In wrestling, as in life, there are certain things we can all take for granted. The sun will always rise just as it will always set, crowds will always abscond en masse to the bathroom whenever the Divas show up, and John Cena will always mention how he never gives up at least once in every promo.
For all intents and purposes, we should be able to include the journey of the annual Royal Rumble winner to the list of pro wrestlings most reassuringly predictable occurrences.
Since it was first introduced back in 1993 as a handy plot device to catapult the late Yokozuna into a Wrestlemania IX main event against Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart, the concept of the ‘Rumble winner headlining the WWE’s biggest show of the year against the champion has always been pretty much a given.
Or has it?
Marching headlong into their newest pay per view offering, Fast Lane, the company has come under fire recently for -among many other things- making this the second year in a row when the main event of Wrestlemania has been up in the air, despite the Royal Rumble having been and gone in a blaze of fan hostility.
Sure, whilst most are predicting Roman Reigns will topple Daniel Bryan on February 22nd before making his date with Brock Lesnar anyway, in kayfabe terms at least, it’s all to play for.
An annual tradition
On the surface, this goes against one of the few remaining traditions in a company where such things have long been hurled out of the window (with Marty Jannetty in tow, no doubt). Yet look a little closer, and on-screen uncertainty surrounding the Wrestlemania championship match is anything but uncommon.
If all the figures are correct, the last 22 Royal Rumbles since Yokozuna first stood tall inside Sacramento’s ARCO Arena have given us only 12 straight mano a mano showdowns between the Royal Rumble winner and the WWE Champion without some kind of shenanigans coming into play on the road to Wrestlemania.
Indeed, it was only one year after a guaranteed title shot was introduced as a reward for winning their yearly battle royal that kayfabe controversy reared its ugly head. In an effort to see if they could generate any more mileage from Lex Luger as a main event draw, Mr. Made in the USA was declared co-winner of the Rumble alongside the man fans really wanted to win, The Hitman.
In today’s terms, that’s something akin to having both Bryan and Reigns win this year’s event and, as in 1994, both challenging the champion on The Grandest Stage of Them All. Come to think of it, that might not have been a bad idea, but hey, we’re digressing.
Things went pretty smoothly in 1995, with Shawn Michaels eliminating Davey Boy Smith to win the Rumble before heading straight into a title match against former bodyguard, Diesel, at Mania, yet it was only a year later that The Road to Wrestlemania once again became paved with potholes.
A threat to the boyhood dream
Looking back, many of us fondly remember Michaels picking up his second win en route to making the ‘boyhood dream’ come true by besting The Hitman in a sixty-minute iron man match at Wrestlemania 12. What we often overlook though, is that the Heartbreak Kid did face a threat to his title shot in the form of Bret’s younger brother, Owen Hart.
The King of Harts and The Showstopper met at In Your House 6 in February ‘96 with the title shot on the line. Much like Reigns today, there was never much doubt then that Michaels would make it to ‘Mania, but let’s remember that this was only three years after the concept of the Rumble winner receiving a title shot was introduced, and already the main event was up in the air from a kayfabe standpoint.
If that particular detour wasn’t so memorable, the one taken by the following year’s winner certainly was. In 1997, Steve Austin earned the not-so-favourable distinction of being the first man since 1993 not to face the champion at ‘Mania after eliminating 29 other wrestlers back in January.
Into the Attitude Era
In the first three months of that year, the WWF Champion was hot potatoed between Sid, Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, Bret Hart, and finally back Sid. If it sounds chaotic, that’s probably because it was, and out of the ensuing madness, we found ourselves with a WWF title match between defending champion Sid, and the now legendary submission match between Austin and The Hitman.
Stone Cold had a chance to redeem himself the following year, claiming his second Royal Rumble crown before dethroning the Heartbreak Kid at Wrestlemania 14. En route, the Texas Rattlesnake had little more to worry about than an eight-man tag at No Way Out.
Not that this was a sign of things to come. In 1999, Vince McMahon himself one the Royal Rumble, with Austin then defeating the Chairman in a cage match to land himself a ‘Mania title match against The Rock. 12 months on, and The Great One’s Royal Rumble 2000 victory somehow led to a fatal fourway match for the title which also involved Big Show, defending champion Triple H, and a man who had retired not a few months before, Mick Foley.
So far, and the supposed guaranteed ‘Mania main event had been contested far more than it had been a sure thing, a pattern that would only continue well into the new millennium.
In 2002, Triple H lost, and then later regained, his championship shot en route to beating Chris Jericho for the gold inside the Toronto Skydome. 2004 gave us the first of several instances in which a third man was introduced to the party. Benoit won the Rumble, but was later forced to share his title opportunity with HBK in a triple threat against outgoing champion, Triple H.
Following the trend of one year’s controversy followed by one year’s straight-forward booking, Batista went straight from his 2005 win into a match with The Game, whilst 2006 saw Rumble victor Rey Mysterio share the limelight with Randy Orton in another three-way against Kurt Angle.
2008 gave us our next Mania triple threat, this time between Rumble winner John Cena, champion Randy Orton, and Triple H.
Over the next few years, the arrival of the Elimination Chamber pay per view began to smooth out the road to Wrestlemania in as much as, whatever may have happened in between, the man who stood tall at the end of the January pay per view had his date with destiny in a one-on-one title match.
With that, it seemed the traditional apparently set down over a decade earlier was finally beginning to take hold. That was, until Daniel Bryan and his ‘Yes Movement’ made their way to a headline appearance despite not even featuring in 2014’s battle royal.
Which brings us nicely to today. For the second year in a row, Daniel Bryan has a chance to make his way to the big stage regardless of the Royal Rumble outcome. This time round, he’ll be taking on current Public Enemy #1 at Fast Lane.
If popular belief is anything to go by, it won’t be second-time lucky for the former American Dragon. Rather, he’l be used as one last stepping stone for Romain Reigns en route to the one-time Shield member’s battle with Brock Lesnar in Santa Clara.
Still, as it stands right now, we’re past the Royal Rumble and don’t yet have an official challenger for the Wrestlemania main event, and whilst certain fans may be up in arms about the whole thing, if history has taught us anything, it’s that this level of uncertainty at this time of year is something we should probably start to rely on.