Winning the Royal Rumble match is a sacred honor in WWE. At least it used to be. But over the years, WWE has given us just the most baffling Royal Rumble winners.
Twenty-six men have won the Royal Rumble. Some, like three-time winner and legend ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, used the 30-man match to march toward superstardom. And there are others who, well, didn’t. The mid-2000s through the 2010s were strange times for the Royal Rumble. With brand splits and the still-not-dead notion that WrestleMania can have several main events, the luster of winning the January classic doesn’t shine quite so bright.
All that said, let’s look at WWE’s five most baffling Royal Rumble winners. For simplicity’s sake, I’m not counting winners of the Greatest Royal Rumble match. And also because they don’t count and should never count, this is my list, and I make the rules by God. Also, it should shock nobody that all of the official entries on the list are from the last ten years, because of course they are because WWE is just the worst.
Roman Reigns, 2015 – I hated it, too, and it was absolutely wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. But we knew it was going to happen, and we never doubted that it would happen. At that point, though, no matter how much we wanted Daniel Bryan (more on that later), there was too much invested in the Roman train to change course at that point. Until they had to book the Seth Rollins Money In The Bank thing to save it at WrestleMania 31.
Vince McMahon, 1999 – Yeah, the worst winner ever won the worst Rumble ever. It’s awful. Actually, it’s beyond awful. But it fit with the fast-and-loose booking of the time, and this was a time when Russo’s stupid ideas either had or were guided to logical conclusions somewhere along the line.
Lex Luger/Bret Hart, 1994 – History has a way of repeating itself, and the fact that WWE felt they had to hedge their bets despite the fans literally shouting “We want Bret!” at them makes the 1994 Bret-Luger tie one of the most baffling Royal Rumble winners ever. But it led to an interesting WrestleMania X, with all three men in the title picture potentially pulling double duty. It was fun and different, even if it started in truly baffling fashion. Also, I’ll take any chance I can get to say Lex Luger sucks. So here it is. Ahem. Lex Luger sucks.
Sheamus is one of those WWE stars who’s managed to stick around thanks in large part to fake credibility. Now that’s not a knock against Sheamus, but he’s glorified enhancement talent. There was a time when he could’ve been a big deal, but that time is long past. And frankly it was long past when he won the 2012 Royal Rumble match.
It was apparent to anyone who was remotely alive in 2012 that WWE had shifted its focus from making stars. The focus was making company itself the star. Sheamus’s win at Royal Rumble 2012 is pretty emblematic of that. Bear in mind, we’re coming off the storied Summer Of Punk, and the WrestleMania main event had been set in stone as Rock vs. Cena nine months earlier. Punk was the WWE Champion heading into WrestleMania XXVIII and was on a collision course with Chris Jericho. Super Cena was occupied with John ‘The Dwayne’ Rockson. So the Rumble match that year could’ve just been called the “Creative has nothing for you right now” Consolation Prize match.
Through that lens, then, booking Sheamus to win as an effort to give somebody else on the roster a little heat? Well, that makes some sense. But having said that, why not just throw a couple hundred grand Jericho’s way and have him win to challenge Punk? It’s all very confusing. The point is, this was an opportunity to make somebody a star. To put them across the ring with CM Punk, the biggest thing in wrestling at the time. Shut up, he was. And all WWE had in mind for Sheamus was an 18-second waste of time with Daniel Bryan for the World Heavyweight Championship.
So Sheamus isn’t one of the most baffling Royal Rumble winners just because he’s Sheamus. It’s baffling because that’s all they had for him to do after winning the match that kicks off the fabled “road to WrestleMania?”
Alberto Del Rio, 2011
Boy, Alberto Del Rio sure turned out to be a trash person, didn’t he? But that’s not why his 2011 victory puts him among the most baffling Royal Rumble winners.
Royal Rumble 2011 was booked around the attraction of the first-ever 40-man Royal Rumble match. Yes, that’s where we were in 2011. The roster was so big and so bloated, and the WWE Championship and World Heavyweight Championship meant so little, that they just put literally everyone into the Royal Rumble match. Now, again, it’s not the choice of Del Rio to win the Royal Rumble that’s baffling. Nobody’s questioning his in-ring skills, and his work as a heel during this stretch worked like gangbusters. The guy was smarmy and smug, every bit the guy you want to see someone, anyone, beat.
What’s bothersome to me is that Del Rio was, for all intents and purposes, a surprise winner that didn’t need to be the winner. Number one and two in the match were CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, respectively. How do you not make that your story of the match? In the biggest field in Rumble history, the two who started the match are there at the end. It just makes, oh what’s the word, sense!
And, making things worse, here’s something that continues to be a problem with Rumble winners. Del Rio ultimately lost his match at WrestleMania XXVII, where he challenged Edge for the World Heavyweight Championship. And it wasn’t even fate that interceded. Del Rio vs. Edge ultimately wound up being Edge’s last match for nine years. He retired on the Raw after WrestleMania due to a neck injury. It doesn’t matter that Del Rio was the slimiest bad guy ever. When you win the biggest Royal Rumble match ever, you’d damn well better win at WrestleMania.
So, again, it’s the tone-deaf booking and not the man himself that makes Del Rio one of the most baffling Royal Rumble winners of all time.
Shinsuke Nakamura, 2018
Full disclosure, I’m a big Nakamura fan. Also full disclosure, I marked out like an imbecile when Shinsuke won the 2018 Men’s Royal Rumble match. So how can this be one of the most baffling Royal Rumble winners of all time? I’ll give you one guess. If you guessed “the booking,” congratulations. You are both alive and not a complete moron.
See, up until around 2004-ish, you could have a lot of fun figuring out the odds on who would win the Royal Rumble. You looked at who was getting the pushes, who was on track to be “the guy” for the following year, and you figured it out from there. In recent years, that’s just not a thing. The winner is either going to be painfully obvious or a complete and total shock. Such was the case here. See, WWE (or Vince McMahon, anyway) still thinks that the “wrestling internet” is guys on message boards and chat rooms. Like, I wouldn’t put it past Vince to blissfully be paying someone to watch RSPW. And I wouldn’t put it past that person to absolutely not tell Vince that isn’t a thing anymore.
Shinsuke Nakamura was and is an internet darling. So what better way to telegraph that you’re hip with the young kids than to plug an internet darling dream match. Shinsuke announced immediately after the match that he would challenge AJ Styles for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania 34. Cool, awesome, grand. How did that match turn out? I don’t remember, because the only memorable thing about it was that Nakamura lost pretty convincingly and then punted Styles in his Phenomenal Phoreskin.
Again, this is WWE’s fault. There’s no reason for Shinsuke Nakamura not to have won the Royal Rumble, but if the endgame is to simply waste my time, then hindsight deems that it was a stupid choice. Making Nakamura one of the most baffling Royal Rumble winners ever.
Randy Orton, 2017
This plays out in my head like a movie, so.
INT. VINCE’S OFFICE – DAY
VINCE: Okay, so we’ve got this Wyatt fella as the WWE Champion, even though it’s not a very comfortable fit for him. Even so, the guy is still over and still compelling. There’s no way we can ruin this. So how do we ruin it?
BRUCE: We could have Randy join the Wyatt Family for no reason before winning the Royal Rumble. And then we could have him turn on the Wyatt Family for no reason. Then we can have a match between two guys who are neither heel nor face. Just think of it! The whole build-up can be Randy burning down his house and Bray using magic spooky powers to make bugs and snakes and worms superimposed on the ring.
VINCE: YOU DON’T EVEN WORK HERE AT THIS TIME, BUT I LOVE IT! BOOK IT!
So yeah, that’s about the short of it. Randy Orton, already the closest thing WWE has to a living legend. A guy with a then-15-year career in the company. He captured every title, beat every big star, earned every accolade. Let’s use his star power under the guise of giving Bray Wyatt a rub he didn’t need with the real goal of hitting the reset button on this character Vince doesn’t understand and subsequently neglects. It would take years. Literal years for Bray Wyatt to recover from Randy Orton winning the 2017 Royal Rumble match.
And think of the years’ worth of money WWE lost in not properly nurturing and developing the only original, compelling character in the company. Again, I feel like a broken record. Randy Orton is by no means an inviable star, and he wasn’t undeserving of winning the Royal Rumble. The guy’s not a part-timer, and post-Authority, Orton has been on the best run of his career. This is just stupid, out-of-touch booking, earning Orton’s 2017 win a spot as one of the most baffling Royal Rumble winners in history.
I don’t. Just. I can’t. Wh-why did they. Wh. WHY?!
“It’s been seven years, get over it,” you say. “I have deep-seeded emotional problems for which Vince McMahon is 93% to blame,” I respond. Over the last seven years, I have literally hurt my brain thinking about this.
For those who don’t remember (you lucky, lucky souls), Batista declared himself for the 2014 Royal Rumble after a 3-year absence. We were less than a year since the Rock-Cena trilogy of WrestleMania‘s wrapped, and Vince McMahon was convinced that bringing back old stars to main event the biggest show of the year was the best way to print money. And, if we’re being honest, there was data to support it. Rock vs. Cena II at WrestleMania XXIX was and remains the most profitable WWE live event in history. So there’s no reason injecting Big Dave into a big storyline shouldn’t mean big profits.
The problem? Timing.
Daniel Bryan accidentally became the biggest name in all of professional wrestling over the summer. His win over John Cena and subsequent betrayal at the hands of Triple H at SummerSlam 2013 was designed to make Randy Orton the most hated guy in the company by the time WrestleMania XXX rolled around. And WWE wanted a big hero to take him down. For some reason, they thought that hero was Batista, and they were counting on a match with three-months’ worth of build to do the same numbers as back-to-back Manias with three years’ worth of history.
Bottom line, Batista vs. Orton was never going to work as a big-money main event. But they were gonna go through with it. Daniel Bryan beat Bray Waytt in the first match at Royal Rumble 2014, and every time the buzzer sounded, the fans hoped against hope that Bryan would enter the match. And they got angrier and angrier each time he didn’t. Not quite 2015 “We hate Roman and everyone who looks like Roman” angry. But angry. Then, when the number 30 entrant ran down to the ring, for the briefest of moments, Rey Mysterio of all people was the most hated man in the world.
Until Batista won the thing and got booed off the planet. Good sense ultimately prevailed. The main event of WrestleMania XXX saw DB capture the belt against Batista and Orton in a triple threat. But the sheer arrogance of WWE deciding “You will like this because we will tell you that you’ll like this” is infuriating to this day. Because it’s still happening to this day.
It’s one Royal Rumble that encapsulates everything that is wrong with WWE. And that’s why Batista’s 2014 win puts him among the most baffling Royal Rumble winners of all time.
All images courtesy of WWE.