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 20 through 11.
Enters: 11th | Lasts: 04:38 | Eliminates: 1 | Eliminated By: Crush
Though we joke that it took Randy Savage years to come to understand Rumble rules, and though in 1994 his performance is a relatively brief one, when the Macho Man did finally come to terms with the Rumble it’s worth saying that there are few short-form firebrand ‘action hero’ style performances in Rumble lore that can match up.
Ostensibly adopting the now standard veteran presence that year, Savage’s performance contributes to the match massively, though never intrudes at the expense of the contemporary generation. His entrance is met with a stare-down with the dominating Diesel in a manner that will remind well-read viewers of the Triple H / Steve Austin 2002 stare-down, and from that moment on Savage is electrifying. It’s a super-charged performance, that of a compelling second tier and sentimental favourite that predicts not just the aforementioned stare-down but the very finish, in all its fame, of the following year – watch his dramatic near elimination at the hands of Jeff Jarrett for more. He furthers his developing, intense rivalry with Crush, holds his own against not one but two much larger opponents in ferocious fashion and is only eliminated when those two bigger men are able to begin co-existing.
It’s a short one, this one, but by god is it good – a spike of adrenaline to bring Diesel’s head-turning domination to the loud crashing end it had earned. I can only imagine what could have been if Savage had that year then been allowed to go on to the far end of the match….
Enters: 1st | Lasts: 35:21 | Eliminates: 7 | Eliminated By: John Cena
Many will quite rightly point to CM Punk’s 2010 performance as his superlative Rumble night, but we should not forget that he put in another show-stealing outing the very next year too as the newly self-anointed leader of the New Nexus. The 40-Man Rumble is a historical curiosity, very much a match of two halves when it comes to quality and it is the Punk-oriented first half that puts forth a genuinely all-time great structure.
Punk’s path to surviving long enough for his ranks to swell and his group to come together offers up an exciting journey in its own right, and his character performance is constantly evolving as more and more members of the group begin to enter the ring. Throughout it all Punk is paranoid, craven, manipulative and, ultimately, extrovertly vainglorious. Their take on the genre’s traditional ‘dominant big man run’ trope remains fun to watch even now, eventuating in a Punk who relishes every moment of his showcase until he’s literally screaming “We’re going to WrestleMania!” Though it comes to an ingratiating end at the hands of John Cena and Hornswoggle in a microcosmic demonstration of everything then wrong with the company, his reaction upon Cena’s entrance is Punk’s last moment of exuberant brilliance, his expression instantly dropping from smug fun to a grimly embittered visage. Did he deserve better? Absolutely. Could we have asked for better from him? Absolutely not.
Enters: 16th | Lasts: 10:55 | Eliminates: 0 | Eliminated By: ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage
Jake Roberts has proven, as I’ve researched this series, to actually be one of the greatest Rumble performers of all-time. Typically, this is not because he’s been met with prominent success in the record books. Rather it’s because few, if any other performer in WWE’s history has better informed their Rumbles with their character in as creatively consistent a way as the Snake did time and again.
1992 is perhaps his superlative example, offering up one of the most expertly cerebral performances ever. From entering the ring and immediately sitting down, inviting Roddy Piper to continue his beating of the exhausted Ric Flair, to his equally immediate decision to literally hide behind the back of the ring upon the entrance of a volcanic, vengeance-fuelled Randy Savage, every decision Roberts makes in the match that year – not just every move, but every decision – is ingeniously Machiavellian and a testament to his character’s masterful mind. There’s not enough room here to mention the plethora of small moments he injects between the bigger set-pieces in which he’s involved, other than to say that his performance would require an uncountable number of re-watches to get every detail out of it, so dense is its otherwise relatively brief span – indeed, its litany of achievements become even more impressive when you consider the sheer economy of his performance that year.
Enters: 13th | Lasts: 38:42 | Eliminates: 3 | Eliminated By: Kane
2001, to most, is the year all about Kane and his record-setting span of eliminations, or about Steve Austin and his record-setting third victory. Sandwiched between the two of them, though, is an outstanding performance from Austin’s career rival, to my mind the true greatest of all-time, The Rock. Not only is his performance that year prefaced by one of his more memorable promos – “Does the Undertaker want to tickle Kane’s big red nipple?!” – but he goes on to put together a hell of an iron man run, finds himself embroiled in some genuinely exhilarating set-pieces and makes it down to the dramatic Final Three.
Rock’s performance in ’01 is a definite entry into the ‘action hero’ version of the trope I’ve taken to referring to as ‘The Favourite,’ not quite possessing the same sense of constant forward motion like Kane that same year but certainly watching as highly proactive. He never overshadows others, though is produced in a manner respectful of his leviathan stature within the confines of the fiction – his elimination of a rampaging Big Show feels entirely tonally appropriate, for example, without doing Show any disfavour. That Rocky then returns to face down the united Brothers of Destruction alone is demonstrative of how well he and Austin both were produced as the cut-throat bad ass heroes of the day. Indeed, their stare-down to kick off that year’s final passage is arguably the best example of its kind, ever, as a wide-eyed Rock locks eyes with a blood-stained and spitting Rattlesnake in the opposite corner, slowly coming toe to toe before an electrified crowd.
2001 would not be Rocky’s year, of course, but his is a powerhouse performance, so effortless and seemingly ordinary for the superlative performer that it threatens to go forgotten despite at no moment being anything less than utterly commanding.
Enters: 1st | Lasts: 54:46 | Eliminates: 3 | Eliminated By: Brie Bella / Nikki Bella
And speaking of commanding performances….
It came as no surprise that two of the Four Horsewomen of WWE were chosen to anchor the first ever Women’s Rumble in 2018, with The Boss, if anything, being too obvious a choice to enter first and go the distance, coast-to-coast. That, first of all, is an impressive feat unmatched on the other side of the gender divide. For the rest of time Sasha Banks can forever claim she was the first ever entrant in a Women’s Rumble, the first ever iron woman in a Women’s Rumble and the first ever entrant to go coast-to-coast in a Women’s Rumble, all inside the scope of a single performance; of, lest we forget, her first ever Rumble performance.
Simply on paper, then, her 2018 outing is enough to flirt with breaking into the intimidating quality of the Top 15. Some might criticise her performance twelve months ago for its downtime spent outside of the ring, others the psychology of her attacking opponents already in mid-elimination, but let any such criticisms be shouted down by the frankly revelatory effort put forward by The Boss of old once the match passes that #30 mark. It is in the bout’s conclusion that The Boss returns with a true vengeance. Her elimination of Bayley is a masterful character stroke, her confrontation with Trish Stratus induces goosebumps and her elimination of that same legend moments later with a brash and unapologetic taunt will have you wondering where the hell Banks had been since 2015! Further, she proceeds to dominate in the Final Four – her overwhelming star presence sees the Bellas almost by default become her cronies as she absolutely suffocates the usually intimidating Asuka, and it takes the underhanded betrayal of both Bella Twins to throw Banks out.
Not only does Banks’ 2018 performance boast some impressive historical paper credentials but, by the time she departs the action, she has demonstrated all of the effusive, larger-than-life personality that drove her to the very top of the revolutionary NXT women’s division of years past in the first place. It is, frankly, marvellous.
Enters: 1st | Lasts: 49:47 | Eliminates: 2 | Eliminated By: Sheamus
It is quite possible no performer better embodies the ‘Lost Generation,’ as my The Right Side of the Pond cohort Maverick and I have taken to referring to the mid carders of the late 2010s never afforded the chance to break the glass ceiling, than Dolph Ziggler, a man whose future seemed to be certified great only to be repeatedly frustrated by the conspiring of circumstances. And, in fact, no performance may better embody that frustrated certified future of Dolph Ziggler than his statesman-like coast-to-coast effort in 2013.
Watching this Ziggler back is like watching a completely different Ziggler to the one we see today. The bitter hysteria of his often desperate performances of recent years is entirely absent, instead the Show Off doing little other than exuding absolute mastery of the ring for the entirety of his duration. He channels something of the spirit of a 1991 Rick Martel through the sheer number of near-eliminations he finds himself surviving. So too does he repeatedly hone back in on the returning Chris Jericho, with whom he of course had unfinished business with dating back to the preceding Summerslam – for the entirety of this really quite underrated Rumble Match, it feels like a 1995 reprise is a guarantee because of this. Ziggler also becomes a central crux the bout’s best set-pieces before capping off his phenomenal outing with a Final Four performance and his own elimination that, to this day, watches as outrageously misguided.
I’m not a particularly staunch defender of the Show Off anymore, but there can be no denying his 2013 Rumble performance is one of the absolute all-time best ever and a demonstration of how he absolutely did deserve so much more than he ever got, especially when on the cusp of superstardom as he was that exact night. I felt it was his time then. I feel it was even more so now.
Enters: 4th | Lasts: 51:32 | Eliminates: 3 | Eliminated By: Stone Cold Steve Austin
As kind and heartfelt as my words were about The Rock’s 2001 effort, even that, I do not believe, is his best in a Rumble. That honour is reserved for the hungry and aspiring showing he puts together in his near coast-to-coast demonstration all the way back in 1998. On the night that Stone Cold Steve Austin picked up the win that carried him to the title match he would emerge victorious from to introduce the Attitude Era-proper, The Rock, in the very same match no less, plied his trade for a considerably longer period of time to argue the case for his own position of prominence in the wrestling zeitgeist to come.
In 1998 The Rock enters in fourth position as the star of the company’s biggest faction, becomes the iron man of the match, reaches the final two, previews his iconic rivalry with Austin and all of it after having successfully defended his Intercontinental Championship earlier the same night in a great match opposite Ken Shamrock. It’s a performance that shows his wit as a performer, from his close encounter with a trash can early on, to his battle with partner D’Lo Brown, to his intense brawl with Austin on the outside, to his ingratiating elimination of Shamrock and, of course, to his betrayal of Farooq at bout’s close. In fact, as the numbers whittle down at the climax you can even see Rocky take a moment to banter with the live fans! Further, it’s not a work shy performance from a Rock who is always paired off with another competitor, and likewise it’s a brilliantly characterful outing too – he demonstrates his smarts in being one of only two men to not go straight after a fresh Steve Austin firing on all cylinders, for example.
Throw in some proto-People’s Elbows and recognise him as the contemporary IC Champ and what you have is a Rock still very much emerging from his own character chrysalis, but a performance that has stood the test of time, robust and promising, indicative of the outstanding foundation upon which the company’s most wildly successful Era would soon be built.
Enters: 3rd | Lasts: 10:04 | Eliminates: 5 | Eliminated By: Triple H
There seems to be something of a theme developing in this latest batch of performances, doesn’t there? Many seem to be performances that remind of just how brilliant the relevant performer is in the ring and that make you ask just why it is they didn’t go on to bigger things. Well, meet what might just be the pick of the bunch then: CM Punk in 2010 remains one of the most innovative, subversive and outright brilliant productions in the Rumble’s long history.
In a sublime marriage of one of the genre’s best, longest established tropes, the ‘dominant big man run,’ and a simple but character-driven idea of sermons between entrants, Punk puts together an outing to which there isn’t a single comparator. It’s an impactful performance to say the least, as much about his lightning and deeply effective offensive arsenal as it is his razor sharp preaching. He makes quick work of the first two entrants, Dolph Ziggler and Evan Bourne, and is able to channel some 1990-DiBiase as he eliminates individuals upon entering to remain in complete control of the ring like a true master craftsmen. To WWE’s credit, events around Punk’s performance are produced intelligently too – specifically the appearance of Great Khali, cameo of Beth Phoenix and elimination of both. Best of all, these set-pieces all only serve to further contribute to Punk’s Straight Edge Saviour character and its repulsive nature.
Not unlike the following year, Punk’s performance would meet an untimely end at the hands of a company favourite, this time a drearily cliché Triple H, but make no mistake: this deeply original performance remains one of gusto and creative verve the likes of which we are yet to see repeated, deserving of one of the company’s top historical names and a sign of why Punk would become so important in defining the Era to come.
Enters: 6th | Lasts: 52:17 | Eliminates: 4 | Eliminated By: British Bulldog
This may be an upset to some, seeing Rick Martel’s absolutely legendary effort in 1991 miss out on a top ten spot but that, if anything, only speaks to the breathtaking quality on show in those top ten entries. More to the point don’t look past the fact that Martel places highly in 12th position out of 60, and deservedly so! People can talk about the 1992 Ric Flair performance all they like. The truth is Martel did it first, the year before, and, to my mind, did it better.
Martel’s performance is savvy, wily, conniving, craven, smart and impressively durable all at once. His first move upon entering is to target the senior competitor, Bret Hart, who had been in there since the first position. Like Ziggler in 2013 referenced above, Martel spends an inordinate amount of time surviving some nail biting near-eliminations as creative as they are tense, from face-locking a turnbuckle as Hart upends him, to countering Saba Simba to elimination, right through to clasping the ropes desperately as Jake Roberts bites the Model’s fingers! It is Martel’s confrontation with his then-rival Roberts, in fact, that proves one of the match’s most exciting exchanges. To the credit of Martel, he barrels right into the arriving Roberts, only to bail to the outside and refuse to re-enter before taking a breather once he proves outmatched!
That sense of whimsical charisma belies everything Martel does in his impressive 50 minute stretch that year. He stands out constantly in what becomes an insanely busy ring, his presence as commanding as Ziggler’s in 2013 or The Rock’s in 2001. The sense of jeopardy is considerably starker than other comparative efforts – notably Flair the following year – his own elimination is a visually stunning moment and, most satisfying of all, Martel caps his night off with a Final Five showing in which he isn’t even afraid, despite being almost an hour deep, to even go right after the match’s obvious favourite, Hulk Hogan!
Enters: 7th | Lasts: 17:41 | Eliminates: 7 | Eliminated By: Bam Bam Bigelow / Crush / Mabel / Sparky Plugg
As we knock on the door of the very best ten non-winning Rumble performances ever, we arrive at one that lives in infamy. It is the performance that put the ‘dominating big man’ trope on the map, and the one that maybe even now still offers up the best version of that trope. Perhaps in part because of the negationism with which Diesel’s career as a top guy has been butchered over the years some will find this unconvincing in its high placement. Such assessment would be desperately unfair.
Consider that, at this stage, Diesel was still new to the company and still very much limited to the role of Shawn Michaels’ bodyguard. In spite of this, he breaks through in a performance that very well might have made his future World title reign at year’s end a guarantee for him. Diesel emerges with a look of relish on his face, oozing the easy charisma that came to define his character before he quickly eliminates all four men in the ring within moments – it is a group that includes the impressive likes of Scott Steiner and Owen Hart no less. From there, Diesel absolutely owns the match for the majority of his in-ring time.
The relish for the fight is very much the theme of his performance. He eagerly grins as he waits for his next victims, who he repeatedly dominates with ease, and when the larger, more challenging opponents like Crush, Bam Bam Bigelow and Mabel emerge he is still all too happy to welcome them to the fray. To begin with, he even seems eager to throw over his own ward, Shawn Michaels! Impressively, his encounters differ in style as his opponents do, always showing him to be as smart as he is strong, and his elimination becomes what may very well be that year’s bout’s biggest.
In the end, if you have any doubts about how worthy of a high spot Diesel’s 1994 performance is, consider that he enters the match with nobody seemingly giving a damn about Shawn Michaels’ bodyguard but, when he leaves, he does so to an audible chorus of fans chanting his name. Make no mistake: Diesel was a star, and his ’94 Rumble performance showed as much.
Are there any Royal Rumble performances YOU now look back on that you believe were or could have been breakout performances, even if we didn’t realise it at the time?
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