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 10 through 1.
Enters: 4th | Lasts: 41:55 | Eliminates: 6 | Eliminated By: Big Show
There seems to be something that just feels awfully appropriate to kick off the final ten entries in this countdown with the man who has emerged as one of the most proactive threats to the WWE monopoly in decades. 2012’s Royal Rumble Match is an all-time low for the genre, but in the midst of its horror show is one of the finest, most shimmering performances of a mid carder in the entire pay-per-view’s history.
Apparently having absorbed many of the lessons taught him in his formative years by Randy Orton, Cody Rhodes enters into Legend Killer 2.0 mode by racking up a hugely impressive six eliminations, almost evoking the 1997 spirit of Steve Austin himself in doing so. Nor does this seemingly occur through happenstance – Cody actively and relentlessly seeks out not just legends but any novelty entrants, as if deeply affronted by their presence. From the word go, such is the proactively zealous energy of his performance, that sees him enter fourth and last past that difficult thirty mark.
Watch Cody’s body language throughout. He wrestles that night like he’s legitimately getting increasingly irate with each passing minute, his face contorted more and more by anger and frustration with each successive entrant. Call it fictional entitlement, call it factual bitterness, the result is an infectiously venomous outing that culminates in a denigrating double-elimination alongside The Miz at the hands of a deeply irrelevant Big Show.
Watching Cody’s superlative effort back that year impresses each time, and only leaves me more flabbergasted at how it didn’t prove a break-out night for the Son of the Son of a Plumber destined for great things. Had it have done, those great things might have worked in favour of WWE rather than against it.
Enters: 10th / 15th | Lasts: 45:11 / 37:01 | Eliminates: 3 | Eliminated By: Triple H
Yet amazingly, in my mind, Cody’s outstanding work in 2012 did not offer up his greatest Rumble performance. That honour instead belongs to his tandem effort three years earlier alongside his Legacy stable-mate Ted DiBiase Jr.
Legacy’s performance as a tag team (as this series excludes winning performances we are here dealing only with Randy Orton’s protégés and not Randy Orton himself) is one that doesn’t often get discussed all that much among Rumble fans, but it absolutely deserves a spot among the top ten non-winning efforts ever. Only on one other occasion has a unit functioned more convincingly and effectively as Legacy did that year and if you keep your eyes on the two youngsters you’ll be amazed at how little they leave one another’s side. As any team should when opting to forego the Rumble’s central conceit, they act as a single entity right through to the very end without a blip.
More than that, though, their efforts alongside one another are brimming with character moments – from the disturbing, like Cody being coached through the belittling treatment of his own brother Goldust under the corrupting direction of Orton, to the comic, like DiBiase flailing on the shoulders of a manhandling Finlay in the background of that very same exchange. They both offer up a pair of effortless iron man runs that clock in well over the thirty minute mark, making it right down to the last four men in the ring. They execute Orton’s dirty work with despicable cronyism throughout, often against company mega-stars, never looking out of place as characters or out of their depth as performers. Their production is a thing of beauty, frankly, their contributions to the best Final Six in Rumble history particularly so.
Legacy’s 2009 Rumble run is as multi-faceted and deeply successful as they come. 2009’s Rumble is such a busy take on the genre it would be impossible to list all the reasons why here, but there are enough to ensure multiple viewings will be needed to truly unearth the depths of Legacy’s ’09 arc.
Enters: 2nd / 11th / 15th | Lasts: 48:37 / 33:41 / 33:51 | Eliminates: 18 | Eliminated By: Roman Reigns / Batista
Only one other unit in WWE’s history beyond Legacy has put together a better demonstration of team work driving success in a Rumble Match and that is, I would think quite obviously, The Shield. 2014 remains their only Rumble to date in which they entered as a unit and wore their colours collectively with pride, and the same unity that drove them swiftly to the highest echelons of the company propel the three of them through a triptych story that breaks records and sets standards.
Everything you might want from a team performance is presented in The Shield’s collective effort that year. We see them save one another from elimination, most notably when Dean Ambrose enters and immediately sets about protecting his then fledgling brother Seth Rollins. We see them double-team opponents, with Ambrose and Rollins putting together a sequence of eliminations that bounce off of one another in a manner reflective of the style in which their tag bouts would often culminate – albeit translated to fit the Rumble’s environment. We see them engage in a handful of stand offs with other entities, be it Ambrose and Rollins against Diesel or all three Hounds against Luke Harper and Erick Rowan of the Wyatt Family. We even see them betray one another, as Ambrose’s focus snaps too early in an attempted backstab of Roman Reigns, the Big Dog in turn then eliminating both his brethren.
But what’s more, you have three performances that could easily be taken as tremendous individual efforts too. Piling on top of their accomplishments together is Rollins’ coast-to-coast iron man performance – another seemingly effortless one – Ambrose’s typical character driven set-pieces and, of course, both Reigns’ record breaking run of eliminations and red hot Final Two appearance.
The content they create presents many of the bout’s most exciting moments, from the explosive return of Sheamus as a one man army, to the most relevant Great Khali Rumble appearance since 2007, to the manner in which Reigns enters at the expense of Cesaro, right through to the aforementioned fluidly tandem eliminations perpetrated by a Rollins and Ambrose firing on all cylinders.
So full of value is their collective effort – which, incidentally, sees The Shield eliminate eighteen opponents! – that I could write a whole column about it in its own right. Needless to say, it ranks in my mind as the greatest non-winning group effort in Rumble history bar none. Believe that!
Enters: 2nd | Lasts: 1:01:10 | Eliminates: 2 | Eliminated By: Yokozuna
Bob Backlund’s 1993 Royal Rumble performance has been lost to time, and is another quintessential example of the kind of value the New Generation Era offered up that has since been erased from history because it’s easier not to talk about a period in time in which not everything was a massive financial success. Fitting that it also proves that very same habit’s biggest crime against history too – the myth that the New Gen didn’t offer up great creative, when in fact it did just that like clockwork.
Backlund’s underdog coast-to-coast run the year after Ric Flair accomplished a similar enough feat to become champion is one of the Rumble genre’s, and New Generation Era’s, most emotionally enthralling arcs. Though it feels bizarre in a modern context to consider the in-ring return of a 40 year old an unlikely underdog story because of the hero’s age, that is exactly the manner in which Backlund is produced in this instance, and he pulls it off with aplomb.
Backlund is a unique performer, no doubt about it, but it’s worth remembering his character in the ’93 Rumble was not the unhinged ranting Mr Backlund who would win the WWF Championship off of Bret Hart at Survivor Series. No, this is the story of an unlikely comeback for a no frills World Championship calibre competitor seeking to prove his continued worth in a changing world. His old school sensibilities shine through to make it quite the enamouring effort, most notably in the variety of ways in which Backlund’s savvy is able to save him, quite photo-realistically in a lot of ways, from near elimination. Similarly, his no nonsense approach sees his focus remain constantly on throwing others out – he doesn’t brawl or engage in protracted exchanges unless it’s moving them closer to elimination and him closer to victory.
You feel Backlund’s performance in ’93. By the time Rick Martel enters late on you can’t help but feel as spent as this unlikely hero appears to be, hardly able to even stand yet, upon reaching the final three, still willing to take the fight directly to the fresher leviathan, Yokozuna!
What makes that climactic moment in his story so powerful, so affecting, so irresistibly enthralling is the shocking manner in which his impossible comeback quietly and unexpectedly emerges out of the match’s tapestry to become its most feel good thread, and though Backlund might not be that much involved in the bout’s biggest moments, that the crowd meet his elimination with audible jeers of resentment is testament to the effectiveness of his singularly transcendent performance that night.
Enters: 6th | Lasts: 53:46 | Eliminates: 11 | Eliminated By: Stone Cold Steve Austin
The stuff of WWE myth, this one. Kane’s 2001 performance has garnered such a transcendent reputation it seems almost pointless for me to write about it! It’s witty. It’s highly active. It’s athletically impressive. It’s imbued with character. It’s inherently likeable. It is, quite simply, bad ass – Kane being peak-Kane. It remains as delightful to watch through today as it did on the night.
“It’s me, Kane, vs. the world!” are the words the Big Red Machine utters in the pre-match hype package and that is exactly what proves to be one of the most prevailing themes of 2001’s take on the Rumble. I questioned in the previous instalment of this series, with entry 11, whether Diesel’s 1994 trope-originating ‘dominant big man run’ was still the best demonstration of its idea – I think it can’t be, not when Kane’s 2001 take on said idea is in contention too. Everything done with Diesel in ’94 is repeated with Kane in ’01, only with more energy, more variety and a far more commanding screen presence. I would go so far as to say, in fact, his is the best ‘monster production’ we’ve ever seen in a Rumble still to this day.
It’s such a deeply respectful production of the Big Red Machine. He operates as the centre of gravity for the entirety of the match, gets the honour of setting that famous 11-elimination record in the process and all the while is considered the bout’s greatest threat. Even after Big Show’s explosive cameo comes to an end, the mid card army still in the ring team up on a Kane now some forty-odd minutes deep into the match, he’s still that threatening. Even past the fifty minute mark, Kane is produced in a manner here that means Stone Cold Steve Austin himself needs to utilise his famous Stunner and three chair shots to get Kane out!
His own performance justifies such reverence too. He evokes the most convincing ring presence from the moment he emerges, and his execution of his tasks in the ring remain intensely characterful, whether it be wiping out the hardcore division with a broken temper, derailing the Honky Tonk Man with violent confusion or silently challenging the intentions of his brother The Undertaker. As impressive as his elimination record is that year, as elite as his conditioning proves to be for a man his size, most of all it’s the colourful sense of character underpinning all of it that makes it feel so magical an experience to witness.
But you don’t need me to tell you that, because, quite rightly, everyone knows Kane’s performance in the 2001 Royal Rumble!
Enters: 1st | Lasts: 44:47 | Eliminates: 2 | Eliminated By: The Ultimate Warrior
Entering the top five brings us to the utmost elite of the elite, and what has informed the following picks for me has been as much the character and artistic achievements of each entry as it has the athletic or career achievements. When it comes to the character sphere, few can hold a torch to what also became the first superlative iron man showing in the genre’s history from the perennial ‘capable coward,’ the Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase.
While WWE has a tendency to contrive quirks of fate so obviously it shatters disbelief, DiBiase suddenly drawing the first number the year after he had bought the last isn’t such an occasion. It works beautifully, delivering an automatic sense of comeuppance to one of the biggest names in a match all about big names. Yet, because this is DiBiase, we immediately see the genius of his character unfold before our eyes as he defies expectations by demonstrating his in-ring capabilities, both tactically and technically, to get the better of so many of his opponents who enter after him.
DiBiase is no slouch in this thing. After getting a leg up on entrants two and three before the next man can even enter – an innovation for the time, I hasten to add – he soon finds himself embroiled in a magnetic parade of Golden Age stalwarts, surviving the likes of Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts (with whom DiBiase again originates by sliding out of the ring and starting their fight in the aisle!), ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper, ‘Macho King’ Randy Savage (who watches as if bought off by DiBiase in a wonderfully subtle narrative touch), André the Giant, Dusty Rhodes and more besides. DiBiase is never not fighting, never not eliminating or never not begging off of a fresher and more competitively eager opponent. Best of all, in testament to his performance that night, he remains the constant of the entire affair, a lightning rod that pops an already raucous live crowd that night like no other entrant in the match manages.
Though I had superlative words for Rick ‘The Model’ Martel’s performance from 1991 in this series’ previous instalment, it is worth pointing out that Martel merely built on what DiBiase laid out in 1990. His own near eliminations are often breathtaking to watch in their own right, while the ringside presence of bodyguard Virgil repeatedly comes into play to save the villain from elimination. He does come unstuck eventually of course, but even in elimination DiBiase enjoys a special sense of status – after almost fifty minutes, his unprecedented and stunning run comes to an end via elimination by the bout’s second biggest hitter, Ultimate Warrior, in a fight a panicked DiBiase himself instigated.
Enters: 8th | Lasts: 07:40 | Eliminates: 7 | Eliminated By: Maven
By far the shortest entry in the top five, Undertaker’s 2002 performance shot up the rankings by quite some distance once I had gone back and revisited that year’s version of the match. Some might consider a number four spot somewhat high for what is less than a ten minute stint in the ring, but make no mistake, ‘Taker in ’02 puts in pro wrestling’s version of a peak Robert De Niro performance. Perhaps only Randy Orton in 2009 has put together a performance more deeply immersed in, more passionately committed to the character being portrayed – and that is, of course, a winning effort therefore barred from contention here.
Undertaker’s character is demonstrated as convincingly in the unspoken subtext here as it is in the overt gestures of violence. Consider his expression as he enters – it’s one of sneering patience and dismissive relaxation, confident, perhaps even anticipatory of the punishment he’s about to inflict. From there he wastes no time in going for eliminations. ‘Taker clears the ring of competitors in seconds, throwing out savvy veterans like Goldust, Al Snow and Billy as well as the gargantuan likes of Rikishi. When he then comes in contact with Matt Hardy and, latterly, Jeff Hardy, he again focuses primarily on eliminating them. It speaks to the character’s intentions and mood, that he hadn’t come around to play and that his self-belief was matched only by the danger he presents.
Indeed, the confrontation with both Hardy brothers is an element of ‘Taker’s ’02 performance most forget. It prologues the more famous Maven encounter brilliantly, full of character development in its own right, despite its brevity as a set-piece. It gets the crowd emoting, silently substantiates the abhorrent traits of Big Evil while at the same time underscoring the threat he poses within the context of the match itself. It’s an inspired addition to his production that only elevates the effectiveness of the Maven exchange.
No words I can write can possibly do that Maven exchange any justice. Just go and watch it as soon as you can, and pay particular attention to the sound of the chair shot Big Evil delivers to poor Maven’s skull. It’s one that reverberates as much as the Dead Man’s absolutely rampaging showing that night, one that thoroughly deserves its high ranking here.
Enters: 2nd | Lasts: 33:43 | Eliminates: 5 | Eliminated By: Mick Foley
If Undertaker’s 2002 appearance is the top five’s entry that provides phenomenal character depth perhaps without the phenomenal athleticism, then it might be argued Randy Orton’s 2004 appearance offers the opposite – the phenomenal athleticism without quite the same phenomenal character depth. Like with ‘Taker in 2002 though, so incredible is its achievement on the athletic side that one can forgive any lapse on the character side.
This is not to claim, of course, that in 2004 Orton’s effort completely lacked character altogether. Many of his eliminations seem perfectly suited to his ingratiatingly cocky and brash persona, for example. His confrontation with a vengeful Mick Foley offers up what remains one of the most exhilarating sequences in any Rumble Match ever. It is played to perfection in every way, from the masterful patience exhibited in deploying Foley into the match so as to maximise doubt over his appearance, to the manner in which it writes Orton out of the bout without chipping away at the aura of his effort that night, to the unapologetically violent unravelling of their resultant brawl around ringside.
It is but one moment, if the defining moment, in a much larger performance however. It should not be forgotten that Orton remained a relatively unformed diamond at the time, still learning how to become a master craftsmen, all the pressure of his innate potential piled unremittingly on his shoulders. He gets placed in a position where he is expected to hang for a prolonged period of time in a Rumble Match alongside an elder statesman like Chris Benoit no less…and he does exactly that, every step of the way.
Orton puts together as many eliminations as Benoit does, remains as embroiled in the action as Benoit does and looks every bit as comfortable in rising to the occasion as Benoit does too. It’s a smart and savvy performance, as well as an irritatingly successful one, playing perfectly into the subtext of his character and situation both, but most importantly it’s a performance that certified his value to the company, proved his potential wasn’t just hype and maybe even made his eventual World title victory come Summerslam the following August – over Chris Benoit no less – inevitable from then on.
If you want a breakout performance in a Royal Rumble Match, Randy Orton in 2004 will give you the breakout performance in a Royal Rumble Match.
Enters: 2nd | Lasts: 38:54 | Eliminates: 6 | Eliminated By: Test
Truthfully, I have bounced back and forth with the top two spots on this list since the moment I first put it together. Ask me on any given day at any given time and I might give you either of the two possible answers. As I sit to write this, though, I have settled on placing Chris Jericho’s superlative 2003 performance, perhaps controversially, in the runner-up position.
Firstly, let it be said that few Rumbles have been anchored around quite so commanding an outing by one man, and even fewer central performances have carried the same vibrancy as Jericho’s did sixteen years ago. He pulls the wider tapestry of the first dual branded Rumble Match together with a ceaseless work ethic after a blistering start opposite Shawn Michaels. That start is a singularly creative way to kick a Rumble off, the likes of which has yet to be repeated, Jericho ambushing Michaels with the help of his friend Christian to then eliminate the Heartbreak Kid shockingly early. It’s a brave choice but one that suits Jericho to the ground and sets his character off at a rollicking pace. Impressively, it’s a pace he maintains for 38 long minutes.
His character interactions, his ring positioning, his body language, his execution and his emotion are all expertly put together. It’s an effort that quite obviously transcends the efforts of all those around him, spiced up, again like DiBiase and Martel in years past, like Ziggler in years to come, with innumerable near eliminations that are quite something to see unfold.
Alongside that survival instinct come six impressive eliminations of his own. He disposes of Tajiri in the most wonderfully no-nonsense fashion, his actions as contemptuous as his expression. His opportunistic elimination of Christian feels particularly craven considering the help Christian afforded Jericho opposite Michaels earlier – and, indeed, Michaels’ own elimination is perhaps the best of the entire match. And when Jericho isn’t eliminating them, he’s still often putting together some of the bout’s most entertaining sequences with them, be it his kendo stick temper tantrum with Tommy Dreamer or his brief channelling of a 1992 Ric Flair opposite Rob Van Dam.
Nobody has quite carried a Royal Rumble Match in the way Jericho carries 2003. He has been a prominent feature throughout this list, arguably the best Rumble performer in history all things considered, but it is his 2003 master class that stands, I think, apart from all others. And, let me say, by quite some distance, as impossible as that might be to believe. Put simply, it’s just special.
Enters: 19th | Lasts: 29:57 | Eliminates: 1 | Eliminated By: Triple H
Achieving something remarkable without garnering the relevant recognition for it: if that isn’t the story of Dean Ambrose’s WWE career then I’m not sure what is. We can add the greatest non-winning Royal Rumble performance of all-time to the list.
This might be a controversial choice, largely because it’s not an obvious one; at least, not on the surface anyway. Ambrose enters halfway through 2016’s WWE World Heavyweight Championship Rumble Match and only manages to eliminate one man for the entire time he’s in there – fitting that it would be Chris Jericho I suppose! When you begin to deconstruct Ambrose’s remarkably restrained effort that night though, what you find is that it really is quite something special in its own right.
Starting with the obvious, Ambrose enters bandaged up, limping slightly, cracking and adjusting his limbs, bones and muscles as he swallows back the lingering effects of his Last Man Standing Match earlier that night before entering a fresh, equally dangerous fray for a different, more prestigious championship. He maintains that injured physical cadence throughout, as close a tribute to Bret Hart’s consummate 1994 storytelling as we’ve ever seen. So there’s one superlative comparison already.
Consider that Ambrose lasts almost thirty minutes after having wrestled for twenty minutes in a punishing hardcore environment earlier that night, in a match in which he successfully retained the Intercontinental Championship. Yet, amazingly, when he unexpectedly reaches the Final Two, he bursts into action with new life, his vest torn about his waist, his hair plastered to his skin with sweat, his bandages completely worn, all as if he’d only wrestled for five minutes overall! Such a feat of endurance, such a relentless performance with such a lively conclusion reminds very much of The Rock’s breakout effort in 1998; another superlative comparison.
2016’s Rumble was a difficult one to call on the night, and that Ambrose entered as a beloved hero of the people, a compatriot of The Shield, a rising Intercontinental Champion and one of his generation’s top three names solidified him throughout as a strong second tier favourite, his presence adding a greater depth of tension to the match overall. He’s a revelation in the role, a more effective choice than so many others had proven to be before him – than Lex Luger in 1995, than Edge in 2005, than Chris Jericho in 2010, than Bray Wyatt in 2015.
True enough, Ambrose spends the majority of his time in the ring on the defensive absorbing punishment, but rather than a sign of a lethargic performance it is, instead, a sign of an expertly crafted story. Only in absorbing all of that punishment while continuously selling the lingering damage dealt in the night’s opening bout does Ambrose’s role in the fantastical Final Seven prove as effective as it does.
By the time the bout is down to four and Ambrose plays Reigns’ second to Sheamus playing Triple H’s, he watches, and I’ve said this before, like wrestling’s own version of John McClane – and amazingly he keeps going, straight through to the real ace in the hole of his performance that propelled him to the number one spot on this list: the most shocking, electrifying, emotive Final Two effort in all of the Rumble’s three decade long history. Even now, it’s impossible not to get sucked in, difficult not to convince yourself that this time Ambrose will win the title. It was an ingenious move on the part of the company, played up to with tonal perfection by the man himself. The lingering aftertaste remains bittersweet to this day, the echoes of what might have been impossible to shake loose.
There are many words to describe Ambrose’s Rumble 2016 performance, that in itself channels so many of the greats that came before him. It’s evocative, and enthralling, and immersive, and seductive, and masterful, but above all else it is, quite simply, the best.
What do YOU think of my Top Ten and who do you think should have been number one?
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