PPV REVIEW: WWF / WWE Royal Rumble 1996 (and Free for All)

WWF / WWE Royal Rumble 1996: Event poster
January 21, 1996,
Selland Arena in Fresno, California

It was the start of a brand new year, and the WWF's New Generation experiment was reaching its apex. Over the coming twelve months, we'd see the most subtle of seeds being planted, ready to blossom into the company's most successful boom period to date: The Attitude Era.

Yet as the superstars of the World Wrestling Federation rolled into Fresno, California that Sunday night back in January 1996, few could truly have predicted how completly different the WWF landscape would look only 18 months from now.

Not that they had any reason to. Tonight, there was only one thing on everybody's minds; who would be heading into Wrestlemania 12 to compete for the World Wrestling Federation title. 

Would reigning champion Bret 'The Hitman' Hart hold onto the belt in tonight's main event against The Undertaker? 

Who would be the man to emerge victorious from this evening's 30-man battle royal, earning the right to face the champion on The BIggest Stage of Them All?

Let's cut the dramatic intro here and dive right in to find out, shall we?

Another dramatic intro

OK, so maybe the drama stuff isn't over just yet. Tonight's show begins with a movie-trailer-type promo hyping the aforementioned championship match. I could tell you more, but here's the video so that you can watch this for yourself until such times as WWE catch on and take it down.

Intense, right?

WWF Royal Rumble 1996 Free For All

For the first time ever (apparently, though I seem to recall otherwise), the WWF kicked off tonight's show with their Free For All, a 30-minute broadcast,' ostensibly designed as the company's way at giving us fans a free bonus, but really a not-so-subtle attempt to shill for last minute buys. 

The broadcast kicked off with Todd Pettengill and Doc Hendrix standing by the entrance in all their tuxedo-clad glory, one of the nice little touches the company used to do to remind us all that this was no average show. Taking a few moments to tell us about all the goodies we'd see in this half-hour commercial, Todd and Doc then passed over to our Free for All commentary team, Vince McMahon and Mr Perfect. 

It's Vader Time

WWF / WWE Royal Rumble 1996: Jim Cornette revealed that he was Vader's new manager

Looking equally as sharp as their broadcast colleagues, Vince and Perfect gave us yet more hype for tonight's show before once again passing back to the former Michael P.S Hayes. Backstage, Doc was standing by with none other than former WCW Champion Vader who, after much fuss and hullaboo, was finally making his debut at tonight's show. 

The big man from the Rocky Mountains wasn't alone, however. None other than Jim Cornette was there too. As excitable and obnoxious as ever, Jimmy raved to Hendrix about how thrilled he was to be managing Vader and just how much joy he was going to take in seeing the Mastadon win first the Royal Rumble and then the WWF Championship.

For his part, the debuting Superstar screamed about the power of the Rocky Mountains and told us that it was indeed Vader Time.

Oh Vader, what might have been...

Jake The Snake returns 

WWF / WWE Royal Rumble 1996: Jake 'The Snake' Roberts competed in the Royal Rumble match

With that, it was back to Todd Pettingill, who had an interview with a returning Jake 'The Snake' Roberts. Unlike most wrestlers at this time of year, Roberts didn't exactly boast that he'd win the Royal Rumble but simply said that the demons in the ring that night would not be quite as big as the demons in Mr The Snake himself. 


There's a title match tonight, y'know 

In case you hadn't quite figured it out yet, another one of those WWF video packages was up next to remind us that Bret Hart would defend his title against The Undertaker on tonight's show. In his familiar role as voice-over man, Pettingill took us back to the December 1995 In Your House show, where Undertaker was named the number one contender, much to the chagrin of another former champion, Big Daddy Cool Diesel. 

The story also contained a clip from a Monday Night Raw promo by The Hitman, where he told his opponent to bring 'The Paul Bearer,' making this writer wonder if that's not where The Brian Kendrick drew the inspiration for the latter part of his own WWE run. 

Hunter Hearst Helmsley vs. Duke 'The Dumpster' Droese 

WWF / WWE Royal Rumble 1996: Triple H faced Duke 'The Dumpster' Droese in the Free for All

As Hunter Hearst Helmsley began making his way to the ring, he was interrupted by the apparently omnipresent Todd Pettengill, who took the trouble to remind him -and us- of the reason for tonight's match:

Earlier on in the evening, both men had drawn 'blanks' in the Royal Rumble draw (uh huh), and conveniently, numbers 2-29 had been taken up by the other superstars. So, tonight, The Greenwich Snob and The Dumpster would -ahem- duke it out to see which one would enter the Royal Rumble at number one and which would get the coveted number 30 spot. 

Among other things, Helmsley guaranteed a victory before telling Todd to inform 'The Fat Lady' that she was 'on in five.' 

A second later, Duke Droese made his entrance and Vince McMahon positively lost his mind, selling the wrestling garbage man's arrival like he was Hogan's second coming. 

Pettingill took the time to interview Duke, too, though all we really got out of this was the predictable 'I'm going tow in, then win the Rumble' promo. 

WWF / WWE Royal Rumble 1996: Todd Pettengill interviews Hunter Hearst Helmsley

As for the match itself, it was, well, it was Hunter Hearst Helmsley vs. Duke Drosse on a pre-show. If you were expecting a five-star classic here, it's probably time you started retaking your medication. 

In front of a rather non-plus crowd (many of whom were still filing in as the match went on), Hunter and Duke did nothing particularly interesting in a short match where the only notable moment was Mr Perfect referring to Hunter as Triple H for the first time (at least on PPV). 

The end came when Helmsley pulled a foreign object out of his tights, levelled the garbage man with it, and picked up the win. 

Moments later, new WWF President Gorilla Monsoon made his way to the ring, showed referee Tim White what had gone down via the video screen, and had Mr White reverse the decision.

And I'm sure this is the same Monsoon who, at some point during his presidential tenure, decreed that all referee's decisions would be final.
Your Winner via disqualification: Duke 'The Dumpster' Droese. 

So there you go folks, Duke Drosse was the number 30 entrant in the 1996 Royal Rumble. Not only that, but by winning, he was also the first man in the WWE to gain a victory over Triple H. 

Anyway, moving on, we got more promo stuff next, this time focusing on the rivalry between Goldust and Intercontinental Champion Razor Ramon. If you recall, this all revolved around Goldie becoming so infatuated with The Bad Guy that Razor turned up 'unannounced' at Raw and beat the holy living hell out of the man better known as Dustin Rhodes. 

Shawn Michaels returns to the WWF 

WWF / WWE Royal Rumble 1996: Shawn Michaels having fun with Todd Pettengill

Having been AWOl since Owen Hart took him out of action with that famous enzeguri in one of the most dramatic worked injury angles ever, The Heartbreak Kid Shawn Michaels finally returned tonight in an interview segment with quel surprise, Todd Pettengill.

Refusing to tell Todd what number he'd drawn for tonight's Rumble, HBK insisted that he would come out 'when [he] wanted' and would only leave after he'd eliminated everybody. Taking the time to reference the WWF fans as his 'clique' (in a not-so-subtle nod to his backstage buddies no doubt), Shawn then declared that he didn't care who his friends were. He'd throw them all over the top rope to get his hands on the WWF title. 

Hunter is mad 

WWF / WWE Royal Rumble 1996: Shawn Michaels was happy to be back in action

From there, we went backstage, where Triple H ranted and raved to Doc Hendrix about how unfair it was that Gorilla Monsoon had reversed the decision in the former's earlier match with Duke Droese. Returning to the replay once more, Hunter claimed that the foreign object was something the fans had thrown into the ring and he was trying to get rid of. 

Welcome to the Royal Rumble!

My own copy of this show goes funky for a minute, as I get a clip of some posh people beating each other up without any audio, proceeded by a bizarre clip of Sunny in a bathtub, informing us that today's show would feature 'scenes of a graphic nature.' 

Another promo video (this time not voiced by Pettengill), then hyped the big matches on tonight's show before the usual pyro, crowd shot, and Vince McGrowl welcomed us to the show properly. 

With that out of the way, it was on to our first proper match of the show. 

Double J Jeff Jarrett vs. Ahmed Johnson 

If you recall, this rivalry began at last month's In Your House: Seasons Beatings, when Jeff Jarrett returned to the World Wrestling Federation and took it upon himself to beat up the burly Ahmed Johnson with his guitar. 

Hungry for revenge, Johnson rushed to the ring and went straight after his opponent,  pummeling him around the ring, much to the delight of the Fresno faithful. 

Ahmed's beat down continued until a mistimed spot saw the Pearl River Powerhouse voluntarily throw himself over the top rope and get his hand stuck in a sort of half-arsed tribute to Andre The Giant. No doubt there's an episode of Botchamania out there with this very moment on it. 

Anyway, the blown spot gave Jarrett the opportunity to take the advantage for a while before Ahmed no-sold his way to a comeback and thrilled the crowd with both an impressive-looking plancha and some kind of top-rope somersault move that he ultimately missed, giving us no real indication of what he was aiming for, other than to simply just squash his opponent. 

The missed move caused Ahmed to writhe on the mat holding his knee, which of course, was the perfect set-up for Jarrett's patent-disputed figure four leg lock, The big man reversed the hold, so Jarrett tried again, only to be booted through the ropes for his troubles. Having just about had enough, the country star grabbed his trusty six-string, leapt off the ropes, and KO'd Johnson with it, giving us our second DQ in as many matches.
Your Winner via DQ: Ahmed Johnson

Pissed off, Johnson started running backstage in pursuit of his rival, only to either run out of steam or simply forget that he was still on camera and slowed to a stroll as he went through the curtain.

Promo time 

WWF / WWE Royal Rumble 1996: The Smoking Gunns talk about their title defence against The Body Donnas

First up, a moustache-free Billy Gunn and his still hirsute brother Bart cut a lifeless, awkward promo backstage where they vowed to retain the WWF Tag Team titles against The Body Donnas. 

From there, the ever-present Pettingill caught up with Big Daddy Cool, who claimed he would have the time of his life in tonight's show. Diesel then put over Shawn Michaels and Vader and even insisted that he wasn't personally annoyed with The Undertaker but rather his position as the Number One Contender. 

World Wrestling Federation Tag Team Championship
WWF Tag Team Champions The Smoking Gunns (Billy & Bart Gunn) vs. The Body Donnas (Skip & Zip w/ Sunny)

Easily the best match on the card up to this point, the WWF Tag Team Championship match between the cowboys and the fitness freaks was as entertaining as you could hope for from a mid-90s WWF tag match,

Fast-paced for the most part, with a brief of amount of lag during the 'heels cut off the babyface' spot, it was fun from start to finish, and did a great job in making the Body Donnas look awesome despite their somewhat silly gimmick. 

WWF / WWE Royal Rumble 1996: Sunny led Skip and Zip into action against The Smoking Gunns for the WWF Tag Team Titles

Indeed, the tandem of Chris Candido and Tom Pritchard could have easily gone on to become one of the most memorable teams in the company's history had they come along at a different point in time. Alas, they were here now, and almost looked certain to score a win before a sneaky roll-up gave the three count to the champions.
Your Winners and Still Tag Team Champions: The Smoking Gunns 

Afterwards, Skip, Zip and Sunny through a bit of a temper tantrum in the ring before Vince told us that we were about to see something which he claimed was 'very popular' but which history absolutely proves otherwise. 

Billionaire Ted, The Huckster and the Nacho Man

You remember these skits, right? The WWF's low-brow attempt at making fun of a WCW that would go on to kick their ass for a sizeable chunk of the mid-late 90s. Featuring 'Billionaire Ted' Turner and two supposedly geriatric wrestlers in the form of The Huckster (or Hulk Hogan) and the Nacho Man (or the late Randy Savage), the idea behind these was to say 'hey, look, that other wrestling company can only get washed up old has-beens..let's just forget that both men held our top prize only three and four years ago respectively.' 

WWF / WWE Royal Rumble 1996: The Nacho Man from the WWF's 'Billionaire Ted' skits

In the particular skit, Vince's witty script took a particularly harsh dig at Savage. Ted claimed that he could only get wrestlers who were 'disloyal' before the camera panned straight on Nacho. After that, Ted claimed he wanted to buy up some of the WWF's top stars, with the joke apparently being that haha, he could never do that. 

As we all know, the joke would ultimately be on the World Wrestling Federation. Just a few short months from now, WCW would see the debuts of two of the WWF's biggest stars, one of whom features in our next match.

A word from Razor Ramon

After the same promo/hype video we got earlier on in the Free For All, we went backstage to a Colliseum Home Video exclusive interview with The Bad Guy.

Dressed in street clothes and looking like he'd either just woken up or was still drunk, Razor reminded us that this was his fourth Royal Rumble appearance, despite never actually appearing in the eponymous match itself. At the 1993 Royal Rumble, he challenged Bret Hart for the WWF Title. The following year, he defended the Intercontinental Championship against I.R.S. 95 and saw the same title on the line in his match with Jeff Jarrett, and now, in what would ultimately be his last Royal Rumble appearance as Razor Ramon, Scott Hall was once again competing in singles competition against Goldust.
WWF / WWE Royal Rumble 1996: Scott Hall gave a pre-match promo before facing Goldust

All Goldie had to do, said Razor, was come down and take his 'Gold belt' if he wanted it. Not that Razor really thought he could. There was only one way to find out for sure though

World Wrestling Federation Intercontinental Championship match:
WWF Intercontinental Champion Razor Ramon vs. Goldust (w/ Marlena)

Notable not only for being Razor's last Royal Rumble match, but also for the debut of Marlena, this one probably won't be remembered for any other reason, with the possible exception of the finish.

Wrapping up his WWF career, Razor spent the first minute or two of this match simply watching Goldust touch hmself up, before finally going on the attack and attempting to wrench the challenger's arm from its socket. More stalling followed, making for a slow,boring start to a bout that rarely -if ever- picked up steam.

WWF / WWE Royal Rumble 1996: Goldust challenged Razor Ramon for the WWF Intercontinental Championship

Indeed most of the early part of this match was all about reminding us how 'weird' (sub-text: 'slightly homosexual') Golust was and how angry that made the Intercontinental Champion. A minute or two of this would have been fine, still boring perhaps, but acceptable given the storyline. Instead, it seemed to go on forever, with the bout only getting anywhere near exciting when the action spilt to the outside, and the challenger turned up the aggression.

Yet even then, this match didn't really deliver, and this writer was grateful when 123 Kid ran in towards the finish, thwarting a Ramon comeback attempt and enabling Goldust to get the three count, the victory, and the Intercontinental Championship.
Your Winner and NEW Intercontinental Champion: Goldust 

Prior to the big battle royal, we got some more pre-recorded comments. First up, Shawn Michaels' doctor told us that though HBK was fit and ready to go, he was concerned about the wrestler making his comeback against 29 other dudes. Don't worry, though, folks. The good doctor promised to be at ringside lest the worst should happen.

WWF / WWE Royal Rumble 1996: Vince McMahon and Mr. Perfect were our commentators for the show

Speaking of The Heartbreak Kid, the man who initially took him out of action, Owen Hart, was up next. The King of Harts promised to end Michaels' career 'Like [Owen] should've done the first time' en route to winning that year's Rumble match.

Jake the Snake was back to talk about his demons some more, Jerry 'The King' Lawler promised to win simply because he was loyal, and Barry Horrowitz, of all people, gave his thoughts too. Not as cocksure as the others, Horrowitz claimed he was 'Confident and Happy' before reminding us of the WWF's favourite mantra 'Anything can happen in the World Wrestling Federation.' 

For his part, Vader headbutted some lockers, after which Shawn Michaels once again vowed that he was going all the way.

Royal Rumble match:
30-Man Battle Royal featuring: Hunter Hearst Helmsley, Shawn Michaels, Diesel, Vader, Jake 'The Snake' Roberts, Dory Funk, Mabel, Yokozuna, Tatanka, Owen Hart, Bob Holly, The Ringmaster, The British Bulldog, Marty Jannetty, and more.

And so, following a few moments in which Vince McMahon and Mr Perfect took the trouble to remind us of the rules, it was down to the famous Royal Rumble match itself. 

Having taken the trouble to get dressed again and brush his hair following his earlier battle with Duke Droese, Hunter Hearst Helmsley entered first, his number sealed by the outcome of that aforementioned Free for All bout. 

And the number two entrant? 

Helmsley's old rival, Henry O. Godwin

Picking up where they left off, the two sworn enemies went right to work, beating the hell out of each other, the pig farmer taking the early advantage and threatening to eliminate the future WWE Champion on several occasions. 

Presidential candidate and then-current record holder for the longest time spent in a Royal Rumble match, Bob Backlund, was our third entrant, followed by entrant number four, Jerry Lawler, who provided the first moment of genuine entertainment in this match by getting himself slopped. 

After several more minutes of somewhat lifeless action -during which time we also saw Bob Holly and King Mabel enter the fray- Jake Roberts made his way out and caused the entire cast of the match to scarper through the ropes by, -ahem- getting his snake out. 

Other highlights of the 1996 Royal Rumble included:

  • Jerry Lawler spending the bulk of the match in hiding, only to be dragged out by Shawn Michaels and eliminated,
  • Cameos from Dory Funk Jr, Takao Omori, Doug Gilbert (who absolutely nobody recognised) and The Headhunters (or SWAT Team, as the WWE called them)
  • Razor Ramon seeking revenge against the 123 Kid by chasing him around the ring
  • A big showdown between Cornette's two behemoths, Yokozuna and Vader, before both men were eliminated by HBK
  • Vader getting pissed off and returning to clear the ring
  • Steve, 'The Ringmaster' Austin, making his WWF PPV debut
  • A fun exchange between former Rockers partners Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty
Between such sub-par highlights, we were subjected to one of the most tedious Rumble matches this writer can recall. A slow, sluggish, nothing-happening match taking us all the way to our final four between Shawn Michaels, Diesel, Davey Boy Smith and Kama.

A short while later, Michaels threw out The Bulldog, Diesel got rid of Kama, and The Heartbreak Kid picked up his second Royal Rumble victory in a row by superkicking his best friend out of the ring. 
Your Winner: Shawn Michaels 

As Michaels celebrated, Diesel took out his frustrations by laying into the British Bulldog before telling Doc Hendrix that the only reason Shawn Michaels had won was that he -Big Daddy Cool- allowed it. The former champion then returned to the ring, where, after teasing some hostility with Michaels, he raised his hand high in the air for the duo's famous hi-five gimmick.

With that done, there was only one thing left on the show.Yes, folks, the main event. 

World Wrestling Federation Championship match
WWF Champion Bret 'The Hitman' Hart vs. The Undertaker (w/ Paul Bearer)

The best match your reviewer ever saw live in person was also a championship match between The Hitman and The Undertaker. It was at the September 1997 One Night Only Pay Per View in Birmingham, England, 

WWF / WWE Royal Rumble 1996: The Undertaker challenged Bret Hart for the WWF Championship

That match was awesome. This one, not so much.

For a moment there, it almost looked like it wouldn't take place at all.

Making his way to the ring, the challenger was confronted by a still upset Diesel, the two men coming to blows in a move that would build up to their eventual match at Wrestlemania 12. 

Once firmly in the ring, The Undertaker awaited the arrival of champion Bret Hart, who Vince McMahon informed us was appearing at his 43rd WWF PPV. If you're interested, you can read reviews of every single one of those 43 events here on Retro Pro Wrestling.

That aside, this turned out to be the best match of the Undertaker's WWF run up to this point. Having spent the past four-and-a-bit years usually battling big, beastly bad guys in some of the worst matches of the early-mid 1990s, this was The Phenom's chance to show that he really could wrestle if given half the chance. 

That said, this certainly wasn't Bret's finest hour. Despite being far superior to a lot of what we'd see that year, this was mostly a slow, plodding affair that threatened to send the crowd to sleep on several occasions. 

The amount of time both champ and challenger spent in some kind of leglock on the matt killed the momentum, and it took all their efforts to engage the audience leading into the home stretch. 

Speaking of which, this one ended when, just as he was about to score his second WWF Championship, The Undertaker was attacked by Diesel, giving him the win via DQ, but not the title. 
Your Winner via Disqualification: The Undertaker (Bret Hart retains the title)

And so we reach the end of the Royal Rumble for another year. As odd as this may sound, my favourite match on this show was the tag team championship bout. It was short enough not to drag on, yet long enough to make each time look good. Elsewhere, there's not an awful lot to write home about. For all intents and purposes, this whole show was designed to solidify Shawn Michaels' reputation as the new Top Dog, whilst simultaneously building tension for a Diesel/Undertaker showdown. 

Both of these things would play out much better over the next few months, making this event just a minor footnote in the history of the World Wrestling Federation. 

For more 1996 reviews, see:

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  1. In 1993 the whole roster couldn't eliminate Yokk but in 1996 it took little HBK to do it all by himself? Huh?