The Royal Rumble match typically runs well over an hour, and much of the in-ring action—at least the first 45 minutes—can feel like a slog. It’s because the first 20 entrants generally don’t figure in the final outcome. So what’s exciting about the spectacle is the anticipation of the ring entrances, namely, the surprise and nostalgic entrants.
This year’s Rumble match had exactly one surprise entrant, and it was perhaps the least surprising participant ever—“The Perfect 10” Tye Dillinger, who came in, of course, at position 10. Dillinger aside, there were no acts from the Attitude Era, no other NXT call-ups (where’s Samoa Joe or Shinsuke Nakamura?). What we had was a by-the-books presentation of the Royal Rumble, held in the cavernous confines of San Antonio’s Alamodome, with a mostly hot crowd all evening. Randy Orton was your Rumble winner, a somewhat left field booking decision. As a member of Team Smackdown, will Orton now face Bray Wyatt at Wrestlemania (his most logical opponent), provided Wyatt captures the title at Elimination Chamber in two weeks? Or will it be yet another Cena-Orton match?
The Rumble leaves open that, and plenty more tantalizing storylines going into Wrestlemania. Putting Roman Reigns at position 30, when it could’ve gone to a Joe or Nakamura, ensured the Alamodome crowd would boo the hell out of him, even more so than usual. Then Reigns would eliminate The Undertaker in the Rumble, another move guaranteed to piss off the crowd. Is this the beginning of the long-coming Roman Reigns heel turn? Among other questions: Who will Kevin Owens face? Would an Owens-Chris Jericho match be strong enough as a championship bout? Will Owens even be champion by Wrestlemania?
If we’re judging the Rumble by match quality, it was yet another excellent hour-plus of action, closing out a stellar show with two good and two excellent championship singles bout. From a match-by-match standpoint, the 2017 Royal Rumble might have been WWE’s best wrestling show since the 2011 Money in the Bank.
In the pre-show, the team of Becky Lynch, Nikki Bella, and Naomi beat Alexa Bliss, Mickie James, and Natalya after Naomi pinned Bliss. Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson won the tag titles from Cesaro and Sheamus, and Nia Jax efficiently defeated Sasha Banks.
The main card opened with the Raw women’s championship bout of Charlotte vs. Bayley. Going into the match, it made little storyline sense for Bayley to win the championship here. Her coronation to the title should be long-gestating, always seemingly within grasp but disappointingly out of reach—it’s the appeal of Bayley’s underdog charm. That, plus the fact that Charlotte has not only been the best women’s heel in recent memory, she’s been the best “bad guy” on the entire roster.
Charlotte plays the heel role so effectively in this first of a (presumably) series of matches against Bayley. She’s cocky, confident, a superb worker above all, plus she’s inherited the dastardly mannerisms of her father—slapping Bayley’s face, mocking the audience, oozing villainous qualities in her facial expressions. Bayley held her own here, a match where the San Antonio crowd sounded emotionally involved. Which is why the end of the match felt like it came out of nowhere. There was no build to that moment—Charlotte delivering a Natural Selection from the turnbuckle onto the ring apron—but it was a creative and believable finish. The Charlotte-Bayley rivalry is only beginning.
The Kevin Owens-Roman Reigns Universal championship match was leagues more physical and violent, and what a helluva match this turned out. The two provided plenty of moments for the crowd to “pop”—a frog splash through a table on the outside, a Samoan drop through a steel chair, Owens’ homage to the Stone Cold Stunner. All throughout the match, Jericho loomed above in the shark cage, but more ominous was the pyramid of steel chairs set up on the outside (the spot ended up being Owens falling backwards from the middle rope, though I thought they might’ve done the Okada-Omega backdrop spot).
Credit goes to both competitors: This was my favorite Owens performance since his Sami Zayn match at Battleground 2016, and Reigns, despite being the guy the crowd loves to hate, proves just how fantastic he is as a big-match performer. The finish involved Braun Strowman interference, delivering a running powerslam to Reigns through a table. Screwjob finish aside, this was one of the best championship matches at the Rumble since Lesnar-Cena-Rollins from 2015 and the legendary Triple H-Mankind street fight (Pedigree into the thumb tacks, remember?) from 2000.
Neville and Rich Swann had the misfortune of the buffer match between the two men’s championship bouts, and the somewhat dead crowd brought down what was a technically crisp cruiserweight fight. Much of the match didn’t feel like the fast-paced junior heavyweight matches you’d see in New Japan or CMLL, but WWE-style one-sided selling and psychology with the occasional high spot (Swann’s Phoenix splash from the middle rope to the outside looked cool). The finish saw Neville superplex Swann from the top rope, followed by a crossface submission to capture the cruiserweight belt.
John Cena and A.J. Styles didn’t have the caliber of match they had at Summerslam—it felt slower-paced, but they also didn’t go directly into near falls like their previous match. But the last five minutes here, coupled with the magma-hot crowd and Mauro Ranallo’s top-flight announcing, made this a four-for-four evening in good-to-great championship matches. They traded a novel STF-to-STF-to-figure four-to-armbar sequence halfway through the match. Cena at one point attempted his top rope leg drop, and it looked like Styles was trying, though unsuccessfully, to catch him feet first directly into the Styles Clash. In the closing moments, Styles miraculously kicked out of an Avalanche Attitude Adjustment, which everyone was certain was the finish. Cena then caught Styles as he was springboarding off the top rope, gave him a third AA, rolled Styles back onto his shoulders, then finished him for good with a fourth and final Attitude Adjustment. Super match.
It was then time for the Rumble, and despite the lack of surprise participants, it was a match that moved quickly and established a number of intriguing storylines.
The first half dozen participants rarely have any bearing on the match. Those first 10 minutes are generally reserved for comedic spots (Jack Gallagher and William III). What would happen is the crowd waits for the one monster to clear house and reset the match—and that honor went this year to Braun Strowman as entrant no. 7. He threw nearly everyone out (Jericho hid on the outside like a chickenshit heel) as the attention focused on Strowman vs. Sami Zayn, previously announced as entrant no. 8.
The company avoided the crowd turning on the match by inserting Tye Dillinger, rightly, thankfully, in at position 10. James Ellsworth came in next for levity. The next two entrants, Dean Ambrose and Baron Corbin, along with Zayn, triple teamed Strowman until Corbin impressively clotheslined the snot out of Strowman over the top rope.
The borderline serious contenders began entering halfway through the Rumble, with upper-mid carders like Sheamus, Big E, Rusev and Cesaro at entrants 16-19. We didn’t get to the plausible winners until no. 23 when Randy Orton cleaned house with a hailstorm of RKO’s. Luke Harper completed his face turn against the Wyatt Family with a discus lariat to Bray Wyatt. Harper was about to offer his own Sister Abagail, when Orton added to his RKO tally on Harper.
Then came Brock Lesnar, who tore through the participants like a tornado. Goldberg entered two positions later at no. 28, and, history repeating itself, he quickly eliminated Lesnar after a spear and a clothesline—causing everyone in the Alamodome jump out of their seats.
The Undertaker entered at no. 29, and, sad to say, he looked a few steps slower, his strikes less impactful, and didn’t appear in his best shape. All the previously announced participants had entered by then, and the crowd was hoping for a surprise competitor.
So when Roman Reigns’ music hit as the last entrant, the rain of boos turned into a downpour. Not surprisingly, when Reigns threw The Undertaker over, the crowd began chanting “bullshit.”
Reigns, Bray Wyatt, and Randy Orton were the final three. It looked like Reigns would be easily dispatched in this two-on-one matchup, but Reigns threw Wyatt over. Down to two, Reigns went for a spear, but Orton turned it into the most telegraphed RKO in history. He threw Reigns over, and Randy Orton is your two-time Royal Rumble champion. It was a B+ ending to an A- show.