By the time the 2001 Royal Rumble arrived, the WWF was very close to peaking as an organization. The general consensus is that Wrestlemania 17 in April 2001 is the best Mania of all time and perhaps the best PPV ever. However by some factors, the company had already peaked. Leaving USA Network for Spike was a short term financial gain, but they paid a price long term in 2005 by having to crawl back to USA on an unfavorable deal when it comes to advertising dollars. The death of WCW in March would not create new viewers as instead many just stopped watching.
But things were still red hot in January 2001 for this whole card in New Orleans. Chris Jericho won the IC title in a classic ladder match against Chris Benoit, while Kurt Angle retained the world title against Triple H. The winner of the Rumble would presumably face Angle at Wrestlemania but the talent pool at the top was so deep that it could change to any of 3-5 guys like the Rock or even Triple H. This made the Rumble slightly harder to call.
Our hosts are Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler, and Howard Finkel is definitely getting 40% faster at reading the rules each year.
The #1 is Jeff Hardy and #2 is Bull Buchanan of Right to Censor, WWF’s attempt at a parody group of the Parents Television Council. They cut a pretty fast pace early, led by Hardy who fights out of a press slam attempt. This year also sees a return to two minute intervals and Jeff’s brother Matt Hardy is #3 and they work a double team on Buchanan and clothesline him out. Lawler says the two should wait for the next guy, but they go at it for a bit. Matt scores with a back suplex and Jeff responds with a jawbreaker.
The brothers stop and wait at the buzzer for #4 Farooq, who runs over both of them to start but quickly is a victim of the numbers game. Jeff botches the leap into the corner off Matt’s back by slipping. Twist of Fate by Matt and a Swanton by Jeff lead to a quick exit for Farooq who hasn’t had much luck in these matches. Matt tries to toss Jeff to no avail and they take their weird mesh shirts off to a loud chick pop.
Buzzer goes for #5 as the Hardys battle on a corner for a suplex and they both go flying out. This leaves comedian Drew Carey alone in the ring. Earlier in the night, he was sent by Stephanie McMahon to talk to Trish, who was Vince McMahon’s mistress at the time. Vince walked in and told Drew that he would be in the match. I like Drew Carey. He’s a pleasant host and it was not easy to replace Bob Barker. Also there was a time when I worked at a Barnes and Noble in Maryland and he came in and bought $2,200 worth of stuff in the music department, single handedly helping the store meet sales projections for the week. So thanks, Drew!
Lights go down at the buzzer and #6 is Kane, to perhaps deal with another celebrity as he had done with Pete Rose for three years. Drew keeps his glasses on like he thinks he’s Mr. Hughes or something. Kane is known as a legit libertarian, and Carey serves on the board of trustees of the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. So these guys have something in common, even if Kane refuses the handshake. Drew offers some cash which is also turned down. Maybe he should have brought some Bitcoin, but of course that didn’t exist yet. Kane goes for a chokeslam, but the buzzer goes for #7 and Raven saves Carey with a kendo stick. The then-host of Whose Line Is It Anyway? ran for safer ground, eliminating himself. Despite the lack of a payoff, I enjoyed it and the inside baseball of it might be funny only to me.
Al Snow comes out early at #8 to attack Raven and I notice a “Raven needs a bath” sign in the crowd. There haven’t been too many notable signs on these shows but that made me laugh. Raven and Snow fill the ring with trash cans and lids, and Raven even used a fire extinguisher. Raven is down in the corner and Snow gets a bowling ball and nails the one pin on Raven that will hurt the most. “It’s like a hurricane blew through here” says JR some 4 1/2 years before Katrina would devastate New Orleans for real. Snow and Raven finally gang up on Kane, trying to get the big man out.
Saturn is #9 and these last three guys are making this like a wake for ECW, which had held its final PPV earlier in the month and was heading to bankruptcy very soon. Saturn goes to work on one of Kane’s legs in a rare bit of smart psychology in a Rumble match, trying to get the big guy off his feet. Kane in turn fights off everyone in the ring in a pretty awesome display. Raven gets Kane down with a sleeper as the others lay in some kicks.
Steve Blackman is #10 and he has his martial arts sticks to use, and he goes after Al Snow as Head Cheese explodes! Grandmaster Sexay is #11 and hits everyone with a trash can lid. Then Raven does the same, all head shots by the way. Sexay gets the whole barrel and is eliminated very quickly. Blackman tries to skin the cat, but is hit in the head on the attempt by Kane and he’s gone too. Kane decides he’s had enough of these ECW guys and tosses Al Snow, Raven, and Saturn in that order as the buzzer sounds.
A familiar tune accompanies #12, and it’s the Honky Tonk Man and what a contrast THAT guy is in 2001, even more stark than his 1998 appearance. “Thank you very much, you’ve been a beautiful audience,” he declares upon entry and Kane stands there and lets Honky sing some of his song. Then suddenly the Big Red Machine grabs the guitar and wallops Honky with it. Funny stuff, and say goodbye to Honky.
Lucky #13 is the Rock to set up a one on one confrontation. The People’s Champ scores with right hands and a big clothesline as a “Rocky!” chant breaks out. Kane and Rock trade offense before the arrival of #14 the Goodfather. That is not a typo; the Godfather was transformed into a Right to Censor member in a silly decision since Godfather was a gimmick that would always get the crowd going, a ticket for the guy to open house shows for years. That would be reversed in time for the 2002 Rumble. A Rock right hand sends Goodfather home.
Tazz is #15 and he’s come a long way from his big debut win over Kurt Angle at last year’s Rumble. A long way down that is, as he is battling in the hardcore division which is funny because in the hardcore paradise of ECW, he was presented as a pure wrestler. He’s lifted onto the corner turnbuckle and smacked off there by Kane for a total stay of about ten seconds. They show a replay and there is some weird production issue that I am not sure how to even describe.
Bradshaw is #16 and gets some offense in with his usual clothesline from hell before he eats a main event spinebuster from the Rock. Albert is #17 and quickly gets double-teamed by Kane and Bradshaw. Hardcore Holly is #18 and he goes at it with Bradshaw in a battle to see who is the biggest prick of a bully behind the scenes. I put my money on Holly on that one, but I also have never liked Bradshaw. Albert hits an Albert Bomb on Bradshaw, while Rock gets Kane over the top, but the demon stays on the apron. He was pretty agile for a big guy which we know because he did a freaking enziguri on Big Show in 2000.
The #19 entrant is someone who is still around today in K-Kwik, now known as R-Truth. JR refers to him as a kid, even if he’s 29 years old. Not much is happening at this point, but Kwik is there to take big moves, like a power bomb from Bradshaw.
Val Venis of RTC is #20 and goes after Kane but gets a spinebuster. Kwik takes a spear from Bradshaw and a powerslam from the Rock as he is just getting the crap beat out of him playing the Crash Holly role from last year and the Doug Gilbert spot from 1996. William Regal is #21 in his Rumble debut and Kwik takes much of Regal’s offense as well. Venis has Rock over the top, but Bradshaw makes the save. The 2000 whipping boy Test is #22 and goes after Regal, who was engaged with his former tag team partner Albert. Test actually eliminates Regal to get to Albert and stomps a mudhole in the corner.
We see a big return at #23 in the Big Show, who was gone for most of the 2nd half of 2000, demoted to OVW to lose weight and generally get in better shape. When a guy like Show arrives, usually eliminations follow and this is no exception: Test goes first and K-Kwik is press slammed out and lands hard. Big Show hands out chokeslams like Oprah: Albert you get a chokeslam, Bradshaw you get a chokeslam, Venis, Holly, Kane. But the Rock is savvy, landing a Greco-Roman kick to the nuts before clotheslining out the biggest guy in the match.
Crash Holly is #24 and he’ll have an easier time this year. Meanwhile, Big Show pulled Rock out under the ropes and laid him out with a chokeslam through the ENGLISH announce table.
While everyone else who is inside the ring gang up on Kane, the buzzer for #25 hits and out comes the American Badass edition of the Undertaker to save his brother. They share a glance and decide to clean house completely, with Rock as the only survivor because he’s laid out on the floor. Pretty neat scene for the Brothers of Destruction.
They stand alone in the ring waiting for #26 and it’s poor Scotty 2 Hotty. Taker hits with a boot, Kane does a one arm body slam, and they double chokeslam him, and so long Mr. 2 Hotty.
The glass breaks for Steve Austin at #27 but Triple H attacks in the aisle. He did have just cause, since Austin cost him a match earlier in the night against Kurt Angle for the world title. This is such a brutal beatdown in the aisle that Austin makes history with the first Rumble blade job in the history of the event. The Rock is back in the ring trying to bring it to the Kane/Taker duo. Number 28 is Billy Gunn and pardon the language, but who invited this asshole? At this point he is “The One” Billy Gunn and I don’t know what the hell that means. He pairs off with Kane, so Rock can go with Undertaker, who gets a sick looking running DDT coming off the ropes.
The entrant at #29 is a quasi-legend in Haku, in his first appearance since the 1992 Rumble and he’s got hair more like Carlito this time. He goes after the Undertaker and they show Austin lying in a literal pool of blood on the floor as Austin chants fill the arena.
Rikishi won the #30 spot for the Rumble and he comes out to almost no response. He was incredibly popular at the 2000 match and was the 1st star, but the “I did it for the Rock” story with running over Austin murdered prospects for his character. Which is a shame because he bounced around for years waiting for something to get over. After Austin engages with Rikishi, he dispatches Haku. Rikishi is chokeslammed by Undertaker, who also finds time to nearly eliminate the Rock. Taker tries to headbutt Rikishi in violation of wrestling protocol, dictating that you can’t headbutt a Samoan. Rikishi takes advantage of the bizarre genetic gift by landing a huge superkick on Undertaker sending him up and over for a mild upset. Rikishi sets up the Rock for the Bonzai Drop, but gets hit in the nuts and falls out over the ropes.
Suddenly, we have the Final Four: Stone Cold, the Rock, Kane, and Billy Gunn. One of those is not like the others. Austin takes a Fameasser/Rocker Dropper which goes better than the last time a guy named Austin took the move. He goes to throw Austin out, but is reversed and sent out. Thank God.
Rock gets a DDT on Kane to set up the one on one between the People’s Champ and Stone Cold. Slugfest and each guy trades the upper hand. A Rock Bottom is blocked but Austin hits a Stunner. Austin hits a Thesz Press on Kane with fists of fury, then Rock hits a Rock Bottom out of nowhere. Kane is sent out, but only through the middle rope. The Rock goes to slam Austin over the top in a similar situation to the end of the match in 2000 but this time Kane gets back in and tosses both over, but only Austin hangs on.
Kane thinks he won the match, channeling the British Bulldog from 1995. Austin comes back but eats a chokeslam. Stone Cold lands with yet another nut shot, which JR calls “an XFL like punt” which reminds me to mention one of my favorite odd accomplishments ever: I won my XFL Fantasy league and it was competitive and everything. I traded for He Hate Me in midseason.
Kane gets a chair but it is kicked away. The demon tries for a Tombstone but Austin wiggles free and hits another Stunner and grabs the chair for himself. The Rattlesnake then hits poor Kane in the head three times with the chair. Jeez, the poor guy had been out there for over 50 minutes in the middle of everything and you’re going to concuss him for his trouble? Kind of a dick move, but very much in line with what Austin would do to turn heel at Wrestlemania 17. Stone Cold sends Kane for the ride with a clothesline and wins the third Rumble of his career. Standard Austin beer blast ensues in the celebration. Onto the awards:
1st Star: Kane – This is the best performance by a big man in the Rumble to this point. He did it all: power stuff, comedy, just a delightful ride all the way through. Yes kids, Kane was really cool once.
2nd Star: Steve Austin – Not bad for a guy who did a three alarm blade job before he ever hit the ring. You can see very subtle seeds of the heel turn being planted with all the chair work, in addition to Jim Ross stressing in his commentary the desperation Austin felt to win this match.
3rd Star: The Rock – Another fine performance for the Rock after what I thought was a subpar performance in 2000, even in victory.
Morrison Award: Bradshaw at 17:40
WWE Hall of Famers (4): Farooq, Drew Carey, Austin, Rikishi
Probable future Hall of Famers (6): Kane, Goodfather, Rock, Bradshaw, Big Show, Undertaker – I have come to grips that Bradshaw/JBL will get in, but Godfather is going in someday because he was a loyal soldier for a long time with a popular gimmick. That’s usually enough.
Deceased (2): Crash Holly, Test
Summary: This is an excellent Rumble with a healthy mix of high spots, comedy, garbage wrestling, big men dominating, stars shining, and the general feeling that this was a big deal. What probably helped was having a nominal competitor in WCW. That would change everything and not for the better. But this is highly recommended.