The Eternal Optimist Presents: Ranking The Royal Rumbles (#4)

QUESTION OF THE DAY:  Which Rumble to you believe had the best story lines within the match itself?


Hi kids.

Welcome back to another edition in my Royal Rumble column series.

In today’s column, I’ll discuss the Royal Rumble that came in at 4th place on my countdown. As a reminder, here are the criteria that I used to analyze the matches:

The Participants – The easiest way to create a Royal Rumble is to have a compelling roster that people want to see participate. I’ll take a look at the level star power, the level of “overness” of the other players, and whether or not there were an unnecessary amount of jobbers and/or non-factors in the match.

The Storylines and Flow of the Match – The storylines are without question the most important part of a Royal Rumble match. I’ll look at whether or not the storylines presented enhanced the match. I’ll also look at the surprise entrants and evaluate whether or not they added value. Lastly, I’ll look at whether or not the match had a solid flow or if it dragged at times. This is by far the most important category, and it will be the category in which I spend the majority of each column discussing.

The Final Four – Every Rumble inevitably comes down to a “show down” between the final four competitors. Here, I’ll look at whether the WWE chose a strong group to represent the final four, and whether or not the end game to the Rumble was compelling.

The Winner – I’ll evaluate three things relating to the winner of each Rumble. First, was the winner a surprise? I have a strong appreciation for Rumble winners that weren’t necessarily expected to win. Second, was the winner satisfying? Just because the winner wasn’t someone I expected doesn’t mean that I enjoyed the outcome. On the other hand, just because the winner was a foregone conclusion doesn’t mean that I didn’t love every minute of it. Lastly, how did winning the Royal Rumble impact this wrestler at Wrestlemania and beyond? The overall success of the subsequent push impacts how I view many of the Rumbles and their winner.

A couple additional disclaimers:

First – lengthy Royal Rumble runs rarely move me. Sure, you might love Rick Martel lasting 53 minutes in 1991. I didn’t. He, as well as almost everyone else that goes coast to coast, spent the majority of the match sitting in the corner getting kicked. For me, a single wrestler’s longevity is the most overrated factor in evaluating the strength of a Royal Rumble.

Second – these factors aren’t weighted evenly. They are merely talking points. My overall impression of the Rumble is what ultimately mattered when I made my rankings.

Last, but certainly not least – I’ve added a new wrinkle to this column series. As you already know, my thought process on wrestling seems to wildly differ from the majority of the fans in our community. Many have taken me to task in other forums over where my rankings ultimately landed. I’ve decided to incorporate that into this column series. As such, every entry will end with a guest “rebuttal” telling me exactly why I’m an idiot for ranking that particular Rumble where I did. The guests range from my fellow columnists, both on the main page and the Forums, to real life friends, to buddies I frequently interact with on social media. I try not to take myself too seriously, and I think you’ll enjoy the alternative takes.

This week’s rebuttal comes from The Doc!

Here is where the countdown currently stands – links to the previous columns are embedded:

Without further ado, here’s the Rumble that came in at #4 on the countdown:


#04:  The 2004 Royal Rumble:

The Roster:

  1. Chris Benoit
  2. Randy Orton
  3. Mark Henry
  4. Tajiri
  5. Bradshaw
  6. Rhyno
  7. Matt Hardy
  8. Scott Steiner
  9. Matt Morgan
  10. The Hurricane
  11. Booker T
  12. Kane
  13. Spike Dudley
  14. Rikishi
  15. Rene Dupree
  16. A-Train
  17. Shelton Benjamin
  18. Ernest Miller
  19. Kurt Angle
  20. Rico
  21. Mick Foley
  22. Christian
  23. Nunzio
  24. Big Show
  25. Chris Jericho
  26. Charlie Haas
  27. Billy Gunn
  28. John Cena
  29. RVD
  30. Goldberg

This roster reads like a murder’s row and it absolutely was.  Goldberg, Kurt Angle, Mick Foley, Chris Jericho, RVD, The Big Show and Kane were well-established superstars.  Randy Orton, Bradshaw, Booker T, Christian & Chris Benoit were all primed for a mega-push later that year.  John Cena was just beginning his rise to prominence whereas Scott Steiner was reaching the end of his rope.

This roster is a nice blend of attitude era holdovers and emerging superstars.  It stacks up well with just about any in the history of the event.

The Storylines & Flow:

The 2004 Royal Rumble was unique in the sense that its greatness wasn’t derived from the blow by blow action that was going on in the ring. 

It isn’t that the action was terrible by any stretch of the imagination.  There was solid in-ring work early that included creative eliminations of Bradshaw, Tajiri and Mark Henry.  I thought Ernest “The Cat” Miller’s dancing only to be eliminated right away was entertaining.  Goldberg’s utter dominance upon his entrance was extremely strong.    However, much of the nuts and bolts of the match was standard fare.

What sets this Royal Rumble apart as one of the greatest in history is not the action itself but the unquestioned BEST use of storylines mid-match in the history of the event.  Although the end result didn’t match the build, Wrestlemania XX was arguably the best built Wrestlemania of all time.  The lion’s share of that build emanated from the 2004 Royal Rumble.

The 2004 Rumble had three amazing individual storylines and one overarching story that just about everyone could get behind:

First, there was the setup to Undertaker v Kane II.  A few months earlier, Kane interfered in the Buried Alive match between The Undertaker and Vince McMahon at Survivor Series.  As the namesake would imply, Kane buried The Undertaker alive. 

Taker hadn’t been seen since so when his entrance theme bells hit shortly after Kane entered the match, the entire arena went crazy.  Even though it was a red herring that led to Kane’s elimination when the lights came back on, the angle accomplished everything that it needed to.  The Undertaker was on his way back, and Kane was his at Wrestlemania.

The second of the three iconic storylines in this Rumble centered around Mick Foley’s surprise return and elimination of Randy Orton.  You could tell that Orton was the guy that the WWE wanted to throw all of their promotional weight behind.  They saddled him with The Legend Killer gimmick and put him in a stable with Triple H and Ric Flair. 

There was no one better at getting someone over than Mick Foley.  It made perfect sense for Orton to take him out.  Foley wasn’t an advertised entrant in this match and took Test’s spot after he was found unconscious backstage.

The pop for Foley’s music hitting was thunderous and his double elimination of himself and Orton shook the arena.  Their brawl to the back was great.  I appreciated the subtlety of having Foley get distracted by Nunzio and allowing Orton to escape.  It gave the feeling that if not for intervening forces, those two would have fought forever.

This led to another incredibly hyped match that saw Mick Foley and a returning Rock take on Flair, Batista and Orton in a handicap match at Wrestlemania XX.  This match had incredible hype and interest behind it – and it stemmed from this event.  Additionally – Orton and Foley had an all-time epic encounter at Backlash 2004 – a match that truly showed the WWE that Orton was a guy that they could strap the rocket ship onto.  The importance and reception of this angle cannot be overstated.

Last, but certainly not least, was the shocking interference and elimination of Goldberg by Brock Lesnar.  Ever since Goldberg had arrived in the WWE, comparisons between him and Lesnar were everywhere.  Everyone wanted to see that match but the WWE hadn’t given any indications that it would happen.  Brock Lesnar was the champion on Smackdown and Goldberg was a Raw roster member.

Goldberg was a heavy favorite to win the Royal Rumble so when Lesnar showed up out of nowhere to F5 him and cause his elimination, the arena once again became unglued.  Make no mistake about it – even with all of the other incredibly well-hyped matches that Wrestlemania XX had, it was Goldberg v Brock Lesnar that drew the most interest from the fans.

Not only were these three angles iconic and incredibly important to the Wrestlemania XX building, the spacing between them was PERFECT.  Undertaker/Kane happened shortly after entrant 13, Orton/Foley at entrant 21 and Goldberg/Lesnar after entrant 30.  This was a blueprint for how to book and pace a Royal Rumble event and the WWE has never quite done it as well as they did that night.

Of course, putting all of that aside, there was the story of Chris Benoit.  I’m not going to lie – his actual Royal Rumble performance wasn’t anything to gush about.  This wasn’t Ric Flair in 1992 or Chris Jericho in 2013.  He spent most of the time lurking in the shadows while the previously mentioned epic angles were unfolding.

Nonetheless, his story was one that fans were dying to get behind.  He represented someone that traditionally wasn’t pushed to the moon by the WWE and people were ready to see that narrative change.  As the match wore on and more and more of the other favorites to win dropped out, you could feel the excitement towards a potential Benoit victory build.  By the time Kurt Angle dumped Goldberg out of the ring, you really felt that 2004 was Benoit’s time. 

All in all, the 2004 Royal Rumble should serve as a masterclass for how to use story lines to craft a Royal Rumble match with perfect flow.

The Final Four:

This was a fantastic final four.  It’s almost impossible to have a Royal Rumble final four with all four wrestlers being plausible winners, but the WWE came close here.  Chris Benoit was a more than likely winner by the time the final four came around.  Kurt Angle was another one of the favorites coming into the match and it seemed equally likely that either he or Benoit would win.  The Big Show was booked in such a dominant fashion during the 2004 Rumble match that he felt like a threat as well.  Even though Jericho’s booking didn’t indicate that he’d be a factor, he was such a big star at the time that you couldn’t rule out the idea.

Having Jericho move out of the way and be eliminated in 4th was smart.  As mentioned above, he was the least likely winner and it kept the intrigue at a high level.  I loved that unexpected elimination of Angle after an unsuccessful Ankle Lock on The Big Show.

Of course, the best part of the entire match was the final two.  You had an absolute monster in The Big Show v the ultimate underdog in Chris Benoit.  Benoit using leverage to eliminate the Big Show was incredibly intense and fitting considering the size disparity.  On a personal level, this was probably my favorite ending to any Royal Rumble match.

I would literally change nothing about this final four.

The Winner:

I consider Benoit’s victory to be somewhat surprising.  Godlberg was the clear favorite to win coming into the match.  Benoit’s rise was subtle and the WWE did a good job of not shoving the inevitability of his rise down our throats.

I have an amazing story that isn’t suitable for print.  Let’s just say that it surrounds a friend who thought Goldberg would win losing a bet to me and needing to perform questionable acts while wearing the 1990’s HBK getup.  So yes, Chris Benoit winning was far from a foregone conclusion.

We can discuss the tragedy surrounding Chris Benoit and his family another time.  I’m not here for that.  At the time, his win was as satisfying as any in the history of the event.  In 2004, I was a firmly entrenched member of the diehard community, the same community that I have largely grown to scorn today.  The WWE literally NEVER listened to what we wanted.  The idea that Chris Benoit could win the Royal Rumble went against everything that I had ever seen from WWE brass.  This marked the first time that they listened and I could not have been any more satisfied.

Additionally, I’m not sure any Royal Rumble catapulted the winner to greater heights than 2004 did for Benoit.  He went from a beloved upper mid-carder to standing tall at the end of Wrestlemania after one of the most iconic matches in the history of the event.  He’s the anti Shinsuke Nakamura if you will.

Overall:

This Rumble is incredibly memorable and checks out just about every box that I could have asked for.  The top four Rumbles on my countdown are incredibly close and 2004 ONLY lost out to those in front of it because while the story lines were incredible, the bell to bell action was not quite as complete as the three Rumbles still to come.  Make no mistake about it though – 2004 wasn’t that far off from the #1 spot on the countdown.

The Rebuttal – By The Doc:

(Doc’s Note – I carefully crafted a write-up on the ’04 Rumble for my book Available Here, so I thought I’d just share a revised form of that chapter with you as my rebuttal.  I edited out the discussion of Chris Benoit and how his legacy effects the perception of the ’04 Rumble, FYI)

Channeling the voice of Howard Finkel, “It is now time” to talk about the all-time best Royal Rumble Match.

The ’04 Rumble left nothing to be desired. Everything that you could possibly want from a Royal Rumble Match was there. Offering a simple comparison to its most prominent peers, it presented a series of outstanding moments which combined to equal the impact of the ultimate surprise from 2008 and provided one of the betas to Ric Flair’s alpha in Benoit’s near 62-minute trek from first entrant to winner. However, as we get a little bit more detailed, it was the fluid action taking place during Benoit’s journey and in between the wide-eyed, hands-to-head moments where the ’04 Rumble shined brightest.

A common phrase among analysts of pro wrestling is “maximizing your minutes,” stated in regards to the amount of time afforded to a talent to get across, either verbally or physically, that which makes him/her special. The Royal Rumble Match is widely considered a yearly main-event showcase for wrestlers who are nowhere near the main-event level and top stars alike, but in a ring chock full of bodies, space on a 20’X20′ canvas is limited; generally, the less wrestlers involved at one time, the greater the chance exists to maximize minutes. The ’04 Rumble, via swift eliminations that helped frequently maintain just four or five wrestlers in the ring at once, gave even entrants with sub-minute total time spent in the fray the opportunity to make impactful appearances. Some editions can get bogged down by too many people and have to rely too heavily on hard-resets via elimination sprees to free up the ring. 2004 had no such issues, its lone reset, post-entry #17, coming after nine superstars who had spent five-minutes or less in the match had already been ousted.

No more than seven wrestlers were in the ring at any given time until after the 28th entrant, saving the classic trope of the ring filling up for the climax featuring Goldberg, Chris Jericho, Rob Van Dam, John Cena, Big Show, Kurt Angle, and Chris Benoit – for those of you that have read <i>The WrestleMania Era</i>, 16% of the Top 45 stars of the last 30+ years – and capping off a supremely well-paced Royal Rumble Match with a highly engaging final ten-minutes.

The Rabid Wolverine went onto last eliminate Show, punching his ticket to the main-event of WrestleMania, the connection to which is one of the biggest draws of the Rumble. Of the many bonds that have been formed to create the fabric of WWE as we know it, the one between ‘Mania and the Rumble is stronger than any other. The Rumble is, thus, at its best when the booking acknowledges that bond beyond just the winner getting the title shot on the grandest stage, as was the case in 2004 when the Rumble, in addition to providing near-unparalleled quality, also acted as a trailer for WrestleMania XX.  Of the seven most hyped matches at WrestleMania XX, six took minor-to-significant storyline steps during the ’04 Rumble Match.

Regardless of how you feel in hindsight about its winner, the 2004 Royal Rumble Match was not just a one-man show; it was a tremendous collaborative achievement worthy of remembrance for being the perfect amalgamation of what makes the gimmick so great. Its primary story was very well told, its booking was intelligent and intricate, its run-time flies by like no other version before or since, and it characterized the association between WWE’s two most profitable events. It was a masterpiece…and it should not be forgotten.

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