The centerpiece of the Royal Rumble PPV is, well, the Royal Rumble match. But the Rumble itself isn’t the only highlight of WWE’s January classic. There have been more than a few great Royal Rumble championship matches.
We know it’s the Road to WrestleMania, it ends with someone pointing at a sign, and all that. But every year’s sign-pointer has to have a champion to challenge at WrestleMania. Championship matches are a staple at every Royal Rumble.
And this is our list of the greatest Royal Rumble championship matches ever.
A couple notes: We are not counting either the 1992 or 2016 Royal Rumble matches. Those were championship matches – 1992 was for the vacant WWE Championship, and Roman Reigns defended the WWE title in the 2016 Rumble. But we’ve already done our list of best Royal Rumble matches. Also, it’s my list so nyeh.
5. WWE Undisputed Championship – Chris Jericho (C) Vs. The Rock, Royal Rumble 2002
Chris Jericho’s reign as WWE Undisputed Champion is rightly maligned. WWE didn’t treat him like a big deal, and he was clearly a placeholder champion until Triple H could get around to beating him at WrestleMania. But his bout with the Rock at Royal Rumble 2002 is one of the best Royal Rumble championship matches.
Heading into the show, WWE was still clinging to “he beat the Rock and Stone Cold in the same night!” as Jericho’s claim to fame. That wasn’t exactly moving the needle in terms of making Jericho seem like a legit top guy in the fans’ eyes. But these two always had a special chemistry any time they sparred on the mic. Jericho made his WWE debut trading barbs with the Great One. But it’s a shame they didn’t get more time together in the ring. Rock and Jericho clicked in this match as though they’d been wrestling each other for years.
And the Rock displayed one of the talents he doesn’t get enough credit for. Rock ‘The John’ Dwayneson isn’t exactly a mat technician. But the little things he does in the ring make a big impact. Rock’s timing and his selling in this match helped make Jericho a legit champion. Of course, WWE flushed that almost immediately by having Jericho cheat his way to a win over Austin the next month. And then they had him cleaning up Stephanie McMahon’s dog’s poop. No seriously, that was a thing. They filmed it and put it on TV and everything. During the build to WrestleMania X8, the WWE Undisputed Champion scooped up dog crap.
But for one night, Jericho and the Rock had one of the best Royal Rumble championship matches of all time.
4. WWE World Heavyweight Championship – Brock Lesnar (C) Vs. John Cena Vs. Seth Rollins, Royal Rumble 2015
Okay, so the words Brock Lesnar, John Cena, and awesome match don’t typically go together in the same sentence. And triple threat matches are hit-and-miss to begin with. Somehow, though, this match at Royal Rumble 2015 just clicked.
Also, to give credit where it’s due, it wasn’t just the inclusion of Rollins that made this match work. Although it certainly didn’t help. Brock and Cena had their working boots on this night, and all the elements fused to make one of the best Royal Rumble championship matches of all time.
Cena was chasing the championship after Lesnar murdered him for it at SummerSlam 2014. Meanwhile, Rollins was desperate to prove his stripes as the Authority’s golden boy. The Architect weaseled his way into what was supposed to be another one-on-one affair between Brock and Cena. And in the process they put together the second-best triple threat match of all time.
The top honor belongs to Triple H, Shawn Michaels, and Vacant at WrestleMania XX. See, I know my memes.
To crib some notes from Bruce Prichard, the match told a really good story. And, like Jericho vs. Rock before it, this match made Rollins a “real” main event guy. When he pulled the heist of the century by cashing in at WrestleMania 31, the fans bought it was legit. They bought Rollins as legit.
And it’s all thanks to this, one of the best Royal Rumble championship matches ever.
3. WWE Championship – Kurt Angle (C) Vs. Chris Benoit, Royal Rumble 2003
I know, I know, we aren’t supposed to talk about this one. But we’re gonna, by God. Just because someone in this match later did something, you know, awful beyond words doesn’t make it not one of the best Royal Rumble championship matches of all time.
Since Angle and Benoit arrived in WWE in 1999 and 2000, respectively, the company tried to match the two up a few times. And for whatever reason, it just didn’t click. They were part of one of the most disappointing triple threats of all time at WrestleMania 2000. The following year at WrestleMania X-Seven, they had a one-on-one affair with nothing but pride on the line. That match fared better, but it wasn’t quite a classic.
This match, though. Oh, man. This match was a classic.
I’ll put it this way. Even in 2003, it wasn’t easy to get fans to do standing ovations for mat work. Seriously, the first six minutes or so of this match is just sheer amateur wrestling gold. Angle and Benoit ramped it up to goofy pro-wrestling brawling, and then they brought it back around to sheer athleticism, before bringing it back around to submissions and counter-submissions.
Kurt Angle defended the title and went on to face Brock at WrestleMania XIX. But Benoit made his case to be a top guy with this match. The fans gave the Canadian Crippler another standing ovation to close the match.
It’s a surreal sight to behold in 2021, especially knowing, well, what happened. But this was still one of the greatest Royal Rumble championship matches in history.
2. WWE Championship – Diesel (C) Vs. Bret Hart, Royal Rumble 1995
So Royal Rumble 1995 is remembered as having the worst Royal Rumble match of all time. And rightly so. What gets lost in the shuffle is the fantastic battle between Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart and ‘Big Daddy Cool’ Diesel.
The mid-90s were a weird, crappy time for WWE. Between the steroid trial and the rise of WCW, Vince McMahon hadn’t quite figured out where all the puzzle pieces fit. Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels were the obvious guys. But Vince likes his beef, and if he can’t have it in orange in red, he’ll take it however he can get it.
Enter Diesel, arguably the least over WWE Champion of all time not named Jinder Mahal. If Vince couldn’t risk a bulky champion, he’d at least have a tall one. And he sent Bret Hart to the ring to do what Bret Hart does best – making less-than-good wrestlers look like they know what they’re doing.
Now, if you watched literally no other Kevin Nash or Diesel matches besides this one, you’d come out of it thinking Kevin Nash was a ring general. Because that’s how good Bret Hart was. It has a crappy no-contest finish, with Owen Hart and Shawn Michaels running in to attack both babyfaces. Which undoes a lot of the work Bret put in to making Diesel look legitimate.
But the work itself is undeniable and stands the test of time as one of the best Royal Rumble championship matches in WWE history.
1. WWE Championship – Triple H (C) Vs. Cactus Jack, Royal Rumble 2000
Yeah, yeah, we’ve talked about this one before. Well, it’s really good, so we’re gonna talk about it again. I can’t in good conscience put together a list of the best Royal Rumble championship matches without bringing this one up.
This match made Triple H a star, it was the start of the last great hurrah for Mick Foley, and it has a couple spots that, 21 years later, still make me cringe. I’d put this bad boy up against any ECW or CZW blood-soaked gorefest. Not for the depiction of the brutality, but because of how both guys sold the impact of the brutality.
Cactus Jack was a man possessed, willing to maim and destroy Triple H if it meant winning the WWE title. And Triple H wasn’t content to just try to survive. He knew he was out of his element, but he tried to take the fight to Cactus anyway.
Special emphasis. Tried to take the fight to Cactus. And Cactus made him pay over and over and over again, culminating in a backdrop onto a bunch of wooden pallets on the outside. That spot resulted in a chunk of wood literally going into Triple H’s leg. Like, it didn’t poke him, it didn’t cut him, it didn’t scratch him up. A chunk of wood left a monstrous gash on the Game’s leg.
And Triple H, because he’s not freaking human, kept on. He turned the table on all of Cactus’s most brutal tricks, from the barbed wire 2×4 to the giant bag of thumb tacks. Ultimately Triple H survived the match and retained the title.
Meanwhile the fans at Royal Rumble 2000 were treated to the best Royal Rumble championship match of all time.
All images courtesy of WWE.