The Lost Royal Rumble and how a signature WWE event survived despite early failure
The Royal Rumble will turn 30 on Sunday, but it almost didn't make it to its second birthday
Vince McMahon hated the concept of the Royal Rumble match from the moment he heard it. And when Vince McMahon hates something, it will likely never see daylight in WWE, especially on television.
But during a 1987 brainstorming session with right-hand man Pat Patterson, McMahon and Patterson had nothing. The ideas just weren't flowing. McMahon's phone rang, so Patterson went outside to have a cigarette. Then he started thinking about battle royals. What if the wrestlers joined the match at different times? What if the match continues while all of this is happening? What if the order of entry was kept a surprise?
Looking in the window, Patterson saw McMahon was off the phone. He finished his smoke and went back inside to pitch the boss on his modified battle royal concept. It did not go well.
"I sat down with Vince and I gave him the concept," Patterson told CBS Sports. "He goes, 'Pat, that is stupid. It's not gonna work!' I said, 'Vince, it's going to work!'"
Had the idea belonged to anyone but Patterson, the discussion may have ended right there. But McMahon trusted him, so he was willing to give the match a chance. They would try out this strange idea at a real show, in front of real WWE (then known as WWF) fans. No cameras, no TV broadcasts. There would be just 12 wrestlers competing, as opposed to the 30-man epics customary in modern-day Royal Rumbles.
First things first: This was not a normal battle royal. It needed unique branding.
"We didn't even have a name for it," Patterson said. "We had a creative department at that time. We gave them the concept. We didn't want to call it a battle royal. We came up with the name 'The Royal Rumble,' and it fit perfectly."
The first Royal Rumble took place on Oct. 4, 1987, at the Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis. It was a house show, which meant it would not be filmed or televised by WWE. The only people who would see it were the fans in the building that night (the show's attendance was reported in a 1987 issue of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter as 1,976). The only evidence that it happened would be limited to media reports, first-hand accounts from people in attendance and any photos or video taken by fans.
What we know for sure is that the first Royal Rumble was a major disappointment. For many reasons, it just didn't resonate with fans. McMahon's doubts about the Royal Rumble concept appeared to have been validated in a low-risk environment, allowing McMahon to safely balk at the idea of staging a Royal Rumble on TV, where the stakes were significantly higher.
"We tried it in St. Louis on a smaller scale," Patterson confirmed. "I was not there. I wish I would have been there. They got [the Rumble concept] all mixed up. It didn't work. Then Vince says to me, 'It's not gonna work, Patrick.'"
Piecing it together
In the 1980s, it was common for a battle royal to be the main event and for its participants to have all wrestled a match on the undercard of the same show. That's how the St. Louis Royal Rumble would be, too. It was the main event, and the participants would be virtually everyone that worked on the undercard.
Per a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the day after the show, the results were as follows:
- Hillbilly Jim defeated Nikolai Volkoff
- "Magnificent" Don Muraco defeated "Cowboy" Bob Orton
- One Man Gang defeated the Junkyard Dog
- "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff defeated "Ravishing" Rick Rude
- Billy Jack Haynes & Davey Boy Smith (half of the British Bulldogs) defeated Demolition (Ax & Smash)
- Billy Jack Haynes defeated King Kong Bundy
- Sensational Sherri defeated Velvet McIntyre
- One Man Gang won a Royal Rumble match, last eliminating Junkyard Dog
There were 12 men in the Royal Rumble. It is likely that all 12 came from the group of 13 male wrestlers on the undercard, but it's unknown which of the 13 men sat out. It clearly wasn't Gang -- the winner -- or Junkyard Dog. It's worth noting that Haynes worked twice on the undercard alone, in both cases as a substitute (sitting in for Dynamite Kid in a tag team match and for Ricky Steamboat vs. Bundy). Whether he was the guy left out of the Royal Rumble is unknown, but if not, then he worked three matches on an eight-match show. Not bad for a guy that wasn't even advertised to be there.
Wrestlers work hundreds, maybe thousands, of house shows in their careers. Asking a wrestler to recall a 29-year-old house show match nobody ever asks them about -- without video to help jog their memories -- is an impossible request. Although the Royal Rumble is special today, the first one was just another match. They promptly forgot about it afterward.
One Man Gang has a valid claim to being the first-ever Royal Rumble winner, but he never talks about it because he just doesn't recall it.
"I wish I could give you details about it, but I really don't remember it," George Gray, who portrayed One Man Gang, told CBS Sports.
Despite not remembering it, Gray did sound amused and perhaps a little flattered at the idea of being the rightful first Royal Rumble winner.
Orndorff told CBS Sports he doesn't remember the show either -- not his undercard match with Rude, nor the Royal Rumble on the same show, nor whether he was for sure a competitor in that match.
"We're talking about hundreds of matches [since that 1987 show happened]," Orndorff explained.
Orndorff was happy to hear Rude's name, though.
"Rick Rude?" he asked with a touch of reverence. "Rude was a great man. We were very good friends. I loved that guy."
Add Demolition Ax (Bill Eadie) to the list of performers at that house show that can't recall specifics.
"You're the first person that ever brought that up," Ax said. "I wish I could help you, but it would all be speculation."
The Post-Dispatch printed the first known reference to the Royal Rumble (mistakenly called a "royal ramble") in a sports news roundup column on Sept. 11, 1987, promoting the Oct. 4 show and laying out the rules: Two wrestlers start the match, and a new wrestler enters at random every two minutes. You win by being the last wrestler in the ring after all of your opponents have been tossed over the top rope with both feet touching the floor.
The story also clarified the prize the wrestlers were fighting over.
"The one who remains will most likely battle Hulk Hogan on Nov. 17," it said, referring to the date of the next St. Louis house show after the Royal Rumble.
Hogan was the WWF world heavyweight champion in 1987. So there you have it: In its earliest incarnation, the Royal Rumble's prize was a future world title match, just as it is today.
The 1987 Royal Rumble trial run failed for numerous reasons. For one, the fans were aware of the stipulation that the winner of the match would get a title shot vs. Hogan. In an unfortunate miscommunication, the ring announcer revealed during intermission that the next show would be headlined by Hogan vs. Gang, essentially spoiling the finish. When it became obvious to fans that Gang was about to win the match, fans began to jeer, according to a Wrestling Observer account of the show in 1987.
The biggest problem, according to Patterson, was that the wrestlers and the road agents responsible for planning the match had a hard time grasping the idea without him being there to guide his concept.
"We tried it [in St. Louis] before we tried to do it on television," Patterson said, "but it didn't work because I wasn't there. The producer was all mixed up and the talent was all mixed up, and they didn't know how it was gonna work. Also, we didn't have all the [entrance] music for all the boys in those days, so it was kind of dead, you know what I'm saying?"
The Royal Rumble, revived
The audience in St. Louis was unimpressed, and McMahon himself had written off the Royal Rumble as a flawed concept. But a meeting to plan a WWF TV special unexpectedly brought the idea back to life -- for good.
McMahon was working closely with Dick Ebersol, who partnered with McMahon to produce "Saturday Night's Main Event" on NBC. Ebersol was a big influence on the WWF TV product in those days, helping WWF improve its production values and lending creative advice. McMahon trusted Ebersol's mind for television.
The WWF was scheduled for a TV special for the USA Network in January 1988. Patterson recalled a meeting where McMahon showed Ebersol his plans for the show. This time it was Ebersol who was unimpressed.
"For some reason, Dick Ebersol says, 'Vince, that card is really not that good,'" Patterson recalled. "'It doesn't stand out. There's something missing on this show that you wrote.' And Vince turns around and he says, 'Pat, why don't you tell Dick Ebersol that stupid idea you had?'"
"I said, 'First of all, it's not stupid.' Then I gave the concept to Dick Ebersol about one guy comes in, then two minutes later another guy comes in. Dick Ebersol was going crazy. He says, 'My God, this is the greatest thing for television!'"
Ebersol saw the dramatic potential right away. Two men start. The crowd knows someone -- hell, everyone -- is about to enter the brawl, but who? And when? And who will still be left in the ring when they get there? Everybody? Nobody? They could bolster the excitement for each entry by showing a countdown clock on TV.
In any normal match, a run-in by another wrestler is exciting but unexpected, so the crowd never really gets a chance to build up excitement before it happens. This match promised guaranteed run-ins every two minutes.
"He called it a legal run-in," Patterson said. "You know, when it's a run-in, somebody goes in the ring who are not supposed to be there. But here, there were legal run-ins to the ring, every two minutes. Dick Ebersol went crazy for that."
Ebersol's ringing endorsement of the Royal Rumble concept was enough to convince McMahon to try it as the centerpiece of that USA Network special, in what fans now know as the "first" Royal Rumble. The number of entrants was raised to 20, a more traditional battle royal head count. With a little TV magic -- a countdown clock between new entrants, the commentators playing up the element of surprise -- the Royal Rumble became a hit.
It's since been pushed up to as many as 40 entrants, but 30 wrestlers is the standard nearly every year.
The Royal Rumble concept quickly proved to have far more subplot possibilities than just the element of surprise with the random entries. There's the iron man, the guy who spends an insanely long time in the ring in a given year. There are partnerships broken, partnerships forged. Sometimes a guy like John Morrison or Kofi Kingston has to find creative ways to get back into the ring without using his feet -- you're eliminated when thrown over the top rope and both feet touch the ground. Sometimes a guy finds himself alone in the ring, waiting for his next challenge. Some entrants never make it to the ring. Some wrestlers get eliminated by people who aren't official entrants.
The Royal Rumble became a special event. And to many of the wrestlers who won it, it was a crowning achievement.
"I'll never forget when Ric Flair came to work for us and Ric Flair was in the Royal Rumble in Albany, New York," Patterson recalled. "When he came backstage [after winning], he was crying like a baby. I mean, the Royal Rumble was really big -- for somebody to win it."
And to think it all began with One Man Gang on that long-forgotten night in St. Louis.
A Royal Rumble ancestor?
On July 21, 1976, there was a battle royal in Bangor, Maine. A newspaper ad the day of the show outlined the rules, which sound mighty familiar: "Battle Royal, 18 Wrestlers, 2 at a time until we have a winner."
We don't know for sure if the wrestlers entered the match at timed intervals or if they did it gauntlet style with a new wrestler entering upon the elimination of the guy before him. But this very well could have been an ancestor of today's Royal Rumble.
For the record, that match was won by WWE Hall of Famer Stan Hansen. Other participants included Bruiser Brody, Bobo Brazil and Chief Jay Strongbow. Only one participant in the 1976 match went on to appear in a Royal Rumble: Masked Executioner No. 2, who would win the 1989 Royal Rumble under his most famous alias, Big John Studd.
Other non-televised Royal Rumbles
While the 1987 show was the first non-televised Royal Rumble, there have been a handful of others, notably:
- March 16, 1988, in Hartford, Connecticut -- Winner: Rick Rude
- Jan. 17, 1994, at Madison Square Garden in New York -- Winner: Owen Hart
- May 9, 1994, in Osaka, Japan -- Winner: The Undertaker
"Hacksaw" Jim Duggan (1988), Big John Studd (1989), Hulk Hogan (1990-91), Ric Flair (1992), Yokozuna (1993), Bret Hart & Lex Luger (1994), Shawn Michaels (1995-96), "Stone Cold" Steve Austin (1997-98, 2001), Vince McMahon (1999), The Rock (2000), Triple H (2002, '16), Brock Lesnar (2003), Chris Benoit (2004), Batista (2005, '14), Rey Mysterio (2006), The Undertaker (2007), John Cena (2008, '13), Randy Orton (2009), Edge (2010), Alberto Del Rio (2011), Sheamus (2012), Roman Reigns (2015)
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