Over the next several weeks, I hope to review as many Royal Rumble matches as possible in the lead up to the 2016 edition. The first edition was on January 24, 1988 which is a familiar date; it was the same day as the NWA Bunkhouse Stampede which was airing on pay per view. This was another middle finger by Vince McMahon toward Jim Crockett Promotions as he tried to seize complete control of wrestling on pay per view. His plans for monopolizing wrestling PPV would be thwarted by Ted Turner, who used his influence among cable companies to make sure Crockett had clearances to air PPV, mostly because the NWA aired on his channel and he had shown interest in buying out JCP. But let’s look at the 1988 Rumble match, which took place in Hamilton, Ontario at the then brand new Copps Coliseum. – A tradition is born when Howard Finkel takes a long time to explain the rules to the crowd. This concept was only talked about on WWF TV about 2 weeks before the event so in this case it needed to be explained. However we will see some of that went out the window, like the “two minutes between entrants” thing.
– Our first two are already in the ring, a pair of high-ranking tag wrestlers in Bret Hart and Tito Santana. Finkel does announce who is #1 and who is #2 which keeps us from the same situation when the United States admitted North and South Dakota at the same time so no one knows who came first. Notably, Bret gets some cheers probably because this is in Canada.
– Vince McMahon and Jesse Ventura are the commentary team and they are still discussing the Hogan-Andre contract signing from earlier in the night. Their main event on Feb. 5 on NBC would draw 33 million viewers, or about 10-11 times the current RAW audience. Ventura wisely brings up the idea of Neidhart possibly being next and that teams would work together in these matches.
– Butch Reed is #3 and I hate how he has the striped socks coming out the top of his boots because it looks ridiculous. At one point Bret and Tito miscommunicate and hit a double move with Bret taking a forearm that either connected too much of Hart was selling it like a champ.
– Neidhart comes in at #4 and it’s 3 on 1 against Santana. Ventura says he bought some bad enchiladas off Tito when he was serving in the Navy, so there’s the first Mexican foot reference in the Royal Rumble.
– Jake Roberts is in at #5 and he saves Tito from the heel onslaught and displays a sound understanding of Royal Rumble Game Theory. While it is every man for himself, he also needs an ally so that he doesn’t get worked over by three heels for the next two minutes. Butch Reed is the first elimination in Royal Rumble history.
– King Harley Race is #6 and Jesse asks if a guy would cheat and come out early to get a jump on someone. That doesn’t make much sense but this match did NOT feature two minute intervals. In fact, it was 90 seconds until halfway, then it went to two minutes for a couple, then back to 90 seconds or even less. Why am I bothered with being lied to on the rules by a wrestling program?
– Jim Brunzell is #7 and Sam Houston is #8 and it should be noted there is no countdown by the crowd which indicates there was no timer in the arena. The Hart Foundation jointly eliminate Tito Santana.
– Dangerous Danny Davis is in at #9 to continue his “who gives a rat’s ass” feud with Sam Houston. The crooked ref storyline was red hot in early 1987 and Davis fell harder and faster than just about anyone from that era. Despite being “banned for life plus 10 years” as Gorilla Monsoon used to say, he was back officiating by 1989. Jake the Snake hits a back suplex on Davis, a move I hadn’t seen from Jake much before.
– Bolshevik member Boris Zhukov is in at #10 as Vince says he’d like to see Jesse run down to the ring. We’d have to wait until Lawler in ’97 for that kind of thing. Jesse says he’d probably win the thing, though. Sam Houston becomes the first guy to do the “hook the foot on the ropes” thing you see a million times in these matches now.
– Now is THE best blooper of the match: Don Muraco is out at #11, but Nikolai Volkoff is right behind him! What the hell happened here? Someone backstage screwed up big time or Volkoff was just dumb. The Russian just hangs around outside, detained by some refs as his partner Zhukov is dumped in the ring. Meanwhile, Brunzell hits his world class dropkick on Hart off a whip. Yes, his dropkick is as good as everyone says it is. The King is eliminated without much fanfare, and Jesse threatens to sic his agent Barry Bloom on Vince again.
– Hacksaw Jim Duggan saunters out at #13 and he bumps Race on the floor and they have a scrum that doesn’t match their legendary show-long brawl at the 1987 Slammys. Because Ventura is so wise on color, he points out that this kind of match is made for a brawler like Duggan.
– Outlaw Ron Bass is at #14 and does not do anything of note, which is pretty much his WWF story. He had a very brief feud in early 1987 with Blackjack Mulligan, who promptly left. Bass had no program of note until late 1988 with Brutus Beefcake.
– Volkoff dumps Brunzell out as the other Killer Bee Brian Blair is out at #15, and he goes after Bret Hart while Jesse and Vince go at each other. They were particularly combative on this night, maybe Jesse was cranky about having to work the extra date here. Huge “DDT” chants for Jake as he works over Davis. Meanwhile Bret Hart is still there and Ventura is his advocate, putting over what an amazing effort this has been by the Calgary native.
– Hillbilly Jim is in at #16 and goes after the Anvil and tosses Neidhart.
– In a bit of a double shot for him, Dino Bravo is in at #17. Earlier on in the show, he was part of a long and boring segment where he attempted to bench press 715 pounds, which he did with ample help from spotter Jesse Ventura. Personal note: that segment is the first wrestling I watched of any kind so it’s a freaking miracle that I kept watching after that turd. Sam Houston takes the bump of the match, going from Ron Bass’ shoulders over the top and hitting the floor like a thud.
– Before he was a huge star, Ultimate Warrior was in this match at #18, though he did get one of the louder ovations by this crowd. The Hamilton crowd was pretty confused for much of this match and it goes to show the importance in wrestling of conditioning the audience. It would get better for future Rumbles as the potential was realized. Bret Hart is tossed by Don Muraco and his long stay is celebrated by Ventura.
– Only 53 seconds elapsed before the One Man Gang is out at #19 as Vince and Jesse agree: it’s going to be hard to throw out the fat guy. The OMG starts clearing out deadwood starting with Blair and then Roberts, coincidentally the two guys who failed the first WWF drug tests in 1987. The JYD is lightly touched and he goes out over the top as I shake my head.
– The Final Four of this Rumble: Muraco, Gang, Duggan, and Bravo. Duggan is down in the corner after being squashed by the Gang, so Muraco is facing a 2 on 1. He does a couple of shoulder rolls to get away and dropkicks the Gang and useless Bravo manager Frenchy Martin. Bravo holds Muraco, and the Gang clotheslines him out. Duggan goes after the Gang and is beat out for a bit before he falls victim to the numbers game. The heels try the same move that got Muraco, but Duggan ducks and Bravo is eliminated. Vince practically gives away the ending by saying Duggan will need to use Gang’s momentum to get him over the top and out. And that is exactly what happens: Gang misses a charge and Duggan pulls the top rope down and he wins the inaugural Royal Rumble. “Of all the people to win this, it had to be him??” laments Ventura.
Now it’s time to hand out the awards for the 1988 Royal Rumble match:
Here are the three stars:
1st: Bret Hart – Was in the match first and while he was in there was always noticeable. I have to wonder if this helped him in some way to argue for a singles push, even though that wouldn’t materialize for several years. He looked really good in this match.
2nd: Jim Duggan – He did enough here to say he deserved to win the match. Duggan was pretty popular and for the time that this match was remembered (the ’88 Rumble was never mentioned on TV again, you hear nothing about it in ’89) it gave him some prestige, enough to be put into Andre the Giant’s first post-Hogan program.
3rd: One Man Gang – You need a monster in these type of matches and he did a perfectly cromulent job filling that role.
The John Morrison Award, which is given to the wrestler who is in the longest without eliminating anybody: Danny Davis, with a time of 17:51. Morrison went 29:23 in the 2008 match with no eliminations.
Summary: The WWF was on to something here, but didn’t quite know how to make it work yet. The whole show was just a way of crapping on Crockett Promotions: they have a specialty battle royal on PPV? Ok, we’ll have a specialty battle royal on free TV. It would be a few more years before the Rumble match would truly elevate someone with some of the winners we will see coming up.