This year’s Royal Rumble was “More Rumble than Ever!” But was that a good thing? Thankfully, yes. Actually, this was a pretty good show. Off the back of what may be the best men’s Rumble match of all time, this was a momentous PPV event that will likely stand next to the ’92 and ’01 events as the best Rumbles of all time. Add to that the debut of one of the company’s biggest crossover stars in history (albeit in a poorly timed fashion) and the first ever women’s Rumble, and you’ve got a pretty solid outing for the WWE. How was the rest of the show you ask? Well, let’s get ready to Raaaaaammmmmbbbbblllllleeeee!
- Okay backstage segment where Rollins and Jordan are hanging out in the locker room when who should appear but Chad Gable and Shelton Benjamin. It looks like the boys bury the hatchet at first — JJ even congratulates Chad on being a new dad. Of course we can’t have nice things so they talk some trash before going their separate ways.
- Our first lucha is a trios ta…wait this isn’t Lucha Underground. The opener is a 6-man pitting Kalisto, Lince Dorado and Gran Metalik against TJP, Drew Gulak and Gentleman Jack Gallagher. This was fine for what it was, but there were two memorable spots. First up, the luchadors landing a triple moonsault to the bad guys on the outside was a cool visual, but the best part (unsurprisingly) belongs to Gulak, who yelled at Gallagher for attempting a dive for so long that he splatted face first on the match. When he got up, Gallagher said “You were right” as he tagged Gulak. Always a gentleman, that Jack Gallagher. Anyway, Kalisto hits the Salida Del Sol and the faces win it.
- Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn are doing the social media lounge tonight and are precisely what you’d expect. These guys are great together and would make for a fun podcast whenever they decide to hang it all up.
- Match 2 sees the Good Brothers face off with the Revival and it’s pretty by the numbers. The Club gets Wilder up for the Magic Killer at one point, but Dawson breaks it up. Gallows chases Dawson outside by runs face first into the post allowing the Revival to roll Anderson up for the win. Michael Cole actually says this win “could open some doors” for the Revival. Yes, I’m sure beating these two jamokes on the pre-show is the rocket ship to the top that the Revival has needed.
- Alundra Blayze is on the panel and it is kind of a wonderful nightmare. There’s a weird sexual tension between her and JBL, and Peter Rosenberg looks hella uncomfortable sitting next to them. Methinks she may have had a bit to drink before the show.
- Our last pre-show match is Bobby Roode’s US Championship Open Challenge, and who should answer the call but Mojo Rawley…which…may be the first let down of the night. Mojo’s wearing bracers that say “Killer Instinct,” which is funny because he looks more like a Tekken guy. Anyway Rude wins with the Glorious DDT in a match that was about as good as their last encounter.
Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens vs. AJ Styles (c) (Handicap match for the WWE Championship)
The prestigious WWE Championship jerking the curtain at the Royal Rumble — way to return prestige to the belt, WWE. Anyway, for a bout that was built almost entirely around the burgeoning feud between Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan, this match had surprisingly little to do with Daniel Bryan or Shane McMahon. Nope, instead what we got was a relatively straightforward handicap match between three of the best performers in the company. Each guy went out there and performed well, but AJ was clearly the star of the show. AJ had to perform heater spots and saves all by himself, and pulled it off for the most part. He was constantly reversing holds or landing desperation strikes that helped sell the difficulty of the task ahead of him.
Owens and Zayn, meanwhile, didn’t get as much room to shine. Honestly, there are no winners in a handicap match that is meant to be competitive but still see the underdog win. It just makes the opposition look like chumps, which is exactly what happens with the Quebecois crew. Sami get in some signature moves, but Big Kev may be more injured than the WWE is letting on because they were clearly protecting him — even giving him a bit of an injury angle to explain why he didn’t come back out for the Rumble later in the evening. He does figure into the ending, however, as AJ reversed a pop up powerbomb attempt into an O’Connor Roll for the win and to retain his belt.
Here’s the issue with that, though. Owens wasn’t the legal man in the match when he got pinned. I noticed it right away, and the announcers even called attention to it so it’s not an accident. After the bout, KO and Sami are seeing pleading their case to Shane McMahon and even he admits to seeing it. So like…KO and Sami deserve a rematch, right? I mean this same thing happened with the Usos a few weeks ago on SmackDown and that match got restarted instantly. This sort of validates the issues with management that Owens and Zayn have been complaining about for months, right? It’s clear, demonstrable favoritism. So like…Shane’s the heel right? No? He’s allowed to cheat these guys because they’re jerks? Oh….okay. Anyway, expect the Kevin and Sami Show to have plenty to say about this outcome on Tuesday. As for AJ? Expect him to carry that strap all the way to WrestleMania.
Chad Gable and Shelton Benjamin vs. The Usos (c) (2 out of 3 falls match for the SmackDown Tag Team Championships)
Speaking of SmackDown tandems getting shafted, Sunday was a rough night for Chad and Benji, as American Beta dropped their 2 out of 3 falls match to the Usos in two straight losses. Admittedly, both teams put on great physical performances, but this bout did no favors for Gable and Benjamin, who look like total chumps compared to the nigh unstoppable Uso brothers. Looks like if the Bludgeon Brothers are going to take the belts off a face team, it probably is going to be the Usos, because Gable and Jordan just got knocked all the way to the bottom of the batting order.
That’s not to suggest they didn’t get any decent spots in, as they definitely got a few moments of offense in. Benjamin sets Jey up to take their tandem finisher but Jey ducks when Gable dives, causing him to missile dropkick Jimmy into the corner. Benjamin then buckle bombs Jey into Jimmy then hits his zig zag finisher for a near fall. After the Usos score the first fall by superkicking Gable about six times, including one that scrunched dude’s brain, the amateur wrestlers go on a little dominant run…that just results in Jey rolling Benjamin up for a shock 3 and a quick win….so, that’s it? That’s the whole match. It’s more than a little deflating.
The match itself isn’t bad — given the level of talent between these four they’d have to try to have a bad match — but the ending is a dud. I can’t be alone in wanting better for Chad Gable. He’s way too good to be an also-ran in a tag division that only has two teams worth a damn. As for Jimmy and Jey, they need some fresh competition. If they’re moving past The World’s Second Best Tag Team — and for all of our sakes I hope they are — there’s only one remaining heel tag team on SmackDown, but I think it would be jumping the gun to launch into that program before Mania. Perhaps we’ll head into the biggest show of the year without a tag match for the blue team, meaning two of the best performers in the company will be stuck in the Andre the Giant Battle Royal again because creative doesn’t know how to book a tag division. Hoorah.
Men’s Royal Rumble Match
You’re reading that right, they seriously did the men’s Rumble in the middle of the show. Now, there’s good news and bad news about this. The good news is that this was an incredible Rumble match, possibly my favorite of all time (I’ll let that opinion marinate for a minute before doubling down). It was well paced, well performed, the right guy won and it told a lot of good stories. Honestly, I don’t think they could have booked it better – which is why it should have closed the show. Listen to the crowd in the Raw Tag Titles match — they’re not dead because they don’t like Seth Rollins, they’re dead because they’re exhausted! This thing is a rollercoaster and to think you can calm people down for it is foolish. Admittedly, the Universal title match is crazy enough to win some fans back, and they were reasonably hot again by the time we hit the Women’s Rumble, but still. This was the match of the night, and should have been the main event, momentous moment for women’s wrestling and all.
Now a lot happened in the Rumble match, so let’s break it down by bullet points.
- Our first entrants are Rusev and Finn Balor who both come out to great pops — especially RuRu. He had an okay run, but it warms my heart to see that guy getting some love. It even rubs off a bit on Aiden English later, who gets his own round of “Rusev Day” chants. As for Balor, he was the Iron Man of the match, making it all the way to the final four and tying Roman Reigns for most eliminations of the night (4). This was a great rebuilding effort for him, so he ends the night in a stronger place, even in defeat.
- Baron Corbin had a “blink and you’ll miss it” run in the Rumble before being eliminated by Balor. As part of his hissy fit for losing, Corbin laid out everyone in the match including Heath Slater, who was just emerging from the back. This led to a great sequence where the next several entrants kicked Slater as they marched toward the ring. Ever the babyface, Big E propped Heath up next to the ring and force fed him some pancakes. Eventually, Sheamus tossed him into the ring only for Heath to hulk up and toss his fellow ginger immediately. Great spot for Slater!
- We had two NXT appearances in the Rumble and both were odd but great picks. Off the back of a Match of the Year candidate at the previous night’s TakeOver, Andrade “Cien” Almas enters early in the match and goes for a solid 28-minute run in the Rumble (the fifth longest for the night) before being eliminated by Randy Orton. Later in the night, Adam Cole (Bay Bay) made his way to the ring, still taped up from his Extreme Rules match with Aleister Black at TakeOver. His run in the match was less memorable, but his elimination was great — more on that later.
- Tye Dillinger was supposed to come out at 10, but he was jumped by Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens before he could get out there. Sami then entered the Rumble in his place and went on to do nothing of note, short of being eliminated by Nakamura.
- Jinder Mahal had a brief but fun run, as he eliminated both Big E and Xavier Woods, and was responsible for Kofi’s annual “avoiding elimination spot.” He chucked Kingston to the outside, but Kofi’s foot landed on Woods’ chest. Big E then put a plate of pancakes beneath Kofi’s feet and tosses him back into the ring like Cirque du Soleil, only for Kingston to then hit a Trouble in Paradise to eliminate Mahal. Of course, he was then tossed out by Almas, but it was a fun spot all the same.
- There were two nostalgia returns in the men’s Rumble, and both slots were well spent. First up was the friggin Hurricane, who came down to the ring to face off with a dominant John Cena. After striking a pose and going for his “literally never works” chokeslam, Helms was sent packing in short order. The second, and more important, return was one Rey Mysterio, who looked like a million bucks out there. Seriously, he was in better shape and moved so much quicker than he did when he was last in WWE several years ago. Rey made it to the final six and put in a great run, even eliminating Adam Cole (Bay Bay) in the process.
- Dolph Ziggler made his return to the WWE by entering at the number 30 spot to little fanfare and no actual effect. He gets a quick run of super kicks on everyone then is almost instantly eliminated by Balor.
- The final 6 comes down to Finn, Shin and Roman on one side, and Randy, Rey and Cena on the other. It’s a cool visual of the “old stars vs. the new stars” but it’s done better moments later when both Randy and Rey are eliminated, making it the new class (Finn and Shin) vs. the previous winners (Cena and Roman). Great visual storytelling here.
Of course the final comes down to Roman Reigns and Shinsuke Nakamura and the two put on a great back and forth battle for a few minutes. TONS of drama in that sequence too. Given how much the company loves Roman, every time someone hits the ropes you’re terrified that they’re about to go out. In the end, they made the right choice and Shinsuke Nakamura Kinshasaed Roman out of the ring for the win. Afterward, Renee Young asks Shinsuke who he wants to face at ‘Mania, and we get even more fan service as he calls out AJ Styles. Nice.
Honestly, this may be my favorite Rumble match of all time. It may not have the emotional resonance of Ric Flair’s “tear in my eye” promo, but it was so well booked. Everyone got moments to shine, they put over the new generation of main eventers strong, and even the comedy spots were on point. The return of Rey Mysterio was fantastically done, and the debuts of Andrade Almas and Adam Cole were well handled too. It’s a shame that this wasn’t the main event, though, as it was much better than the Women’s Rumble – especially given the final lasting image of the show.
The Bar vs. Jason Jordan and Seth Rollins (Raw Tag Team Championships)
So yeah. The crowd was absolutely dead for this match, which is a shame, given that both Cesaro and Rollins put in decent showings in the Rumble match itself and then came out to kill themselves moments later. The largest shoutout goes to Seth Rollins, however, who spent a good 20 minutes in the Rumble and then essentially wrestled this match by himself, as Jordan was taken out early with a concussion angle. This left Seth, whose gear appears to have been designed by Guy Fieri tonight, to go it alone against a relatively fresh Shesaro, as Sheamus only spent two seconds in the Rumble itself.
For the second time in the show, we had a hyper-athletic champion dragging a competitive handicap match out of a team with one injured competitor. This time, however, the prevailing logic that two healthy fighters should probably be able to beat one wins out, as The Bar is eventually able to whittle down Seth’s stamina enough to hit him with their assisted White Noise tandem finisher. To his credit, Crossfit Jesus really did his best to keep the crowd’s suspension of disbelief in check.. His superplex into a falcon arrow sequence landed as well as it ever does — even with Cesaro breaking up the flow — and he really made a statement by hitting a double frog splash on both members of the Bar at once toward the end of the bout. This was actually one of the better singles performances that Rollins has had since he turned face last year.
At one point JJ does return from the back to attempt to make the save, but is forced to tag himself out when he realizes that he cannot actually perform in his current condition. I suppose this is what leads to the inevitable rivalry between Rollins and Jordan, though I think it’s kind of hard to blame a concussed guy for not wanting to further aggravate his own injury. I guess nothing that Jordan has done has been especially heelish, per se, but asking us to boo a guy protecting his brain while keeping Daniel Bryan out of the ring for the same reason feels like an odd decision. Whatever, these two will probably face off on the undercard of WrestleMania and I still won’t care about JJ’s turn.
Braun Strowman Vs. Kane vs. Brock Lesnar (c) (Universal Championship)
Though much less fun than the fatal four way at SummerSlam, this triple threat for the Universal Title was a fairly standard Brock Lesnar car crash match. Lots of quick action, not a ton of selling, several people going through tables, Brock winning with a single F5. Pretty much what everyone assumed, right down to Kane’s only meaningful contribution being taking the pin so Braun doesn’t have to look weak. It’s a shame that the writing has been on the wall for the WrestleMania main event since last year, because it removes all of the drama from these bouts. We know Brock is going through these shmos en route to his fracas with Roman, so this is all much ado about nothing. See you next month when I say the same thing about Roman winning the Elimination Chamber to set that match up.
There was one interesting bit in the match, however, and it comes really early on. After the initial scrum, Braun hits an errant knee to Lesnar that actually connects to the side of Brock’s head and knocks him a little loopy for a moment. Never one to let a good deed go unpunished, however, Brock responded in brutal fashion:
That punch looked devastating, and almost assuredly would have knocked my goony ass out cold. While it does buckle Strowman’s knees for a second, he thankfully stays in the match and both men seem to keep things professional moving forward. Still, I wonder if there will be any repercussions for that shoot punch or the knee that preceded it. Probably not, but WWE can’t be happy with Brock potentially concussing one of its biggest draws off of what was clearly an accident.
Another likely outcome of this match? Kane retreating into fully part-time status and stepping out of the main event scene. Whether he wins the mayoral race he’s running or not, this should be the last time we see the Big Red Machine hanging with guys 20 years his junior. I know he’s a legacy character and a future hall of famer, but dude is 50 years old and it shows. He shouldn’t be trouncing guys like Finn Balor, and he definitely shouldn’t be pitched on the same level as Braun or Brock. He should be reduced to Mark Henry’s level of involvement: a goodwill ambassador who pops up in the Royal Rumble match but otherwise only comes around from time to time.
Women’s Rumble Match
A lot was made of the first Women’s Rumble being a big historic event, and what it meant for women athletes to finally be taken as equal to their male counterparts. To that end, having the Women’s Rumble close the show was a big deal. To then crap on the first winner’s achievement by going for a news-grabbing celebrity cameo, however, was a little deflating. Having legends like Lita, Beth Phoenix and Trish Stratus return for the Rumble was a great call, as they had a hand in changing the WWE’s attitude about its female performers. Bringing back holdovers from the bikini model days like Kelly Kelly and Torrie Wilson? Kinda regressive. In all it was a mixed bag, but let’s break it down to bullet points.
- E’s Maria Menounos is a special guest announcer for the match and she sucks at it. I know she’s a real fan, and I guess it’s cool that she got to contribute, but her voice and delivery were a poor fit for the event. Speaking of which, Stephanie McMahon is out there on commentary and she’s…well…
- The first two competitors out there are Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch, and it’s a great call to start with these two. In addition to being two of the best workers in the match, both have stamina and name power. Sasha actually goes on to be the ironwoman of the match, lasting nearly 55 minutes and eliminating four women (tying her for second most eliminations). Becky, meanwhile, was in the match the second longest at 31 minutes, and got to do a lot of the heavy lifting when it came to dealing with the “legends” like Lita and Michelle McCool.
- Lita is the first legend in at #5, wearing a #TimesUp banner on her gear. She also has the names of several fallen women who couldn’t be in the Rumble like Luna Vachon and Sherri Martel written on her arms, which was a nice touch. She gets in a lot of decent spots, including a scary looking moonsault on both Sasha and Becky, but she definitely has some ring rust and it shows. When Becky eliminates her, it’s a bit of a blessing.
- Tamina comes out in her Captain EO outfit and narrowly avoids having the record for shortest time in the Rumble thanks entirely to the Rumble’s one gag entry.
- Kairi Sane is one of two NXT entrants in the Rumble and she starts off strong by clearing the board and hitting her Insane Elbow on Sasha to a decent pop. Unfortunately, she also gets eliminated to little lasting impact by Dana Brooke, which…
- That’s actually a theme in the women’s Rumble, as most of the new stars that aren’t Asuka or the 4 Horsewomen get dumped with little fanfare. Mandy, Sonya, Liv, and Sarah Logan all get dropped without making any lasting impression, which is a shame — especially for Sonya, who did manage to look like a beast while she was in the match.
- The other problem with the match, which I alluded to earlier, is that it relied entirely too much on big names from the past. While it was great to see the likes of Molly Holly and Jacqueline get some love in the first-ever women’s Rumble, people like Torrie Wilson, Vickie Guerrero and Kelly Kelly kind of represent the worst of women’s wrestling. None was ever a talented in-ring performer, and each had a character (Sexpot, shrew, and exhibitionist, respectively) that the women’s division has been trying to move away from in the past several years. Using these women instead of bringing out up-and-comers like Peyton Royce or Nikki Cross was a real missed opportunity.
- Oddly enough, Michelle McCool — a legacy performer who straddled the line between decent performer and fitness model — set the bar for the most eliminations with 5. I know that she’s Mrs. Taker and all, but you’d think they’d give that distinction to someone on the active roster like Asuka or Nia Jax.
- The other NXT entrant is Women’s Champion Ember Moon, who is still selling the arm injury she sustained the previous night in her bout with Shayna Baszler. She doesn’t do much in the match itself, but she does have a fun face off with Asuka, who laughs at Moon’s injury before eliminating her. Decent showing for her.
- It looks like Naomi will be filling the Kofi Kingston “creative way to avoid elimination” role in women’s Rumbles. Early on she gets chucked into a crowd of women by Nia Jax and surfs them onto the barrier surrounding the ring. To get back in, she walks along the barrier then uses Maria Menounos’ chair to crawl back to the ring. Much like Kofi, however, she is swiftly eliminated after she gets back in the ring.
- Having both Bellas in the match playing the villains ala Big Show/Kane in 2015 was a smart ploy. It definitely built sympathy for the women they double teamed to make it to the top 3.
- Sasha Banks finally showed some heelish tendencies out there by sneakily eliminating Bayley and trash talking Asuka while triple teaming her with the Bellas. Hopefully this signifies an actual change in character, because face Sasha is getting a bit redundant at this point.
- Trish coming out at #30 was a good call too. If you’re not going to have Ronda in the match itself, saving a fan favorite surprise like Trish for last avoids the whole “booing Rey Mysterio” snafu from 2014. For the record, no one wants to boo Rey Mysterio, they were booing the WWE itself.
The ending sees Nikki turn on Brie to eliminate her, then Asuka kick Nikki’s leg out of her leg to get her off the apron and win the match. As Asuka’s music hits, the two women’s champs, who had been sitting at ringside for the match enter the ring. The idea seemed to be that Asuka would say who she wanted to face at WrestleMania, but before she could do that….
Out comes Ronda Rousey to the tune of Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” and wearing Rowdy Roddy Piper’s leather jacket. I think it was a nice touch since Rousey and Piper are inextricably linked, but the aesthetic didn’t really look right. She was swimming in that thing. Anyway, Ronda comes out to shit on Asuka’s moment and…point at the WrestleMania sign? Wait, she’s shooting for a handshake from Asuka….but nothing happens there. Wait, now she’s walking over to Stephanie….and she’s shaking her hand…so, that’s it? That’s the big reveal? That is our lasting image? They don’t even announce that she signed a full-time contract on the show, they require you to go on Twitter to look up a tweet from SportsCenter. This was a stupid, stupid way to end this monumental match. You’ve just had this momentous moment for women in sports, where a woman — for the first time — has won a Royal Rumble match in a grueling and competitive affair. She’s standing in the ring with your two champions and building drama toward your biggest show of the year, leaving a lasting image that you’ll include in video packages pretty much forever. Then you have a celebrity upstage them by walking out, smiling, and pointing. Swing and a miss, WWE, swing and a miss.