Since 1992, winning the annual WWE Royal Rumble match has come with an immediate thrust into the world championship picture. But how many Rumble winners have truly benefitted from this?
It’s been a long time since the WWE Royal Rumble was just a unique match. Nearly thirty years ago, while the event was still relatively new, it became the first stop on the “Road to WrestleMania.” And, for nearly thirty years, the results have been fairly predictable because of that change.
In the aftermath of the 1991 Survivor Series, the then-WWF Championship was vacated. WWF President Jack Tunney declared that the winner of the 1992 Royal Rumble would be crowned the new world champion. In a record-setting performance at the time, Ric Flair entered at No. 3 and eliminated Sid Justice after just over an hour in the ring to win his first WWF Championship.
The following year, immediate world title implications became the standard for the Royal Rumble winner. For the first time, the winner of the 30-man match would receive a guaranteed WWF Championship match at WrestleMania. Yokozuna not only won the Royal Rumble that year, but he went on to defeat Bret Hart to win the WWF Championship at WrestleMania IX.
This set the precedent that any Rumble winner could theoretically become not only an instant contender for the WWF Championship, but actually win it. In fact, through WWE Royal Rumble 2018, more than half of the winners of the men’s Rumble match have successfully won their WrestleMania championship match. (With only one women’s Rumble taking place to date, the sample size is too small to talk success rates just yet.)
But take a look at the superstars who actually won the Royal Rumble: the vast majority were already established superstars and firmly entrenched in the main event scene before their victory. Some, like Triple H (2002) and Brock Lesnar (2003), just to name a few, had already been world champions prior to their Royal Rumble victory.
It’s almost as if WWE is hesitant to pull the trigger on creating a new main event star through a Royal Rumble victory. Rather than look to the future, the company continues to return to the same well of established names over and over.
Here’s a question to ponder, though: Why should this be the case if many of these world championship matches earned by the Royal Rumble winners don’t take place in the main event of WrestleMania?
Indeed, WrestleMania as a whole is built more on spectacle than storyline these days — or, the storyline is built to match the spectacle of the show. Part-time superstars, legends, and celebrities all get involved in the show, and those matches are usually the most high-profile of the night. Couple that with the Rumble winner’s title shot getting buried in the middle of the show — or opening it — and there’s no reason to stick to the same old names year after year.
If you don’t believe in this perceived unwillingness by WWE to think outside the box in regards to the Royal Rumble match, let’s look at some cold hard truth. When was the last time a WWE superstar won his first world championship in the main event (ie, last match) of WrestleMania, after having earned that title match via Royal Rumble victory?
That would be 2005, when Batista defeated Triple H at WrestleMania 21.
It’s been nearly 15 years since the WWE Royal Rumble winner has actually, truly, created a long-term star in the main event. To me, that’s unacceptable for a show and event of such magnitude.
You could make an argument for some other names that became stars — Roman Reigns, for one. He won the Rumble in 2015, and went on to the main event of WrestleMania 31, where he famously lost via Money in the Bank cash-in. But the only time The Big Dog won a world title in the main event of WrestleMania was after he lost that title in the Royal Rumble match itself!
There’s also an argument that some of WWE’s attempts to create new stars have spectacularly failed. Look no further than 2018, when Shinsuke Nakamura and Asuka won the two Royal Rumble matches. Nakamura spent the entire spring kicking AJ Styles in the “Phenomenal One” and never getting a world title victory, while Asuka lost an awesome match to Charlotte Flair before fading into obscurity until very recently.
Of course, the booking of both superstars left a lot to be desired, but in the circular logic of the pro wrestling world, not succeeding thanks to the booking is akin to abject failure, fair or not (and I’ll go on record sayin “not fair”). The more minor success of Nakamura and the recent major, albeit delayed, success of Asuka remove some of the sting, but it’s still a shame that they were never truly given a chance.
All of this suggests that in 2019, the WWE Universe is in for more of the same. Of the 18 announced participants for the men’s Royal Rumble match, seven are former world champions in WWE (eight if you count former NWA World Champion Ron “R-Truth” Killings entering at #30). There’s also perennial main event mainstay Samoa Joe, and former “Chosen One” Drew McIntyre.
On the women’s side, six of the 15 announced names are former Women’s/Divas Champions. The other nine names so far are Zelina Vega, Ember Moon, two de facto tag teams (The IIconics and Mandy Rose/Sonya DeVille) and a stable (The Riott Squad). With the exception of Moon and Ruby Riott, what are the odds of someone who’s never held gold in WWE emerging as a winner?
This cycle of always relying on the status quo, then bemoaning a lack of new talent, is incredibly frustrating. It removes much of the drama WWE tries to build if, when a guy like Tyler Breeze enters the Royal Rumble at #27 and is billed as “entering at the most favored spot to enter,” we know there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of his winning.
Now as awesome as it would be to see Prince Pretty getting a title match at WrestleMania, I’m not going so far as to say it should happen. What I’m looking for is, just once, an actual surprise winner of the WWE Royal Rumble. Why not a solid upper mid-card talent like a Rusev or a Big E? How about pulling the trigger on a brand-new women’s feud by having Sonya Deville win out of the blue?
As it stands right now, the WWE Royal Rumble is just too predictable. You might not know exactly who will win, but you’ll always know who definitely won’t. And that’s a problem.