The WWE’s most entertaining PPV of the year, the Royal Rumble, comes to us live tomorrow night. The highlight of the event traditionally is the actual Rumble match, in which wrestlers draw numbers one through 30, with Battle Royale rules, where a particpant is eliminated being thrown over the top rope with both feet touching the floor, which each successive number coming out every two minutes. Truly Pat Patterson’s greatest contribution to wrestling. Well, that and his epic evening gown match with Gerald Brisco at King of the Ring 2000. Or his humane treatment of ring boys. But I digress. I will rank my top three Rumble matches of all time later this evening or early tomorrow. What I wanted to discuss here are the greatest World Title matches in the events history. While most consider it an afterthought to the Rumble match, there have been some truly great Championship matches in the events now 26 year history. With that in mind, here’s my top four.
4. Royal Rumble 1995 WWF Championship: Diesel (c) vs. Bret Hart
This is almost a forgotten classic of sorts. The match was overshadowed by Shawn Michaels becoming the first man to win the Rumble from the number one slot, and the non finish of this match took away from it a tad. No matter. It is without a doubt one of Diesel/Kevin Nash’s best three matches ever, bby far, and also may be Bret Hart’s best Royal Rumble singles affair.
Diesel had been an afterthought the year prior, simply being a big bodyguard for Shawn Michaels. The WWF at that point did not have what you would call the deepest talent pool in the world at the time. So in the 1994 Rumble match, Diesel was thrown into the match relatively early as a warm body to fill some time, and, being that he is seven feet tall, and Vince McMahon is a sucker for “larger than life” physical specimens, Diesel tossed seven men in a row from the match at one point. This had the dubious side effect of getting the fans at the Providence Civic Center that year (and 13 year old me at home) firmly on Diesel’s side. Bret Hart was eventually named co-winner of the Rumble (with Lex Luger) and “The Hitman” went on to win the WWF title at WrestleMania X, in what he calls his greatest night in the business.
Behind the scenes, while Bret was the strapholder, a far more sinister plot than anything that happens on TV was unfolding. Shawn Michaels, Diesel, Razor Ramon, and 1-2-3 Kid were best friends, and decided to consolidate their power and stroke with Vinnie Mac to revolve almost all storylines and television air time around the four of them. “The Clique,” as the group was nicknamed, started running roughshod over the promotion, arguing they were the main drawing cards of the WWF, not Bret. In short order, the Intercontinental title was put on Diesel, with him beating Razor Ramon for the title. (After Razor beat Shawn for the title at WrestleMania in the infamous Ladder Match.) What was happening was Shawn and Razor were already well established with the fan base, and they wanted their buddy Diesel to get in on the action. Later in the year, at a house show the day before SummerSlam 1994, Diesel and Shawn won the tag team titles. So now Diesel was simultaneous holder of the Intercontinental and Tag Team Titles. That didn’t last too long, as at SummerSlam, Diesel lost the Intercontinental title to Razor Ramon (sensing a trend here?), in a match that saw Shawn’s interference cost Diesel the title, sowing the seeds for a break up between the two.
Meanwhile, Bret was at the top of the card (main eventing) against his brother Owen in stellar matches all around the country. They had a match to open WrestleMania X that was easily ***** and maybe the best pure technical wrestling match the WWF has ever seen. Then, at SummerSlam, they nearly topped themselves with an epic ( but bloodless) Steel Cage match that most ranked again as *****. The feud ended there, and Bret was on to a strange new feud.
Bob Backlund was a 43 year old former WWF Champion. He held the strap from 1978-1983, losing to the Iron Sheik under dubious circumstances. The Sheik in turn lost it to a guy you may have heard of…Hulk Hogan. Backlund, a solid but vanilla wrestler, left the promotion as the era of Hulkamania took over the world.
So Backlund returns to WWF almost ten years later, still with the squeaky clean “Opie Taylor” image. He finally gets a title shot at Bret midway through the year…and loses. Bret, ever the gallant good guy, offered his hand to Backlund in a show of sportsmanship after the match. Backlund, for his entire career a good guy, snapped and put Bret in his Cross Face Chicken Wing Submission hold until broken up by WWF officials. Backlund was now heel, and it led to a submission match for the WWF title at Surviror Series 1994. The concept of the match was that Backlund had Owen Hart in his corner, and Bret had brother in law Davey Boy Smith in his. Each cornerman had a towel, and when they felt their representative had suffered enough, they would throw in the towel. Well, Owen suckered Davey into chasing him around the ring, and Davey inadvertently knocked himself out on the steel steps right as Bret was trapped in Backlund’s crossface. Owen shed crocodile tears to his and Bret’s mother and father, Stu and Helen, who generally sat ringside at the time for Bret’s big title defenses. Stu was smart to his son’s ways, but Helen was too moved by the vision of her suffering son and threw in the towel. Backlund was now WWF Champion, and Bret spent the next month plus at home selling the injuries he sustained.
Now back to the Clique, as this is where they solidified their power. Backlund was CRAZY over with fans as a heel, playing a demented old man constantly staring at his own hands in disbelief of the acts he had just committed. It was a great character and a testament to Backlund’s total commitment to said character. However, at the same PPV he won the belt, Diesel and Shawn, the star crossed lovers, finally broke up. Less than a week later at a house show (non televised event) at Madison Square Garden, Diesel beat Backlund for the title…in 8 seconds. Welcome to the Clique era kiddies.
So the Rumble comes around, and Bret has returned with a new edgier attitude. Not too edgy, not a heel, but edgier still. He wants his title back and Diesel has it. However, so do Bob Backlund and Diesel’s now mortal enemy, Shawn Michaels, as well as new Intercontinental Champion Jeff Jarrett. the result is the match you see above, with Bret as the aggressor for the boot of the match, helping, as only Bret could, to get Diesel more over (popular) with the fans while keeping both their characters firmly on the good side of the force. ****1/4
3. Royal Rumble Match 1992, for the vacant WWF Championship
Threw ya a curveball here, didn’t I? This match (SPOILER!) will also appear on my top three Rumble matches of all time, but this was the one time the WWF title was on the line in one of these matches, and my God it was a doozy. The background was that Hulk Hogan had defended the title against rookie phenom The Undertaker at Survivor Series 1991. In matches such as these in the past, old Hulk would have routinely dispatched Taker with the Big Boot and Legdrop. But times were changing, and fans were getting tired of Hogan’s generally stale act (Think John Cena nowadays). So, with the assistance of new WWF addition Ric Flair, the Undertaker defeated Hogan to win his first WWF title. (And thus making the Undertaker, the first in a chain of events that catapulted him to become, perhaps, the greatest superstar in WWF/E history. Funny how things work out.)
However, then WWF “President” Jack Tunney did not appreciate Flair’s shenanigans affecting the outcome, and decided to book a rematch for the title, with Tunney himself sitting at ringside to ensure all rules were met, on a one time only PPV five days later called “This Tuesday in Texas.” The rematch was as big a clusterfuck as the first match, with Tunney being knocked out, Flair again involved, and a finish that saw Hogan use the ashes from the Undertaker’s urn (if you don’t know, don’t ask. Please.) to blind Taker, hit him with the big leg and win the title for a fourth time. Tunney was nonplussed and stripped Hogan of the title (literally the only time figurehaed Tunney came down in a decision against the vaunted Hulkster) and opted to put the title up to the winner of the 1992 Royal Rumble. Simpler times, kiddies, simpler times. The caveat was that the two last holders of the title, Hogan and Undertaker, would be drawing not for a lot of one through thirty, but would be given a number to draw from 20-30.
Now, this match is great for several notable reasons. Number one is the sheer star power in this puppy. Bulldog, DiBiase. Bossman. Von Erich. Piper. Hogan. Undertaker. A freshly heel turned, and just staring his single career, Shawn Michaels. Repo Man. Just an amazing roster for this match, truly the WWF at its deepest.
The second reason for the matches greatness is simply Ric Flair. Flair drew #3 in this bad boy, and lasted the entire way, winning his first WWF championship. In reality, Flair had been the top draw of the rival NWA for years, and he always considered himself a “60 minute man” in reference to his numerous 60 minute matches with regional challengers as NWA Champion. WWF at the time ran a different formula, as their dominant champ, Hogan, usually went about ten to fifteen minutes a night. Thus, this match, with Flair the centerpiece for the entire thing, was designed to try to bring some of Flair’s loyal NWA fans over to the WWF. It worked.
Thirdly, the main reason this match is so great, so epic, is simply the commentary of Gorilla Monsoon and ESPECIALLY Bobby Heenan. Heenan was billed as Flair’s “Financial Advisor” at the time, and he was always crowing on and on AND ON about Flair’s greatness, and how people need to be “Fair to Flair.” Well, when Flair draws number three, “The Brain” throws a conniption, and he is completely biased and hilarious the rest of the way, as Monsoon eggs him on. Bobby and Gorilla are fondly remembered these days for their commentary back in the day, and this match (and WrestleMania VIII) is their absolute peak as a duo. Put everything together, and not only is it the best Rumble of all time (SPOLIER ALERT!), but also one of the great WWF title matches of all time.
But, you say, what can top that? With all that star power, Flair, everything you just mentioned, what two matches can possibly top that? How about a simple, straight ahead, no frills WRESTLING match of the first order?
2. Royal Rumble 2003, WWE Championship, Kurt Angle (c) vs. Chris Benoit
Preface: I do not condone the actions of Chris Benoit in June of 2007. He was my favorite wrestler, and on that day he became one of the biggest monsters earth has ever encountered. A little over five years later, I am able to finally watch some of his matches again with some objectivity. While I don’t enjoy them in the joyous ways I used to, I can recognize good wrestling.
This match is a cut above. It came at a time when, on Raw, HHH was plodding around working “WWE Main Event Style” matches with slugs like Scott Steiner. In fact, directly prior to this match, Steiner and Trips put on one of the worst title matches ever, easily one of the bottom three in Rumble history. On Smackdown, however, with wrestlers such as Benoit, Angle, Brock Lesnar, Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, et. al, it seemed as there was an emphasis being place on a much different style, one relying more on technical skills and amateur know how. It was a breath of fresh air as compared to the monotonous kick and punch, finisher after finisher, use of every weapon not nailed down style popularized by Steve Austin, HHH, Rock, Undertaker and the like. Benoit and Angle, quite simply, were two of the greatest pure wrestlers the pseudo sport has ever seen. Benoit and Angle were firmly in their prime here, and they let it all hang out. They had had many great encounters in the past, but this was the culmination, maybe the best pure wrestling match I have ever seen in the WWE. Counters to counters to reversals of counters. High impact offense. Its all there. It was, and despite my disclaimer, remains one of my five favorite matches of all time. No frills, no bullshit, no weapons, no run-ins, just two wrestlers beating this everloving shit out of eachother for 30 minutes. A true classic, won by Angle with his unbreakable “Heel Hook” version of the Ankle Lock. After the match, after Angle has left victorious and a defeated Benoit struggles to his feet, an unexpected thing happened. The crowd cheered. Loudly. Wildly. For the LOSER. That was how great the match was, that the defeated man was giving a standing ovation for his efforts. At the time, it was my favorite moment ever in wrestling. Now it saddens me to no end. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that this was THE best non-gimmick WWE title match in Rumble history. A true ***** affair, and if one could go higher than the 5 sprinklies, I would. Unreal.
So, then, what possibly could be number one? I recently edited this list, because I realized about an hour after posting it that I had fucked up royally. I completely forgot about this match, simply because the match transcended whatever event it was held on. Without further ado:
1. Royal Rumble 2000, WWF Championship Street Fight: Triple H (c) vs. Cactus Jack
Sorry for the three parter , but I could not find a full match video with decent video quality. I am also sorry for the egregious overdubbing of Cactus Jack’s music. Seriously, did the WWF lost its copyrights to its OWN FUCKING MUSIC or something? Ugh.
Anyway, that thought aside, Triple H, at the height of his egomania in the mid 2000’s, when asked why he would not put over (lose) younger stars to benefit the future of the business, had this pearl of wisdom:
“What big star ever put me over?”
Well then, lets explain this one. You see, Triple H had turned heel at WrestleMania XV (the worst WrestleMania ever) in March of 1999. He was hugely over as the babyface leader of D-X, but was never a man regarded as anything more than a gimmick, a lackey who rode Shawn Michaels coattails to the top and a middling worker whose matches generally revolved around a series of moves involving his knee. Thats not resentment or bitterness, that is straight fact for anyone who watched the man in that time. However, once he turned heel, ole Vinnie Mac strapped the rocket to Trips ass, propelling him to main event status to the audible groans of the audience. He won his first world title the night after Summer Slam 1999, but was so lukewarm with the paying audience that he lost the title twice in the span of three months, first to VINCE MCMAHON, in one of the more embarrassing episodes in wrestling history, then to similarly lukewarm face The Big Show, in an effort to justify his ten year contract signed earlier in the year, as well to appease Vince’s priapism for big men. The head booker of the WWF at the time, Vince Russo, was high on HHH, as well as another project, Test.
Test was a big guy with incredible hair (much like Trips, and, as Internet Wrestling reporter Scott Keith puts it, the key to success in WWF/E is to be tall, muscular, with a full head of hair), a “former Motley Crue bodyguard” who entered his hat into the ring wars. He started a storyline that I won’t get into here too much, simply because of all the elements involved, but suffice to say, he started “dating” Stephanie McMahon, Vince’s then naive young daughter. After fighting for both Vince and Stephanie’s brother Shane’s approval, he finally won it, and the two were to be wed on Raw in December of 1999.
If you don’t see what is coming here, you have no business reading this article, or have never watched wrestling. But allow me to explain briefly.
Viince Russo was the man booking at this period for WWF. His booking was literally fly by the seat of your pants style, as he literally scribbled his plans on napkins at breakfast in the morning and had them approved by Vinnie Mac by showtime. So he was the only guy who had any fucking clue (or was perceived to have any clue…) where this was all heading. Unfortunately (or fortunately) his contract came to an end in October that year, and he jumped to the competition, WCW, leaving WWF seemingly in a lurch. The WWF prolonged the agony of the marriage by having Davey Boy Smith accidentally hit Stephanie in the head with a trash can, causing temporary amnesia (only in wrestling folks) while the WWF braintrust came up with a new course of action.
That course of action came to be HHH. As the bride and groom were about to exchange nuptials in the ring, out came HHH to object on the grounds that he was already married to Stephanie! And indeed he produced video footage of he and a roofied Stephanie at a drive in Las Vegas chapel, where Hunter faked Stephanie’s vows for the moron conducting the ceremony. Only in wrestling. He also made sure to explain to Vince that the newlyweds had “consummated the marriage” repeatedly. But the WWF has never done rape angles. Nope. Never. Anyway, Vince, vengeful father, wanted revenge, and revenge NOW, so he challenged Trips to a match at Armageddon 1999.
In the end of that match, Vince was about to slug HHH with his own weapon of choice, the sledgehammer, when Stephanie intervened and insisted to her father that she be the one to take it to Hunter. Uh-oh. In a surprise to roughly 8 people at the time, Stephanie turned on her dad, hit him with the sledge, and revealed she had been in cahoots with HHH all along. HHH won the match, and suddenly was the most over heel in the business. Vince and Shane McMahon took some time off to lick their family wounds, while HHH and Stephanie, as a married couple with McMahon ties, played their role as evil figureheads to the hilt. Early in January 2000, HHH beat the Big Show to regain the WWF Championship. Also that month, the McMahon-Helmsley era, as they were now known, put two of HHH’s biggest enemies, The Rock and Mankind, in a “Pink Slip on a Pole” match. Simply put, the loser was fired. Rock won the match, and poor Mankind was sacked.
Well, the Rock wasn’t going to let that stand, as he hated HHH and had befriended Mankind as one half of the Rock and Sock Connection, so the next week, Rock led the entire locker room to strike against HHH and Steph, and forced them to reinstate Mankind, as well as grant him a title shot at HHH at Royal Rumble 2000. Later in the show, however, HHH brutalized Mankind, pedigreed(his finishing move) him through the announce table, and left Mankind lying in a pool of his own blood.
Well, Mankind’s character was that of a mentally deranged psychopath, so when he came out the next week to confront HHH, it was somewhat surprising when he said that “Mankind is not the man to face HHH at the Royal Rumble.” HHH and Stephanie were laughing, but, well, lets let the video package do the talking:
Pretty good, eh? You see, Cactus Jack, for you uninitiated, was Mick “Mankind” Foley’s wrestling persona for fifteen years prior to joining the WWF. He wrestled in a litany of the most barbaric matches you can imagine over more continents than you can probably name. Barbed wire, C-4 death matches, chards of glass, thumbtacks, you name it, he had subjected his body to it. The man was a menace. That is the character of Cactus Jack, the fictional persona. In reality, the man, Mick Foley, at 33, had put his body through more abuse than some Vietnam Veterans, and he was looking to retire on a high note while his body was still cooperating. In WWF lore of that time, Cactus was a good persona, sure, but not one that had competed at a main event, world title level. The way Foley put forward that persona, and, more importantly, the way HHH REACTED to that persona made Cactus Jack into this almost mythical entity. It may have been the best build-up to a match in the company’s history. What sucked about that was all of a sudden, this beaten up, almost washed up icon, and this sycophant who had risen to the top of the WWF through friends, now had to live up to this just amazing hype they had built up. I remember watching it live in 2000. Upon initial viewing of the match, I remember saying to myself, “It was good, but…” In reality, that was me, as a HUGE Mick Foley fan, responding to the fact that he lost, as well as a HHH doubter responding to his win, if that makes sense in this silly pseudo-sport. But it was true: Foley had given his life to the business, did everything right, and landed himself a great way to go out on top. HHH, on the other hand, took every shortcut known to man, became friends with the right people, alienated many, and, seemingly, did not improve at his craft in-ring. Then I viewed it again, and, my word, HHH CARRIES this match. It is his true coming out party, and it led to a year for a wrestler I have not seen equaled since. HHH was GOD in 2000 and early 2001, and I was happy to eat crow for once. Unfortunately, after his quad injury in one of the greatest Raw matches of all time (that’s coming soon too), he returned, bloated, banging (in real life) the bosses daughter, and utterly insufferable. Mick Foley, at this point, was one of the big three WWF Stars that led them to destroy WCW in the ratings, with Austin and Rock. So, to answer HHH’s question that began this little diatribe: What big star laid down for me? Well, Paul, how about Mick Fucking Foley?
BTW, Rock and Austin also laid down for HHH. Not that I am bitter.