January 25, 2012

The magic of the Royal Rumble.

Pro wrestling is for children.

Perhaps not like the cartoonish 1980s and early 1990s were, but the amateurish acting and simplistic storylines should make this clear to anyone over the age of 15. It's a fun bit of entertainment to overanalyze, especially if you're a long-time fan who understands how its backstage politics work, but I find it difficult to sit through even an entire episode of Monday Night Raw without scoffing and reaching for the remote. Perhaps that's why my roommate has perfected the "15-minute Raw," a masterfully navigated fast-forwarding of all the awful-looking segments and matches.

To me, though, the one thing that'll always cut through the treacle is the spectacle. The big, flashy events that, through either hype or history, seem a little more special. Unfortunately, beyond WrestleMania (which offers very little distinction and rarely lives up to the hype anyway) the WWE doesn't do spectacle like they used to.

Once upon a time there was the King of the Ring tournament, which typically featured eight to 16 wrestlers battling it out for a sort of nebulous supremacy. Whoever was dubbed "king" at the end of the night would often adopt some royalty-themed gimmick and occasionally earn a title shot at SummerSlam. It was a great way to turn a mid-carder into a main eventer, memorably perfected by "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. And, as WrestleMania IV and March Madness have proven, everyone loves tournaments.

And then there was the Survivor Series, an event that teamed up wrestlers with similar goals (sometimes "us guys hate those guys," other times "we're good and they're bad, let's fight") in eight-man, four-on-four elimination matches. The apex of the Survivor Series occurred early, in 1990, when the heel and face "survivors" all joined forces against each other in a "grand finale" match. The 1995 Survivor Series also featured a memorable Wild Card Match; the two teams featured a "random" mix of heroes and villains, which meant that tensions (and the inevitable double-crosses) were ample.

But all that magic is gone now. The last King of the Ring pay-per-view was in 2002 (though it occasionally resurfaces as a TV-only event of far less acclaim) and the WWE threatened to drop the Survivor Series name entirely in early 2010. It's still around but hasn't focused on strictly Survivor Series-style matches in years.

The Royal Rumble, however, has stood the test of time.

Every year since 1988, a predetermined number of wrestlers -- usually 30 but occasionally 20 or even 40 -- come down to the ring in two-minute intervals and battle for their shot at a championship belt at WrestleMania. Sometimes the finishes (Lex Luger and Bret Hart tying, Shawn Michaels holding onto the top rope) can be truly inspired; in fact, Michaels' victory is the moment when I became a true wrestling fan.

Watching the Royal Rumble is never boring. The traditional matches leading up to it might be subpar, but the main event is always at least an hour of entertaining spots, carefully plotted storyline tweaks and a few surprise entrants (like Booker T and Diesel last year) that enjoyably invoke nostalgia.

It also remains the most effective way to raise a middling wrestler to the top of the charts (which, from a business standpoint, is probably why Vince McMahon and company have kept it around for so long). There was never any real value or reward associated with being named "king," but the Rumble winner is automatically guaranteed a title shot at the biggest pay-per-view of the year. Not only that, but he can claim to have survived the onslaught of his numerous muscular peers; in the wrestling world, this means something.

More than anything, it's different. Wrestling promotions occasionally do battle royals, but not on the scale or scope of the Royal Rumble. This is all your favorite wrestlers, in the ring at almost the same time, competing in a match that comes with a surprising amount of unpredictability.  If there was ever a time to bet on pro wrestling, it's the Rumble; narrowing the winner down to one of four or five guesses is simple, but then it gets hard to choose. There's really no mystery in pro wrestling these days, but you can argue that this particular night in January is the only time that comes close to recapturing it.

Maybe that's what really sets the Rumble apart. From week to week, Raw and SmackDown tend to run together. Most of the monthly pay-per-views are just extended, expensive replicas of their televised companions. There's just one event left with the potential to provide both the nonstop entertainment and peaked curiosity that used to be the industry's bread and butter. Long live the Royal Rumble.

No comments: