On this date 35 years ago, the first WWE Royal Rumble happened in Hamilton

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Published January 24, 2023 at 5:05 pm

Of all the ways that Hamilton has influenced the squared circle, hometown wrestling fans buying into the first televised Royal Rumble is one that should be appreciated.

Especially since the city was the locale for the first time the biggest wrestling promotion in North America tried the concept in a televised show, and it happened on this date 35 years ago. Back on Jan. 24, 1988, the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE) broke out a new match format in front of a crowd of 18,000 at Copps Coliseum and a U.S. cable-TV audience on the USA Network.

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Present-day devotees to wrestling know the format well. It has become a major event on the wrestling calendar, and this year’s Royal Rumble, slated for Saturday (Jan. 28) at the Alamodome in San Antonio, will spark viewing parties and get-togethers. Alliances can be formed seemingly on the fly as the contestants vie to be the last one standing. A women’s Rumble came into being in 2018. The winners are generally guaranteed a WWE Title match at WrestleMania.

Back in the day, a battle royal was part of the WWF lexicon, but the wrestlers all started in the ring. The Montréal-born Pat Patterson, getting well out in front of Survivor and reality television becoming a staple of the North American media diet, came up with the idea of tweaking that format. His idea was the wrestlers, having drawn numbers at random, would make a “run-in” to the ring at timed intervals, with the crowd shouting approval.

It was tried out in a house show in St. Louis in October 1987, with pre-show advertising announcing that winner would get a title shot against Hulk Hogan. But the ring announcer played spoiler by announcing that One Man Gang would take on Hogan in a headlining match at an upcoming show, making it rather anti-climatic when he did, indeed, win.

That did not help WWF chairman Vince McMahon grasp the grappling concept. But legendary television producer Dick Ebersol, a frequent McMahon creative partner over the years, thought the Jan. 24 show had a lacklustre lineup. That led to McMahon telling Patterson to make a pitch.

“Vince turns around and he says, ‘Pat, why don’t you tell Dick Ebersol that stupid idea you had?’ ” Patterson, who died in 2020 at age 79, told CBS Sports in 2017.

“I said, ‘First of all, it’s not stupid.’ Then I gave the concept to Dick Ebersol about one guy comes in, then two minutes later another guy comes in. Dick Ebersol was going crazy. He says, ‘My God, this is the greatest thing for television!’ ”

Keeping in mind that Ebersol was executive producer of Saturday Night Live in the Eddie Murphy era, and later would be adulated as the most powerful person in sports by The Sporting News, his take on TV-friendliness carried some gravitas. Adding a countdown clock to the TV screen — years before broadcasts of team sports added a scorebug graphic — and playing intro music before each run-in were added to help the fans get into it.

So that was the rest of the story. Bret (The Hitman) Hart got to be the leadoff man out of the 20 wrestlers, and spent the longest time in the ring at 25 minutes and 42 seconds. The last man, Junkyard Dog, also had the shortest stay at 2:30.

In the end, the last three on their feet were Hacksaw Jim Duggan (13th into the ring), Canadian star Dino Bravo (17th), and One Man Gang (19th). Bravo was billed as the world’s strongest man, and Gang was billed at 6-foot-9 and 450 pounds, and the two had already partnered on an elimination. Duggan, as TV analyst (and future governor of the U.S. state of Minnesota) Jesse Ventura noted, was “facing a two-on-one without the two-by-four” he was wont to wield as a weapon.

Somehow, after taking a double clothesline, Duggan turned Gang’s aggression against both the big man and Bravo and got the win, as the fans at Copps roared approval.

But to give an idea of how low-key the first Rumble was, it wasn’t even the climax to the night. Great ideas sometimes take time to earn their due, but fans in Hamilton apparently bought in right away.

(Cover image: YouTube.)

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