In a time of transition, WWE fitted a crown on Brock Lesnar‘s head at the 2003 Royal Rumble to signal his reign over the kingdom.
The Next Big Thing’s victory that January night is a reminder of the power of a Rumble win. It’s a testament to the impact of lasting images. And it’s proof of what steadfast commitment to a new star can accomplish.
The process of anointing Lesnar began the previous year, well before the 2003 Rumble.
In 2002, WWE was in need of a fresh centerpiece. The Rock’s Hollywood career was pulling him away. Neck and knee issues slowed Stone Cold Steve Austin.
WWE chose to supplant those household names with an NCAA wrestling champion and freakish powerhouse from Webster, South Dakota.
The company portrayed him as an unstoppable monster. He barreled over Matt Hardy. He smashed Mark Henry and Tommy Dreamer.
Just five months after his Raw debut, audiences watched Lesnar crush Hulk Hogan’s ribs until the legend lay still on the canvas.
By last felling Rob Van Dam, Lesnar won the summer’s King of the Ring tournament. A win over The Rock at SummerSlam 2002 followed. Lesnar then outlasted Undertaker in a bloody Hell in a Cell match, adding to the list of wrestling immortals the powerhouse trampled.
As Jonathan Snowden wrote in Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling, “Demolishing everything in sight, Lesnar became a star by winning, winning and then winning some more.”
Vanquishing The Rock and carrying around the WWE Championship for over two months announced his arrival to the top tier. His conquest at the Fleet Center in Boston built on that, emphatically furthering his rise.
Lesnar began the 2003 Royal Rumble pay-per-view with no assurance he would even make it to the event’s signature Battle Royal. He and Big Show battled over the bout’s final spot.
The card kicked off with Lesnar and Big Show’s slugfest. The Next Big Thing earned entry into the Rumble by walloping the giant. After sending his former manager and turncoat Paul Heyman crashing to the mat, Lesnar hit Big Show with an F-5.
Brock Lesnar sets up Paul Heyman for an F-5.
WWE had not only given its audience the visual of Lesnar hurling a behemoth into the air, but it afforded him two victories in a single night. He was bruised and drained from a clash with The World’s Largest Athlete before he even entered the Rumble fray.
That added to his mystique.
The buzz WWE created around Lesnar throughout 2002 and into 2003 made him feel like a big deal shortly after his arrival. His impressive list of victims and the destructive path he left behind made it hard not to get sucked into his march toward the mountaintop.
Sean Ross Sapp of Fightful recalled being excited about Lesnar‘s first Rumble match:
Brock Lesnar. I remember being so stoked for him in the Rumble #RetroRumble 03
— Sean Ross Sapp (@SeanRossSapp) January 9, 2017
And Lesnar delivered when he entered at No. 29.
The Beast Incarnate bowled over the competition as soon as he stepped through the ropes. He issued thunderous clothesline after thunderous clothesline. He flung Team Angle out of the ring. Hardy wasn’t far behind, taking a violent journey from the top of Lesnar‘s shoulders to the floor.
The Rumble’s field shrank in a hurry, and soon only titans remained—Undertaker, Kane, Batista and Lesnar.
The collection of towering men gave the closing moments a special feel. It’s not often the combined weight of the Rumble’s final four pushes past the 1,200-pound mark.
And Lesnar emerged from that group the victor.
After Undertaker focused too long on nailing Batista with a steel chair, Lesnar charged at The Deadman and flipped him out of the ring. As had become the norm with The Next Big Thing, he celebrated a win, this time achieving the rare feat of winning the Rumble on his first try.
After the bell, Undertaker shook Lesnar‘s hand.
While not as significant as his SummerSlam win over The Rock, this passing-of-the-torch moment furthered Lesnar‘s rise. He had earned respect from the man announcer Jim Ross had called earlier in the match “maybe the biggest and baddest of all time.”
The collection of powerful images on Lesnar‘s resume ballooned that night.
The beast fed on a leviathan before moving on to his old foes and finally a celebrated bruiser. He added a Rumble victory to a list of accomplishments that already included a King of the Ring title, the WWE Championship and a trail of eminent victims.
Lesnar‘s win in Boston netted him the right to face Kurt Angle in WrestleMania XIX’s main event for the WWE crown.
The Next Big Thing won that, too. The all-in approach to creating a new megastar rolled on.
WWE had ample faith in Lesnar from the get-go and strove to fill his story with images of the ruin he left behind and the power he wielded. Lesnar has since become one of the biggest marquee attractions on the roster.
Per @HeymanHustle, @BrockLesnar will join @Goldberg in the 2017 #RoyalRumble Match at The @Alamodome! #RAW pic.twitter.com/p4zIKJMnyv
— WWE (@WWE) November 29, 2016
He is now poised to enter his second Rumble match, this time with rival Goldberg waiting for him. A win in the 2017 event would put Lesnar in rare territory, becoming one of only a handful of men who have been the last man standing at the Royal Rumble twice.
WWE is better off recalling what it did in 2003, though, and using the 2017 edition of the annual Battle Royal to propel a young, ascending talent.
Outlasting the field in San Antonio would change Braun Strowman’s career forever. Anointing Seth Rollins the Rumble winner would push his stock higher.
Winning the Royal Rumble, as it was with Lesnar, is a means to put an indelible stamp of approval on a wrestler. It bolsters legacies and elevates one’s name. Lesnar had his moment more than a decade ago. It’s time now for a star on the rise to receive those powerful rewards.