The Wrestling 101 Match #11
Royal Rumble Match for the WWF World Championship
Jake Roberts vs. Roddy Piper vs. El Matador vs. Greg Valentine vs. Skinner vs. The Barbarian vs. Virgil vs. Jimmy Snuka vs. Hulk Hogan vs. Jerry Sags vs. Sgt. Slaughter vs. Randy Savage vs. The Big Boss Man vs. Haku vs. The Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Col. Mustafa vs. The British Bulldog vs. Irwin R. Schyster vs. Rick Martel vs. Sid Justice vs. Ted DiBiase vs. The Texas Tornado vs. Repo Man vs. Ric Flair vs. Nikolai Volkoff vs. Jim Duggan vs. The Warlord vs. Hercules vs. The Berzerker
January 19, 1992
World Wrestling Federation
Knickerbocker Arena

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The 1992 Royal Rumble is the second match I’ve encountered thus far in The Wrestling 101 from the promotion now known as World Wrestling Entertainment, and the first match in the series that feels uniquely “WWE.”

Plenty of wrestling companies have pushed the boundaries of how much pain a wrestler is willing to endure and how high a structure they are willing to fall from, as WWE did in the 1998 Hell in a Cell match I reviewed a few weeks ago. But the 1992 Royal Rumble perfectly encapsulates the promises, failures, and achievements of the company that has dominated the wrestling industry for at least the past three decades.

To me, WWE is alone among wrestling promotions as a company whose creative achievements feel like they are the result of its business achievements, as opposed to the other way around. For instance, if you were thinking of World Class Championship Wrestling’s business success, you might say, “The Von Erichs were molten hot, and their program with the Freebirds sold out the Sportatorium a bunch of times.” Or you might point to the nWo angle or Goldberg’s winning streak as the creative achievements that sparked World Championship Wrestling’s business growth in the Nitro era.

But at WWE, the creative achievements usually feel like accidental byproducts of the promotion’s success as a business. Indeed, the 1992 Royal Rumble follows the formula that defines so many of the WWE matches and moments that hardcore wrestling fans like best:

Through a series of foresighted and often predatory business maneuvers, WWE maintains a dominant position in the industry, allowing it to acquire most of the world’s most talented English-speaking wrestlers. In turn, these virtuosos produce an all-time classic match or moment through a combination of willpower, athleticism, and artistic genius—despite being undermined by the juvenile sensibilities of the company’s owner and at least a few of his boneheaded creative choices.

The treasure trove of all-star talent that Vince McMahon Jr. conquested from the territories is on full display throughout the match, and it’s nothing short of awe-inspiring.

There’s The British Bulldog, acquired via McMahon’s purchase of Stampede Wrestling, ripping off his big, impactful power slams as easily as his high-velocity dropkicks.

There’s the former American Wrestling Association prodigy Shawn Michaels, soaking in the night’s biggest boos in the aftermath of his famous Barber Shop heel turn and showboating from pillar to post with the strut of a young man who knows he has The Thing.

There’s the human firecracker “Rowdy” Roddy Piper (Jim Crockett Promotions), the entrancing Jake “The Snake” Roberts (Mid-South, JCP, etc.), and the beautiful Texas Tornado (former World Class superstar Kerry Von Erich).

And, of course, there is the crown jewel of the National Wrestling Alliance, the emotional center of the match, and the winner of the 1992 Royal Rumble: Ric Flair.

The Nature Boy’s iconic performance as the dastardly underdog is every bit as good as fans have been saying for the past 30 years. For just under an hour, he is a desperate man taking desperate measures, flipping into turnbuckles, flopping in exhaustion, and holding on for dear life. And yes, if you are being a stickler for details, I suppose you would have to admit he pokes a few people in the eyes and whacks a non-zero number of opponents in the nuts.

What makes this match so “WWE” to me is the way all this brilliance and star power blossoms through the cracks of Vince McMahon’s cartoon show for maladjusted and understimulated children.

The Royal Rumble is an extremely “WWE” match construction, in the sense that its frequent entrances and multi man mayhem fulfill the company’s commitment to sensory overload. As the ring fills up, long stretches of the Rumble consist mostly of camera cuts between different guys punching each other absentmindedly in the corner. In these segments, too much shit is happening, and most of it is boring. And the stuff you do want to see—like Flair struggling to escape Rick Martel’s late-match attempt to eliminate him—is too often abandoned by the camera in favor of yet another shot of some guy choking another guy with his boot.

Not to be That Guy, but the match also highlights the stylistic gap between early-90s WWF and the more progressive elements of the contemporary Japanese scene. Rather than milking near-eliminations for drama, wrestlers repeatedly seem to lose interest in eliminating their opponents who are knocked over the top rope and clinging to the apron. While it might sound silly to complain that this match didn’t have enough near falls or a hot closing stretch, it’s hard to watch 1992 Hacksaw Jim Duggan without remembering that this Royal Rumble takes place nearly three years after the Genichiro Tenryu/Jumbo Tsuruta match that ushered in All Japan’s King’s Road era.

For better or worse, the 1992 Royal Rumble is WWE. Flair, Piper, and Davey Boy’s brilliance exists alongside cringeworthy cartoon characters like The Repo Man, Skinner, and The Undertaker.

Fittingly, Flair’s victory celebration is cut short when he is run off by the ultimate synthesis of McMahon’s territorial business conquests and his infantile tastes: the immortal Hulk Hogan. Despite Flair’s championship win and his all-time great performance, it’s Hogan whose post-match conflict with Sid Justice claims the ring during the final moments broadcast from the Knickerbocker Arena, and it’s Hogan who will main event the upcoming WrestleMania against Sid.

Whether under Hogan, John Cena, or Roman Reigns, this is the paradox of watching WWE as someone who loves pro wrestling.

The company’s business acumen enables it to promote the most magnetic, talented performers wrestling has ever seen, and in their best moments, these men and women transcend the WWE house style to create something special. And then, just as you are basking in the glow of their genius, these legends are pushed aside to make room for one rich guy’s fantasy of the man he’d like to be.