Eleven years ago, Philadelphia hosted one of the best Royal Rumbles in WWE history, but it’s largely ignored because of who won.
As Philadelphia prepares to host the Royal Rumble at Wells Fargo Center on Sunday, exactly 11 years since Philly’s first Royal Rumble, let’s look back at the 2004 Royal Rumble match. (If you forgot who won, Achilles Heel won’t spoil this recap by telling you who won before the end.)
One difference between the two Royal Rumbles is that in 2004 the building was called Wachovia Center. But one similarity between the two events is that Brock Lesnar is the reigning champion. At the 2004 Rumble, he successfully defended the WWE Championship against Hardcore Holly, who was looking for revenge after Lesnar broke his neck (for real), causing him to be sidelined for a year. This Sunday, Lesnar is defending the WWE World Heavyweight Championship against John Cena and Seth Rollins.
Speaking of Rollins, Jamie Noble, now part of J&J Security, which accompanies Rollins almost everywhere he goes, challenged Rey Mysterio for the WWE Cruiserweight Championship at the 2004 Royal Rumble. Mysterio prevailed to retain the title.
Also on the undercard at the 2004 Royal Rumble, Evolution’s Ric Flair and Batista successfully defended the tag team championship against the Dudley Boyz (D-Von and Bubba Ray) in a tables match, Eddie Guerrero beat Chavo Guerrero – Eddie would defeat Lesnar for the WWE Championship three weeks later at “No Way Out” – and Triple H and Shawn Michaels battled to a no-contest in a brutal and bloody Last Man Standing match for the World Heavyweight Championship. It’s noteworthy that all four members of Evolution (Triple H, Flair, Batista and Intercontinental champion Randy Orton) held titles.
A major difference between 2004 and 2015 is that Cena was still in his vintage jersey and backward-hat wearing, borderline-swearing, word-life rapper phase. For his interview early in the show, Cena wore a Tug McGraw jersey from Mitchell & Ness. McGraw, the quirky relief pitcher who nailed down the Phillies’ first World Series title in 1980, died from brain cancer three weeks before the Rumble.
As for the Royal Rumble match, a major focus before the match was the split between RAW and Smackdown. There were 15 participants from RAW and 15 from Smackdown. Even the broadcast team, with RAW’s Jim Ross and Smackdown’s Tazz, was divided. Before the match, RAW general manager Eric Bischoff delivered an in-ring promo running down Smackdown and its general manager, Paul Heyman. Heyman came to the ring to deliver a verbal retort to Bischoff, but got involved in a physical confrontation. Steve Austin then came out and delivered Stone Cold stunners to Bischoff and Heyman.
In an unusual twist, fans knew before the match that Chris Benoit was the first entrant into the Royal Rumble and Bill Goldberg had the coveted No. 30 entry position.
One of the interesting elements of this Rumble is there were more than the usual number of potential winners. In addition to Benoit and Goldberg, Kurt Angle, Big Show and Randy Orton were legitimate threats to win. Angle had guaranteed victory, saying he would dedicate his victory to those serving in the American military. Chris Jericho and Rob Van Dam, playing off his popularity in Philly due to ECW, were also potential winners, with RVD being a long shot.
Let’s get to the match.
Orton drew No. 2. After Benoit and Orton exchanged shots for 90 seconds, Mark Henry, Tajiri and then JBL – in that order – entered the ring. After flattening Orton, Henry and Tajiri with vicious clotheslines, JBL was eliminated by Benoit.
Rhino was next at No. 6. His gore missed Benoit and hit Henry, which knocked Tajiri off the apron to the floor. Benoit then threw out Henry, who had been blinded by Tajiri’s green mist (the camera missed it the first time) just before the gore by Rhino. Matt Hardy entered at No. 7, Scott Steiner at No. 8, Matt Morgan at No. 9, and The Hurricane at No. 10. The Hurricane was quickly eliminated by Morgan, who threw him over the top rope like a lawn dart.
Booker T, entering at No. 11, eliminated Steiner just as Kane reached the ring as No. 12. Then the Undertaker’s music hits. Kane, looking up the entrance ramp, seems transfixed by the gongs. (Kane had “buried alive” the Undertaker at Survivor Series.) Booker T throws the distracted Kane over the top rope. Spike Dudley comes toward the ring, but Kane intercepts him and choke slams him on the metal entrance ramp. No. 13 was definitely unlucky for Spike Dudley.
Benoit eliminates Rhino just as Rikishi arrives to the ring at No. 14. Rene Dupree enters at No. 15 and dropkicks Hardy off the apron. But Dupree celebrates with a dance, and then turns around and eats a superkick from Rikishi, eliminating him from the match.
A-Train (Tensai) comes in at No. 16. Benoit then eliminates Morgan, and Orton eliminates Rikishi and Booker T in short order. Shelton Benjamin (one half of The World’s Greatest Tag Team) comes in at No. 17. Benoit eliminates A-Train. Orton eliminates Benjamin.
In a nice touch, this brings the Rumble back to the Orton-Benoit pairing that started the match. Benoit and Orton go one-on-one for a little while until their heads collide, knocking both men to the mat. Ernest “The Cat” Miller comes out with sidekick Lamont) at No. 18 and dances to “Somebody Better Call My Momma.” Benoit throws out Lamont and Orton throws out “The Cat,” much to the crowd’s delight. Then Orton and Benoit return to knocking the crap out of each other.
Business picks up with Angle in at No. 19. Orton rests in the corner while Angle and Benoit battle each other. Rico comes in at No. 20, but doesn’t stick around too long. Orton RKOs Rico, and then dumps him over the top rope.
Foley makes surprise appearance
Test’s music plays, but he doesn’t come out at No. 21. Meanwhile, Orton hits Angle with an RKO and kicks at a prone Benoit. On the video board, Test is shown knocked out in the hallway. Austin, who was billed as the sheriff of WWE, orders someone off-camera to go to the ring as No. 21.
Mick Foley comes out! The frenzied fans are on their feet. The storyline was that Orton had spit on Foley and called him a coward. Before the match, Tazz and Ross focus on an empty chair supposedly reserved for Foley. Tazz forces Ross to admit that Foley is a coward for not showing up at the Rumble.
A running clothesline to Orton by Foley takes both men out of the Rumble. But Foley’s not there to win. He’s there to beat the hell out of Orton. Angle and Benoit battle inside ring while Foley, wearing a “Have a Nice Day” Mankind t-shirt and his trademark red-checked flannel shirt, beats on Orton outside the ring. Foley slams Orton’s head on the metal ring steps, chokes him with a wire and slams him into a ringside barrier. While this is going on, Christian enters the Rumble at No. 22.
Foley picks up the steel steps to hit Orton, but pauses to hit Finley, who was among the agents coming to stop Foley, with the steps instead. That temporary distraction allows Orton to deliver two hellacious chair shots to Foley’s head. Ross exclaims, “Good God almighty! Stop it!” Ross’ genuine emotion elevates the action – in this case selling the viciousness of Orton’s chair shots. Orton slams Foley back-first on the metal entrance ramp, but Foley rallies and clotheslines Orton. Foley pulls out Mr. Socko, but then applies the mandible claw to Nunzio, who enters at No. 23. Orton uses this opportunity to hit Foley with a low blow and then scramble up the ramp to the back.
This segment with Orton and Foley was one of the highlights of the match. It’s difficult to overstate the awesomeness of this segment, which the live crowd loved.
By the way, Nunzio recovers and smartly sits by the ringside barricade rather than enter the ring.
Big Show (with hair) enters at No. 24. He towers over Christian and Benoit. Jericho (with long hair) enters at No. 25, and goes after Angle. Charlie Haas (the other half of The World’s Greatest Tag Team) enters at No. 26. Christian double-crosses Jericho, but Jericho backflips him out of the ring, with Ross informing us that Jericho has eliminated Christian for the second straight year. (Ross’ great attention to detail helps develop a feud that leads to the vastly underrated match between Christian and Jericho at WrestleMania XX).
Billy Gunn enters at No. 27. Cena (still wearing the McGraw jersey) enters at No. 28. Cena throws Nunzio into the ring. RVD receives a big Philly reception when he enters at No. 29.
Goldberg, entering at No. 30, hits the ring like a tornado. He immediately spears Big Show and Gunn. He punches the other participants. Then Goldberg power slams Haas and throws him out. He spears Nunzio. He clotheslines Gunn out of the ring. He picks Nunzio overhead and throws him out.
Goldberg is about to try to suplex Big Show, but Lesnar, after exchanging words with Goldberg in a face-to-face locker room interview after his title defense, races to the ring and hits Goldberg with an F-5. The crowd was hot for Goldberg and Lesnar, which makes one wonder how great a feud this could have been if they both hadn’t left the company after their infamous match at WrestleMania XX. Angle then dumps Goldberg over top rope.
And the winner is …
There are six participants left: Big Show, Cena, RVD, Angle, Jericho and Benoit. They all try to throw out Big Show. He overpowers all of them. They try again. Angle takes out Big Show’s leg. Jericho hits a Lionsault. RVD hits a frog splash off the top rope. Cena hits a 5-knuckle shuffle. Benoit delivers a head butt off the top rope. But they struggle to pick Big Show off the mat and throw him out.
Show breaks loose again. He throws out Cena and RVD and tries to throw out Jericho, but Jericho “skins the cat.” Jericho again lands on the ring apron when Big Show tries to throw him out. He nails Big Show with a bulldog off the top rope and then applies the Walls of Jericho. Big Show eventually picks Jericho up for a choke slam and throws him over the top rope.
Angle puts Big Show in an ankle lock, but Big Show “throws out” Angle with his legs.
Benoit has been presented as a great wrestler who could never win the big one, including by Flair as Evolution (minus Triple H) interrupts a Benoit interview earlier in the show. Tazz talks about how it’s always “close, but no cigar” for Benoit.
Benoit applies a front face lock to Big Show. Big Show easily lifts Benoit and places him over top rope, but Benoit hangs on to the front face lock. Benoit drops to the apron, using leverage to pull Show over the top rope and down to the floor. The crowd erupts as the underdog finally earns a shot at the World Championship!
This was a tremendous Royal Rumble. There was legitimate drama about who would win and there was great attention to detail. The Mick Foley-Randy Orton feud caught fire (the feud culminates in an incredible hardcore match for the Intercontinental Championship at “Backlash”), the Brock Lesnar-Goldberg spark was lit, and there was a subtle step taken toward the Christian-Chris Jericho match at WrestleMania.
The underdog story of Chris Benoit was also well told. That feel-good story, of course, is ruined today by the knowledge that Benoit murdered his family and committed suicide. At the time, however, the elevation of Benoit (and Guerrero) into the main event picture was a huge development. Benoit won the World Heavyweight Championship in an amazing triple threat match with Triple H and Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XX, another terrific moment largely ignored by WWE because of the tragedy perpetrated by Benoit in 2007.
Like the main event at WrestleMania XX, the 2004 Royal Rumble has been allowed to fade into history. There’s a good reason not to celebrate this match, but it’s a shame that one of the best Royal Rumbles in history has largely been forgotten.