On January 9, 1997, after 50 minutes of the annual Royal Rumble match, eight men stood in the ring at San Antonio's Alamodome. Unbeknownst to everyone in attendance, that collection of wrestlers -- with an assist from two others involved in that night's championship matches -- would usher in a new era of wrestling that would both end the glossy, gimmicky WWF of the previous 15 years and save the organization from the then-dominant WCW. The 1997 Royal Rumble is not the greatest Rumble match of all time, but it was one of the most important.
The 1997 Royal Rumble came at the WWF's lowest point. Television ratings were tanking. On June 10, 1996, WWF Monday Night Raw had eked out a miniscule ratings win over WCW Monday Nitro, but the WWF's top program had not been within shouting distance of its competition ever since. Through the fall, Nitro was nearly doubling Raw's rating. On the last two Mondays of the calendar year, the Ted Turner promotion did just that. In the final show before the Rumble, Raw posted a 2.3 rating -- the show's highest figure in nearly a month -- but was hammered by Nitro's 3.4 figure.
This was the environment in which Vince McMahon, then still a neutral commentator, put on the Rumble. With the event in San Antonio, McMahon attempted to cash in on Mexican stars -- both dark matches, the "Free for All" match broadcast to bring in pay-per-view subscribers, and the night's top tag team match all featured stars from Mexican promotions, and four Mexican wrestling stars appeared in the Rumble itself -- and the popularity of San Antonio resident Shawn Michaels.
The Early Match
The Royal Rumble card is always odd, in that wrestlers scheduled for singles matches often appear again in the Royal Rumble match. The use of non-WWE wrestlers for most of the card took care of some of the problem, but six eventual Rumble participants wrestled on the card. Ahmed Johnson, who was involved in a feud with the first incarnation of the Nation of Domination, eliminated himself early when chasing NOD member Crush out of the ring. Johnson later returned to stalk NOD leader Farooq, leading the former Ron Simmons to also eliminate himself from the match (Mil Mascaras, one of the Mexican stars in the Rumble, also eliminated himself by jumping from the top turnbuckle to splash the recently-eliminated Pierroth outside the ring. It was a weird Royal Rumble).
Hunter Hearst Helmsley, still a 'Connecticut blueblood' in early 1997, defended his Intercontinental Championship against Goldust in the night's first match, and was later knocked out of the Rumble by "the bizarre one." Had he not done so, Helmsley might well have been among the final eight. Goldust, who holds half of the Tag Team Championship 17 years later, only lasted five minutes before getting knocked out by Owen Hart.
Vader and Undertaker wrestled earlier in the night. Neither of them would go from the Rumble so early. Neither, for that matter, would Steve Austin. Stone Cold entered the Rumble fifth, cleared the ring almost immediately, did push-ups in the middle of the ring, and telegraphed to viewers that he was The Guy Who Was Going Long this year. Austin had established himself with the Austin 3:16 speech after defeating Jake Roberts at the King of the Ring the previous summer. When Roberts entered the Rumble, Austin mockingly dropped to his knees and prayed. That attitude became as much the template for the next decade of WWF programming as anything The Rock or Helmsley ever did. It's just that nobody else was doing it yet.
Austin cleared the ring again 20 minutes later. Laying on the mat, he motioned for more competition. "Double J" Jesse James, who would later be an instrumental member of Degeneration X but in 1997 was a country singer -- yes, two of the key members of DX were previously a prissy member of the Eastern bourgeoisie and the Honky Tonk Man -- was summarily tossed from the ring. Bret Hart came out next, and after a 20-second appearance by ringside commentator Jerry Lawler, the match finally took off. Hart later landed a brutal piledriver on Austin, inadvertently foreshadowing the piledriver that his brother would use to effectively end Austin's career.
The Final Eight
The Undertaker was the final participant to enter the Rumble. Four minutes later, he tossed hog farmer Henry Godwinn over the top rope, leaving eight wrestlers in the ring. Their story, in order of their finish.
23. Rocky Maivia
You might know him as the guy from Fast and the Furious, but in the pre-Attitude Era, The Rock was a guy in aqua-colored trunks. When he entered the match at No. 25, Vince McMahon proclaimed, "THIS MAN COULD WIN THIS THING" to a crowd who could not have cared less. McMahon shouted The Rock's pedigree over a crowd that was making no noise. After 13 minutes, he got tossed. Of course, if Austin is the top star to come out of the Attitude Era, Rocky Maivia was the improbable second-best. He would later "host" Wrestlemania and interfere in one of the worst main events ever, setting up a "Once in a Lifetime" match with John Cena that somehow occurred twice.
24. Terry Funk
Funk was arguably the template for the hardcore strain that ran through the Attitude Era, a position that was reinforced when he challeged Austin on WWF Shotgun Saturday Night the day before the Rumble. In 1998, Funk was drawn second for the Rumble just so that he could spend 10 minutes exchanging steel chair shots to the head with Mick Foley. The old guy never could stay in a major promotion for long, but his fingerprints were on everything that WWF did through the mid-00's. In fact, if there is anyone who had a bigger impact on the tone of wrestling itself during the Attitude Era, it was...
It is no coincidence that the WWF's official story is that it finally won the ratings war the night that Mankind won the WWF Title. As most wrestling fans know, Nitro announcer Tony Schiavone told viewers that Mankind was going to win the title later that night -- Raw was taped, while Nitro was live -- before sarcastically saying, "That's gonna put some butts in the seats." Raw ratings spiked, Nitro ratings plummetted, and the worm had turned.
The truth is that Raw had caught and passed Nitro nearly seven months earlier. Mick Foley's history with WCW, where he had wrestled as Cactus Jack before it became a serious competitor to WWF, and Eric Bischoff's decision to leak the results of Raw's main event on-air make for a delicious story. Much like Funk, though, Foley's demeanor and wrestling style -- namely, taking as many insane hits and falls as possible -- permeated the entire organization. He became the oddball sidekick to The Rock and Austin at different times, adopted a number of different personas (in the 1998 Rumble, he entered as Cactus Jack, Mankind, and Dude Love), and participated in the Era's most legendary single moment.
Of course, the Hell in a Cell spot was Terry Funk's idea.
Man, Vader should have been a bigger deal. A 6'5, 400-lb. man described as a mastodon by ring announcers, light enough on his feet to be legitimately terrifying. In the 1997 Rumble, he was eliminated by Austin, but the suspect circumstances surrounding it -- we'll get to those later -- put him in a four-way elimination match the next month for the title. He lost the match, teamed up with Mankind for a while, and soon was out of the promotion. It's hard to imagine how a guy that imposing -- and that weird -- didn't have a spot in the Attitude Era WWF, but he didn't.
There is no single wrestler who better transcended the glossy pre-Attitude Era and the Attitude Era itself better than Undertaker. The men in this match who became important had to reinvent themselves before finding stardom. Maivia dropped the Curtis Axel-like moniker for The Rock; Rocky Maivia was never playing guitar or asking people to smell what he was cooking. Austin found the "Stone Cold" gimmick before the match, but was initially known as The Ringmaster and managed by Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase when he joined WWF. Hunter Hearst Helmsley became Triple H. Foley brought back Cactus Jack, created Dude Love, and melded his three characters together. Kane was using another guy's gimmick at the time (we'll get to that later), and Bret Hart finally found he had to leave the promotion entirely simply because he could not fit his character into what WWF was doing (also because Vince could not pay him anymore).
Only Undertaker was able to bring nuance to his Saturday morning cartoon persona and make it work in the new WWF. It didn't always work -- the Corporate Ministry was confusing, and some of the Paul Bearer stuff was just weird for weirdness' sake -- but he remained more or less true to the idea of his persona. In fact, the one time he let that go -- an ill-advised turn as a Harley-driving Kid Rock enthusiast, ostensibly in line with his actual personality -- was the most glaring example of the Austin "turn your regular personality up to 11" template not working.
Given his rare ability to bridge the gap between the dying old WWF and the hard-charging era that was in its infancy, it would have been poetic justice for Undertaker to win the 1997 Rumble. Alas, the Dead Man was taken out at the same time as Vader, also by Austin, and subsequently lost in the February four-way match.
28. Kane (as "Diesel")
You have to ask yourself: When Undertaker was exchanging punches with "Diesel" in the 1997 Rumble, how did he not recognize that he was actually punching his brother?
The Diesel in the 1997 Rumble was a barely-reasonable facsimilie of Kevin Nash, who had become a huge star as a founding member of The Outsiders in WCW. The WWF's attempt to rekindle the fans' love for the character by repackaging the psychotic dentist in the same ring gear smacked of desperation at a time when desperation was quite real. The Rumble match was the final appearance of Fake Diesel, a semi-conscious decision by WWE to dispose of the old, tired gimmick once and for all. Nine months later, he appeared as Kane, and has been working as that character in one form or another ever since. It's somewhat coincidental that Kane was originally billed as Undertaker's half-brother, given that both have shown the ability to adjust to the changing tone of the promotion around them. Kane hasn't had to be quite as nimble -- he emerged fully-formed into the Attitude Era and has remained largely deranged ever since -- but his recent turns on Team Hell No and as a corporate hack show that the versatility remains.
29. Bret Hart
Of course, Hart is key to the Attitude Era's first pivotal moment, the Montreal Screwjob that ended his career with WWF, created the Mr. McMahon character so crucial to everything that happened after that moment, and ironically saved the WWF from annihilation. McMahon has since admitted that he overextended himself in 1996 by offering Hart a huge deal to keep him in the fold. When he could not afford the contract, he suggested Hart look for a deal with WCW. We know what happened from there.
The night after the Screwjob, Raw had its highest rating in 18 months (except for one week where Nitro did not air). In the six months prior, the show's rating had broken 3.0 just twice; afer the Screwjob, Raw dipped below 3.0 just once, and began steadily beating Nitro just five months later. The circumstances of Hart's departure in large part won the Wars for WWF.
Hart never made much sense in the Attitude Era to begin with. He was never great at giving a promo or carrying a feud with anything but his superior in-ring ability, and in late 90s WWE, in-ring ability was about 17th on the list of things that made a wrestler a star. He couldn't settle in at WCW, either -- I mean, Bret Hart in the nWo? -- and his ongoing feud with McMahon over Montreal divided fans for a decade before the two made up with a squash match at WrestleMania.
30. Stone Cold Steve Austin
Austin was eliminated in 26th by Hart, but the refs were too busy breaking up Funk and Foley to notice. So he reentered the ring, tossed Undertaker and Vader, let Hart take care of Diesel, then dumped Hart over the rope for the win. The controversial win set up the four-way match for the title at the February PPV.
That, in and of itself, is why this Rumble was so important: It was the first time that Austin broke through into the title picture. Less than a year before, he was The Ringmaster, with DiBiase as his mouthpiece. Now he was headlining WrestleMania, and what he did with that stage -- losing a submission match, not by tapping out but by passing out with blood pouring from his forehead -- showed what was going to work from that moment on. In that moment, with Hart's hand raised by referee Ken Shamrock, Austin made himself the biggest star of the era. He never let it go.
By the next year's Royal Rumble, Austin had won and lost the Intercontinental Championship. Rocky Maivia had become The Rock, joined the Nation of Domination, and was quickly usurping Farooq for leadership of the group. He spent more than 51 minutes in the 1998 Rumble, arguably the best performance by anyone who has ever drawn No. 4. Helmsley had become Triple H, and with Shawn Michaels and Chyna started Degeneration X. Undertaker was still wrestling casket matches -- the 1998 Rumble broadcast ended with him in a casket set on fire by 1997's Fake Diesel after losing to Michaels. Mankind was popular enough to keep the crowd entertained with the aforementioned steel-chair-head-shot-a-thon with Funk, and later nearly won the Rumble as Dude Love.
The entire tenor of the program had changed, and would remain that way for nearly a decade as WWF surpassed, then strangled, then bought out WCW. It was those final 8 (and a couple of others) who did it, whether they understood it then or not. The 1997 Rumble was the end of WWF as it had always been, and the beginning of the bizarre new future.