bret Hart in an historic 60-Minute Iron Man Match main event. The match ended in a 0-0 tie, so WWF officials ordered that the match continue in sudden death. Shawn was finally able to score the pinfall and the championship, fulfilling his “boyhood dream.”
#3 – “NATURE BOY” RIC FLAIR (1992)
Hulk Hogan was stripped of the WWF Title in late 1991, and WWF President Jack Tunney announced that, for the first time ever, the championship would be on the line in the 30-man Royal Rumble match. In one of the most stacked Rumble rosters of all time, something like 20 future WWE Hall Of Famers would compete for the championship. Ric Flair entered at a seemingly impossible #3, but the Nature Boy found a way to survive for over 60 minutes in the match. In the end, a butt hurt Hulk Hogan distracted Sid Justice, allowing Slick Ric to dump the big guy and win the championship.
At Wrestlemania VIII, Flair would defend the title in the first half of a double main event against “Macho Man” Randy Savage. Flair could not survive Macho’s fury, and so ended the Nature Boy’s first WWF Title reign.
#2 – REY MYSTERIO (2006)
When Rey Mysterio entered the Rumble at #2, not many people thought the cruiserweight luchadore stood a chance of lasting to the end of the match. Amazingly, Rey Rey was able to withstand the never ending onslaught of the entire 30-man roster, surviving for over 62 minutes on his way to victory. It set a new Rumble record for longevity.
Dedicating his victory to the late Eddie Guerrero, Rey would score a shot at the World Heavyweight Championship at Wrestlemania 22. Unfortunately, Mysterio would lose that #1 contender spot in a match with Randy Orton at the No Way Out PPV. Rey was able to get himself re-inserted into the title picture and, at Mania, won the championship in a Triple Threat semi-main event.
#1 – CHRIS BENOIT (2004)
Yeah, so…sorry everybody. Chris Benoit’s Royal Rumble victory was the ultimate underdog story. A fan favorite, a veteran of the game who many considered too small to ascend to the top of the mountain, Benoit entered the Rumble at #1 and set a new longevity record (over 61 minutes) on his way to victory. He also managed to toss out big guys like Mark Henry, John “Bradshaw” Layfield, and finally The Big Show.
Benoit would exercise a loophole in the Royal Rumble winner contract to jump from SmackDown to Raw to challenge World Heavyweight Champion Triple H at Wrestlemania XX. Shawn Michaels would turn the match into a Triple Threat, but Chris Benoit still walked out victorious in what was one of the most satisfying completions of a wrestling journey of all time.
I don’t say any of this to glorify Chris Benoit, but to applaud the storytelling, which was some of WWE’s best ever.
And there you have it! I hope you enjoyed this look back at every Royal Rumble and are even more pumped for the 2019 edition!