It’s not quite WWE’s crown jewel, but the Royal Rumble is a gimmick match with unrivalled lasting appeal. Since its inception in 1988, this unique timed-interval thirty-man battle royal has gripped fans by condensing virtually all the joys and values of pro wrestling into a single hour. One minute it’s bizarre, the next it’s funny, the next it’s athletic, the next it’s electrifying, and throughout it all you’re kept guessing who’s going to show up.
That was until the past two editions of the event, both of which will be remembered for Daniel Bryan not emerging victorious and, consequently, each winner celebrating a highlight of their career to a chorus of boos. Inevitably the shine has come off the Royal Rumble a little; those vintage shows of 1992 and 2001 and 2007 now more distant memories than ever.
The challenge this time was as high as the stakes. As well as paving the way for what might be the biggest WrestleMania yet, this year’s show needed to demonstrate that WWE’s writers and performers still understood what people love about the Royal Rumble. If anything was teetering on the ropes this time, it was the main event itself.
Did WWE survive the night? Not emphatically, no, but the show had its moments. Most of the biggest cheers in the Royal Rumble match itself were during the appearances of key wrestlers, and not from the in-ring action; a telling sign that the crowd in Orlando wanted to come unglued but didn’t have enough to pull them up.
Many of the first ten entrants were notably long in the tooth, in particular Chris Jericho (45), Kane (48), and Golddust (46), meaning that the outset of the match didn’t have the pace that it needed. (For what must have been more than three quarters of his total time in the match, Jericho was lying down.)
While crowd hostility had defined the previous two Rumbles, here long spells of the one-hour match were observed in relative quiet. It’s hard to judge whether Vince McMahon would have taken silence over a vuvuzela-like drone of boos. The problem was that there were fewer competitors than ever whom you believed had even a fighting chance, nor were there enough performances or moments to ignite faith. That has always been the key drawback of the mid-card era, with even-steven booking giving the majority of WWE’s competitors a flat career trajectory. A thirty-man battle royal match exposes that flaw very effectively, perhaps better than any other kind of match, and during the first half-hour the ring was populated with competitors who did not convince that they were there to win.
The biggest exception was Dean Ambrose, who despite surviving a wonderful and merciless Last Man Standing match earlier in the night, managed to fight his way to the final two and–as if like magic–fans dared to dream.
No More Heroes
But it was Triple H (46), the odds-on favourite despite being booked as a surprise, who emerged the winner in one hour and one minute after entering at number 30. A year since he joked in an interview that his career was “hanging by a thread,” this is his second Royal Rumble win, his fourteenth WWE Championship, and quite likely his seventh WrestleMania main event; a sign that WWE is making the most of his remaining star power while the likes of John Cena, Seth Rollins, Randy Orton, and Daniel Bryan recover from injury.
Again, it was Triple H’s entrance music that triggered a bigger cheer than his performance, though a close second to that was his elimination of Roman Reigns, who started the match at first and was the 28th to be eliminated. Since WrestleMania 31, WWE has artfully booked AnoaÊ»ian protÃ©gÃ© to win him sympathy and support, but the overwhelming hostility towards him tonight cannot continue to be overlooked. His run as a babyface has, quite possibly, hit a low ceiling.
It didn’t help that his performance was unremarkable and hampered by the booking. McMahon (the character) interfered in the first half of the match along with The League of Nations staple, pulling reigns outside and throwing him against various ringside furniture until he was stretchered off. Why, in kayfabe logic, was he not thrown over the top rope when effectively incapacitated was a question that lingered. The audience, of course, awaited (or should I say expected) his return after he rested for a while in the back. This is hardly the scintillating narrative of a hero. Daniel Bryan and Mick Foley spring to mind; two stars who refused to leave even when stretchered off, the latter of which to continue lying down.
Possibly the highlight of the match was at entry number three, when AJ Styles made a dream-like debut at the company he has orbited for the majority of his career. The indie thoroughbred impressed during his first half hour in a WWE ring, and when eliminated by Kevin Owens (who appears to be booked to feud with everyone) Styles walked back to the locker room with the Amway Center echoing chants of his name.
By far the weakest moment was the elimination of Brock Lesnar, with the Wyatt quartet (three of which had been eliminated by that point) rushing the decorated former champion and tossing him out with no single official even attempting to prevent such an epic rule break. Brock’s nonchalant walk back to the dressing room, showing no outward bitterness towards those who eliminated him, said it all. He had most definitely clocked out.
But for every head-scratching moment like this, there were epic showdowns and standoffs, in particular Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens (him again) who injected a much-needed shot of energy into the show. On balance, the main event was not a disaster. There were no Daniel Bryan or CM Punk chants, no cries of “we want refunds” or any profanity like last year, and WWE will surely take this as a step in the right direction. Perhaps most promising of all, it was the younger stars and the new arrivals whom carried the show and brought delight to fans. That may give enough hope that dark days of the Royal Rumble are now in the past.
The show opened with the most brutal bout of the night; Kevin Owens versus Dean Ambrose in a Last Man Standing match, where a winner is declared when their opponent is knocked to the floor for ten seconds. The fight was thus laced with wince-inducing high spots such as Owens’s Cannonball Senton through the time keeper’s barricade, a chair shot to the head (of sorts), and Ambrose’s flying elbow from the top turnbuckle through a table on the outside.
It was a little peculiar that the babyface dominated the proceedings, though Owens was wily enough to maintain his heel status as best he could in such a situation. In one instance he prevented a ten count by lethargically rolling out the ring and landing on his feet; thus managing to stand up by falling down. Very cute.
The closing stages were set in motion after Owens blocked a superplex that was destined for a table (I cannot remember a wrester successfully attempting this move) and countered with a fisherman buster suplex through said furniture (oh, there we are), triggering a wave of holy profanity from dazzled onlookers. It wasn’t enough, however, with Ambrose scrambling to his feet at the count of nine. Owens put on more pressure with a pop-up powerbomb, once again managing only a nine-count. In an act of desperation, Owens attempted a superplex, this time onto a gathering of chairs, but came unstuck when Ambrose tossed his foe to the outside and through a double-deck of tables. Owens never threatened to return to his feet, and Ambrose was declared the winner at 19:37.
The singles contest with the most momentum leading into it was between Charlotte and Becky Lynch for the Divas Championship. It was built with a story that tapped into Lynch’s genuine teenage dream to be a star in pro wrestling, blurring it with the kayfabe relationship-breakdown narrative that has been stewing for weeks. The match threatened to be just as good as the build; in five minutes it featured more wrestling holds than any other of the night. WWE’s propensity for comic-book back-and-forths wasn’t so pronounced here, with more of a measured pace and emphasis on athletic competitiveness. Lynch’s underdog story ended in a pin fall loss at 11:41, though Charlotte didn’t win clean due to her father interfering at a key interval. Adding insult to injury, Lynch’s story appeared to have ended at the bell, with Sasha Banks introducing herself shortly afterwards and foreshadowing a showdown at WrestleMania.
Elsewhere on the card, The New Day greeted Orlando with Xavier Woods’s new trombone, Franchesca II (pro wrestling), and beat The Usos at 10:53 with the help of a sly tag. Meanwhile, Kalisto’s victorious underdog fight against bronzed ex-US champion Alberto Del Rio told the right story but perhaps too closely to the template to stand out. After Kalisto accidentally face-planted himself attempting a roll-up, the match was–perhaps understandably–a little spaghetti-legged for the remainder.