Royal Rumble is the fourth oldest annual pay-per-view event in WWE today (behind WrestleMania, Survivor Series, and SummerSlam), although it predates SummerSlam '88 since the first Royal Rumble event was broadcast on the USA Network in January 1988, a few weeks before the historic match in which Andre the Giant beat Hulk Hogan to end his four-year title reign. The first Royal Rumble match featured 20 competitors, but it was expanded to 30 participants when it made its pay-per-view debut in January 1989. In 2011, 40 participants were in the match (the first change to the number of scheduled participants since 1989).
The concept of the "Royal Rumble" match was that two men would start the match and they were joined by another participant at set intervals (originally two minutes, but the interval ranges between 60 seconds to 120 seconds) in a battle royal-type match where eliminations would occur when a wrestler goes over the top rope and both feet hit the floor. Whether a participant must be thrown over the top rope by an eligible participant as a rule has varied over the years.
In 1992, the winner of the Royal Rumble became the new WWF champion since the title had been vacated the prior month after a pair of controversial title changes. Starting in 1993, the winner of the Royal Rumble has earned a title shot at WrestleMania. Starting in 2004, the winner could choose for which championship he wanted to challenge.
Below is a list of each winner of the annual Royal Rumble match and the last person he eliminated:
- 1988: Hacksaw Jim Duggan eliminated One Man Gang.
- 1989: Big John Studd eliminated Ted DiBiase.
- 1990: WWF Champion Hulk Hogan eliminated Mr. Perfect.
- 1991: Hulk Hogan eliminated Earthquake.
- 1992: Ric Flair eliminated Sid to win the vacant WWF title.
- 1993: Yokozuna eliminated Randy Macho Man Savage.
- 1994: Bret Hit Man Hart and Lex Luger eliminated each other; they were declared co-winners.
- 1995: Shawn Michaels eliminated British Bulldog.
- 1996: Shawn Michaels eliminated Diesel.
- 1997: Stone Cold Steve Austin eliminated Bret Hit Man Hart.
- 1998: Stone Cold Steve Austin eliminated The Rock.
- 1999: Vince McMahon eliminated Stone Cold Steve Austin.
- 2000: The Rock eliminated Big Show (it was later shown that Rock's feet hit the floor first).
- 2001: Stone Cold Steve Austin eliminated Kane.
- 2002: Triple H eliminated Kurt Angle.
- 2003: Brock Lesnar eliminated Undertaker.
- 2004: Chris Benoit eliminated Big Show.
- 2005: Batista eliminated John Cena.
- 2006: Rey Mysterio eliminated Randy Orton.
- 2007: Undertaker eliminated Shawn Michaels.
- 2008: John Cena eliminated Triple H.
- 2009: Randy Orton eliminated Triple H.
- 2010: Edge eliminated John Cena.
- 2011: Alberto Del Rio eliminated Santino Marella.
- 2012: Sheamus eliminated Chris Jericho.
There have been a few controversial finishes to Royal Rumble matches. In 1994, Bret Hart and Lex Luger eliminated each other simultaneously but there were no camera angles available to determine a decisive winner; therefore, both were named co-winners and each man received a title match at WrestleMania. In 1995, Shawn Michaels was seemingly eliminated by Davey Boy Smith, but only one foot hit the floor. After Bulldog's music started to play, HBK got back in the ring and eliminated Bulldog to win. In 1997, Bret Hart eliminated Stone Cold while the referees were breaking up brawl between Terry Funk and Mankind. Austin re-entered the ring and eliminated all remaining participants to win the match (Gorilla Monsoon voided his entitlement to a title shot due to the controversy). In 2000, The Rock officially won the match, but it was later shown that both of Rock's feet had touched the floor before he eliminated Big Show; therefore, Big Show should have been declared the winner (he was added to the main event at WrestleMania). In 2005, Batista and John Cena eliminated each other simultaneously. In lieu of naming both men as co-winners and giving each man a title shot on his respective brand, Vince McMahon ordered the match to be restarted and Batista won (many fans believe this finish was unplanned and the controversery was an improv).
WWE released The Royal Rumble Anthology on DVD in 2007.