WWF Royal Rumble 1991 Review feat. Ultimate Warrior vs. Sgt Slaughter

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WWF Royal Rumble 1991

WWF Royal Rumble 1991 marked a night of firsts for the annual January extravaganza. Hulk Hogan became the first two-time Rumble winner. Randy Savage became the first man to no-show the 30-man match (in storyline, of course). And it held the event’s first WWF Championship match, with a title change to boot. So, there’s plenty to cover in this retro review (side note: I believe this is the first ever wrestling show I watched when Royal Rumble 1991 was repeated on Sky Sports in the UK several months after its original air date), beginning with one hell of an opening match. 

The Rockers vs. The Orient Express

That would be a tag team collision between the team of Marty Jannetty and Shawn Michaels and the combo of Kato and Tanaka. It was a logical and by-the-numbers doubles match in terms of structure, but in terms of action, all four brought their A-game with plenty of creative high spots that blew the minds of fans in 1991; that being said, even when viewing it today, this contest definitely holds up. It’s not unfair to suggest that this was The Rockers’ best ever match in the WWF, and it definitely marked the finest hour from an artistic standpoint for Mr. Fuji’s squad. The Rockers picked up the win, and they did so in a great finishing sequence: Kato sling-shotted Marty into an awaiting Tanaka, but because Michaels struck Tanaka, he was weakened sufficiently for Jannetty to sunset flip and pin him in one fell swoop.

Before the second match at Royal Rumble 1991, in a segment that felt out-of-place in more ways than one, Sensational Queen Sherri joined Mean Gene Okerlund on the interview podium to ask, beg and then attempt to seduce Ultimate Warrior into granting her man, Macho King Randy Savage, a WWF Title shot. Warrior simply barked “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” The seduction aspect was a bit naughty for the family-friendly Federation (as toned-down as it was), and the inclusion of a promo like this on a major event was odd. But my big question is, why did Sherri and Savage think Warrior would finally grant him his much-requested title opportunity when he already had a defence scheduled later on against Sgt. Slaughter?

Big Boss Man vs. The Barbarian

Match number two was part of Boss Man’s pathway through The Heenan Family as a way for him to eventually get to Bobby Heenan himself, due to comments that The Brain had been making at the expense of BBM’s mother. Barbarian was one of those competitors who was fine as a roadblock for a major babyface to mow through, partly because he had enough credibility that he could have potentially been one of the stronger heels in the WWF, had he been pushed accordingly (then again, he bombed as Ron Simmons’ adversary for the WCW Championship in 1992, so maybe not). As expected, the babyface won again here, this time with Boss Man showing some agility by rolling through a Barbarian attack and securing the pin. Match quality was okay, but this was clearly part of a storyline rather than the culmination of one, which incidentally is a common Royal Rumble trait when WrestleMania is a possible destination for an angle to be concluded.

WWF Championship Match
Ultimate Warrior (C) vs. Sgt. Slaughter

Remember Savage being turned down for a chance at Warrior’s title earlier? Well, he was about to make Mr. Ultimate pay the, erm, ultimate price at Royal Rumble 1991. Warrior donned US-themed attire based on his opponent being American traitor Sgt. Slaughter, who had decided to put his full support behind Iraq during the first Gulf War with the United States. Anti-American storylines were nothing new, but this took things further than what fans had seen before considering that an actual conflict was going on, and it involved American hero Slaughter going rogue no less (incidentally, based on recent news, Slaughter may have to beg for his country back again in the near future). All of this meant that Warrior had to win, surely? Wrong: Sherri distracted Warrior and led him into a trap, that being a Randy assault in the aisleway, but that wasn’t the end of it: with the referee’s attention diverted, Savage ran back down and absolutely WHACKED Warrior in the head with his royal sceptre, smashing the object over Warrior’s skull. This led to a weak elbow by Slaughter and the three count, which for some reason was treated as a confusing finish initially. But of course, Slaughter had done it, using the most dodgy methods possible (okay so Savage interfered, but Sgt. wasn’t complaining), and he was the new WWF Champion, which had the crowd booing heavily and Roddy Piper on commentary shouting “Bull!” repeatedly. You wanna talk about heel heat, Slaughter got it here, my friend.

It’s debatable as to whether or not this was the right decision. Actually, scratch that: many people believe this was a poor taste decision, and a way to ensure Hulk Hogan’s next big triumph for Hope and Glory. In hindsight, though, the only other realistic main event option for WrestleMania VII would have been a Hogan-Warrior rematch, which was certainly a possibility, but it would have damaged Warrior a fair amount, considering that he was meant to have taken the torch from Hulk the prior year. Either way, this is what we ended up with, and Savage’s interference led to him leaving the arena in a hurry, as well as the timeless Career match against Warrior at WrestleMania.

The Mountie vs. Koko B. Ware

This is a very random match, even for an all-over-the-place card like Royal Rumble 1991. Mountie was the repacked Jacques Rougeau, steadily building himself momentum for a potential future push, while Koko was the babyface version of The Barbarian, albeit with less credibility: someone for a promising villain to take out, thus boosting the villain with the face not losing too much of his appeal. The upshot is that this is just another bout, and little more than filler to allow the Miami, Florida crowd to cool down after the drama of the previous match. Mountie picked up the win of course, in a bout that was uneventful enough to be left off the home video version entirely (akin to the unexplained exclusion of Harley Race vs. Haku from the Rumble 1989 VHS).

Dusty Rhodes & Dustin Rhodes vs. Ted DiBiase & Virgil

In contrast, this match is very noteworthy. For starters, it culminated a lengthy feud between Dusty and DiBiase, dating back to when Ted “bought” Sapphire at SummerSlam 1990 (yup). It marked Dustin’s first appearance on a PPV event, as well as Virgil’s first in-ring performance (no jokes) on a big stage. Conversely, it also marked Dusty’s WWF swansong, as The American Dream would return to WCW shortly thereafter and focus almost entirely on booking for the remainder of his career, with very occasional in-ring appearances thereafter (he did eventually return to WWE in 2005). And after DiBiase pinned Dusty to claim the slightly surprising win, Ted berated his man Virgil because, in his mind, the bodyguard wasn’t doing enough to justify his position. This had been teased for a while, and so it made for a big moment when Virgil finally snapped and attacked Ted with his own Million Dollar Championship. The crowd pop to this babyface turn was huge! This would set up a WrestleMania showdown, a goal which Royal Rumble 1991 was doing a rather good job of fulfiling.

Royal Rumble Match

Earlier in the show, we had the traditional backstage promos by the combatants, which were fun, though not as memorable as those the year prior nor those of the year after. We also had a chat with Mean Gene and Hulk Hogan to discuss both the Rumble and Slaughter winning the WWF Title, with Hogan tripping over his words as he vowed to take down Slaughter at some point. With all that out of the way, it was time to Rumble!

Bret Hart and Dino Bravo kicked us off (I bet Bret was delighted; he hated working with Bravo), with recently-turned babyface Greg Valentine coming in at #3, having washed the black hair dye away following the demise of his Rhythm & Blues tag team with The Honky Tonk Man (HTM was meant to be in the Rumble but he left the company altogether; Andre The Giant had also originally been announced, but was removed for health reasons. Greg secured the first elimination by throwing out Bravo; Paul Roma of Power & Glory came in at #4, followed by Texas Tornado at #5 and Rick Martel at #6. Next in, we had Saba Simba (Tony Atlas) at #7 and Bushwhacker Butch at #8, with Simba being dumped out by The Model. It might seem like I’m skipping a lot of the match so far, but there isn’t too much to write about so far, and the star power of the first quarter couldn’t come close to matching that of the 1990 Rumble bout.

The mood lifted when Jake Roberts arrived at #9. Jake entered numerous Rumbles, almost all at an early stage, and with many as a way to continue a feud that would culminate at WrestleMania. That trend carried on here as he went straight for The Model, the man who had blinded him with Arrogance on The Brother Love Show months earlier (imagine reading that line out to a non-fan). While Jake and Rick battled in and around the ring, Tito Santana arrived at #11 (Roddy Piper called him “El Matador” on commentary, even though he wouldn’t become a true bull-fighter until the end of the year), while Paul Roma accidentally threw himself out (accidentally on purpose, of course). The Undertaker made his first of many Rumble entrances in the #12 spot, and Taker eliminated both Bret (still a Hart Foundation member here, so a notable moment, but not a massive one) and Butch, as his first WrestleMania victim Jimmy Snuka came in at #13.

The British Bulldog was number fourteen, and it’s interesting to note his presentation here. He’s a singles guy, so no longer was Davey Boy Smith viewed as one half of a tag team with The Dynamite Kid, but he was also a recent returnee, so his overall performance is fascinating as I will explain. Demolition Smash was #15, and unlike the previous two years, the arrival of the now-heel Smash barely made a difference. What did impact things, though, was Martel finding a way to dispatch of Jake (Roberts would also always be eliminated by the guy he was feuding with, never the other way around). Hawk of The Legion Of Doom made his only ever Rumble match entrance at the #16 spot, and at #17 was a fresh-faced Shane Douglas, somehow making it into the Rumble during a very forgotten spell of his career. In the meantime, Taker threw out Tornado, whilst Hawk randomly tossed out fellow babyface Superfly. Number eighteen ended up being a non-entrant, which Gorilla Monsoon and Roddy Piper later explained was meant to have been Randy Savage, marking the first (but not the last) instance of somebody not making it to the ring, effectively making this Rumble a 29-man match.

Animal of The LOD was #19, and we had a rare instance of genuine Rumble teamwork as The Road Warriors worked together to put Undertaker out to a strong reaction. Martel sneaking up to throw out Hawk was a downer for the face-painted powerhouses, though, and by this point, The Model’s performance was even earning the praise of perennial heel-slater Monsoon. Back then, heels were able to establish themselves safe in the knowledge that fans wouldn’t cheer them out of respect, which sadly can’t be said about the wrestling world of 2020. Demolition Crush, Hacksaw Jim Duggan and Earthquake were the next three men to make it into the ring, and Quake at #22 was the most significant because, as one of the WWF’s top villains for the past nine months, he seemed like a strong contender to win the whole thing, especially since the rule of the Rumble winner earning a Mania title shot hadn’t yet been established (also unlike nowadays, where the knowledge of a heel World Champion almost guarantees a babyface triumphing in the Rumble).

Quake marked his arrival by throwing out Animal, and Mr. Perfect’s entry at #23 led to him throwing out Hacksaw. Hulk Hogan at #24 suddenly became the red-hot favourite to come out on top, especially after he threw out Smash and Valentine (who had been in since virtually the start of the contest) to prove that he was THE MAN, BROTHER! Haku at #25 and Jim The Anvil Neidhart at #26 continued to maintain a full ring, though Quake helped to reduce the number slightly by throwing out Santana. Next up was Bushwhacker Luke, who came out doing the Bushwhacker walk, marched into the ring and was commandeered by Earthquake who slowly walked him towards the side of the ring and safely threw him out, with Luke then immediately resuming his Bushwhacker walk as he headed backstage. This is my favourite Royal Rumble moment of all-time: it’s just so funny, so ludicrous, and so typical of the era that I can’t help but laugh out loud whenever I see it. Even the babyface announce team had to chuckle at this, and it speaks volumes that this moment was the highlight of the entire match.

Nasty Boy Brian Knobbs was #28 (Jerry Sags was not involved; ironically, Sags and not Knobbs participated in the 1992 Rumble bout), followed by The Warlord at #29 and finally Tugboat at #30. In the meantime, Hercules and Warlord (I know he’d only just entered) were thrown out, leading us to the extended home stretch. I’ll run through this quickly: Douglas was tossed out (I’m surprised he made it to beyond the arrival of the thirtieth entrant), followed by Hogan clotheslining so-called pal Tugboat to the floor (in another Rumble moment of not-so-subtle shadiness from The Hulkster). Bulldog surprisingly eliminated Perfect, with the two having had some run-ins earlier in the bout, while The Model dumped The Anvil. Bulldog was able to dispatch of Haku, and Britain’s finest was also designated to finally eliminate Martel, who set the Rumble longevity record here (though it would be broken just one year later). Somehow, Bulldog made it to the final four for the first of three such instances, and even more amazingly, Brian Knobbs made it to the final three, which we know because Bulldog was the next to fall. This left Hogan alone with Quake and Knobbs, and I won’t drag this out: Hulk managed to Hulk Up and throw Knobbs out, before finally succeeding at bodyslamming Earthquake, which inevitably led to Hulk throwing Quake out to win the Rumble.

This was the second time in a row that Hogan was the last man standing, and it marked the first ever two-time and back-to-back Rumble victor. Other than this milestone and the hilarious Bushwhacker Luke segment, though, this Rumble isn’t very interesting at all. It has far less star power than the 1990 bout, whilst it is not even half as exciting as the 1992 clash. Even the 1989 Rumble had some major angle advancement, while the 1988 Rumble can be forgiven for being the experimental contest to set the stage for a timeless tradition. All of which made this one of the weaker Rumble matches, at least in the early years of what Hercules once described as the “Rumble Royale”. There are plenty of colourful characters, no doubt, but those wishing to watch an old-school Rumble contest have numerous superior alternatives.

As for WWF Royal Rumble 1991 as a whole? It was a mixed bag. The opener is terrific, while the rest of the under card largely helps to set up WrestleMania VII, peaking with Sgt. Slaughter shockingly capturing the WWF Title and Virgil turning his back on Ted DiBiase. Unfortunately, the Rumble match itself can’t really follow those angles, and while it is a nice trip down memory lane, as stated, the 1990 and 1992 Rumbles are much more enjoyable. Worth watching if you are planning to run through 1991 on Pay-Per-View in the WWF, but otherwise, Royal Rumble 1991 is only worth checking out for the first match, the big title change, the long-anticipated DiBiase/Virgil split, and of course Bushwhacker Luke creating a laugh-out-loud Rumble moment that will achieve immortality.