This Sunday will mark the 28th installment of the Royal Rumble. The Rumble itself is arguably the year’s most anticipated match. Between the wrestlers’ order of entry, and that element of surprise when the unexpected occurs, there are many nuances that make this match so exciting.
Going back to the inaugural Royal Rumble in 1988, it is clear that this initially was not some grand concept that would serve as a cornerstone of WWE programing. Quite a few things occurred that go against the grain of what we have been conditioned to expect today.
It should be noted that the goal of this show was to serve as a competitive foil for Jim Crockett Promotions’ Bunkhouse Stampede pay-per-view event. Paying to watch the number two promotion was no match for the pop culture cache of the WWF on free television.
On that night in 1988, the fans inside the Coops Coliseum in Hamilton, Ontario had no idea they were witnessing the genesis of a perennial attraction. Twenty superstars, not thirty, would vie for the honor of winning this contest and later become a popular trivia question as the first Royal Rumble winner.
The answer is Hacksaw Jim Duggan by the way.
Bret Hart and Tito Santana were already in the ring as Howard Finkel announced the rules of the Rumble. Normally, entrants one and two get their own separate entrance after the rules have been declared in order to build suspense from start to finish.
The bell rang and Hart and Santana locked up as if they were in a singles match where they tussled to the ropes and released their grip before the imaginary count of five. This is in contrast to every Rumble since, where the wrestlers scrap right out of the gate as this is technically a brawl.
The audience did not know who the next entrant was until the wrestler emerged from the locker room because there was no countdown clock in the arena. Hearing the fans count along as the clock winds down to zero is a soundtrack we are accustomed to hearing as we are engrossed in the mayhem.
A countdown clock appeared on the lower left hand corner of that screen during the broadcast signaling that two minutes had expired as Butch Reed entered at number three. This would not occur when Jim Neidhart came out at number four. This back-and-forth kept happening at random and it was frustrating to watch because there was no consistency with the presentation.
The expression “Every man for himself” is synonymous with the Rumble, but this promotional catch phrase was not even a thought during the event’s infancy. Heel vs. babyface was the only story dynamic. However, there was a minor deviation from the script when Boris Zhukov and Harley Race, two heels, locked up for a millisecond until they realized they were on the same side.
In a slight-of-hand manner, heels and babyfaces were referred to as two separate teams working together. Hart, Neidhart, and Reed pummeled Santana as it was insinuated, but of course never outright said, that a good guy better come out soon in order to save Santana, who Jesse Ventura scornfully referred to as “Chico.”
The company improved upon this concept the following year in several stages. “Every man for himself” was advertised ad nauseam and entrants one and two got their own separate entrance, which was Ax and Smash of Demolition. Two Babyfaces starting out the Rumble! This was awesome and truly established the tone for that night and all of the Royal Rumble matches to come.