The True Story of the Royal Rumble
by Scrooge McSuck
The Royal Rumble is arguably the most exciting night of the year, largely due to the mostly unpredictable Royal Rumble Match. For those who might be unfamiliar, the Royal Rumble Match borrows from the Battle Royal concept where it's a free-for-all, with eliminations only taking place when someone is thrown over the top rope, and to the floor. Unlike a Battle Royal, instead of everyone starting the match at once, two men start, and then at regularly timed intervals (some years 2-minutes, some 90-seconds, some depending on how long an entrance is milked), another Superstar enters until the entire field of competitors (usually 30, but in one instance 20, and another instance 40) has entered the match, and the last man standing wins whatever prize is offered (most years since 1993 is a championship opportunity, and only twice a Championship).
With so much potential for a behind the scenes look at what is easily my favorite annual event, you'd think there would be plenty of stories and anecdotes to make for an entertaining time. Unfortunately (I bet you saw that coming), this feels more like a fluff piece produced for the WWE Network to promote the PPV, rather than give meaningful insight. In fact, the entire main feature is wrapped around the goings on the day of the 2016 Royal Rumble, and all the footage spliced in from that evening takes up valuable time on a feature that only runs 64 minutes. Yes, a feature on a 29-year old event is wrapped up in just over an hour.
My list of grievances isn't long, but it has some annoyances that are really hard to look past. The biggest culprit is that it doesn't seem like they know if they want to cover things in kayfabe or in shoot style, often jumping back and forth depending on what Rumble they're talking about (ex: Michael Hayes saying Austin's elimination in '97 was an "accident". An accident that looks like a prepared bump to satisfy the needs of the spot where the referees are distracted by Terry Funk and Mick Foley brawling on the opposite side of the ring.) Then we're suddenly shooting, with Hayes and others blaming Philadelphia for Roman Reigns' poor reaction in 2015 (we're not doing it for 1 city, we're doing it globally. That's why Roman is only booed everywhere that a TV camera is rolling).
The creation of the Royal Rumble is talked about briefly, but it doesn't feel like much more than a quick google search would produce. The way it's told, is that Dick Ebersol wanted a prime time special (I don't know if he had power over USA Network programming), and thus we got "Pat's stupid idea", according to Vince McMahon. Gene Okerlund pops up and says they did test runs of the match and it got over well, so they decided to feature it on network television. I don't know the cold, hard facts of everything done in time, but according to sources, only 1 Rumble Match is listed as taking place in the Fall of '87, and it didn't get over well at all. Second, I'm pretty sure the concept of the match and the timing of the event was done to directly compete with Crockett's Bunkhouse Stampede PPV, featuring an oddly gimmicked Battle Royal that took place inside a Cage. I guess the story they tell is better than no story at all, right?
We gloss over a lot of the memorable Rumble Match moments, like the big Hogan/Warrior showdown in 1990, Ric Flair winning the belt in 1992, Bret Hart and Lex Luger going over at the same time in 1994, Shawn Michaels' one-foot ruling in 1995, The Rock's accidental elimination in 2000 (where Hayes actually shoots and says accidents happen when you try to plan a tie/close call on live television), Kane's dominance in 2001, Rey's iron man performance in 2006, the crowd revolting in 2014 and 2015 in protest for Daniel Bryan (yes, they do talk about it, although they say "the crowd wanted Daniel to win, and it didn't matter who else did. Again, lies. Fans are willing to accept someone they like, and not just the chosen one of Vince) and the list goes on and on. The other exciting features of the Royal Rumble Match? All the surprises. Who's going to show up? Over the years, we've had cool returns from the likes of DDP, Mick Foley, Kevin Nash (as Diesel!), The Honkytonk Man, and a host of others. Sure, they never win, but the fun is just seeing them for what is usually a one-night-only booking.
They talked up how important the undercard is to the Royal Rumble PPV, and most of the focus is on the controversial storyline between Goldust and Razor Ramon from 1996, with Dustin Rhodes and Scott Hall adding a lot to that topic, and to my knowledge, it's as close to the truth as is known: Hall didn't feel comfortable doing the storyline and working matches with questionable antics, and there was a bit of animosity over it. Other undercard highlights were Sgt. Slaughter winning the WWF Championship from the Ultimate Warrior in 1991, Roddy Piper winning the Intercontinental Title in 1992, Owen Hart turning on his brother, Bret, in 1994, and so on. Again, with so much to talk about, you only greenlight 64-minutes? Some Royal Rumble matches run longer than that, and we're cramming 29 years of history into the same window.
I'd hate to wrap up the main feature up so quickly, but there's really no meat to it, and the format is all over the place and is more of a clip show than anything meaningful to talk about. There's a lot of memorable moments in Royal Rumble history, some bad, most of it good, and it's a shame they couldn't put together something that runs about 2+ hours and chronicles the Rumbles through the years a bit more clearly. I'm not asking for details and in-depth looks of every single Royal Rumble PPV, but something more than a jumbled mess of "Origins, The Prestige, Controversies, Surprises, Undercard, Records, Moments" (yes, these are the Chapter titles, in order) would've been greatly appreciated and worth having in my collection.
20 Man Royal Rumble Match:
January 24th, 1988 from the Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Ontario. It only makes sense to feature the very first (televised) Royal Rumble Match, and of course, the video is edited to exclude Jesse Ventura's commentary, so we've got Vince McMahon talking to himself for over half-an-hour. Seriously, is Ventura that much of a dick over the use of his voice that we STILL have to play these games, years after WWE cut a deal to preserve the use of "WWF" in archived footage!? Even though the match is the namesake of the event itself, the main feature of the night was a non-match: the contract signing between Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan, promoting the February 5th Prime-Time Special. With that taking center stage, it really didn't matter that if you really inspected the list of participants in the Rumble Match, you'd find nothing more than mid-card and tag team wrestlers. Bret Hart and Tito Santana, arguably two of the best workers on the roster at the time, had the honor to start the match and get off to a strong start. You could see based on the order of entry that the weakest workers in the match were (mostly) brought in late, or at least had their ring time kept considerably short. The One Man Gang got to be the first "dominant" performer, eliminating roughly one-third of the field, before being the last man eliminated by "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan at 33:23. No, there was no prize or championship matches promised, but the tidbit of being the first winner of the Royal Rumble is still remembered 30-years later. *** Always hard to give an accurate rating for a match that isn't like any other, but this was mostly good action and properly paced with eliminations. They made sure to put the workers who could handle the load out first and saved all the worst for last at shorter intervals. I would've liked more "every man for himself", but that will have to wait until 1989.
The Rockers vs. The Orient Express (w/ Mr. Fuji):
(Shawn Michaels & Marty Jannetty vs. Tanaka & Kato)
January 19th, 1991 from the Miami Arena in Miami, FL, and one of the matches that defines what it means to having a strong undercard for the Royal Rumble PPV. In the age before massive DVD collections and the WWE Network, it was cool to see this match, even in edited form, featured on the short-lived "Confidential" show that was hosted by Gene Okerlund. This would be Orient Express Version 2.0, with Paul Diamond as the masked Kato taking the spot of Sato, instantly making the team better and reuniting Badd Company from AWA (not to be confused with the band, Bad Company). With the exception of a several minute long rest period, non-stop action, with countless double team spots and counter sequences that seemed foreign to the WWF audience. Here's a match that proves that an audience can get behind everyone, regardless of the lack of push. It doesn't hurt it opened the show, but for the most part, audiences, even during the eras of the less-smart crowds, would appreciate and respect the effort. Finish came when Kato and Tanaka were attempting a slingshot into a crescent kick, but Michaels recovered to interrupt Tanaka, and Jannetty countered the slingshot into a sunset flip for the three count at 19:15. ****1/4 Easily one of the best opening matches in WWE PPV History, especially with the handicap of being just a filler match.
WWF Championship Match:
The Ultimate Warrior © vs. Sgt. Slaughter (w/ Gen. Adnan):
Our second selection from the 1991 Royal Rumble, and I can't argue too much against it, even though there's plenty of undercard matches worth including that didn't make the cut. Mid-card positioning for the Championship Match was never a good sign for the defending babyface Champion. Slaughter is in full on "Anti-USA, Pro-Iraq" mode, so this isn't a match with any real build up between the two, just Warrior defending the good name of the United States and even has USA colored tights to honor the occasion. To say people were unhappy and disgusted by the direction they took with the Sgt. Slaughter storyline would be an understatement. The action between the two isn't much, with run-ins from Randy Savage and Sensational Sherri taking center stage and adding much needed excitement to a match with little substance. Warrior managed to survive the first wave attack, but the second effort, including Savage smashing his royal scepter over the Warrior's head, allowing Slaughter to make the easy cover to win the WWF Championship at 13:45. *1/2 Considering all the work was done by two people who weren't officially part of the match, this could've been worse. For those wondering, Slaughter was penciled in to win the belt long before Operation Desert Storm, but using real-life conflict with the Gulf War was still a sensitive subject.
30-Man Royal Rumble Match:
January 22nd, 1994 from the Civic Center in Providence, RI. I'm not 100% positive, but I'm sure this is the last Saturday Night Royal Rumble, with all Rumble PPV's taking place on Sunday beginning in 1995. Weird to think this was only the second year where the winner is guaranteed a Championship Match at WrestleMania. Due to the undercard running long, intervals were changed to 90-seconds, the first time they were officially announced as less than 2-minutes. The announcement was made only before the match, so when I wasn't paying attention, I kept wondering why the clock felt a bit accelerated. The '94 Rumble is the first to feature one man clearing the ring and holding the ring for an extended period. That honor went to Diesel, who coming into the show wasn't receiving much of a reaction, but by the time of his elimination, had earned the respect of the crowd. Lex Luger had the most focus coming into the show, needing to win the Rumble to bypass the stipulation from SummerSlam '93 where he wouldn't be allowed a rematch, so to pad out the participants, the Great Kabuki and Genichiro Tenryu were brought in as Fuji's hired henchmen to ensure his defeat. Personally speaking, I didn't give much thought to anyone but Luger winning, so when Bret Hart came in late, still selling the leg, I didn't think much of it. My only reasoning to include this Rumble over a bunch of other better options is for the finish: Bret Hart and Lex Luger become entangled and go over the top rope at the same time at 55:08, and after a long dispute, the referees award the match to both men instead of simply restarting it. **3/4 Take away Diesel's dominance and the finish, anf you've got a really dull Rumble, with too much punch-kick-hug and nearly half the field of participants in the ring at one time. Did Sparky Plugg need to be in the ring for 20 minutes, only to be eliminated nonchalantly? Or how about Mo?
WWF Championship Match:
Sycho Sid © vs. Shawn Michaels (w/ Jose Lothario):
January 19th, 1997 from the AlamoDome in San Antonio, TX. We're entering the phase where after several years of decline, even I began to give up on the WWF product. This is a rematch from Survivor Series '96, where Sid decided to stop being a nice guy, physically assaulted Lothario, and took advantage of a distracted Shawn Michaels to win the Championship. The MSG crowd loved it, of course. They seemed to be teasing Shawn heel before deciding against it, and making him "hometown babyface" wearing the black cowboy hat into battle. Depending on who you want to believe, Shawn Michaels came into the match suffering from "flu like symptoms" and was obviously moving in half-speed, resulting in Sid having to carry the bulk of the match. Considering the match only went 13-minutes, you can see how much faith was there when the match is in the hands of one of the worst workers on the card. Unlike their match at Survivor Series, this one lacked any drama or interest, with a predictable outcome and less-than-stellar work. I can't fault the match for this, but there's one obnoxious fan whistling for almost the entire match that really gets on my nerves. Shawn gave Sid a receipt for using one of the large handheld cameras, and finished with Sweet Chin Music to win his 2nd WWF Championship at 13:48. *1/2 Half the match was rest holds and again, Shawn only going at half-speed really brought the potential of the match down.
Tazz vs. Kurt Angle:
January 23rd, 2000 from Madison Square Garden in New York City, NY. Kurt Angle was undefeated, having made his debut at Survivor Series '99
, and Tazz is a surprise opponent making his debut, although everyone and their mother knew at the time that the mysterious orange glow that had been teased for at least a month was going to lead to Tazz (now with 2 z's) making his entrance in the WWF. Considering the big plans in the works for Angle, it's a huge surprise that Tazz mostly squashes him in a match that lasts less than 5-minutes, throwing him around with various forms of the suplex, and eventually finishing with the Tazzmission (modified chicken-wing) for the victory at 3:14. *1/2 Angle didn't technically tap out, but the dominant performance should've translated to a big push for Tazz, but with the arrival of Benoit, Malenko, Guerrero, and Saturn just a week or so later, he was quickly lost in the shuffle. Angle would go on to win the IC and European Title within the next four weeks, win the King of the Ring Tournament, and become the WWF Champion before the end of the year.
30-Man Royal Rumble Match:
January 21st, 2001 from the New Orleans Arena in New Orleans, LA. Everyone knew the end game was Austin vs. Rock at WrestleMania X-Seven, and neither were the reigning Champion, so one had to win this match, and the other would go on to dethrone Kurt Angle as the WWF Champion. I think it would be safe to say that this Rumble began the trend of surprise participants. We've had "one-night-only" and return appearances before, but they were announced ahead of time. The 2001 Rumble featured the return of the Big Show, Haku (signed away from WCW), and a one-shot appearance from the Honkytonk Man. I would've mentioned Drew Carey (yes, THAT Drew Carey), but it was announced before the match he was taking the spot slated for one member of Lo Down (Chaz and D'Lo Brown). Kane set the record for most eliminations in one Royal Rumble, throwing out 11 participants over the span of 55-minutes of in-ring action. Most of the participants entering early engaged in an unofficial Hardcore format, with lots of plunder being used. The ring fills up a bit too much at one point, but thankfully Kane and Undertaker clear it out, then massacre Scotty 2 Hotty when he has the unfortunate luck of being the next man out. Austin's arrival is interrupted by Triple H, looking for payback for Austin costing him the WWF Title earlier on the card. Austin's heel turn is being teased already (you know, the "it made no sense" turn everyone complains about), needing to brutally assault Kane, a man who had spent almost an hour in the ring and dominated the entire field, with a chair to snag his 3rd Royal Rumble victory at 61:51, a record that still stands today. ****1/4 Strong Rumble Match, with only one period of weak action, and different styles of action to keep things fresh over the span of an hour.
30-Man Royal Rumble Match:
January 28th, 2007 from the AT&T Center in San Antonio, TX. What is it, a tradition to go back to San Antonio every 10 years (2017's Rumble will be in San Antonio, too)? We've officially entered the time period where I've started giving up on not just WWE, but wrestling as a whole. This is the first Royal Rumble of the brand split era to feature Raw, Smackdown, and ECW EXTREMISTS. Good God, the Vince Marketing Machine is ripe for comedy gold. I know this isn't the story of the match, but I'm shocked they put a match on the set that not only features Chris Benoit (in a less prominent role than years before), but the commentary is unaltered, leaving all the discussion of his performances in years past, as well as being the OTHER man to win the Royal Rumble Match as a #1 entrant. This Rumble seems like such a color-by-numbers effort, with so little noteworthy moments until we get to the last few entrants. First, Great Khali shows up to do his two moves, forget to pose to the hard camera, and then tosses out most of the remaining field before the arrival of the Undertaker. We're left with Shawn and Undertaker fighting against Rated RKO (Edge and Orton), with the power of HBK and heel miscommunication leaving Shawn and Undertaker. They get to work a solid 8-10 minutes of constant elimination teases until Undertaker finally muscles Shawn over and out at 57:20, becoming the first man to win the Royal Rumble at the "coveted" #30 spot (as of this writing, 3 men have won from that spot, the others being John Cena in 2008 and Triple H in 2016). ***1/4 Weak 40-minutes and then a super-hot final 15-minutes to save this from being one of the worst Rumbles and upgrading it to about average, maybe slightly above.
WWE Championship Match:
C.M. Punk © (w/ Paul Heyman) vs. The Rock:
January 27th, 2013 from the US Airways Center in Phoenix, AZ. This PPV marked the first time I would purchase a WWE PPV for over 8-years, and the first I'd watch in general since (I think) "ECW" December to Dismember in 2006 via the 24/7 On Demand service. I think everyone knew we were getting Rock vs. Cena for the WWE Title at WrestleMania 29, but deep down, I think a lot of people were holding out hope that they wouldn't take such a predictable route, especially for a match that didn't need the WWE Championship to sell (and surprise, it didn't draw as well as their match at Mania 28, even with the WWE Title added to the hype). When they had Rock cut a Dusty Rhodes inspired promo before the match, any doubt was out the window. The match wasn't great, with Rock's in-ring cardio coming into question, especially since he was never that strong of a worker when a match needed to exceed 20-minutes. Things went about as well as you'd expect. Rock seemed to have the match won, but the lights went out and someone (cough:Shield:cough) put him through the announcers table, and Punk pinned Rock to retain the title… but wait. As part of a pre-match stipulation, Vince McMahon came out to award the belt to the Rock for Punk having the Shield interfere on his behalf, but Rock refused to win like that and wanted to get the job done himself. Two minutes later, and the job was done by Punk, via People's Elbow, at 26:40. ***1/2 Not a classic, but a solid Main Event performance.
WWE Divas Championship Match:
Charlotte © (w/ Ric Flair) vs. Becky Lynch:
January 24th, 2016 from the Amway Arena in Orlando, FL. I don't remember a thing about this match, and it's only been a year removed from the original broadcast date. This was shortly after Charlotte's heel turn, after flopping terribly as a babyface in a misguided feud with Paige. With Ric Flair at ringside, we know he's going to be involved in the finish somehow, and wouldn't you know it, they did a spot mid-match with Flair kissing Becky Lynch. Later in the match, Becky had Charlotte trapped in the Disarm-Her, but Flair threw his jacket on everyone, and instead of calling for the Disqualification, the referee simply looked on like a doofus. Becky wasted time arguing with Flair, allowing Charlotte to jab her in the eyes and finish with the Spear to retain the belt at 11:40. Post-match, Sasha Banks made her return from hiatus (injury, lack of something to do, I don't remember or care, honestly) and sent a message to Charlotte, trapping her in the Bank Statement for a tap-out that unfortunately doesn't mean much outside of the context of the actual match. *** The women's matches were slowly getting better, but were still short on time compared to everything else.
Final Thoughts: For the $5 I spent on the set (thank you WWE Shop discounts and random sales), I can't complain too much about the bonus features. I finally get the 2001 Royal Rumble Match on DVD without the blurring of letters and without dropping $30-40 for an original DVD released nearly 2-decades ago, and the rest of the bonus features have a few gems, even if most of them are available elsewhere. The big takeaway is the sad, sorry effort put into the main feature, which barely qualifies as acceptable filler on the WWE Network, and for a set like this, a strong feature is a must to make it feel like you're getting value for your money. For the full price of $20 (or $25 for Blu-Ray), this would be a Strong Recommendation to Avoid.
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