In preparation for the most anticipated Royal Rumble in a decade, Jericho Ricardi reviews the highlights of its twenty-five-year history.
The first in a three-part series.
Royal Rumble 1988
What Happened: There were only 20 participants in this Rumble and there wasn’t a particular reward for winning, and it’s clear that they were still developing the concept… but it isn’t bad at all. The first two participants were Bret Hart and Tito Santana, who started at the same time. The person who gets the #2 draw is generally underrated in these events, since they essentially have the same uphill climb as the #1 draw. Vince McMahon and Jesse Ventura did a great job on commentary, playing up the concept and explaining the psychology of the match: if Bret’s tag team partner, Jim Neidhart, drew #3, then Tito Santana would be in trouble and have to survive until #4 arrived, etc.
What Worked: Jake “The Snake” Roberts was insanely popular with the crowd, and it’s a wonder he didn’t go on to win any world titles or anything that I know of. The novelty of the event was strong, and they did a good job explaining things.
What Didn’t Work: They hadn’t ironed things out yet, and the lack of a major purpose for the event (no title or title shots on the line) brought the importance of the proceedings down a lot. The most popular guy in the match, Jake Roberts, got eliminated way too early. A lack of main eventers contributed to the lack of importance.
Best Moment: Nothing particularly stands out about this one, but “Hacksaw” fighting off two guys at once at the end managed to rally the crowd quite a bit.
Who Won:“Hacksaw” Jim Duggan
Royal Rumble 1989
What Happened: A bigger, more star-studded match this time. The number of participants increased to 30, where it’d stay for the most part. While the first Rumble almost completely lacked main eventers, this one had pretty much all of them. The WWF Champion, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, was one of the participants, but the title wasn’t on the line. The previous winner, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan was oddly absent. Big John Studd, who isn’t really known for doing anything major, won the whole thing. As far as I know he wasn’t elevated by this, and it seems like an odd choice when they could have used this to put “Macho Man” over strong. Like the first Rumble, this one ended with the winner having to square off with multiple bad guys at once to emerge victorious. This Rumble may not have had anything on the line, but it was used to set up that year’s Wrestlemania main event by having Macho Man and Hulk Hogan at odds. This is a step up from the previous year’s Rumble, which didn’t set up anything.
What Worked: Shawn Michaels making his Royal Rumble debut to a very high-pitched crowd reaction (I believe it may have been 100% female) and hanging onto the top rope to save himself from elimination for the first time ever. Having more superstars meant that the crowd was a lot more into this match than the first Royal Rumble.
What Didn’t Work: Having both members of Demolition be the first two guys out. Having never seen these guys in action before (but heard of them many times) I was interested in this. However, it makes little sense that they immediately start battling each other. Why not team up and take out everyone else who comes in? They could have had the whole thing in the bag. There’s a definite logic shortage here. It’s funny considering that later, when The Rockers are both in the match, the announcers play up that they don’t need to worry about each other unless they’re the final two. It seems Demolition just isn’t that bright. Jake Roberts, again, gets one of the biggest (behind only Hulk Hogan) reactions of the match, yet gets eliminated almost right away. Who did that guy piss off?
Best Moment: Jake the Snake running back in with a giant snake to scare Andre the Giant into eliminating himself.
Who Won: Big John Studd
Royal Rumble 1990
What Happened: Before the match started, we got promos from nearly every participant. On one hand, this was really good for finding out who these guys were and what they were about. On the other hand, it dragged on a bit long, given that we’re dealing with thirty participants here. Like the previous two, this one ended with the winner having to battle multiple bad guys by himself at the end. Again, mainly used as a vehicle to set up that year’s Wrestlemania main event.
What Worked: Absolutely massive crowd on hand for this one. Jake the Snake was yet again ridiculously popular with the crowd, and this time he actually got to hang in there for a while. Great moment resulted from this, with Roddy Piper running in and saving Jake the Snake from Macho Man and The Million Dollar Man, then engaging in a 2-on-2 brawl.
What Didn’t Work: There still wasn’t any real reward for winning the match. The world champion won, so they might as well have had the title on the line. Once again, Hogan kinda came across as a total asshole, eliminating other good guys that had previously helped him out. While this Rumble may well have been the best of the first three when taken by itself, at this point the show was becoming formulaic and predictable. Wasn’t different enough from the first two.
Best Moment: Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warrior finding themselves the only two guys in the ring, then battling momentarily as the audience absolutely went ballistic.
Who Won: Hulk Hogan
Royal Rumble 1991
What Happened: This Rumble took place in the thick of the 1991 Gulf War, so patriotic fervor was pretty high here. Bret Hart was the #1 entrant, and clearly positioned as the star in the early-going. Notably absent were Ultimate Warrior (defended the title earlier in the night) and Ted Dibiase (had a tag match right before this). Undertaker makes his Rumble debut here. Once again they go with the “two heels against one face” setup for the finale, but here it works better than usual since the crowd was really behind the Hulkster.
What Worked: Hulk Hogan winning for the second straight year. Say what you want about the guy, but he was clearly the star of the event both years. Bret Hart carries the match early on and looks a bit out of his element surrounded by guys who barely seemed to know what they were doing. Hacksaw Jim Duggan makes his long-awaited Rumble return here, trundling around the ring like a giant baby as the audience yells “HOOOOOO” in unison damn near got “Best Moment” for this one. Also liked that they spaced out the pre-match promos over the show beforehand. While this means I missed most of them, it also means that they didn’t have an overly-long promo segment right before the match.
What Didn’t Work: The match quality took a dive in this one, as aside from Bret Hart, most of the match was full of uncharismatic lunkheads with little wrestling ability. Again, it didn’t seem like the match had any kind of reward for winning, which took away from it. The winner ended up challenging for the world title at Wrestlemania anyway. Just isn’t different enough from the 1990 Rumble, and aside from the lower match quality, it’s visually indistinguishable from that one.
Best Moment: Hulk Hogan squaring off with Earthquake as the final two, then going on to walk around holding up various Gulf War related signs as “Real American” blares. It causes goosebumps. The guy has tremendous presence, and at this point I think the audience needed a hero to look up to. While this Rumble was pretty bad, those last few minutes are good (and have appeared on numerous highlight reels since).
Who Won:Hulk Hogan
What Happened: Ric Flair made history by being the first person to enter at a mere #3 and win the Royal Rumble. This time, the Royal Rumble finally had a point: the winner would be the new WWF Champion. Not sure why they didn’t just have him enter at #1 if he were going to go all the way, but hey. Nearly everyone was gunning for Flair, who was quite the hated heel at this point. Yet Flair managed to slyly outlast everyone else in the match.
What Worked: Being for the WWF title gave this match an entirely new world of importance. The first half of this match was all about Flair, and had him somehow squeaking past a procession of formidable opponents. He continuously defied the odds, often finding himself the only man in the ring. This was unheard of at this point; the first four Rumbles perpetually featured a huge number of people in the ring at once. The second half is the most competitive Rumble yet. Since the title is on the line, nearly every main eventer at the time was involved in this match and there was no telling who would win. This Rumble is less schmozz and more storytelling, and as a result it’s the best one yet and would continue to be the best one until at least 1995.
What Didn’t Work: Hogan no-sold the entirety of Flair’s offense, which diminished Flair a bit even in victory. Also, the finale of the match was all about Hogan and Sid being at odds, with Flair —the winner —disappearing quickly.
Best Moment: The final few seconds, which had Sid Justice eliminate Hogan to a huge crowd pop, followed by Hogan being a complete sore loser by dragging Sid out and giving Flair the win.
Who Won:Ric Flair
Royal Rumble 1993
What Happened: Finally, this Rumble was for the #1 contendership going into Wrestlemania. The champion at this point was the newly-ascendant Bret Hart. Ric Flair was out at #1 this time, and the question early on was whether or not he’d repeat the previous year’s performance. He didn’t, getting eliminated early on. Bob Backlund was involved and stayed in the match for a long time. Also, a young Rikishi could be seen in this match, a bit lighter but still throwing good superkicks. Oddly enough, Hulk Hogan was absent. Ultimately, it came down to Macho Man and Yokozuna, culminating with Mach looking like a complete idiot when he attempted to pin Yoko (in a match with no pinfalls). This would be the first time a heel won the Royal Rumble.
What Worked: The entire last part of the match with Macho Man and Yokozuna facing off had some great crowd heat and just worked well. Almost the highlight of the match. To a lesser extent, Giant Gonzales running in and taking Undertaker out of the match. While they’d go on to have one of the worst matches of all time, in this particular match their brief confrontation worked. The announcers sold it really well, though questioning if Giant Gonzales is even human was a bit much.
What Didn’t Work: The middle third of the match, once Flair and Undertaker were out, featured a long period of time where no major stars were involved and nothing interesting happened. As a result, it really dragged on for a little while. The crowd wasn’t that great compared to previous years, and it seemed like the company in general was in a lull here.
Best Moment: Yokozuna and a face-turned Earthquake having an extended series of collisions mid-ring. It looks like Earthquake was pretty much the “immovable object” of the WWF after Andre, and him not being able to take Yokozuna off of his feet was quite the moment.
Royal Rumble 1994
What Happened: With the Hogan era over, the “New Generation” was coalescing at this point. For the most part, the old guard was out at this point, at least in the midcard. This means we see a LOT of new faces in this match. Most of them would later go on to Attitude Era prominence with different edgy personas, but here we see a smorgasbord of lame gimmicks like “Sparky Plugg” Bob Holly. Going in, the heavy favorite to win was Lex Luger, who made waves by landing on an aircraft carrier and body-slamming the world champion, Yokozuna. That said, the field was wide open for this one, with plenty of contenders in the match. Despite Luger being pushed as “the guy” to take on Yokozuna, the biggest audience reaction of the night easily goes to Bret Hart.
What Worked: Diesel pioneered the “one guy clears the ring and then stands there waiting for more foes to appear” spot in this match. He looked invincible for the first half of the match, with only Randy Savage able to stand up to him. Shawn Michaels is a star performer here, and no doubt the powers that be were taking note.
What Didn’t Work: The atrocious gimmicks on display here. It really seems like the WWF in 1994 barely knew what they were doing as they tried to transition past the Hogan era.
Best Moment: The post-match with referees arguing over who won the match, the crowd showing support for Bret, and the general controversy. It had a “real sport” feeling.
Who Won: Bret Hart and Lex Luger
Royal Rumble 1995
What Happened: Shawn Michaels drew #1 and proceeded to outlast everyone. He was without a doubt the star of this match, and every other story that was told in the ring pretty much revolved around him. British Bulldog and Shawn Michaels (the #2 and #1 participants, respectively) were the last two in the ring, with Lex Luger the other major contender. Most of the Hogan era superstars weren’t around any more at this point.
What Worked: Pamela Anderson’s legs during the match intro. Bret Hart acting like some kind of psychopath, continuously running out and attacking anybody that he had a problem with during their entrances. It was entertaining stuff. Shawn Michaels worked as the protagonist or “main character” of this Rumble, despite sorta being a heel. This match was faster-paced than previous Rumbles by a good margin, which made it a bit more interesting.
What Didn’t Work: Again, the nonsense gimmicks on display. Mid-90’s wrestling was pretty lame, for sure. Though hearing the announcers sell the power of “that four-hundred pound beast, Mantaur!” has some comedy value.
Best Moment: British Bulldog eliminates Shawn Michaels and celebrates as his music plays. Next thing we know, Michaels is back in the ring and eliminates the unwary, celebrating Bulldog. It seems that when he tossed Michaels, only one foot touched the floor. This solidified the “both feet must touch the floor” rule. It also solidified that Michaels is nearly impossible to throw out of a Rumble.
Who Won: Shawn Michaels
Royal Rumble 1996
What Happened: The first Rumble of the Monday Night War era, though at this point it was more like a Monday Night Skirmish. Both companies were floundering creatively and neither was setting the ratings on fire. It’d be a few more months before they started one-upping each other decisively and making increasingly large waves in the ratings, a process that would go on for years. The first two entries are Hunter Hearst Helmsley (the future Triple H, of course) and… The Hog Farmer. Yep, the era of lame gimmicks was still in full swing. Steve Austin makes his Rumble debut here as “The Ringmaster”, but he already exhibits some of the “Stone Cold” persona.
What Worked: This is the first Rumble to play the entrance music of the wrestlers as they join the match. This is such a great addition that it’s amazing they got by at all without it up to this point. The main boon is that it allows the audience to react immediately in unison to whoever the next entrant will be, which allows the crowd to be more engaged.
What Didn’t Work: There was a pretty high concentration of jobbers in the ring for most of the match. This is often the case, but here the lack of star power was especially pronounced. The WWF was lacking stars at this point, and with Bret Hart holding the title this really just left Shawn Michaels and Diesel as the only real superstars in the match.
Best Moment: Jake “The Snake” Roberts walking out and unleashing a python in the middle of the ring, upon which every guy in there leaped out as fast as they possibly could.
Who Won: Shawn Michaels
Photo credit: pescatello/Flickr