Sunday night, WWE did something magical: it got a crowd to pop loudly for Randy Orton winning the Royal Rumble. All it took was for Goldberg, Brock Lesnar and Undertaker to eliminate each other, and one Roman Reigns appearance at number 30 to really get the crowd behind anybody else. That it was Randall K. Orton to reap the rewards wasn’t too much of a shock; he was the odds-on betting favorite entering the event, and those are almost always correct, barring a last-minute change. But that WWE would so stack the deck for a Big Three confrontation between Lesnar, Goldberg and Taker, only to have the final two be a hated Roman Reigns and Orton without much drama, that was surprising. At the end of the day, however, the main event, much like the show that preceded it, accomplished what it was supposed to: it provided a clear roadmap towards WrestleMania.
Some of the lower-card matches filled out their respective paths in conventional fashion: Naomi pinned Alexa Bliss on the pre-show, so she’ll probably challenge for the SmackDown Live women’s title at Elimination Chamber. Charlotte beat Bayley clean, which is what she should do before WrestleMania; after all, her PPV win streak can only end on the biggest show of the year. Similarly, Nia Jax demolished Sasha Banks, and we are now headed, I believe, towards a fatal fourway match between those four women, where the heels are built as unstoppable in their own ways, while the faces have to figure out how to overcome the odds.
Kevin Owens retained his Universal title in a hell of a No DQ match over Roman Reigns after Braun Strowman interfered as retribution for Roman’s spears over the last few weeks. If you thought that was the WrestleMania match being set up for The Big Dog, well, the Rumble itself asserted otherwise. And, in the only match the crowd didn’t care about, Neville completed his King of the Cruiserweights storyline by whomping Rich Swann; now we can get a real babyface (Kalisto?) to tear up the house with the former Red Arrow at Mania.
The true highlight of the lower card and, truly, of the year so far in WWE, was John Cena challenging for AJ Styles’s WWE Championship. After their stunner of a match at last year’s SummerSlam, the in-ring expectations were through the roof, but these two are not only at the top of their game, they are also loaded with chemistry right now. We can’t say enough about how good Styles has been since joining WWE, but he was as crisp as ever on Sunday, including a hurricanrana reversal of Cena’s Five Moves of Doom that had me yelping. That being said, for the first time in one of these showcase matches, it was Cena that was the undisputed star of the show. Not only did he ramp up the intensity and, frankly, terrifying bulk that he possesses, he also went back to the John Cena United States Open Challenge well of new moves.
A better Code Red than ever was only about the third most impressive thing he did; his lariat reached peak levels of pain, and he threw down a better Big Ending than Big E ever pulled off. It was the finish, however, that truly cemented this match’s future legacy: after Styles kicked out from the Super Attitude Adjustment, Cena not only caught him with one but did a roll through to another, a second A.A., for the win. A fitting end to an instant classic, and the perfect way to get Cena his 16th title, tying Ric Flair for most in WWE history. That he immediately went to celebrate with a Make-A-Wish child in the audience only made Cena look more like a real-life superhero; even the snarkiest of the Wrestling Twitter community had to show Big Match John love.
So, after all that, we got to the Rumble match itself. Would Sami Zayn win from number eight to face his old rival Kevin Owens? Would one of the hosses (Braun Strowman or Baron Corbin) surprise the world by taking the thing? Would Samoa Joe make a main roster debut for the ages? Unfortunately, despite having an unpredictable winner, there were few true surprises in the Rumble this year. The eight secret entrants were all active roster members, with no legendary returns or indie debuts occurring. The biggest surprise pop of the night was so telegraphed that it was painful, although the execution of Tye Dillinger coming out at number 10 was at least a lot of fun. The only real question throughout was whether the betting favorite would win the Rumble for Team Blue, or whether WWE would give a part-timer Raw superstar the win.
That being said, the match did set up a few Mania feuds that will eat up TV time between now and April 2nd, so let’s run through them real quick. Cesaro and Sheamus, fresh from losing their tag titles to The Club, had a heated argument after being doubly eliminated, and will almost certainly feud…again. Lesnar and Goldberg are on a collision course after Goldberg yet again humiliated the Beast; good luck getting anyone to believe Brock won’t win in Orlando, WWE. Sami Zayn went right after Braun Strowman upon entering, and it figures that they will have a proper blow-off now that Strowman isn’t being given a true highlight spot.
The biggest surprise in terms of Mania set-up was actually Reigns, who went toe-to-toe with The Undertaker, including a post-elimination staredown. Who knows why WWE would do that with Reigns when they want him cheered, but at least Undertaker isn’t getting stuck in a match with Strowman, as was rumored. Overall, it was a utilitarian Rumble match that advanced plotlines and solidified characters (while giving Luke Harper a great face turn against his former mentor/cult leader, Bray Wyatt), but after the frankly excellent matches that came before it, one can only be let down by Orton winning the whole thing. Once the high of Anyone But Roman winning wears off, we’re back to the reality that only a few men can actually win the Rumble.
Orton’s win does open up possibilities: while he could face Cena yet again, odds are on John losing the belt in the Elimination Chamber, possibly with Samoa Joe interfering to build towards their rumored matchup. Instead, the smart money would be on Bray Wyatt taking the strap into Mania, giving this long-simmering Wyatt Family/Randy Orton storyline a fitting conclusion. Will that main event? Almost certainly not. We’re looking at either Taker/Roman or Brock/Goldberg in the final slot, which is a disappointment given the possible lack of title implications and the lacking quality of in-ring acumen by all four men at this stage in their careers (it’s weird to say, but Roman is currently the best wrestler of the bunch, but he couldn’t be more hated right now by fans if he tried). We’ll surely know more in the weeks to come, and it’s unlikely that WWE will want a repeat of the much-maligned WrestleMania 32 this year. One thing is clear as of now, though: they need to start putting in the work this week. The Road to WrestleMania 33 has officially begun.