Twenty Five (Royal Rumbles)

It Came From the Vault, #5: Every Royal Rumble Ever
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I mentioned it in passing yesterday, and might as well explain it now: recently I watched every Royal Rumble in WWE history. In order. Call it research, I guess, or an unusually loud guided meditation. Masochism is another word that works. Even given that the Royal Rumble is guaranteed to be the single wildest and most unpredictable night of wrestling in any given year, watching 25 of them is, in the end, only as wild and unpredictable as sitting in a room and watching 25 three-hour videos. I’m also attending a First ‘26th Annual Royal Rumble’ party this year -- which, because it’s happening in Queens, starts with brunch -- and wanted to be prepared. There are other reasons, and I’ll explore those with a therapist when I’m ready.

Still, I learned some things on this couch-bound “adventure.” These are things beyond the fact, long suspected and now definitively proven, that while there may be better ways to spend 75 hours of one’s life, there are few more ridiculous than marathon wrestling consumption. Although lord knows I know that now, too.

***

For instance: there is Jake “The Snake” Roberts. I remembered that he was very popular, of course, but had forgotten that he was, at least for the first four Rumbles, as popular as Hulk Hogan. And, I’d certainly forgotten the way he spent the first four years of the event’s existence annually recreating the single best Rumble spot ever.

In each of his Rumble matches, Roberts would come out a house afire -- or if you prefer your malaprops “where-with-it-all”/Jim Ross-style, “house of fire” -- running through his five moves of doom: punches, running kneelift, short arm clothesline, then DDT signal -- read: makes tiny lasso with his finger in the air -- to get the crowd hot for the DDT. There was an oddly collaborative feel to this: fans reacted like they were seeing a walkoff home run, but if they knew it was coming, and realized they could will it forward simply by cheering loudly enough. There’s some power in watching the goofy symbiosis unfold. It’s also why it’s so great that Jake never ended up actually hitting the move.

The fact that he got the same spot in every match says something about how the powers-that-be felt about Jake. Of course, that spot’s length and importance in the big picture of the match changed with his position in the company. But while the spot itself was a microcosm of his inability to quite get over the hump into any type of major title program, it also probably said something about Jake.

While it’s always nice to have a good think about Jake “The Snake” Roberts, this repetition is also telling in the way it provides a snapshot of the WWE’s process and priorities at that particular moment. The Rumble match serves as an annual State of the Union for WWE Creative, except instead of politicians interrupting a speech to stand up and applaud, there is the only slightly less vulgar and far more engaging spectacle of oiled men in underpants pretending to throw each other over the top rope.

The “State of the Union” bit isn’t a metaphor, really: each Rumble offers a reflection of who the WWE’s narrative makers like and don’t like, and sketches out long-term priorities -- in typically broad strokes, this being WWE and all -- and dynamic changes that will animate the majority of the storylines On the Road to WrestleManiaTM. Because there are so many wrestlers in the ring at any given time -- the Rumble, for the uninitiated, is just what it sounds like: a wild match where 30 (and for two years 20 and 40, but whatever to those years) men run down to the ring at regular (if you choose not to actually count along with them) 90-second or 2-minute intervals, then attempt to throw each other over the top rope, until there’s one man left standing (woof, that’s a lot of exposition) -- with the who’s-up/who’s-down bits playing out in something like real time.

Wrestlemania remains the most popular event -- every year, by a wide margin -- but it is the quintessential supershow. Only the best get on Wrestlemania; this, along with the WWE’s addiction to overstatement, explains why Wrestlemania bears the tagline, “The Showcase of the Immortals.” If the Royal Rumble had a slogan, on the other hand, it would be something like “Seeing What Sticks, With Violence.” It shouldn’t be surprising that the figuring-it-out is more fun than the extravagantly mounted spectacle. It is, maybe, surprising that it’s fun even across 25 different events.

***

Unsurprisingly, the first Royal Rumble -- January 24th, 1988 in Hamilton, Ontario -- had a very different look from the rest of the events. There are a number of reasons for that. Some are technical, some are structural, some are because of the subtle but significant differences between modern wrestling and the regional era of wrestling that WWF/E CEO Vince McMahon was then still in the process of smothering. But mostly, it was because the first Royal Rumble was not a pay-per-view but a USA Network special, so they really didn’t give a shit.

The result was an event that was boring pretty much all the way through, but which was moreover and more glaringly a very different match. It wasn’t just that there were 10 fewer wrestlers in the night’s battle royale, but that there were no stakes at all. Instead of a trip to the main event of WrestleMania, one can only assume that Jim Duggan, the evening’s champion, received a hearty pat on the back and -- because it was the 1980’s and because he was Jim Duggan -- an eight-ball of cocaine.

The most surprising thing -- at least in the “that idea came from where?”sense --- one can learn from an adventure like mine (specifically the Royal Rumble-watching part), was the “winner gets a title shot at Wrestlemania” gimmick that sets the Rumble’s dramatic stakes wasn’t instituted until 1993, when Yokozuna won by kicking out of a pin so forcefully he threw Randy Savage from the ring. That looked as bad as it sounds, but at least gave us the immortal line “What’s he doing? Pins don’t count!” (Oh, just immortal to me? Fair enough.)

That meant that for a full four years -- before 1992’s Rumble for the WWF title -- the Rumble existed as an entirely meaningless PPV whose only notional purpose was to make Hulk Hogan look good, and to set up future matches in which Hogan would also look good. He set the precedent for the winner-goes-to-Wrestlemania bit in 1991 after predicting in his pre-match promo that he would win the match. Then immediately after calling his shot, he challenged Iraqi sympathizer Sgt. Slaughter to a match at WrestleMania VII. This was during the first Gulf War. 25 years. It’s a lot of wrestling.

After the brilliant 1992 Royal Rumble, where the dramatic stakes were as high as they could possibly get -- it’s still the only year in which the winner of the Rumble match also received the WWF title, and Flair’s 62-minute masterpiece is the best single performance in any match ever -- they found a happy medium, with the ticket-to-Wrestlemania business. This, for obvious reasons, had a profound impact on the nature of the event.

But what truly genericized the Rumble -- the thing that made it an event unto itself and people say “Royal Rumble” when they meant “battle royale” -- was that it also replaced the lumbering big men who had run roughshod over the Rumble, your One Man Gangs and Big John Studds, with wrestlers like the Undertaker. Taker created a Chris Webber/Larry Bird situation for many of the larger wrestlers in the business: he was the first “big” who could also be dropped out of the ring without requiring six or seven wrestlers to do it. He was, more importantly, also able to work the entire match without looking like a fat, sloppy mess.

Simply by dint of his size and skill, Undertaker changed the very nature of the Rumble. Since “big” no longer meant “kind of tall and (relatively) fat”, but “pretty tall and (relatively) athletic,” and because guys like the Undertaker could be eliminated using superior wit and guile, even the smallest wrestlers -- like Chris Benoit (‘04) and Rey Mysterio (‘06) -- could win without taking unscrupulous short cuts. After ‘93, a string “regular” sized wrestlers won it. Bret Hart/Lex Luger, Shawn Michaels (twice) and Steve Austin (twice) ran things for the rest of the decade. And it was good. Then it was 1999, and it wasn’t.

***

That was the fateful year when, after entering as part of the all-important (from a storytelling perspective) first two along with his rival Austin, Vince “Mr. McMahon” McMahon won.

To reiterate: Vince McMahon, WWE CEO and suspiciously well-built 50-year-old, won the Royal Rumble. This, obviously, broke some barriers, none of which anyone was all that excited to see broken. McMahon was: the first non-wrestler entrant, first non-wrestler winner, and his win marked the first vacating of the title shot at Wrestlemania. He was also the first winner to leave the ring voluntarily for the entire match. It was, not surprisingly, the first Rumble match to be overshadowed by a WWE title match. Other non-Rumble matches had “headlined” the event (including the 2 previous years), but that year’s “I Quit” match between the Rock and Mick Foley marked the first year that the fan’s interest in the rest of the card was anywhere near the excitement for the Rumble match.

McMahon’s victory defined downward what winning the Rumble meant. By having a non-wrestler win, it became clear that winning the Rumble and “winning” the Rumble were now different things. Performing impressively -- or even doing something important -- during the match became as good as being the last man standing. Winning became a means to a narrative end, an excuse to punch a chosen wrestler’s ticket for Wrestlemania.

While performers such as Mysterio, Batista, Sheamus and Alberto Del Rio have had their first main event matches at Wrestlemania as a result of Rumble victories, these were either as part of a major, long-term storyline or a way to put somebody important in the less-important title match; Sheamus’, ADR’s and Mysterio’s matches were all Wrestlemania also-rans for the WHC and Sheamus’ match lasted all of 18 seconds. And while notables like CM Punk, John Morrison and Kofi Kingston have never won the Rumble, their insane performances -- like Punk’s intercession prayers during the 2010 match -- created “moments.” In the Rumble circa now, that’s enough.

Which leaves us where we are for this Sunday: a Rumble match, with perhaps the deepest roster ever -- and definitely the deepest roster since the mid-00s when HBK, Angle, Benoit, Taker and Lesnar were all full time performers as opposed to a few-times-a-year attractions/cautionary tales -- completely and totally overshadowed by a single championship match. Now, this isn’t just any championship match -- what with the Rock and C.M. Punk’s epic/quasi-historic showdown getting as much shine as any match in recent memory -- but the Rumble match isn’t supposed to be any ordinary match.

When you take that (the hype) and you add on the decreased importance of things like title shots (and things like the Money in the Bank contract that give you a title shot whenever you damn well please), a chance at the belt -- even after Punk has spent the last 430-or-so days toiling away to create value for it -- there’s no surprise that this is occurring , even if the fact that it’s happening (and the fact that we aren’t surprised about it happening) are kind of depressing.

And, this prestige deficit isn’t a temporary problem, or one the promotion seems particularly eager to fix. But, as much as it has been diluted, the Royal Rumble still matters, because it’s still fun. From the surprise entrants to the shocking eliminations, the match offers a lurid real-time illustration of why it’s fun to be a wrestling fan. Goofy, declining, confused: sure, the Rumble is all that. But it’s also enjoyable enough that it’s possible to watch 25 years of Rumbles without ever getting sick of it. That doesn’t mean you should, of course.


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