Forget SummerSlam, the true number two show of WWE’s year is the Royal Rumble. Before the WWE Network came along, and as buyrates steadily fell from their Attitude Era peak, the two shows least affected were WrestleMania and the Royal Rumble. SummerSlam’s audience was of course still bigger than whatever B-PPV was held that June or October, but pound for pound it’s returns set it squarely at number three on WWE’s calendar.
So last year, while everyone was talking about how important SummerSlam was—with its “epic” Brock Lesnar vs John Cena (re)match, I knew the real key to WWE’s future was not in August but in January.
Think about how little has changed since SummerSlam 2014. Brock became champion, but other than seeing the belt less has anything really been altered? Cena was decimated and devastated in a way no WWE top babyface has ever been, but less than a month later, he was back like nothing had happened and “almost beat” Lesnar at Night of Champions.
SummerSlam is a big event with great matches but usually it does little more than solidify the status quo. If you are looking for the show that portends big changes, the Royal Rumble—particularly the main attraction itself—is where you’ll find it.
It is here that future champs are held up before the WWE Universe as the “next” next big things. It is here that the actual next big things get decided and started on the journey that will culminate in their ascension to the squared throne of Vince McMahon’s empire.
Unlike in the epic fantasy Game of Thrones, with the Royal Rumble it’s not “you win or you die,” it’s “you win or you win later.” A number of runner ups—including John Cena and The Rock—were presented as clear “guys in waiting”—when they were eliminated at the end of the big match.
Last year it was Roman Reigns getting the nod. He was not a favorite to win, still being part of the heel faction The Shield, but Batista was so despised as the expected winner that the sight of Reigns and Batista squaring off sparked a “Roman Reigns” chant that echoed throughout the arena. His elimination rained boos upon Batista and upon the creative forces backstage. Vince is usually slower on the trigger than the fans are: Reigns represented the future, Batista the past; the fans wanted new blood and a returning superstar from the past decade was not it.
Last year there was an obvious disconnect between Vince McMahon and the fans of his product. The disagreement was about who the fans wanted to lead the company through the next year (and beyond). Vince wanted Batista, the fans wanted Daniel Bryan (their momentary selection of Roman Reigns was due more to Bryan being withheld from the Rumble match). Vince was tone deaf to the apathy around Batista and stubborn to admit the movement in favor of Bryan was widespread.
There is another uneasy feeling bubbling under the surface this year, only this one has more earnestness to it. Last year the champion was Randy Orton, who had boringly strolled his way through a multi-month reign that—in the eyes of the fans—should have belonged to the white hot Daniel Bryan. The fans wanted to see their hero get the victory lap he deserved.
This year the champion is Brock Lesnar (assuming he wins his triple threat match, which I fully expect him to). He is not just a run of the mill heel champion that needs to be conquered by the babyface at WrestleMania. This isn’t Yokozuna or The Rock or Triple H or Edge. This is the most protected (though it could have been better) mega monster heel champion in the history of Vince’s empire. Regardless of the creative stumbles along the way, by the time Mania comes around Lesnar will be presented as the conqueror of the streak, the humiliater of John Cena, the dominant destructive and undefeatable WWE World Heavyweight Champion.
On the surface this year’s WrestleMania plot is so simple it writes itself. All you need is a hero to battle through the adversity (the Rumble), traverse the pitfalls (the road to Mania) and slay the dragon (the big event). As long as you have a halfway competent hero, the checks will cash themselves. People love a good conquers evil story.
But the fans are worried—terrified—about who Vince and his out of touch creative mind will select as this year’s hero. After all, this isn’t just a hero, this is essentially the next face of the company being crowned. Whoever defeats Brock Lesnar will get a rub unlike any other. All the cache that he accumulated in defeating Triple H in a cage, then Punk at SummerSlam then Undertaker at WrestleMania 30, then Cena at SummerSlam will all be transferred to the babyface victor of WrestleMania 31. We understand how huge this is, and so many of us are afraid at who might be selected.
That uneasy feeling is heightened when you consider that this year’s Rumble, though it has a favorite to win it, is also the most wide open event in a decade. Past winners were easy to predict. Most assumed—begrudgingly—that Batista was winning in 2014. Everyone knew Cena was winning to rematch with the Rock in 2013. Going back through the years you’ll find there was usually a top title story that had an obvious Rumble winner. Even 2012, when Sheamus’ win was a surprise, he last eliminated Chris Jericho, the one most every assumed was winning. The field that year was not wide open, only the finish was a swerve.
This year things are different. The champion is a different kind of obstacle to be overcome. He’s not just a heel, he’s a unconquerable fortress. Therefore the winner this year doesn’t have to be someone with a personal beef, or the most popular superstar of the moment or even the next big thing in the company. All you need is someone either already credible enough to challenge him, or someone who has enough upside that you can make credible in the weeks between the Rumble and WrestleMania. The field will probably never be this wide open again for a generation.
Like with Game of Thrones, there’s plenty of potential winners to root for. Maybe you’re pulling for the tough guy to punch Lesnar right in his face. Maybe you’re rooting for the little guy to overcome the odds and knock down the giant. Maybe you’re hoping for a wildcard to appear and shock everyone with a big comeback. This year’s Rumble has the potential to thoroughly tease everyone, and satisfy one.
So while there is a favorite—Roman Reigns—he should not be viewed as a foregone conclusion, unless you worry that Vince is being stubborn again (which is a legit concern). I would argue that there are nine people of various likelihoods who could win the Royal Rumble this year—some of them in very surprising fashion—and go on to WrestleMania to defeat the beast Brock Lesnar…
See page 2 for the list…