Pruett's Blog: I'm going to WrestleMania - The Royal Rumble Winners Series Part 1: 1993-1996, Yokozuna, Bret Hart, Lex Luger, and Shawn Michaels
By Will Pruett
"I'm going to WrestleMania" has become a familiar cry to most wrestling fans. Much like a Super Bowl winning quarterback tends to scream their affinity for Disney theme parks, wrestlers scream this after winning the Royal Rumble. In the past 20 years, 18 different wrestler have won the Royal Rumble and won the right to face the WWE Champion at WrestleMania. These are there stories, presented to discover just what it means to win the Royal Rumble.
1993 - Yokozuna
In 1993 WWE was at a crossroads. There was serious consideration of the first WrestleMania without Hulk Hogan on the card taking place. At the very least, there was consideration of this being only the second WrestleMania without the Hulkster in the main event. Bret Hart had emerged as the new babyface champion and Vince McMahon had come up with a new word to describe him: fightingest.
It was just months before the Royal Rumble when Yokozuna emerged. Billed as a former sumo wrestler from Japan, Yokozuna was a prototypical WWE monster. He ran roughshod over all competition from his debut at the end of October 1992.
WWE needed a way to bring these men together. The Royal Rumble had just been a major achievement in years past. It was a spectacle, but until 1992, nothing real was on the line. In 1992, the Rumble was for the WWE Championship. In 1993, it was set up to be for a shot at the WWE Championship at WrestleMania. This would begin a tradition lasting up to this day.
Yokozuna won the Royal Rumble when he eliminated Randy Savage. He went on to have one of the most straightforward roads to WrestleMania. His path was basically to crush all competition, until finally meeting Bret Hart.
The meeting at WrestleMania was as impressive of a match as Yokozuna had been to this point. He was hardly off his feet, but when he was, the crowd was into it. Hart definitely embodied the term "fightingist" here as the plucky champion against insurmountable odds. He almost got it done too, as Hart had the Sharpshooter locked in until salt from the hand of Mr. Fuji reared its head. Hart was pinned immediately afterward.
Yokozuna had achieved his goal and won the WWE Championship. On a normal show, this is the end, but at WrestleMania IX, it was the cue for Hulk Hogan to run out and check on his friend, Bret Hart. Mr. Fuji challenged Hogan and Hart encouraged him. The second WWE Championship match was on. As quickly as it began, the match ended (the bell never rang) and Hulk Hogan had leg dropped his way to his fifth WWE Championship.
All of the good done for Yokozuna during the last five months suddenly seemed to evaporate. Hogan had defeated the foreign monster. What was left to be done? At this point, ascribing any value to the Royal Rumble win is difficult. It helped Yokozuna by continuing his dominant push, but said push quickly came to an end with little buildup and fanfare. Things would turn out all right for Yokozuna, but his Rumble win, which helped him immensely, ended up being all for naught.
1994 - Bret Hart and Lex Luger
It didn't take long for WWE to use the concept of getting a title shot at WrestleMania and find a way to cloud it. At the end of the 1994 Royal Rumble two men had their hands raised as winners, Bret Hart and Lex Luger. This would be one of the more interesting roads to WrestleMania.
With two winners, it was decided both men would get title shots at WrestleMania, with a coin toss deciding who would get the first of the night, while the other man would wrestle a match earlier in the night. Lex Luger would win the coin toss, so we'll cover him first.
Lex was in the midst of the largest push he would receive in WWE. He debuted for the company in 1993 after spending a year as the face of Vince McMahon's spectacular World Bodybuilding Federation. Lex spent those first few months in WWE as "The Narcissist" posing in front of mirrors. This changed halfway through the year when Yokozuna challenged any American to slam him.
Lex arrived by helicopter and succeeded where everyone else failed. He slammed the foreign foe. During this time, Lex also toured the country in a bus like a political candidate running for champion. This lead to SummerSlam, where Lex Luger did defeat Yokozuna, but did so by countout. Lex did not win the championship.
This Royal Rumble win was Luger's only chance to get another opportunity at the WWE Championship. It was also the last gasp of his push on top in WWE.
Bret Hart had been unceremoniously dethroned at WrestleMania IX and spent the year feuding with Jerry "The King" Lawler and various other heels. Hart was not in the WWE Championship picture from the moment he told Hulk to "go get him" until this shared victory in the Rumble.
Hart had a fine year as far as quality work goes and his popularity remained intact. He just was not a part of the big picture in 1993. This victory was a resumption of Hart's major push from the end of 1992.
The 1994 Royal Rumble was Bret Hart's new beginning and Lex Luger's ending.
WrestleMania played out along this narrative. Luger would be disqualified by the referee (a returning Mr. Perfect turning on Luger) and Bret Hart would take advantage of Yokozuna's slip off of the top rope to pin him and capture the WWE Championship. Many would see this as the ultimate apology to Hart for losing faith in him a year before.
This year showed how a Rumble win could be used for good, but it also showed there are times when a Rumble win doesn't really help a wrestler at all.
1995 - Shawn Michaels
Sometimes a wrestler just isn't ready for a big win. This was the case with Shawn Michaels when he won the 1995 Royal Rumble. Sadly, a quick look at the WWE roster in 1995 shows a complete lack of anyone more capable than Michaels of taking this main event role. He was a victim of circumstance.
The win itself seems spectacular. Michaels became the first man to ever go from the beginning of the Rumble to the very end. He entered at number one and lasted almost 40 minutes to win the match. Through the course of this match he would demonstrate his spectacular athleticism and resilience. Michaels was a plucky and able heel. He was capable of anything, but wanted or needed to cheat to get it.
The story of the Road to WrestleMania XI seemed obvious. Diesel was Michaels' former bodyguard, but he had suddenly surpassed him. Michaels was a jealous former partner looking to end Diesel's reign. The story wrote itself as the former WWE Tag Team Champions collided. Somehow the story on paper didn't translate to the screen and the build to this match never quite reached a fever pitch.
Jenny McCarthy and Pamela Anderson were also involved. Anderson was supposed to accompany Michaels to the ring, but chose Diesel instead. McCarthy would go with Michaels. It was an odd attempt to involve celebrities in a story they knew nothing about.
Michaels in 1995 seemed like Dolph Ziggler did in 2012. Michaels had the Royal Rumble title shot. Ziggler had the Money in the Bank contract. Michaels was a young, hand-bumping heel stealing the show every night. Ziggler was exactly this for many of WWE’s top stars in 2012, but couldn’t win the big match. Both men were just barely missing the mark, but they were still missing it.
Shawn Michaels would go on to give Diesel a great match, but would ultimately lose. The achievement of winning the Royal Rumble was not lost on Michaels is it became a major career moment. The achievement just didn't pack the desired punch. Michaels would be alright though.
1996 - Shawn Michaels
See, I told you Shawn Michaels would be alright. Of course, this was not after a tumultuous 1995. In the year 1995, Michaels turned babyface, had a rematch of his classic Ladder Match with Razor Ramon, been attacked by somewhere between one and twenty Marines outside of a club, "passed out" in the ring after a kick from Owen Hart, and more. It was a formative year in the career of the Heartbreak Kid.
Once Michaels reached the Royal Rumble, he was an obvious favorite to win the match. With the support of both The Kliq (his fans) and The Clique (his backstage buddies) Michaels would enter the much more star-studded Rumble at a more manageable number 18 and outlast all other competitors. For the first time in Royal Rumble history, the final two men were the men in the previous year's WrestleMania championship match: Michaels and Diesel. Michaels would avenge his loss the previous year.
The road to WrestleMania for Michaels was far more interesting than it was a year prior. He was set to face babyface WWE Champion Bret Hart. In an effort to show all fans this match would be a classic, WWE decided to make this the first one hour Iron Man match. The most decisions in an hour would crown a winner.
Michaels' road involved training for the Iron Man match. He did upside pull-ups in front of a flag. He ran stadium steps. He discussed his boyhood dream with anyone who would listen. He showed immense respect for Bret Hart. Michaels seemed destined to win the match and achieve his dream.
Across the ring from Michaels was Hart, a man WWE seemed to come back to in times of trouble, but never quite committed to making the real top guy. Hart had split top billing with Luger, Yokozuna, Diesel, and now Michaels. Hart was the champion they needed, but not the one they wanted. Hart was the guy they knew could have a classic with Michaels. He won the title in late 1995 and seemed to be keeping it warm while Michaels was coming on strong.
The actual Iron Man match has been discussed many times as both the greatest match and one of the greatest disappointments in WrestleMania history. The spectacular entrance of Michaels and the explanation of the rules has been replayed many times, but then most highlight reels seem to skip to about halfway through the match.
This match was as good and as bad as most say. The first 30 minutes were slow and plodding. They resorted to headlock after headlock. Both men seem afraid to move too fast or do too much. Short bursts of activity were followed by long stretches of rest. The multiple fall structure of the match was useless in this format. The final 30 minutes were an exercise in well-played drama. The crowd was brought along for the ride as Michaels and Hart put on a clinic.
The final minute of the match was spectacular as Michaels was locked in the Sharpshooter by Hart, but refused to tap. Overtime was demanded and Michaels would be able to nail Hart with Sweet Chin Music. "The boyhood dream," Vince McMahon told us on commentary, "has come true."
This Rumble win for Michaels was the beginning of an inevitable destiny. While a year before Michaels wasn't ready and the Rumble win seemed to put him in over his head, in 1996 Michaels found himself on the precipice of greatness and the Rumble win pushed him over the edge. This is the effectiveness a Rumble win can hold.
Through these first four men, we see the Royal Rumble as a championship-propelling concept take shape. In these early years the effectiveness of it was mixed, but the achievement still seemed important. There was some fine-tuning left to be done, but the Rumble went from an interesting side-event in January to a major happening to begin the Road to WrestleMania.
Michaels and Hart certainly benefitted from their victories and etched their names as the first on a long list of men the Rumble has helped to make.
This blog has been edited by the great Ryan Kester.
Let's do some good old fashioned talking about this blog, the Royal Rumble, and WrestleMania! Feel free to email me at email@example.com or to follow me on twitter at twitter.com/itswilltime.
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