The Date: 24 January 1988
The Venue: Copps Coliseum; Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
The Commentary: Vince McMahon and Jesse “The Body” Ventura
The Stipulation: Twenty man over the top rope battle royale
Notable Competitors: “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan (Winner), Bret “Hitman” Hart (#1), The Junkyard Dog (#20), and The One Man Gang (Most Eliminations)
Considering how dominating the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has been in the industry, it should be no surprise that the company has been at the forefront of creativity; from their celebrated Superstars, impact on pay-per-view entertainment, to the creation of genre-defining match types. By 1988, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF, as it was known then) had already stepped into the mainstream after taking a massive gamble with their inaugural WrestleMania event and added the annual Survivor Series event to their calendar. To see in the new year, WWF chairman Vince McMahon produced the first edition of another annual event, the Royal Rumble, which was headlined by the titular over-the-top-rope battle royale. The match concept was the creation of the legendary Pat Patterson and has since become a trademark event of the organisation, with winners now going on to challenge for the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania, though this aspect wouldn’t be introduced until the 1993 event. After trialling the concept at an untelevised house show, which was won by the Junkyard Dog, there was little rhyme or reason for the match’s debut beyond producing another pay-per-view and showcasing a bunch of WWF’s superstars in one big brawl and, as such, no real storylines leading into the titular match.
Generally speaking, I quite enjoy a good Royal Rumble match; it’s a great excuse to debut or bring back wrestlers and can be a lot of fun with the right people in there. They can be difficult to book, however, and often the middle part can get bogged down with tag teams of B- or even C-list lower-card wrestlers who no one’s ever going to believe will win the match. For me, winning the Royal Rumble should be an accolade reserved for the company’s biggest star, preferably their biggest fan favourite; the event itself marks the first step on the Road to WrestleMania and should therefore represent a significant step up in quality. That’s not always the case, of course, and sometimes it feels like the event just takes place because it’s January and that’s what’s supposed to happen. Consequently, I was intrigued to go back to the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling era and see what the inaugural Royal Rumble was like considering this period of wrestling can be a bit hit and miss in terms of match and wrestler quality and that the event didn’t have the WrestleMania stipulation tied to it. Legendary ring announcer Howard Finkel ran down the rules of the match (competitors enter the ring in two minute intervals, are eliminated after being thrown over the top rope, and the last man standing is the winner) while Bret Hart and Tito Santana were in the ring, who were introduced as though it was a one-on-one match rather than simply running to the ring and getting into it like these days.
Additionally, when the bell rang, the two went at it like it was a single match, pulling off actual wrestling moves as though wearing each other down for the pin fall rather than trying to heave each other over the ropes. Butch Reed came in at number three and initially targeted Bret before teaming up with him to put a beating on Santana; at least, until Butch accidentally nailed Bret. Luckily for him, fellow Hart Foundation member Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart came in next and the three of them desperately tried to force Santana out of the ring but he maintained a death grip on the ropes and refused to go over. Thankfully, Jake “The Snake” Roberts came out at number five to even the odds, dumping Butch for the first elimination of the match and attacking both Bret and Neidhart with a flurry of punches to the absolute delight of the crowd. Neidhart was able to interrupt a double DDT attempt on Bret by Jake and Santana and the former took the brunt of the Hart Foundation’s retribution thanks to a jumping piledriver from Bret. Harley Race was in next and also got in on the action against Jake, dropping a couple of elbows while Neidhart held the Snake helpless on the mat. Jim Brunzell was out next as Neidhart sold a beard pull from Jake (!); things slowed down a little as the guys tried to heff their opponents out of the ring but picked up considerably when Sam Houston sprinted to the ring and went right for the Hart Foundation but, unfortunately, Santana’s time in the match came to an end with the boys in pink tossing him out.
The ring really started to fill up as Danny Davis and Boris Zhukov came to the ring; slow, plodding, confused offense was the order of the day here as guys half-heartedly went at it in the corner, against the ropes, or wandered around aimlessly trying to catch their breath. There was a bit of excitement as Don “The Rock” Muraco and Nikolai Volkoff argued at ringside over the number eleven spot; Muraco simply nailed Volkoff and took to the ring to attack the Hart Foundation and, by the time Volkoff was allowed into the ring, his tag team partner, Zhukov, had been muscled out by Jake and Brunzell. Harley Race was next to be dumped and, as he was leaving and the others paired off again, the crowd exploded to life when “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan came to the ring (carrying his trademark 2×4) at number thirteen, having a brief altercation with Race along the way. More miscellaneous brawling, striking, and grappling in the corners and against the ropes followed, however, and the excitement took a nosedive as Ron Bass lumbered to the ring. Brunzell was thrown out shortly after thanks to Volkoff. B. Brian Blair, Hillbilly Jim, and Dino Bravo all joined the fray and, in the process, both Neidhart and Houston were sent packing, with the latter being muscled out by Ron Bass. The Ultimate Warrior raced to the ring and immediately started throwing chops and, in the chaos, Muraco was able to toss Bret from the ring, ending his run at almost twenty-six minutes.
Again, the action slowed down and only got slowed as the One Man Gang plodded his way to the ring; the big man made an immediate impression, however, by tossing out not just Blair but also Jake Roberts with a surprising and disappointing amount of ease. The final entrant in his twenty man version of the match was the Junkyard Dog; shortly after he got into the ring, Volkoff was tossed and then the One Man Gang struck again by getting rid of Hillbilly Jim while Bravo took out the Ultimate Warrior with no fuss or fanfare. The Junkyard Dog didn’t last too long either before he was taken out by Bass, who was himself eliminated by Muraco, meaning the final four were Muraco, Duggan, Bravo, and the One Man Gang, an odd selection considering the likes of Bret Hart, Jake Roberts, and the Ultimate Warrior had been in the match. The Rock and the Gang squared off while Bravo and Duggan fought on the other side of the ring; Brave and the One Man Gang worked together to attack both men, with Muraco desperately using his speed to hold them off but a distraction from Frenchy Martin saw him on the back foot and then nudged over the top rope from a weak-ass One Man Gang clothesline that looked as though it would miss and/or take Bravo out as well, but it didn’t. Left alone in a two-on-one situation, Duggan fought back valiantly but looked to be overwhelmed following a double clothesline; however, as he was held helplessly by Brave, he managed to slip away and cause the One Man Gang to accidentally take out Bravo at the last second. Duggan and the One Man Gang brawled for a bit, with Duggan taking a beating against the ropes but, in the end, brains got the better of brawn as Duggan ducked and yanked on the ring ropes as One Man Gang charged him, sending the big man spilled to the outside and becoming the first-ever Royal Rumble winner to an explosive reaction. It may seem like an odd choice to have Hacksaw win the Royal Rumble considering some of the star power featured in the match, but the crowd were absolutely into his win and it’s not like he ended up headlining WrestleMania for winning so it was just a nice feather in the enthusiastic big man’s cap.
The main story heading into The Main Event that came out of this event was the WWF Championship rematch between Hulk Hogan and André the Giant but there was some fallout for Duggan following his big win. He and the One Man Gang went at it in a singles match at the same event, with Duggan coming out on top, though he ended up battling Bad News Brown to a double disqualification by the time WrestleMania V rolled around later that year. The Royal Rumble event ended up setting a record as the highest-viewed wrestling program on cable television and would go on to become a yearly event for the company; by the next year, the match was expanded to include the now traditional thirty men and, by 1993, the WrestleMania championship shot had been added and the match has since become one of the WWE’s most anticipated annual events.
Could Be Better
What did you think to the inaugural Royal Rumble match? Did you like that Hacksaw Jim Duggan won the match or would you have liked to see someone else take the win? Which of the competitors was your favourite? Were there any competitors you would’ve liked to see included? What’s your favourite Royal Rumble match? Whatever your thoughts on the Royal Rumble, share them below or leave a comment on my social media.