Ah the Royal Rumble. The traditional January 30 Man over the top rope gimmick match granddaddy of them all, an unbeatably entertaining premise that usually sees even casual and non-fans take interest. With Monday Night Raw ratings at the lowest they’ve been since 1997 and several of the company’s “top guys” on the shelf due to injuries (Cena, Rollins and Orton just to name a few), many fans speculated that this was the perfect time for WWE to think outside of the creative box in a “nothing to lose” sort of proposition.
For the first time ever, a reigning WWE Champion, Roman Reigns, would have to enter the competition first and defend his World Title against the other 29 participants. A handful of recently signed exports from New Japan Pro Wrestling and perspective call ups from the white hot developmental fed NXT had a chance of appearing as well, giving an air of hopeful desperation to the proceedings and a spark in the air that all these disparate parts could add to an extremely satisfying whole.
And that’s exactly what they’ve accomplished, giving us an incredibly strong show to start off 2016, and setting up tons of interesting potential angles for the “Road to Wrestlemania”.
The first match of the night damn near stole the show before it even began, a last man standing bout between defending Intercontinental Champ Dean Ambrose and upstart super heel Kevin Owens. Ambrose and Owens battled with tables, chairs and kendo sticks bringing to mind the Attitude Era LMS classic between Mankind and The Rock. The match concluded with two perfectly executed table spots, Owens putting Ambrose through one off the top rope with that awesome looking reverse-superplex-bomb thing he does and DA finishing KO by pushing him off the top rope and into a stack of two tables on the floor that Owens himself had previously set up. Ambrose continues to be the best reason for WWE to potentially reinstate the old AE Hardcore Title and Owens yet again proves himself an invaluable member for the roster, as he has since his NXT call up and John Cena feud last year.
The matches between the opener and main event Rumble match itself were serviceable if uninspiring, but each had definite bright spots that show an overall improvement compared to the “business as usual” coasting that WWE fans had largely been settling for over the past months. New Day retained the Tag Belts against The Usos, continuing their meme-tastic run as hilarious babyface internet trolls, Rey Mysterio Jr. heir apparent Kalisto regained his US Championship from Alberto Del Rio despite League of Nations interference and a couple of painful looking late match botches, and Womens Champ Charlotte triumphed over Becky Lynch with the help of that patented Ric Flair superdickery.
Sasha Banks’ return after that match, no rumored shoulder injury to be seen and less the dead weight of the other Team BAD members, to beat down both Becky and Charlotte and stake her claim on the *shudder* Divas title, was another highlight. Armchair booking time: I’d have had Becky go over Charlotte, but still, clearly defined heel/face dynamics and meaningful interpersonal character interactions are what fans have been clamoring for in the main roster women’s division and here we are. WWE may not quite measure up to the women’s wrestling awesomeness of NXT but at least it looks like they’re finally starting to really try. Baby steps, people. Now let’s just redesign that tramp stamp of a title belt and give these talented performers something wholly respectable to strive for.
And with that, the Rumble match itself was underway, with Roman out first followed by and quickly eliminating one time monster heel Rusev. Pro Tip: don’t get engaged to the person you’re supposed to be feuding against and plaster the pictures all over social media if you want to keep your push. Next up: holy shit it’s A.J. Styles. Rumors had been swirling over the past month that both Styles and his NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 10 opponent Shinsuke Nakamura had both signed WWE deals in the wake of that highly acclaimed swan song battle. The King of Strong Style was apparently still contractually obligated to some matches in Japan, despite recently relinquishing his IWGP IC Title, but the Phenomenal One had no such entanglements, and here he was, finally debuting in WWE to what was easily the most thunderous audience reaction of the night.
Styles made an impressive showing before being eliminated by a limping, broken Kevin Owens, he himself eventually eliminated by another crowd favorite, his one time friend and rival, NXT’s Sami Zayn. Other Rumble match standouts included Kofi Kingston again avoiding elimination in amusingly innovative fashion with a piggyback ride and victory lap around the ring courtesy of Big E., R Truth (whose gimmick now is apparently that he’s a fucking idiot) planting a ladder in the ring and attempting to climb it and reach… something, and unlikely elder statesman Chris Jericho lasting over 40 minutes and looking spry the whole time, proving that despite some genuinely awful promos since returning (“Rooty Tooty Booty” made want to stab myself in the ears with ice picks like Kakihara at the end of Ichi The Killer), WWE in 2016 is still a place where he belongs.
And now, the curious matter of Roman Reigns. Reigns was, of course, out first to defend his world title, “one versus all” as the advertisements wouldn’t let us forget. About 10 minutes in Roman catches hell from a Vince McMahon led League of Nations and gets stretchered out of the arena to rest up for the majority of the proceedings. Brock Lesnar hits the ring to a pop almost as big as Styles’? No Roman. Brock takes out the Wyatts? No Roman. The Wyatts come back and take out Brock? No Roman. When Roman finally returns to the ring with about 10 minutes realistically left in the match and all the genuinely credible threats having already been dispatched he’s met with an impenetrable wall of boos from a crowd that’s thus far been pretty game and into everything being presented to them, understandably so.
Flash back to last year’s Rumble, right here in our very own good ol’ no bullshit birthplace of ECW, Philadelphia. Reigns won the Rumble after similarly sitting out the majority of the action and the crowd was having none of it, damn near starting a riot that even Reigns’ super-over, good guy, genuine movie star celebrity “cousin” The Rock couldn’t put a cork in. Upon Reigns’ return this year I could feel last night’s Orlando crowd’s hate boiling and simmering from out of the TV. I hadn’t heard dissension that loud, strong and real on a live PPV since the Montreal Screwjob. This was heading to a really bad place really fast. How would WWE avert a repeat of last year’s Rumble debacle? The answer? It’s all about The Game.
HHH has engendered a lot of good will within the wrestling community recently as the majordomo of NXT and the smart marks in the Orlando crowd, NXT’s de facto home town, let him know it. Despite his villainous onscreen main roster persona H probably received the third biggest crowd reaction after the Phenomenal Styles and Brock the Beast, showing how ill suited Reigns still is for the babyface champion role that WWE continually tries to shoehorn him into, that the heel, the literal and figurative “Authority” figure here to take him down a peg or two, would be so universally beloved and embraced.
Hunter was here to take out that trash, and that’s exactly what he did, unceremoniously tossing Reigns over the top rope after a short, heated exchange, leaving himself and Ambrose of all people as the final two, making short work of the “Lunatic Fringe” and being crowned 2016 Royal Rumble winner and 14 time World Champion.
Though somewhat conceptually questionable, this entire exchange was executed perfectly, and that’s something WWE has really struggled with recently, sticking the landing. Just like with movies, something with a weak beginning but a strong finish will leave more of a positive overall impression. And though the whole 2016 Rumble show was hardly weak in any aspect, this Reigns vs. Authority angle has definitely had its ups and downs, but at least as far as last night was concerned, and HHH entering the fray as a genuine competitor, a strong finish was assuredly what was on display.
Here we open up all sorts of positive possibilities between now and March. Ambrose and Jericho went at it in the Rumble, and Y2J could do a lot worse for his final run than a chase for the IC strap, especially against a performer as dynamic as DA. Owens eliminating Styles and Zayn eliminating Owens could lead to an interesting three way feud between those similarly athletic Indy vets. Lesnar staring down the entirety of the Wyatt clan finally gives The Beast something of a credible threat to be set against, and of curse HHH vs. Reigns is all but a lock for your Wrestlemania Main Event, though how they plan to finally translate Roman into a compelling “good guy” is anybody’s guess. Just slotting the somewhat bland Reigns into the Stone Cold role in another “Austin vs. McMahons” type saga simply isn’t going to work. I have seen Stone Cold Steve Austin and you, Roman Reigns, are no Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Can WWE keep this positive momentum going or is this just an agreeable blip in the usual “meh” American mainstream wrestling landscape? We remain, as always, cautiously optimistic.
Photos courtesy of WWE.Com