If you polled the WWE universe and asked them “If you could only see one wrestling match a year, which would you choose?” you’d probably find a fair number of people choosing the WrestleMania main event, but I think the actual big winner would be the Royal Rumble match.
For three decades the event has been the ultimate exhibition match in WWE, a contest that can be watched without any prior knowledge of storylines or even any prior history watching the pseudo-sport at all.
Think about it, if you only had one match to show someone who was a non-fan, a match that you could use to introduce them to the rules of the universe as it were, and catch them up quickly on all the weird idiosyncrasies that long-time fans have gotten used to, what match would you show them? What better match is there than the Royal Rumble?
The rigid, timed structure—a new entrant every two-minutes or so—means you have a window of time to introduce each competitor, a quick summary of their character, alignment and what things to look for. Not to mention the simple rules—toss the guy over the top, last one standing wins—is instantly accessible with clear and simple stakes for first-time watchers to become invested in.
The atmosphere is also unique, in that there is an “epic” feel to the happening, mixed with an easy going “let’s go crazy and have fun” execution. It makes for a laid back viewing, and makes it a lot easier for you to give those aforementioned quick-summaries of various superstars. It’s a lot easier to explain New Day when the setting is casual than it would be in a Hell in a Cell environment.
If you’re a fan who hasn’t watched in a while (some people make that an annual occurrence from September-December), the Rumble is the perfect re-introduction to the wider world of WWE. Commentary is, if nothing else, persistent in reminding you of everyone’s current storylines, narratively holding your hand from the moment a superstar’s music hits to the moment they are eliminated.
There’s a lot that makes the Rumble special, and a lot of great memories have taken place in the match over the past thirty years. Combining those two ideas, here are five reasons—and five memories—that summarize why the Royal Rumble is my favorite match of the year...
THE STORYLINE INTERPLAY
The WWF/E has long-touted the Rumble as the kick-off to the Road to WrestleMania, but the match itself has often been the place where long-percolating storylines reach a new level of intensity. With thirty superstars coming and going in a single match, you’re bound to have two people who hate each other bump into each other. And while you can also have examples of inter-match storytelling (like CM Punk’s sublime cult-takeover of the first half of the Rumble in 2010), the moment I’m thinking of was more about playing off a presumed-dead storyline. It came during the 1997 Rumble and it worked for three important reasons.
Number one was the background: Steve Austin was the up and comer trying to force his way to the top by picking a fight with a guy on the top. Bret Hart was the annoyed vet who had already put him in his place (at Survivor Series). An easily-understood story played out by two very talented storytellers.
Number two was the buildup: Austin entered at #5 and spent the rest of the match blossoming into a superstar worthy of the main-event before our eyes. He worked a masterful match as a heel, having the crowd eating out the palm of his hands (and loving every second of it) and dying to see him get his comeuppance.
Number three was the moment itself, coming a little over half-way through the match: This (fifty-seven seconds into the video)...
is one of the greatest camera shots in Rumble history. So simple with the long-hold on Austin as we await the timer to hit zero. No sudden cuts to the crowd or the stage. Austin is the star and his reaction is the moment. Fans thought the Austin/Hart feud was over the previous November. This was the moment everyone knew it was running full-steam ahead to WrestleMania (even if there were a few twists in the booking along the way).
THE LEGENDARY RETURNS
This wasn’t a feature of the event during the beginning of its existence, as there weren’t any “legends’ per say to feature. Everyone was either working in the WWF or working somewhere else. It’s a sad fact that few wrestlers ever get to retire with the luxury to fly in for a one-off in January. But during the second half of the Rumble’s lifespan, as WWE became the defacto custodian of the history of North American wrestling history, the Rumble has been a great way to bring back an oldie for a nostalgia spin.
There’ve been more than a few over the years, but I have two favorites. The runner-up is Jim Duggan’s hilariously random return in 2009, coming in at #29. The crowd went bananas for him in a way they wouldn’t have during a random September RAW. The Rumble brings that kind of atmosphere.
The best moment, though, was in 2015 when Diamond Dallas Paige popped in for a quick hello. His music hit to rapturous applause, he did his hand-vagina salute thing, threw down a diamond cutter, showed everyone why DDP yoga works, reminded everyone that DDP yoga is a literal life-safer and then peaced-out, drawing massive boos as he hit the deck. That’s how you do a legend-spot.
THE SURPRISE COMEBACKS
The Rumble is a great time to, well time a comeback from injury or hiatus. Jericho has done it so effectively in the past fans almost expect it each year. But the real winner here must belong to John Cena. When he went out with an injury it was following a gigantic year-plus reign with the WWE Championship, while fan unrest and general angst over his push was reaching critical mass. And yet, after just four months out of sight and mind, when his music hit and those trumpets blared, you couldn’t find a louder, more excited audience.
Like with the Austin/Hart moment, this one worked for a few different reasons.
You had the legendary home court of WWE, Madison Square Garden, providing the backdrop. You had the legit surprise nature of the return, coupled with it being the #30 spot; one of the rare times when the last entrant was a pleasant surprise, and of course JR selling the moment at the booth only further ensured to its place in the pantheon.
THE TEASES FOR THE FUTURE
An easy one to point to is the Hulk Hogan/Ultimate Warrior showdown in 1990. That one was a deliberate tease to the upcoming Mania (unbeknownst to fans), but it was a masterfully-presented moment that the audience ate up exactly like they were supposed to.
The real magical tease, to me, is from 2007. Remember when Undertaker and HBK wove together one of the greatest stories in pro-graps history, building off the 2008 retirement of the Ric Flair and concluding with Michaels’ own retirement three years later (or, arguably, ending with the “end of an era” match in 2012)? Remember how epic it was? Never forget that the seeds for their first WrestleMania 25 match were planted in that epic finale to the 2007 Royal Rumble match. From then on, everyone looked two years ahead, and knew WWE would keep those two old vets/rivals apart until the silver anniversary of the big event.
THE UNIQUE MOMENTS
Being such a unique match, the Rumble is often the place where you get to see things that you can’t see any other time the rest of the year. For a company that’s running shows three-hundred days a year, airing live programming over one-hundred seventy days a year and has been doing the same thing for thirty-five years, it’s nice when you get to see some self-contained little nuggets of specialness.
Honorary mention goes to Bushwhacker Luke for one of the most purely-fun eliminations in the match’s history:
Kofi’s many elimination saves are a modern-day occurrence to look forward to each year too but the “only in the Rumble” moment that takes the cake came in 1998, when Cactus Jack entered at #1 and was promptly eliminated by the #2 entrant, Terry Funk (aka Chainsaw Charlie).
Cactus Jack was a surprise only in that no one knew who had drawn #1. It was an expected surprise. After he was tossed the match continued like normal, with everyone patiently waiting for the glass to shatter and the expected winner to come strutting down the isle. Then came #16...Mankind. This was a true surprise, as--to that point—no one had ever been eliminated and then re-entered the Rumble before (legally at least). But then again, no one had ever entered the Rumble with multiple personalities before, either. Commentary sold confusion but the crowd immediately “got it.” And from the moment he was eliminated (shortly after re-entering) the crowd now had another “surprise” to anticipate, as everyone knew it was just a matter of time before Foley’s third Face made an appearance.
When Dude Love shimmied down the isle as #28, the crowd, while not exploding like they did a few minutes before when Austin entered, laughed heartily at the payoff to the gag. It’s like knowing the punchline before the joke is over but you still laugh and feign surprise because, well, it’s a great joke. It’s the kind of moment you could only create in the Royal Rumble.
And it’s one of many reasons why it’s my favorite and most anticipated match of the year, every year.
Sound off, Cagesiders: What is your favorite moment (or moments) in Royal Rumble history? Let us know in the comments below!