While 1988 wasn’t the year of the first Royal Rumble (the little-known original version was a flop in 1987), the ’88 Rumble was the first one nationally broadcast. It was a free show on the USA Network, which was great news for wrestling fans, but in reality the move to make it free was an assault against the NWA and Jim Crockett Promotions (which later morphed into WCW).
The story starts in 1987, when Crockett and Vince McMahon both promoted pay-per-views on Thanksgiving night (the first Survivor Series and Starrcade ’87). McMahon made a power play with cable companies and said if any of them carried Starrcade, he wouldn’t let them air WrestleMania, which caused most carriers to go with Vince’s demands. The move badly hurt Crockett’s buy rates.
Crockett then reserved January 24, 1988, for his Bunkhouse Stampede PPV, so a clever McMahon programmed the free Rumble against it. Crockett may have irked McMahon more than usual by holding the Stampede in the WWF’s backyard at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island.
McMahon sure did love flipping the bird to his competition back in those days. Partially because of the Rumble and partially because of the line-up, the Stampede sucked wind.
Hacksaw Jim Duggan won the Rumble, which back then wasn’t associated with then getting a title shot at WrestleMania.
Crockett got a measure of revenge later in 1988, when he in turn put the Clash of the Champions on free cable directly against WrestleMania IV. That first Clash is best remembered for the 45-minute draw between NWA World Champion Ric Flair and Sting; this match made Sting a superstar overnight.
Here we are 25 years later, and the Rumble is easily the No. 2 WWF event of the year. And you could argue that the C.M. Punk vs. Rock match will be the biggest of any Royal Rumble event. But behind the scenes, I’m not sure if any Rumble was as influential to the history of wrestling as the 1988 version during McMahon’s war with Crockett.