Royal Rumble is, by a distance, my favourite pay-per-view of the year. It has played an indispensably central role in my life as a wrestling fan, and every January, while the rest of the world grumbles its way through breaking those newly made resolutions, I get steadily more excited every day until the best night of the year comes back around and you hear those nine magical words (or, I guess, eighteen these days!).
“It is now time for the Royal Rumble Match!”
This year I have compiled a list that I will be sharing with you over the course of the coming month, ten entries at a time. The title says it all – what follows will be my top sixty non-winning performances in a Royal Rumble Match ever. I’ll be focussing on everyone except those performances that crowned a victory – there’ll be no ’92 Flair, no ’04 Benoit and no ’18 Nakamura here. Instead, the idea is to cast a light on the plethora of forgotten and undiscovered gems of performances littering the landscape of the Rumble’s history.
So without further hesitation, my name is Samuel ‘Plan and these are my Top 60 (Non-Winning) Royal Rumble Performances of All-Time, numbers 40 through 31.
Enters: 2nd | Lasts: 38:41 | Eliminates: 4 | Eliminated By: Shawn Michaels
It isn’t the first time Bulldog has appeared on the list and, spoiler alert, nor shall it be the last. His 1995 performance is one deserving of its spot regardless, a victim, if ever there has been one in wrestling, of the towering shadow in which it sits. Yes, that was the year of Shawn Michaels, but one could argue it was the Bulldog’s hour. If anything, between the pair, Bulldog excels the more.
The Brit keeps up with the Heartbreak Kid every step of the exhausting way, unveiling incredible demonstrations of strength right through to the very end as he proves himself comfortably equal to the primarily athletic achievement of Michaels. More than that, though, Bulldog’s own effort is perhaps the more characterful of the two, from looking his usually powerful self in the opening as he locks up with Michaels in a manner not unlike that with which he locked up with Ric Flair in 1992 to planting the seeds for his pending alliance with Lex Luger in the final showdown, and all the small moments peppered in between. Best of all, Bulldog repeatedly zeroes in on Michaels during their sprint from one end of the Rumble to the other, the two of them operating almost like a pair of magnets, their joint effort setting the stage for the genre-defining conclusion to drive home the emotive punch of the closing twist.
Enters: 11th | Lasts: 38:29 | Eliminates: 2 | Eliminated By: Rob Van Dam
One of the most fun elements of writing columns like these, and in particular when it comes to a treasure trove that never stops giving like the Royal Rumble Match, is stumbling upon new discoveries worthy of loving. Carlito’s unsuspecting but frankly brilliant outing in the otherwise lamentable 2006 version of the match was one such new discovery for me.
Though Carlito’s effortless 40-minute stint in the ring – that opens with a protracted exchange with Triple H no less – might be considered by most watching to be somewhat uneventful, what makes it so brilliant are the big moments he not only gets to be a part of, but that he throws himself into with admirable zeal. His cowardly, animated response to the entrance of Rob Van Dam is a real treat, starting with him literally throwing other competitors at RVD and ending with him cowering cravenly behind a ring post, all of it only further augmenting the mega-star style production Van Dam was afforded that year. His joint elimination of Viscera alongside crony Chris Masters proves impressive, while his sudden betrayal elimination of Masters immediately thereafter caps it off with a new take on an age old Rumble trope that further develops the events of the earlier New Year’s Revolution pay-per-view. His close call with Shelton Benjamin results in one of the more creative and realistic near-eliminations you’re liable to see in a Rumble Match, and the all-round impressive performance is underscored with a Final Five appearance that doesn’t feel particularly out of place for the Era then unfolding. By the time Carlito is eliminated, you’ll be left only wanting to see more from his could-have-been-career-breakthrough effort that night.
Enters: 30th | Lasts: 06:27 | Eliminates: 3 | Eliminated By: Big John Studd
It should perhaps come as little surprise that it is the earlier Royal Rumble Matches of the late 1980s and early 1990s that did short and punchy cameos the best, often capturing a vivid sense of character in genuinely creative plays off of the unique nature of the Rumble Match itself. The Million Dollar Man in the event’s second ever outing is arguably the greatest example of the phenomenon.
This was the year DiBiase was rumoured to have ‘bought’ the final spot in the Rumble – because of course that’s what he would do. It proves a performance of two halves for DiBiase, and the first of those doesn’t even see him present. Instead it is his machinations, his reputation that looms large over events, every entrance contextualised as ‘not DiBiase’s’ rather than as anything else. When the Twin Towers enter to get rid of Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage, DiBiase catches the blame from commentary for having manipulated the system to engineer the downfall of the fan favourites. But best of all is that, when he does enter predictably in that final spot, his performance in the ring becomes as typically beguiling as it always was. He has a riot between the ropes, whether that’s receiving a comeuppance pasting from his ‘slave’ Hercules, playing composer to Akeem as he barks orders at the African Dream about how to go about combating John Studd, or even trying to buy John Studd’s participation by bribing the giant to eliminate himself at the climax. DiBiase’s effort in 1989 is one of those sublime instances of a performer telling you everything about their character inside of only a few short minutes and a number of carefully produced actions.
Enters: 25th | Lasts: 15:18 | Eliminates: 0 | Eliminated By: Triple H
The 2002 Royal Rumble Match hyped three separate returns of popular characters: Goldust, Val Venis and Mr Perfect. Naturally, only Mr Perfect’s proved enough to cause a stir, but it did so for good reason. Despite having been away from the company for the better part of six years, Perfect emerged from the entrance way that year in absolutely remarkable shape, carrying the same swagger he’d had in his heyday and waltzing to the ring in a manner more ‘Mr Perfect’ than anything else I can remember seeing. That such confidence was so convincingly oozed by a prodigal character faced with the intimidating prospect of a Stone Cold Steve Austin / Triple H alliance in the ring speaks to the performer’s naturally compelling charisma.
His natural talent shines through during his performance too. With no eliminations, a late entry and a 15-minute stint one might be tempted to consider his performance that year disappointing, but he evidences the same athletic capability as the prime of his youth, repeatedly gets the better of the more vaunted Attitude Era main event talents he shares the ring with for the duration of his stay and even forms an impromptu dream-team alliance with Kurt Angle that indirectly results in the elimination of an Austin on form not seen since his victorious 1997 Rumble performance! It’s a shame the action in the ring that year wasn’t more creative – considering how obvious it is Perfect’s unique and singular athleticism was still abound, he might have placed much higher on the list had there been a few more set-pieces deployed.
Enters: 14th | Lasts: 36:43 | Eliminates: 3 | Eliminated By: Earthquake / Brian Knobbs
Ah, yes. We return once more to the Bulldog, to my favourite of his Rumble performances and to what remains one of my most favourite all-time Rumble performances regardless. Still relatively freshly minted as a singles star, Bulldog’s effort in 1991 proves why he was destined to become a top dog in the New Generation Era. It has all the hallmarks of a breakout Rumble performance, quite honestly.
Bulldog puts in an iron man shift and, during his time, he finds himself in an impressively protracted exchange with the monolithically intimidating likes of a still-infallible Undertaker. He has a creative encounter with then-reigning Intercontinental Champion Mr Perfect that sees Perfect choking him with a towel in the corner. He gets to build around his lower card feud with the Warlord when the latter enters and goes immediately for the Brit. Bulldog even nails a number of beautifully noteworthy and impressive eliminations – his leaping dropkick to a Perfect straddled across the top turnbuckle is a stunner, as is the repeat feat when he eliminates the iron man of the night, the record-breaking Rick Martel. Hell, Bulldog even manages to throw out the likes of Haku! His action hero response to making the Final Four that year – the only babyface other than Hulk Hogan it should be pointed out – is unflinching and bad ass, seeing him lunge into both Brian Knobbs and the biggest competitor in the match, Earthquake! He might not last long after that, but 1991 is a hell of a showing for the biggest British export wrestling has ever seen then only in the formative stages of his budding singles career.
Enters: 5th / 15th | Lasts: 47:29 / 35:40| Eliminates: 6 / 6 | Eliminated By: Big Show / Kane / Roman Reigns
Alright, I’ve picked two together, so this is a bit of a cheat. But hell, what’s a Royal Rumble Match without a little bit of a cheat, right? More to the point, though 2015 may just very well be the worst Royal Rumble Match of all-time, paradoxically it remains the most admirable in terms of its roster on paper – a primarily contemporary one, with a contemporary winner. Yet it is precisely that same fact that makes 2015’s Rumble so bittersweet, an opportunity missed because of seemingly self-aware tone deafness.
More galling to me than the discourse-dominating victory of Roman Reigns that year though is the fact that the role offered inexplicably to Big Show and Kane at the conclusion could have easily gone to, and been better served being occupied by the breakout revelation of the night: the ‘New Colossal Connection’ if you will, Bray Wyatt and Rusev. Between them comes more character moments than you can shake a stick at, collectively they eliminate almost half of the entire field and together they create an unexpected but utterly ingenious moment when they first come into contact. Their stare down makes you wonder why you never saw the potential of a relationship between their characters before that point, as two of the then-foremost villains of the company and certainly of their generation came toe to toe, only to find common ground. Never has there been a better incidental alliance in all the lore of the Rumble Match.
Yeah, it’s true, 2015’s Rumble absolutely sucks, but it was, I believe, one key decision away from being acceptable to most, utterly genius to me – that decision was to have allowed Wyatt and Rusev to remain the dominant antagonists throughout the bout’s final passage. It was a right they very much earned.
Enters: 23rd | Lasts: 06:14 | Eliminates: 0 | Eliminated By: Asuka
It seems I’ve been writing and speaking a lot recently about being able to convey character effectively in the ring, and how that becomes especially important during the Royal Rumble Match when time in the ring may be limited, central exposure while there even more so. Like with DiBiase earlier in this section of the list, or like Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts in previous entries, Ember Moon’s short but punchy stay in the 2018 Women’s Royal Rumble Match is one of the better modern examples of such characterisation.
For all intents and purposes, Moon’s performance last year is confined to two individual set-pieces, with time between them instead spent on the outside of the ring recovering. Channelling the spirit of the Hitman in 1994, Moon’s entrance, with her arm in a sling following her physical encounter the night before at Takeover, immediately evokes her warrior spirit, further augmented by her lack of hesitation in taking the fight to the larger, healthier Nia Jax. The crowd immediately gets on side with Moon, presumably because of the combined passion and fire on show in her effort. Then, after that initial confrontation comes to nough for her, Jax returns to the ring for her second set-piece, this time against former long-time NXT rival Asuka. Moon’s warrior expression again speaks to her love for the fight, Asuka’s reaction demonstrating the same arrogance that marked their relationship the preceding year in NXT. With an electrified crowd cheering on Moon, she impressively nails a one-armed Eclipse on the Empress of Tomorrow only for the bad arm to eventuate in her elimination, bringing an end to two striking, powerful and memorable appearances for one of the most impactful players of the first ever all-women’s Royal Rumble Match. That’s how to maximise minutes!
Enters: 1st | Lasts: 30:00 [approximately] | Eliminates: 6 | Eliminated By: Eddie Guerrero
It was not on pay-per-view that Kurt Angle’s most impressive Rumble effort in 2004 came, but rather on the special Smackdown Rumble that happened on television days later as General Manager Paul Heyman rallied in the wake of Chris Benoit’s departure from the brand. Featuring 15 men rather than 30, Angle emerged as the first entrant and would put together a fighting performance heavily imbued with that Michaels spirit of ’95, albeit with added intensity and narrative depth.
Angle is presented convincingly as one of two underdog favourites, getting wiped out early with a truly impressive Gore courtesy of Rhyno. From that point on, he fights from the knees up, a subtle inflection of anger and growing frustration permeating his performance that plays off of his reaction to elimination on the traditional pay-per-view version of the match nights before. These inflections are amplified by being so disadvantaged early, demonstrated through numerous character moments – his expressive elimination of The Cat, his contemptuous dismissal of Hardcore Holly following Holly’s own elimination and his reaction to eventual winner Eddie Guerrero elbowing him in the jaw to escape chain wrestling in a genuinely original, deeply character-driven final two- and lay a restrained by engrossing foundation for his villainous turn some weeks later. Lace that in with one of the genre’s best concluding confrontations ever and you can only conclude that, though there’s a lot to love about the 2004 Smackdown Rumble, Angle’s vibrant, inspired and surgically measured performance might be at the top of that list.
Enters: 30th | Lasts: 05:36 | Eliminates: 3 | Eliminated By: Sasha Banks
An ‘Event Entrant’ if ever there’s been one in Rumble lore, Trish Stratus emerging in the final spot of the first all-women’s Rumble Match essentially presented her as the Crown Princess of the unique all-time women’s roster that composed the field last year. Her performance is produced with demonstratively deep respect for her career achievements, speaking silently to a sense of historic roster positioning as the action in the ring stops in its tracks and reminds of moments such as Stone Cold Steve Austin’s entrance in 1998, or even The Undertaker’s in 2009. Alone, the design surrounding Stratus’s entrance last year impressed.
Better yet, unlike so many comparable ‘novelty entrants’ – for we must remember that, in spite of the unique circumstances surrounding the women’s Rumble last year, Stratus was a novelty entrant nonetheless – she quickly proves her ring chops once again with an engaging sequence opposite contemporary queen bees, the Bella Twins. The self-conscious revisiting of the Stratus / Mickie James rivalry keeps in tone with the rest of Stratus’s celebratory stint and even the fact Stratus is the one floored upon Nia Jax’s violent return to the ring breathes further life into the sense of threat exuded by the Unstoppable Force. Throw in an elimination of Natalya of the legendary Hart Family and a chill-inducing confrontation with ‘The Boss’ Sasha Banks that plays out as two alphas clashing for the first time and you get a truly powerhouse performance from one of the best women to ever lace up the boots.
Enters: 2nd | Lasts: 47:53 | Eliminates: 2 | Eliminated By: Dolph Ziggler
Y2J’s 2013 performance is one that should have been remembered for a long time. Sadly, I think perhaps because of the controversies surrounding WrestleMania Season that year, it has already been forgotten. Nonetheless, you are talking about a man’s first return to the ring since the preceding August, emerging to one of the loudest monster pops on video record – in turn creating the greatest surprise Rumble entrant of all-time – before going coast-to-coast opposite his last rival Dolph Ziggler in a reprise of 1995’s legendary core feat. Is that not enough to warrant this position?
Then watch out for a cute set-piece involving Rey Mysterio that has the pint-sized superstar nail Jericho and Ziggler with mirroring 619s. Listen out for the response to his locking John Cena in the Walls of Jericho during the later stages of his iron man run. Keep an eye out for a multitude of breathless ’95-style near-eliminations that only further play up to the obvious inspiration informing his performance that year. Best of all, enjoy his integral role into one of the most eye-poppingly intense Final 7s you’ll ever see in a Rumble Match. In that, he plays a high gear game with his opponents, dropping Ryback and Ziggler with a Codebreaker, nailing Cena with a Lionsault, coming within inches of eliminating Sheamus with a corner dropkick all only to come unstuck at the hands of his (quite literally) long-running rival Ziggler courtesy of a well placed superkick. It is an elimination that not only wraps up their undervalued feud opposite one another but also sees one of the most impeccably accomplished Rumble performances ever come to a genuinely gutting close.
Who do YOU think was the greatest surprise entrant of all-time who didn’t go on to win the Royal Rumble Match and why?
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