By the end of 1995, the WWF had made some changes in order to turn the tide on what had been a very depressing year in all areas. Diesel was out after a failed year long run as champ, and Bret Hart was back in. There would be no more main events featuring King Mabel. But one thing would not change: the determination to push Shawn Michaels as the top guy and set him up for the Wrestlemania match with the Hitman. The 1996 Royal Rumble was a journey as I sorted out my feelings about that development, which seemed pretty inevitable given the lack of choices at the time.
The match marked HBK’s return after a storyline concussion suffered in a match against Owen Hart on the 11/19/1995 RAW. That angle was shot about a month after the infamous assault on Shawn by “several” (in reality, one guy) Marines in Syracuse, NY where he suffered legitimate injuries. The injury on RAW was played off so well that many fans were convinced that it was real, and the show stopped for a lengthy period with Michaels passed out in the ring. It was a well thought out storyline, but I don’t understand the need to play up the “male stripper” character as he did in a pre-Rumble promo. While that might appeal to the female audience and homosexual males, it could be a bit alienating to the young mostly heterosexual crowd in 1995/96.
The show aired from Fresno, CA which would be the first of two times in three years that a northern California city would host the Rumble. Vince McMahon and 1989 #2 star Mr. Perfect handled the commentary.
Hunter Hearst Helmsley was #1 due to a DQ loss on the pre-show Free For All to Duke the Dumpster Droese, who got #30 as a result. Henry O. Godwinn was #2 so it was a temporary rematch from the December 1995 In Your House show. Triple H was doing his Flair best, doing the flop in the corner and staying on the top buckle. Perfect references that Godwinn was in the final five last year.
This is the first Rumble where each wrestler gets their music played on their entrance which is probably for the best for the crowd reactions. “Hail to the Chief” heralds the arrival of Bob Backlund at #3, he of 57 seconds of action the last two years. Vince reminds us that he has the record from his 1993 run as Perfect says crazy Bob is in as good a shape as anyone except him. For his sake, I hope the Lloyd’s of London insurance people didn’t catch that remark.
Jerry the King Lawler is #4 and is greeted with “Burger King” chants, although his leopard print tights are more ridiculous. The King has an idea to grab Godwinn’s slop bucket and throw it at everyone, but Henry kicks him and takes it back as the ring clears. Godwinn just chucks it on everyone. What the hell is Vince McMahon’s obsession with hillbillies and slop? Man, he’s got childhood issues that need to be resolved.
“Start your engines!” proclaims Vince because it’s Bob Holly aka Sparky Plugg at #5. Not much is happening in terms of near eliminations as King Mabel enters at #6. By all accounts he was a nice man, but also a symbol of 1995 ineptitude by main eventing Summerslam, the King of the Ring fiasco with the Philadelphia fans rejecting everything, and also breaking Undertaker’s orbital bone. Perfect says they’ll need to call AAA to get Mabel out, though Vince would literally call a different AAA to fill out the ’97 Rumble.
Jake the Snake Roberts is #7 and wearing a vest, but he immediately gets the crowd going by tossing his snake into the ring which causes everyone inside to flee, except for Lawler who gets caught and has the snake draped on him. An attendant is there to collect the snake, and he’s the MVP so far because he’s the only one to eliminate anything. The King disappears under the ring for a while, a trope I despise in these matches, for reasons I will cover in more detail and vitriol when we get to the 1999 match.
If you know me from this blog you know that I love random old legends, so my wish is granted with Dory Funk Jr. at #8. A couple of facts about Dory: he was born in Hammond, Indiana, the setting for the movie A Christmas Story, and he had a 4 1/2 year reign as NWA World Champion from 1969 to 1973. Terry was invited too, but Vince said he was in Germany with Bruce Willis, a reference I couldn’t quite understand. Dory and Backlund go at it as the 1970s come to life. Those two actually teamed up in 2001 for a match against Tatsumi Fujinami and Steve Keirn in what has to be the most random match I’ve ever seen. Lawler continues to hide, so Vince calls him a coward. Even if he himself would do the same thing three years later. Can you tell yet how much I am going to rip the 1999 match?
A bearded Yokozuna is #9 as maybe, just maybe someone will get eliminated to get this thing moving. Backlund had the chicken wing on Dory, but Yoko decided that was enough and tossed the former WWF champion. This allowed Yoko to have his fat guy duel with Mabel in the corner. The crowd is chanting for the DDT, which is a reminder that no matter what happens with Jake the Snake, he’ll always be over with the crowd. It’s reminiscent of the first Rumble match.
The 1-2-3 Kid cost Razor Ramon the IC title earlier in the night, so when he’s out at #10 Ramon is right behind him. Odd fact: the real Razor Scott Hall never appeared in a Royal Rumble match. The Kid flees on all sides to get away from Ramon before Mabel corners him and decides he’s seen enough.
Takao Omori is #11 and is visiting from All Japan as Vince said “not much is known” about him. Tanks for nuttin, Vinny. He gets chopped to hell by Mabel. Poor freaking Yokozuna, who has to be over 600 lbs at this point, needs an Uber to get across the ring. He’s so gassed Jake the Snake is able to get shots on him and he falls down. In 1993, superhuman effort was needed to bring Yoko down.
Savio Vega greets Mabel with a spinning heel kick after entering at #12. Yokozuna gets his wind back and takes advantage, dumping Mabel to a good reaction. Omori is pulled out by Jake, who was pushed by HHH. That “half elimination” of Omori would be the only one recorded by Triple H in 48 minutes. Dory appears out of nowhere and delivers a textbook vertical suplex on Savio that I enjoyed greatly.
Lucky #13 was the man they call Vader, a guy who had anything but luck in his entire WWF run. Assaulting interviewers didn’t help, but after the initial push there wasn’t much for him beyond a good big man match with Undertaker at IYH: Canadian Stampede in July 1997. This is his debut in WWF. I was expecting him to go nuts right off the bat, but the only elimination is Savio gently lifting the near 55 year old Dory Funk Jr. over the top rope to the floor.
And now for a baffling entrant: Doug Gilbert, brother of the late Eddie Gilbert, is up from the USWA at #14. Perfect references that he teamed with Eddie in the early 80s in WWF, about as aged a reference as Vince would allow, I guess. Jake the Snake goes for a DDT on Gilbert, but is clotheslined out by Vader. Lawler is still hiding, probably afraid that now will be the time Gilbert shoots on him. Of course, that won’t happen for another 3 years. For now, Gilbert is there to get destroyed by everyone’s big moves. A chokeslam follows, and a press slam by Vader shows Gilbert to a painful exit.
More baffling entries: The Squat Team 1 and 2 are #s 15 and 16 and are eliminated quickly by Vader and Yokozuna. These guys were better known as the Headhunters and bounced around everywhere: Japan, Mexico, Puerto Rico, but this was their only big shot for one of the big two American promotions. During their brief time in the ring, Yokozuna and Vader fought as Jim Cornette pleaded with two of his proteges to stop and they did turn their attention back to the Squat Team.
The man who put HBK on the shelf is #17 Owen Hart. Savio Vega tries a dropkick on Vader, which is shrugged off and really only served to piss the big guy off. Vader and Yokozuna both hit an avalanche on Savio, then him Vega with a Vader splash and a Yoko leg drop. Vader mercifully dumps the Puerto Rican star after that beating.
Shawn Michaels is #18 and it should be noted that Jake Roberts got a bigger pop than Shawn did. Surprising since this was the big return, but as I said his character was extremely hard for much of the audience to like. And what a shock: HBK goes and works with HHH and the 1-2-3 Kid. Kliq rules. Yoko and Vader start fighting again near the ropes, and HBK hits a shoulder block to eliminate BOTH guys. That seemed a bit preposterous. But wait, then Michaels press slams 1-2-3 Kid out of the ring. I just can’t buy him as a super strong Hogan type who comes and cleans house.
Hakushi arrives at #19 as Yoko and Vader brawl on the outside. Vader gets away and jumps back in the ring and goes on a rampage, even press slamming Michaels over the top rope to apparently eliminate him. This was repeated on everyone else as the crowd was definitely confused, thinking HBK was eliminated. But it was disallowed even if in prior years it would be a valid way to be taken out. Cough 1989 Hogan cough. Cough 1992 Hogan cough. Shawn gets his heat back somewhat by taking two tries to toss Cornette over the top.
The Native American Tatanka is #20 as I am shocked he’s still around at this point. Wow, did that heel turn just kill him off in a hurry. Hakushi hits the beautiful handspring elbow on Owen Hart. Always loved Hakushi’s look and was very glad I got to see him wrestle live at ECW Heatwave ’98. Sadly, Owen puts him out as Michaels goes over the top on a Triple H punch, but he hangs on.
Mr. Perfect references the jock strap on Aldo Montoya’s head at #21, and Michaels is on the outside looking for Lawler. He finds the King and gets him into the ring so he can uppercut him right back out. Thank God. I cannot stress enough how much I hate the “guys hang around outside the ring for long periods” because what’s to stop everyone from doing that? It’s just lazy booking.
The 1994 MVP is back in a Rumble match at #22 and Diesel wastes zero time getting rid of Tatanka. He bumps into alleged best friend Michaels and slugs him for good measure. Then he saves Shawn a few minutes later, probably as a way of saying he’s sorry.
Kama the Supreme Voodoo Pimping Machine is #23 but I am distracted by Bob Holly still being there. He was rarely on TV at that point, yet he is in the match forever. He was a nominal babyface, but acted more as a heel. Bob Holly: a man of contradictions.
Some guy named Ringmaster is #24 who looks a lot like Steve Austin. Perfect proclaims that Austin will win, a bet that would pay off three times in the future. Austin takes a slingshot from Holly but doesn’t go out, then knees ol’ Sparky in the back to end Holly’s pointless run.
Funny stuff now with Barry Horowitz at #25 as Perfect goes on a shoot-like rant stating that if Horowitz wins this he’ll quit. Some interesting interactions here: HHH hits a 2nd rope clothesline on Austin, then Owen Hart has his first go-round with the future Stone Cold. Diesel backdrops out HHH ending his long tenure at 48 minutes. My God, if you’re going to be in that long at least do something. I couldn’t tell you one thing he did beyond working other Kliq guys and I’m literally taking 5-6 pages of notes on every one of these matches.
Fatu looks to make a difference at #26 as Vince says if we want to find out the last 4 entrants to call Ray Rougeau on the Superstar line. You’ll feel like a sucker when you see who they are. Owen and HBK try to suplex the other out by the ropes without anyone getting an edge.
Do you like meta comedy? I do so I was delighted when Isaac Yankem, the future Kane and Fake Diesel, went after the real Diesel on his entry. Owen Hart dumps Horowitz, sparing Perfect for us all. Then the King of Harts hits the enziguri on HBK, the very move that put him out. But then just as suddenly, Owen is eliminated by HBK and you can’t even really see it. Ok, that’s probably a flub. What’s not a flub is Austin hitting a huge clothesline on Michaels in the first meeting of two men who would main event the only Wrestlemania I attended live.
Marty Jannetty is #28 but doesn’t go after his former tag partner right away. Oh sure, they have a little battle in the middle of the ring but their heads collide and they both go down. The reunion ends with the British Bulldog’s arrival at #29 when he gets rid of Marty. That Ringmaster guy was eliminated off camera. Yeah, he’ll only make this company a veritable crap ton of money by the end of the decade, no need for him to be on camera. Vince is “uncertain” if Austin is gone, but Fatu definitely is, at the hands of the evil dentist.
Duke Droese is the last guy at #30 as HBK and Bulldog battle outside the ring. From nowhere, Owen Hart reappears to beat up Shawn some more. Back inside, a press slam by Bulldog on Shawn is stopped by Diesel. Droese goes out as quick as he came in.
The Final Four: Kama, Bulldog, Diesel, and HBK. Well, Kama certainly fits the “random guy in the Final Four” profile. I should call that the Brian Knobbs Award. Michaels is tossed over but slides back in lightning fast and clotheslines Bulldog out. Diesel works on Kama and puts him out, but Shawn takes full advantage of that distraction to superkick Diesel who tumbles over and out to give HBK his 2nd straight Rumble victory. The new tweener Diesel is pissed off and takes out his frustration on Bulldog in the aisle. He yells at Dok Hendrix that the only reason why Shawn won was because he “allowed it to happen.” Well, that and a miserable run as a main eventer.
Back in the ring, Michaels is doing the male stripper thing. And I mean literally as he sheds the trunks that go over the top of his tights. Diesel comes into the ring and holds his hand up, but it’s only for Shawn to high five. That was weird. I am uncertain if Kevin Nash had given notice by then, but a full heel turn right then might have been better. Time for some awards:
1st star: Vader – Just a complete monster and a helluva debut. Too bad they had to write him off the next night with the attack on Gorilla Monsoon for some reason.
2nd star: Shawn Michaels – This pick is not with a lot of inspiration. It lacked the goodies of ’92 and ’95. There was something missing here, but still better than most guys in the match.
3rd star: Owen Hart – He was pretty relevant in the ring, and came back later to add a little bit of drama to what seemed like an inevitable HBK win.
Morrison Award: Bob Holly, with 39 minutes and 35 seconds of some of the most irrelevant action you will ever see. Though I suppose the face/heel dynamic of the man was mildly interesting.
Summary: I thought I would enjoy this match more than I did. Trust me, I am not burned out on these matches, it just seemed like the magic wasn’t there this time. Pass on this edition of the Rumble, I am almost certain that any objective fan will enjoy the 1997 edition more.