I remember January 29, 2012 in two ways. As a gravely sad night for my family and yet another crazy night for pro wrestling.
At the time, the only way I could watch a PPV special event was to find an illegal and choppy stream online, as these monthly specials ran upwards of $45 and rarely delivered on their promises. So on that fateful evening, I planned to go to see the Royal Rumble PPV at a bar, a practice I’d only just heard of. Watch wrestling in a packed room with other fans? Sounded delightful.
And then we got the phone call with the news of my dad’s twin brother Pat passing away. It was gutting. Pat meant the damn world to me, and after getting that news, I certainly didn’t feel like going out. Staying at home with my parents felt damn more appropriate. My parents actually knew better, and encouraged me to go out to watch wrestling.
The only viewing party I could find took place at Highland Park, a bar on 34th and 3rd avenue that is no longer in business. I arrived late, the place was packed, not a single seat available, and that brought me down another level. As each match — and I don’t remember any except the Rumble itself — passed, I slowly calmed down.
And then the Rumble happened, and it’s the kind of match that necessitates an explanation. It starts with two wrestlers in the ring, and every 90 (or so) seconds, another enters the arena until 30 (except that time it was 40) have joined the match. Each wrestler’s theme music plays, they run to the ring and entrants are only eliminated by getting thrown over the top rope and having both feet touch the ground.
The Rumble’s rules lead to comedy (see Kofi Kingston’s inventive ways to avoid having his feet hit the ground), chaos (30 wrestlers in a single match?!), drama (the winner goes on to challenge for a championship in a main event at Wrestlemania) and often disappointment. Why disappointment? Because wrestling fans love to predict surprise entrants and winners, and that creates expectations that aren’t met.
In 2012, I and other fans at Highland Park were disappointed that the match was won by Sheamus, the pasty-as-fuck Irish brawler that many fans are bored with. We expected the returning Chris Jericho would win the match, which would then setup a dream match between the Jericho (an all-time great known for top-notch technical wrestling and a brilliance on the microphone) and CM Punk, the then-WWE Champ. When Jericho returned a few months prior, he worked a smiling and speechless gimmick until one Monday Night Raw when he said “This Sunday at the Royal Rumble, it is going to be the end of the world as you know it,” which everyone saw as a sign he would be challenging CM Punk, who called himself “The Best In The World.”
WWE, possibly aware that so-called “smart fans” believed Jericho would win, placed him in the finish of the Rumble against Sheamus. After a series of near-eliminations that found Sheamus repeatedly clinging to the ring’s ropes to stay in, the match ended with Jericho getting kicked off of the ring apron and onto the floor. The smoke from the celebratory was still clearing as those of us who thought we knew everything were scratching our heads wondering “Why did that happen?” (for many it wasn’t the first or last time).
As a competitor and a performer, Sheamus’ stock wasn’t so low that fans shouldn’t have thought he had a chance, but the whispers of a storyline pointed the other way. And by this point, I had fallen into the mess of it all.
A bar filled with like-minded wrestling fans screaming at the top of their lungs at each and every turn was unlike anything I’d ever enjoyed. Reactions to all 30 of the Rumble’s entrants and its 29 eliminations leave no room for focus. I didn’t have a seat to my name, but the whole of the 2012 Royal Rumble defined escapist media for me. My thoughts turned back to the reality of my uncle’s passing during the subway train ride home. But I knew that watching wrestling with others was an experience I needed more of.