Historically, the start of a new year often meant big changes in wrestling promotions. In the old days that might have been due to the NWA convention meeting held in the fall to decide on title changes. As it would take some time to get the match built and then in the ring, a January title change made sense. In the modern day, January acted as the re-set month in WCW with Starrcade in November / December blowing off the big feuds. In the WWE since 1988, the Royal Rumble kicked WrestleMania season into high gear since establishing in 1993 that the winner “is going to WrestleMania.”
This could easily be a post on the top 15 Royal Rumble moments from the Rumble match itself. Except the match itself isn’t great, until the final few minutes. The highlights remain the surprises of guys from the past (Nash, Snuka, Piper, Jake, etc.) coming back from retirement or guys coming back early from injury, in particular Cena in 2008 (I marked out at that). The Rumbles from the last two years with the crowd turning on the match because of Daniel Bryan not winning resonate, while others remain head-scratching in who went over (or rather didn't go over the top rope). Even in retrospect, the wins by Chris Benoit (nothing to do with the tragedy) in 2004 and Edge in 2010 seem odd in hindsight.
Yet, there is more to wrestling history than just the WWE or the Royal Rumble. Historic title changes – both good and bad – mark the month along with TV debuts and deals. It might be cold outside in January, but in the wrestling business, January burns hot with historic moments.
16 Ring of Honor gets national cable deal
Number one on the list will also be about a TV program, so let’s start with that at number fifteen. It took seven years from the founding of the Ring of Honor promotion in Philadelphia in 2002 to gather a national TV deal. Announced on January 26, 2009, it was on a very small cable outlet – HD Net – but it allowed the promotion to grow and gain a new fan base. HD Net would morph into AXS TV and is now home of New Japan Pro Wrestling, whose primary US partner is Ring Of Honor. The squared circle is a very small place. From 2009 to 2011, Ring of Honor used the HD Net to promote house shows, merchandise, and mostly their internet only Pay Per Views. These were characterized by great grappling and terrible technology. While the contract only lasted two years, it made Ring of Honor “legitimate” and paved the way for their current deal with Sinclair.
15 Halftime Heat airs during halftime of Super Bowl XXXIII
The WWE in 1999 had plenty of national TV exposure, like today, even over exposure. The ratings for RAW had surpassed Monday Nitro and were on the rise. In effort to gain even higher ratings and mainstream publicity, the WWE rolled out a two fisted strategy for the start of 1999. They bought an ad for the Super Bowl, but just as importantly, aired a match during the forever long Super Bowl half time show. The match pitted then champion Mick Foley against his rival The Rock in an empty arena match. The empty arena stipulation allowed for no spoilers and lots of Rock commentary while they two brawled (“that’s some spicy salsa”) throughout the arena. With the stupid finish involving a forklift (Foley admits as much in his book), the match rocketed Sunday Night Heat to that program’s highest rating: a six share. The first six share for WWE in the attitude era, but not the last. With a few exceptions, Monday Night Raw would retain a six share throughout the Monday Night Wars as WCW Nitro’s final months so crowds dwindle so that every match almost took place in front of an arena.
14 Original ECW holds final event
Just before the Monday Night Wars ended with WWE purchasing WWE, the other major national wrestling company ECW shut its doors. Millions of debt due to bad financial management, a niche audience / product, and most of it’s quality talent defecting to WCW and WWE, ECW wasn’t built for the long haul. ECW landed a TV deal, but it have hurt the promotion rather than helped it. ECW’s product and audience interest as measured by pay per view rates failed to rise even with the TV deal. So the cutting edge promotion that started in Philadelphia with a bang (Shane Douglas throwing down the NWA title) ended with a whimper in Pine Bluff, AK on January 13, 2001. While Paul Heyman was not at the show, the evening ended with the wresters in the ring saying goodbye and thanking fans. WWE would try to Lazarus the brand year, except dead is dead despite ECW chants whenever somebody breaks a table.
13 TNA declares war then quickly retreats
Monday, January 4, 2010 was to be relaunch of the wrestling war as TNA opened up the checkbook to lure Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and Sean Waltman to the struggling brand. Behind the scenes, Eric Bischoff joined Hogan as part of the creative team. While the January 4 was a one time live show (and a real overbooked cluster), the star and brain power lead TNA to believe they could compete. On March 8, the next head-to-head show took place. On May 3, TNA announced they would be moving to Thursday nights. Different uniforms, but same soldiers, thus the same result. So much for another war.
12 Edge cashes in the Money in the Bank briefcase
While the idea of the first Money in the Bank ladder match in 2005 is credited to Chris Jericho, it was his Canadian pal Edge who won the first match. More importantly, Edge established the precedent of cashing in the briefcase when the champion was vulnerable. On January 8, 2006 John Cena had just won a brutal six-man elimination match at the New Year’s Revolution pay per view. As would happen for years after with the briefcase barrier, Edge ran down the ring, handed in the case, the ref called for the bell, and hit his finisher – the spear – to become champion. Sometimes, like here when it turned Edge from a high mid card into a main eventer, it works, and other times – Sheamus, Jack Swagger, Damien Sandow – the cash in means nothing. But for the rest of January 2006, Edge (with Lita) showed he was a player not just a “transitional champion.”
11 Triple H returns after career-threatening injury
Sometimes the right way to bring talent back after an injury or time away is by surprise, like with Alberto Del Rio at Hell in the Cell 2015 or Edge at the Royal Rumble in 2010 and have them make an impact. Other times, the guy just returns in a nothing match without build-up, like Goldust at Survivor Series in the pre-show match. And then there’s the King of Kings. Even though he’d been a heel when hurt in 2001, the way Triple H gutted through the ending of match with a torn quad earned the fans respect. So when his music hit in January 7, 2002, the pop was, according to Jim Ross, “this is the loudest roar I’ve heard in Madison Square Garden” (of course, he never announced a Bruno Sammartino match). But HHH wasn’t a face and with Hogan’s return soon after– now that was a pop at WrestleMania – Triple H returned to his true heel colors.
10 The First Royal Rumble
Having screwed WCW it that company’s first attempt at Pay Per View (see Top 15 November Moments), Vince decided to do it again. With WCW running the “Bunkyard Stampede” (who knows why the pre Nitro company never got over outside the south?) show, Vince fired back with a free show on the USA Network. Not wanting to give away main event match before WrestleMania IV, the WWE invented one. Pat Patterson, Vince’s right hand man, created the Royal Rumble based on his time in the San Francisco territory where the annual battle royal drew money. This was better because you had the anticipation of the entrances, plus there was room in the ring to do spots (like the 1992 where everybody came in and gave Flair their best move) not just aimless slow motion boring brawling. Jim Duggan won the first one, but it was Bret Hart competing as single who made an impression and lead to his first (short) run as a single after an angle at WrestleMania with Bad News Brown after a boring regular battle royal. While the booking sometimes sucks and the wrestling’s subpar, something about the timer ticking down and fans counting off make this a great wrestling tradition.
9 January 4 at the Tokyo Dome becomes Japanese WrestleMania
The first New Japan show at the huge Tokyo Egg Dome took place in April 1989 with the gimmick of New Japan pro wrestlers facing Russian fighters (most who’d never seen a pro wrestling match), plus a tournament to crown a new IWGP champion. The event drew over 50,000 so new Japan would return once or twice a year to the Dome. The focus of the show would be the title, but sometimes the card featured inter-promotional matches, involved a retirement, or featured a big American star (Hogan and Lesnar, for example). But starting in 2007, the show itself, much like WrestleMania, became THE draw. Branded now as Wrestle Kingdom and shown on Pay Per View, January 4 is the high point on the Japanese pro wrestling with great matches. The Wrestle Kingdom 2015 show featured five matches four stars or above.
8 Mick Foley wins WWE title
Speaking of January 4th. This isn’t historic like the other title wins in changing the industry, but instead in changing channels. This is a story known to every student of the genre. Foley actually won the title from The Rock on December 29, 1998, but Raw was still alternating live and taped shows. Doing what he’d done since the start of Nitro, Eric Bischoff gave away the results having his announcer tell fans Foley was winning the title, famously ending the reveal with “ that will put some butts in the seats.” Instead, it put eyes on WWE TV as 600,000 fans switched channels. That was bad for business, but amazingly that wasn’t the stupidest thing WCW would do on January 4, 1999.
6 T5. Lou Thesz defeats NWA World champion Buddy Rogers
Foley won the title with the help of Stone Cold smashing The Rock with a chair. He would retain it using a forklift. Lose it taking multiple chair shows to the head, and lose again getting choke-slammed off a ladder. A little different from how Lou Thesz won it from Buddy Rogers on January 24, 1963 in Toronto in a one fall match. Famous for shooter Thesz telling performer Rogers the title could change “the hard way or the easy way” the match created the WWE. Vince McMahon didn’t want Thesz as world champ (he’d never drawn well at MSG), so he claimed the match didn’t count since it was only one fall. Instead, he created the World (wide) Wrestling Federation championship which remains the centerpiece of the McMahon family promotion to this day. Rogers would only hold the belt for a few months before losing it, also in controversial fashion to Bruno Sammartino. With Thesz v Rogers, they’d be no WWE.
5 T5. Ivan Koloff defeats Bruno Sammartino to win the WWWF Championship
Sammartino would hang on that title for a few days – 2,803 days to exact. Worn down and underpaid, Sammartino wanted out. Not wanting his hero to lose to his next hero ethnic (Pedro Morales) champion, the Russian Bear (really a French Canadian) Ivan Koloff was brought to do the dirty deed beating Bruno on January 18, 1971. According to all accounts, after Koloff came off the top rope with a knee drop and the ref counted three, there was silence. People were that stunned. Fearing a riot, Koloff wasn’t even handed the belt, instead he ran to the dressing room Koloff, off this one match, remained a main eventer in every territory for years.
4 Hulk Hogan defeats The Iron Sheik to win the WWWF Championship
Sammartino’s loss wasn’t the end of an era. His replacement Pedro Morales had a similar appeal and style, and Bruno himself would be back on top in a few years. But Hulk Hogan pinning The Iron Sheik on January 23, 1984 did usher in a new era in pro wrestling. Hogan couldn’t have been more different than the previous face champion (Bob Backlund). With Hogan on top, the WWE style became even more about physiques, little wrestling but lots of posing, and the ability to “work the stick.” It also went national, then international and became the single most successful wrestling promotion in the history of the industry thanks to Hogan dropping the leg followed by a three count causing the fans in MSG to erupt and the business to explode.
3 Mike Tyson visits Monday Night Raw
While Hogan beating The Iron Sheik was the big bang, it was WrestleMania in March 1985 which made the modern WWE universe. One appeal of that first event was the use of celebrities, in particular former World Heavyweight boxing champion Mohammad Ali. Ali wasn’t new to pro wrestling, but his involvement drew media notice. Years later, getting his ass kicked by WCW in 1997, McMahon decided to return to an ex-champ well and signed Mike Tyson. His actual role wasn’t made clear when he approached the ring to be interviewed on January 19, 1988. An interview cut short by Stone Cold Steve Austin interrupting, challenging, and then brawling with Tyson. Tyson would be all over WWE TV aligning himself with DX, but in the end, he counted Shawn Michael’s shoulders down. At the end of WrestleMania 14, McMahon got the optics he wanted: the baddest man on the planet holding up in victory the hand of the toughest SOB. Soon after, the WWE would be on fire showing history does repeat itself in the wrestling business.
2 Hollywood Hogan defeats Kevin Nash with "The Fingerpoke of Doom"
Having successfully ended Bill Goldberg’s streak, Kevin Nash held the WCW world title on January 4, 1999. Nash was not only champion, but leader of the “Wolfpac” faction of the NWO. Returning to Nitro was Hulk Hogan, the leader of the NOW Hollywood faction. This was big. A match better suited for pay per view (like Goldberg v Hogan in July 1998), the match got rushed onto Nitro. Fans wanted to see the NWO leaders battle. And they did. For a few seconds they circled each other. Nash pushed Hogan into the corner, and Hogan responded by poking Nash in the chest. Nash sold it like he’d been shot, Hogan covered, the title changed, and the two NWO factions re-united. Fans pelted the ring with garbage but in a bad heat way. The company would NOT learn from history and repeat “fake shoot” angles repeatedly as rating crashed and the company burned to the ground.
1 WWF presents the first episode of Monday Night RAW
Racked with years of scandals and his business in a tailspin due to a stale product and staler presentation, the WWE needed to do something in 1993 to change things. While they’d had a huge success with 1992 Summer Slam at Wembley Stadium, things were bleak going into 1993. Trying not just to remake but revolutionize his product, McMahon killed Prime Time Wrestling which had anchored Monday nights for eight years. The show’s entertainment came from the commentary of Bobby Heenen and Gorilla Monson but rarely the taped before a lifeless audience TV squash matches from all over the country. Raw flew in the other direction: live, at first from one arena, and a high energy crowd for the one hour live show. The show expanded to two hours in February 1997. It went mostly live (except for shows taped outside of the US) in 2000. It remains “the flagship” of WWE, except, according the ratings, the ship is sinking. Maybe it’s a time for another revolution.