We're a fortnight away from the Royal Rumble match, of which long term readers of this page might recall I am a slight fan.
The match itself is much like The Five Doctors anniversary special of Doctor Who. Super fans may point to the performances of Antonio Cesaro for work rate (translation: "gravitas") or those of John Cena for the showbiz glare, but really, the best fun to be had is when you have a big old get together with a decent dose of nostalgia.
The Royal Rumble is one of the premier wrestling matches of the WWE calendar. In a world where gimmicks are overplayed to death - the Hell in a Cell, a massive cage put around the ringside, went from being a blood-feud-ender to a thing put on thrice a year because it makes money - the Rumble remains unique in remaining constant to its once a year spot.
The rules are very simple. It's a staggered Battle Royal. Two men start, every X amount of time after another competitor enters by "random" draw. Thirty men (or women, given Beth Pheonix, Kharma and the late Chyna appeared..) in all. Elimination only occurs by going over the top rope of the ring, and both feet touching the floor. You can go through the ropes, and you're fine. You can go over the top rope, and if only one foot touches the ground, you're still safe.
The winner gets a World title shot at WrestleMania (the biggest show of the year), so the matches tend to be a Who's Who for who is big in wrestling at that moment in time. And with the random element - it's scripted before hand, but never leaks out - the fans never know, to keep the Doctor Who reference, if its Tom Baker or Pigbin Josh coming out next.
(I'm going to win the Royal Rumble, thought The Red Rooster - photo screenshot Claws of Axos episode 1)
Pat Patterson came up with the idea in the mid-80s. He tried it on Vince McMahon, head honcho of the then World Wrestling Federation, who... hated it. So did others. Journalist Dave Meltzer thought the first would be dreadful based on a trial run at a non-TV event in 1987.
However, Dick Ebersol came into the picture. Ebersol, who helped create Saturday Night Live, was a top executive at NBC, and he loved Vince McMahons's wrestling shows, because they popped huge ratings for the network. And that's not just a figment of imagination - the Andre the Giant/Hulk Hogan title rematch in February 1988 drew thirty-three million TV viewers! So Ebersol wanted a show in January 1988, to run opposite the Bunkhouse Stampede, a rival company's wrestling show on PPV.
(Dick Ebersol, to the Royal Rumble what lightning was to Frankenstein's Monster - By The Peabody Awards [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
There were these executives, wondering what the draw of this TV special would be, when Vince McMahon allegedly muttered: "Ok, Pat, tell them that crazy idea of yours." Pat Patterson excitedly explained the Royal Rumble, and where McMahon and Meltzer and others had failed to see the charm, Dick Ebersol was immediately excited. "That'd be great for TV!" he said.
So Patterson had to go sort out his crazy idea and make it a workable match.
That we're in 2017, and about to have the 30th Royal Rumble might suggest it didn't go down too badly...
Now, lots and lots of websites are running retrospective Rumble reviews in the build up, and I can't help but get annoyed reading them. Most of them are just play by play, and you can get that by watching the damned matches. Others seem to miss the point. So here's some thoughts on the matches, a very different sort of Rumble review - without the wrestling, as much as possible.
Without further ado...
Future Governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura, hangs a lampshade on proceedings at the very beginning. As one half of both the current tag team champions (Tito Santana), and one half of the former tag team champions (Bret Hart) lock horns as the first two men to ever compete in a Royal Rumble match, Ventura openly opines: "How ironic that these two rivals should start the match in a random drawing!"
|(By Cory Barnes from Vancouver, WA, United States (Gov. Jesse Ventura speaks) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)|
It's isn't a random drawing of course, it's a carefully planned draw which both has to seem random, and also draw as much drama from the situation as possible. It's a remarkable coincidence, yes, that Bret's tag partner Jim Neidhart comes out shortly afterwards, but then, life is full of coincidence.
Bret, incidentally, would become one of the biggest names in wrestling history, and have enough pop culture credibility to both sell out Wembley stadium and appear in The Simpsons. But in 1988, he no more know of that than a gnat knows the London underground map.
This is a match rough rounds the edges, the prototype of what we'd come to know and love. The "every man for himself" mentality was yet to fully manifest, so we have the good guys working together against the villains in a staggered battle royal, which doesn't really work. It is a breath of fresh air when wrestling's Lee Marvin, Harley Race, walks in and immediately thumps one of the bad guys.
Harley Race incidentally: crippling polio as a child, told he'd never walk, became an amateur champion and later eight time pro-wrestling World champion. One time, in WCW, the doctors were refusing to treat Mick Foley under insurance as "his cut had happened outside the ring". Harley Race was on hand to glare at the doctor until he decided that the cut happened off a mistimed punch in the ring, the Fear of Harley being apparently quite like those glares grans give!
Butch Reed was the first man eliminated in Royal Rumble history, which was a sort of metaphor for his career. In July 1987, he no-showed a TV taping, which turned out to be a career making move. You see, the reigning Intercontinental Champion (second biggest belt in wrestling) Ricky Steamboat was taking time off due to the birth of his son. The belt had to swap hands, and Vince had decided on Butch Reed. Who wasn't there. Needing a last minute replacement, they went for the cousin of Jerry "Man on the Moon" Lawler, Wayne Ferris, who was doing a knock off Elvis gimmick as a villain. The Honky Tonk Man won the belt in a massive shock (to compare Steamboat to Ferris is like comparing Gladstone to David Cameron), and wound up holding the belt for 14 months!
Meanwhile, Butch Reed wound up without a job soon after this Rumble. It's a funny old life.
This match was won by Hacksaw Jim Duggan, a continuously inexplicably popular wrestler who exists solely to prove that you can chant "USA! USA! USA!" and wave a 2x4 around for 40 years and remain a huge crowd favourite. Duggan once tried a sunset flip - a basic wrestling move - in a match with technician Ted DiBiase, and swiftly proved to the world why he stuck to the typical brawlers moveset! He won this match by lowering the top rope and allowing my friend's favourite wrestler, The One Man Gang, to land on the floor and bizarrely, Vince McMahon on commentary gave away the finish. "I suppose the only way to beat the Gang would be to use his own momentum against him."
It was embryonic, but the gems of the idea worked in principle.
That Hulk Hogan was an absolutely rotten hero. Here he is, casually eliminating his friend Randy "Macho Man" Savage from the battle royal, and when Savage is rather upset, Hogan casually reminds him it was every man for himself. When the tables are turned a few minutes later, and Hogan is eliminated fairly by The Big Bossman (a favourite of this house), the Hulkamaniac starts whinging and lowers the top rope to eliminate Bossman in return. What a message for the young children! When things don't go your way, complain and have a hissy fit.
Some suggest that Hogan was actually the best TV villain of the 1980s. Sometimes I appreciate that analysis...
In 1989, we moved to the now traditional 30 men, instead of the sole 20 men which took part in 1988. We get a bit of a good old random drawing too, as the Tag Team Champions Demolition draw both numbers 1 and 2! Proving that neither man is a MENSA candidate, they then kick each other's arse for 2 minutes straight, meaning that when the third man enters, it's Andre the Giant, and they're knackered. Idiots.
As this is the first PPV Rumble, the match itself is stacked with the top stars of the wrestling company. In 1988, Vince was so nonchalant, he actually ran a house show in Nova Scotia headlined by the Macho Man, while the Royal Rumble telecast was showing! And then, for ruining their Bunkhouse Stampede, the NWA ran a free TV show opposite WrestleMania IV. As many wrestling fans actually liked to catch both companies big shows, they worked out a gentleman's agreement to stop being so stupid shortly afterwards.
Hogan and Savage were both eliminated, and about to start their own feud, which drew huge crowds across the US. People adored Randy Savage, but as a villain, he was second only to Roddy Piper as Hulk Hogan's longest and most successful money drawing opponent. Anyhow, with them both gone, and no one wanting to kill Andre the Giant by having him wrestling for fifty minutes straight, the field was open for a second surprise winner.
The field came down to three men: Akeem, the African Dream (who was The One Man Gang a year ago, and yes, let's draw a veil over that gimmick change ASAP); The Million Dollar Man, Ted Dibiase, who was "alleged" to have bought the final entry spot in the match; and Big John Studd, a returning veteran. In a proper moral for all those kids, Big John proved that money can't buy success, turning down a bribe and easily throwing Dibiase out of the match to win. In less of a moral, he then beat up Dibiase's bodyguard for fun.
At 6 foot 10 and 380 pounds, Big John was a big attraction, and had been a cornerstone of the early 1980s wrestling expansion. After time off, this was to be the start of a comeback, and after spending his entire career as a villain, he was finally getting to show off his good guy skills. Shortly after this match, Studd began to feel unwell, right on the cusp of his big break. He was getting injured more easily, and retired from performing, but still felt unwell. It was cancer. Inoperable. John Minton, Big John Studd, died in 1995. He was 47.
Some notables made their Rumble debut in 1989: my great hero Mr Perfect (who set an early longevity record of 28 minutes!), both Shawn Michaels (future World Champion) and Marty Jannetty (future punchline) of The Rockers, the aforementioned Andre, Hogan and Savage.
The Warlord even set The Warlord record: he was in and out again in 2 seconds! A record which lasted for 20 years.
Mr Perfect was robbed, I tell you!
|(My other great youth hero alongside Jon Pertwee, Sooty and dinosaurs - By Tobywoab (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)|
Now my reputation among wrestling fans I know visa vie the late Curt Hennig, Mr Perfect, is much akin to that I have among Doctor Who fans for The Moonbase. So I might not be the least biased source in the world. But there is a long standing rumour that Mr Perfect was meant to win this match, to launch his career into the stratosphere, but that Hulk Hogan decided to pull rank and have the script changed, so it ended with a Hulk Hogan win instead.
There is no evidence whatsoever, beyond a few people saying it happened, that this actually took place, but as a massive Mr Perfect fan, let me assure you, I believe it happened 100%! 😎😛
However, one can't let a bit of backstage political maneuvering disguise the fact that this is where the Rumble match takes shape. After the previous year, in which The Million Dollar Man mysteriously wound up the final entrant in the Rumble match, here he equally mysteriously ends up the first man in the match, with a hint of executive meddling. As legendary ring announcer Howard Finkel declares "here is the man who last year drew number thirty, and this year drew number one", the crowd cheer loudly, and you can sense the palatable schadenfreude in the air.
DiBiase doesn't win, but that wasn't his role (he's the villainous banker in It's a Wonderful Life, and much like Barrymore, you know he'll sneak away in the end for a future comeback). He does last 50 minutes however, which a fine display of cardiovascular condition. If you think otherwise, try doing live ballet non stop for 50 minutes to a live audience and see how knackered you get!
After getting rid of a few schmucks, his big rival Jake the Snake comes down to ringside, and the ringside crowd go completely unglued! As Randy Savage, now in full on villain mode and loving it, and Roddy Piper, now in full on beloved semi-retired legend mode, follow, this match goes out of the way to fill itself with the major stars of wrestling. There's Andre the Giant, looking ghastly, and on the road to retirement, but still a presence and a star attraction. There's Hogan, and Warrior, and Dusty Rhodes, and Rick Rude. There's the Red Rooster!
Ok, maybe not The Red Rooster.
(That joke is hilarious to wrestling fans, sorry.)
It also managed to preemptively make Vince McMahon millions, with a single moment. The Ultimate Warrior, rapidly becoming as popular as Hulk Hogan, entered the ring and rapidly started throwing people out. After a few entries, out came Hulk Hogan, who in a scene out of bizzaroland, actually got his ass kicked for a few seconds by The Honky Tonk Man of all people. Anyhow, Hogan throws out Honky to elimination, as Warrior throws the other men in the ring out on the other side of the ring, and suddenly, we're down to two men, and they turn around and lock eyes.
The crowd reaction makes the previous reactions to Jake the Snake look like a mild applause. Shrill commentator Tony Schiavone, who starts his day at "This is the greatest moment in the history of our sport" and then gets more excited, yelled out " Not a single person is sitting!" and for once, it felt right.. The Warrior and Hogan had never even shared dialogue in the same scene before this moment and now, suddenly, everyone knew what the WrestleMania main event had to be. The unstoppable force meeting the unmovable object. Sorry about your damned luck, Mr Perfect.
Hogan also eliminates Warrior from this match, much like he did to Randy Savage the year before. That Hogan, eh? Who'd be friends with him. Randy Savage was right, he probably did have "lust in his eyes" when speaking to Randy's wife...
When Bret "just a humble tag team guy still" Hart enters this match, the entire arena explodes in a loud cheer, and Tony Schiavone lets out an entirely unguarded "WOW!" in response. He was so unimportant to the match, not only do the commentary team not mention that he's hobbling (possibly a legit issue), but his elimination is missed by the cameras because they're focused on Andre the Giant being eliminated at the same time, and Bret Hart is just some tag team schmuck! Retrospect makes things seem strange sometimes!
That tag team schmuck, Bret "now one half of the tag team champions" Hart drew number one this year, like in 1988, but unlike 1988, there was now no doubting that this man was a star waiting to happen. Within half a year, Bret was the Intercontinental Champion, and part of a fast track route to the World title. That was still to come, and he's still written as a tag team guy here, but you can sense from his confidence, and the way the commentary treats him, that he's about to become a big deal, fairly quickly.
Though he gets eliminated inside twenty minutes by The Undertaker here. Sometimes, you need to wait for great things. The Undertaker, one of wrestling and pop culture's great legends, makes his Rumble debut here, and ought to dominate the match, but the entire script is somewhat off, and so he wanders aimlessly, eliminating a few people before his own casual elimination. That's sort of a metaphor for the match, in which people wander aimlessly and time moves on. Somehow, Hercules lasts 40 minutes in this match. Hercules! "I'm going to win this Rumble Royal tonight" man. He couldn't even name the bloody event properly.
And no one even notices this feat or achievement, and he gets eliminated by "Nasty Boy" Brian Knobbs, a tag team wrestler who inexplicably finishes in the final three because he's real life buddies with Hulk Hogan!
Speaking of Hogan, he wins this one too, under the backdrop of the Iraq War, and uses it to take down the pro-Iraqi World Champion, Sgt Slaughter, at WrestleMania 7. A storyline in such bad taste, the show bombed, the arena nearly literally bombed (it got moved due to a bomb threat), and Sgt Slaughter himself (in real life a fairly mild mannered war veteran and wrestling legend) received actual death threats from outraged members of the public.
He last eliminated The Earthquake to win the match, which ended their storyline, and actually made Quake one of the few Hogan foes that Hogan never actually pinned in the middle of the ring. John Tenta, the Earthquake, was a great guy with a strong sense of humour about the absurdities of the wrestling business. He used to communicate with fans online, and share jokes and memes about his own career and dealings with them. Sadly, like Big John Studd, we lost John Tenta far too young, as he died aged 42 of terminal cancer in 2006, having outlived a prognosis of three months by two years. It's always the way, the nice guys die far, far too young, and the right arseholes live to be OAPs!
Mr Perfect was also in this match. He lasted 20 minutes. Doesn't seem that impressive when Hercules lasts 40 minutes, mind you. Also lasting 40 minutes, and far more impressive because he was actually trying to entertain the fans during the match - a rare occurrence in the 91 rumble - was the British Bulldog, Davey Boy Smith. The Rumble longevity record, however, was broken by Rick Martel, and now stood at 53 minutes.
There is a bit of tension in writing about what is widely considered one of the greatest matches in WWE history. Can you do it justice? Probably not. But let's start at the beginning.
In the 1980s, there were two major wrestling promotions, the WWF, and the NWA. Where the biggest star in wrestling was Vince McMahon's Hulk Hogan, the star of the NWA was unquestionably Ric Flair. Whilst Hogan was blatantly the biggest crossover star wrestling ever had, Ric Flair was and is widely accepted to have been the greatest in ring performer. So the long held dream match was what if Hogan and Flair shared the same ring. But they worked in different companies, so that could never be.
Then, when Ted Turner handed the NWA - now called World Championship Wrestling - over to a man called Jim Herd, Herd immediately made his mark by sacking Ric Flair. That's like axing Doctor Who, or disqualifying Brazil for competing at the World Cup, or making a Star Wars film without Darth Vader. Only a complete idiot would think it sensible.
Anyhow, Flair didn't wind up sans job very long, as Vince snapped him up, and paired with Bobby "the Brain" Heenan, a commentator/manager. Mr Perfect, sadly unable to compete due to long term injury issues, became Flair's heavy at ringside, allowing him to stay relevant during a long rehabilitation. Marking himself as the "real world's champion", Flair challenged Hogan at every turn, and helped create the circumstances in which the WWF title became vacant in December 1991, through shenanigans.
The World title is vacant? If only we had a big annual event coming around the corner which could sort that out...
Yes, for the first time, the WWF Championship was on the line in the Rumble match itself, which meant that anyone could win the title. Even Nikolai Volkoff could win the title. He didn't, he lasted 40 seconds, but you get what I mean.
The Flair team were confident in their man. This was his time. Bobby Heenan even went on air, and bet his entire financial portfolio (storyline) on Ric Flair becoming the World Champion at the Royal Rumble.
The British Bulldog and Ted DiBiase drew numbers one and two respectively, and in a shock DiBiase only lasted a minute. Injury issues, I think. Davey Boy Smith casually waited for the third entrant, and who should walk out next but Ric Flair.
"Nooooooooooo!" cries Bobby Heenan on live commentary, in the best reaction of horror since William Shatner disliked Khan. There's a famous story of Willie Thorne commentating on a snooker match that he was losing half a million pounds on through a failed bet, and that forms the story of this match, as Heenan falls deeper and deeper into despair, while his co-commentator, Gorilla Monsoon, egged him and cackled with delight. "It's not fair to Flair!" Heenan cried, while man after man beat the living piss out of his man. "Imagine all those financial consultants who are going to lose their jobs thanks to the luck of the draw" delighted Monsoon, glee in his voice.
[Monsoon and Heenan made the best commentary team for wrestling, because it seemed like they absolutely hated each other, and were always trying to show the other up on their knowledge of what was going on. It's an absolute blast. In real life, Bobby and Gorilla - Gino Marella - were best of friends, and wrestling's biggest bad guy Bobby Heenan cried on live TV announcing the death of his buddy in 1999. In 2004, Heenan entered the Hall of Fame and his last words were "I wish Gorilla were here", before nearly crying again. Knowing how close they were just makes their great performances, like the 1992 Royal Rumble, all the more enjoyable to me!]
[Note from 2018: 2017 sadly saw more tears with the death of the wonderful Bobby Heenan, aged 73. He had fought throat cancer for sixteen years, which had prematurely silenced the voice of the greatest talker in pro-wrestling history. His role in this match, however, will live forever.]
Flair is nearly eliminated time and again but just holds on, and by the midway point, he manages to duck an attack by The Big Bossman, who is subsequently eliminated.
Flair collapses in the middle of the ring, legitimately exhausted after performing for 26 minutes non-stop by this point.
"He's done it! He's the World Champion!" cries The Brain.
"Are you nuts? There's still a lot of people still to come!"
And out comes...Rowdy Roddy Piper.
"Nooooo!" cries Heenan, "Anyone but Piper!"
Piper had a curious night. He was already scheduled for the Rumble match when his real life pal, Bret Hart, took a vicious fever and had to miss the Intercontinental title match. Piper became the last minute substitute (his interview for this is one of my favourites ever - "I'm going to take Roddy Piper's integrity - that's like Jacques Costeau trying to find a wet spot in the desert, I ain't got no damned integrity, how'd you think I got so far?") for Bret in the IC title match. And subsequently won it! So he suddenly had the storyline of becoming potentially the first man to win both major titles in the one night. He doesn't of course, but he does last half an hour and reach the last six.
More and more top names come out - The Undertaker. Randy Savage. Jake the Snake. Hulk Hogan. And still, Flair is just holding on. Just. By hook or by crook.
"Who's that who got eliminated! I got to know these things!"
"Flair's still in it, that's all you need to know, Brain."
As former longevity record holder Rick Martel enters the ring, Gorilla announces that Ric Flair has passed that particular record.
"Good enough for me, give him the title!"
"I'm not giving him any title!"
Heenan's voice is about to break as The Warlord enters the match as number 30, and promptly lasts about forty seconds, which, to be fair, was probably a personal best for The Warlord.*
*Deliberate joke before the pedants mention the 1990 rumble...
As the stars fell out of the ring, or were propelled into the stratosphere in the case of Sgt Slaughter aided by the man they call Sid, we came down to three men: Hulk Hogan, Sid, and the absolutely dead on his feet Ric Flair.
Sid, incidentally, is a 7 foot blond bombshell of a wrestler, who makes up for limited wrestling ability with some of the greatest natural charisma ever known to a man. He's eccentric as a box of Tom Bakers, but gets over everywhere in the world through just being himself. And murdering a whole lot of schmucks in squashes. There's no greater joy in wrestling than seeing Sid destroy whole swathes of no name redshirts, it's like watching Darth Vader in full flow.
Sid eliminates Hulk Hogan to... a standing ovation. Not sure anyone expected that, as when replays were shown, the cheers were edited out and replaced with booing! Hogan, having been eliminated fair and square, responds by complaining loudly and trying to eliminate his friend. Remember 1989 and 1990? Hogan really was a sore loser, what a bad role model for kids.
Flair takes advantage of this to eliminate Sid, and win the 1992 Royal Rumble match. Bobby Heenan goes into overdrive, with more cries of YES than a dozen takes of that scene in When Harry Met Sally. His job is safe! The real world's champion... is the real world's champion.
Ric Flair is absolutely spent, but still manages to get that gleam in his eye as he is handed the World title and announces "with a tear in my eye, this is the greatest day in my life". Even Gorilla on commentary, as Bobby rushes backstage to cheer on his main man, has to give props to Flair.
This is a land where the previous thirty man rumble winners drew the following numbers: twenty-seven, twenty-five, twenty-four. DiBiase and Martel had lasted for ages from the first six entrants, but they hadn't won. Ric Flair performed for fifteen seconds short of the hour, and came out of the World Champion, and with new found credibility in the eyes of his WWF audience, who'd never seen his NWA battles. A new found credibility which would never leave.
Hulk Hogan can vanquish giants with brute strength, Ric Flair can outlast anyone through wits and will alone.
It was seismic moment in wrestling history, and holds up today as one of the finest hours you'll ever spend watching pro-wrestling. "You've got to be fair to Flair" cried Bobby Heenan, even Gorilla Monsoon concedes that point to the winner, and on this night, Ric Flair proved that, when it comes to the ring itself, he was the man.
"I wanna jump, I wanna party, but I gotta tell you like this. For the Hulk Hogans, and the Macho Mans, and the Pipers, and the Sids: now it's Ric Flair, and you all pay homage to the man!"
Just one last question for today - who the hell had the cigarette which so annoyed Mean Gene? Not even Gene remembers. We should have mentioned Wacky Mean Gene moments, like his interruption of Hogan in 91 - "We're getting unconfirmed reports that Sgt Slaughter has just defaced the American flag!" - no, you didn't, you made that up just to piss off Hulk! But, maybe another day.
In our next edition, we focus on controversial decisions, controversial winners, the legend that was Mantaur, and how the Royal Rumble was the genesis of one of the greatest stars in wrestling history... but not the one they expected.