Mount Rushmores of Wrestling is a series that breaks down the cream of the crop of professional wrestling in our quest to come to a consensus on the top 4 of any given category. In today’s edition, we’re chiseling in the greatest Royal Rumble winners in WWE history.
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin (1997, 1998, 2001)
Darius: If we’re talking Royal Rumble legends, you have to go with the man who not only won the match thrice but also did so both leading into and during the hottest string of years in wrestling history, the Attitude Era. 1997’s Royal Rumble didn’t have the most incredible contenders (The Rock was still “Rocky Maivia” during it), but Austin’s performance was strong nonetheless, tying Hogan’s record of 10 eliminations in a single match. Of course, the one caveat there is that Austin did get eliminated by Bret Hart, though the refs didn’t catch it with Mick Foley and Terry Funk brawling at ringside. But this discrepancy led to one of the greatest WrestleMania matches of all time, so we’ll let that sneak slide.
Austin’s next two Rumble wins were less impressive elimination-wise (though seven eliminations in Rumble ‘98 is nothing to sneeze at), but the fact that they happened at all is reason enough for him to have an unchallenged spot on this Mount Rushmore. And, since his three Rumble wins led to Austin vs. Hart, Austin vs. Michaels, and Austin vs. Rock II at WrestleMania 13, XIV, and X-Seven, respectively, these Rumbles were just the gifts that kept on giving.
Jay: The Royal Rumble works best when it seamlessly incorporates the winner’s victory into their already ongoing rise to the top of the card and Batista winning in 2005 is the best example of this. Batista, prior to winning, had spent the past two years as Evolution’s muscle. He was the heater for that legendary faction and worked alongside Ric Flair and Randy Orton to ensure Triple H stayed World Heavyweight Champion. Life was pretty good for Big Dave and the rest of the group till about August 2004 when Randy Orton won the World Title. This angered Triple H, who ordered Flair and Batista to turn on Randy, thereby ousting him from the group. This moment sealed Triple H’s fate. Batista finally realized that he would never be allowed to shine in Triple H’s shadow and began his slow climb up the singles ranks to the delight of all — culminating in a victory at Royal Rumble ’05.
“The Animal” only became more ferocious from here. Fans were already clamoring for Batista and cheered him on as he slowly teased dissension from Evolution, but the post-Rumble build toward WrestleMania solidified him as a made-man within WWE. The Royal Rumble winner at the time had the choice of challenging for either the WHC or the WWE Championship, and WWE ran with the angle of Batista being courted by then-SmackDown General Manager Teddy Long to jump to the blue brand. The Animal was challenged by top SmackDown stars to make the leap, and even being persuaded by Triple H to make a move. The Royal Rumble never seemed more like a big deal than during this time as the winner was instantly made into WWE’s hottest commodity. The result? Well, listen to the crowd when Batista finally made his decision.
Shawn Michaels (1995, 1996)
Darius: In all honesty, this spot spiritually goes out to Rey Mysterio, Chris Benoit, and Mr. McMahon as well, since all four of these competitors achieved virtually the same accolade. However, if you’re all going to be the best, points go to the guy who got there first, and with Shawn Michaels winning the 1995 Royal Rumble from the #1 position, the Heartbreak Kid can gloat about being first in more ways than one.
Now, let’s not kid ourselves: 1995 was a garbage year for the then-WWF. Look up and down at the Rumble roster that year and it’s no wonder that Michaels and Bulldog made it all the way without so much as a stumble, and then Michaels went and lost his WrestleMania match with Diesel in an overall poor showing. But while Mysterio and Benoit had more impressive Rumble wins and subsequent Mania matches, Michaels did like Hogan before him and Austin after him and won the Rumble back-to-back. 1996 only had a marginally better roster, but Michaels once again got eight eliminations and this time went on to make the boyhood dream come true against Bret Hart at WrestleMania XII. With impressive wins and an impressive championship match to boot, HBK is Royal Rumble royalty.
Randy Orton (2009)
Jay: Randy Orton ushered in a reign of terror in the WWE after he won the Royal Rumble. Orton started Rumble season off by kicking Vince McMahon in the head the Monday before the Royal Rumble. The rest of the McMahon family was understandably displeased with Orton’s actions and wanted to fire the slithering viper but couldn’t. Why? Because Randy Orton won the Royal Rumble. And then the fun started.
Orton immediately used the Rumble win and its stipulated guarantees as a shield to block termination of his employment and as license to create carnage in the WWE. The freedom the Rumble win gave him allowed to commit atrocity after atrocity after atrocity in the weeks leading up to WrestleMania, including kicking Shane McMahon in the head, giving Stephanie McMahon an RKO, and handcuffing WWE Champion Triple H to a turnbuckle as he forced The Game to watch as Orton his wife with a DDT. How did he get away with all this? Well, he won the Rumble and you can’t fire the winner. Randy Orton’s win established his character so well in 2009 that we haven’t dared to blink when he’s on TV ever since.
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