Last week, I shared with you everything new I had discovered in the first fifteen Royal Rumble Matches during my recent watch back through every single one in history. This week, as you’ve probably guessed, I turn my attentions to everything new I discovered in the second fifteen.
As before, it wasn’t the case that I uncovered fresh joys in every single one of them; 2007 and 2008 are so desperately void of ideas in general that there’s not much lying under the surface to discover in the first place (as heretical as it may be to hold that opinion). Nonetheless, most of them did offer up something new to me, and that’s quite an accomplishment in a thirty match franchise.
My name is Samuel ‘Plan and this is the second half of my list of discoveries of something new in (almost) every Royal Rumble, ever.
If, as documented in the first part of this two-parter, the 1998 and 2000 Royal Rumbles slid way down my rankings during this latest watch through of mine, then 2003 is the one that has clambered its way to quite a high spot in my estimation.
It’s the historical importance I found it to possess that really won me over. Up until this year, I always characterised it as a transitional showing, reflected in what I felt to be a weak roll call. In actuality, it’s rather the opposite; I might even go so far as to call it a mid card workhorse heave. It watches as a steady parade of some of the most respected, beloved and capable in-ring talents to ever walk through WWE. RVD is positioned like a real focal piece – a rare moment for him in his tenure in WWE – and Jericho puts in an absolute career best performance. The final four is nicely constructed, and the Maven call-back from the year before is a smile inducing moment.
Most of all, though, the entire complexion of the match shifts that year. The action becomes suddenly more stylistic, driven in large part perhaps because of the rich imaginations of those involved. Gone is the predominant one-note brawling of the first fifteen years, replaced instead with whizz bang set pieces and character driven exchanges. Every Rumble Match that follows 2003 is simply walking through the gate it opened for them and for that it has, quite unexpectedly, become one of my favourites.
Everyone, quite rightly, considers 1992 to be the shining Royal Rumble moment for the Nature Boy, Ric Flair. What I couldn’t have predicted, however, is finding myself coming to appreciate his considerably briefer but, in actual fact, no less effective cameo at the conclusion of the 2005 edition – a Rumble Match I do not generally get on particularly well with. The roll call isn’t great. The Brand vs. Brand subtext feels like a forced obligation born from an awful advertisement campaign. The treatment of Mohammed Hassan’s character is deeply discomforting. Even the ending is a mess.
It is into the conclusion of those fifty minutes of mediocrity that Flair bursts in though, full of energy, zeal and life. His contribution is slim and simple, but his manipulation and ultimately frustrated betrayal of the Animal is seriously classic Naitch stuff; and it’s executed with all the polish and infectious charisma that Flair was once famous for and all too frequently lacked in the closing years of his run. Put simply, he brightens up, quite considerably, an otherwise rather bleak match. He’s my favourite thing about it now actually, and I say that without apology.
I have never had much in the way of a great deal of love for 2006. Its central story remains distasteful to me and the performance of its eventual winner, Rey Mysterio, is frankly insulting in its lackadaisicalness. In one particularly criminal stretch, the man executes a single offensive move in a span of thirty minutes. To put that in perspective, think of the entire time it would take to watch The Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels at the 25th Anniversary of WrestleMania bell to bell, then imagine that same timeframe filled with a guy doing a single offensive move and then lying down for the rest of it.
Despite my already being resistant to the 2006 Rumble because of this, I have never failed to watch my way through it all. Royal Rumble Matches are like that for me. Even the ones that frustrate, even enrage, still have plenty in them to get a kick out of. It broke my heart, then, that this time I couldn’t manage it. For the first time ever, I can now say that there is a Royal Rumble Match I simply cannot finish, and that Royal Rumble Match is 2006.
It’s not that I’ve ever really particularly disliked the 2010 Royal Rumble Match; I’ve just always found it a little odd.
Its awkward structure has always bothered me a little. It’s clearly built in thirds; the first ten is all about CM Punk; the second, Triple H; the third, Shawn Michaels. That you can spot the joins in the action is problematic to me.
More than this, however, is the inconsequential atmosphere that seems to permeate the entire bout from the moment Punk is thrown over the top rope. Nobody wrestles with any great sense of urgency, apart from Michaels. Eliminations and entrances are structured in such a way that the conclusion of the match stutters in fits and starts rather than runs smoothly. Most bizarrely of all, everybody watches like nobody can be bothered.
It’s one of the most lethargic matches I can think of ever having seen in all of WWE’s history, let alone Royal Rumble..
If ever there was a Royal Rumble Match of two halves, it is 2011’s 40-man bumper edition. Right up until the moment John Cena emerges to pick apart the dominant New Nexus in criminally effortless fashion, it’s a tremendous piece of work. Then John Cena does come out and the quality falls off the edge of a cliff like a lemming.
If you need one match to sum up the state of affairs in WWE at the end of the First Brand Extension Era, and one that demonstrates why the tumultuous storms of the Reality Era were so desperately needed, it is 2011. In fact, as the first twenty entrants progress you can almost feel Reality brewing in the air around you, thanks in no small part to a commentary track that references ideas that would later go on to evolve into monstrous cornerstones of the Reality Era’s age of radical upheaval. Every star who enters, no matter their position on the roster, gets a moment to shine, with Bryan and Punk – respectively the poster boy and founder of the Reality Era that came screaming into existence later that very summer – unsurprisingly standing out from the pack.
All that positivity, though, eventually gives way to a John Cena ego trip; to a parade of faded stars and never-quite-were stars and stars that simply weren’t going to convince; to self-obsessive stare downs no fan cared much for and to silly ideas like ten more men and one last chance for the Milan Miracle.
2011 was a year that changed everything. It turns out the 2011 Royal Rumble Match not only explains why, but also takes the time to show you what was looming, unknowably, on the near horizon. It’s a fascinating article.
The Reality Era took its time finding its feet, of course, and 2012’s Royal Rumble Match is the evidence you need if you don’t quite believe me. Widely acknowledged as one of WWE’s worst efforts at a Rumble ever, it drowns under the weight of its shamefully shameless indulgence of novelty entrants wrought by a rather shallow roster pool.
It was more than with a little delight, then, that I uncovered one rather charming element to it this year; not that Randy Orton and charming are necessarily two ideas you would often pair together. Nonetheless, taking place in his hometown means that Orton is positioned in something of a classical role – the big favourite to win, emerging only at the very end of events like a true marquee star, to kick the bout into a higher gear. It’s the same method they used in years gone by with the likes of Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin and Brock Lesnar.
Though the way in which the end of the match is built – which includes an awkward and ill advised mini-match between Sheamus and Chris Jericho – means Orton is denied his chance to lift 2012 out of the doldrums of its creative woe, his roster positioning remains a passing moment of warming old school competence that offers a welcome reprieve from fifty minutes of inadequacy.
When you watch the 2014 Royal Rumble Match back – and it is a much better match than many give it credit for, with merits that deserve to be shouted about in spite of the controversial conclusion – the discomfort comes not from the ticking time bomb that is the post-30th entrant turn of events, but rather the lasting, and quite possibly last image of CM Punk.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it is hard not to see a man putting on a brave face for his fans on what would become his last night in the company. In retrospect, it is clear that the Best in the World is not himself, looking torpid and pale but still putting his best foot forward all the same. He moves with less energy. He performers with less exuberance. Gone is the Punk of 2011, who lapped up his spotlight with relish. What remains is a tribute act.
Watching 2014’s version of the match back this year, I found myself experiencing such emotions, which are not dissimilar to those I get watching Shawn Michaels tough out WrestleMania XIV’s main event. Granted, it’s something of a false equivalency as far as injury goes, but the discomfort found in watching either effort is, I now feel, sadly comparable.
I have my issues with the 2016 take on the Rumble, which remains what we might best term “the least worst” Royal Rumble Match of the last half decade or more, but so too is there plenty that I like. Royal Rumble Matches, I believe, always work best when imbued with a series of competing agendas harboured by prominent characters scattered throughout the ensemble cast. 2016 does that marvellously, thanks largely to the upped stakes of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship being on the line.
The history of Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar; the issues between Roman Reigns and the Authority; the alliance of the Authority and the League of Nations; the embittered return of a Chris Jericho looking to make a point; the rogue presence of the Wyatt Family; these were the agendas that dominated the Rumble heading in that year, and that I commented at length upon at the time.
This year, though, I noticed just how much ground that mosaic of agenda covered. It doesn’t just stop with the immediate favourites. You also have an AJ Styles looking to make an impact in his debut; a Sami Zayn looking to revenge Kevin Owens; a Dean Ambrose looking to go two for two and leave a double champion in spite of his escalating injuries; you even have a Mark Henry looking to win in what is openly recognised as “possibly his last” Rumble Match ever (even though it wasn’t).
2016 thrives with three-dimensional character and narrative in a way few, if any other Royal Rumble Matches do. While I have always known this, watching it back this year has revealed to me that it is a trait that goes much farther than you might at first realise.
I feel uniquely qualified to state that right now, because over the last two weeks I have watched every single Royal Rumble Match ever, in chronological order. It never stops being fun. That I have uncovered, and shared with you, something new in (almost) everyone is testament to how much fun even the worst Rumble Matches can still be.
As we turn now to this year’s edition, I find myself hoping for a feel good, air punching victory in the Rumble Match. I could live with a whole series of terrible ideas in the undercard if, in return, we got the kind of moment we fans have been denied time and again over the last few years; with Ziggler in ’13; with Bryan in ’14 and ’15; with Ambrose in ’16; with Wyatt in ’17. Let’s hope 2018 breaks the trend.
Though, if it doesn’t, I’m pretty certain now that, in a year’s time, there’ll be something new to discover that I’ll miss this Sunday anyway.
For now, share with me your thoughts on any or all of the Rumble Matches and factors I’ve written about this week in the comments below, over on social media or even by signing up to our own LOPForums; just click here to sign up!