After acting as in-ring saviour (alongside Bret Hart) throughout a tumultuous 1995 for the company, Michaels was due to assume the role of top guy at WrestleMania 12, winning the 1996 Royal Rumble match en route. Michaels was the incumbent winner of the match, having waded through a weak 1995 field, and the roster wasn't too much more impressive as 1996 rolled around. As had been the case with other recent Rumbles, WWE had to reach out to outside workers to fill the body of the match. In 1996, the dearth of talent was never more glaring.
The 1996 Royal Rumble is generally only remembered for Michaels' victory, the catalyst for he and Hart becoming "Iron Men" two months later. Aside from that historical note, the event is one of the weaker Rumbles in history, only watchable as a curiosity, as well as a troubling sign of the times.
10. A Little Something Extra
In a nice little creative addition to a period that needed some innovations, WWE had two "randomly selected" individuals face off in a singles match, where the winner would enter the Rumble at number 30, and the loser would start the match. Via reverse decision, Duke Droese got the thirtieth spot, while poor Hunter Hearst Helmsley had to run the gauntlet.
This match aired on what was known as the Free For All, a 30-minute pregame show available to even non-PPV customers, the precursor to the modern-day Kickoff shows. It was the debut of the Free For All concept, though WWE had run live coverage during the 30-minute window before other PPVs in years past. However, this was the first time a free match would be the focal point of such a broadcast.
9. So Much For That
The preliminary card for the 1996 Royal Rumble included a Women's title match pitting champion Alundra Blayze against the beastly Aja Kong, who pinned Blayze in an elimination match at the 1995 Survivor Series. Anyone who knows a thing or two about this period can probably guess why this match ended up not taking place.
Blayze was let go from WWE some time in early December 1995, after WWE scrapped its Women's division altogether. Blayze would infamously show up on WCW Nitro shortly thereafter (as Madusa, once more), depositing the Women's belt, which she still had possession of, in a wastebasket at the commentary set. For what it's worth, Jim Ross noted in a Q&A on his website that Kong didn't seem keen on staying in the US long because of her various commitments, so it's possible that Blayze could have retained, had the match occurred.
8. Emphasis On "Kabong"
The opening match of the pay-per-view broadcast saw Jeff Jarrett (temporarily back after resurfacing the previous month) taking on stout newcomer Ahmed Johnson. Johnson would win the match in less than seven minutes via disqualification, after Jarrett leapt off the middle rope and smashed his guitar over Johnson's head, destroying the instrument with one emphatic crowning.
That wasn't all Jarrett that smashed good, as Johnson wound up being legitimately hospitalized that night with a concussion, a result of the impactful blow. Johnson would actually continue wrestling the following night, working the regular touring loop without a break. Meanwhile, Jarrett would leave the company a month following the Rumble, and would pop up on the national stage once more that fall when he signed with WCW.
7. Suicidal, Homicidal, Rumblecidal?
As noted in the intro to this list, WWE had to reach beyond the WWE scope in order to fill the 30 spots in the Royal Rumble match, including bringing in a few eclectic choices, like Dory Funk, Jr, Takao Omori, The Headhunters, and a returning Jake "The Snake" Roberts. But there were other wrestlers under consideration.
One recognizable star who nearly did the Rumble was Sabu, who had recently turned back up in ECW after several months on bad terms with the company. The reported plan was for the maniacal Sabu to cause his own elimination, as a way of protecting his image of a reckless and dangerous individual. However, it was Paul Heyman who talked Sabu out of doing the match, reportedly fearing that Sabu's participation could deal a blow to ECW's outlaw image.
6. Feel The Power
At WrestleMania 12 two months later, The Ultimate Warrior made his return to the WWE ring, notably squashing Triple H in about 90 seconds. Warrior hadn't been with the company since he was fired in November 1992, and things had been frosty between Warrior and Vince McMahon ever since, especially with a few legal skirmishes between them.
But McMahon needed star power and, before Warrior's return at WrestleMania, attempted to bring the former WWE Champion back into the fold at the Rumble. Negotiations hit a snag when Warrior sought the rights to his likeness, which McMahon wasn't prepared (at the time) to sign off on. Talks broke down, but would resume after the Rumble, with Linda McMahon acting as the go-between.
5. Hit The Music
So many great Royal Rumble moments in recent years have been amplified by the wrestler's entrance music. Whether it's a guest entrant, somebody returning from injury, or a major star arriving while his arch nemesis awaits inside the ring, music has enhanced the Rumble experience, making WWE's prime gimmick match into a true multimedia hit.
It's a bit odd, though, that the 1996 Royal Rumble was the first to give *every* entrant music. In the past, only numbers one and two entered to music (three and four, as well, in 1990, but nobody else), and the rest ran out to the cheers, boos, or indifference of the crowd. While that has its own novelty, the Rumble is improved with the music cues. It's kinda funny that 1996 was the match to introduce the music throughout, as a third of the field consisted of one-timers just filling out the capacity, so nobody would know them by their tune.
4. Rumble Before The Rumble
Just to further spell out how much "charity" WWE needed to make up the 30-man Rumble field, let's take a trip down to Memphis, home of Jerry Lawler's USWA promotion. In the nineties, USWA would act as a feeder group for WWE, running regular talent exchanges, and the promotion would come in handy at the onset of 1996.
Rumble match entrant Doug Gilbert, brother of "Hot Stuff" Eddie Gilbert, found his way into the match by winning a special Rumble at a USWA live event in Memphis the first week of January. Whatever effort went into setting up that Rumble match hardly seemed worth it, as Gilbert entered the match at number 14, and was bounded out in under three minutes by a very interesting fellow newcomer.
3. It's Time
Aside from Michaels' victory, the only real notable story from the Rumble match was that debut performance by Vader. The former WCW Champion would eliminate four competitors, square off with Yokozuna, and go on an in-ring rampage following his elimination, making his mark across 12 eventful minutes.
At the time of the match, Vader was in great need of surgery on an injured shoulder, and worked the bout as part of a compromise with McMahon - if he did the match, and filmed a suspension angle on Raw the following night, he could be written out to have the necessary surgery. Vader ended up returning to the ring far sooner than he'd intended, being talked into coming back at WrestleMania 12 as part of a six-man tag.
2. Matter Of Convenience
The main event of the pay-per-view was not the Rumble match itself, but rather the WWE Championship bout, pitting titleholder Bret Hart against fellow babyface The Undertaker. The match ran about 28 minutes, ending in a disqualification win for Undertaker after Diesel interfered, just as Hart looked to be finished off.
It marked the first time since the Rumble became a PPV event that the show ended with something other than the Rumble match. In this case, the match order played to the designed storyline. Diesel was angry at Undertaker for getting a title shot ahead of him, and when Diesel fell just short of winning the Rumble, he took his mounting frustrations out by refusing to let Undertaker win the championship. The 1997 and 1998 Rumbles would also see the title match go on last instead of the titular match.
1. Hart Strains
Given the star power on display in that final match, as well as the relative youth of each man, you'd think the battle between "The Hitman" and "The Phenom" would be a forgotten gem. Unfortunately, the match wasn't anything special, an average match stretched out to nearly a half hour, hampered further by a non-finish. Their One Night Only match this wasn't (well, there was a non-finish there, too).
Hart would note in his memoirs one possible reason for the lower-than-expected quality of the clash - he'd apparently injured his knee during the course of the bout. It wasn't a severe-enough injury to put Hart out of action, as he wrestled at the TV tapings the next night, working twice, including a World title rematch with Undertaker that aired weeks later.