Pop History: A Deep Dive Into the ‘Royal Rumble’

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When it started in 1988, the Royal Rumble was a gimmick — a battle royal slightly reconfigured to create a trademarked event that would sell tickets regardless of its participants. Today, of course, the men (and occasional women) are what the match is built on — the big names, the big entrances, and the career implications that accompany the outcomes. Sure, there’s almost always a title match to serve as a co–main event with the Rumble, but the Rumble is the real draw.

By the time the fifth performer entered that first Rumble, the event had already dispensed with the idea that it was a forum for wrestling — at least in the classical, collar-and-elbow-tie-up sense — and become wrestling’s top popularity contest. That fifth man was the ultrapopular Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Jake was never perceived as championship material by the WWF, but when he came in to make the save for Tito Santana, who was being pummeled by the Hart Foundation and Butch Reed, the crowd treated him like a main-eventer. They screamed at full volume for 30 seconds. It’s called a “pop” in the wrestling biz, and it’s the damnedest pop you’ve ever heard. (Santana, for his part, always got a strong but unspectacular pop — a good basis for gauging other reactions. I’d call it the Mendoza Line of wrestling pops, but I don’t want to venture into Jesse Ventura territory.) Every time Jake almost got tossed out, the volume escalated back to near madness. This was the first Rumble the crowd had seen, after all, and wrestling fans weren’t yet inoculated to the trope of participants hanging on the ropes and feigning near-elimination while they were taking breathers or killing time. It’s that tension — the tease, playing with (and against) expectations — that came to define the Rumble. That and the big pops.

Jake’s pop that night was an omen of the Rumble’s future — when fans would use it as their opportunity not just to cheer wrestlers, but also to make wrestlers.

Of course, the fan reactions in that first Rumble were squeals of surprise as much as anything. It would take a couple of years for fans to figure out the format of the match, despite MC Howard Finkel’s annual recitation of the rules. Even once the fans did get it, it didn’t change the wildness of the match, with its built-in twists and turns. When I interviewed Triple H last year, he said that WWE has “a focus group every single night, 10,000 people somewhere.” Never is that more true than at the Rumble. It’s like a sustained American Idol runoff where fans scream instead of text to vote. Of course, in the Rumble, the eliminations are predetermined. But the pops are real and — on the WWE Network — they last forever.1 I recently rewatched every Royal Rumble in WWE history to record who got the loudest and most-meaningful reactions from the crowd.

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Jake was back in 1989, and he came out at no. 7 to a huge pop that would be beaten only three times that night — and one of those times was another pop for Jake, when he returned with his python to scare Andre the Giant after being eliminated. The other two pops were of a different magnitude — they were atomic-level cheers, reactions that reflected the full effects of the WWF marketing machine. The 15th entrant was “Macho Man” Randy Savage — the champ at the time — and the 18th was Hulk Hogan. If I had to decide, I’d say that Savage got a slightly better reaction, but Hogan’s was protracted, growing into a “Hulk! Hulk! Hulk!” chant that rivals anything ECW ever elicited.

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The 1990 Rumble match opened with an ironic twist that would become a recurring theme — “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, who had bought the 30th entry the previous year, was relegated to the first man in the ring. Fans relished his plight. Hogan was again at the top of the — ahem — pop charts, but with Savage absent, the second-banana role was shared among the Ultimate Warrior, a polka-dotted Dusty Rhodes, and Shawn Michaels of the Rockers. “It’s every man for himself!” was the refrain whenever buddies would enter a stare-down — and when Hogan and Warrior found themselves alone together in the ring, the audience popped so hard, the roof nearly fell in. (Not that the fans needed any special reason to back their idol, but announcer Gorilla Monsoon was sure to point out that “the Hulkster dedicated this match to everyone over there in the Persian Gulf,” a feat not duplicated until Kurt Angle pulled off the “doing it for the troops” gimmick in 2004. He got a big pop for that, too.)

1991 was peak steroids WWF: Dino Bravo, Rick Martel, Paul Roma, Kerry Von Erich as “The Texas Tornado,” Hercules, Tony “Saba Simba” Atlas, a puffier-than-usual Greg Valentine, “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka, Davey Boy Smith, the Road Warriors, the Warlord — the list could go on.

But perhaps it’s worth noting that the guys who had relatively human physiques — the Undertaker, Bret Hart, Jake the Snake — had more significant careers than most of their inflated brethren. Even though WWF’s steroids problem was made public in March ’9o, when the FBI raided the office of Dr. George Zahorian and accused him of distributing PEDs to wrestlers, it took until 1992 before anti-steroids measures began to take hold. There was a moment at which the more modestly built Roddy Piper, Ric Flair, Jake Roberts, and IRS were all together in the ring, going at it. It’s easy to forget how insane the physiques in ’91 were.2 Who knows if the FBI attention changed the course of the WWF, but if so, it set the stage for ’92 producing arguably the greatest Rumble ever.

That had a lot to do with the WWF title being on the line in the match. It also helped that the winner, Ric Flair, was a marathon-match specialist who came in at no. 3, and that Flair’s manager, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, served as color commentator for the match and narrated the tale of Flair’s epic struggle with palpable anxiety. Every time a formidable opponent entered the ring — be it Savage at 21, the unbelievably popular Virgil at 23, or the monolithic Sid Justice at 29 — Heenan screeched his refrain: “That’s not fair to Flair!” The evening culminated with Flair celebrating backstage as WWF “President” Jack Tunney presented him with the belt and “Mean” Gene Okerlund leaned in for the interview, with Heenan and his adviser “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig relishing the moment in the background. “With a tear in my eye,” Flair said, “this is the greatest moment in my life.”3

The title wasn’t on the line in 1993, but a new tradition was created to keep the stakes high: This was the first year the Rumble winner got a WrestleMania title shot as a condition of surviving the match. It was also the first year the crowd really got it. They count down from 10 in anticipation of every entrance, starting right at no. 3 with Papa Shango, who got a B-plus pop and then got immediately dumped. A similar routine played out on a larger scale with Macho Man, who received another timeless pop from the crowd when he entered last, only to be subjected to story line stupidity: Savage went for the pin on Yokozuna in a match without pinfalls, and Yoko tossed him over the top rope from a prone position. But the biggest pop of the night was one that didn’t happen. At one point in the 1993 Rumble match, the ring was shared by Flair, Bob Backlund, Jerry “The King” Lawler, Hennig, DiBiase, and Genichiro Tenryu — that’s a former NWA world champ, CWA/USWA champ, AWA champ, Mid-South champ, and All Japan Triple Crown champ. If that happened today, we’d get the biggest “this is awesome” chant in history.

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1994 was the first Rumble without Gorilla Monsoon on TV play-by-play, and the product suffered with Vince McMahon and DiBiase calling the spots. But even Vince’s affected monotone couldn’t conceal the outright glee of the Providence, Rhode Island, crowd when favorites like Savage and Doink the Clown (with his sidekick, Dink) emerged from the tunnel.4 When Lex Luger miraculously recovered from a backstage beatdown at the hands of the Great Kabuki and Tenryu and made his way to the ring, the audience exploded. When Bret Hart, attacked by his brother Owen after their tag match earlier in the night, limped down the aisle, Vince growled with pride: “Look at that determination! … What gumption! What guts!” The fans reacted appropriately. The pop of the night, though, went to Marty Jannetty, erstwhile partner of nefarious “Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels. Jannetty ran to the ring to their old Rockers theme song and immediately put the fists to HBK. It was a hint of things to come — wrestlers’ entrance music was becoming increasingly distinctive, but the reflexive reaction to a song like the Rockers’ theme suggested the split-second pops that would be a staple of future Rumbles. “The fans are going wild here in Providence, Rhode Island,” boomed Vince, “and all over the world!”

1995 was the first Rumble at which the two-minute intervals between entrants was cut to 60 seconds, and it proved to be a lousy idea. The audience spent the first half of the match unable to keep up with the flurry of entrances, and even though the endgame was a certifiable frenzy, the storytelling sacrifice wasn’t worth it. The 1995 match also featured an appearance by Sione, a.k.a. the Barbarian, which was nothing special except that it christened the hilarious Rumble tradition of the same guys appearing over a span of years with different gimmicks. The all-star in this field is Fatu (both Islander and “Man Who Can Make a Difference” varieties), who also wrestled as the Sultan and as Rikishi. But give gold stars to Papa Shango, a.k.a. Kama, a.k.a. the Godfather; Demolition’s Smash, a.k.a. the Repo Man; and Demolition’s Crush, a.k.a. Japanese sympathizer Crush, a.k.a. Nation of Domination’s Crush.5

1995 is remembered for two notorious standards that the Rumble would return to over and over in the ensuing years: (1) Shawn Michaels was tossed from the ring, but dangled, grabbing the top rope so that both feet never touched the floor. (This would come to be known as “The Shawn Michaels Rule.”) And (2) Michaels returned to the ring as the British Bulldog was celebrating his assumed victory and tossed the Bulldog out. The faux-elimination and the false ending proved to be two of the surest ways to get the crowd on its feet.

It’s fitting that Jake Roberts, accidental star of the first Rumble, was back in 1996 to bask in the fans’ adoration. When he came out at no. 7 with a shirt to cover his paunch and an enormous python, Vince yelled, “This building has exploded!” And Vince was forced to acknowledge, with some awkwardness, when fans started chanting for Razor Ramon, a nominal heel. Shawn Michaels, back on the side of the angels, got the biggest entrance pop of the night when his music hit, and an even bigger pop when he dumped Yokozuna and Vader at the same time. ’96 also featured the first time WWF actively marketed the hype around the uncertainty of the entrances, by having interviewer Ray Rougeau leaking the entrances to fans who paid to call in to the “Superstar Line.”6

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This period in WWF was a bit jumbled, as the product lurched uncertainly into the modern era — they were still hungover from Hulkamania and hadn’t yet discovered Attitude. The 1997 Rumble showed a glimmer of hope: “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was eliminated, but none of the refs saw it, so he came back in and dumped Bret Hart, who thought he was the winner, leading to their double turn at WrestleMania 13. For any Montreal Screwjob conspiracy theorists out there who think the whole thing was a work that Vince and Bret were in on, this event is your Zapruder film. In it, Bret gets “screwed” by Austin and acts exactly the same as he would later that year in Montreal, right down to confronting Vince at the announce table. That wasn’t the only surprise at the announce table that night: ’97 saw the first iteration of another reliable Rumble trope — when an announcer’s music plays and he jumps up from the desk to enter the match (only to be almost immediately dumped, in most cases). Austin cleared the ring and dumped each ensuing opponent one by one (another classic Rumble ploy), and when his nemesis Bret Hart’s music hit, Austin blanched and the crowd went nuts. This would be the last time anybody got a Rumble pop at Austin’s expense.

By the time Austin entered at no. 24 in 1998, he was a babyface and the most popular wrestler in the world. Mick Foley got amazing pops when he entered three separate times (once as each of his three “personalities” — Cactus Jack, Mankind, and Dude Love), as did Ken Shamrock and Sable, when she came out with her hubby, Marc Mero. (“Sable’s very popular,” said Jim Ross, who had thankfully displaced Vince at the announce desk, “but Mero needs one of those charisma bypasses.”) But they were all riding Austin’s coattails. Nothing that night came close to Austin’s pop, which to my ears is the biggest pop in Rumble history.

He entered the arena in 1999 in a limousine monster truck, and the crowd went bananas. The only pop that bested it was Austin again, after McMahon’s henchmen attacked him and sent him to the hospital, and Austin returned driving an ambulance. The Attitude Era was in full effect, and the Rumble entrances put it on full display — the crowd popped big for the Godfather (and his “hoes”), Kane (who frankly deserves a lifetime achievement award for Royal Rumble excellence), and Gillberg — the diminutive Goldberg impersonator. Gillberg got the second-biggest pop of the night, though it was mostly (hilariously) piped-in. (We’ll rank the artificial pops another day.)

With a new era in swing, the next years saw WWF honing the product to perfection. 2000 saw a marked uptick in theme songs with memorable opening strains. Influenced by the success of the glass-breaking that started Austin’s theme, every wrestler suddenly became recognizable as soon as his or her music hit. This included the tweaked intro of the Rock, who was the night’s star. In 2001, the WWF finally adopted the raised entrance ramp we’re familiar with today, and alongside the music cues, the Rumble finally reached its apogee. Fans could pop more ably than ever before. And they did — for Tiger Beat heartthrob Jeff Hardy, for the Rock, for the motorcycle-riding Undertaker, and of course for Austin.

Influenced by the antiheroics of Austin and the Rock, the following years saw fans reacting most passionately for the outlaws — Triple H of Degeneration X, Rob Van Dam and Tommy Dreamer of ECW, Undertaker (now entering the ring to Limp Bizkit’s “Rollin’”), the villainous Brock Lesnar, and even Kurt Angle, at whom the crowd lovingly chanted a deafening “You suck!” The endgame in 2002 is probably my favorite Rumble sequence ever: when Austin, Triple H, Kurt Angle, and a returning Mr. Perfect were the last four standing. The crowd that night agreed. I don’t know exactly how to describe a pop of general appreciation, but when those four squared off, they got one.

2004 was the first year that didn’t feature Howard Finkel explaining the rules before the match, but there was plenty of other repetition — Mick Foley made a surprise appearance, and Goldberg finally supplanted his mimic by showing up in WWE for real. 2005 was a banner year for fan-favorite WCW immigrants like Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, and Rey Mysterio, all of whom got huge pops. But the biggest pop of the 2005 Rumble didn’t go to a hero at all — it was the anti-pop received by Muslim mega-heel Muhammad Hassan. The anti-pop is a subset of pops. It’s not a different thing, but it’s a more impressive feat. Fans love to cheer — that’s why they buy tickets. To get an arena booing so loudly in unison, especially in an era of ironic sensibilities, where immorality tends to be lauded, is a powerful achievement. What Hassan achieved in ’05 was a singular moment. It was one of the top 10 pops in Rumble history, and it was 100 percent negative. When he was drummed out of the WWE later that year, it wasn’t just a sad move of subservience by WWE to its detractors, it was also the loss of one of the most potent heels in pro wrestling history.

But Hassan wasn’t the only wrestler who got noteworthy anti-pops at the Rumble: Ted DiBiase nearly started a riot in 1989; Shawn Michaels’s heel turn had the fans livid in ’92, as did Owen Hart’s in ’93; Yokozuna always got a degree of the same jingoistic condemnation that Hassan inspired; and maybe most impressive were the jeers heaped upon Razor Ramon in 1997, considering that the countdown clock was broken and his music didn’t play correctly. Vince McMahon, on commentary, described the moment with characteristic understatement: “Razor greeted with a round of boos.” And then, of course, there was McMahon himself in 1999, with freakish muscles and high-waisted black jeans, the second man in after his adversary Steve Austin’s hyperpowered pop to start the match.

The most legendary sort of crowd reaction in pro wrestling lore is “Road Warrior pop,” named for the reaction the beloved tag team of the ’80s and ’90s received whenever they appeared at big events. Alas, it’s not a fail-safe measure. When Animal of the Road Warriors (known in the WWF as the Legion of Doom) made a late-career appearance in the 2006 Royal Rumble match — with neon green shoulder pads and without Hawk, who had died two and a half years prior — he garnered a fraction of the reception he was used to. Sure, he was older and the mythology of the Road Warriors had faded in fans’ minds. But this wasn’t simply a matter of the passage of time. It was a whole new era not just of demographics but of expectations. In the Royal Rumble — the event that has become defined by the pops its entrants receive — the reaction to every entrance is a measure of familiarity, storytelling expectations, and, most of all, surprise. When the Warriors got 20,000 people in Comiskey Park to scream in unison in 1985, the fans knew they were coming. In 2006, Animal was a surprise, but not a particularly compelling one. It wasn’t strictly an age thing — a waning Shawn Michaels got a top-10 all-time pop that night — but there’s a difference between a Legend Pop and a real pop.

That was never more clear than at Madison Square Garden in 2008. A corpselike Jimmy Snuka appeared in a girdled singlet that looked like something out of the Fabulous Moolah collection. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper entered with his gut balanced awkwardly atop blue bike shorts. The crowd ate it up, but this was Madison Square Garden, the best WWF audience in the world, and it showed. Undertaker and Shawn Michaels got deserved ovations for starting the match, and the performers who followed — Santino Marella, Hardcore Holly, John Morrison, Tommy Dreamer — coasted on the exhilaration of a crowd that finally understood its power. The biggest pop of the night — and one of the top-five ever — was for an up-and-comer in a throwback jersey named John Cena.

2009 saw the semi-ironic return of now-legend “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and a “shocking” return for Rob Van Dam, which now seems to be an annual tradition. (Add Goldust to the list of guys who have made surprise returns in way too many Rumbles.) If ’09 feels familiar, it’s because it’s the first fully modern Rumble, and the pops reflected that, as fans fully embraced their kingmaking power. No longer were they reacting — they were copromoting. Fans feted the Undertaker, who was starting his career victory lap, and lavished special affection on new Intercontinental champ CM Punk, who would make his career getting pops like that.

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2010 featured a huge pop for Triple H and an even larger reaction for a nuclear-hot Edge. Top honors in 2011 went to a returning Booker T, Cena, and “Prince of Parkour” John Morrison, who got knocked from the ring onto the guardrail and leapt back in. This is where the Rumble formally became a game of lava. 2012’s biggest pops went to its sturdiest contrivances — a Foley return, a Duggan surprise, and all three announcers — Lawler, Booker T, and Michael Cole — taking turns in the ring. 2013 was more of the same, with a returning Chris Jericho, Goldust, and Godfather, to whom Lawler gave perhaps the most depressing compliment ever: “How great is it to see the Godfather? He’s still with us!”

2014 will go down as the most significant Rumble of the modern era, but primarily for what it lacked. Batista was brought back in to main-event for WrestleMania, and Daniel Bryan, the fan favorite, wasn’t in the Rumble at all. As I wrote above, the anti-pop is a difficult achievement, but WWE made it easy for Batista and for Rey Mysterio, whose only crime was coming out at no. 30 and not being Bryan. 2014 will also go down as CM Punk’s last WWE appearance, after a match-opening pop that ranks in the Rumble’s top 10 of all time.

All of this does a disservice to the other end of the Rumble pop spectrum — the truly terrible pops, those moments of near silence from the crowd. That’s always awkward, but never more so than at the Rumble, when every wrestler gets a countdown and a big entrance, and if the crowd doesn’t respond, the silence is deafening. See Genichiro Tenryu in ’93, whom Monsoon vaguely described as “the Japanese champion,” and for whom approximately zero people cheered. But Tenryu was an unknown. More embarrassing are the WWF creations whom nobody cared about — like Henry Godwinn in ’95, of whom McMahon said, “Now there’s a favorite for you!” to cover the silent arena. The all-time low point may have been ’97, when the roster was depleted and WWF plugged the holes with Mexican freelancers like Pierroth, Cibernético, and Latin Lover. (The next year, Ross pointed out that Mark Henry was “one of 17 superstars making their first Royal Rumble match appearance.”) I’ll briefly mention the Oddities and poor Steve Blackman if only to point out that the Attitude Era had its low points — none more notable than X-Pac, who in 2000 got the Rumble’s first dose of “X-Pac heat.”

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What does all this foretell for Sunday’s match? After last year’s pro-Bryan revolt, all bets are off. You can bank on a huge pop for Bryan (who just returned from almost a year on the disabled list) and for Dolph Ziggler, who took over the underdog mantle in Bryan’s absence. Dean Ambrose, Bray Wyatt, Bad News Barrett, Cesaro, and Damien Mizdow will all have the crowd on their feet. Since the event will be in Philadelphia, returning stars will probably include a raft of ECW alums who will keep things lively. The big question mark is Roman Reigns. He has a lot of the crowd on his side, but there’s a creeping feeling that he’s being primed for the main event at Mania at the expense of more deserving stars. (There was even a hoax about him being on a Times Square billboard that literally every wrestling fan believed for roughly 10 minutes on Thursday.) Reigns could get a Hulk Hogan–Triple H–John Cena pop — the massive pop of a guy positioned at the top of the card. Or he could get the Batista treatment. If he’s booked like a superhero with a golden ticket to Mania, the Philly crowd will turn on him in a second. It could be the biggest anti-pop in Rumble history. It would be a long fall for the guy who got the second-biggest pop at last year’s Rumble.

But that just goes to show the power of crowd response, especially at the Rumble. You live by the pop, you die by the pop.

Filed Under: professional wrestling, WWE, Royal Rumble, Wrestling History, Vince McMahon, Jake "The Snake" Roberts, Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels, John Cena, Daniel Bryan

Shoemaker

David Shoemaker , also known as “The Masked Man,” is the author of the The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Pro Wrestling.

Archive @ AKATheMaskedMan