This Sunday, WWE will run its annual Royal Rumble event, highlighted of course by the two Royal Rumble matches (one for the men, one for the women). While there is no doubt that the main attraction on the WWE calendar is WrestleMania, the Rumble is actually its best night.
Mania deservedly gets the attention and hype. It features a surrounding week of linked events — and even non-linked, as independent promotions from all over flock to the host city to put on events of their own to cash in on the droves of fans in town for Mania. It is the Super Bowl of professional wrestling, the undisputed biggest night in the business. In theory, it acts as the culmination of months of storytelling; a defacto season finale. More times than not, particularly over the past decade or so, the build to WrestleMania is better than the event itself. The drug of WrestleMania is anticipation.
The Royal Rumble is one of WWE’s four crown jewel events — along with Mania, SummerSlam, and Survivor Series. A holdover from the days of yesteryear, before monthly PPVs and the general oversaturation of WWE content, the Rumble acts as a curtain-raiser of sorts. It gets no real build up. The time between November’s Survivor Series and January’s Rumble rarely serves up any headline-making content, instead offering place-holder stories and end-of-year review shows.
That doesn’t dampen the enjoyment of Rumble Sunday, though. In fact, it almost helps the event that there’s never a clear direction for the card. Yes, there’s an undercard filled with a couple of title matches, maybe the blow-off to a midcard feud. There have been a few memorable undercard matches that stole the show — like the triple threat WWE title match between Brock Lesnar, John Cena and Seth Rollins in 2015, or the street fight for the WWE (then WWF) title between Triple H and Cactus Jack in 2000. But, it’s 100% about the main event: the Royal Rumble matches, where the winners get a shot at main event glory at WrestleMania.
Nothing compares to the excitement that surrounds the Rumble match itself. What makes the Rumble so great is the unknown element. Which superstars will enter in what spots? Who will make a triumphant return? What legend will make a surprise appearance? The drug of the Rumble is chaos.
At its best, the Rumble match has a main story, a few side stories, and weaves together numerous feuds and storylines from throughout the roster. There’s always a great big man vs. big man spot. There’s usually a good spot where two long-time foes square off. There’s even a comedic spot or two thrown in to give the audience a break (Rumble matches typically last somewhere between an hour and 90 minutes).
Like any match, the best Rumbles are the ones where you really feel the stakes. Many in the wrestling community regard the 1992 Rumble as the best of all time. With the WWF Championship vacated, the winner of the 30-man match would be crowned the new champ. And, with a tear in his eye, the legend Ric Flair took home the belt. They returned somewhat to this trope in 2016, when Roman Reigns was forced to not only defend his title in the Rumble match, but he had to enter at number one. That match isn’t as highly regarded, it featured a murderers row of superstars and legends, including AJ Styles making his WWE debut.
The 1995 edition is the first I remember watching live with my friends. It ended with Shawn Michaels’ famous “skinning the cat” moment; swerving the audience who thought the British Bulldog had just won. The Attitude Era was great for Rumble matches, if only because damn near everyone on the roster was over, so each time the crowd started counting down from 10 you just knew you were gonna get someone good coming out from behind the curtain. Hell, the 1998 edition gave us all three faces of Mick Foley.
The best moments are the surprise returns, though. Be it someone returning from injury or hiatus or time away with another company, nothing beats the moment when you hear the music you haven’t heard in months/years. Think about 2002, which not only saw Triple H make a return from injury, but also legend Mr. Perfect make a stunning return to the company and damn near win the whole thing. Or how about Edge, who made a return from injury in 2010 to win the match; and then, in last year’s edition, he came out of injury-related retirement to give us the best moment in professional wrestling from 2020. I mean, seriously, pay attention to the fans’ reactions and the look on Edge’s face when he comes through the smoke — it meant something.
Of course, we can’t talk about surprise returns without mentioning 2008 and John Cena’s shocking return from an injury everyone thought would keep him out of not only the Rumble, but WrestleMania.
In 2018, WWE managed to make the Royal Rumble even better by finally adding a women’s edition of the signature match. The first women’s match was a great mix of current talent and legends returning to really nail that special feeling emanating throughout the building.
No, the Rumble isn’t always a hit. In fact, sometimes it can be downright awful, as the 2014 and 2015 editions were (2015 was basically one big middle finger to WWE fans). This is where the lack of build actually helps: WrestleMania season begins at the Rumble, so fans have around 3 months to anticipate “The Showcase of the Immortals” — and when you have that much time to hype an event, anything less than spectacular is a letdown. But a bad Rumble can be easily forgotten within a few weeks. In 2014, the fans damn near rioted after favorite CM Punk was tossed aside and nuclear-hot Daniel Bryan didn’t even get a spot, with returning Batista winning amongst a sea of boos and jeers. However, that led to the “Yes! Movement” which eventually led to Daniel Bryan’s monumental WrestleMania 30 main event victory.
Of course, this year we are dealing with the impact of the ‘rona, so there won’t be a full house teeming with anticipation. While that certainly will hurt the event in some way, WWE has been surprisingly creative in dealing with fan-less events; so who knows what they have up their sleeves.
The Rumble can be used as a device for so many things: blowing off feuds, setting new ones up, or reigniting old spats. It can elevate an upcoming star to superstar status, or become a crowning achievement for a headliner. It provides the best pops in wrestling. Most of all, it provides excitement for what’s to come, be it at the end of a 10 second countdown or the end of the road to WrestleMania. And right now, a little excitement for the future is something we can all use.