Friday 23 January 2015

Battles Royal part 2

Disclaimer: Check out part one to read the story so far, of how the wrestling battle royal grew out of the worlds of cockfighting and boxing. Tomorrow I will be looking at this week's Royal Rumble and Square Go, but for now join me as I look at WCW and WWF in the 1990s.

In much the same way that early Battles Royal featured a group of competitors whittled down to two survivors, the 1990s saw two companies outlast the death of the territories and engage in a war to become the final winner. To do so, they would need to update every aspect of the industry in order to secure that final prize, including the old school battle royal.

World Championship Wrestling (WCW) quickly adopted the attitude that bigger is better, beginning with Starrcade 1991, dubbed "Battlebowl - Lethal Lottery". The lottery aspect came from 40 wrestlers being chosen at random to face each other in ten tag team matches. These 20 winners would then go on to compete in the two-ring Battlebowl as the main event.

Although not the first ever multi-ring Royal in history (Jim Cornette has spoke of some as far back as at least 1975, and WCW themselves had one as part of 1989's Great American Bash) the "Battlebowl" has endured in fans memories, for all the wrong reasons.

The stipulations were as follows: 20 wrestlers would start in one ring and eliminate each other into a second ring. As opposed to being completely out of the contest, the wrestlers in this second ring now had a second life in the match. Once you were eliminated from the second ring however, you were gone from the match permanently.

Eliminations continued in this fashion until only one wrestler remained in the first ring, and one wrestler remained in the second ring. These two would then compete for a final elimination. The end result saw Sting survive the second ring to face Lex Luger, the WCW World Heavyweight Champion, who had survived the first ring. Sting would go on to defeat Luger and win the first Battlebowl. Sting then used this momentum to beat Luger a few months later and win his first WCW World Heavyweight championship.

Despite this historic start, the Battlebowl was relegated in stature the very next year with the victor (The Great Muta) only gaining a ring as his prize. Considering Muta had lost a NWA World championship match earlier in the evening, it seemed a very strange outcome, but that was nothing new in WCW. It was Dusty Rhodes (he of the Bunkhouse Stampede) who was in charge in 1991, with his Lethal Lottery/Battlebowl concept being a rare creative highlight at the end of an awful year. With a new guy in charge ("Cowboy" Bill Watts took over in February 1992), perhaps the dilution of the Battlebowl was a way to tarnish Dusty's reputation even further, but that's a story for another article.

The actual ending of the 1992 Battlebowl still stands up, and it was several years before Shawn Michaels made "skinning the cat" famous at Royal Rumble 1995

Ending aside, the 1992 Battlebowl was an underwhelming affair consisted of only eight competitors, formed from the winners of four tag team lottery matches at the start of the night. It would have been easy enough to remove Dusty's event from WCW altogether after that, but for some reason it was decided that the match may prove popular enough to warrant its own Pay-Per-View.

No matter where you look (and this website is particularly good at piecing it together) the buys for Battlebowl 1993 were about half of all the events around it and a quarter of anything considered good at the time. Needless to say, this was the first and last Battlebowl PPV. Eight tag matches, sixteen wrestlers in the eventual battle royal, one man (Vader) wins a ring. To say it was pointless is an exercise in redundancy.

The Battlebowl made one final appearance, rebranded as The Lord Of The Ring at Slamboree 1996, again based around a lethal lottery of tag teams with the winners going into the main event. Diamond Dallas Page won and was supposed to get a title shot, but shenanigans saw that fall to Lex Luger instead.

They even retconned him off the DVD, further proof that WCW Fears Yoga

By then, WCW had already upgraded the format. Dubbed "World War 3", this 3-ring, 60-man match is often billed as the largest of the Battle Royal formats. The rules were even more convoluted than before in another example of WCW failing to learn their lesson.

All of the wrestlers would begin in one of the three rings, having been designated a ring before the bout began. When one of the side rings was down to only 10 men, they would move into the middle ring and resume battling. A slight amendment to the rules in 1997 aside, this crazy stop/start format continued until the event was retired in 1998.

Although buyrates aren't always indicative of quality, in every year of World War 3's life, the PPV did worse than those around it, with the initial 1995 event being the one exception. The worst offender was WW3 1997, managing only half of the event before it and a quarter of the event after, a clear indication that often bigger is not in fact better.

The matches themselves are clouded in controversy. The first World War 3 saw Hulk Hogan allegedly change the ending on the fly, having The Giant "eliminate" him under the bottom rope to tarnish Randy Savage's victory. The 1996 event saw an announcer get legitimately beat up by some of the competitors, while 1997 was an absolute mess that almost doesn't even deserve to be summed up, but for posterity I am going to.

The match began with 59 men and the emphasis was very much on the nWo vs WCW war. New World Order (nWo) leader Hulk Hogan was the current WCW World Heavyweight champion at the time, with the winner of World War 3 set to get a future title shot against him as their prize.

The battle whittled down until only ten men remained - 5 nWo guys vs 5 representing WCW. After some back and forth action, Scott Hall found himself as the sole survivor from nWo, facing Diamond Dallas Page and The Giant of WCW. Hall leapt into a different ring without getting eliminated and signaled for a teammate, presumably the 60th competitor Kevin Nash, to enter the battle. However it was Hulk Hogan who came down to the rings, the WCW Champion not only legally entering the match despite missing it all up until now, but also fighting to be his own number one contender.

Kevin Nash then showed up anyway, disguised as Sting, and helped eliminate DDP and The Giant. Hogan eliminated himself and left Scott Hall as the eventual winner and new number one contender. Makes a lot of sense, right? On top of all that, Scott Hall didn't even get his title shot at Superbrawl as advertised - he instead had to wait another month for the Uncensored event.

The 1998 World War 3 saw Kevin Nash win it in a relatively straight-forward fashion, earning his title shot at Starrcade. Simple enough, but that title shot lead to the "Cattle Prod" incident, the end of Goldberg's winning streak, and the infamous "Fingerpoke Of Doom". This series of events, in my opinion, represent the true beginning of the end for WCW and for that reason alone 1998's World War 3 is yet another black mark on the history of wrestling.

If WCW were happy enough to trade quality for quantity, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) had a much more basic idea in mind for their own Battle Royal twist. Accredited to Pat Patterson, the Royal Rumble was created as a 20 man Battle Royal with eliminations occurring over-the-top-rope style. The difference, and reason the Royal Rumble is still relevant 27 years on, is that the entrants wouldn't all begin in the ring at the same time.

Instead, the 20 men were each given an entry number by an off-screen lottery (future years would see specific numbers granted for winning or losing a stipulation in the run-up to the Rumble). Each wrestler would get their own entrance, complete with entrance music, and would come to the ring a set period of time after the entrant before them.

This tiny tweak to the format was simply genius. It built extra tension in trying to guess who would be the next entrant, with fans audibly joining in on each countdown. It gave everyone a moment to shine during their entrance, even for only a few seconds. Each individual story told within the ring was given more time to build and most importantly it is a lot easier for the audience to keep up with the action and create an emotional attachment to almost every competitor.

Debuting as a TV special in 1988, the actual Rumble wasn't yet granted main event status as the WWF tested the format. Bret Hart and Tito Santana kicked things off, with entrant number 13, Jim Duggan, winning the inaugural Rumble.

It proved popular enough that from 1989 onwards the match would feature 30 wrestlers and would (more or less) become the main focus of its annual Pay-Per-View.  Despite this, for the first three years the wrestlers were only competing for the glory of the victory, with even the WWF Champion (Hulk Hogan in 1990) getting a shot at winning the match.

It took until 1992 for the event to really matter in the grand scheme of things. The winner of that iteration was to become the WWF Champion, after controversy surrounding Hulk Hogan and The Undertaker's matches at the end of 1991 lead to the title being vacated. Hogan and The Undertaker were granted a slight advantage by being guaranteed entry between numbers 20 and 30 (20 for The Undertaker, 26 for Hulk Hogan) but it was Ric Flair, who entered at number 3 and became the first Royal Rumble participant to last over an hour, who would win the match and become the new WWF Champion.

And conduct one of the best interviews of all time, even the random outburst from Mean Gene Okerlund - "Put that cigarette out!" - adds to the moment

From 1993 the winner of the Royal Rumble would go on to fight for the WWF Championship (or equivalent) at that year's Wrestlemania, cementing its status as the second most important event on the wrestling calendar. As the stature of the match grew, so did the lengths to which wrestlers would go to win the event. Unlike with WCW, the endings of the Royal Rumble never felt less than breathtaking. The pacing of the format meant that by the time these often controversial endings came about, the audience had been built up to them rather than feeling fatigued and let down by them.

1994 saw both Bret Hart and Lex Luger go over the top rope at the same time, being declared co-winners and both men going on to face Yokozuna for the title at Wrestlemania X. 1995 saw Shawn Michaels and The British Bulldog enter the Rumble first, and remain the last two, with an apparent emulation of the ending of Battlebowl II seeing Shawn supposedly eliminated only to grab onto the ropes and pull himself back in, eliminating Bulldog as the Englishman celebrated.

1997, much like WCW, was the most confusing year. Steve Austin got eliminated from the Royal Rumble, but no official saw it to record it. Austin sneaked back in and eliminated three other wrestlers to 'win' the bout. This result was stricken from record and a four-way match between Austin and the three men he eliminated was booked, with Bret Hart winning that match... and the now-vacant WWF title. It was a short-lived reign however, with Sid going into Wrestlemania the Champion to face The Undertaker. So, in short, Shawn Michaels left Royal Rumble the champion and Steve Austin the number one contender, Bret Hart then won the title and nullified the 'number one contender' aspect of the Rumble victory at the same time, but the actual Wrestlemania main event was between Sid and The Undertaker.

1997 did bring us Steve Austin vs Bret Hart however, so all is forgiven
(easily the greatest match of all time, go watch it now)

1998 saw Steve Austin win the Rumble, legitimately this time, and go on to compete in the match that some credit as being the true start of the fabled "Attitude Era" - the main event of Wrestlemania 14, versus Shawn Michaels. Austin's victory that night made him the new WWF Champion, the face of the company and arguably the face of the very business and its most mainstream star until The Rock left to pursue a career in Hollywood.

In 1999, Chyna became the first female entrant into the Royal Rumble. The match featured Steve Austin and Vince McMahon as the first two entrants, although the two men actually spent more time out of the ring than in it, going between the ropes rather than over them to avoid elimination. Mr McMahon technically won the match, but when he tried to vacate his right to a title shot at Wrestlemania, it was announced that the runner-up (Steve Austin) would get it instead. This led to a fantastically bloody affair at St Valentine's Day Massacre, with Austin vs McMahon inside a steel cage remaining perhaps the pinnacle of their incredible feud.

It's sometimes hard to believe that the man in charge of WWE now is the same man in this picture

By making the Royal Rumble mean something important, even with their own murky endings, and with the spacing out of entrants giving you a reason to become emotionally invested in every one if you chose, WWF were able to win this particular fight in the wars of the 90s. The pacing of the Rumble was, and still remains, pretty perfect. Outwith one attempt to extend it to include 40 wrestlers, the format remains the same today and that's the way it should be. But outwith the Royal Rumble, WWF/WWE have always produced interesting Battles Royal.

Used mostly as a way to determine number one contenders, the format has been overshadowed in recent years thanks to the Royal Rumble and other events such as Money In The Bank. Still, there are many interesting battles in the historical archives. A very interesting battle from 1991 saw the majority of the tag division compete in a match where if one partner was put over the top ropes, the other had to leave the match too. This event is covered in more detail here and is worth seeking out. Compared to today's WWE, where the go-to event to determine a number one contender is via tournaments, when done right the Battle Royal could still have a place in putting new talent to the front of a company.

Take Cesaro for example. At Wrestlemania XXX last year, Cesaro won the Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal by picking up The Big Show and dumping him over the top rope. This, combined with other feats of strength and several more Battle Royal victories in 2014, should have seen Cesaro catapulted into superstardom as a throwback to the old school strongman who had to survive against multiple opponents just to earn a payday. Alas, it never came to anything, but put together properly that Battle Royal had the eyes of the world on Cesaro for at least a brief moment.

A final favourite from the WWE, although over a year removed from the 1990s, came at what is considered one of the greatest PPVs of all time. Wrestlemania X-7 featured 19 wrestlers historically famed for their gimmicks competing in what remains one of the best comedy matches put together, as everyone's tongue was firmly in their cheek. The Iron Sheik won that one and, as anyone who has spent more than a few minutes on his Twitter page can attest to, that is probably the only acceptable outcome.

He may be blunt, but he's always frank

In summation, even when executed somewhat poorly from time to time, the Battle Royal format is always exciting. Despite the poor commercial reception to it in WCW, the matches themselves remain entertaining on the whole. However the Royal Rumble evolved into a phenomenon. In only its third year, the Royal Rumble became the highest grossing WWF event in 1991, outdrawing even Wrestlemania. Since then it has been locked in a battle with Summerslam as the company's true number two, finally establishing its dominance in 2008 and holding on strong ever since. It is seen by many as the gateway event, the one that brings in the casual or lapsed fans in the buildup to Wrestlemania.

In the next article, I will have a look at the next Royal Rumble event, as well as ICW's Square Go, give my thoughts and predictions and turn over to fans of the site to have their say. Stay tuned.

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