365 matches in 365 days, each from that specific date on the calendar? Challenge accepted. Welcome to 365 Wrestling.
I don’t care if you are the most devoted fan of something, you’re going to have gaps. Especially when it comes to something as diverse as wrestling, when there are so many different varieties and flavors out there, only so many hours in the day, and the current era where there’s an overwhelming amount of footage out there to watch.
But anyway… gaps. I’ve written about these gaps before (like here and also here), And, one of those gaps was the 2007 Royal Rumble. I’ve written before about my love of the Rumble but this was one of those years that I did not watch live. I caught the Rumble several years later, but never the undercard, and in the process, I missed out on the John Cena vs. Umaga Last Man Standing match, which is generally regarded as one of the best non-Rumble matches in the history of the Rumble events.
This oversight has been addressed. If you’ve not seen the match, or just want to relive it before reading further, it’s available on Peacock. Just go to the 1:04 mark of the video.
This is Cena’s third reign with the WWE Title and he is about two years into his decade-long run as a “top guy” for WWE. He’s met quite the obstacle in Umaga, who is in his second run in the company after previously spending time in the tag division with Rosey in 3 Minute Warning. Umaga went undefeated on WWE TV from the time he debuted in the gimmick in April of 2006 until January of 2007, when he challenged Cena for the title and lost on a roll-up. That outcome led to this rematch thanks to heel authority figure Jonathan Coachman (and hasn’t THAT become an overdone storyline trope in wrestling, Dear Reader?)
On the go-home episode of Raw before the Rumble, Umaga put Cena through a table with a splash off the top, aided by Coachman and Umaga’s mouthpiece, Armando Alejandro Estrada. Cena has to be helped to the back, and earlier on the Rumble, he’s in the trainer’s room getting checked out by the doctor — complete with an unexpected visit from Vince McMahon who seems downright gleeful at Cena’s condition and the slim chances of him retaining the title.
Cena comes out with taped ribs still showing the effects of the attack by Umaga and his cohorts six days earlier. Umaga comes off super impressive and dominates the majority of the match. When Cena does rally and start mounting some offense, oftentimes it ends with Umaga clobbering him. I’ve written before about escalation of violence as an effective way to structure a match and it definitely works here. Cena, who already took a beating against Umaga in a straight-up wrestling match and won in flukey fashion, eats more punishment in this one until he ramps up the violence–first and foremost by throwing the STEEL(!) steps out of the ring and into Umaga’s face. I let out a gasp when it happened, it was so unexpected. The crowd loves it, and it draws the biggest cheers yet for Cena, but Umaga also reaches his feet well before the 10 count.
Steps become the great equalizer for Cena… for a while, that is. Eventually the steps come into the ring and Cena attempts to deliver his FU (soon to be renamed the Attitude Adjustment when WWE goes PG later in the year) across the steps, but is unable to hoist Umaga. The champ crashes facefirst into the edge of the steps, and comes up bleeding, soon forming the proverbial crimson mask that stands out as the last effective, memorable use of blood in WWE until the promotion makes its PG pivot–and also a storytelling device that WWE has continued to avoid to this day.
Since the steps aren’t getting it done anymore and a bloody Cena is being pushed to his limits, he continues to escalate the violence. He rams Umaga shoulder-first into the ringpost, leaving him dangling there while he yoinks a monitor from one of the ringside broadcast tables and smashes it into the challenger’s head, which is resting against the post. This also provokes a fabulous and completely genuine “oh Jiminy God!” call from Jim Ross on commentary.
Even through brutal moments like taking the STEEL(!) steps to the face and becoming the meat in a TV monitor concussion sandwich, there seems to be little doubt in the overall story of the match or in the crowd that Umaga is going to get to his feet. That changes when the action spills to the floor, where the two combatants take advantage of the three announce tables (one for each brand, you see). Umaga stacks Cena on the ECW commentary table, then climbs on the far edge of the far table and takes a run at Cena. He leaps off the middle table for a splash, Cena rolls out of the way, and Umaga destroys the table in a fantastic-looking moment. Umaga barely beats the 10 count in a delightfully close and completely believable false finish.
What follows? Another escalation of violence, of course. Estrada undoes one of the top rope turnbuckles and Umaga tries to wield it for a version of the Samoan Spike. Cena avoids it, uses the turnbuckle as a weapon himself, and finally fells Umaga, using the top rope to throttle the challenger into unconsciousness. The fact it takes two separate stranglings to finish the job only underscores the unstoppable monster atmosphere surrounding Umaga at this time.
What really makes this match work is the performance of Umaga, a fantastically athletic big man who ends up in a perfect position thanks to being slowly and steadily built up through booking as an unstoppable juggernaut. Would this match have so much sizzle if Umaga had been trading wins and losses, instead of a nine-month undefeated streak prior to his first meeting with Cena? Wins and losses matter.
–Of Cena’s 16 reigns with one of the two world titles in WWE, this was by far his longest reign: 380 days from winning the title on Sept. 17, 2006, until Oct. 2, 2007, when he vacated the championship due to a torn pectoral.
–Estrada really did an effective job as a manager and mouthpiece for Umaga. He got lost in the shuffle during the build to the hair vs. hair match at WrestleMania 13 that spring.
–Umaga, who was released by WWE in the summer of 2009 after two violations of the company wellness policy, died that December of a heart attack brought on by acute toxicity from taking several painkillers. He was just 36 years old.
–The crowd proves whatever negative stereotype you prefer regarding wrestling fans when they start a “we want tables” chant while there are STEEL(!) steps lying in the ring and being used.
Final Rating: 9.0
This is a fantastic match. I know plenty of people, especially those who are wrestlers themselves, who hold up the Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit match from the 2003 Rumble as not only the best non-Rumble match ever, but one of the best wrestling matches ever. If Angle-Benoit is the wrestling equivalent of a symphony, this is the equivalent of a blockbuster action movie. Is one better than the other? That’s really in the eye of the beholder, as the two products are so different that it’s difficult to compare them outside of the shared setting of a WWE ring.
Cena is at the peak of his fan favorite status, before a sizable percentage of the WWE audience starts turning against him. It helps that his act still has some edge to it at this time; Cena, and everyone else, end up de-fanged when WWE tames down its product in the wake of the Benoit murder-suicide that summer. Umaga ends up losing his monstrous aura after losing to Bobby Lashley at WrestleMania in the hair vs. hair match that involved McMahon and Donald Trump as managers.
The only match thus far in the project that has been on this level, to me, was the Rockers vs. New Orient Express tag match from the ’91 Rumble. I personally give this one the edge because of the higher stakes. Now, let’s see what can top it.
We head to 1999 and a packed high-school gym in the Carolinas to see one of the most beloved tag teams in wrestling… as heels?
What’s your favorite non-Rumble match from Royal Rumble pay-per-views? Agree or disagree with my take on this match? Let me know by using the contact form on this site, or reach me on Twitter.