WWE Royal Rumble 2004 Review feat. Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels

Logo for WWE Royal Rumble 2004
Image Source: WWE
CompanyWWE
EventRoyal Rumble 2004
SeriesRoyal Rumble
Edition17
FormatPay-Per-View
DateSunday January 25 2004
VenueWachovia Center
LocationPhiladelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Attendance17,289

WWE Royal Rumble 2004

WWE Royal Rumble 2004 stands above many of the other Rumble matches down the years. The undercard isn’t the best to be fair, with most matches either being forgettable, brief or both. Even the World Heavyweight Title match goes under the radar, partly due to its finish. But the Royal Rumble match itself is an absolute classic. To me, it’s amongst the top five, or even the top three, Rumbles ever. It even has an argument to being considered the best of all-time.

WHAT HAPPENED AT THE PREVIOUS TV SHOWS? READ OUR PRE-PPV REVIEWS OF RAW & SMACKDOWN!

WWE World Tag Team Championship Tables Match
Ric Flair & Batista (C) vs. The Dudley Boyz

As noted, not everything on this card would be of the highest standard. Case in point: the opener was Raw-level stuff at best. The Evolution lads had captured the World Tag Team Titles from The Dudleyz at Armageddon, so this was Bubba Ray and D-Von’s chance at revenge. After a pointless pre-match promo by Batista, they got it on, but there’s little that stands out in my memory. In fact, all I can recall even after another viewing is the anticlimactic ending. Batista simply spinebustered D-Von through one table for the win. No elimination rules. No drama akin to the classic Dudleyz-Hardyz Tables match at Royal Rumble 2000. Not even a Batista Bomb so that a finishing move could, erm, finish things off. I should note that this was competent enough, but if you’re talking about a hot opening contest, this wasn’t it.

More notable was a promo involving Evolution later on. Flair, Batista and Randy Orton were celebrating to the point of interrupting a Chris Benoit speech. Along the way, Flair criticised Benoit for never winning the big one, seemingly ruling out The Crippler’s chances of winning the Rumble bout. Oh, how the Nature Boy would be wrong. Other backstage promos throughout the night included a fun exchange between John Cena and Rob Van Dam. Since WWE strictly enforced the brand extension in 2003/2004, such interactions were something to genuinely look forward to at major PPVs.

WHAT HAPPENED AT THE PREVIOUS EDITION? READ OUR WWE ROYAL RUMBLE 2003 REVIEW!

WWE Cruiserweight Championship Match
Rey Mysterio (C) vs. Jamie Noble

After a Raw-esque first match, we would then have a SmackDown-style follow-up. Jamie Noble had been chasing down Rey Mysterio and his Cruiserweight Title for a few weeks. But by this point, Noble’s girlfriend Nidia had been blinded by Tajiri and his dreaded poison mist. A normal person would ask their manager to stay away or at least treat them with respect if they did appear at ringside. Noble didn’t do this, and instead he would try to take advantage of Nidia while she couldn’t see.

This came back to bite him here: Nidia tripped Noble, having attempted to instead trip Rey. This led to a 619 and a Droppin’ The Dime to seal a Mysterio victory within minutes. Seriously, it took me longer to type up this match review than for the bout itself. Noble and Nidia would soon split up, leading to a bizarre clash at No Way Out one month later.

Eddie Guerrero vs. Chavo Guerrero

This battle of the Guerreros (or Los Guerreros rather) was months in the making. Eddie and Chavo had teamed since the autumn of 2002, but from October 2003 onwards, the seeds of hostility were growing. It mostly came from Chavo, who was becoming frustrated at his uncle’s failings. Eventually, Chavo turned total heel on Latino Heat, and he even brought in his dad Chavo Sr. (Eddie’s brother) to compound the situation. It was always likely that Eddie would exact full revenge here at Royal Rumble, though one would assume that the rivalry had legs beyond this night.

As it turned out, not really. Eddie did indeed win, and he did so convincingly with a Frog Splash. But aside from occasional TV interactions, that would be it for their feud. Granted, Eddie did pound both Chavos after the bell, busting open his nephew through pent-up rage. But given that the storyline had been building for so long, it’s strange that it would end so abruptly. And that’s even when you consider what was to come at No Way Out for Eddie. The other issue is that, again, the bout didn’t last particularly long. On a SmackDown-only PPV with more time, this could have been a potential Match Of The Year contender. Instead, this was a disappointing way to cap off a long-building feud.

WHAT HAPPENED AT THE PREVIOUS PPV? READ OUR WWE ARMAGEDDON 2003 REVIEW!

WWE Championship Match
Brock Lesnar (C) vs. Hardcore Holly

Put any established main eventer in the same storyline with the reigning WWE Champion, and you have a guaranteed recipe for success. Brock had inadvertently broken Holly’s neck in September 2002. Hardcore had been chasing him down for months to gain retribution, leading to this big showdown at Royal Rumble 2004. The problem was, Hardcore Holly was as typecast a career mid-carder as any. But even if you overlook this, his unlikeable personality and unspectacular move-set also hindered his cause. The man could go in the ring, there’s no question. Plus, he was tough as nails. And his service to WWE arguably warranted a crack at the top title.

But the aforementioned issues meant that nobody, including Brock himself, could take Holly seriously as a WWE Title contender. The upshot was this match was totally unmemorable. And once again, they were challenged for time (who the hell was managing time for this card?). So, while Holly and Lesnar grafted, it felt like a match that fans wanted to just get out of the way. Hence why Holly wouldn’t even compete at WrestleMania XX seven weeks after co-headlining a huge PPV event. Lesnar of course won with the F5. Though they would have further interactions in the weeks to come, their feud essentially ended here. And unlike Eddie vs. Chavo, one could breathe a sigh of relief that the story wouldn’t properly continue.

Going back to Brock, though, his night wasn’t over; far from it. Later in the show, he interrupted Goldberg as Terri Runnels was interviewing him. This would be their second on-screen confrontation after Goldberg halted a Lesnar speech at Survivor Series 2003. Goldberg stood his ground and noted how he would be a champion again come Mania. He also taunted Brock by suggesting that Holly was behind him. More on this situation later.

WHAT HAPPENED AT THE FIRST EDITION? READ OUR WWF ROYAL RUMBLE 1988 REVIEW!

WWE World Heavyweight Championship Last Man Standing Match
Triple H (C) vs. Shawn Michaels

This was the latest chapter in a lengthy saga between the two founding members of D-Generation X. They had feuded throughout the second half of 2002. And while hostilities cooled slightly, they were always at odds whenever they interacted on-screen. Yet it was still a surprise when Michaels suddenly began to challenge HHH for the World Title which he reclaimed at Armageddon. A controversial double-pin finish on the final Raw in 2003 in Shawn’s hometown of San Antonio, Texas led to this showdown. Last Man Standing, where there must be a winner, right? Right?

The match itself is very good in my opinion. Because fans truly loathed HHH at this stage, his more creditable in-ring efforts often went under the radar. This was one of them, as he and Shawn had continuous chemistry that always led to exciting battles. As was often the case for their collisions, both men bled heavily. Shawn in particular looked like he’d had his head driven through a car windshield (which, funnily enough, HHH did do to him back in July 2002). As was also often the case for their wars, there was a huge spot, as Shawn dived from the ropes to ringside where The Game was standing, only to crash and burn through an announcer’s table. (They had teased the desk a few minutes earlier only to move away from it, to which fans booed. Patience is a virtue, it seems.)

And as is often the case with LMS matches in general, there were tense close calls. Both men hit their finishing moves, with Shawn’s superkick literally coming from out of nowhere. But unfortunately, that was it as both men were done in. The result: both men stayed down for the ten-count, meaning a draw, and HHH retaining the WHC. So much for this being their last match after “seven years” (it was more like eighteen months), eh? Philadelphia fans chanted “bullshit!” Still, it was better than how they reacted to Royal Rumble 2015 in the same building eleven years later.

Of course, the HHH vs. HBK feud was far from over. They would clash through WrestleMania XX and Backlash, before finally settling their issue inside Hell In A Cell at Bad Blood. Further confrontations would only be one-offs, with the wider rivalry culminating inside the Cell. That was all still to come here, though, with fans fuming that HHH was now all but certain to take the WHC to WrestleMania. The match itself is really good, but it’s laughable how it lasted longer than the first four bouts combined. No wonder everyone hated HHH so much back then.

Before the main event, we had a random in-ring confrontation between the General Managers. Eric Bischoff vowed that a Raw star would win the Rumble, leading to a mini-brawl with Paul Heyman (in ECW country, remember). Cue Sheriff Stone Cold Steve Austin to settle things by dropping both with Stone Cold Stunners to a typically huge pop. Other than giving Sheriff Austin a cameo (and why not), this was instantly forgettable. Thankfully, the headline attraction was anything but.

Royal Rumble Match

Before I get to the action, let’s look at how this particular Rumble provided some firsts. It marked the first cross-brand commentary team for the match, with Jim Ross and Tazz handling the announcing very well indeed. Also, this was the first Rumble with the WrestleMania sign in the background, though sign-pointing didn’t begin for a few years. This was also the first WWE PPV to be shown on Setanta Sports in the UK, for what that’s worth. And it marked the first Rumble where (almost) every participant received an on-screen graphic to mark their entry (this helps when you forget which number we’re up to). There’s one more first in relation to this Rumble, but I’ll come to that at the end for reasons that will then become clear.

I must also mention that the excitement for this Rumble was higher than usual because the winner wasn’t obvious. At the time, I felt Goldberg (who had already earned himself the #30 spot) would be the favourite. But John Cena also had a very strong case, having vowed to headline WrestleMania XX back at WM XIX. Kurt Angle’s recent return and his desire to win for the American troops strengthened his chances of winning. Randy Orton, meanwhile, could theoretically have clashed with Evolution cohort Triple H for the World Heavyweight Title. And when you throw in other strong names involved, it made for one of the more unpredictable Rumbles in history. You’ll notice that the actual winner’s name is absent there, which proves my point. That we were heading towards a landmark WrestleMania only heightened the pressure on whomever would get their hand raised in victory here.

Chris Benoit and Randy Orton began the match (I believe Benoit had already been given the #1 entrant by Paul Heyman). The early stretch was uneventful but entertaining, as Mark Henry (#3) and Tajiri (#4) contributed in their own way. Bradshaw at #5 was the first man to go courtesy of Benoit; hard to believe what Bradshaw would do just two months later after this “performance”. Rhyno at #6 eliminated Tajiri after breaking up a Tarantula on Henry after charging into his girth, thus sending The Japanese Buzzsaw out to the floor. Benoit would dump Henry out moments later in the first significant elimination of the match. Incidentally, Henry would leave television within weeks due to an injury, and wouldn’t resurface for almost two years.

WHAT HAPPENED AT THE LATEST EDITION? READ OUR WWE ROYAL RUMBLE 2020 REVIEW!

Matt Hardy Version 1.0 was #7, followed by Scott Steiner at #8 (his only Rumble match as Big Poppa Pump). Matt Morgan at #9 threatened to lower the bar, though he did throw out The Hurricane (#10) within seconds of the superhero arriving. The latter “enjoyed” the shortest amount of time in this Rumble. The star power would increase with Booker T at #11 and then Kane at #12. Booker eliminated Steiner as Kane was coming out, with a replay required to show us the footage. I wonder if wrestlers time their eliminations intentionally to reduce the potential impact on their push? If that was Scott’s plan, it didn’t work, as he would be out of WWE altogether not long after Royal Rumble 2004.

Then, we come to our first “woah” moment. The buzzer went for #13, and we heard GONG! Cue darkness for a few seconds, as Kane panicked. You see, Kane had buried The Undertaker (who was still the American Bad Ass) alive at Survivor Series 2003. There had been rumours, but this was the first real evidence of Undertaker’s return to collide with Kane. Scratch that; we all knew Taker would be back, but this was evidence that he was resurrecting the Dead Man character. Hence why this was huge. Booker capitalised by eliminating Kane, who responded by Chokeslamming the real #13, Spike Dudley, on the ramp. Since Spike never entered, did he technically win the 2004 Rumble? And what is it about Philadelphia and that booking, since Curtis Axel had the same situation eleven years later?

It’s astonishing how little reaction Rikishi receives as #14, though he does get a pop when giving Morgan the Stinkface. After Benoit eliminated Rhyno, Rene Dupree came out at #15, as Tazz got confused about La Resistance (“so he’s the French guy, but not the American French guy”). Dupree got some heat by dumping out Hardy, who was still a heel; Benoit tossing out Rene levelled things up for the fans. A-Train’s arrival was met with the quietest reaction of the match, though the ring did begin to clear, as Benoit threw out Morgan and Orton dumped Kiesh and Booker in quick succession. Not forgetting Train, who went flying courtesy of Benoit.

WHAT HAPPENED AT THE FOLLOWING PPV? READ OUR WWE NO WAY OUT 2004 REVIEW!

Shelton Benjamin was #17, and though he barely lasted seconds (Randy dispatched of him), he looked impressive during his short cameo. Orton and Benoit then knocked each other down long enough to allow for the mood to change. And I don’t mean Tazz. Because #18 was Ernest “The Cat” Miller, accompanied by Lamont, his vertically-challenged butler. The two then danced in the ring to what would later be Brodus Clay’s theme (I had to laugh at Tazz’s appalling singing of Somebody Call My Momma). This scene is incidentally not a reason I would give towards this being a vintage Rumble. Thankfully, Orton and Benoit broke it up, with Benoit de-wigging Lamont and Orton sending Cat flying, the latter to a major pop.

Kurt Angle finally got things back on track with #19, and the reaction to his arrival suggested he was Philly’s favourite. Rico at #20 had no chance (and fans booed Miss Jackie as she returned backstage), though the announcer’s discussion of his attire doesn’t age well. In the meantime, Benoit and Angle renewed their rivalry (for the very last time, I believe).

After Orton dumped Rico, Test’s music played for him to be #21, only for him to not appear. Backstage, we saw him KO’d, as Sheriff Austin called for the unseen assailant to enter in his place. And that would turn out to be … Mick Foley! Orton had sent Foley (whose stint as Raw co-GM lasted all of a fortnight) packing and spat in his face on December 15 2003. Since then, The Legend Killer had mercilessly taunted him, with Austin arranging a front row seat for him if he decided to appear.

Appear? Foley instead decided to fight. And so this marked his first in-ring showing since WrestleMania 2000; officially coming out of retirement, Foley showed up to a massive pop and brawled with Orton at a furious pace. The Cactus clothesline would eliminate both men, but Mick didn’t care. He continued bashing Randy at ringside as Christian came out as #22 (note: if your entrance goes under the radar, chances are you ain’t winning the Rumble). Mick went to use the steel stairs with officials trying to back him away, so Foley whacked Finlay with them. As he turned out, he took not one but two absolutely brutal chairshots from Orton.

Their scrap went around the ring and up the ramp, at which point Foley retrieved Mr Socko. But with Nunzio arriving at #23, the FBI leader instead took the Mandible Claw. That allowed Randy to boot Mick in the balls, thus finally ending their brawl (for now). This was thoroughly compelling and very exciting. That’s partly because we didn’t know for sure if Foley was returning or if he would remain retired. After this, there would be no doubt: Mick Foley would wrestle again. Outstanding stuff.

Back to the match, and Big Show (Tazz’s pick, and why not?) was #24. Chris Jericho added to the star power as #25, with him and Christian both using their friendship and showing signs of an upcoming split. After Charlie Haas arrived at #26, the two Canadians tried to eliminate Benoit, with Christian then trying to dump Y2J. His reward: Jericho eliminating him for the second straight year to further their storyline. Billy Gunn returned from a moderate absence at #27 (Tazz stating “You know, Billy Gunn used to be married to a guy once” is both kayfabe false and very cringeworthy to hear back nowadays).

John Cena was #28 to a major reaction, with Show anticipating his entry as part of their own rivalry. Before he got to Show, Cena tossed Nunzio into the ring, since he had been hiding at ringside after the attack by Foley. Rob Van Dam was a welcome addition at #29, before we got Goldberg in at #30. By the way, Goldberg has his WCW theme on the Network despite using his WWE theme on the night. That surely has to be a first.

WHAT HAPPENED AT THE FOLLOWING EDITION? READ OUR WWE ROYAL RUMBLE 2005 REVIEW!

Anyway, Goldberg quickly dominated, eliminating both Haas and damn near Spearing Nunzio in half. After eliminating Gunn, Goldberg tossed Nunzio onto Billy on the floor, before signalling that he would Jackhammer Show. Good luck with that; yes, he achieved this on The Giant in WCW, but Show had gained a lot of weight since 1998. Before he could properly try, though, in wandered Brock Lesnar to F5 Goldberg! The hints had been dropped, but this was conclusive evidence of a Goldberg-Lesnar rivalry, especially with Angle eliminating Goldberg as he stared down Brock. This was all good stuff, but we weren’t done yet.

Show was now the target for the other remaining five participants, and he batted them all away before eliminating almost everybody one-by-one. Cena surprisingly went first, and he almost broke his leg upon landing at ringside. Thankfully, John would be okay(ish). RVD was next to go, followed by Jericho. And though Angle was still the crowd favourite, it wasn’t enough to stop Show eliminating him too. So, Benoit (who entered at #1, remember) and Show were the last two. Nobody called that when the match began. But would WWE really pull the trigger on Benoit after him falling short so many times over the previous four years? At the same time, Show looked incredibly dominant; the giant could finally add a Rumble win to his resume by finishing the job.

And Show almost did it. He hoisted Benoit on his shoulders and tried to drop him out. But The Crippler held on and trapped Show in a guillotine-like hold. Fans didn’t react at first, until they realised that Benoit was slowly forcing Show out of the ring. The reaction went up and up as Show’s feet got closer and closer, until finally he was eliminated. Against the odds, in more ways than one, Chris Benoit had won the 2004 Royal Rumble.

That he won was a surprise in itself; the dramatic nature of his victory only added to the moment. Between the Undertaker tease, the Foley return, the Goldberg-Lesnar angle and Benoit’s shock win, plus a star-studded field and a hot crowd, there was plenty to love about this Royal Rumble match. You could pick any of those as the standout moment, you really could. Shame that Benoit’s later actions ensured that we never get to see it again.

Before I sign off, I must mention what Benoit did immediately after the Rumble. In the other “first” (see, I did remember), Benoit would appear on Raw. The Rumble match victory entitled him to a title shot at WrestleMania XX. But it didn’t specifically say which brand’s title it would be for. Therefore, Benoit instead defected to challenge Triple H at Mania (with Shawn sneaking his way in, because it’s Shawn). That would leave a gap for the WWE Title shot, with a resolution reached at No Way Out. Between these scenarios and other major storylines, WWE gave fans what may have been the best WrestleMania build-up ever in 2004.

WHAT HAPPENED AT THE FOLLOWING TV SHOWS? READ OUR POST-PPV REVIEWS OF RAW & SMACKDOWN!

As for the show as a whole: despite the excitement of HHH vs. HBK, WWE Royal Rumble 2004 is a one-match show. Fortunately, though, that one match was the Rumble itself, and it was a 10/10 presentation. The rest of the card is barely worth checking out. The LMS match is fine but doesn’t have a great climax, while Eddie vs. Chavo is a bit of a let-down. And the less said about the other bouts, the better. Seek this out, then, for a textbook example of how to book a Royal Rumble match, but not necessarily how to book a Royal Rumble event.

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