WWF Royal Rumble 1998 Review feat. Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker

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WWF Royal Rumble 1998

WWF Royal Rumble 1998 came at a pivotal time for the company. The Attitude Era was in its early stages, and while there were still elements of the New Generation within the product, it felt more and more like we were heading into a totally unforeseen direction for the Federation. Leading the charge was Stone Cold Steve Austin, who would take another large step towards super-stardom on this show, and 24 hours later, he would take a giant leap towards legendary status in an unforgettable angle involving Iron Mike Tyson, who was a guest at this event (and was hilariously booed when shown on-camera). However, Royal Rumble 1998 is remembered mostly for something that wasn’t supposed to occur, and which would ultimately impact the WWF and one of its top performers greatly.

Vader vs. The Artist Formerly Known As Goldust

Kicking off Royal Rumble 1998, we had the most bizarre version yet of Goldust; Dustin Runnels’ character had taken “shocking” to new extremes by losing his identity and donning numerous baffling costumes. Here, he donned a green-and-blue body singlet with a green wig, accompanied by the equally-maniacal Luna Vachon and with a remixed theme song that is one of the low-key coolest wrestling entrance themes ever (at least if you can ignore the intervening chimes of … well, I don’t know what to call the audible pollution to one’s ears). As for Vader, he had lost some steam in the WWF, but he was still over as evidenced here, and he could still put on a good match when motivated. This was one such occasion, as both men worked hard to start the show off with a bang. And that was achieved based on the finish: the 450-pounder went up for the Vader Bomb, only for Vachon to jump onto his back; undeterred, however, the Mastadon still dropped and squashed TAFKAG while also sending Luna flying in a finishing sequence that was lapped up big-time by the San Jose, California crowd.

Six-Man Tag Team Match; Sunny is Special Guest Referee
Max Mini, Mosaic & Nova vs. Battalion, El Torito & Tarantula

This was the swansong for the WWF’s mini’s division, which had appeared on a number of PPVs in late 1997 as well as occasional Raw episodes. Max Mini was the most popular by far, and his skills were very impressive for a man of his dimensions, so it’s a shame that we never got to see him again after this (besides the time when Mankind “bought” him in early 1999; the Attitude Era, folks). This also marked the final major WWF appearance for Sunny, whose tenure had seen her become the company’s most appealing female star for a while, until her profile was gradually phased down throughout ’97. As for the bout itself, it was light-hearted comedy and inoffensive, though the moment when Sunny struggled to leap-frog one of the Mini’s was unintentionally priceless. Max scored the pinfall win; I should mention, incidentally, that the performer named El Torito here was not the same as El Torito from 2013-2015, just to make things more confusing.

WWF Intercontinental Championship Match
Rocky Maivia (C) vs. Ken Shamrock

Although he had begun using the nickname The Rock here and there, officially the reigning IC Champ was still named Rocky Maivia, so that’s the moniker I will use here. His opponent at Royal Rumble 1998 was The World’s Most Dangerous Man, who was in the early stages of a long rivalry with The Nation Of Domination’s most popular performer. This, of course, meant a controversial finish, though it was played out effectively: after a nice back-and-forth contest, the referee was toppled, allowing Rocky to retrieve brass knuckles from his trunks and clock Shamrock with them; notably, he placed them inside Ken’s trunks. This was important because Ken kicked out, belly-to-belly suplexed Rocky and pinned him to seemingly win the title, only for Maivia to insist to referee Mike Chioda that Ken had actually whacked him with said knucks. Chioda searched in Ken’s pants (aye aye) and found the object, so he believed Maivia and reversed the decision, giving Rocky a win via disqualification. Afterwards, an irate Shamrock attacked the official and trapped him in the Ankle Lock; though it wasn’t featured on PPV, a home video exclusive showed Shamrock attacking Rocky again backstage later on, with Maivia turning the air blue when defending himself.

WWF World Tag Team Championship Match
The New Age Outlaws (C) vs. The Legion Of Doom

A rematch from the previous month’s D-Generation X: In Your House event, this saw Road Dogg Jesse James and Badd Ass Billy Gunn (now with an official team title) defend against the legendary LOD, whose heads they had partially shaved with help from DX on Raw a few weeks prior. This seemed to suggest that Hawk and Animal would capture the belts here, but that wasn’t to be the case: although Hawk was handcuffed to the ropes, Animal held his own and almost had the gold within his grasp, Road Dogg blasted him with a chair, thus causing the second DQ finish in a row and the second controversial ending to an Outlaws-LOD match in as many PPVs (amazingly, their third supershow clash at Unforgiven three months later also ended in a dodgy manner). The match wasn’t very good, either; in fact, it was pretty poor, making this the low point of the PPV so far. For those who are wondering, when fans discuss 1998 as being a classic year in the WWF, it is largely related to the characters and their related angles, storylines and catch phrases, and certainly not about matches like this. Fortunately, this show was about to turn a corner.

Royal Rumble Match

That’s because the eleventh annual Rumble match was about to go down. The build-up to this was dominated by Stone Cold Steve Austin taking out more than a dozen wrestlers in the preceding Raws with the mindset of doing unto others before they could do unto him. This continued into the PPV itself, with The Nation looking for Steve only to find a foam middle finger, and with Los Boricuas plotting to take out Austin when they found him alone, and they thought they had succeeded, only to then realise that they had destroyed Skull of the Disciples Of Apocalypse instead, which drew the ire of the DOA. All of this made Austin the clear favourite to win the Rumble; some would say he was the only possible contender to win, which could detract from the drama of the match, but it worked because fans were so heavily in favour of Stone Cold. Besides, the WWF had some tricks up its sleeve to ensure that this contest wouldn’t merely be a procession for Austin 3:16.

Indeed, madcap mates Cactus Jack and Chainsaw Charlie started the Royal Rumble 1998 match, similar to how Demolition began the 1989 Rumble. But whereas they slugged it out and nothing more, here both hardcore legends exchanged increasingly-violent weapon blows, which included some cranium-crushing chairshots. Tom Brandi was virtually thrown out immediately upon entry, but Rocky Maivia did halt the insanity for a moment, though not before having a trash can placed over his head (I should mention that this was another Rumble where certain competitors would wrestle twice in one night, in a tradition that lasted for four years in total, which is longer than I had remembered). From there, the match began to take on a more traditional Rumble form with entrants like Headbanger Mosh, Phineas Godwinn, Eight-Ball of DOA and Bradshaw. Just before the arrival of the future JBL, Cactus went to hit Chainsaw with his signature clothesline, but ended up going out to the floor (wouldn’t he have eliminated himself anyway even if he had caught Charlie?).

Number nine was Owen Hart, and we randomly got a shot of Mike Tyson celebrating his arrival, but he would be enraged (well, mildly irked) when Jeff Jarrett (then representing an NWA revival within the WWF, which is worthy of its own article due to the craziness of it in the context of the Attitude Era) attacked him in the aisleway, flanked by Jim Cornette to boot. They weren’t feuding at the time, and wouldn’t feud in the future, making this quite random. Nothing much happened as Steve Blackman and D’Lo Brown (the second of five NOD members in the bout) increased the amount of bodies going at it at a fairly slow pace, before we got a difference-maker in Kurrgan at #12. Think of Braun Strowman but slightly thinner, a little bit taller, and with less wrestling talent, and you get the former Interrogator. Led by The Jackyl (current Impact Wrestling main man and announcer Don Callis), Kurrgan played the role of the monster who helps to clears the ring, as he eliminated Mosh and Blackman, while also doing damage to other competitors. In the meantime, Marc Mero drew #13, accompanied by Sable who was in the process of replacing Sunny as the WWF’s biggest female star (as evidenced by the huge pop she got here), and because the tone of the product was becoming more mature, she would be able to sexualise herself in a way that Sunny was not able to in the WWF.

Ken Shamrock came out at #14, as arguably the first entrant since Maivia who could lay claim to having even the slightest chance of winning the Rumble, and as pushed upper mid-card babyfaces tend to do, he ensured the most notable elimination of the match so far as he targeted Kurrgan, which led to him and a bunch of other wrestlers throwing Kurrgan out to the floor. Number fifteen was Headbanger Thrasher, with Shamrock and Maivia continuing their battle from earlier in the show. The sixteenth entrant was Mankind, and … wait, Mankind? Yep, Mick Foley was making a second pitch to win the contest, and with Cactus Jack having already gone, it was now the masked man’s opportunity to try and outlast everybody else. That said, his only target was Chainsaw, and Mankind got revenge for, erm, himself by dispatching of the real-life Terry Funk. Goldust came in at #17 (wearing an alternative and arguably more provocative silver attire than he had earlier) and, with surprising ease, he eliminated Mankind. Surely Mick Foley’s master plan had failed?

Jeff Jarrett came out at #18, but no sooner had he hit the ring when Owen Hart finally came out to enter the Rumble proper, and Double J was eliminated shortly thereafter to conclude perhaps the Rumble’s most random angle. A more eyebrow-raising occurrence followed as Rocky tossed Shamrock to the floor, meaning that with Ken gone, there seemed to be now only one babyface who had even the most minute chance of winning this Rumble. The Honky Tonk Man was #19 (HTM had appeared throughout 1997, but this was a one-off in-ring return for Honky), who was followed (unintentionally apparently, though it seemed like there was some sort of link) by Triple H (on crutches) and Chyna. Their target from ringside was Owen Hart: after distracting Owen enough for The Rocket to flip them off, HHH found his way onto the apron and whacked Owen with one of his crutches, sending him out of the match. Unlike the Jarrett involvement, this did lead somewhere, all the way to a European Championship match at WrestleMania in fact. Still, Owen’s night would get worse, because as he went through the curtain to chase off DX, he tripped, which had Jerry Lawler laughing as only he can.

Ahmed Johnson at #20 was interesting because, to many fans, Ahmed was yesterday’s news, despite being very popular as recently as spring 1997. But he had still limited mileage left, though he would disappear from the WWF for good little over a month later. Mark Henry entered at #21, having joined the Nation fairly recently, and it was Henry teaming up with D’Lo which led to Ahmed falling to the floor. Then we had another interesting Rumble trait: the non-existent entry, where the buzzer goes off but nobody appears. On commentary, Jerry Lawler managed to convince Jim Ross that someone had in fact succeeded at taking out Steve Austin, but the live crowd weren’t aware of this, so they had to speculate as to what had happened. In the meantime, Kama Mustafa came out at #23 and shoved Ahmed hard as he came out, which made me laugh. It’s worth mentioning that despite the potential evidence to the contrary, there hadn’t been that many eliminations up to this point, which meant that the ring was fairly full, and with four Nation members amongst the field (though Mark trimmed things slightly by removing Phineas from the bout, with Godwinn thumping referee Jack Doan in the head by accident as he tumbled out). All of which set the stage for number 24 …

Stone Cold Steve Austin!

The Texas Rattlesnake’s music hit and the crowd went banana, plus the ring itself stopped to await Austin’s arrival. But Stone Cold was ahead of the curve, coming in from behind via the crowd and battling his way through the field, throwing out Mero and Eight-Ball (who somehow lasted over half an hour) to continue another great Rumble tradition of a top babyface clearing house upon their appearance. Henry Godwinn was #25, but more notable was Savio Vega at #26, because the entire faction of Los Boricuas came out to attack Austin, though Stone Cold managed to hold his own. Faarooq at #27 allowed every Nation member to be involved as we headed towards the finish, though fans reacted louder to Dude Love at #28. Oww, have mercy! Yes, Dude Love marked Mick Foley’s third crack at the top prize, but would he succeed? As Rocky and Austin battled out to the floor having gone through the ropes (after Rock hit an early version of the People’s Elbow on D’Lo, with The Nation having decided to battle each other for a chance to triumph) and Dude threw out Bradshaw (meaning that all three of Mick’s personas sealed at least one elimination on the night), the final two consisted of DOA’s Chainz at #29, and Vader at #30.

This meant that with all thirty wrestlers having made their arrival (well, twenty-nine, since Skull proved to be the absentee entrant from earlier, though we were never told this officially), fourteen of them remained in the contest. This meant that it was time for almost everybody to be sent flying one-by-one, so I’ll cover this rapid fire. Faarooq eliminated D’Lo (ha!), Vader dispatched of Honky, and Austin dumped Thrasher, Kama and then Savio. Goldust got some revenge from earlier by tossing Vader, Dude threw out Henry Godwinn, Chainz somehow managed to eliminate TAFKAG, and he was rewarded by being thrown out by Stone Cold. Faarooq claimed his second Nation member by eliminating Mark Henry (in storyline, Faarooq was unaware of the Rocky-Henry deal to have Mark join The Nation), which led to the final four, as Austin and Dude temporarily reformed their alliance against The Nation’s two top men. Austin then turned on Love before tasting a Mandible Claw, but The Nation broke it up, which led to Faarooq throwing out Dude. Which meant that Mick Foley’s super scheme had failed; in three attempts, he was still unable to win the Rumble, but he did pull off an angle that may never be repeated, and hasn’t been 22 years on as I write this. Rocky then threw out Faarooq, continuing tensions within The Nation, which gave us Austin and Rock as the last two men in the Royal Rumble 1998 match.

Rocky caught Austin with strong punches before tasting some of his own from Austin. Stone Cold then threw Rocky over the top rope, but Maivia held on and went back in, only to taste a Stone Cold Stunner (a rare Stunner which Austin set up via a left-footed kick to the gut), and Austin then eliminated Rocky proper to win the Rumble to a massive cheer. This made Austin a two-time Rumble victor, but this time, he felt and was received as the WWF Champion in waiting, having already become the most popular wrestler in the company. His triumph was never in doubt, but it was also the only logical outcome, and Austin was now en route to main eventing WrestleMania XIV, where he would win his first WWF Title and officially take the torch as The Guy. In a post-match interview, Tyson excitedly discussed Austin’s win, where he infamously called him “Cold Stone”, with no other hint at the incredible pull-apart angle that would take place between Mike and Steve the next night on Raw, arguably the biggest Raw moment ever. One last point from an entertaining if at times uneventful Rumble: how crazy is it that Austin and Rocky would only jointly participate in one more Rumble, and it was Kane, not Rock, who joined Austin amongst the final two that year (2001)? Still, Rock did play a major role in Austin’s elimination the following year, which we’ll discuss when reviewing Rumble ’99.

WWF Championship Casket Match
Shawn Michaels (C) vs. The Undertaker

By any other standard, this would be a strong main event for Royal Rumble 1998. But compared to their previous and subsequent PPV clashes, this was just adequate, which demonstrates the high bar raised by the Michaels-Taker conflict. Shawn had DX compadres Triple H and Chyna at ringside, which allowed for some interference to maintain an advantage for the Heartbreak Kid. That being said, Taker still fought hard and kept his chances of grabbing the WWF gold here alive, despite taking a bunch of powder to the eyes and even after tasting a piledriver on the steel stairs. At one point, both guys actually fought into the casket themselves, which led to the memorable spot of Shawn being dragged back into the coffin by his demonic opponent. Showcasing his rebellious attitude, after dropping The Dead Man with Sweet Chin Music, HBK stood open-legged over the casket and crotch chopped his adversary (careful), but in doing so, Shawn took a hand around the throat. This led to Undi’ dominating, which culminated in a forgotten gem of a Casket Match moment, that being a Tombstone Piledriver into the box. This then led to The New Age Outlaws and Los Boricuas running out to attack Taker, in a call-back to Undertaker’s battle with Yokozuna in a Casket bout at Royal Rumble 1994. Unlike that night, though, Taker was about to get some help – or so we thought.

Kane came out and helped Taker to pummel the heels, continuing the idea that the brothers were now aligned together, despite Kane having targeted Taker upon his debut (when Undi refused to fight him, Kane eventually decided to help Undi’ fight off DX on Raw). However, it was time for a SWERVE, BRO! Kane turned around and assaulted Taker, culminating with a Chokeslam into the container (which Shawn had now exited), allowing Michaels to win. Kane wasn’t done, though; with Paul Bearer at his side, Kane pushed the casket up the aisleway, pounded the box (aye aye) with an axe, and then poured gasoline on it before, with Bearer providing the lighter, setting the casket on fire! Jim Ross let out a timeless call of “The casket’s on fire! The casket’s on fire! The Undertaker is in the casket!” Apparently, this would have finished Taker off for good, but because he has magical powers (well we have to assume so, since the WWF/WWE have never fully explained it), Undertaker would return on March 2 and finally accept Kane’s challenge to battle him at WrestleMania XIV. Surprisingly, though, this wasn’t the moment that everybody remembers Royal Rumble 1998 for.

Nope, instead it was the seemingly innocuous moment when Taker back-dropped Shawn over the top rope onto the edge of the casket. What appeared to be a basic bump would end up causing Shawn such pain that he was advised to retire immediately. As WWF Champion and with a massive WrestleMania match on the horizon, though, Shawn was able to rehab just enough and “gut it out” just enough to make it through WM XIV, though there were speed-bumps along the way (as I will explain in my WrestleMania XIV review). After that, Shawn didn’t wrestle again until 2002, but he eventually was able to wrestle on a regular basis again, and towards the end of the Noughties, he resumed hostilities with Undertaker, with Taker eventually retiring him for good (sans Crown Jewel 2018). But this incident led to the in-ring removal of one of the WWF’s biggest stars; fortunately for Vince McMahon and company, the Attitude Era had caught on well enough that the Federation didn’t miss a beat.

The first half of WWF Royal Rumble 1998 ranges from acceptable to frustrating, but the second half is well worth watching. The Rumble match is exciting and is a unique capture of the latter stage of the transition between the New Generation and the Attitude Era with a very popular result, whilst the main event has some notable moments, a memorable post-match angle and an unexpected place in wrestling history based on Shawn’s injury. There are better WWF shows to watch from the year, but Royal Rumble 1998 is still one of the better events from that iconic year.