Monday, January 14, 2019

The History of WWE Royal Rumble, part 4 (1997-1999)

Welcome to Part 4 of's History of the Royal Rumble!  And welcome to the Stone Cold Era!

Royal Rumble 1997 - AlamoDome - 1/19/97

The 1997 Rumble has unfortunately not aged all that well, but at the time I absolutely loved this show.  The card was pretty stacked and sprinkled with several Mexican lucha stars (Nevermind that WCW had already scooped up all the GOOD lucha stars - I didn't yet know any better.), the Rumble match had a strong field of contenders (largely due to most of the undercard participants pulling double duty), and the huge venue added to its splendor, making this show feel more like a WrestleMania card than 'Mania 13 did.

The opener was an I-C Title match - Hunter Hearst Helmsley vs. Goldust.  At this point the company was struggling to find a sidekick for Hunter after Mr. Perfect left the company, and they saddled him with perennial midcarder Curtis Hughes.  Fortunately a month later Hunter would bring in Chyna, and his career would never be the same.  As for this match, it was passable but nowhere near as good as their 'Mania rematch would be.

Why wasn't WrestleMania 13 held here?

The next match featured the in-ring return of Ahmed Johnson, out for revenge against Faarooq, who had injured him the previous summer.  I was excited to see this, and while it was brief and inconclusive, it was a fun brawl.

Third was a dream match of sorts between The Undertaker and Vader.  There wasn't much going on in this feud but the pair worked pretty well together.  Underwhelming but decent.

Next was a showcase of B-grade Lucha stars, as Hector Garza, Perro Aguayo and Canek took on Jerry Estrada, Heavy Metal and Fuerza Guerrera.  As Lucha six-man tags go I now know this was a pretty shabby representation, but at the time some of this stuff blew my mind (I didn't watch Nitro enough to take in much of the real Lucha action.).  I was particularly impressed with Hector Garza, as was WCW apparently (He debuted there later that year).

The Rumble match was once again in the semi-main slot, and featured a star-making performance by Steve Austin.  Austin entered the match fifth and cleared the ring multiple times, eventually eliminating a record-shattering ten people.  One of the match highlights occurred while Austin was alone in the ring waiting for the next entrant, and Bret Hart's music hit.  The crowd erupted to see Austin and Bret resume their landmark feud, and the two of them engaged in a blistering 90-second slugfest.  This Rumble match has one of the best closing stretches of any Rumble - ten men left in the ring after number 30, five of them potential winners.  It boiled down to Austin, Bret, Vader, Taker, and Fake Diesel.  Suddenly Bret dumped Austin out, but since the officials were distracted by Mankind and Terry Funk brawling at ringside the elimination went unnoticed and Austin slid back in, eliminating Vader, Taker and Bret.  Bret flew into a rage at Austin's tainted victory, furthering his gradual heel turn.  This match is another one of my all-time favorite Rumbles.

Man, evil Austin was great.

Participants: Crush, Ahmed Johnson, Fake Razor Ramon, Phineas Godwinn, Steve Austin, Bart Gunn, Jake Roberts, British Bulldog, Pierroth, The Sultan, Mil Mascaras, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, Owen Hart, Goldust, Cibernetico, Marc Mero, Latin Lover, Faarooq, Savio Vega, Jesse James, Bret Hart, Jerry Lawler, Fake Diesel, Terry Funk, Rocky Maivia, Mankind, Flash Funk, Vader, Henry Godwinn, Undertaker
Final Four: Steve Austin, Bret Hart, Undertaker, Vader
Long Man: Steve Austin (45:07)

The main event was a rematch from the '96 Survivor Series - WWF Champion Sid vs. Shawn Michaels.  Back in November the company made the baffling decision to put their top Championship on the physically-imposing-but-horrendously-untalented Sid Vicious, and Shawn wanted a rematch in his hometown.  Despite coming down with the flu, Shawn got a watchable match out of his clumsy opponent and regained the WWF Title.  Sadly a knee injury (which may or may not have been legit) would derail Shawn's second Title run and nix the planned Shawn vs. Bret WrestleMania rematch.
Like I said, history hasn't been all that kind to this show, but I found it an exceedingly fun watch with a ton of young star power.  The WWF was building for the future, and the backbone of the Attitude Era roster was falling (or should I say "rising") into place.

Best Match: The Rumble
Worst Match: Probably Ahmed vs. Faarooq, but it's not bad
What I'd Change: Maybe shorten the opener a bit.  Other than that there isn't much - I still like this show.
Most Disappointing Match: Hunter vs. Goldust
Most Pleasant Surprise: Austin winning the Rumble - I figured Bret would take it.  Of course the plan was for Bret to get the 'Mania Title shot anyway, but this was a nice twist in the road.
Overall Rating: 7.5/10
Better than WrestleMania 13, SummerSlam '97, and/or Survivor Series 1997? - Probably not, Definitely not, and Yes.

Royal Rumble 1998 - San Jose Arena - 1/18/98

1998 was of course the year the WWF, on the back of Steve Austin, reascended to the top of the North American wrestling market, after two years of being dominated by WCW.  Austin's popularity had grown steadily over the previous year, and by January '98 he was the clear choice for the next face of the company.  This Rumble card was built almost exclusively around this premise.

The company's roster was quite thin at this point after losing Bret Hart and Davey Boy Smith in the wake of Montreal.  Also Triple H sustained a knee injury which kept him off the card and removed a potential Rumble dark horse from the field.  Still the WWF's momentum was building and everyone seemed eager to make their mark.

The first match was an odd little affair, as new babyface Vader took on The Artist Formerly Known as Goldust.  This was easily Dustin Runnels' most bizarre persona.  Heavily influenced by S&M, Runnels would wear a different and increasingly more ostentatious outfit every night.  I actually found this persona much more entertaining than plain ol' Goldust, but it was pretty short-lived.  This match was fine for its spot on the card.

What a cozy place to take a piledriver.

Next was a throwaway minis match - Max Mini, Mosaic and Nova vs. Battalion, El Torito and Tarantula.  More less presented like a poor man's lucha bout, this was eight minutes of fluff.

Things picked up though with the I-C Title match between The Rock and Ken Shamrock.  These two would face each other numerous times in 1997-98, and they developed pretty excellent chemistry.  Shamrock played the dominant but somewhat easily outmaneuvered hothead, while The Rock was the cowardly but clever heel Champion who expertly exploited every situation.  This match was no masterpiece but it helped solidify both guys as rising stars.

The Tag Championship was next, as hot new heels The New Age Outlaws faced The Legion of Doom.  Another decent undercard match, though two DQ endings in a row was a bit excessive.

For the third straight year the Rumble match took the semi-main slot.  This Rumble didn't have nearly the star power of the '97 edition and it was a mortal lock that Steve Austin was going to win it, but this was still a lot of fun to watch.  The booking covered up the roster holes and also featured a subplot involving The Nation apparently attacking Austin backstage, leading to doubt as to whether Austin could even compete.  One of the most entertaining threads in the match featured Mick Foley appearing three times as his three different personas - Mankind, Cactus Jack, and Dude Love.  The Rock also turned in a gutsy performance, lasting over 50 minutes.  Austin of course appeared as scheduled and it was revealed that The Nation had mistakenly attacked Skull from the Disciples of Apocalypse.  The match boiled down to the two hottest emerging stars in the company, Austin and Rock, offering a glimpse into the WWF's future.

The Rattlesnake vs. The Future Great One

Participants: Cactus Jack, Chainsaw Charlie, Tom Brandi, The Rock, Mosh, Phineas Godwinn, 8-Ball, Bradshaw, Owen hart, Steve Blackman, D-Lo Brown, Kurrgan, Marc Mero, Ken Shamrock, Thrasher, Mankind, Goldust, Jeff Jarrett, Honky Tonk Man, Ahmed Johnson, Mark Henry, Skull, Kama Mustafa, Steve Austin, Henry Godwinn, Savio Vega, Faarooq, Dude Love, Chainz, Vader
Final Four: Steve Austin, The Rock, Faarooq, Dude Love
Long Man: The Rock (51:32)

The main event, while an excellent match, pissed me off, and here's why - the previous month's PPV saw the return of Owen Hart, who brutally attacked Shawn Michaels as revenge for his part in the Montreal business.  The logical build then would be for a Michaels-Owen Title match at the Rumble.  It was obvious Shawn would be facing Austin at 'Mania anyway, so why not give a rising star like Owen the rub of a PPV Title shot?  Now that Bret and Davey were gone, Owen had room to grow into a semi-main eventer.  It would also allow the Undertaker to have a Rumble spot, thereby expanding the field of possible winners.  Instead the WWF went the safe route and presented HBK-Taker on PPV for the third time in five months, in a Casket Match.  Look, this was a damn good match, but you can't expect to top the first-ever Hell in a Cell with a Casket Match.  It just isn't gonna happen.  Not to mention Shawn suffered a career-halting back injury here which nearly derailed the planned 'Mania main event and put Shawn on the shelf for four years.  This was the first of several times the company took a newly crowned heel Champion in the midst of a hot year-end feud with an up-and-coming babyface, and failed to book them in a Rumble PPV match, instead opting for a tired and unnecessary rematch with an established face (I'll revisit this topic when we get to 2002 and 2011).

Anyway, this was a helluva Casket Match - probably the best of all time.  The match ended with Kane once again costing Taker, and setting the casket on fire with Taker still inside.

The '98 Rumble PPV was hardly an all-time classic, but it set the tone for the coming year which would see the WWF once again become a pop culture phenomenon.  Steve Austin and The Rock were poised to take the company (and the industry) by storm, the Taker-Kane feud heated up (literally), and the Attitude era was now in full-swing.

Best Match: Shawn Michaels vs. Undertaker - but Shawn-Owen would've been better
Worst Match: The minis
What I'd Change: I already done told ya - book Shawn vs. Owen, put Taker in the Rumble and have Kane eliminate him, and save the casket burning for a different night.
Most Disappointing Match: Again, just the fact that Owen's Title shot against Shawn came on an episode of RAW
Most Pleasant Surprise: The Rumble match - given the thinness of the roster and the predictability of the result, this was a fun Rumble.
Overall Rating: 7/10
Better than WrestleMania XIV, SummerSlam '98 and/or Survivor Series 1998? - No, No, and Hell Yeah.

 Royal Rumble 1999 - Arrowhead Pond - 1/24/99

You can take just about any WWF PPV from January through September 1999 and point to it as highly indicative of how awful Vince Russo's booking had become.  After a record-shattering 1998 that featured some of the freshest WWF programming ever, 1999 was the year their product went creatively off the rails and exposed Russo as someone who clearly needed a guiding hand for his ideas to be effective.  This Rumble card (and several other shows that year) felt very disorganized and at times nonsensical.

The show opened with Hardcore Champion The Road Dogg vs. The Big a regular match.  Ummm, why would you book the HC Champ against a hated rival on PPV, without the HC Title on the line?  This was one of the more boring 12-minute matches I can remember.

Next up was I-C Champion Ken Shamrock, in the midst of a monster Title run, against Billy Gunn.  Early '99 was a period where the company really tried to push Billy as a future main eventer, and he repeatedly proved he was better as a tag teamer.  This was mediocre.

The one good midcard match on this show saw European Champ X-Pac defend against Gangrel.  An enjoyable, fast-paced bout that sadly only got six minutes.

A Women's Title Strap Match was next as Sable defended against Luna Vachon.  Luna had attacked Sable on the preshow, so the big story was "can Sable still compete?"  The suspense was short-lived though, as Sable won the bout in under five minutes.

The '99 Rumble card had one and only one classic match, and it was the infamous I Quit match for the WWF Title.  Unlikely new Champion Mankind defended against The Rock, in one of the most brutal brawls I've ever seen.  These two fought all over the arena, working in multiple creative spots, before Rocky handcuffed Mankind and proceeded to bludgeon him with a chair for several minutes.  The agreed-upon scenario of five chair shots became an excessively violent climax featuring eleven unprotected shots to Mick Foley's head.  It made for an amazing Match of the Year candidate, but given what we now know about concussions (and the fact that Foley's kids were in the front row), this match is a little hard to watch now.

The prerecorded "I quit!" was one of the more creative match finishes.

The Rumble match itself was a convoluted mess of overbooking, loose rules, and an unnecessary surprise finish.  The big story centered around the Austin vs. McMahon feud, and these two were the #1 and #2 entrants.  Clearly Austin was the favorite to win the Rumble and challenge for the Title at 'Mania again, but the company decided to add some wrinkles to the story.  Unfortunately said wrinkles came off as swerves-for-the-sake-of-swerves - a classic problem with Russo Era booking.  Austin beat the snot out of Vince for the first portion of the match and then both men wound up fighting all over the arena.  Now precedent dictates that when a participant leaves the ring during a Rumble match he only has a certain amount of time to get back in or he's disqualified from winning the Rumble.  But Austin and Vince spent more time outside the ring (Vince was on commentary for much of this bout) than inside.  Austin was ambushed in the bathroom by Vince's stable of heels and was taken to the hospital, only to return later in the match.  Umm, if being taken out of the building doesn't eliminate a guy from the Rumble, what does?  The match eventually boiled down to Vince, the returning Austin, and a few other guys.  When the dust settled it was Austin vs. Vince again, until The Rock showed up to distract Austin, allowing Vince to dump him over and win the Rumble.  Yup, Vince McMahon booked himself to win the Royal F*cking Rumble.  Nevermind that the way Rock's interference was booked made Austin look like a total dolt, a non-wrestler should simply never win a Championship or a major match like the Rumble.  Just terrible.

Yup, this happened.

Participants: Steve Austin, Vince McMahon, Golga, Droz, Edge, Gillberg, Steve Blackman, Dan Severn, Tiger Ali Singh, The Blue Meanie, Mabel, Road Dogg, Gangrel, Kurrgan, Al Snow, Goldust, The Godfather, Kane, Ken Shamrock, Billy Gunn, Test, Big Bossman, Triple H, Val Venis, X-Pac, Mark Henry, Jeff Jarrett, D'Lo Brown, Owen Hart, Chyna
Final Four: Vince McMahon, Steve Austin, Big Bossman, D'Lo Brown
Long Man: Vince McMahon & Steve Austin (56:38)

Things were more or less set right a few weeks later - Vince relinquished his 'Mania Title shot, allowing Austin to succeed him; Austin challenged Vince to a cage match at the next PPV with his Title shot on the line; Austin went on to defeat The Rock at 'Mania.  But this Rumble match just kinda cheapened everything that makes the Rumble great.  The #1 and #2 entrants were the last two guys at the end but hardly spent any time in the ring, the field was chock full of midcarders, and the owner of the company won the whole thing.  This PPV is remembered for one match, and that's the I Quit match.  Everything else is skippable Russo Era drivel.

Best Match: Mankind vs. The Rock
Worst Match: Road Dogg vs. Big Bossman
What I'd Change: Vince really should've been eliminated near the beginning and then they could've shown him paying off the other participants to target Austin, with only a few of the babyfaces rebuffing his bribe.  The final four should've included four potential winners, not Austin, his boss, and two midcard heels.  If they really wanted to have Austin lose at the last second, have someone like Shamrock win it, and then figure out a way for Austin to beat Shamrock in February to earn back the Title shot.  I dunno, something.
Most Disappointing Match: The Rumble - Watching this as it happened I sort of dreaded how predictable an Austin win was going to be, and hoped they'd be more creative.  Then the match played out the way it did, and I wished for them to just give Austin the straight-ahead win.
Most Pleasant Surprise: That Mick Foley wasn't seriously injured
Overall Rating: 4.5/10
Better than WresteMania XV, SummerSlam '99 and/or Survivor Series 1999? - Yes, No, Yes

With that I bid you adieu for now.  Join us again on Monday for Part 5, as the Attitude Era rolls on!  Join us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and MeWe!

Part 3                                                                                                                                                Part 5

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