There is perhaps no other gimmick match as beloved among WWE fans as the annual Royal Rumble match, bar Hell in a Cell, or Elimination Chamber. Conceptualized by Pat Patterson in the late 1980s, the Royal Rumble has become a staple for WWE yearly, typically paving the road to WrestleMania along the way. A select number of entrants arrive at the ring, and the match can only be won by the last person(s) remaining at the end. No pinfalls, no submissions, and no count-outs; to lose the Royal Rumble is to be eliminated by being sent over the top rope. A simple premise, yet a gripping one, as it’s anyone’s game from start to finish.
Though the Royal Rumble may serve as a precursor to the Show of Shows, Rumble matches have their own mania attached to them, with many important instances in its storied history. The most important of which was a recent one, as 2018’s event featured the long overdue first women’s Royal Rumble match in WWE, the first winner being Asuka. That isn’t to say there hasn’t been women featured in any Rumble matches prior: Chyna, Kharma (Awesome Kong), Beth Phoenix, and Nia Jax have all entered a Men’s Royal Rumble match throughout the Rumble’s past.
The history doesn’t stop there, however, as multiple records have been set time and time again. Take for instance, the fact that only two people in Royal Rumble’s past have started from the number one position and went on to win the Royal Rumble: Shawn Michaels in 1995 and Chris Benoit in 2004. In traditional Royal Rumbles, the record for the longest lasting participant went to Rey Mysterio in 2006, while in the Greatest Royal Rumble held in 2018 in Saudi Arabia, Daniel Bryan lasted for an hour and sixteen minutes. For the shortest lasting, Santino Marella lasted 1.9 seconds in 2009. While a select handful of superstars have won a Royal Rumble twice, only one has won three of these events, and that person is “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in 1997, 1998, and 2001. As for who has the most eliminations in a single Rumble match, Brock Lesnar and Braun Strowman are tied at thirteen eliminations. Bear in mind that this is only scratching the surface of Rumble records, but in recent years, many of them have been well-documented by former talent and occasional commentator, John Bradshaw Layfield, who dispenses this library of information any time he provides commentary for a Royal Rumble match – one of my favorite occasional recurring elements to the match.
Speaking of scratching the surface, there’s more to the Rumble match than just simply holding a record. It’s the memory of what transpires. It’s the instances that tell stories in the match or are merely telling a part of the overall story of participants. For instance, in 1990, the clash of Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warrior reflected how these dominant forces were equally matched; only at WrestleMania VI would this rivalry be settled as to who was the better man. Shawn Michaels in 2010 ironically radiated heartbreak upon his elimination; from his attempts to reach the rope as he fell off the ring apron, to his tantrum in the ring following his elimination, he reeked of desperation and pain. My absolute favorite is Steve Austin clearing the ring in 2002, then proceeding to toss the fallen back into the ring, only to toss them over the top once more in impatient fashion, as if to say: “Toss ‘nother one of them sunsabitches at me, Vince!”
The stories told in a single Royal Rumble provide the perfect snapshot of what was happening in the lives of those that compete. Sometimes the morals shift, or the mission or allegiances change. In a match where anything and everything can change on a whim, it is fitting that we see the changes that go on in the careers of wrestlers. Granted, that can be found in many classic wrestling shows – but to have it happen all at once in a single match? Concise, and if the match is great, it makes viewers want to see how the superstars got to where they are and where they are going. In my days as a lapsed and casual fan, that was the catalyst to endear me to watch. It was as though I was watching a recap episode, to familiarize myself with new stars, new gimmicks, or current storylines.
Of course, this reflection on what makes Royal Rumble matches so great would not be complete when discussing one of the chief thrills of the gimmick: the entrants. If you want to see a morally reprehensible person receive their comeuppance, you eagerly want that timer to click down so the hero comes to save the day. If someone runs too dominant for a while, a possible welcome change would be another entrant cutting them down to size. When someone has been gone too long, hearing that familiar music may be, well, music to your ears. Then, there is the unexpected – a debut for a superstar that you didn’t see finally making their way into WWE, and in a match with high stakes, no less.
So intense are the countdowns to a fresh participant, so heart-pumping is the wait to see what comes next, knowing it can unleash the unexpected. It’s the seemingly long distance from a cacophonous orchestra of cheers or a crescendo of angry or disappointed boos. For every Edge returning in 2020, there’s a Daniel Bryan elimination in 2015. For every Shinsuke Nakamura win in 2018, there’s a Batista win in 2014. Of course, not every Rumble match will have the same impact as 1992 or 2001, that’s just natural. Nobody can hit a home run every single year.
As hinted at earlier, 2014 and 2015 did not deliver for many people (for some, the Rumble matches after 2010 failed to capture the magic as well), which is a shame. The moments in some of those matches were memorable and fun but are often overlooked by the booking. It felt as though WWE were against the fans. It is the narrative that the company had unwittingly carved out for themselves, painting the image that they only cared about the talent they liked, rather than what they and the audience mutually liked.
Batista’s 2014 controversial win singlehandedly turned him against the fans, as they turned against him. Roman Reigns only suffered more after his victory in 2015, with fans outright rejecting him for years until his change of character in late 2020. It cannot be understated how important the Royal Rumble match truly is. The Royal Rumble is where someone’s momentum can change in an instant; it would be advantageous to read the room rather than to give audiences an outcome that doesn’t naturally make them want to express their discontent.
WWE has made sure to rectify this problem in recent years to keep the Royal Rumble exciting. AJ Styles debuting in 2016 – in a story that saw Roman Reigns have his title on the line in a match designed to have him stripped of it – is only the tip of the iceberg in the moments displayed and stories told in that match, all of which made it more compelling than the year before. Seeing Shinsuke Nakamura and Finn Balor last through the foregone conclusions we thought to be predictable in 2018 was refreshing, making both men look like stars. When Brock Lesnar dominated in 2020’s Royal Rumble, it made for a cathartic release when Drew McIntyre toppled him and went on to win the match, providing something unique amid Edge’s return and Seth Rollins using his disciples to thin the herd in the ring. That’s the meat of the Royal Rumble – the story told with all the competitors in the ring.
Currently, in 2021, the buildup that WWE has laid out for us truly makes the Royal Rumble matches this year feel like it’s anyone’s game. So, what could 2021 have in store for us? The possibilities are so enticing to think about, and for yours truly – it feels so refreshing. Even if the outcome at the climax is undesirable, it’s the memories of what happens in that ring (and in some cases, outside) that make the Rumble so enjoyable.
Whether you revisit a classic or watch live, it is obvious the Royal Rumble is an exciting feature, worthy of being one of WWE’s “Big Four”.
Now, I end this with a question. Who are your picks for the Men and Women’s Royal Rumble matches?