WrestleMania is undoubtedly WWE’s biggest show of the year. The glitz. The glamour. The action. The emotion. It’s a bombastic, smash-mouth mix of pop culture and sports entertainment recognised the world over. But is it every wrestling fan’s favourite show?
Arguably not. That title could instead be attributed to the Royal Rumble. The premium live event (that’s PPV event in old money) is the annual 30 man over-the-top-rope battle royal that unofficially marks the start of WWE’s calendar. The last exit to the infamous road to WrestleMania as it were…
Full of shock returns or appearances, thrilling finishes and memorable moments, the event has also seen its fair share of non ‘Rumble’ matches too. WWE’s social media accounts recently quizzed fans on the best match in the event’s history. Testament to the wealth of choice available, no answer seemed to claim an outright majority.
Amongst the many opinions offered, one match seemed to appear frequently throughout. A brutal and barbaric Street Fight between Triple H and Cactus Jack for the (then) WWF Championship. Our King of the Ring, Andy Spoors, looks back on a cut-throat classic…
There are very few events in the wrestling industry that elicit a reaction quite like mentioning the Royal Rumble. Those two words conjure iconic images of Stone Cold or Shawn Michaels exhausted — but standing tall — after outlasting 29 other men.
Superstars have debuted to rapturous receptions (see AJ Styles in 2016) or returned from injury to astonish those in attendance or watching from home (see John Cena 2008 or Edge in 2020).
But for fans of a certain vintage, the 2000 Royal Rumble will forever be earmarked as one of the all-time greats. Sure, The Rock won the Rumble, Tazz debuted and Taka Michinoku flew face first over the top rope, but the biggest part of that opinion can be attributed to the outrageously violent WWF Championship match between Triple H and Cactus Jack.
Like every great wrestling match, there have to be some key elements. The Superstars involved have to have chemistry. There needs to be a reason for them to fight. And, finally, they have to tell a story within the confines of the ring.
Fortunately in Triple H, WWF had found themselves a main event heel. A focal point for fans to boo and vent their hatred toward. Playing on the storyline that Triple H was only the champion due to the nepotism that accompanies dating the boss’s daughter, the company had certainly found their man.
In ridiculous shape and sporting a constant shit-eating smug smile, Hunter Hearst Helmsley was easy to hate. But with The Rock entered in the Rumble match and Stone Cold Steve Austin out with a major injury and no return date in sight, WWE needed a foil for their bad guy. The antithesis of biased decisions and sucking up to the corporate machine. In the year 2000 there could only be one man for the job. Mick Foley.
After carving a career out of taking risks, fighting upwards as an underdog and having the general appearance of anything other than the face of a billion-dollar company, Foley was everything Triple H could never be. A hero of the people.
As their rivalry unfolded, the champion looked to humiliate and systematically destroy his challenger before their scheduled match at the Rumble. But Mrs Foley’s baby boy is renowned for having a trick or two (or three) up his sleeve. Throughout his career Foley has created multiple personalities, each entertaining as the last. From the free-loving hippie, Dude Love, to the mentally deranged Mankind, Mick Foley pulled off each persona with ease.
In this case, he decided to turn to a character that took great pleasure in violent delights and violent ends. The plaid shirt, cowboy boot wearing Cactus Jack.
Mick Foley himself even commented that it was Triple H’s excellent facial expressions that sold the legitimacy of Cactus Jack to the WWE Universe. Jaw agape, The Game’s visible fear and panic at facing an opponent he had previously encountered and barely survived against years earlier was sumptuous.
Happy to throw himself through glass, flaming tables or even barbed wire, Cactus Jack introduced WWE audiences to ‘death’ matches (or as close a version as US TV and authorities would allow at the time).
Fast forward to Madison Square Garden and the Royal Rumble PPV. Both Triple H and Cactus Jack looked firmly in the zone. As the match begins, the New York crowd is typically rowdy, but when the action spills into the audience and both men begin to systematically destroy each other the noise audibly moves up a couple of notches.
One of the quirks of Madison Square Garden back in the late 90s and early noughties was the entrance for Superstars. Rather than walking down a giant ramp underneath the Titan Tron screen, a modified concourse entrance brought the talent to the ring right through the crowd.
For the 2000 Rumble, this quirky entrance was decorated like a New York alleyway, complete with graffiti, trash cans, manhole covers and wooden pallets. It was to be the pallets that would go down in infamy during the WWF Championship match.
A snap suplex from Cactus to Triple H on top of the pallet looked innocuous enough at the time but the grimace that spread on the champion’s face let fans know something had gone wrong. As the camera panned across The Game’s prone body, blood was clearly pouring from his calf. A jagged slat on the pallet had badly punctured his leg and as the pair got back to their feet, Triple H was visibly limping.
But the match had barely begun and the champion ground out another 15 minutes of torture to reach its conclusion. Ever the sadist, Cactus Jack introduced a two by four wrapped in barbed wire to the champion’s forehead.
Some heinous shots were exchanged as Cactus switched between being punished and becoming the punisher. Slamming knees first into the steel ring steps, crashing through the announce table and even surviving having his hands cuffed behind his back, Mick Foley’s alter-ego proved every bit the formidable opponent that he’s been built as.
Foley has since revealed that he was contemplating retirement following a career of risk-taking and it was a direct request from Vince McMahon that brought him back for not just this match but two more in the subsequent PPVs.
As the match reaches its conclusion, the stakes are raised one last time as Cactus brings a mystery bag into the ring and dumps hundreds of thumbtacks onto the canvas. A few near misses pass by before a back body drop by Triple H sends his challenger right into the middle of the pins. The anguished gasp from the WWE Universe combine with the excellent commentary from Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler to cement the moment in history.
Bleeding from leg and face, Triple H delivers his finishing manoeuvre, the Pedigree, to put away the Hardcore Legend. But incredibly, it isn’t enough. Madison Square Garden erupts. The Pedigree had been built as one of the finishing moves in wrestling. Very rarely does an opponent kick out once it has been executed.
As New York and the rest of the world starts to believe tonight could be the night magic is made, Triple H shakes off the initial shock and delivers a pedigree on the thumbtacks. For those that haven’t witnessed this particular move, the opponent effectively hits the floor face first with their arms hooked behind their back.
With no way to cushion the blow, Foley’s face becomes a pincushion. Tacks sticking out of his cheek and eyebrows, it’s enough to finally and mercifully get the job done. The champion retains but doesn’t exactly look like a winner.
The pair would face off a month later in an equally gruelling Hell In A Cell match. But the war of attrition the WWE Universe witnessed on 23 January 2000 remains, to this day, one of the very best in its field. Any match now carrying the label of Street Fight is measured against the legacy and marker left that night.
With a solid card announced for Saturday night (early Sunday morning for the UK) Royal Rumble, will we witness anything close to the magic on display 22 years ago? Roman Reigns vs Seth Rollins and Brock Lesnar vs Bobby Lesnar have the chance to steal the show or will a shock win in one of the two Rumble matches light up social media? With crowds back to almost full capacity, this year’s edition should provide the shocks and surprises all wrestling fans demand as we accelerate towards WrestleMania.
Who will be champion and who will be left pointing at the giant Mania sign? Tune in to the WWE Network this Sunday at 1am to find out!