I’m a grown adult. We probably should start there. Married for 15 years, father of four, mortgage, steady job, the whole deal. And ever since that morning in 1987 when I was over at a friend’s house and saw Randy Savage drape Ricky Steamboat over a guardrail, then leap off the top turnbuckle onto his back with a larynx-crushing double axe-handle, professional wrestling has been part of my life.
This was around second grade, a few years after I got into baseball. And while I was never actually any good at baseball, I found a passion for the game’s numbers. By 1988 I was keeping score during games (I spent a lot of time on the bench), making my own scorebook on graph paper and compiling team statistics. Seriously.
One of the first two Coliseum Video releases I owned was the 1990 Royal Rumble, and before long there I was, in front of the VCR with a legal pad, pencil and a stopwatch, never guessing I’d be doing essentially the same thing decades later with a laptop, Excel and WWE Network.
A lot has transpired between then and now, but for the purposes of what we’re doing here, the most significant is the fact there have been 30 Royal Rumbles. And for a Rumble numbers nerd, that’s the perfect time to take stock. There have been 900 Rumble entry spots (but not exactly 30 each year — thanks 1988 and 2001). There have been 31 Rumble winners (thanks, 1994). There have been 316 wrestlers who entered a Rumble — 288 who wrestled as only one character, but another 28 who together account for 66 additional characters.
Yes, characters. One of the great challenges of getting deep into Rumble numbers, as opposed to baseball, is the peculiarities of professional wrestling. There’s a constant struggle to find the perfect balance between treating the numbers as honestly as possible (like being impressed Steve Austin won three times without wondering if that was somehow a subtle corporate dig at Hulk Hogan) and acknowledging that Barry Darsow was both Smash and the Repo Man. And that Diesel was both Kevin Nash and Glenn Jacobs. The biggest vexation for all my calculations is Mick Foley entering the 1998 Rumble three times as three different characters.
Striving for that balance requires a set of ground rules, but in so doing acknowledging the inherent impossibility of total reconciliation. In the essays that follow, I’m trying as much as possible to look at each match and career in terms of canonical story rather than known or speculative offstage machinations.
Within the match itself, the rules are a little easier but still challenging. An entrant’s time in the match begins when the buzzer hits zero, not when they hit the ring. Time ends when the body hits the floor. Wikipedia doesn’t count things this way, but it’s the only way to preserve my sanity. Why? You can always count the clock, but you can’t always see when a wrestler enters the ring. Also, WWE has, over time, been staggeringly inconsistent in the way it enforces rules about what it means to legally “enter” the match.
The only plausible way to tabulate eliminations is to give each wrestler who took part in an elimination full credit for that feat. The alternative is doling out 0.125 credits to the eight people who helped eliminate Viscera in 2007. Sometimes this means there are more eliminations than entrants. Yet sometimes there are fewer because no one gets credit when a wrestler causes their own elimination, when someone no-shows or doesn’t make it to the ring. Neither does an illegal elimination get counted, such as Kane returning to toss CM Punk in 2014 or Giant Gonzalez appearing from nowhere to oust Undertaker in 1993. My numbers routinely differ from WWE’s, but it’s clear I care more about this stuff than they do and therefore am worthy of undying trust.
And so it is we embark on this journey through 30 years of the Royal Rumble. The goal is not to determine which is the best or worst or most significant but to try to approach each on its own merits while also tracing the evolution of various standout performers throughout the years. From Dory Funk Jr. (born Feb. 3, 1941) to Bo Dallas (May 25, 1990), the Rumble field includes 54 members of the WWE Hall of Fame and 37 wrestlers who are no longer alive. Add up their individual performances and there’s more than 168 hours of match time and 955 eliminations. Some 61 different wrestlers have made a final four but only 23 have had a hand raised in victory.
Much like with baseball, each Rumble offers the potential for something unique. Occasionally it’s evident to any viewer, but sometimes a statistician is required to coax the unicorn from hiding. But mostly, I have spent hours upon hours watching Rumbles, at times going frame by frame to determine just when a second foot hit the ringside floor, and making spreadsheets and charts and tables and lists and it seems silly to keep all that to myself. I don’t imagine there’s any one person equally as interested in every minute aspect, but hopefully each bit of data is at least useful to someone.
Also, this is fun. Wrestling is supposed to be fun. We have to both suspend disbelief regarding what happens in the ring and also try to suspend knowledge of what happens outside. I’ve come a long way since that Randy Savage double axe-handle in 1987, but in some ways I’m still that child watching a stranger become a superhero. I hope to always keep a little of that innocence, and I hope you can, too.