Royal Rumble week is over. In the Network-era, WWE’s pay-per-views have grown from 3 hour events into what seems like days of interlinked television. Though this is often difficult to keep up with, it is sometimes worth the effort, even when the main event itself is subject to a lot of criticism.
Much of the criticism of the Rumble is justified. The big match featured a grand total of zero surprise entrants; Roman Reigns looks set for a yawnfest with the Undertaker; Lesnar and Goldberg faced off for all of a minute; and on top of the booking disappointment, Seth Rollins, half of one of the few set in stone WrestleMania matches, injured himself and could be out for months.
Despite this, Rumble week featured many things to give wrestling fans hope. They may not pay off in time for April 2nd, but some of these developments suggest WWE has a brighter future than the storm around the Rumble suggests.
He’s a monster! Braun Strowman is one to watch.
Unlike so many wrestlers in WWE, Strowman has been booked superbly. The Rumble was another example of this. Eliminating seven superstars in short order and costing Reigns the title, the former strongman looked like a beast on the last Sunday of January. Most importantly, fans reacted to him as he steamrolled his opponents. This would not have happened if he had been pushed prematurely a year ago.
From Vader to Lesnar, unstoppable big men have a huge part to play in wrestling. Strowman, though he may never have the skills to be a world champion, has shown he can make a huge contribution to WWE. Though his booking has been superb, the big man himself deserves credit for continuously improving every element of his performance. With continued support, he can to hold a key upper mid-card spot in WWE. When he is finally defeated, this will be a huge boon for the wrestler who finally triumphs over him.
AJ Styles is one tough hombre
It is hard to disagree with the disappointment felt by many on seeing Styles drop the title at the Rumble. The superb Styles vs Cena program seemed to be building towards and inevitable clash at Mania, where the ‘Champ’ would finally topple his rival and equal Ric Flair’s world title record. It would have been a great main event and a much-deserved reward for the ‘Phenomenal One’s’ years of dedication.
Unfortunately, WWE decided to take a different path and Cena defeated Styles to groans around the world.
Nevertheless, AJ did not go down without a fight, requiring Cena’s entire arsenal to put him away. It is rare a heel looks this strong in defeat. Given the quality of the match and fans reaction to it, Styles’ place at the top of Smackdown looks assured.
Glimmers of hope
Though the Royal Rumble match disappointed many, it did contain the inklings of pushes of for two upcoming stars. Fan favourite Sami Zayn lasted nearly 47 minutes in the 30-man match. He then defeated Jericho on the following Raw. Combine this with his win over Seth Rollins a week earlier and it appears the WWE has faith in the ‘Underdog from the Underground’.
Baron Corbin also had a banner week. Selected to eliminate Strowman from the Rumble and then batter the Miz on Smackdown, the biker looks set to get a chance at a top run. The jury is out on whether he or Zayn can succeed at the top, but at least WWE is showing a willingness to give them a try. This is something it needs to do more often.
A women’s roster with depth
Two years ago, WWE could not have ran a major event featuring three women’s match, never mind convinced people to buy it. Royal Rumble and its pre-show were a testament to the depth of the women’s roster, which is now a intrinsic part of WWE television.
Whilst much of the renaissance of women’s wrestling is down to the quadrumvirate of Becky, Bailey, Charlotte and Sasha, credit must also be given to the other women. Though Naomi and Alexa Bliss lack the in-ring prowess of the aforementioned foursome, they are competent and entertaining workers. Fans cannot watch the same women fight again and again, and the growth of these competitors and others shows the division’s future is secure.
Ambrose is no longer a main eventer
If his feud with the Miz did not already prove this, his swift elimination from the Rumble by Brock Lesnar did. Ambrose’s demotion is, in truth, overdue. Though he is an able performer who deserves respect for his deathmatch past, the ‘Lunatic Fringe’ has not flourished on top. His dull, mumbling promos are not main event level and his offence often looks forced and unrealistic. Hopefully Dean can recover some of his verve a rung below the main event.
The man that WWE remembered
Royal Rumble’s cruiserweight title match was a masterclass in obvious booking. Both the division and its new king Neville were floundering prior January 2017. By turning the former NXT champion heel, WWE reinvigorated the flyer who was once the toast of Japanese wrestling. By giving the cruiserweight title to an established player who was cutting the promos of his life, it gave fans a reason to care about the division. Though there is still some way to go, this could take the 205 weight class off life support. One can only hope this does not lead to the likeable Rich Swan being dropped completely.
Seth Rollins goes mad
If Neville’s recent run has been a revelation, Seth Rollins’ time as a face has been a thorough disappointment. The ‘Architect’ is one of WWE’s top in ring talents and blew the roof off the Levi’s Stadium when he successfully cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase against Brock and Roman back in 2015. Somehow, however, he has failed to connect with the WWE audience as a face.
At Takeover: San Antonio, however, we saw a different Rollins, whose unhinged invasion channelled Steve Austin and Brian Pillman. This aggressive, unpredictable Rollins could have the makings of a top tier face. With luck, the injury suffered during his run in with Samoa Joe will not keep him out for too long.
There is no longer a TNA bar
For too many years, WWE has had a perverse attitude towards wrestlers who have previously worked for other companies. From its mismanagement of the Invasion angle (which surely should have been the best wrestling storyline ever) to its bizarre treatment of Sting, the Stanford company has seemingly prioritised ego massaging over critical acclaim and financial reward.
Royal Rumble week, however, cemented a sea change that has been gaining momentum over time. AJ Styles was protected, the ‘Samoan Submission Machine’ debuted in Raw’s main event and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, Bobby Roode won the NXT title. Roode’s win is particularly heart-warming. Though not a worker of Style’s or Joe’s calibre, he is nevertheless an entertaining and talented performer who has never quite got his due. That WWE is pushing him in the manner he deserves is amazing given the company’s history. And with Austin Aries waiting to return from injury, it suggests the future is set to be glorious.
Though Randy Orton was a poor choice to win the Rumble, his victory was by no means assured. With 56 days to the big event, it is difficult to predict many of the matches on the WrestleMania 33 card. Whilst some may see this as the result of poor forward planning, unpredictability can be exciting. It certainly made Royal Rumble worth tuning into. For too long the Road to WrestleMania has been boring and staid. 2017 could be the year WWE recaptures the anarchic, exciting vibe it had in the late 90s and early 2000s.