The Royal Rumble marks the beginning of the Road to Wrestlemania, the annual 10-week pilgrimage to the grandest event in all of professional wrestling. Contested in a traditional battle royale format, the Royal Rumble sees 30 competitors enter the ring in 90-second intervals as they attempt to throw one another over the top rope and remain the last man standing in the ring. Traditionally, the victor is granted the privileged prize of a shot at the title at the Wrestlemania main event. But this year, for the first time in 24 years, the Royal Rumble was for the prized WWE World Heavyweight Championship itself, and for the first time ever, the champion was forced to participate to defend his title. The stakes have never been higher.
The same can’t really be said for most of the matches that filled out the rest of the card. WWE’s writing team has been spinning its wheels for the better part of the past year, and despite every title being on the line this Sunday, the feuds lacked the typical gravitas that’s to be expected of the second-biggest event of the WWE calendar. But for as much as it seemed like we’d be in for an underwhelming night, the Superstars pulled out all the stops to deliver a solid three hours of wrestling from top to bottom.
Intercontinental Championship Last Man Standing match: Dean Ambrose (champion) versus Kevin Owens
With a pre-show match that had absolutely zero impact on the rest of the show, the Royal Rumble effectively opened with Dean Ambrose and Kevin Owens. While inexplicably relegated to the mid-card, these two have been routinely deconstructing the notion of how a Typical Wrestler is supposed to look, talk and fight, and a Last Man Standing match—where a knockout is the only way to win—is a natural fit for a pair of scrappers. Considering Ambrose’s history of losing matches to his own “unhinged” ineptitude, all the signs pointed to the stipulation being in place only so he could drop the title to Owens while saving face. To see him retain the title, winning the match with a shove, no less—albeit a shove that sent Owens crashing outside the ring through two stacked tables—was the yin to his yang-y streak of comedic losses.
Tag Team Championship match: The New Day (c) versus The Usos
The New Day have consistently been the most entertaining part of every episode of Raw for months. The Usos spent most of 2015 on the injured reserve and still somehow managed to be named 2015’s Tag Team of the Year as voted by fans, because WWE is for eight-year-olds and there is no justice in this world.
It was a solid match carried by a set of talented performers, but it’s no better or worse than it needed to be. Though these teams have only been feuding since November, we’ve seen some variation of this match so frequently by now that I can’t say for certain that these Superstars aren’t already dead and trapped in a rainbow-hued Hjaðningavíg. The most important development from this match had nothing to do with New Day retaining the titles, but everything to do with Xavier Woods resurrecting his beloved trombone, Francesca, as the newly and aptly christened Francesca II. It’s always a New Day.
United States Championship match: Alberto Del Rio (c) versus Kalisto
Reigning champion Alberto Del Rio was shockingly defeated by Kalisto on Raw two weeks prior, making it seem like WWE had finally recognized his talent and were prepared to push him to the top of the card. The next day, Del Rio won the title back with little fanfare. Regardless of how this match turned out, the emotional impact had already been stunted. In what will inevitably be forgotten as a bout full of missed spots and botched maneuvers (a couple of which Kalisto was lucky to walk away from concussion-free) we yet again have a new United States champion, and a hope that, this time, WWE will realize that it maybe has something special in this masked little luchador.
Divas Championship match: Charlotte (c) versus Becky Lynch
This is the most challenging match on the card to write about. WWE’s women’s division is ostensibly undergoing a revolution of sorts, shying away from its ever-problematic “Divas” brand towards a more legitimate presentation of its women as real athletes—fancy that. Since reinventing what women’s wrestling could be in NXT (WWE’s “developmental” league, which you absolutely should be watching) Charlotte and Becky Lynch have been ambassadors of the so-called Divas Revolution. But after seeing how this match played out, it’s clear that the WWE still has no idea or intention to actually fix what’s broken.
What starts off as the kind of technically adept mat wrestling we’ve come to expect from these two takes a sudden turn into the inexplicable after about four minutes. With the action spilling to the outside, Charlotte’s father, Ric Flair—who’s hung up his legendary feathered robes to assume the role of Tiger Dad living vicariously through his kid—grabs a hold of Lynch and kisses her. It’s played off as a “distraction” from a lecherous old scoundrel, but there’s so much wrong with this. WWE’s contract with their toy company explicitly bars women from competing against men, yet sexual assault for comedy’s sake is still OK? Charlotte’s eventual win barely seemed to matter after this bit that was totally unnecessary, super regressive, and does a huge disservice to the entire division, which women like these two are working their asses off to legitimize. The post-match gave us a glimmering beacon of hope as Sasha Banks returned to lay claim to the next title shot, so here’s hoping that the rightful queen of wrestling can save us all.
Royal Rumble match
In the three years that Roman Reigns has been a part of the Rumble, he’s become synonymous with the marquee event. He’s spent the previous two Rumbles on either side of an audience revolt over the match’s outcome: in 2014, Reigns was the up-and-coming dark horse, favoured to win, but unceremoniously eliminated by a fresh-out-of-retirement Batista. WWE spent the next year clumsily trying to correct its error and pushed a new-and-improved, corporately approved Reigns on fans, leading to another outcry when he actually won the 2015 Royal Rumble. Going into this year’s event as champion, Roman Reigns had as much to lose as WWE with its audience’s loyalty.
The Royal Rumble is a key component of the WWE narrative machine, because it allows the writers to establish multiple stories and feuds over the course of its 30 competitors. But the primary narrative going into this year’s match was focused solely on Reigns’ “One Versus All”—a slogan WWE’s been pushing since the moment they could slap it on a T-shirt and charge 30 bucks for it at the merch table. In spite of this, the most interesting stories to develop during the Rumble happened at its fringes. After a decade wrestling everywhere but, industry veteran AJ Styles made his seemingly impossible WWE debut. While WWE has become notorious for mishandling all but its homegrown talent, Style’s participation was perfect. He looked strong, holding out for over 30 minutes, and was eventually eliminated by Owens—arguably the only man on the roster with enough legitimacy among rabid Internet fans to do the deed. Owens himself would later be eliminated by lifelong rival Sami Zayn, making his long-awaited call-up from NXT, planting the seeds for their own Wrestlemania feud. And R-Truth gave us the greatest Royal Rumble comedy spot in years by confusing the bout for a ladder match and facing hilarious consequences upon reaching the top rung.
The One Versus All narrative didn’t just attempt to overshadow these side-plots—it didn’t even prove true as the match unfolded. Going into the Rumble, company owner and in-character antagonist Vince McMahon did everything in his power to stack the odds: in addition to defending his title, Reigns was also named the first entrant, statistically the most difficult position from which to win a Royal Rumble. During the match, Vince would send his goons, the League of Nations baddie faction, to attack and injure Reigns. After the assault, Roman limped off to the back, where he spent most of the match regaining his strength. When he inevitably returned in the final minutes, he didn’t look like a returning conqueror; he looked like a coward who’d hid backstage until he could sweep in and secure an easy victory.
Of course, WWE’s Authority had other plans. After exhausting every play in their (nonsensical, idiotic) playbook to keep Reigns down, WWE COO and perpetual glory-hog Triple H appeared as the 30th entrant, determined to finish what the League of Nations couldn’t. Savvy fans had predicted this final act since Reigns’ entry had been announced, and it showed: the audience once again sat on their hands, and it looked for all the world like a third-straight year with a disappointing finish. And then Reigns was tossed over the top rope. Wait, what?
It’s hard to see where WWE plans to go with its main story from here, but in that moment, the crowd in Orlando was immediately reignited when the only two men left in the ring were Triple H and Reigns’ running mate, Dean Ambrose. These two absolutely tore it up, and for a minute, it actually seemed like Ambrose might finally get his moment to shine. Alas, Triple H is once again WWE World Heavyweight Champion, because the best way to recapture an audience who think they’ve outsmarted you is to remind them there’s always something worse than kayfabe. V