In a way, it's appropriate that the WWE place its second most important pay-per-view event of the year on this weekend, the same weekend as the NFL's AFC and NFC title games, because in the same way that those conference title games determine the participants in and set the table for football's annual championship spectacle, so, too, does the Royal Rumble set up EVERYTHING leading up to the WWE's Super Bowl, Wrestlemania — it sets up the feuds, the story lines and even the title match at Mania itself.
For the casual fan looking to get a little deeper into the WWE product, as suspect a time as it may be to do that right now with the paper-thin roster due to injuries, I always tell them that the Royal Rumble is the most fun pay-per-view of the year. The Rumble itself is the brainchild of WWE Hall of Famer and booker extraordinaire Pat Patterson. Thirty men, each entering the ring one at a time in 90- to 120-second intervals (depending on how the clock looks for the telecast), eliminated when thrown over the top rope, last man standing wins. Hell, if nothing else, you get 30 ring entrances, which are the coolest parts of any WWE event anyway.
In most years, the winner of the Rumble gets a title shot at Wrestlemania. However, for just the second time in the 29-year history of the event, the actual WWE title itself will be on the line, as champion Roman Reigns will lose his title to the Rumble winner if he doesn't win the Rumble. The only way Reigns retains, obviously, is to win the Rumble.
So unless this thing is a total clusterfuck on Sunday night, it automatically becomes historically significant to some degree. Let's define "historically significant" within the bubble of WWE, shall we? Here are the ten Royal Rumbles that, up until now, carry the most historical significance, in one man's opinion...
JANUARY 24, 1988 — Hamilton, Ontario (Copps Coliseum)
WINNER: "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan
HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE: This was the debut Rumble, and (slightly known fact) it didn't actually air on pay-per-view. It aired live on the USA Network and was only a 20-man event. Also, no title match at Wrestlemania for the winner either. That stipulation didn't start until 1993. As you can see from the 20 men chosen to participate in this one, it started out as more of a "help get a mid card guy over" event than a determinant of who would or could be "the man" going forward. Hence, Hacksaw Duggan!! HOOOOOOOO!!!!
JANUARY 19, 1992 — Albany, NY (Knickerbocker Arena)
WINNER: Ric Flair
HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE: This was the only other time that the title has been up for grabs at a Rumble. After then-WWF president Jack Tunney vacated the belt following massive shenanigans in a November title match between Hulk Hogan and the Undertaker, he decided to put the strap up for grabs in the Rumble event, winner takes it home. This would end up launching the first then-WWF title reign for Ric Flair, whose first run in the company would become best known for the company's complete inability to book a match between him and Hogan.
JANUARY 23, 1994 — Providence, RI (Providence Civic Center)
WINNER: Bret "Hit Man" Hart, Lex Luger (tie)
HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE: In the second year with the "winner gets a shot at Mania" stipulation, we got our first ever Rumble tie, as Bret Hart and Lex Luger both spilled onto the floor simultaneously to close out the match. This set up a Wrestlemania X with two title matches. Luger lost by DQ to then champ Yokozuna early in the card, and then Hart (who'd been pinned by his younger brother Owen in an amazing opener) pinned Yoko to close out the show. This marked the effective end of Luger's force-fed, year-long babyface push. This Rumble was also famous for the rise of Kevin Nash (Diesel) from Shawn Michaels's bodyguard to legit wrecking machine, as he was tossing guys out at will.
JANUARY 22, 1995 — Tampa, FL (USF Sun Dome)
WINNER: Shawn Michaels
HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE: Speaking of Michaels and Nash, by the time the Rumble rolled around in 1995, Nash had gone from bodyguard to world champion, and the push was on for Michaels to give chase. In this Rumble. Michaels became the first guy ever to go wire to wire and win the Rumble, setting up a title match with Nash at Wrestlemania XI. This was also one of the coolest finishes to a Rumble ever as Michaels was tossed out but miraculously only had one foot hit the floor. Watch the replay of this sequence. Michaels in 1995 was an amazing athlete. One quirky thing about this Rumble: Pam Anderson was hired as a guest celeb, I guess to ogle Michaels after he won. Watch the post-match celebration. She's not into it at all.
JANUARY 19, 1997 — San Antonio, TX (Alamodome)
WINNER: "Stone Cold" Steve Austin
HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE: This Rumble took place in the midst of the rise of WCW as a legit competitor to the then-WWF, so Vince McMahon was trying to make a statement by selling out the Alamodome, with a card built around San Antonio native Shawn Michaels winning back his world title from Sid and fast riser "Stone Cold" Steve Austin of Victoria, Texas, winning the Rumble. Austin cheated to win the Rumble, which only made everyone love him more, but because of some real-life twists with Michaels the next few weeks (the infamous "lost my smile" forfeiture of the belt in February), Austin wound up in a submission match at Mania with Bret Hart, which would be the greatest and most important match in Mania history since it planted the seeds for Austin's run atop the business for the next three years. (NOTE: This was also the first event in which Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross wore his signature black cowboy hat. He wore it because they were in Texas, but Vince McMahon liked it on JR so much, he had him keep it as part of the gimmick. True story.)
JANUARY 18, 1998 — San Jose, CA (San Jose Arena)
WINNER: "Stone Cold" Steve Austin
HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE: One year later, Austin would win the Rumble again, this time tossing his arch-rival and eventual box office superstar The Rock over the top rope to get a shot at Michaels at Wrestlemania XIV, where Austin would win the belt for the first time. This stretch of WWE turf is also well known for the involvement of Mike Tyson in story lines. You have to watch the interview at the very end with a young Michael Cole and Tyson, in which Tyson excitedly calls Austin "Cold Stones" and says that Michaels, who was probably in his early thirties by then, was a "young, hungry lion" or something like that.
JANUARY 25, 2004 — Philadelphia, PA (Wachovia Center)
WINNER: Chris Benoit
HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE: This Rumble contained another rare instance of a superstar going to wire to wire. This time it was the late Chris Benoit, who was in the middle of a huge push. Of course, this Rumble gained historical significance tragically as a couple of years later, Benoit committed murder-suicide on his wife, his young son and himself, so it's a Rumble that is not spoken of ever on WWE television.
JANUARY 30, 2005 — Fresno, CA (Save Mart Center)
HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE: This Rumble is known for two things — the second ever instance of two wrestlers landing on the floor at the same time to end the match (Batista, John Cena), and Vince McMahon stomping to ringside to rectify the situation and tearing both of his quad muscles. The awkwardness of McMahon sitting in the ring barking out orders is pretty surreal and very, very hilarious.
JANUARY 29, 2006 — Miami, FL (American Airlines Arena)
WINNER: Rey Mysterio
HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE: The most recent instance of a wire-to-wire victor, this time it was the diminutive Rey Mysterio, who dedicated his performance in the Rumble before the match to the late Eddie Guerrero, who had recently passed away before this show. Mysterio is, far and away, the tiniest winner of the Rumble ever.
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JANUARY 27, 2008 — New York, NY (Madison Square Garden)
WINNER: John Cena
HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE: Things always feel bigger when they take place in the Garden, and this Rumble marked the surprise return of John Cena, who'd been out the previous few months with a torn chest muscle and was not expected back for a few more months. However, Cena was fully recovered, in dynamite shape and went on a rampage through the Rumble as the surprise 30th entrant. Nowadays, this exact sequence might get Cena booed out of the building by the Cena-fatigued audience. In 2008, it was pretty cool.
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