January 25, 2006
Avoiding the Rumble hypeWhereby our author tries a not-so-scientific experiment to bring back the excitement
By DAVE HILLHOUSE - SLAM! Wrestling
I have a love-hate relationship with the Royal Rumble. It is for my money the most dynamic match of the WWE's schedule, but year after year it tends to fall short of capitalizing on its own potential. This year I'm trying an unusual trick to inject some authentic surprise into the outcome of the unofficial kick-off to the pay-per-view season -- I'll get to that plan in a moment.
While doing a little nostalgic research into the Rumble's history, I also learned that there may have never really been a "golden era" of this match, and that it may still be yet to come.
The weight that I've long felt has pulled the Rumble down a peg or two lies in the "title shot" stipulation, allowing the winner to go onto the main event at the following Wrestlemania. In an event where anything can supposedly happen, knowing that the winner will be sharing the spotlight at the WWE's premier event makes it far too easy to guess the winner. Even a guess, in fact, is not usually required.
The term "spoiler" is often applied to a plot-point in a movie that, if you were to learn about it before seeing the film, would greatly reduce your enjoyment of the unfolding story. In many ways, the title shot stipulation takes the wind out of the Rumble's sails from the moment the expected winner enters the competition. In the cases of the only two winners to go from entrant number one to victor, Shawn Michaels and Chris Benoit, this can make an entire Rumble somewhat less than engaging. That those matches were the shortest and easiest roads to success (or in Vince McMahon's words: "fastest and most furious") with only one minute between entrants is likely not a coincidence.
The decision to tie in the Rumble winner with the number one contender to the title(s) was not an altogether bad idea -- particularly when it was implemented during the days when there was no "bridge" event between the Rumble and Wrestlemania. The part that doesn't sit right with a lot of people, however, is that it was obviously decided that being the Rumble winner was not a worthy accomplishment in its own right. The WWE clearly places very little importance on stand-alone victories as could be attained in the Rumble, being named King of the Ring, or being part of a winning team in Survivor Series. Although "classic" Survivor Series matches still appear and have some significance, the King of the Ring was dropped completely and was replaced by a very ordinary event: Badd Blood. With a schedule of more than 12 pay-per-views during a year, is there no room to take a break from the usual storylines and grant someone a moment in the sun?
In readying myself for this year's Rumble, I decided to go back through the years and see just how the event has evolved. With 'Hacksaw' Jim Duggan winning the inaugural Royal Rumble in Hamilton in 1988, and Big John Studd outlasting Ted DiBiase's offers of riches the following year, the Rumble was truly an opportunity for the less than mega-superstars to reign for a day. It didn't matter that there weren't any implications for the championship -- it was just nice to see someone different in the winner's circle. As it turned out, the suspense factor may have gone downhill from there. With Hulk Hogan coming out on top the following two years, and then Ric Flair ushering in the era of title-involvement with a Rumble victory to win the belt outright, Duggan's and Studd's achievements stand alone as unexpected and engaging storylines. From then on, it became something of a joke to hear Vince barking out the possibility of Bob 'Spark Plugg' Holly going to Wrestlemania's main event.
Still, I'm not about to say that the Rumble has been a snooze-fest since 1989. There's always something engaging about how a victory is pulled off, never minding who it is that wins. At least half of the fun in watching a wrestling match of any kind is not in who the winners and losers are, but how the ending comes about. The same experience holds true for any James Bond type of film -- of course we know who's going to win, we just want to see how it's done. In that sense, perhaps I'm romanticizing my memories of the Royal Rumble's early days. I may find out this year that the surprise factor is not the most important component of enjoyment in watching my favourite event. Perhaps it never was.
This was my plan: if the WWE couldn't provide me with a surprise winner due to their paint-by-numbers storytelling, then I would find a way to surprise myself. To that end, I stopped following WWE programming after Survivor Series. My hope is that by going in 'blind' to all happenings since November, I won't have a heads-up as to who the likeliest Wrestlemania main-eventer will be. This Sunday, I'll find out if my complete avoidance of all things currently WWE can provide true unpredictability, or whether I'll still be able to guess five minutes into the match who's coming out on top. Obviously, I'm going to have to avoid the pre-event build-up and any promos throughout the night re-capping the last couple months' worth of action. If it works, I may have found a new tradition (and a handy way to avoid having wrestling conflict with family holiday functions). I may, on the other hand, just continue my love-hate relationship with the one match that offers some degrees of predictability and surprise all at the same time -- and I might not even care that I can see the ending coming from a mile away. That never stopped me from enjoying Goldfinger, after all.
Dave Hillhouse is a screenwriter living in Niagara, Ontario. Let him know if you think the Rumble should be less predictable at firstname.lastname@example.org. Just don't tell him what's been happening lately ...