With this year’s event just around the corner, Matthew Roberts takes us on another trip in the TWM Time Machine™ to go back to the first ever televised Royal Rumble event.
It was no coincidence that the 1988 Royal Rumble match aired FREE on USA Network at the exact same time that the NWA was presenting Bunkhouse Stampede on PPV. Vince had previously pulled a powerplay in 1987 (if you carry the opposition’s shows, you don’t get mine) and a few months after this Clash of Champions would air on free TV up against WrestleMania. Counter-programming isn’t just a 2021 thing you know (nor was it new when Raw/Nitro were doing it in the Monday Night Wars).
We’re straight into the action as this one opens up as the familiar Rick Rude music can be heard in the background as Vince McMahon and Jesse Ventura welcome us to the event. Expect it’s not the familiar Rude music, it’s the Network approximation. But still, it’s Rick Rude against Ricky Steamboat; that’s got to be a good start to a show hasn’t it?
Well, actually no. The January 1988 Rude is not even the Rude of 1989/1990. Almost all he does in this match is punch and kick and even though Steamboat hits a couple of flashy moves to try and keep the crowd alive he’s fighting a losing battle here. Steamboat’s Armbar work would be ok if it actually lead to anything (it doesn’t) and Rude fighting back with an hour long reverse chinlock just saps the life out of the viewer entirely. That they generally plod their way though a slow paced match for SEVENTEEN minutes only for it to go to a DQ finish just puts the icing on the cake. The only possible curiosity value this might have is the rare sighting of Ricky Steamboat having a boring PPV match.
Yet I’d rather watch that opener on a loop for 24 hours than ever sit through Dino Bravo’s attempt to set the World Bench Press record of 705 pounds ever again just the once. It feels like it goes on for hours. And I know it’s the WWE of the 1980’s and we get daft stuff like this but this is just interminably long and tedious. As a series of vignettes over four weeks or so it would still have been dull and boring but at least in small doses it might have been tolerable. And although Bravo “breaking the record” via help from his spotter Jesse Ventura might have been a perfectly acceptable “heel” move in 1988 I am fairly certain we could have got to the point a whole lot quicker.
Thankfully, salvation is at hand in the form of the Women’s Tag Team Titles. Yes, they did exist before the WWE made such a big play about them a couple of years ago. Of course the Glamour Girls duo of Leilani Kai and Judy Martin aren’t going to go down as two of the greats of all time (though they are perfectly acceptable by the mainstream standards of the era) but they are in there against a genuinely great tag team in the shape of the Jumping Bomb Angels, Noriyoi Tateno and Ituski Yamazki. And by knowing and typing out their names there I’ve ensured you already know more about them that Vince McMahon evidently did. Baffling that a man signing their cheques AND commentating on their title win (which he has booked) doesn’t take the time to learn which of them is which. Mind you, it’s still preferable to years of Jerry Lawler commentating on women’s matches.
The match itself is two out of three falls and, again by the standards of the era in general, is a really good effort. There’s a few moments when the veteran champions seem at sea (unless we’re being cynical and suggesting they were deliberately sandbagging) but on the whole this is a crisp, exciting match that gets over with the crowd largely thanks to the challengers. The heels naturally get the first fall and this sets up the winning run for the challengers perfectly. Of course the Angels in the WWE was never going to work long-term (even before Fabulous Moolah ALLEGEDLY got involved in sabotaging them) but what a breath of fresh air they must have been for fans in 1988. And they certainly hold up today as a great tag-team.
Next we have the contract signing for Hulk Hogan and Andre The Giant’s upcoming match at “The Main Event” which would turn out to be one of the most memorable matches of the era. In 2021 when almost ever PPV main event going has a similar contract angle signing like this one this all seems a little bit old hat. Yet at the time it was relatively new and it did it’s job in that sense. And it was a lot easier to sit through than eighteen hours of Dino Bravo lifting weights.
And so it was onto the Royal Rumble itself, bafflingly not in the main event spot mind you. I suspect that as the first televised match of it’s kind, the WWE were playing it safe and ensuring the match could go as planned and wouldn’t have to be truncated if time was running short. That said, even on it’s debut the entrance times vary and waver when required. Bret Hart and Tito Santana are the answers to the quiz question of the first two Rumblr participants (and note Santana was part of the first WrestleMania match in 1985 too) and from there eighteen other men join them.
Bret is the first recipient of the “iron man” Rumble push, lasting over 25 minutes, whilst One Man Gang gets the first “monster” Rumble booking, eliminating six men. The match itself is still obviously ironing out any flaws with the concept, which is understandable, and it is a little light on genuine star power. The likes of Jake Roberts, Harley Race and Junkyard Dog are more than offset by names such as Sam Houston, Danny Davis, Boris Zukhov, Ron Bass and the Killer Bees. Mostly all dependable, solid undercard guys but generally the match lacks pizzaz.
Hacksaw Jim Duggan is your inaugural winner (and maybe Jesse Ventura speaks for us all when he says “out of everyone, HE won”) by lastly eliminating One Man Gang. Its appeal as a match largely resides in the fact that it was the first televised version of what would go on to become one of the annual highlights of the WWE calendar. And if you’ve ever watched and enjoyed a Rumble match, this is a fun one to watch in that context.
We finish with the “main event” of the Young Stallions against The Islanders, in another two out of three falls match. And if neither team of Jim Powers and Paul Roma or Tama and Haku can quite give us what the Jumping Bomb Angels did earlier this actually isn’t that bad of a match. Shockingly it only goes two falls as the Islanders win straight after Paul Roma concedes the first fall via countout after a knee injury. The match actually pauses whilst the injury is checked out and, after a rambling Ted DiBiase/Andre promo (only amusing for the moment when Andre smacks the interviewer for interrupting him and this seems to send the poor guy into a fit of the giggles), Roma returns to the ring with a heavily bandaged knee. The Islanders ruthlessly target the injury and pick up the win 2-0.
Being honest, this show probably has most merit through it being the historic first televised Rumble match. It can’t hold a candle to the best examples of the Rumble match but it’s an interesting debut and at least doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. Only the Women’s Tag Team match on the undercard is really worth a second watch, and the opener and the interminable Dino Bravo segment aren’t really even worth one watch. Still, using the chapters and skip options, watching that women’s match, the Rumble and possibly the Hogan/Andre signing (it was a novelty back then) are a good use of your time.
Photos courtesy of WWE