Scott: All right, it’s officially Royal Rumble season. The entrants are starting to accumulate, the stakes are becoming clear. With a Punk-Rock title match and a newly minted World Heavyweight Champion, this is shaping up to be a great show generating some serious excitement for the road to WrestleMania.
Last time we talked a bit about the growing strength of the roster and also raised some speculation about who we might like to return in the Rumble. But getting away from this year’s Rumble itself, I want to bask for a few moments in Royal Rumble history — one of my absolute favorite things to do as a wrestling fan. I’ve been re-watching old Rumbles (and just recorded a Wrestlespective podcast on the 1990 match) and furiously noting new statistical anomalies I may have missed.
Let’s start with the big picture. What are some of your most significant Rumble memories? I’m thinking of the main event itself, but there have been some significant undercard moments as well. Obviously Ric Flair winning the WWF Title at the 1992 Rumble is probably the signature moment for the show — much like Hogan slamming Andre at WrestleMania III was the first and perhaps still most iconic Mania moment — but the Rumble has produced so much more than that one virtuoso performance.
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David: You’re right. Flair in 1992 is my go-to moment when I think of the Royal Rumble, and plenty of people have talked ad nauseum about that event, so we don’t need to re-hash it in this space. Beyond that, there are two parts of Rumble lore that stand out.
The first is 1995, with Shawn Michaels and Davey Boy Smith being the first two entrants, and both of them surviving to the end, with Michaels winning the Royal Rumble. When Flair lasted almost an hour after being the third man in the ring in 1992, it was an amazing moment, and one that, prior to the 1995 Rumble, I didn’t think I would ever see anyone come even close to. At the time, the idea of the first two men being the last two left would’ve been unthinkable, but as they like to say, anything can happen in the WWF/E.
The second moment is remarkable, because it doesn’t have anything to do with the winner of the Royal Rumble. The 2010 Royal Rumble was the first pay-per-view I watched after a long break from wrestling. When I came back in January 2010, I watched Smackdown more than Raw, and that was because of the performance of one man, CM Punk. I had been a fan of his indie work, which I had seen some of before I stopped watching wrestling in 2006. I had also seen one or two of his matches in the re-booted ECW, but hadn’t kept up with his work in WWE. The Straight Edge Society felt so different from anything I had seen in wrestling before that, and his work as a villain was top notch. When he came out No. 3 in the 2010 Rumble, I was excited to see what he was going to do. I was not disappointed. He quickly dispatched Evan Bourne and Dolph Ziggler, the first two men in the ring, and then started sermonizing. He eliminated JTG as soon as he got in the ring, and continued his soliloquy, until the Great Khali came out and interrupted. I don’t think the whole thing lasted more than five minutes, but it’s one of my favorite memories, and turned me into the CM Punk fan I still am today.
Since you’re the guru of the Royal Rumble, I’m sure you’ve got some interesting things to throw at me. Let’s have it.
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Scott: For starters, you’re right about the 95 Rumble being unprecedented with the first two guys being the last men standing. That twist certainly was a unique approach, and it was combined with the first false finish in Rumble history. But it also was a very different Rumble because the contestants entered every 60 seconds instead of in two-minute intervals. Add that to the makeup of the roster at the time (if names like Duke Droese, the Blu Brothers, Mantaur, Well Dunn and Aldo Montoya ring a bell, it’s probably not for positive reasons) and this is by far my least favorite Rumble match. It’s also a pretty weak undercard — though the start of the Bam Bam Bigelow/Lawrence Taylor story is notable — and probably is among the worst Rumble shows ever.
In the earlier years of the Rumble, the one that stands out most to me is the 1994 finish with Bret Hart and Lex Luger being eliminated simultaneously. My favorite part of the way that story is told is not just that the actual eliminations and slow-motion replay were timed perfectly (much more cleanly than the similar finish with Batista and John Cena in 2005), but how everyone involved completely conveys the supposed chaos of the moment. The attitude is such a finish is entirely inconceivable (though there had been simultaneous eliminations in early Rumbles) and no one has any clue how to handle the scenario. Heck, the show even ended in confusion, which is an early indicator of the trend of using the pay-per-view to generate buzz for the next night’s live TV show.
I noted earlier my growing list of Rumble statistics. So far I’ve only been able to dig deep into the first five Rumbles (1988-1992), but here’s two notable items, both dealing with tag teams. In those first five Rumbles, tag team partners entered sequentially only three times — and each happened in 1989. Ax and Smash of Demolition memorably started that match. The Brain Busters entered at 16 (Arn Anderson) and 17 (Tully Blanchard) while the Twin Towers joined at 22 (Big Boss Man) and 23 (Akeem). The other note is that, through 1992, only Hulk Hogan was responsible for eliminating both members of a tag team in the same match. He dumped Anderson and Blanchard in 89 and Smash and Crush in 1991.
Trivia question: Any idea who (again, through only ‘92) has the mark for shortest time in a Rumble while logging at least one elimination?
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David: My guess would be Earthquake in the 1990 Rumble. I remember him getting ganged up on pretty quickly, but I’m sure he took a couple of people out on the way.
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Scott: Nope. It was Hercules in 1992. He was in for just 56 seconds but still had time to toss the Barbarian. You are correct that Earthquake had a short stay in 1990 — just 2:31. But that was enough time to eliminate Ax and Dusty Rhodes. In fact, that’s good enough for second place on this list, right in front of Hercules again. In 1990 he lasted 3:02, during which he eliminated — yet again — the Barbarian. One more trivia question: In the first five Rumbles, one man eliminated the same opponent three different years. Can you name both men?
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David: I’ll admit that I have no idea, but I’m sure you do.
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Scott: Naturally! Hulk Hogan eliminated the Warlord in 1989, 1991 and 1992. And in 1990 Andre the Giant dumped Warlord, so while he’s not been successful, at least Warlord rubbed shoulders with legends.
My next question is a little less quantifiable, but it’s clear to people who watch these matches obsessively that, at some point, the Rumble became all about narrative. There have been moments of narrative throughout (well, maybe not so much in 1988), including the Hogan-Savage and Hogan-Warrior face-offs in 1989 and 1990, respectively, and also how the 1990 and 1991 Rumbles came down to Hogan and one of his arch foes of the moment (Mr. Perfect and Earthquake, respectively). But there was always plenty of non-narrative action, the kind of seemingly random scrapping you’d see in any battle royal. So before we look at the first Rumble that was almost entirely intentional storytelling (2005, for the record), what are some highlights for you of the ways smaller stories were told inside the confines of a match back when those things appeared to be more organic?
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David: Not sure if this is quite what you were looking for, but I enjoyed the way that they used the Rumble to build one of the best feuds of the Attitude Era, Bret Hart vs Stone Cold Steve Austin. I like the idea of the referees being so distracted that they don’t notice Austin hitting the floor, and him just jumping right back in. It’s a pretty good storytelling mechanism, especially when it doesn’t get used to death.
Speaking of which, do you have a favorite “thrown over the rope, but not eliminated” moment?
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Scott: That’s a great question, especially since I’ve been power watching so many Rumbles of late. When Rey Mysterio won in 2006 the entire story of the evening was pretty much his near-eliminations, and in very recent years it’s been the highlight reel gymnastics of guys like John Morrison and Kofi Kingston, such that we’ve come to expect at least one such moment in each Rumble. My hazy memory tells me Shawn Michaels skinned the cat in a Rumble so many times it was surprising when he was eliminated conventionally.
One of my underrated favorite near misses, and something I mentioned during a guest spot on the Wrestlespective podcast, is in the 1990 Rumble when Dusty Rhodes climbed up on the second turnbuckle to deliver 10 punches to an opponent. He got so worked up he nearly toppled over the top and had to be saved in order to preserve the intended story of his elimination of Randy Savage.
There have been many advancements in the Rumble over the years, notably giving wrestlers versions of their typical singles match ring entrances, which really amped up the crowd response. This is used to greatest effect when a well-known character is making a return. I’m no John Cena fan, but I still get a huge kick out of his surprise return in 2008. It was a total shock at the time and his theme song mixed with the Madison Square Garden crowd and, especially, the stunned look on Triple H’s face may well be the gold standard of Royal Rumble entrances.
But not everything in Rumble history is magic. When Tatanka returned in 2006 the crowd was more confused than anything. Certain spots, especially eliminations near the end, are so contrived they take away from the overall presentation. Let’s take a few moments and examine some of our least favorite Rumble moments. Do any come to your mind?
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David: The moment that lept to mind was from last year’s Royal Rumble. In the middle of Michael Cole’s run as a bad guy announcer, we had Michael Cole as a bad guy “wrestler.” That, of course, manifested itself in multiple matches against Jerry Lawler throughout 2011. Cole would “wrestle” again as the 20th entrant in the Royal Rumble. Seeing Cole in that awful orange singlet was one of the worst moments in the history of the Rumble. Although, it was immediately followed up by him getting clotheslined by a returning Kharma, which was nice.
One of my least favorite behind-the-scenes decisions in the history of the Rumble, was during the 2003 Rumble. One of the hottest feuds of the early 2000s was Chris Jericho vs Shawn Michaels. In the 2003 Royal Rumble, both men started the match, and Jericho used some chicanery to get the jump on Michaels, and threw him out after a two and a half minute beating. Later in the match, Michaels came back down to the ring and returned the favor, attacking Jericho while he was still involved in the Royal Rumble match. Who had the good fortune to eliminate Jericho? Could it have been Triple H? Rey Mysterio? John Cena? Nope. It was Test. In my opinion, it’s one of the lamest eliminations in Rumble history, just because of who Test was.
What are your least favorite Royal Rumble moments?
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Scott: Those are great examples. While I enjoyed the surprise of having the announcers enter the match from ringside, I’m not sure Cole needed to get in the ring in order to sell the moment. I would be thrilled if in 2013 we can go a year without Cole (or any announcer with no in-ring pedigree) getting involved in the narrative.
My answer is in a similar vein because it’s the 1999 Rumble won by Vince McMahon. There are so many things I dislike about that story. First, that McMahon was in the Rumble at all. Second, that he spent the bulk of it outside the ring. Third, that we got a false finish with Austin seemingly the winner. Fourth, that Rock was at ringside interrupting the finish.
As something of a Rumble purist, I get really frustrated with outside interference by guys who aren’t even in the match — like when Vince and Shane essentially caused the Shawn Michaels elimination in 2006 — or returns from people who have been eliminated, such as your 2003 HBK example. Then there’s complete screwjobs like McMahon sending the guys in the white coats after Kane in 1999. It’s not so much about preserving the sanctity of the competition as frustration with what I perceive as lazy storytelling. But given how much of the rest of the 2000s worked on screen, I guess I shouldn’t be too terribly shocked.
From a creative standpoint, I can tolerate things like a freshly eliminated Hogan helping Flair dump Sid in 1992. Andre the Giant skipping the joint after Jake Roberts unleashed Damien in 1989 was similar — the refs should have prevented Roberts from doing what he did, but no one was going to keep Andre from eliminating himself. But stuff like in 2002, when the Undertaker responded to his elimination at the hands of Maven by brutally assaulting him and kicking his carcass throughout the arena, seem to just take too much away from the match itself. At some point, isn’t the novelty of the Rumble enough? Perhaps there’s just too much pressure on the creative team to find a new way to present the match lest fans start to complain of things growing stale.
But now we’re just days away from the 2013 Rumble. As of now, WWE.com lists only nine official entrants — Cena, Sheamus, Orton, Ziggler, Antonio Cesaro, Wade Barrett and all of 3MB. Never mind what I’d love to see (an undercard nontitle match between Cesaro and Barrett with a prime Rumble entry spot on the line), and never mind the reality that not all the guys we saw brawling at the end of Raw this week will actually be in the Rumble. What do you think actually will happen Sunday?
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David: Well, as I look at the Rumble match itself, there are only a handful of guys I think can probably win it. I don’t think anyone who’s actively involved in a tag team can win, so that counts out Daniel Bryan, Kane, Darren Young and Titus O’Neil. I think it’s unlikely anyone who’s currently in the picture of the two lower-tier singles titles will win, so goodbye to Antonio Cesaro, The Miz, Wade Barrett and Randy Orton. That pretty much leaves Cena, Ryback, Ziggler or Sheamus, with the possibility that whoever loses the two top title matches could show up in the Rumble and get the win, leading to a rematch at WrestleMania. I’m assuming Ryback will be eliminated in some manner by the Shield, and Sheamus seems to have lost some of the momentum he had last year. My money is the end of the Rumble will come down to Ziggler and Cena, with Vickie, AJ and Big E Langston all getting involved in the finish. My prediction is Ziggler wins the Royal Rumble and fights twice at WrestleMania: once for his Royal Rumble title shot (which he probably will lose), and then once for his Money in the Bank title shot (which he will probably win).
There is another scenario that is intriguing, although extremely unlikely. Since there is a scheduled pre-show match between Antonio Cesaro and The Miz, what would you think of Cesaro losing the US Title to The Miz, but then coming through to win the Royal Rumble, elevating himself to the main event picture?
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Scott: I do love Cesaro, but I don’t see it happening (all predictions wrong or your money back). I would not be surprised to see him get a run with the World Heavyweight Championship between now and WrestleMania XXX, but my sense in watching him the last several months is the creative team seems satsified using him to headline the middle tier.
The big wild card to me is if Ziggler finally gets pushed over the top. It would not be surprising at all to see him go wire to wire and win. We already know how well he portrays a guy pushed to his limit, and I’ve long wanted to see the unique aspect of a guy having both guaranteed title shots. Imagine being in the title match at WrestleMania, then unleashing a horrible chair-based assault and getting disqualified, then cashing in Money in the Bank immediately and winning the title anyway. I have seen some folks, including Chris Sims in his WithLeather piece, suggest the rise of MITB has devalued the Rumble outcome, but I think Ziggler winning both could go miles toward reversing that perception.
To me, what’s really devalued the Rumble win is having two world titles and also the Elimination Chamber in February. If you win the Rumble, you get a title shot at WrestleMania. Meanwhile, 10 other guys get title shots before you do, and they hardly have to do anything to earn the chance.
But I digress. Is Ziggler going to be elevated? I don’t know. They seem to really enjoy having him around as the very bottom of the main event scene — someone for Sheamus and Cena to beat on Raw. But I’m also not convinced they’re done telling the story of Cena and his near misses, which goes back to his loss to the Rock at the last WrestleMania. The Twitterverse perception seems to be a Cena Rumble win is a foregone conclusion, perhaps because people expect/fear Rock-Cena II. Rock and Cena winning at the Rumble is the cleanest way for that to happen.
But we know a few things. One, Cena doesn’t need the Rumble win (or the WWE Title, for that matter) to be given a main event spot at WrestleMania. Two, Rock is advertised for Elimination Chamber. Three, everyone assumed Cena would beat Punk at Raw 1000, and Punk’s continued success seems to be serving the overall narrative quite well.
Here’s what I do think we’ll see Sunday:
1. Serious progression in the Shield narrative, either in terms of revelation of a leader or clarity of their cause or at the least a clear picture of their direction (in terms of opponents) heading into WrestleMania.
2. If Kane and Daniel Bryan are going to be broken up to feud at WrestleMania, it will be established Sunday. If they retain their tag titles and do not feud in the Rumble, I expect them to drop the tag titles at WrestleMania.
2a. Kane will surpass Shawn Michaels for No. 1 on the list of all-time Rumble eliminations.
3. We will see Brock Lesnar, the Undertaker or both. For no reason, I am expecting both men to be on the WrestleMania card. I am also expecting (or is it just blind hope?) there is a plan that does not include Rock-Cena II. I think both guys are big enough to headline their own match, elevating this year’s card over last year’s.
4. Ziggler will last an hour in the Rumble itself. He may not win, and we absolutely will see AJ and Big E Langston involved, but this is too good an opportunity to sell fans on his in-ring skill.
5. I actually have no idea what will happen with Alberto Del Rio, but I am really excited with the recent developments in his character and quite enjoy him as a top champion.
Outside of what we’ve both mentioned, do you have any additional expectations?
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I’m fully expecting 3MB to make fools of themselves, in a very entertaining way…because it’s what they’re good at. Other than that, I’m just expecting a solid show with some moments of greatness. I really enjoyed CM Punk’s interactions with both The Rock and The Shield on the most recent Smackdown, and I’ve felt like they’ve built toward a match that has the possibility of being WWE’s first Match of the Year candidate for 2013. I’m also looking forward to finding out who the 3.5 surprise entrants in the Rumble are.
Did our predictions come true? Did we fail miserably? Does it matter? I guess we’ll find out in a few short hours. Enjoy the Royal Rumble, and, as always, thanks for reading.
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