Doc’s Note – Hello, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome back to a presentation that I have absolutely loved participating in but did not conceptualize. This is the brainchild of Skulduggery of the LOP Columns Forum and it is awesome, so I’d like to continue sharing it with you. Enjoy!
With less than two weeks until the big day, we are officially on the road to the Royal Rumble. Which is the road to WrestleMania. So I guess we are on…a side road? Merging onto the main road? I’ve never been one for civil engineering, so before this metaphor takes a steep dive off of a short cliff, I’ll just say that whatever we’re on, we’re going full speed!
Today, we cull things from 8 matches to the Final 4. Four Royal Rumble matches and four non-Rumble matches, stretching from 1991 to 2009, remain in contention for the greatest match in the history of the January PPV. Would it follow that these are the toughest decisions yet? We’ll see what is to be said by mizfan, Oliver, Mazza, Prime Time, Samuel ‘Plan, The Doc, and myself!
(1) Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit (’03) vs. (3) Royal Rumble Match (’01)
Samuel ‘Plan: It’s definitely a tricky one, this one. On the one hand, the 2003 WWE Championship Match really is special in my eyes. It so subtly shifts itself away from what you normally see from an ‘E-style story. The movement and use of space is driven organically, defined by the action in the same way you’d normally witness mostly in puroresu. The technical exchanges and the physicality could easily come from the same philosophy too. I find it remarkable, even this far removed from its original staging, standing the test of time and, arguably, only getting better with it.
On the other hand, you have a Rumble, and not just any Rumble – one of the best. It might not have the juggernaut creativity of a 2009, the emotional drive of a 2004, the charm of a 1992 or subtle characterisation of a 2013, but it has a little bit of each of one those traits nestled within its run-time. They might not be to quite the same surplus, but they’re there all the same. It’s another genre-bending performance entered into the Rumble’s pantheon from Stone Cold Steve Austin, a slice of iconography from Kane and supporting players like The Rock and even a Triple H not entered into the match comfortably hold up their end of the bargain too.
Both of these matches, then, are hugely memorable but both vastly different, leaving me with only one comparator. The 2001 Royal Rumble Match is a strong take on its genre, but does little to innovate. It’s most creative aspect – the manner in which Austin blends two versions of a single defining trope – had already been done, arguably more effective in previous years, and while Kane’s performance may be considered the peak of the dominant performance it was, in itself, nothing new either. Opposing it here is a genuinely subversive singles match. I wrote about it in my book, 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die, as a slice of WWE in-ring apostasy and I stand by that assessment. It throws out the typical rule book and adopts, if somewhat subtly, a different mode of thought between the ropes to achieve a memorably compelling piece of work.
To my own surprise, in fact, I find myself voting for Angle and Benoit‘s WWE title bout.
mizfan: The choices aren’t easy when we get this deep in! Especially since all my pet peeve matches have been booted at this point (great job, everyone!). Angle/Benoit is as physical, intense, and technical a match as you’re likely to see from WWE, and my appreciation for Benoit’s wrestling is probably well known at this point. There’s no doubt it’s a cleaner, crisper match and it may well get the win here.
And yet… I find myself inexorably drawn to the near perfect chaos of the 2001 Rumble. Kane’s epic run alone has always made this a big favorite of mine, but the spirited upheaval of so many major storylines colliding is something really special to me. So many greats of the era lay it all on the line in this match, with strong motivations that make absolute sense in context (thank you, Chris Kreski!). I’m going with the ’01 Rumble here, it’s one of the best and I want to see it advance!
The Doc: Fascinating to me, the love that the ’01 Rumble gets. As stated previously, I concur that it is in the conversation for the Top 10 Royal Rumbles, but the upper-end praise for it baffles me. Three seeds getting to the Elite Eight are not completely unexpected, but I honestly think the ’01 Rumble significantly outkicked its coverage in this tournament to be in this spot. Give me Benoit vs. Angle here a hundred times over and a little bit of a prayer that I don’t have to talk about the ’01 Rumble in the Final Four, because I think I’d be a little irritated by that and it is my New Year’s resolution to stay away from things that tend to irritate me.
So, let’s talk about Benoit vs. Angle a bit more. It’s awesome for all the reasons the panel has already pointed out, but the fact that it was the peak of the Smackdown Six Era – prior to, Angle, Benoit, Edge, Mysterio, and Los Guerreros had simply tore the house down regularly from featured mid-card spots, only for December to bring about Angle becoming WWE Champion and several of the others to factor into the title picture via #1 contender matches – carries a lot of weight with yours truly. I also think it relevant to bring up that Angle, himself, considers it his best match. He was asked in a 2015 interview about his Rumble classic with Benoit and he flat out stated that he’s never had a better match.
Mazza: Now we’re talking. I put the pure in ring action of 2003 over a stronger wider story in the last round. The 2001 rumble is huge however. It kicks off the road to the greatest Mania of all time and the greatest Mania main event of all time. It’s a big match for sure that is anchored by Kane’s dominating iron man display. It’s my favourite period in wrestling history and it is the sharp end of that. I love it. However the showcase of Benoit and Angle is just so good it is hard to pass up. And maybe I was a little unfair on it last time out too. I mean without this performance and standing ovation for Benoit, does he get his rumble win the next year and Mania story arc? Probably not. You know what, I was undecided coming into this but I’ve convinced myself. Kurt and Chris.
Prime Time: Right, so we’ve reached the stage where you have to go back and rewatch the matches. Angle and Benoit, then, comes back to me quite strongly when you sit down and give it a look. And it is very good. Would I have still voted for Ramon and Bret over it had I gone back to rewatch it in a previous round? I’m unsure – I’d have to re-watch the Rumble match, though I suspect that this could be one of those cases where the highs are higher in the more recent match, but the lows, too, are lower. This is so often the real case of modern pro wrestling.
Anyway, it’s basically a fairly straight title match against a Rumble that has a lot of silliness in it, the last true ‘Attitude Era’ rumble if you like. And while I like the latter in-and-of-itself, I think the only way you can split the two is by returning to some basic principles and casting my vote for the more serious of the two affairs. I’m switching, but going over to Angle and Benoit.
Skulduggery: Didn’t vote for either of these ones last round, but I’ve never been so OK with being shut out in a bracket. All four Bracket A matches in the Sweet 16 grease my wheels, so there was hardly a wrong choice to be made. Angle/Benoit finds itself in yet another square-off against a match vastly different in tone, but very similar in quality. You have some of the most elite wrestling chess on display in 2003, and a silkily sewn together performance of chaos in 2001. In this case, when stacked against such stiff competition, I think the ’01 Rumble’s middle section (where Kane is left to do the heavy lifting and the rest of the marquee names have yet to enter) stands out a little more. It’s close to inevitable in nearly any Rumble setting, and it doesn’t even drag or anything like that, but when you stack it next to the polish of an Angle/Benoit, it shows just a bit of rust. I like the climax of Austin’s win more, but it takes longer to get to that gear than the 2003 championship match does.
Oliver: I’ve said before that the 2001 Rumble is terrific because it’s so much fun. I don’t think that really gets through much in Rumbles anymore, they’re not very fun – the inherent fun in the reverse battle royal not withstanding – and I think that’s what makes 2001 really stand out when you come back to watching it. The momentum it keeps up gives it a very frenetic pace. At least, initially.
As I said last time out, it sags so badly once Rock stops Kane’s path of destruction and the ring starts to bloat with wastes of skin and bone. You get nobody worth a single damn between numbers 14 and 24, except William Regal of course, and it shows because nobody care unless Rock or Kane is doing something interesting. And Jesus H. Christ, even then you only get Undertaker and Austin to give a shit about in the final five. And Meng, if you’re me, I suppose. But seriously, the lack of real star power in that match is so horrifically noticeable watching it now.
Against it here is a match that, in theory, lacked a bit of star power at the time – an Angle who perhaps wasn’t having his best title run at that point in time, and a Benoit who was only ever nearly there at this point in time – but one that actually reverses the pattern of the Rumble match – a slightly underwhelming opening third makes way for something truly fascinating and exhilirating during the final 66.6%. The way these two go together is like Christmas and overeating, like Germany and low quality pornography, like Donald Trump and lying – they’re a natural pairing. But more than anything, they’re natural entertainers, somehow, despite all the knocks against Benoit and his charisma or lack thereof. They knew how to work the crowd, y’know? And this is the match that shows it, after the diarrhoea of Triple H vs Steiner before it. They got that crowd back into their match despite it being dead on arrival, and their CPR was hugely effective.
Yeah, I’m not going against the number one seed here.
(1) Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit (’03) wins 6-1
(3) John Cena vs. Umaga (’07) vs. (4) The Rockers vs. The Orient Express (’91)
Mazza: We always seem to end up with one bracket final that has you thinking really? Both excellent matches, don’t get me wrong, but every single one of the other six that made it to this point would beat them both handily for my money. It’s time for the Rockers and the Express to do one however. It’s a great tag match however it’s out of its league in amongst brilliant high stakes bouts. Cena and Umaga is a very strong and innovative last man standing match which I believe was career defining for both men at that point in time.
Samuel ‘Plan: Is this bloody tag team match still here? Ugh. I vote Last Man Standing.
Oliver: First of all HAHAHAHA F-YOU ‘PLAN. Second of all, Rockers vs Express fucking rules. I feel like it needs someone to bat for it here, though, and in the words of the late, great George Michael, baby I’m your man.
Last time out, I pointed out that Triple H, The Revival, and DIY invented tag team wrestling just two years ago. How, then, can a tag match from 28 years ago even exist? A big, and important question. It is, of course, important to note that this match is from a time when men were men, women were women, and tag teams were tag teams. And such was the depth of the tag team division that people actually cared, which is what made these matches work on such a great level. Even now, after tag team wrestling was created in Florida, there’s still not a great depth to the division on the main roster.
And that depth is what imbues this whole match with a great crowd reaction, helping it along to become a hot opener that, possibly, has never been bettered throughout history. It’s certainly top five.
And that’s even here – The Rockers and The Orient Express probably weren’t even top of the division in 1991, but they enormously delivered in this match through having incredible chemistry as tag teams, that work together and know each other so they can slip into the ring and help the other member of their team out, and so they absolutely nail the double teaming throughout this one. And you know, at the time it wasn’t every match that you saw moonsaults or suicide dives in, and that’s what helps this match feel kind of ageless at this point of time. And it’s also helped greatly by these two teams having familiarity with each other from before being in a WWE ring together when in the NWA – if there’s one thing we can learn from The Revival and DIY, it’s that being in a ring together can only breed better and better matches over time.
And look, I’m not saying this has to be everybody’s favourite tag match. But for me personally, I love the way that each team knows the other, that they weave in these storytelling devices to the match they have, that they even have a bit of learning going on in match from the Express, who run into one another at one point and then don’t repeat the trick later when the Rockers try it again. There’s just so much worthy of unpicking here, the Rockers working together like a well-oiled machine, the Express cutting them off nefariously or otherwise, the pace the two teams work at with relatively small hiccups. There are even little things, like the belt that comes into play at the very end.
Supposedly Michaels and Jannetty walked backstage after this and told everyone to ‘top that’. I’m sure it got them in trouble. Here it gets them my vote.
Prime Time: This was a curious one to me because I hadn’t watched the tag match in years, nor the Umaga and Cena bout since it happened. So going back to these with fresh eyes in the light of the number of votes that they’ve got is interesting to me.
I should come clean and say that neither looked perfect to me, and I’d still rather the 1990 Rumble was here in place of either of them. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Cena as I slid out of watching the WWE in 2007/8 and this match did remind me of why, as a lot of his acting is just not very good – he goes, as is so often the case today, from injured to looking completely fine in a heartbeat. At least when people did silly things in the past they had the decency to look like they were fighting out of desperation, something that John certainly hadn’t mastered by this point.
I do also understand some of the reticence surrounding the tag match; even if I don’t fully agree that it’s too spotty, there are some bits that just don’t look good, and I’m not sure the finish is the best. That said it does have a really good section in there, whereas I just found the other match… a bit dull, to be honest. Umaga did his job admirably but considering how much blood there was, and the scale of the violence, it was surprisingly unmoving.
So I’ll say this. The Rockers and Orient Express is not some forgotten classic. As a Cinderella story, frankly it pales in comparison with Ted and Virgil, which I found a genuine, for which I developed a genuine, real affection in the Summerslam tournament. I doubt it would have reached the final in any other bracket, and I can pick matches I like more than it in this one. But in this head to head, I simply prefer it.
Skulduggery: On one hand, color me stunned at Rockers/Orient getting the win over Brock/Rollins/Cena. On the other hand, I was truly dreading having to pick between that triple threat and the Last Man Standing one here. So at least now I have an easy decision!
Saying it like that is actually doing a bit of a disservice to how good the 1991 tag match is. These guys put on a performance years ahead of its time, combining maneuvers that thrill and action that feels genuine. It’s right up there with the 1999 I Quit and the 1992 Rumble for my three favorite 1990s matches from the Royal Rumble event. Even so, it’s still a pretty easy decision for me to go with Last Man Standing. I actually counter my friend Oli’s stance that the action only really picks up when Cena gets juice; the moment he launches the steel steps from inside the ring to out, showing exactly how many more gears one needs to go to floor Umaga, is the instant I knew this match had the makings of something special. With strikes that scream authenticity, and a battle-back effort by Big Match John that brings about goosebumps no matter how many times you’ve re-watched it, the 2007 championship match gets the punch on my ticket to the Final 4.
mizfan: I really enjoy the Rockers/Express match, it’s a ton of fun. But I really do think Cena/Umaga is something special, it’s the Cena formula done at it’s absolute best. It’s violent, it’s visceral, Umaga comes off like a star (something lost later, not on the night) and Cena’s comeback actually feels organically desperate. I buy into the match in a way I don’t often do with Cena matches. It’s a classic and deserves the final four!
The Doc: I had run out of things to say about the Triple Threat, so I’m happy to see it ousted in favor of something that better passes time’s test. That said, The Rockers vs. The Orient Express, as good as it is, has reached the end of its road. Cena vs. Umaga is one of the all-time greats, battle tested and time approved, and that’s too steep a hill for the tag match to climb, though what a run it had in this tournament! “Aesthetic magic” is how I described the ’91 tag last round and that indeed carries a lot of weight, but with Umaga vs. Cena you have an aesthetic quality of barbarism aided in hindsight by the sheer lack of anything comparable to it in the last decade, plus the Cena-based boosts mentioned in prior entries (this was basically Cena writing a thesis on how to effectively utilize the Hogan formula for the more modern wrestling product) and the underrated overall quality of the performance from both guys. No matter how you break it down analytically, the Last Man Standing is the superior match, be it via storytelling, psychology, execution, climax, intangibles, etc.
You know, on a closing note, I would venture to say that John Cena would be regarded far worse by his critics than he already is if he did not have this match in his library. Take this match away from Cena and what does his career look like? Do the same with the tag match to HBK’s career and nobody bats an eyelash. That has to matter, in my opinion.
(3) John Cena vs. Umaga (’07) wins 5-2
(1) Triple H vs. Cactus Jack (’00) vs. (7) Royal Rumble Match (’09)
Prime Time: Hoo, boy. No way could I have picked this one without taking another look, to be honest. I’m a really big fan of both matches and would have voted for each of them against almost anything that’s left in, and certainly anything left in brackets A or B. It’s really a shame that we have to lose one here.
What makes it difficult is that I thought both matches held up just as well. Surprisingly I hadn’t watched the street fight in around 15 years or more, so there was always a chance that it wouldn’t resonate with me in quite the same way, but there’s a quality to it that bleeds through the screen, something ominous, something that says this is how you do a street fight, how you do wrestling, and don’t make people appreciate it but make them feel it.
And 2009 holds up as well. I’ve said several times it’s the last Rumble you could watch with your brain fully engaged and while I’d have to rewatch some of the more recent ones that I’ve only seen once to really hang my hat on the statement, it’s certainly true that this one just works on more than the one level. And I still love the way that the Legacy group hunt as a pack, coming off as borderline feral at certain points in the match.
You know what, I hate to do this, because I’d love to vote for something more contemporary than I usually do, and I’d love to vote for a Royal Rumble rather than looking to bin off another one – but I just can’t. As good as it is the street fight is still better.
Samuel ‘Plan: When I first saw this in the line up I expected to find it very, very tough to choose a winner. Now I sit down to think of it, having just recorded two podcasts this week breaking down Rumble genre tropes and winning performances respectively, and now having written out my thoughts about comparing the ’01 Rumble opposite the ’03 WWE title bout, I actually find the choice easier than I anticipated.
I have to vote for the 2009 Rumble Match here. This is not to talk down the Street Fight. Though I don’t do star ratings, I have in the past written about how the Street Fight is a self-evidently ‘five star’ Attitude bout, lacing a passion for its adopted genre with gritty, at times ferocious, at times darkly chilling characterisation – and, fascinatingly, the most chilling moments come courtesy of the unhinged anti-hero Cactus Jack, who is here piloted by a Mick Foley who, in spite of being on the verge of retirement, is arguably at his career best. Never before had WWE fans witnessed quite so convincingly vicious a version of Foley in the ring, serving only to further elevate the effort to the career-transforming night for Triple H it turned out to be.
Maybe against any other Royal Rumble Match it would win out.
But it’s against the greatest Royal Rumble Match of all time. 2009’s Rumble remains absolutely incredible. It combines relentless near eliminations with relentlessly creative action with zero interest in maintaining the normally strict adherence to monotone brawling, the content instead embracing the Rumble’s natural scope as it zips and pings from one set-piece to another with barely enough time for you to catch a breath as a viewer. And, amazingly, that zeal is sure to make best use of every single name in the ring at any given time. Expressing all the same traits of many of the Rumbles considered to be the best, it adds remarkably flawless fluidity to push itself to the top of the list by some distance. This, all without mentioning the commanding, career-best performance of a Randy Orton who veritably exudes super-star power in a truly legendary character outing.
What I’m basically saying is that, as good as the Street Fight is, the 2009 Royal Rumble Match is on a level all its own. It gets my vote here.
Skulduggery: Here’s the thing about matches once we get this deep. You look at things with a microscope. You nitpick minor details. Anything I’m going to say poorly about the Street Fight ought to be taken with a mound of salt, because I have to make it clear that I adore that match. I’ve probably watched it a dozen times, and it’s never failed to amaze me. In being annoyingly nitpicky, though, and taking it into consideration so many times in such a short period, there are things that naturally crop up to me. Take, for instance, the frequent mention of how good Foley is at elevating others. That brings about memories of his Hardcore matches with Randy Orton and Edge. And having given those the same process in the Madness tournaments for Backlash and WrestleMania, I can actually say fairly comfortably that I’d place Cactus’ war with Triple H in third place behind those two. Maybe it’s something about Orton’s school lesson being so much more shocking given that he was far less rugged going into Backlash 2004 than HHH was going into Rumble 2000. Maybe it’s that Foley and Edge pack such a high level of pulse into a shorter runtime in Chicago that has the crowd buzzing every second, whereas the bloodbath in NYC has a touch more down time.
And with all of that, I can easily say that a) if that’s about the worst nitpick I can give HHH/Foley, that’s pretty indicative of how badass it is, because that’s like asking which Wayne Gretzky MVP season was only the third best. Whatever it was, it was probably better than any other non-Gretzky MVP season! And b) HHH/Foley isn’t being judged against those two matches, it’s being judged against the 2009 Royal Rumble. No contest for me. Street Fight.
The Doc: The ’09 Rumble took down the #2 and #3 seeds, giving it the most impressive Cinderella run in what has been a competition fueled by favorites. I said my peace about it last round, but I can appreciate why it advanced. One of these days, I’ll have to get into a decoding-the-Matrix mindset and rewatch it with my brain in a slightly altered state, but until that day unlocks the full scope of the amazing qualities that the likes of ‘Plan put forth about it, I will easily pick Trips vs. Jack to advance. I saw that LOP Forums All-Star Don Franc mentioned he’d never seen it before, and I wondered to myself what a fan seeing it for the first time in this day and age might notice about it. In exploring that thought, I figured that he/she would immediately resonate with the big fight atmosphere fueled by the MSG crowd and the general aura that emanated from any major encounter among Attitude Era Top 5 guys, and then he/she would easily get wrapped up in the flow of the action as it escalated to its use of more sinister weapons; I would assume a fan accustomed to the modern style of main-event might find the finish a bit anti-climactic, but I would simultaneously hope he/she would rewatch it and recognize that it was supposed to feel that way, because the winner of that match was not supposed to be the winner of that match by any conventional storytelling standard – it felt like the next career peak for the loser but ended up being the beginning of the first career peak for the winner.
Mazza: Here we go. My second favourite rumble match up against my favourite non-rumble match. Randy Orton’s finest hour against the match that made Triple H. Both are an almost perfect pro-wrestling blend of action and story. Both heavily feature Hunter. It seems like a tough decisions. It isn’t. I am surprised it isn’t because of everything I have mentioned above but when I look at the two matches next to each other, my heart shouts and my head listens. Street fight.
Oliver: Much as I love the 2009 Rumble, I certainly can’t go against Triple H vs Cactus Jack here, and imagine we’ll all get another chance to talk about it in the next round.
mizfan: This is absolutely the toughest choice for me in this round. In a perfect bracket both of these matches would have been #1 seeds for me, as I think both are absolute barn burners. I hardly need to rant about the star making violence of the ’00 Street Fight, but I do hope everyone is recognizing the layered and unique storytelling present in the ’09 version of the Rumble. All my life I’ve railed at the various teams and stables of the WWE for failing to make use of the numbers game to get ahead of the game, and finally that was executed to perfection here. It’s filled with great performances and smart booking, and it’s a triumph of the era.
And yet… HHH/Foley is such a juggernaut that I can’t vote against it. I can’t lose here no matter what advances, but give me the street fight!
(1) Triple H vs. Cactus Jack (’00) wins 6-1
(1) Royal Rumble Match (’92) vs. (3) Royal Rumble Match (’04)
Oliver: This is easily the closest Rumble-Off we’ve had in this whole thing, and I think it’s quite a tricky one to divide.
I love the 1992 Rumble. More and more as time has gone on, I think this one has become the template for the Rumble matches we regularly get nowadays, and certainly in the last 5-10 years or so there are a lot of notable call backs to this match in particular in terms of structure and specific incidents. Heck, even the clearing the ring so there’s one man left bit gets an outing in 1992, when I thought for the longest time the first person to do it was Stone Cold in one of the later 90s Rumbles (1997?). And, you know, like the 2004 version this is the story of one man throughout – it’s very much Flair’s Rumble. I would assume that the feeling towards it from some quarters will vary depending on how much you like(d) Flair, but I loved the guy so love the match.
I love the 2004 Rumble, too, and for similar reasons – I loved Benoit at this point in time. I truly did. You can say what you like about hindsight and stuff, but I don’t find that the emotional pull I felt when first watching the 2004 Rumble has ever really diminished. And like Flair in 1992, Benoit is the focus of the whole match, at the centre of anything that happens and a constant touchstone for commentary. But in 2004 you have a lot of little sub-stories going on – Goldberg’s appearance, Orton becoming a star, Foley’s impact, a finale that leaves our hero with a tremendous amount of barriers to overcome.
I’m really at a loss here on which way to vote, because I can’t even divide them by a pube – they are that close together for me. I know I’m going to have to pick one. I think it comes down to the one minor little flaw that I picked out before on 2004 – just here or there it gets a little formulaic with a big man coming out to beat off some deadwood and then get chucked within three minutes. And that just works against it here. The 1992 Rumble gets my vote, eventually.
Also LOL I said ‘beat off’.
Mazza: Not gonna hang about here. Made my feelings pretty clear on both these matches throughout this tournament. I am worried for the greatest rumble of all time as 2004 is a very popular edition of the match. The correct answer here however is Flair and Heenan’s finest hours and I strongly believe anyone voting the other way is just plain wrong.
The Doc: This one is obviously a tough choice. Here you have the most famous Royal Rumble Match of all-time, with the most famous Rumble performance of all-time and the most famous announcing perhaps of any match ever, and a Rumble that history is doing its best to forget despite its brilliance from bell-to-bell, which in my opinion usurps the overall greatness of its opponent here. So, again, I come back to the idea of the best vs. the greatest, because they aren’t the same thing. Shawn Michaels may be the best wrestler ever, but he’s not the greatest; Steve Austin, conversely, may be the greatest of all-time, but he wasn’t the best. When the term “best” is used, the conversation centers on the performance, or such is how I have defined it in trying to broaden the scope of how we have these conversations. If this column series were labeled “the best match in Rumble lore” instead of “the greatest,” I would happily pick ’04 because I believe it really is the best ever for reasons described in earlier rounds, but since we are talking about greatness, we have to pan out and think more about it. The legacy of the ’92 Rumble is untouchable, representative as it was of the gimmick’s maturation into what we know and love about it. That it was one of the pinnacle performances in Ric Flair’s career is an important intangible that we talk about every year around this time, and we get to do so uninhibited, without caveat. For that tangible piece of the greatness conversation, ’92 seizes the day and gets my vote.
mizfan: This is actually my #1 and #2 favorite to win the whole thing, so you’d think this would be even tougher than the last one, right? And for sure, it’s not easy. The ’04 match is a masterpiece in my eyes. Benoit’s scratch-and-claw journey to the top is told to perfection both in the build and in the match itself, and of all the long-runners in the Rumble, none stayed more in the mix than the Wolverine. Orton has a star performance, only eliminated by a true shock return which perfectly sets up Wrestlemania. Outside presences make themselves felt, another favorite trope of mine, as Undertaker and Brock Lesnar set up their respective ‘Mania matches in unique ways. The Cena/Big Show issue expands as well on the path to MSG. What I really love about this Rumble is, more than any other Rumble, it sets up almost everything that happens at ‘Mania perfectly, not just in the main title match but up and down the card. It’s stupendous storytelling and a dynamite roster with tons of great performances. And it should be hard to vote against it.
But somehow, it’s not. The ’92 Rumble holds such a special place in my heart that I might vote it all the way to the top if we were doing the greatest matches ever. Every part of the match is so keyed in to the total, and the characters of the WWF were perhaps never so vibrant. Ric Flair (and Bobby Heenan by proxy) have one of the best performances of their already incredible careers, which doesn’t even mention the great showings by British Bulldog, Shawn Michaels, Roddy Piper, Jake Roberts, Undertaker, Randy Savage, Rick Martel, and even Hulk Hogan, just to name a few, on their way to the famous finish that informed so much of what would happen in the coming years. It’s a masterclass of everything that’s great about the Rumble, and it’s getting my vote here. All the way to the end!
Prime Time: Glad to see that I can end my sequence of voting against Rumble matches! I actually love them, I swear – I just think you’ve got the wrong ones! So as with the others, I rewatched both of these for the tournament. I’m fond of them both. But while one basically is just solid up and down, and is good in a does the job without ever really letting you down kind of way, the other one felt like a full-on rollercoaster by comparison. The exception to that statement might be 2004’s handling of the Foley switch-in, which is handled pretty much perfectly for any of that kind of bullshit you want to bring into a Rumble. That whole sequence is a bit of a masterclass for how to do it, really. But as you may have gathered, I’m voting for 1992, one of my sequence of Royal Rumbles where they were always entertaining and always delivered, and while I’m sad it’s the only match from that run that gets to stand so late I’m pleased to see it here and hoping it can win the bracket.
Samuel ‘Plan: To me, great Royal Rumble Matches are often defined by the quality of how they exhibit the genre’s main tropes, and both of these Rumbles embrace those tropes with real energy. Both feature iconic iron man performances – one from Flair, one from Benoit. Both utilise the notion of it being every man for himself in story-altering ways during their final stretches; and, indeed, both also feature fantastic final passages that play almost self-consciously on the unconscious understanding fans have of roster positioning to maximise the storytelling.
But then they diverge. 1992 never really operates in a manner that sees the past meet the present, instead deploying a strictly contemporary roster to tell its story. 2004, though, decides to have a figure of the past absolutely explode through the fabric of the match, erupting in a violent tear as the returning Mick Foley seeks to avenge wrongs dealt him by the Legend Killer. Unlike later toxic versions of the concept, it turns out to be one of 2004’s most enduring facets.
Opposing that on the scale here is the fact that 1992 makes considerably superior use of the idea of ‘the favourite.’ Sure, 2004 is one of the better, more emotive examples (at least in its time) of an emotive underdog story, but it’s not like Chris Benoit was a major favourite that everything else could dramatically hang off. Not only does 1992, even with a frightfully strong field of historic competitors, do just that, it does it twice over – and subverts both! First, Ric Flair, with his recent arrival and preceding reputation, would surely count as a major favourite until he enters third – an idea later subverted by the fact he outlasts the competition to win. Second, Hulk Hogan was always a favourite, a notion further substantiated by the shenanigans surrounding his earlier title loss and the drawing of a late entry number – an idea later subverted by his shocking and entirely legal elimination at the hands of Sid Justice.
At first, I had pegged 2004 as my pick here, but re-examining the two from the perspective of which one makes better use of the inherent tropes of the genre I have to plump for the 1992 Royal Rumble Match instead. Its manipulation of underlying expectations is, in retrospect, actually quite masterful!
Skulduggery: Honestly, I thought I’d be one of the first to eventually turn against the 1992 Royal Rumble – not because I don’t find it to be fantastic; I do – but because I have a couple Rumbles that I enjoy more than it. And I’m sure, if it keeps going, I’ll vote against it at some point. But not here. This is a match-up of Iron Man runs, and I’ll go with the O.G. I keep voting against 2004, and it’s not like I hate it, mind. I do think it’s a fine Rumble, but I wouldn’t call it in the top tier either. That said, something brought up by some of its more ardent fans last round was how well it set things up for WrestleMania XX, and I do quite enjoy that about it. Great call by the likes of Doc and mizfan. Still, 1992 comfortably here.
(1) Royal Rumble Match (’92) wins 7-0
Lots of individually tough decisions in there, but the numbers would suggest otherwise! Easily the biggest collective set of blowouts ever in the Elite 8 stages of any Madness tournament done thus far.
And we are left with four. Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit, John Cena vs. Umaga, Triple H vs. Cactus Jack, and the 1992 Royal Rumble. Three one-on-one matches, and one Royal Rumble match. Three (1)-seeds, and one (3)-seed. And all four matches are for the WWE Championship.
Next column will tackle both the Final 4 and the final match-up in one shot – so get ready to find out what we seven are set to collectively determine as the greatest Royal Rumble match in history. Last helping of January Madness – coming soon!