'I always wanted to do something that’s never been done': The story behind the Royal Rumble Match
“If at first an idea is not absurd, then there will be no hope for it.” — Albert Einstein
No single match on the WWE calendar holds the same intrigue, boasts as devoted a following, or is as widely anticipated as the Royal Rumble Match. The 30-Superstar classic made its pay-per-view debut in January 1989, but the first time that a national audience bore witness to the over-the-top melee was a full year earlier, on national TV. Unlike the now tried-and-true 30-man lineup, the match that took place Jan. 24, 1988, which was something of a proof of concept, featured 20 Superstars.
But how did this enduring tradition come to be? What inspired WWE — still riding high off the success of WrestleMania III the year before — to reinvent the wheel yet again and launch a brand-new match type?
To find out, WWE.com went straight to the source and asked the man credited with inventing the Royal Rumble Match, Pat Patterson. In this exclusive interview, the WWE Hall of Famer explained the humble beginnings of one of the most enduring match types of all time. Sprinkled into the conversation are excerpts from a previously published WWE Magazine article in which the Superstars who participated in the 1988 Royal Rumble Match shared their memories from that fateful night.
Along with Patterson, here are the players involved:
BRET “HIT MAN” HART — The first entrant in the 1988 Royal Rumble Match, Bret "Hit Man" Hart lasted more than 25 minutes before being eliminated by Don Muraco. He was the co-winner of the 1994 Royal Rumble Match.
“HACKSAW” JIM DUGGAN — Drawing No. 13, "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan won the 1988 Royal Rumble Match. He last appeared in the annual brawl in 2012.
TITO SANTANA — As the second entrant, Tito Santana kicked off the Royal Rumble Match with Bret Hart. He competed in six Rumbles during his WWE career.
JAKE “THE SNAKE” ROBERTS — Noted ring psychologist Jake Roberts was the fifth entrant into the Royal Rumble Match. He helped eliminate two Superstars before being ousted by One Man Gang.
HILLBILLY JIM — One of WWE’s most popular personalities of the 1980s, Hillbilly Jim entered at No. 16 and eliminated Jim Neidhart in his sole Royal Rumble Match appearance.
HARLEY RACE — The sixth Superstar to enter the contest, Harley Race was eliminated by Don Muraco after lasting more than 10 minutes.
WWE.COM: What was the genesis of the Royal Rumble Match?
PAT PATTERSON: I was working in the office and my job was to be creative, and I always wanted to do something that’s never been done. It’s like, for example, a simple Steel Cage Match. Somebody, somehow, decided to have a Cage Match. Where that started, I have no idea, but somebody came up with the idea. I started thinking about the Battle Royal, but I had it in mind to simply start with two guys and then every two minutes a new guy comes out. When one guy is eliminated, he’s out, and so on and so forth. And I knew it was going to work. I could visualize it, I could see it. There was no question.
WWE.COM: Is it true the match was inspired specifically by the annual Battle Royals that used to take place in the San Francisco territory?
PATTERSON: Well, you know, [San Francisco wrestling promoter] Roy Shire was very good at building a Battle Royal. Once a year, he had the Battle Royal and you could bet on it: Somebody was going to be carried out on a stretcher, somebody was going to get hurt and it was exciting. He’d fly in some stars that were not in the territory — Dusty Rhodes and The Funks. Bringing in stars like that made it very, very special, but it was just a Battle Royal.
WWE.COM: So did others in WWE share your vision for the Royal Rumble Match?
PATTERSON: I used to talk to Vince [McMahon] about the Royal Rumble idea, even though I didn’t call it by that name, and Vince couldn’t visualize that. He’d say, “Oh my god, it’s too long. My god, all 20 guys, that’s going to take forever.”
WWE.COM: How did the concept get from the page to the ring? What brought it to fruition?
PATTERSON: We were having a meeting with [TV executive] Dick Ebersol. We had a special — I think it was the first ever special live on USA Network — and it was a live show from Hamilton, Ontario. So, we gave Dick Ebersol the matches we were going to have, and Dick Ebersol, for some reason, didn’t feel the card would be that exciting. So, we’ve got to figure out what to come up with, and Vince turns around and goes, “Pat, why don’t you tell Dick Ebersol your stupid idea.” [Laughs] So I turned around and looked at Vince and I said, “Well first of all, it’s not a stupid idea.” [Laughs] It was kind of funny.
I described what the concept would be and Dick Ebersol went crazy. He loved it. He said, “That would be so great for live television. Every two minutes another wrestler comes running in and you don’t know who it is until you hear the buzzer!” So Vince went, “You’re on your own. You’re going to have to do it yourself. You’re going to have to produce it.” Holy crap. It sounded good in my head, but to put it together was another story.
WWE.COM: With so many moving parts involved, how’d the process of actually executing that first Royal Rumble Match go?
PATTERSON: Oh my god, it was crazy. Actually, I produced the first Royal Rumble the morning of. The morning of. I was going crazy, because for some reason I thought I was going to sit down with Vince and put it together and all that and then he got so busy, tied up. And Vince says to me a day or two before, “Did you get your Battle Royal produced?” I said, “No.” I had to produce it that morning, going nuts. But I did it.
WWE.COM: What was the reaction from the wrestlers upon hearing about the match format?
PATTERSON: The funny thing is when the boys found out, they went, “What the hell is this?” Some of them thought it sounded good. Some thought the match was going to take a long time. I said, “Yeah, but it’s the first time, and we’re going to do it.”
JIM DUGGAN: I think any time when something new like that comes out, people wonder. They used to do Battle Royals one way in WWE at the time. So when they come back and change the whole format, I think everyone wondered if it would get over to the extent it has. I don’t think anyone knew how big it would become.
PATTERSON: The boys were excited, but they were trying to figure it out, asking different questions. “What number am I?” And all that stuff as far as the entrance goes and who is going to be next. I told them not to ask me too many questions and just listen, and when it’s your turn to go out there, that’s it.
JAKE ROBERTS: I knew that it would work, because pumping people in, one after the other, just creates excitement. If you put a fresh guy in every minute or so, it becomes, “Here comes this guy. Who is it? Who is it?” It’s an anticipation thing, and the fans are hoping that the next guy to come out will help their guy to win it. It’s all about the fans. It was tough on the damn athletes, though. It really was.
WWE.COM: Did you think the Royal Rumble Match would provide a lot of creative opportunities for storytelling?
PATTERSON: Absolutely. Over time, the boys got more and more creative. When you first started, you were just happy to get it done and that it worked out well.
DUGGAN: There are so many guys in the ring, and there are big men moving around. Joints are always an issue. No one wants anyone else falling on the back of his legs. It’s tough out there.
TITO SANTANA: When you’re a young guy in these matches, you want to go in there and do a bunch of stuff, and it doesn’t take long for one of the veterans to make you realize whatever you do you have to be aware of your surroundings. You can’t just be thinking about yourself.
HARLEY RACE: I was just thinking about how I was going to survive this thing and reduce the chance of injury and stuff like that. A lot of the younger ones that were there just for the sake of being there were all hyper and jumping around. You just find a way to keep yourself out of that part of it and hopefully you’re still there at the end.
BRET HART: It became a challenge to keep the fire going. It’s like having a fire on a branch in the ring and you have to keep passing it around and keep it lit all the time. And you have to keep that fire going throughout the entire match. Sometimes you bounce from one opponent to the next trying to light that fire again. For me, I found that, as much action that was going on, I could spark something in the corner that would steal all the attention from everyone else and make people watch me. I had an ability to not exactly steal the show, but make people watch the flare-up I had going with somebody in the corner. Then I would move onto somebody else and kick-start something else on the other side of the ring.
WWE.COM: What was the immediate reaction to the first Royal Rumble Match? Did you know as soon as the match began that you had something special?
PATTERSON: Oh, yeah. I felt it, without a doubt. I didn’t know what to expect at first, and we had the first two guys in the ring and then the buzzer hit and here comes another one, and after three or four guys went in, I knew we had something. It was so good. I didn’t think it was going to be that good. [Laughs]
HILLBILLY JIM: Lo and behold, after we did the first one, I knew it was going to keep on going. Of course, everything WWE was doing was pretty landmark stuff, innovative and groundbreaking, and everything was working in our direction and everything was in our favor. Wrestling was on fire. And the Royal Rumble, along with WrestleMania, was just a perfect fit, and all the boys on the show knew that it was something that was going to be going on every year after that.
Roughly 33 minutes after the opening bell, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan eliminated One Man Gang to reign victorious in the Royal Rumble Match. The event was not just a creative success, but also a commercial boon. The USA Network television special, which acted as counterprogramming to Jim Crockett Promotions’ ill-fated Bunkhouse Stampede pay-per-view, drew an 8.2 rating, making the program an unequivocal success. The very next January, the concept became the centerpiece for WWE’s newest addition to the pay-per-view calendar, the eponymous Royal Rumble.
WWE.COM: Were there any lessons you took away from that first Rumble? As soon as it ended, were you trying to think of ways to make it even bigger and better?
PATTERSON: Vince came up with that idea, to make it bigger and to include 30 Superstars. I thought to myself, “Holy crap, it’s going to be even longer now with all those guys in there.” And I wasn’t too sure if it was too long, if it’d take too much time. But if you have the right talent, it doesn’t matter; you can go an hour and a half if you wanted to. He had good talent, so it worked out very well.
As long as the fans love it, that’s all that matters.WWE.COM: A lot of big match types have been invented since 1988 — Hell in a Cell, the Elimination Chamber, TLC Matches. What is it about the Rumble that’s enabled it to stand the test of time?
PATTERSON: What makes the Royal Rumble exciting is the surprises. Who’s next? Who’s going to be eliminated? It’s really exciting. The buzzer goes and it’s like, “Wow, this guy’s in now!” And a lot of times, we have guys who left the business and we bring them back for one night and things like that. There’s always action going on in the ring and it’s a long match — it’s over an hour, you know, for one match. One hour. [Laughs] It’s a lot of fun. Hard to put together, but it’s a lot of fun when you watch it.
HART: The beauty of the Rumble is that every couple of minutes, another guy comes out, and just seeing what kind of difference it makes. When you’re having a Royal Rumble, and all of a sudden they send out Bob Backlund, he’s a whole different type of wrestler than The 1-2-3 Kid or Andre the Giant. It changes the complexity of the entire match. Everyone knows that if Andre is walking up, everyone’s antenna is going to go up. It’s a whole different mentality.
WWE.COM: Looking back over your many creative contributions, where does inventing the Royal Rumble Match rank?
PATTERSON: I’m very proud of it, no question, but it doesn’t blow up my head, like, “Oh man, I created the Royal Rumble!” I was never looking for that. I was just looking to be creative and do something different and I’m glad I did. I’m happy I did it. The fans love it, the boys love it, I love it, Vince loves it. That’s part of the job, to be creative. When something’s good, it lasts forever. I’m proud of it, but I don’t brag about it. Who invented it doesn’t matter. As long as the fans love it, that’s all that matters.