Out of the first four Royal Rumble matches, the winner would go on to have a Heavyweight title match at that spring’s WrestleMania twice. It wasn’t Hacksaw Jim Duggan in the first one in 1988 (though he did participate in the tournament, losing to Ted DiBiase in a first round match), and it sure wasn’t Big John Studd in 1989 (who was the referee in that year’s Andre The Giant/Jake Roberts match). That honor went to the guy who won the 1990 and 1991 ones back-to-back, Hulk Hogan.
At 1990’s event, Hogan would pick up a win at the event as part of the ramp up to the soon to be announced Title For Title match against the Intercontinental Champion, The Ultimate Warrior. The Warrior would defeat The Hulkster at WrestleMania, but would drop it at the Royal Rumble in 1991 to Sgt. Slaughter. So in the grand tradition of the WWF “sending the fans home happy,” Hogan went over in the main event, the Rumble, and would go on to challenge Slaughter at WrestleMania.
1992 however would see the very first time the Rumble itself would be officially linked to WrestleMania’s title match picture. With the controversial finishes to title matches between Hogan and The Undertaker at Survivor Series and This Tuesday In Texas during the final months of 1991, the title would be held up and the winner of the Rumble itself would be declared the new undisputed WWF Heavyweight Champion. When all was said and done in maybe the greatest Rumble of them all, Ric Flair came out on top that afternoon and would go on to face the number one contender, Randy Savage at WrestleMania VIII.
And so 1993 would launch the beginning of the tradition of the Rumble winner itself being declared the No. 1 contender for the title, and given a title match at the upcoming WrestleMania. This has been used in various different ways as a story telling device; ascension, redemption, battling back from injuries, over-coming incredible odds, a road block for the true contender to eventually overcome and more. To sum it up, all of the 22 different winners of the Royal Rumble have had quite an interesting journey, both leading up to, and following their (and in some cases they never did make it to ‘Mania or the Main Event) championship title shot. And so we are going to take a look at those journeys.
The first Rumble winner with a title shot was the massive Samo…I mean Japanese monster, Yokozuna. The big man would go on to defeat Bret Hart at WrestleMania IX, but lost the title minutes later to Hulk Hogan. He then proceeded to win the title back from Hogan at June’s King of The Ring.
It is kind of hard to properly discuss Yokozuna’s ascension, even as a prototype for others. Clearly he was set up as the monster heel to be eventually vanquished by a baby face, and what better way than with Hogan. But with Hogan all but out the door and Hart mired in a feud with Jerry Lawler, the WWF decided to turn Lex Luger babyface and be Hulk Hogan, Jr. This did not go well at all, which led nicely for the booking of the 1994 Royal Rumble.
1994 Bret Hart and Lex Luger
The 1994 Rumble would be the only time the Royal Rumble ended in a flat-footed tie. The Luger as the All-American American (sorry Jack Swagger!) push was fading a bit, but the WWF was still trying to see if it still had some legs left. Hart meanwhile, was clearly becoming the fan favorite and someone who the company should build around. So after seeing the reactions, the booking for WrestleMania was simple; give both shots at Yokozuna, have Luger lose early in the show, but have Hart win in the main event. And so Hart finally got to have a “WrestleMania Moment” at the end of the night of WrestleMania X at Madison Square Garden.
“The Hitman” would take full advantage of his reign as one of the first leaders of the “New Generation” as the Hogan/Federation years stars were fading away. Of course ironically, Hart would drop the title to a guy whom had left the Federation soon after the start of Hogan’s first title reign, Bob Backlund. But be that as it may, Hart did have a solid run as champion, going from ‘Mania to Survivor Series and is a good example of how to do a “Rumble winner becomes champion” push.
1995 Shawn Michaels
The following year Shawn Michaels came out on top. A heel at the time and with his former bodyguard, now babyface, Diesel as a dominating big man champion, things did not look good for “The Heartbreak Kid” to be the first heel walking out of WrestleMania as the champion! And it would bear out that Michaels did in fact take the loss in the match at Mania XI.
Michaels was gaining momentum as a crowd-pleaser though and would make a face turn during the spring, even reforming his friendship and tag-team with Diesel in the Fall. The driving force of Michaels being a hot babyface would put him in position to be the second two-time Rumble winner in 1996.
1996 Shawn Michaels
The first time the WWF would have a PPV in between the Rumble and WrestleMania was in 1996. The collision course Michaels was on with the champion – and also babyface at the time – Bret Hart was all but academic by the time Michaels’ hand was raised as the Rumble winner. Hart retained the title at the end of the night and there was still business to be taken care of. Hart kept his belt at the In Your House #6 show on February 18th, while Michaels retained his No. 1 Contender spot against Bret’s brother, Owen Hart.
Michaels and Hart would put on a 60-minute Iron Man Match at WrestleMania XII, with Michaels coming out on top during an overtime period. Unfortunately, despite the competition ranging from Mankind, Vader, British Bulldog and Diesel, Michaels reign through Survivor Series is generally regarded as one of the worst drawing reigns in WWF’s history. That being said, this, like the Hart one before, is pretty textbook in terms of using the Rumble title shot and “WrestleMania Moment” to help propel a Superstar into the stratosphere of the all-time great champions in the business.
1997 Stone Cold Steve Austin
1997 would represent the first time since the first Rumble on PPV in 1989, that neither the man who won the Royal Rumble nor the man whom walked out of the PPV as the champion (Savage was in the Royal Rumble, but didn’t win) would factor into the WWF title match at WrestleMania. The long and winding road that went from Austin vs. Michaels and wound up being The Undertaker challenging Sid for the title was quite an interesting one. And it would lead into the iconic “double turn” match between Austin and Hart. Michaels dropped the belt due to injury after regaining it at the Rumble and things were thrown into flux. Hart won the title in a Fatal-Four Way elimination match set up due to the controversial win Austin had at the Rumble but then lost to Sid the next night on Raw. (most likely Hart would have won Austin’s shot at the February PPV, and was to regain the title at ‘Mania, a booking plan Michaels did not want to go along with) As a result, the title picture storyline had to be re-plotted.
1998 Stone Cold Steve Austin
This time the stars aligned and once again, the champion heading out of the Royal Rumble and the Rumble winner would match up at WrestleMania. Though things did look bleak as this time Michaels was legitimately in bad physical shape thanks to taking a sick back bump off of a casket during a defense against The Undertaker at Royal Rumble. Things were so bad that the WrestleMania match was Michaels’ first since the Rumble bout and it would be his last for over four years (though dealing with personal demons factored into that as well).
Austin had turned babyface during the previous WrestleMania and was rapidly becoming one of the most over characters in the history of the business. So much so that his victory at WrestleMania over Michaels is often cited as the moment that the “Attitude Era” officially began. Over the course of the rest of his in-ring career, Austin certainly proved that he could run with the ball and take the industry to new heights.
1999 Vince McMahon
While 1997 turned out to be a complete train wreck, the fact that the 1999 Rumble winner was not involved in the title match was a pretty decent form of storytelling. All signs were pointing to Austin three-peating as Rumble winner and going to WrestleMania XV to face the Corporation’s hand-picked champion, The Rock. And while The Rock did his part – defeating Mankind for the title that night – then managing to still have it when WrestleMania came around, clearly Vince McMahon was not going to challenge him in a wrestling match at the granddaddy of them all! So the spot was put on the line in a cage match with Austin and while the finish was due to a mistake on Vince’s hired goon, The Big Show’s part, things did align nicely with Austin back in the driver’s seat to challenge the champion at the biggest show of the year.
2000 The Rock
Once again the WWF treated its fans with a long and strange trip to get to the WrestleMania main event title match. While the champion remained Triple H from the 2000 Rumble through WrestleMania, this time twists and turns involved not only the Rumble winner, but other participants in the eventual main event. Due to The Rock touching the ground momentarily before The Big Show did, they would have a match at No Way Out with the title shot on the line. The Big Show would emerge victorious and it seemed he would be the one challenging Triple H at WrestleMania. But eventually The Rock and even recently retired Mick Foley as Cactus Jack, would be added to the Main Event as a Four-Way Elimination Match.
Triple H would retain the title at WrestleMania 2000, pinning The Rock, but “The Great One” would get the win at Backlash the following month. This would be the second time that the Rumble Title Shot winner would lose the actual title match and it would also be the first time the heel walked out of ‘Mania with the title. Be that as it may, the storytelling of The Rock’s road was solid, if not par for the course, with how things were being booked at the time (the title getting hot potatoed like crazy, swerves coming out of nowhere, overbooked finishes to title matches, etc.). It helped strengthen The Rock as a major face of the company.
2001 Stone Cold Steve Austin
In 2001, it was back to basics, kind of! All signs were pointing to The Rock and Austin headlining WrestleMania X-7 in Houston. To get there, Austin had to win the Royal Rumble and The Rock was one of the final three participants left; Austin would eliminate Kane for the win, after Kane had eliminated The Rock, and Kurt Angle successfully retained the WWF title over Triple H earlier that night. This time though, the title holder would get changed heading into WrestleMania as The Rock defeated Angle for the title at No Way Out. Interestingly, Austin lost his 2 out of 3 Falls Match with Triple H at No Way Out, but the title shot was not on the line, so it was all systems go for Rock-Austin at WrestleMania.
And once again The Texas Rattlesnake walked into Mania looking for the title and left with it. This time though, he would turn heel during the match and start both a lengthy reign as a heel. The heel turn is considered an abject failure though, and Austin himself has admitted that it was one of the biggest mistakes of his career. His reign would be salvaged with his turn as leader of The Invasion during the summer. Sure it may not have been the best decision the bookers ever made, but at the end of the day, it still was one of the more effective uses of a title reign out of the Rumble winner.
2002 Triple H
It was another year of keeping it simple, though again with a bit of a twist. Triple H wins the rumble, Chris Jericho retains the Undisputed title over The Rock, and retained over Austin at No Way Out. Again though, the title shot holder would lose his February PPV match with Triple H losing to Angle. However, unlike the year before, the shot was a stipulation in the match. On television afterwards, Triple H regained his title shot and we were right back on track for Triple H and Jericho at WrestleMania XVIII. But in terms of being another classic run by the Rumble title shot winner? That is a different story entirely.
To say the match was lukewarm is an understatement. It’s funny considering how hot the Toronto crowd was for the previous match, The Rock versus the returning Hulk Hogan. Not to mention how tepid Triple H’s face run had been, despite a mega face push since returning from a quadriceps injury in the Spring of 2001. Never mind that his title reign would be cut short in an effort to quickly cash in on the Hogan nostalgia at May’s Backlash. The Game was quickly turned back to a heel character as well and would remain a heel until re-forming D-X with Shawn Michaels in 2006.
2003 Brock Lesnar
2003 kicks off a new era for the Royal Rumble Title Shot winner with the brand new World Championship being introduced as the title belt held by the Main Event stars on Raw. Smackdown featured the WWE Heavyweight title. This would mean that if the winner was from one of the shows, that would be the title he would target. Brock Lesnar was on Smackdown and so Kurt Angle, who defeated Chris Benoit that night, would be the target.
This would be another big moment in Lesnar’s already amazing first run with the company. Already a former champion and winner of 2002 King of The Ring tournament (which also had a title shot stipulation riding on it), winning the Rumble and performing in the main event at WrestleMania would be yet another accomplishment on an already bulging resume. Despite a botched moonsault, his victory over Kurt Angle was a classic match. Unfortunately, the botch did kill a chance for the “WrestleMania Moment,” not that it’s a necessary thing, but it does make for a great accomplishment to pull out for montages and countdowns. Lesnar and Angle would go on to trade the title a couple of times during the rest of 2003, but Lesnar’s time with the company would be nearing the end. He’d drop the title to Eddie Guerrero in February of 2004 before making his last appearance in the company for eight years at WrestleMania XX. Despite Lesnar being gone a little over a year later, his Rumble Title shot win and subsequent WrestleMania victory, still holds up as a great example of doing the storyline the right way.
2004 Chris Benoit
2004 would present a change for the title shot holder. Chris Benoit would win the Royal Rumble and set his sights on Raw’s World Heavyweight Champion, Triple H. In addition, Shawn Michaels was also gunning for the same goal and tried to nudge himself into the match.
The match at WrestleMania XX would be made into a Triple Threat Match and Benoit would cause Triple H to tap out to win the strap. So despite the twist, the Benoit story led to championship gold. Unfortunately, Benoit’s reign would be mired in the mid-card while Triple H was still in the main event storylines and the reign would come to an abrupt end at SummerSlam against Randy Orton. Orton would drop it back to Triple H the next month. While the events of late June 2007 would forever tarnish everything about Benoit’s Rumble and WrestleMania wins, having a title reign of a belt that wasn’t given the elevation that it had while under its previous holder, did take some of the original luster off of it.
For the second year in a row, the World Title would be the focus of the Rumble winner. This time the story was born from an organic break of Evolution’s Batista from his mentors Triple H, the World Champion, and “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair.
Almost as if the bookers had learned their lesson from the Benoit missed opportunity, Batista’s road to WrestleMania was a smooth one and treated him as a potential main event player. Batista would ride it to a 282 day reign with the belt – the longest in the belt’s history. Despite numerous injuries and leaving the promotion from the summer of 2010 through this month (January of 2014), Batista still remains a fan favorite and perennial title contender.
2006 Rey Mysterio
Mysterio’s run as Rumble title shot winner and then winning the belt at ‘Mania 22 gets hampered a little the convoluted road and overuse of the manipulative storyline of Mysterio winning in memory of Eddie Guerrero. The latter is fine in small doses, especially in the context of what is ostensibly serialized fiction. Obviously the heel will take full advantage of the situation (where in non-predetermined competition, it is highly inappropriate to even suggest a team or person is going overboard with how they present their “winning for (insert friend or teammate)” way of going about things) and one can find the whole storyline to be a bit over-the-top and disrespectful to the real tragedy of the person’s passing.
But, be that as it may, Mysterio winning the shot, then losing it to Randy Orton at No Way Out, which was followed by both men being inserted into a Triple Threat Match for Kurt Angle’s World Title (the World Title had moved to Smackdown the previous year as part of a trade that sent John Cena and the WWE Title to Raw, and Batista and the World Title to Smackdown) at WrestleMania seems a bit much in dragging out an eventuality. Also it is the first time since Shawn Michaels challenged Diesel in 1995 that the Rumble winner was not put in the main event. The title match was short, going just a little over nine minutes, and the WWE Title was given more prominence with it being the main event match of Cena defending against Triple H. Those factor into the idea that despite the storyline elevating Mysterio to the main event scene (one that he remains in, when healthy, to this day), it was mostly done to give the viewers an emotionally manipulative storyline than doing a simple story revolving around a shot at the title.
It is back to a basic, straight road for 2007 as The Deadman would choose long-time World Champion Batista as the gold he wanted at WrestleMania. The fun twist was not only the Big Gold Belt being on the line, but this was around the start of when the WWE talked up the Undertaker’s undefeated WrestleMania streak.
Incredibly, it was also Undertaker’s first reign of any sort of heavyweight champion since 2002! Oddly enough, it would be the second straight year that the Rumble shot match would not be the ultimate main event of the show as this yielded to John Cena’s defense against Shawn Michaels. ‘Taker would have a short run though with his feud with Edge being the main focus of his reign. So it is hard to quantify his run as a Rumble winner turned champion but he would remain a fixture in the World Belt picture for the rest of his full-time career.
2008 John Cena
And now we are back with the long and winding road of convoluted storytelling. Also we are back to having the WWE Title as the focus of the Rumble winner’s attention for the first time since Brock Lesnar in 2003. For whatever reason the WWE decided that at No Way Out, that would be the time for Cena to cash in on his Rumble win, instead of at WrestleMania XXIV. The champion Randy Orton retained while Triple H won a title shot in an Elimination Chamber match that same night.
The WrestleMania match would then become a Triple Threat Match with Orton defending against both Cena and Triple H. Orton retained, marking the first time that the Rumble Winner would lose the title match since The Rock in 2000. And even more strangely, the match wasn’t the main event at WrestleMania either. Instead, the World Title match between Undertaker and Edge took those honors. In all, it does seem like a bit of a waste of the classic Rumble Title Shot stipulation.
2009 Randy Orton
2009 would see a return to the title being used as a prop for a bigger angle. This time it would be Randy Orton’s quest to take down Triple H and it would begin after the Rumble with Orton attacking the McMahons, acknowledging the real life relationship with them and Triple H (Stephanie and Triple H’s onscreen characters had divorced back in 2002).
By March, Triple H had regained the WWE title and so the title match was set with Triple H vanquishing Orton at XXV. But, just like in 2000 with The Rock, Orton would win the title at Backlash the next month and would hold the title, save for dropping it for about a week to Batista in June, until his series of PPV matches with John Cena in the fall. Incidentally, we would see the belt get traded at three straight PPVs until Cena won the Iron Man Match at Bragging Rights in late October. In fairness, Orton’s 2009 run as a sadistic but bully-ish heel was a good one, but it is hard to call it a successful Rumble Title Shot when he lost the match at Mania.
2010 returned to the trend of the World title being the title the Rumble winner would shoot for. Edge would wait until after the 2010 Elimination Chamber match that crowned Chris Jericho as World Heavyweight Champion in February.
Jericho would defeat Edge at WrestleMania XXVI but not long after, Jericho dropped the belt due to a Jack Swagger cashing in his Money In The Bank contract. At the following month’s PPV, now called Extreme Rules, Edge would end the feud with a win. Later in the month, Edge was drafted to Raw and would be put into contention for the WWE title. He would be part of the Main Event storylines for the rest of his time on Raw before being sent back to Smackdown late in the year.
2011 Alberto Del Rio
Once again, Edge would be involved in the Rumble shot winner’s match for the second year in a row. This time though, he was the champion that the Rumble winner, the relative newcomer, Alberto Del Rio, who made his intentions known after the Rumble. The Ultimate Opportunist would have an interesting road filled with shenanigans from Smackdown GM Vicki Guerrero who stripped him of the title and handed it to new charge and boyfriend, Dolph Ziggler.
Unfortunately, the WrestleMania XXVII opener would be Edge’s final match as residual effects from neck injuries would force The Rated R Superstar into early retirement. This meant that the booking would still be Edge retaining the title and then he would walk away, surrendering the belt. The loss, coupled with the fact that the match was the curtain jerker of the evening, leaves an underwhelming feeling about Del Rio. He would remain in the hunt for the World Title and has settled into a role of a perennial contender with a couple of reigns under his belt since. This would also include a brief stay in the WWE Title picture after winning the Money in the Bank briefcase for the Raw title and cashing in on CM Punk at SummerSlam 2011. He would go on to be the opponent Punk would defeat at Survivor Series 2011 to start his 434 day reign as WWE Heavyweight Champion. All that being said, Del Rio’s push here as Rumble title shot Winner was a failed one.
2012 seemed to be a return to building a strong young babyface who would be champion (Del Rio the year before was booked as a heel). Sheamus got the job done at the Rumble and after Daniel Bryan survived his Elimination Chamber match at the February PPV with his World Title reign intact, Sheamus made his intentions known that he was gunning for Bryan’s belt.
The match for the second year in a row was the curtain jerker for the PPV, but fans in Miami barely had a chance to sit as Sheamus had dispatched Bryan with a well-timed Brogue Kick 18 seconds into the match! Sheamus went on to have an over 200 day reign with the belt and while he’d have good matches with Bryan and Del Rio during the summer, things just didn’t click with him. It is no fault of The Celtic Warrior, but if this was a ranking, this would be in the middle of the pack. Whether it was the place on the card, the quickness of the match or combined with a tepid reaction to his reign, CM Punk was mowing the past modern era title reign records with his WWE Title reign. At the same time, John Cena was moving towards another unannounced rematch with The Rock. It might actually be fair to speculate that Sheamus’ failure to get massively over may have played a hand in the eventual demise of the World Title.
2013 John Cena
Cena’s road to avenge his loss to The Rock at WrestleMania XXVIII began in January 2013. The Rock ended CM Punk’s modern (starting with Andre The Giant’s few seconds reign on February 5th, 1988) record of 434 consecutive days holding the WWE Title at the Royal Rumble. Earlier that night, Cena won his second Rumble and the next night on Raw, declared that he would go after the WWE title. This all but guaranteed that The Rock would defeat Punk in the rematch at the Elimination Chamber PPV in February.
So, Rock vs. Cena II happened with the WWE Title at stake. Cena got the upper hand in what was a planned trilogy. The Rock however, suffered some major injuries during the match so future appearances on WWE TV as an active, even if it’s only part-time, wrestler for Dwayne Johnson have been put on indefinite hold. Still, that did not deter Cena’s most recent reign with the WWE Title being an impressive one that ended at SummerSlam at the hands of Daniel Bryan. While the booking was done as straight forward as possible, this clearly wasn’t the star creating angle for the Rumble winner angle in the same light as Del Rio and Sheamus. It still was a pretty decent “back to basics” angle featuring your typical challenger versus Champion feud to lead us into a decently lengthened run as Champion.
And finally, some statistical facts and figures of Royal Rumble to WrestleMania storylines since 1993;
Eight times the Rumble winner’s title shot match was not the main event of WrestleMania. Placement on the card and what the actual Main Event was:
1994 Lex Luger versus Yokozuna
Six on a nine PPV match card
Bret Hart versus Yokozuna
1995 Shawn Michaels versus Diesel
Second to last on a seven match card
Lawrence Taylor vs Bam Bam Bigelow
2006 Rey Mysterio versus Randy Orton versus Kurt Angle (C)
Ninth on an eleven PPV match card
Triple H versus John Cena for the WWE Title
2007 Undertaker versus Batista
Fourth on an eight PPV match card
Shawn Michaels versus John Cena for the WWE Title
2008 John Cena versus Triple H versus Randy Orton
Seventh on a nine PPV match card
Undertaker versus Edge for the World Title
2010 Edge versus Chris Jericho
Seventh on a ten PPV match card
Undertaker versus Shawn Michaels
2011 Alberto Del Rio versus Edge
First on an Eight PPV match card
John Cena versus The Miz for the WWE Title
2012 Sheamus versus Daniel Bryan
First on an eight PPV match card
The Rock versus John Cena
Seven times the title that the Rumble winner would square off for changed hands between the Rumble event itself (includes title changes on the show) and the match at WrestleMania:
1997 – No actual match featuring the Rumble winner and the champion after the Rumble, but Shawn Michaels wins the WWF title at the Royal Rumble and forfeits it on February 13th. Bret Hart wins the Final Four elimination match, which included Rumble winner Steve Austin, for the title on February 16th and loses to Sid on Raw the next night. Sid wrestles new No. 1 contender Undertaker at WrestleMania.
1999 – The Rock defeats Mankind at the Rumble PPV, loses it back to Mankind at the Halftime Heat special that aired on January 31st, then wins it back on an episode of Raw on February 15th to hold through WrestleMania.
2001 Kurt Angle stays champion through the Rumble, but drops it to The Rock at No Way Out PPV on February 25th, who went on to face Austin at WrestleMania.
2009 Edge defeated Jeff Hardy for the WWE Title at the Royal Rumble PPV, the title would then change hands at the No Way Out PPV on February 15th, as Triple H won the Elimination Chamber match with the title on the line. Triple H then persuaded Rumble winner Randy Orton to face him at WrestleMania.
2010 The Undertaker would lose the Elimination Chamber match in which his World Title was on the line at the Elimination Chamber PPV on February 21st. Chris Jericho came out the victor, and would be Rumble winner Edge’s target for the WrestleMania match.
2011 Edge gets stripped of the World Title on the February 18th episode of Smackdown, due to a controversial finish from the previous week. The title was handed to Dolph Ziggler, and Edge was given a match with Ziggler that night, and Edge would win back his title and hold it through WrestleMania.
2013 The Rock defeated CM Punk for the WWE Title at the Rumble PPV, and would retain it through WrestleMania.
And finally, seven times the Rumble Title Shot winner ended up losing the WrestleMania match, and how long it would take for them to hold the title they were wrestling for:
1994 Lex Luger, never won a single title in the WWF.
1995 Shawn Michaels, nearly a year later when he cashed in his Rumble win at WrestleMania XXII
2000 The Rock, less than 30 days at the next PPV, Backlash
2008 John Cena, ends up in the World Title picture by the end of the year, wins the WWE title again on September 13th of 2009 at the Breaking Point PPV.
2009 Randy Orton, a little over 20 days later at the next PPV, Backlash
2010 Edge, not until December 19th at Tables, Ladders and Chairs, though he was in the WWE Title picture for a while during the year.
2011 Alberto Del Rio, would spend most of 2011 in the WWE Title picture, and wouldn’t have the World Title until Janurary 8th, 2013.