1994 Royal Rumble Match – The Referendum

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Clean Diesel emissions

“If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice” – Rush, “Free Will”

The 1994 Royal Rumble felt like change was in the air. Say goodbye to Hogan, Flair, Mr. Perfect and many other legends. Say hello to the New Generation, the term that would be shoved down the audience’s throat as Vince McMahon had a photo finish with a federal jury. With his trial looming, the whole company was in flux: Bret Hart was still very popular but mostly feuding with Jerry Lawler, Lex Luger was de-pushed after the Lex Express failure, and the world champion was a 500+ lb Samoan posing as a Japanese guy. We said goodbye to Gorilla and Bobby, and hello to Vince on the call for the first time since 1988 alongside recently retired Ted DiBiase. The Rumble was a choice of who would face Yokozuna at Wrestlemania 10 at Madison Square Garden.

More changes for this Rumble from Providence, RI: The interval would only be 90 seconds, ensuring that no one could get close to the longevity record of 62 minutes. Scott Steiner and Samu started things out at #1 and #2 with a mild Hoss fight. Rick Steiner would join at #3 and throw a clothesline (not a Steinerline since this ain’t WCW) in between a pair of Scott suplexes. The Steiners were such a strange fit in WWF: the enhancement talent hated working with them because they were too stiff and reckless, and top guys wouldn’t work with them for the same reasons. Mike Enos aka Blake Beverly essentially became their personal job guy in ’93 since he knew how to take their moves and not get killed. The face 2 on 1 edge is inverted from usual booking convention. Samu missed a charge and ended up in a hangman in the ropes, a good way to lose an ear I’ve heard. Once he’s unhooked Samu is mercifully thrown out.

Kwang tries to even the score at #4 by spraying green mist in Rick’s face. That’ll do. Scott hits a belly to belly as Rick staggers around with his face completely green. He hasn’t been that green since he was in the Varsity Club. Mildly funny to hear DiBiase talk about the Steiners as he would serve as their manager in late 1997 WCW. That was a strange angle that really led to nothing.

Huge boos greet Owen Hart at #5 after he had kicked Bret Hart’s leg out of his leg after losing a tag title match via ref stoppage earlier against the Quebecers. He gets Rick in a fireman’s carry for the elimination and it’s refreshing to see someone other than Rick Martel pull that off. That will not be the last Rick Martel reference. Heels finally get the numbers advantage, until Bart Gunn enters at #6 and throws the eventually famous left hands at Owen. Vince says there will be footage from the locker room area that never materializes, but I am loving DiBiase because he is doing analysis in a Ventura-like sports-oriented mode.

Diesel’s life is about to change with his entry at #7, and it is no exaggeration to say this is the most consequential Rumble run in the seven year history, even more than Flair’s win. The reaction he would get would lead to everything that came later, and Vince McMahon on commentary acted like he was caught off guard by the crowd response. He hits everyone, then fires Bart Gunn over the top, pitches Scott Steiner, then Owen to a lot of cheers. Kwang tries his best, but misses on a heel kick and he gets clotheslined out.

What happened next has been done in the years since (including with Bray Wyatt in 2015) but never to quite the same effect: Bob Backlund at #8 stays low looking for a leg takedown and gets Diesel on the ropes, but takes an eye rake and gets upended for standing too close to the ropes. The future Big Daddy Cool gestures for the next guy as I note he is 6 foot 10, but with his hair on that night he was 7 foot 3. Billy Gunn at #9 manages a whip to the corner which is countered by the big boot and he’s gone. You can see younger kids in the crowd openly cheering for Diesel now. The break allows time for footage to be shown of Lex Luger being jumped in the locker room area by the Great Kabuki and Genichiro Tenryu, who are mercenaries of Mr. Fuji.

Virgil is #10 and while Diesel is impressive here he’s looking like a college basketball team that scheduled Stony Brook, UMass-Lowell, and Coppin State for the non-conference slate. DiBiase is enjoying his old pal Virgil being thrown into this fire and he misses a charge and gets tossed because he was too close to the ropes. Cue the evil DiBiase laugh as I wonder why you couldn’t book Diesel this way as champion: a loner type badass and have groups of heels going after him. Basically an early Steve Austin.

Diesel finally gets a “top 25 opponent” in my schedule analogy in the form of Macho Man Randy Savage at #11, making his final Rumble appearance. Just two months prior, Diesel was the first guy pinned in the opening match at Survivor Series via Savage’s flying elbow, and now he looks like a star on equal footing.

Double J Jeff Jarrett is #12 and works on Savage with a slam and a bad looking knee from the 2nd rope. DiBiase wonders why he doesn’t go after Diesel since he’s the strong one in the match, so we know the Million Dollar Man has an understanding of Royal Rumble game theory. You won’t hear anything like that from JBL now, all he’ll do is spout pointless facts like he’s the Elias Sports Bureau. Savage survives a near elimination, and Jarrett crashes into Diesel opening the door for Macho to eliminate Jarrett in a battle of sons of Tennessee-based wrestling promoters.

The feud between Savage and lucky #13 Crush was boiling at this point and they brawled, allowing Diesel to rest in the corner. Savage turns back to Diesel, but Crush gets back to his feet quickly. He picks up Savage and just dumps him on the split screen as Doink the Clown enters at #14. Very unceremonious end for the Macho Man here, but that’s just the way they treated him after 1992. Doink sits back, but the two heels realize they should gang up on the reformed clown.

Bam Bam Bigelow wants to address his ongoing issues with Doink at #15. Crush and Diesel actually OPEN THE ROPES for Bam Bam to come beat on Doink in a funny moment. He gets Doink up in a press slam and does the Spike Dudley thing and tries to toss him as far out of the ring as he can. Then they turn on Bam Bam and all alliances break down like it’s 1914 Europe. Instead of mustard gas, this is just a nice big man fight between the three.

It gets bigger with Mabel at #16 as I realize Crush is the smallest guy there. The crowd is chanting “Whoomp there it is” which is cringe worthy. Why did Men on a Mission get to steal the work of Tag Team? Just because they are a tag team doesn’t give them that right. Vince McMahon must have liked what he saw here between Diesel and Mabel since that would be his Summerslam main event 19 months later.

Sparky Plugg aka Bob Holly made his PPV debut at #17 subbing for the injured 1-2-3 Kid. It’s surprising to be that they were so open about substitutions and who was filling in for whom since that generally wasn’t the case.

Shawn Michaels is next at #18 and he sits on the 2nd rope and offers a handshake to his bodyguard Diesel after begging off initially. This allowed the others in the ring to sneak up and eliminate Diesel with the cherry on top being a Michaels superkick to help. That didn’t make much sense for the Heartbreak Kid since he took out his biggest ally right away with all these other huge guys hanging around. Diesel gets a huge ovation from the Rhode Island crowd and Vince expresses surprise as a “Diesel!” chant breaks out.

Mo from Men on a Mission goes after Michaels at #19, but Crush makes a save. HBK skins the cat and Bam Bam gets an avalanche from Mabel off a whip from Mo. Hilarious moment as Shawn tries to slam Mabel in the center. I’m not a huge fan of HBK in general but he does a lot of the things guys like Flair and Martel do in these matches.

There is one older WWF legend in the match as Greg the Hammer Valentine is #20 and gets a really big ovation. He got a loud ovation at his HOF at Wrestlemania 20, louder than guys like Tito Santana. He was good, but I am perplexed by that somewhat. Vince actually references his 1991 performance when he went 44 minutes and I am shocked at all the callbacks to history with them pushing a new generation, even if that term wouldn’t come into use until later. Hammer is good in this match because he can go with faces and heels and it seems perfectly natural either way. He’s like a baseball player who can play all infield and outfield positions.

As Michaels is press slammed by Crush and I wonder why he didn’t just toss him, the Native American Tatanka is the #21 entrant. He gets trapped by Mabel and Michaels takes shots at him but accidentally hits Mabel.

The Great Kabuki is #22 but only Ted DiBiase calls him Great, Vince just calls him Kabuki. You see, Vince didn’t “create” Great thus it can’t be so. Everyone in the ring at the same time decides that Mabel must go so they come over and slowly lift him up and out. HBK gets in trouble and is dangling over the ropes, but hangs on again.

Lex Luger gets a decent reaction at #23 but not that of someone who would be a lead babyface. Well, maybe in 2015 but there are no “Let’s go Luger! Luger sucks!” chants. He greets Great Kabuki with wild fisticuffs and avenges the earlier beatdown by eliminating the man from the Far East. I was kind of expecting Luger to go on a run here and clear out some space, but that didn’t happen. Luger’s WWF career summed up in 90 seconds, basically.

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Shawn Michaels in his Rumble comfort zone

Japan gets a representative back when Genichiro Tenryu enters at #24. I’m just glad he’s not walking around looking for stuff to do like in 1993. He trades shots with Lex. Tatanka has HBK on the ropes but can’t finish the job even with the help of Mo, who really is not much help at all.

No one comes out at #25 and they immediate assume it is the injured Bret Hart. DiBiase laughs at that notion as only he can. Valentine and Tenryu chop away at each other in the corner, and that would have been a great match to see in the style of the great Flair-Tenryu matches. Luger is putting the boots to Michaels in the corner.

My hero Ricky Martel enters at #26 and looks immediately for Tito Santana as is custom. Since he’s not there this year, he matches up with oh…let’s just say…Mo. Vince puts over Martel’s incredible 1991 performance as Michaels and Martel reprise their Summerslam ’92 match in a corner. Tatanka and Luger briefly trade blows in a rare interaction between two top babyfaces. It would not be the last for Luger on this night.

A limping Bret Hart is #27 and he gets a noticeably louder crowd pop than what Lex got. Crush gets in the first shows at the Hitman, and Tenryu tries and fails to sweep the leg. Martel and Bam Bam duke it out, and you can file that under matches I wish happened with Martel as the babyface as the preference for that match.

Fatu, the Forrest Gump of Royal Rumbles, is #28. There are a ton of guys left at this point so I decide just to watch Martel because he’s so awesome. He’s holding Tatanka for Michaels. What a guy. Crush gets eliminated by Luger, who needed help from Sparky Plugg. Yep, that’s what you want: your top babyface needing help from the guy in the race car gimmick.

Looks like Marty Jannetty is on the straight and narrow since he’s #29 and goes right after his former partner Michaels. Tenryu rudely interrupts, before Jannetty puts Shawn over the top, but HBK of course hangs on even at 65 MPH and slides back in like nothing.

Memorable line from Vince at the sight of #30 Adam Bomb: “Adam Bomb is gonna win the the Royal Rumble” which taken out of context is very funny. Bret Hart knows this game and sneaks up on Sparky to get rid of him. Vince takes this opportunity to tell us Bastion Booger was supposed to be #25 but got sick. That’s fine with me. Heenan’s not there anymore to make the “Booger was my pick” jokes. Martel is front suplexed to the apron and is saved by Valentine and those two guys have a weird thing where they fight and also save each other. Nice to see the veterans of the business helping each other as needed.

It should be noted that once Bret Hart arrived, they stopped talking about Luger’s injuries and Luger comes off as not much of a big deal. In fact, I’ve hated watching him in these matches and 1995 would be more of the same. Martel uses the fireman’s carry to slowly work the Hammer out of the match, but then gets low bridged by Tatanka. I get really sad at the Martel eliminations, which should come as no surprise.

The eliminations as fast and furious now almost as if someone screwed up a time cue. Adam Bomb and Tatanka are out, as Vince says Bam Bam has been in 30 minutes so he is screwing up the math to say 90 seconds = 2 minutes. Bam Bam and Marty are disposed of by Luger and Michaels respectively. Tenryu tries a double noggin knocker on HBK and Fatu, but since Fatu is Samoan he can no sell that. There is a mistimed spot where HBK and Fatu collide. Luger and Hart team up to ditch Tenryu, which nicely protects him for any Japanese audience watching.

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The Four Corners offense

The Final Four: Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Lex Luger, and Fatu. Bet Luger wouldn’t have guess he’s the only non-WWE HOFer in that bunch. There are screams from the crowd when Hart is lifted up and over, but he holds on. Fatu no sells having his head slammed to the mat and takes control on Luger, who fights back with a clothesline that gets a 540 degree sell from Fatu who has apparently been watching the HBK and Hennig collection. Hart and Luger whip their guy to the center, and HBK leapfrogs but both heels get low bridged and exit in separate corners.

Down to Luger and Hart, there is only a brief slugfest since they need time for the post-match confusion. Hart is up for a slam, fights down and they go over the ropes to the floor and you can tell Hart is leading the process. It looked fairly good and viable that they would tie since they kept the front foot together. Joey Marella (his last Rumble, R.I.P.) and Earl Hebner discuss and they declare Luger the winner, then Hart the winner. Please note that Hart got a much larger pop yet again, and legend has it that this was the referendum on who they would go with a champion in 1994. Charisma vacuum Jack Tunney came out to explain that it’s a tie to Howard Finkel and the crowd boos because they wanted Bret to win. It was rather unsatisfying, though this whole setup gave us two things: Bret vs Owen at Mania 10 and a final listen to the classic Wrestlemania theme so I can forgive on those grounds. Time for some awards:

Three Stars

1st star: Diesel – He looked like a million dollars here and this was a star making performance. Curiously, he wouldn’t even be in a match at Wrestlemania 10, instead acting as the ringside goof for Michaels. He would get a title shot at King of the Ring against Bret Hart which would be a very good match.

2nd star: Shawn Michaels – He definitely took a Masters course in Rumble-ology at the Martel-Flair University, and we as fans benefit from that.

3rd star: Bret Hart – As usual did a great job selling the injury and he made the finish work for what it was.

Morrison Award: Mo from Men on a Mission with 22:46 of pointless time

WWE Hall of Famers: 6
Deceased:  5 (Owen Hart, Randy Savage, Crush, Bam Bam Bigelow, Mabel) (Bastion Booger not included since he never entered)

Summary: If you’re done with Lex Luger, move him to something else. He was forgotten once Hart showed up, so make the decision and put Bret over here. In the post-Hogan era, the WWF sometimes lacked confidence in their decision making and during this time Vince was definitely distracted by the pending trial. This ending could have gone similar to 2005: Vince or someone else comes down to the ring and tears both quads before telling them to restart the match and have the preferred choice (in this case, Bret) win. It would have been so fitting to have a match where Kevin Nash was the big star and someone hurts their quad at the end.

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