The Royal Rumble event has always been about more than just the Rumble itself, with some real gems to be found on quite a few of the undercards. Because there have been so many Rumble events, I decided to split the Non-Rumble matches into three different segments, 1988-1998, 1999-2008 and 2009-2018.
As always, these are just my own personal picks. This isn’t supposed to be some sort of objective list or anything. If I leave out a match that you think warrants inclusion, then please feel free to put it down in the comments section below. As with previous lists, I’ll be listing the matches in chronological order.
So without further to do, let’s get to it!
Royal Rumble 2000
Triple H Vs Cactus Jack
Watching the pre-match hype video for this one still gives me chills, as Mick Foley’s metamorphosis into Cactus Jack was a huge moment in my wrestling fandom that I still remember to this day. I’d always been a fan of Foley’s work, but his performance in this feud, and this match specifically, firmly cemented him as one of my all-time favourites. Foley unleashing Cactus Jack upon the world once more gave his career one last shot in the arm before retiring from full-time action, whilst this feud finally gave Triple H the main event legitimacy he had been searching for after some torturous months in 1999 where it just hadn’t been clicking.
This really is a gutsy display from Triple H, as he wrestles a large part of the match with a gnarly gash on his left leg following a suplex on a wooden crate. Say what you want about Triple H and his occasional penchant for politics, but he’s a tough sod when the need presents itself, and this was definitely one of those occasions. Not to be outdone, Cactus takes plenty of punishment himself in this one as well, including getting worked over with real barbed wire and getting dropped face first onto thumbtacks with a grizzly looking Pedigree. A steel chair even legitimately gets broken over his back at one point!
This is a gritty and intense brawl between two men who understood how to put together an epic and brutal narrative, and still remains one of the most extreme matches the WWF/E has ever done. I hadn’t yet been truly exposed to ECW or hardcore Japanese companies like FMW before I watched this, so the extent of the violence really shocked me here, even though some of it was probably safer than it looked. If you weren’t around back then and want to know what all the fuss about 2000 WWF is, then I strongly recommend starting with this match. Not only is it chronologically the first truly classic match of that year, but it’s also the sort of bloody war you don’t get from WWE anymore.
Watching it again, my only critique is that it lacks a truly big and believable near fall for Cactus, as the finishing sequence is really just him eating two Pedigree’s and getting pinned. That being said, this match was all about making Triple H, and make him it surely did (Despite what he’s occasionally said to the contrary)
Royal Rumble 2001
Chris Jericho Vs Chris Benoit
What I like so much about this match is that rather than being a ladder bout built mostly around big dives, this one is based more around using the ladder as a weapon and the sheer viciousness of Benoit, as he targets Jericho’s arm and shoulder. There are still big spots of course, such as Benoit taking a chair square on the bonce following a dive through the ropes and Jericho applying a modified version of the Walls of Jericho atop the ladder, in a spot so memorable it actually made the Smackdown games for many years afterward.
What helps make the match so good is that both men are dedicated to selling the violence and don’t just shake everything off. When Benoit gets smacked in the face with a chair, he stays down for a long while, whilst Jericho’s arm/shoulder slows him down and causes him pain throughout the match. This is up there with the Jericho’s ladder match with Shawn Michaels when it comes to intensity and brutality, with the added bonus that Jericho is seven years younger and thus can work at a slightly quicker pace. The work is really on point and both men trust each other to go full bore with the chair and ladder shots. It really is a ferociously worked match.
I have vivid memories of this show from back in the day, due to staying up to watch it on Channel 4 and also recording it. I pretty much wore the tape out over the years, with this match probably being my favourite. Obviously what ended up happening to Benoit has made the super stiff shots to the head he takes in this match slightly harder to digest, but the fact remains that this is still an incredible effort from both men and one of the most intense singles ladder matches the WWF/E has ever presented.
Royal Rumble 2002
Ric Flair Vs Vince McMahon
This was another show I watched a lot of back in the day, owing to a friend of mine lending me his copy of it. It’s from start to finish probably the strongest Rumble event ever, with no bad matches and some really good ones. Whilst Vince McMahon is hardly a sound wrestling technician, he is a ridiculously entertaining performer in the right scenario, and this match is very much one of those scenario’s. Vince’s posturing, facial expressions and general selling are utterly fantastic in this bout, and he is in his utmost evil element as he teases Flair’s family at ring side whilst pummelling The Nature Boy, even taking pictures of himself with a bloody Flair. It’s a shame in some ways that Vince is such a naturally un athletic man, as he was incredibly fun to watch regardless, which makes me think how great he would have been if he’d actually had any wrestling ability.
However, when it’s time for Vince to “get his”, he gets it in abundance, as Flair bloodies him up and gives him an almighty thrashing before locking in the Figure Four Leg Lock to make Vince furiously submit. This is one of the better “Vince gets battered” matches, mostly owing to Flair doing a superb job of carrying him through things. This was the last period in his career where Flair really looked like Ric Flair as well, as time caught up to him pretty quick once he started partying with Evolution every night. There are almost certainly better technical wrestling matches that I omitted from this list in favour of this one, but this match is so wildly entertaining that I felt I just had to include it. Both men are just so good in it that I’d feel bad for not giving them their due.
Royal Rumble 2002
Chris Jericho Vs The Rock
This was an important match for Jericho’s fledgling reign, as he was in dire need of a great match and strong win to establish him as the lead heel. Though the win wasn’t especially strong, it at least featured Jericho winning via his own intelligence and moxy for a change, rather than solely winning thanks to someone blasting his opponent with a finisher and draping him on top. Lance Storm, Christian and heel referee Nick Patrick all still get involved of course (This was a 2002 Chris Jericho title defence after all) but, by sending Rock face first into a turnbuckle and then getting a rope assisted school boy, Jericho at least ensured the heat was on him for once. This was something WWE never seemed to twig with The Miz’s WWE Title run, as he seemingly always won thanks to someone else and never due to his own villainy.
Of course all the good work here would be undone when Stone Cold Steve Austin annihilated Jericho at No Way Out, only for Jericho to scrape by thanks to the nWo running in, which left Jericho as the lamest of lame ducks going into WrestleMania. Rock does his best in the match to make Jericho look like a credible champion and Jericho works well as the heel World Champ trying to prove that he deserves respect. This is very much a battle of two stars, not just the Rock pin balling the champ from pillar to post until outside interference turns the tide. Jericho gets plenty of offence and is allowed to look like he is on Rock’s level. Again, it’s night and day from the Austin match the next month, where Austin essentially crushed Jericho and made him look beneath him.
Rock being so over with the crowd means that there is consistent heat throughout the bout, with the crowd popping whenever Rock gets a chance to lay a whooping on the cocky champ. I often feel like Rock was underappreciated as a worker in some quarters back in the day, with some of the people I used to talk with online considering him to be a guy who just punched and nothing else, but he shows here that he was far better than that crude assessment. Rock holds his end of the match up admirably and the two men play out a very enjoyable and exciting bout. This is an interesting insight into what might had been if the rest of the main event roster at the time had been willing to treat Jericho as an equal, rather than going out of their way to make him look like a chump.
Royal Rumble 2003
Kurt Angle Vs Chris Benoit
Some matches don’t need much of an introduction, and this technical wrestling battle is very much one of them. For those not acquainted, Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit were the two best technical wrestlers in all of WWE at the time of this match. Refreshingly, WWE decided to pit them against each other in a featured match at the Royal Rumble with no gimmicks or added stipulations. They would just be going out there to wrestle in a straight match for the WWE Title, with the winner being the man who was simply the better wrestler on the night. I’ll give you a few seconds to sit down and process that information, because to fans of only modern main roster WWE it probably sounds like a baffling scenario.
What I love so much about this match is just how invested the crowd is in it. They are with both men for every tight hold, slick reversal and punishing suplex. Both men in the match are great storytellers as well as great wrestlers, so the match builds gradually to a big crescendo. The more the match builds, the more engrossed the fans get, with the majority of them willing Benoit on to be victorious and claim his first WWE Title. In the end, it’s not to be for the Canadian Crippler, as Angle traps him in the middle of the ring in his dreaded ankle lock, which leads to a clean submission victory. However, despite the fact his night ended in defeat, the crowd are so impressed with Benoit’s performance that they give him a standing ovation as he limps to the back.
Not only was this a fantastic match that led to both men coming out of it stronger, but the WWE higher ups were actually listening for once and decided to take a chance on Chris Benoit the following year, which led to the extremely unlikely outcome of Benoit being crowned the World Champion at WrestleMania XX, defeating Triple of all people to do it! Prior to this match, it seemed inconceivable that the WWE would bestow such a moment on Benoit, but his performance here was so good and the crowd reaction so strong that it got his name into the conversation and they eventually decided to give him a shot. This really is a special match and well worth a watch if you haven’t seen it. You could put the same match on a big event today and it wouldn’t seem out of place at all.
Royal Rumble 2007
Last Man Standing
John Cena Vs Umaga
John Cena gets a lot of stick from people for this era of his career, in some ways deservedly so, but there was no denying that he could turn up in the big matches when he needed to, and this is definitely one of those occasions. The reason for the stipulation here was that Umaga’s devious manager Armando Estrada chose it because it would stop Cena being able to catch Umaga with a flash roll up like he’d been able to do in their previous match. Umaga had been booked super strong for almost a year coming into this match, with him barely getting knocked off his feet, let alone being down for as long as ten seconds. Thus this was a good way to stack the deck against Cena, whilst still leaving it possible that he might win due to being able to use assorted weaponry to keep the monster down.
Strangely for this time period, Cena isn’t especially booed by the crowd that much, which highlights what a good job the company did with building Umaga up as a strong heel character. The match itself plays out exactly how you’d think, with Umaga punishing Cena throughout, only for Cena to show his trademark guts and refuse to stay down for the ten count, before eventually finding a way to somehow keep Umaga down long enough to win. It’s such a simple story but it’s told exceptionally well. Ekmo Fatu really came into his own when he got this gimmick. It’s kind of amazing to compare his run in this gimmick to his time he spent in the 3 Minute Warning team. It really was like night and day as far as match quality and work rate goes.
I’ve never been as anti-Cena as others seem to be, especially in regards to his matches. I’ve seen Cena have so many great matches now that any claims that he can’t work have become beyond redundant for me. Yeah, he’s not what you’d call a traditionally great wrestler, but he’s found a way to make it work for him and that’s all that really matters. You simply don’t have as many great matches as Cena has had without being good at wrestling. You can carry a scrub now and then, but Cena’s list of good matches is far too long and far too varied for him to fall into that category. This is a really enjoyable match between a good gutsy babyface and a fantastic monster heel, and I still enjoy it to this day.
The Hardy Boyz Vs The Dudley Boyz (Royal Rumble 2000), Kurt Angle Vs Triple H (Royal Rumble 2001), Triple H Vs Shawn Michaels (Royal Rumble 2004), Edge Vs Shawn Michaels (Royal Rumble 2005), Batista Vs Ken Kennedy (Royal Rumble 2007), Edge Vs Rey Mysterio (Royal Rumble 2008)
I’ll aim to have 2009-2018 up before this years Royal Rumble Event
Thanks for reading and take care till next time!