WWF Royal Rumble 1996 – A Retrospective Review

The Royal Rumble, WWF’s January staple, is an event punctuated by surprise entrants, dramatic confrontations, and crucial stepping stones on the road to WrestleMania. The 1996 edition, emanating from the Selland Arena in Fresno, California, promised excitement, especially with the heightened anticipation surrounding the Rumble match itself. Let’s delve into this classic event to see how it lived up to the hype, and the stories that wove the fabric of this PPV.

Opening the night was Ahmed Johnson vs. Jeff Jarrett. This contest was set to be a show-stealer given the unique mix of Ahmed’s raw power against the cunning technicality of Jarrett. Although the match had some bright spots, it was cut short by Jarrett’s decision to take a count-out loss, preserving himself but not adding much to the larger story. Behind the scenes, Jarrett was beginning to feel disenchanted with WWF, leading to a departure later that year.

The second bout, The Smoking Gunns vs. The Body Donnas, for the WWF Tag Team Championship was a demonstration of tag team wrestling artistry. Both teams showcased crisp coordination and some classic tag team maneuvers. The Gunns, Billy and Bart, emerged victorious, solidifying their status as top-tier talent in the WWF’s tag division. There’s an interesting note here: Zip and Skip (Body Donnas) were repackaged multiple times in their careers, but this gimmick, led by Sunny, was perhaps their most notable.

Goldust vs. Razor Ramon for the WWF Intercontinental Championship was soaked in personal animosity. With Goldust’s controversial and, at the time, edgy character taunting Razor leading up to their bout, the match was more a brawl than a technical masterpiece. It felt personal and intense. Goldust’s victory via a roll-up (aided by the distraction of the 1-2-3 Kid) added more fuel to the fire of their feud. Behind closed curtains, Scott Hall (Razor Ramon) was reportedly unhappy about this angle, feeling it pushed boundaries he wasn’t comfortable with.

The highlight of any Royal Rumble PPV is, of course, The Royal Rumble match. ’96’s version had a unique narrative with Shawn Michaels seeking redemption after collapsing in a match against Owen Hart two months prior. Notable participants included Jake “The Snake” Roberts, making a triumphant return, and Vader, marking his WWF debut. The overarching story was Michaels’ journey, starting at number 18 and outlasting everyone else, super-kicking Diesel out of the ring to claim victory. This win was pivotal in establishing “The Heartbreak Kid” as the WWF’s top star. In the backdrop, there were murmurs about the real-life friendships and politics playing out, especially with the emerging backstage group, “The Kliq,” of which Michaels was a part.

This led to the main event, a WWF World Championship bout between Bret “The Hitman” Hart and The Undertaker. These two icons clashing was a dream match, and they delivered a technical masterclass. The bout’s end, however, was marred by interference from Diesel, who pulled referee Earl Hebner out of the ring, resulting in a disqualification. Behind-the-scenes, Diesel (Kevin Nash) was on the verge of a transition, soon to be part of one of wrestling’s most significant moves with his jump to WCW, and this storyline played a part in his final few months with WWF.

From a production standpoint, Vince McMahon and Jerry Lawler’s commentary throughout the night added layers to the storylines. The Selland Arena, though not the largest venue, provided an intimate atmosphere, ensuring fan reactions were audible and impactful.

However, the 1996 Royal Rumble was at a transitional point for WWF. The New Generation Era was winding down, and the seeds of the Attitude Era were being sown. There was a palpable shift in character dynamics and storytelling, and this PPV was emblematic of that change.

While not remembered as the best Royal Rumble event, its significance lies in its reflection of the times – an era of evolution, stars moving on, new talent rising, and storylines becoming more intricate. In hindsight, Royal Rumble 1996 is a fascinating snapshot of a company on the cusp of a revolution.

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