WWF Royal Rumble 1997 Review feat. Psycho Sid vs. Shawn Michaels

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WWF Royal Rumble 1997

WWF Royal Rumble 1997 is a fascinating show. It occurred at a time when the WWF was lagging well behind WCW in the ratings war, and its popularity had generally nose-dived. However, they were still able to almost fill the Alamodome stadium in San Antonio, Texas for hometown hero Shawn Michaels’ journey to reclaim his WWF Championship from Psycho Sid, and in the Rumble match itself, the man who would receive the most attention would ultimately evolve into the performer who would contribute greatly to the Federation once again becoming the #1 wrestling company.

WWF Intercontinental Championship Match
Hunter Hearst Helmsley (C) vs. Goldust

Kicking us off was the soon-to-be Triple H defending the IC crown against the Bizarre One, who had recently turned babyface (partly because he revealed that he was straight all along and not gay, which sums up the homophobic attitudes of wrestling as a whole in 1996/1997). This was a fairly long and not a particularly interesting match, which is the opposite of what an opening bout on PPV should do, which is to get fans on their feet and fired up from the get-go. Instead, this was easily skippable, and it only served to reduce interest in the evening’s activities. Mr. Hughes made a surprise (and typically short-lived) return here as Helmsley’s cornerman, and it was he who impacted the finish, as he saved Hunter from one near-fall and distracted Goldust long enough for him to wander straight into a Pedigree, thus retaining the title for the Greenwich Blueblood. Their feud would continue at WrestleMania 13, albeit without the IC title which Hunter would lose to Rocky Maivia in the interim period.

Ahmed Johnson vs. Faarooq

In contrast to the opener, this was highly anticipated, and treated as a big deal by both the fans and the commentary team of Vince McMahon, Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler. Faarooq had arrived the previous July to attack Ahmed, but in the process, Johnson was injured, and was only properly returning here. During Ahmed’s time off, Faarooq transformed from a wannabe Spartacus into a militant leader of an all-black faction (yes, the WWF was delving into increasingly-controversial content during this time), which meant he had significant back-up to provide additional roadblocks for the Pearl River Powerhouse. This was a wild, physical brawl that resembled a fight rather than a match, which suffered due to its not being very long as the Nation ran in to save their main man Faarooq, which was worth him losing via disqualification to avoid a bigger beating. As Faarooq scarpered, Ahmed grabbed one of the NOD cronies and drove him through the Spanish announcer’s table with a Pearl River Plunge. This feud was far from over, and we would get a further sampling of it later in the night (as we did for Helmsley vs. Goldust, to be fair).

The Undertaker vs. Vader

Occurring between Paul Bearer’s heel turn at SummerSlam 1996 and alignment with Mankind, and Undertaker’s eventual revenge on both (which would lead to the arrival of Kane), this seemed to be taking place purely for the sake of padding out the Rumble card, especially since both monsters were amongst the favourites to win the Rumble bout. And it didn’t leave a lasting impression upon second viewing either, aside from the moment where Bearer falls on his backside to try and escape a Taker attack. That being said, “Uncle Paul” did manage to progress his feud with Undi’ by cracking his former charge with the urn, allowing the Mastadon to hit a match-winning Vader Bomb. These two would have a much better match six months later at Canadian Stampede: In Your House, but while their efforts here certainly weren’t bad, it was an easily forgettable contest, which is unusual for Undertaker in 1997.

I should mention that dotted throughout the event were pre-taped comments from some of the Rumble entrants. Without question, the most memorable came from The British Bulldog, who randomly stated that he was going to win “because I’m BIZARRE!” How that personality trait was going to help him win the 30-man contest, I have no idea.

Perro Aguayo, Hector Garza & Canek vs. Heavy Metal, Jerry Estrada & Fuerza Guerrera

Now, I mentioned earlier that the WWF came close to filling the Alamodome for Royal Rumble 1997, but to do so, allegedly a lot of tickets were given away for free. Even then, the WWF felt that they needed something extra, hence them working with AAA to provide some of the Rumble match combatants, and also this six-man tag. This looked even more out of place than Jim Cornette’s NWA reunion a year later, and again the work is certainly not an issue, but almost nobody cares, making this a thoroughly pointless attraction. It would help if WWF fans knew who the AAA guys were, but because they didn’t, they had no reason to react to the action. Perro pinned Heavy Metal to win a match which wasn’t lacking in effort, but was definitely lacking in interest. If the show seems like it kinda sucks so far, that’s because it did (which is not unusual for a Royal Rumble event, to be fair), but thankfully the quality was about to improve significantly.

Royal Rumble Match

Yep, it was time for the tenth annual Royal Rumble match, taking place in its largest venue to date, and taking place prior to the main event for the second straight year. Something to point out here: the Royal Rumble 1997 “clock” was not functioning early on, and even after it was fixed, the buzzer only went off once or twice during the entire match. It doesn’t impact one’s entertainment of the bout, but it is something that helps this particular Rumble to stand out, if not for the desired reasons.

Crush of the Nation and Ahmed kicked things off, and their short clash continued the Ahmed-NOD feud, with an interlude for Johnson to eliminate Fake Razor Ramon (marking the only ever Rumble match appearance for the Razor character, since Scott Hall was never an entrant into the bout, in a strange piece of Rumble trivia). Then, though, Ahmed eliminated himself to chase Faarooq midway up the (very long) aisleway, leaving Crush alone to beat up Phineas Godwinn until the Rumble began proper with participant number five, Stone Cold Steve Austin. Having arrived in the WWF one year earlier as The Ringmaster, by this point Austin had gotten over strong as a heel, so much so that he was starting to hear more and more cheers, because his rebellious attitude was so different and so much cooler than anything that WWF fans had ever seen. And he was about to have his biggest night to date.

Phineas tossed out Crush, and he walked straight into a Stone Cold Stunner, leading to him being thrown out. Bart Gunn at #6 didn’t last very long before Austin dumped him, but a bigger threat was Jake Roberts at #7, with the legend having his last hurrah, and with a story in place since Austin had defeated him to become the 1996 King Of The Ring (it also continued the trend of Jake being an early Rumble entrant). Still, Austin managed to also drop him to the floor, only to run into trouble with the eighth combatant, the aforementioned Bizarre, erm, British Bulldog in something that has often fascinated me. The seeds had already been planted for an Austin-Bulldog feud dating back to In Your House: It’s Time the previous month, with Bulldog getting more cheers despite also being a heel, and despite being a WWF Tag Team Champion alongside Owen Hart. The assumption is that we would either get Bulldog vs. Austin or Bulldog and Owen against Austin and an unknown partner at WrestleMania 13. Instead, Shawn Michaels lost his smile, Austin replaced him to face Bret Hart at Mania, and the rest is history. Could you imagine how different things could have been if Austin remained in the mid-card region at this point, rather than taking increasingly-large steps towards legendary status?

Bulldog set the groundwork for the ring to fill up, which included Pierroth of AAA, The Sultan and Mil Mascaras (also an AAA name). Hunter Hearst Helmsley was #12 as the Rumble match’s momentum had slowed down, though Sultan was thrown out to keep things a little bit interesting. Owen Hart at #13 was a thankfully-over participant, and he ended up throwing Bulldog out to the floor in the most interesting moment so far, teasing the idea of a split between the champs. Bulldog: “HE THREW ME OUT!” Jerry Lawler on commentary: “So what, you whiner, it’s every man for himself!” Goldust was number fourteen and targeted Helmsley once more, though AAA again contributed with Cibernetico as #15. I’ll give the WWF this, they tried to make AAA seem important, but just as was the case earlier, nobody cared. There was a minor reaction when Mascaras eliminated Pierroth and Cibernetico and then hit a top rope crossbody to the floor, which led to him being confused about having eliminated himself (which was the reason for Bruce Prichard’s infamous “No yob” line on Something To Wrestle when explaining why Mascaras had to go out this way).

Marc Mero was #16 in his last PPV appearance as a babyface in the company (he was soon injured and returned as a tweener-cum-heel in the autumn of 1997), before YET ANOTHER wrestler from AAA in the form of Latin Lover at #17 (who humorously kicked Goldust straight in the rear end as he came in, which got a vintage Vince McMahon belly chuckle). Faarooq at #18 threw him out, only to be chased off by a 2×4-wielding Ahmed, eliciting the biggest pop of the Rumble match so far. Austin then cleared the rest of the ring, which led to him facing and quickly eliminating Savio Vega and Double J Jesse James. By now, Austin had established himself as the Rumble’s iron man and was getting cheers from the impressed San Antonio audience; Stone Cold even had time to check his imaginary watch (years before it became one of his characteristics) and sit on the turnbuckle to await his next victim.

So, he got a huge surprise (and his facials underlined that feeling) when his biggest enemy Bret Hart came out as #21. The two went at it in a fist-fight, with the audience now fully invested in the Rumble. At #22, we had Jerry Lawler as a minor shock entrant, considering he was on commentary. In an amusing moment, he walked in, tasted a punch from Bret and then took another strike that sent him straight to the floor and right back to the announce desk in one of the quickest Rumble eliminations to date. From there, the ring began to fill up again, and this time with real star power: whilst it began with Fake Diesel (the future Kane), he, Bret and Austin would be joined by Terry Funk (who caused a ton of problems the previous night on Shotgun Saturday Night with a foul-mouthed tirade that wasn’t supposed to happen, or at least be as graphic), a young Rocky Maivia, Mankind, Flash Funk (okay, he wasn’t a top name, either in the past, the present or the future), Vader, Henry Godwinn and finally The Undertaker. With the exception of Flash and Henry, all of those are either current or future Hall Of Famers, and yet the WWF was struggling at this point. Bear this in mind when watching the 2020 Rumble amidst suggestions that the product is tanking.

With everybody having entered, it was time to work towards the finish of the Royal Rumble 1997 match. Flash and Henry were first to go, meaning that all of the remaining eight were bona fide legends, arguably the best group of wrestlers to ever conclude a Rumble bout. Mankind eliminated Maivia and then Funk, but he continued the battle with Terry after being dumped out by Taker, which caught the attention of the referees at ringside. This is important because Bret finally eliminated Austin, but the officials didn’t see it so he snuck back in and simultaneously threw out Taker and Vader, which the refs did spot. Bret dumped out Fake Diesel (how did that character make the final three, or two in Hart’s mind?), only to be tossed out by the seemingly-eliminated Austin, giving Stone Cold the Rumble win to a strong reaction considering his heel status. Bret was absolutely livid at ringside, and he angrily screamed at the announcers about the injustice here. This planted the seeds for what was to come when it comes to Hart turning heel, and yet the plan wasn’t for Bret to wrestle Austin at Mania at this stage, which makes me wonder if he would have gone rogue on HBK at WM 13. Anyway, this was Austin’s night, and though he wasn’t quite a made man yet, this proved that he was going to be a true superstar in the WWF. Shenanigans across the Road To WrestleMania would deny Stone Cold his title opportunity, but as we know, his career turned out fine in the end. Overall, then, this was the best Rumble in a good while, and though it isn’t an all-time classic, Austin’s run and the final third make this a top ten Rumble showdown, one which turned around the fortunes of the event as a whole.

WWF Championship Match
Psycho Sid (C) vs. Shawn Michaels

In the main event of Royal Rumble 1997, it was time for Shawn Michaels to try and reclaim his WWF Championship in his hometown. Unlike at Survivor Series 1996, here Sid was booed heavily, and Michaels was treated as the heroic babyface that he was promoted as being. Michaels has stated that he had flu on the day, which impacted his performance, but whilst the contest isn’t as good as their previous showdown in Madison Square Garden, it’s still a worthy main event that achieved its main objectives. Previously, Sid had attacked Jose Lothario with a TV camera, and Lothario was making what was agreed to be his final managerial appearance here in the Alamodome. Jose’s son was also on hand, and it was him who felt Sid’s wrath at ringside. After a referee bump, Sid secured a near-fall with a chokeslam, but he couldn’t get towards hitting a Powerbomb, thus giving Michaels the opportunity to extract full revenge from Survivor Series by walloping Sid with a TV camera, followed by Sweet Chin Music for the pinfall win. Michaels was back on top with his hometown crowd, family and friends looking in, making this an ultimate babyface moment for The Heartbreak Kid, and seemingly setting up Shawn vs. Austin for WM 13. Oh, how things would change, with the back-story behind Mania 13 being perhaps the most interesting of any wrestling event ever.

If we can put aside what was to come over the next two months and purely judge the show in a vacuum, WWF Royal Rumble 1997 was a show of two halves, not unlike other Rumble shows. The first part ranges from acceptable to boring, while the second part features a memorable Rumble match and a feel-good headline attraction. It’s worth checking out the last two bouts from Royal Rumble 1997 if you get the chance, but it’s impossible to view them without being mindful of the chaos that would engulf the WWF, both on-screen and off, in the coming weeks and months.