Tonight is the Royal Rumble, the one night in 365 where, regardless of how good or bad WWE’s endless narrative grind is, everything feels fresh, new, and full of possibility. I would charitably call myself a lapsed viewer of WWE television, but the Rumble—the match itself, that is—always brings me back. It’s the one night I can’t reliably predict, the one night where I can turn my brain off and go with the flow of entries, eliminations, surprise returns, and tentative launches of main event WrestleMania programs.
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It’s going to be different this year, obviously. More than almost any kind of match, the Royal Rumble thrives on how the crowd reacts to practically every aspect of it. Wrestling fans love counting, and the Rumble typically provides 28 opportunities to count down from 10. Running the Royal Rumble during a pandemic means that we’re either going to get silent countdowns or piped in ones, and as Bizarro World as that’s going to feel, as sad as the lack of pops for whatever surprises are in store will make me, I still find myself anticipating the match.
It is, I think, the greatest gimmick match ever conceived. Given how I feel about dog collar matches, War Games, and everything Atsushi Onita is responsible for, that’s saying a lot. But the Royal Rumble, the brainchild of Pat Patterson, goes beyond all of those, retrofitting the moribund battle royal format and reshaping the narrative flow of the largest wrestling promotion in the world. Other gimmick matches shape careers, but the Rumble, year after year, redefines (or at least attempts to) WWE. Let’s explore how.
Reimagining the Battle Royal
I’m going to be blunt: Battle royals suck and always have. 50 years ago, when territories ran $10,000 battle royals, they were a means of getting star wrestlers like Andre the Giant and Ernie Ladd on the card without requiring much of them. The draw, obviously, was seeing the out of town star—in Andre’s case, you really got to see him, as he towered over the other 19 wrestlers in the ring. It’s carnie as hell, but they fulfilled a basic purpose, which is fine.
The issue is that wrestling’s transition from unbroadcast supercards to weekly television made battle royals instantaneously archaic. With the advent of broadcast specials like Clash of the Champions and Saturday Night’s Main Event, major matches featuring marquee talent weren’t even exclusive to PPV, and wrestlers like Andre moved into more individualized matches to better showcase their starpower. But the battle royal persisted, even though it was (and is) the ugliest possible broadcast match. In an arena the one time a year you get to see Andre, the appeal is obvious. Under the bright lights of television, 20 men punching and kicking and eye-raking and not quite understanding how to lift and tip someone over the top rope is the plainest porridge imaginable.
It doesn’t matter how many people are involved—wrestling matches work best when wrestlers have space to work in. This is true of matches that work on the principle of restricting space, too. Two people in a cage, two people joined by a 6’ length of chain, still have enough space to make something happen. 20 men in a 16’x16’ wrestling ring do not. That’s one of the reasons why War Games cage matches take place in two rings—without the second ring, there isn’t enough space to create an effective narrative, let alone enact the kind of brutality the match was famous for.
The battle royal has been reimagined many times—rings added and subtracted, the objective changed, the match incentivized, the entrants determined by preliminary matches—but it doesn’t fix the problem that battle royals barely allow their participants to be themselves let alone wrestle. On the indies, they’re an occasion for students to get on the card. In AEW, they’re a tribute to one of WCW’s lesser ideas. In WWE, they’re a means of ensuring the bulk of the roster a WrestleMania payday.
But out of that, like Aphrodite emerging from a sea of toxic waste, we got the Royal Rumble.You know how it works. 30 people qualify. Two people start the match. Every two or so minutes, another person enters the match via random draw. Eliminations occur when someone tumbles over the top rope and both of their feet touch the floor. WWE has experimented with the number of people in the Rumble and the amount of time between entrants, but doing so is unnecessary: The format is perfect.
It turns out that all you have to do to make a battle royal interesting is to make it a gauntlet, to stagger the entrants so that instead of 30 people crowding the ring at once, the match ebbs and flows, never lacking the space required to tell an actual story. The Rumble format is nimble enough to handle several stories at once. Last year’s men’s Royal Rumble, for example. It will be remembered as the one where Edge returned to wrestling after a decade out of action, but it as also the Rumble where Brock Lesnar broke the structure of the match entirely, entering first and single-handedly eliminating nearly half the field until he was literally kicked out by the eventual winner, Drew McIntyre.
I was giddy watching Lesnar ruin everybody, ecstatic to see him leave. In-between then, there were great character moments small (Shelton Benjamin and Lesnar’s friendship coming to the fore) and large (Lesnar’s excitement at the prospect of rumbling with Keith Lee) before the match reset itself as a vehicle to reintegrate Edge into the WWE landscape by providing him a WrestleMania match and to anoint McIntyre as a serious main event player. It worked. It usually does.
An Endless Succession of Hot Tags
To dip back into War Games for a second, what really makes that match pop is how it’s structured. Sure, there’s the blood, and yes, cage matches are fun, but the match begins one on one, then alternates between being a handicap match and a tag match at timed intervals until, at last, everyone is in the ring. If the booking’s smart, the heels have the advantage, meaning that there are, in essence, four hot tags, four moments at which the babyface tag team can even the odds before another heel comes in to cut them off.
War Games predates the Royal Rumble, so Dusty Rhodes deserves a little credit for mapping the part of a wrestling fan’s brain that responds to countdowns, but the Rumble stretches that out and adds an element of mystery to the proceedings—most entrants and entry numbers are unknown, and outside of Rumble narratives like Ric Flair encountering old foes during the 1992 Rumble and the Lesnar story last year, there’s no real sense that the participants enter with a gameplan in mind beyond survival.
Regardless, the Rumble tends not to break with tradition, keeping the split between faces and heels intact. Yes, it’s every man/woman/person for themselves, but faces and heels tend to save other faces and heels from obvious elimination circumstances when the buzzer hits and it’s their time to sprint to the ring. Why? It may not make narrative sense, other than the fact that faces tend to do the right thing, but it’s the hot tag principle: A face rescuing a face gets a pop, a heel rescuing a heel cuts off a hope spot. In applying a foundational tag team wrestling spot to a battle royal, an elimination is no longer just a matter of simply dumping some schlub over the ropes—it’s a life or death struggle wherein the buzzer can save or damn a wrestler, upping the anticipation fo each new entrant until, at last, the final entrant hits the ring.
The Road to WrestleMania
At that point, it really is every person for themselves regardless of character alignment, as the Royal Rumble is not a team building exercise. The first PPV Rumble, in 1989, broke up the Mega Powers team of Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage. The 1990 one teased a confrontation between Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior, partly predicated on the fact that Hogan would have been eliminated by the Heenan Family without Warrior’s help. In 1991, Hogan’s win made him the #1 contender to Sgt. Slaughter’s WWF Championship, though that wasn’t the official reward for winning the match yet, and in ’92, Flair won the vacant title. Since 1993, with rare exception, the Royal Rumble has been the match that determines at least one half of the main event of WrestleMania.
That’s a huge thing in and of itself, but if all the Rumble accomplished every year was setting up matches, it wouldn’t be as important to WWE or its fanbase as it is. The match is a prism of sorts, the entrants shot through it refracting into separate programs that determine the first half of the year. It’s a proving ground, a relatively safe space to test out whether fans would bite on possible main events like Hogan/Warrior and Rock/Austin, need to change course like when Batista won in 2014, or bail on projects like Alberto Del Rio and Jack Swagger. My favorite bit of Rumble storytelling is how the 2007 match represented the first significant interaction between The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels since the later’s 1998 back injury forced him into temporary retirement. The “can I beat The Undertaker” question that ended Michaels’ career for a second time started at that Rumble, which is where the blueprint for what a match between the two might look like at that stage in their careers was drafted.
The surprise return/debut element of the match is secondary to that, but yes, it’s important. Edge’s last year gives it a run for its money despite the camera missing him spear Dolph Ziggler, but there hasn’t been a better surprise entrant than John Cena in 2008, who returned from a torn pectoral in a frankly impossible timeframe at number 30. AJ Styles’ 2016 debut, also messed up by WWE production, was one of the biggest debuts in company history, so far as platform is concerned. Mr. Perfect’s 2002 return set the standard for surprise entrants and led to a small return that ended with the Plane Ride from Hell. Goldust’s 2013 return led to the Rhodes Dynasty tag team. Mick Foley’s 2004 return led to an incredible match against Randy Orton at Backlash. Chris Jericho’s 2013 return gave him the biggest pop and worst year of his career. When Diesel returned in 2011, I got a Kevin Nash ladder match, the greatest gift of all.
The Royal Rumble is such a massive entity that it can hold space for match-long plots, comedy segments, whole stretches of time devoted to specific divisions, and elimination streaks that build stars without pushing them immediately to the main event. Certain wrestlers have spots that are specific to them. Shawn Michaels is going to skin the cat. Kofi Kingston is going to find some ridiculous way to avoid elimination. Hulk Hogan is going to be a sore loser. Randy Savage is going to get eliminated because he doesn’t understand how battle royals work.
The clarity of its purpose has diminished somewhat since the brand extension era, as the Rumble Winner/Champion match it sets up is often the secondary feud going into WrestleMania, but I’ll submit that it remains the clearest indicator of what WWE is trying to accomplish in any given year. The first PPV Rumble established that the match would have major implications on WrestleMania, establishing a rough calendar that the company has followed every year since. The ’91 and ’93 matches established the stakes. The Rumble has served as the the official coronation of Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, and Steve Austin as the focus of the company. Most importantly, the 2016 Women’s Royal Rumble was the point at which WWE’s seriousness about revamping its women’s division was no longer in dispute.
Does the match have its flaws? Is it sometimes too cute? Does the ebb and flow of WWE’s roster make some years worth skipping? Absolutely. It’s a 33 year old concept. The wrong people win. The right people win and go on to lose at WrestleMania. Some people enter the match who shouldn’t be in the building, and some people who should win the match aren’t in it. But that’s the nature of professional wrestling. It’s messy, it’s horrible, it’s incredible, and it’s full of splendor. One match manages to contain all of that, to make some sense of it. It’s the Royal Rumble, and it is magnificent.