20 men have won the Royal Rumble – not counting Bret Hart and Lex Luger who both won, like, half a Rumble – but they don’t necessarily represent the 20 greatest competitors in the match’s history. Since Pat Patterson dreamed up one of wrestling’s most popular gimmicks over 25 years ago, a variety of participants have distinguished themselves not only by claiming victory, but with their longevity, their ability to tell a story, their daring stunts and many more qualities both tangible and not so much.
In this edition of the Five Count, we celebrate the workers who have the Royal Rumble destination viewing for any true fan by listing our picks for the greatest performers in the history of the event.
Honorable Mention: KOFI KINGSTON, RICK MARTEL & JOHN MORRISON
They don’t make my proper list, but I need to give shout outs to one of the first and most memorable Rumble iron men in “The Model” Rick Martel, as well as the two guys who have spent the past half-dozen years trying to top each other in terms of crazy elimination escape spots with Kofi Kingston and John Morrison.
5. THE BRITISH BULLDOG
An oft-forgotten Rumble institution of the early and mid-90s, Davey Boy Smith never got the duke, but he put in memorable efforts. He served as Ric Flair’s sparring partner for a good two-thirds of the awesome 1992 installment, then went bell to bell with Shawn Michaels in 1995, coming up just short of having his hand raised. Some of the best Royal Rumble performances in history shared having the Bulldog there to prop them up.
4. STEVE AUSTIN
With three victories, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin has won more Royal Rumble matches than anybody else in history. However, he falls a bit on my list due to most of his performances being fairly lackluster, from the 1999 debacle to late entries most other times. However, in 1997, he owned the match, coming in early and tearing through the mid card, leading to that great clip where he sits perched in the corner and loses his mind when Bret Hart comes out as well as his epic cheat to win at the end. With a hat trick of victories and one great outing to offset the lesser ones, #4 sounds about right to me.
The all-time beast when it comes to the Royal Rumble match. First off, Kane should be praised for his longevity as a WWE performer, a guy who has been regularly competing for upward of 15 years now, and along the way he’s been in just about every Rumble match, so there’s that. 2001 really set the pace for “The Big Red Monster” though, as he came in fairly early and did massive damage, putting out wrestler after wrestler – plus Drew Carey – until making it to the final two with Steve Austin and making the win for “Stone Cold” mean that much more as he slew the dragon nobody else could.
Kane has never won, but he’s an incredibly reliable fixture of the match who can be counted on to bring excitement when a segment may be dragging and clear out plenty of deadwood, necessities for a quality Royal Rumble.
2. RIC FLAIR
He only really had one outstanding Royal Rumble performance, but darn if Ric Flair didn’t do what he always did and seize the opportunity like nobody else could.
Most people could consider the 1992 Rumble match the best ever for a few reasons: the caliber of talent, the stake with the WWF title on the line, the stellar commentary from Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan, and undoubtedly the work by eventual winner Ric Flair. Coming in at #3 and going the distance, “The Nature Boy” unfurled an epic tale of a desperate man willing to do anything to back up his claim of being “the real World champion” by any means necessary. He grappled with anybody who came within reach of him, from Greg Valentine to Sid Vicious, made everybody who took a shot at him look like a world beater, and never let up. Flair’s legendary endurance and unmatched facial expressions elevated the match from really, really good to untouchable.
While he’d show a slight spark the next year in 1993, that would pretty much be it for Ric Flair as far as Royal Rumble highlights, but 1992 alone takes him really close to the top spot.
1. SHAWN MICHAELS
“The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels: in my ever so humble opinion, the greatest wrestler of all-time, and, not coincidentally, the greatest Royal Rumble performer of all-time as well.
As with his career overall, HBK’s Rumble legacy gets a boost from having two distinct portions to it and thus Shawn putting in very different but equally excellent tours of duty. Even putting aside his formative runs in 1992 and 1994, his wins in 1995 and 1996 showed off his ability to go the distance, particularly in the former, and his versatility, playing the cocky heel one year and exuberant babyface the next, coming out on top both times. Toward his final days as an active competitor, Michaels would redefine his role in the Rumble, particularly in 2007 with his incredible duel against the Undertaker to conclude, and then again in 2010 where he had his desperation on display, trying by any means to pick up one final victory and breaking your heart when he got thrown out.
The two phases of Shawn Michaels as a Royal Rumble competitor highlight what made him so great across the dual eras of his career: the energy and excitement he brought as a younger wrestler and the refined storytelling chops he developed as a veteran. With his grasp over athleticism as well as emotion, HBK may be forever known as “Mr. WrestleMania,” but also found an equally appropriate stage for his skills at the Rumble.
5. BRET HART
The first ever competitor in the Royal Rumble didn’t have a ton of appearances in the match with only five total, but he made them all count with his shortest run in a Rumble match being right around 15 minutes. Bret started the iron man honors in 1988 and was given a chance to shine and show how a competitor could save themselves in the Rumble match. After another pair of solid appearances, Bret would co-win the 1994 Rumble in a gritty performance coming back from a leg injury sustained earlier in the night. His 1997 Rumble match performance was also great as he continued his electric feud with Steve Austin and notched a couple of eliminations to his belt. Bret was always relied upon in the Rumble match to be a workhorse and continue feuds if appropriate.
4. RICK MARTEL
In watching the first 14 Rumbles in the past month, I was amazed at how awesome “The Model” was in the match. Every year we would have a standing rivalry with Tito Santana and he found unique ways to hang onto the ring ropes and post to stay in the match. Martel was lucky enough to draw a high number in all but one of his Rumble matches and was in the final five for three years straight in 1991, 1992, and 1993. 1991 was the only year he didn’t draw a high number, and is Martel’s crowning achievement in the match. Not only did he have Tito to fend off in this Rumble but also an angry Jake the Snake. Martel was able to eliminate Jake and go on a miraculous 50 minute run right to the finish of the match. The work Martel put into the Rumble was evident by the sweat pouring down his back at the end of this match. Martel is the most underrated Rumble participant in history.
3. RIC FLAIR
I would be remiss to not include Ric Flair as his 1992 performance is the single best Rumble performance of all time. If that was his only appearance in the match, he might have snuck into my top five, but Flair had some cool curtain calls to complement that glorious Rumble win in 1992. Flair lasted 19 minutes in 1993 on the eve of his departure from the company. The later run of Flair’s career saw his luck not change as he drew a #1-5 pick in the Rumble every year except one. His later years in the Rumble saw him enhancing feuds and creating nostalgia. That doesn’t take away one bit from the majestic nature when he won the WWF title with a tear in his eye.
2. SHAWN MICHAELS
Michaels spans a multitude of eras with his Rumble runs. 1989 saw him and Marty Jannetty team up in the Rumble and he had a respectable run there. 1990, he was used as a prop to set up Warrior vs. Hogan. 1992 was Michaels coming in and taking it to Flair and Kerry Von Erich in a moment you could tell Shawn loved. Shawn was either in the Rumble for a long time (2008, 2010) or used the Rumble to pump up his WrestleMania match (2003, 2006). Shawn has two victories to his credit and was part of the most memorable final two in Rumble history vs. The Undertaker in 2007. Shawn took the template provided by Hart and Martel and added in an extra dose of athleticism, Shawn personified the excitement of the Royal Rumble and felt like a contender every time out.
1. STEVE AUSTIN
It started so innocently. The Ringmaster had an 11 minute run in the 1996 Royal Rumble where he looked impressive but not a world beater. Fast forward one year later, and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin has an outstanding performance in the Rumble eliminating 10 men and being in the match for over 45 minutes. The next year seemed tailor made for Austin to win again and he didn’t disappoint. 1999 is without a doubt the worst in history, but Austin did finish second and again technically was in the match for 56 minutes. In 2001, he stopped the unstoppable Kane to win his unprecedented third Rumble match. 2002 saw another impressive performance with Steve finishing in the final four. Austin, much like Bret, didn’t have a ton of Rumble appearances, but he was by far the most efficient competitor ever in the Royal Rumble and to me the best worker to ever perform in the match.
The Royal Rumble is without a doubt my favorite gimmick of all time. The show has always been a staple in the WWE and something I hope they never change. There have been some amazing Royal Rumbles in the past and some that were not so hot. There were some that were completely predictable and others that had shocks and surprises that no one could see coming. Throughout the history of the event, there have been men who, like Undertaker and Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania, stepped up in a big way and put on some great performances. Here are the top five Royal Rumble performers.
5. RICK MARTEL
First showing up in 1989, Rick Martel was nothing more than a face in the Royal Rumble. Two years later he set a precedent and made a name for himself as one of the premiere Rumble performers of all time. Martel’s record setting time would be broken a year later, but his legacy would live on to this day as one of the first names to use the Royal Rumble as a catalyst for his career. The only problem is the WWF never really capitalized on the steam he built. 1991 was without a doubt his best showing and a staple in his great career.
4. JOHN CENA
A man who has won the Royal Rumble on two different occasion and almost a third, John Cena has taken the lead as one of the most dominant performers in the Rumble. When he is involved, he is a surefire lock to be one of the last men standing and when push comes to shove, he is without a doubt the right man for the position. His best Royal Rumble appearance was 2008 when he shocked the world by coming out at number 30 after returning from a torn pectoral muscle. Cena’s surprise was the talk of the wrestling world and him winning the Rumble made it that much better. Cena almost won the event in 2005 but fell short in overtime due to Vince McMahon and his double quad tear. Batista walked away that night but both men walked away with the titles at WrestleMania. Cena won the Rumble again in 2013 and even with the backlash of the fans he used it to the fullest to build to Cena vs. Rock II. Cena is the man right now in the world of wrestling and he will without a doubt find a way to win this event again and join the triple crown club.
3. SHAWN MICHAELS
Known for his WrestleMania amazingness, Shawn Michaels kicked off the stage for those great moments at the Royal Rumble. Making his debut in 1989, Michaels was just like Martel: another face in the crowd. Moving forward, Michaels would continue to be just a name until he broke away and started his singles career in 1992. A change was brewing and Michaels all but went the distance before 1995 when he was the first man to go from number 1 to win it all. 1995 is not known for its greatness, but HBK’s performance was spectacular and set the stage for him to have another great run the next year and win the event in back to back years. Michaels would return to the Rumble in 2003 and have a pretty successful run and even be one of the last men standing but never captured the prize again. Michaels was known for his resiliency and longevity in the event and you knew once he hit the ring, business was about to pick up. His record for most eliminations all-time may stand the test of unless number two on my list steps it up in a big way.
The only man on my list to not win the whole thing is none other than the “Big Red Monster,” Kane. Making his debut at the 1996 Rumble as the good Doctor Isaac Yankem and then returning in 1997 as “Big Daddy Fool,” Glen Jacobs found his calling with the Kane character and in 1999 he began his legendary run. Kane’s best performance came in 2001 with his complete dominance and record-setting 11 eliminations. Kane has always been an indelible character and one that has made his mark on the Royal Rumble. His sheer size and strength along with his imposing character has been one of the consistent positives in the Royal Rumble over the past 15 years. He has competed in more Rumbles than anyone and is closing in on HBK’s all time eliminations record. We’ll see if the “Big Red Monster,” fresh off his latest gimmick change will make another appearance in the Rumble.
1. STEVE AUSTIN
Number one in terms of Royal Rumble performers goes to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Making his debut in 1996, Stone Cold then went on an incredible run winning back-to-back Rumbles in 1997 and 1998 along with coming back in 2001 to win. Austin was a runner-up in 1999 before losing to Vince McMahon and a case could have been made that he would have owned three in a row. In 2002 he was right there at end with Triple H. Austin’s best Rumble performance could be any of his appearances, but I personally love 1997. Austin had the trifecta that year with the longest time in the match, most eliminations, and of course winning it all, by hook or by crook. This was also the big catalyst for him to go on to WrestleMania and have one of the greatest matches ever with Bret Hart. “Stone Cold” is one of the all-time greats and when he was in the Rumble you knew he had a chance to win and odds were more than likely that he would with a 50% win ratio.
5. RIC FLAIR
The first thing that comes to mind when I think “Royal Rumble” is the 1992 edition, where the “Nature Boy” entered at #3 and lasted until the very end, tossing out Sid Vicious to win the match and the WWF Championship. It’s true that he’s been in far fewer Royal Rumbles than many of the other contenders for this list, but this is a case of quality over quantity. Flair lasted an epic 59 minutes, flopping all over the ring and selling like crazy for nearly everyone on the roster.
Flair would again appear in the 1993 Royal Rumble, drawing #1 and lasting 18 minutes before getting tossed from the ring – and subsequently from the WWF. He would make a few largely forgettable Rumble appearances in the mid-2000s, but the legacy of his incredible 1992 victory remains.
Ric Flair doesn’t hold any records for most eliminations, longest time in the ring, or Rumble appearances, but this is irrelevant. He made the Royal Rumble match mean something for the very first time by winning the WWF title in the match, and in my opinion delivered the greatest single Royal Rumble performance in doing so.
The only wrestler who will make this list who has never actually won a Royal Rumble, Kane’s extensive body of work in Rumble matches is simply too impressive to ignore. He holds the record for the most Rumble appearances of all time with 14 (16 if you include his earlier appearances as Dr. Isaac Yankem, DDS and Fake Diesel). He set the record for the single most eliminations in the match, eliminating 11 competitors and lasting until the final two.
While he doesn’t hold the record for the most eliminations of all-time, he is second on the list with a whopping 38 total eliminations in his storied Rumble career. Every time that pyro explodes and the organs blare in the Rumble, the crowd pops big time, as they know the “Big Red Machine” is on the way to cause havoc and go on a tear through whoever is unlucky enough to be in the ring at the time.
3. HULK HOGAN
I struggled with this one, as the name “Hulk Hogan” often puts a bad taste in my mouth when I think of all the backstage politics. Many people think he simply should not have won the Royal Rumble in 1990 and that Mr. Perfect should have won, as was originally planned before Hogan pulled a power move at the last minute. But for this Five Count, I had to put personal feelings aside, and look at the reality of what did happen, and it’s impossible to ignore what Hulk Hogan has done in the Royal Rumble.
His winning the 1990 Rumble solidified it as a major event, after lackluster victories in prior years from “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and Big John Studd. And much like with Ric Flair, Hogan’s work in the Rumble is a case of quality over quantity.
Be it foes like Earthquake or Mr. Perfect, or “friends” like Macho Man, Ultimate Warrior, and Sid Vicious, Hogan has steamrolled over his competition in Rumble matches. He is both 3rd and fifth of all time for eliminations in a single match, with nine in 1989 and seven in 1991. He has eliminated a total of 27 competitors in just four Rumble appearances. If we extrapolate that to the number of Rumbles Kane has been in, Hogan would have 108 Eliminations! And of course, Hogan was the first to win back-to-back Royal Rumbles.
In the case of Hulk Hogan, it’s necessary to put politics aside and recognize one of the most dominant Royal Rumble performers in history.
2. SHAWN MICHAELS
The top two on this list were the easiest to decide on; it was the order that was difficult. Many will argue that Shawn Michaels is the greatest Royal Rumble performer of all time, and it’s difficult to argue with the numbers: HBK has appeared in 12 Royal Rumbles (second all time), has the all-time record for total eliminations (40), and is second only to Triple H for total time spent in Royal Rumble matches at 3 hours, 42 minutes. He won back-to-back Royal Rumbles in 1995 and 1996, the former of which saw him enter at #1 and last until the very end.
And while he didn’t win either event, the 2007 and 2008 Royal Rumbles including epic closing and opening segments with the Undertaker, the first of which was almost a full match in and of itself and a preview of their epic WrestleMania matches yet to come. These final appearances before his retirement are the icing on the cake of an incredible Rumble career.
It would be difficult to make a case for anyone other than HBK as the best Royal Rumble performer of all time, but alas, I’m about to do just that…
1. STEVE AUSTIN
Every time that grass blacks and Steve Austin saunters down to the ring in a Royal Rumble, the crowd knows they are in for a treat as Austin tears through competitors left and right with an intensity that no other can match. This has led him to win three Royal Rumbles, putting him first all-time on the list. But even this number doesn’t do his accomplishments justice.
While the 1999 Royal Rumble is one that we’d all sooner forget, the fact is that “Stone Cold” entered at #1 and was the second to last man left standing, losing in a fluke to Vince McMahon. He has been among the final six competitors a total of five times, putting him second on the all-time list. He also holds three of the top four all-time records for eliminations in a single match, with 10 (2rd), eight (3th) and seven (4th).
Dominance. Intensity. Impressive victories and eliminations. Add it all together, and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin is your – well at least mine – top Royal Rumble performer of all time.
And now, our overall Five Count…
5. RICK MARTEL
The original Royal Rumble iron man and staple of the early 90s, “The Model” put in superlative efforts, particularly in 1991, to hold the lengthy flow of the match together.
4. RIC FLAIR
He only won the Royal Rumble once, but he made it count, claiming not only the WWF title but victory in the greatest incarnation of the match. Going nearly buzzer to buzzer an delivering a killer celebratory post-win interview seals the deal.
“The Big Red Machine” made an indelible impression during the 2001 Royal Rumble, looking like a beast and providing eventual winner Steve Austin with a memorable monster to defeat in the end. He’s delivered a series of impressive performances since, becoming a Rumble staple whose entrance always guarantees a reaction.
2. SHAWN MICHAELS
One of the most gifted performers of all-time, “The Heartbreak Kid” has shined bright in the Royal Rumble across multiple eras with a variety of performances. Whether as a tag team specialist, a cocky young heel, an energetic main event babyface or a wilt veteran, Shawn Michaels made sure you wouldn’t take your eye off him and what he had in his bag of tricks during the Royal Rumble.
1. STEVE AUSTIN
Nobody has won three Royal Rumble matches – nobody but “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. From his star-making turn in 1997 to his dominance in 1998 and return to form in 2002, nobody dominates a Rumble like “the Rattlesnake.” We forgive him for 1999 because his intensity and energy made even the worst Rumble ever at least tolerable. He’s arguably the most popular WWF Superstar ever to strap on the boots, but he never coasted on that rep when it came to the Royal Rumble.