One of the things that makes the Royal Rumble so great is the illusion that everything is random. When the countdown ends, we don’t truly know who is going to run out most of the time. The full roster is a mystery, as is its order. But only in storyline. After all, wrestling is predetermined, so all of this is planned and written. That’s why the last five or six spots are usually the heavy hitters.
The #30 spot tends to be pretty straightforward. Outside of the three times when it’s gone to the winner (Undertaker, Cena, and Triple H, respectively), the final entrant is usually a specific kind of wrestler who is supposed to come off as high-level and threatening, but one that we know has zero real chance winning the match. Guys like the Warlord, Big Show, Rikishi, and Goldberg.
The #1 and #2 spots, on the other hand, are a bit more interesting. There’s more going on with those choices and there are only a couple instances where the starters feel genuinely thrown together. Mainly in the early days. When you look at the choices for these duos, you notice what they mean for the story of the match itself and how they paint a picture for that wrestler’s career.
Let’s look at the starters in Royal Rumble and see what’s going on with them.
1988: BRET HART AND TITO SANTANA
The first Royal Rumble is a big nothing match. They hadn’t exactly figured out the concept and only a couple memorable things happened amongst the boring brawling and ho-hum eliminations. Our starters didn’t even get entrances and were just in the ring by the time the segment began.
Thing is, they went with the two best choices to start things off. Bret Hart and Tito Santana were two of the best workers of the era and great hands for stuff like this. What made this duo really work is that despite being perfect opponents, they never did get any matches against each other outside of a six-man tag at the previous WrestleMania. Bret Hart was part of the tag division as a heel and Tito was part of the singles mid-card as a face. It wasn’t quite a dream match, but it was a unique matchup that would get more interesting once Butch Reed showed up as #3.
Tito would succumb to the numbers game by being eventually thrown out by Bret and his partner Jim Neidhart. Bret would last for just over 25 minutes, which seems like nothing these days, but for that one year, he was the longest-lasting wrestler in Royal Rumble history.
1989: AX AND SMASH
In the Rumble’s second year, they decided to get more creative with it, using it to help push main event storylines and the like. Despite being only the second year, they started things out with the most contrived “anything can happen” concept: pitting tag partners against each other.
During the pre-taped segment where the wrestlers picked their numbers, the two members of Demolition each winced. Without telling each other what they got, Ax and Smash agreed that it was going to be a long night.
When the time came for #1 to enter, the Demolition theme kicked in and Ax marched to the ring. The song ended, only to start up again for Smash to join him as #2. Rather than wait things out and save their energy against the next opponent, the two laid into each other for two minutes until Andre the Giant arrived.
Demolition became afterthoughts after those opening minutes, but they did act as foreshadowing. On commentary, Jesse Ventura wondered if there would be any long-lasting resentment from putting the two in an every-man-for-himself situation and while Ax and Smash were fine, the same couldn’t be said for Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage about a half hour later.
1990: TED DIBIASE AND KOKO B. WARE
1989’s Rumble featured a subplot about Ted Dibiase trying to buy victory, most notably by purchasing the #30 spot from another wrestler. His plans didn’t work out and he ended up getting thrown around by one Big John Studd. The good news for Dibiase was that Studd wasn’t going to be in the 1990 Rumble.
The bad news was that Dibiase was no longer allowed to buy his spot in the match. Worse news: he drew #1.
As he paid for his karma, Dibiase at least got to look good in the early minutes. His initial opponent was Koko B. Ware and Dibiase did away with him within the two minutes. That brought out Marty Jannetty, who suffered the same fate as Koko. Dibiase looked to be able to fight off his 29 opponents one at a time, but his strategy fell apart when Jake Roberts arrived as #4.
Dibiase would go on to break the record for longest time in the ring at nearly 45 minutes. Fatigued, he was easy pickings for the Ultimate Warrior.
1991: BRET HART AND DINO BRAVO
1991 was an unremarkable match with a weak roster. The only guys who seemed to matter were Hogan, Earthquake, Undertaker, and Randy Savage. It was Hogan’s match to win, Earthquake’s role to be second place, Undertaker was there to look tough just long enough before Hogan could show up, and Savage didn’t even show up. The rest of it was Saba Simba fighting Rick Martel and stuff like that.
Dino Bravo was on the lower part of the mid-card by this point and was forgettable enough that he ended up being the first man eliminated, right after Greg Valentine arrived at #3. Bret, on the other hand, was at least living it up as tag champ and was on the path for a title loss a few months later so they could split up the Hart Foundation and let Bret go out alone. If anything, Dino was probably hand-picked to start with him due to their in-ring chemistry.
Bret lasted about twenty minutes before being fed to the Undertaker.
1992: THE BRITISH BULLDOG AND TED DIBIASE
The fifth Royal Rumble is a special one because it’s the one where Ric Flair won and made waves by 1) entering at an early number, 2) being a heel, and 3) winning the vacated championship. He stepped out at #3 and the whole match revolved around his endurance, despite all the major names sharing the ring with him.
The British Bulldog made for a great early opponent for Flair. 99% of the time, he was absolutely murdering Flair and the only reason he lost was because Flair’s a survivor and is able to know when to stab an enemy in the back. While Bulldog succumbed to Flair as the ring is cleared out, he was still treated as the top face in the opening twenty minutes.
He got the best of Dibiase, at least. He eliminated the Million Dollar Man so fast that Dibiase became the only man not to share the ring with Flair in that match. It’s fitting, not just because Dibiase was getting a taste of his own medicine from 1990, but because it said something about his falling stock. 1990 was about Dibiase falling from being a top heel and settling into the mid-card. With 1992, Dibiase’s single career was on its last legs. Not only was his last big rivalry (Virgil) already finished, but just a month or so later, he’d be shoved into a tag team with IRS.
Yes, he did have success with Money Inc., but once that petered out, he stepped out of the ring to spend the rest of his career as a commentator and manager. His beating at the hands of Davey Boy was just another step in his character’s downward spiral.
1993: RIC FLAIR AND BOB BACKLUND
This one fascinates me.
As mentioned, Flair won the previous Royal Rumble, which was the high point of his initial WWF career. By January of 1993, things were different. He wanted out and Vince McMahon allowed it, as long as he’d put over Mr. Perfect on the way out. As it turned out, the date of the epic Flair vs. Perfect Loser Leaves match was set for the night after Royal Rumble 1993.
Flair was put in the match with slightly worse odds than the year before, up against Bob Backlund, ten years after their shared heyday. Seeing Flair vs. Backlund in the opening minutes was like an early smark dream, but Backlund was given that spot for a very good – and petty – reason. Backlund would go on to break Flair’s longevity record by a full minute, though still only getting third place.
Flair was one foot out the door and they were already trying to downplay his time in the company. Yikes.
1994: SCOTT STEINER AND SAMU
All right, this one’s just random for random sake. Really, if there’s any reason for it, it’s because much of the match was built around Diesel wrecking everyone and he needed his sustenance. 1994’s Rumble didn’t have much going for it, but it’s odd in retrospect how the Headshrinkers got just enough of a spotlight. Samu was one of the starters and Fatu ended up in the final four.
This one really made the Steiner Brothers look like dorks as Rick came out as #3 and their big advantage was immediately undone by Kwang showing up. Kwang ran out, spit mist into Rick’s face, and Rick flailed around like an idiot until being easily eliminated.
1995: SHAWN MICHAELS AND THE BRITISH BULLDOG
Ah, the infamous one-minute intervals Rumble. Why were the intervals only a minute? So Shawn Michaels and the British Bulldog could go coast-to-coast and be both the first two and the last two. Coincidentally, in the pre-match promos, Bulldog seemed nervous about his chances while Michaels took everything in stride.
This was another Rumble lacking in star power, so Bulldog made for a good foil for Michaels. Someone depicted as being on his level who would destroy him one-on-one, but could be outmaneuvered and outsmarted. This was Michaels’ match to win, since the WrestleMania title match against Diesel was too solid an idea to mess with. Bulldog was just the end boss.
1996: HUNTER HEARST HELMSLEY AND HENRY O. GODWINN
This is the first time they gimmicked the spots in the Rumble as part of kayfabe. Well, okay, maybe not the first time. Back in 1992, Hogan and Undertaker were each guaranteed a spot from #20 to #30. Here, they went with something a bit more concrete and unique. On the PPV pre-show, the Free for All, they had a singles match between the two contestants who drew a blank paper instead of a number. They wrestled in a match where the winner would be awarded #30 and the loser would be awarded #1.
Helmsley screwed himself over by using brass knuckles on Duke “The Dumpster” Droese, only to be disqualified by WWF President Gorilla Monsoon. Original Form Triple H got relegated to #1 while Droese became the most underwhelming final entrant in Royal Rumble history.
Helmsley’s comeuppance continued as his initial opponent in the Rumble was his former rival Henry O. Godwinn. Even though he didn’t win, Helmsley still lasted longer than anyone else in that match at 48 minutes, fitting him for his long-lasting role of bastard heel that you just can’t keep down. Meanwhile, despite his late draw, Droese appeared for the least amount of time at a minute and ten seconds.
1997: CRUSH AND AHMED JOHNSON
1997 was Steve Austin’s year to shine. Not only was he to win, but huge chunks of the match were dedicated to him repeatedly clearing the ring and showing his dominance. Austin was certainly the future of the company, but he wasn’t the only one they had faith in.
Since showing up in 1995, WWF seemed to have a star in Ahmed Johnson. The Pearl River Powerhouse had the right mix of power, physical presence, spurts of athleticism, and a verbal intensity that unfortunately came with gibberish promos. He really looked like he was going to be a big deal, but his tendency to injure others and especially himself kept prolonging the journey.
By this point, Ahmed had just a little over a year left in his WWF career and they were still high on him. High enough that they put him in the beginning of the Rumble, had him fight one of his rivals in Crush, and then wrote him out via outside interference from Farooq. Interference that Ahmed would get revenge on in that same match.
In one of their last gasps at making him a success, they straight-up protected Ahmed Johnson from Steve Austin.
1998: CACTUS JACK AND CHAINSAW CHARLIE
It was nine years after Demolition started things off, but they decided to put a more Attitude Era spin on the scenario. Cactus Jack and his longtime friend Chainsaw Charlie (Terry Funk) started things off and brought some weapons with them. In a very cringe-inducing exhibition, they would take turns braining each other with steel chairs, while awaiting the next entrant so they could focus their violence on someone else.
That meant Tom Brandi got one of the shortest Rumble appearances of all time at twelve seconds. Good going, Sincere.
There was more to it than just partners fighting it out. The Rock entered at #4 and not only survived their onslaught, but lasted long enough to be second place in the entire Rumble. Chainsaw Charlie eliminated Cactus Jack eventually, but Mick Foley reentered the battle as Mankind minutes later and got his revenge.
Foley had three chances altogether and even then he couldn’t take down The Rock.
1999: STEVE AUSTIN AND VINCE MCMAHON
Austin had two consecutive Rumble victories under his belt and Vince McMahon really, really did not want him getting another title match at WrestleMania, so he came up with a plot to make it nigh impossible for Austin to win. First off, he’d force Austin into the #1 position. McMahon would give himself the #30 position. Then he would offer a massive financial bonus to anyone who could eliminate Austin.
Commissioner Shawn Michaels undermined McMahon by forcing him into the #2 spot. McMahon tried to loophole his way out of that with a Corporate Royal Rumble made up of Corporation and D-Generation X members where the winner would earn the #30 spot, but Chyna ended up winning that one instead, thanks in part to Austin.
Despite their early entries, Austin and McMahon spent a very limited amount of time in the ring. An overwhelmed McMahon snuck out of the ring and let Austin chase him into a bathroom where his goons were waiting. Austin received a massive beating that hospitalized him as the Rumble continued without him. McMahon later hung out on commentary, only to be horrified when Austin returned in an ambulance, ready to continue.
Once again, #1 and #2 ended up being the final two in the ring. Austin spent his time and energy beating McMahon into oblivion instead of solidifying his victory. That meant The Rock was able to run out and distract him long enough for McMahon to spring to life and throw Austin out of there.
2000: D’LO BROWN AND GRAND MASTER SEXAY
While D’Lo Brown is one of the lowest-ranked wrestlers to show up at #1, he did somehow end up in fourth place at the 1999 Rumble, so there’s that. Regardless, there’s a good reason why he was placed in such a prominent spot: he was food for Rikishi.
In another star-making Rumble run, Rikishi showed up at #5 and cleared the ring of everyone but his good buddy Brian Christopher. Before Rikishi and Grand Master Sexay could throw down, the third member of their crew, Scotty 2 Hotty, ran in to turn things into a dance break. After a moment of shaking what his momma gave him, Rikishi eliminated his comrades and then continued to dominate the match until the numbers game was too much and he was eliminated by six men.
2001: JEFF HARDY AND BULL BUCHANON
It’s funny to me how Jim Ross talked up Jeff Hardy’s chances at winning at #1 by acknowledging the claims that he has been routinely compared to Shawn Michaels. That comparison was more of a damning of Matt Hardy than anything else.
Bull Buchanon was merely there to shake things up slightly in a Rumble trope that they just used two years earlier. Matt Hardy was #3 and they wanted to play up the partners implosion thing like Cactus/Chainsaw and Demolition before them. The Hardy Boyz would take turns fighting off opponents and going one-on-one with each other until it was time for a double elimination for the sake of leaving Drew Carey in the ring alone.
Bull would go on to become a footnote in John Cena’s early career, so there’s that.
2002: RIKISHI AND GOLDUST
The 2002 Royal Rumble was partially built on the return of four names from the past. Mr. Perfect, Goldust, Val Venis, and The Godfather were all announced ahead of time as being special entrants. It made sense that one of them would make the starting two and that role went to Goldust.
As for Rikishi, he was in an interesting spot at the time. He seemed to hit his ceiling at a beloved face, so they turned him heel and tried to make him a mega-heel against Austin, Rock, and Undertaker. That went over like a lead balloon and they eventually tried to turn him face. Shortly after, he spent some time off due to injury and the absence helped rehab his image. Right around here, they wanted him to be a beloved face, but they were working on what to actually do with him.
Rikishi and Goldust both ate defeat at the hands of the Undertaker in another ring-clearing routine.
2003: SHAWN MICHAELS AND CHRIS JERICHO
With Shawn Michaels back on the active roster, Chris Jericho had a chip on his shoulder and decided that he’d prove himself by winning the Royal Rumble at #1 just like Michaels had done years earlier. Michaels scooped him on that by revealing that he already insisted on being #1. Annoyed, Jericho just demanded to enter at #2, which is technically the same thing, but it’s the principle of it all.
Michaels did not last very long at all. When he saw Jericho on top of the ramp, Michaels quickly realized that it was actually Christian in disguise. Jericho snuck up on Michaels with a low-blow and then went to town on him with a steel chair before dumping him to the outside.
Jericho lasted a good 39 minutes until a bloodied Michaels ran in to brawl with him. Although Michaels was pulled out of the ring, Test took advantage of the situation and eliminated Jericho. This built towards an awesome Michaels vs. Jericho bout at the following WrestleMania.
2004: CHRIS BENOIT AND RANDY ORTON
WWE’s not really good with long-term planning, but if they had SummerSlam 2004 in mind for this one, good on them. In one corner we had Chris Benoit, who had been antagonized by SmackDown GM Paul Heyman to the point that not only did he have to go through various hurdles to secure a Rumble spot, but Heyman insisted on giving him #1. Benoit would be the first face to endure from an early spot and win, propelling him to the main event of WrestleMania, where he switched to Raw and took down Triple H and Shawn Michaels to win the World Heavyweight Championship.
In the other corner we had Intercontinental Champion Randy Orton. At the time of the match, the two were on different shows and Orton had a role as the protégé of Triple H. He lasted about 33 minutes until then-rival Mick Foley made a surprise appearance and eliminated Orton as well as himself. Orton and Foley would continue feuding for several months until Orton got the decisive win.
That set the table for SummerSlam, where Benoit defended his title in the main event and lost it to Orton. This led to a short-lived face run where Orton took on Triple H and his cronies, which unfortunately didn’t pan out too well.
2005: EDDIE GUERRERO AND CHRIS BENOIT
The final image of WrestleMania XX was a moment of triumph. Two friends standing side-by-side as champions in an industry that looked down at them for their size. It was, for a time, inspiring. Several years later, it became bittersweet at best and heartbreaking at worst. Even in a world of fiction, their successes led to one dying from his ravaged body and the other dying from a ravaged mind, each from trying to endure the grind of being a pro wrestler who wanted to break the glass ceiling.
But before all that, both were treated as a flavor of the month. Eddie Guerrero dropped the WWE Championship to JBL while Chris Benoit dropped the World Heavyweight Championship to Randy Orton. WWE was turning a new page and was even dedicating this Rumble to putting over John Cena and Batista as the future of the company.
Guerrero and Benoit got the opening spots, which allowed them to last for a lengthy amount of time each (Benoit was the iron man of that Rumble with 47 minutes to his name), but they were little more than dependable hands who were already given their brief moments at the top to placate them before going back to normal.
2006: TRIPLE H AND REY MYSTERIO
Going into the PPV, there was no obvious winner for the 2006 Royal Rumble. The winner became a bit more obvious during the early part of the show, but more in a, “Wait, are they going to really do this?” sense. Two months earlier, Eddie Guerrero passed away and beloved mid-carder Rey Mysterio mentioned that he was dedicating his performance to Eddie. When selecting his number, he played it off as a prank from beyond the grave by his friend, strongly suggesting that he had a very early draw.
Similarly, Triple H seemed aghast at his draw while Randy Orton seemed extremely pleased by both his number and Triple H’s. As choreographed, Triple H was #1, Rey Mysterio was #2, and Randy Orton was #30.
Despite having no real history against each other, Triple H and Mysterio constantly fought against each other throughout the hour. Mysterio eliminated Triple H near the end, causing Triple H to drag him out of the ring and angrily beat him into oblivion. Even then, Mysterio still had enough in him to toss Orton over the top rope and win.
All three wrestlers went on to challenge for the title at WrestleMania 22. Mysterio and Orton fought Kurt Angle in a triple threat over the World Heavyweight Championship while Triple H took on John Cena for the WWE Championship. Of the three, not only did Mysterio win the Rumble, but he’s the only one to come out of WrestleMania champion.
2007: RIC FLAIR AND FINLAY
To think that Ric Flair was one half of the “two old guys start things off” scenario 14 years earlier. Well, he got to pull that off again with fellow ass-kicking old guy Finlay. Flair probably didn’t have the endurance to go the distance again, which is just as well, since he lasted under six minutes. Finlay ended up being the iron man of the match, albeit at only 32 and a half minutes.
Flair had just over a year left of his WWE run by this point. Finlay would get a couple more years on the active roster, kept relevant by his association with Hornswoggle. Dude almost got a World Heavyweight Championship run out of the company’s desperation, but they decided to give the belt to Great Khali instead. Lame.
2008: THE UNDERTAKER AND SHAWN MICHAELS
The 2007 Rumble ended in a very memorable way with Undertaker and Shawn Michaels battling it out for a long stretch before Undertaker came out the winner and punched his ticket to WrestleMania. The two would eventually reignite their rivalry in an awesome way for several years…then reignite their rivalry yet again in the worst way in 2018.
But hey, you know what was neat? When Undertaker and Michaels started the 2008 Rumble! The two battled it out for just over a half hour until a big chain of eliminations. Undertaker threw out Snitsky, leaving him open for Michaels to throw out Undertaker, leaving Michaels open for Mr. Kennedy to throw out Michaels.
It was really fun, though. Everyone loved their showdown in 2007, so being promised more a year later was a very pleasant surprise.
2009: REY MYSTERIO AND JOHN MORRISON
The rivalry of this match was all about Triple H vs. Randy Orton and they did indeed have early draws at #7 and #8. Mysterio and Morrison got the earliest spots for the simplest reason: they were great in-ring performers who would play off of each other well. It was a festival of flipping between the two in a time when Morrison was too busy being the smarmier half of a tag team with Miz to get many singles matches against guys like Mysterio.
Mysterio got a good run with 49 minutes, but he was just barely overshadowed by Triple H at 50.
2010: DOLPH ZIGGLER AND EVAN BOURNE
This was back when Matt Striker was a commentator and while the guy can be a bit of a tool, I never got how Jerry Lawler seemed to go out of his way to be cantankerous around him. Striker correctly pointed out that being #1 and #2 in the Royal Rumble is effectively the same thing and Lawler acted like the high school principal from the end of Billy Madison.
Anyway, Ziggler vs. Bourne came off as a cool little match-up between promising, young talent, but they were just there to lose immediately. CM Punk arrived at #3 and eliminated them both with little effort. So begun Punk’s reign of terror where he’d cut a long-winded promo about saving the masses, only to stop briefly to eliminate the next entrant.
That was Bourne’s one and only Rumble appearance, by the way.
2011: CM PUNK VS. DANIEL BRYAN
It was the calm before the storm, in a way. CM Punk became leader of the New Nexus, but that was kind of a dead-end role. His hollow push would lead to his beloved “pipe bomb” promo, where he turned his would-be final days of frustration into a storyline that made him – only too briefly – a breakout star. Although the company would fumble hard on the ball placed in their hands, Punk would still find great success as a long-term WWE Champion.
Daniel Bryan didn’t have much going for him either. A United States Championship shot at the next WrestleMania would be transformed into a dark match battle royal won by The Great Khali. It was only months later that he’d finally click with the product and become World Heavyweight Champion while going increasingly insane with his “YES!” chants.
In the meantime, there was this. Initially, Punk’s entrance at #1 caused a massive brawl between the New Nexus and its off-shoot the Corre, which was then broken up and led to absolutely nothing. Then Bryan appeared and we got the battle between the two overlooked indie darlings.
Matt Striker noted how, “The internet loves this match,” causing Heel Michael Cole (ie. the voice of Vince McMahon) yelling, “Who cares about the stupid internet?!”
For the record, the internet loved it even more when William Regal showed up and it became a three-way.
2012: THE MIZ AND ALEX RILEY
The opening three entrants in this match just go to show how much had changed with The Miz in just a year. In January 2011, he was the WWE Champion. Then he hit his ceiling in the form of being booked against John Cena. After that, he bounced back and found new success as part of an edgy heel tag-team. Then he hit his ceiling in the form of being booked against John Cena.
WWE still wanted to treat Miz like he was important enough, but they were definitely going to cool it with the main-event push. Having him enter at #1 and last for 45 minutes was good enough in that department. At least he fared better than the Miz-adjacent crew.
Alex Riley was Miz’s sidekick and broke away from him in 2011. For a couple weeks, he really had the fans behind him. Then that died down once people realized the simple truth about Riley: the only thing he brought to the table was that he was anti-Miz. Outside of that, he had no charisma or much in skill to make anyone care. Not only did he lose within the opening moments of the Rumble, but he has the record for earliest elimination in a Royal Rumble.
Then Miz’s other then-recent partner-turned-rival R-Truth appeared at #3. Although he lasted longer than Riley, Truth still lost to Miz and fell into the abyss of being a comedy mid-carder for the rest of his career.
2013: DOLPH ZIGGLER AND CHRIS JERICHO
Mr. Money in the Bank Dolph Ziggler won the Beat the Clock Challenge, allowing him to choose any number for the upcoming Royal Rumble. Because his gimmick is, “I lose all the time but I deserve to be pushed because I’m entertaining!” despite that not making sense in the construct of kayfabe, Ziggler asked for the #1 spot. He wanted to prove how damn good he really was. He was here to show the world, here to show the world, come on, bring it on.
#2 was a surprise entrant in the form of Chris Jericho, who tried to pull the same stunt as Ziggler a decade earlier. This was notable due to how months earlier, Ziggler defeated Jericho in a match where the loser had to quit. Jericho was allowed back because…I got nothing.
Very late into the match, after nearly fifty minutes, Ziggler finally got the best of Jericho and sent him to the outside. The exhausted Ziggler didn’t last much longer, taking a loss to Sheamus a couple minutes later.
2014: CM PUNK VS. SETH ROLLINS
The behind-the-curtain situations going on in the lead-up to WrestleMania XXX are still mind-blowing. A lot of plans got shuffled around and in that time, CM Punk was once penciled in to main-event the show against Randy Orton for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. That was changed when Batista came back with the new plan to have Batista win the Royal Rumble and challenge Orton.
Punk was then set to face Triple H somewhere in the middle of the show instead. He was not thrilled.
Even though he wasn’t going to be winning the Rumble, Punk still had his role as the target of the Authority. That meant being shoved into the #1 spot to hold him down, then making it into the final four before having Corporate Kane unfairly drag him out of the ring to eliminate him and slam him through a table. This also meant being antagonized by the Shield, who were both Punk’s longtime pain in the ass and a team on the cusp of breaking up (so Roman could break out).
Seth Rollins was given the #2 spot and his tenacity made him increasingly dangerous to Punk and anyone else in his way, just because the longer he lasted, the more Shield members showed up to join him. This was an exercise in making the Shield look dangerous while building to the inevitable break-up.
As for Punk, he received a concussion early on and had to keep going on for the next 40-plus minutes. He got fed up with the company and walked out a day later.
2015: THE MIZ AND R-TRUTH
The 2015 Rumble was a complete mess and it needed the ring to be cleared early on for the sake of a situation with the Wyatt Family that would never get any payoff. Though said situation gave us Curtis Axel’s Axelmania, so that’s something.
Starting things off with Miz and R-Truth would work if it was about playing off of their unappreciated time as a tag team, but no. Miz was in the middle of a comedy act with Damien Sandow as Damien Mizdow, which was one of those stories that was white hot despite the company handling it so, so badly. His being eliminated early on would play into Mizdow’s entrance much later.
The reason R-Truth was his initial opponent was because Bubba Ray Dudley was #3 in the Rumble and R-Truth was the designated stand-in for D-Von’s “WAZZAAAAP” headbutt. Because…”What’s Up!” is his thing and they didn’t get D-Von for some reason and…yeah.
The 2015 Rumble was a complete mess.
2016: ROMAN REIGNS AND RUSEV
WWE was finally getting people to like Roman Reigns and then, of course, they had to ruin it. They put him in a title storyline where he got screwed over, hospitalized Triple H out of anger, got his rematch, punched out Vince McMahon, and won the title in a match that made him so likeable that the crowd that booed him mercilessly at Royal Rumble 2015 were behind his new title reign.
So what did WWE do? They pushed too hard and decided to make the 2016 Rumble about Roman by having him put the WWE World Heavyweight Championship on the line against his 29 other opponents. He was given the #1 spot, of course, and Triple H’s surprise appearance at #30 could be predicted by any given wrestling fan.
With Roman having won the previous Rumble, his first opponent here was his fellow finalist from 2015 in Rusev. Once an unstoppable monster heel, Rusev was little more than an easily-beaten henchman for Roman to overcome with ease by 2016. He was a level 1 boss.
Although, his elimination was immediately overshadowed by the debut of AJ Styles, which made things suddenly more interesting.
2017: BIG CASS AND CHRIS JERICHO
Big Cass’ status as “very tall guy with reasonable charisma” made it apparent that he was on WWE’s backburner to push for a while, whether it was being a contender for the vacated Universal Championship or being the first name to step out in the 2017 Rumble. But really, the reason he had such an early draw was because his entrance was so over and they had an excuse for Enzo to do his spiel.
Jericho was in a weird spot as he was initially meant to win the Royal Rumble and face his BFF Kevin Owens for the Universal Championship at WrestleMania. Plans changed due to the high-profile nature of the Brock Lesnar/Bill Goldberg feud, so while Jericho was no longer the winner, he was still given some love by getting an hour in the ring.
During this match, he actually broke the record for career Royal Rumble longevity, which gave him a new talking point before his face turn.
2018 (MEN’S): RUSEV AND FINN BALOR
Despite being on different shows, Rusev and Finn Balor weren’t all that different in 2018. Two guys loved by fans, but held back by the people in charge. Balor for daring to get injured during his big moment and Rusev for daring to get married during a storyline about him not being married. Balor at least got more love from the company, as shown here, where he got to partake in the eventful final four. With his #2 entry, it could even be the kayfabe explanation for why he failed while his smark hero counterpart Nakamura was able to overcome Cena and Roman.
Rusev got to last for a half hour, which is nice, but it would still be another year before WWE decided to accepts the fans’ interest in the man.
2018 (WOMEN’S): SASHA BANKS AND BECKY LYNCH
Having the first women’s Royal Rumble was a big deal and it deserves credit for keeping the number at 30 participants in contrast to the very limited number of women on the roster. It meant that they had to fill in spots with retired wrestlers and women from NXT. While a lot of the names of the past deserved respect for paving the way and all that, the ones most deserving were WWE’s Four Horsewomen.
Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, and Bayley represented the change in WWE where “Divas” finally became a thing of the past and we could get rocking female gimmick matches, main events, and PPVs. Since this was Asuka’s match to win by a mile and the retired women probably didn’t have the cardio, it made all the sense in the world to throw two of these Horsewomen into the opening spots.
A good thing, too, because it allowed them to get something of a spotlight when they were being overshadowed by the returning names, eventual winner, and post-match appearance of Ronda Rousey. It was WWE paying lip service to the idea of Becky Lynch being important in the grand scheme of things before realizing, oh shit, Becky Lynch is actually important in the grand scheme of things.
2018 (GREATEST): DANIEL BRYAN AND DOLPH ZIGGLER
Outside of its controversy and the way it was used to break a couple key Royal Rumble records, the Greatest Royal Rumble was a bit on the pointless side. Nothing was on the line and there was barely any drama around the match itself. With 50 entrants, only a few seemed to actually matter in any way.
The only real options for a winner were Braun Strowman (on fire as a top face) and Daniel Bryan (fresh from his return after being cleared) and since they went with Braun, that meant that they had to give Bryan something of a consolation prize. They just got him back and they definitely didn’t want to underuse him in a Royal Rumble AGAIN. And so, Bryan got to enter at #1 and last long enough to hit third place.
Not only did it work out, as he blew away Rey Mysterio’s record by lasting a whopping hour and sixteen minutes, but it was perfect storytelling for his then-rival Big Cass (#49) to eliminate Bryan and try to downplay his impressive run.
As for Dolph Ziggler at #2? Even though he didn’t have anything going on, it still made plenty of sense to give him that spot. The guy wasn’t going to win the Greatest Royal Rumble and he didn’t even last a half-hour, but if there’s anyone we could BELIEVE would have the stamina to last that long, it’s that guy.
2019 (MEN’S): ELIAS AND JEFF JARRETT
Part of Elias’ whole schtick was his way of appearing in the ring for a set where he’d play to the crowd before tearing them down verbally and with his music, only to be interrupted. It was rare to ever see him do an actual entrance. That made it awkward for the Royal Rumble, where 29 people had to have a visual journey to the ring. Who better to be #1, then?
For #2, they went with what was both a fitting comedy opponent and also kind of a big deal in the wrestling business. Jeff Jarrett was remembered for leaving the company in 1999 in a way that got one over on Vince McMahon. Vince held onto the grudge when it came time to buy WCW and refused to acquire Jarrett as part of the deal. Jarrett went on to co-found TNA and wrestling’s hilarious footnote Global Force Wrestling. After washing his hands of both and leaving messes in his wake (see also: his stint in AAA), Jarrett finally returned to WWE and made sure to dress like a doofus.
Elias beat up Jarrett with a guitar and eliminated him. Shinsuke Nakamura was #3, which is when the match truly began.
2019 (WOMEN’S): LACEY EVANS AND NATALYA
NXT was a well that WWE could go to now and then for excitement and fully-formed buzz. That’s why the night after WrestleMania was always so fun. Accomplished wrestlers from developmental would graduate to the main roster and things suddenly felt fresh. Unfortunately, 2019 was a time when WWE went to that well far too many times while continually spilling the water. To start, they announced a handful of NXT talent who would be brought to the main roster. Said talents were considered free agents and didn’t actually do much other than hang out backstage during segments of Raw and SmackDown.
Lacey Evans was one of those talents and she finally got to step into the ring for the Royal Rumble. Her initial opponent was Natalya, who apparently was originally set to be Ronda Rousey’s WrestleMania opponent until the company realized what they had in Becky Lynch. Natalya was a good hand and would presumably be able to carry Evans into a good enough showing. Well…it wasn’t quite Bryan vs. Punk, unfortunately. It showed that Evans wasn’t quite ready and doomed her to an inexplicable gimmick of walking to the ring and back at random times for the following several months until they decided to give her a push as Becky’s top challenger.
It was worth it for the part in the match where Lacey Evans had a showdown with Charlotte Flair and everyone tripped over themselves to post the Spider-Man-pointing-at-Spider-Man meme.