Friday, January 11, 2019

The History of WWE Royal Rumble, part 3 (1994-1996)

Welcome to Part 3 of our Royal Rumble History piece!  The Bret Hart Era has officially begun!

Royal Rumble 1994 - Providence Civic Center - 1/22/94

This here is your classic one-match show.  After one of the worst-ever Rumble undercards, we were treated to a damn fine Rumble match which at the time was probably the second-best edition.  The company was rebuilding after the roster losses of '92 and '93, and the New Generation was in full-swing.

The show opened with Tatanka vs. Bam Bam Bigelow (subbing for an injured Ludvig Borga).  Since there was no feud here the match meant nothing, and wasn't very good anyway.  Next?

Match #2 is one of the more overrated I can remember, but it was important in setting up one of the biggest feuds of the year.  World Tag Champs The Quebecers defended against Bret and Owen Hart.  At the time I found this an oddly contrived setup.  Bret was rather above the Tag belts at this point and it seemed clear this would just be leading to the Bret vs. Owen feud.  Sure enough that's exactly what happened.  Bret took several minutes of Quebecer offense but opted not to tag in a fresh Owen.  Finally Bret's knee was so injured the referee stopped the match (also very contrived - why not just have the Quebecers pin Bret with a rollup or something?), and Owen went ballistic, attacking his brother and turning heel.  The match worked alright as an angle but really wasn't much of a wrestling match.

We returned to Throwaway City next, as I-C Champ Razor Ramon defended against IRS (one of the weaker perennial I-C contenders).  I never saw much chemistry between these two, so this was two-star fare at best.

The World Title match was next, as Yokozuna faced The Undertaker in a Casket Match.  Going into this I was very excited to see Taker finally get another Title shot after over two years, and I actually thought he might take it down.  As it turned out I'd be disappointed with the result, and nauseated by the match itself.  This was one of the worst-ever World Title matches, featuring slow-motion brawling, cartoonishly excessive overbooking (Ten, count them, TEN midcard heels would interfere on Yokozuna's behalf), and a laughably bad aftermath.  Taker was shut into the casket and his "ghost" would rise from the arena floor and ascend to the ceiling.  Said "ghost" was of course Marty Janetty (who incidentally is about 9 inches shorter and a hundred pounds lighter than Mark Callaway), and said "ascension" was accomplished through the use of clearly visible harness wires.  Good lord this was campy and idiotic.

Wait, how'd he end up on the TV screens? 
They couldn't possibly have prerecorded this bit, could they?

The Rumble match though was pretty great.  For the first time the entry intervals were shortened due to time constraints, so instead of a new wrestler every two minutes, it was cut down to 90 seconds.  This didn't hinder the match's effectiveness, as it sped up the pace slightly without detracting from its epic feel.  To this day the 90-second format is the most commonly used.  This match told several interweaving stories, such as Diesel's dominance (eliminating seven men in a row), Shawn Michaels' treachery at helping eliminate Diesel, Bret's resilience in competing and eventually co-winning the Rumble despite a kayfabe knee injury from earlier, and of course the controversial double-elimination to end the match.  Bret and Lex Luger would ultimately be declared co-winners, and would each receive a Title shot at WrestleMania X.  This was a nice creative way to set the match apart from previous editions.  I was sure Luger would finally be winning the WWF Title but obviously that was not to be.  Anyway, very strong Rumble match with much more star power than in '93.

Ah, Jack Tunney.  Always there to make the tough decisions.

Participants: Scott Steiner, Samu, Rick Steiner, Kwang, Owen Hart, Bart Gunn, Diesel, Bob Backlund, Billy Gunn, Virgil, Randy Savage, Jeff Jarrett, Crush, Doink, Bam Bam Bigelow, Mabel, Sparky Plugg, Shawn Michaels, Mo, Greg Valentine, Tatanka, The Great Kabuki, Lex Luger, Tenryu, Bastion Booger, Rick Martel, Bret Hart, Fatu, Marty Janetty, Adam Bomb
Final Four: Bret Hart, Lex Luger, Shawn Michaels, Fatu (Hmmm, which of these four doesn't belong?)
Long Man: Bam Bam Bigelow (30:12)

The '94 Rumble undercard was pretty awful, but since half the show was taken up by a very good Rumble match, that gains it some points overall.  As you'll continue to see, this has been a pretty common scenario over the years.  Skip the undercard, watch the Rumble.

Best Match: The Rumble
Worst Match: Yokozuna vs. Undertaker
What I'd Change: Do something to make the Title match good.  I dunno what exactly, but something.
Most Disappointing Match: Quebecers vs. Harts - again, this worked as an angle but was pretty dull as a match
Most Pleasant Surprise: Shawn Michaels got to shine in the Rumble match with over 29 minutes of ring time.
Overall Rating: 5.5/10
Better than WrestleMania X, SummerSlam '94 and/or Survivor Series 1994? - No, No, Yes

Royal Rumble 1995 - USF Sun Dome - 1/22/95

1995 was one of the more unusual installments in the Rumble series, featuring a pretty stacked undercard followed by a very underwhelming Rumble match.  The WWF unfortunately sacrificed the length and scope of the most epic match of the year to make room for multiple strong undercard bouts.

Kicking things off was an I-C Title match between Razor Ramon and Jeff Jarrett.  I was never a huge fan of this feud or Jarrett, but this match was fairly decent.  The booking was kinda clunky though, with Razor getting counted out and Jarrett challenging him to continue the match.  Since when does a wrestler have the ability to restart a match?  Shouldn't an authority figure of some kind have to make that call?  Anyway, this would be a classic case of "more guts than brains," as Razor's gallantry cost him the Title.

The one stinker of the night was next, as The Undertaker faced IRS.  At no time did IRS seem remotely like a threat to the nigh-invincible Dead Man, but this match got eleven-plus minutes anyway.

The WWF Championship was next as new Champ Diesel (I must reluctantly confess I was a big fan of his at the time) faced the former Champ Bret Hart.  This was an epic (if overbooked) face vs. face match where Bret played the de facto heel trying to take advantage of his less experienced opponent.  Much like the opening bout, this featured a restart.  Diesel had Bret pinned after a Jacknife Powerbomb but was attacked by his former friend Shawn Michaels.  The referee ordered the match to continue (Hey at least this time a person with jurisdiction made the decision.), and then several minutes later Owen attacked Bret.  The referee again ordered a restart, and after several more minutes and a ref bump, Shawn, Jeff Jarrett, The Roadie (why were JJ and Roadie there?), Owen and Bob Backlund all interfered, drawing a double DQ.  So yeah it was an overbooked mess, but the match was still pretty damn strong.  Bret and Diesel always worked well together and their 1994-95 trilogy contained some of Nash's best work.

Kev, all you gotta do is roll over.  Didn't anyone teach you that?

In the fourth slot was the finals of a Tag Team Title tournament to crown new Champs after Diesel and Shawn's messy Survivor Series breakup rendered the belts vacant.  Heavy favorites the Smokin' Gunns were forced to drop out due to injury and in their place was the Cinderella team of Bob Holly and the 1-2-3 Kid.  They would face Bam Bam Bigelow and Tatanka in the finals.  This match was light years better than I expected.  Nearly sixteen minutes of excellent Little Team vs. Big Team action resulting in Holly & Kid getting an upset win.  Of course the following night on RAW the Gunns returned to get an automatic Title shot (Not sure how that works - they weren't even in the tournament but they get to skip ahead to face the new Champions?) and won the straps.  So in the end this tournament was a big fat waste of time.  But this match was pretty great.  The aftermath saw Bam Bam get into a ringside altercation with football great Lawrence Taylor, leading to their WrestleMania clash.

Now, about that underwhelming Rumble match.  The format changed for the second year in a row, as the entry interval was shortened to 60 seconds.  The object was obviously to make more room for the undercard but also to create a faster-paced Rumble match.  Unfortunately it just made the match feel like Short Attention Span Theater.  The entrances were so closely spaced there wasn't room for anyone to make a big impact and they struggled to eliminate people fast enough.  Also the two starters, Shawn Michaels and Davey Boy Smith, were the last two standing.  This would've been an unthinkably amazing feat except that due to the format change the match only went 38 minutes.  Don't get me wrong, 38 minutes is still an accomplishment, but being the first wrestler to ever run the table in a Rumble match shouldn't come with an asterisk.  The ending of this Rumble featured arguably the best false elimination of all time though.  Davey tossed Shawn over but Shawn held onto the top rope and dangled for about fifteen seconds, only ever letting one foot touch the floor.  As Davey celebrated Shawn slid back into the ring and proceeded to dump him out.  I must say I was super stoked to see Shawn finally earn a WWF Title match at WrestleMania.

Brilliant false finish.

Participants: Shawn Michaels, Davey Boy Smith, Eli Blu, Duke Droese, Jimmy Del Ray, Sionne, Tom Prichard, Doink, Kwang, Rick Martel, Owen Hart, Timothy Well, Luke, Jacob Blu, King Kong Bundy, Mo, Mabel, Butch, Lex Luger, Mantaur, Aldo Montoya, Henry Godwinn, Billy Gunn, Bart Gunn, Bob Backlund, Steven Dunn, Dick Murdoch, Adam Bomb, Fatu, Crush
Final Four: Shawn Michaels, Davey Boy Smith, Crush, Lex Luger
Long Man: Shawn Michaels & Davey Boy Smith (38:41)

The 1995 Rumble was a bit of a failed experiment in trying to present a fully balanced card unhampered by an hour-plus Rumble segment.  Given how uneven most Rumble cards had been I can understand wanting to make room for other matches to breathe, but the Rumble itself is the draw.  Shortening it that much rather defeats the purpose and reduces its magnitude.  Still this was an entertaining show overall and one of the most well-rounded up to this point.

Best Match: Diesel vs. Bret Hart
Worst Match: Undertaker vs. IRS
What I'd Change: Obviously stick with the 90-second format, shorten the first three matches and remove some of the interference from the WWF Title match.
Most Disappointing Match: The Rumble
Most Pleasant Surprise: Holly & Kid vs. Bigelow & Tatanka
Overall Rating: 7/10
Better than WrestleMania XI, SummerSlam '95 and/or Survivor Series 1995? - Yes, Yes, No

Royal Rumble 1996 - Selland Arena - 1/21/96

And we're back to the good Rumble/bad undercard format.  The '96 Rumble was basically a one-match show.  There were a couple okay undercard matches but nothing must-see.  This was also the first time the Rumble match didn't close the show, which was a little ridiculous but I understand why they did it.

First up was a throwaway, as Ahmed Johnson faced Jeff Jarrett.  This feud started a few weeks earlier and would not have a resolution due to Jarrett's defection to WCW shortly after this match.  Ahmed won by DQ after a guitar shot.

Second was the Tag Title match as The Smokin' Gunns defended against The Bodydonnas.  Skip and Zip, as they were known, were a fine tandem (Chris Candido and Tom Prichard) saddled with a horrible gimmick and even worse ring names.  The only person in their group who got over was Sunny, who later dumped the Bodydonnas and ended up managing the Gunns.  This match was pretty forgettable.

Next Razor Ramon once again defended the I-C Title, this time against newcomer Goldust.  Their feud centered around Goldust's apparent romantic attraction to Razor, and Razor's homophobic, disgusted reaction.  Clearly the WWF was not yet part of any sort of Be a Star campaign.  This match marked the debut of Goldust's manager Marlena (played by his real-life wife Terri).  It was decent but not great, and it always bothered me a little that the WWF exploited the intolerance of its audience to get Goldust over as a sexually ambigious heel.  Still it could be argued that the inception of the Attitude Era occurred with the introduction of the Goldust character.

The semi-main event of the 1996 Royal Rumble......was the 1996 Royal Rumble.  The big story here was the return of Shawn Michaels, who had suffered a storyline concussion stemming from a real-life assault outside a bar in Syracuse.  A month later Shawn collapsed in the ring on RAW, and the angle was so realistic and so well-executed I actually though his career was in jeopardy.  The '96 field was full of newcomers and future stars - Steve Austin, Triple H, Kane and The Godfather all made their Rumble debuts as pre-Attitude characters.  But the match was carried by Michaels' superhuman performance.  Shawn tied the record for most eliminations with 8, and outlasted all of the company's big men to win his second consecutive Rumble.  Predictable but satisfying, this match ended up being one of the best Rumbles to date and is still one of my favorites. 

Dammit Leon, I told ya to throw me out UNDER the top rope!

Participants: Hunter Hearst Helmsley, Henry Godwinn, Bob Backlund, Jerry Lawler, Bob Holly, King Mabel, Jake Roberts, Dory Funk Jr., Yokozuna, 1-2-3 Kid, Takao Omori, Savio Vega, Vader, Doug Gilbert, Squat Team #1, Squat Team #2, Owen Hart, Shawn Michaels, Hakushi, Tatanka, Aldo Montoya, Diesel, Kama, The Ringmaster, Barry Horowitz, Fatu, Isaac Yankem, Marty Jannetty, British Bulldog, Duke Droese
Final Four: Shawn Michaels, Diesel, Kama, British Bulldog
Long Man: Hunter Hearst Helmsley (48:01)

As I said before, I get why this Rumble match didn't go on last.  The main event of this show was the WWF Title match between Bret Hart and The Undertaker.  This was historic for being the first Bret-Taker clash, and had it gone on before the Rumble, the result of this match would've telegraphed which of the two Rumble favorites - Shawn and Diesel - would win that match.  So for those two reasons I understand putting Bret-Taker on last.  Unfortunately though, this didn't earn its main event spot.  It was slow, plodding, overly long, and ended with a disqualification to set up Taker vs. Diesel at WrestleMania.  I was certainly excited at the prospect of seeing the company's two best big men face off for the first time, but Bret-Taker left me cold.

Bret's making short work of Skeletor.

The '96 Rumble is really only memorable for Shawn Michaels' characteristic show-stealing work.  Had he not been on the card there'd be virtually nothing here to be excited about.  This card did however set the tone for a strong WrestleMania.

Best Match: The Rumble
Worst Match: Ahmed vs. Jarrett
What I'd Change: Shorten the WWF Title match and quicken its pace.
Most Disappointing Match: Bret vs. Undertaker
Most Pleasant Surprise: I don't know that I was surprised by anything.
Overall Rating: 6/10
Better than WrestleMania XII, SummerSlam '96, and/or Survivor Series 1996? - No, Probably not, No.

That's it for Part 3.  Join us on for Part 4, as the Royal Rumble gets a touch of Attitude!  Join us on Facebook, Twitter, MeWe and YouTube!

Part 2                                                                                                                                                Part 4

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