The Road to WrestleMania begins with Royal Rumble. And the best WrestleMania‘s are preceded by the best Royal Rumble matches.
But the Royal Rumble pay-per-view itself is nothing without the Royal Rumble match.
Throughout WWE history, the Royal Rumble match is a platform to springboard wrestlers to superstardom. The final test before a wrestler is set to become “the guy.”
As with all things pro wrestling, the 30-man (or woman) over-the-top battle royal is a hit-and-miss affair. But the hits provided some of the greatest moments in WWE history.
Here’s our list of the five best Royal Rumble matches of all time.
Honorable Mention — 2007
The 2007 Royal Rumble featured the sole victory for the legendary Undertaker.
And while the match wasn’t necessarily good enough to be one of the best Royal Rumble matches, its final minutes are nothing short of legendary.
Two years before they would face off in back-to-back classics, the 2007 Royal Rumble match came down to the Undertaker and Shawn Michaels. The two legends went one-on-one for the final eight minutes of the match.
We didn’t know it then, but it was only a taste.
Sometimes, a feel-good story is what you need. And in the mid-2000s, WWE needed all the feel-good stories it could get. They needed look no further than the 2006 Royal Rumble match, one of the best Royal Rumble matches of all time.
Just more than a year before the Chris Benoit tragedy, WWE suffered the loss of the great Eddie Guerrero. He left behind an enduring legacy, a massive void, and a locker room full of admirers and friends.
None closer than Rey Mysterio. Mysterio entered in the No. 2 position in the match and lasted a still-record (no, I don’t count ‘Greatest Royal Rumble’ matches) 62 minutes.
As far as the match itself, it was pretty standard fare. But sometimes it’s the emotion and the drama that can carry any match to greatness. Rey Mysterio’s tribute to Eddie Guerrero makes this one of the best Royal Rumble matches ever.
‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin was on the way up.
He claimed victory in the 1996 King Of The Ring tournament, a solid match against his archrival Bret Hart, and one hell of a catchphrase.
But it was his performance in the 1997 Royal Rumble match that cemented his place as an industry leader. Austin’s victory (the first of a record three) in the 30-man battle royal was the first in a year of unpredictable WWE stories.
The finish was screwy, as Austin was eliminated by Hart, but – go figure – none of the referees saw it. So he sneaked back into the match, ultimately eliminating Hart, and securing victory.
It was Austin coming into his own as the self-serving badass character while still maintaining that goofy, old-school heel charm. The image of Austin’s face when he’s alone in the ring when Hart’s music hits alone make this worthy of inclusion as one of the best Royal Rumble matches of all time.
At the start of every Royal Rumble match, the commentators make note that Shawn Michaels is the only man to win the match entering at No. 1.
They are lying. I mean, it’s with good reason. But they’re lying.
Chris Benoit seemingly came out of nowhere to claim victory in the 2004 Royal Rumble match, signaling WWE’s intention to turn the corner and give a different kind of superstar a run with the ball.
But what’s more impressive about this match is the fact that it might be the most non-stop action (not Total Non-Stop Action, to be sure) Royal Rumble match ever.
More importantly, though, it was used as a Royal Rumble match should be used: to advance multiple stories at once. You had Mick Foley eliminating himself to chase after his rival, Randy Orton. Christian and Chris Jericho continued on the road to their own WrestleMania feud. And at the end, there was the underdog story of Chris Benoit defying the odds and punching his ticket for the history books.
Unfortunately, a few years later, he’d go into the books for another reason. But that shouldn’t diminish this contest’s place as one of the best Royal Rumble matches ever.
To be considered the best Royal Rumble match of all time, the match should have a little bit of everything.
The 2001 Royal Rumble match had a lot of everything, and it was glorious.
Comedy, surprise entrants, action, multiple stories, long-awaited showdowns. Everything.
Steve Austin picked up the third and final Royal Rumble victory of his career, but only after Kane set a record for eliminations with 11. The record held for 13 years until Roman Reigns bested it in the 2014 Royal Rumble match.
Kane’s participation was also notable for his interaction with celebrity entrant Drew Carey. At one point, Carey offers Kane a wad of cash to leave him alone before promptly eliminating himself and getting out of dodge. It was ridiculous, but it came during a lull in the action and actually served to get Kane over as both entertaining and no-nonsense.
You folks at home remember when Kane was a character?
The reaction of the crowd when the Rock and Austin – eventual WrestleMania X-Seven main-eventers – came face-to-face was eclipsed only by the roof-shaking eruption they made when Austin eliminated Kane for the win.
The 2001 Royal Rumble match had it all. Which is why it’s the best Royal Rumble match ever.
For years, the 1992 Royal Rumble was universally-accepted as the best Royal Rumble match of all time.
But in recent years, other lists have seen it slip in the rankings. I can only assume writers think it’s too obvious a choice. To me, though, it’s the obvious choice. It’s definitely at the top of the best Royal Rumbles of all time.
Ric Flair entered at No. 3 (three, Corey – three). At the time, as Gorilla Monsoon reminds us a million times, no one had ever won the Royal Rumble match entering earlier than No. 6.
But it wasn’t just Flair’s then-marathon man performances that sets this Rumble apart. There was the drama with Randy Savage hunting through the throng of participants for Jake Roberts. Flair having to fight off every enemy he’d made since arriving in WWE in November 1991, including a really displeased Roddy Piper.
And it was the day the fans finally decided they’d had enough of Hulk Hogan.
Hogan was eliminated by his friend Sid Vicious and immediately threw a temper tantrum as Sid pleaded from inside the ring that it was “just business.” So Hogan did what any rational person would do. He tried to drag Sid out of the ring as Flair sneaked up from behind to put him over the top and claim the vacant WWE Championship.
It was a perfect blend of storytelling, entertainment, and action. And Bobby Heenan’s commentary alone (“This is not fair to Flair!”) is worth the price of admission.
The 1992 edition stands forever as the greatest Royal Rumble of all time.
All images courtesy of WWE.