1997 Royal Rumble Match

Revised 1997 Royal Rumble poster

When the WWE Network added a section called “Attitude Era RAWs”, they started with the 12/15/1997 edition featuring Vince McMahon’s “cure for the common show” promo. A lot of things led up to that: birth of DX, racial angles, etc. No one became a bigger star in 1997 than Stone Cold Steve Austin and this Royal Rumble is where everything launched. While he won the 1996 King of the Ring, he floundered for a bit afterward. He wasn’t even on the Summerslam main show in ’96, Austin faced Yokozuna on the pre-show. The match with Bret Hart at Survivor Series was a classic, but Austin lost. The Rumble would be his first big win in a run that would have been longer if not for his neck injury later in ’97.

This show was held in the Alamodome in San Antonio, TX to try and take advantage of it being Shawn Michaels’ hometown. The main event was his rematch with Sycho Sid for the WWF title. Business had come up from the lows two years prior, but the WWF outkicked their coverage if they thought they could fill this place without giving away a ton of tickets. Finkel announced 60,477 before the match, when the paid number is around 47,000 per Jim Cornette’s 1997 WWF Timeline interview. That means about 20%+ got in for free. Still, the 47K paid is nothing to sneeze at as business was picking up.

Speaking of business picking up, Jim Ross joins the commentary team for the first time at the Rumble. Good ol’ JR was fresh off the brief heel turn where he brought back “Razor Ramon” and “Diesel” who were different guys than Scott Hall and Kevin Nash. His angry persona had mostly died out by this January 1997 night as he joined Vince McMahon (in his final Rumble on PBP) and Jerry the King Lawler.

The Nation of Domination music hits for Crush, who is #1. His gimmick was that of a guy just out of jail being helped by being in this gang. I never quite got it. To my dismay, PG-13 does not rap him to the ring and advise what will happen if we diss the man. Ahmed Johnson is #2 off his earlier bout with Farooq that ended in a DQ when the entire NOD interfered. Johnson is wearing only 4 knee pads tonight, two on the knees and two on the thighs. Ahmed was really popular at times but always hurt and sloppy in the ring. He’s jumped by Crush, but Ahmed hulks up by shaking the ropes. Hmm, that’s been done. It’s clear neither guy can do the near elimination spots because they aren’t so nimble.

There is no clock countdown before #3 Fake Razor Ramon and Vince tells us there is an issue with the clock. It would get fixed later and this match had 90 second intervals. The big phony does the Razor “me me me” point and gets tossed right away by Ahmed. Gee, JR didn’t get a chance to talk him up. Crush is lifted over but stays in, so I guess I was wrong thinking the big guy wasn’t capable. Ahmed sees Farooq in the aisle and eliminates himself to go after him. Well, I guess they must have changed that rule after Macho’s Boner in 1992. Phineas Godwinn is #4 and he does some horrible looking grappling with Crush. So bad that I am putting up the Rick Martel Bat Signal looking for a savior.

The glass breaks and the savior is here! Stone Cold Steve Austin arrives to boos in the state of Texas, unthinkable a year later. Crush wants Austin to help on the pig farmer, but Stone Cold hits Crush by mistake (maybe) and Godwinn dumps Crush. Austin sneaks up and nails the old school Stunner on Godwinn, which is the stunner without the kick to the gut that would come later. Austin then sends Phineas out to pasture so he stands alone. Crowd starting to dig this a bit after a very slow start.

Bart Gunn is #6 and throws 3 left hands to start, followed by a whip and a really crappy looking Fameasser. Jeez, no wonder why he never got pushed. Austin regains control but Bart doesn’t go over the first time, so a clothesline to the back does the trick. Stone Cold is again alone and started doing pushups in the ring to show off and he just sits on the ropes. Hilarious stuff.

His 1996 King of the Ring final opponent Jake the Snake Roberts is #7 and JR tells us he has been in more Rumbles than anyone in history. This is his 6th Rumble out of 10. Jake throws the snake bag in the ring, but Austin doesn’t care because he is a Rattlesnake himself. A referee has to dive in and grab the bag but not before Lawler wants Jake bodyslammed on the bag. Austin gets rid of Jake before the next guy comes out, keeping with the theme.

Stone Cold did not have time for calisthenics this time before #8 British Bulldog arrives. Did you know that the Bulldog was the original planned opponent for Austin at Wrestlemania 13 since Bret Hart would have faced Shawn Michaels? Lucky break for Austin, though he still would have gotten over huge in any event. Vince McMahon plays up Bulldog’s Rumble performances the last two years, though he was also #3 star in my review of the 1991 match. Bulldog scores with a powerslam on Austin but can’t do much to follow up.

The WWF worked with the AAA promotion in Mexico at this time to fill out the Rumble match. This made sense because of the location of the event, and Pierroth Jr. is the first one of those guys at #9. Pierroth is a rudo in AAA, which is the term for a heel in lucha libre. Thank God Jim Ross is here tell us this because Vince doesn’t know who these guys are. The “junior” in his name is dropped since Vince hates that word with a passion. The three men rotate their double teams before #10 the Sultan arrives. He really is the Rumble’s Forrest Gump: he’s been a Headshrinker, a community activist (I guess), and now a speechless Middle Eastern guy. Pierroth grapevines the ropes with his legs to avoid going out, while Bulldog and Austin continue to battle.

Music hits for #11 and it’s Mil Mascaras who gets no response until the huge stadium crowd can actually see who it is. The Mexican legend was 54 at this point, meaning Terry Funk will not be the oldest guy in the match for a change. Mil takes a horrible looking belly to belly from the Sultan in a rather unlikely matchup of two future WWE Hall of Famers.

The IC champ Hunter Hearst Helmsley is #12 fresh off defending against Goldust. This was during the very brief period when Mr. Hughes was his bodyguard. That lasted a month before Chyna showed up. Hughes is now one of the best wrestling trainers in North America. The Bulldog sends the Sultan home, while HHH does his patented “hang on the ropes, but no one cares” move. The guy was just not over yet. Helmsley takes a 2nd rope forearm from Austin where Stone Cold does some non-middle finger gestures while on the ropes.

Owen Hart is lucky #13 and goes after Austin. This year would change their lives forever. The Summerslam piledriver that nearly paralyzed Austin was some shoddy work by Owen and ultimately cut Stone Cold’s career short. Hurting the hottest babyface in the company probably didn’t do much for Owen politically. Bulldog is over to assist Owen, and has Austin almost out, but the King of Harts comes by and pushes the Bulldog out, eliminating his own partner. Davey Boy is pissed on the floor and this would start the angle leading to the Hart Foundation forming after Wrestlemania.

Another familiar face is Goldust at #14 in his Rumble match debut. Austin works him over in this rematch from Starrcade 1993. Stone Cold worked this match perfectly: when you interact with as many other people in the match as possible it makes you seem much more important. That’s straight out of the 1992 Flair playbook and is something that should be done with at least one guy every year. Mil Mascaras and Owen Hart face off, and they never actually had a match in Mexico when Owen spent time there as the Blue Blazer years prior.

Young Cibernetico is #15, fresh faced at 21 years old. He goes after Mascaras who is a childhood hero of his and old enough to be his father. Mil and Pierroth eventually dump the youngster out,  then Pierroth is eliminated by Mascaras. Good ol’ Mil needs more, and goes up top and hits a dive to the outside on Pierroth, concluding the AAA focused section of our program. Somehow its concluded that Mascaras eliminated himself by doing this, and I don’t really care too much to examine that further.

As all that was going on, Wildman Marc Mero was #16 and he comes in and just stands there as Goldust eliminates HHH. That was odd. Probably didn’t want to steal heat off that program. Then Mero and Goldust battle to see who had the greatest somewhat androgynous gimmick: Johnny B. Badd or early Goldust. Owen connects with a beautiful enziguri on Austin.

The Latin Lover is #17 and the then-Mexican Light Heavyweight champion is greeted with a huge kick from Owen Hart. JR tells us that apparently Mero and Sable have reconciled, which was an angle that started on Shotgun Saturday Night with Rocky Maivia as a background figure. Owen skins the cat, and Vince buries that by saying he did it only because he saw Shawn Michaels do it. Ok then. Owen does get rid of Goldust, before Farooq steps in at #18. He backdrops a charging Latin Lover out quickly before starting a brawl with Austin that really gets the crowd amped. They love their heel vs heel fights, but Ahmed Johnson runs in with comically oversized 2X4 to beat Farooq out of there. So I guess outside guys can eliminate people in the match again? I really value consistency and I wish that would have been cleaned up. Vader would have taken out like 25% of the field the prior year with those rules in place. Stone Cold eliminated Owen and Mero at the same time, which would have been nice to see live.

Savio Vega is #19 and renews his early 1996 rivalry with the Rattlesnake. Ross references their strap match at the infamous In Your House: Beware of Dog PPV. Vega gets a slingshot, but Austin responds with a stun gun. A clothesline to the back puts out the Puerto Rican star and Austin waves for more people to come take him on as he lies on the mat. That is so cool, and finally a replay is shown of Owen and Mero’s elimination earlier.

A pre-Road Dogg Jesse Jammes is #20 and he goes to the apron and hangs on, but Austin elbows him off immediately because he’s smart. Stone Cold gives the “up yours” sign to the crowd. Ross says that this crowd “doesn’t appreciate his attitude” which is so funny in retrospect since those are the things that would make the company a warehouse full of money in the next three years.

Austin going thru TSA security?
Austin going thru TSA security?

Bret Hart’s music hits for #21 and Austin can’t believe it and it shows in his face. The Hitman controls for this whole segment, with an inverted atomic drop, a clothesline. A Sharpshooter follows as the countdown for #22 begins, and it’s Jerry Lawler coming in from the ringside commentary table. This is one of the most well-done comedy spots in wrestling history and Lawler is the perfect guy to do it. He says “it takes a king…” and he takes off the headset to hit the ring. Once in, Hart leaves Austin to give Lawler two uppercuts and the King falls over and out. Back to the table, he puts on the headset and finishes his sentence with “to know a king”. Great stuff and perfectly spotted too since now Hart and Austin have more 1 on 1 time. The Hart-Austin showdown really makes Stone Cold look like the babyface overcoming odds here while Bret is the bully taking advantage. This wouldn’t fully come to fruition until the famous Wrestlemania double turn.

The Fake Diesel is #23. You may know him as Dr. Issac Yankem before, and Kane afterward. The year 1997 would be a good one for him. He was actually not bad as fake Diesel, but the gimmick never had a chance. That’s likely why he was chosen to be Kane. “This man can do the job” is what Vince says. Well yeah, on like every 2014 episode of RAW as I recall he did the job. As contractually stipulated, the Hitman goes sternum first into the corner buckles from an Irish whip.

Another native Texan joins the fray in Terry Funk at #24, doing a one shot deal for this match following up on his brother Dory’s appearance in 1996. He would become the ECW champion in three months after the Barely Legal PPV. Austin and Funk go at it, as they did the night before on Shotgun Saturday Night after Stone Cold’s match with Goldust. The Funker hangs in, getting shots in on Bret Hart. Those two would meet later in 1997 in Amarillo at one of Terry’s many retirement shows.

Rocky Maivia is #25 and goes right after Austin and fake Diesel and is a babyface house of fire. Vince on commentary is all over Rocky’s junk, so while the crowd cheers him, the way he’s talked about is very annoying. The Rock’s 1997 was examined in more detail here. Funk shows his craftiness by properly balancing himself so as to not go over the ropes.

With the arrival of Mankind at #26, I am struck by the incredible group of six in the ring: Fake Diesel (Kane), Bret Hart, Steve Austin, Terry Funk, the Rock, and Mick Foley. Four Hall of Famers, and two future ones in the Rock and Kane. Terry gets hung up in the ropes in a near hangman situation with Mankind, a guy who knows the danger of that spot. Austin hits a textbook vertical suplex on Bret. Gee, he must have watched Dory Funk from last year. Another Funk is #27 in Flash Funk. “No relation as you can tell” says JR. Bret hits a sick piledriver on Austin, but luckily Stone Cold’s head was high enough to take the move. Flash does a dive onto Diesel and Terry to make his mark.

The #1 star of 1996 Vader is #28. Flash interrupts Vader who gets annoyed by that and pounds him, then Austin and then Bret. Henry Godwinn is #28, and I’ve noticed that there are not many tag wrestlers filling out the ranks this time. The Godwinns are the only ones. Flash and Rocky battle in the corner, which is weird because they had kind of a minor alliance at this point, usually reserved for the Shotgun show.

The Undertaker is the final entrant at #30 and this is his first Rumble in four years. The Deadman works his way through the ranks battling Vader, then longtime rival Mankind, then Austin, then Vader again. Vader defeated Taker earlier in the night after taking Paul Bearer as his manager. Stone Cold gets a chokeslam from Undertaker for his trouble, then Vader eats a chokeslam of his own. Here’s Diesel/Kane and he gets one too. Flash Funk tries a crossbody on Vader like a moron and gets caught. Vader lifts him over his head and chucks him no-look to the floor. That looked pretty cool.

Austin and Terry Funk trade chops on the corner as there is a Henry Godwinn near-elimination spot. Guys, we don’t need that. Just get his ass out of there. The Undertaker obliges that request. The ring is literally all current or future HOFs except Vader. Mankind gets a Mandible Claw on Rocky to push him out. Poor Terry Funk has his head caught in the ropes AGAIN. The guy will bump for anything, and it’s always been that way. King says he’d love to see Mankind and Funk as a team, which would happen in early 1998 but for now they battle and Funk goes out but Mankind hangs in until Undertaker gives him a boot to the floor from the apron. As only they can, Mankind and Funker engage in a wild brawl outside the ring which draws the attention of every official in the match.

While that’s going on, the Hitman eliminates Austin cleanly on the other side of the ring, but nobody sees it. Putting on my kayfabe hat, I would suggest they needed more officials or perhaps left one available to monitor the action in much the same way the Secretary of Agriculture sits out the State of the Union address in case of a catastrophe.

Austin jumps back in and eliminates Vader and Undertaker in a very similar way that Roman Reigns infamously did to Kane and Big Show in 2015. Undertaker hit first, so the Final Four is technically Vader, Austin, Hart, and Fake Diesel. Hart is busy taking out Diesel and Stone Cold takes advantage to sneak up on Bret and eliminate him to win the match. Even if this crowd cheered Austin’s apparent elimination earlier, they popped pretty good for Stone Cold’s win. You can start to smell the change in the air. That and the awesome Tex Mex food in San Antonio.

The Hitman is pissed and shoves a referee and this starts “whiny Bret”. He leaves the ring and goes to commentary to scream at Vince, who sits there and takes it. Fortunately he doesn’t spit on Vince this time. This set up the promotion for 1997 which is probably my favorite WWF year of the post-Hulkamania era. Onto the awards:

Three Stars:

1st star: Stone Cold Steve Austin – This was right there with Rick Martel and Ric Flair for great Rumble performances. What a shame the neck injury would limit him in future years. Between the push-ups spot, the facial reaction to Bret, his ability to have his hand in every pot, this was an even greater star-making performance than the King of the Ring and the Austin 3:16 speech. It showed he could actually be a babyface, which he hadn’t been in his career since he went to WCW in 1991.

2nd star: Bret Hart – He helped create the Stone Cold monster and is always an excellent ring general in these matches. The Hitman isn’t big on the near elimination spots, but he always brings things to the table.

3rd star: Terry Funk – I should just rename the 3rd star the Dick Murdoch award for legends that I mark like crazy for in the match. He was doing his usual crazy stuff getting hung up in the ropes. The combo of him and Mankind made the wild brawl seem even more plausible.

Morrison Award: Fake Diesel, who went 17:49 with no eliminations. Don’t worry Mr. Jacobs, things will get better for you soon.

Hall of Famers: 8, though there are many more who will be inducted someday

Deceased: 3 (Owen Hart, British Bulldog, Crush)

Summary: Bret Hart was the obvious choice to win this match, and was infamously picked by Vic Venom in the RAW magazine to do so. In part because of that, the finish was switched in an early Russo-like swerve. This one actually worked because it helped to elevate Austin even more. The entire plan was put into flux when Shawn Michaels forfeited the title due to “injury” and world title roulette ensued. That too also seemed natural in retrospect and it led to Hart-Austin at Mania 13 so it can’t be called a bad thing by any standard. The willingness to try out new things and just go with it is probably the biggest reason why I love 1997 WWF. Despite the slow start, this match is highly recommended and slots in behind 1992 for best Rumble match to date.

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