The Royal Rumble kicks off WrestleMania season for WWE, and it’s the time of year fans start to build excitement for the product.
The premium live event traditionally is viewed as the second-best event out of the company’s “big four” with WrestleMania at No. 1 and SummerSlam and Survivor Series at No. 3 and No. 4, respectively.
It’s an event that gets fans excited, and there are multiple people who start tuning into WWE during this time of year. Whether it’s the gathering of big stars, the surprise moments or human beings’ love of counting down from 10, the Royal Rumble always is a must-watch show.
Since 1993, the winner of the match has received a shot at the world title. It’s why the match is a good way for WWE to tell fans to be excited for an up-and-coming star or crown a new one en route to their star-making moment at WrestleMania.
WWE doesn’t necessarily have a 100% success rate when it comes to picking winners, but there are some who stand out over others. The criteria for the “greatest winners” is based off how great the match was, the degree of difficulty — performance in the match and talent that was in the match — and how the superstar leveraged the win after the event.
Here are the five greatest Royal Rumble winners in WWE history:
5. Becky Lynch
The first annual women’s Royal Rumble match took place in 2018, but it was the second edition that made an impact on the company. Lynch was a mid-card wrestler, who occasionally wrestled in big matches but was seen as the fourth leg in WWE’s “Four Horsewomen,” a group of standout women’s wrestlers on NXT that consisted of Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, Bayley and Lynch.
WWE attempted to turn the latter heel in her feud with Flair, but the fans had no interest in booing the “Lass Kicker.” Lynch called herself “The Man,” and it was a nickname and persona that stuck with fans. The character went with a tried and true formula: A no-nonsense wrestler that didn’t back down and always was looking for a fight. WWE has continuously failed with its babyfaces, portraying them as meek and afraid of a fight.
Pro wrestling is about stories, but the in-ring action counts, as well, and fans truly want to cheer for someone that wasn’t going to back down no matter the odds. Lynch did just that in 2018 when she won the Royal Rumble and beat Flair and Ronda Rousey to become a double champion in the first-ever WrestleMania main event to feature women’s wrestlers. It was a crowning achievement for Lynch that solidified her as one of the top stars of the company.
4. John Cena
WWE in the early 2020s had started to proclaim Cena as the “greatest WWE Superstar of all time,” and it’s hard to argue against that. The wrestler-turned-Hollywood star became a linchpin for the company to the point where fans would grow tired of him winning all the time, but Cena has proven he legitimately is one of the top stars in WWE history. And his Royal Rumble win in 2008 was a turning point.
Cena started to transition away from his rapper gimmick around this time, but a torn pectoral took him out for multiple months. He made his return at the Royal Rumble at No. 30 in Madison Square Garden and become the embodiment of what the last spot means for the match. Cena was feuding with Triple H at the time, and he played the moment well. The match also featured the beginnings of the Shawn Michaels-Undertaker feud, and it was only fitting Cena would cap off the night with a win.
His 2013 win was huge for the company as it set up another match against The Rock at WrestleMania. While the match lost some luster since their first encounter was billed as “once in a lifetime,” even though the plan was for a trilogy of matches. It still was a moment that showed that the modern-era moments always were reserved for Cena.
3. Shawn Michaels
“The Show Stopper” was influential in his two wins for being the first “Iron Man” to come out victorious, having done so at the No. 1 slot, and for his creative escapes of elimination. One of the most exciting aspects of the Royal Rumble match is seeing the creative ways wrestlers can find a way to not get eliminated. The concept sometimes can be tired out with announcers constantly reminder viewers that “two feet need to touch the ground,” and talent like Kofi Kingston can be type-cast into that role.
But Michaels was the one that started it all in 1995 when The British Bulldog threw “The Heartbreak Kid” toward the ropes, but Michaels used his strength to pull himself back in and eliminate Bulldog to win the Royal Rumble. His follow-up match at WrestleMania 11 against Diesel wasn’t memorable, but his 1996 Royal Rumble win led to his iconic Iron Man match against Bret Hart that helped make HBK, “Mr. WrestleMania.”
2. Ric Flair
Flair’s run in the then WWF was filled with multiple “what-ifs” — the biggest being a missed opportunity at not having a WrestleMania main event between him and Hulk Hogan: the biggest star of the NWA against the biggest star of the WWF. That didn’t happen, though, but Flair did help deliver what is considered one of the best Royal Rumble matches of all time.
The 1992 Royal Rumble was the first that put the world title on the line. The title had been vacated due to the flip-flopping that had been going on between Hogan and The Undertaker that involved Flair, who arrived to the WWF in 1991.
The match simply was a showcase of the great talent the company had in the early ’90s. Flair’s storytelling with the established talent showed why he is one of the best wrestlers of all time. Sid Justice was made to look legit, eliminating six wrestlers after coming in at No. 29. It also was the start of his heel turn.
Many at the time thought Hogan would win, but Flair took home the Royal Rumble, and it marked the potential of something big. Unfortunately, WWE allegedly had concerns over how fans at house shows reacted to Flair versus Hogan, and WrestleMania 8 featured a poor Hogan versus Justice main event — this was when Papa Shango missed his cue, and Justice kicked out of the Atomic Leg Drop when he wasn’t supposed to.
Flair had a good match against “Macho Man” Randy Savage, but it was not the main event match, even though it featured the world title, and it marked a huge missed opportunity for the company.
1. Steve Austin
Like Michaels, “Stone Cold” delivered some of the best moments in Royal Rumble history, most famous of which was in 1997 where he eliminated wrestlers with ease and pretended to look at a watch. That Royal Rumble win set up arguably one of the best WrestleMania matches off all time: Austin versus Hart. The match helped kickstart “Stone Cold” onto his run as the top babyface in the company, and his 1998 Royal Rumble win led to him winning the title from HBK at WrestleMania 14, which helped WWE begin its run to top over WCW.
His 2001 win led to arguably one of the best WrestleMania’s of all time in WrestleMania 17, where he beat The Rock for the world title. There are very few stars bigger than Austin in the history of WWE, and that’s why the company entrusted him to deliver the big moments during its hottest time, the “Attitude Era.”
Honorable mentions: Hulk Hogan, Chris Benoit, The Rock, Brock Lesnar, Rey Mysterio