Friday, January 19, 2024

The History of WWE Royal Rumble (2003)

I attended this show live, and was treated to a damn good Rumble match, plus maybe the greatest match I've ever seen in person....

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 (and really ever since) 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.

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