❉ Let’s get ready to Rumble!
Six year old children are liable for a tantrum here and there. It’s perhaps rare for them to be apoplectic though. Whatever I felt was certainly strong enough. You’d be mad too if you’d just witnessed the greatest miscarriage of justice in history.
Or at least that’s what it felt like. It was 1992 and I’d just watched Ric Flair – the Nature Boy himself, the stylin’ and profilin’, limousine riding, jet flying, kiss stealing, wheeler dealing son of a gun – beg, borrow and steal his way to victory at the Royal Rumble.
Flair won that year’s 30-man over the top rope elimination bout and picked up the vacant World Championship in the process. Entering the match in third, he saw off the likes of British Bulldog, Shawn Michaels and Macho Man Randy Savage to prove his own adage true: to be the man, ya got ta beat the man. If wrestling teaches you anything at a formative age, it’s that away from the shiny perseverance of the good guys and Doing What’s Right, the bad ones are quite adept at winning too.
World Wrestling Entertainment’s (WWE) annual Royal Rumble is as magisterial and chaotic as its name suggests. The 30-man bout – two competitors start with a newcomer at regular intervals – is one of the premier events in the professional wrestling calendar and has proved pivotal in the making of household names like Hulk Hogan, The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin.
This year’s event – taking place on 29 January – is the thirtieth since its inaugural tumult in 1988. Hacksaw Jim Duggan – you know, the one who carried the plank of wood and shouted a lot – etched his name into the books by being the first Royal Rumble winner.
Very few things get the heart of a wrestling fan beating like the promise of 29 brutes going head over heels onto the padded floor outside the ring. Chances are you’ll bear witness to one or two high flyers ‘skinning the cat’: saving themselves from elimination by letting their feet dangle mere millimetres above the ground before hoisting themselves back into the vaunted squared circle for another tilt at their personal windmill.
Any given Royal Rumble is a blank canvas of potential surprises. 2016’s event saw the long-awaited WWE debut of AJ Styles; a man regarded as one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, honing his craft in the USA, Japan, Mexico and anywhere else that would take him. History has taught us that the Royal Rumble is fertile ground for the return of heroes, villains, celebrity cameos and other such oddities that make wrestling the colourful and addictive pastime it is.
For the casuals it’s the one stop shop for seeing all of the big names at once without the sometimes testing commitment of being a regular viewer. Elsewhere, the smart marks and would-be bookers treat the Rumble like a grapple-based science lab: throw a bunch of combustible elements and loosely connected threads into the mix, see what happens.
For WWE the Royal Rumble is both a symbolic and literal undertaking of the Road to Wrestlemania. Since 1993 the winner of the Rumble is guaranteed a World Title shot at the main event of Wrestlemania and it allows Vince McMahon’s money machine two months of build up for what always proves to be a wildly profitable time for the company.
The six-year-old you met at the beginning of this article eventually got over Flair’s history making victory in the early 90s. He realised that greatness, ambition and all that other madness doesn’t just lie in taking your vitamins and saying your prayers. It’s not even about being perfect. It’s about doing what you need to survive, even if that means being a bit of a shit in the process.
By the turn of the millennium I was more angst-ridden, not long having turned 14 and looking awful. The halcyon days of WWE programming on Channel 4 in the UK brought with it in 2000 one of the greatest Royal Rumble showcases of them all. As wrestling had undergone huge changes from the mid-90s onward, so too had the Royal Rumble and the fans’ expectations.
The Rock’s last-gasp victory in the titular headliner may have set a Madison Square Garden crowd alight but it was arguably shown up by a memorable undercard; bloody and brutal to boot.
The debut of ‘The Human Suplex Machine’ Tazz and his controversial defeat of Olympic gold medallist Kurt Angle moved aside for a splintered vortex of a Tables Match between the Hardy Boyz (not Frank and Joe) and the Dudley Boyz (not from Birmingham) before a Street Fight bordering on the insane took place between Triple H and Cactus Jack. For an impressionable teenager, it was manna from heaven. Seventeen years on, it still is.
It promises to be a dirty thirty for this year’s event. In wrestling, context is king and this is one explosive coronation.
The legendary Undertaker returns to the fold, Brock Lesnar looks to avenge his 86-second loss to Goldberg in November and rumours abound about any number of comebacks and debuts. It’s one of the most wonderful times of year to be into grappling, certainly the most speculative. Let’s get ready to Rumble indeed.