The Royal Rumble PPV’s biggest special attraction match is none other than the Royal Rumble match itself. There have been several great matches in the Royal Rumble PPV. Perhaps the most famous one is Triple H vs Cactus Jack in a street fight, but is that the best match? It’s close but it isn’t.
What is the best match in Royal Rumble history, however (excluding the ’92 Rumble match), is a technical classic between two masterclass technicians in Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit. It was early 2003, so it was still another 14 months or so before Benoit would eventually reach the pinnacle of his career.
His addition into this match alone was rather unexpected, especially given that the WWE Championship picture was centered around three men – Brock Lesnar, Kurt Angle, and The Big Show. The Big Show won the WWE title from Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series ’02 thanks to Paul Heyman‘s help, but a month later, his reign would come to a halt thanks to Kurt Angle.
Heyman was also a rather important figure at the time because he had betrayed Lesnar and sided with The Big Show before eventually siding with Angle completely. Angle won the title with Lesnar’s help, but The Beast Incarnate didn’t get his promised title shot. The originally scheduled match was going to be Angle vs The Big Show at the Royal Rumble, but controversy and interference during a non-title bout between Benoit and Angle put The Rabid Wolverine in the title mix.
He even defeated The Big Show to earn his title shot at the Royal Rumble. So the stage was set and while Lesnar and Big Show would battle it out to earn the right to compete in the Rumble (which Lesnar won and eventually the Rumble too), Angle and Benoit would be facing in a mouth-watering match-up.
WWE throughout the way unintentionally built Benoit up as a huge babyface, something that would only be capitalized on exactly a year later. In this round, he was the underdog against the World Champion Kurt Angle. The Canadian and the Olympic Gold Medalist went to war in an encounter that exceeded any expectations.
Simply put, fans knew that they were watching two world-class competitors in their prime and putting on a timeless clinic. The story they told in the match was incredible and throughout the way, Benoit dispelled any doubters who thought he wasn’t ready for the position he was in.
He had taken it to Angle like nobody ever had in WWE before and we know the list of superstars and legends who Angle has defeated multiple times. Benoit had taken so much punishment but he really looked like he was completely even with Angle and that the champion had genuinely found his equal.
The near-falls were executed to perfection and they weren’t overdone like many matches today. Watching two men in their peak display their craft in the most masterful way possible was truly a treat to watch and it still remains a treat to watch on the WWE Network, whether you know the outcome of the match or not.
Ultimately, Kurt Angle didn’t beat Benoit – he survived him. He survived an onslaught, he survived relentlessness and he had to dig deep to a place he had never reached before, thanks to the fact that Team Angle was ejected from ringside straight away. Angle made Benoit tap to the ankle lock, seemingly cementing his legitimacy as WWE Champion (though that was never questioned in the first place).
Benoit came out of the match looking better than ever, receiving a huge standing ovation from the crowd, who was fully appreciative of what he had just given in the ring. Thankfully, it wasn’t the end for him but only the beginning. Over the course of the next year, he would tremendously improve as a babyface and perhaps it was his match with Angle that made WWE genuinely believe that they had a main eventer in Benoit.
This isn’t just the art of a match – it’s the art of how to look good even in defeat, something that’s much easier said than done in wrestling. It’s a good thing that Benoit didn’t win here because it made his WrestleMania 20 win 14 months later that much sweeter. As for Angle, his road led to WrestleMania XIX and a date in the main event with Brock Lesnar.
Lesnar would dethrone him to become WWE Champion and they would spend a good part of 2003 feuding against one another.