The Keys To A Classic Royal Rumble (That WWE Has Forgotten In Recent Years)

For years, the Royal Rumble match (don’t worry, that’s the last time I’ll refer to it as that) was one of the guaranteed highlights of the WWE calendar. How could it not be? It’s a 30-man, intricately-booked battle royal featuring most of the company’s biggest stars with a title shot at WrestleMania on the line. That should be a surefire great match. And yet, that hasn’t been the case for some time.

Fan response to recent Rumbles, like 2015’s Roman Reigns show, or 2014’s Batista win, has been overwhelmingly negative. You could chalk that up to the fans just not liking the victor, or wanting Daniel Bryan to win, but I think it goes a bit deeper. WWE seems to have forgotten some of the things that have made the Royal Rumble consistently great in the past. Here’s seven things that can’t help but make any Royal Rumble better…

Note: Before you run to the comments section, no, not every good Rumble needs to have all of these things. But hey, they sure can’t hurt.

There should be a wide variety of competitors.

I’ve heard a lot of complaints that the Royal Rumble has been “full of jobbers” in recent years. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. At least not compared to the Rumbles of yesteryear. I mean, a 30-man match is always going to have its share of enhancement talent. I think the fact that recent Rumbles draw almost entirely from the regular roster guys is what people are responding to negatively. For the past few years, we get maybe two legends, a Bubba Ray Dudley or DDP, then the rest of the field are wrestlers we can see on literally any show.

A good Rumble should have legends, current stars, up-and-comers from NXT, female wrestlers, commentators, authority figures, celebrities, whoever. Ideally, only about two-thirds (or less) of the field should be just guys from the regular roster. A good Rumble should give you the best of the past, the stars of the future, plenty of surprises, and no Zack Ryder or R-Truth.

There needs to be a strong central story.

There may be 30 competitors in the Royal Rumble, but when all the extra garnish is stripped away, the best Rumbles usually have a single compelling story at their core. It’s no surprise the years Ric Flair, Chris Benoit and Rey Mysterio went the distance are considered some of the most memorable Rumbles in history. Of course, you can’t have somebody run through the entire field every year, but you can do other things to give a Rumble a satisfying overarching storyline.

Focus the match around a specific feud, or have a stable dominate the match as they await the arrival of their leader. Or, have several stories that flow together to form one larger story, like The Rock battling through most of the field (and three incarnations of Mick Foley) only to fall to the ascendant Stone Cold Steve Austin in the 1998 Rumble. You should be able to sum up a great Rumble in one short sentence. “The one where _______.” If you can’t, you probably don’t have a classic on your hands.

That central narrative should be supported by interesting side stories.

That said, it is possible to be too focused on a single storyline. That happened in 1999, when the Rumble was completely fixated on the Austin-McMahon feud to the exclusion of everything else. Just like a good video game should have a nice selection of sidequests, a good Rumble should have lots of other moments that enhance the main story (or take a little pressure off it).

CM Punk going on a promo-cutting tear early on in the 2010 Rumble. Hogan accidentally eliminating Randy Savage in 1989. CM Punk, Daniel Bryan and William Regal having a mid-2000s indie dream match in the middle of the 2011 Rumble. Kane’s epic run of eliminations in 2001. All of Kofi Kingston’s wacky death-defying saves (well, except for the one with JBL’s chair, which was booty). If there’s not always something interesting happening in a Rumble, you’re doing it wrong.

Don’t let dead wood pile up.

In recent years, WWE has seemingly decided only top stars are worthy enough to eliminate anybody from the Royal Rumble. As such, you tend to get a lot of midcard guys loitering around in the ring as they wait for somebody important to show up and knock them out.

Earlier Rumbles were more democratic when it came to eliminations – sure, Shawn Michaels, Kane and Hulk Hogan threw a lot of guys out, but Brian Knobbs, Repo Man, The Berzerker and Phineas Godwinn also got to join in the fun. The upside is this resulted in fewer logjams with a dozen or more guys in the ring at once. Anything more than six or seven guys in the ring is just clutter.

Save some fan-favorite entrants for the end.

For whatever reason, it’s been a long time since the Rumble had a truly grand finale. 2015’s Rumble barfed out Dolph Ziggler and Big Show as its final entrants, 2014 saw Rey Mysterio coming out last in his fat shirt, and 2013 gave us Ryback at #30. You have to go all the way back to Royal Rumble 2008, with Triple H at #29 and a returning John Cena at #30 to find a Rumble that finished on a properly epic note.

I know it’s not realistic to always have the biggest stars come out last, but this is pro wrestling. If you can convince your audience that wrestlers really do spring off the ropes like cartoon characters, you can have Brock Lesnar or Daniel Bryan (or whoever you’ve got in the tank) come out last.

The Final Four should be able to stand alone as a great match.

One of the secrets of the Royal Rumble is that the first 45 to 50 minutes is, ideally, just an appetizer for the final minutes of the match when the final four contenders battle it out. In most of the best Rumbles, the final four is essentially a standalone match, with its own twists, turns, and drama. Who can forget Ric Flair coming face-to-face with Hogan, Sid and Savage in the ’92 finals? Or Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker essentially having a full, classic match to close out the 2007 Rumble? Or Shawn Michaels’ heartbreaking elimination and Edge returning to defeat his nemesis John Cena in 2010?

Unfortunately, recent Rumbles have featured particularly uninspired final sprints. A half-dead Batista huffing and puffing his way to the win in 2014. Everything coming down to an uninspired Cena-Ryback confrontation in 2013. Roman Reigns triumphing over the who-cares duo of Kane and Big Show amongst deafening boos in 2015. In recent years, Rumble finishes have consistently felt deflating rather than exciting. Work backwards, WWE – come up with a great final four first, then put together the Rumble that builds to it.

The Royal Rumble should not be used as a stepping stone.

Winning the Royal Rumble is the most exclusive thing a WWE superstar can achieve. Greater than winning the world title (Jack Swagger or Christian will never win a Royal Rumble) or even main-eventing WrestleMania (again, I don’t expect we’ll ever see The Miz or Chris Jericho as Rumble winners). Winning the Royal Rumble should be a coronation. It signifies you’re one of the undisputed, top-of-the-heap badasses in WWE.

Unfortunately, the Rumble has become just another booking shortcut. A way to try to get a wrestler over without putting in the proper work in terms of storytelling. For the past few years, most of the Rumble winners (Alberto Del Rio, Sheamus, Batista, Roman Reigns) have been hand-picked guys who weren’t as big a deal as WWE wanted them to be. In every case, trying to boost a guy using the Rumble has backfired, sometimes spectacularly. Put in the work, WWE. You have to make guys worthy of winning the Rumble, because the Rumble won’t make them for you.

So, will the 2016 Rumble be one of the good ones?

The signs are actually fairly encouraging. Roman Reigns is far more deserving than he was in 2015, and the whole “One vs. All” conceit gives this Rumble a built-in match-long storyline. Also, the unusually large number of factions going into this Rumble (The Wyatts, New Day, League of Nations, Social Outcasts and more) should ensure there’s plenty of subplots to go around. And hey, the ever growing popularity of NXT and the fact that WrestleMania 32 is likely going to be focused heavily on nostalgia acts could mean we get a varied field with plenty of new and old guys alike. This is WWE, so ball-dropping is always a distinct possibility, but this should be the Rumble that breaks the recent streak of mediocrity.

Agree with my recipe for a winning Royal Rumble? Think I missed some important points? Share your thoughts in the comments below, although beware, it’s every man or woman for themselves.