The battle royal is a concept as integrated into pro wrestling’s proverbial DNA as championship belts, high-energy theme music and passionate promos – which is to say it’s something a non-wrestling fan can easily identify as having to do with pro wrestling.
The gimmick is among the last remaining vestiges of early 20th century American pro wrestling still used in the modern era with any regularity. The first pro wrestling battle royals can be traced back to the 1930s, a time when the line between work and shoot was still being established. The battle royal was first promoted as a headline attraction in 1939 by a savvy Floridian promoter with the good sense to place high-profile talent in the same ring at the same time.
Though it’s not necessarily relevant to this conversation, it is incredibly important to at least mention that the true genesis of battle royals actually occurred in boxing circles of 18th century-England before infiltrating North American colonial culture in the late 1700s. After the American Revolution battle royals became fixtures of the American boxing circuit, primarily in southern slave states. Slave owners forced their slaves to compete in brutal matches, often blindfolded or with an arm tied behind their back, in a free-for-all environment designed to entertain the white audience. Soon after the American Civil War concluded battle royals were systematically eradicated from boxing before the concept was eventually rebranded by pro wrestling promoters. Though the pro wrestling version of the battle royal was, in no way, tied to its original boxing version it is important to note that the reintroduction of the concept in southern states was highly popular thanks, in part, to racist nostalgia.
Thankfully, as pro wrestling gradually became more popular across the country the concept of the battle royal became less associated with its racist origins. The booking philosophies of different promotors allowed the significance of battle royals to fluctuate up through the 1970s. Some promoters used the match as a way to highlight top talent or high-stakes situations; others strictly used them as preliminary or undercard entertainment. Despite the wide array of variations, the primary theme of a battle royal has largely remained the same since the concept was first introduced some 80 years ago: a group of proud competitors each attempting to establish themselves as the singular dominant force.
Simple yet incredibly compelling.
Watching a battle royal unfold you can’t help but feel as though you’re watching a modern day incarnation of gladiators competing on the bloody sands of the Roman Coliseum (or at least a metaphorical interpretation of such a scene). A mass of muscles and sweat rigorously fighting to defend real estate. Packs of like-minded warriors outnumbering weaker opponents, opportunistic smaller competitors pouncing at just the right time, battle-tested warriors of equal stature crossing paths when they otherwise would not. Battle royals tap into the most primal human emotions evolution has yet to erase from our cognitive make-up.
Americans, more so than any other culture, place a great deal of importance on the process of determining who is the best, whether it’s the best sports franchise, the best chef, the best cake decorator, the best actor, the best musician, the best writer or the best wrestler. Determining the very best of a particular group is an inherently American concept fed by the notion of American exceptionalism, which explains why the battle royal is so popular in the United States. The winner of a battle royal identifies themselves as the alpha of a pack and is the immediate beneficiary of an elevated stature granted by the audience. Bookers use that perception to push or re-establish specific talent higher on the card within the framework of whatever larger story they want to tell.
By the 1980s battle royals were primarily used to generate buzz around house shows in key cities of respective territories. The chance to see multiple stars in the same match was a promotional tool designed to pop business without having to give away too much. In the WWF, battle royals were routinely used to highlight the dominance of Andre ‘The Giant’, eliminating the need to insert him in storylines involving the Heavyweight title. Conversely, in the National Wrestling Alliance, the battle royal known as The Bunkhouse Stampede helped characters like Magnum T.A. and Dusty Rhodes maintain their status as perennial title contenders.
In 1988 Jim Crockett Promotions decided to turn its Stampede event into a pay-per view attraction; a last ditch effort to increase sinking revenues. In an attempt to undermine the success of that pay-per view Vince McMahon ran with the idea of the Royal Rumble match, originally pitched by Pat Patterson years before. The first Royal Rumble aired on USA Network for free (for cable subscribers) at the same time the Stampede aired on pay-per view. Needless to say the Rumble drew higher ratings. Of course, it didn’t hurt McMahon’s cause that a misprint on promotional material for the Stampede (as well as on the actual tickets for the event itself) incorrectly identified the start time of the event an hour late.
The success of the first Royal Rumble match, a 20-man competition won by Jim Duggan in Hamilton, Ontario, was more the result of storytelling ingenuity and less a result of promotional strategies or mistakes made by incompetent competition. Patterson’s brainchild proved to be a fresh take on a traditional pro wrestling gimmick at just the right time. Rather than beginning the match with 20 wrestlers in the ring at the same time, entrants joined the fight over the course of two-minute intervals. This unique structure allowed for 18 individual high-spots as the audience eagerly counted down to find out who would come out next. The element of the unknown provided a constant sense of excitement and never gave the audience a chance to catch its breath. This brilliant method of storytelling allowed for an incredibly successful experiment even without the presence of top stars like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage or Andre ‘The Giant.
Over the next several years the Royal Rumble would continue to evolve as additional layers of depth were added to the match, tapping into every major aspect of vital pro wrestling psychology along the way.
The order of the draw was masterfully manipulated to create compelling match-ups and scenarios designed to keep the audience fully engaged throughout the course of the lengthy event. In 1989 Ax and Smash of Demolition were the first two entrants, forcing the current Tag Team Champions to compete against each other for two minutes. That same year, angles involving Jake Roberts and Andre ‘The Giant’ as well as Hogan and Big Boss Man penetrated the Rumble match, allowing existing stories between characters to progress amidst the larger Rumble story for the first time.
Big John Studd would ultimately win the 89 Rumble, but the event is mostly remembered for the interaction between Hogan and then WWF Champion, Randy Savage. Though the two were allies at the time, Hogan’s interpretation of the ‘every man for himself’ motto proved to be more literal than Savage’s. When Savage was eliminated by his Mega Powers teammate an intense confrontation between the two had 20,000 fans in Houston, Texas aghast. Thanks to Miss Elizabeth cooler heads prevailed, however, the seeds were planted for the epic Mega Powers Explode program, which took place at WrestleMania V later that year. A similar confrontation between Hogan and Ultimate Warrior the following year kick started their WrestleMania VI story.
By the 1990s the Rumble became an event associated with new stories and fresh rivalries. A point in time when WWE hit the reset button on its running narrative and began a new season, so to speak. In 1993, the first year the winner was formally granted a title shot as a reward, it became the official prologue for stories set to culminate at WrestleMania. Bret Hart establishing himself as the face of the New Generation, Steve Austin ushering in the Attitude Era, Brock Lesnar dominating as an unstoppable beast, Rey Mysterio’s meteoric rise to super stardom, John Cena’s carefully crafted rise as a new supreme hero-all stories that culminated at WrestleMania but began at the Royal Rumble.
Today WWE uses the significant history of the Rumble to actively market the event as the first mile on the Road to WrestleMania, making the match much more main event-centric than its original design. On paper it’s easy to perceive the shift in branding as a detriment to the overall storytelling process. The fewer credible winners involved, the less compelling the match as a whole will be. While this has proven true in select years for a variety of reasons, elements unique to the Rumble match have allowed for the audience to invest in a multi-faceted story with a number of compelling sub-plots along the way.
Winning the Rumble is not the only way to advance a character or story. Booking a specific wrestler to eliminate a significant number of competitors creates a brief aura of dominance that can be cultivated down the road. Diesel eliminated seven opponents in 1994, often at such a rapid pace that he was left waiting for the countdown clock to send another body into the ring. He didn’t win the Rumble that year, a fact that ultimately meant little as Big Daddy Cool would become the first man to hold the Tag Team, Intercontinental and World titles inside the same calendar year in 94. His performance in the Rumble that year was the first stage of telling that story as well as the eventually rivalry between he and Michaels. Ironically, in 2014 Roman Reigns was booked on a similar trajectory; eliminating 12 men before being eliminated himself. His performance that year was designed to set the stage for his push as the new supreme hero in 2015, a turbulent project that has yet to be completely corrected in 2016.
The length of time competitors spend inside the ring is a major running theme of the Rumble that began in 1990. Ted DiBiase was ordered to be the first competitor in the ring that year as punishment for bribing his way to the number 30 slot the year before. Much to the chagrin of the audience, the Million Dollar Man skirted elimination for 44 minutes, generating valuable heat on his character along the way, before finally being eliminated by Ultimate Warrior. The following year Rick Martel lasted 52 minutes and Greg Valentine lasted just over 44 before being eliminated, giving the perennial mid card performers an added boost that paid dividends in the weeks immediately following the event.
Ric Flair’s championship-winning performance in 1992 was made all the more intriguing by the fact that The Nature Boy was the third man to enter that year, forcing him to pull off an unlikely Rumble Broadway in order to win the title. Likewise, in 1995 Shawn Michaels was the first character to win the Rumble as the first man in the ring. His actual time spent in the ring was significantly less than an hour due to one minute intervals that year, yet the perceived impossibility of winning as the first entrant created the illusion that he withstood over 60 minutes of grueling punishment. It’s amazing what seven consecutive years of continuity can do to the imagination.
Now entering its 29th year (second only to WrestleMania in terms of longevity) the Royal Rumble match and what it represents is synonymous with WWE’s very brand. Like WrestleMania, it has become a destination event that requires far less promotion than most other special events. That said, the last two Rumble winners have been rejected by an increasingly fickle WWE audience desperate for its hand-picked hero to emerge victorious; a requirement in order to capture the coveted WrestleMania moment. An event that provides the most thrill and excitement when produced at a slow boil has been placed on an intense high flame this year; for the first time the WWE title is being defended within the context of the Rumble match itself. The success of the angle is likely to impact the future direction of the Rumble, whether or not that is a good thing remains to be seen.
As you watch the event this year, anxious to pop in unfettered exultation or furiously boo as the winner’s hand is raised, remember what the Rumble has given you over the years. Doing so will allow you go to bed satisfied Sunday night no matter who wins.