Doctor’s Orders presents: Half Luck, Half Skul – January Madness – The Greatest Royal Rumble Match (The Series Finale)

Doc’s Note – Hello, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome back to a presentation that I absolutely loved participating in but did not conceptualize. This was the brainchild of Skulduggery of the LOP Columns Forum and it is awesome, so I’d like to share the finale with you. Enjoy!

Bracket A vs. Bracket B

(1) Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit (’03) vs. (3) John Cena vs. Umaga (’07)

Skulduggery: This is the fifth Madness tournament we’ve done, and multiple times in the past, someone has seen the opening round matches, picked a match and declared, “Surely that’s got to win this whole thing easily, right?” And in the case of Backlash and WrestleMania, Orton vs. Foley and Bret vs. Austin were two examples of early guarantee that did indeed end up capturing victory. SummerSlam was a little different – I think the high tier of matches were too close together to have an obvious favorite. Now, the fun thing about this Rumble tournament is that opening round came and went, and I heard virtually the same thing about three different matches – Angle/Benoit, HHH/Foley, and the ’92 Rumble. And here they are all in the Final 4! Very cool, but ultimately there are going to be some shocked people, because only one can win. Someone’s going to be gutted when Angle/Benoit doesn’t win, or someone’s going to be gutted when the Street Fight doesn’t win, or (can I say the same goddamn thing thrice?!) someone’s going to be gutted when the ’92 Rumble doesn’t win! Kids, protect your guts.

Oh, wait – let’s not forget about Cena/Umaga, the other member of the Final 4. Wait, wait, wait. Actually, here’s how emphatically I state that I am not forgetting about it or taking it lightly amidst these other three heavyweights: I’m voting for Last Man Standing convincingly over Angle and Benoit. Yes, the 2003 match is superior from a technical standpoint, more impressive from an athletic viewpoint, and quite honestly, one of the best examples of a pure wrestling match that borrows just enough from the element of sports entertainment that you’ll see. Why then, am I so drawn to the sandpaper of Cena vs. Umaga? Storytelling.

The 2007 WWE Championship match does what so many matches strive for and does it nearly as perfectly as I’ve ever seen. It paints Umaga as a near-unbeatable monster without being so far ridiculous that one is shattered out of believability (see Undertaker vs. Great Khali, Judgment Day 2006 for a grotesque example of the latter). It paints Cena as a fighting champion, one of the best of his generation, and yet seemingly in a fight against a different class of challenger. Yet, bit by bit, this match gives hints that maybe it’s possible for the Champ to, if not win, at least give himself a chance. But what I love about this is that John has to shift into gears he normally doesn’t even approach. It’s not a simple chair shot that might knock down a Triple H or a Randy Orton – it’s literally launching the steel steps from inside the ring to out, square into the face of his monstrous challenger, that allows him just a reprieve – a reprieve, for Christ’s sake. It’s not a simple shot to the head with a TV monitor that might floor a Shawn Michaels or an Edge – it’s finding a rare moment of Umaga prone, his head nestled against the ringpost, and swinging the monitor so hard into his cranium that dust billows. And, at the chilling climax, it’s not a simple STF that had high-caliber talent tapping out for over a year – it’s a fucking noose that Cena puts around Umaga’s throat and pulls with every ounce of energy to put him down. This has gone beyond wrestling, this is the stuff of Criminal Minds, the stuff of horror movies – and then it doesn’t even put him down!

The sequence where Umaga stirs after having been in that noose STF is disturbingly telling. Moments prior, Cena looked at the rope and pondered. Not only does this portray innovation (how often does the top rope spring loose? It’s not as though most wrestlers, in kayfabe, would immediately know what to do with that opportunity), but also a sense of hesitation. Cena knows he has to break beyond any code of morality for what he’s about to do – but as he looks down at his opponent, he realizes he has to. But after his first sadistic, though perhaps unwillingly, torture of Umaga, upon that initial release, when the monster is kept motionless for maybe a 5-count at best, and then he begins to wake, catapults a series of reactions that send this match into elite air. Huge tip of the hat to the commentary booth – Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler both sell straight-up fear of the capabilities of Umaga. And convincingly, Cena, morality and hesitation long gone, goes immediately back to choking the life out of his opponent. The screams coming out of his blood-spattered face carry about them the sense of giving every drop of energy possible, but also a touch of fear – if this heinous act that has already gone beyond wrestling doesn’t work…can anything?

Then, to what I believe is one of JR’s best calls, right along there with his Jeff Hardy “make yourself famous” moment – “Even a monster’s gotta breathe!”, Cena finally emerges victorious. It’s guttural, it’s gritty, it’s a violent how-to of some of the best Man vs. Monster action ever seen in WWE.

The Doc: I love the Umaga vs. John Cena match, frankly, and through my entire research process and the writing of my greatest matches and rivalries book, I gained an added layer of appreciation for it as an honest to goodness all-time great, genre standard-bearing performance. You know, it’s funny. That match never failed to surprise me. You would have to have been nuts in January 2007 to think that Cena and Umaga were going to tear the house down like they did given what they mustered up just a few weeks earlier. Cena went to the next level in that Last Man Standing, as for the first time it was not him just following a long-time veteran headliner’s lead; he leaned hard into what he wanted to become that night and also established the LMS as his go-to pay-off match for years to come. All those years later, studying it from every which angle for my book, I was blown away again, because it held up so well against such stiff competition. It passed time’s test with flying colors, and even got better arguably.

That said, Angle vs. Benoit, using my scoring system, still pretty much blows Cena vs. Umaga out of the water. Beyond the intangible boosts provided the Last Man Standing’s hardcore nature and a comparably engaging climax, Benoit vs. Angle is just flat better. The execution is intricate and still borderline flawless, the technical aspects, chemistry, and athleticism on display are just a beautiful sight to see; it also evokes a more deeply affecting dramatic reaction, largely due to Kurt Angle’s uncanny ability to sell a near-loss – seriously, is there anyone in modern pro wrestling history who was able to make you think he was going to lose, no matter if via tap-out (something in the way he put his hand out, inches from the mat, made his teasing of an “Uncle” plea more believable) or pinfall (it’s like he sat down to study the artform in his formative training days as a pro wrestler and said, “You know what? I’m going to master the little detail of getting my shoulder up at the very last possible split second)? That aspect alone – that Benoit might win despite a seemingly guaranteed loss to set-up Angle vs. Lesnar – is perhaps the WWE Title match at the ’03 Rumble’s greatest attribute in conversations like these that come down to the wire, and if for no other reason than that, it would get my vote here.

I was of the opinion from the start that we were destined for an Angle vs. Benoit final against one of the other two bouts that made the Final Four from the other side of the bracket, so far be it for me to stand in destiny’s way.

Prime Time: I think I only voted for Cena and Umaga once in this whole thing, and that was by a coin toss. So I won’t waste your time by pretending it’s going to get my vote here. Given how bored I was when I watched it back, I’m surprised it’s come this far. Angle and Benoit, please. While I’m not sure I’d have brought this one this far in a completely free choice, I do at least see why it’s made it to the final four.

mizfan: Well, I almost got everything I wanted! And taking Benoit/Angle over the ’01 Rumble isn’t much of a crime, as I do dearly love both matches.

What we’ve got on our hands here are a couple of classics, one of them largely technical, one of them a bloody monster battle. I think you can hardly fault either match, but what do I end up feeling in my gut more? In the end, it’s gotta be the Cena/Umaga war. As someone who often found the Cena formula cheesy, this is one instance where it worked to absolute perfection. They escalated this to the perfect level and the resulting story was just that tiny bit much better than the expertly executed yet perhaps slightly clinical showcase of Benoit and Angle.

Oliver: Into the final four and this is time to get really nitpicky, like a nurse in a primary school. First off, how wild is it that Cena can choke a man with a rope in 2007, but in 2010 choking a guy with a tie got Daniel Bryan fired. I’d have given him a raise just for trying to kill Justin Roberts.

Fun Justin Roberts fact: He now acts as a compere for the rock band Tool during their VIP events.

There’s quite a bit of fun to be add during Cena vs Umaga, that much is true. At one point in time during this here contest I’ve said that this was the start of ‘Never Give Up’ John Cena, where he’d…well…never give up, I suppose. Seems logical. But this Cena era is the one that’s blighted with his sudden Super Cena mode being engaged and him essentially shaking off a match worth of damage in an instant just to hit his moves and win. This match feels differently to that because it feels like it’s him properly overcoming the odds and having to use his brain to get the win, instead of just going through the motions. I think that’s what a lot of Cena’s matches came to lack, that logical escalation of gears and Cena properly feeling like he overcame something.

And hey, Umaga looked the bomb coming out of this too – all too often heels look bloody stupid, but in this case they really made Umaga look like a proper monster who was also logical and focussed on dismantling an opponent based on his weaknesses. He wasn’t just a stupid Samoan bulldozer who would run and run until somebody turned him in a different direction, like Juggernaut or something – he attacked Cena relentlessly with a laser focus. Plus, he threw himself through a table for the fun of it.

Given the slightly raucous nature of the crowd alongside the visceral gore going on in the ring, this all comes together to create a heady atmosphere. But there are little things about it that felt quite contrived, from the persistent interference of Estrada at ringside to the slightly clumsy execution of the finish which took forever to really get it’s point across. I’m not against these kind of choking spots, but they do somewhat drag at the end of what had otherwise been a thrilling, high octane match.

Against it here, we’ve got Angle vs Benoit. Two of the famed Smackdown six doing incredible things to show off just how far ahead of the red brand the blue brand was at the time, always has been, and always will be. I mean, these two saved the 2003 Royal Rumble from being an utter shit show after – I’ll say it again for those at the back and hard of hearing – Triple H and Scott Steiner basically killed it for 25 minutes. Not to mention, the titular match was awful this year, and yes I am still bitter about it taking out Harts vs Quebecers in round 1 of this tournament. So really it was down to these two to put in the hardwork and save the entire three hours from just being dire.

And save it they did, with complete aplomb. I’ve now watched this match three or four times in putting my responses together for this series, and I can honestly say this has really picked up every single time, and I keep noticing new things. This time I got how into Benoit the crowd were from the off, and those early tie ups are all about Benoit. Angle has him well scouted, but Benoit knows full well that Angle’s had his leg fucked up by Brock a couple of weeks previously so keeps working dragon screws and sharpshooters. Angle, meanwhile, focusses in on the surgically repaired neck (© Michael Cole, every year ever) of his opponent.

And the real art here is that there are 15,000 fans in the building all along for the ride but the two guys in the ring never do anything enormously spotty or similar during the match. It’s all honed in on those two targets, and by the time they’re both down from the double clothesline the crowd are molten lava in their support for Benoit. Germans follow because of course they do – the Germans always follow.

And the finishing sequence here pretty much runs from that and is gorgeous. Reversal after reversal of suplexes, Angle Slams, crossfaces, a flying headbutt falsie that is obscene, not least because Benoit flies most of the way around the world on it, and Kurt eventually wins it with a heel hook, grapevine in for extra effect.

Honestly, sometimes watching old Benoit matches is like looking at a picture of your hot ex – you don’t want to look and it makes you feel sad, but you can’t help but stare and rub your crotch. For me, this was the match that put the WWE version of Benoit on the map, that put him up as someone who could be a star, not least given the enthusiasm of the crowd behind him. Of course, the bigwigs at WWE were listening because 12 months later he ran through the whole Rumble.

So – which way to vote? Ultimately, I think this is entirely down to personal preference. I know there are those out there that think matches can be defined by their technical merits, the minutiae of competition, the flaws and pitfalls against the strengths and advantages. But these two matches? They’re too close to call for me to use that scaling. So I have to go with my gut. And my gut says that Benoit vs Angle just – and I mean just – edges out it’s rival.

Samuel ‘Plan: I found this one quite easy, in truth. I have a lot of love for both matches, and in some ways this is an issue of content against character. The Last Man Standing Match is really great wrestling fantasy, truly a superhero story brought to life in the middle of the ring. It also has a really violent aesthetic. We’ve seen Umaga’s table spot from that match a number of times since, but seeing it for what I believe was the first time that night was breathtaking, in both its originality and effectiveness. There’s the moment the Samoan Bulldozer has a television monitor sandwiched over his cranium and has the steel steps hit him like a dart too. The choke-out at the end might be the lasting image, but it’s a riotous match filled with superlative wrestling violence tinged with fantastical character. It stands the test of time because of these virtues.

I suppose, at my heart though, a solid wrestling match laced with genuine emotion will always be favoured than even some of the best character-driven, inherently WWE-like wrestling I can remember watching. Angle vs. Benoit happened on a card that saw the rising mid card of the late 1990s wrestling scene really come of age at the same time the rising mid card of the early 2000s planted its flag in the ground to replace them, so it has a compelling backdrop. The design of the match pulses with guile, grit and determination, so it has an edge to it. The execution of the action is clinically precise but not entirely soulless like the sometimes emotionally castrated style of, say, a Daniel Bryan or AJ Styles match, so it proves equal parts exhilarating and engaging. Its emotive punch still proves really powerful too, and is perhaps the key to its enduring effectiveness – the standing ovation after the bout concludes signals the arrival of a new top flight star and the perhaps forgotten true beginning of an odyssey that found itself completed some 16-odd months later.

History might make some left feeling disquieted or uncomfortable feeling a rush of emotion at the end of one of Chris Benoit’s most famous matches, all things considered. I’ve never struggled to make that necessary distinction required with true assessment of Benoit’s work though, and as fun as Cena vs. Umaga is, even that feels decidedly normal opposite the quiet apostasy and pulsing feverishness of the ’03 Rumble’s WWE Championship bout.

Mazza: This one really isn’t tough at all. It is an elite January title match versus a great rumble title match. Angle and Benoit’s masterclass is easily the better match here and should win 7-0, even with the people in this think who love the hottest of hot takes. I am not really sure what to say more than that. I mean this as no big diss to the LMS, it is just heavily overmatched.

(1) Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit (’03) wins 5-2

Bracket C vs. Bracket D

(1) Triple H vs. Cactus Jack (’00) vs. (1) Royal Rumble Match (’92)

mizfan: Here’s your true main event of the whole tournament, and it’s quite a doozy. I think the Street Fight is the best thing Triple H ever did, his effort to show he belonged in the spotlight resonates with me even without being much of a Triple H fan, and Foley’s performance is, if you’ll excuse the phrase, bloody brilliant. And yet… you have to be fair to Flair. The central story of the Nature Boy (and his loyal consultant Heenan) living and dying again and again over the course of an hour, as bright characters and interlocked threads of narrative passed them by in a rush, well it just can’t be beat. ’92 wins here for one simple reason, the greatest Rumble will always beat the greatest singles match. 2 men just can’t compete with the perfectly clicking work of 30, you get layers and peaks and valleys that are just beautiful. ’92 all the way, the Rumble is the greatest!!

Samuel ‘Plan: I’m bitter about the fact that the 2009 Royal Rumble Match got eliminated with only one vote defending it, that being my own. It deserved much better than that. To lose to the Street Fight that ousted it is nothing to be ashamed of, naturally, considering the all-time qualities of Triple H’s star making outing opposite Cactus Jack, but deserved better it really did.

Nonetheless, we move on, and face a conscience of crisis. Can we feasibly continue on with a tournament seeking to crown the best match in the history of Royal Rumble without there being a Royal Rumble Match in the final showdown? That seems like a stretch to me. If only to claim the 1992 Royal Rumble Match is better than the 2000 Street Fight were so easy.

Both of these matches were somewhat genre-defining in their own rights. Both of these matches helped solidify and emphasise the star of the emergent victor. Both of these matches tell a story of a villain being faced with seemingly impossible odds and, curiously, entering the fray as the resident underdog. The Street Fight is undoubtedly the grimier of the two, seemingly possessed of greater character and thematic depth because of its darker nature. The Rumble, however, is undoubtedly the more fun of the two, with its emphasis on the wit inherent in the familiar Flair performance. It feels like the Street Fight dangerously flirts with taking itself too seriously – though I’m a believer in wrestling that takes itself seriously. It also feels like the Rumble Match flirts dangerously with taking things a little too easy, creatively, hiding behind the safety of the upped stakes that were the WWF Championship of the day – though it’s for a reason, testament to the effortless entertaining nature of the Rumble as a concept.

I feel like this is a coin flip really, and a combination of my bitterness over the last round and bias towards the Rumble Match means that I’m going to plump for the 1992 Royal Rumble Match. Beyond anything else, we just cannot have a final in this thing without at least one Rumble in it and while I firmly do not believe the 1992 version is anywhere near the best, it’s certainly a people’s favourite and enjoys a reputation worthy of placing in the final two matches in this journey.

Prime Time: I think we can call this the real final, right? I mean, I’d take either of these against either of the other two matches in pretty much every combination, if I’m being frank about it, and I just hope to god whichever wins here takes the whole thing. It’s actually kinda painful to choose between the two. They are both so awesome to me. Of course, neither is perfect if you go in with a microscope, but then what is? I could start to hold the fact that Savage eliminates himself and gets back in against the Rumble match, but then I think the idea of eliminating yourself was only clarified after this match? And even then, I’m not sure I want to vote to put the last Royal Rumble match out of the January contest. Do I want to be ‘that guy’?

Y’know, there’s a way of looking at this like you’re lucky to be in a position like this, where you’ve got two matches you like a lot that you don’t even want to cast a vote against either of them. It doesn’t really feel that way right now, but that’s probably the more mature way of looking at it. I’m waffling now in the hope that in the process of typing I come to a decision.

And I have. Gah – I’m going for the streetfight.

The Doc: It just dawned on me that by picking Triple H vs. Cactus Jack, I would be attempting to influence a finale about the greatest match in the history of the Royal Rumble to feature two non-Royal Rumble battle royals. That feels weird, especially considering that the ’92 Rumble is the greatest representation in genre lore of the most beloved gimmick perhaps ever in WWE, if not all of professional wrestling. Nevertheless, that is what I am doing, and I suppose that it speaks to my general philosophy on the business – give me the singles match over the multi-man affair nine out of ten times.

Both of these matches made the Top 25 all-time in my book, but it was Foley vs. Hunter that scored higher by my metrics. I stand by that result. If we’re picking nits, I think you could argue that both are a tad on the anti-climactic side on replay, but Triple H’s victory was supposed to feel that way in order to emphasize the heel winning in a situation like that, whereas Hogan pulling Sid over the top so that Flair can win the title just watches as odd in hindsight. Side by side beyond that aspect, it is a close race that the ’92 Rumble loses on account of the Street Fight packing a slightly more emotional punch and featuring some intangible qualities that come along with any Mick Foley match. The reality is that Foley can never be duplicated, whereas the success of the ’92 Rumble has in many ways been duplicated several times over; there will never, ever be another Mick Foley, and when you combine his overall genius and uncanny willingness to put his body through hell with Triple H’s mastery of in-ring psychology during The Game’s inarguable peak year (which ranks among the greatest peak periods of any wrestler’s career), then what you have is the Street Fight, an absolutely marvelous performance that holds up against any Royal Rumble or even any WrestleMania main-event.

Ironically, my pick is based on that which they always say regarding the Royal Rumble Match, that “it’s all about the numbers.” In this case, the numbers (the data) favors Cactus Jack vs. Triple H.

Skulduggery: Here’s the thing. I’ve said previously that I would have considered myself among the first to turn against Rumble ’92. It really is a revolutionary and tremendous Rumble. The biggest reason that I thought I’d be among the first to vote against is that I have a couple of Rumbles that I favor ahead of it – 2002 being one of them. Had we seen a 2002 vs. 1992 Rumble-off, chances are that I would’ve been bounced 6-1. But at least I know Mazza would’ve supported ’02 getting to that stage!

Nevertheless – despite my early predictions of me being the first to turn against it, I have voted in favor of the 1992 Rumble every single time. And it’s not desperately difficult to figure out why. Christ, what a good match this is. This is Ric Flair’s match through and through. If you run this exact style of match in 1997 or 2000 or 2006, with a long history of Rumbles preceding it? Chances are, it doesn’t work. Certainly, it doesn’t work as well as 1992 did. But given both the slight familiarity with the format and the freshness of the take, the fact that they ran this as Flair’s Rumble, and with the timing it did occur, your result is incredibly refreshing and still extremely innovative. You can’t run this kind of Rumble anymore. You do, and at best, it’s an imitation of Flair’s Rumble. Simultaneously, you don’t want to wait too long to reinvigorate the format of the Rumble. By letting a major heel win at #3, the Rumble breathed a new life, and allowed itself to continue along into 2019 and plenty beyond. And be clear – it’s not just the fact that this match had a major heel win at #3 win, but it’s in how the match is structured – this match is revolutionary for the right reasons. Flair’s win is innovative, lively, and refreshing in that it centers itself around the main player while still allowing plausible breathing room amongst the other 29. Combine into the mixture Bobby Heenan’s commentary of a lifetime, and this thing is an absolute treat to watch whenever you get the opportunity.

Comparison time. Go ahead and watch the promo to Cactus Jack vs. Triple H. Watch Triple H beat Mick Foley cleanly in that video package. And then watch Mick Foley concede that Mankind cannot contest the WWF Championship. The second he tears off the mask, while reciting the administrative, what-should-be- perfunctory, yet is emotionally loaded response, “I think the WWF fans deserve a substitute in that match…” Goosebumps yet?

Then, watch the match. I’ve said before that I’d firmly place this in a close third behind Foley’s elevations of Edge (Mania ’06) and Orton (Backlash ’04). You know what? Right now, the hell with those matches. What I love about this match is that Triple H is treated as though a huge deal from the bell. It’s not as if Cactus cleans house for 12 minutes, and then makes one mistake upon which the Game capitalizes. This masterpiece is somehow so brilliantly sewn together so that it makes Foley appear as though the unquestioned veteran in this environment, and H as the quickly learning rookie, but neither role is too strongly reinforced that it makes the match seem unbalanced. Cactus is clearly comfortable, but Hunter is such a badass coming into this that he adapts scarily quickly. He really gives off the vibe of a cop sauntering into a biker bar, and while trying to maintain his alpha persona amongst a horde of law-breaking tough guys, throws the fuck down and roars in savagery. There’s something about the lion who can outweigh his enemies in terms of bureaucracy, yet when push comes to shove, also outweighs them in combat. The Game does that here.

Very different matches. Both excel in ways that make future matches in the same vein struggle to hit their highs. But I have to vote for Cactus Jack’s elevation of Triple H. To me, it remains the more exciting watch after you’ve seen it time and time again.

Mazza: Now this choice is as tough as the first one was easy. In 1992 you have arguably the greatest hour in wrestling history. You have an absolute lesson his heel colour commentary from Heenan at the booth. You have an epic ironman performance from Flair in the ring. You have cameos from some of the greatest ever all the way through. It is awesome from a nostalgia perspective, reminding me of some of the best wrestling of my childhood and on being on the cross over of eras. It is awesome from a historic perspective in that it still holds up extremely well and there are so many interesting side shows away from Naitch. At the time it was amazing for the belt to be on the line in my favourite match, especially at a time with Hulkamania on the ropes and WCW’s posterboy over for a brief visit in his prime. On the other hand you have the match that absolutely solidified my second favourite wrestler of all time as a top talent. It was the moment that Hunter ascended from cool heel to cool heel who could back up his badassery, something that remains a key part of who the Game is almost two decades later. It was a fantastic performance and an amazing put over job from Foley in a rare WWE outing for his Cactus Jack persona. I absolutely adore both matches but I have to go with a tie breaker. The tie breaker I will use is simply that the rumble match is the reason I love Januarys. The street fight could have happened in any month of the year, there was only one time the rumble could have happened. I think we need a rumble match representative in the final so I am going with 1992.

Oliver: The 1992 Rumble has been getting some stick from the hipster ‘Plan during this thing, but for me this is probably the hardest competition it’s had to date in Jack vs Mr Haitches, and imagine this will be a real challenge for my fellow columnists to tear apart.

First, then, let’s look at Mrs Foley’s Baby Boy vs The Man Stephanie McMahon Calls Baby Boy. It’s a weird fetish he has, for sure, but who are you to question it? As I said earlier on in the series, this was not the first time Foley had put his body through shit to make somebody a star, and frankly the only surprise in his career is that he managed to keep going for so long. There are only three things that are certain in life – death, taxes, and Mick Foley practically killing himself to make somebody a star.

And here he nails the brief. Hunter comes in on the edge of stardom, two short but uneventful WWF Championship reigns down with no real excitement to talk about other than him stealing a nickname intended for Owen Hart, a man who had twice as much talent in his dick than HHH has ever had in his whole body.

But make no mistake – this was Triple H, a man previously known largely for his wrestling and in ring acumen, walking in to Foley’s den, a den of dirt, Jack Daniels, and thumbtacks, and coming out not just alive but victorious. And more than anything, it was clean. There was no Stephanie or other McMahon shenanigans (McMahonigans? Yeah, I’m going with it), no DX, no Corporation – just Trips straight up winning what was pretty much the most violent match of his career up to this point. Sure, he’d done ladder matches, and even if memory serves an I Quit bout with the Rock on Raw around the 1999 Rumble, but never anything that had asked quite this much of him in terms of his body. And boy, he went in like a Christian virgin on his wedding night – balls deep.

The searing image of this match for me isn’t, actually, Foley getting pedigreed face first into thumb tacks, or even the handcuff throwback to the year before – shout out to The Rock for realising what a bastard he was in early 1999 and that unprotected head shots with chairs aren’t cool – but of Trips’ leg after being slammed on the wooden palettes. That wound stays open for the whole match, and is basically just a huge hole in his leg. That he fought on through that without really missing a bit is incredible.

Anyway, the match is incredible, violent, aggressive, dirty…it’s everything this era of WWE gets called up on being when the flaws start coming in, and yet here the escalation of things is just perfectly done, the violence never too overbearing, the aggression pitched correctly given the hell that Trips had put Foley through to get him to this point, where he had to reach into his locker and pull out his most dangerous character. Just beautiful, beautiful violence. Tremendous.

But against it here, the last Royal Rumble standing. The flag bearer of the genre, perhaps. I certainly feel there have been Rumbles that have come close to, if not exceeded, the quality of 1992 – 2009, for a start. 2014 was also excellent and far too underrated. But for something to have lasted over 25 years with only a handful of peers in terms of quality means it has to be incredible.

And incredible is exactly what the 1992 Royal Rumble is, as a match. In fact, before the match itself begins, the beauty starts with Heenan panicking at ringside while Monsoon gently mocks him. Of course, Flair’s appearance at 3 puts the Brain into a corner, but this is Flair’s Rumble – like Benoit in 2004, he’s going long as we know but he’s also the centre of everything, coming out the corner and taking it to his opponents and making sure that the match itself is about him. That’s good. When you’re the focal point of the Rumble, you have to actually be visible. Looking at you, Rey Mysterio.

Of course, there’s always someone with an ego that has to make something about them. Flair could, on his day, be that man I’m sure. But here he gives as much as he takes. Bossman gets a spot to shine with Flair, for example, as does Kerry Von Erich. Even Greg Valentine gets some chops in and Flair flops to the floor. It’s terrific, because Flair is always there – and you know damn well that I’m a Flair fan, so you fuckers better all be fair to Flair, yeah?

You know who was never fair to Flair? Roddy Rowdy sodding Piper. He shows his bastard face at number 15, just as Flair was having a breather, and chokes him. Some call it a sleeper, but that bastard is a choker, make no doubt. And suddenly you can see how someone has stacked the odds against Flair – numbers 15 to 19 are a who’s who of Flair rivalries, even with Duggan and IRS in there. Savage turns up, then eliminates himself, because he’s an idiot. And through 20 to 30 the big names drip into the Rumble. The big names and Virgil, that is. I certainly think it’s fair to say that the last handful of entrants in this match are certainly the most star studded array of names in Rumble history – an accolade that gets bandied about too easily as WWE grows. Heenan on commentary is begging for a drink as he gradually loses his mind at ringside, body after body being thrown over the top rope. But not Flair. Never Flair. Flair’s going to be there at the end.

But that end. We have to talk about the ending, because after 60 minutes in the ring what’s really not fair to Flair is the ending of the 1992 Royal Rumble. That man gave his sweat, gave his blood, gave his body for a full hour. He passed on limousine riding, he passed on jet flying, just to be there in the ring, to give us one more hour of his ring work, and who turns up to take a huge dump on it?

Hulk bastardface Hogan.

Nothing in the early 90s of WWE could be about anything if it wasn’t about Hulk Hogan. When Hulk Hogan wasn’t on screen, all characters had to be asking where Hulk Hogan was. So it is that he:

i) Gets eliminated completely fairly, then throws a paddy about it at ringside
ii) Grabs hold of Sid Justice, who had just perfectly fairly eliminated him, for seemingly no reason except to be a douche. Very harsh on the man with only half the brain that you have.
iii) Basically pulled Sid out of the ring before Flair even got there.
iv) Fought with Sid at ringside to take the spotlight off of Flair.
v) Forced Gorilla Monsoon to redo his commentary to make it look like he was wronged.

Little bastard.

Anyway, that’s probably the only knock on the whole thing, and to be honest is immediately made up for it with the post-match promo which is so good it deserves to be immortalised in stone somewhere. I’ll carve it with a chisel and hammer. ‘With a tear in my eye, this is the greatest moment in my life!’

So I’m torn – the Cactus vs HHH match is basically completely flawless, for me, whereas the 1992 Rumble is incredible both as a Rumble, a time capsule, and an event. But that ending is a black mark to it, and I wish they hadn’t run it like that.

In the end, though, I have to take my favourite over the perfection – heart not head. The 1992 Royal Rumble gets my vote to move on.

(1) Royal Rumble Match (’92) wins 4-3

Finals

(1) Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit (’03) vs. (1) Royal Rumble Match (’92)

Mazza: Look, this final is pretty simple to me. The choice I had to make in the second semi-final was the biggie. I am still not convinced I made the right choice there but I stick by my decision. This once again comes down to a great rumble match versus a great singles match. However the singles match isn’t quite as great as the singles match the rumble just saw off. Angle vs Benoit is absolutely fantastic. It was a worthy winner of its bracket and its semi. It found itself in the easier half of the draw however. It doesn’t quite have what it takes to go the next step in my mind. I’d suspect that the majority of the panel will feel the same here. Maybe we should have just crowned 1992 the champion automatically and had Benoit and Angle battle it out with Hunter and Foley. That could have made for some really interesting reading.

mizfan: I was thinking about how to justify or argue this, but in the end I’m not sure there’s any point. Angle/Benoit is a fantastic single, but the ’92 Rumble is like the greatest album of all time. It’s so ridiculously chock full of colorful characters, interweaving stories, and incredible performances, that I can hardly imagine the voting going any other way. I’ve spoken at so much length about the ’92 Rumble, I don’t know what else there is to say! It’s very possibly my single favorite match of all time, and nothing is going to beat it. ’92, all in!

Prime Time: I don’t really need to consider this one for too long, my head and my heart concurred the minute I saw this final. I’m going for the Royal Rumble 1992. I know I voted against it in the last round. That was with a heavy heart, but I also said that whichever one that half of the draw I wanted to go on to take the whole thing. And I feel oddly good about the fact that my vote lost last time in a way, because there was split there between head and heart, and I wound up following my head. But I’ve got just so much affection for this match, that it’s a genuine pleasure to be given another chance to cast a vote for it here.

The Doc: I suspect that my vote is going to the loser here, as if the top rated match by my metrics in Royal Rumble lore cannot top the ’92 Rumble, then I shall assume the second rated match by my metrics cannot top it either. That said, as awesome as the ’92 Rumble is, it is neither better nor greater than the Benoit vs. Angle classic, citing comments I’ve made throughout this project differentiating the two concepts.

The ’92 Rumble is stacked with star power and has a pair of powerhouse performances – Flair physically and Heenan verbally – driving its rewatchability, and of course it remains the most historic Rumble of all-time and the version of the gimmick that set the tone for all its peers to follow in the nearly three decades since. However, it is not particularly thrilling aesthetically, and such is the reason why I find it the type of match you can only revisit once every few years rather than every year so as to avoid the inevitability of what makes it so good wearing thin. One could counter that what made Angle vs. Benoit historically elite in a discussion such as this suffers from the same problem as the ’92 Rumble; the tangible feeling that Benoit might win in the face of everything pointing to a loss has been gone for sixteen years now, and I do believe that rewatchability has been slightly hampered by that.

Nevertheless, I think that maybe three Rumbles of the thirty some odd we’ve seen to date can compare to the general aesthetic of Benoit vs. Angle. The set pieces discussed so heavily about the ’09 version, the story told through the ’18 version, and the fluidity of the ’04 version make them hypothetically rewatchable in a similar way that Benoit vs. Angle is rewatchable, but if we’re making that comparison, I’ll take the 20 minute match over its sixty minute counterpart nine out of ten times, this time included. Angle vs. Benoit is a thing of beauty, really, and their ability to make hold-for-hold wrestling and counters and submissions so visually stunning is an achievement to be royally celebrated, even ahead of the vaunted ’92 Rumble.

As a personal preference, I take the Angle vs. Benoit WWE Championship Match because as much as I love Royal Rumbles, this is not a question of the greatest Royal Rumble (titular) Match, and I prefer a top notch singles effort to a reverse battle royal. Analytically, I take the Angle-Benoit match too; even though it is a close call, Angle-Benoit is just flat out better and, based on extensive analytic research on the matter, it’s a bit greater too.

Oliver: Given we have often had an underdog, at least by seeding, in the final of these things, having two number one seeds face off is quite delightful, really. It at least suggests Skul got his numbers right, which is good for our master of ceremonies.

First, just to add to the semi-final authors note – I’m kind of glad to see Umaga vs Cena fall in the semi-finals, not because it’s a bad match or undeserving – in fact, it’s certainly one of the greatest Rumble matches of all time – but because I don’t think it would have had a chance regardless of opponent in the final and would likely have made this a little bit too easy for us all.

Instead, we get two matches both over a decade old – which feels uncommon for us – facing off which are perfect examples of their genre.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Angle vs Benoit is one of the very, very best one on one, no gimmick, matches in WWE history, and yet when I see lists of these things, just generically the best matches in WWE history, they’re so stocked with hardcore, or no disqualification, or Hell In A Cell type matches – essentially the type of matches that live or die by how exciting their key spots are. And to be honest, readers – fuck that. Give me Savage vs Steamboat, give me Angle vs HBK, give me Cesaro vs Zayn, give me Okada vs Tanahashi – and yes, I’d hold all four of those on the same plane. Give me wrestling. That excites me more than any blood, gore and entrails thing which won’t end until somebody hits the right button combo to nail their fatality or get the quicktime event just right.

And give me this, as a result. I can’t fault this – it’s gorgeous. I don’t have, or particularly subscribe, to a point scoring system outside of how much I enjoy a match. Sometimes this means stupid shit will get me popping – most of Chikara’s stuff, for example. I can accept that it’s daft, but I love it because it’s not trying to not be daft, you know? But what really gets me popping, something that the four matches I listed above all have in addition to this one – is when wrestling gets stripped back down it it’s fundamentals and that is the story of the match – not who can beat someone to a bloody pulp the fastest, not who can’t stand up after taking a bunch of abuse, but who can outwrestle who using their own personal skills. That’s what I love, and more than anything that’s why I love wrestling. I’m not here because of Trish Stratus talking about getting wood on some random Raw, I’m not here because Mick Foley left half his body in the ring in 1998, I’m not here to watch Eddie nearly bleed to death at the hands of a Texan racist – I’m here because I love wrestling, in it’s purest and most solid form. And that’s why I love Angle vs Benoit – it starts with the basics, and takes those building blocks as the foundations on which they build their house.

And what a house! This isn’t some two up, two down terrace, this fucker’s a glorious mansion from Footballer’s Wives – decadent, glorious, and draped with expensive trinkets. I can’t find a fault in it, I enjoy every single second of watching these two master craftsmen in the ring, and I find it to be a match I am drawn to again and again. This is my head match – a match which I know in my brain is of the highest quality in terms of wrestling, a match which knowledge tells me is one of the best of all time in WWE, and a match which is technically flawless.

You’d be forgiven, based on the above, for thinking this was an easy choice for me then. However…

However, it’s up against one of the truly historical matches from WWE history, a Rumble so good from 27 years ago that it’s essentially untouched in terms of quality since bar one or two contenders that came close, as I discussed in the semi-finals. But 1992 is so good because it, like the very best Rumbles since, pulls together a number of disparate storylines and parts to make a cohesive whole. With a hazy memory, I don’t think any of the Rumbles which were prior to 1992 quite used that template. Suddenly the Rumble became a storytelling device, something that filled, or tried to fill, it’s hour long length with multiple disparate strands that somehow twist together like shoelaces, finally lacing up a bow to complete the whole and give us something that works like a novel – we have our hero(es), our villains, our supporting cast of characters who all have something going on for themselves and are unique entities. It’s this storytelling that Rumble matches themselves live or die by – succeed in telling that story cognitively and clearly for the audience, and you get 1992, 2009, 2014 and the like. Tell it poorly and you get 1999, or 2015, where the whole just falls apart.

And like I say – 1992 set this template. The huge storyline arc of the night, Flair’s ironman run, is augmented by multiple sub-strands which both involve Flair – the procession of his old rivals entering the ring being particularly fun – and don’t – Piper and Hogan scrapping, and Hogan being betrayed as he teased in his pre-match promo. It’s glorious for how deep it went in terms of evolving the one major story of Flair, and these little stories below it which either originated going in to the match or developed during it. And the really great thing for me, and something I only just really realised right now, is that a lot of this match is about how there would be a changing of the guard in WWE over the next couple of years. Just think about how the roster shifts between this Rumble and the one the next year, and tell me that making Flair the winner here isn’t the ushering in of the New Generation so beloved by some of my fellow panellists. Even if Flair winning wasn’t pushing the younger talent that would become synonymous with that period, it’s a clear sign from WWE that the type of overly muscled big men of the late 80s and early 90s might be on their way out in the years to come.

That storytelling element is what pulls at my heartstrings. The emotion it generates in me through watching Flair – of course, a heel at this point in time – fight off his opponents, while Heenan gradually loses his mind at ringside, right through to the euphoria of his victory, watching one of my favourite wrestlers of all time stand tall with the title, and cut the promo of his career in the locker room…that gets me right there, in the same way as Bryan at Mania 30, or Punk at Money in the Bank does. I can’t fight the heartfelt feeling I have for that moments.

So, to my vote. How does this fall? I can’t say that I’m not tempted to vote for the 1992 Rumble on the grounds that an iteration of the titular match winning the crown of being the best match to ever be held on it’s own pay per view is not appealing. But I equally can’t bring myself to vote against the 2003 match, which for me personally is in an elite tier with very few matches from all of WWE’s history, let alone just this pay per view.

I said in the semi-finals that I let my heart rule my head sometimes. I think here, though, my head wins, and it’s the match I think is better from a pure wrestling standpoint, as opposed to storytelling standpoint, that wins out, and for me Angle and Benoit take the crown of the best ever match at the Royal Rumble pay per view.

Skulduggery: Even though I was skunked in the semi-finals, I clearly see the argument for having these two matches end up being the ones to take on each other in the final fight for the crown. The 2003 WWE Championship match is a master class in not just pure wrestling, but pure wrestling at its most elite and its most gripping. The two tangle with such fluidity and chemistry that the choreography is marvelous, yet with a ferocity that doesn’t leave anything to question that the two are absolutely trying to outwrestle one another, no matter how nasty it needs to get. Against it is Flair’s Rumble through and through, and in my opinion, the best of the Rumbles to have belonged to one person. 1992 was daring in its attempt to refresh the Rumble format, and they pulled it off in spades.

I’ve said earlier that any nitpicks of mine at this stage and simply due to dialing in the microscope so far as a result of trying to split hairs between elite matches. And any of my criticisms should be taken with a mound of salt, because they’re like finding a freckle on a supermodel. That said, I do find Benoit/Angle can get almost too surgical for my tastes, at times, and the 1992 Rumble can pound a little too heavily on the Flair narrative in the middle section – magnifying the whisper of a lull before the blitz of action picks up wonderfully in the last third.

Again, pea-sized hang-ups in the grand scheme of things. As I’m forced to pick one, I go to the one that I find more enthralling from start to finish, and that is Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit.

Samuel ‘Plan: Sitting down to write this I genuinely have no idea which way to vote, so I’m going to have to write my thought pattern out here.

First of all, can we really label a match the greatest match in Royal Rumble history if it isn’t, in fact, a Royal Rumble Match? It certainly feels like it should be somewhat controversial to do so. Beyond anything else, Rumbles are consistently one of the most fun matches of any given year, even when they suck. When I consider the one I’m left with, though, I come across another crisis of conscience: if I don’t think the 1992 Royal Rumble Match isn’t the best of its kind – and I categorically don’t – can I really vote for it as the greatest match in the event’s history?

The ’92 Rumble is a lot of fun. Its breezy and witty, it’s got high stakes and it marks a majorly important turning point for the genre. I named it the Rumble’s ‘coming of age’ in my book 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die, it being the first year of the rest of the Rumble’s life. It’s just I’ve never been convinced it’s as good as many people claim it to be. Flair’s performance is pretty ordinary by his own standard, set-pieces are few and far between (and only brief when they crop up) and the ending is completely morally skewed. People talk about it being a stacked roster too, and it is, but only as stacked as a lot of later Rumbles prove to be as well. It is, all in all, a solid Rumble Match – but, heretical as it might sound, I’m not even sure it breaks into my personal top ten.

I guess I come back around to that same question then: can I name a match that isn’t a Rumble the best match of all-time at the Rumble? To answer that, I have to weigh up the relationship between Rumbles themselves and the undercards that sit beneath or around them.

This is a matter I’ve debated in my collaborative efforts alongside LOP legend and my perennial tag partner sheepster back when we wrote Opposites Detract together. It’s also something I’ve written a two-part Just Business on in the distant past as well. Undercards, to my mind, are vitally important to the Rumble event. While there might be a kernel of truth in some extreme notion that you could have a Rumble pay-per-view without an undercard and it still succeed but that the Rumble match is obviously indispensible, without a robust undercard then often any given version of the Rumble can be prevented, I believe, from reaching that next level. 1995 is always my go-to example – alone, its Rumble is a bizarre peculiarity, but combined with the competitive themes of its tremendous undercard, and when watched in context alongside that undercard, the ’95 Rumble itself takes on a whole new life. It’s an infinitely more impressive one.

My opinion remains, then, as it always has, that undercards matter as much as Rumbles do, which then leads me to the other finalist here and the question as to whether or not it’s the greatest undercard match in Rumble history. I’ve written at length about my feelings towards its qualities in previous rounds already. I shan’t repeat them here, beyond summarily saying that I find the Kurt Angle / Chris Benoit 2003 WWE Championship encounter a brave, subtle, near-photorealistic piece of WWE apostasy the likes of which I’m not sure we’ve ever seen repeated in earnest. I could happily get on board with the notion it’s the best undercard match in Rumble history as a result, even if it is only in recognition of its singular spirit.

I guess the choice for me, then, becomes whether or not I vote for a solid Royal Rumble Match or one of, maybe the best Royal Rumble undercard match ever. Well, believing as I do that the undercard matters as much as the Rumble it seems to me that I can only go one way in good conscience.

I vote for Angle vs. Benoit.

(1) Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit (’03) wins January Madness by a final score of 4-3

———-

There it is! Congratulations to Angle/Benoit for being dubbed the greatest match in Royal Rumble history. This is the first time we had a (1) vs. (1) match-up in the Finals in the five Madness tournaments we’ve done, having previously seen (1) vs. (4), (1) vs. (2), (1) vs. (3), and (2) vs. (3). The big hitters came out to play this time!

2003 now boasts two of the five Madness winners, as Angle/Benoit joins Team Austin/Team Bischoff from the Survivor Series tournament as ’03 champions. Angle and Benoit each take honors for the first time.

I would like to extend a MASSIVE thank you to my six co-contributors. These projects are always a ton of work, a lot of hours poured into rewatches and writing, and they always churn out fantastic pieces of literature that I enjoy reading as much as anybody. These tourneys are not possible without you. Thank you!

January Madness, in the books!

Royal Rumble Bracket

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