|Image Source: Wrestlezone|
Produced By: WWE
Date: January 24 2016
Location: Amway Center, Orlando, Florida, USA
The 29th annual Royal Rumble event marked a first for the format. Instead of the match deciding who faces the WWE World Heavyweight Champion at WrestleMania, the title would actually be defended in the match by champion Roman Reigns (the 1992 Rumble was also for the same prize, but the title was vacant as opposed to being defended by, say Hulk Hogan). One vs. All, WWE called it, as the Rumble match was based on whether Roman could successfully defend his crown against 29 opponents. And with him entering as #1, he would have to battle through the entire field to retain the championship. Add to that some intriguing under-card matches, and whispers about certain wrestlers potentially appearing/debuting, and you have a Pay-Per-View that was eagerly anticipated by fans.
The Kick-Off Show was notable for the panel appearance of Jerry Lawler, who appears to have been downgraded from commentating on PPV events after doing so for over 20 years, save for his nine-month absence from WWE in 2001. The King isn't as good as he used to be at announcing, but he is still more entertaining than Byron Saxton or JBL, and his recent heel turn has re-energised his commentary, so it was a bit sad to see what is actually the end of an era; the legendary Jim Ross-Jerry Lawler announce team has now completely disappeared from Pay-Per-View.
Also on the K-O Show (not the Kevin Owens Show as the wrestler KO would say) was a four-way tag match for the final two spots in the Rumble match, pitting The Dudley Boyz against the teams of Mark Henry and Jack Swagger, The Ascension and Darren Young and Damien Sandow. Wait, hold on: why are Henry and Swagger teaming together? And why the hell are Young and Sandow teaming when Titus O'Neil, Darren's Prime Time Players partner, remains active? Never mind that we've barely seen Sandow in months, so it felt weird seeing him unannounced here (although he did get by far the biggest babyface pop and chants of the match).
I assumed that The Dudleyz would win here as the most established team involved, and due to the surprising fact that D-Von Dudley has never entered a Rumble match. But no: after a blown spot, Mark Henry pinned Ascension member Viktor to claim the two Rumble spots for him and Swagger. Even though none of the winners here were likely to win the Rumble, I felt this was an odd choice for the victors (no pun intended), since Henry hasn't been pushed properly in years and Swagger has been typecast as a loser for ages now. The Dudleyz deserved to be in the Rumble as a team for the first time, or even Sandow to reward his great work as Miz's stunt double in 2014-5, which was ignored by them ignoring him for the remainder of 2015. But no: WWE went with two performers who are not over, were arguably never truly over, and who had zero chance of winning. Silly decision by WWE there. (Do you think that Mark Henry has something he's holding over WWE to receive chance after chance after chance?)
Rumble properly started with a Last Man Standing match between Dean Ambrose and Kevin Owens for the Intercontinental Title, and since the WWE Title was being defended in the 30-man match, this was technically the big non-RR match of the evening (which makes you wonder why it was on first). Continuing the theme of their recent brawls on Raw and SmackDown, this was filled with fast-paced punch exchanges, big moves and the use of weapons, all combined with the usual drama of a Last Man Standing match and a pretty hot Orlando crowd, all of which made this a really good opening contest.
Tables have been pretty prevalent in this rivalry (both have put each other through announcer's tables in recent weeks), and so it was fitting that a table (or two) would be used to bring an end to the match and the feud, as Ambrose pushed Owens off the top rope, causing Owens to flip over and crash through two ringside tables, which was enough for Ambrose to pick up the win after Owens couldn't make it up before the 10-count. I wasn't surprised that Ambrose retained the Intercontinental Title as he could potentially have a great title reign, and this first PPV defence was a very good start to his run with the gold. That Owens has lost on three consecutive PPV events may be worrying to him, but he's so good that he will definitely rebound and regain a high-card spot, should the end of the Ambrose-Owens result in him being slightly demoted as the Road To WrestleMania gathers steam.
Next up was The New Day vs. The Usos for the WWE World Tag Team Championships (say that last part like Xavier Woods does). If you were watching WWE for the first time here, you would assume from the crowd reactions that New Day were hugely popular babyfaces and the Usos were the heels, because New Day were greeted by a huge pop and major cheers and laughs throughout their promo, even during the points which weren't so funny. The opposite is true, however: The New Day remain heels and Jimmy and Jey Uso are clear babyfaces who have been awaiting his two-on-two title shot at New Day for months now. That the reactions were so opposite to WWE's desires is not a good sign. And just in case you didn't think that the reactions were "wrong", New Day confirmed it by using Xavier's outside interference en route to the titleholders picking up the win.
At this point, New Day have to be turned babyface. They are so popular, and their act is essentially bulletproof at this point, that it achieves nothing by keeping them as heels. Besides, now that they have beaten The Usos, and since the Lucha Dragons may be kept apart for now, there aren't exactly any fresh babyfaces teams for ND to face, unless WWE called up some NXT talent. I don't think this match indicates that the Usos should be turned heel since they usually get a good reaction, but they could do with some character development, since Jimmy and Jey are at danger of being used within the same squeaky-clean babyface model as Roman Reigns and John Cena, and it's safe to say that in 2016, this doesn't work very well (look no further than the general reactions to Reigns and Cena, save for the TLC-Royal Rumble period).
I mentioned the Luchas earlier; Sin Cara is still injured, but Kalisto was in action here, as he challenged Alberto Del Rio for the United States Title. Kalisto pulled off the upset title win a few weeks ago, only for ADR to quickly regain it on SmackDown that same week in a baffling booking decision. This was the rubber match of their sort-of-feud, and given the Del Rio push and the way in which the carpet was pulled from under Kalisto weeks prior, the assumption was that Del Rio would beat Kalisto again here and then move onto another opponent.
Therefore, it was a surprise that, after some regrettably-botched moments, Kalisto hit Del Rio with the Salida Del Sol and captured the United States crown for the second time. The outcome received a big pop, but Kalisto's previous title win got a much bigger reaction and was a more unexpected development. WWE should have kept the title on Kalisto and had him retain it against ADR here, since the two latter title changes were unnecessary. It's still good for Kalisto (less so for ADR), but keeping his first title reign through Rumble and beyond would have been better; at least he still left RR with the belt. Had the action been smoother, this could have been a bigger moment for the masked man, especially since their Raw meeting a few weeks ago was a very good match.
The final pre-Rumble bout was Charlotte defending the Divas Title against Becky Lynch, accompanied as ever by Ric Flair. Charlotte's heel character has officially launched since TLC, and she is a far more interesting personality as a result of it. Meanwhile, her logical rivalry with Lynch has made for the first truly interesting female feud since the Divas Revolution began in July. There were plenty of good moments in this match, although the most memorable aspect was Ric Flair forcing a kiss on Becky (this wouldn't have raised eyebrows during the Attitude Era, but the backlash to this incident led WWE to edit it off their Network version of the show). Flair got involved again at the end by humorously throwing his jacket over Becky's face while she had Charlotte locked in the Dis-Arm-Her, which allowed Charlotte to regroup and pin Becky to remain champion.
Fans were annoyingly chanting "We want Sasha!" again during this match, despite it being obvious that WWE are saving The Boss's title quest for WrestleMania 32. And this was evidenced by Sasha coming out after the match to a huge reaction, following a boot to Becky with a take-down of Charlotte and the Bank Statement, indicating that she has or will be turning babyface as she aims to challenge Charlotte for her title. Exciting times then for the females, as the Revolution looks to be hitting a peak at just the right time. It's possible that Becky will still be involved in the situation given that it was Ric Flair who cost her the match, but Charlotte defending her championship against Sasha is definitely on the cards going forward.
And so we come to the Royal Rumble match. Besides the usual excitement surrounding this annual mega-brawl, many were interested to see how Reigns would be received by the Orlando fans after seemingly quashing the haters from TLC onwards, especially in the event that Roman were to win the Rumble and retain his WWE Title. Brock Lesnar, Chris Jericho and possibly Dean Ambrose were the only feasible candidates to take the title from Reigns, at least amongst the announced competitors, so if WWE were to remain committed to Reigns (which it clearly is), any title loss would have to be handled very carefully. Meanwhile, the last two Rumbles were greeted so poorly due to the outcomes (wins for Batista and Reigns) and the booking of said bouts (Daniel Bryan not being entered in 2014, virtually everything about the layout of the 2015 match) that WWE would have to ensure that this would not be the third consecutive Rumble to result in mass fan disgruntlement.
Reigns entered at #1, and the fan response was around 50/50, or maybe 60/40 in the favour of negativity. It wasn't as brutal as some of the responses Reigns has received previously, including at Rumble 2015, but it still had to be a disappointment considering how well he has been received over the last six weeks. I expected a heel to enter at #2 for Roman to dispatch quickly, so as to "prove" that Reigns winning could happen, and so it transpired with the once-mighty Rusev. The symmetry was cool here as the two men who ended last year's RR began this year's bout, and as stated Reigns quickly eliminated Rusev.
Entry number three was AJ Styles, and ... wait, AJ Styles?!? Yes, AJ Styles, once the face of TNA Wrestling and widely considered to be the greatest wrestler never to have competed in WWE, made his stunning debut. Rumours had been running rampant that Styles and some other New Japan Pro Wrestling stars might be heading to WWE, but nothing was officially announced. At first, the unfamiliar music confused fans, until Styles came out and the Amway Center crowd almost blew the roof off the place. Where better than Orlando to debut Styles, since Orlando is the home-base for TNA? And whoever foresaw the day that the WWE arrival of AJ Styles would be trumpeted by the company as a major occurrence? This jaw-dropping debut appearance was without question the highlight of the show, and Styles held his own against Reigns in their brief exchanges (although having Roman fight off Styles inevitably led to boos, which suggests that Rusev perhaps should have been tossed out by AJ instead to keep Roman's reaction as strong as possible).
Fourth entrant Tyler Breeze was quickly dispatched (which suggests his push is officially over), and Curtis Axel, entering at #5, was also eliminated rather quickly. WWE should have made more of this throw-out, since Axel's previous year was based around him never being officially entered into the 2015 Rumble, and thus never being officially eliminated. Chris Jericho arrived at #6, followed by Goldust at #7, Kane at #8 and Ryback at #9. So far, so good as there was plenty of star power, at least by current standards, and fans were still buzzing from Styles' debut, and the novelty of seeing AJ clash with the likes of Y2J.
Kofi Kingston entered next at #10, accompanied by Big E and Xavier Woods (why Kofi was entered ahead of his New Day brethren should require no explanation if you recall Kofi's recent Royal Rumble appearances), followed by Titus O'Neil at #11 and R-Truth at #12. Capitalising on his confused gimmick, Truth humorously brought a ladder into the ring and began climbing it, thinking that this was Money In The Bank. Kane quickly dispatched of Truth after this flawed attempt to win the match, and other bodies began flying at an increased rate as Luke Harper and Stardust entered at numbers 13 and 14. During this point, Kofi pulled off another miraculous Rumble escape by being thrown over the top ropes but landing on Big E's shoulders and being paraded around the ringside area by New Day, during which time he even took a fan's drink while recovering.
Kofi would be eliminated off-screen during the next pivot point of the match, which was the booking flaw of the night. The League Of Nations appeared from nowhere, with Vince McMahon at their side, and dragged Reigns out of the ring from under the bottom rope, proceeded to maul him at ringside, and Rusev ended up running across announcer's tables to hit a big splash on Roman through the final desk. That stunt was impressive, and the attack as a whole was designed to build sympathy for Reigns. Had he been left laying at ringside for 5-10 minutes, and then slowly crawled back in and put up a fight from an exhausted position, this beatdown would have worked. Instead, Reigns was carted off backstage, seemingly at his request, and would not return for some time. More on that later, and why that was a big booking mistake.
Big Show, Neville and Braun Strowman entered at numbers 15-17, with Strowman beginning to dominate the ring in typical big-man fashion; he even eliminated Kane and Big Show single-handedly. Kevin Owens came in at #18, limping after his LMS bout, and he was the man to eliminate AJ Styles, shouting "Welcome to WWE!" as he did so. Fans booed loudly, which was to be expected. KO was the perfect guy to do this because, realistically, Styles wasn't going to win the WWE Title in his debut match, but whoever eliminated him would have had huge heat. Owens, as the template disrespectful villain, was an ideal choice to throw out AJ, and it increases the chances of a Styles-Owens feud further down the road. Coincidentally (wink, wink), Dean Ambrose was in at #19, and went right for Owens, in their second battle of the evening.
Sami Zayn made a surprise appearance at #20 to a loud ovation, and he also immediately targeted his old enemy from NXT and the indies, Kevin Owens; it was Zayn who would eliminate Owens, which potentially creates a second future feud for KO. Erick Rowan and Mark Henry were in at 21 and 22, as the Wyatts began to dominate proceedings, although Jericho and Ambrose were still able to hang in there. Brock Lesnar marched out at #23, in his first Rumble participation since 2003 (unless you count his 2004 run-in; and this was only Brock's second ever Rumble appearance), and he began destroying the competition as only Brock Lesnar can. Lesnar brawled with Strowman and threw him out, then Rowan, and then the 24th entrant Jack Swagger (so much for the significance of Henry and Swagger winning on the Kick-Off Show). The Miz (number 25) wisely chose not to enter the ring while Lesnar was dominating and instead sat on commentary, humorously referring to the Orlando location as "Mizney World", as Alberto Del Rio arrived at #26 and was belted by Brock, who also dispatched of Luke Harper.
Bray Wyatt came in at #27 and given the Wyatts beatdown of Lesnar on Raw, this seemed the moment for Brock to smash Bray. Instead, continuous Wyatt interference led to another 4-on-1 beatdown, a Sister Abigail by Bray to Brock, and a shocking four-man elimination of Lesnar by the Wyatts. That one of the heavy favourites was eliminated at this point was a big surprise, and the layout of Brock's elimination suggests a Lesnar-Wyatt match is on the cards, possibly at WrestleMania 32. The fact that Brock didn't go on a tear at ringside after this technically illegal throw-out was weird, though; the situation called for Lesnar to go berserk, throw equipment around and beat up everyone in sight, including next entrant Dolph Ziggler. Miz came in here and hit Ziggler with the Skull-Crushing Finale (Miz would have been ideal for Lesnar to batter at ringside, and Miz could have gone the Curtis Axel route and said this denied him winning the Rumble without being allowed to officially enter).
Sheamus came out as entrant 29, only for Roman Reigns to run back in and attack Sheamus and re-enter the match. At this point, fans were almost unanimously booing Reigns, proving that the earlier situation was a mistake, and here's why. Reigns was beaten down at ringside; fair enough. But was it excessive enough for Roman to spend nearly thirty minutes backstage recuperating, essentially skipping half of the match in which his own title was on the line? I don't think so. Even if it was, the fact that Reigns ran back out as if nothing had happened added to the feeling that Reigns was over-protected. The idea of this match being a challenge was for Roman to spend an hour fighting off 29 men, not to skip half of it and return with only one more entrant to go. Never mind the backlash over the previous 12 months, this booking decision alone would have turned fans against Reigns given the context of what happened.
Compare it with 1999, when The Corporation attacked Steve Austin early on, Austin was taken away in an ambulance, only for him to return with around 10 entrants left. Well, Austin was massively popular and it was a different era, an easier one to receive cheers, but that's beside the point. It was part of the wider Austin-McMahon feud, and Vince having Austin destroyed fit the storyline perfectly, just as it appeared that Austin was returning to exact vengeance, refusing to stay out of the match. In contrast, Reigns received a beating but a generally tame one, got taken away for half an hour, and returned fresh as a daisy right at the end, at a time when fans were already resenting him. If ever the booking of Roman Reigns was flawed, this was the night, as evidenced by the overwhelmingly negative reaction once Reigns was back. I mentioned earlier how this could have worked; what they chose to do certainly didn't. (And never mind the fact that everybody knew Reigns was coming back at some point in the match.)
Triple H was entrant #30, in a surprise entry which wasn't exactly a big surprise. It was cool to see HHH come out to exact revenge on Reigns for the TLC beatdown, but there's the problem. HHH is the heel, so why create a situation where we're excited to see the heel beat up the babyface? There was a big-time feel to the HHH-Reigns square-off, but handled differently, it would have felt far more special. Plus, did Roman Reigns truly not expect Triple H to come back at some point?
The final seven (Reigns, HHH, Wyatt, Y2J, Ambrose, Ziggler and Wyatt) had some good exchanges, and it was a cool moment when Wyatt squared up to HHH, making it clear that he was no corporate puppet. HHH threw out Dolph and then Bray (which should have had some link to the Lesnar situation, because it made Bray look a bit weak), and Ambrose eliminated Jericho (who lasted longer than anyone in the match outside of the often-absent Reigns, and increases the chances of an Ambrose-Jericho feud which was first hinted at back at Night Of Champions). Reigns then eliminated Sheamus, only for HHH to sneak up behind Roman and eliminate him, thus guaranteeing that Roman was losing the WWE Title. More worryingly for Roman was the almighty cheer which greeted this moment, and the positive reaction to Tripper's babyface-esque DX crotch chop. HHH should have clobbered Reigns with his sledgehammer and threw him out to remain the heel; as it was presented, a first-time viewer would think that HHH was the good guy and Reigns was the bad guy.
Therefore, it surprisingly came down to HHH vs. Ambrose, which suddenly raised hopes that Ambrose might pull off a big upset and win the WWE Title. (If it was designed to ensure a babyface vs. heel ending with desired reactions, then Roman's big babyface push is definitely flawed.) And Ambrose had HHH in trouble more than once, but not enough to get the win, as HHH managed to eliminate Ambrose to win the Royal Rumble match for only the second time in his career, and his 14th WWE World Title in the process (his first for seven years). Vince and Stephanie came out to celebrate with HHH to close the show, as Michael Cole stupidly said that HHH was going to WrestleMania (since HHH could potentially lose the gold before then; and as COO of the company, do you really imagine that Triple H wouldn't be at WrestleMania? Plus, he's competed at all Manias besides one since 1996, and ... oh, never mind).
Overall, the Royal Rumble match was a big improvement on recent battles; there were plenty of cool moments, and a third consecutive riot-esque reaction to the conclusion was prevented. That HHH was essentially presented as the conquering babyface hero and the booking of Roman was deeply questionable was worrying, though, because it once again suggests that Reigns will have to fight against the audience as he aims to regain the WWE Title (HHH vs. Reigns is guaranteed for WrestleMania, even if it won't be announced for a few weeks) after seemingly defeating the haters over the preceding six weeks. Some complained at HHH winning, but realistically only he, Roman or Brock were likely to win it (HHH wasn't announced, but those who have watched wrestling for a while will have realised he was entering this match), and once Lesnar went out, it was obvious what was going to happen. And besides, HHH is (apparently) a heel, so fans should be angry that he won, even if it wasn't for the reasons that WWE would prefer.
There was a major debut in AJ Styles, which certainly makes WWE a more interesting place going forward, and Sami Zayn appears to now be on the main roster, with a feud against Kevin Owens having been restarted here. There were no appearances by retro stars for the first time in many years; I felt that one legend should have been included, preferably someone with a chance of somehow winning the whole match or someone who had previously held the WWE Title. Add to that the good action throughout and the other cool spots involving the likes of R-Truth and Kofi Kingston, and you have a pretty good Rumble, probably the best for a good few years. Had WWE booked the Reigns beatdown-and-recovery better, and had WWE not made it so obvious that HHH was entering, this could have potentially been remembered as one of the very best Rumbles to date. As it was, the match was far better than it has been in recent years, but it didn't reach the levels of the greatest ever Rumble matches. That the WWE Championship was on the line ensures that it has a greater chance of being remembered as a historic Rumble bout.
As for the show in its entirety, again it was much better than in recent years. The opener was a great match, the tag team bout served its purpose, ADR vs. Kalisto was disappointing but had the right result, and the Divas Title match was good and had a satisfying post-match sequence, while the Royal Rumble match was more good than bad. The show hinted at several possible WrestleMania matches and/or future rivalries (Reigns vs. HHH, Lesnar vs. Wyatt, Charlotte vs. Sasha, Ambrose vs. Jericho and Owens vs. Zayn), and the arrival of AJ Styles was the most memorable moment of 2016 thus far in WWE. The Road To WrestleMania will be turbulent given the large injury list, and the reactions here suggested that Roman Reigns will once again have to try and fight for support from the audience en route to Mania (One vs. All could describe his struggles against the crowd), but at least the path to the biggest event of the year began with a mostly enjoyable Royal Rumble event.
Overall Rating: 7.5/10 - Good