This year's Royal Rumble – the 29th iteration of WWE's second-most prestigious (though arguably most anticipated) annual January extravaganza – is like no other in nearly a quarter-century.
For the first time since 1992 (when Ric Flair outlasted the field), the man who survives the 30-man battle royal will be crowned World Heavyweight Champion. That sucks for Roman Reigns, since he currently holds the belt and is ostensibly defending it against 29 guys at once. And especially since Brock Lesnar is among the official entrants. Although after this past Monday's Raw, WWE would have us believe that Reigns' old nemesis Bray Wyatt is his foremost threat. Unless we were meant to infer that Braun Strowman was gunning for gold in earnest.
Rather than handicap the entire field or speculate too much on what will go down, here's our cherry-picked quintet of superstars – in no specific order of likelihood – who should triumph. A win by any one of these guys (and OK, at least one of them is a bit presumptuous) would at least ensure a less bumpy road to WrestleMania and renew our willingness to keep re-upping with the WWE Network. Let the top-rope tossing begin?
A-doy. Or, actually, Anoa'i. Over a few short-but-turbulent years, Reigns has ridden the Rumble rollercoaster of underdog runner-up, reviled victor and underdog incumbent. However it goes down, a second consecutive W for the divisive Samoan would lend itself to myriad logical scenarios while helping stabilize a championship picture that's gone a bit blurry since Seth Rollins' injury. It's a safe bet, to be sure, but what matters more than whether Reigns ultimately endures is how.
We've been waiting for this. Trips has been M.I.A. (sort of) since getting trashed by Reigns at TLC. Father-in-law Vince McMahon has provided some canny misdirection, but Roman's immediate future won't move forward in earnest until the Game comes out of whatever boot camp he's been holed up in. No reason to think that won't happen at the Rumble. Nor does Triple H need to enter the battle royal in order to screw over Reigns. But if he comes down that ramp as an official competitor, he should only be doing it to win.
See the earlier "a-doy" for Roman Reigns. Apart from John Cena, Lesnar's the only guy who can hold the strap at any time for any reason and carry any number of ensuing feuds. Assuming WWE's got he and Paul Heyman on the hook through WrestleMania, why not take advantage and put their most meaningful prize on a guy with preeminent mystique (let alone merchandising appeal)? Unless the battle royal came down to Lesnar and, say, Kane, penciling in his first Rumble win in 13 years is virtually critic-proof. It would also free up Reigns and Triple H to go about their bitter business without warring over a title, since their beef's more personal than aspirational.
If the League of Nations has a prayer of getting over, it wouldn't hurt to adorn them with as much bling as possible. While Rusev was last year's runner-up, his stock has fallen so drastically over the past several months that he's still very much in character-rehab mode. Alberto Del Rio has a perfectly good thing going as U.S. champ and bully over luchas half his size. And let's be real: King Barrett is everyone's odds-on pick for first League member to get tossed. That leaves us with Sheamus, who can substantiate his recent, abbreviated stint as World Heavyweight champ – and fortify his stable as a force to be reckoned with – by shocking the WWE universe and Brogue Kicking his way to a second Rumble win in five years. And no matter which man on this list he upended, the Great White would generate heat more inflamed than his dingleberried muttonchops. It's a fair argument to make that, of all the heavy hitters confirmed or rumored for this year's match, Sheamus would benefit the most by walking away with Reigns' belt.
We all know how badly Rumble producers botched Bryan's appearances (or non-appearances, in one instance) at its past two battle royals. And it's been rumored that the oft-injured former champ's been given a green light to compete by his own doctor. If WWE's team deems him healthy enough to return in kind, it would be madness to keep him out of this year's match. Moreover, if he entered, it would be unthinkable for him not to win. Short of, oh, Zack Ryder shocking the world, there couldn't be a more crowd-pleasing scenario. Nor would anything generate more 'Mania hype than the Beast finally putting a target on Bryan's back. This is all contingent on medical information that's either pending or being kept under wraps, but if there is a god in wrestling heaven (or one at all), then this is the miracle she's obliged to perform.