Friday, December 27, 2013

The Royal Rumble by (Entry) Numbers: 1

Mr. No. 1 (the other guy has been expunged from the record books) with Pamela Anderson
Photo Credit: WWE.com
In a personal never-ending quest to find new ways to think about my single favorite annual wrestling event, the Royal Rumble, today we begin a look at the history of the match by analyzing each entry position. Over the next 30 days, we’ll break down the men (and women) (and Bastion Booger) who have entered the match from No. 1 through No. 30. And yes, that does immediately raise a flag.

The first Rumble, the 1988 USA made-for-TV special, featured just 20 entrants, and the 2011 behemoth boasted 40. So entering at 20 in 1988 was kind of like 30 every other year, plus there’s those outliers of 31-40, including winner Alberto Del Rio, who came in at 38. Those years, as well as the 1995 Rumble (when competitors entered every 60 seconds instead of 90 or 120) make comparing performances kind of like looking at Macintosh to Red Delicious. Still apples, but in no way identical.

And in the name of logic, we’re going to do this sequentially. That means starting out with Number One.

Winners: Shawn Michaels, 1995; Chris Benoit, 2004.
Final four: Steve Austin (2nd, 1999); Triple H (3rd, 2006); Dolph Ziggler (4th, 2012)
Multiple draws: Bret Hart (1988, 1991); Ziggler, (2010, 2013); Ric Flair (1993, 2007); Michaels (1995, 2003); Triple H (1996, 2006)
Longest: Benoit, 1:01:30
Shortest: Michaels (2003) and Ziggler (2010), 2:29.
Most eliminations: Eight — Steve Austin (1999), Michaels (1995)

Over 26 years, there are only 17 positions at which the eventual winner has entered the Royal Rumble. One of those is 38, not an option in conventional years. The No. 1 spot has produced the same number of winners as No. 30 — as well as No. 2, No. 22 and No. 29. Since we’re analyzing the match as both a feat of athleticism as well as a narrative device, it is interesting to note the dual likelihood of winning from both the first two and final two spots.

There are far better stories to be told by plopping a guy in the ring at the beginning of the night and having him go the distance — or come close. This need not necessarily be one of the first two spots (see: Flair, Ric, 1992), but there is a certain cachet with being in the ring from the outset. The danger of course is overplaying that hand, because if one of the first two entrants logs an hour every year, it’s no longer special. Heck, only eight No. 1 entrants have failed to last 10 minutes, while 15 have gone longer than 20. But again, from a storytelling standpoint, you’ve got to start with a bang.

But perhaps the air of overkill is partially the reason why the Miz’s 45-minute stint in 2012, now the 18th-longest of all time, didn’t do much to bolster his esteem among fans. Five guys had already exceeded that length from the No. 1 spot, and a sixth, Ted DiBiase (1990) was less than a minute shy of Miz’s mark. Dolph Ziggler trumped it the next year. Further, Miz only dumped two contestants in that entire stretch (both former tag team partners, Alex Riley and R-Truth). It’s not much different than Triple H’s 48:01 from the one-spot in 1996, during which he managed to eliminate only Takao ┼îmori, and even then he needed the help of Jake Roberts.

Obviously going the distance is the far more significant accomplishment than coming in at 30 and mopping up. Michaels did it first, but he did so in the hyperspeed 95 Rumble, which meant he needed to last just 38:41 before finally ousting Davey Boy Smith, who entered at No. 2 and therefore logged the same time. Benoit, on the other hand, logged 1:01:30, the second-longest stay by any Rumble winner and the second-longest time overall. In 1995 Michaels eliminated eight competitors while in 2004 Benoit tossed just six.

But if we look at the quality of competition in those two matches, the clear edge goes to Benoit. The biggest stars in the ‘95 Rumble? Aside from HBK and the Bulldog, there was Owen Hart, Lex Luger and Bob Backlund, and it was easy to tell throughout the match the story being told was Nos. 1 and 2 being together throughout. In ’04, the field included Randy Orton, Mark Henry, JBL, Scott Steiner, Booker T, Kane, Kurt Angle, Big Show, Chris Jericho, John Cena, Rob Van Dam and Goldberg — and Benoit took care of three of those guys himself (JBL, Henry and Big Show). So clearly Benoit gave the best-ever performance as a No. 1 entrant. Much in the same way as the 2005 Barista-Cena finish clearly echoed the 1994 Hart-Luger climax, anyone going the distance would draw obvious comparisons to Benoit… though if Daniel Bryan accomplishes the feat in 2014, chances are Michael Cole will say only, “Shades of Shawn Michaels in 1995” and leave it at that. (Editor's note: And I would have ZERO problem with that. -- TH)

Honorable mention for great performances from No. 1 goes to Triple H (2006), who put in 1:00:09, tossed five guys, was dumped by the eventual winner and narrowly missed the final two, as well as Steve Austin, who effectively won the 1999 Rumble by lasting 56:38 and logging eight eliminations, but was cheated out of the actual victory by a scheming Vince McMahon. Of course, neither man was actually in the ring for the amount of time they were technically in the match. The ’99 Rumble might be unmatched for overall screwiness, but that’s a pretty high bar to clear.

Also notable is Dolph Ziggler in 2013. He chose to enter first and went nearly 50 minutes (though eliminating only two competitors) to make the final four. Opting for No. 1, rather than being stuck with it (a la DiBiase in 1990) added a rare fresh twist. Remember also Ziggler held the World Heavyweight Championship Money in the Bank contract at the time. We’ve never had a reigning MITB winner also win the Rumble, and that won’t be happening in 2014, either.

But that’s the best of the best. How about the worst? Oddly enough, it’s Ziggler and Michaels down here as well. Michaels was the first in and first out in 2003. Ziggler was the second out in 2010, lasting just three seconds longer than the second entrant, Evan Bourne. Both fell prey to No. 3 that year, CM Punk. They’re followed right by Ric Flair, who was first out in 2007 after 5:40. Ax lasted 14:37 in 1989, eliminating no one, but Bret Hart logged 20:33 in 1991 with no eliminations. Still, he was only the fourth man out that night, being dumped at the hands of the Undertaker.

Also of note is CM Punk’s 2011 performance, during which he lasted 35:21 and eliminated seven competitors. From the initial showdown with Daniel Bryan to his eventual ouster by John Cena (perhaps the beginning of a classic rivalry), Punk commanded the early part of the match. He’s currently on a short list of the greatest Rumble participants to never win the match. We also must note Cactus Jack opening the 1998 Rumble against tag-team partner Chainsaw Charlie. Though he lasted just 9:41, he was the second man eliminated, setting the stage for later entries as both Mankind and Dude Love.

In 1999, Steve Austin entered No. 1 after having won the year before. Undertaker walked the same road in 2008, with two added wrinkles. First, the No. 2 entrant in 2008 was the man Undertaker eliminated to win the 2007 match, Shawn Michaels (the third time HBK entered first or second). The second wrinkle is Taker had entered No. 30 in 2007 before being first the following year. Ted DiBiase pioneered the 30/1 routine in 1989/1990, followed by Rikishi in 2001-2002. Ric Flair came in at No. 30 in 2005 and No. 1 in 1993 and 2007.

And finally, going back to Ax in 1989: He’s among the least impactful No. 1 entrants, as it relates to the rest of the field and likelihood of winning, in Rumble history. But he was followed to the ring by his Demolition tag team partner Smash, which was enough of a novelty fans didn’t care if either could actually win the match. But my vote for biggest dropoff from “Oh man, it’s time for the Rumble!” to a giant wet fart over which guy drew No. 1 goes to Crush in 1997. Man, nobody liked Crush, especially in 1997.

Year
Wrestler
Duration
Out
Elims.
Elim. By
Elim. 2
1988
Bret Hart
0:25:42
8
1
Muraco

1989
Ax
0:14:37
4
0
Perfect

1990
Ted DiBiase
0:44:47
18
4
Warrior

1991
Bret Hart
0:20:33
4
0
Undertaker

1992
Davey Boy Smith
0:23:33
7
3
Flair

1993
Ric Flair
0:18:38
4
1
Perfect

1994
Scott Steiner
0:09:00
4
2
Diesel

1995
Shawn Michaels
0:38:41
-
8
(Winner)

1996
Triple H
0:48:01
19
1
Diesel

1997
Crush
0:06:17
3
0
P. Godwinn

1998
Mick Foley (Cactus Jack)
0:09:41
2
1
Charlie

1999
Steve Austin
0:56:38
29
8
McMahon

2000
D'Lo Brown
0:06:08
3
0
Rikishi

2001
Jeff Hardy
0:06:36
4
3
M. Hardy

2002
Fatu (Rikishi)
0:13:39
6
1
Undertaker

2003
Shawn Michaels
0:02:29
1
0
Jericho

2004
Chris Benoit
1:01:30
-
6
(Winner)

2005
Eddie Guerrero
0:28:11
11
3
Edge

2006
Triple H
1:00:09
28
5
Mysterio

2007
Ric Flair
0:05:40
1
0
Edge

2008
Undertaker
0:32:33
11
3
Michaels

2009
Rey Mysterio
0:49:24
20
1
Big Show

2010
Dolph Ziggler
0:02:29
2
0
Punk

2011
CM Punk
0:35:21
21
7
Cena

2012
Miz
0:45:39
5
2
Big Show

2013
Dolph Ziggler
0:49:47
27
2
Sheamus