In business there is a saying, “you have to spend money to make money” which was close to the heart of WWF’s early 1998 strategy to change the tide of the Monday Night wars. By the time of the 1998 Royal Rumble, Monday Night RAW had lost in the ratings to WCW Monday Nitro for about 70 straight weeks. Vince McMahon knew his 1997 product was better with the rise of Stone Cold Steve Austin, but needed a way to get eyeballs on his product. Enter the controversial Mike Tyson, who was banned from boxing at the time for the ear biting incident with Evander Holyfield.
Tyson was merely a spectator in a luxury box at the Rumble, but his appearance on RAW the next night and shoving match with Austin drew a ton of mainstream attention. It is the same concept used at the first Wrestlemania: bring in a celebrity (Mr. T) and use him to get eyeballs on your top star (Hogan) and hopefully those new viewers will continue to watch. The $3 million paid to Tyson was a successful gambit and the ratings did go up but they did not beat Nitro until two weeks after Wrestlemania. It also helped that WWF had the Midas touch in 1998, when everything seemed to work and everyone was over with fans. Even Jeff Jarrett.
The main story leading into the Rumble centered around Stone Cold and his constant sneak attacks of everyone on the roster, hitting them all with Stone Cold Stunners. This was being lapped up by audiences everywhere. Just about every Rumble entrant had a problem with Austin, who was certainly going to win the match and main event Wrestlemania 14. This story created some uncertainty with regard to the inevitable.
The Rumble was held in San Jose, CA with hosts Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler as we finally say goodbye to Vince on PBP.
I love any historical callback and the start of this match is reminiscent of 1989 as tag partners go at it. Cactus Jack is out at #1 as Mick Foley had rolled out that persona for WWF fans the prior September at the first MSG RAW. He would face Chainsaw Charlie at #2, who is just Terry Funk wearing pantyhose on his head. For the purposes of this match, I will refer to him as Funk even if he’s carrying a chainsaw to the ring. The two start out with a chair swinging duel and hit each other in the head. As a fan, this makes me totally uncomfortable now but at least both men are still alive and functional. I would go crazy for that stuff at the time even if I knew it hurt because I thought it wouldn’t do as much damage if you took the shot on the top of the head. But I’m clearly not a doctor.
Tom Brandi at #3 might be one of the all time Rumble jobber moments as Funk and Jack just stop and toss him out right away so they can continue to fight each other. Cactus backdrops out of a Funk piledriver try, then does a vertical suplex to Funk through two chairs that he set up. The Funker is again a master of hooking his leg on the ropes to do the near-elimination spot. The hardcore stuff really got the crowd going early.
And now here’s The Rock, at #4 out to the Nation of Domination music, no “smell what the Rock is cookin'” or any of that. Crowd chanting “Rocky sucks” but they didn’t know any better. Rock gains an early edge but Cactus gets him with a trash can, then puts the can over Rock’s head and treats him like a pinata. The People’s Champ falls through the ropes, but he would get a measure of revenge a year later on Foley by killing him with a chair dozens of times in that infamous I Quit match at the 1999 Rumble.
Mosh of the Headbangers is #5 and gets a chair thrown at him by Funk while he’s coming down the aisle. As if that isn’t enough, Funk tries a moonsault on Mosh but misses. Phineas Godwinn is #6 and Ross says he’s “a biscuit away from 315 pounds”. I’m about an Oh Henry bar away from 235. The pig farmer works with the Rock on Mosh as everything starts to settle for the match.
Disciples of Apocalypse member 8 Ball is #7 and he goes after the Rock as the Gang “Warz” continue. Cactus is low-bridged by Funk and goes over and out, but it’s the not the last we see of Mick Foley. Lawler channels his inner Cronkite to tell the audience that someone got to Stone Cold in the back and beat him up, continuing that one versus all storyline for Austin. The Rock looks to have Funker out, but he hooks the legs on the ropes like a pro again, and even Lawler gives plaudits to his longtime rival.
Justin Hawk Bradshaw is #8 and he is still with the Blackjacks trying to be Stan Hansen and failing. Funk skins the cat but can’t get himself up over the top, so he kind of does the Rey Mysterio 619 bit through the middle rope. If you’re over 50, you’re allowed to do that. Owen Hart is #9 and gets jumped in the aisle by Jeff Jarrett, who at this point is NWA North American champion. While they later would be close friends, these two guys had a short feud in early 1998. JR declares Jarrett a “backjumper” and I looked it up and still don’t know what he means. Maybe it’s a guy who founds unsuccessful wrestling promotions?
Steve Blackman is #10 but the story of the next couple of minutes is Terry Funk bumping for anyone and everyone. Blackman tosses him, but Funk hangs on only to take a piledriver from Mosh. Bradshaw them kills Funk with a lariat, though it was mostly offscreen. D-Lo Brown is #11 and the 2nd of five Nation members in the match. There are a lot of tag guys in this match but it didn’t seem to hurt things. The Rock stomps a mudhole in Blackman in the corner, then he goes at it with D-Lo in a bit of a surprise. I love stuff like that because it brings out the “every man for himself” concept and makes sense in the heat of the moment.
Things kind of stop with the big Kurrgan at #12. He was originally a Truth Commission enforcer but that group didn’t work because Col. DeBeers was the only apartheid-related gimmick to ever work on a big stage in wrestling. Lawler says they would be smart to gang up on the big guy as JR says that was a strategy used against Andre the Giant. And that’s 100% true, if you’ve read the review of the 1990 match. Mosh is dumped by Kurrgan, and there is no update on the status of Owen Hart.
Marc Mero is lucky #13 and the year 1998 would not be so kind to him. Sable got over and he was jealous, but it never translated into anything for him. By the end of the year he wasn’t doing anything. Kurrgan eliminates Blackman, and Mero and Funk duel with punches in the center. D-Lo and the Rock have a row in the corner, but Brown lands a Greco-Roman shot to the groin on the future ruler of the Nation.
Ken Shamrock is #14 and he was crazy popular at this time period, but the heel turn late in 1998 would completely ruin him forever. In fact, I even blame that for his lame fight last year with Kimbo Slice. He hits kicks on Kurrgan and everyone decides to gang up and put Kurrgan out, who is predictably angry about this. Despite the ring being crowded, Rock lands a half-People’s Elbow on Funk, only running the ropes on one side. That made me laugh and I had to rewind and watch that two more times.
Thrasher of the Headbangers is #15 but I am drawn to how much of a doofus Marc Mero is, just standing in the center dancing around like a boxer in action without an opponent. JR and Lawler discuss Mike Tyson and the King says he could knock out Tyson. No joke though, Lawler always had one of the best looking punches of any wrestler ever. Much of that gets forgotten as the years pass.
Mankind is #16 as Mick Foley makes his second appearance and he promptly avenges Cactus Jack by ending Funk’s night. Shamrock pounds on the Rock, who he had seemingly defeated to win the IC title earlier in the night but was DQ’d for having a foreign object. The Artist Formerly Known as Goldust, now more Bluedust, is #17 and Mero is still looking like a complete jackass in the ring which prompts chants for Sable. TAFKA Goldust dumps Mankind for Foley elimination #2.
The great Aztec warrior Jeff Jarrett is #18 and his representation of the NWA prompts JR to say that “Lou Thesz is nauseous”. Owen Hart comes roaring back and hits Jarrett with a heel kick, and Mero literally gets in the way of the showdown. Jeez Marc, just eliminate yourself already. Jarrett gets an edge but struts and Owen sneaks up and does the Lord’s work by getting rid of Jarrett. Ugh, can you imagine Jarrett main eventing Wrestlemania? Yeah, that would have turned the tide in the ratings.
Proving that not all legends appearances are memorable, here’s the Honky Tonk Man at #19, out to his original music which is such an awesome song. But here’s Chyna and Triple H, who is injured at this point. Chyna swings a crutch at Owen Hart who catches it, but HHH connects with the other crutch to eliminate the King of Harts. Trips then does a crotch chop because he needed to do TV14 stuff to get over even as guys today are micromanaged to death to go with the PG rating. Rock gets a low blow on Shamrock and throws him out cleanly. Good for the Rock, he finally got one over on Shamrock. He’d do it again weeks later with this vicious chair shot.
Ahmed Johnson is #20 and JR points out he will be the first guy ever in the Rumble wearing earrings. The newest Nation member Mark Henry is #21 and is one of 17 guys new to the Rumble match. This is where JR says the memorable line “Mark Henry is handling the big Johnson”. JR points out this is Honky’s 2nd appearance, which King says is “like a rookie” which tells me Lawler doesn’t know what the term means. There is no #22 and Lawler thinks that was Austin’s spot, missed because of how he was jumped. Mark Henry gets a nice shine with eliminations of Ahmed and Phineas Godwinn, though referee Jack Doan took a legitimate boot to the head from Godwinn’s exit, sustaining a concussion.
Kama Mustafa is #23 and now the Nation has 4 guys in the match. But Kama and D-Lo battle it out anyway, showing that the unity isn’t there for now. I figured this might be a good chance for them to bond. Rock and Honky battle in the corner, with HTM no doubt sore that Rock didn’t want to be Honky’s protege a year earlier.
The glass breaks at #24 signalling Stone Cold Steve Austin. As it turned out, Los Boricuas had beat up Skull of the DOA, thinking all white men with bald heads look alike. Everyone in the ring stops because they all have a problem with Austin. They’re all just standing there like they’re waiting for Godot or something. By the way, it’s not absurd to make a reference to Samuel Beckett and wrestling since Beckett drove a young Andre the Giant to school in the late 1950s.
With the attention toward the ramp, Austin sneaks up from behind and finally gets rid of Mero then 8 Ball. Austin chokes D-Lo with his vest and begins to settle in as Mike Tyson is shown applauding from the luxury box he is sharing with Shane McMahon. JR says Tyson is the toughest boxer ever in an effort to put him over, but everyone knows Tyson’s major weakness as a boxer was he would wear down in longer fights and needed to finish guys early. Also, I’m pretty sure Muhammad Ali has him in the toughness category.
Henry Godwinn is #25 and goes after Austin, while Rock and Kama have a go in a corner. Rock is taking no prisoners in this match and doesn’t care who he might offend. Savio Vega is #26 and all of Los Boricuas follow him to take on Austin and fail. Savio avoids a stunner but his pals just sort of leave. Yes, that’s Los Boricaus in a nutshell there.
The leader of the Nation of Domination Farooq is #27 and all 5 Nation members are in, but he goes after Rock, D-Lo and Kama as the slow burn toward Farooq’s ouster continues. JR annoys me by putting over Bradshaw. HE’S NOT STAN HANSEN! Stop trying to make fetch happen, JR. Rock and Austin end up on the outside and the Rock gets an edge putting Stone Cold’s head to the guard rail.
Dude Love completes the Mick Foley trifecta at #28 and eliminates Bradshaw without fanfare. Thanks, Dude. With a little more room to roam, Rock now hits the FULL People’s Elbow on D-Lo. I have total admiration for the Rock getting all his stuff in for this match. Chainz is #29 as JR plugs Tyson being on RAW the next night. Farooq gets rid of D-Lo Brown without any attention at all paid by commentary.
Out to a mild pop, Vader is #30 and he immediately throws out Honky Tonk Man, much to the chagrin of cousin Jerry Lawler. Vader and the Rock have a go and that’s an interesting matchup, which did happen later that year in King of the Ring qualifying. Rock won that one with some assistance from Mark Henry. Austin’s rampage continues as he dispatches Thrasher, Kama, and his old rival Savio Vega in that order. TAFKA Goldust eliminates Vader and what a fall from grace for the big guy. Henry Godwinn and TAFKA Goldust are out, then Chainz gets sent over by Austin onto the ring steps. Ouch.
Weird moment here for the still very green Mark Henry, who goes over the top but seemingly stays in and even puts one foot back in the ring. Farooq kind of just pushes him out and Henry just leaves. Clearly some sort of screwup there as they were gearing up for the finish.
The final four are Dude Love, Austin, Farooq and the Rock. The first three are WWE HOFers, and the last will be whenever he wants it. Austin and Dude whip the two Nation members into each other in the center, then Austin and Dude battle with Foley getting the mandible claw. A low blow by Austin to break, then Farooq clotheslines Dude Love out for Foley’s third and final elimination. The Rock wisely sits back and lets Farooq do the work here, not because he’s lazy but because he understands the Royal Rumble game theory. Well, not for long since he sneaks up on Farooq to eliminate him. Gotta take your shot while you can.
The final one on one with the Rock and Austin is pretty brief as this was not the final match on the card since the world title match between Undertaker and Shawn Michaels would follow. Rock looks to be out, but he hangs on and comes back only to eat a Stunner as only the Rock can. Stone Cold puts a bow on it by sending Rock to the showers to the delight of Mike Tyson, again shown cheering in the luxury box. After a beat, they cut to Michael “Frosted Tips” Cole for comment from Tyson. “Cold Stone is my man,” he says. I don’t care about the syntax, Tyson was and is a legit fan. I love that he mentioned Bruno Sammartino the next night which Vince McMahon had to hate since he had been trying to bury Bruno for a decade by that point. Onto the awards:
1st star: The Rock – Landing two People’s Elbows in a crowded Rumble match showed his dedication. Going over 50 minutes after having a match earlier is quite an achievement. He was elevated by this performance just as he was by everything else he did during the time period. This is my favorite era of the Rock.
2nd star: Stone Cold Steve Austin – The straw that stirs the drink didn’t disappoint and the whole match was centered around him. He was definitely limited with the neck injury but you wouldn’t have known it just from watching.
3rd star: Mick Foley – Any guy who can make three different shots in the match and have them all matter gets a star in my book.
Dick Murdoch Award (to recognize a legend in the match): I am inventing this award for Terry Funk because he was fantastic here. I can’t endorse the chair shots but everything else was great.
Morrison Award: Thrasher wins this with a time of 28:08, and mainly because he came in after the gang elimination of Kurrgan.
WWE Hall of Famers: 5 (Mick Foley, Terry Funk, Steve Austin, Farooq, Kama)
Deceased: 1 (Owen Hart)
Summary: Fantastic Rumble match that utilized all the star power available despite a roster that was a bit thin. It was a fitting start to one of the hottest years the WWF would ever have. Highest recommendation.