In this day and age you can’t just “predict” a PPV anymore, you have to to account for the capricious whims of WWE’s septuagenarian, sleep-deprived egomaniac owner. You can’t just “preview” a PPV…you have to Preview how things should go, in a reasonable and sane world, and then add “so of course…” and explain what Vince McMahon will probably do instead.
So consider this your SO OF COURSE preview of WWE ROMAN RUMBLE!
I know it says “royal” but don’t tell me Vince didn’t consider the name change. “Royal Reigns” was also considered, I know it.
Previously on SO OF COURSE, WWE held its annual TLC PPV, the show where the competitors are forced to spend half an hour falling off ladders onto an only marginally-padded canvass below. This follows four Raws and four Smackdowns where that same talent is expected to put on eight straight PPV quality matches in a row. In unrelated news the injury bug has hit WWE and several top talents have seen their bodies break down. Vince and co. deny that the schedule has anything do with it of course.
At TLC Roman Reigns fell short of beating freaking Sheamus. That should have automatically dropped him down the card to a place in the abyss currently occupied by Wade Barrett and Eric Rowan’s singles career. Instead he got his rematch the next night on Raw and, thanks to some classic Vince McMahan shenanigans, he finally won the title…again, but this time for longer than fifteen seconds. Vince’s return has been a desperation move as Raw ratings were cratering and headed toward mid-90’s level of turdery. Clearly they’re trying to rekindle that Austin vs. McMahon fire but it just hasn’t quite sparked. Maybe it’s because Roman has almost none of the natural charisma, quick wit or stage presence of Steve Austin. Maybe it’s because Vince is no longer a 50 year old corporate exec trying to stick it to a workin’ man, but now is a 70 year old grandpa who wants the long haired samoan to get off his yard. It just doesn’t have the same dynamic. WWE has been chasing that Austin vs McMahon rainbow ever since it ended and they’ve never been able to replicate it. It’s their one trick pony and they just can’t admit that the horse is dead.
The Royal Rumble brings new hope, however. It’s the official kick off to WrestleMania season, the three or four month window of time when WWE brings all their fans who have any interest at all back into the fold. This is the chance to hook them and reel them in for the other eight months. A strong Royal Rumble can launch the company back to prosperity. A bad one can send them spiraling into panic.
Who wants to guess which pill we get to swallow on Sunday? We have five matches to consider on what looks—on paper—to be a solid show. Let’s break it down with a pinch of snark.
ALBERTO DEL RIO vs KALISTO – FOR THE UNITED STATES CHAMPIONSHIP
What we have here is WWE’s most lazy kind of feud. It’s the one where wrestler-A gets a victory over wrestler-B, then the next week wrestler-B gets his win back over wrestler-A. Having already seen the same match twice on free-TV, a rematch is announced for a few weeks later at the next PAY-per-view, and even though we’re only paying $9.99 to watch it, we’re still paying to watch a match we’ve already seen twice. The next two weeks feature the two competing against each other in tag matches, where they just redo the same match we’ve already seen twice over. Then they perform on PPV and the crowd mostly sits on their hands and waits to see who will get the win. There’s no drama or stakes because the audience has been conditioned not to care what happens. The outcome has already been reversed once, seeing it happen again doesn’t really tickle anyone’s fancy.
So we have Alberto Del Rio, dead behind the eyes, working for a paycheck, Alberto Del Rio. He lost the US title to Kalisto on Raw a few weeks back in a genuinely surprising and well-received title change. It looked like WWE was ready to get behind a Kalisto push since he—much more than Del Rio—can really be a superstar for the Rey Mysterio demographic. Instead, they went with the 50/50 booking approach and Del Rio won the title back on Smackdown. That sets us up for the rubber match. And it used to be that a true rubber match (the tie breaker fight between two who have a win apiece) was exciting, but it happens so often now that it’s lost all its shine.
So what should happen here? It’s true that Del Rio was given a lot of money to come back to WWE. He left with his head high after smacking around a backstage worker who made a racist comment toward him, but he sold out in his return. That’s fine. That’s his business. But it’s clear his heart isn’t in his return. It probably doesn’t help that he was packaged with racist-character Zeb Coulter when he first returned. I’m sure the irony wasn’t lost on whichever monkey with a typewriter thought that idea up. So WWE, having invested a lot of money in Del Rio, is probably wanting a return on their investment (as if Del Rio’s last run with the company wasn’t already proof that he just can’t connect with WWE audiences). That might sway them to keep the belt on Alberto, but this would be a huge mistake. The time is right to give the ball to Kalisto. We’re not talking about a world title run here; it’s a midcard belt that Cena did a great job elevating from the bottom of the barrel throughout 2015. In the right hands it can become an important fixture in the midcard, which is needed, especially with the renewed emphasis on Smackdown. Putting the belt on Kalisto is the best decision they can make.
SO OF COURSE…
DEAN AMBROSE vs KEVIN OWENS – FOR THE INTERCONTINENTAL CHAMPIONSHIP
On the other hand we have the build to this contest. This is everything the US title feud is not. There’s a real fire between these two guys. Both of them could easily slip into the main event if the top brass so desired, and they are both very over with the fans. It’s a real throwback to the glory days of the IC title. Not just when Macho Man and Razor Ramon held it, but later when Rock and Triple H feuded over it too. Kevin Owens won the IC title in September, at Night of Champions. It seemed as though he would have a long and dominant reign with the title, much like his NXT title run. Instead he lost the belt a few months later to Dean Ambrose in a match that looked far too inconsequential at the time to warrant a title change. As soon as the fan favorite Ambrose won the belt the feud kicked up a notch. Brawls would frequently break out between the two men with Owens at one point putting Ambrose through a table, and Ambrose returning the favor. They had the obligatory rematch on Smackdown only instead of 50/50 booking and Owens getting his win back, the match went no-contest. To settle the score a last man standing match was announced for the Royal Rumble. That’s the way you book a feud.
And as great as KO is I think it would be a mistake to hotshot the belt back to him, or play hot potato with it. Owens is good enough on the stick he can carry a feud that doesn’t revolve around his being champion, and with Ambrose it’s been shown last year that he can easily slip through the cracks and become aimless if not given a strong creative direction. Having the IC title gives him that. It makes too much sense to keep the belt on Ambrose, but if they put it back on Owens it needs to stay on him for a while. There’s not a lot of goodwill built up with the fans for the midcard in general, much less with the midcard titles. They’re fragile things, and 50/50 booking hasn’t helped them lately. Give someone a long title reign and let’s see what they can do. I think it should be Ambrose, but either way this might be the sleeper match of the night.
SO OF COURSE…
CHARLOTTE vs BECKY LYNCH – FOR THE DIVAS CHAMPIONSHIP
Is it crazy that this has been the best feud of the past month or so? It’s a divas feud on the main roster but it’s been logical, consistent and refreshingly entertaining. It’s got nothing on anything done on NXT, but for WWE this is unbelievably good. Just the fact that both divas are fighting over something more than jealousy or boyfriends or any nonsense like that is enough to warrant a trophy. It’s about friendship and betrayal, two ingredients that have gone into many classic WWF/E feuds over the years. Nothing wrong with that.
So Charlotte and Becky Lynch joined the main roster as part of a babyface trio along with Paige. The less said about all of that the better. The point is, they were on the same side of good. After putting down Nikki Bella and Paige (again, let’s not), Charlotte looked like she had no more heel challengers worth challenging her. Becky Lynch asked for and received a non-title match with Charlotte and its here that I should point out how silly it is that none of these wrestlers seem to watch their own show. If Charlotte had actually watched Raw for more than two weeks she’d know that any time a champion is in a non-title match it’s almost a guarantee that they lose. The moment she agreed to face Becky she should have known what would go down. Sure enough, Becky won the match. Charlotte then attacked Lynch, post match, and in a rematch on Smackdown, she defeated Becky with the help of her father Ric Flair. Becky demanded but was denied a title shot at the Royal Rumble, and its here that I point out again how good the writing is. As with the IC feud, this turns 50/50 booking on its head. Instead of trading wins and then doing it again on PPV, they stretched it out and initially refused to announce the title match. They made that part of the storyline. So now, when Becky goaded Ric Flair (working as Charlotte’s manager) into booking the match it feels less like WWE’s “creative” just throwing stuff at the wall and more like characters in a story doing story things that make sense.
So who should win? My heart says Becky Lynch, who was the only one of the three NXT women called up to the main roster who didn’t win the NXT Women’s title. It’d be great if she won the WWE version of the belt. She’s done great work after initially being the odd woman out of the NXT callups. Charlotte got the big push and Sasha has all the fan support. She’s really come on strong as of late and has become a great babyface. But my head says Charlotte retains. It’s too close to WrestleMania and there’s nothing better than a long-time heel champ getting dethroned at the grandaddy of them all. Charlotte vs Sasha is the big money match there, so I think the Flairs find a way to win. Either way, bravo to WWE for—so far—the best Divas story you’ve told in years.
SO OF COURSE…
THE NEW DAY vs THE USOS – FOR THE TAG TEAM CHAMPIONSHIP
I said recently that New Day was my favorite part of WWE in 2015. Every month they seemed to get better and better. Their zany antics might be a turnoff to some, but I think it’s just what Raw needs. Many times, New Day is the lone “fun” part of the show, and I don’t watch WWE expecting serious melodrama or hard-hitting social commentary. I watch it to be entertained. New Day is darn entertaining. The rest of WWE…not so much. The Usos on the other hand are pretty much a representation of the rest of WWE. They are annoying when they try to be tough. They are dumb when they try to be funny. They pander for cheers. They’re everything that’s wrong with the safe, sterile, PG-rated WWE product. But the kids love em.
They scored a non-title victory over New Day a few weeks back and that put them in line for a title match at the Rumble. That’s about as lazy as it gets (just as it is in the US title feud) and it’s been the pattern New Day has been in almost from the moment they won the titles. The pattern is this: New Day loses a match that doesn’t matter, defends the title when it does matter and cheats to win. New Day comes out the next night to celebrate in spectacular fashion, and the next month’s challengers interrupt them to begin the feud. Rinse and repeat. Is there any reason to think they won’t cheat to win Sunday?
Well yes. It’s always possible that Vince has grown tired of the act. It’s always possible that Vince decides he needs a title change if there isn’t one planned for the rest of the night. It’s always possible Vince has lost his mind and now sees the Usos as better spokesmen for the tag division than The New Day. On the other hand it could be that Vince has stopped paying attention to the tag division and so everything is just kind of in a holding pattern. In that case it’s likely that nothing changes until WrestleMania.
What should happen? I see no value at all in the Usos winning. They’ve been champions (twice). They add nothing to the title scene. The only reason I can think of to put the titles on them is if they plan on working the New Day members as singles wrestlers. But I don’t think the world is ready for that. I think it makes too much sense to keep New Day strong heading into WrestleMania season. Someone is going to knock the cocky trio off their perch, but it doesn’t need to be the Usos.
SO OF COURSE…
THE ROYAL RUMBLE – FOR THE WWE WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP
Our last two Royal Rumble winners have disappointed. And you really can go farther back than that: 2013 saw John Cena win the most predictable Rumble in a while, en route to the most predictable WrestleMania main event in a while. The year before that everyone assumed Jericho would win (and in turn win the one accolade that has eluded him in pro wrestling) but Vince went with a swerve and gave it to freaking Sheamus. Alberto Del Rio was a meh win after the one and only 40-man edition. You really have to go back to 2010 and Edge’s surprise return and victory to find a Royal Rumble that left fans satisfied when it was over. Two years ago Batista was booed because he wasn’t Daniel Bryan. Last year Roman Reigns was booed for the same reason. I don’t think we have to worry about that since most fans have forgotten about Daniel Bryan—
—So what do we have this year? We have as many as six very believable winners, the most we’ve had in a while. In descending order, from most satisfying to least satisfying, here are the six guys with a realistic chance of winning.
WWE signed AJ Styles, along with three other New Japan superstars (Shinsuke Nakamura, Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson), in a move that sent shockwaves across the pro wrestling landscape. As of now, it’s not yet known how the company plans on using them—either as a group or as singles performers with no connection to one another—or even where they plan on using them. It’s possible that all four jump straight to the main roster, but it’s more likely that some of them will debut first in NXT. AJ Styles seems like the only sure bet to debut on WWE programming and based on some cryptic tweets and some choice words, that debut might happen in the Royal Rumble match. If they want him to debut with a splash he could begin his WWE career as the new hand-picked face of the Authority, winning the title and feuding with Reigns until WrestleMania. After that Styles has a built in feud with a babyface Seth Rollins as soon as he’s healthy. There’s a lot that can be done with Styles if WWE wanted to pull the trigger on making him a big superstar. On the other hand, WWE hates money and fans, so they can always debut him in the midcard and have him toil away and “pay his dues” of course, and that would definitely be in WWE’s wheelhouse, so let’s call this a longshot at best.
Bryan hasn’t wrestled since mid-April of last year when he was concussed in a match with freaking Sheamus. He’s been cleared to return by what seems to be every doctor in the country except WWE’s own doctor. For some reason the company that has little to no care for the well-being of its
employees independent contracted laborers is treating Daniel Bryan with kid gloves. Maybe it’s just me being selfish…okay it’s totally me being selfish, but if Daniel Bryan wants to compete, and doctors say he’s good to go…then let him go. Him winning the Royal Rumble, especially after the last two years and now with Roman Reigns’ push really beginning, seems like more of a longshot than AJ Styles winning. But it’s Daniel Bryan, and I will always be blinded by my love for him. In my blindness I imagine Triple H costing Roman the Rumble and Bryan winning by last eliminating Bray Wyatt. He then carries the title to Mania and faces Brock Lesnar in the ultimate David vs. Goliath match. And then I wake up.
Had Wyatt and his posse not dominated the go-home show Monday night, I would have called him the darkhorse to win it. It just feels right and it feels like the right moment. The instant Vince announced that the title was up for grabs I thought it needed to be put on a heel for Roman to chase until Mania. That’s just booking 101. That’s Rock vs Austin at Mania 15. That’s just what makes sense. Wyatt seems like the perfect heel foil for Reigns to conquer in his first Mania main event as “the man” (last year doesn’t count because his push was stunted due to fan revolt). Wyatt has the means—his family—and even though he’s become the guy who loses every big fight, his character is good enough (as is his mic work) that he can instantly get the win over. If he hadn’t looked so strong on Monday night he’d be my surprise pick. But now it just seems like a smokescreen. Still, if it happened I wouldn’t be shocked.
Lesnar is one that wouldn’t shock me if he won it but it doesn’t feel like his time. He had his dominant run with the title and going back to that well seems shortsighted. The only reason I can see Vince going with a Lesnar win is if he wants to rematch Reigns vs Lesnar and have Reigns win like he was originally going to last year. But that would be beyond his usual stubbornness. That would be idiotic; to take the belt off Reigns only to put it back on him three months later in a rematch from last year’s Mania? There’s nothing about it that would entice anyone to watch WrestleMania 32. But still, it’s Vince so you never know. Lesnar winning would certainly give the WWE media attention ahead of what they hope to be the biggest WrestleMania ever. Again, I don’t think this is Lesnar’s time, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
As of this writing, Triple H is the betting favorite to win. Just about everyone immediately thought the same thing when Vince announced Roman would defend his title in the Rumble: Triple H comes out at #30 and eliminates Roman to win the title. Roman wins it back at Mania 32. That’s what everyone is expecting, so will they do what everyone is expecting? In 2012 everyone was expecting Jericho to win, and so Vince changed plans a the 11th hour. Now everyone is expecting a Triple H win. If that is that plan, will Vince change? Somehow I don’t think so, for the simple reason that Triple H aint no Chris Jericho backstage. Triple H winning would feel like Cena’s 2013 victory. It’d be the predictable, storyline driven finish, which WWF/E has done many times before (especially with Austin in 1998 and 2001), but it wouldn’t have the satisfying feeling you get when you see a beloved babyface like Stone Cold win it.
And then there’s the prospect of a Roman Reigns victory. It seems ridiculous to think he would win. It would seemingly waste the entire gimmick attached to the Rumble. Why put the title on the line if the champ is just going to retain? Roman Reigns winning would feel like a giant middle finger from Vince to the fans. But he’s the new darling so, as with Cena, you pretty much have to treat him like betting against the house. That is to say, you don’t. Don’t bet against the house. Don’t bet against
Cena Roman Reigns. Vince is determined, no matter what, to get him over, and if it takes sacrificing a third Royal Rumble to do it, he will.
So who should win? My best case/realistic scenario is for Bray Wyatt to win and Reigns vs Wyatt to be the main event title match at Mania. The problem with that is who does Triple H face at Mania? Rock isn’t going to compete. Neither is Austin, and I doubt either man would agree to lay down for Triple H in a comeback match. Brock vs Triple H has been done to death. There’s really no one else but Roman Reigns for Triple H to face. Which means, if anyone other than Reigns or Triple H wins, we’re looking at a very interesting title match at WrestleMania, one that wouldn’t feature the guy Vince wants to get over as the face of the company. So that doesn’t seem likely. What seems likely is either Reigns conquers the odds two months too early, or Triple H wins his second Royal Rumble and his 15th world title.
So while we technically have six believable winners there’s really only two that are likely winners. And neither is very exciting.
But hey, they could always swerve us and give it to Shinsuke Nakamura!
SO OF COURSE…
Oh well, there’s always NXT.
Here’s to Sunday.