We continue our build-up to this year’s Royal Rumble by going back 25 years and featuring the opening match of the 1991 show – The Rockers vs. The Orient Express – in this latest ‘Matches from History‘. It’s a match that is quite possibly the greatest PPV opening bout in WWE history and certainly the best undercard match on a Royal Rumble PPV.
You can find the match, obviously, on the WWE Network or here.
As a bit of background, this event was broadcast right at the height of Operation Desert Storm, just two days after the conflict started. As you would expect, they play the national anthem to start the show and there is a lot of red, white and blue on display – more than usual.
It’s Saturday January 19, 1991 and we’re at the Miami Arena in Miami, Florida with Gorilla Monsoon and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper handling announce duties.
For those amongst us that are sticklers for detail, this is Express mk. 2.0. After splitting up Powers of Pain, Mr. Fuji brought the team of Pat Tanaka and Akio Sato to the WWF’s tag team division. In total, the pairing made two pay-per-view appearances at SummerSlam 1990, where the team were defeated by “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and Nikolai Volkoff, at at Survivor Series 1990 as part of the Sgt. Slaughter’s team “The Mercenaries”.
Akio Sato decided to leave US wrestling at the tail end of 1990 and the WWF replaced him with Paul Diamond, who previously partnered Tanaka in the AWA as part of Bad Company. However, Diamond was masked and wrestled as Kato. This pairing would also only feature on two WWF PPVs – this match at the 1991 Rumble and a clash with The New Foundation – Owen Hart & Jim Neidhart – at the following year’s Rumble.
Anyway, on to this encounter…
The Express knock Jannetty out of the ring as he poses on the turnbuckle and then send Shawn into orbit with a backdrop. Jannetty returns and knocks Kato to the floor then superkicks Pat Tanaka. They double slam him and he joins Kato on the floor. This allows The Rockers to hit suicide dives onto their opponents and, to quote Gorilla Monsoon, Mr. Fuji is “bat out of shape.”
Marty and Kato finally officially kick this one off as the fans chant “USA”. Marty gets a side headlock that Kato cannot seem to break – a move Piper refers to as fans thinking it’s a “submissive” move… We then get a run of leapfrogs and reverse rollups that eventually results in Kato hitting a hiplock into an armbar that Jannetty switches into a head scissors with his legs on the mat. They then run the bridge into a backslide spot for a two count. Tanaka provides a little distraction but Jannetty avoids the double team and the Express crash into one another.
Marty gets an arm drag on Tanaka and here comes Shawn off the top with a axe-handle onto Tanaka and continues to work the arm. Shawn and Tanaka run the ropes with Tanaka getting his flying cross-chop. Tanaka applies a reverse chinlock to Shawn. Kato tags in and the Express almost collide again but stop only for Michaels to slam their heads together. Shawn hits a high knee and applies a chinlock. Tanaka escapes but Shawn is back to wearing his opponent down with a sleeper.
Kato comes in as does Marty but the referee didn’t see The Rockers’ tag, allowing Kato to clobber Shawn with a second-rope chop. Tanaka sweeps the leg and measures Michaels with chops to the face. Shawn reverses in the corner and both Kato and Jannetty join the fray. Again it is Marty that the referee removes from the ring again; Shawn battles on the second rope with Tanaka and moonsault presses onto Kato to prevent being nailed from behind.
At this point it turns into a battle with all men in the ring. The Orient Express attempt double atomic drops but Shawn and Marty flip over the back and hit stereo dropkicks. The Orient Express retreat again but are caught by crossbody blocks.
Kato gets back in with Michaels who tags Marty and they double elbow him. Marty is back to the reverse chinlock to wear down Kato as Tanaka takes instruction from Mr. Fuji on the apron. Quick tag from The Rockers and Shawn is back in and he hits a hanging vertical suplex. Tanaka breaks the pin before Shawn tries a monkey flip in the corner but, with the referee distracted by Marty, Tanaka slides along the apron and hangman clotheslines Shawn off the top rope. With Kato and Jannetty distracting the referee, Mr. Fuji nails Michaels with the cane as the fans boo.
Repeat interruptions from Jannetty allow The Express to continue to double team the prone Michaels. Quick tags from The Orient Express before Tanaka applies a trapezius hold. Shawn eventually mounts a comeback but gets flipped over the corner and ends up on the apron but is helped back in by a Tanaka crescent kick.
Shawn is able to counter a backdrop by slamming Tanaka’s head onto the canvas but Kato stops him being able to make a tag by attacking Jannetty. The Express then toss Shawn into the ropes to try to clothesline him with their black belt but Shawn dives onto the belt sending both Kato and Tanaka into each other.
Jannetty finally gets the tag and he is on fire punching, slamming and dropkicking both members of the Express. A powerslam gets him a two before Shawn mounts a recovery and takes out Tanaka – who broke up the pin. Marty and Kato then fight for a backslide with Tanaka sliding in to get his team the advantage and a two count.
Shawn trips Kato as he runs the ropes which gets a two before all four men are back in. The Rockers hit double superkicks on Kato but Tanaka is able to foil a rocket launcher attempt and sends Shawn off the top and to the floor. Kato slingshots Marty into a Tanaka reverse knife-edge chop. They go to the well once to often, however, as unbeknownst to Kato Shawn nails Tanaka and Kato slingshots Marty into a sunset flip on Tanaka for the win and that’s all she wrote.
This is a safe 10/10. This match is absolutely insane and features some quite incredible tag team offence. The couple of restholds in this one are just as necessary for viewers to get their breath back as it is for the competitors in the match! Got a spare 20 minutes? Then I recommend you take this one in. You certainly will not be disappointed by that decision after watching this.
You can read all of our previous ‘Matches from History’ here.