Before I even took the plunge and actually became a pro wrestling fan, I was dimly aware of—and completely fascinated by—the Royal Rumble. Indeed, last year’s Rumble marked the official beginning of my time as a regular WWE viewer, because even after following from afar after, of all things, Seth Rollins started feuding with Jon Stewart, it wasn’t until the Rumble came along that I just had to watch. It’s hard to say precisely why. Perhaps it’s the hope for shock returns and surprise debuts. (Which explains why I’m such an incorrigible A.J. Styles super-fan.) Perhaps it’s the sheer marvel that anyone can corral 30 wrestlers into something resembling a coherent, compelling story. (Which admittedly doesn’t always happen, but 2016 is at least decent.) Perhaps it’s the belief that, even in a pre-determined world, the Royal Rumble is the one match where anything can happen. (Which again is far from true of every Rumble, but even some of the most predictable ones still have moments where they get you to hope against hope for something different.)

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Even after tonight’s go-home show, I defy anyone to know who is going to win this thing on Sunday. Multiple names are varying shades of plausible: Without thinking too much about it, I’d say Goldberg, Brock Lesnar, Chris Jericho, Braun Strowman, the Undertaker, Dean Ambrose, and maybe even the Miz could all believably win it, to say nothing of a possibly debuting Samoa Joe or a returning Finn Balor. What’s more, all of them ought to have a storyline waiting for them on the other side of the Rumble. Goldberg and Lesnar still appear to be on a collision course, but the Undertaker’s cryptic appearance at the end of Raw suggests the parameters of their feud are expanding. It was easy to predict that Goldberg and Lesnar would somehow cost each other the Rumble victory, setting up their final battle at Wrestlemania, but the Undertaker’s entrance throws that assumption into question. The Rumble offers an opportunity for 30 wrestlers’ individual stories to intertwine in unexpected ways, and tonight’s episode indicates that Sunday’s match will indeed be more than just a bunch of existing rivalries playing out simultaneously.

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Admittedly, I’m building out quite a bit from Taker’s closing appearance, plus the fact that Big Show took time out from his Shaq-related training to show up and make Braun Strowman look nervous. Beyond those moments and the fantastic, impromptu qualifying match between Sami Zayn and Seth Rollins, everything else is basically business as usual tonight. That’s perhaps not such a bad thing, as much more building than WWE has already done would risk leaving them without much room for surprises. There are places one could quibble, like Raw’s refusal to let the New Day have time for some serious discussion of their Rumble plans. The trio effortlessly play the comedy of the endless interruptions—even if it’s downright mean to put the Titus Brand up against a promo master like Xavier Woods—but WWE has perhaps squandered an opportunity to experiment with a slightly more serious, or at least more clearly ambitious version of the New Day now that they’re out of the tag title picture. I was looking for any good reason to put them on my list of potential winners up above, and an interrupted promo that ends in an eight-man tag match isn’t really going to do that.

The far more intriguing decision is to swap Rollins out for Zayn. While it will be weird to not have a main eventer like Rollins in the Rumble, and possibly not even on the card at this point—for the second straight year, no less—there was no conceivable way his Rumble appearance didn’t end with likely instant Triple H interference. As such, why waste a spot on him? The journey to Rollins’ removal is a good one, even if I do wish Raw would just cut the shit and turn Stephanie McMahon fully heel again, if only so the audience doesn’t have to waste time trying to reconcile her capricious whims with larger logical questions. (I mean, the conduct of all the other superstars makes it clear Zayn could have just declared for the Rumble and been done with it, but he made the mistake of asking about it in earshot of someone looking to screw him or Rollins over.) But Rollins’ initial conversation with Mick Foley, in which he is understanding yet defiant, gets across his still forming face persona about as well as anything we’ve seen in the past few months. The match itself is, as Michael Cole put it, a technical beauty, as two world-class workers let their wrestling skill and their desire to win provide all the psychology needed. Even the familiar interference spot with Triple H’s music is handled better than it might be, with Rollins at least having the presence of mind to dismiss it and go for the pin, even if it does turn out he had left Zayn too much time to recuperate.

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Between all the show-specific titles being defended and the large number of Raw superstars already declared for the Royal Rumble, this Sunday’s show is basically a glorified Raw pay-per-view. (Which will make it all the sweeter for us snooty SmackDown jerks when Styles-Cena III is the best damn thing on the card, but I digress.) That at least gives tonight plenty to do in building the other title matches. Bayley and Charlotte are both varying ratios of hit or miss as promos, so it makes sense to have Corey Graves talk to them in the pre-taped segments, with Charlotte further clarifying just why Bayley being a fan is a bad thing and Bayley talking up her underdog credentials. Gallows and Anderson appear to be in much the same position with Sheamus and Cesaro as they were with the New Day, which is that they are chasing the titles and getting screwed out of possible victories—which would work like gangbusters if they weren’t heels. As it is, the Club is just fragile in the same way the Wyatts so often are, desperately in need of the titles to legitimize them but seemingly stuck in a holding pattern in favor of a hotter face team. Given how much I like Cesaro and how much I sort of tolerate Sheamus, that shouldn’t be an issue, but the Club feel so compromised that neither their wins nor their losses have the impact they should.

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Then there’s the United States Championship, which is still around the waist of real American and native Long Islander (look it up) Chris Jericho, who tonight had one of his better-worked matches of late against Roman Reigns. Anyone hoping that this match might finally sow the seeds of a Jericho-Owens program—which was at least hinted at by Owens volunteering Jericho for the rematch—were out of luck, as the main event still very much remains the best friends of Jeri-K.O. versus Reigns. The late-breaking news that Owens’ title match against Reigns will be no-disqualification is intriguing. After all, Owens did retain at Roadblock only through Jericho getting Reigns disqualified… but he only beat Rollins at Hell In A Cell because Jericho found a way to interfere in a non-DQ scenario. So, like pretty much everything else coming up on Sunday, I’m not going to pretend I know this is going to play out. In a world as predictable as the WWE, that’s got to count for quite a bit.

Stray observations

  • Results: Luke Gallows defeated Cesaro; Sami Zayn defeated Seth Rollins to take Rollins’ spot in the Royal Rumble; T.J. Perkins, Jack Gallagher, and Mustafa Ali defeat Drew Gulak, Tony Nese, and Ariya Daivari; Braun Strowman, Jinder Mahal, Rusev, and Titus O’Neil defeat Big E, Kofi Kingston, Big Cass, and Enzo Amore; Roman Reigns defeats Chris Jericho by disqualification, Jericho retains the U.S. title; Nia Jax defeats Rey Linn; Rich Swann defeats Noam Dar.
  • Roman Reigns did get showered with boos early on tonight, but he seemed to be doing well when locking Owens in the cage. The cynic in me says that, when fans pop for Reigns doing big crazy shit, it’s the big crazy shit they’re popping for way more than Reigns, but hey, at least the fans and WWE appeared to be on the same page for a few minutes there.
  • I’m legitimately excited for Neville and Rich Swann’s Cruiserweight Championship match at Royal Rumble, even if the division as a whole is a painful work in progress. Watching a bit of 205 Live, the show is definitely finding pieces of itself as it goes along, but yeah, patience is very much required with this one. Jack Gallagher is crazy over, though, so that’s certainly something.
  • Just so we’re clear, Corey Graves is a heel when calling Raw and a face when doing 205 Live and cruiserweight matches, yes?
  • When Jinder Mahal came back, I did not expect him to find as prominent a role as Rusev’s silent, noticeably ripped lackey. That’s a pretty good spot for Jinder! I have very little to add, but I do like when people find an effective role that suits them, so yeah… good for Jinder.
  • That Goldberg promo was something else. Cringe-worthy as it was at points, I kind of have to respect a guy who appears that legitimately fired up and overwhelmed by the crowd. Goldberg may not care that much about wrestling in and of itself, but he absolutely cares about the fans, and that comes across even when he’s struggling.

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