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Battle royal (plural battles royal) traditionally refers to a fight involving three or more combatants that is fought until only one fighter remains standing. In recent times, the term has been used in a more general sense to refer to any fight involving large numbers of people that are not organized into factions. Within combat sports, the term has a specific meaning, depending on the sports being discussed.
The term "battle royal" was first coined by the Romans to refer to a form of gladiatorial combat involving a number of gladiators fighting, armed or unarmed, until only one remained standing, or alive. These fights tended to be particularly brutal, even by the standards of the Romans. Early Christians, such as Clement of Rome and Ignatius, actively but unsuccessfully campaigned against this savage form of entertainment.
Following the collapse of the Roman empire, the battle royal fell out of vogue as a form of entertainment until the 19th century, when it resurfaced in the United States.
Before 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was signed, battles royal often appeared on the undercard of boxing matches. These fights would normally involve five or six slaves fighting blindfolded and bare-knuckled. Two former slaves recount a slave battle as follows:
"Sometimes these Free-For-All battles were carried on with a kind of improvised boxing gloves, and the contests were carried on in the same manner as previously described. Very often, as many as 30 darkies of the most husky type were engaged in these battles, and the contests were generally attended by large audiences. Being staged during the period of favorable weather, and mostly on Saturday afternoon; these physical exhibitions were the scenes of much controversial conflict, gambling, excessive inebriation and hilarity."
Depending on the pre-agreed rules, these fights would either last until one man was left standing, the winner, or until two remained standing, at which point the blindfolds would be removed from the combatants and the fight continued until one was unable to continue. The owner of the winner would receive the prize, which was usually small.
The practice of fighting battles royal in this context continued long after the abolition of slavery. Some were still fought legally in the 1930s albeit with the use of gloves. However, most bouts in this period were fought illegally at "smokers", unsanctioned and unregulated boxing matches, as preludes to the main event. Almost all fighters at these contests, both legal and illegal, were still black African Americans, although they were now allowed to keep their winnings which would be as little as $2, and not more than $5. A battle royal is the subject of the first chapter of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man.
In professional wrestling, the battle royal is a match involving anywhere between four and 60 wrestlers that takes place entirely inside the ring — a wrestler is eliminated when a wrestler scores a pinfall or knocks out his or her opponent(s) (but rarely submissions). Some promotions allow over the top rope eliminations (notably the WWE as part of their annual Royal Rumble). Battle Royals are often used to determine the top contender for a championship, or filling vacant championships.
World Championship Wrestling was known for having the largest battle royal in wrestling, held annually at their WCW World War 3 pay-per-view events. The three-ring, sixty-wrestler events consisted of all sixty wrestlers parading out to the ring (usually sans formal introductions to save time) and beginning to fight at the bell. Once the number of wrestlers in each ring had dwindled down to a number suitable for a single ring, the wrestlers would all move to the designated "Ring #1" out of the three and would fight to a winner. The winners of the four World War 3 battles royal were Randy Savage, The Giant, Scott Hall, and Kevin Nash.
World Championship Wrestling also held an event called Battlebowl in which 20 men started in one ring and would have to throw others into a second ring. From that ring you would be thrown to the floor for elimination. The last man in ring one would rest until one man was left in ring two. Those two men would then battle until one man was left and would be declared the winner. In 1991, Sting won the match after coming down to him and Lex Luger. Every year thereafter Battle Bowl took place with only one ring and a normal battle royal.
Numerous variations of the battle royal also exist, including:
- Total Nonstop Action Wrestling's Gauntlet for the Gold: an over-the-top rope elimination match in which the final two competitors face off in a one-fall singles match
- Tag Team Battle Royal: a standard battle royal in which teams of two, three, or four combatants compete for group victory. Variations have been used in both WCW and TNA.
- Project Gutenberg Ebook Slave Narratives, HW Ky 7 Tinie Force and Elvira Lewis