On the eve of the 27th annual WWE Royal Rumble, it would be nice to look back at some of the better moments in the history of the January classic. More specifically, let’s examine the greatest endings in the history of the Rumble match, and once more appreciate the captivating drama and excitement therein.
10. 2012 – The End of Nothing
In the midst of Chris Jericho’s mute-derisive return at the start of 2012, “The Best in the World” broke his painted-grin silence six nights prior to the Royal Rumble. Invoking a bit of Michael Stipe of R.E.M. fame, Jericho proclaimed that Sunday night would be, “the end of the world as you know it.” Stoically making his entry at the No. 29 position, it seemed Chris Jericho was set to make good on his foreboding threat, so most viewers thought.
[adinserter block=”1″]Jericho’s return was little more than a way to give decisive wins to the stars of tomorrow, though most didn’t realize it at the time. To see Jericho’s words go up in smoke would be surprising, but given Jericho’s selflessness, it’s less surprising in hindsight to see this Rumble end the way that it did. He had a monster to make. After Jericho dumped out St. Louis’ hometown hero, Randy Orton, that left only Sheamus to roadblock his ominous words.
Jericho and Sheamus teased elimination after double elimination, before Jericho was left to hang after a Codebreaker reversal. He saved himself, but a Brogue Kick sent Y2J sprawling into the aisle, averting whatever crisis he’d promised. Sheamus would go on to face Daniel Bryan in their infamously-truncated tussle, while Jericho would still find asylum in the title picture anyway, via a rather lame arc involving CM Punk and unpleasant family secrets.
9. 1998 – Austin Conquers the World
The most common thread between the most popular and enjoyable wrestlers, at least at the height of their fame, is bravery and boldness. While those bored of John Cena’s anodyne Road Runner-in-jorts act will glumly state the snide rhetorical, “Oh look, Cena’s gonna overcome the odds yet again,” Stone Cold Steve Austin was a different animal. By the time his fame was engulfing WWE in 1998, Stone Cold bravely, and boldly, gave himself bad odds by choice.
For weeks leading up to the Rumble, Stone Cold attacked his fellow wrestlers during their matches, and in the locker room, always unprovoked. Why? To send the bold message that he, not them, would win the Rumble. Already inundated with overwhelming cheers, Austin about blew the roof off of the San Jose Arena when his calling-card glass broke. A dozen or so wrestlers in the ring turned and waited, all wanting a piece of the emboldened public nuisance.
In a moment of tactical character brilliance, Austin blindsided the fray, emerging from the crowd and eliminating one of his prior targets in Marc Mero, while Jim Ross screamed in his combustible drawl, “IT’S AUSTIN VS. THE WORLD!” Stone Cold iced the wrath of the scornful mob, cementing his role as unmistakable alpha male. A Stunner and subsequent elimination of The Rock ushered in the inevitable march toward making WWE Stone Cold’s world.
8. 2008 – Cena Surprise
Presented as largely immortal since his ascension to the top of the WWE spire, champion John Cena learned firsthand that there’s no rewrites that can erase a torn pectoral. In October 2007, Cena sustained the very real injury on a WWE Monday Night Raw episode, and abdicated his WWE Championship. Recovery time was deemed to take at least seven months, which would leave the most ample cash cow out of WrestleMania XXIV at that rate.
Emanating from Madison Square Garden in the heart of New York, the Royal Rumble had to roll on with Cena mending, and it required a deserving winner. Once magnates Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker were ousted from the melee, the only believable victors were Triple H and Batista, whose scopious histories with champions Randy Orton and Edge were there to be exploited. Beyond that, anyone else winning would be an uncontested surprise.
Surprising indeed that John Cena showed up as the No. 30 entrant, relatively close to 100 percent physically after only four months sidelined. When the opening strains of Cena’s music blared, the Garden crowd temporarily forgot how much they hated their hand-picked savior, giving a brief hero’s welcome. The boos mostly returned by the time Cena reversed Helmsley’s Pedigree into an FU-elimination, but the shock of the return is unforgettable.
7. 2006 – For Eddie
Hard to fathom after watching the threadbare string ultimately play itself out, but there was once a time when invoking the late Eddie Guerrero’s name for story purposes had some welcome humanity attached to it. So long as the stories didn’t call for villains to damn Guerrero’s name and spit on the body (which happened more than necessary, not that such desecration was ever required), positive invocation of Eddie seemed fine.
No wrestler mashed the ‘Eddie’ button harder than real-life friend Rey Mysterio, whose black “EG” armband became as synonymous to his image as his colorful masks. Mysterio promised to win the Rumble in honor of his fallen comrade, and Rey now seemed a likely winner. The fact that a Mysterio main event push was merely a replacement for Eddie’s run at the top (as functional Latin draw) only somewhat takes away the zest from the moment.
Mysterio entered No. 2, and ended up claiming the all-time duration title for himself, surviving over 62 minutes. In the end, the crowd-fueled Mysterio startlingly eliminated Triple H (he himself No. 1), and summoned one of his complex headscissors to send Randy Orton over the ropes. Mysterio’s run as a main eventer ended up a stew of bad booking, relentless exploitation, and dissatisfaction, but as a standalone moment, the win was inspirational.
6. 2005 – The Most Unintentionally Hilarious Moment in WWE History
The tales of wrestlers gutting their way through pain occasionally reach mythic campfire levels. Everyone remembers Triple H tearing his quadriceps in 2001, and then enduring Chris Jericho’s Walls finisher, per the script. Noted bad ass ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams once performed in a match hours after receiving more than a hundred stitches near his eye, following a particularly stiff shot. Sometimes, though, the real-life injuries inspire considerably less folklore.
The 2005 Rumble ended without an ending at first, with elevated stars Batista and John Cena improving on Bret Hart and Lex Luger’s 1994 double-elimination finish. With Raw referees declaring Batista the winner, and Smackdown’s officials siding with Cena, an angry Vince McMahon, in his perpetually overblown, tomato-faced rage, stormed the ring, spiking his sport jacket like a football. He was here to demand a just ending to the contest.
Still inflamed, McMahon threw himself under the bottom rope in a defiant entrance, and blew out his quadriceps by slamming his knee on the butt of the apron. He went to stand, and ended up falling on his own butt when that leg gave out. The scene continued with McMahon sitting against the ropes, masking his pain, while the crowd no doubt questioned why he was taking a seat. Batista ended up winning, but the surreal sight of a prone McMahon is more indelible.
5. 2004 – David vs. Goliath
The evil puppeteer stacks the deck against an employee he deems rogue to his self-serving vision for the enterprise. That very device has accounted for something like 75 percent of Vince McMahon’s on-air existence over the last 15 years, but his suited role sometimes spills down to a demi-jerk, such as Eric Bischoff, daughter Stephanie, or short-term Smackdown GM Paul Heyman. It was with the former ECW embodiment that this story runs through.
For vaguely defined reasons, Heyman had it out for Chris Benoit, his legit ex-ECW subordinate. Heyman decreed that Benoit would never reign as WWE Champion on his watch, and to ensure the oppression congealed, “The Canadian Crippler” was stuck entering the Royal Rumble from a cherry-picked No. 1 spot. If Benoit was going to defy the odds and go to WrestleMania, he would have to survive the wrestling equivalent of Hell Week.
The microcosm of the momentous odds Benoit faced was that he’d survived an hour in the ring, but now had to single-handedly dump the 500-pound Big Show, who’d just tossed John Cena, Rob Van Dam, Chris Jericho, and Kurt Angle, one by one. Fighting the power, Benoit fought off an elimination attempt by cranking on Show’s neck with a chancery, and then gamely won by using the top rope as a lever to ease the larger Show over the top rope.
4. 1997 – Bret Gets Screwed, The Prequel
The paradigm shift was picking up steam. Anything with the stink of a ‘Rock n Wrestling’ relic was keeling over, the stench of death overridden by unmistakable staleness. Multi-week TV tapings were walking fossils, barely outpacing weekend syndication and patriotic ring-rope schemes. Next up on the generational firing line was the definition of the ‘hero.’ Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart’s ‘work hard, play fair, be honest’ interpretation was about to be executed.
Among the final field were Hart and his antagonist, anti-hero Stone Cold Steve Austin, whose sociopathy was still shaded with villainous colors. The two warred in a crowd with The Undertaker, Vader, and Mankind, all landmark characters that were too dark to be milk-and-cookie do-gooders, but not so reprehensible that their images as relentless brawlers undermined their cool factor. Hart was a pink-and-black sore thumb among this new brigade.
Hart even won the match fairly, first by tossing Austin, and ultimately eliminating an impostor Diesel, soon to be reincarnated as Kane. Problem: the referees were tied up by the eliminated Mankind and Terry Funk, thus missing Austin’s exit. Stone Cold snaked back in, dumped out the teetering Undertaker and Vader on re-entry, then tossed Hart out for the tainted win. Hart’s ensuing tantrum would ultimately be a death sentence for his long-standing roots of pride.
3. 2007 – Icon vs. Icon
A Royal Rumble pet peeve: sometimes, the match ends too quickly. Thinning out the herd down to the final pair of combatants boils the drama and then, once down to two competitors, one of them is eliminated within thirty seconds. Waiting on line at Six Flags for an hour for a ninety second ride generally produces at least a mild thrill. Rumbles such as 1996, 2003, and 2009 rushed through the climaxes at warp speed. 2007 is the ultimate antithesis of those.
Shawn Michaels had just single-handedly outsmarted and eliminated the reigning Tag Team Champions of Randy Orton and Edge, leaving only one other entrant in the ring with him. The Undertaker lie prone on the canvas following the now-outlawed chair-to-the-head, and Michaels collapsed from his own spell of exhaustion. Michaels performed his trademark kip-up, right around the time ‘Taker did his patented sit-up. This would be ‘go-time.’
For close to seven minutes, the two cornerstones put forth the most extended Rumble ending there has ever been. Adding to the suspense was the reality that either man was an acceptable winner. Near-eliminations were teased, and this was the key: as the Rumble finale had never endured for so long, each near-toss was bought as the real thing. The actual ending saw Michaels whiff on the superkick, and get waistlocked over, sealing ‘Taker’s victory.
2. 1995 – False Finish
While predictability is an unwelcome obstacle for fans wanting entertainment every step of the way, it’s sometimes inevitable at the Royal Rumble. Some years, only one entrant would make a credible victor, and so anticipation swings toward him being the last man standing. If the story has legs, or the star’s stock is soaring, then there’s no malice toward the odds-on winner. In fact, the excitement intensifies; the crowd wants to see said star win what’s rightfully his.
There seemed to be no better choice in 1995 than Shawn Michaels, preening bad boy whose former insurance policy, Diesel, was reigning as WWE Champion. The pool of talent in 1995 needed a good scrubbing; only Michaels, Davey Boy Smith, Lex Luger, Owen Hart, and Bob Backlund would have been reasonable winners. Michaels, the youngest and most talked-about of the group, was due for ascension. Even as a heel, he was beloved head of the class.
Michaels and Smith were the first two entrants in the abbreviated Rumble (one minute intervals, probably owing to the lack of star power) and wound up surviving the transparent gauntlet as the last men in. Michaels took a wicked clothesline over the ropes, and Smith’s music played momentarily. However, in a nice twist, only one of Michaels’ feet contacted the floor. The Heartbreak Kid slid back in and sent a celebrating Smith over for the real finish.
1. 1992 – WHOOOOOOOO!
The ending of the 1992 Royal Rumble is merely the crowning of the greatest Royal Rumble match of all time. Given that the vacated WWE Championship was up for grabs, every major conceivable name had to take part. Had Bret Hart, The Legion of Doom, and a returning Ultimate Warrior replaced, say, Virgil, The Berzerker, Nikolai Volkoff, and Skinner, it would have been an even greater display of wrestling’s unquestioned elite, not that it wasn’t already.
[adinserter block=”2″]Hard to say whose performance is more Oscar-worthy: Ric Flair’s masochistic trek via limitless conditioning, or Bobby Heenan’s supporting role as futile encouragement, living and dying with every move Flair made. As Flair’s on-screen adviser, Heenan quite literally rolled out the red carpet for the Atlanta defector, and with the big gold on the line, it was put-up-or-shut-up time. When Flair walked out at No. 3, Heenan nearly coughed up his spleen in abject horror.
Flair’s one-hour performance is matched only by Heenan’s equal-timed desperate spectacle on headset. When Flair was nearing the end at the hands of Hulk Hogan, and Sid Justice dumped an unsuspecting Hulk, Heenan’s spirits lifted. When an angry Hogan helped Flair pull Sid out, Heenan gushed like a curbside with a displaced fire hydrant. Flair’s mission to become champion was completed, but he was too tired to rave. No worries; The Brain had him covered.
Justin Henry has been an occasional contributor to Camel Clutch Blog since 2009. His other work can be found at WrestleCrap.com and ColdHardFootballFacts.com. He can be found on Twitter, so give him a follow.
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