If the Royal Rumble is the road to WrestleMania, then it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
The Rumble kicked off WWE’s build to WrestleMania, and the publicly owned company listened to its fan base when Shinsuke Nakamura claimed victory in the men’s Rumble and challenged AJ Styles for the WWE championship at WrestleMania 34 in New Orleans.
WWE made the right call to close the card with the women’s Royal Rumble, as Asuka dominated and became the first-ever women’s winner. Cheers quickly turned to confusion as Ronda Rousey arrived right before Asuka chose her ‘Mania opponent, and the pay-per-view went off the air with the announcing team discussing Rousey’s arrival and conveniently dismissing Asuka’s victory.
An otherwise rushed men’s Rumble, which was highlighted by the return of Rey Mysterio, came together perfectly during its final 25 minutes. The ring was filled with the likes of John Cena, Finn Balor, Nakamura, Randy Orton and Roman Reigns, until Nakamura and Reigns had a showdown to finish the match.
WWE will have some explaining to do regarding the finish of the women’s Rumble that somehow allowed Stephanie McMahon and Ronda Rousey to replace Asuka and both women’s champions as the central figures of the show.
Here are my notes from the Rumble:
1. Did it feel cheap to anyone else when the show opened with the WWE championship match? SmackDown is clearly positioned as the company’s secondary show, well behind Raw, and placing the world title in the opening match was only further confirmation.
2. Wrestling is constantly criticized for its modern-day lack of selling injuries, but Kevin Owens reinjuring his ankle following Styles doing a number on Owens’s ankle on SmackDown was a nice touch. While I was impressed by the storyline continuity, Owens’s ankle was somehow perfectly fine for the remainder of the match—though he was selling the injury in the backstage segment post-match.
3. The finish to the show-opening title match was well-designed, as the tag wasn’t made between Zayn and Owens so Styles pinned an opponent who was not the legal man. The finish protects Owens and Zayn, as two top heels should not be defeated by one opponent, no matter how phenomenal he may be.
4. Styles has earned the right to main event WrestleMania 34. Although that slot appears to already be filled by the Roman Reigns-Brock Lesnar rematch, the wrestling diehards deserve a wrestling match between two full-time talents to close out the biggest show of the year. If the same philosophy was used in WWE history, where part-timers were brought in to main event the show, then Steve Austin and The Rock would have never closed out WrestleMania 15, which was a major turning point in the stardom of The Rock and helped cement Austin as the top draw in the world.
5. The backstage segment between Owens, Zayn and Shane McMahon is building perfectly to a tag-team match at WrestleMania 34. McMahon’s partner, of course, has to be Daniel Bryan. The decibel level at the Superdome in New Orleans will be deafening when McMahon starts the match… and then finally tags Bryan into the match.
6. The Usos opened the match by proclaiming they had nothing to lose, which, of course, is far from the truth in a company that scripts its finishes. TMZ reported that Jey Uso was arrested two weeks ago for driving while impaired. It’s worth noting that Vince McMahon claimed players in the XFL—which he announced will return in 2020—will not allow anyone on the field with criminal records.
7. Chad Gable’s sky-high moonsault was another peek at Gable’s talent. He feels like a Jim Ross hire from the early 2000s as he was a successful college athlete with a legitimate amateur wrestling background, and someone comfortable working with other alpha males in a locker room. Gable’s breakout in WWE is inevitable, and I reached out to Jim Ross during the show for a comment.
“Chad Gable reminds me at times of the great Kurt Angle with his fundamental wrestling soundness and attention to detail,” Ross said, who took a break from his one-man tour and book signings of Slobberknockerto connect with Sports Illustrated. “Athletic entertainers such as Angle, Brock Lesnar, and others like Jack Brisco have always been significant pieces to the foundation of the genre. Chad Gable is no exception. I expect greatness from Chad.”
8. WWE shocked tag teams around the world when The Usos claimed the first two falls to win a best-of-three falls match without going to the third fall. The match was just picking up momentum, and the finish was flat. Considering WWE desperately needs to build new tag teams, choosing to keep the belts on The Usos feels like a missed opportunity.
9. The Usos are tremendous heels. Are we ready for Roman Reigns to go full-out heel and work with Jimmy and Jey Uso? Reigns turning on his Shield partners, especially with a chair shot to the back of Seth Rollins, would be a great way to jumpstart their control of the company.
10. WWE’s “All About the Numbers” video for the Royal Rumble was fantastic, but the company has remained steadfast in its decision not to highlight Hulk Hogan. Although Hogan was briefly in a montage video during Raw 25, he was never specifically mentioned during the Rumble video, despite the fact that Hogan’s wins–and even his loss at the 1992 Rumble–firmly established the pay per view as a must-see attraction.
11. Jerry Lawler returned to broadcast the Rumble, ending any speculation that his “puppies” comment on Raw was not pre-approved.
12. Despite the rules of the Royal Rumble, where a new competitor enters every two minutes, there were only 78 seconds separating Rhyno and Baron Corbin’s entries in the Rumble. There were 100 seconds in between Corbin and Heath Slater, so clearly WWE is going to play by its own rules when it comes to when a new competitor enters the Rumble. Elias Sampson came to the ring only a minute and twenty-two seconds after Slater. For those keeping track, the first entry to come out two minutes after the buzzer was Sheamus at number eleven.
13. The addition of NXT champion Andrade “Cien” Almas into the Rumble was a welcome addition. Almas wrestled Johnny Gargano at the previous night’s NXT Takeover: Philadelphia in arguably the match of the year, including matches from New Japan’s Wrestle Kingdom on January 4.
14. Would anyone object to Big E winning the Rumble? He is cast as a comedy player in the SmackDown tag-team division. But Big E is the rare babyface who is beloved by the crowd, has the ability to speak confidently on the microphone and can work fantastic matches. Of course, Big E was eliminated by Jinder Mahal.
15. There had to be a better way to explain Zayn’s entrance at no. 10. Zayn and Owens ambushed Tyler Dillinger in the back, and Zayn then claimed the spot and entered the match. It was a moot point when Shinsuke Nakamura eliminated Zayn.
16. Slater’s moment at the Rumble, which saw him eliminate Sheamus, served as a quick reminder that WWE has a hidden gem who can connect with their audience in Slater. Personally, I would be thrilled to watch a Slater-Miz program for the Intercontinental title.
17. If Nakamura does not win the Rumble, then throw ice all over his WWE future. It’s now or never for “The Artist,” who is more likely to return to New Japan than become WWE champion if he does not win the Rumble.
18. Seth Rollins entered at no. 18, and this Rumble is flying. The entries have averaged just under 90 seconds, and WWE is clearly worried about the timing of the show.
19. Kofi Kingston’s “power of the pancakes” spot was creative, but ultimately lost its meaning with Kingston’s elimination only moments later.
Kingston has claimed the athletic spots that were formerly performed in the Rumble by Johnny Morrison, who now wrestles with Impact, AAA, and Lucha Underground.
“One of the reasons I watch the Royal Rumble is because I’m looking forward to seeing what Kofi Kingston is going to do and how he will top what he did the year before,” Morrison said. “There is no end to Kofi’s creativity and athleticism, and he’s one of my favorite performers in the entire business.”
Morrison noted that many of his own athletic spots inspired his stunts during his action film, Boone: The Bounty Hunter, which is now available on iTunes and Amazon.
“Kofi’s spot got a huge pop at our house this year,” Morrison said. “I’m amazed that he can deliver every year. My only regret is that I wish he stayed in the Rumble longer to allow the fans in the crowd and in their homes all over the world more time to appreciate what he did.”
20. To allow for Kingston’s acrobats, there were two minutes and fifty-four seconds after Seth Rollins entered until Matt Hardy’s entry.
21. How great was the stare down between John Cena and Shane “Hurricane” Helms? Helms would be a welcome addition to the cruiserweight division, and provide an additional reason to watch 205 Live every Tuesday.
22. With Randy Orton’s entry into the Royal Rumble, the ring was filled with a three-time Ring of Honor champion in Cole, a 16-time WWE champion in Cena, a 13-time champion in Orton, the current NXT champion in Almas, as well as a three-time IWGP champion in Nakamura and former Bullet Club leader Finn Balor.
23. The return of Rey Mysterio was arguably the most memorable moment of this year’s Rumble. It is no coincidence that Mysterio was just mentioned as a future possible opponent for Kenny Omega in New Japan, so this was a great chance for WWE to highlight Mysterio’s return and remind the wrestling world—particularly New Japan, who had something of a coup with their signing of Chris Jericho—that pro wrestling, I mean sports entertainment, is WWE’s yard.
24. WWE has done a tremendous job of weaving in the newer talent (Almas, Cole) with returning stars (Mysterio) and its top talent (Reigns, Cena, Balor). And, instead of a returning star at No. 30, it was much better to see Dolph Ziggler claim that spot. WWE should do everything in its power to highlight the talent who work year round, instead of continually placing that spotlight on those who return for ‘Mania. Ziggler, for what it’s worth, was eliminated by the time I finished typing that last sentence.
25. The sight of Randy Orton and John Cena in the ring together brings back instant nightmares. The 2014 Rumble title match between Cena and Orton still occasionally haunts my dreams; I’m perfectly fine never seeing another main event between those two.
26. Balor eliminating Mysterio was another perfect call. Every chance to build Balor should be capitalized.
27. The Rumble was rushed to highlight the final four of Cena, Reigns, Balor and Nakamura. The moment climaxed when Cena eliminated Balor, which would be an incredible match, and passing of the torch, at WrestleMania from Cena to Balor.
28. Roman Reigns is an entirely different performer than the one we saw win the Rumble in 2015. In addition to a vast improvement in the ring, there is no doubt he is the most polarizing figure in professional wrestling.
29. Nakamura eliminating Reigns concluded one of the most compelling Royal Rumble events of all-time. Reigns’s moment will still come against Lesnar at ‘Mania, but this was an opportunity—and WWE took full advantage—to use Reigns to make Nakamura to the WWE audience. The vast majority of WWE fans do not watch New Japan Pro Wrestling, so giving Nakamura his chance to shine over Reigns was the right call, and we now have a Nakamura-Styles match to look forward to at WrestleMania.
30. Why is there no animosity between Raw stars and their counterparts from SmackDown? That entire angle for the Survivor Series, where the two sides allegedly hated each other, continues to age poorly.
31. Ric Flair’s “KFC Rumble” was a quick commercial, but man, that contained some real emotion. Flair was given less than a 20% chance of survival this past summer, so to see him recreate the finish of the 1992 Rumble—where he eliminated Sid Justice, who had just tossed Hulk Hogan—was a perfect moment.
32. The worst spot on this card was the match following the men’s Royal Rumble, which was given to the Raw tag-title match featuring Seth Rollins and Jason Jordan against Cesaro and Sheamus.
The titles changed hands, as Cesaro continues to emerge as a modern-day tag-team specialist, but the titles felt like an afterthought to the storyline between Jordan and Rollins.
33. Fascinating to see the depths in which WWE has de-valued Brock Lesnar in his battles with Braun Strowman. Wrestling is a business that revolves entirely around commodities, and the performers are just that, so it’s easy to watch with considerable interest as WWE allows Strowman to destroy Lesnar. As Michael Cole noted at the end of the match, Lesnar “survived” the match after pinning Kane. The end of Lesnar’s WWE run is coming, which appears to be this August at SummerSlam before his inevitable return to the UFC heavyweight division.
34. Imagine UFC telling Bruce Buffer to step aside during the biggest match of a pay-per-view so someone else could be the ring announcer? No, I can’t either, but that’s exactly what WWE did by bringing in Maria Menounos to guest ring announce before the women’s Rumble.
35. The bell rang for the women’s Royal Rumble at 10:08 p.m. ET. If you thought the entry times for the men’s Rumble were squeezed together, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
36. WWE Hall of Famer Lita returned to the Royal Rumble, and wore a #TIMESUP shirt, which is fairly controversial in the world of WWE.
It’s worth mentioning that the Daily Beast reported Vince McMahon allegedly sexually assaulted a woman in a tanning booth.
No mention was made of Lita’s shirt by the broadcast team of Michael Cole, Corey Graves and Stephanie McMahon.
37. The women’s Rumble would have been greatly enhanced with the presence of SmackDown champion Charlotte and Raw champion Alexa Bliss. Considering WWE creates the rules—as evidenced by the time clock—why not just add a provision to include the champions?
38. Molly Holly’s flip onto Sasha Banks looked incredibly unsafe. Even attempting a move with that much risk and such little reward makes no sense, but it was a clear reminder how the Rumble is such a dangerous match.
39. Michelle McCool’s return—and strong spots—further indicates that her husband, The Undertaker, is returning for this year’s WrestleMania.
40. Stephanie McMahon added a calm presence on the broadcast, and she is incredibly well-spoken. But… isn’t she supposed to be a heel?
41. Just like the men’s Rumble, WWE did a nice job presenting former stars while still showcasing the current roster. Out of all the returners, I was surprised Torrie Wilson did not last longer.
42. Sasha Banks continues to slip outside the ring any time there could physical contact. The spot from Holly appeared to injure her, in what appeared to be her shoulders.
43. The Naomi spot—where she climbed from the barricade back to the ring with the help of an office chair, only to be quickly eliminated by Nia Jax—mirrored the same sequence from Kofi Kingston’s pancakes spot during the men’s Rumble.
44. Beth Phoenix would be a fantastic addition to the women’s division. Mickie James has not been booked as a legend, but Phoenix, who is a WWE Hall of Famer, could serve as a great opponent to further enhance Nia Jax as a heel once she is champion.
45. The Philadelphia crowd delivered a loud “John Cena sucks!” chant after Nikki Bella returned to the ring, in what was the first card Cena and Bella both worked since last year’s WrestleMania.
46. Bayley’s stock has dropped over the past six months in WWE. Unfortunately, there is less and less of a buzz during her entrances, and she wasn’t even considered a possibility to win the Rumble.
47. Trish Stratus was reportedly upset with her appearance this past Monday on Raw 25, as she was only a part of one segment where she was introduced and waved to the crowd, but her entrance was a perfect way to allow her to shine. Instead of Ronda Rousey, the crowd was thrilled to see Stratus at no. 30.
48. If Banks was injured, she did a tremendous job of working through the pain. Her elimination deflated the crowd, who much preferred to see a Banks-Asuka standoff instead of Asuka vs. the Bella sisters.
49. The Rumble is an emotionally draining event, let alone two, but the crowd remained invested in the finish because of its attachment to and interest in Asuka. Even though Nikki Bella had no chance of winning, it was worth watching to see Asuka celebrate her moment as the first-ever winner of the women’s Royal Rumble.
50. The finish of the pay-per-view—which saw Ronda Rousey interrupt Asuka’s moment, before she could even choose whether she would wrestle Charlotte or Alexa Bliss at WrestleMania—was extremely poorly done.
Unfortunately, the Rumble ended on a sour note. Just like Nakamura’s win earlier in the night, the show should have finished by celebrating the winner of the women’s Rumble. Instead, we were treated to the Ronda Rousey show. Asuka never announced her opponent for ‘Mania, Rousey pointed again and again to the WrestleMania sign, and the show ended on a Rousey-Stephanie McMahon handshake. Somehow, on a night that had highlighted the women’s division, the show ended by teasing a McMahon-Rousey feud. A show that ran for over four hours did not provide enough time to complete the story of Asuka and her ‘Mania opponent.
The Rock is currently scheduled to team with Rousey against Triple H and Stephanie McMahon at WrestleMania, but the build to that match should have started on Raw. The Rumble was supposed to Asuka’s moment, but instead ended with her as an afterthought.