Later this evening, WWE presents their annual Royal Rumble PPV. It’s arguably the second biggest show of the year because of the Royal Rumble Match and the fact that it kicks off the Road to WrestleMania. You can make an argument that the Royal Rumble Match is the biggest match of the year since the winner becomes the number one contender to the WWE World Heavyweight Championship and main events WrestleMania. It’s a match that goes an hour in length that is loaded with huge names, surprises and drama. It’s a match even people that couldn’t pick Hulk Hogan out of a lineup like to watch. I say this because for years, friends of mine that have no interest in wrestling came to my house to watch the Royal Rumble because they enjoyed the format and atmosphere of the match. WWE could sell this PPV without announcing any matches on the card because the Rumble Match is so popular. But, what about those other matches? Those matches that fill out the other two hours of the PPV. They often get overlooked because of the Rumble Match. There have been some real classic bouts at the Royal Rumble PPV and that is what this column is here to celebrate. These are the five best matches in Royal Rumble history, excluding the actual Rumble Match. So, when you pop in your DVD of previous Royal Rumbles you shouldn’t be so quick to just skip to the Rumble Match. There are plenty of great matches in the PPV’s history and these are the greatest.
5. 2004- Last Man Standing Match for the World Heavyweight Championship- Champion Triple H and Shawn Michaels fought to a Draw. 22:42 (****)
They say the best of friends make for even better enemies and that saying proves true for these two legendary wrestlers. Triple H and Shawn Michaels were like brothers in the early part of the Attitude Era as part of the original D-X. Then Shawn Michaels had to retire for nearly five years due to a severe back injury. Michaels decided to make a grand comeback in the Summer of 2002 and instead of being happy for his old pal, Triple H made Shawn his target. They would spend a good portion of the next 16 months battling each other for the World Heavyweight Championship.
We are so used to seeing these two be involved in so many technical classics but this was a straight up fight. I like that the match went this route. You may not like a match filled with chops and punches but I think it fit the story. These two hated each other so much that they weren’t concerned with having a wrestling match but having a fight and this match was a fight. The match degenerated into a blood bath. Michaels missed a springboard crossbody that sent him crashing into the Spanish Announce Table which busted him open. Triple H donned his crimson mask after Michaels smashed the Champion with a steel chair in the face.
The thing that hurt this match was the lack of drama involved. They didn’t build to the counts well. A lot of the time a wrestler would ask for the referee to count after a punch. You knew the match wouldn’t end on a punch. It’s one of the flaws in a Last Man Standing Match. You have to do the double knockdown spot or something unique like the Batista/Cena finish to really grab the attention of the fans when the referee is counting to ten.
The end of the match saw Triple H hit a Pedigree and HBK beating the ten count. When Michaels got up he blasted Triple H with Sweet Chin Music. Both men crashed to the mat and neither could make it to their feet before the referee reached ten and the match ended in a draw. The match was a hell of a fight that deserves recognition on this list but I can only sit back and wonder what an epic classic we may have had with say, a title change and some better near fall spots. Their SummerSlam 2002 Match and Hell in a Cell Match in 2004 are two of the best matches WWE has ever had. This match isn’t quite on the level of those two but still worth your time.
4. 2002- Undisputed WWF Championship Match- Champion Chris Jericho pinned The Rock to retain the Championship. 18:49 (****)
The Rock and Chris Jericho developed a hell of a rivalry towards the end of 2001 that really helped establish Jericho as a top guy in the WWF. This was Jericho’s first PPV title defense since unifying the WWF and WCW Championships by beating The Rock and Steve Austin in one night about a month previous to this night. These two had such incredible chemistry together. They seemed to read each other’s minds. They both had similar speed and power so it was easy for them to match the others pace.
The match wasn’t clean and suffered from a little overbooking but it’s still a match that had plenty of excitement and one that holds up 12 years later. Jericho was allies with Christian and Lance Storm since Canadians like to stick together. Early on in the match, it looked like Jericho was in trouble when Rock locked him in the Sharpshooter but Storm and Christian came down to distract The Rock and lend the advantage to their fellow Canadian. With Jericho in control he decided that beating The Rock wasn’t enough. He wanted to humiliate him. And how do you humiliate someone? You beat them with their own move. Jericho attempted the People’s Elbow but as he came off the ropes, Rock kipped up beautifully and tossed Jericho over the top rope.
While the action was on the floor, one of the damndest spots I’ve ever seen occurred. Jericho had Rock on the Spanish announce table and he wanted to Rock Bottom him through the table. Rock fought out and then drilled Jericho with a Rock Bottom from the Spanish announce table onto the English one. What an amazing spot. The match would eventually make its way back to the ring and The Rock looked to end the match with a Rock Bottom but Jericho fought out and locked in the Walls of Jericho. Rock managed to escape and went to clothesline Jericho but he hit referee Earl Hebner instead. With the referee down, Jericho smacked Rock in the face with the WWF Championship belt. Jericho motioned for a new referee to come down and shady referee, Nick Patrick made his way down. He counted the pin but Rock got up at two.
Jericho thought he had the three and argued with Patrick over it. While he did, it allowed Rock to get up and hit a DDT on the Champion. Rock went for the cover but Patrick refused to make the count. Obviously, Rock didn’t like that so he gave Patrick a Rock Bottom. Rock looked like he was on his way to becoming the new Champion after the Spinebuster and People’s Elbow but there was no referee to count the fall. Rock went to wake up Hebner and when he did that it allowed Jericho to get his bearings and use a heel trifecta to beat The Rock. It was a low blow, followed by ramming Rock’s head into the exposed turnbuckle and a school boy while Jericho had his feet on the ropes. Jericho’s cheating ways was enough to stop The Rock’s quest to be Champion.
3. 2001- Ladder Match for the Intercontinental Championship- Chris Jericho beat Chris Benoit to become the new Champion. 18:44 (****1/4)
These two spent the better part of 2000 beating the snot out of each other all over the world. This was one of those rivalries where even if they wrestled on ten shows in a row, you’d want to see them wrestle an 11th time because they were just that great against each other.
The thing that set this Ladder Match apart from others is that they didn’t use the ladder to perform a lot of high risk spots ala the Hardys. They used the ladder to beat the hell out of each other. There have been plenty of spectacular ladder matches. This one was just vicious. The first time the match spilled to the floor Benoit went for a suicide dive onto Jericho but instead of getting Y2J he got a steel chair to the face. It was a great spot. They must have replayed it about a half dozen times.
Later in the match, Jericho essentially back suplexed Benoit off the second rope while Benoit was wrapped up in the ladder. The crowd popped nicely for that since it hadn’t been seen before and I can’t recall it being done since. The real highlight of the match was when Y2J locked in the Walls of Jericho on Benoit on the top of the ladder.
Jericho thought he had the match won when he pinned Benoit under the ladder while he climbed it. Benoit was able to use his power to muscle the ladder up and send Jericho flying. The match came to its conclusion when Benoit tried to grab the title with Jericho on the floor. Jericho came into the ring with a chair and whacked Benoit in the back with it. Benoit was able to kick Y2J in the face sending Y2J into the ropes. Jericho came careening off the ropes knocking Benoit off the ladder and on to the floor. With Benoit on the outside, Jericho was able to climb the ladder and retrieve the Intercontinental Championship and become the new champion.
2. 2000: Street Fight for the WWF Championship- Champion Triple H defeats Cactus Jack to retain the Championship. 26:50 (****1/2)
When Triple H first won the WWF Championship in the Summer of 1999 he suffered from some credibility issues. People wondered if he could actually be the man to carry the WWF. This match certainly proved Triple H was that damn good. This match rivals CM Punk vs. Brock Lesnar from SummerSlam in 2013 as the company’s greatest No DQ/Street Fight type match.
Triple H was a mess after this match was over. Aside from wearing the proverbial crimson mask, Hunter had a nasty gash in his calf from taking a suplex on a pair of wooden pallets. Cactus Jack’s weapon of choice in this match was a barbed wire 2x4. He used it to shred Hunter’s face to pieces. Cactus even bulldogged Hunter’s face into the barbed wire.
This match being a Street Fight, things spilled to the streets. Literally, since the entrance to the arena was patterned after what Vince McMahon thought a NYC street looked like. When the match made its way back in the ring, Triple H had a surprise for Cactus, a pair of handcuffs. Hunter cuffed jack and then proceeded to break a steel chair from bludgeoning Cactus so bad. Triple H was looking to finish off the handcuffed Jack on the floor when The Rock appeared from the back to crack Hunter in the face with a chair. Rock had long been an ally of Mankind and a rival of Triple H. After The Rock left a police officer conveniently appeared with a pair of key to uncuff Jack. Cactus used his free arms to pile drive Hunter on the Spanish Announce Table.
Cactus sensed Triple H’s demise was imminent but figured he needed a finishing touch and that finishing touch would be a bag filled with thumb tacks. Jack spilled them all over the ring. As Jack attempted to knock Hunter into the tacks, Hunter back dropped Jack into the tacks and then followed it with a Pedigree. Hunter thought the match was over but Cactus kicked out at two. The crowd at Madison Square Garden went bonkers but it was short lived. Triple H picked up Jack and brought him over to the tacks and hit a Pedigree into the tacks. That was enough to keep Jack down and end the carnage that was this WWF Championship Match.
No one could ever question Triple H’s toughness and credibility after this match was over. He and Cactus Jack beat the holy hell out of each other and Hunter proved he was worthy of that big gold belt he wore around his waist.
1. 2003- WWE Championship Match- Champion Kurt Angle defeated Chris Benoit via submission to retain the Championship. 19:45 (*****)
This is a match that reminds you why you love pro-wrestling. From the opening bell to the end of the bout, it was pure wrestling perfection. These two had a great back story to go along with their match. Chris Benoit and Kurt Angle became the first ever WWE Tag Team Champions when they won an eight team tournament back in October of 2002. They were a duo that never got along but they were so awesome together they were able to defeat other squads. After they lost the WWE Tag Team Championships, Angle would go on to beat The Big Show in December to become the WWE Champion. Angle won after receiving help from Brock Lesnar. Lesnar lost the title a month earlier to Show after Paul Heyman turned on Lesnar and became Show’s manager. After Angle beat Show, Heyman then jumped to Angle and decreed that Angle would defend his title against anyone not named Brock Lesnar. Got all this? Heyman then presented Team Angle which consisted of Charlie Haas and Shelton Benjamin to help keep the gold on Kurt.
Angle would need a challenger for the title at the Royal Rumble so Benoit faced Show in a Number One Contender Match that Benoit won. Benoit then got the better of Angle at every turn on SmackDown during the weeks leading to their bout. Angle was more than a little worried about losing his title. Before the bell even rang in this match, Team Angle tried to soften up Benoit but there were plenty of referees present to keep that from happening. Team Angle was sent to the back so that the Championship Match would be one on one.
The early part of the bout saw each man trying to soften up the other. Angle had an injured knee so that was Benoit’s focus and Benoit had returned from major neck surgery in July of 2002 so it was Angle’s goal in this match to reinjure Benoit’s neck. The match was hard hitting and enjoyable. It wasn’t quite great until this move. Benoit went up for his diving headbutt but Angle quickly ran up the ropes and belly to belly suplexed Benoit off the top rope. From that point on, we had wrestling gold.
The way these two would counter and transition from submissions was flawless. The drama was building with all the submissions and counters into pinfall attempts. Benoit was really new to the Championship scene but the fans bought into the fact that he had a chance to win. WWE did a great job of making you believe that Benoit could be the man to unseat Angle in the lead up to the Rumble and it only enhanced the match.
The highlight of the match for me was when the two were trading German Suplexes and Benoit hit one that flipped Angle on his belly. Benoit then went to the top and drilled Angle with a diving headbutt when the Champion was more the 3/4s of the way across the ring. The two would continue to trade moves until Angle hooked the Ankle Lock in and then grapevined the leg of Benoit leaving the challenger no choice to tap out and end the epic encounter we had just witnessed.
In the long history of the Royal Rumble, this is the PPV’s best match. It is a match I feel never got its due even before Chris Benoit became the man that never existed in WWE. If you have never seen this match, and you are still able to watch Benoit matches, this is a match you must see. It’s a match that doesn’t come along every day.
2013: WWE Championship Match- CM Punk vs. The Rock
2009: World Heavyweight Championship Match- Jeff Hardy vs. Edge
2008: World Heavyweight Championship Match- Edge vs. Rey Mysterio
2007: Last Man Standing Match for the WWE Championship- John Cena vs. Umaga
2005: Edge vs. Shawn Michaels
It’s a bit of a statistical coincidence (I guess that’s the term) that the five best match in Royal Rumble history (in my humble opinion) occurred in consecutive years. I wrote this column because during the weeks leading into the Royal Rumble, I like to pop in my DVD/blu-rays of the previous events to relive the memories. I always skip right to the Rumble match and ignore so many of the great matches the event has held. The Royal Rumble Match is such a huge event it often overshadows whatever else is happening on the card. It’s easy to forget the other matches at Rumble events but as you can see, there have been so many damn good bouts that are more than worth your time. Hopefully, my nearly 3,000 words about these awesome matches have done them some justice and makes you want to seek these matches out if you have yet to see them.
(That’s what she said.)
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