The New Year has rung in. We’ve said goodbye 2016 and said hello to 2017. That can only mean one thing. The Royal Rumble is coming. As such, I’ve been mandated by my editor to dedicate this month’s Look Back to WWE’s most hallowed gimmick match and while I could go for the first, or the best, my choice is The 1998 Royal Rumble PPV, because it’s the first WWE PPV event I ever saw.
What makes this event matter so much (and how I can justify writing about it as more than just a personal indulgence) is that this event is the prelude to ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin’s very first World Title reign, is an emblematic example of The Rock’s rise to mainstream superstardom and was the place where Shawn Michaels would receive a back injury that would change him as both a competitor and a person.
Let’s get straight to it shall we? The rumble itself starts off with tag-team partners Cactus Jack and Terry Funk. They have a fun time stalling the action with chairs and chainsaws before guys like The Rock start showing up and then we really have a rumble on our hands. Cactus is taken out early, but he has a trick up his sleeve; he has two more personas that can compete and both of them will. It’s a hugely entertaining performance, although I’d love to have seen Mankind get more time.
Rocky Maivia is the next significant entrant and competes for just over fifty minutes. He has a couple of feuds going on. The first of which is with his Intercontinental Championship rival Ken Shamrock. They had a match earlier in the PPV which was an excellent bout that played to both character’s strengths superbly. A naturally talented heel, he kicks Ken Shamrock in the gonads before sending him out of the ring, screwing him out of an opportunity for the second time in one night.
The other is with the Nation of Domination, the imploding faction whose members all think they are going to be the ones to win the match even if it means taking each other out. Rocky arrogantly betrays his leader, Faarooq, dooming them both in the crucial moments of the contest.
But the man of the hour is ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin. Set up as the winner for weeks, all of the Rumble’s build up surrounds him. Unfortunately, this does rob the Rumble of its drama. There was no question of anyone else winning it. Also, they talk a lot about Stone Cold being a marked man but there’s no context as to why. You have to have seen the previous weeks’ shows to get in the know.
Still, he looks every bit the renegade badass that made him a household name. Tough, ruthless, and kicking ass like he found 29 other men in bed with his wife at the same time. His road to WrestleMania is a redemption story for Austin too. He won the Rumble in ’97, but champion Shawn Michaels got injured relinquishing the championship and Austin’s title hunt story was side-lined as WWE rushed to paper over the cracks HBK created. It is widely believed that Michaels faked the injury to avoid having to lose it to the up-and-coming competitor.
Ironic then that Michaels would then have to drop the title to Austin while fighting through an undeniably real injury caused in the main event of this very PPV, a casket match with The Undertaker. Michaels was back-dropped onto the very real coffin, herniating two discs and crushing one completely. The match itself is just short of a classic with both Michaels and ‘Taker putting on top notch performances.
It ends with a real Attitude Era moment when half a dozen guys come out the back to stop Taker beating Michaels, and then Taker’s brother Kane comes out to destroy everyone. He puts his brother in the casket, takes an axe to it and sets it on fire. Taker isn’t inside however, and ominously swears vengeance on his sibling. It’s a genuinely terrifying sequence of events that had 12-year-old me hiding under the covers wanting it to all be over. It was great moment of Attitude Era theatre that enhanced the action without cheapening it.
But this would be the night where Stone Cold would begin his journey to the first of his six world championships and headlining almost every event he could until his retirement in 2003, making this event a landmark in wrestling history, not just because it was my first WWE PPV, but because it helped define one of wrestling’s most iconic legacies.