With wrestling being a big part of my childhood, I watched all of it I could. Most weeks, all we had available to consume were the weekly programs offered by the WWF, the NWA, and various other territories depending on where you were located. But in the late ’80s, wrestling on pay-per-view became a thing, so all of a sudden, there were special events at different times of the year to add to the mix of the regular weekly shows.
Pay-per-view made the already heated real-life rivalry between the WWF and the NWA even hotter, as both companies were scheduling events to run on pay-per-view, and their competitor was counter-programming with special events on free television. The WWF started this trend by offering up a new concept called The Royal Rumble that aired free on the USA Network, opposite the NWA’s Bunkhouse Stampede pay-per-view event. Little did we know as fans that this new concept would catch on in such a big way, and turn into a yearly special event that continues to this day.
Through the years, many memorable things have taken place during the annual Royal Rumble match, and here are five of the more memorable ones from my memories.
The First Royal Rumble in 1988
Back in late 1987 when the first Royal Rumble was announced as being broadcast on the USA Network, I was pumped. I had gotten to go to a friend’s house to watch Starrcade ’87 but had yet to be allowed to order a wrestling pay-per-view. So when I found out this event was going to be free and I would get to watch it, I was bouncing off the walls.
The first Royal Rumble didn’t disappoint either. One of my favorites at the time, Ricky Steamboat, had a match with Rick Rude, and there was the contract signing between Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant for their rematch at the upcoming Wrestlemania IV. But the big draw was their new concept in battle royals, the Royal Rumble itself. Just the concept was enough to get me to watch the show without all the other matches.
This first one was probably the hardest to peg who was going to win. Once they added the stipulation that the winner would get a title shot made it pretty easy to guess who was going to win each year. But this one lacked all the real big stars and was made up of mid-card guys, making it really hard to figure out. “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan came out on top, and I had a hell of a time watching my first “big event” live.
Ric Flair wins the WWF Title in 1992
Growing up a staunch NWA and WCW fan, Ric Flair was my champion. Not only that, he was my hero. While a lot of other kids worshiped Hulk Hogan, I sat at the foot of the mountain while Flair and the Four Horsemen preached on the mountain top. So when he made the jump to the WWF in 1991, I was rooting hard for the day when he and Hogan would square off for the WWF World title.
Since that didn’t happen on a big stage, the 1992 Royal Rumble was the next best thing. The title had been held up after Flair had interfered in a title match between The Undertaker and Hogan, and the winner of the Rumble would be declared the new champion. I knew going into this one that Flair had a legitimate shot at coming out on top. When he came out as the #3 entrant, for some reason, it cemented it in my mind.
Flair was always known as “the 60-minute” man, and here he had a chance to prove it. It was so much fun watching him run into a lot of his past rivals and friends in the course of the match. Guys like Roddy Piper, Kerry Von Erich, The Barbarian, and others just made the whole thing that much sweeter. In the end, Flair outlasted everyone else in the match to capture his first WWF Title and validated my faith in the man. When it was over, he cut a heck of a promo too.
Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior’s Teaser in 1990
Back in this era, it was super rare to see two babyfaces or two heels lock up in a wrestling ring. Throw on top of that the fact that Hogan and the Warrior were the two biggest babyface stars in the company, and I really didn’t see this one coming.
Late in the match, each man was busy throwing out the competition until there was no one left. When they finally came to this realization, the staredown commenced. After a few seconds of immense crowd reaction, the two went to battle. It ended up a stalemate as they collided with clotheslines at the same time and the battle was over. But it whetted the appetite of everyone watching for their eventual main event showdown at Wrestlemania VI.
Diesel’s Run in 1994
Up until 1994, we had seen some impressive performances in the Rumble, but most of them were related to how long someone could stay in the match. In 1994, Diesel came along and set a new record for eliminations, and in the process, set a new standard for dominance.
Diesel entered the Rumble and not only cleared the ring of everyone in it but also immediately eliminated the next several competitors shortly after they entered the ring. The performance propelled him to superstardom and left a mark on the history of the Rumble. From that point on, fans no longer only talked about who won the match and who lasted the longest, they also talked about who had the best run of eliminations.
Bret Hart and Lex Luger declared Co-Winners in 1994
In a move that has been panned by wrestling fans for over 25 years now, the 1994 Royal Rumble had co-winners for the first time. The match came down to the Bret Hart and Lex Luger at the end…two babyfaces, and during a tussle on the ropes, both men went over the top and hit the floor at the same time, setting off a dispute. Several referees, hand raisings, and presidential decisions later, the decision stood, and both men wound up earning a shot at the WWF title at Wrestlemania X.
I thought it was a novice approach and a fun idea to have co-winners. I’ve been in the minority on that opinion for a long time now, but I don’t care. It helped add to the unpredictable nature of the Royal Rumble that continues to this day.