It’s time to play the Game. Again.
Triple H was the last man standing in the main event of WWE’s Royal Rumble, dumping Roman Reigns and sorta surviving 28 other superstars (he entered in 30th) to claim the World Heavyweight Championship. It’s the 14th time he’s held the company’s top belt, though it’s difficult to see this run as anything other than a transitional one, a way to stoke the flames of his feud with Reigns and whip up a WrestleMania main event in the process.
And that, really, was what this Royal Rumble was all about: lining up the planes to land at April’s Showcase of Sports Entertainment. Almost all of that took place in the 30-man battle royal, but not all of it was good – so here’s a breakdown of what happened, and where WWE will likely go with it from here:
Roman Reigns entered with the odds stacked against him even before the McMahons named him the first man in the match – the only way he could retain his World title was to outlast everybody. So he started the whole thing off, tossed Rusev, got attacked by the League of Nations, did a stretcher job, disappeared for a while, came back, cleaned some house and got tossed by Triple H. Would that have happened if Sheamus and Co. (working at the behest of H’s father-in-law, Vince McMahon) hadn’t assaulted him outside the ring? Should Reigns still be the rightful WWE champion? There’s your road to WrestleMania right there.
Brock Lesnar entered at 23, and unleashed hell (I lost count of the number of times he tossed the massive Luke Harper), but was seemingly kept as far away from the title picture as possible, which made his Rumble seem like a disappointment. Instead, after getting eliminated by the Wyatt Family, he appears locked into a ‘Mania feud with the Swamp Shaman – the result of which, having looked at Bray Wyatt’s big-match record, appears to be a foregone conclusion. That’s not to say it can’t also be entertaining, especially if Lesnar continues to work with Harper and Braun Strowman, but it kind of feels like a step down for both Brock and Bray, considering who both men feuded with at last year’s WrestleMania, and the fact that Lesnar never actually lost the World Heavyweight Championship in the first place.
A.J. Styles made his much-rumored debut, popping the Orlando crowd big-time when he entered the Rumble match at Number 3. To say it was surreal to see the stalwart Styles in a WWE ring (and to hear Michael Cole say “Styles Clash,”) would be an understatement, so while I could nitpick – his debut might have felt bigger on tonight’s Raw, Styles could’ve eliminated a few more folks in the match – I won’t. This was awesome, Styles looked great and if you’re not excited for a program between he and Kevin Owens (who tossed Styles and shouted “Welcome to the WWE” for good measure), I don’t know what’s wrong with you.
And finally, there’s Dean Ambrose, whose future appears to be brightening by the minute. He opened the show by retaining his Intercontinental Championship in a great “Last Man Standing” match against Owens, then had the crowd in a frenzy when the Rumble match itself came down to him and Triple H for the title. That makes him a prime player in the current WWE landscape, and heading into WrestleMania, that certainly can’t hurt. He did eliminate Chris Jericho last night, which could point to where he’s headed next (anything to get Y2J away from the New Day).
So, yeah, pretty good Rumble. Storylines began and advanced. Kofi Kingston got his requisite cool spot, avoiding elimination by hopping on Big E’s shoulders and taking a victory lap around the ring. The were comedy spots from last year’s hero Curtis Axel and the eternally befuddled R. Truth, who, mistakenly believing the WWE title hung above the ring, brought a ladder into the mix. The surprises probably weren’t as plentiful as you had hoped they’d be – Clear Daniel Bryan! – but the few we got were great; not just Styles but NXT favorite Sami Zayn, who eliminated Owens, thereby gaining a modicum of revenge against his old foe. Was Jericho in the match too long? Sort of depends on how you feel about his shtick in 2016. (Short answer: Yes.) Was this match better than last year’s debacle, when Philadelphia booed Reigns out the building and even turned on the Rock? Again, short answer: Yes.
And while the 2015 Rumble show was saved by its hellacious triple-threat for the Heayweight title, this year’s event surpassed it based on the overall strength of the card. Ambrose and Owens busted tables, chairs and probably some bones (K.O. sold his leg injury all the way into the Rumble match) in a thoroughly entertaining I.C. battle. The New Day retained their Tag Team titles over the Usos in a creative match that had its moments, but hopefully signaled the end of this feud. Kalisto defeated Alberto Del Rio to win the U.S. Championship in a hard-hitting match that featured a great false finish where Kalisto ducked ADR’s foot stomp and nailed a Salida Del Sol. Now let the (former?) Lucha Dragon run with the belt, and move Del Rio – who has been getting better by the week – on to something bigger, no pun intended.
Speaking of bigger, all of a sudden we can shift the Divas title picture into landscape mode. I mean, sure, there are only three women in it, but one of them is Sasha Banks, so I’m not going to complain. Yes, after vanishing from WWE TV over the past couple weeks (for reasons that may or may not have involved an injury), the Boss is officially bank, showing up at the conclusion of the Divas Championship match between Charlotte and Becky Lynch and forcibly interjecting herself into the title scene by way of a Bank Statement on Ric Flair’s girl. Watching Sasha feign a friendship with Charlotte, then gleefully sneer before turning on the champ, was proof of just how cold-blooded she can be – and that’s just what this division needs. That her move came after Charlotte and Lynch battled valiantly for the title in a match that seethed with actual storyline and stakes suggests only good things; they’ve got the talent and script to match…if only they could do something about the Total Divas tie-ins.
And now, the run to WrestleMania begins. Will the 46-year-old who currently holds the championship get winded along the way? Probably, and Triple H’s victory at the Royal Rumble will no doubt cool some folks’ reactions to the event as a whole. It’s a valid complaint – after all, this is the one that sets the stage for pro wrestling’s Super Bowl – but not necessarily a fair one. The Royal Rumble was an entertaining show, paced by the battle royal and bolstered by its undercard. You might not like how it ended, but this is WWE; only McMahon-Helmsleys get what they want all the time.