Remembering The First Royal Rumble

Pat Patterson had this idea for a match.  Using the Battle Royal as his inspiration, he figured out a clever way to make it longer and more entertaining.

In a Battle Royal, all the participants – anywhere from 10 to 30 different wrestlers – are in the ring together at the start.  There’s only one way to be eliminated.  You need to be manipulated over the top rope and land on the floor.  Patterson thought it would be more interesting to get things under way with just two wrestlers.  They battle it out for two minutes, all the while hoping to eliminate the other as quickly as possible.  After the two minutes are up, another wrestler appears and joins the action.  Two minutes after that arrives another competitor and so on and so forth until all the wrestlers have made their way to the ring.  Like a Battle Royal, the last man standing would be declared the winner.

Patterson pitched all of this to his boss, WWF Owner Vince McMahon, who loved the idea.  Few would predict how commercially successful and enduring it would ultimately become.

20 years ago today, the very first Royal Rumble took place, in of all places, my hometown.  It was a cold Sunday evening as my father and my friend, Dave, accompanied me to Copps Coliseum in downtown Hamilton.  I had the worst stomach ache you could imagine but decided to suck it up and go see the show.  We took the bus (none of us drove at the time) not knowing that we were about to see history in the making.

As we took our seats midway up the left side of the arena, we noticed an unusual amount of lights and WWF banners.  Dad wasn’t thrilled.  During past cards, the lights always went down with the exception of a spotlight for entrances and exits plus the lights highlighting the ring.  He didn’t want to be blinded for the whole night. Nonetheless, it was obvious that this was going to be an unusual event.  Sure enough, in the distance, just before the show began, Vince McMahon stepped out in plain view, microphone in hand, high up in the right side of Copps and the crowd reacted.  (Remember, he was a play-by-play commentator back then.)  When his verbal sparring partner, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, followed him shortly thereafter, the reaction was decidedly mixed but thunderous.  It would be the only time they ever appeared in person here.  We should’ve brought binoculars.

It quickly became apparent that this particular WWF show was going to be televised, but obviously, not in Canada, unfortunately.  (We found out later it was airing on the USA Network.  I’m not sure now if it was live or taped for later broadcast.) (JANUARY 24, 2016 UPDATE:  As I more definitively noted in Royal Rumble Trivia, it was in fact a live broadcast.)

Even though there were just four matches (we usually saw eight or more during previous Copps Coliseum house shows), we got our money’s worth.  Ricky The Dragon Steamboat and Ravishing Rick Rude battled it out for nearly 20 minutes.  (Steamboat won by disqualification.)  The Islanders and The Young Stallions wrestled for two falls with the former winning both times.  (Paul Roma, one of the Stallions, accidentally got hurt during the first fall.)

In what was probably the most entertaining match I’ve ever witnessed in person, The Ladies’ World Tag Team Championship was once again up for grabs.  On one side you had The Glamour Girls, Judy Martin and former singles champion, Leilani Kai, two beefy broads with blonde dye jobs.  Jimmy Hart was their manager.  (Yep, he yelled through his infamous megaphone while looking typically spiffy in his gold lame sports jacket.  To say it was shiny would be putting it mildly.)  On the other, you had the challengers, The Jumping Bomb Angels, two of the most incredible female athletes in the history of the business.  They had shoulder-length dark hair, were short and cute but deadly.  One-foot dropkicks, frequent high-risk maneuvers off the top rope, you name it.  They could kick your ass in more ways than one and did numerous times during this terrific title match.

A storyline was hatched the previous year during the inaugural Survivor Series.  (JANUARY 24, 2016 CORRECTION:  Actually, it began sometime in the summer of 1987.)  During the ladies’ elimination match, then-singles champion Sensational Sherri captained one team of five that included The Glamour Girls while former singles champion, The Fabulous Moolah, led another team of five that featured The Angels.  The Japanese twosome put on quite a display of talent, so much in fact that colour man Ventura had to admit more than once that he was impressed with them.  (And remember, he “don’t impress easy”.)

In December 1987, just a month after that show, The Angels made a play for the titles during a card at Copps which I attended with Dad and Dave.  They came up short and The Glamour Girls remained champions.  Then came the encounter at The Royal Rumble.  In a best 2 out of 3 falls match-up, the action was fast and furious with all four women up to the task of putting on a memorable showcase.  The Girls won the first fall which deflated the crowd who were fully on the side of The Angels.  From that point on, despite appearing down for the count yet again, The Angels rebounded by taking the second fall.  In the final one, the finish was spectacular.  Both Angels climbed the top turnbuckles on opposite ends on the left side and nailed Judy Martin with a double dropkick.  Three slaps to the mat later and history was made.  It was the only time I ever witnessed a title change live.  Curiously, it was the only championship encounter during this first Royal Rumble show.

The Rumble was naturally the final event of the evening.  (JANUARY 24, 2016 CORRECTION:  The Islanders/Young Stallions tag match was actually the main event.  The Rumble match was the third match of the four-match show, as later noted in Royal Rumble Trivia.)  Ring announcer Howard Finkel, making his only live appearance in Hamilton during the 1980s, explained the rules which sounded absolutely fantastic to us.  Tito Santana, then one-half of the tag team champions, Strike Force, scrapped with Bret The Hitman Hart for the initial two minutes.  (They wrestled in a straightforward singles match two years earlier at the first ever WWF Copps show on July 13, 1986.  Yep, we saw that one, too.)  As the match progressed, a new wrestler would barrel down the aisle ready to join the fray.  It was cool seeing guys like Jake The Snake Roberts, One Man Gang and The Ultimate Warrior jumping into the match every 120 seconds.  When the 20th and final competitor made his way down to the ring, it was only a matter of time before the winner would be declared.  Hacksaw Jim Duggan, one of my Dad’s faves, was the last man standing.  This would be the only time The Royal Rumble would have just 20 participants.  Beginning in 1989, it would be bumped up to 30.

Besides the matches, there were two other set-ups meant to push forward some storylines.  Dino Bravo tried becoming The World’s Strongest Man by allegedly attempting to bench press over 700 pounds.  We couldn’t get a great view from our seats but we later learned when they showed the incident on TV that Bravo got a major assist from Jesse Ventura.  Who knows how much weight was actually being lifted, anyway.  In the end, it was just a bit to allow the French Canadian to call himself The World’s Strongest Man for future matches.  The whole thing was to establish a feud with Ken Patera, a former real-life weightlifter.  But the storyline was never all that scintillating so it didn’t last for very long.

For me, besides The Ladies’ Tag Team match, the most memorable moment involved the two biggest stars of the WWF at that time.

In January 1987, Andre The Giant turned against World Champion Hulk Hogan during a TV taping in order to challenge him for his belt at WrestleMania III.  (Vince McMahon flew to the set of The Princess Bride in the fall of 1986 to pitch the idea directly to Andre who had a supporting role in the film.)  After losing, Andre and former-enemy-turned-manager Bobby Heenan publicly complained about the decision citing the only false finish of the match as proof of supposed chicanery.  After Hogan attempted to body slam Andre, the enormous Frenchman used his considerable girth to fall directly on him as they both crashed to the mat.  Referee Joey Marella only counted to two but that didn’t matter to Heenan and Andre who demanded a rematch.  They got their wish on February 5, 1988, just a couple of weeks after The Rumble.

For purely ceremonial (and melodramatic) reasons, a bit involving Andre and Hogan signing the “official” contract for the match took place during The Rumble.  To see the slow-moving but imposing Andre walking down the aisle was a sight to behold.  Although the company exaggerated his height (he was really either 6’8 or 6’10, not 7’5), he still looked immense.  I remember he wore a specially made grey-and-white checkered suit complete with suspenders that barely contained his constantly growing midsection.  He had a bit of stubble, too, and some sideburns happening.  (This was the first time we saw him in person.)  He was accompanied by The Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase (he was wearing his trademark shiny grey and purple suit) and his bodyguard Virgil.  (As the storyline went, DiBiase wanted to buy Hogan’s belt but after he refused to sell out, DiBiase went to plan B:  he bought out Andre’s contract with Heenan, hired him do all his dirty work in the ring and then, hopefully get the belt from the new champion after he beat Hogan.)

Canadian promoter Jack Tunney (who played the fake WWF President when necessary) supervised the ceremony.  Hogan signed.  Andre signed.  DiBiase told Andre to put his stamp of approval on the contract which the big man interpreted as a command to drill Hogan’s face into the wooden table he was sitting at and flip the table on top of him sending him down to the mat.  His deliciously evil cackle revealed his approval and they left the ring.  Is it any wonder The Main Event, as it was billed, was such a resounding success?  That’s how you sell an important match.

After about two and a half hours, it was all over.  My stomach was still aching but we were all pleased with the show.  We soon left the arena and caught the bus home.

Much to our disappointment, the complete card was never released on VHS or Beta so we couldn’t see it again.  (Maybe because it wasn’t a pay-per-view event?)  The Ladies Tag Team Championship, the Hogan/Andre incident and, I think, Dino Bravo’s shady weightlifting bit were the only moments to surface on separate WWF videotapes.  Thankfully, the whole event is now available as part of the first volume of Royal Rumble shows on DVD.  It’s part of a package that includes the second, third, fourth and fifth Rumble cards.

After all these years, I wonder if we can finally spot ourselves in the crowd.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, January 24, 2008
7:35 p.m.

CORRECTION:  After checking out the arena results for old WWF shows on TheHistoryOfWWE.com, I realized I made a mistake in paragraph 15.  Originally, I noted that Andre The Giant’s appearance at the first Rumble was the only time I saw him in person.  Not true, it turns out.  Andre also appeared at the very next Copps Coliseum house show on March 13, 1988 when he accompanied Ted Dibiase & Virgil for their match against Bam Bam Bigelow & Hulk Hogan.  While I remember the match (it’s on the Hulk Hogan:  The Unreleased Archives DVD), I had forgotten all about Andre’s participation.  The line that initially read, “This was the only time we saw him in person” has been corrected to read “This was the first time we saw him in person”.  My belated apology for my memory lapse.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, July 9, 2010
2:32 a.m.

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Published in: on January 24, 2008 at 7:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

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