Wednesday 21 January 2015

Battles Royal part 1

Disclaimer: First, I am definitely sure that is the correct terminology for the plural of a Battle Royal and I'm sticking to it! This Sunday, the WWE hosts the 28th Annual Royal Rumble and ICW have their 4th Annual Square Go coming up, so I decided to take you all on a wee historical look at the matches that spawned them, taking you into the modern era with part two and in part three have a quick round-table on who is most likely to win each event.

First up, a wee quick preview of the present before we delve into the past - this Sunday, 25th January 2015 at the o2 ABC in Glasgow, we see Insane Championship Wrestling host their 4th Annual Square Go event. 30 men enter, 5 with weapons, and only one will remain as the number one contender to the ICW Heavyweight title.

Also on the card is last year's winner, Chris Renfrew, cashing in his title shot with one day to spare against reigning champion Drew Galloway. We also have the Iron Man of ICW, Joe Coffey, awaiting his open challenge to be answered in an Iron Man match (I personally am hoping to see Rampage Brown, Jack Gallagher or Mikey Whiplash answer that call).

Last but not least, the possible culmination to a deeply personal feud that has seen two cousins being thrown off of really tall structures, attacked in pubs, tied to each other in a Dog Collar Match and nearly killing each other in a Last Man Standing match. In the Steel Cage we will see BT Gunn and Wolfgang hopefully put an end to this dispute, one way or another.

Now, on with the history lesson. I am a big fan of Jim Cornette and his writings in FSM are a highlight of my week. Above and beyond any individual wrestler I have met, introducing myself to Jim last year at the burger eating contest hosted by ICW left me a gibbering mess, unable to string together two words. He liked my t-shirt, shook my hand, and I am happy with that, even if he couldn't understand my accent in the slightest!

In amongst regaling us with stories of heels keeping kayfabe to the point of getting in legit bar fights and almost going to jail lest they provide an alibi for the babyface they were currently in a program with, Jim's writings on the concept of the Battle Royal are what sparked my interest in writing this article. It's a simple idea at its core - a promoter needs to have a certain amount of matches to placate the ticket-buying public, but how does he manage to fill a card without paying 16 guys to go out and put on 8 bouts or, worse yet if there is a tag match, anywhere up to 20 or so?

Why, he pays 10 guys to turn up, put on a 5 match card, then go back out again at the end to have a Battle Royal and stretch it out for as long as possible. Sounds so cynical and corporate, doesn't it?

But as much as that is the stripped-down reality of things, to a kid like Jim Cornette the allure of seeing several guys in the one ring battling it out for a huge cash prize was enough to get him to attend his first ever live show, seeing Jerry Jarrett come out victorious and starting his life-long obsession with the sport.

Probably not the Battle Royal young Jim saw (in fact, it's a tag match), but it is a haggard looking picture from 70s Tennessee showing Jerry Jarrett in a ring with more than one other wrestler, so it will have to do - (c) unknown

It was this allure that saw the Battle Royal become a special attraction apparently as far back as gladiatorial times, where several slaves would engage in one fight to the death. The use of the term that far back has never been proven, but as Albert Jack explains in his book "The Old Dog And Duck":

"The expression entered the English language during the 1670s via the obsession at the time with cockfighting. It was such a popular pastime that people of every class, even the aristocracy and members of the royal family, would send their prized birds into the fray."

Cockfighting at the time took place in stages. Sixteen birds fought simultaneously until only eight survived. After a short break, the eight would fight to four, and in the third round the four would fight to two. Needless to say, only the strongest and most well-kept cocks could survive until the final fight to the death and eventual victor. As Albert explains:

"It was the royal cockerels that engaged in the fiercest, and subsequently most talked-about, fights. They truly were the battle royals."

Over time, this concept and terminology transferred into the boxing world where things get even more gruesome. Without going into too much detail (there are already many boxing-specific articles out there if you want to read the deep history of that period) generally speaking the "battle royal" of the 1800s involved a group of men, almost always black, fighting until all but one had either given up or been knocked out. These fights were billed as an attraction but with a variety of insidious reasons behind this - stoking disunity in the black community, providing 'entertainment' to racists and getting wealthy rich men in the door to spend the rest of their evening, and finances, gambling across the whole card.

Thankfully, the world's attitude towards race relations took a real turn for the better and the term Battle Royal morphed once again, this time into the wrestling world. As far back as at least 1905, the wrestling Battle Royal was being introduced as the new, exciting way to spice up wrestling and mixed wrestling/boxing events.

From "Catch Wrestling" by Mark S. Hewitt detailing a 1905 bout.

Although the racist connotations were gone, the Battle Royal was still seen as a bit of a freak match, used primarily to open up cards as a means to get people in the door. It would take until the 1930s, as the public's general bloodlust began to fully turn against boxing, for wrestling promoters to realise that a Battle Royal could instead be the main event with the rest of the show built around it. 

Being booked as the star attraction, these bouts would begin with up to six wrestlers in the ring, fighting for falls until only two remained. These wrestlers would then compete in a final fall to determine their split of the prize money, with the other four left to go home with nothing. Make no mistake about it, these weren't book matches - this was once again a cheap way for promoters to stack their cards. For those who are interested in reading more, this article has links to a couple of newspaper reports of the period, detailing some Battle Royal results.

Battle Royal, May 21st 1976, Los Angeles - (c) unknown

As is the way with wrestling's rules, at some point between the early 20th Century and the matches that Jim saw in the 1970s, the Battle Royal morphed from a fall-orientated contest to one which focused on over-the-top-rope eliminations. In the bout pictured above, 20 men fought to be the last one standing after everyone else was thrown over the top rope to the outside in a 1976 bout. I have heard 1955 mentioned as the point that the rules changed, but I can find no real evidence other than hearsay.

What I have found is an oft-forgotten rule that states if a wrestler threw his opponent over the top rope he would risk disqualification as it was deemed an unacceptably dangerous manoeuvre, detracting from the technical bout taking place between the ropes. I often wonder if this was a factor in making the Battle Royal an over-the-top rope affair to add to the attraction, but as with the specific date, I can't find any evidence to suggest the reasoning behind this rule change. 

Still, what I do know for sure is that the match endured many wacky gimmicks during the ensuing decades, from blindfold matches and "bring your own tomato" events of the early days, to my favourite bout from the 1980s - the Bunkhouse Stampede.

Beginning in 1985, Jim Crockett Promotions ran a series of smaller events showcasing a Battle Royal with a difference. The wrestlers would come to the ring in "bunkhouse" gear, that is blue jeans and cowboy boots, and were permitted to bring weapons along with them. These bloody affairs would result in one winner, with the others being eliminated in over-the-top-rope fashion. The collective winners would then meet annually at the Bunkhouse Stampede event to win a golden cowboy boot. An excellent mixture of the hardcore and the corny elements of professional wrestling in my opinion, the event only survived four years and saw many format changes during that time, although only one winner, with Dusty Rhodes claiming the boot in each contest.

With the end of the 80s, the dawning of the 1990s saw increased television exposure, a growing Pay-Per-View market and two companies who would become locked in their own battle to the death. Join me in part two as I look into the ways WCW and WWF would try to evolve the Battle Royal format to try and stay relevant in an ever-changing market.

Stay tuned for parts two and three coming very soon, and as ever please feel free to share your thoughts on this article on Facebook, Twitter or email to

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