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So Close, Yet So Far: WWE Royal Rumble Winners Who Failed at WrestleMania

Here's who failed to win at WrestleMania after being victorious at the Royal Rumble!

By Chris Phelan
Cody Rhodes during the WWE Royal Rumble at the Alamodome on January 28, 2023 in San Antonio, Texas.

For WWE Superstars, winning the Royal Rumble match means securing their spot in the main event of WrestleMania, a process that all but cements their legacy as the next champion. But for some, these WrestleMania dreams quickly become nightmares; not all Royal Rumble winners succeed in dethroning the champion at when their time comes at the show of shows. 

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Of course, we can't bring up past Royal Rumble winners without talking about arguably the most famous Superstar who came up short at WrestleMania, a man who has the unenviable distinction of being the most recent WWE Superstar who failed to parlay his Royal Rumble win with a WWE Championship victory.

Who Won the 2023 Royal Rumble?

Cody Rhodes took the top spot at the 2023 Royal Rumble, but that was just one step on his ongoing journey to the WWE Championship.

We still can't believe Cody didn't finish the story. The stage was set perfectly: His triumphant return to WWE after a lengthy hiatus, his thrilling rivalry with Seth Rollins that put him back in the good graces of the WWE Universe, and the way he battled through adversity after suffering one of the most gruesome injuries in WWE history.

RELATED: How to Buy Royal Rumble 2024 Tickets And Start The Road To WrestleMania

But alas, The American Nightmare became just another statistic at WrestleMania 39 as he lost to the unstoppable Roman Reigns in a valiant effort for the Undisputed WWE Universal Championship. It was heartbreaking then, and it's painful to talk about now – but at least Cody has promised to rewrite history and become a rare back-to-back winner of the Royal Rumble in 2024!

However, whether that actually happens remains to be seen.

Cody Rhodes isn't the only Superstar to come up short on the Grandest Stage of Them All. From seemingly can't-miss future champions to some of the most legendary wrestlers of all time, here are five other WWE Superstars who crumbled under the bright lights of a WrestleMania main event

Royal Rumble Winner 2018 – Shinsuke Nakamura

The year 2018 was supposed to be the year of Shinsuke Nakamura. After an impressive career wrestling in Japan, Nakamura came to WWE as one of the most high-profile free-agent signings in modern history. After dominating the NXT landscape and capturing the NXT Championship on two separate occasions, Nakamura debuted on the main roster in 2017, rightfully setting the WWE Universe into a frenzy.

As fans, we were shocked when Shinsuke Nakamura toppled Roman Reigns to punch his ticket to WrestleMania at Royal Rumble 2018. Not only was Reigns the odds-on favorite to win, but Nakamura arguably didn't stand out in an exceptionally crowded field – which made The King of Strong Style's victory all the more breathtaking

However, thanks to AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura's WWE Championship dreams were dashed at WrestleMania 34. It was a thrilling back-and-forth contest, drawing on the Superstars' past matches in Japan that garnered rave reviews. In the end, Styles proved that Nakamura wasn't ready for the main event spotlight, a reputation that unfortunately still follows Nakamura to this very day.

Royal Rumble Winner 2000 – Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson

Let us appreciate for a moment how relevant The Rock is in 2024, even though his WWE heyday was in the late-90s and early-2000s. Talk about longevity! Back in the Attitude Era, The Rock (along with mainstays like Stone Cold Steve Austin, Triple H, and Mick Foley) carried the WWE on their backs – and for The Rock, his sweetest victory was arguably his Royal Rumble 2000 win. 

However, given the astonishing amount of star power in the WWE during that time period, The Rock punched his ticket to WrestleMania 16 – but as part of a Fatal 4-Way Elimination Match for the WWE Championship. Ultimately, Triple H proved his reign of terror still had plenty of juice left, defeating The Rock, Mick Foley, and The Big Show in the evening's main event.

While The Rock wasn't immune from heartbreaking losses throughout his WWE career, his Royal Rumble win – and eventual WrestleMania failure – serves as an interesting footnote in history. (And who knows? We may see The Rock in a WrestleMania main event in 2024!)

Royal Rumble Winner 2015 – Roman Reigns

For the past decade, no WWE Superstar has dominated the main event scene more than the current Undisputed WWE Universal Champion, Roman Reigns. In 2015, Reigns was pegged as the next megastar by management – much to the chagrin of the WWE Universe.

After a rollercoaster ride of a Royal Rumble match, Reigns ultimately was the last man standing at the 2015 event. In an eerily prescient glimpse into the future, The Rock made his presence known during the match and raised his real-life cousin's hand at the end of the night – but The Rock seemed surprised by the WWE Universe's visceral reaction to Reigns' victory. Nevertheless, Reigns marched on to WrestleMania, as he had a date with destiny in the form of Brock Lesnar.

As we all know, WrestleMania 31 played host to one of the most memorable moments in WWE history when Seth Rollins shockingly cashed in his Money in the Bank contract to interject himself into the evening's Reigns/Lesnar main event. Roman Reigns was robbed of his crowning WrestleMania moment – but fortunately for fans of The Tribal Chief, Reigns' coronation would come just a few years later.

Royal Rumble Winner 1995 – Shawn Michaels

As WWE entered a new era ushered in by Superstars like Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart, Diesel, and The Undertaker, The Heartbreak Kid took it upon himself to be the leader of this new generation. After entering the 1995 Royal Rumble from the #1 spot, Shawn Michaels went the distance and outlasted 29 other men to secure his place in that year's WrestleMania main event.

But 1995 proved to be a year too soon for Shawn Michaels.

Maybe it was because he had some growing up to do inside and outside the ring, or perhaps it was because Big Daddy Cool Diesel was far too overpowering as WWE Champion. Still, Shawn Michaels surprisingly came up short in his bid to wrestle the WWE Title from Diesel at WrestleMania 11. However, HBK didn't harbor resentment over his loss – it seemingly fueled him to even greater heights. The following year, Michaels repeated his performance by winning the 1996 Royal Rumble and eventually defeated Bret Hart for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania 12 in one of the greatest matches in pro wrestling history.

Royal Rumble 2022 Winner – Brock Lesnar

Not even the great Brock Lesnar is immune to losing at WrestleMania after dominating the Royal Rumble! Less than two years ago, Lesnar decimated all opposition en route to winning the Rumble for a second time, nearly 20 years after his first victory in 2003. What made Lesnar's 2022 win so shocking was that he actually lost the WWE Championship to Bobby Lashley early in the evening.

As it turned out, Lesnar used his rage over losing the title as fuel to demolish 29 other Superstars in the Royal Rumble match. Lesnar even regained the WWE Title a few weeks afterward, making the WrestleMania main event a "winner take all" match for the Undisputed WWE Universal Championship. 

However, when WrestleMania 38 rolled around, Brock Lesnar found that his WWE dominance may have ended at the hands of one of his most storied opponents: Roman Reigns. For the first time in his career, Reigns overpowered Lesnar, finally silencing the critics who thought Roman Reigns would never be on Brock Lesnar's level.

The ramifications of that match are still being felt throughout WWE in 2024. Although so many things have changed in the past two years, as far as Roman Reigns is concerned, nothing has really changed at all.

You can tune in to Peacock to watch WWE's Royal Rumble on January 27. In the meantime, catch up on all things WWE Universe on Peacock.

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