I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but, according to Michael Cole (and Jerry Lawler, JBL, Josh Matthews, Matt Striker and probably Jim Ross) the WWE championship match between The Rock and C.M. Punk could be the greatest match in Royal Rumble history. On the surface this probably sounds like hype. But, if you’re like me, and have watched all of the Royal Rumble PPVs in order -- because you are also a masochist -- then not only does it sound like hype, it looks and smells like hype. And not in good way.
Now, the whole “I’ve watched something like 75 hours of Royal Rumble matches over the last week or so” sounds like a lot of work. Honestly, though, it’s freezing outside and, because I’m the guy who writes columns about No Way Out 2007 and its importance RE: a tag team consisting of a goat and a demon, there’s a decent chance I would’ve done it anyway. And, as you’ll see tomorrow, I’ve unlocked the magic of the Rumble Match itself, which kind of makes it all worth it.
Mostly, though, there is a lot of goofiness and yelling and wild-eyed roid-puffed wrestle-dude overage in those hours, but -- because it’s pro wrestling -- you get to see some of the more transcendent moments in the sport’s history. So, as a Rumble expert (you watch 25 PPVs and tell me you don’t feel like an expert on them) I can tell you: it’s no disrespect to The Rock or Punk to say that if their match even cracks the Royal Rumble’s upper echelon, it will be quite an achievement. It’s probably safer to say that the Royal Rumble, which has consistently been the WWE’s best event, is in line for an addition to a stellar tradition.
Since 1991, when the Sgt. Slaughter and the Ultimate Warrior fought for the belt, the WWF/E title (and beginning in 2003, the WHC) has been defended at every Royal Rumble. Nearly every one of those —yes, even the anti-legendary 1994 Casket Match Shitshow, which culminated in every single heel on the WWE roster stuffing Undertaker in the casket on the behalf of then-champion Yokozuna—have been among the best matches of their year. WWE Hall of Famers (and other superstars who have been Pete Rose'd by the internal politics of the WWE) such as Mick Foley, Triple H, Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit and Razor Ramon have had career-best performances in title matches at the show; while veterans like Bob Holly, Jeff Hardy and Mark Henry got their first (or in Holly’s case, only) chance in the spotlight. And, I mean, a dude got stuffed into a coffin against his will by a bunch of goons. So, it’s not perfect, but it’s mostly pretty great.
The transition from a one trick dog-and-pony show -- with the Rumble match itself being the one trick and let’s say, Hulk Hogan-and-Earthquake, as the dog-and-pony -- to Supershow had as much to do with the decline in importance (and value) of winning the Rumble match (something we’ll get to tomorrow) as anything else. With the main attraction -- and thereby the PPV itself— in decline, the only way to bolster PPV buys was to put on good matches that people actually wanted to see. This doesn’t seem revolutionary, maybe, to those not familiar with how the WWE works.
And the decision has paid dividends. The Rock vs. Mankind “I Quit” match in 1999 was the first of these, placed on the card as deliberate counterprogramming to Vince McMahon’s unprecedented Rumble win. It’s considered one of the more important matches of its era and its prominent role in the seminal documentary “Beyond the Mat” has given it a place in wrestling lore. Beyond the rep, the match itself remains one of the most engaging pieces of Mick Foley’s storied career of engaging pieces of work.
Foley built on this success the following year, in a “street fight” against Triple H that is widely considered the best match of its ilk ever, as a brilliant hometown crowd for Foley—who appeared in both the match and its buildup as his extra sadistic persona Cactus Jack—propelled both performers to new personal bests in storytelling, brutality and bloodletting. Triple H won after Pedigreeing Foley not once but twice on thumbtacks. This was after Hunter gave himself one of the more egregious bladejobs in history (approximately a .89 out of 1.0 on the Muta Scale) and had his leg punctured by a wood pallet (which, Vault Pro TipTM: don’t watch the video extras for this Rumble if you are even kind of squeamish) during the melee. This was a great match, but it’s not one that Punk and Rock should try to emulate. It’s doubtful that they, or anyone, could.
Punk and Rock can both fight in “extreme” conditions, but neither of them is anywhere near Foley’s (or H’s, for that matter) level at striking the balance between the rough-and-tumble nature of hardcore wrestling and the spectacle of the sports entertainment style of wrestling that both performers perfected during the Attitude era. Anyway, given the constraints of a “regular” match and, more importantly, the constraints of the Rock’s negligible technical wrestling abilities—even without all these years of ring rust, he makes the meatish, smash-y John Cena look graceful—this seems like a questionable decision. But there are other ways this match could, and should, make it into Rumble lore.
That's not to say it’ll be because it was a five star wrestling clinic, either. In order to be considered the greatest singles match in Royal Rumble history, Punk and Rock will not just need to compete against vulgar displays of power like Cactus-H, but technical showcases like the virtuoso Kurt Angle-Chris Benoit match from the 2003 Royal Rumble. The match, which took place a year before Benoit’s historic Royal Rumble win—the last truly significant one—is a legitimate “match for the ages;” and the go-to conversion-bait for non-believers I’m looking to lure to the “wrestling is awesome” side. Benoit fell short against his greatest rival, the Olympic gold medalist Angle, but the match featured so many twists and turns before crescendoing into a classic Angle “pitbull” Ankle Lock finish as to leave the viewer a little breathless. (The combatants seemed even more exhausted.)
Beyond the difference in technical acumen, it seems unlikely that this match will provide the same sense of completeness that the Benoit-Angle match had. Angle was the better man, as despite all the momentum Benoit had coming in—most notably, he had beaten Angle several times in the month before the match—not only did he lose, he lost clean. Such a finish is not happening if Punk wins, and only marginally more likely if the Rock wins. Even if Punk it starts to look like he’ll go over, there is a feeling of scripted inevitability to a Rock title reign that could cast a cloud over the match and dampen enthusiasm. This puts added pressure on Punk, at least in terms of salesmanship: the match can work if the audience can be made to feel that Punk has the clear advantage during the match, at least before the inevitable “reverse-reverse-reverse-finisher” spots start to show up, as they generally do in matches like this.
None of this creeping inevitability -- both of the title reign and that this match will be more than a little disappointing -- is Punk or Rock’s fault. It owes more, I’d argue, to the decision to have Rock be involved in the first place. He's the biggest star in the history of wrestling, when things like "famousness" and "major parts in Southland Tales" are taken into account. And, not since Lawrence Taylor’s appearance at the 1996 Royal Rumble—as a plant to set up a match at WM 12 with the late Bam Bam Bigelow—has the ratio of wrestling ability to involvement been more out of whack than this, which is precisely what you want from the biggest main event in the history of the event. And if that seems counterintuitive, it should. And if not, I should tell probably tell you that wrestling is scripted. Because you would be a mark (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).
Though, not all is lost, as the Punk-Rock match -- just on crowd enthusiasm and both men’s storytelling ability alone -- can make it into the Clyde Drexler/Gary Payton class of quality. Matches like the Last Man Standing matches between Triple H/HBK and Cena/Umaga, for instance, or Undertaker/Rey Mysterio’s great big/small match (sorry in advance for the music on these)—haven’t quite been up to the level reached by Cactus, H, Angle and Benoit, but been more enjoyable to watch than any other match you’d be likely to find on any other show.
Ultimately, though, the goal of Rock and Punk’s battle, much like the goal of the Rumble Match itself, will be obvious and mercenary: deliver something good enough to get you to watch Raw the following night, and then buy the Elimination Chamber PPV in February. And while we may not get a pantheon match—Monday night’s great “I Will Rip Your Face Off” promo tirade aside, Rock has felt awfully stale, especially in comparison to Punk—it seems awfully likely, if not “guaran-damn-teed,” that we’ll get something good enough to bring us back. Of course, I probably didn’t need to watch 25 Royal Rumbles to figure that out.