As we head into a new year, that means it’s time for a new WWE mixtape, and Volume 2 gets us ready for the Royal Rumble. The Rumble is the first stop on WWE’s road to WrestleMania, the biggest event of the year. Since 1993, the Royal Rumble has been used to set up the main event of WrestleMania, with the winner of the multi-person Royal Rumble match earning a championship bout at ’Mania. But often, the Rumble will host a championship match that can either steal the show or alter a potential WrestleMania main event. That match is just as important as the Rumble match—sometimes more—paving the way for what’s likely the headliner of that year’s WrestleMania.
This year, the championship match booked for the Rumble is no different; all eyes are on whether Roman Reigns can fight his way out of a Fatal 4-Way for his Undisputed WWE Universal Championship, because if so, that’s one step closer to that Rock-Roman match Kaz can’t wait to see. While we wait with bated breath for word of the Rock’s return to the squared circle—preferably at WrestleMania 40—here are some WWE Championship matches worth rewatching ahead of this year’s Rumble.
Bret Hart Vs. Razor Ramon
Royal Rumble 1993
The 1993 Royal Rumble was the first time that the winner of the Royal Rumble match would be awarded a WWE Championship match at WrestleMania. Bret Hart, who had recently won his first WWE title, was now set for his biggest challenge. Hart would take on newcomer Razor Ramon, who had joined the company in 1992. Ramon would become one of WWE’s top heels in September 1992 when he assisted Ric Flair in defeating Macho Man Randy Savage for the title. Hart, a fighting champion, welcomed all challengers, defending against the Berzerker, Papa Shango, and Virgil, so it made sense that he would be defending the title against Ramon. But things got personal when Ramon attacked Bret’s brother Owen. With the desire to be the best WWE champion of all time, Bret Hart wanted to take on all challengers, and Ramon was one of his toughest.
Diesel Vs. Bret Hart
Royal Rumble 1995
The 1995 Royal Rumble would be Diesel’s first title defense on a pay-per-view after he shook up the wrestling world by defeating Bob Backlund in record-setting fashion. Hart lost the title to Backlund at the 1994 Survivor Series but could not compete, so WWE president Jack Tunney put Diesel in charge of all of Hart’s commitments. Diesel beat Backlund for the title at Madison Square Garden with one Jackknife powerbomb.
After becoming champion, Diesel voiced his respect for Bret, saying that he would give him a title match whenever Hart requested. The match would take place at the 1995 Royal Rumble, pitting the company’s top babyfaces against each other. But leading into the match, Diesel began to take shots at Hart for wearing pink. One thing to watch for during this match is not only the fact that both men are babyfaces, but also that Diesel had just split from Shawn Michaels and Bret was still feuding with his brother Owen and with Backlund. The last thing to note is that there is a celebrity at ringside who may have ended up in a WrestleMania feud of his own.
Sid Vs. Shawn Michaels
Royal Rumble 1997
At WrestleMania XII in 1996, Shawn Michaels’s boyhood dream came true when he won the WWE Championship. He held the title until the 1996 Survivor Series, when he lost it to Sid, his former bodyguard. Michaels—tending to his mentor, Jose Lothario, who Sid had hurt—was hit with a powerbomb and lost his title. Michaels did not blame Lothario for losing the title, but blamed himself because he’d lost his edge. He challenged Sid to a rematch in Shawn’s hometown of San Antonio, Texas, and said that if he did not win the title, then it’s on him.
Pay attention to the hometown reaction that Michaels receives. The San Antonio Spurs had not begun their NBA championship dynasty yet, so Michaels was the hometown hero. It’s also good to note that, when viewing this match, there is an apparent attitude change from Michaels. He has that edge he’d lost while being a white-meat babyface champion.
Mankind Vs. the Rock
Royal Rumble 1999
The 1999 Royal Rumble was in the thick of the Attitude Era. Everyone may remember January 4, 1999, the night the Monday Night Wars shifted in WWE’s favor. WCW’s Nitro was broadcast live, while WWE’s Raw was taped. Tony Schiavone was on commentary during Nitro and, as he had done before, was spoiling the results of WWE’s flagship show, daring viewers to change the channel. Those who made the switch saw Mick Foley (a.k.a. Mankind) beat the Rock to win his first WWE Championship. This set up a rematch at the Royal Rumble, but this time in an “I Quit” match.
When you look back at Rock’s early reigns as WWE champion, you must pay attention to his feud with Mankind. That war set him up for the bright lights of the WrestleMania main event scene and a main event-caliber opponent in Stone Cold Steve Austin. Be warned, this match is brutal, and if you ever watched the documentary Beyond the Ring, you’ll get an unforgettable look at these two before and after this match.
Triple H Vs. Cactus Jack
Royal Rumble 2000
As stated earlier, Foley regularly prepared performers for the main event picture. Foley (as Mankind) did it for the Rock leading into WrestleMania XV, and would do the same for Triple H going into WrestleMania 2000. These two had a history from when Triple H was transitioning out of his blueblood persona, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, but this was not a midcard feud. Triple H was in the genesis of the McMahon-Helmsley Era, where he and his new wife, Stephanie McMahon-Helmsley, were power-abusing authority figures. At one point, the heel couple put Mankind and the Rock (former rivals who had become allies) in a Pink Slip On A Pole match, which Mankind lost—thus losing his job in the process. When Rock and the rest of the WWE roster demanded that Foley be reinstated, Triple H agreed, even giving Mankind a shot at his WWE Championship. That title shot just happened to take place in a street fight in Madison Square Garden during the 2000 Royal Rumble.
Foley had a trick up his sleeve, though: instead of entering the bout as the humiliated Mankind, he donned his Cactus Jack alter ego to fight Triple H instead! With Cactus Jack having a history of violence, now was the time to see what “The Game” was made of.
John Cena Vs. Umaga
Royal Rumble 2007
In 2006, Umaga was unstoppable. He scored wins over Kane, Shawn Michaels, and Triple H, thus setting him up for a match with John Cena at New Year’s Revolution, which he lost. Umaga’s manager, Armando Alejandro Estrada, claimed the loss was a fluke, setting up a WWE Championship rematch at the Royal Rumble in a Last Man Standing match. In the weeks leading up to the match, Umaga attacked Cena, hoping to gain an advantage on the champion, but back in this era of WWE, the one man more unstoppable than Umaga was Cena. Since then, Cena has feuded with other members of the Anoa’i family, including the Rock, Roman Reigns, and Solo Sikoa. However, this feud with Umaga deserves recognition for Umaga’s ability to bring that kind of intensity against Cena during that championship run.
CM Punk Vs. the Rock
Royal Rumble 2013
On the Raw 1000 episode, the Rock appeared and declared that he would be challenging for the WWE Championship at the Royal Rumble. Months removed from his WrestleMania XXVIII win over Cena, the Rock was still itching for one more title run. Then-champion CM Punk was glad to take Rock up on his challenge. During Punk’s match with Cena later that night, Punk attacked Rock—who was there to stop the Big Show from attacking Cena—setting up Punk’s heel run. Months later, a main event at the Rumble was born.
One of the issues Punk spoke on during his infamous 2011 “pipe bomb” promo was the main event for WrestleMania XXVIII, which was already booked to feature the Rock, a part-time wrestler at that point, in his adopted hometown of Miami. As the voice of the voiceless, Punk wanted to prevent a part-timer from being in the main event of WrestleMania as the WWE Champion, and looked to shut down the Rock’s bid at the Rumble.
Brock Lesnar Vs. Seth Rollins Vs. John Cena
Royal Rumble 2015
he journey to this Triple Threat match for the WWE Championship has many layers. When Brock Lesnar returned to WWE in 2012 after a stint in the UFC, his first opponent was John Cena. However, Brock did not challenge for any gold until 2014, when he took Cena to Suplex City and won the WWE Championship in dominant fashion. Meanwhile, Seth Rollins had become both “Mr. Money in the Bank” and the Authority’s prodigal son, coining himself as the undisputed future of WWE.
And then there was Cena who, true to his character, earned his title shot against Lesnar at the Rumble by defeating Rollins at TLC: Tables, Ladders & Chairs in December 2014. Rollins was given his spot in the title match at the Rumble by maneuvering to get Triple H and the Authority’s power reinstated. And while this match is still months out from Rollins performing the heist of the century, you see how Rollins began his shift into the role of a main eventer.
AJ Styles Vs. John Cena
Royal Rumble 2017
Throughout his eight-year run in WWE, AJ Styles has proved to be one of the company’s most successful free-agent signings. He shocked the world with his 2016 Royal Rumble debut and worked with the likes of Chris Jericho, Roman Reigns, and John Cena during his first year in WWE, placing himself firmly in the main-event scene. Styles would solidify his spot by winning his first WWE Championship from Dean Ambrose in September 2016 and holding the title for the rest of the year. Cena knew he wanted his 2017 to be better than his 2016, and set his sights on the winner of the WWE title match on the last episode of SmackDown in 2016, primarily so he could tie Ric Flair’s record of most world title reigns (16). For Cena to do so, he would have to beat Styles, who had his number at SummerSlam.
Brock Lesnar Vs. Bobby Lashley
Royal Rumble 2022
Lesnar became WWE Champion at WWE Day 1 after winning the Fatal 5-Way match that included then-champion Big E, Bobby Lashley, Seth Rollins, and Kevin Owens. Lashley, who defeated Rollins, Owens, and Big E, earned a shot at Lesnar at the Royal Rumble. This had been a dream match for many dating back to the Ruthless Aggression era, as these two behemoths—who each had legit professional MMA backgrounds—had surprisingly never crossed paths in a WWE ring.
During the buildup to their Rumble match, Lesnar was not taking Lashley seriously. Lashley spent most of 2021 as a dominant WWE Champion until losing the title to Big E during a Money in the Bank contract cash-in. For Lashley, the match with Lesnar meant squaring off against a dream opponent and an opportunity to regain the WWE Championship. Lesnar, who was now sporting a ponytail and seemed more playful than ever, constantly made “Bobby who?” jokes throughout their feud. A match 20 years in the making, Lashley finally got his chance to come face-to-face with someone he believed had been ducking him during one of the most incredible runs of his entire career.