Pruett's Blog: I'm going to WrestleMania - The Royal Rumble Winners Series Part 2 - 1997-2001, Steve Austin, Vince McMahon, and The Rock
By Will Pruett
This is part two of five in The Royal Rumble Winners Series. Click here to read Part One.
Sometimes a Royal Rumble win is simply a storytelling device. It can be used to forward a feud or to enhance a character. Even in its modern form, the Rumble is not always about the championship. In this chapter, there's an explosion in WWE's popularity, largely centered around one character. With these Rumbles, WWE attempts to tell many of the same stories, but in different ways.
It's hard to keep a concept fresh and exciting. It's hard to make something catch on. It's hard to tell compelling stories all the time.
1997 - "Stone Cold" Steve Austin
If a wrestler wins the Royal Rumble, despite being eliminated from it, but never gets a WrestleMania title shot, does it still count? This was the case with Steve Austin in 1997. He found himself in the middle of the single most chaotic Road to WrestleMania in history.
It seemed set in stone at the Rumble. Shawn Michaels won the WWE Championship back from Sid in front of 60,000 people. Steve Austin won the Royal Rumble after eliminating his arch rival Bret Hart. In a normal year the match would be set in stone the next night. 1997 was not a normal year.
First, there was the way Steve Austin won the Rumble. He entered at number five and dominated the match until Bret Hart entered. Suddenly, the match was about them and nothing else. Other competitors would enter and be eliminated, but the hottest rivalry in WWE, at the time, took center stage in the Rumble. In the end, Austin was eliminated as a part of the final four, but the referees were distracted. Austin would sneak back in and win the match.
WWE Champion Shawn Michaels, continuing on his chaotic path of the last few years, suffered a knee injury believed to be career ending, and, even worse, he lost his smile. Michaels forfeited the title on "Thursday Raw Thursday." This, along with the controversial ending of the Rumble match itself necessitated a concept match which was only used this once at the February In Your House event: The Final Four.
In a match where an elimination could take place via pin, submission, or being thrown over the top rope, the final four men in the Royal Rumble (Steve Austin, Bret Hart, Undertaker, and Vader) did battle for the WWE Championship. This was a precursor to the brawls constantly seen in the Attitude Era and a match stylistically modeled after ECW. In a spectacular affair, Hart would come out on top.
Hart had another challenge to overcome the next night on Raw. This challenge was Sid, who would topple Hart and capture the WWE Championship for himself. However, this story is not about championships.
Steve Austin and Bret Hart had feuded since Hart returned to the WWE at Survivor Series 1996. This feud would continue into WrestleMania with the two meeting in a Submission Match. This match may arguably be the best of not only both men's careers, but also the best match in WrestleMania history.
This Royal Rumble means nothing when discussing championships. It does, however, mean everything when discussing a major chapter in a truly brilliant rivalry. Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin is one of the best rivalries WWE ever put together and this Rumble match stands as a major chapter. The Rumble didn't have to center around the title, as useful as the device may be.
1998 - "Stone Cold" Steve Austin
Considering how expected the story of a Rumble winner going to WrestleMania and capturing the WWE Championship was, it's actually amazing that from 1993 to 1997 nothing quite that straightforward occurred. There were multiple winners, surprise challengers, hour-long draws in overtime, and a multitude of other events keeping the simplicity of the basic Rumble story from shining. In 1998, the Rumble story was able to shine.
Here we have the same winner for a second year in a row for the second time in a row. Steve Austin would leave WrestleMania 13 a beaten but more popular man. The wave of popularity would carry him through the year 1997, where Austin would narrowly avoid a career-ending neck injury. This injury would forever alter how Austin wrestled.
Steve Austin won the 1998 Royal Rumble with the odds stacked against him and a bounty on his head. The next night on Raw, he would be involved in a confrontation with the man set to be the special enforcer in the main event of WrestleMania, Mike Tyson. Tyson joined the Degeneration-X stable (Shawn Michaels, Triple H, and Chyna) and furthered the story of the odds being out of Austin's favor.
Shawn Michaels left the Royal Rumble as WWE Champion. The lead of Degeneration-X was hot off the heels of the Montreal Screwjob and an amazing series of matches with The Undertaker. He was also wrestling with a severe back injury. Michaels played the perfect antagonist. On the Road to WrestleMania, there seemed to be a Superkick waiting around every corner for Austin.
With the odds out of his favor and the crowd basically begging for him to win, Austin prevailed at WrestleMania and won the WWE Championship. The match ended clean with just one Stone Cold Stunner putting Michaels down for the count. It was as basic as a win could get, but it meant the world.
This Rumble shows the beginning of Austin's most important quest. He was already the most popular wrestler in the company and he needed this moment to put him over the top. WWE delayed their own gratification by waiting until WrestleMania XIV to crown Austin. They also delayed the gratification of their fans, leading to a great release.
1999 - Vince McMahon
How do you tell a story with the same beginning, the same ending, and the same protagonist, without telling the exact same story? This was the challenge set before WWE going into the 1999 Royal Rumble. They had unfairly taken the WWE Championship from Austin and set up a major antagonist, The Rock. They needed a way to bring them together.
Rather than allow themselves to fall into the trap of Austin winning the Rumble for an unprecedented third year in a row, WWE did something different, thus changing the story ever so slightly. They had the owner of the company and Austin's arch-rival, Vince McMahon, win the Rumble match instead.
The Rumble was the first chance for viewers to see Austin and McMahon in a sanctioned match since May of 1998. They would enter as numbers one and two and for the second time in Rumble history, the men who started the match would also end it. Austin was eliminated after a distraction from The Rock in a match where Austin saw a bounty on his head, a surprise attack in a ladies room, and a trip to the hospital.
The protagonist was now thoroughly off track. He was also faced with the idea of two levels of antagonism: the immediate and the constant. The Rock was his immediate antagonist, where McMahon proved to be a constant foil.
McMahon found himself in possession of a WrestleMania title shot he had no intention of using. A special appearance from the commissioner of the WWE at the time, Shawn Michaels (one year into a five year hiatus), informed McMahon that giving up his title shot would cause it to go to Austin (the Rumble runner up). Things could not be this easy for Austin and they weren't.
A cage match was held between Austin and McMahon on Valentine’s Day in 1999. Austin barely won it when The Big Show debuted in WWE and through him into the side panel, breaking it and allowing Austin to land on the floor.
From then on, the build was simple. Austin and Rock had a date with destiny. Austin was at his height and Rock was at his first peak. Each man gave everything in the actual match and four referees sacrificed their bodies to build the drama.
For the very first time, a Royal Rumble win for one competitor lead to their arch-rival winning the WWE Championship. This was another time when the Rumble was a chapter in a story. In a way, it was almost an obstacle. WWE didn't want to have Austin win for the third year, but they needed him to take the challenger role at WrestleMania. The Rumble can be difficult to navigate around if the company is trying to follow all of its rules. Sometimes a little creativity is necessary.
2000 - The Rock
When I think back to WrestleMania 2000 (the moniker given to WrestleMania 16), I don't think about who won the Rumble. I don't really even think of the participants in the main event. I think of the main event's tag line. I think of "A McMahon in Every Corner." How exactly does a McMahon in every corner play into the Royal Rumble winner receiving a title shot? Well, it doesn't.
The Rumble once again ended in controversy when The Rock seemed to have won, but Big Show was able to produce photo and video evidence showing Rock's feet touching the ground first. Alas, what was authority figure and WWE Champion Triple H to do? He made a match between Rock and Big Show at No Way Out, which Big Show won.
The main event was set to be Triple H vs. Big Show in an odd heel vs. heel matchup. Surely, something had to change. The Rock was added to the match, making it a triple threat. Then, when the match happened on Raw instead of WrestleMania, the recently retired Mick Foley was added to the match by Linda McMahon. This completed the McMahon foursome and the complete four way main event.
Interestingly enough, The Rock's story throughout this time was a championship quest and a goal to beat his rival, Triple H. He was fighting hard to get back into the title scene. It seemed like the Rumble would create the perfect opportunity for Rock.
At WrestleMania, the match eventually boiled down to The Rock vs. Triple H, but just when Rock was about to capture the WWE Championship, the McMahon in his corner (Vince) turned on him and hit him with a chair, allowing Triple H to retain the title.
This was a year where WWE ventured in a direction opposite what was expected. The Rock vs. Triple H was the obvious match. The Rock vs. Triple H was actually the main event of the next two WWE pay-per-views (Backlash and Judgment Day).
This year, the Rumble was used to set up a story WWE wouldn't fully capitalize on until Backlash. Because it was used so poorly, this is a fairly inconsequential Rumble. It's a great way to make Rock's career sound more important, but the win didn't help him at all. If anything, the Rumble somehow kept him from achieving his ultimate goal sooner.
2001 - "Stone Cold" Steve Austin
Steve Austin returned in late 2000 to get vengeance on the man who ran him down in a parking lot at Survivor Series 1999 and the man who orchestrated the attack. Rikishi and Triple H felt the vengeance of "The Texas Rattlesnake" until he moved on to reclaiming the WWE Championship.
Austin's final Royal Rumble win seemed to be focused on reminding viewers that desperate men do desperate things. To see the meaning in this Rumble, one should probably fast forward a couple months to the sit down interview Jim Ross did with The Rock and Steve Austin on Smackdown. Austin told us he had to get the WWE Championship back and would do anything to do so.
In the Royal Rumble match, Austin was forced to use chairs, bells, and as much cunning as he could to come out on top. A month later, at No Way Out, he was defeated by Triple H in a Three Stages of Hell match (a brilliant affair you should really watch, if you haven't). Austin was desperate. Austin was no longer the best and feared Triple H and Rock had passed him by.
While the 1997 Rumble saw Austin as a star being born before our eyes, this was the story of a fading star desperately clinging to light.
How did Austin end up recapturing the title? He aligned with his former arch-rival, Vince McMahon and defeated The Rock. Desperate men do desperate things.
This collection of Rumbles and WrestleMania matches seems to be the story of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin: his rise to prominence and his eventual fall. His three Royal Rumble wins are a record (one that will probably never be matched).
These years also feature the first ever straightforward Rumble story with a heel stacking the odds against a babyface getting on a roll at the perfect moment. The Rumble is often thought of as a match of destiny and perhaps it was during these years. After Austin's first win, he certainly didn't need the Rumble to establish him. Vince McMahon was already the most hated man in WWE (and possibly one of the top ten most hated on America) when he claimed victory. The Rock was a three time champion and the biggest star in the company when he won.
The Rumble was not a career-builder here, but rather a device to get the top talent in the right place for WrestleMania.
This blog has been edited by the fantastic 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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