I have to admit that I was nervous going into this year’s Royal Rumble weekend. So many times, WWE builds up the anticipation for a show, only for the actual event to fall flat. This is especially evident on those occasions where they have an NXT Takeover event the night before a PPV. The NXT shows nearly always deliver on their promise, and in many cases surpass the quality of the main roster’s performance.
That didn’t happen this time. The signs were all there. NXT put on a fantastic show at TakeOver: Philadelphia. (The Gargano/Almas main event there is an early candidate for match of the year.) There were no hot rumors of big returns, and the build to the show was lukewarm, at best. However, this year’s Royal Rumble was the best in the last few years. So far, it’s smooth sailing on the Road to WrestleMania.
The Professor’s Royal Rumble Review
Cruiserweight 6-Man Tag – There really wasn’t much that WWE could do here. The original plan was for Enzo Amore to defend the Cruiserweight Championship against Cedrick Alexander. Since Amore no longer works for the company, WWE was forced to call an audible. Instead of a title bout, they held a six-man tag match. The three luchadores (Lince Dorado, Kalisto and Gran Metalik) were the babyfaces, and defeated the team of TJ Perkins, Gentleman Jack Gallagher and Drew Gulak. There was a brief mention of the vacant championship (but not the missing champion), but most of the focus was on the naming of a new 205 Live GM. That was revealed on Tuesday to be Drake Maverick (aka Rockstar Spud). For some reason, the crowd booed him when he was introduced by Daniel Bryan. Perhaps they would have rather seen The Hurricane, Vicki Guerrero, or perhaps another certain masked man who made an appearance during the Royal Rumble. Maverick announced a 16-man tournament will be held to fill the vacant Cruiserweight title, with the championship match set for WrestleMania. That was a smart move by WWE. Interest in the Cruiserweights was never higher than during the Cruiserweight Classic tournament that led to the birth of 205 Live.
SmackDown Tag Team Championship Match – The Usos vs. Chad Gable and Shelton Benjamin (2 out of 3 falls) – This was a surprise in a good way. Many times, in this type of match, the first fall goes to the team that will eventually lose the titles. (Having your back against the wall and having to win two falls in a row is considered to be the height of drama in the tag division). When the Usos took the first fall, it seemed like the same thing was going to happen. Most of the rumors coming into Royal Rumble had Benjamin and Gable taking the titles. When the Usos took the second fall, it was a surprise. I think it was a smart move by WWE. If Gable and Benjamin had won the belts, the feud with the Usos would have continued until the brothers got their “contractual rematch.” Now, Gable and Benjamin will have to start at the bottom and work their way back up. This makes for some fresh feuds in the tag division and puts teams like Breezango and The Ascension back into the mix. The Usos can battle the Bludgeon Brothers and/or New Day until a new contender is named. (Has anyone seen The Colons?)
Raw Tag Team Championship Match – Seth Rollins and Jason Jordan vs. The Bar – This was more predictable than the other tag match. The Bar took the belts from Rollins and Jordan when Jordan, who had been run headfirst into the ring post, seemed to recover just in time to make a hot tag with Rollins. As soon as he entered the ring, Jordan tagged himself back out. With any luck, this will end the feud between these two teams, though Rollins and Jordan are technically owed a rematch. With the new-look Balor Club and the Revival both back in the mix, the Raw tag division might see some fresh matchups.
WWE Championship Match – AJ Styles vs. Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens (2 on 1 Handicap Match) – I thought that this match would be the beginning of the breakup between Zayn and Owens, and it turns out I was right. It just didn’t happen the way I thought it would. Styles retained the belt in somewhat controversial fashion by pinning Owens who wasn’t the legal man in the match. Zayn and Owens complained to Daniel Bryan on Tuesday and were told that they would get another opportunity to face Styles. All they have to do is face each other first, with the winner getting the title shot. It was a pretty clever way to get into the breakup story. The tease for the breakup began later in the show, when Zayn and Owens faced Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura in a tag match. We’ll see how the story goes from here. It will be interesting to see if WWE goes with the predictable breakup, or moves on to something more creative.
Universal Championship Match – Brock Lesnar vs. Kane vs. Braun Strowman (Triple Threat Match) – The match wasn’t too bad, for what it was. Since everyone who watched the show knew that Lesnar was going to get the win by pinning or submitting Kane, the outcome was no surprise. Strowman remained dominant in the match, only losing because of Lesnar’s craftiness. Once again, the Universal Champion smirked his way up the ramp as Strowman stood in the ring bellowing that Lesnar still didn’t beat him. So far, this type of outcome hasn’t diminished Strowman with the fans. It’s only a matter of time before it does, however. WWE needs to find a way to put the big red belt on the Monster Among Men.
Women’s Royal Rumble Match – Props to WWE for not trying to swerve fans with a shock ending. Asuka was the obvious choice here, and really the only reasonable one. While they did get the ending right, the creative team did make some big booking mistakes during this match. The first one was making the current roster of women, supposedly the result of the Women’s Revolution, look relatively weak compared to many of the returning women. I understand the appeal of Trish Stratus, Jacqueline, Molly Holly and Lita. All of them were wrestlers that could have competed with today’s crew. Having Beth Phoenix stare down Nia Jax was a good call. However, no one needed to see Michelle McCool eliminate more competitors than anyone else in the match, and having Kelly Kelly and Torrie Wilson, who were more Diva-ish than just about anyone since Sable, show up at all seemed to go against everything the women have been working to overcome. The worst move came after Asuka was crowned. As the two champions stood in the ring to either side of her, and The Empress of Tomorrow was going to announce which champion she’d chosen to face at WrestleMania, Ronda Rousey made her debut. Don’t get me wrong. I think Rousey is a huge get for WWE. If she intends to stick around full-time, as indicated by her comments after the show, she can bring a whole bevy of new eyes to the product. However, she could have been introduced on Raw the following night. The first female Rumble winner is historic. Asuka should have gotten her moment, along with current champions Charlotte Flair and Alexa Bliss. The three of them standing in the ring was a great symbol of how far WWE has come. Rousey’s debut dimmed that spotlight a little.
Men’s Royal Rumble Match – WWE got this one right, too. I was both shocked and delighted that Shinsuke Nakamura won the Rumble. When the match was announced just after the SmackDown tag team title match, I was sure that Roman Reigns was going to win, and that WWE was putting the men’s rumble in the middle of the card so that the show wouldn’t end with the Philadelphia crowd booing at the top of its collective lungs. However, the powers that be realized that they could give the fans what they want, and still have their Lesnar/Reigns showdown at WrestleMania. As the match went on, and Finn Balor (in at no. 2) was still there, I began to have hope. Then, Nakamura entered at 14, and things really started to get interesting. When Rey Mysterio entered at No. 27, I was momentarily distracted by the fact that Reigns, John Cena and Randy Orton were all still in the match. When it was down to six, I started to lose hope again. Then came one of the greatest moments in Royal Rumble history (at least in my opinion). Reigns, Balor and Nakamura stood side-by-side, and squared off against Cena, Orton and Mysterio. It was clear, this was a changing of the guard. (Or so we can hope.) When it came down to Reigns and Nakamura, I was sure the Big Dog was going to win. I was resigning myself to the fact that both Nakamura and Balor were booked to look very strong. Then, Nakamura eliminated Reigns, and the heavens opened up. Nakamura informed the world that he will take on AJ Styles at WrestleMania, and everything was as it should be. (Except for Lesnar holding the Universal title belt hostage at a remote Canadian location.) For all my fears, WWE got this one (mostly) right.
Next week, we’ll take a look as some questions that keep nagging at me as we continue down the Road to WrestleMania. Until then….