Wrestlemania 37 is now just days away. This means a few things for us wrestling fans; exciting championship matches, celebrity guest appearances, and debates over what matches deserve to go on last. But it also means that the phrase “Road to Wrestlemania” is probably burned into your brain by now. It’s a cliche that’s hammered home every Monday and Friday night. All of us are familiar with the pitstops. The Royal Rumble: Edge and Bianca Belair won their respective matches and now get to headline Wrestlemania. Be careful of the speed bump that is the Elimination Chamber: where Bobby Lashley set in motion his eventual WWE Championship win. And we can’t forget about the pothole that is Fastlane: where The Fiend is now back from the dead? The point is the audience can recite a favorite champions’ “Road to Wrestlemania” in their sleep. But what if I were to tell you that one of the most beloved superstars of all time had a very unique, and oft-forgotten pitstop on his path to the Grandest Stage of them All? Hop in your vehicle of choice and let’s remember the time Eddie Guerrero had to fight through the first and only Smackdown Royal Rumble, just to get onto his road to enteral glory.
In 2004, Chris Benoit won the Royal Rumble match as a Smackdown Superstar. However, he decided to jump-ship to Monday Night Raw, leading to an eventual classic triple threat match with Shawn Michaels and Triple H in the main event of Wrestlemania 20. That left WWE Champion and Smackdown anchor Brock Lesnar without any challengers to his throne. So, Smackdown General Manager Paul Heyman (not Lesnar’s advocate but definitely not his enemy) set up a huge first. A Smackdown Royal Rumble match. Instead of the usual 30, this would feature 15 superstars, all from Smackdown. The winner would get the chance to face Brock Lesnar at No Way Out for the WWE Championship. Back in those days, No Way Out was always the last stop on the “Road to Wrestlemania.” Consider it the Elimination Chamber/Fastlane of our time. So not only would the winner of this Rumble match get a chance to face Lesnar for the title, but if they somehow won? They’d be heading into the twentieth anniversary of Wrestlemania the WWE Champion. An incredible opportunity. An opportunity that at the time felt very much like a nice distraction. A small pitstop. Brock Lesnar was as dominant in 2003 as he was in 2017. He wasn’t losing the title at No Way Out. But the Pay Per View needed a main event. Enter the Smackdown Royal Rumble.
It’s a fun match worth seeking out if you have a spare 30 minutes. If you don’t, then let’s get started. This was the Thursday after the Royal Rumble so everyone was hurting. Kurt Angle was the first entrant. He was hell-bent on winning this and getting another shot at his arch-rival Brock Lesnar. It’s important to note who this story is about – it’s about Eddie. But if it’s about Eddie, than Kurt is riding right along with him. At this moment in time, there is a mutual respect between Kurt and Eddie. Kurt has even played mediator in Eddie’s bitter feud with his nephew Chavo. Thing’s will change though, and the rift that will lead them to clash at Wrestlemania 20 starts tonight.
This match is Smackdown 2003/2004 to a tee. We have Rhyno hitting gores, the World’s Greatest Tag Team – Charlie Haas and Shelton Benjamin running amok, and a still babyface Bradshaw dishing out clotheslines. Bradshaw is quickly dumped out by the Big Show who was the runner-up in Sunday’s Royal Rumble proper. It is wild to watch this match back and see blonde-haired Bradshaw and know that in a matter of months he will be the hottest heel champion in the company. His main foe? Eddie of course.
But Eddie isn’t out yet; we’ve got hijinks with Ernest the Cat Miller (whose momma was sadly left uncalled) and men like Tajiri and Billy Gunn trying to shock the world and punch their ticket to No Way Out. Big Show is standing tall when a certain professor of thuganomics enters the ring. John Cena, future megastar, and Big Show’s Wrestlemania 20 dance partner, doesn’t last long. He was dealing with an injury, much like entrant number 13…..EDDIE GUERRERO! Guerrero is limping to the ring. Michael Cole and Tazz remind us that he was found unconscious in the back earlier in the show. They do not know what happened or if someone attacked him. I tried to find out if this thread was ever wrapped up, but I think it’s safe to assume it was either a.) Kurt Angle or b.) Chavo. The important part is that even though Eddie has got a lucky number (or perhaps stolen one?), he is fighting through a big injury.
An injury is enough to allow the Big Show to dump John Cena out of the ring. Cena gets quick revenge though and pulls Big Show over the ropes. This, combined with the rest of the superstars in the ring, is just enough to eliminate the world’s largest athlete. Haas and Benjamin are a phenomenal tag team but are separated in the ring and tossed by Eddie and Kurt, respectively. Kurt is precise in his movements – quick throws, close jabs, etc. Eddie is the exact opposite. Eddie Guerrero, despite injury, is putting his body on the line in every elimination attempt. He whiffs on a hurricanrana attempt to eliminate Haas. It’s a botch, but Guerrero is so good and so tired that he just picks himself up and hurls Haas over the ropes. It’s believable. Billy Gunn has Eddie sitting on the ropes. Eddie does a monkey flip of sorts and uses all his lower body strength to flip the massive Gunn over the ropes and to the floor. Eddie Guerrero is spent, but Eddie Guerrero is still alive.
It’s down to Guerrero, Angle, and Rikishi. Any fan that’s watched one or two battle royals knows the deal. If there is a big guy in the ring, he is almost always impossible to eliminate without teamwork. Angle and Guerrero are pros though, and they quickly work to eliminate the future Hall of Famer. Now it’s down to Eddie and Kurt. Both equally winded in two different ways. If Kurt gets a match against Brock, it would make sense. There is this whole cross-brand Goldberg v.s. Brock feud that’s been building I’ve failed to mention. Maybe Kurt would beat Brock for the title? Probably not though, it would at least be a good main event match. But what about Eddie? When is the last time Eddie had a one on one WWE Championship match? Has he ever? No Way Out is in California at the famed Cow Palace. The crowd would be hotter than ever for Latino Heat. But he would never win the title. Right?
There is no more time for speculation. Angle has snatched Eddie out of the air and into a sleeper hold. It looks like Eddie might be out and all Angle would have to do is pick him up and toss him over the top rope. All those dreams of a miracle moment in the Cow Palace are going up in smoke. But Eddie Guerrero has been through worse. Yes, an Olympic gold medalist has him in a sleeper hold. But he has stared addiction and death in the face and came out the other side.
Eddie stirs. He gets to one knee somehow. Eddie uses all of his body weight to fling himself (and Angle) towards the ropes with one last gasp of energy. Kurt is sent flying over them. But not onto the floor. Angle’s Olympic grip is holding on.
Eddie rears back and hits Angle with a right hand. Nothing.
A second right connects. Kurt flails but….no.
A third right. Kurt is down to one hand on the ropes.
Eddie looks to the crowd, goes to strike Angle hopefully for the final time and WHAM.
Shoulder to the gut. Angle is in control. Eddie used all his energy for that last strike. It’s over. Kurt Angle, Olympic Gold Medalist and multi-time WWE Champion, hooks Eddie Guerrero up for a suplex from inside the ring to the outside.
Now, this is the part of the story where I tell you as a kid, I was SO anxious about this match that before it finished, I recorded it on my VHS (i know, I am old) and watched it in the morning. It’s the only match I’ve ever done that for. And the following day, I watched Angle pick Guerrero up. I didn’t use a stopwatch, but Guerrero was held up in the air for a count of six seconds from my count. Six long seconds to think about all his championship dreams. Maybe his best and only chance at challenging for the WWE Championship. And it was long enough for Eddie to fight, like he always does, and somehow find his feet back on the mat. Eddie had reversed the Olympic Gold Medalist.
The momentum of the reversal meant Eddie now had Angle up in the air for a suplex. Five seconds passed, with Kurt now up in the air. Slamming him to the mat would do Eddie no good. It would be like giving the favored team another chance to win in overtime. If Eddie was going to do this, he had to do it now. So on the sixth second, Eddie threw Kurt through the air.
Angle hit the floor.
It was over.
Eddie Guerrero had won.
There is so much to cover after this. The immediate aftermath shows a not so gracious loser in Kurt Angle. Kurt, of course, would turn heel after No Way Out and challenge Eddie at Wrestlemania. So about Wrestlemania. The reason this match is forgotten is because it’s No Way Out we all remember. Goldberg spears Brock. Eddie flies through the air. Tazz’s call of “EDDIE CHEATED” rings throughout as Eddie by god Guerrero becomes WWE Champion. A month later, Eddie uses an untied boot to slip out of Kurt’s ankle lock and roll up Angle for the win. Eddie walks out of Wrestlemania still the WWE Champion. These are moments that are forever remembered by fans of the late great Latino Heat. And for a good reason! But it’s always worth looking at the moments before the moments. The “forgotten pitstops” on the Road to Wrestlemania. Because without Eddie winning the Smackdown Royal Rumble, there is no No Way Out. There is no Wrestlemania 20. There is no dream come true. So do yourself a favor and rewatch the match sometime, or at least the ending.Watching it with the knowledge of what’s to come for Eddie is just…magical. In the end, it reminded this writer just how much they loved and still love Eddie Guerrero.
Thank you Eddie, we love you and miss you. Viva La Raza!