WWE Royal Rumble 2003 Review feat. Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit

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WWE Royal Rumble 2003

Never has a show had two title matches of such contrasting quality as WWE Royal Rumble 2003. One is an all-time classic, while the other is a disaster. In the midst of that, you have an up-and-down undercard, along with a Rumble match that also hits and misses at various points, making this the ultimate mixed bag of Royal Rumble shows.

Winner Gets In The Royal Rumble
Brock Lesnar vs. Big Show

This is quite a star-studded opener, but there’s a very good reason for that. The winner would garner the final spot for the Rumble match, while the loser would miss out altogether. As I’ll explain, WWE was lacking in bona fide main event babyfaces at this stage, plus Show had defeated Brock for the WWE Title via unscrupulous means at Survivor Series two months earlier. All of which meant that the result was inevitable, and sure enough, Lesnar overcame a major obstacle set by his former agent Paul Heyman when he F5’d and pinned Big Show to advance to the Rumble. This was a nice way of making Brock’s overall triumph more momentous, but there’s no question that it ensured the result would be predictable, both here and later on (besides, if Show had won, who the hell else would have won the Rumble match?).

WWE World Tag Team Championship Match
William Regal & Lance Storm (C) vs. The Dudley Boyz

Regal and Storm were an underrated team from this time period, whose run together didn’t last too long because of health issues that Regal would encounter at the end of the following month. They had a decent spot here, though, defending the Raw Tag Titles against Bubba Ray and D-Von, who were hoping to achieve their first title victory since reforming at Survivor Series. Not unlike the opener, this is a TV-style bout, though it did have a crowd-pleasing finish: after Regal planned to use his customary brass knuckles, D-Von commandeered them and used them to whack Storm, ensuring that new champions would be crowned. The fans in Boston, Massachusetts were rather pleased, though The Dudleyz’ celebrations would be relatively short-lived, as they would lose the titles in a screwy manner just 24 hours later on Raw.

Torrie Wilson vs. Dawn Marie

Oh, dear. Okay, so Dawn randomly decided that she fancied Torrie’s fairly old father Al (bear in mind just how attractive Dawn was at this time, and Torrie for that matter), so much so that they ended up becoming a couple. Somewhere in the middle, Torrie was “persuaded” to romantically satisfy the mischievous Dawn, and eventually, Marie married Mr. Wilson while both were in their underwear (as you do). Even stranger, on their honeymoon, Al “died” due to being overcome by the sexual process of Dawn Marie, and at his funeral, the two females had a brawl that left the already-upset Torrie in a further state of distress. All of which set up this match, which was not very good at all, partly because the fans didn’t give a damn about anything that had preceded it. Torrie won to thankfully draw a line under this sorry saga, which was amazingly enough not the worst storyline of the preceding few months (that accolade goes to the Katie Vick “situation”).

WWE World Heavyweight Championship Match
Triple H (C) vs. Scott Steiner

I mentioned before about one title match being great and one title match being awful, and here we come to the legendary clash … okay, maybe not. Just to provide some context, Big Poppa Pump was making his first in-ring appearance for WWE since his return at Survivor Series, and he couldn’t have had a better opportunity than an immediate title shot against The Game. Unfortunately, though, a mixture of ongoing injuries and a generally worn-down physical condition meant that, despite having not wrestled for nearly two years, he had nothing to give other than repeated, and increasingly difficult-to-execute, suplexes. At this time, HHH was also banged-up and far from his physical best, desperately needing an opponent to assist rather than hinder him. The end result is that this match is pretty poor to say the very least (it goes on for ages, too), and things are made worse by the DQ finish as HHH smacked Steiner with a sledgehammer, thus meaning that not only did the fans not get a decisive winner, but there would be another match at No Way Out between the two, as evidenced by HHH being caught in a post-match Steiner Recliner. When the match began, Steiner had momentum; by the end, he was basically finished as a potential headliner in WWE. Both men could have had a classic two years earlier, and even a few years later, they might have put something decent together, but here they met at the worst possible times for both from a physical standpoint, thus resulting in a World Title match that is memorable for the wrong reasons. In my opinion, this is inferior to Hollywood Hulk Hogan vs. The Ultimate Warrior at WCW Halloween Havoc 1998, which says it all, really.

WWE Championship Match
Kurt Angle (C) vs. Chris Benoit

In contrast, this was everything that the previous match was not. It is simply one hell of a straight wrestling match with first-class exchanges throughout, smooth-as-silk transitions and a lot of drama based on the plethora of pinfall and submission-based near-falls. It’s totally understandable if you don’t want to watch this match again because of Benoit’s involvement, so I wouldn’t hold it against you whatsoever if you chose to ignore it. If you are okay with viewing Benoit bouts, though, then this is an absolute must-see, and in hindsight, it was a pivotal clash for the hardcore WWE fans: in the past, they would prefer the star power and spectacle over the actual wrestling, but here – and perhaps in part because of the HHH-Steiner match – the crowd were demonstrating that they would much rather see an actual great match than a bout which relied on charisma and muscular bodies. Kurt retained with the Ankle Lock in one of the best matches ever to take place on a Royal Rumble card. Benoit received a post-match standing ovation, which was well deserved to say the least (on the night, obviously).

Royal Rumble Match

All that remained, then, was the Rumble itself. Now bear in mind that in the preceding twelve months, Stone Cold Steve Austin had walked out, and The Rock had begun to take up permanent residence in Hollywood, whilst Hulk Hogan had returned and disappeared again. All three icons would return to in-ring action at No Way Out the next month, but that was all still to come. Here, the three massive stars were still absentees, which narrowed down the feasible Rumble victors to Brock Lesnar and, erm, …

Okay, so the first two men were Shawn Michaels and Chris Jericho, but they had already begun their storyline which would culminate at WrestleMania XIX, meaning that neither man was going to win the Rumble. Shawn certainly wasn’t: having stolen Y2J’s thunder already by claiming the #1 spot (Jericho had vowed to win it wire-to-wire, so instead he took the #2 position), Michaels found himself to be the victim of a trap: Jericho’s buddy Christian impersonated Chris for his entrance, allowing Jericho to sneak up from behind with a low blow, a chairshot that busted Shawn wide open, and a quick elimination of the legendary Michaels. At least it meant that the Rumble began with a bang.

Christopher Nowinski wisely waited for Jericho to finish beating up Michaels before getting involved, but he was soon in the thick of the action alongside Rey Mysterio and Edge, which led to a life-changing moment for the Harvard graduate: Rey and Edge hit Nowinski with a double top rope dropkick, but their timing was off, so while Rey caught Chris as planned, Edge’s feet landed right on Nowinski’s face. It looked painful because it was extremely painful, and the fall-out meant that Chris’ career would never recover: he took time off for a concussion, then wrestled for a little while wearing a face-mask, before having to retire at a young age due to concussion issues (which led him into a new career path involving extensive concussion research). The jury is out on how far Nowinski’s in-ring career could have gone, but it’s certainly sad that it ended abruptly, with his sudden retirement being linked to what happened here. Incidentally, he was the next man eliminated, but not without fighting through the incredible pain he would have been feeling.

As for the Rumble itself, Christian, Chavo Guerrero and Tajiri helped to flesh out the field, while Jericho got further heat by tossing out former and future rival Mysterio. Bill DeMott at #9 killed the excitement due to his lack of distinguishable qualities as the bullying heel of the month, though Tommy Dreamer at #10 did make an impact with Singapore cane strikes, one of which cut Jericho badly. Incidentally, they were also the next two guys to be thrown out, followed by Tajiri and B2, the former Bull Buchanan, who departed almost as soon as he arrived courtesy of Edge. The future Rated R Superstar also tossed out Chavito, only for he and Christian to be simultaneously dumped out by Jericho (yes, Y2J eliminated his buddy), leaving him alone to bask in his own glory.

That was cut short by entrant 12 being Rob Van Dam (incidentally, the shape of the aisleway meant that wrestlers had to take a sharp turn before heading down towards the ring properly, which took some time to get used to as a viewer here). RVD was followed by Matt Hardy Version 1.0, Eddie Guerrero and Jeff Hardy, who brawled with the brother that had betrayed him several months earlier, leading to Jeff hitting both Matt and his little MF’er Shannon Moore with a Swanton Bomb. The ring began to fill up again with Rosey of Three Minute Warning, Test, John Cena (making his Rumble debut as a rapping heel who fans had yet to care about) and Charlie Haas. Jeff was the next to go out courtesy of Van Dam, which would help to set up a short-lived attempted heel turn for Brother Nero in the subsequent few weeks. Rikishi, Jamal of Three Minute Warning, Kane and Rico, with Rico being unable to save Rosey from going out via Kane’s sheer dominance (Kane was one of WWE’s top faces at this time).

After Shelton Benjamin and Booker T arrived, it was Latino Heat to hit the floor next thanks to The Booker Man, whilst A-Train was a fearsome yet uninspiring major heel for SmackDown to justify his spot as #25. Then came a twist as Shawn Michaels returned to ringside, all banged up and bandaged up yet ready to fight, as he pummelled Jericho for long enough to cause his elimination via Test, and they continued their fight on the floor afterwards. Maven was #26, followed by Goldust, though he was quickly destroyed and eliminated by Haas and Benjamin, drawing some big boos. Booker vowed to fight on his behalf, only to taste the same fate: elimination from Kurt Angle’s charges.

Batista entered his first Rumble at #28 (one spot later than the position which later earned him his first such victory), and he established himself straight away by dispatching of Test. Brock Lesnar further solidified his standing as the only true favourite by coming in as number twenty-nine, and he quickly eliminated Haas, Benjamin and Matt Hardy (who partly lasted so long as Shannon Moore acted as a step above the ring mat when he was in danger earlier on). However, there was a late surprise as The Undertaker returned as #30. Admittedly, his comeback had been announced beforehand, but arriving so late into the game meant that maybe, just maybe, he had a chance to shock the world and be the last man standing (consider that everybody thought Taker was close to retirement in January 2003; yes, I realise that was 17 years ago).

Taker wasted no time in throwing out Cena and Jamal, before Maven tried (and failed) in sending out UT for the second straight Rumble; Taker retaliated by exacting revenge from 2002 and throwing Maven to the floor. Regular tag partners Kane and Van Dam dumped out Train, before Kane threw out Van Dam in a surprising turn of events, though they maintained a positive and amusing approach to this moment. After a brief Brothers Of Destruction reunion, Taker eliminated Batista and then caught Kane off-guard by sending him out, but was distracted by Big Dave trying to get back in that he turned himself away from Lesnar for long enough to set up Brock throwing him out of the match, giving Brock the not-at-all-shocking Rumble triumph. It’s a shame that Austin, Rock and Hogan returned at a later date, because their involvement could have made this a classic Rumble; instead, it’s good but not great, a mixture of notable spots and forgettable patches, ultimately putting this somewhere in the middle on the all-time Rumble match scale. At least Lesnar was a worthy winner, setting up his long-awaited WWE Title clash against Kurt Angle at WrestleMania XIX.

So, WWE Royal Rumble 2003 is a real mix of the spectacular and the sucktacular. One match is flawless, another match is horrendous and the Rumble bout itself has its moments and has high-quality action, but is dragged down by periods of inaction and a lack of actual favourites. Overall, I’d say it’s worth checking out this show again as long as you adjust your expectations, but at least you’ll get to experience the entire quality scale of 2003 era WWE in the process.