The 1991 Royal Rumble took place amid a backdrop of patriotism with Operation Desert Storm having commenced 48 hours earlier. The use of Sgt. Slaughter as an Iraqi sympathizer is no less exploitative than the way women were treated during much of the late 1990s, which to me makes 1991 somewhat of a mini-prequel to the Attitude Era. By year’s end we would see cobra attacks, wedding receptions ambushed, another promotion’s world champion showing up with his title, and a Hogan shirt used as a stand-in for burning the flag. Earlier in the ’91 Rumble telecast, the Sensational Sherri pretty much offered Ultimate Warrior sexual favors in exchange for a title shot for the Macho King Randy Savage. This is much more adult-oriented storytelling than seen in WWF in years. Before the match and during a promo with Hulk Hogan, Gene Okerlund tells us there are “unconfirmed reports” and “rumors” that Sgt. Slaughter (who had just won the WWF title) was desecrating the American flag. This type of reporting would fit seamlessly into the cable news landscape of 2015 and Hogan takes the bait. He then forgets Saddam Hussein’s name and is flustered trying to remember it as Okerlund throws a life jacket. It was obvious that Hogan had to win the Rumble to face down the anti-American at Wrestlemania 7.
The event was unusual in that it aired on a Saturday night; traditionally WWF ran shows on weeknights or on Sunday afternoon. The NFL conference championships aired on the Sunday at 1 and 4 PM with a nice slate: Raiders at Bills and the Giants with future Wrestlemania main eventer Lawrence Taylor at the Joe Montana-led 49ers. This was the first WWF PPV start at night on a weekend. Our hosts for the event from the Miami Arena are the duo of Gorilla Monsoon and Rowdy Roddy Piper, the 4th straight year with a new team.
Despite the American flags being waved everywhere, the first two entrants both hail from Canada. Poor unlucky Bret Hart drew #1 again and the World’s Suckiest Man Dino Bravo is #2. Gorilla says Bravo “wouldn’t pay 10 cents to buy a better number” which seems like such an odd thing to say. A heel is following the rules here and you’re ripping the guy for it? Hart and Bravo had a history: Bravo won most of their 1989 house show matches, including the countout win alluded to in Wrestling with Shadows where Hart audibled to that finish after suffering a broken sternum at Bravo’s hands. Hart refers to Bravo as a “slimy individual” so when I say Bravo sucks, I have company. Gorilla immediately writes off both guys saying #1 and #2 have no shot. At ringside we get the first look at Shane McMahon on WWF TV and we will see more of him later.
Greg Valentine is #3 and goes right at Bravo as the New Dream Team finally explodes! The Hammer spent most of 1987 tagging with Bravo in a colossal waste of time for a guy who still had something to give. Valentine was in a weird spot here: he had turned against manager Jimmy Hart at MSG that aired on the 1/7/91 episode of Prime Time, but he was still treated as somewhat of a heel by fans because he had been that way since his arrival seven years earlier. Valentine manhandles Bravo and does a good deed by sending the French Canadian home early.
Hart and Hammer have a go until Paul Roma arrives at #4. The three guys triangulate with Valentine as the tweener fighting both guys. The Texas Tornado Kerry Von Erich is #5 and he works Roma with a couple of discus punches, then one on Valentine sends the Hammer down with his face first flop. Roma hits a standing dropkick on the Tornado, showing me that he actually does one thing pretty well.
Business picks up a little with Rick Martel’s arrival at #6 and little did these fans know the treat they would get from the Model on this evening. He started with a battle of the pretty boys with Roma, then Hart gets a hold of Martel and has him up for a near elimination, which Martel did far better than anyone in this match. He would bend himself in different ways to make it seem like he would definitely be out but would find a way to wiggle back into the ring. There was a lot of guys just hanging on the ropes in this match, more than many other Rumbles but Martel was superior to all in adding actual drama to those moments.
Saba Simba ambles down at #7 with a weird run/limp. Tony Atlas has said that this gimmick helped save his life so I am willing to take that at face value and forgive the silliness of it. An inverted atomic drop by Tornado on Martel lets us see the Model’s fantastic sell of the move with the hold of his groin and all that it entails. A claw by Tornado on Roma won’t do much for Romeo’s face if he wants to be a model in his own right.
Bushwhacker Butch is out at #8 and the arm waving thing is crazy over with this crowd as he marches around the ring for a good ten seconds untouched. The Bushwhackers had a history in Florida wrestling as recently as 1987, but under their ultra-violent Sheepherder personas. Saba Simba goes over the top with Martel but the Model hangs on. No more than a minute later, Monsoon has a senior moment asking “where’s Saba Simba?” and had to be informed that he’s out.
Jake the Snake is #9 and goes right after the Model, who had nearly “blinded” him with his Arrogance atomizer on the Brother Love show in late 1990. Jake hit a gutbuster then slams Martel’s face to the mat. The Model rolls out and has had enough but smartly rolls back in on the other side. Martel ends up on the apron and Jake hits his hands and Martel does a funny sell with one hand as he hangs on and re-enters the fray.
Hercules collects another PPV payday at #10 and helps his tag partner Roma work over Butch. Martel ties Jake in the ropes, but Tornado frees him. I think he should mind his own business. Roma stupidly tries the flying crossbody on Jake near the ropes and goes flying out, just like Jannetty in 1990. Jeez Romeo, watch some game film next year. Oh wait, you’re never in a Rumble again.
Tito Santana is in at #11 and continues his unending war with Rick Martel. Meanwhile, Bret Hart is lifted upside down in the corner by three guys and is ass over tea kettle looking delightfully awkward. The Hammer and Tito renew their legendary 84/85 feud and exchange shots again.
Brother Love leads the Undertaker down at #12 for his Royal Rumble debut. First thing he does is lift Bret Hart in a two handed choke and tosses him over the top. Again, not a lot of shine for the Hitman here. The Deadman is unfazed by Texas Tornado’s shots to the back. Butch makes the mistake of coming near Undertaker and is eliminated. Jimmy Snuka is unlucky #13. Taker has an upside down claw on Valentine with his fingers on Hammer’s nose as Piper humorously notes “ewww, a handful of boogers!”
Having returned to WWF after stints in Stampede and All Japan, the British Bulldog is #14. This was a great signing for the promotion because of his value in the United Kingdom at a time where Sky Sports was launching WWF programming on pay TV. Piper notes that Martel has been in danger about ten times already and has survived. Snuka and Undertaker have a brief faceoff, presumably to set up the memorably Mania 7 squash match they would have to start The Streak.
Demolition Smash is #15 and that team’s value was plummeting fast. He would have to become a Repo Man by year’s end to make ends meet. The Model is on the apron, but manages to snap mare Jake the Snake over the top to get rid of him. Tito and Valentine continued their fun battle, and British Bulldog has a big man faceoff with Undertaker.
Speaking of big guys, Road Warrior Hawk is #16 and he gets a shot in on everyone in the ring, and 3-4 guys take exception and gang up on Hawk. Hammer reprized his Summerslam 1989 match with Hercules but Santana makes the save for Valentine. What? No, Tito did it just so he could slam Herc and Hammer’s heads together. That’s more like it. Two quick eliminations with Tornado and Snuka hitting the showers.
Back to weirdness with #17 with Shane Douglas in his only WWF PPV until the unfortunate Dean Douglas era. The future “Franchise” was a job guy on 1986 WWF TV under his real name Troy Martin, which included a spot on the first episode of Wrestling Challenge losing to then-top heel Paul Orndorff. It’s so funny to see him trying to play a classic 1980s babyface when you had guys like Tito Santana and Rick Martel in the ring who were the real thing at one time and much better in the role.
Randy Savage was unavailable at #18, so nobody came out in that spot. On the telecast, Gorilla and Piper did not know this so we would not technically know who was missing until #30 had entered. The crowd is confused, looking to the entrance for much of the two minutes.
Animal is #19 and does the same thing as his partner: hitting every guy in the ring once he gets there. The LOD team up to double clothesline Undertaker over and out to a huge crowd reaction. Hawk celebrates, opening the door for the brilliant Ricky Martel to sneak up and toss him. The Undertaker is not happy on the outside, with referee Shane McMahon all up in his face telling him to leave. Taker stares daggers through Shane, who is overacting like crazy here. This is kind of like seeing George Clooney on Facts of Life or Golden Girls: a nice early look that is very different than what the guy ended up becoming, which applies to both Undertaker and Shane.
Gorilla does his “it takes 15 minutes for the Hammer to get warmed up” bit which I never understood since he rarely had 15 minute matches in WWF. I suppose it was a way of putting over his toughness and Hammer had now been in for well over a half hour by now. Demolition Crush is #20 and he and Smash go to work on the Bulldog, which Valentine has Martel up in the corner.
The 1988 winner Hacksaw Jim Duggan is #21 and there is no reference to his victory from three years prior. He goes after Smash, Crush, and Martel as Piper notes that there is a lot of strategy in the Royal Rumble. Thanks Roddy, that’s what I’ve been trying to say! Piper thinks you should go at guys who have been in the longest, but that all depends on if you have a giant in there because if that is the case then he needs to be eliminated.
Speaking of big guys, Earthquake is #22 and squares off with Animal, who misses a clothesline and a charge leading to his disposal. Bulldog has Martel up in the corner, but can’t move his legs over because the Model is the, well, model for how you should work in this match.
The reigning Intercontinental champion Mr. Perfect is #23 and does a slow walk to the ring complete with blind towel toss to manager Bobby Heenan. Duggan whips Perfect to a corner and he bounces off and does a flip to the mat. Piper calls Perfect “one of the better IC champs” and he’s right there with Randy Savage in my mind.
The crowd erupts with Hulk Hogan’s arrival at #24 and he wipes out the Smasher immediately. He’s after Earthquake, still with his shirt on with corner mount punches. In the background which you can barely see, Martel is tossed again and holds on at the last second. A replay of this would have been nice as I had to rewind twice to see this properly. Ricky Martel was a God on January 19, 1991.
Haku is #25 right as Hogan unceremoniously ends the Hammer’s run at just shy of 45 minutes. Martel channels Honky Tonk Man from 1990 and chokes out Hulk with his own shirt. The Model goes to the 2nd rope to jump on Hogan, who just walks away. Our hero then says what the hell and goes further for the double axe handle on Haku. Meanwhile, Mr. Perfect tries some chops on Earthquake, and he’s not interested in chops unless they are pork chops or lamb chops. Two handed choke by Quake teaches Perfect a lesson.
The Anvil Jim Neidhart is in at #26 right as Tito Santana is put out by Earthquake and goes after Hercules, who is somehow still in this match. I think him and Shane Douglas hid in a corner somewhere, even if Gorilla keeps putting over Douglas’ work here even though he’s barely been on camera. Bizarre moment here as Haku and Perfect go at it in some internecine Heenan Family warfare. Gorilla reminds us that Hulk dedicated this match to the troops, as a reminder that the outcome is not in doubt.
One of the more famous Rumble moments is next as Bushwhacker Luke is in at #27, marches in to the ring where he is grabbed by Quake and tossed out the other side of the ring without breaking stride. Funny stuff. Comedy doesn’t last for this crowd though as they freak out at Hogan being up in the air in the corner, but he manages to stay in.
Longtime Hogan pal Brian Knobbs is #28 and 4 guys gang up on him in a way he wouldn’t see again until the NWO beat down the Nasty Boys on Nitro in 1996. Knobbs does eliminate Hercules after a run of over 37 minutes, but since he had half an elimination he cannot win the Morrison Award. The Warlord is in at #29 looking like the most roided up guy at a Stone Cold lookalike contest from 1998. He goes after Bulldog because that’s another feud between real life pals that went on for a while. Hogan tosses Crush off a corner mount and the future biker/Hawaiian takes a hellacious bump off the apron for a guy that size. He must think he’s 1998 Mike Awesome or something. Another mishap by Perfect as he chops the Warlord although that is why Hennig was perfect in these matches because he would involve himself with everyone and make it work. Warlord is clotheslined out by Hogan. Fun Warlord fact: He was only ever eliminated in Rumbles by guys who main evented Wrestlemanias: Hogan in 89, 91, and 92, Andre in 90, and Sid with a helper with Hogan in 92.
Tugboat is #30 so Gorilla and Hot Rod now know that Ultimate Warrior chased Savage out of the building. Tuggers goes after Earthquake, which is not a shock. Shane Douglas, who Gorilla loves so much, is eliminated off camera and Monsoon credits him with a huge effort and says the crowd is giving him a huge ovation. Uh, I don’t see it. Maybe this is all “Dick Flair’s” fault, screwing Shane. Earthquake steps on Mr. Perfect as seen in the photo, just to be a dick. It’s possible that Perfect may have crapped in his gym bag as a rib at one time, I don’t know.
Hogan is going at it with Tugboat in the corner in a huge surprise since they were supposed to be thick as thieves in storyline. Hulk goes over the top and channels his inner Ricky Martel to stay alive, then he tosses Tuggers. Perfect is crotched on the top rope by Bulldog, who then hits a crazy dropkick to send Perfect flying to his elimination as the Brain blindly tosses the towel to the near side crowd in disgust. The Model once again shows he has Neidhart’s number by tossing the Anvil, and Bulldog realizes that Haku once kidnapped Matilda so he gets rid of him. Old rivalries from 1987 WWF are popping back up here.
Sad moment: Martel goes up top to get at Bulldog again, and Davey Boy crotches him as well, then shoves him off for the big elimination of the Model after 52 minutes and 17 seconds. What an amazing run by Martel, and it’s a shame it would be overshadowed the next year by one of the greatest performances of all time.
The Final Four: Bulldog, Hogan, Knobbs, and Quake. The latter two show solid understanding of Royal Rumble Game Theory and wipe out the British Bulldog first so they can gang up on Hogan together. Not much of an endgame for Knobbs here so he is correctly just rolling with this. A double clothesline and elbows by both men is followed up with a normal splash by Quake, then the Quake splash finisher. This is no sold by Hulk, who clotheslines them both, and hits the Nasty Boy with a big boot to bring us to the big showdown.
This turned into mini-match here, though not on the level of the 2007 Rumble with Undertaker and Shawn Michaels facing off for a long time at the end. A big boot is followed by a punch to Jimmy Hart just for being on the apron. Hogan fails on a body slam attempt which leads to two big elbows from the Quake, who then holds Hogan up for the JYD-style power slam. Wow, for a big guy the Earthquake had quite an offensive moveset. He would even sprinkle in a dropkick every now and then, and I love me some 300+ lb guys getting up for that move. Quake loses his mind and goes for something like a pinfall as Gorilla ridicules him rightly. This allows for the normal Hulk up with kickout: big boot, body slam (as Gorilla and Piper tell him not to do it), and a clothesline to the back is enough to give Hogan his 2nd straight Rumble win. Hulk had to win to set up the next angle, which while probably tasteless is not the first and certainly wasn’t the last tasteless thing done in pro wrestling.
1st: Rick Martel – My God, what a show he put on. He set the template here for great performances in the future.
2nd: Earthquake – Another good job by the big guy acting as the monster and creating mild doubt on the potential of the Hulk Hogan win in the end.
3rd: British Bulldog – It seems weird to pass on Valentine since he was in over 40 minutes, but Bulldog went 36:43 himself and had several key moments and eliminations with Perfect and Martel.
John Morrison Award (most time with no eliminations): As mentioned, Hercules apparently gets credit for half of Hawk’s elimination so the winner is Tito Santana at 30:23. Any time we can re-live Valentine-Tito from the mid 80s is fine with me.
Number of WWE Hall of Famers: 12
Number of Deceased wrestlers: 8
Summary: The outcome wasn’t too much in doubt, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for other guys to shine. Some of the match was a little dull with some going through the motions, but this was the Rick Martel Show. It’s a damn shame Vince McMahon didn’t trust him or want him to be a top guy. If you watch this match, just keep your eyes on Martel the entire time because he made it all count. There are better Rumbles, but few better individual performances than what we saw from the Model in Miami that night.