Why is Royal Rumble '92 So Great?
What's your favourite Royal Rumble? The one where Cena made his return at Madison Square Garden and everyone forgot they hated him for a few seconds? The one where Vince won? I like the one where Drew Carey entered. Every time I see it, I wonder if I'm remembering it wrong and he goes on to win it. He never does. All that being said, the best Rumble, objectively, took place in 1992.
The way that several narratives unfold in the '92 Rumble over the course of an hour of wrestling is just about as good an hour of pro wrestling entertainment as you can find anywhere. This match gets a hell of a lot of chat about how good it is, and it's easy to disregard that talk as nostalgia for a time when stars like Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage amongst many more all shared one ring. However, the praise that this match gets isn't just a longing for the past—it's a response to the storytelling that permeates this match from the first minute to the last.
Admittedly, the '92 Rumble does have a clear advantage over today's offerings in being the fifth to be held at the pay-per-view: at this time, audiences were mostly clear on the format of the Rumble match, but it hadn't been overexposed or done so many times that spots were becoming obvious. That said, the match works so well narratively because it clearly defines what the Rumble match is all about within the first minute or so of competition. Look at this gif:
Does this not sum up the Rumble match rather neatly? In fact, even if the words 'Royal Rumble' weren't plastered all over every surface of the arena and you weren't reading an article about the Royal Rumble, you'd probably be able to tell that this was a clip from a Rumble—it's a sequence that has become part of the fabric of the match itself.
However, whilst the spot is an excellent refresher for audiences as a means of reminding them how the Rumble match works, it's also something of a prologue for the narrative of this Rumble in particular. Showing DiBiase's villainous folly of celebrating his supposed elimination of the Bulldog suggests to the audience that being smart is as important as being strong in this match. This, of course, is to set up Ric Flair's then unheard of win from the number three spot.
As you can see above, Flair finds ways to avoid being eliminated throughout the match. This plays to the strengths of Flair's character, and it delivers on something of the nature of the Rumble match that had, at this point, never really been explored.
The previous winners had entered at numbers 13, 27, 25 and 24 respectively. Despite the fact that the winner of the Rumble is typically described as having beaten 29 other men, the three men who had won the four Rumbles to date couldn't quite claim that, having drawn rather helpful numbers. Flair shared the ring with every other competitor bar DiBiase over the course of the sixty minutes he spent in the ring, so he was far more apt to suggest that he did indeed beat 29 men to the prize, even if he did so with cunning rather than brawn.
However, the reason that this particular Rumble is so great isn't purely down to the Ric Flair show. Having a cohesive main plot does it a lot of favours, but like a lot of great pieces of entertainment, a B-plot goes a long way of making an hour's worth of storytelling more palatable. This match has several such B-plots that overlap slightly, so there's always some kind of story development—below is a rudimentary diagram of plot development in the '92 Rumble that I made in Microsoft Excel. The blocks of colour represent what I perceived to be some development for that narrative strand, just so we're clear.
The 'Opening Business' is the sequence I mentioned earlier with Bulldog and DiBiase and a bit a few minutes later where Haku artfully illustrated that it's every man for himself regardless of heel/face alignments. This is exposition, really—a little primer for the audience about the way the Rumble works. After that, the B-plot is typically build to a future match, either one for Wrestlemania like Michaels v. Santana or Hogan v. Sid, or development of an ongoing storyline like Savage v. Roberts.
The 'Triple Threat' strand refers to the repeated interaction between Ric Flair, Roddy Piper and Jake Roberts. All three characters occupy a similar space in that they have no qualms about resorting to devious means, and regardless you find yourself cheering them on. Having them interact as part of the Rumble is a good way of telling the story about which one of them can eye-gouge and double-cross the others as a small part of a bigger scenario, as such a villain-on-villain match probably wouldn't work as well as a standalone bout. It's part of the appeal of the Royal Rumble that a small narrative like this can find a place to play out.
However, for me, the most interesting mini-narrative in this Rumble is 'Overexcited Bossman,' a neat counterpoint to Flair's time in the match. From the off, the Big Bossman comes in and takes on everyone in the ring. He races round the ring taking the time to deck each and every other competitor, focussing on getting a good punch in rather than making eliminations. The crowd go wild. Bossman carries on this high-energy, high-momentum performance a few minutes later when he does eliminate another competitor, but nearly eliminated himself in the process. At this point, it's just him and Flair in the ring. The three gifs below show how the whole things plays out.
Bossman is a counterpoint to Flair. He's going about the Rumble the wrong way—you won't get far by trying to put a dent in every other competitor and not really thinking about what you're doing. He didn't play smart, and as a result he eliminated himself. Bossman's time in the '92 Rumble is a mini-tragedy in its own right, a man undone by his own pep and vigour, but it also reinforces the main plot of Ric Flair playing the game smart. In the Russian Doll-esque structure of pro wrestling macro-narratives and micro-narratives, this is a prime example of having something small complement something much bigger. And, it's just one part of the rich tapestry that makes the '92 Royal Rumble something of a great work of pro wrestling storytelling.