Saturday, January 28, 2017

WWE Royal Rumble -- 5 Matches To Watch And Prepare For The 30th Annual Royal Rumble

The 30th Annual Royal Rumble is tomorrow and it's the first time in about six or seven years that I've been truly excited for it, which is too bad, because it's an amazing show (third biggest of the year, I think Summerslam is more popular) and an important show, as we get to see what everyone's trajectory is for WrestleMania, the biggest show of the year.

The problem with the last four Rumbles is that we could all see who was winning from a mile away. There were no surprises, and there was no excitement. Keep in mind, you don't need both to have a good match or show. You can be unpredictable, but the twist has to be solid and the pay-off may be hit or miss. Or you can have a very predictable story with familiar beats, but the storytellers responsible for selling it are great storytellers and they will make the pay-off worth it.
WWE tends to suffer from two problems with the former situation: their incredibly convoluted mystery storylines peter out and lead to terrible conclusions, or they think they are being completely fresh and unpredictable, when like I said their endings are telegraphed months in advance.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a largely predictable ending. But giving us no other possibilities or sacrificing character and coherency makes it bad. Last year, it was exciting to see Triple H return and actually win, but we knew the only story that was being told was Reigns vs. Trips for WrestleMania. The year before was everyone being slaughtered and character assassinated simply to make Reigns look like a deserving winner. It was poorly executed. As soon as Batista returned, it was obvious who was winning in 2014. And as soon as Cena entered the Rumble in 2013 after losing to The Rock at WrestleMania the year before (plus Rock going into a title match the same night of the Rumble) we all knew who was winning.

The problem before that was that the rosters were incredibly thin, limiting options. Jericho was the likely (and rightful) winner of 2012's and the fact that there really wasn't a viable option outside of that (plus Sheamus being the eventual winner) speaks to that. The 2011 Rumble is 40-people deep, but that still feels like they're pushing it. Nothing truly exciting comes from the '11 Rumble.

One thing to keep in mind is that the card for the Rumble night also features other matches, and likely at least one or two titles being defended. It's not often people will pull double-duty for a match that night and the Rumble, though people have done it.
But basically, if you're looking at the undercard and thinking, "Who's left for the Rumble?" that's a bad sign.

This year, we don't have that problem, and it's truly the most unpredictable the Rumble's been in years. Like I said, probably since 2010. Of course, as soon as Edge made a surprise return, we all knew he was gonna win. But up until then, I would've been harder-pressed to tell you who was winning that Rumble. There's definitely some good stuff in the title matches and the rest of the card: Styles/Cena is going to be an epic clash, and I'm frankly more excited about it than I am Reigns/Owens, which is likely not to disappoint either. Plus, I'm sure there's some hilarious lines forthcoming from Jericho who will be suspended above the ring in a shark cage. (Wow, are we in the late 90s again all of a sudden?) Charlotte and Bayley are fighting for the RAW Women's Championship, and the Smackdown women also have a multi-man tag match on the card, as well as Sasha and Nia Jax. Cesaro and Sheamus are set to pull double-duty, defending the RAW tag belts against Gallows and Anderson (who may also pull double duty). Neville and Rich Swann are fighting for the Cruiserweight title. Twenty-two of the spots are filled in already:

Xavier Woods of the New Day, Baron Corbin (who is already the third winner of the annual Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royale), Enzo's partner Big Cass, and The Hype Bros' Mojo Rawley all enter their first Royal Rumble this year.
Eternal underdog Sami Zayn, giant dog Braun Strowman, and old dog Goldberg enter their second Rumbles.
Brock Lesnar (who won in 2002) and Big E are about to go in for a third time.
Dean Ambrose, Cesaro, Luke Harper, and Rusev all enter their fourth.
Bray Wyatt's in his fifth, Sheamus is in his sixth.
This will be Randy Orton's 8th (he won in '09), Kofi Kingston and Dolph Ziggler's 9th, Chris Jericho and The Miz's 10th, Undertaker's 11th (he won in '07), and Big Show's 12th.

Predicting the remaining eight spots is a bit unclear this year with the brand split, with NXT, and with how well WWE has been masking their booking this year.
Enzo Amore is a likely possibility, as well as Jinder Mahal. Heath Slater and Rhyno were both so popular they got the Smackdown tag titles first, and this would be a good place to re-introduce them after taking themselves out of title contention.
Speaking of the tag titles, the Smackdown titles don't have a spot on the card. They may be on the pre-show, or Shane may be holding them off the show to save them for the Elimination Chamber PPV which is just two weeks after the Rumble. Regardless, we may see the Champs American Alpha get some cross-brand exposure at the Rumble.

If these were the first six, that would leave two remaining spots for surprise entrants.
Finn Balor, the first Universal Champion on RAW, who has been out injured, has been cleared but has yet to be re-introduced to RAW. It's been quiet on his front the past few weeks, which may hint at his reappearance here at the Rumble, setting him on a path to take back what he lost, by challening whoever wins the Reigns/Owens match.
Also a possibility is NXT call-up Samoa Joe. The monster heel Joe doesn't have a spot on the card fro Takeover, so it's possible he makes his debut for the main roster at the Rumble. A free agent winning the Rumble has a lot of storytelling opportunity: the GM's and the commissioners would want a popular dominating force for their roster (if only to take it away from the other team) but the champions (especially if they're Owens and Styles, the heels who know Joe) they're not gonna want their title in contention with him.
Nakamura is also a possible NXT call-up but I think it's highly unlikely, as I think they're going to need him anchoring NXT a bit longer.
One name that is now ever-present of course is James Ellsworth. I'm not quite sure what he'd do in the Rumble, but his continued relevance on SmackDown Live and pairing with Carmella plus his campaigning for a spot seem to suggest the WWE isn't ready to let go of this weirdo with a dream quite yet.

Outside of NXT, there's the possibility of Triple H. We know Seth Rollins is no longer involved in the Rumble, after losing his spot to Sami Zayn on RAW. At the moment, he doesn't have a means into the match, but Triple H may insert himself into it, and Rollins is likely to come out and interfere with Trips' chances at winning, furthering their storyline heading into WrestleMania.
The other big name of course is Kurt Angle. Angle's been the WWE prodigal son for many years, and he was just recently announced as the headliner for their Hall of Fame 2017 class, and it immediately sparked rumors that he could have an impact on the Rumble, or at the very least a "one last match" sorta deal at WrestleMania. He's come out to deny those rumors, although who knows, when a wrestler has to address rumors, it's often pretty clear they're setting up a swerve. In this case, I would be surprised if he enters, I wouldn't be suprrised if he doesn't.

And of course, just to address all rumors, Kenny Omega's name has come up as a surprise entrant. He's coming off his greatest year in NJPW, after his rising star has put on caliber matches time and time again all over the world. He made it clear that he wants to be remembered as the guy who never went to WWE, but after a losing effort at WrestleKingdom against Okada, he's also stated that he's "weighing all his options." Again, like Angle, it could be smoke and mirrors, or who knows. I do know that Omega's appearance would be likened to AJ Styles' debut at last year's. Yet again, a "never thought we'd see it" kind of event. I think Omega's frankly not as well known as AJ Styles (personally, I've known Styles' work for years, Omega's only recently entered my radar in the last couple years) so I don't know how his reception would be if he were to debut, but I think the live crowd would be ecstatic.

And it's the most outlandish rumor, and one that I frankly don't know how to process properly, because his retirement was so emotional and sad. Daniel Bryan's name has come up recently. Between The Miz stealing his repertoire of moves, and their constant fighting over Miz's need to feel validated as a "true wrestler", and Daniel Bryan being absent from Talking Smack and leaving a lot of the talking segments to Shane O'Mac over the past month or so, the rumor has formed that they're trying to make us forget about Bryan a bit before surprising everyone and having him enter. Like I said, I think his injuries and risk are real, I think his retirement was serious, and I think there have been other reasons for him to take time off, but the Daniel Bryan fan in me is holding a very small candle of hope for this.

In regards to the winner, like I said, it's up in the air. There's a lot of possibilities. Sheamus, Orton, Undertaker, and Lesnar have all previously won the Rumble. And it has been the season of returning winners taking their second Rumble wins after a hiatus (Cena wins in '13, after previously winning in '08, then Batista in '14, after ultimately winning in '05, and Triple H in '16, after taking it in '02). Lesnar's win gap would equal Triple H's if he were to do it, but I don't think he will, because Lesnar/Goldberg is the goal for WrestleMania. Sheamus' first win was nothing to write home about so they seem unlikely to repeat that. Orton has a far more interesting story developing with the Wyatt family, although if they were to add a title to that eventual breakdown, then this could be the route that gets us to Bray's first ever championship reign. Maybe Orton wins the Rumble, Bray wins the championship in the Elimination Chamber, retains at WrestleMania to become a face? Undertaker has the intriguing win, because it's 10 years exactly since he last won. Maybe if he were champion, we'd see him hold on to the Championship til Wrestlemania where it's Undertaker VS. Cena, and Cena ties Ric Flair for championship reigns, while leaving WrestleMania as a heel for defeating The Undertaker?

Amongst the rest of the entrants, Goldberg also seems unlikely, I have a feeling Goldberg eliminates Lesnar somewhere in the middle, and Lesnar returns to cost Goldberg the win. I expect Baron Corbin to make a huge impact, like Kane in 2001 or Wyatt in '15, but I don't think he's going to win. The only other two names I can think of for strong possibilities are Braun Strowman, Cesaro, or Ambrose. Ambrose got very close last year, eliminated by the eventual winner Triple H, and stayed in contention for Road Block. It's an interesting story they've never really run with, that the runner-up seeks redemption and overcomes the next year. I'm not particularly interested in Ambrose/Styles again, but the prospect of the Elimination Chamber for their brand adds some unpredictablity to it (The Chamber featuring Styles, Ambrose, Cena, Corbin, Orton or Wyatt, and possibly Samoa Joe? Sign me up). Cesaro is top of the "least most unlikely to win" list, which includes Dolph Ziggler and Rusev. Should all be stronger contenders for winning, but I simply think they aren't. Strowman, having been booked as a monster all year, seems primed to dominate a Rumble which would be his specialty in all likelihood. We'll have to see where he falls in placement.

So there's a lot of reason to watch, based simply on the unpredictability of the match, as well as the prospects of how the title matches could turn out. The brand split again adds intrigue to the proceedings. That's hard to accomplish in the modern era of massive spoilers and rumor mills completely dominating the internet.

But in addition to that, there's some amazing talent on the roster, both rosters. And these five matches I want to recommend show off a lot of the talent that is going to be involved in tomorrow night's epic battle royale.

1.) Brock Lesnar VS. Goldberg, 
special guest referee Stone Cold Steve Austin -- WrestleMania XX

Wrestling fans will likely be questioning why I'm starting off with this turd of a match. But I think it's important to see, with one of the strongest storylines going into the Rumble itself being the rivalry of the Beast Incarnate and the returning master of the Spear, where everyone's collective memory left off with one Bill Goldberg.

This should have been an easy slam dunk of a match for WWE. Two money names, an epic clash at the 20th biggest show of all time, overseen by the biggest star of all time in Steve Austin. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. When the fans got word that both Lesnar and Goldberg were leaving right after this match for other career choices, suddenly the stakes were gone. And honestly, by this point, people weren't caring too much about the stakes of this match in the first place. The titles were being contested by hotter commodities Angle and Guerrero (who put on one of many amazing matches between the two), and the triple threat match of Michaels, Triple H, and Chris Benoit, which we can't talk about anymore. Even the Undertaker/Kane fight was billed as a main event over this. The match itself features two monsters trash-talking each other forever, so much so that Austin eventually has to encourage them to fight. Austin is more over than either man in the match and it really sucks to see. The crowd shits on the match the whole time, nothing remarkable happens, Goldberg wins to the boos of the crowd. Lesnar flips off the crowd before he bows out. Austin Stunners both men and has a beer with the audience as if he won. But we all lost.

I just want everyone to take in the crowd when Goldberg enters the match tomorrow night. It's going to be explosive. It's going to be thunderous. It's going to be as if this travesty wasn't the last thing we all so Goldberg do before he left. That's the beauty of wrestling, is how it keeps going, how everyone forgets everything for the next moment.

2.) AJ Styles VS. Baron Corbin VS. Dolph Ziggler 
for the WWE Championship -- The Wild Card Finals, SmackDown Live

Styles isn't likely to enter the Rumble this year as he's in a title match with Cena, but Corbin and Ziggler are both set to appear and this match showcases just how good they are: Ziggler at a perseverant face in peril, Corbin as the lone wolf, couldn't give two shits heel. Styles works the match injured, so the bulk of the match is left to Ziggler and Corbin. It's a fantastic show of talent, and I can't believe
it's from TV and not a PPV. See a match from two people who are likely to have a big impact on Sunday's proceedings.

3.) Samoa Joe VS. Finn Balor 
for the NXT Championship -- NXT Takeover: Dallas
As for two men who are speculated to have an impact on Sunday, I think it's only right to see how good these two are. This is my favorite defense for Balor, who fights a hard fight against challenger Joe. Joe gets cut open almost immediately and bleeds up a storm. The stop-and-start of the medics trying to clean him and close him up feels like a stopper to the momentum, but seeing just how badly he bleeds and his insistence on fighting through it adds to the intensity of the match. Suddenly you understand why it's an exciting idea that either (or both) could be involved in the Rumble tomorrow night.

4.) 5-on-5 SmackDown Live VS. RAW 
-- Survivor Series 2016
The match involves many of the major players in the Rumble as well as some other big names. It's an awesome exhibition of WWE's ability, when it wants to, to tell multiple interweaving (and sometimes conflicting) storylines in a single match. The over-arching stakes are bragging rights. RAW has already won two of the three brand vs. brand elimination matches for the evening. And their team of best friends Jericho and Owens, former friends Reigns and Seth, and mighty oak Braun Strowman, appear a much more cohesive team on the outset than SmackDown's. Luke Harper isn't quite trusting of Orton who has just joined the Family, and the fact that Orton is joining Wyatt in the match instead of Harper has him miffed. Styles and Ambrose are feuding over the belt by this time so it's unclear how much they can get along to win this match. Shane McMahon places himself into the match as well in a show of solidarity with "his guys." But that might put them at a disadvantage against a more seasoned team of wrestlers. There's some tension with Reigns and Seth trying to get along, as well as having former Shield-mate Ambrose on the other side. Same for the Wyatts, who are all in the SmackDown corner, but have to contend with the former family member Strowman who has their number. Also some tension is teased with Jericho wanting to be co-captain with Owens who isn't always as fit to lead the team. Of course, Stephanie McMahon threatens Team RAW's jobs if they don't deliver a win. Again, it's a captivating match to watch for how they manage to weave all these stories against each other. Plus, everyone works their asses off. For a non-prop match, this one's got some guts.

5.) The 20th Annual Royal Rumble 
-- San Antonio, TX

Ten years ago, the Royal Rumble was in the same place. The roster was split over three brands. There's a lot to be excited about in this match (but also, there's the vampire Kevin Thorn) with a lot of different acts: early going is Flair, until Kane comes in at 10. Some amazing choreography among the bigger stars. Orton, Benoit, and surprise entrant Van Dam enter back-to-back-to-back and as JR says, "Business picks up." Khali dominates the ring and practically empties it before Undertake makes his entrance at number 30. Orton and Edge put the beatdown on Undertaker before he and Michaels are left as the final two. They proceed to have a one-on-one that would be worthy of any main event spot. And the two Texas natives split the crowd and offer a nailbiter before Taker throws Michaels over after a failed Sweet Chin Music. It's a really crisp Rumble for how chaotic these affairs should be, and you'll at least be able to find the highlights on YouTube.

Bonus matches:
Since Lesnar/Goldberg is rather short and ineffectual, here's a couple extra ones, because I wanted them somewhere, but they didn't quite edge out these five.

Kurt Angle VS. Eddie Guerrero 
for the WWE Championship -- WrestleMania XX
I mentioned it earlier, but this is worth the watch. Angle is one of the most amazing performers ever, and there will never be an equal for the charisma of Eddie Guerrero. They put on a hell of a match here.

Sami Zayn VS. Cesaro VS. Kevin Owens VS. The Miz 
for the Intercontinental Championship -- Extreme Rules 2016
Extreme Rules has softened over the years. It's barely a B-show PPV anymore, more like a C-show. But last year's was great for two reasons: Styles and Reigns in the main event, and this match. Miz comes out on top, but not before some excellent wrestling from three other guys I consider the best. And The Miz was just breaking out on his very hot run with the IC title, one of the better heels to hold it in recent memory.

And that's it! Who are you betting on?