When it comes to pro wrestling, I almost never feel motivated to watch classics I haven’t seen before. I blame this on how much new wrestling is happening all the time and that like half the reason I got back into this stuff was to drink beer and yell in American Legion Halls, something that has the complete opposite vibe of familiarizing oneself with an artistic canon on a streaming site.
One such classic I kept bookmarked for a long time before watching was the 1992 Royal Rumble. As the PPV of the same name rolled around every year, I would keep meaning to watch what’s almost universally considered the greatest Rumble match ever, but not getting around to it because it’s over an hour long and took place before I was able to: a. get a grasp on the roster at the time and b. be born.
When I finally did watch it, it quickly surpassed all of the reasonable expectations I went in with. I don’t know if it’s the Best Rumble Ever, but I completely understand now why it’s considered one of the greatest big WWE gimmick matches. In spite of containing one of wrestling’s most infamous plot homes and very little of what today’s audiences generally consider “good wrestling,” the quality of its match structure, story, and individual performances means the 1992 Royal Rumble holds up.
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This match is the fifth Royal Rumble ever, and the fourth since the match got its own pay-per-view.
This time around, there’s a title on the line: the WWF World Heavyweight Championship that’s been vacant for about a month. It’s also the first time thirty people have been involved in a Rumble, and a pre-match video package makes it clear who most of them are, what they want, and that it’s going to be fun to spend an hour with these big, weird human cartoons.
Where more recent Rumbles have been hyped by mostly stats, this one is promoted by people. We see cocky pretty boy Shawn Michaels (as an underdog, something that hasn’t been credible in any wrestling I’ve experienced in my lifetime!) right after his famous heel turn, Randy Savage and Jake Roberts focused on each other as much as on the championship, Ric Flair with both some cool-headed strategy and a manic “TO BE THE MAN YOU HAVE TO BEAT THE MAN” promo, and an intense Sid Justice in extreme close-up. The person the audience is most clearly called up to align themselves with is Hulk Hogan, the ace of the WWF who talks about being “cheap-shotted” all the time and sounds extremely paranoid about anyone who isn’t his loyal following of “little Hulksters.” Going into the match, even a less than expert viewer gets who these people are (or who they are at this point in their careers), what they want, and that they’re essentially a bunch of crazy people who are going to fight each other.
Another great strength of the 1992 Rumble is just how these crazy people fight each other—not in terms of impressive athletic feats, but how the match plays out. Here’s a quick rundown of its different phases, organized by when wrestlers entered the match:
1-6. Babyface (British Bulldog at #1) vs. heels (Ric Flair at #3 and others)
7-10. More babyfaces in the ring, but they’re still outnumbered by heels. When a guy the crowd wants to cheer for runs in, it really pops.
Post-14. Ric Flair, who has been hanging in there kind of under the radar (more on that later), eliminates Big Boss Man and has a moment alone in the ring. The audience is mad.
15-21. Big name characters with big personalities like Roddy Piper, Jake The Snake, Jim Duggan, I.R.S., The Undertaker, and Macho Man gradually fill up the ring again.
Post-21. The Savage vs. Roberts feud pops off in the match’s standout Moment that isn’t the ending. It looks like Savage commits Royal Rumble suicide by jumping over the top rope after Roberts, but apparently you can’t do that at this point and he just keeps wrestling afterward.
22-25. Another logjam period. I borderline did not know who any of these people were besides Virgil. The Berzerker especially has been completely lost to time. Apologies to any remaining Berzerker stans reading this.
26. HULK HOGAN
30. I don’t know who The Warlord is and that doesn’t matter because a good Rumble is not contingent on a good or surprising #30 (Warlord at #30 had been announced in advance). Things pick up and people get thrown out until we’re down to a final four of Flair, Hogan, Sid, and Macho Man.
Like any good, long match, the 1992 Rumble ebbs and flows and acknowledges that the human brain is weak and most people can’t or don’t want to pay attention one wrestling match for over an hour. It seems to be planned out with an awareness that the audience is going to zone out at some point and treats that as a natural thing. The match never gets boring, but it includes built-in periods when it’s okay if people aren’t as engaged, and the desire for something exciting to happen built up in these stretches makes the match’s exciting moments stand out even more.
The story of its winner, Ric Flair, perfectly fits how the match works as whole.
Flair’s performance is more about his overall arc rather than one or two dramatic moments. He does something incredibly kayfabe impressive—becoming the first person to win a Royal Rumble match after drawing a number between one and five and breaking the record for most time spent in this kind of match—but in such an unimpressive manner that this never takes away from how much it sucks for everyone to see to see him win this thing.
What’s perfectly frustrating about Flair in this match is that he’s powered by impressive endurance, but none of the fighting spirit that would make it seem heroic. He always collapsing in the corner while other people are fighting, joining in on elimination attempts started by others, and selling in the ugliest way possible (without obviously trying to draw attention to how good a seller he is). He hardly does anything flashy; his most impressive wrestling move is a brief rope-assisted Figure Four. He’s an incredible athlete, but he’s also a rat and that’s what I think is a huge part of why it makes people so angry that he’s able to sleep with so many women and brag about his rich guy lifestyle and become the WWF World Heavyweight Champion. Gorilla Monsoon sums up what makes Flair one of the greatest heels of all time with the line, “I always questioned the man’s integrity. I never questioned is ability inside the ring.”
And speaking of commentary
The whole 1992 Royal Rumble match, but especially Flair’s journey, is elevated by what I’m pretty sure is the best pro wrestling commentary I’ve ever heard. It turns out the team of Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan isn’t just great in people’s childhood memories viewed through nostalgia-tinted glasses; it’s great especially in comparison to present-day wrestling commentary.
Monsoon and Heenan play their own distinct characters in a way that always supports and never overshadows the talent in the ring. They talk at a normal volume most of the time, don’t talk constantly, and Heenan is funny without sounding like he needs to prove how funny and/or smart he is. These two middle-aged men from twenty-eight years ago are a real breath of fresh air, and their work has aged with the opposite amount of grace of Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler’s from the Attitude Era and early 2000s.
Nothing rivals how they, especially Bobby Heenan, keep the audience aware of—and just the right amount of invested in—Ric Flair’s impressive yet uninspiring feat of endurance. Even before the bell, Heenan is audibly sweating with anxiety on Flair’s behalf, and he channels that into putting over every other competitor. He sees every new wrestler from the perspective of the threat they are to his boy; he starts praying when Hulk Hogan gets involved. The fact that Flair is Heenan’s personal protagonist in this match helps keep Flair in the viewer’s mind just enough while the other wrestlers are doing more interesting things. And while Monsoon level-headedly points out that Flair is fighting the odds in this match, Heenan’s cronyism and cries of “It’s not fair to Flair!” help prevent the viewer from admiring his accomplishments.
While most of the 1992 Royal Rumble makes as much sense as pro wrestling ever has, its ending is infamously confusing.
Here’s how it happens: Sid Justice kind of unceremoniously eliminates Hulk Hogan. An upset Hogan starts pulling on Sid, and Flair pushes Justice the rest of the way out of the ring, helping eliminate him like he helped eliminate others earlier in the match. (The Flair part of this still makes sense.)
The one thing I knew about this whole match before I watched it was that it produced the question: “Why did a face Hogan cheat to help eliminate a heel Sid in the 1992 Royal Rumble?” It’s a question, like “what was the real attendance of WrestleMania 3?” that always seems to pop up in conversation and Dave Meltzer’s Twitter mentions. In the moment, even the top-notch commentary team sounds confused, asking “Why is Hogan upset?” Monsoon even called him a “sore loser.”
If you were watching this match with no knowledge of how these wrestlers’ careers went afterwards and/or maybe with commentary turned off or in a language you didn’t speak, Hogan helping Flair eliminate Sid after Sid eliminated him would look like a heel turn. But by WrestleMania a few months later, Sid was clearly a heel and Hogan still a “say your prayers, eat your vitamins” babyface hero for children. You could say that maybe Hogan felt like he had a pass to cheat because he felt he was cheated out of the WWF title (if this exact situation happened today, I’m like 90% sure I would see plenty of tweets about how this moment was Brilliant Storytelling), but Hogan’s behavior here really only makes sense in a meta-sense, by looking at it backwards in time through decades of terrible behavior by kid-friendly top WWE babyfaces.
Any frequent WWE viewer now knows that the promotion has an extremely skewed idea of what is moral and/or sympathetic behavior, as exemplified by how John Cena used to fluctuate from troop/Christ-figure to disgusting bully while still nominally a babyface. It’s the case for so many faces that WWE’s “Be a Star!” anti-bullying campaign has become a very common fandom joke. If you’re a six-year-old Hulkamaniac in 1992, Hogan’s behavior here doesn’t make sense, but if you’re an adult in 2020 who’s watched a fair amount of WWE, it shouldn’t be shocking.
It especially isn’t shocking for people like me who don’t have strong childhood memories of Hulk Hogan as a wrestling character at all. I know of him mostly as an ‘80s pop culture reference and a guy who admitted to being a racist in a leaked sex tape several years ago, who WWE still brings back for nostalgia pops and merch bucks. When you don’t have a personal connection to Hogan’s work, he’s mostly an example of institutional rot within WWE, within pro wrestling, within the entertainment industry, and within America as a whole. The most significant way the 1992 Rumble hasn’t held up actually isn’t the screwy ending, it’s that it expects you to be on board with the idea of Hulk Hogan as a good guy.
So the crowning of the new WWF Champion is almost immediately overshadowed by poor sportsmanship and a standoff between the two blonde bodybuilders, and it’s a weird look, but it’s one that fits Flair’s whole skeevy arc in this match. He gets his classic moment backstage, his eyes gleaming maniacally as he shouts about ruling the world, drags the competition, and tells people to pay homage to the man, and the show still ends with the viewer feeling satisfied by what they’ve experienced.
Despite its flawed ending, the 1992 Royal Rumble still holds up, and holds up way better than more recent Rumbles with more athletic action and bigger surprises.
This match shows that a good Royal Rumble isn’t really made by impressive wrestling, which the match’s stipulations barely leave room for anyway. But an hour or so that’s all about surprises and pops and fictional sports records that are only relevant for at most two hours a year doesn’t stick with you doesn’t really work either. A great Royal Rumble is a well-structured, accessible drama full of memorable characters seasoned by some surprises and stats-assisted moments. The 1992 Royal Rumble is still a really entertaining and satisfying match to watch in 2020. While I don’t know if it’s the greatest Rumble of all time or which Rumble even deserves that title, this one is definitely up there among the great successes of the “sports entertainment” wrestling style.