Saturday, April 19, 2014

At Ringside: WWF Royal Rumble, 1993

Bret Hart and Razor Ramon in the ring.

While the WWE Network- the wrestling company's online streaming service- is mostly being sold on access to the company's live PPVs at a fraction of what buying them all would normally cost, for many wrestling fans the real value is in the service's extensive backlog of old wrestling shows and pay-per-views. For me it's an opportunity to explore a history I've mostly read about, and there are a lot of potential access points. I chose to start with 1993, because that's when the company's now-flagship show Monday Night Raw began airing, and that's a decent bridge between PPVs.

In any case the Royal Rumble is always a good starting point. Timed to get people's attention around the end of football season, the WWF/E's January pay-per-view is constructed as a way to set up characters and stories for Wrestlemania in the spring, and the title match itself is key to that. A battle royal with wrestlers entering in regular intervals and eliminated by going over the top rope, the Royal Rumble gives quick introductions to a good portion of the roster and lets us see who's a big deal and who is… not so much. It's almost always good because the concept itself is so inherently strong, and even though 1993 saw the WWF a little unsure of where it was going, the '93 Royal Rumble has more than enough to recommend it.

The fun begins with the Steiner Brothers, Rick and Scott, battling the Beverly Brothers, Beau and Blake. I actually had to watch this match a couple of times because I didn't remember it much the first time around, which shouldn't speak well for it, but it's actually pretty good. There's not much story to it, other than the Steiners being pushed further up the card, but the Beverlys are strong heels who pull all the standard tricks without hurting the pace of the match. And of course the Steiners are both good workers, with Scott playing the babyface in peril for most of it. (It's genuinely odd to see the future Big Booty Daddy in this role.) It ends with a genuinely ugly Frankensteiner that I hope didn't land as stiffly as it looked, but anyway the good guys win.

For a match with a little more story to it, you get Shawn Michaels, the Heartbreak Kid, defending the Intercontinental Title against his ex-partner Marty Jannetty. The two had been a big success as the Rockers, but Michaels decided he needed to strike out on his own and superkicked Marty through a window, so war it is. Both men are talented examples of the "New Generation" Vince McMahon was starting to promote in lieu of Hulk Hogan & Friends, but there's a third element in "Sensational" Sherri, the group's valet, now torn in her allegiances. (Though she still sings Shawn's entrance theme. Terribly.)

The match itself is showy and fun, even if the finish mars it- Sherri attempts to intervene to help Marty but ends up hitting him instead, letting Shawn get the pin. Michaels winning is clearly not a bad decision- he would be a major player over the next few years, and was a bright spot in the WWF's worst periods- but it's something of a cheap finish, more about Sherri than the combatants.

We then get to the show's only outright stinker of a match, featuring big man Bam Bam Bigelow (whose theme music amusingly has him shouting "Bam! Bam! Bam!" throughout) vs. the Big Boss Man. There is no story whatsoever to this match, except that Bam Bam was returning from an injury and Boss Man was on his way out. It's two big guys very slowly punching each other and executing basic maneuvers, something of a McMahon signature piece, and while this sort of thing can be done well, in this case nobody's putting in the effort. So, yeah, Bam Bam wins and his hilarious theme music starts playing again.

Fortunately the worst match on the card is followed by easily the best one, with Bret Hart defending the WWF Championship against Razor Ramon (a.k.a. Scott Hall pretending to be Al Pacino in Scarface.) Hart was well established as a fighting champion before this, defending his title against all comers, while Ramon was tearing through jobbers on Superstars and the newly-launched Monday Night Raw. They're a great contrast in terms of appearance and personality, Hart the reasonably-proportioned technician and Ramon the giant brawler.

There's also a very good flow in the match, with Hart targeting Ramon's legs (the better to set up a Sharpshooter) while Ramon focuses on Hart's ribs. Hart is methodical, Ramon is vicious. Hart ultimately retains, but Razor is kept strong throughout. Scott Hall would make a big impact both here and in WCW, but his career was essentially brought to a halt by excessive drinking, and matches like this make you realize just how much of a shame that was. (Though, thankfully, he seems to finally be getting the help he needs, thanks to Diamond Dallas Page of all people.) The match maybe stops short of greatness, but it's the highlight of the night.

Between main events, we're given a breather as announcer, manager, and general no-goodnik Bobby "The Brain" Heenan- he who sent Andre the Giant against Hulk Hogan- departs the table to unveil his latest client, the Narcissist, Lex Luger. The blond muscleman (originally called Narcissus but changed because, I'm not sure actually) poses and flexes in front of several mirrors, while Heenan gets really into describing how gorgeous and powerful he is. Vince McMahon probably loved this segment, and Heenan deserves credit for selling it as thoroughly as he does. It's interesting to consider how short-lived this gimmick would be for Luger, but that's getting into future events. It's a short and harmless fluff piece.

Another personal appearance, this time by "Julius Caesar", serves as an extended ad for Wrestlemania IX, which would be held at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas and thus employ a gaudy Roman theme. And while Wrestlemania IX would end up basically a disaster, I really enjoy the goofy fantasy element as it's used here. More time filler, but I'll allow it. It's basically the retro version of the WWE's current practice of plugging their next PPV in the middle of the one they're showing you. Caesar reminds us all that the winner of the Rumble will compete in the main event at Wrestlemania, and bids the games begin.

And with that the Royal Rumble proper starts. Ric Flair, last year's winner, enters first, followed by veteran Bob Backlund. Flair actually gets to look pretty good considering he was about to leave the WWF, and his eventual elimination at the hands of Mr. Perfect helps play into the Loser Leaves Town match on the following Raw that was his farewell. Backlund, meanwhile, hangs in for a very long time, likely helping guide the others. In addition to those two there's a good variety of combatants; they're mostly on the obscure side, but the advantage of classic WWF's comic-book style is that everyone is distinct, if only because of their hideous, hideous outfits. (I'm especially fond of Damien Demento's downright Gigeresque shoulder piece.)

The match is dragged down, however, by another bit of 'Mania setup, when Giant Gonzales, a towering lunk of a man wearing an airbrushed muscle suit with patches of fur to protect his dignity, enters the ring despite not being in the match and eliminates the Undertaker. This leads to a long, protracted sequence of Gonzales very slowly attacking the Dead Man, setting up their Wrestlemania match. It's clear even from this brief taste that the man cannot really wrestle; he lumbers around stiffly and grimaces, and the whole thing is an unwelcome interruption to a match that was actually going well. Eventually the giant leaves and the actual fight starts again.

The last two men in the ring end up being Macho Man Randy Savage and Yokozuna, a massive sumo wrestler who at this point was not only undefeated, but claimed to have never been knocked off his feet. After taking a couple of body splashes in the corner, Savage manages to knock Yokozuna down to the mat, then forgets what kind of match this is and goes for a pin. Yokozuna somehow kicks out with enough force to send Macho Man stumbling back over the top rope, and the match is over.

It's a disappointingly abrupt finish, but it establishes the power of Yokozuna as he heads into the main event at Wrestlemania. I tend to prefer it when the Rumble is used to elevate someone who isn't already a main eventer, whether the push works or not. Yokozuna may not be as intimidating as he was; back in 1993 America was still pretty firmly convinced that Japan was going to take over the world with inexpensive cars, and without that xenophobia he loses a little something, but he's still a mountainous sumo wrestler with a mean attitude.

There's definitely more good than bad in the 1993 Royal Rumble, even as the WWF as a whole was having trouble figuring out where it wanted to go. You can definitely see signs of this; the tone is almost sedate by pro wrestling standards, without the intensity that really good pacing can bring to an event. But the wrestling is solid, the commentary is enthusiastic, and the jobbers are colorful. It works particularly well as the setup for Wrestlemania, but… we'll get to that.

Grade: B

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