Kings Road Now That's What I Call Wrestling

Now That’s What I Call Wrestling #2: WWE Royal Rumble 2007

With the Royal Rumble just around the corner I thought I’d look back at last year’s event and see how much things have changed in the last twelve months…

“If TheBigBoot was Plan A, what’s Plan B?”
(Joey Styles, Royal Rumble 2007, 28/01/07)

One year ago… With the Royal Rumble just around the corner I thought I’d look back at last year’s event and see how much things have changed in the last twelve months…

On the 28th of January 2007, 16,118 fans packed the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas to witness the twentieth annual Royal Rumble. This was hyped as “The Most Star-Studded Royal Rumble in History” and this point was hammered home in the opening video package, the build-up video before the match and throughout the night on commentary. Whilst the accuracy of this slogan is dubious (1990’s or 2001’s version of event, amongst others, have a better claim to being the most “Star-Studded”) the match was a landmark of sorts since for the first time the winner would have the chance to chose between three (rather than two) World titles to fight for at WrestleMania since the reincarnated ECW was represented in the Royal Rumble match for the first time. Not that any sane person would want to choose the ECW title over the others. This was the first Sky Box Office (pay-per-view carrier in the UK) event I had bought since SummerSlam ’06 and on this occasion it turned out to be worth it…

Inter-promotional Tag Match: The Hardy Boyz (Matt and Jeff Hardy) vs. MNM (Joey Mercury and Johnny Nitro) w/Melina

The Build-Up: The show opens with an ‘Inter-promotional’ tag team match, billed as such because Matt Hardy and Joey Mercury were from SmackDown!, whilst Jeff Hardy and Johnny Nitro were proud members of Raw. Incredibly Jeff was the Intercontinental champion heading into last year’s Rumble as well. Some things never change.

The previous month these teams met in the opening match of the dreadful ECW December to Dismember pay-per-view (03/12/07), in what turned out to be the only match worth watching on the show. That match was something of a ‘Dream Match’ due to the existing feud on Raw over the Intercontinental title between Jeff Hardy and Johnny Nitro, the role the Hardyz had played in training Joey Mercury, and with MNM being arguably the most successful team since the glory days of the early 2000s when the tag division was dominated by Edge and Christian, The Dudleys and Matt and Jeff Hardy.

Whilst it was ironic that the Match of the Night was the only match not to involve ECW talent, the match itself was a high-spot orientated affair packed full of big moves that (ironically) would have gotten over well in the real ECW. This match was the polar opposite. Instead of fast-paced collection of moves and innovation, the match was an Old School Southern tag match built around a pair of aggressive heels trying to isolate one of the babyfaces.

Part of the reason for this change in strategy was necessitated by Joey Mercury’s facial injury. Ah yes, Mercury’s injury! Following December to Dismember, the two teams had met again as part of the (unannounced) four-team Ladder match at Armageddon ’06 fourteen days later. Yes WWE gave away a Ladder match without advertising it, and yes they ran two pay-per-views a fortnight apart. In the course of said ladder match, Mercury was rushed to the back his eyes instantly swelling shut following a frightening incident when he was hit in the face with a ladder during a see-saw spot. ‘Fortunately’ Mercury escaped with a badly broken nose (which required twenty stitches). It remains one of the most disturbing images broadcast on WWE television.

The Match: So if the first match was all about putting on a great match, now with Mercury’s injury they have a reason to really go at it. Here he is wearing a face-protector as we are shown footage of said injury as well as an angle from two weeks before the Rumble where, following Mercury’s singles loss to Matt Hardy, MNN got some revenge by giving Matt a Snap-Shot on the concrete. Thus the storyline centered around both teams having an injured member, with Matt selling a ‘dislocated jaw’. On commentary, Jim Ross speculates this may effect his stamina due to not having solid food.

The match started out evenly before The Hardyz got the advantage and the faces hit their team moves early, including a double elbow followed by a fistdrop-standing centon combo. Matt followed up with a suplex on Mercury and a neckbreaker on Mercury, but Nitro was able to change the momentum with just one punch to the jaw.

Matt showed some real selling skills as he played ‘Ricky Morton’ as the heels kept him in the corner and attacked his face, “Everything that Matt Hardy has suffered has been from the shoulders up” (Jerry Lawler), including a double face-buster. This was actually a really clever device as Matt’s expert selling of the worked injury moved the focus away from Mercury’s legitimate facial injury. Eventually Mercury missed a forearm from the second turnbuckle allowing, V.1 to make the hot tag to Jeff who hit a sit-out gordbuster and a perfectly timed Whisper in the Wind.

The Brothers Hardy delivered a double-suplex on Nitro, but the future John Morrison had a creative counter for their subsequent Event Omega: he got his knees up. So whilst Matt connected with his ‘half’ (the Guillotine legdrop), Nitro blocked Jeff’s splash knocking the wind out of him. It was “half successful and half not” as Lawler puts it. Coming at approximately seven minutes in this was a good false finish because it came at the time when a lot of WWE tag matches would be coming to an end. Particularly when we remember the way undercard matches have been treated at previous Royal Rumbles.

This was noticeable in 2004 when all the non-Rumble matches were cut short, bar HHH/HBK (which seemed to last forever and a day). So matches like Holly/Lesnar and Eddie/Chavo, both of which had had months of build-up ended up lasting under ten minutes. That was a particular shame in the Guerreros bout because it was the most I’ve ever looked forward to something involving Chavo (and credit where it’s due: the split was handled perfectly). Admittedly they made up for it with an excellent Rumble. Anyway, getting back to 2007…

Instead of this being the Beginning of the End, the match goes on. It was now Jeff’s turn to do his best impression of Mr. Morton as MNM isolated him in the corner and, in a neat (if subtle) touch hit simultaneous high-and-low legdrops, ala The Hardy Boyz. Throughout both their times controlling the tempo, MNM are very aggressive – much more so than usual. It works well in getting the crowd behind the Hardyz. The Hardyz are able to get a ‘false’ or unseen (as it should be called) tag, which had the fans screaming at the ref, before Matt gets the (white) hot tag. The older Hardy was on fire here as he dished out clotheslines, elbows and backdrops before connecting with a great bulldog/clothesline combo, taking down both ‘A-Listers’, and a forearm off the second rope.

The ending sequence is a strong one, packed full of action. With all four in the ring, Jeff breaks up the Snap-Shot and the Hardyz double up to deliver Poetry in Motion on Mercury, only to have it countered when Nitro moves when they attempt the same on him, sending Jeff crashing to the outside as Nitro (in one motion) dives into an Oklahoma roll on Matt. Regaining control, the man with Mattitude nails Nitro with a Side-Effect followed by the Twist of Fate. At this point Mercury rugby tackles Matt sending both crashing to the concrete but Matt simultaneously tags Jeff on the way out who delivers a nice Swanton for the win.

Post-Match Analysis: Going into the bout, the problem I had was that when I heard they were going to wrestle for the first time, it seemed like a ‘dream match’ (at least as far as contemporary WWE tag teams go). If they hadn’t made a mockery of their brand split then the rematch should have had that same appeal. After the first match was hyped as the “last time” we’d see both teams together, they should have at least waited until later in 2007.

Instead we got Edge, Randy Orton, Johnny Nitro, and Joey Mercury vs. Shawn Michaels, Triple H, Matt Hardy, and Jeff Hardy the next night on Raw. This would have been a lot more special if they hadn’t had Matt and Mercury popping up on Raw and Nitro hopping over to SmackDown! every other week. We even had The Hardyz turn up in ECW a couple of times! If I had the book I would have stuck with Jeff/Nitro and Matt/Mercury on their respective brands and I would have saved all the other stuff for PPV. As it turns out, on the night they did their jobs and got the show off to a flying start.

Both of the big tag matches between these teams seem to be love-them-or-hate-them affairs, the interesting thing being that a lot of those who were critical of the first match loved this one and vice versa. This was as Old School as it gets, with clearly defined heels trying to slow down and exploit an injury on the good looking babyfaces before building to a creative finish based around timing. It was also as good a U.S. tag match as one will see in the (post)modern era. * * * ¾

Backstage: We get the first of several segments in which wrestlers draw their numbers for the Royal Rumble match. The whole thing made ECW look weak. SmackDown! was represented by General Manager Teddy Long, Raw by Acting General Manager The Coach, and ECW by… Kelly Kelly?

Fortunately, the reliable King Booker was funny and saved an otherwise humourless segment.

We then see an advert for WrestleMania XIII – ‘All Grown Up’. The kids playing the parts of WWE Superstars look nothing like them.

ECW Title Match: Bobby Lashley (Champion) vs. Test

The Build-Up: The build-up was stupid.

Earlier that week on the January 23rd episode of ECW on Sci-Fi Bobby Lashley defeated Test in a match that was five times worse than this match at the Royal Rumble, if only because it was a really silly way to hype the next PPV by giving the match away for free on television. The same week. With the champ going over. Clean.

Prior to the match we see a video package which reminds us that Test had nicknamed himself ‘The Impact Player’. Lance Storm must have cringed when he first heard that. For months prior to The Big Show’s ECW title loss (to Lashley at December to Dismember) and subsequent departure, Test played the role of Number Two heel on WWE’s Third Brand. As it turned out his time in the company was coming to an end and this would end up being Test’s final WWE pay-per-view appearance.

Going into the show this was the only match where I could see a title changing hands (and was I ever wrong on that one) as it had been reported that WWE management were keen to put the (ECW) belt on Test in the new year. It was also the only match I had no interest in seeing. Test’s Art Barr tribute act can be entertaining in small doses and given a smaller, faster opponent he can work to his best as he showed against Van Dam; whilst Lashley only looks good when he’s in there with someone like Finlay, Regal, Booker or JBL who add a bit of character to the match, whilst making him look good… Put them together and you’ve got two bland, characterless, big guys, working a WWE style, whilst slowly blowing half their moves. The fact it’s the antithesis of what the real ECW stood for makes it some kind of a sick joke.

The Match: We are reminded that Test ‘guarantees’ he will be ECW Champion? Who does he think he is – Vince McMahon? Test gets a good heel reaction coming out to the ring and milks it with his Art Barr facial expressions. In the opening stages he continues to play an effective cowardly heel with a sneaky slap to the face on a corner break, followed by begging off on the ropes when he gets jumped.

Joey Styles and Tazz hype up Lashley’s amateur background as a “college sports Hall of Famer” while he delivers a lovely T-Bone suplex and an impressive Delayed one, Test retreats by rolling to the outside… So far, not so bad but then the match just slows down and never really gets going again.

The ‘Impact Player’ rams Lashley’s shoulder into the ring-post to take control of the match which he does by focusing on the arm/shoulder. The highlight of the next few minutes is the look on Jerry Lawler’s face as he looks on bored during an armbar spot (now there’s a guy who could have worked with either of these two), although I did like the pumphandle-armbar-drop spot.

After a three hour nap I woke up in time to see Lashley make his comeback but the big man is unable to execute a Press Slam due to his bad shoulder, dropping Test who land’s on his feet and connects with The Big Boot for a two count. This leads to the finish as Lashley floats out of a Test Grade and connects with a belly-to-belly suplex and a clothesline at which point Test rolls out of the ring again… Just decides to stay there and let the ref count him out rather than get back in.

Post-match the cowardly heel gets dragged back into the ring by Lashley who hits him with a Powerslam and then poses.

Post-Match Analysis: So they give away a proper finish on free TV, yet the PPV match ends in a countout? It’s like this feud was booked in reverse.

The finish with Test too scared to wrestle Lashley made even less sense because the next week Test was given, and lost, a rematch on the January 30th episode of ECW On Sci-Fi in what turned out to be his final television appearance. As a result he became one of the very few (maybe the only) wrestlers to lose to the same man three times in one week on television.

Dodgy booking aside, the match itself was slightly better than I expected. This was never going to be pretty and the nonsensical finish dragged it down even further. That said I was surprised to see it receive so many nominations on the Internet as a shoe-in for ‘Worst Match of the Year’. Heck, it wasn’t even the worst match Lashley had in 2007! Big Bobby’s tedious snoozefests versus Ken Kennedy (No Way Out, 18/02/07; SmackDown!, 02/03/07); Randy Orton (ECW On Sci-Fi, 16/03/07); Chris Masters (ECW On Sci-Fi, 20/03/07) and Shane McMahon (Raw, 09/04/07) were all at least one hundred times worse than Lashley/Test.

Not a good match, but not the worst match of the year either. If anything this match was/is underrated and probably the best match of the Test/Lashley series. At least they didn’t really blow any spots (unlike on TV) and Test made the effort to play his heel role to the fullest. * ¼

World Title Match: Dave Batista (Champion) vs. Mr. Kennedy

The Build-Up: This was one of those title defenses where they hadn’t had time for a long feud but they really didn’t need one. Prior to the Rumble Mr. Kennedy had become Number One Contender by scoring the fastest time in a two week (shown on the January 5th and 19th episodes of SmackDown!) Beat the Clock challenge after an exposed turnbuckle allowed him to score an upset win over United States Champion Chris Benoit in five minutes, seven seconds. Much was made of the fact that despite having defeated seven former or current World Champions (including and Batista himself), this was Ken Kennedy’s first ever shot at a World title match.

Before the match we get the typically well-produced video package, with one difference: the build-up package is all about the challenger (Kennedy) which is highly unusual. It does a good job of putting him over as “The Fastest Rising Superstar in the History of WWE” and as a smart guy in general who is always a step ahead because he is able to out-think his opponents (like ducking from The Undertaker’s Big Boot so he hit Batista instead). There was some nice timing there with the end of the video segueing into Kennedy’s theme tune.

The Match: “Once again SmackDown! is headlining pay-per-view!” yelled JBL, in reference to this match right in the middle of the card. Kennedy gets off to a good start with a great intro for himself and I really liked the psychology of him staring at Batista’s belt as the champ made his entrance. He kept his eyes on the prize transfixed by it.

This was almost like your traditional 1970s/1980s WWWF/WWF main event with two big guys working a match based around a body-part before the big comeback. They did some nice Old School spots: I haven’t seen the punch-rollup combo Kennedy used in years! Unfortunately he followed it up by running straight into a Big Boot. So much for out-thinking his opponents…

Batista maintained his early advantage until they went outside the ring where Kennedy shoved him backwards into the ring-steps. That in itself was unusual (I’ve become so accustomed to seeing guys whipped knee first into the steps if they are going to work a leg injury) and it set the tone for the rest of the match. The legwork was much less contrived than normal and looked realistic. Deviating from his usual punch-kick routine, Kennedy took control with a dropkick to the bad knee and a modified Indian Deathlock. Meanwhile, on commentary JBL put over the significance of Kennedy’s first title opportunity, “You grew up there in Green Bay: the city sucks. You don’t have anything to live for. You get into World Wrestling Entertainment: you got a shot at the World title. This is Kennedy’s dream!”

In another Old School spot Batista used a cradle to escape the half crab but was unable to follow up on a spinebuster because of his bad leg. Kennedy wasn’t the only one to break out some new offense as Big Dave fought back and hit Ken with his own finisher the Green Bay Plunge (Kendo Nagasaki’s Kamikaze Crash) and went for a Batista Bomb. Before he could deliver it, Kennedy countered by hitting him in the knee and shoving down referee Nick Patrick, allowing enough time to deliver a low blow followed by a Rude Awakening for an (uncounted) pinfall. In fact, old ‘Kennedy Kennedy’ could have scored several pins during the time Patrick took a nap “1-2-3-4 Get up Nick Patrick! Come on, dammit!!! 5-6-7-8 Come on! You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me!” (JBL).

As Patrick finally got back into the match, the audience even started a loud “Kennedy! Kennedy!” chant in support of the challenger. It was not to be however as the World champ successfully defended when Batista caught him with a big clothesline followed by a Batista Bomb (with Kennedy still throwing punches as he was being picked up) for the win.

Post-Match Analysis: They protected Kennedy in defeat and he actually came out of the match having being booked stronger than the World champ. Post-match JBL got in the line of the night “He was beaten because Nick Patrick had his head up his ass”.

This was another match where the expectations weren’t exactly sky-high but they went in there and delivered a basic but entertaining story. Strange as it sounds one year later but at the time I thought this looked like a breakthrough performance for Kennedy. Having previously impressed the ‘casual’ punters due to his ring announcer gimmick he was starting to look the part in-ring as well following solid outings with veterans Chris Benoit and The Undertaker. Here he was booked to look like the equal of one of the top stars in the company. It looked like the start of a great year for ‘SmackDown!’s Big Mouth’.

It did turn out to be a banner year for one of the competitors but that man was Batista. It wasn’t obvious at the time (even two months later heading into WrestleMania there were still plenty of critics who weren’t expecting much from Batista’s match with The Undertaker) but in retrospect it kicked off what would turn out to be the best year so far for ‘The Animal’. * * *

Backstage: The ‘Freaks’ angle, involving Ariel, Kevin Thorne, Hornswoggle and Great Khali, was amusing enough and the best of the bunch but since then contrast in size between Horny and Khali has been played up so much that it’s no longer funny.

Last Man Standing – WWE Title Match: John Cena (Champion) vs. Umaga w/Armando Alexandra Estrada

The Build-Up: This was a rematch from earlier in the month where the then-undefeated Umaga had beaten Cena from pillar to post in the main event of New Year’s Revolution (07/01/07) only to lose via a roll up. That match had been surprisingly good in the way it was able to give Cena the (expected) win without taking away from Umaga’s Monster aura, which many feared would disappear after he suffered his first loss. That was in a ‘normal’ wrestling environment, now with a gimmick match and all manner of short-cuts available to them they really had the chance to cut lose.

Seeking revenge for his protégé’s first loss, manager Armando Alexandra Estrada persuaded (Acting GM) Jonathon Coachman to let him choose the stipulation for their rematch and picked a ‘Last Man Standing’ (first wrestler who fails to meet the ten count loses) match. During the contract signing on Raw, Cena showed some fire when he jumped the table to attack Estrada and Umaga. On the January 22nd episode of Raw, Cena paid the price when he suffered ‘abdominal injuries’ after being attacked by Umaga during Cena’s match with Coachman as The Coach and Estrada held him across a table allowing Umaga to Superfly Splash him through it.

Going into the match, I expected them to build on their previous collision and play off Cena’s injuries with a much more intense ‘all-out war’ type of match. It was one of those occasions where the match actually surpassed expectations.

The Match: We start with the nice touch of having Estrada psyching-up Umaga before the match whilst he waits in the ring. A serious-looking John Cena makes his entrance with his ribs taped up, seen earlier receiving a check-up in the medical room, as JR informs us it is “thirty six years to the day” since Bruno Sammartino lost the WWWF title to Ivan Koloff.

The slow stare-down was perfectly executed with the image of them going literally nose-to-nose. Cena starts aggressively with punches, elbows and a jaw-breaker. Umaga counter punches with one shot to the mid-section and Cena is in sooo much pain he has to roll out and take a breather.

Outside, Umaga sends him shoulder-first into the steel steps for the first ’Standing 10 Count’ of the match, but Cena gets up and they brawl up the aisle. At this point I thought they might brawl backstage/up the set at some point. That was the only missed opportunity of this match. Instead, Cena throws a bunch of rights and backs Umaga up to the ring but ‘The Samoan Bulldozer’ again cuts him off with a single shot to the ribs. This is an ongoing story throughout the match as Cena keeps making min-comebacks and being cut-off each time because it only takes a single blow to his injury to stop any momentum he has built.

Back in the ring, Umaga continues to dominate with a headbutt, shots to the injured abs and blocks another comeback attempt when Cena runs into a BIG clothesline. He should use that more often. There’s a neat spot here, which was ignored by the commentators, where Armando has to signal for Umaga not to go for the pin and stand back to let the ref count. Cena is up on ‘7’ so Umaga hits a bodyslam and rolls outside to pick up the ring steps. Again, Estrada has to keep him back while the ref can count Cena down in the ring. This time it backfires! As Cena gets up on ‘7 ½’, Umaga throws the steps into the ring but when ‘The Samoan Bulldozer’ tries to get back in, Cena has recovered enough to prevent him. First he clotheslines Umaga on the top rope and then violently throws the steps onto him as he stands outside the ring. That looked nasty.

This was the first of several convincing false finishes that were designed to make Umaga look invincible as the big Samoan was somehow able to get back up on ‘5’, albeit in a “locationally challenged” (Lawler) state. Cena dumps him back in the ring but Umaga changes the momentum again with a spinning heel kick and slaps on a bearhug. Interestingly Cena was not able to escape but Umaga broke the hold himself by turning it into a belly-to-belly suplex. With Cena down, Umaga rolls out, retrieves the ringsteps and, as Cena makes his feet for ‘8’, positions them in the corner. He subsequently misses his running hip-attack into the steps and Cena seizes the moment to nail him with the steps. Amazingly Umaga had sat back up by ‘3’ and was vertical by ‘7’!

Meanwhile Cena had planned his next move and launches off the top with a cross-body block only to be caught and turned into a spinning-slam/Rock Bottom by the ‘Bulldozer’. Cena struggles to get up by ‘7’ so Umaga goes back to Cena’s bandaged ribs, connecting with two spring-board Banzai Drops. On the third attempt Cena gets his knees up and this low-blow allows him to mount his most effective comeback so far as he instantly hits the Throwback and a Blue Thunder Driver onto the steps! He then follows up with a Five Knuckle Shuffle onto Umaga who was still on the steps. Moving in for the kill, Cena attempts an FU only for his bad ribs to catch up with him as he collapses face-first, hitting his head on the steps (and using this an opportunity to blade).

Umaga was the first to make it to his feet, followed by a now-bloody Cena at ‘9’. A BOOMING “Cena Sucks!” chant rang out as Umaga pounds him in the corner. The chants soon change to dueling “Let’s go Cena!” versus “Cena Sucks!” as ‘The Chain Gang’ tries to drown out their hero’s critics. ‘The Marine’ gets up on ‘8’ and ‘Hulks Up’ for a Superman comeback with some weak punches (the one real disappointing aspect of this match so far) before running straight into what JR described as a “Supersized, Slobberknocking Samoan Drop”. Sensing victory, Umaga gets in position to deliver the Samoan Spike as Cena was standing again for ‘8’. Cena succeeds in blocking the Spike (putting it over with fear as he does so) so Umaga just hit him with a headbutt instead! With things going his way Umaga sets him up in Tree of Woe position only for Cena to sit up and avoid a running diving headbutt drop and in one smooth motion transition into his next move a top rope Fame-Asser. This time Umaga doesn’t even wait for the ref’s count: he got up instantly.

At this point everyone was wondering if anything could stop the unstoppable Samoan, as the match did its trick in making even the most hardcore fans suspend disbelief to the extent they were thinking for a second there was some possibility of a title change. Going all out Cena throws the big man shoulder-first into the ring post and delivers a nasty monitor shot to the head. A sick looking spot, this left the monitor dented but once again it wasn’t enough to finish the match and Estrada’s charge was up on ‘7’.

A Cena shoulder-block from behind sent him outside where Cena jumps off the apron into a bearhug. After ramming him back first into the ring post, Umaga positions him in front of Joey Styles and Tazz for a big finish. After a fan threw popcorn at him, Umaga began a big run-up sprinting along the tops of the Raw and SmackDown! tables before missing a splash through the ECW Announce Table (which has replaced the Spanish Announce Table as the piece of furniture to be destroyed each pay-per-view). At the time, I thought that was the end. This time, Umaga was up at was up at ‘9 ½’.

As he got to his feet, Estrada pulls out a wrench and began detaching one of the top turnbuckles. Meanwhile, Umaga hit Cena in the abs when ‘The Doctor of Thuganomics’ tries to pull him back in the ring and grabs the detached turnbuckle to use as a weapon only to run slap, bang into an FU. After decking Armando with a punch Cena picks up the ‘buckle, nails Umaga with it, and applies an STFU whilst choking him with the loose ring rope. This seems to last for ages as Umaga sells it like Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi before passing out. Or so it seemed. After Cena releases his grip, Umaga starts to get up on ‘3’ so the Champ goes back and chokes him again. This time Umaga fails to answer the ten-count and a bloody, battered-looking Cena retains his title in arguably the best match of his career.

Post-Match Analysis: This was the fourth match of the night and the fourth match in a row which was based around the heel working over one part of the babyface’s anatomy. Following Matt Hardy’s jaw, Bobby Lashley’s shoulder, and Batista’s knee was John Cena’s ribs. Yet again they played out the basic story of a babyface trying to make comebacks only to be caught out by their Achilles heel.

On another night this might have seemed like overkill but it worked here because this match was so different from those which had preceded it. This was a brawl of Epic proportions. With the opportunity for more short-cuts than a regular match, they made use of the no rules stip and gave the fans an action backed brawl with blood, intensity, violence. The recurring role of the ringsteps throughout the bout was so prominent that they were almost part of the match.

This was a career-defining match for both Cena and Umaga and a strong argument can be made for calling it the best match of either of their careers. For Cena it was another victory not only in the sense of the worked result but also another chance for him to prove the “You can’t wrestle” crowd wrong with another stellar performance on pay-per-view. Still as much as Cena showed here, this match was the Umaga show. Not only did he control the tempo of the match by dominating Cena throughout and cutting off his comebacks with perfect timing, but as a character he was booked to look as strong as possible in his second official loss. In a storyline sense then his almost super-human ability to survive seemingly anything that was thrown at him made him look like the unstoppable monster he should always be booked as.

The ending worked well, because as JR put it “Even the monster’s gotta breath”. Some were annoyed by the order of the finish: the first time Cena choked Umaga it lasted for ages but still didn’t keep him down, whereas on the second occasion it only lasted for a few seconds and won the match. Minor grumbles, like that aside the only real weakness here was that the end result was obvious, unlike some of the preceding PPVs like say Backlash ’06 or even Unforgiven ’06 where you felt there was a chance of Cena’s opponents pulling off the win.

Nonetheless this was the best brawl WWE have produced since the violent street fight between Randy Orton and Mick Foley back at Backlash ’04. Not only a strong Match of the Year Contender but easily one of the better WWE title matches this decade. * * * * ½

Backstage: We get the final segment from the ‘Drawing Room’ as Ric Flair is last to pick his number. So much for letting your elders go first! Kelly Kelly tells him “Well Mr. Flair you may be last but you are definitely not least” and Flair starts to dance with Extreme Expose.

The Rumble

The Build-Up: Back at ringside we see that Raw’s Jerry Lawler has joined SmackDown!’s Michael Cole and JBL for the final match. If you are going to have a three man announce team call the Rumble, why not use one man from each brand? Yet Joey Styles gets overlooked in favour of Michael Cole: this was another incident which I thought emphasized that ECW should be thought of as inferior. Bradshaw reckons the previous match was maybe Cena’s best ever. He’s right.

Up to this point it has been a strong show, with the roster looking motivated, but due to its length the Rumble is one of those matches capable of making or breaking a pay-per-view. The previous year’s was probably my least favorite Rumble ever. 2005’s wasn’t far behind. Sure if you look at in terms of work rate there have been Rumbles with far less in-ring talent, but at least they have had more characters that were over with the audience and presented some kind of story that kept me interested. In 2006, there was no real story that I could get behind and the story they wanted me to get behind (Rey Mysterio wanting to win the Rumble for Eddie Guerrero) just put me off due to the heavy-handed way in which they handled it.

Fortunately, I was optimistic that 2007’s version would be different. One benefit of Triple H’s quad injury earlier in the month at New Year’s Revolution is that it made the match seem unpredictable again. With the obvious favourite out, it meant that for the first time in years there was no clear-cut winner. The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Edge, Randy Orton would be the favourites. Of those the most likely choices seemed to be Orton and Michaels since it seemed like the match would be used to determine a contender for John Cena’s title. With a few months left to establish someone as a new number one contender, now seemed like the ideal time to get the ball rolling.

In the case of Orton there had been month’s worth of rumours about him facing Cena for the WWE title at WrestleMania. On the other hand, with Michaels on a role others were quick to assume he would step into his buddy Triple H’s spot to challenge for the title in the ‘Mania main event. Then again, sources reported that McMahon wasn’t keen on having two babyfaces headline WrestleMania (although presumably that would have been the case with Hunter vs. Cena) and with Michaels being linked to the scheduled confrontation between Vince McMahon and Donald Trump a win here looked less likely. Whilst an Undertaker/Batista collision for SmackDown!’s top belt had been rumoured for months (and pretty much confirmed by their interaction on SmackDown! in the weeks leading into the Rumble) it seemed likely that match could be set up another way and In the case of Edge/Cena it had been done to death but it was the most reliable main event match on Raw and the possibility of them finishing their feud on the ‘Grandest Stage of Them All’ did have a certain appeal to it even if it wasn’t a hot new match. So on paper, Undertaker and Edge looked slightly less likely though they none-the-less remained possibilities and with Internet reports in the weeks leading up to the event stating that WWE wanted to “surprise us” it was not impossible to imagine someone else like a King Booker or a Chris Benoit winning, only to lose their opportunity in the run up to WrestleMania.

More interestingly (for me) than the potential winners was the number of people who have never been in the Rumble before or people I never expected to see in a Rumble ever. I thought it would be interesting to see what the likes of Finlay, Sabu, The Sandman, Kenny Dystra, and The Great Khali do when they are in there. Booked correctly this Rumble had the potential to be one of the most interesting matches of the year.

Before the match begins we get another video package which does an excellent job in hyping the match with a the focus on Shawn Michaels, Edge, Kenny Dykstra, Chris Benoit, Great Khali, Kane, King Booker and The Undertaker and their motivations for winning the match. This left me with one question: Why doesn’t Randy Orton feature in the hype video? A hint at an Orton win perhaps to make it appear more of a surprise…

The Match: Ric Flair may have been last to pick his number but he ended up with the worst luck of them all as he strutted out as No. 1. The San Antonio crowd, who had been hot throughout the night so far, gave a nice reaction to the ‘Nature Boy’ who turned out to be one of the more over participants in the match. We get two veterans to start the match as a serious-looking Finlay is No. 2. JBL mentions that in 1992 Flair lasted “just thirty four seconds short of a full hour”. There have been a lot of early entrants who ended up as winners over the past few years and as it happened I could see one of these two lasting until near the end, most likely the Irishman. They are doing entrances every ninety seconds this year and the first period flies by as they hit each other Finlay with his forearms and Flair with his chops. At this point I was thinking “I’d love to see a singles match between these two that’s never happened before” (it later did on the June 6th 2007 and for me rates as one of Flair’s best performances since re-joining WWE)… Just imagine if it had happened in 1982.

Speaking of the Eighties, Michael Cole informs us that Kenny Dykstra (No. 3) was “less than a year old when the first Rumble took place”. Dykstra’s entrance music is absolutely horrendous as he jogs down and goes after Flair, Finlay’s obviously not a fan either as he quickly double-crosses him. Kenny’s actually a good choice for this spot since (after the video package) I expected the twenty year old to have a long showing here, similar to Randy Orton in 2004. JBL draws attention to the age gap by claiming “Ric Flair was around when there were only two people in the Royal Rumble”.

The always reliable Matt Hardy makes it four as he hits a Side-Effect on Kenny right on his entrance. That’s a good mix of talent to kick off the match and Finlay’s constant teases of elimination have been the highlight up to this point. One of the favourites, Edge (No.5) runs to the ring and hits Spears on Flair and Finlay, before missing one on Matt allowing Hardy to nail his arch-enemy with the Twist of Fate which generates one of the biggest pops of the night.

Things started to go South after that as Kenny looked pretty weak when he was double-crossed (for the second time in two minutes) and tossed out by Edge. So much for him having a break-through performance here. Meanwhile, Ric Flair was made to look like an idiot bringing a chair into the ring only to be unceremoniously dumped by Edge (he should have at least got the chance to use it on someone as revenge for the Con-Chair-To he suffered from Rated rKo).

In one of the more unexpected crowd reactions of the night, Tommy Dreamer (No. 6) got a surprisingly good reaction. I liked the way he went right after Edge, playing off their rivalry from the previous year’s One Night Stand (which was ignored by the commentators). After ‘The Innovator of Violence’ entrance JBL put over Lawler’s strategy of hiding under the ring during Royal Rumble ’96 as a smart thing to do. Sabu (No. 7) setting up his trademark table at ringside before hopping in the ring and attacking his fellow ECW Original Dreamer was one of the more memorable moments of the bout, mainly because I never expected to see him in a Royal Rumble. Gregory Helms (No. 8) went right after long-time rival Hardy in what turned out to be one of the best exchanges of the match, the only drawback being it didn’t last long enough. One year ago at this event Helms had won the Cruiserweight title in the opening match and I was pleased he still had it twelve months later. With rumours that WWE wanted to take the Cruiserweight Division more seriously (of course the exact opposite happened), I’d have had him carry it until Mysterio came back and then drop it to him. Following the arrival Raw’s Shelton Benjamin (No. 9), business picked up with the arrival of Kane (No. 10) who instantly took control of the match, dominating everyone in sight including a Chokeslam to Hell on Edge before eliminating Dreamer and then Sabu. In Sabu’s case he actually Chokeslammed him through the table Sabu had set up earlier (following a couple of nice teases). Really, how else would Sabu go out?

Things slowed down again which seemed to be the story of the match a period of in-action followed by a big entrance, fortunately the ‘slow’ periods were compensated for with some of the more memorable commentary of the year. JBL took the opportunity to air his personal grievances/opinions on the Straight Edge lifestyle, lucha libre legend Mil Mascaras and ECW. Whilst someone like Kane always excels in this type of environment (the 2001 Royal Rumble remains the most impressive performance I’ve seen from him in any match) someone like C.M. Punk (No. 11) was an unproven commodity. As Punk made his first Rumble appearance, JBL took time out to critique Punk’s lifestyle: “They say he doesn’t drink, doesn’t do drugs – I call that boring. But that’s okay he’s real talented, he’s a great athlete. Obviously doesn’t have much of a social life.”

Speaking of commentary I thought it was odd to have King Booker (No. 12) just dump Helms when he came in after, Bradshaw had spent so much time building up Greg. Super Crazy appropriately drew No. 13, which led to the following exchange between the announcers:

John Bradshaw Layfield: “Mil Mascaras once entered the Rumble: he eliminated himself, he’s a Super Idiot! Hated him. He still owes me money.”

Jerry Lawler: “You never liked him and you always will, right?”

John Bradshaw Layfield: “Exactly.”

Jeff Hardy (No. 14) brought the live crowd back to life and started the hottest period of the Rumble so far as he and Matt teamed up to blast Edge with their second versions of the double elbow and fistdrop-standing centon combo of the night. “Well he stole all their girlfriends” reasoned Bradshaw in another shoot-style one-liner. To a booming chant “Hardyz! Hardyz” they followed up with a double wheelbarrow suplex on Crazy and blocked a double chokeslam on Kane by kicking him to set up Poetry in Motion.

The half-way mark saw four-time ECW Champion The Sandman (No. 15) Sandman make his entrance through the audience with beer can and Singapore Cane in hand to a decent reaction. Upon entering the ring he caned Jeff Hardy, Super Crazy and Matt Hardy; before Booker hit a knee to the stomach and threw him out in 0:13 sec. This easy elimination was similar to that of the likes of Bushwacker Luke and Mo from Men on a Mission, but was nothing compared to the burial he received on commentary (transcript below).

Jerry Lawler >sarcastically<: “Aww man, Sandman was just getting Extreeeeeme!”

JBL: “Well we just found out he’s no Stone Cold.”

Michael Cole: “Ha! No! Not at all.”

JBL: “He can drink beer but he ain’t bald, he didn’t just whip everybody’s ass…”

Michael Cole >interrupting<: “No…”

JBL: “… So he ain’t Stone Cold.”

Michael Cole: “Well you drink beer too. As we get back to the action…”

Back in live action, No. 16, Randy Orton looked smooth as he worked together with Rated rKo partner Edge to eliminate Crazy and then between them they were able to eliminate both Hardy Brothers. The loss of two of the most over stars in the match was overshadowed by the reaction for Chris Benoit (No. 17) who looked great as he sprinted to the ring and chopped and suplexed the hell out of everyone who got in his way… But then for some reason they had the next entrant Rob Van Dam do basically the same, only with kicks. Ignoring the logic behind booking two of your most over babyfaces to make such energetic entrances back-to-back, the match was on a roll and RVD looked a thousand times better here than he did in his big return during 2006’s Rumble. As Van Dam hit his trademark spots, Kane took the opportunity to eliminate Booker. Furious at this indignity, the King hopped back in the ring and blasted him with a Harlem Sidekick, Axe-kick and a clothesline which eliminated ‘The Big Red Machine’. Outside the ring Booker continued to beat him up, as Viscera (No. 19) lumbered to the ring, until Steve Keirn, Mike Rotunda, Dean Malenko, and a bunch of refs called him off. In all the time Booker has been with McMahon this is the most aggressive and strongest I’ve ever seen him portrayed. The fact he was booked to beat-down Kane, looked good for his future and after that I was expecting another title run 2007.

For the second year in a row Viscera wasn’t used to his best. As Mabel, the guy eliminated seven men in 1994 – why couldn’t he have done something like that here? Instead he was booked pretty much like a ‘normal’ wrestler and not in a way that a man of his size and weight should be in this environment. The match had slowed down at this point as Johnny Nitro (No. 20), Kevin Thorn (No. 21) and Hardcore Holly (No. 22) followed in Vis’ footsteps by just filling up the ring. Having Nitro come in after both Hardyz were gone was a wasted opportunity as they could have easily played off the match they had earlier. “We haven’t had an elimination in quite some time” remarked Cole as I tried to prevent myself from falling asleep.

In retrospect I think this dull period was by design as Shawn Michaels (No. 23) received by far the loudest reaction of the night and one of the best reactions of his career from his hometown crowd. Booked to look like a star, I loved his interaction with Finlay and subsequent elimination of him. HBK delivered a nice Superkick to Viscera following which it took a record eight men to heave the big guy over the top rope. We are reminded by the announcers that Triple H picked Michaels to win the Rumble, hmmmm…

Then just as quickly as things picked up they slow back down again with the entrances of Chris Masters (No. 24), Chavo Guerrero (No. 25), MVP (No. 26) and Carlito (No. 28) none of which generate much reaction. Even with big names Michaels, Edge and Orton in there nothing much happens, other than that occasionally someone is eliminated. Most of the entertainment to be had comes from Shelton Benjamin who is one of the highlights of the match with the athletic ways in which he is able to avoid elimination. Another interesting note is that although it only last a few seconds following his entrance, MVP goes right after Benoit in a pre-cursor to a feud which would last for the next five months. Up to this point I’m thinking this has been a decent Rumble if not a spectacular one, it just needs the final stretch to save it as the action hasn’t been strong enough that it can afford an anti-climax here.

Thirty eight minutes in and a technical glitch causes Sky Box Office changes to widescreen right on cue for the entrance of The Great Khali (No. 28). He was made to look like a Monster here from the way everyone in the match literally stops what they are doing to stare at him to him shoving down Edge and RVD with one hand on each. Taking control of the match with ease, Khali hits everyone with Giant Headbutts as they ‘line-up’ to take him on and then, when they get up, he shows off the other move in his repertoire and does the same with Big Chops. As dominant as they made him look here a lot of his offense here still looked weak (particularly the ‘headbutt’ to RVD which never touched him by a mile). I had to laugh at Orton and Michaels’ over the top selling of the Big Chop. Getting bored of that, Khali starts throwing people out, eliminating seven men in total as he dumps Holly with one hand, Benoit (off camera), The Miz (No. 29) as soon as he made his entrance, Van Dam, Punk, Carlito blocking his Springboard move with a Big Chop, and Guerrero. With everyone either eliminated or still laying on the canvas, Shawn Michaels QUIETLY (and by that I mean shouting) reminds Khali to do his pose to the “HARD CAMERA! HARD CAMERA!” in one of the funniest unintentional moments of the year.

As the giant continues to pose, Michaels is first to his feet and hits him with a chop which Khali no-sells and gives him the Chokebomb. With Khali the only man left standing the lights go out for the entrance of No. 30. The Undertaker makes his entrance with the great visual of him staring at Khali the whole way. Because of how strong they have made ‘The Punjabi Nightmare’ look here is a great pop for the subsequent Undertaker/Khali exchange although they have trouble coordinating the spot where Taker clotheslines him over the top. With Khali gone, Undertaker turns his attention to MVP connecting with Old School before tossing him out. Thus we are left with an interesting (if predictable) final four.

The closing sequence is almost like a Fatal Four Way match with four huge stars hitting their trademark moves and teasing false finishes, the only difference from usual being that those finishes involve throwing people out of the ring rather than pinfall/submission attempts. Undi’ hits a nice flying clothesline on Edge but before he can eliminate him he suffers a chair shot to the head from Edge and blades. As Orton stands over ‘The Dead Man’, Edge gets in position to set up a Spear which looked like it was intended for his partner but Orton turns around (chair in hand) in time to see him and Edge tries to explain he was going for Taker. Before they can come to blows, Michaels gets up and walks straight into an RKO… then rolls out of the ring (under the bottom rope) giving them the opportunity to double up on Undertaker. Despite the two on one advantage, Taker still fights back and destroys both of them until an Edge Spear saved Orton from a Chokeslam. Edge followed up with a chair shot and set up for the Con-Chair-To only for HBK to make the save and eliminate both members of Rated rKo to a huge pop before instantly collapsing.

The two future Hall of Famers lay side by side and ‘popped up’ (with Takers sit-up and Michaels nip-up) at the same time. The live audience loved that! With the audience on their feet, they went back and forth teasing eliminations and proving that almost ten years since their last match the chemistry between them is as strong as ever. Undertaker missed a Big Boot in the corner with Michaels balanced precariously on the apron and HBK charged at him with a forearm. “This is a moment you’re going to tell your kids about! Your grandkids!” screamed JBL. Whilst thinking about what wrestling matches I’ll discuss with my grandchildren seems a long way off I will say my favourite bits were Taker hitting a stiff elbow to the mush as he stood on the apron and the spot where he cut off Michaels’ momentum when HBK ran face-first into The Big Boot at which point the audience went from a BOOMING chant of “HBK!” to complete silence.

The final moments were some of the most memorable of the year and probably the strongest finish to a Rumble match to date. Getting desperate, The Heartbreak Kid started to climb the turnbuckles for an elbow drop but ‘The Man in Black’ cut him off and tried to knock him out of the ring. When that failed he climbed up the ropes for a superplex, but Michaels countered shoving him to the mat and delivering the elbow drop. With victory in his grasp the hometown boy set up for Sweet Chin Music but Taker was a step ahead and literally catching his foot, throwing it down and delivering a Chokeslam. He went for a Tombstone but Michaels slipped out and connected with a Sweet Chin Music. In a moment reminiscent of both WrestleMania XII (where it took him two Superkicks to win his first WWF title from Bret Hart) and Royal Rumble ’96 (where he eliminated Diesel from the exact same position) Michaels tried to follow up with a second Superkick only for Taker to duck and dump him over the top for the win.

Outside the ring, Michaels was in a state of disbelief selling the feelings of being “so near, yet so far” as he looked on at Taker in the ring before simply turning his back and walking up the aisle. The final image we saw was Undertaker staring in the direction of the WrestleMania XIII sign as a big time firework display went off.

JBL: “Michael, King – We have just seen a classic.”

Post-Match Analysis: That was one hell of a finishing sequence. More often than not the Rumble match ends soon after all the entrances have been made, whereas here the longer period at the end was used to full effect and actually made the match. It was great to see a long match at the end between two headliners and the struggle at the end really added to the drama of it, making the Championship Match at WrestleMania seem like the most important thing in the world.

The rest of the match had its highs and lows but from Khali’s entrance onwards they did an excellent job of building towards the big finish. In terms of the earlier stuff, Finlay, Edge, Kane, both Hardys, Benoit, Van Dam and Benjamin deserve mention for keeping things moving and making the match more interesting than it would have been without them. Most Rumbles have had their dull periods, particularly in the last couple of years and this was no different. Very few (if any) Rumbles have finished with as much style.

With so many bodies in the ring at once it’s always difficult to squeeze any actual wrestling in there other than your basic punch-kick-clothesline. Instead much of the entertainment comes from the order in which people enter, seeing people going at it who you would otherwise never see wrestle and seeing guys you didn’t expect to team up work together. Since they are the times when the ring is less crowded, allowing for more movement and thus for more moves, strong start or finish can really raise the match up a notch. This was easily one of the most memorable WWE matches of the year due to the ending. If it had been that good all the way through it would have ranked up there comfortably alongside the likes of 1992, 2001 and 2004. As it stands it is difficult to rank this Rumble amongst the others. How anyone rates this match will depend on if you think the white hot later exchanges were enough to make up for the lackluster parts in-between.

Michaels and Undertaker ‘clicked’ in 1997 and they did so again here. I for one would love to see a singles match between them in the next year. Taker winning in itself wasn’t a big surprise but the way in which he did so added to the unpredictability of the finish. No one to draw the last spot in the Rumble had ever won it so when Undertaker emerged at No. 30 it subconsciously signified that he wasn’t going to win. He did and in doing so The Undertaker kicked off what would be one of the greatest years of his career. * * * ½

Conclusion: The booking itself was very conservative with three champions retaining their belts, and the Rumble match being fought by two of the longest serving members of the roster. Even in the tag match they went for the ‘safe’ option with The Hardyz rather than the less established MNM. With the exception of Kennedy and Umaga, who were both booked strongly in defeat, none of the ‘newer’ talent was elevated to the extent they came out of the event looking stronger than they went in.

More surprising than the ‘safe’ nature of the booking was the fact that a babyface was booked to win in every match on the card. After seeing the ‘Good Guys’ go over in four out of four undercard matches, I was expecting a heel win in the Rumble (most likely by Orton). That a ‘Bad Guy’ hasn’t won since Vince McMahon in 1999 makes me think we are due for one soon.

Still, with the exception of the ECW title match, every bout on the card delivered and either surpassed or at least lived up to expectations. The opener, the Last Man Standing match and the Rumble itself were matches from very different ends of the spectrum that represent three of the stronger PPV offerings McMahon’s company churned out all year. Cena and Umaga were able to surpass expectations and deliver what remains arguably both men’s best singles match to date.

Still as great as their match was I’m glad it didn’t close the show. One of the problems with 2006’s version of the pay-per-view was that it’s position on the card (below both World title matches) made it seem like a mid-card match and dampened any enthusiasm there was for Mysterio’s underdog victory. This year they treated it with respect. It’s a tradition they should continue.

In winning the Royal Rumble match, The Undertaker joined the likes of Hulk Hogan (1990 and 1991), Ric Flair (1992), Shawn Michaels (1995 and 1996), Steve Austin (1997, 1998 and 2001), The Rock (2000), Triple H (2002) and, hmmmn, Vince McMahon (1999). This was a pretty significant landmark in an illustrious career because for all the time he has been featured in a prominent position, The Undertaker was arguably the only long-term headliner of the post-1988 era never to win the Rumble match. (Possible exceptions being Randy Savage, who was only really a full-time wrestler at the time of the first four Rumbles, and Kurt Angle, who wasn’t in as many Rumbles as one might imagine due to him being in the WWF/WWE/World title match in 2001, 2003, 2005 and 2006… Although he did pull double duty in ’05, by stealing Nunzio’s place in the Rumble match. Although it’s often overlooked Bret Hart was a joint winner with Lex Luger in 1994 (and should have been the “legal” winner in 1997).

Overall it was an example of a show that peaked in the right places and finished on a high. For the closing moments with Michaels and the Undertaker brawling and then ‘The Dead Man’, winning it was like the two of them transported everyone back to 1997 for ten minutes… And it felt good! Now That’s What I Call Wrestling.

Carl ‘TheBigBoot’ Robinson