"The Game" had been absent since the previous May, having famously torn his quadriceps during a tag team main event on an episode of Raw. As 2001 drew to a close, vignettes aired of Triple H rehabilitating and training for his comeback, set to Bono's impassioned vocals. Thirteen nights before the Rumble, Helmsley returned to the fold at Madison Square Garden, whilst announcing his participation in the Rumble match.
The dawn of 2002 felt like a weird time for WWE, with the likes of Helmsley, Steve Austin, The Rock, The Undertaker, Chris Jericho, Kurt Angle, and others all present, but that familiarity diluted with a heavy WCW/ECW presence, as well as the New World Order lurking around the bend. It was the WWE we knew, yet slightly morphed beyond standard recognition.
10. Power Of The Punch
In the evening's second match, William Regal would defeat fast-rising babyface star Edge to win the Intercontinental Championship, felling the popular champion with a set of brass knuckles. The two would face off once more the following month at No Way Out for the belt, with Regal retaining, prior to Rob Van Dam capturing the gold in the opener of WrestleMania 18.
Regal's victory would mark the last time that the Intercontinental title changed hands at the Rumble. Previously, the belt had changed hands five other times at a Royal Rumble (including the previous two editions), but nothing since. It should be noted, however, the belt has only been defended at *one* Rumble between 2003 and 2017, that being in 2016, when Dean Ambrose retained the belt in a Last Man Standing match against Kevin Owens.
9. Rebuilding Space Mountain
Calling Ric Flair vs. Vince McMahon in a street fight a "guilty pleasure" would be doing a disservice to each man's respective talents. Though the two had a combined age of 108 at the time of the brawl, Flair and McMahon warred in a way that only the two colourful icons could, and Flair getting the submission victory was highly satisfying.
At one point, Flair didn't feel he was worthy of the match. In both his autobiography and his ESPN 30 For 30 documentary, Flair noted his fragmented psyche, how his self-confidence had deteriorated beginning in the early nineties, in part due to former WCW boss Jim Herd's disrespect toward him. By the time Flair came on board WWE, he was still struggling with these issues, and claims to have broken down crying in front of the McMahon family when broached about working this match. He credits the McMahons for helping him through this tough time, and to see the match, you can see Vince do everything in his power to make Flair look like a world-beater.
8. Rock Breaker
Chris Jericho's time as undisputed WWE Champion is the source of criticism, as he never really felt like a worthy top guy. A big part of that was in the presentation, as he was either getting eaten alive by Austin, emasculated by Stephanie, or treated as an afterthought by Triple H. Only The Rock seemed to have any interest in bringing Jericho to his level, and the result were some excellent matches between two incredible pros.
And Jericho would gain a measure that no other wrestler ever would - with the win over Rock, Jericho became the only person to defeat "The Great One" in three different pay-per-view matches, without Rock ever getting a PPV revenge win. Jericho would note in his memoirs that Rock also helped him keep his cool earlier in his WWE run when the office and several main eventers were sour on him, so it's fitting that the wrestler who did all he could to enhance Jericho's main event prospects was Rock himself.
7. Settle In, People
The Royal Rumble would utilize 90-second intervals in some years, and revert to the classic two-minute spaces in others, without there being much of a given reason for the changes. The 2002 match went the two-minute route, which stretched out the match. In fact, the intervals, along with a specific moment that we'll get to soon, played a part in making history.
The 2002 Royal Rumble match is the longest of all the 30-man Rumbles, clocking in at one hour, nine minutes, and 22 seconds, shattering the mark previously set by the 1993 match (1:06:35). Somewhat surprisingly, this 30-man Rumble almost topped the length of the 40-man match from 2011, which in itself clocked in at 1:09:49, a mere 27 seconds longer than the 2002 bout.
6. Deleted Plot Point
In late-2001, Matt and Jeff Hardy executed the first of many splits between the eccentric brothers. The rift included a match against each other at Vengeance in December, shortly before the pair (along with Lita) were written off of WWE TV, each having been annihilated by The Undertaker, in separate beatings.
Come Rumble Sunday, both Hardyz, as well as Lita, made their returns, first Matt at number nine, followed by Jeff at 10. Undertaker was alone in the ring when Matt entered, so the brothers got to exact a bit of revenge from the previous month. Curiously, the brothers' split was never mentioned upon either man's comeback, and they carried onward as if they'd been on the same page the entire time. At one point in the group beatdown, the two shared a big hug, swiftly wiping the split off the books.
5. Never-Ending Game
Austin clearing the ring for a second time prior to the 22nd entry set the stage for Triple H's grand return. The buzzer sounded, and the familiar Motorhead music sting blared through Atlanta's Phillips Arena. Triple H emerged from the entrance way locking eyes with Stone Cold. We were on the verge of seeing the two top dogs exchange blows...just as soon as Hunter made it to the damn ring.
Triple H dragged out his entrance to three minutes and 11 seconds, eschewing the "two minutes between entrants" stipulation in a rather self-indulgent moment. And now we see why this Rumble set the record for longest 30-man to date. To put it in perspective, there were 14 different entrants whose time in the match didn't last as long as Helmsley's entrance did.
4. Waste Of Good Numbers
After Helmsley's entrance (which legend says is still going on to this day), eight more competitors still had to enter the fray, with some mighty impressive names in there - four future Hall of Famers in Kurt Angle, Mr. Perfect, Booker T, and Faarooq, as well as three upper-card studs in Big Show, Kane, and Rob Van Dam - the eighth was popular comic relief in The Hurricane.
Six out of those eight men were among those who failed to cover the time Helmsley needed for his entrance. With the exceptions of Angle and Perfect, the other six all lasted less than three minutes in the match. Hurricane, Faarooq, and Booker all failed to clear 40 seconds, with Booker (the number 30 entrant) having the shortest duration of all the entrants at just 33 seconds. Think they were running a bit long?
3. Reliable Closer
In what would be Austin's final Royal Rumble match appearance, the three-time winner made seven total eliminations en route to the final four, where he would be dumped out by Kurt Angle. At the time, there was little indication that this would be Austin's Rumble swansong, but he went out with both a solid performance and a milestone.
Austin became the first man to reach the Rumble's final four on five occasions. In every Rumble between 1997 and 2002, Austin made it to the final stage, with one exception: 2000, which took place at a time when Austin was sidelined long-term after spinal surgery. In those other five matches, Austin either won (1997, 1998, 2001), came in second (1999), or fourth (2002).
2. Reinforced Iron
There weren't many long-lasters in this 2002 Rumble match - only seven individuals made it past the 10-minute mark, with the final four of Austin, Helmsley, Angle, and a returning Mr. Perfect also being the four men that lasted the longest (the others that made it past ten minutes were Rikishi, Goldust, and Christian).
Austin posted the match's longest time at 26:46, which also gives him the distinction of being the only man to win the Rumble's "duration title" on three different occasions. Austin also lasted longer than the rest of the field in 1997 and 1999 (the latter of which he dubiously shares with Vince McMahon). Four other wrestlers have two duration titles apiece: Triple H (1996, 2009), Chris Jericho (2003, 2017), Chris Benoit (2004, 2005), and CM Punk (2011, 2014).
1. Game Winner
Triple H completed the comeback in the final moments of the eternal Rumble, sending Angle to his ringside doom, and earning the title shot at WrestleMania 18. Though much of Triple H's 2002 would be criticized for various reasons, there's no denying that the hype surrounding his impending return at the start of the year was legitimately strong. As such, interest in the Rumble was high.
The 2002 Royal Rumble remains the most-bought Rumble in WWE history, good for a whopping 670,000 buys. That mark eclipsed the 650,000 that the 1999 event managed, and WWE was considerably more popular as a fad in that year than in 2002. No Rumble since then has made it past the 600,000 buy mark, though 2003, 2005, and 2013 all ranged between 575,000 and 600,000 buys.