Friday, January 18, 2019

The History of WWE Royal Rumble, part 6 (2003-2005)

Here we go with Part 6 of The History of WWE Royal Rumble!

Royal Rumble 2003 - FleetCenter - 1.19.03

What a perfect illustration of how much better Paul Heyman's Smackdown was than RAW in 2003.  The '03 Rumble holds a special place for me because I was in attendance.  The WWE product at this point had spectacular highs coupled with absolutely dreadful lows, and this PPV showcased both.

The big story of this Rumble was the mega-face push of Brock Lesnar, who had been betrayed by Paul Heyman two months earlier (in one of the most nonsensical angles of the era), and who was now returning from a brief injury.  The opening match was a Rumble qualifier between Lesnar and The Big Show which, while better than their Survivor Series '02 encounter was still only about six minutes.  But it accomplished what it needed to and provided a decisive win for Lesnar on his way to the Rumble.

Next was a Tag Title throwaway - The Dudley Boyz defeated William Regal and Lance Storm for the straps.  This was inoffensive but pretty dull.

Third was the culmination of probably the worst storyline of 2002 - Torrie Wilson vs. Dawn Marie.  Weeks earlier it was revealed that Dawn had been banging Torrie's father Al, and there was a storyline wedding complete with Al Wilson stripping down to his skivvies (Just what we all wanted to see!).  A week or so later Al "died" while he and Dawn were on their honeymoon, specifically during the physical act of love.  Torrie blamed Dawn for killing her father and thus we were subjected to this matchup.  Three and a half minutes of pointless.

But at least Torrie vs. Dawn was bad and short, unlike our next bout.

The World Championship would be decided between Triple H and the latest WCW import, Scott Steiner.  Steiner had debuted awkwardly at Survivor Series and after a pretend bidding war between the WWE brands, showed up on RAW and announced that he was contracted to get a Title shot.  Now I could be wrong about this but I'm pretty sure he didn't wrestle a single solitary match leading up to this one.  And it's clear no one in WWE bothered to watch any of his late WCW bouts, because I can't imagine he'd have been in line for a main event push based on any of those "classics."  The RAW team must've been desperate for someone to feud with Hunter, since they'd buried all the top babyfaces over the previous four months.  I guess maybe they should've presented Booker, Kane or RVD as worthy challengers at Survivor Series, hmm?  It was also baffling that they took this Big Poppa Pump character, a 'roided-up freak who used uncomfortable sexual humor to get crowd heat, and tried to make him a likable babyface.  There was nothing heroic about Scott Steiner in this incarnation, and therefore no reason to want to see him beat up Triple H.  Plus the horrific buildup to this match consisted of posedowns, arm wrestling challenges and gibberish Steiner promos, resembling a late 80s Ultimate Warrior feud, and not in a good way.

How much did these two spend on PEDs that year?

During the match intros the live crowd gave Steiner a lukewarm reception and popped pretty big for Hunter despite him being the heel.  But their reaction changed within the first few minutes of the match, when it became clear what a shit-show we were all watching.  By the end of this clumsy, repetitive crapfest the entire FleetCenter audience was booing both guys, and after botching some suplexes and being clearly winded for much of the bout, Steiner's days as a main event babyface were numbered. 

Look it's Kurt Angle slapping the Anklelock on some dude.

If Triple H-Steiner captured how sucky the RAW brand was, our next match encapsulated how flat-out awesome Smackdown was under Paul Heyman's creative direction.  WWE Champion Kurt Angle defended against Chris Benoit in a near-perfect match.  This was 19 minutes of pure excellence as the two ring generals started out slow and built to a fever pitch, showcasing their mat wrestling acumen and ingenious submission reversals.  Angle finally got the win with a modified Ankle Lock, but the Boston crowd was so blown away by this match they gave Benoit a standing ovation.  At the time Benoit was my favorite wrestler and so this was an amazing moment to be a part of.  Obviously the events of June 2007 have tainted this memory, but this is still the best match I've ever witnessed live.
So let's recap - the RAW Title match was so bad the entire live crowd turned on both guys.  The Smackdown Title match was so good the loser got a standing ovation.  Which one got a rematch at No Way Out?  Yup, the RAW Title match.  I think the best phrase to describe Vince McMahon circa 2003 is "tone deaf."

The Rumble match itself closed the show and was probably the most high-energy Rumble to date.  The field was full of talented workers who made this match stand out from previous Rumbles with high-impact moves and fast-paced action.  The two starters were Shawn Michaels and Chris Jericho, but Christian came out wearing Jericho's ring gear, allowing Jericho to attack Shawn from behind.  After brutalizing him with a chair, Jericho tossed Shawn from the Rumble in shockingly quick fashion.  This was a brilliant angle to open the match and set the tone for Jericho's epic performance.  WWE wisely spread the top talent throughout the match to ensure there were no dull moments.  Edge, Mysterio, Rob Van Dam (who unlike in 2002 actually got a significant run), Eddie Guerrero, the Hardyz, and Haas & Benjamin all got at least a few minutes to shine.  Late in the match Jericho was eliminated by Test which deflated the live crowd a bit, but by then the focus was on Brock Lesnar.  Lesnar was dominant for his nine minutes of ring time and finally eliminated the returning Undertaker to win the Rumble and the WrestleMania main event slot.  Despite not being heavy on main event talent, this is one of my favorite Rumble matches.

Participants: Shawn Michaels, Chris Jericho, Chris Nowinski, Rey Mysterio, Edge, Christian, Chavo Guerrero, Tajiri, Bill DeMott, Tommy Dreamer, B-2, Rob Van Dam, Matt Hardy, Eddie Guerrero, Jeff Hardy, Rosey, Test, John Cena, Charlie Haas, Rikishi, Jamal, Kane, Shelton Benjamin, Booker T, A-Train, Maven, Goldust, Batista, Brock Lesnar, Undertaker
Final Four: Brock Lesnar, Undertaker, Kane, Batista
Long Man: Chris Jericho (38:54)

The 2003 Royal Rumble, much like 2003 WWE in general, was a card of extremes.  The good stuff was among the company's best-ever work, while the bad stuff was unwatchable and seemingly assembled without a moment's logical thought.  Of the two PPVs that followed this one, the first was appallingly bad (No Way Out), while the second was shockingly good; arguably the greatest PPV of all time (WrestleMania XIX).  WWE was quite a crap shoot in 2003.

Best Match: Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit
Worst Match: Triple H vs. Scott Steiner
What I'd Change: Obviously Steiner had no business being in a PPV Title match.  Had they done anything to present RVD or Booker as credible challengers for Triple H, they wouldn't have needed to book this stinker.  Apparently in 2003 Hunter was so consumed with being a dominant Champion he didn't care much about having good matches with strong opponents.  And Steiner was so consumed with having muscles he didn't care about being able to bend his arms or legs.
Most Disappointing Match: Lesnar vs. Big Show probably should've gone a good ten minutes.
Most Pleasant Surprise: I didn't expect the Rumble match to be this good.
Overall Rating: 7.5/10
Better than WrestleMania XIX, SummerSlam '03 and/or Survivor Series 2003? - No, Probably, and Absolutely.

Royal Rumble 2004 - Wachovia Center - 1/25/04

This here's another one-match Rumble card.  Well maybe one-and-a-half.  But that one match was one of the best Rumbles in the entire series and told an amazing story, even if its legacy is forever tarnished.

The show opened with a hastily-thrown-together Tables match for the World Tag belts, as Ric Flair and Batista got a forgettable four-minute win over The Dudleyz.  Not sure why this last-minute inclusion was necessary given how rushed some of the other matches were.

Next was a criminally-abbreviated Cruiserweight Title match, as Rey Mysterio defended against Jamie Noble.  What could've been a strong undercard bout was given three minutes and change.

In the third slot was a match meant to settle a pretty major feud, as the estranged Guerrero cousins locked up for the first time in WWE.  This had been building for about two months, as Los Guerreros fell into a slump and Chavo had teased turning on Eddie several times.  Finally in early January he turned heel and this match was signed.  Unfortunately it was only given eight minutes and was not at all remarkable, and the feud was basically scrapped right after.  So why book the match in the first place?  Why not put Eddie and Chavo in the Rumble instead?

Alright, remember how in 1998 and 2002 the company opted to have the World Champ defend against an established main eventer rather than a slight underdog challenger, and how that pissed me off?  Well in 2004 they took it to the other extreme, as Brock Lesnar defended the WWE Title against, wait for it......Bob Holly.  Yeah that's right, ol' Thurman "Sparky" Plugg himself.  This non-feud stemmed from an incident in Sept. 2002 when Lesnar and Holly faced off on an episode of Smackdown.  Holly, notorious for giving the younger talent a hard time in the ring, sandbagged Lesnar during a powerbomb attempt, and Lesnar dropped him on his head, sidelining Holly with a neck injury.  A year later Holly returned to attack Lesnar, and this half-assed rivalry was born.  Nevermind that Holly was in no way a credible threat to the WWE Champion, nor was he even a popular babyface.  The company was by God gonna treat us all to this horribly unworthy PPV Title match.  Six or so minutes later Lesnar was still the Champ.  What in the name of all things holy, THE FUCK, were they thinking giving Bob Holly a Title match at the Royal Rumble??  Chrissakes.

If ever a match should've just been one-move-and-done, it's this one.

The World Title match was approximately the 38th meeting between real-life best friends but onscreen archrivals Triple H and Shawn Michaels.  While these two had a handful of strong matches including their SummerSlam '02 and December 29th, 2003 RAW encounters, this ranks very high among the most forced feuds in history.  Their offscreen friendship was such common knowledge that this feud had no urgency and simply felt like another case of Hunter not wanting to elevate any new stars.  The match itself is a great example of why I generally don't like Last Man Standing matches.  After nearly every big move the referee started counting one or both men down, and it totally interrupted the flow.  This bout consisted almost entirely of big move-rest-ref count-repeat, and then ended in a double knockout.  Super.

Jeezus, how many Advil did you two take before you bladed?

The Rumble match literally saved this entire show.  Had it not been for these 61 minutes of awesome, this PPV would get a 3/10 at best.  But fortunately this Rumble match had star power, drama, high-impact moves, and superb storytelling.  Chris Benoit had been feuding with both Brock Lesnar and then-Smackdown GM Paul Heyman for two months, and Heyman had constantly put obstacles in Benoit's path to the WWE Title.  Benoit earned a spot in the Rumble match but due to his animosity with Heyman was given the #1 spot.  What followed was the first real instance of a wrestler running the table in the Royal Rumble.  While Shawn Michaels had accomplished that feat in 1995, the format of the match was much shorter and therefore he only spent 38 minutes in the ring.  Benoit on the other hand clocked 61 full minutes, becoming the first guy to wrestle a full-length Rumble from start to finish.  Benoit outlasted an impressive field including Angle, Jericho, Goldberg, Booker T, RVD, Mick Foley, and rising stars John Cena and Randy Orton, and won the match by pulling Big Show over the top rope using a front facelock.  For me this Rumble match ranks right up there with the 1992 one.  One of the best matches of 2004.

Participants: Chris Benoit, Randy Orton, Mark henry, Tajiri, Bradshaw, Rhyno, Matt hardy, Scott Steiner, Matt Morgan, The Hurricane, Booker T, Kane, Spike Dudley, Rikishi, Rene Dupree, A-Train, Shelton Benjmain, Ernest Miller, Kurt Angle, Rico, Mick Foley, Christian, Nunzio, Big Show, Chris Jericho, Charlie Haas, Billy Gunn, John Cena, Rob Van Dam, Goldberg
Final Four: Chris Benoit, Big Show, Kurt Angle, Chris Jericho
Long Man: Chris Benoit (61:30)

The 2004 Rumble had one of the crappier undercards in the event's history but fortunately the Rumble was good enough and historic enough to elevate the show into slight Thumbs Up territory.  Again, the final days of Benoit's life have forever stained what should still be a career highlight, but on this particular night he turned in an amazing performance.

Best Match: The Rumble
Worst Match: Flair/Batista vs. Dudleyz
What I'd Change: Skip the Eddie-Chavo match and put them in the Rumble.  Save their singles match for an episode of Smackdown where it could be given ample time.  As for Hunter-Shawn, give them a match type that isn't boring as fuck.
Most Disappointing Match: Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels
Most Pleasant Surprise: That Benoit, Angle and Jericho all made the Final Four
Overall Rating: 6/10
Better than WrestleMania XX, SummerSlam '04, and/or Survivor Series 2004? - Nah.

Royal Rumble 2005 - SaveMart Center - 1/30/05

The '05 edition was one helluva PPV.  Of the five matches only one was bad and two of them (including the Rumble) were quite good.  I may not have been enthusiastic about the direction the company was headed or the future stars with which it was casting its lot, but I understood it.  It made good business sense.  Good business sense and good storytelling are all one can realistically expect from a wrestling promotion.

The show opened with a pretty fantastic grudge match, as Shawn Michaels battled Edge.  A few weeks earlier at New Year's Revolution, guest referee Michaels cost Edge his spot in the Elimination Chamber match by superkicking him in retaliation for an inadvertent Spear.  Edge then attacked Shawn and this feud was set into motion (To be fair Edge was in the right - his Spear on Shawn was an accident while Shawn's superkick was deliberate).  While a little slower than I expected, this was a well-worked 18-plus-minute match and a great way to open the PPV.

I always liked this move.

Next was the singular bad match on the card, as Undertaker once again faced Heidenreich, this time in a Casket Match.  While mercifully shorter than their Survivor Series '04 debacle, this still wasn't good.

The card picked up a bit as WWE Champion JBL defended against Kurt Angle and The Big Show.  This was no five-star classic but it was a fun little affair, with Angle playing the cowardly heel and JBL opportunistically taking advantage of outside interference to retain.

In the semi-main slot was the culmination of one of the most horridly booked (one might suggest deliberately botched) top babyface runs of the modern era, as World Champion Triple H defended one last time against his former protege Randy Orton.  As you'll recall Orton won the Title from Chris Benoit at SummerSlam '04 and was dumped by his Evolution pals the following night, which despite Orton's thoroughly heelish persona was supposed to somehow make us all like him.  Orton then dropped the belt to Triple H only four weeks later and spent the next four months chasing Hunter and largely failing to get any sort of revenge.  How the company expected Orton to get over in this scenario is beyond me.  The added wrinkle in this particular match was that Orton suffered a pretend concussion, which made him slightly more sympathetic but ended up costing him the match.  Said concussion plagued Orton for a few weeks until the angle was dropped altogether and Orton turned heel again shortly thereafter.  An absolutely terrible attempt at creating a top hero, but at least this was a pretty good Title match.

For the third straight year WWE produced a damn fine Royal Rumble match.  This one resembled the 2003 edition in that it was peppered with strong in-ring talent and featured fast-paced action which kept the match from ever dragging.  This was a very smartly booked Rumble as the best workers all had significant showings; Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit started the match and each had impressive runs, with Benoit nearly duplicating his coast-to-coast performance from 2004, while other early entrants Edge and Rey Mysterio both lasted around forty minutes.  The late segments of the match belonged to future headliners John Cena and Batista, who ended up the final two participants.  After an accidental double elimination from which a winner could not be determined, Vince McMahon stormed to the ring, legitimately tore both quads sliding in, and from a sitting position ordered a match restart.  Batista finally prevailed as originally planned, concluding one of the more memorable Rumbles in history.

Cena's elimination, Take 2.

Participants: Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, Daniel Puder, Hardcore Holly, The Hurricane, Kenzo Suzuki, Edge, Rey Mysterio, Shelton Benjamin, Booker T, Chris Jericho, Luther Reigns, Muhammad Hassan, Orlando Jordan, Scotty 2 Hotty, Charlie Haas, Rene Dupree, Simon Dean, Shawn Michaels, Kurt Angle, Jonathan Coachman, Mark Jindrak, Viscera, Paul London, John Cena, Snitsky, Kane, Batista, Christian, Ric Flair
Final Four: Batista, John Cena, Edge, Rey Mysterio
Long Man: Chris Benoit (47:26)

The 2005 Rumble PPV ranks up there with the best overall editions.  The Rumble match was excellent, both Title matches were solid, and the opener was a near show-stealer.  The company was doing a lot wrong around this time but every so often they managed to get just about everything spot-on.

Best Match: The Rumble
Worst Match: Undertaker vs. Heidenreich
What I'd Change: Other than not signing Heidenreich at all?  Not much about this specific show.  There were some big-picture issues to be sure, but this PPV was one of the bright spots of 2005.
Most Disappointing Match: Probably JBL-Angle-Show just because Angle wasn't in it much
Most Pleasant Surprise: I really didn't expect to like this Rumble match as much as I did.
Overall Rating: 8.5/10
Better than WrestleMania 21, SummerSlam '05, and/or Survivor Series 2005? - No, Yes, and Yes.

Alright, bring it back here for Part 7 as we transition to the John Cena years!  Join us on Facebook, Twitter, MeWe and YouTube!

Part 5                                                                                                                                                Part 7

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