This Sunday, WWE will present the 29th annual Royal Rumble pay-per-view. The event has been around since 1988 but has only officially served as the kickoff for The Road to WrestleMania since 1993, a connection that turned the annual match into pro wrestling's equivalent to postseason football. Historically, it's the most exciting time of the year to be a wrestling fan. And it all begins with the Royal Rumble match.
It is an ingenious twist on the age-old battle royale and is almost certainly the greatest gimmick match ever devised. Two competitors begin in the ring. Other competitors enter at regular intervals (generally every 90 seconds or two minutes) in the order picked in a "random draw" before the match, until 30 participants have entered. The only way to be eliminated is to be thrown over the top rope and have both feet touch the floor. The match continues until there is one winner.
The format is sublime. The Rumble usually lasts around an hour and it's almost always captivating; occasionally, it's transcendent. It's likely the most beloved annual tradition in wrestling. So let's rank every one of the previous 28 Royal Rumble matches and argue about everything except the No. 1 spot.
28. 2015 (Roman Reigns)
It's not the worst Rumble ever because Reigns won it; it's the worst Rumble ever because it's the worst, most anticlimactic and infuriating storytelling the match has ever seen. The crowd wanted Daniel Bryan, or Dolph Ziggler, or Dean Ambrose to win. Instead, Bryan got dumped before Reigns ever entered the match (which is the only smart thing to happen if Bryan isn't winning and Reigns is). Then Ziggler and Ambrose got dumped like human garbage by Big Show and Kane of all people. The most uninspired final four ever. Not even The Rock could save this one.
27. 1995 (Shawn Michaels)
Shawn Michaels entering at No. 1 and winning the whole thing should be great, right? This is the only Rumble where the intervals are every 60 seconds. The whole match happens in under 39 minutes and is filled with lumps like the tag team "Well Dunn" and Mantaur. It's barely a Royal Rumble.
26. 2005 (Batista)
The match ended with Vince McMahon coming down to restart the match and tearing both his quads. There's also an extended three-man beatdown of rookie Daniel Puder that is a shoot hazing. It's ... real hard to watch!
25. 2009 (Randy Orton)
As Brandon Stroud at With Spandex pointed out, you don't even remember this one. I just watched it and whenever I try to think of anything from it, my brain gives me one of these:
24. 2013 (John Cena)
It's fine. It's there. It's just so boring. John Cena at the height of his powers, making his rematch with the Rock at WrestleMania a mere formality. Even less inspiring in hindsight.
23. 1988 ("Hacksaw" Jim Duggan)
22. 1989 (Big John Studd)
The first-ever Rumble match from 1988 holds up surprisingly well, even with only 20 men. The format was further refined a year later, and 1989 still stands as the prototype for everything the Rumble could and should be. Tropes established in 1989 still pop up in modern-day Rumbles. Just good, clean fun.
21. 2012 (Sheamus)
There are two standard ways to end a Rumble match: either the last few go out in a flurry, or the last two men have a fairly lengthy singles match before the winner tosses his opponent. Sheamus and Chris Jericho have a fine little match to end this one. But it's thoroughly middle-of-the-pack as far as Rumbles go.
20. 2014 (Batista)
I ain't mad at the 2014 Royal Rumble, especially considering that everything ended up working out okay at WrestleMania XXX. It's fascinating to watch the crowd slowly mutiny upon realizing Daniel Bryan wouldn't be in the match. But the storytelling is fine. It's fine.
19. 1996 (Shawn Michaels)
The weirdness of pre-Attitude Era WWF permeates this one, and the principles play fast and loose with the rules at times. Of particular note are the "Squat Team" members just deciding to ignore being eliminated ... so they can get eliminated again.
18. 1994 (Lex Luger and Bret Hart)
Perfect, flawless ending. The only tie in Rumble history. Not a whole lot else of substance there, though.
17. 1991 (Hulk Hogan)
This was an enjoyable, unobjectionable Rumble, but very much "second verse, same as the first" after Hogan's 1990 win (which we'll get to later).
16. 1999 (Vince McMahon)
Easily the most divisive Royal Rumble ever. This is just SHENANIGANS: THE MATCH. If you're not in the mood for stupidity, you'll hate it. Objectively, it's a fun (if idiotic) storytelling romp.
15. 2000 (The Rock)
The most forgettable Attitude Era Rumble had The Rock screwing up the ending. It's another perfectly okay Rumble, but rightly dwarfed by two other matches on the PPV that were instant classics. (Three, if you count Tazz's debut.)
14. 2011 (Alberto Del Rio)
The only 40-man Rumble. Also the argument for why you shouldn't have a 40-man Rumble. It's disjointed and feels like two different matches. The first half of the match is the story of CM Punk's New Nexus dominating the whole thing. Then John Cena enters at No. 22 and eliminates them all and it resets.
This match proves why you need an "iron man" in the match: it establishes continuity and bridges the gap from the beginning to the end. Once the New Nexus story ends and the Cena and Hornswoggle Comedy Hour kicks off, it undermines the point of the 40-man Rumble altogether.
13. 1997 (Steve Austin)
Austin's first win (via cheating) is mostly memorable for his interactions with arch-nemesis Bret Hart. The match is a bizarre time capsule of the WWF just before the Attitude Era was a tangible thing. It's like a glorious train wreck.
12. 2003 (Brock Lesnar)
With Undertaker dumping Maven, this was one of the first Rumbles to really start calling back the previous year's match in earnest. A workmanlike Rumble with a Brock Lesnar win. Nothing to hate here.
11. 2008 (John Cena)
Undertaker and Shawn Michaels start the match after being the final two the previous year. The set design at Madison Square Garden is always super-cool. And of course, John Cena turned us all into absolute slack-jawed marks for a stone cold 30 seconds by returning from injury months ahead of schedule to win it all.
10. 2002 (Triple H) – Maven vs. Undertaker
One of Triple H's finest moments, as he returned from injury a conquering hero. But this Rumble really gets its high placement for being the beginning of the Maven vs. Undertaker saga.
9. 2006 (Rey Mysterio)
Terrific story, but kind of plodding at points. Rey Mysterio is No. 2 in the Rumble, wrestling in honor of the late Eddie Guerrero. He and Triple H start the match and are part of the final three, with Rey setting the longevity record along the way. Having the story return to Triple H and Rey again and again is something that feels like it should be more exciting than it actually is on contemporary re-viewings.
8. 2004 (Chris Benoit)
Understandably, this is a hard Rumble for a lot of people to watch. From a pure, objective storytelling standpoint, it's one of the tightest and flawlessly structured Rumble matches ever.
7. 1998 (Steve Austin)
Perhaps the most pure distillation of everything good about the Attitude Era into one glorious Rumble match. Austin's first Rumble win as a babyface. The sky was the limit.
6. 1993 (Yokozuna)
An oft forgotten gem. This one had Bob Backlund being the first Rumble competitor to stay in the match for over an hour (and hilariously take the crowd from indifference to rabid support in that time), a showdown for the ages between Earthquake and Yokozuna, and the stupidest Rumble performance of all time from Randy Savage.
5. 2010 Royal Rumble (Edge)
This one had it all. Another surprise return and win (this time from Edge). Shawn Michaels' Sisyphean pursuit of a WrestleMania rematch with the Undertaker. And my personal favorite Rumble moment of all time: a 10-minute-long sermon from Straight Edge Jesus, CM Punk (interrupted by periodical wrestling).
4. 2007 (The Undertaker)
This Rumble was really just a prelude to the lights-out match between the Undertaker and Shawn Michaels after they became the final two men in the match. Undertaker ultimately prevailed and the two men would end up drawing Nos. 1 and 2 the following year. Then, of course, they'd go on to have two of the best WWE matches in history at back-to-back WrestleManias in 2009 and 2010.
3. 1990 (Hulk Hogan)
Hulk Hogan, at the height of his powers, came face-to-face with the Ultimate Warrior for two glorious minutes, putting them on a collision course for WrestleMania VI. Nothing else could have happened in this match and it probably still would have been in the top five. Luckily, it was nearly flawless.
2. 2001 (Steve Austin)
Kane set the single-Rumble elimination record (though no one acknowledged it as it was happening). Drew Carey turned in a Hall of Fame performance. Steve Austin bled buckets. And it all came down to an epic showdown between Rock and Austin while everyone in the building absolutely lost their minds.
Hell. Damn. Yes.
1. 1992 (Ric Flair)
The undisputed grand poobah of the Royal Rumble concept. The only time the Royal Rumble determined who would win the vacated WWE Championship. Ric Flair will tell you, with a tear in his eye, this is his crowning achievement in the WWE. Bobby Heenan absolutely lost his mind for an hour. The 1992 Royal Rumble still stands apart from the rest, even 24 years later. A masterpiece.