Wednesday, January 17, 2024

The History of WWE Royal Rumble (1998)

Stone Cold joins the back-to-back Rumbles club....

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 FourSteve 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.

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