Forget the World Cup, the Super Bowl, even the World Series of Darts – the Royal Rumble is the single greatest spectacle in sport. A 30-man battle royal of abject chaos, ever since its debut on 24 January 1988, each year it is nailed-on to provide a new batch of Shakespearian drama, comedy, pathos and, very occasionally, genuine slip-ups. All this, from a WWE (formerly WWF) event that isn’t even its showpiece.
What je-ne-sais-quoi does the Royal Rumble possess that WrestleMania – and all other sporting events for that matter – does not? Sheer unpredictability. You know 30 competitors will enter, one will leave victorious (rewarded with a title shot at WrestleMania) and that competitors are only eliminated once both feet hit the ground (leaving ample room for foul play), but, beyond that, what goes down is anybody’s guess.
Who competes? Who the hell knows. The potential line-up is such a lottery that last year, freshly-inaugurated US President (and WWE Hall of Fame star), Donald Trump was a 500/1 shot with certain bookies. And not to simply appear, but win.
The Royal Rumble is like Disney World – young or old, hater or believer, it is basically impossible not to get swept up in the fun. And I write this as someone that hasn’t watched any form of wrestling (Rumble notwithstanding) since 2001.
Behold 30 of the Royal Rumble’s greatest moments. Spandex and face paint is not compulsory, but is strongly advised.
30.Shawn Michaels wins by a foot (1995)
‘The Heartbreak Kid’ Shawn Michaels was the first wrestler to enter as #1 and exit the victor, and he did it in style. Having been seemingly eliminated by dreadlocks’ worst nightmare – The British Bulldog – HBK re-emerged, and pushed Bulldog out. How? Only one foot had touched the floor. Michaels then celebrated his historic win with Pamela Anderson, because it was 1995 and why the hell not.
29.Ric Flair woos the title (1992)
It was the fifth Royal Rumble, and for the first time ever, the World Heavyweight Championship belt was on the line. The ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair prevailed, and did so “with a tear in my eye”.
28.‘The Man’ prevails (1999)
The 1999 Royal Rumble was wild. ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin almost kicked a hole into WWE owner Vince McMahon’s guts, then got flattened by his underlings, taken to hospital, drove himself back in an ambulance, lobbed water in McMahon’s face, more pummelling, then got distracted by The Rock and chucked out of the ring by McMahon, for the (absurd) win. And that’s before you even consider that Kane got admitted to an insane asylum, Mabel was abducted and Chyna became the first ever female competitor (as you’ll see later on).
27.Batista and John Cena tie, by accident (2005)
Eleven years later, Batista and John Cena both flew over the apron simultaneously in 2005’s climactic moment. Cena was meant to hit the ground first. Except he didn’t. Super slow-mo replays would prove the pair landed at precisely the same time, and a comedy of errors ensued. A gaggle of improvising referees claimed different victors, before a flustered Vince McMahon scurried to the ring. In his haste, he bashed his knees on the ring frame, immediately tearing both his quadriceps. Cena and Batista adlibbed a bit more, until McMahon – seated, in agony – insisted the match restarted. It was jazz, man. Pure, hysterical jazz.
26.Brett Hart and Lex Luger tie (1994)
In 1994, we were treated to the only time two wrestlers have been crowned winner, fan-favourites Hart and Luger both tumbled out of the ring at the same time and, with no replay to cut to, confusion reigned. Both got a ticket to WrestleMania, and both took on the reigning champion, Yokozuna, in separate bouts. (Hart won.)
25.Stone Cold wins by cheating (1997)
‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin’s two feet definitely hit the floor – only the ref wasn’t looking. Sneaking back in, he cleared the ring and claimed the win.
24.‘Hacksaw’ Jim Duggan wins the first Royal Rumble (1988)
Long before the present-day WWE ‘superstars’ – carved from marble and dipped in orange – there was a chap named Jim Duggan. He wore trunks, loved the American flag, bopped his enemies with a stick of wood and, at regular intervals, yelled “Hoooooo”. In the inaugural Rumble, ‘Hacksaw’ entered at #13 (of 20, as it was then) and subsequently made history. He even did so without his beloved lumber.
23.Chyna breaks the glass ceiling, sort of (1999)
Two years after making her WWE debut (in which puzzled commentators referred to her as “that woman” and, more harshly, “that’s a woman?”), ‘Ninth Wonder of the World’ Chyna became the first woman to compete in the Royal Rumble. Given that her storyline dictated she clobbered ‘Sexual Chocolate’ Mark Henry – for “bragging about doing the wild thing with Chyna” – the occasion was a tad tainted, but historic nonetheless.
22.Rey Mysterio achieves the impossible (2006)
Speaking of underdogs, they don’t come much bigger (or, rather, smaller) than wee Rey Mysterio, who entered at #2 and survived for a record one hour, two minutes and 12 seconds, before snatching victory against the odds.
21.Hulk meets Warrior (1990)
As the WWE’s golden egg, ‘The Hulkster’ claiming victory in a Royal Rumble was a surprise to absolutely nobody. What made it spicy, however, was his first ever in-ring encounter with The Ultimate Warrior. The stare-down seemed to last a fortnight, and a rivalry was born.
20.The return of two golden oldies (2008)
Like easter eggs in a cult TV show, surprise entrants are part of what makes the Royal Rumble so reliably remarkable. In 2008, two Hall of Famers were exhumed – ‘Superfly’ Jimma Snuka, then 63; and ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper, 51 – and, despite their advancing years, it was actually quite brilliant. Entering the fray one after the other, moves from a more innocent time (chest slaps, eye pokes) were on display, as the eight other competitors all stopped to watch.
19.Mick Foley divides three into one (1998)
You gotta love Mick Foley. A human pin-cushion, he is the brave soul that got ’broken in half’ by The Undertaker, in a 1998 Hell in a Cell match. Five months earlier, he was already workshopping his skills as a glutton for punishment, by appearing thrice in the Royal Rumble.
18.‘The King’ is dead… scared (1996)
Seven years later, Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler also pulled an Andre, though not before Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts’ python, Revelations, said hi. Escaping under the bottom rope, Lawler hid out beneath the ring, until Shawn Michaels later found him, throwing him in, and then out, of the ring.
17.Andre the Giant narrowly escapes a snake (1989)
Seven-foot-four, 520lbs, hands the size of dustbin lids, yet runs away like a scolded child at the sight of a reptile? Pathetic. (In Andre’s defence, the snake was bloody ginormous.)
16.Drew Carey narrowly escapes death (2001)
For reasons that no one can quite remember, American comedian and game show host, Drew Carey, was a guest entrant in 2001. But having surprisingly dispatched The Hardy Boyz, Carey came face-to-face with the ‘Big Red Machine’: Kane. When his offer of a handshake, then cash, was refused, Carey luckily avoids a chokeslam, and promptly takes his leave. Like Donald Trump, Carey has since been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
15.Maven boots out The Undertaker (2002)
Everyone loves a good underdog story, don’t they? Fresh from winning the first series of WWE’s gym-to-ring reality show, Tough Enough, hairless wonder Maven made a dream start to his first Royal Rumble by drop-kicking the legendary Undertaker out of the contest. It didn’t end too well, mind you, with the ‘American Badass’ returning to beat Maven all the way backstage – and into a popcorn machine.
14.Kofi keeps the dream alive (various)
Taking the ‘both feet must touch the floor’ rule to an illogical extreme, Kofi Kingston has turned dodging elimination into an art form in recent years. Still never won, probably never will, but has firmly etched his name into WWE folklore.
13.The Big Show takes on all comers, then gets eliminated ‘by thin air’ (2004)
Having somehow survived the onslaught of Chris Jericho, Kurt Angle, Christian, Billy Gunn, Charlie Haas, Goldberg and John Cena, The Big Show found himself in a final showdown against Chris Benoit. He lost, and there’s no shame in that, however the unfortunate circumstances of Benoit’s death saw him all-but erased from WWE history. This whitewash meant that, if you toe the party line, Big Show was defeated by… no one? Himself? Thin air? Among wrestling fans, a meme was born.
12.The Rock clings on for the win (2000)
The self-professed ‘People’s Champion’ guaranteed a victory at the 2000 Royal Rumble. In fact, he “guaran-damn-teed” it. Problem was, a 7’2”, 500lb giant – the Big Show – stood in his path. No bother.
11.Hogan dumps his Macho friend (1989)
The Rumble is ripe for a double-cross, and there is perhaps no example more famous than Hulk Hogan accidentally (on purpose) eliminating his ally, ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage, in 1989.
10.Too Cool’s dance party (2000)
A Samoan sumo with peroxide hair and massive arse (that gets smushed into an opponent’s face by way of a finishing move), plus two hopelessly square white dudes whose dreadful outfits were only upstaged by their dance moves – it’s funny what passed for ‘hip’ at the turn of the millennium. During the 2000 Royal Rumble, Rikishi found himself in the ring with his fellow ‘Too Cool’ members. But, rather than fling them over the ropes, Rikishi partook in their well-known dance. (And then he flung them over the ropes.)
9.The Godfather II (2002)
Having spent the late ’90s as a colourful pimp, surrounded by what he affectionately referred to as his ‘hoes’, genuine complaints saw The Godfather character phased out (and briefly replaced by The Goodfather). Until 2002, that is, when he made his triumphant return at the Royal Rumble, having gone straight. Hoes? No no, those are escorts.
8.Edge edges out the competition (2010)
Edge, the victim of a gnarly Achilles tendon tear, battled back to action within six months to take his place in 2010’s Rumble. Unlike Triple H, his Royal Rumble appearance was kept secret. Like Triple H, Edge also won.
7.Triple H makes a triumphant return (2002)
After suffering a devastating quadriceps injury that threatened his career (not to get graphic, but it came off the bone), Triple H defied the odds – and medical science – by making a return after just eight months. Then, three weeks later, he won the Royal Rumble. Good for you, H.
6.John Cena’s awfully bad rap (2003)
It’s 2003: The Iraq War. The final Concorde flight. Everybody’s favourite cyclist, Lance Armstrong, heroically wins his fifth Tour de France. A little-known Portuguese lad called Cristiano signs for Man United. Oh, and “Twenty million other white rappers emerge”, convinced they’re the next Eminem. John Cena – ‘The Doctor of Thuganomics’ – is one of them. Sure, he went on to win in 2008 and 2013 – and, inexplicably, reached number 15 in the Billboard chart with an album – yet this eye-wincingly naff rap lives longer in the memory. Cena rhymes ‘cucumber’ with… nothing, then compares his style to ‘a swollen penis’ because, and I quote, “You can’t beat me”.
5.A new giant steps up (1993)
Though not an official competitor, Giant Gonzalez made his debut at the 1993 event, towering over the quite-tall-himself-actually Undertaker. Wearing a frankly oddball bodysuit (replete with glued-on hair), he was a colossus, standing at 7’7” (later billed as eight foot, because hyperbole). Gonzalez went on to have a short-lived and rather limp WWE career, however his entrance was really something.
4.Stone Cold slips up (1996)
Another infamous ‘Whoopsie!’ – in 1996, Steve Austin (then performing as ‘The Ringmaster’) was being primed for his big push, the start of which would come at the Royal Rumble. He was never going to win, but was due to have a key part to play in the ending. Only it didn’t quite go to plan. Having entered at #24, Austin was thrown over the ropes, and was meant to grab on and drag himself back in. Unfortunately, oiled-up wrestlers make for slippery ropes, and he landed on his arse.
3.Macho Man doesn’t understand (various)
Whether a rubbish narrative thread or muscle memory-based mistake, ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage tried to win the 1993 Royal Rumble… with a pin. The previous year, he outright forgot you can’t go over the top rope – jumping from the turnbuckle after Jake the Snake. This led to a fair bit of confusion when he got back in the ring to continue, with the commentators scrambling to suggest that, because he wasn’t chucked out by an opponent, he wasn’t technically eliminated.
2.Santino breaks the record… for fastest eliminated (2009)
Like this sentence, it was over quickly.
1.Roman Reigns breaks the record (2014)
The popularity – or lack thereof – of Roman Reigns is debated at such length, it has its very own Wikipedia page. What cannot be questioned, though, is that he’s thrown more foes over the top than anyone in Rumble history: 12.