By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

Every few months, I check in with a major WWF pay-per-view and keep a running diary of the proceedings, just for the hell of it. This month's "Royal Rumble" event intrigued me for a number of reasons, partly because I like the Rumble gimmick (more on this later), partly because I needed an excuse to convince the Sports Gal that I needed to pay-per-view it (she quickly fled the house for the night), and partly because the WWF has been in some serious trouble lately.

Triple H
Triple H wins the "Royal Rumble."

Yup, you heard me ... it hasn't been good times at all for the WWF. Vince McMahon and company originally blamed declining TV ratings and attendance figures on a post-Sept. 11 fallout, but that turned out to be an absolute crock.

Put it this way: If they hadn't mangled their potential merger with the WCW, if they hadn't turned off older fans with the over-smut, if they hadn't overexposed the product and their characters with two weekly wrestling shows, if they hadn't ruined some of their top characters by changing the plots too often ... well, maybe we could talk about the effects of 9/11.

The fact remains, McMahon and company have been running their business into the ground, XFL-style. There isn't a better indicator of this than the fact they're close to bringing back a number of washed-up WCW stars, including the decrepit Hulk Hogan, who hasn't wrestled a good match since I was in college. Instead of building young talent the way they did in the mid-'90s, they're relying on the same tactics that ruined WCW's product -- too many plot twists, too many character changes, and expensive veterans-prima donnas who don't care about advancing younger stars.

To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, it's a death trap, it's a suicide rap. And like most fans, I'm a little pissed off about it.

Anyway, I managed to put my disappointment in the WWF aside for one night to watch the Rumble and keep a running diary. If you hate pro wrestling, stop reading now or forever hold your peace. On to the diary ...

8 p.m. -- We're live from the Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia! You know this is a fake sport because there's a sellout crowd going wild in Atlanta. Like that ever happens.

We're joined by announcers Jim "Good God!" Ross and Jerry Lawler, along with three longneck bottles of Miller Lite, some leftover macaroni and cheese and an icy-cold Red Bull. Tonight's event starts off with a sappy montage of clips, sound bites and pictures from past Rumbles, with classical music blaring in the background. I love when the WWF does that. Within 15 minutes, we'll be seeing scantily clad women and fans holding signs like, "THE HO TRAIN STOPS HERE!"

8:04 -- First up, a tag-team match between the Dudley Boyz and champions Tazz and Spike Dudley, who were given the belts a few weeks ago because of a little-known rule that everyone on the WWF roster gets to hold the tag-team belts for at least two weeks. The Dudley Boyz were red-hot about six months ago with a "We like to throw people through tables" gimmick, but in classic WWF fashion, they were quickly overexposed, beaten into the ground and left for dead once the fans grew tired of them.

(Important note: Nobody beats a good thing into the ground quite like the WWF, another reason the product is struggling right now. If the WWF were a female college student, they would wear a cute red sweater to a party one night, receive a few compliments on it, then wear the same sweater every night for the next six months.)

8:06 -- I forgot to mention, the Dudley Boyz and Spike Dudley are all brothers. Spike is a 5-foot-4 white guy who weighs about 110 pounds; Bubba Ray is a big white guy; Devon is a big black guy. Don't ask.

8:09 -- Tazz comes in, cleans house, puts everyone in his favorite chokehold (the Tazz-mission) and gets Devon to tap out for the win. As Jim Ross says, "You don't have to be the biggest dog in the fight to have the biggest fight in you." Sounds like my prom night.

8:12 -- Next up, William Regal against Edge for the Intercontinental Championship. Usually when a wrestler has one name (like Edge), that means, "We couldn't think of a gimmick for this guy," but Edge isn't half-bad. As for Regal, he's an English guy coming off major surgery for a badly broken nose, which means everyone hopes he'll get inadvertently hit in the face again so blood will spurt everywhere. That's the least they could offer us for $39.95.

8:22 -- Regal pulls two old-time wrestling moves: First he pulls the referee in front of him to block a running clothesline from Edge, knocking the ref practically unconscious. Then he yanks a pair of brass knuckles out of his shorts, knocking Edge out cold to get the pin.

Is there anything worse than getting hit with a pair of brass knuckles that have been hanging out next to somebody's genitals for 15 sweaty minutes? Seriously, anything?

8:26 -- It's time for another WWF tradition: The crappy women's title match! Tonight we have newcomer Jazz (who looks a little like Don Cheadle in drag) against champion Trish Stratus (about 10 months away from her first Cinemax movie). Trish comes out wearing a purple outfit with her fake breasts popping out everywhere, prompting Lawler to say, "Purple puppies! Oh, puppies look great in purple!"

(You know, I'm not nearly drunk enough right now.)

8:32 -- Trish pins Don Cheadle for the win. They should have just scrapped that match and scheduled a "Grudge match for former female stars who thought they could survive without the WWF, but ended up relegated to Playboy shoots, Howard Stern appearances and guest cameos on crappy USA Network shows" between Chyna and Sable. That would have been fun.

Vince McMahon
The amazingly buff Vince McMahon.

8:37 -- It doesn't get any better than "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair's entrance, even if he's roughly 85 years old. Dah........ dahhhh......... dahhhhhhhhhhh...... DA-DAH!!! He's facing off against WWF owner Vince McMahon, although in the wrestling storyline, Flair is co-owner of the WWF and McMahon's trying to get back full control. Or something.

In a stunning upset, Vince looks much more ripped than Flair, who officially has lovehandles and breasts. I will now light myself on fire.

8:40 -- Vince seizes the upper hand early, choking Flair with Flair's catheter, then hitting him over the head with a bedpan.

8:45 -- In the least surprising moment of the night, Flair gets busted wide open after Vince hits him over the head with a trash can. I had 8:38 in the "When will Ric Flair get busted wide open" ESPN.com office pool. "He's bleeding profusely," gushes JR.

(You never hear the word "profusely" unless it's used with "bleeding profusely," do you? That's right up there with "ensuing" and "ensuing kickoff.")

8:50 -- Damn, Vince is really ripped for an old guy. Seriously, he's like this generation's Jack LaLanne. He must be working out with Triple H's pharmacist ... er, personal trainer.

8:52 -- Mmmmmm ... ginger snap cookies ...

8:54 -- Both guys are bleeding profusely now ... you have to love the WWF. No fear of AIDS in the world of sports entertainment. Anyway, Flair slaps his vaunted figure-four leglock on Vince for the win as the crowd goes bonkers. Not a bad match. Flair immediately leaves the ring to make his 9 p.m. canasta game backstage with Roddy Piper and Freddie Blassie.

Stone Cold Steve Austin, Stepahnie McMahon
Stone Cold Steve Austin interrupts Stepahnie McMahon. What? What?

8:58 -- Speaking of backstage, WWF superstar Stone Cold Steve Austin interrupts Stephanie McMahon's interview with the always hideous Michael Cole, as the crowd chants, "What? What?" in the background. Remember my old Table Test, how something either brings something to the table, brings nothing to the table or takes something off the table? The "What?" chant takes just about everything off the table, including plates, silverware and salt shakers. Just excruciating.

(And with that said, if I went to a WWF event this season, I'd be happily joining in chanting "What?" just like everyone else. As always, I have no point.)

9:02 -- The Rock takes on champion Chris Jericho for the undisputed WWF championship. Jericho could actually have potential for a Bob Backlund-type title reign -- grueling matches, takes tons of punishment, sells everyone else's moves well, somehow keeps holding onto the title -- but in classic WWF fashion, they won't give him time to build any momentum as champ.

(The big problem here: Because of two weekly TV shows and monthly pay-per-views, WWF storylines change practically every week. Not only does it make the sport impossible to follow, they diluted the impact of title changes by having them change hands with the frequency of the Los Angeles Clippers breaking out their team bong. Really frustrating. Imagine the NFL having 10 different Super Bowl champs over the course of a single season. Would you even care after awhile? That's how wrestling fans feel.)

9:09 -- Jericho's doing "bad guy" things right now -- posing for the crowd, throwing cheapshots, yelling at The Rock and so on. He's probably gone back and forth from bad guy to good guy at least 375 times over the past two years, to the point that his credibility has been all but ruined (although not as badly as Kurt Angle, who should file a civil lawsuit against Team Vince for the way his character has been yanked around). Another major problem with the WWF -- even "Melrose Place" developed their characters better. I'm venting.

  The referee got knocked out, which means "evil referee" Nick Patrick came in to take over the match (he's against all good guys). I would make a joke here about how other sports should adopt the "evil referee" motif, but the NBA has been doing that bit for years. How do you think the Knicks made the 1999 Finals? 
  

9:13 -- Jericho falls groin-first on the top turnbuckle. Ouch. That always gets me. Not sure how they fake that one. Not sure if I want to know, either.

9:18 -- Rock mistakenly starts clearing off the WWF announcer's table for a piledriver -- mistaking it for the Spanish announcer's table -- before JR and Jerry correct him and send him to the other table. That was high comedy. When will Bob Ley produce his "Outside the Lines" special about the bias against Spanish wrestling announcers over the years?

(Note: Rock sent Jericho through the WWF table, anyway, with a vicious chokeslam. Hey, at least it was original. The Spanish announcers seem relieved and a little giddy.)

9:21 -- Whoa, the referee got knocked out, which means "evil referee" Nick Patrick came in to take over the match (he's against all good guys). I would make a joke here about how other sports should adopt the "evil referee" motif, but the NBA has been doing that bit for years. How do you think the Knicks made the 1999 Finals?

9:24 -- Hey, here's an original scenario: The Rock got screwed out of a win, because he pinned Jericho when all the referees were knocked out, then Jericho cheated to win the match as Ross screamed, "Noooooo! Noooooooo!" I'd like to order the déjà vu please? On the bright side, at least they're trying to build Jericho as champ. At least this week.

Jericho
Jericho's still the champ, this week.

9:32 -- Time for the Rumble. Here's the setup: Every two minutes, a wrestler runs into the ring until 30 wrestlers have entered. Wrestlers are eliminated when they get thrown over the top rope. The winner (a k a, the last man standing), gets a title match at WrestleMania. The 29 losers get the Royal Rumble home video and 15 minutes alone in Dressing Room B with Stephanie McMahon.

Four great Rumble traditions:

A. When the crowd chants down at the end of two minutes because they're excited to see who's running out next ... and then it's somebody lousy like Al Snow. Always good comedy. The Rumble is the equivalent of garbage time in the NBA -- everybody gets to play for a few minutes. And it's always fun to see everyone's gimmicks. A little too much fun, actually.

B. Every few years, one of the early entrants somehow lingers until the end as the announcers make him seem like the wrestling version of Kellen Winslow in the '81 NFL playoffs. Great ploy.

C. Because of injuries, we always end up with one or two or three has-beens recruited to fill out the 30-man roster. And I mean, has-beens, as in "These guys were famous about 15 years ago and haven't been to the gym in years" kind of has-beens. It's always fun to see a guy with a pot belly wearing wrestling trunks and getting thrown around, isn't it?

D. If you're in college, there isn't a better gambling event on the planet than the Rumble. Get 15 guys to chip in for the pay-per-view, everyone draws two numbers from 1-to-30, and you get the guys who run out when your numbers are up. I'll never forget the drama back in 1991 when we roped my roommate JackO into throwing in $5 to be in the pool ... and he drew Tugboat. Chairs were flying. Man, I miss college sometimes.

Time for a break ... I need to run down to my local Store 24 and buy some Sour Patch Kids ...

***** ***** *****

9:43 -- We're back. Not only did I buy some Sour Patch Kids, I exchanged pleasantries with my new favorite guy behind the counter -- The Bitter Guy With Really Bad B.O. Who Gets Angry Every Time You Hand Him a Twenty. He kills me. Even if I have smaller bills, I still hand him a $20 bill every time. I think he's replaced Joe the Alcoholic Counter Guy in the Store 24 Pantheon for me.

Is that all you have? You have anything smaller? Awwww, Christ...

Anyway, here are the first few entrants in the Rumble who enter the ring in two-minute intervals: Rikishi (big, fat Samoan guy); Goldust (sexually confused, homo-erotic demeanor and dressed in all gold --don't ask); Big Bossman (deranged former corrections officer); Bradshaw (grizzled Texan); Al Snow (carries around a fake mannequin head); and Lance Storm (considered a "good technical wrestler," loosely translated to mean "we haven't thought of a gimmick for him yet" -- he's greeted by dead silence from the crowd).

(The one highlight so far: Rikiski gave the Bossman his "StinkyFace," where he pins somebody in the corner, then rubs his gigantic rear end in their face as the crowd goes wild. The lesson, as always: Wrestling fans love gigantic rear ends.)

The Undertaker
"Everybody Loves The Undertaker," coming this fall on CBS.

9:47 -- Enter the first major star: Undertaker (once a Devil worshipper, now a tattooed motorcycle riding redneck), who once urinated next to me in Las Vegas. This event is perfect for him -- all he can do is clothesline-chokeslam people, he doesn't sell anyone's moves and he can't wrestle to save his life. Of course, he quickly clears house and jettisons everyone in the ring. His success over the years has been almost inexplicable -- he's the Ray Romano of wrestling. I don't know anyone who likes him.

9:52 -- The Hardy brothers (Matt and Jeff) enter back-to-back and get thrown out by the Taker within two minutes. Just a few weeks ago, the brothers were feuding ... now they're buddies again. What feud? Classic WWF.

Even sadder, the Hardy Boyz were the hottest tag-team on the planet all through last year, until Team Vince had them wrestle so many high-flying gimmick matches (Ladder Match, Steel Cage, etc.) that fans literally became immune to their moves. Matt Hardy could jump off the top of a 35-foot steel cage, miss his target and go crashing into a piranha tank and I wouldn't bat an eyelash as this point. Sorry, guys.

9:55 -- In a shocker, a newcomer named Maven (the winner of the MTV reality wrestling show "Tough Enough") dropkicks Undertaker out of the ring and eliminates him. That was a "Duke over UNLV in '91" caliber upset. I'm not kidding. Maven quickly receives some punches, a vicious chair shot and a head-first dive through a popcorn machine for his efforts, courtesy of a peeved Undertaker. Welcome to the WWF! JR calls Undertaker "absolutely psychotic."

10:05 -- Some new entrants: Diamond Dallas Page (WCW has-been); Scotty Too Hotty (prancing idiot); Christian (high-flying guy with one name); and Chuck Palumbo (think Ace & Gary from the Ambiguously Gay Duo). Can I get fries with that? The crowd seems utterly mortified ... until the Godfather (a former pimp turned wrestler) emerges from backstage with 12 of his hos (local strippers recruited to play hookers) to a humongous pop from the crowd.

(Or is it "hoes"? "Ho's"? Does the AP Stylebook cover this?)

10:11 -- Christian, Prince Albert (tattoo/piercing specialist) and Saturn (another one-name guy with no gimmick) team up on Chuckie as the crowd heads to the concession stands. Smartly, the WWF sends out Stone Cold (a three-time Rumble winner) as the next entrant. What? What? What? What? Stone Cold sends everyone packing as the crowd goes into some sort of a What-frenzy. I might have to try this gimmick with the Sports Gal.

"You ordered wrestling again, didn't you?" "What?" "You heard me." "What?" "Stop saying that." "What?"

10:15 -- As Stone Cold battles Val Venis (former porn star) and Test (another one-name guy with no gimmick), Ross embraces the moment: "Some men have to win this match ... for some men, in their own minds, in their own psyche, they have to win this match ... and Austin is one of those men." Amen, JR. Amen.

10:22 -- Here comes Triple H, his first pay-per-view since suffering a serious leg injury last spring. The crowd goes legitimately nuts. Not only is Triple H one of the few genuine WWF stars, not only did he dump Chyna for Vince's daughter in real life (what an upgrade!) ... but he's so jacked that it looks like he's wearing one of the old Hans and Franz costumes. Now here's a guy you wouldn't want to accidentally rear end at a stoplight.

  Last week, Mr. Perfect was probably wrestling at a shopping mall; now he's battling Stone Cold and Triple H on a live pay-per-view. I'm speechless.  
  

10:24 -- After a tense, prolonged staredown, Austin and HHH start trading punches when the next entrant -- The Hurricane (a mock superhero in one of the four or five worst gimmicks ever) -- comes running in for two seconds, then gets tossed out. That made me laugh out loud. Nothing beats a third-tier wrestler getting summarily disposed in the Rumble in two seconds. You can't put a price on this kind of fun.

10:28 -- Whoa! Entrant No. 25 is this year's token washed-up former star ... Mr. Perfect, Curt Hennig! Last week, Perfect was probably wrestling at a shopping mall; now he's battling Stone Cold and Triple H on a live pay-per-view. I'm speechless. Even Jim Ross was so stunned that he couldn't deliver his trademark, "Wait a second, what's that? Good God! That's Mr. Perfect's music!" properly.

10:38 -- Let's fast-forward to the final five entrances -- Kurt Angle (a bad guy this week); the Big Show (the Shawn Kemp of the WWF, in terms of unrealized potential and weight problems); Kane (the fire-throwing, mask-wearing big guy who hasn't wrestled a watchable match in his life); Rob Van Dam (an electric, high-flying guy who can't give a good interview to save his life); and Booker T (a cross between Cyrus from "The Warriors" and Ray Lewis). Kane eliminates Show, Angle eliminates Kane, Booker eliminates RVD, and Stone Cold eliminates Booker. We're down to four.

(I'm shaking my head about RVD. He was threatening to make The Leap a few months ago, until his penchant for wrestling sloppy matches and injuring other wrestlers finally caught up to him. What a shame. He's right out of that Superfly Snuka-Macho Man Savage mold -- just a complete, utter disregard for his own body, and he has some charisma to boot. Very popular with the crowd, too. Oh, well.)

10:38 -- After Angle eliminates Stone Cold, we're down to three: Angle, HHH and Mr. Perfect. Did Perfect win a "Finish in the final three for Royal Rumble 2002" bid on eBay or something? Just for kicks, Stone Cold re-enters the ring and hits everyone over the head with a steel chair.

(I mean, we really need to incorporate the steel chair into other sports, don't we, just for those "Somebody's so disgusted that they can't even figure out how to adequately respond" moments? Imagine last week during the Pats-Raiders game, right after the referees reversed the Tom Brady fumble, if Jon Gruden just stomped onto the field and hit the referee over the head with a steel chair. No jury would have convicted him.)

10:43 -- After Triple H finally sends Hennig packing, he battles Angle for the next few minutes before finally tossing him over the top rope for the victory (and a spot in the WrestleMania main event next March). Good stuff. They even used the old "Triple H went over the top rope, but held on before his feet touched the floor, then came back to win" ploy, a Rumble finishing staple.

So that's that. After being ready to pronounce last rites on the WWF, I have to admit ... they slapped together a thoroughly enjoyable pay-per-view. Let's just say that reports of the WWF's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Until WrestleMania ...

Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.



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