After a rough end to 2015 featuring countless injuries and record low ratings, WWE needed to start off 2016 strong. The Road to Wrestlemania kicked off with the Royal Rumble and the WWE delivered an entertaining show. Some old feuds were resolved and some new feuds began. Established storylines entered their next chapters while new characters entered the fray.
The wheels are finally turning on our way to Wrestlemania 32.
The main theme of the show revolved around WWE Champion Roman Reigns and his feud with The Authority: Vince and Stephanie McMahon. Reigns was forced into defending his title in the Royal Rumble match - a 30 man battle royale. This was the first time the championship had been on the line in a Royal Rumble match since the classic 1992 match which Ric Flair won. The heels had been stacking the odds against Roman and the storyline going into the show was whether or not Roman could overcome the odds. The Rumble match itself was enough to convince me to watch the show, but I’m sure some fans were dying to see if their hero Roman could overcome adversity and beat the bad guys.
The undercard of this show had a surprisingly good build as well. Basically, my expectations for WWE storylines are so low that whenever something remotely interesting happens, it’s a good thing. WWE put some thought into building these matches, creating genuine fan investment in the show. All of the WWE titles were on the line at the Royal Rumble and most of the matches ended up being pretty great.
Kevin Owens vs. Dean Ambrose (c)
Last Man Standing Match for the Intercontinental Championship
Two of my favorite performers got to open the show in a hellacious match. The build up was simple enough: two guys hate each other and Owens wants revenge for losing his title last month. A last man standing match is usually a good way to finish up a wrestling feud, since the loser will be incapacitated for a 10 count instead of a 3 count pinfall. Plus, there are no disqualifications, which means fans get to see tables, chairs, kendo sticks and whatever else the WWE feels like using that night.
Owens and Ambrose creatively put each other through tables and impaled each other with kendo sticks. These two went to war and went through brutal spot after brutal spot. Ambrose gets the win after 15 minutes of chaos. A great way to open the show means we’re off to a good start.
Dimit Rating: 4/5
The New Day (c) vs. The Usos
Tag Team Championship Match
Up next were some hilarious antics featuring The New Day, another one of my favorite acts in WWE. They had a typical tag team match not unlike something you’d see on Monday Night Raw, but the outside the ring antics combined with Xavier Woods yelling out Mortal Kombat references made this match much more enjoyable than just the in-ring work. During pay-per-views, Big E always busts out a spear from the second rope to the floor that is always crazy to see. The finish was pretty great with Big E catching Jey Uso in midair and reversing it into his finisher for the win.
Dimit Rating: 3/5
Kalisto vs. Alberto Del Rio (c)
United States Championship Match
Storyline wise these two have had some pitfalls in their feud. Kalisto actually beat Del Rio on Raw a few weeks ago to win the championship, only to lose it back to him the next night at a Smackdown taping. This booking decision was baffling and could’ve just been skipped all together. Nonetheless, these two have had a series of decent matches over the last month but I had been waiting for them to have a match that ascended into something great. This match unfortunately didn’t reach that level. I feel like both of these guys could really deliver something special against each other but tonight they just didn’t click. I think Kalisto had a lot of good ideas for moves and spots to do in the match but either his or Del Rio’s timing was off and their moves ended up botched. The stuff that worked looked great, however.
Dimit Rating: 2.5/5
Becky Lynch vs. Charlotte Flair (c) (w/ Ric Flair)
Divas Championship Match
This match actually had one of the better buildups going into the Royal Rumble. Charlotte is steadying into a heel turn instead of it happening in one night. Becky Lynch had been delivering some excellent baby face promos while Ric Flair has been helping Charlotte develop into a better character. They had a strong, physical match that the live crowd reacted well to. The crowd was behind Becky Lynch and wanted to see her win. This match was just getting going into a higher gear when shenanigans with Ric Flair started. First, Flair planted a kiss on Becky Lynch that allowed Charlotte to gain the upper hand. When Becky took over again in an arm bar, Ric Flair threw his overcoat on Becky and covered her head with it, allowing Charlotte to get a dirty win. Charlotte and Ric continued to mess with Becky when Sasha Banks music hits to a huge pop from the crowd, up there with Brock Lesnar’s from later in the night. Sasha returns to save her friend and set up the next feud for Charlotte. Hopefully Becky stays in the mix.
Dimit Rating: 3/5
30 Man Royal Rumble Match
WWE World Heavyweight Championship
Main event time. There were a few things I wanted to see in this match, the first being AJ Styles. Rumors had been abuzz for a couple of weeks how AJ Styles had left New Japan Pro Wrestling (after a phenomenal match with Shinsuke Nakamura earlier in the month) and was heading to WWE. This news came about as a shock in the wrestling world and it seemingly came out of the blue. Rumors developed and AJ basically had his WWE debut set for the Rumble. AJ was a solid hand in his TNA tenure, but developed into a big name superstar in the last couple years in New Japan. Seeing him jump ship to WWE was big news, and to have him possibly debut in the Rumble was even bigger news. Almost every single new WWE grapler reports straight to NXT for at least several months, so for AJ to skip that step entirely and debut straight onto the main roster is a huge leap for WWE and how they treat debuting wrestlers. Now with all of that set into play, the question was how was AJ going to debut in the match, and what was going to happen with him? Would WWE treat him like a star or just another small indie wrestler?
The second thing I was anticipating was what the WWE would do with Brock Lesnar. Brock pretty much had to either win the match and win the title, or get screwed by his opponent for Wrestlemania.
Besides Brock and AJ Styles, the Rumble is always a good time for wrestlers to make surprise returns, since the 30 man lineup isn’t announced ahead of time. If there was ever a good time for Randy Orton or Daniel Bryan to come back from injury, it would be in the Rumble.
I also was intrigued by what they would do with the WWE Championship. Would Roman Reigns get eliminated early, opening up tons of possibilities for a new champion or would he get tossed at the very end? How many odds would he overcome as he takes over John Cena’s throne as the WWE’s chosen golden boy? Triple H was also obviously coming back tonight, but how would he play into the match? This match would set the course for the direction to Wrestlemania, so stakes were high.
Roman Reigns came out first to a chorus of booing from the crowd. The Rumble crowd for the last couple of years has been very smarky and they know what’s going on behind the scenes. Roman won the Rumble last year and the same crowd booed him out of the building, even with an appearance from The Rock. Anticipation built as the countdown clock counted down the number 2 entrant. Rusev came out at number 2 and got tossed out like a geek by Roman fairly quickly.
Number 3 hit and some unfamiliar theme music played. It took a moment for the crowd to realize who was coming out and soon realized that it was of course, AJ Styles. This crowd popped big time. Wrestling fans had been unsure if WWE crowds would recognize and appreciate who and what AJ Styles is and within seconds that question was answered.
Here’s some fan footage from his debut:
To me it sounds like the crowd erupts twice. Once when the Titantron says “Phenomenal” (AJ’s nickname) and they figure out who’s coming out and once again when he actually comes out from behind the curtain.
Needless to say, it worked and the crowd helped sell his debut as a huge star coming into WWE. I’ve watched his entrance over 20 times and still get goosebumps.
A few lesser-billed wrestlers came in next, then Chris Jericho entered. Fans were excited to see him face off with AJ Styles. Kane, Kofi Kingston and Ryback entered up next as the rumble started to get rolling about 10 minutes in. R Truth had a genuinely hilarious moment as he sprints down the ramp, grabs a ladder as if he was in a ladder match, only to realize he’s not.
That’s his gimmick as of late, confused old guy. Little bits of continuity like this make it appear like the WWE put more thought into laying out this Rumble than they have in years past.
Roman soon gets pulled out of the ring (under the ropes =/= not eliminated) and ganged up on by the heel group, “The League of Nations.” They’re foreigners, you see.
Rusev flattens him through a table.
Doctors come out to stretcher Roman out of the arena but Roman powers through it to walk to the back on his own. Pretty lame to have your top babyface just leave the match to take a breather, instead of having him fight through the match as a valiant hero. It was obvious that he’d be back later.
Two members of the Wyatt Family come out and Braun Strowman, the WWE’s new resident giant manages to eliminate Kane and The Big Show. Impressive enough since Kane and Big Show dominated the Rumble last year.
Kevin Owens comes out hobbling on one leg, selling the damage he took from the match with Dean Ambrose earlier in the night. Owens immediately goes after AJ Styles and after some back and forth manages to eliminate him. The crowd boos Owens relentlessly, but AJ had a great showing for his debut and since AJ had to get eliminated, Owens was the best choice to do it since he should be a top villain in the WWE world and have the heat from Styles directed at him. Ambrose came out next, also selling the match with Owens and goes after him for revenge.
Sami Zayn entered as a surprise entrant from NXT. The camera cut to Kevin Owens and he looked like he had seen a ghost, similar to how Stone Cold Steve Austin looked when Bret Hart came out in the ’97 Rumble. Zayn had just returned to NXT after an injury and this was another tease from WWE that he would be heading to the main roster soon. Zayn gets comeuppance for Styles getting thrown out as he manages to eliminate Kevin Owens, reigniting their classic feud. Ambrose and Zayn coming out in succession also helped keep the crowd from deflating after AJ Styles had been eliminated. ¾ of the Wyatt Family were soon dominating the match eliminating Sami Zayn and a few other fan favorites.
Brock Lesnar made a big entrance and immediately went to work suplexing the Wyatts around and manages to eliminate the rest of the Wyatt Family, until the leader, Bray Wyatt enters the match. Bray summons his cronies back into the ring and all 4 men gang up on Lesnar to throw him out, another huge deflation for the crowd. WWE mainstays Dolph Ziggler, The Miz, Sheamus all make their entrance as we get closer to #30, the final entrant.
Roman Reigns makes his grand return as the number of Rumble participants dwindle down. #30 hits and out comes Triple H, this year’s final boss of WWE. Triple H and Bray Wyatt had a stare down that could lead to something down the road. Triple H beats up Dolph Ziggler and throws him out. Bray and Chris Jericho gets eliminated and we’re down to Sheamus, Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose and Triple H. Reigns eliminates Sheamus and Triple H eliminates Roman Reigns. The crowd cheers because they’re going to see a new champion, and since Roman Reigns isn’t winning tonight. Triple H and Dean Ambrose are the final two and Ambrose gets a few hope spots in, almost fooling the crowd into thinking he may have had a chance. Triple H finally eliminates Ambrose to win the match, and the championship.
Dimit Rating: 4/5
46 year old Triple H, the legitimate Executive Vice President of the WWE is now the champion and set to feud with Roman Reigns heading into Wrestlemania. Clearly, Roman Reigns will get his big championship coronation ceremony at Wrestlemania by defeating Triple H, as to be expected. A fairly predictable outcome for the next few months, however there is plenty else going on now for WWE to hold my interests.
Kevin Owens looked like a monster in this show. He goes through a brutal match with Dean Ambrose, eliminates new fan favorite AJ Styles, and picks up his feud again with Sami Zayn. Zayn and Owens came up through the indies together and to have their first rumble in the company with each other must have been a cathartic moment for these guys. He could have any number of directions to go from here and I like all of his options.
WWE managed to make AJ Styles debut a huge moment and hopefully they keep up his momentum going into Wrestlemania. He’s a great shot in the arm for star power that WWE desperately needed.
Bray Wyatt and Brock Lesnar is something I will admit I’m not high on. With all of the injuries and depletions to the roster, Brock’s options for a Wrestlemania dance partner were limited, but 1 Brock vs 4 Wyatts could have enough smoke and mirrors to be entertaining.
Most importantly what came out of tonight was that WWE managed to make the Royal Rumble fun again. It’s one of the best match types they can put on with their form of entertainment and they had managed to make the last few Rumble matches dull and uninspired. This year WWE kept the excitement level consistent. When AJ Styles got eliminated, out came Sami Zayn and Dean Ambrose. When Sami Zayn got eliminated, out came Brock Lesnar. When Lesnar got eliminated, out came Roman and Triple H for the finish of the match. Previous Rumbles had long lulls of lesser-billed wrestlers coming out to kill time until the next event happened. This year they kept the pace up and made the entire match fun to watch front to back. The right guy won for the crowd and the show didn’t go off the air with the fans voicing their displeasure.
Hopefully WWE keeps this up through Wrestlemania in April. They’re struggling with a lack of main event players but if they can keep up what they did tonight then we’re in good shape. Overall the Royal Rumble was a solid show from beginning to end and I’m willing to drink the WWE Kool-Aid for a while.
by Nate Dimit (@ndimit)