10. WWF Undisputed Championship: Chris Jericho (c) vs. The Rock – 2002
To close out 2001, Chris Jericho famously beat Chris Jericho and “Stone Cole” Steve Austin in the same night to win both the WWF and WCW Titles, becoming the first ever Undisputed Champion. Jericho’s match with the Rock on that night and their first one at No Mercy a few months earlier, were both great, so there were high hopes coming into this title match. Jericho was just rolling as a heel, as arrogant as ever from the bell. They talked smack to one another but Jericho just put his hand in Rock’s face to shut him up. Jericho had been given little to no respect by pretty much everyone, so he had a huge chip on his shoulder. This was interesting from start to finish. Some of the fans wanted to badly see Rock dethrone Jericho, while others wanted Jericho to win and not be a transitional, flash in the pan champion. Both guys delivered and the match was very well put together. To the surprise of many, Jericho retained the title and moved to 3-0 against the Rock on Pay-Per-View in just four months. None of them were particularly clean wins, including this one, but it’s still impressive.
9. Tables Match: The Dudley Boyz vs. The Hardy Boyz – 2000
This nearly made my list of best matches I’ve ever seen live. In late 1999, Edge and Christian and the Hardy Boyz made history in a classic tag team ladder match. We also saw the debut of the Dudley Boyz, who made some quick waves within the company. Before the three teams would collide in another classic at WrestleMania, the Dudleys and Hardys took part in the first ever Tables match. Unlike future Tables matches, you had to be put through a table with an offensive maneuver and both members of the team had to go through them. The match only goes a little over ten minutes but is just filled with non-stop action. Multiple tables break, the pace never slows and the Madison Square Garden crowd is red hot throughout. They used the tables wisely, blending smart moments with some incredible spots. The final images of this match see Jeff Hardy dive off the entryway with a Swanton Bomb, putting D-Von through a table for the victory. It was a historic match, being the first in this stipulation’s history with a rather historic moment to close things out.
8. Bray Wyatt vs. Daniel Bryan – 2014
Two of the hottest acts in the WWE heading into 2014 were the most popular Superstar, Daniel Bryan, and a new heel in Bray Wyatt. They had been locked in a feud for the past few months, with this being their first one on one encounter. It opened the 2014 Royal Rumble and the fans absolutely were on their feet for Bryan. Even though he wasn’t announced for the Rumble match itself, they expected him to win here and then go on to win the Royal Rumble. The night wouldn’t go as planned at all. This opener was great, being one of the ten best matches in the WWE in 2014. It’s still, to this day, the best Bray Wyatt match I’ve ever witnessed. It was a physical contest, featuring some great moments. The highlight saw Bryan try a suicide dive, only to get caught in a big Sister Abigail. Bray would go on to win, setting the stage for a night of disappointment for the Pittsburgh crowd. Bryan would also not even show up in the Royal Rumble, causing the fans to boo the entire winning moment. Still, seeing Bray beat Bryan signaled that Bray was in for a big push…that is until WrestleMania.
7. WWF Championship: Diesel (c) vs. Bret Hart – 1995
At the 1994 King of the Ring, Bret Hart was the WWF Champion and took on the Intercontinental Champion, Diesel. It turned out to be a fantastic match that really showed that one, there was potential in Diesel, and two, his chemistry with Bret was dynamite. Bret would lose the WWF Title to Bob Backlund, only for Diesel to beat Backlund just three days later. Diesel’s first big defense was set against Bret Hart in a match that, like all of their battles, was great. Part of the reason these two meshed so well together, was Bret’s willingness to go the extra mile and do the little things to try and win. Bret fought, even though he was a face, like a man determined to do whatever it takes to win the gold. Like any smart smaller half of the match, Bret tries to chop down Diesel by going after the legs, while Diesel, like any big man in the fight, wears down Bret. There’s a point where Diesel breaks a figure four with shots to the ribs, which he had worked on during the match. It’s the little things like that which make their matches great. The only thing keeping this from ranking higher is the finish as it involves a lot of interference from the heel rivals of both men, leading to a no contest. They would rematch this at Survivor Series in my favorite match of theirs.
6. The Orient Express vs. The Rockers – 1991
There have been a lot of great openers in Pay-Per-View history, and even some damn good ones in Royal Rumble history, but I’d have to say that this was the best one. On paper, this doesn’t stick out as a match you’d think would be great. Nothing against either team, but if you look at this list, every match has big names and an angle behind it. This was kind of just two teams going at it to open the show, but they went out and had the best match in Royal Rumble history up to that point. Hell, it actually wouldn’t be topped until 1995. This was far better than I expected going in. Both teams worked crisply and busted out some high flying, double team moves that wowed the crowd. I mean, the Rockers were super over, but the Orient Express weren’t the most hated of heels, so kudos to the crowd for being so hot for this. When Marty Jannetty got the hot tag, I swear it was the best pop of his career, outside of winning the Intercontinental Title. What made this even more surprising was that a random tag match like this went for nearly twenty minutes. The best part is that it never lulled.
5. WWE Championship Last Man Standing Match: John Cena (c) vs. Umaga – 2007
During this time, the John Cena hate train was chugging along at its peak. John Cena was in the midst of a WWE Title reign that would last a year and had just given Umaga his first pinfall loss at New Year’s Revolution. That one was via rollup, leading to a rematch at the Royal Rumble, under Last Man Standing rules. Now, I was in that group of people who hated Cena. Up to this point, I could count on one hand the amount of matches in his career that I’d consider great. In 2007, he’d really start to step his game up and it all began here. He and Umaga had one of the better Last Man Standing matches in WWE history, with both guys going all out to give people a show. This was brutal and barbaric at times. From Umaga’s splash through the announce table to the use of the monitors at ringside to the finish involving the top rope being completely removed, this was just creative and excellent. In a year that saw Cena have great matches with Shawn Michaels, this may be my favorite Cena match of the first half of his career. It is absolutely my favorite Umaga match ever.
4. WWF Intercontinental Championship Ladder Match: Chris Benoit (c) vs. Chris Jericho – 2001
Growing up in this era, two of the guys I enjoyed seeing more than anyone else were Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho. That enjoyment shot even higher when they would go against each other. Their chemistry was always great and they had some excellent matches in 2000. Here in 2001 though, they would have their best match together in my opinion. The ladder match had just started being used very often, with the tag teams in the WWF putting on some spectacular bouts. This was different than those matches though. Instead of focusing on spots and jaw-dropping moments, they worked a smart ladder match. Instead of just putting ladders in odd places to do crazy spots, they used it brilliantly. Everything is logical, the spots they do make sense and they use the ladder as a weapon because they want to hurt each other. Like, when Benoit tries a dive outside, Jericho whacks him with a steel chair, providing one of the best chair shots in history. That’s just violence because they dislike each other so much. Not only is this absolutely tremendous, but it’s one of the best Intercontinental Title and ladder matches in wrestling history.
3. WWF Championship Street Fight: Triple H (c) vs. Cactus Jack – 2000
I wrote about this match in my “Top Ten Live Matches” list a few weeks back. It’s hard to really add much to what I said. This was brutal, barbaric and remains one of the best Street Fights in history. The amount of barbed wire, thumbtacks and blood wasn’t really something seen in the WWF at the time. Bringing in Cactus Jack was a fantastic stroke of genius. Triple H had beaten both Mankind and Dude Love in the past, but fell to Cactus. After getting his ass kicked for weeks by Triple H, Mick Foley had to dig deep and bring out Cactus again. That set the stage for this match, which would go down as one of the best the WWF has ever put on in the hallowed halls of Madison Square Garden. One of my favorite things about the match is that Triple H sends Stephanie to the back, acknowledging that this is going to be a war. There are just so many stand out moments during this. Cactus’ piledriver through the table, the biting spot where Cactus comes up full of HHH’s blood, the broken steel chair and the sick Pedigree on the thumbtacks that sealed the deal in the end. This completely made the Triple H character the top heel in the company.
2. WWE Championship: Brock Lesnar (c) vs. John Cena vs. Seth Rollins – 2015
We had seen a lot of Brock Lesnar vs. John Cena matches, so when one was planned for the 2015 Royal Rumble, I was not a fan. Then, the WWE threw Seth Rollins into the mix. That added dimension took the good Lesnar/Cena matches into classic status. Brock was the beast you’d expect, suplexing everything in sight, including J&J Security at the same time. Cena and Seth, rivals for the past few months, had to team up to try and take out the unstoppable beast. They accomplished it when Seth pulled a Shawn Michaels and elbowed Brock through the announce table. Cena and Seth then went at it, having their best exchange ever, including their feud later in the year. When medics come down to check on Brock, the fans completely begin to buy into everything Cena and Seth do to each other in the ring. They pop for near falls incredibly hard. Brock got up though and cleaned house to retain. It was matches like this that showed Seth absolutely belonged at the top of the card.
1. WWE Championship: Kurt Angle (c) vs. Chris Benoit – 2003
Chris Benoit and Kurt Angle are two of the greatest wrestlers in history. This also wasn’t a case of two great wrestlers that didn’t mesh well either. Their chemistry was always spot on, with them producing tremendous matches in 2001 and 2002. At this Royal Rumble title match though, they topped them all. While you pretty much knew going in that Benoit wouldn’t win since everyone expected Angle/Lesnar at WrestleMania XIX, they did everything in their power to make you believe otherwise. They put in such a fantastic effort, building towards something special. The intensity level was very high and the work was so crisp. Their ability to counter one another is just spectacular, making for some exhilarating action. Commentary is a key part of this, with both Tazz and Michael Cole doing so well. The attention to detail during this match is what helps set it apart. This is two of the best of all-time, in the primes of their careers, going full throttle and putting on an absolute classic. The Royal Rumble has managed to have some great matches in its near 30 year history, but none were better than this nearly perfect title fight.