AT THE RUMBLE – There was a moment during Sunday night’s Royal Rumble pay-per-view, right before the Rumble match itself, that probably went unnoticed by most. Self-proclaimed sheriff Stone Cold Steve Austin had just finished handing out Stunners to squabbling general managers Eric Bischoff and Paul Heyman, and a group of referees hurried from the back to check on Austin’s dazed victims, just like we’ve seen plenty of times in the past. A fan seated in front of me noticed that the Raw refs were tending to Bischoff while the Smackdown officials gathered around Heyman.

I passed this observation on to my brother Nate, and he smiled and said, “It’s the little things.” Indeed, on a night when the WWE didn’t seem to be hitting on all cylinders, it was the small details that made this year’s Royal Rumble enjoyable for the fans, especially those making up the seemingly sold-out crowd at Philadelphia’s Wachovia Center.

It certainly didn’t seem like a night to remember for the first half of the show. A general sense of indifference and dissatisfaction seemed to hang over the arena for the opening matches on the card, and it wasn’t difficult to figure out why. Despite strong build-ups and some pretty decent storylines leading into the event, the contests felt like rushed, uncreative endings to a number of feuds. A hot crowd would have helped, but fans need a reason to heat up, and 90 minutes in they were still searching for one.

The bad vibes reached their apex during the Shawn Michaels-Triple H Last Man Standing bout. We’ve seen these two men dance this dance before, and despite their talent and accomplishments, this was far from their best work. The fans’ displeasure with the cop-out finish (inexcusable since this was pushed as the last word in this ongoing feud) was apparent to anyone with ears.

Still, all was forgiven a few minutes later when the Rumble’s namesake match began. Arguably the best recurring gimmick match in any promotion, the Royal Rumble offers a little something for everyone. It was even better live where viewers could truly appreciate the moments that made this year’s version fun: The Hurricane gamely limping off under his own power after a rough (and quick) exit; the look on Kane’s face when he heard his big brother’s old entrance music; The Cat’s manic dancing while Chris Benoit and Randy Orton regained their strength; the eruption from the crowd when Mick Foley entered the fray; the return of Billy Gunn with his infamous ‘Ass Man’ theme; the genuine surprise when Goldberg and John Cena failed to make the final four; Kurt Angle rallying the other competitors like a wrestling version of Captain America to try to eliminate Big Show.

But perhaps the best moment came after the cameras stopped rolling. With Canada’s Benoit showing genuine emotion after outlasting 29 other men to go on to a title shot at WrestleMania, Austin returned to the ring. Grabbing a mic, Stone Cold praised Benoit’s work ethic and perseverance and urged the fans to join him in a well-deserved round of applause. And yes, after a quick speech from the Crippler himself, a few beers as well.

Sunday night’s show isn’t likely to be named as anyone’s favorite pay-per-view of all time, and it probably doesn’t even top some of the Royal Rumbles from years past. In the end though, it all comes down to entertainment value, and as a live event it certainly delivered in that regard. There’s something about being there as the subplots and surprises unfold that makes the Rumble — at least Sunday night’s edition — second only to WrestleMania as a pay-per-view to see in person.

If you’re a WWE fan, you owe it to yourself to check it out if you get a chance.