With the 2015 Royal Rumble upon us, I’d be a fool not to make this month’s 10 Count! Royal Rumble related. With so many lists out there I figured I’d take a look at the top 10 first two Rumble entrants. These guys usually help set the tone for the Rumble. It’s even better when the two guys have some sort of backstory. This is a marquee WWE event, second only to WrestleMania, so you need to start it off with the right pair of wrestlers because, no disrespect to D’Lo Brown, are you seriously going to give a s--t when the first two entrants are D’Lo and Grand Master Sexay?
10. Ric Flair & Bob Backlund (Royal Rumble 1993)
This start didn’t exactly set the crowd on fire, considering Ric Flair was in his lame duck phase of his first WWE run and returning Bob Backlund hadn’t yet hit found his footing as bat-s--t crazy Bob Backlund. However, this was the first time two former WWE Champions had started the Rumble. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see former champions start off as #1 or #2, but this was back before there were multiple title reigns and multiple world titles. Ric Flair drawing number one was not a big deal seeing as he had just lasted the longest anybody has ever lasted (up until that point) in the previous year’s Rumble at #3. It also wasn’t the first time these two squared off; in fact it was a little over a decade after they met one-on-one in one of those NWA/WWWF title unification matches that were commonplace back in the day and usually ended in time-limit draws. As I said, it wasn’t the most exciting as the biggest spot of their encounter was a delayed atomic drop Backlund performed on Flair. But it was a nice nod to the old school background both Flair and Backlund shared.
9. Triple H & Rey Mysterio (Royal Rumble 2006)
Riding on the Eddie Guerrero death wave, Rey Mysterio entered in a lowrider and dedicated his performance to his fallen amigo. The Eddie chants were just as deafening as they were a year prior when Eddie entered as number one. Triple H didn’t seem too worried because “LOL, look how small he is.” Aside from WrestleMania 30, this was probably the only time Triple H made a smaller wrestler look strong. Rey used his quickness to hit a lot of his signature aerial moves until he failed to connect with a 619. Rey and Triple H both made it to the end with Rey winning because how else are you going to capitalize on Eddie Guerrero’s death? By giving it to Chavo? This is a significant Rumble start because Triple H vs. Rey Mysterio is a headlining singles match that never materialized. Mostly because Triple H didn’t like slumming it on SmackDown.
8. Shawn Michaels & The British Bulldog (Royal Rumble 1995)
Michaels’ first Royal Rumble win and the first time win for a number one entrant will forever be tainted by it being the shortest Rumble ever. I guess it was a testament to how s----y the roster was at the time. Seriously, who else could’ve given Michaels a run for his money? Lex Luger? Duke “The Dumpster” Droese? This was also the first Rumble in which the first two entrants were the last remaining wrestlers. Of course, The Bulldog and Michaels shared a history which only helped add to the story. And just like in their Intercontinental Title match, Michaels was also picked to go over.
7. Dolph Ziggler & Chris Jericho (Royal Rumble 2013)
What made this matchup interesting wasn’t just that it was one of Jericho’s many WWE returns, but that there was no build to it and was a total surprise. Especially since Dolph Ziggler had caused Jericho’s WWE contract to be terminated back in August of 2012. Good thing Jericho was able renegotiate a new one within four months. This was Ziggler in top heel form, making his entrance with a long make-out session with AJ Lee as Big E awkwardly stood by. We’ve all been there, Big E. Once things got started Jericho laid into Ziggler and we got some early close-call eliminations. The crowd chanted “You still got it!” at Jericho to which he replied, “I never lost it, baby!” Yep, this was way better than Jericho’s big letdown at the previous Rumble, in which he promised to “end the world” as we knew it only to end up getting Brogue Kicked off the apron by Sheamus.
6. CM Punk & Daniel Bryan (Royal Rumble 2011)
This was the first 40-Man Rumble so being numbers one and two carried a little more weight that year. Former indy/internet darlings CM Punk and Daniel Bryan were squaring off in a WWE ring at one of the biggest shows and the crowd was really into it. Dueling chants for both wrestlers echoed back and forth. The only downside was Michael Cole being at his most annoying and shitting on Daniel Bryan more than the Raw commentary team currently shits on The Ascension. Still, it was a nice bump for both Punk and Bryan to start things off and get the crowd fully invested considering Punk was a few months shy of the whole “Pipe Bomb” thing and Bryan was still a ways away from the “Yes Movement”. It’s like the WWE’s next biggest stars were under their nose the entire time.
5. Shawn Michaels & Chris Jericho (Royal Rumble 2003)
Jericho chose to come in at number two to prove that he was better than Shawn Michaels. The wheels were officially in motion for their epic show-stealing match at WrestleMania XIX. Michaels was barely into his first year back, but hadn’t shown any ring rust at all and Jericho was doing his second best WWE heel run with the braided ponytail dipped in red hair dye and ridiculous goatee. The start was great as Christian came out cosplaying as Jericho, enabling real Jericho to blindside Michaels with a low blow and a follow up chair shot to Michaels’ receding hairline. Less than three minutes in, Jericho vanquished Michaels. This was a big deal as singles wrestler Shawn Michaels usually did well endurance-wise in Royal Rumbles.
4. Eddie Guerrero & Chris Benoit (Royal Rumble 2005)
Long-time noted friends and rivals with paths that mirrored one another. Two former champions who had co-headlined WrestleMania XX the previous year. And they were seemingly starting all over again, almost coming full circle. However, the crowd wasn’t as split as they were for Punk and Bryan. Having Eddie Guerrero start out the Rumble in Hispanic heavy Fresno, CA will have that effect. Still, the crowd was into it and the history was there. No handshakes or anything, they just got right into it trying to outwrestle one another. Doing what they do best.
3. The Undertaker & Shawn Michaels (Royal Rumble 2008)
They were the final two men in the previous Royal Rumble, which Taker had won. Talk about a backstory and the ultimate slow build to what would become Shawn Michaels’ retirement match. Even Michael Buffer was paid some ungodly sum to finally say the thing he says at the one wrestling event where it made the most sense. And to top it all off this Rumble took place at Madison Square Garden. Seriously, you’re not going to waste Michaels and Taker starting off the Rumble in Fresno, CA. Sorry Frenso, just saying. With the exception of the entrants coming in at number two on this list, Taker and Michaels are two of the biggest superstars the WWE has ever produced. Legends. Hall of Famers. To have them both start the Rumble was saying something. Okay, so Michaels is no stranger to drawing an early Rumble number, but Taker’s spot is usually reserved for down the line somewhere in the 20’s. Point is, it was a damn memorable start. They went right at it with Michaels pulling off a lot of his major selling points like the Irish whip front flip into the turnbuckles thing. Taker even lands outside on the apron early on, but forces his way back in via choke. Then Santino Marella comes out at number three and the whole thing becomes a lot less special.
2. Steve Austin & Vince McMahon (Royal Rumble 1999)
Truth be told, I didn’t care for this Royal Rumble. Probably because it was the most Attitude Era defining Rumble ever. Granted, it took place during the peak year of the Attitude Era. Garbage rained on Mr. McMahon’s age-defying, chiseled physique as Austin waited for the bell to ring so he could whoop his ass. And whoop his ass he did. Mudhole stomping, kick in the nuts, flipping of the birds, it was all there. Austin teased tossing out McMahon before number three can make his way down, but instead clotheslined him and sealed his own fate. Then it got all Attitude Era-y with the action spilling all over the arena. But it deserves this high a spot because it featured the two men involved in the most epic, legendary, most-watched, greatest, Hall of Fame feud of all time according to every documentary put out by the WWE. Much like Bulldog and Michaels in 1995, Austin and McMahon made it bell-to-bell until McMahon finally dumped Austin over the top rope thanks to some interference from The Rock.
1. Ax & Smash (Royal Rumble 1989)
It didn’t get as a big a pop from the crowd as some of these other entries. It didn’t have dueling Ax and Smash chants either. But what it did have was the delivery of a promise, or really a tagline, that the Royal Rumble was indeed “every man for himself.” Friend vs. friend. Foe vs. foe. And that’s exactly what we got at the first Royal Rumble pay-per-view. Granted, they had already televised a 20-man Royal Rumble on the USA Network before, but clearly they were saving that friend vs. friend gimmick for the pay-per-view. Not only were Ax and Smash tag team partners at the time, but they were also co-holders of the WWE tag team championship. And what made it crazier was the fact that there was nothing on the line during these earlier Rumbles. There was no shot at the champion at WrestleMania. Hell, there wasn’t even some $15,000 purse that most battle royals claimed to have. Ax and Smash just proceeded to beat the crap out of each other for the sake of winning without giving it much thought.
It wasn’t like Hulk Hogan “accidentally” eliminating his friend Randy Savage later on. These two went at it with the intention of throwing the other out. And as soon as Andre the Giant made his way down the aisle as number three they proceeded to double team him like nothing ever happened. Was it a fantasy match that wrestling fans wanted to see? Nope. It was just a rare sight to see considering the WWE wasn’t planning on splitting these guys up. But the possibilities and consequences of being in the Royal Rumble were made real when Ax and Smash respectively drew numbers one and two. It really was every man for himself.
The only way the WWE could replicate this today would be if they had both Usos, Jimmy and Jey, draw numbers one and two. Or maybe Goldust and Stardust, but wrestling nerds have been predicting that break-up for so long the best reaction to that would be, “it’s about time.” Jimmy and Jey for numbers one and two this year!