Royal Rumble non-Rumble countdown
WrestleMania is the preeminent event for WWE, but the Royal Rumble isn’t too far off. The event is perhaps even more fun for the casual fan because of the possible surprise appearances from the past, and the overall chaos of the Royal Rumble Match.
But even though the Royal Rumble Match takes precedence, that doesn’t mean everything else is chopped liver. The undercard has had its moments in the sun too. In fact, there’ve been times where individual matches have stolen the show. So while your focus might be on who’s going to WrestleMania, there have been plenty of great matches throughout the years that have gotten us through the night, too.
And so, here is a countdown of the best non-Royal Rumble matches in history to take place at the annual event. All matches were viewed by yours truly, and weighed through my own mind. No, I’m not #DaMeltz/#BIGDAVE, so there won’t be any SIX STARS/SEVEN STARS given out here. This is just the way that I see it and how I was captivated by the psychology, storytelling, and overall entertainment of the match.
Before we get to the Top 10 though, here are a few Honorable Mentions:
The Rock vs. Mankind | I Quit Match, 1999 | Rating: ***¾
This couldn’t quite crack the Top 10, but the sheer brutality of it is just so stomach-churning. It’s a hard watch, knowing the state of things now with what we know about head trauma, and what we probably know about Mick Foley’s condition. Still, this is a match, for the right and wrong reasons, that was too memorable to be left off the HM’s.
Bray Wyatt vs. Daniel Bryan | 2014 | Rating: ***¾
Ah… the 2014 Rumble. Aka, perhaps, the most bungled Rumble ever (until 2015). At least we had this match between Bray Wyatt and Daniel Bryan, who of course would go on to win the WWE Championship at WrestleMania anyway. It was a very solid opener with a hot crowd that was defiantly behind Bryan. I will say, it loses its luster a little on the second watch. That’s why it find itself here.
Shawn Michaels vs. Marty Jannetty | Intercontinental Championship, 1993 | Rating: ***¾
HBK and Marty Jannetty had two memorable Intercontinental Championship matches. One took place on Monday Night RAW, and the other went down at the 1993 Rumble. This one was built around Sensational Sherri, who made her return after being off TV for quite some time. There were questions as to whose side she was on, and in this match, it appeared she was on the side of Jannetty. However, her misstep in striking Marty with her heel allowed for HBK to hit him with Sweet Chin Music and retain his IC Title. Fun match with some good storytelling.
The Rockers vs. The Orient Express | 1991 | Rating: ****
The best tag team match in Royal Rumble history took place all the way back in 1991. The Rockers faced off with The Orient Express in Miami, and the two teams put on an absolute clinic to start the night. 27 years later, this match still holds up EXCELLENTLY. There’s drama, great tag spots, and a very fun finish too.
Roman Reigns vs. Kevin Owens | Universal Championship, 2017 | Rating: ****¼
Last year’s Universal Championship match just misses the cut for the Top 10. But don’t thumb your nose at that. Roman Reigns and Kevin Owens’ collision is certainly one of the best World Title matches to ever take place at a Royal Rumble. Reigns and Owens had a physical encounter that’s best remembered for Braun Strowman’s run-in, which ultimately led to KO retaining the title. And also ultimately led to the great Braun-Roman feud. Oh, and Jericho was in a shark cage above the ring. That was a thing.
And now… The Top 10 non-Royal Rumble Matches in history.
10. Dean Ambrose vs. Kevin Owens | Intercontinental Championship Last Man Standing Match, 2016 | Rating: ****¼
The 2016 Royal Rumble is remembered for many things. AJ Styles made his VERY FIRST appearance in WWE. Becky Lynch and Charlotte had a pretty stirring Divas Championship match. But the best match of the night was the one that went on first.
Dean Ambrose and Kevin Owens fought over the Intercontinental Championship in a rather incredible Last Man Standing Match. There are several violent spots in the match-up, many of which involving chairs. Ambrose late in the match nearly won the match after an elbow drop through the table, but it wasn’t enough at the time. Owens thought he sealed it up late with a Sidewinder Suplex through the table, but Dean the madman got up from that, too. The match came to a bitter conclusion after Owens was pushed into a stacked set of tables on the outside, finishing off one brutal encounter.
9. Diesel vs. Bret Hart | WWF Championship, 1995 | Rating: ****¼
The 1995 Rumble is notable for two reasons. Shawn Michaels went coast to coast, and Diesel and Bret Hart had an amazing WWF Title Match.
What sets this match apart is the psychology in it. The Hitman did everything in his power to try and cut Big Daddy Cool and his legs down. And by that, I mean EVERYTHING. Attacks on the leg and knee. Knee drops. Slamming them against the ringpost. Using the Figure Four on the ringpost. There’s even a spot where Hitman RIPS OFF HIS WRIST TAPE, TIES IT AROUND DIESEL’S ANKLES, and goes back in the ring to attack him while he’s trapped around the ringpost.
Shawn Michaels and Owen Hart make cameos in a match that didn’t have a finish, but it left an impact. That’s for sure.
8. Chris Jericho vs. The Rock | WWF Undisputed Championship, 2002 | Rating: ****½
Chris Jericho’s run as Undisputed Champion is something he’ll never let you forget. It unfortunately lasted only 3 months, but Jericho worked with the big names and had stirring performances.
Especially so against The Great One at the 2002 Rumble. Y2J’s heel work shined from the get go, as he stole Rocky’s taunt, putting his hand out in front of his face. The Brahma Bull gave it his best shot, but thanks to the handiwork of Lance Storm and Christian, Jericho was able to get out of Atlanta as Undisputed Champion.
7. CM Punk vs. The Rock | WWE Championship, 2013 | Rating: ****½
Sometimes, a match can be great, and also be aided by its atmosphere. CM Punk vs. The Rock in 2013 is one of those cases. Punk, who walked in as Champion, while carrying a streak of 434 days with the championship, squared off with The People’s Champion in a high-stakes encounter. The “big fight” feel that the crowd in Phoenix gave off in this match was absolutely electric.
It helped that Punk and Rock were both at a very high caliber in this matchup. Punk especially, as the man was on a run for the ages at the time. 434 came to an end after The People’s Elbow, and we know the rest from there. The electricity around this match helped it shine, though.
6. Chris Benoit vs. Chris Jericho | Ladder Match, 2001 | Rating: ****¾
Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit had their fair share of classics. One that will never be forgotten occurred at the 2001 Rumble in New Orleans. The two fought over the Intercontinental Championship in an absolutely ridiculous Ladder Match.
The thing that I REALLY love about this match? They had a match INSIDE a Ladder Match. A lot of times, you see the match built around the chase for the title. These two didn’t do that though. They fought and kicked and scrapped. They used the ladder as a weapon. Jericho used the ladder to apply the Walls of Jericho on Benoit in a memorable spot. This is one of the greatest Intercontinental Championship Matches in general, and surely the best ever in Royal Rumble history.
5. AJ Styles vs. John Cena | WWE Championship, 2017 | Rating: ****¾
AJ Styles and John Cena had one hell of a rivalry in 2016. Cena and Styles had a classic the first time they faced each other at Money in the Bank. Then, they had another at SummerSlam. Five months later at the Royal Rumble, they would fight again. But this time, with a lot more on the line.
Styles’ WWE Championship was up for grabs, and Cena’s shot at the elusive 16th Championship reign. And man, did they ever deliver. In what was one of 2017’s Matches of the Year, the two icons did what they did best in San Antonio. Cena ended the match emphatically with an AA-rollthrough-AA combo to win the title for the 16th time.
4. Brock Lesnar vs. John Cena vs. Seth Rollins | WWE Championship Triple Threat Match, 2015 | Rating: ****¾
The 2015 Rumble was… okay, anyways, Brock Lesnar, John Cena and Seth Rollins stole the damn show in Philadelphia on this night.
This match wasn’t your typical WWE triple threat match. It was chaotic. It was hectic. It was like watching wildfire in wrestling form. EVERYONE found a way to make an impact. Seth Rollins got his breakthrough opportunity here, and boy, oh boy, did he make the most of it. Rollins’ Phoenix Splash is one of the more memorable spots of this matchup. He wouldn’t win the title that night, as Brock would retain, but he would get the last laugh a few months later...
3. Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit | WWE Championship, 2003 | Rating: *****
SmackDown’s epic run in 2002 was largely aided by the SmackDown Six, and Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit were at the forefront. The Rabid Wolverine had spent much of his time in the WWF as a heel, besides for a run in 2001 against… you guessed it: Kurt Angle, but the tide was turning in his favor late in 2002. He would earn the right to be #1 contender going into the 2003 Rumble, and on that night in Boston, he faced off against his rival.
What would happen next was one of the greatest WWE Title Matches EVER. Point blank period. Not just the Rumble. EVER. Angle and Benoit put on a wrestling clinic for nearly 20 minutes, with the story focusing in on Benoit’s quest to become WWE Champion for the first time ever. Angle would retain the championship that night, but the booking in this match was Hall of Fame-grade. This is the best pure wrestling match in the history of the Royal Rumble. And it likely won’t EVER be topped.
2. John Cena vs. Umaga | WWE Championship Last Man Standing, 2007 | Rating: *****
The 2007 Royal Rumble in San Antonio is one of the best Rumbles ever. Largely because of the main event, but also because of the Last Man Standing Match that happened that night. John Cena and Umaga had what is regarded as the greatest LMS Match in history that night, and any run through the match can show you why.
#SuperCena booking be damned here, because The Samoan Bulldozer was hardly hurt at all. This is one of the last REALLY brutal matches in WWE before the turn to PG in 2008, so there’s blood and violence galore. Plenty of usages of the steel steps were used, and Cena won the match after passing ‘Mags out with the unlatched ring ropes.
1. Triple H vs. Cactus Jack | WWF Championship Street Fight, 2000 | Rating: *****
The greatest non-Royal Rumble Match ever took place on January 23, 2000. Sure enough, it happened in the World’s Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden, at the start of what was the World Wrestling Federation’s greatest year ever.
Cactus Jack and Triple H, no stranger to each other, fought over the World Wrestling Federation Title in a Street Fight. Jack’s dream of becoming WWF Champion, spliced in with his love for violence, makes the story in the match so easily captivating. Barbed wire, tables, thumbtacks and chairs all make cameos in this memorable encounter. Hunter’s Pedigree onto the thumbtacks is how this one ends, and it ended in such brilliant fashion. Both men looked like absolute warriors, with Foley still gaining plenty of sympathy from the crowd in the process of the loss.
It will always be remembered as one of the greatest championship matches in the company’s history. It’s also remembered as the greatest non-Royal Rumble Match in history.
(All photos courtesy of WWE)