The Royal Rumble is my favorite wrestling show all year. WWE may boast Wrestlemania as the biggest and best, and New Japan may have their pinnacle in Wrestle Kingdom, but for me there’s nothing that beats the special feeling I have about the Royal Rumble. A big part of The Royal Rumble’s success is how unique the Rumble match itself is, with surprises and history being guaranteed every January. Due to the popularity of the Royal Rumble’s namesake match, many iconic matches have been brought to fold in the undercard of the show. The Rumble match sells the show on its own, so it can be easy to forget so many classics that have come just before the 30 man battle royal over the last three decades. With that in mind, I’ve assembled my Top 10 favorite matches to take place at the New Year staple over the years that aren’t the Rumble itself. All of these hold a special place in my heart for one reason or another, but I also feel these are all essential viewing for any wrestling fan.
#10 Triple H VS Shawn Michaels for the World Heavyweight Championship: Last Man Standing
The rivalry of Triple H and HBK led to a lot of drama-filled and sometimes over-bloated matches before the two inevitably reunited as Degeneration-X. The best match of that series was their first at Summer Slam 2002 and worst (bloated) at Bad blood 2004. An often overlooked gem, though, was this match from the 2004 Royal Rumble. If you want an example of great but simple story-telling in a match, this is a great case-study. As the photo suggests, this match gets very bloody in WWE’s pre-PG ERA (as do a few matches on this list) but don’t let that deter you from the story of two torn brothers trying to truly best the other. Keep it simple, stupid, as they say.
#9 Daniel Bryan VS Bray Wyatt
The waste of opportunity at the 2014 Royal Rumble lead to major shifts in the WWE that are still felt today. No one was more over with the crowd than Daniel Bryan at this time. Following the epic conflict inside a steel cage a couple weeks prior, this show-opening match between the bearded one and …another bearded one had the big fight feel that dwarfed the rest of the card. The WWE universe was so invested in Daniel Bryan here that his absence from that night’s Rumble match seems mind-boggling. It’s also possibly Bray Wyatt’s best showing. Just listen to the crowd during this match. Everything that happens means something and the audience is on the edge of their seat the entire time. Sometimes matches just “click” and this is a prime example of everything just working.
#8 Brock Lesnar VS John Cena VS Seth Rollins for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
Speaking of matches that just work, this match was a beacon on a very dark day in recent WWE history. The infamous 2015 Royal Rumble left a bad taste in people’s mouth that many see as impossible to remove. The chorus of boos raining on The Rock as he raises Roman Reigns’ hand in victory is a sight to be seen. The hate on Roman was unreal and is still reverberating today, leading to many calling this the worst Rumble ever. A shameful label for a show that has one of the best triple threat matches WWE has ever produced. Everyone plays their part to perfection here. This truly was Seth Rollins’ coming out party as a main-eventer, shining brightly in a match that couldn’t have gone any better. It’s also Brock’s best performance since his return in 2012.
#7 John Cena VS Umaga for The WWE Championship: Last Man Standing
If your impression of John Cena is that of a cartoon character, this match at the 2007 Royal Rumble is the one that shows why he might deserve the status he gets. This match really puts over Umaga as a monster, but more so that Cena would do whatever it takes to win and truly never quits. It’s crazy to contrast some of the decisions John makes in this match with the PG version we’ve gotten most of his career. This match is violent! I warn you, if the photo wasn’t clue enough, this match gets uncomfortable at times, specifically at its conclusion. Finding it difficult to watch a John Cena match because of violence is not common place, almost as rare as this crowd which is fully behind the champ.
#6 The Dudley Boyz VS The Hardy Boyz Tag Team Tables Match
The first ever tag team tables match was also the first match with the table concept as part of how to win. Mere months before the infamous triangle ladder match at Wrestlemania 2000, this Rumble clash on the first ppv of the new millennium really set the tone for what would come for the two teams and later Edge & Christian. The Dudleys are so violent; some of the chair shots are cringeworthy, but it never takes away from the spectacle. A hot New York crowd eats up every moment, and the ending is so picturesque that it’s only reason for being less iconic is due to later efforts from the men involved.
#5 CM Punk VS The Rock for the WWE Championship
On the day of the 2013 Royal Rumble, CM Punk was entering his 434th day in a row as the WWE Champion. After going coast to coast in 2012 as the top dog, the straight edge superstar was defending against the great one. Just before this match John Cena has won his 2nd Rumble, so the writing was already on the wall, but I still held hope that Punk’s Title reign would endure. This match probably didn’t meet the expectations of most, but as an avid CM Punk fan I feel biased toward this one. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, rooting for the Paul Heyman Guy. This match will always resonate with me for how invested I was in the outcome.
#4 AJ Styles VS John Cena for the WWE Championship
The 2017 Royal Rumble was a huge event, emanating from the Alamo Dome in San Antonio, Texas. I was privileged enough to attend this event live and witness a true classic. The 3rd 1-on-1 Match between the phenomenal one and the Face That Runs The Place would be for the WWE’s richest prize. Unlike many, I was underwhelmed by their Summerlam contest months prior and I felt their SS match was too predictable and spot heavy. It didn’t feel organic, I guess. For whatever reason, that match rubbed me the wrong way but their rematch at the Rumble felt like pure magic. It honestly felt too big to even be appreciated at the time. Critics at the time seemed obsessed with contrasting it to the recent NJPW contest of Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada. Though Cena and AJ might not have hit the proverbial “6 Star level”, getting to arguably 5 stars is nothing to scoff at.
#3 Kurt Angle VS Chris Benoit for the WWE Championship
The horrible and tragic true life events surrounding Chris Benoit have led to his removal from WWE’s history books, but they can’t make me forget the three years in a row he stole the show at the Rumble. He’d go on to win the 2004 Royal Rumble match after entering first, but the previous year he’d have an absolute classic with Kurt Angle. The Olympic Gold medalist and the Crippler were not strangers, having wrestled on ppv several times and always stealing the show. Their match at the 2003 Royal Rumble is the only one however, for the WWE Championship, so it will always stand out. A true classic, this match has everything a die-hard wrestling fan could want. When the dust settles, the loser (no spoilers, go watch it) gets a standing ovation. Can’t get much better than that.
#2 Chris Jericho VS Chris Benoit for the Intercontinental Championship Ladder Match
As with the #3 match, this 2001 Royal Rumble classic has been forgotten due to the real life circumstances surrounding Chris Benoit. For my money, it’s my favorite ladder match ever. I’ve watched this match countless times and I never get bored or disinterested. There is a suicide dive into a chair spot that you’ll want to replay over and over because of the perfect timing. Similar to Bret and Owen’s cage match, Jericho and Benoit put on a wrestling clinic that just happens to be a gimmick match. No spotfest here, or at least it never feels that way. This match is an absolute must see.
#1 Triple H VS Cactus Jack for the WWE Championship Street Fight
This is not only the best Royal Rumble match, it’s also one of the greatest WWE Title matches in history. The story, the drama, the violence, this match had everything to blow my 12 year old mind. While I have found so many favorites watching wrestling over the years, you never forget your first and this is mine. This was the match I’d show people to get them into wrestling but be warned, it is extremely graphic. I recommend taking a good hard look at Triple H’s face and expression when he enters the ring and compare it to how he looks when all is said and done. This match made Triple H into the man he is now. The rest is history.