As we enter January, we begin the anticipation for possibly the most beloved WWE PPV of the year, the Royal Rumble. Unlike other supercards such as WrestleMania or SummerSlam, which have hit tremendous lows in previous years, the Royal Rumble is a reminder of that adage, “even a bad pizza is a good pizza”.
Every year, there is at least one big shocking moment, the return of a legend, or the beginning of a storyline, something to invest in. However, the undercard can often be left underappreciated due to the focus on the main event, and for that reason, below we have a list of the ten best undercard matches from Royal Rumble history.
TW: This list does include matches that feature Chris Benoit. While his inclusion is purely on the merits of the match itself, nothing more, we understand if these match choices are uncomfortable for some fans.
1. WWF Royal Rumble ‘95 WWF Championship Match Diesel (c) vs. Bret Hart
Primarily remembered for an infamous Rumble match where Shawn Michaels became the first winner to have entered first, 1995 also has a hidden underrated classic. During Diesel’s much-maligned run as WWF Champion, he had a surprisingly good performance when defending against renowned worker Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart. One of the issues with Diesel was how difficult it was to have him portrayed as in peril, which is why Hart became the perfect opponent for the champion.
Hart works an aggressive style throughout focusing on weakening Diesel’s legs, not only weakening him for the Sharpshooter, but removing the strength game that Diesel relied upon. Kevin Nash demonstrates some impressive selling throughout, making his big power moves more impactful as he battles through injury. The only unfortunate element is the ending, where Owen Hart, Shawn Michaels, Bob Backlund, The Roadie and Jeff Jarrett all interfere to force a draw ending. However, despite this, it’s worth a watch to see the chemistry between two contrasting performers.
2. WWF Royal Rumble 2000 Street Fight | WWF Championship Triple-H (c) vs. Cactus Jack
An event that arguably represented the beginning of WWF’s best period creatively (that ended at WrestleMania X-7), Royal Rumble 2000 has a crowd pleasing Rumble victory by The Rock, a massively underrated inaugural Tables Match between The Dudley Boyz and The Hardy Boyz and the red-hot debut of Tazz. The most memorable match unquestionably though is the infamous Street Fight between Cactus Jack and the WWF Champion Triple-H, the match that cemented the champion as a main event player.
A hard hitting, bloody and violent war fuelled by the hatred between both men, the story portrayed is near flawless, as Triple-H gradually has to bring his more cerebral gameplan into the battlefield. Foley’s more maniacal character bloodies and batters Helmsley, a terrifying slasher-esque monster that Triple-H not so much defeats as survives. The iconic ending of Triple-H hitting The Pedigree onto the thumbtacks proved two things: the limits that Mick Foley was willing to go to elevate his opponents, and that Triple-H was the real deal.
3. WWF Royal Rumble 2000 Ladder Match | WWF Intercontinental Title Chris Benoit (c) vs. Chris Jericho
The feud between these two had continued on and off ever since the previous year’s WrestleMania, with Benoit gaining several victories on PPV. This match was a desperate attempt from Jericho to finally defeat the champion, choosing the Ladder Match for his possibly final opportunity. The Intercontinental Championship was gaining some prominence due to both men’s efforts, and this match can easily be renowned as one of the best Intercontinental Championship matches of all time.
A physically hard hitting battle, the ladder was utilised as a vicious weapon several times, alongside some chair shots that can be borderline uncomfortable. The storytelling helps elevate this match above most other Ladder matches, as many shots were given psychological edge such as Benoit attacking Jericho’s left arm. With infamous spots such as the Walls of Jericho on top of the ladder or Benoit’s swan dive into a chair shot, it’s an undoubted classic that has unfortunately been tainted in later years.
4. WWF Royal Rumble 2002 Undisputed Championship Match Chris Jericho (c) vs. The Rock
There were very few positives that came out of the Invasion, but one of the biggest was the growth of Jericho’s character and position. Jericho’s hatred of The Rock included his winning of his first ever World Title, winning the WCW Championship at No Mercy 2001, and then defeating The Rock at Vengeance 2001. The latter match especially was Jericho’s first step to becoming the first ever Undisputed Champion.
Although Jericho’s overall run as Undisputed Champion has retrospectively been termed a failure, The Rock deserves credit especially for his attempts to help. One of Rock’s lesser renowned qualities is his willingness to put over other individuals, such as Mick Foley, Kurt Angle, Brock Lesnar, and of course, The Hurricane. Outside of context, this is a fast-paced battle between two wrestlers who had tremendous chemistry, as well as an engrossing story about Jericho’s refusal to be underestimated.
5. WWE Royal Rumble 2003 WWE Championship Kurt Angle (c) vs. Chris Benoit
Prior to this match, there was a laborious and painful bout between Triple-H and Scott Steiner that had the crowd nearly rioting, and the event needed a major save. Thankfully, the next match featured two of the best performers on the roster at the time, who had previous classics in 2001, and had only improved since then. The match begins with Shelton Benjamin and Charlie Haas being sent backstage, meaning Angle was forced to battle alone in a masterpiece built on technical brilliance.
The pacing of the match not only helped reinvigorate the entire PPV, but had the crowd on their feet completely engrossed, chants of “Let’s Go Benoit” as they tried to will him on. The interchange of suplexes galore and submissions creates a multitude of false finishes, the battle between the Crippler Crossface and the Angle Lock making it impossible to guess a winner. In the end, a clean tap-out victory for Angle helped build him for a WrestleMania classic with Brock Lesnar, and Benoit received a standing ovation from an appreciative audience.
6. WWE Royal Rumble 2014 Bray Wyatt vs. Daniel Bryan
The first of two years where the Royal Rumble received some of its strongest vitriol, one of the reasons for this was the growing popularity of Daniel Bryan. An everyman persona who had connected with the audience through his hard work ethic, amazing in-ring ability and likable personality, Bryan was the favourite to win the Rumble. His lack of appearance in this event’s Rumble prompted an entire crowd to turn against the eventual winner Batista, eventually culminating in ‘The Yes Movement’ and Bryan winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania.
It certainly didn’t help WWE that Bryan featured in the best match of the Rumble, a hard hitting battle full of babyface fire from Bryan. Wyatt had previously impressed with his promo and character work, but here he raised his game considerably and both men crafted an early match of the year contender. Wyatt’s physicality wore down Bryan throughout and Bryan’s intelligence had a limping Wyatt struggling, but it was Bryan’s own momentum that allowed Wyatt to take advantage with a vicious Sister Abigail into the barricade. Bryan simultaneously put over Wyatt as a legitimate threat and proved that Bryan himself deserved a main event push.
7. WWE Royal Rumble 2015 Triple Threat Match | WWE World Heavyweight Championship Brock Lesnar (c) vs. Seth Rollins vs. John Cena
For the second year in a row, the Rumble itself received massive negative feedback from audiences due to the choice of winner (this time, Roman Reigns, unfairly tarnished for years due to his victory), and the treatment of Daniel Bryan (he made it into the Rumble this time but was unceremoniously eliminated after ten minutes). In comparison, the championship match excited audiences as it featured three contrasting personalities who crafted one of the best Triple Threat matches in WWE history. While Lesnar can be polarizing depending on his efforts, here he unquestionably brings his working boots.
Brock Lesnar was the all-conquering champion, riding a wave of momentum ever since ending The Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak and squashing Cena for the title in an unprecedented destruction. John Cena and Seth Rollins were forced to work together, Cena Spearing Lesnar through the barricade and a Rollins Elbow Drop through the announce table to remove the champion from the equation. This match helped elevate Rollins as a legitimate solo wrestler, laying groundwork for his future main event run, but it’s the ending where Lesnar powered through a possible broken rib to emphatically retain his title.
8. WWE Royal Rumble Last Man Standing Match | Intercontinental Championship Dean Ambrose (c) vs. Kevin Owens
The previous month, Ambrose had defeated Owens to win the title, and their feud continued into January, with Ambrose accepting a challenge for a Last Man Standing match. Considering that previous Rumble events have featured both classic title and Last Man Standing matches, and the calibre of the two wrestlers involved, it’s surprising to nobody when they stole the show in a hot opening contest.
Owens led the attack for quite a bit, Ambrose battling back as they exchanged kendo sticks and chair shots throughout. Ambrose and Owens have this excellent ability to make the hatred between them feel legit, giving the match an extra edge of intensity. The third act is engrossing as they exchange table spots, both men surviving the other’s attempt and Ambrose having to send Owens off the top rope through two tables on the outside to retain the title. A hint at the tremendous work Ambrose could do in his future reign as AEW World Champion Jon Moxley.
9. WWE Royal Rumble 2017 No Disqualification Match | Universal Championship Kevin Owens (c) vs. Roman Reigns
One year on from his Last Man Standing Match with Ambrose, this time Owens entered as the Universal Champion defending against the much-derided Roman Reigns. Owens’ best friend Chris Jericho was locked in a cage above the ring, giving an extra wrinkle to the No Disqualification match. Whereas their previous matches had been slightly slower in pace, Reigns and Owens went all out here as they quickly battled into the crowd and around the ring, the hatred between the two unquestionable.
Some of the bumps from both competitors are painful to see, such as an Owens Frog Splash through a table, brass knuckles to Reigns, a Samoan Drop onto an open chair, and the most dangerous spot, Owens falling off the turnbuckles through several stacked chairs on the outside. The finish isn’t clean unsurprisingly, as Braun Strowman interfered to Powerslam Reigns through a table and allow Owens to retain. At the time, Reigns was being booked at his worst, even appearing at #30 in the Rumble later that evening in an unprecedented level of favouritism from the booking team. However, it can be appreciated retrospectively for an underrated cracking battle between two main event stars.
10. WWE Royal Rumble 2017 WWE Championship Match AJ Styles (c) vs. John Cena
Quite possibly the best WWE Championship match in Royal Rumble history. The previous year, the former heartbeat of TNA debuted with a surprise appearance in the Royal Rumble, going on to become a trusted main eventer, a centrepiece of SmackDown and WWE Champion. Even more impressively, he twice defeated John Cena, cleanly at SummerSlam, while Cena entered this match attempting to equal Ric Flair’s sixteenth championship win.
Utilising clever callbacks to their previous matches combined with a subtle growing frustration from Cena at being unable to defeat Styles, the tension and pacing builds up to a crescendo of nearfalls. Both the Attitude Adjustment and the Styles Clash only garner two counts, forcing both men to vary their offense with Code Reds, Figure Four-Leglocks and more. Styles’ attempt at a match ending Phenomenal Forearm gets reversed into a double Attitude Adjustment for Cena to finally vanquish his rival and obtain that elusive sixteenth championship reign. Absolute must watch.
The Royal Rumble match itself has always been a favourite for many fans, garnering excitement as we near the end of the calendar year. Despite the horrors of 2020, we still enter 2021 with hope and curiosity for the upcoming Men’s and Women’s Royal Rumble, respectively. Hopefully though, this list can serve as a sweet reminder that the undercard shouldn’t be forgotten, considering the tremendous classics over the previous decades’ fans have gotten to enjoy. Who knows, maybe in years to come, Roman Reigns vs. Adam Pearce will be revered in similar terms.
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