The most obsessively devoted professional wrestling aficionados following the Sport of Kings today tend to consume and dissect every facet of as many past and present promotions, styles and performers as humanly possible to an almost quantum degree of refined appreciation. To borrow from legendary manager Paul Ellering, you don’t need to split atoms in order to see why these rabid students of the squared circle’s lineage regard the WWE Network’s seemingly incalculable hours of archival video alongside the wheel, mastery of fire, antibiotics and the AKI engine powering the Nintendo 64’s “WWF No Mercy” alongside humankind’s most enduringly appreciable achievements.
Everyone else, on the other hand? Let’s all be reasonable. What virginally naive new initiate to our world of colossal, cartoonish, sweat-soaked gladiators with loins girded in spandex possesses the time or wherewithal to blindly scroll through such a mountain of media in search of something to validate a love affair with this absurd carny extravaganza?
That’s where I come in. I’m Sean Comer. You’re not. This, ladies and gentlemen, is my personal compendium of short-and-sweet curated playlists conceived as organized signposts denoting must-see landmarks across an intercontinental library of unforgettable moments in dramatized grappling. Welcome to 8-Match Tag.
Why only eight, you ask? Brevity is the soul of wit. The way I see it, a tidy octagonal centerpiece of matches or segments nails a bullseye in which a playlist should reasonably be able to say all it needs about a given subject before descending into monotony or unnecessary diversions from the heart of its message. After all, why do you think the 8-track tape was once the benchmark for any traveling audio experience? At their best, those musical plastic bricks delivered only the cream of an artist’s crop in a perfectly portioned dose that ran its course before the sonic flavor could wear out its welcome.
So it is with these easily digestible meals culled entirely from the WWE Network collection. I have nothing whatsoever against WWE’s own thoughtful anthologies, but some of those retrospectives include 20 or more clips. Even I typically can ill afford that kind of undivided time investment, and I work from home. Whether you crave your own nostalgic foray into one certain zone of interest or need a conservative beginner’s primer for a viewer fresh off the boat, each considerately sized sampler is piping-hot killer and no filler.
For my first such offering of recommendations, let’s salute an enduringly thrilling annual WWE tradition returning Sunday night to Philadelphia as the jumping-off point for the road to WrestleMania 34. The WWE Royal Rumble’s titular signature match is equal parts grueling, unpredictable gauntlet and every-man-for-himself marathon battle royal, a wild contest with varying pivotal WWE Championship implications dating back to the 1989 edition. Incredibly, the climactic clash’s propensity for shaping the course of the next Showcase of the Immortals has occasionally been overshadowed by at least one unexpectedly unforgettable showdown on the undercard. If you need a sampler platter of in-ring storytelling prior to this weekend’s endurance trial of an event, fill out your watchlist with these eight Royal Rumble show-stealers instead of listening to Booker T make “Macho Man” Randy Savage’s tenure as a color commentator seem like a “Best of Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan” highlight reel. I promise you won’t regret it, because each and every one stands memorably alongside top attraction itself.
One caveat, kiddies: I did my best to commend each performer only once for the sake of variety. However, I also added the matches tempting me to throw that rule out the highest window possible to a second volume ready and waiting for next year’s Royal Rumble. For the sake of argument, I categorized headlining championship matches as existing amid the “undercard,” simply because the Royal Rumble match is and always will be the undeniable focal point of the card.
Let’s rock. In no particular order…
WWE ROYAL RUMBLE 1991
THE ROCKERS vs. THE ORIENT EXPRESS
You didn’t need a nuanced, meandering story to manufacture a restaurant-quality match involving these two firecracker duos. Just place all four men in the same ring.
Before reuniting as the second iteration of the Orient Express when Paul Diamond replaced Akio Sato by the side of Pat Tanaka in the World Wrestling Federation, the pair previously known as Badd Company captured their only American Wrestling Alliance World Tag Team Championship from Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty in 1988 shortly before the Midnight Rockers would drop the first half of their name and jump ship to the WWF. Tanaka would meet Michaels and Jannetty again at WrestleMania VI alongside Sato in 1990 to produce a forgettable little encounter, but this match is a 20-minute slice of nimble maneuvers, a smoothly paced story formula and effortless rhythm. The 1991 Royal Rumble match was nothing to overlook in itself, but this is the reason I can always come back to my first Royal Rumble as a reminder of the wrestling styles that captivated me from the beginning.
WWE ROYAL RUMBLE 2014
DANIEL BRYAN vs. BRAY WYATT
Most fans will remember this Royal Rumble as the first of two consecutive editions in which fans tore WWE a new one for failing to punch Daniel Bryan’s ticket to headline WrestleMania. In 2014, the now-retired (for now) submission artist had spent his finest hours of the previous year waging war on Triple H, Stephanie McMahon and the rest of the Authority in pursuit of the WWE Championship stolen from him by Randy Orton at SummerSlam. At one point, his despair seemingly compelled him to accept the overtures of Bray Wyatt to end vicious weekly attacks by joining his creepy swamp cult, the Wyatt Family. Before long, Bryan would pull a fast one on Wyatt by laying in his own beatdown inside a steel cage after shucking the Wyatt Family’s signature coveralls and leading the live audience in a thunderous “Yes!” chant.
Hence, it was decided that Wyatt and Bryan would collide at the Royal Rumble in an opening match every man, woman and child in the audience was convinced was but a prelude to Bryan entering and winning the Royal Rumble match later that night.
It wasn’t. Bryan didn’t win. He never even entered the match. Instead, he and Wyatt tore the house down and relieved themselves on the ashes in a brutal brawl that would have felt right at home on a vintage card booked by such realism-worshipping minds as “Cowboy” Bill Watts, Jim Crockett Sr. or Jim Cornette anywhere from 20 to 30 years prior. Not only did this match once more declare that there wasn’t much Bryan couldn’t accomplish between the ropes, but it merits consideration as proof that Wyatt may one day go down as a can’t-miss performer handcuffed at every turn by horrendous booking and some simply abysmal luck.
WWE ROYAL RUMBLE 2007
LAST MAN STANDING WWE CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH
JOHN CENA © vs. UMAGA w/ ARMANDO ALEJANDRO ESTRADA
You will never convince me this match had any right being as outstanding as it was.
Triple H has previously claimed that he told privately John Cena during the buildup to their WrestleMania 22 main event the previous year that the anointed new face of WWE “sucked” and had a lot to learn as headlining champion. Watch this all-in donnybrook, and tell me Cena didn’t take that criticism to heart.
The late Eddie Fatu broke out as a singles competitor in WWE immediately after the aforementioned WrestleMania with an initially laughable, stereotypical “island savage” gimmick. With patience, a capable mouthpiece in stylish loudmouth Armando Alejandro Estrada and stubbornly protective booking, he grew into his role as a monstrous hard-hitting heel to the point of earning a feud with Cena for the WWE Championship. Even more impressively, their interactions convincingly painted the Samoan Bulldozer as a physical force capable of demolishing the unbreakable former Doctor of Thuganomics.
To punctuate their months-long war, the two met in a combustible Last Man Standing match which yanked Cena from months of formulaic main-event performances and allowed them to cut loose in a plunder-filled riot of a match. Pay no resentment to Cena’s inevitable win. Umaga lost absolutely no credibility in defeat. Rather, he took a full measure of the champion and forced him into deep waters and newly desperate measures to retain his title. Cena might have won, but he knew he had survived a fight like no other presented to him up until that point.
WWE ROYAL RUMBLE 1992
WWE INTERCONTINENTAL CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH
THE MOUNTIE © w/ JIMMY HART vs. “ROWDY” RODDY PIPER
The late, one-of-a-kind “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was well past his last days as a full-time WWE performer. As this short-but-sweet gem demonstrated, it would be a drastic mistake to declare he was necessarily also past his prime.
Quite the opposite. Hot Rod and the Mountie told an astoundingly entertaining back-and-forth tale in just under 10 minutes and delivered the legendary Piper’s first and only singles championship victory in the company where he became an icon and impactfully shaped an entire formative era in the 1980s with Jimmy Snuka, Hulk Hogan, “Cowboy” Bob Orton, Paul Orndorff and even Mr. T.
Former tag team division mainstay Jacques Rougeau had returned fairly recently to the WWF as the Mountie in 1991, a cartoonishly conniving Canadian lawman who had transitioned from an amusing feud with the Big Boss Man to chasing the Intercontinental Championship won at SummerSlam that year by Bret “The Hitman” Hart. Days before this tilt, the Mountie had shockingly won the belt from Hart at an untelevised live event after Hart apparently entered the match with a reported 140-degree fever – a twist Rougeau would later bitterly dismiss as Hart’s concocted way of refusing to cleanly drop the title to him. President Jack Tunney would then insist the Mountie defend his shiny new strap against Piper at the Royal Rumble.
For some of the questionable opinions painting him as an obnoxious pain in the ass backstage, Rougeau merits consideration alongside Mark Calaway (the Undertaker), Matt Borne (the evil take on Doink the Clown) and Mike Rotunda (wrestling accountant) among astute wrestlers who could also spin an initially moronic gimmick into solid gold. Throw in “The Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart prattling away at ringside for added heat. Finally, let Piper display a timeless gift for keeping the crowd in the palm of his hand with infectious energy and always-entertaining charm. The resulting match never really lets up and swings just enough times between the two before going home. Need a few minutes between half-hour masterpieces? Look no further.
WWE ROYAL RUMBLE 1995
WWE CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH
BRET “THE HITMAN” HART © vs. DIESEL
Timing rarely treated Bret “The Hitman” Hart’s individual championship reigns entirely kindly. His first Intercontinental Championship run unceremoniously concluded with an asterisk-bearing loss to the Mountie during negotiations for a new contract. After regaining the title, the epic Wembley Stadium duel with brother-in-law “British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith was complicated when the coke-addled Bulldog completely forgot the structure of their match minutes into it and had to be guided through it by Hart, one spot at a time. His initial WWF Championship abruptly terminated with a surprisingly decent WrestleMania IX main event in which he dropped the belt to Yokozuna, Hulk Hogan immediately coming out and squashing Yoko in under a minute and the Immortal Orange Goblin then allegedly reneging on a promise to lose the title to Hart.
Huh. I feel like I’m missing an ugly ending to a championship push somewhere. Oh, well. I’m sure it’ll come to me.
When the Royal Rumble rolled around in 199, Hart was a three-time WWF Champion after winning the title from Diesel in a fantastic match at Survivor Series months earlier. Sadly, Hart’s workhorse run of title defenses was constantly overshadowed by the WWF’s full-throttle babyface push elevating the inimitable Heartbreak Kid toward an inspiring eventual WrestleMania XIV collision with him. With that in mind, you could be forgiven for allowing this tense, down-to-earth stiff struggle to be overshadowed by Michaels winning his second Royal Rumble. Nevertheless, these two never shared a poor match, and this particular highlight stands up appreciably next to their earlier encounter. Say what you will about Kevin Nash being comically injury-prone far from a dazzling mastermind of creativity. When sufficiently motivated, his intimidating presence, sharp psychology that never receives its due appreciation and varying shades of charisma could more than make up for a conspicuous lack of triple-jump moonsaults or unorthodox submission holds.
WWE ROYAL RUMBLE 2016
LAST MAN STANDING WWE INTERCONTINENTAL CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH
DEAN AMBROSE © vs. KEVIN OWENS
Whatever your opinion of Dean Ambrose’s more cartoonish shenanigans as a watered-down blend of Terry Funk and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin circa 1996, his wild ride as Intercontinental Champion defending his title against a still-sadistic Kevin Owens doesn’t need great exposition behind it. This is professional wrestling storytelling at its simplest and best:
CHALLENGER: “I want a belt.”
CHAMPION: “I have a belt.”
CHALLENGER: “I want your belt. Give it to me.”
CHAMPION: “You can’t have my belt. It is mine.”
CHALLENGER: “Give me your belt.”
CHAMPION: “Fight me for it.”
What is goddamn difficult to understand about why that works?
Combine two notoriously violent individuals. Let hatred rise to a rolling boil over medium-high heat until a one-fall-to-a-finish match hasn’t a hope in Hell of settling anything conclusively. Realize that no traditional ring will contain their loathing for each other. Accept that the surest means of stemming the tide of violence involves allowing them to simply beat the piss out of themselves until one man cannot reach his feet before a count of 10. There isn’t an era in professional wrestling history when Ambrose and Owens wouldn’t be two walking, talking sacks of money. At their best, both can make a match feel as “real” as any street-corner or barroom throwdown. Zod Almighty, can you imagine these two working under Jerry Jarrett and Jerry Lawler in Memphis? The Von Erichs in Texas? “Cowboy” Bill Watts?
This particular bout absolutely levels one perpetual bullshit claim among wrestling fans who view the Attitude Era as an apex of creativity: with the right commitment, anybody can elevate even a barn-burning melee with no holds barred without blood or outlandishly graphic content. Anyone who cannot manage that should never set foot inside a wrestling ring. Is the match a car-wreck? Yes, in the best possible way. Could you show it to a 12-year-old without a moment’s hesitation after the obligatory “do not ever try this at home” warning? Certainly. Will it prove just as entertaining to a 35-year-old fan who began watching wrestling just after WrestleMania VII, witnessed the entirety of the Monday Night Wars and still contributes to three fan sites today?
WWE ROYAL RUMBLE 2003
WWE CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH
KURT ANGLE © vs. CHRIS BENOIT
Stop. Right now, stop what you’re typing. I realize future editions will force me to repeat this disclaimer, but I’m getting this out of the way right now in hopes you will all prove me wrong.
Nothing anybody has said or ever will say could begin to condone or explain the late Chris Benoit’s actions. He murdered his wife and child. He then hanged himself. Only three people will ever know exactly what happened in those final hours or days, and they are all dead. I refuse to discuss that tragedy here or in any other space dedicated to this column any further than this: few performers in more than a century have exhibited Benoit’s uncanny talent, conditioning or obsession with being the finest professional wrestler on Earth. That is a matter entirely apart from his collapse into such unthinkable acts as the ones that concluded his life. My appreciation for his body of work remains untainted and reserved in a context with which I am unquestioningly comfortable. That is how I always have and will continue to filter my perceptions. If that is enough of a deal-breaker that you won’t resist centering your remarks on your bones of contention with my views, then while I respect your entitlement to your opinion, I strongly recommend you do us both a favor and partake in another commentary.
That being said…
In the nearly two years after his return from career-altering neck surgery, Benoit scraped and rip and tore his way toward WWE Championship contention. When he renewed his fierce rivalry with WWE Champion Kurt Angle at the Royal Rumble in 2003, he was a man with plenty to prove. An untainted world championship had eluded the 18-year length and breadth of his career, from his beginnings in Calgary Stampede Wrestling through his storied tenures in New Japan Pro Wrestling, Extreme Championship Wrestling and World Championship Wrestling and finally his 1999 arrival in the World Wrestling Federation. Meanwhile, Kurt Angle remained the WWE’s closest equivalent to Benoit’s technical brilliance every step of the way, including a three-way classic including Chris Jericho at WrestleMania 2000 and a one-on-one masterpiece at WrestleMania X7.
I would not waste a moment of regret showing this masterclass in straightforward psychology to anyone curious as to what keeps me coming back to a form of entertainment. For these two men, victory meant something else on an equal plain with a championship. This was a proving ground for two men who lived to pour every iota of blood, sweat and tears their bodies could produce onto a canvas for only one reason: to be nothing less than the undisputed best wrestler on the planet. Leading into the match, Benoit held two victories in as many months over Angle. Before that, Angle had gotten the better of Benoit more than once. This match steadily ratchets up the urgency and culminates in five minutes of deft mat wrestling every student of the game today should strive to one day equal. Even Michael Cole and Tazz were in undeniably rare form on commentary. Assuming you share my filter for reflecting on Benoit as a person and performer, you may find yourself sharing in the stunned Boston crowd’s unforgettable standing ovation.
WWE ROYAL RUMBLE 2000
WWE CHAMPIONSHIP STREET FIGHT
TRIPLE H © vs. CACTUS JACK
I knew when I began this list that I would end it here.
Yes, Triple H backdropping Cactus Jack through the top of the cage during their blood-drenched Hell in a Cell encounter at No Way Out the next month might find its way into more WWE retrospective packages. However, anybody who tells you this all-out mutual assault isn’t objectively superior may not have even seen it. The two years between 1999 and 2001 should be remembered for all time as the summit of Triple H’s career in terms of match quality. For all the valid criticism levied The Game’s way since the early 1990s, every classic and classically terrible match in wrestling history has involved at least two people. During this stretch, he simply didn’t seem physically capable of delivering a patently “bad” match, whether paired with Tazz, Big Show, Jeff Hardy or The Rock. Meanwhile, Mick Foley was entering the twilight of his own full-time career and looking to…”retire.” First, he wanted one last taste of the WWF Championship and to claim it at the expense of a mortal enemy who had plagued him for years. Both men demonstrated a willingness to brutalize, maim and cripple anyone in their path. However, there was only one WWF Championship.
Mankind would not be depraved enough to inflict the necessary violence. This was no country for Dude Love. Mick Foley himself could not go to the places needed to exact vengeance on the Cerebral Assassin.
On this night, Mrs. Foley’s baby boy chose the nuclear option. He unearthed Cactus Jack.
The psychopath who left blood on multiple continents. He left an ear in Munich. Explosions and barbed wire broke his body in Japan. The parts that came home, the Undertaker nearly obliterated by flinging him first off of and then through a massive roofed cage – after which, he rose to his feet with a smile.
This 30-minute bloodbath is a gore aficionado’s dream come true, but it also happens to be a well-structured narrative of both men’s stakes. Triple H wants Mick Foley out of his life, once and for all. Cactus Jack wants to be the misfit king one last time. Evidently, Jim Ross and Jerry “The King” Lawler simply don’t want either man to be carted away on a stretcher. Nothing that year’s 30-man Royal Rumble roster could have done had a fair fight to eclipse this. It isn’t the blood, the props or the violence alone that sets this match apart. It was simply the place where a feud encompassing the most compelling wrestling of the Attitude Era reached its apex. No Royal Rumble marathon is complete without this one.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you for coming along on this first journey through the annals of the WWE Network archive. If you have a future list you would like to see, let me know by following me on Twitter @ComerCodex or sound off in the comments below.
I’m Sean. You’re not. Until next time, never dull your colors for someone else’s canvas.