I’m back with part 18 of my 30 part column series, “Ranking the Royal Rumble Matches”. Today, I’ll discuss the Royal Rumble that came in at #13 on the countdown. As a reminder, here are the criteria that I used to analyze the matches:
The Participants – The easiest way to create a Royal Rumble is to have a compelling roster that people want to see participate. I’ll take a look at the level star power, the level of “overness” of the other players, and whether or not there were an unnecessary amount of jobbers and/or non-factors in the match.
The Storylines and Flow of the Match – The storylines are without question the most important part of a Royal Rumble match. I’ll look at whether or not the storylines presented enhanced the match. I’ll also look at the surprise entrants and evaluate whether or not they added value. Lastly, I’ll look at whether or not the match had a solid flow or if it dragged at times. This is by far the most important category, and it will be the category in which I spend the majority of each column discussing.
The Final Four – Every Rumble inevitably comes down to a “show down” between the final four competitors. Here, I’ll look at whether the WWE chose a strong group to represent the final four, and whether or not the end game to the Rumble was compelling.
The Winner – I’ll evaluate three things relating to the winner of each Rumble. First, was the winner a surprise? I have a strong appreciation for Rumble winners that weren’t necessarily expected to win. Second, was the winner satisfying? Just because the winner wasn’t someone I expected doesn’t mean that I enjoyed the outcome. On the other hand, just because the winner was a foregone conclusion doesn’t mean that I didn’t love every minute of it. Lastly, how did winning the Royal Rumble impact this wrestler at Wrestlemania and beyond? The overall success of the subsequent push impacts how I view many of the Rumbles and their winner.
A couple additional disclaimers:
First – lengthy Royal Rumble runs rarely move me. Sure, you might love Rick Martel lasting 53 minutes in 1991. I didn’t. He, as well as almost everyone else that goes coast to coast, spent the majority of the match sitting in the corner getting kicked. For me, a single wrestler’s longevity is the most overrated factor in evaluating the strength of a Royal Rumble.
Second – these factors aren’t weighted evenly. They are merely talking points. My overall impression of the Rumble is what ultimately mattered when I made my rankings.
Last, but certainly not least – I’ve added a new wrinkle to this column series. As you already know, my thought process on wrestling seems to wildly differ from the majority of the fans in our community. Many have taken me to task in other forums over where my rankings ultimately landed. I’ve decided to incorporate that into this column series. As such, every entry will end with a guest “rebuttal” telling me exactly why I’m an idiot for ranking that particular Rumble where I did. The guests range from my fellow columnists, both on the main page and the Forums, to real life friends, to buddies I frequently interact with on social media. I try not to take myself too seriously, and I think you’ll enjoy the alternative takes.
Today’s rebuttal came from none other than one of our own, Samuel Plan!
Here is where the countdown currently stands:
#30. The 2009 Royal Rumble.
#29. The 1991 Royal Rumble.
#28. The 2011 Royal Rumble.
#27. The 1998 Royal Rumble.
#26. The 2000 Royal Rumble.
#25. The 1995 Royal Rumble.
#24. The 2015 Royal Rumble.
#23. The 1993 Royal Rumble.
#22. The 1988 Royal Rumble.
#21. The 2006 Royal Rumble.
#20. The 2014 Royal Rumble.
#19. The 2002 Royal Rumble.
#18. The 1999 Royal Rumble.
#17. The 2012 Royal Rumble.
#16. The 2007 Royal Rumble.
#15. The 1989 Royal Rumble.
#14. The 2003 Royal Rumble.
Question of the Day: In hindsight, how would you have re-booked Wrestlemania 12?
Dory Funk Jr.
Squat Teamer #1
Squat Teamer #2
The British Bulldog
The roster for the 1996 wasn’t short on star power. HBK and Diesel were megastars. So was Vader – he was at the beginning of his WWE run here. Yokozuna still had a significant amount of star power and Jake Roberts had made a full time return to significant fan-fare. Owen Hart and The British Bulldog were heavily involved in HBK’s storyline, so that made them major players as well. Although Jerry Lawler wasn’t what he was during 1993 and 1994, he still carried major name value. King Mabel was fresh off a main event match at Summerslam, so he had some clout as well.
The rest of the roster was a mixed bag. The New Generation was largely a terrible era filled with equally terrible gimmicks occupied by marginally talented wrestlers. Although Triple H and Steve Austin became megastars, they hadn’t really found their niche as of yet.
There’s an interesting note on this roster. The WWE brought in some old timers and international talents to fill out the last few spots. The general public didn’t know who they were, and those spots were wasted. It was a great idea executed in the wrong era. Can you imagine if the WWE brought in Kenny Omega and Pentagon Jr as entrants now? Everyone would go crazy! Unfortunately, the appetite just wasn’t there in 1996.
Overall, I think the star power at the top is significant enough to consider the 1996 Royal Rumble roster above average.
The Storylines and Flow.
It’s hard to start anywhere but with the overarching story that was Shawn Michaels in the 1996 Royal Rumble. The WWE had been building Shawn Michaels up to be the #1 face in the company for almost an entire year. The real turning point came when he “collapsed” after getting kicked in the head by Owen Hart in a match on Monday Night Raw. One “Tell Me a Lie” video later and everyone wanted to see him make a triumphant return and win the Royal Rumble.
The 1996 Rumble could have probably rested on its laurels and allowed the HBK redemption storyline to carry them to the finish line. Instead, they loaded the match with other interesting storylines and moments that provided tremendous flow to the match.
I’m a big fan of comedic moments early in a Royal Rumble match. It’s rarely a good idea to release the big guns early in a Royal Rumble. They either end up dominating the entire match or getting eliminated too quickly and leading to a tremendous lull towards the end. These comedic moments can help fill the time until the big fish arrive. Henry Godwinn slopping Lawler and Jake tossing the snake into the ring are two such moments that provided excitement during a portion of the Rumble match that is often lacking.
The WWE had run a really good storyline featuring Razor Ramon and the 123 Kid. The Kid had recently turned heel by attacking Ramon. Earlier in the night, he cost Razor his Intercontinental Title. When it was The Kid’s turn to enter at #10, Ramon attacked him in the aisle and took him out of action. I loved the continuity here. It’s a shame that negotiations soured between Scott Hall and the WWE. He was out the door several months later and we all know how that turned out. While I’ll argue all day that wrestling ultimately benefitted from his departure, we were robbed of an excellent Wrestlemania match between Razor and the Kid on a card that definitely could have used the help.
Hoss storylines are always effective in a Royal Rumble match. The 1996 version was perhaps the best uses of hosses that a Royal Rumble has ever had.
First, you had a showdown between Yokozuna and Mabel. They were the two definitively hoss wrestlers of the first half of the decade, and it was great to see them go at it. Both were in the process of being phased out, so it was cool to see them get a moment to themselves.
Second, you had Yokozuna and Vader teaming up to take on the Samoan Squat Team. As I mentioned during my write up on the 1995 Rumble, The Squat Team were about as useful as a second asshole on your elbow. Nonetheless, they were two big dudes and seeing Yokozuna and Vader roll over them like Gravedigger at a Monster Truck Rally was a pretty cool sight.
Lastly, there was the implosion between Yokozuna and Vader. This had been coming for a while. Both were managed by Jim Cornette. It was apparent that Yokozuna was being moved out of the way for Vader. It was great to see the two of the best superheavyweights of all time go toe to toe. Like Razor v The Kid, Yokozuna v Vader should have been another rock solid addition to the Wrestlemania XII card. Seriously, how did the WWE f*ck that Mania up so badly? They could have had Bret/HBK, Taker/Diesel, Razor/Kid, Yoko/Vader, Piper/Goldust and still had a ton of stellar talent to fill out the card. Rant over, moving on!
The most important part of this Rumble is clearly the HBK story. Not only was it strong going into the match, but an equally strong story was told during Rumble itself. The WWE got him off on the right foot by pulling Jerry Lawler, who had been hiding under the ring, out from his safe haven. Lawler’s elimination popped the crowd and the ball was rolling.
The WWE did a TREMENDOUS job building sympathy for a figure who unlike Brock Lesnar in last entry’s Rumble, was well suited to play the underdog role. Vader’s attack should not go unrecognized. Vader was a wrecking ball early in the Rumble match. After HBK eliminated him in surprisingly fashion, Vader snuck back into the really and destroyed everyone, Michaels included. This was an important occurrence. It made Vader look like the absolute monster that he is. This set the stage for the Summerslam main event that year – a match that is criminally underrated by most. It also built even more sympathy for HBK, adding another obstacle for him to overcome.
The WWE didn’t stop there. After HBK, along with Diesel, got his “revenge” by eliminating Owen Hart, Bret’s bastard brother rejoined the fray late in the game to double team HBK along with The British Bulldog. The WWE used multiple layers to stack the odds against Michaels. When he eventually overcame them, it was that much more satisfying as a result.
This Rumble wasn’t perfect. There were too many entries that just didn’t matter. Again, the inclusion of international and barely known old-timers detracted rather than added to the match. There wasn’t a glaring gap of time without anything meaningful going on, but it’s enough to knock this Rumble down a few pegs from the elite on the countdown.
The Final Four.
Much like the 2003 Rumble that came before it, the final four is the weakest part of the 1996 Rumble. The Godfather was an also ran and didn’t really have a place in the final four. I had no issue with his quick elimination, but the WWE missed a golden opportunity for a very strong finish. The final three of HBK, Diesel and The British Bulldog should have been compelling. Instead, there were three rapid fire eliminations and the end of the match came quickly. The action was too fast to build any kind of compelling storyline.
I also feel that Diesel wasn’t the best inclusion here. Sure, he was clearly the second biggest star in the match. However, a two heel v face HBK dynamic would have really played into the theme much better. I would have kept Owen Hart around and replaced Diesel in the final three. Owen and Bulldog beating down HBK only to be thwarted would have made for much better television. I understand that Diesel’s near miss was the springboard for his heel turn and subsequent Wrestlemania XII match with the Undertaker, but the WWE could have gotten there just as easily with a surprise elimination of Diesel by HBK ten minutes before the finish.
This was a final four that was simply too short and too poorly constructed to be effective or compelling.
If you were surprised that HBK was the winner of the 1996 Royal Rumble, you might need to re-evaluate your understanding of how professional wrestling works. He was the obvious winner and the only reasonable choice.
Although the lock to win, it was incredibly satisfying to see Michaels climb the mountain. The WWE had gotten it so wrong the year before. They pushed him far too early, the appetite for a heel challenging a face at Wrestlemania was low and it flat out didn’t work. The WWE did a tremendous job of recognizing their mistake and solving the problem. HBK’s push from the Summer of 1995 to the Royal Rumble 1996 was a textbook example of the right way to build a top baby-face star.
The 1996 absolutely catapulted HBK in a way that the 1995 Rumble did not. Unlike the previous year, winning the 1996 Rumble cemented HBK’s status as a superstar. He went on to headline Wrestlemania and win his first world title.
All in all, HBK as the 1996 winner was as correct of a decision as any in Rumble history.
It was an incredibly tough choice between 2003 and 1996. I flip-flopped several times before finally rating 1996 just a bit better. My rationale was that while both had solid action from beginning to end with a reasonably weak final four, the 1996 Rumble told better stories. We are nearing the elite portion of our countdown, so the back end roster issues prevented this Rumble from ascending any further up the ranks. Nonetheless, it was a really good Rumble that re-watches extremely well.
The Rebuttal – by Samuel Plan.
Plan: Remember that awesome moment in the 1996 Royal Rumble when the Squat Teamers returned to the ring like a pair of absolute lads?! Remember that amazing run that Jerry Lawler had capable of rivalling the best iron man runs in Rumble lore?! Remember all those immortal moments Bob Holly, Takao Omori and Barry Horowitz created?!
No, you don’t, and the reason why is simple: in the 1996 Royal Rumble Match, barely anything happens. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if it enjoyed the electric atmosphere and relentless pacing of other simpler iterations of the bout, like the 1989 version. It wouldn’t be a problem either if it utilised a breathless conclusion to make up for its relative lack of personality elsewhere, like the 2007 version. Sadly, though, the 1996 take on the Royal Rumble Match is woefully unimaginative, emotionally void and painfully slow paced. Quite honestly, I’m shocked to find it sat in the middle of the pack.
Vader’s Lesnar-like rampage is the best part, and breaks the action up somewhat in the middle. Alas, so too does it lead to one of the most major incongruities in Rumble history as the Mastadon eliminates – and I mean that literally – the currently active field…only for every single one of them (including the eventual winner, Shawn Michaels) to re-enter the fray!
A rushed conclusion that could have been so much more between best friends Michaels and Diesel caps off this lamentable take on the match that had all the potential in the world to be one of the all-time greats, considering the talent involved. As crushing a disappointment as it is a bore.
That’s a wrap kids. Tune in next time to see which Rumble landed in the #12 spot on the countdown. Agree or disagree? Sound off below!
Facebook: David Fenichel