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The Royal Rumble has long been a favorite match for WWE fans. Not only so but the big January spectacle is also an important one for WWE itself. The company often puts the fullness of their marketing might behind the winner as he cruises toward WrestleMania. A hot Royal Rumble winner is typically the catalyst to a memorable WrestleMania (Austin’s win in 1998 is the textbook example). On the other hand, and disappointing Rumble finish can cause consternation and hand-wringing well into March (case in point: Bootista 2014).

It’s easy to be carried away by what should be the most fun hour of wrestling you’ll have all year. The surprise returns, the exciting faceoffs, the shocking eliminations, the memorable saves. It’s hard to screw up the Royal Rumble, but it’s been done. When done right, however, it’s everything you could want in an “event” match. A lot of wrestling fans find their enthusiasm taper as the year rolls on, but a good Royal Rumble is usually just the sort of pick-me-up fans need to get back in the swing of things, for a few months at least.

This year will be the thirty-first in the event’s long history. A lot has changed over those three decades, but when looking at the whole history of WWF/E in that timespan, it’s interesting to notice how the booking of the Rumble has coincided with the state of the company at the time. When the WWF/E is stable and/or thriving, Vince tends to go with an established superstar as the winner. When the company is transitioning to a new era and looking for a new face to carry the banner, the winner of the Rumble tends to be a blossoming superstar who is elevated (at least temporarily) by the win.

Let’s look back on the Rumble’s history and notice how predictable that pattern is:


Obviously the first five events (1988-1992) were unlike all the rest in that the winner was ultimately meaningless, with no WrestleMania title shot on the line. Nevertheless, don’t disregard those first several years (especially since they include the sublime 1992 iteration), because many of the tropes that make the Rumble so great today (big babyface showdowns, old feuds rekindled for one-night only, surprises of all kinds) were all there in that first generation of the match.

That said, when the company entered 1993 they did so being well and truly in the post-Hogan era. Sure the Hulkster was still around, but he was not the top banana he had been from 1984-1991. A new star was needed and the Royal Rumble became the match to help Vince find and/or make that new star.

In 1993 Yokozuna went from recently-debuted generic big man heel to unstoppable monster on his way to a WWF Championship run that would last from WrestleMania IX to WrestleMania X (not counting the cup of coffee Hogan had with the belt that spring). Still, his run with the title was always meant to be a transitional one, and sure enough he dropped the belt at WrestleMania X and never really sniffed the main-event again.

In 1994 Bret Hart (and Lex Luger but who cares) won the Royal Rumble and walked out of WrestleMania X as the top babyface. Sure he’d already been a champ in in 1992-93, but that run was more of a trial balloon than anything. WrestleMania X was his coronation, although it was short-lived, as Vince always seemed to be searching for someone else to replace him. By November, Bret was out as champ and Diesel was pushed to the top in his place.

Shawn Michaels won the 1995 Rumble, but he failed to solidify himself as a main-eventer that year. Nevertheless, Vince saw potential in him and insisted on sticking with him. Thus, in 1996, Michaeles won the Rumble again and this time captured the WWF Championship and remained the top superstar for the rest of the year.

But, as fans know, Michaels lost his smile and 1997 became the year no one wanted to be WWF Champion. Steve Austin won the Rumble though there was no intention for him to main-event Mania that year. A year later, however, Austin was the hottest thing in wrestling and his winning the Rumble kicked off “the Austin Era” and changed the way the Rumble was booked.


From 1999-2002 the Rumble was the place where short-term booking carried the day, not because it was the “crash TV” era, but because Vince had a product that was soaring and loaded with established, money-drawing stars, and didn’t need to worry about finding someone who could catch fire. So in 1999 he could do something as crazy as booking himself to win the Rumble because the Rumble was no longer about making the next superstar, it was about setting up the story for the next WrestleMania (and no more).

In 2000, with Austin injured, the Rock easily slid into his spot as the top babyface, and—-being well-established as a superstar—won the Rumble as the most logical choice. Austin returned later that year and again the spotlight was given to him—an established superstar—on his way to the biggest WrestleMania ever. A year later, in the twilight of the era, Triple H (another established star) was given his “me too” win.

After that, Rock and Austin began their transition out of wrestling, the company split into two brands and a new era kicked off, one where the future was far more uncertain. A new superstar was needed to carry the torch, and though Brock Lesnar was already an established main-eventer on Smackdown he was still a relatively new babyface (still in his first year on the roster). His Rumble win was supposed to be a coronation, but instead, a year later, he informed Vince he was leaving the company.

2004 suddenly became about elevating someone, and Chris Benoit was given the long-denied torch to carry. It didn’t last of course, and in 2005 Vince was again looking for the next top babyface. He found a solid pick in Batista, who won the Rumble that year. Less than a year later, however, it was clear the 05 runner up—John Cena—was the real money-maker, so the 2006 Rumble was all about elevating someone to carry the Smackdown brand. Rey Mysterio was a smart choice, though it was the least-important Rumble win in years. Why? Because WWE was now Cena’s playground, which meant the Rumble would return to being booked around an established star and his supporting cast.

Undertaker won it in 2007, giving Smackdown a feather in its cap while Cena held things down on Raw. In 2008 Cena got his own win, returning from injury to reestablish himself at the center of the spotlight.

As it was when Austin ruled the roost, the WWE under Cena stabilized and strengthened their roster to have a number of established stars who could win the Rumble and carry a storyline for a few months or so. Randy Orton did that on Raw in 2009 and Edge did it on Smackdown in 2010.

But by 2011 the WWE was in the middle of Cena fatigue and new blood was needed to keep fans invested in the product. Alberto Del Rio, a relatively new signee, won the 2011 Rumble and Sheamus won the 2012 event. With both it was hoped that Smackdown could find a top superstar to carry the brand. Neither superstar main-evented WrestleMania in those years (in fact they both had the opening match). It was an odd time where WWE knew they needed to push new talent but couldn’t get past thinking of Smackdown as the B-show and didn’t want to push Cena aside on Raw.

In hindsight, 2012 was the beginning of the end for Cena’s reign at the top of WWE. He main-evented with the Rock, lost, won the 2013 Rumble in order to rematch with the Rock and win in what is, to date, his final WrestleMania main-event or title match. The end of the Cena era coincided with the launch of the WWE Network. A replacement for Cena was needed in the long term and subscriptions were needed in the short term. Batista won in 2014 (over Daniel Bryan) as Vince was thinking about the “biggest” WrestleMania possible for the debut of the Network.

Rock Reigns

A year later, however, the focus was on finding the next long-term face of the company. Roman Reigns got the nod despite rejection by the fans. Triple H may have won it in 2016 but his win was all about feeding the booking of Reigns as the top babyface. Randy Orton’s win in 2017 was a surprise at first, until you consider that the main-event was always going to be Roman Reigns vs Undertaker in a non-title match.

Maybe that’s why the past few Rumbles have felt so ho-hum. We’re used to there being a buffer era in between the eras of a dominate superstar. The post-Hogan years featured several Rumbles where Vince was trying a lot of new top guys before settling on Austin. The post-Austin years were the same way before Cena was established.

The Cena years brought a decade of stability to WWE and it’s been followed-up almost immediately by the now-Roman Reigns era of stability. Fans were probably expecting a little more uncertainty for a few years; uncertainty means surprises after all, but that’s not good for a company’s bottom line.

Like it or not, this is the Roman Reigns era and you can be sure, whoever wins the Royal Rumble this year, nothing will change that.

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