Last night on Raw, what should be the big storyline for this Sunday's Royal Rumble match was revealed. As part of CM Punk's ongoing dispute with The Authority, Director of Operations Kane announced that he will be the first entrant in the Rumble, needing to last the entire hour or so to win the match and the berth to the WrestleMania main event.
This will actually be Punk's second time entering the Rumble as No. 1, as he drew the dreaded spot in 2011, lasting 35 minutes before being eliminated at the hands of John Cena. That was actually during his initial feud with Cena that was used to keep Cena apart from Miz during the buildup to WrestleMania 27.
When hyped up in advance, being the first entrant in the Rumble more or less guarantees that Punk will be this year's "marathon man," the wrestler with the most time in the match regardless of whether he wins or loses.
The wrestler in the marathon spot ends up being the centerpiece of the match storyline-wise, and while there are some exceptions, he's usually a respected "great worker" or workhorse-type wrestler.
In 1990, Ted DiBiase Sr. was the first "marathon man" to come in at No. 1. One of the great in-ring performers of his generation and easily one of the five best in-ring wrestlers in WWE at the time, he put in a great performance where he interacted with a number of excellent workers like Marty Jannetty, Jake Roberts—DiBiase's rival at the time—Roddy Piper, Bret Hart and Terry Taylor (as The Red Rooster).
Being an early Rumble before there were any real stakes—no title or title shot on the line until '92 and '93, respectively—it doesn't have the story that later Rumbles do, but it's a very good Rumble anchored by an excellent DiBiase performance.
In 1992, the company played with the idea a little as marathon man and eventual winner Ric Flair came in at No. 3. It's still the greatest Royal Rumble match in history, a masterful combination of a great overarching storyline with high stakes (the WWE Championship), a great performance by Flair and the best call of Bobby Heenan's life on commentary.
This was followed up with Flair coming in at No. 1 in 1993 and lasting about 20 minutes before being eliminated by then-rival Mr. Perfect.
The marathon man that year was a rare instance where WWE remembered that No. 2 starts at the same time as No. 1, with Bob Backlund beating the record Flair set in 1992.
In the middle of a comeback after years away from wrestling, Backlund always kept himself in amazing shape. Few wrestlers have made this kind of performance look so effortless and he ended up being the second-last wrestler eliminated as one of six men dispatched by eventual winner Yokozuna.
1995 saw a one-off experiment that was something of a failure, as the intervals between entrances were shortened to one minute instead of two minutes or 90 seconds. Shawn Michaels at No. 1 and Davey Boy Smith at No. 2 lasted the entire length of the match, which came in at just under 39 minutes.
The finish was one of the most memorable in Rumble history: Davey Boy tossed Michaels to the floor, his music played, Michaels jumped back in and threw him out to win. Michaels exploited the wording of the rules, as both feet didn't touch the floor. Just one did, as he frantically kept the other from touching down.
As the years went on, the rule had been exploited in other ways, like Kofi Kingston and John Morrison landing on other items on the floor before making it back to the ring with crazy jumps. Kingston has also gone out face first and done a handstand walk to the steps to save himself.
The first year when No. 1 was announced in advance was 1996.
In the pre-show match, Triple H fought Duke Droese, with the winner getting the No. 30 spot and the loser having to fight from the start. Triple H lost and ended up lasting 48 minutes in the Rumble in what was sort of a coming-out party for him as a star in WWE.
In 1998, No. 1 was Cactus Jack, Mick Foley's primary gimmick at the time. He lasted about 10 minutes before being eliminated by No. 2, Chainsaw Charlie (Terry Funk...with a chainsaw). Funk lasted an impressive 25 minutes before being eliminated by No. 1...Mankind?!?!
Yes, Foley was back as one of his alter egos, but lasted just two minutes. Finally, No. 28 was Foley again as Dude Love, who lasted eight more minutes.
1999 is the worst Royal Rumble ever, as it took place at the height of Vince Russo's power as head writer. The less said, the better. Steve Austin was No. 1, Vince McMahon was No. 2 and they spent most of the match outside the ring without going over the top rope.
Vince won with The Rock's help and The Rock got the $100,000 bounty for eliminating Austin.
In 2004, the closest contender to usurping 1992 as the best Rumble match ever took place. Chris Benoit was announced in advance as No. 1 and lasted the whole match, trapped with Big Show as the final two. Big Show became a puzzle to solve, as Benoit just couldn't find a way to get him over the top rope.
Finally, it looked like Show was about to press slam Benoit out of the ring when he countered with a front facelock/guillotine choke over the ropes. Show fell out of the ring. It's the greatest finish in Rumble history and attempts at redoing it never worked as well.
For obvious reasons, it's fallen to the wayside in recent years.
2006 saw Triple H as No. 1 and Rey Mysterio as No. 2, with Triple H eliminated next to last and Mysterio lasting the whole match to win by eliminating Randy Orton. It's probably the most disappointing Rumble of all time, as when wrestlers were eliminated, it kept going back to Rey and Triple H, whose styles clashed badly.
The formula was played with a little in 2008.
Michael Buffer was brought in as special guest ring announcer to introduce the first two entrants. With big stars needed for that spot, The Undertaker and Shawn Michaels opened the Rumble as a rematch of their mini-match that closed the Rumble the previous year.
After a little over half an hour, Michaels eliminated Taker and Mr. Kennedy immediately followed up to eliminate him.
Finally, Dolph Ziggler was announced in advance as No. 1 last year and lasted over 49 minutes, putting in the 11th-longest showing of all time—ninth if you throw out Austin and McMahon—and making it to the final four.
However, he was upstaged by the surprise return of Chris Jericho at No. 2. While "surprise Chris Jericho return" has started to become a pattern at this time of year, this was the first time he did it completely unannounced without any kind of mysterious vignettes teasing his comeback. He just barely missed the final four, with Ziggler eliminating him.
CM Punk has some big shoes to fill this Sunday, but it's hard for me to see any scenario where he doesn't run with the opportunity.