WWE went rolling right on through the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida, last night (Sun., Jan. 24, 2016) with Royal Rumble, its annual beginning of the year pay-per-view (PPV) extravaganza that officially kicks off the "Road to WrestleMania". This one didn't leave nearly the same sour taste of 2015.
It's all about the
game story, and how you play tell it
With the benefit of hindsight, this makes all the sense in the world, even if it wasn't exactly the thing I wanted to see happen. That's the biggest problem WWE is going to face coming out of this: No one is going to feel like this is a thing they ever wanted to begin with, which sucks because it's going to kill all the good will they built with Roman Reigns at TLC and the night after in Philadelphia.
But take a second to consider the story and how much sense it makes to "screw" him out of the title like this. He took Triple H out and "The Game" hasn't been seen since. He's been overcoming every obstacle along the way, which is fine, of course, but eventually there would have to come an obstacle big enough to at least knock him back a few steps.
Triple H wins the Royal Rumble
It's all about The Game, as we learned when he last eliminated both Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose to win the 2016 Royal Rumble in Orlando.
This is that obstacle.
The issue, of course, is pulling it off in front of a crowd that was seemingly desperate to boo Reigns for any reason or for no reason. This would take some creative planning and execution and, again, with the benefit of hindsight, I think they executed it about as well as they could, considering.
He was taken out of the ring and beaten down by The League of Nations, made to do a stretcher job (but refusing to be carried out, because you simply couldn't do that to your top star in this spot) to get him out of the majority of the match. This is a smart play because it minimizes his exposure while allowing other stories to play out, namely setting up a Brock Lesnar vs. The Wyatt Family program.
Sure, he got booed upon his return but that was undoubtedly expected and accounted for, which is why they had Triple H eliminate Reigns while Dean Ambrose was still in the match. That gave the fans the chance to shift their allegiance not to Triple H, necessarily, although he was cheered for throwing Roman out, but to Ambrose, the babyface Intercontinental champ. This also ensured that Triple H would be booed when he won.
Sure enough, Ambrose was the biggest babyface alive for the brief period he was in there alone with Triple H. They had about as good a back-and-forth as you'll get in a showdown between the final two in the Rumble, with a particularly great tease of Ambrose winning right at the end, done not to build Dean but to get heat on Triple H.
It worked. The entire thing worked.
Again, you can argue that you're sick and tired of the same old song and dance with WWE, what with the corporate overlords trying to hold down the babyface champion they don't want, and you'll get no argument there. That's a perfectly valid stance.
But that's the story they're telling, and this was the latest chapter, the one that sets up the big finale at WrestleMania 32.
This was done really well and a perfect example of the difference between "this was good" and "I liked this."
All about control, and if you can take it
There were a LOT of stories that played out in the Royal Rumble absent the main story but two of them are worth going completely mark insane over.
The first, of course, is AJ Styles making his debut despite TNA's best efforts to scare WWE away from doing it (allegedly). How they put that together is worth applause too considering they knew full well he was never going to win and the crowd was going to be 100-percent behind him doing so, especially while Reigns was still in the match.
AJ Styles debuts for WWE in the Royal Rumble
After a long career in TNA, Ring of Honor, New Japan, and beyond, AJ Styles finally made his way to WWE with a HUGE debut in the Royal Rumble match.
So they brought him in, let him hang with Reigns, and gave him a nice run, with two eliminations along the way. How they got him out of the match was especially great, using smark favorite Kevin Owens to run in, grab him, scream "WELCOME TO WWE" in his face, and then throw him out.
They followed this up with an even better turn by having Sami Zayn come out just an entrant later and get into a brawl with Owens before ultimately eliminating him. By the time this was all said and done, everyone was happy with how it all played out. A debuting babyface was tossed by a dickhead heel fans would actually boo (but secretly love) before said dickhead heel was tossed by the truest babyface you'll ever see.
AND they continued the Zayn-Owens rivalry with a tease that maybe, just maybe, we'll get these two at WrestleMania sooner rather than later.
They even booked Brock Lesnar's story well, having him come in and absolutely tear ass through everyone in the ring before he was overrun by the beef that is The Wyatt Family. It doesn't matter who you are, at some point that much beef is going to put you down.
That Lesnar never retaliated was a bit strange, and Wyatt going it alone the rest of the match was even stranger, but they set up the story coming out of this match and we're not going to nitpick it to death (at least not until we give out the Dumbest Ass award).
Last but not least, R-Truth thought he was in a ladder match and got eliminated for it. His bad! This one's on him.
All the best to all the rest
Charlotte vs. Becky Lynch: I find it really difficult to talk about this match outside of kayfabe, which is a credit to WWE for telling such a great story going into this match. That said, they failed miserably once they got here, which is super disappointing considering all the wonderful work before it. The match was good and the crowd was firmly behind Lynch, a testament to the work put in leading up to this. But the finish was AWFUL. Becky got the Disarmher but Ric Flair jumped up on the apron and threw his jacket over her face. She let it go to chase after him and Charlotte used the advantage to get an eye poke they didn't catch and a second spear for the pin. That's a garbage way to get to a finish here. Sure, the story has always been that Charlotte wins with help from dear old dad but at some point Becky IS just an idiot for playing into it. The only explanation that works is for her to reference earlier in the match when Ric "stole a kiss" from her -- read: sexually assaulted her -- and she was overcome with rage when he intervened later on. Also, this looks bad because there's no good reason for the referee not to toss Ric. Just bad storytelling all around. Again, unfortunate considering everything that went into it.
Sasha Banks returns: She got a MASSIVE pop and came out to push Becky out of the ring, I guess to keep it clear she's no babyface, while also attacking Charlotte, to make clear she's coming for the title. This was done well, with Sasha using some of Charlotte's tactics against her. They did great work together in NXT, and they should do great work again here. Two months is a long time in the Divas division but this makes me think Nikki Bella got bad news at her recent check up and Charlotte vs. Sasha is the WrestleMania program.
Kalisto vs. Alberto Del Rio: I don't really have anything to say about this, mostly because I don't really remember much of anything from it. The match was fine, and they have a certain chemistry that works well when they're on point. They may have been a bit sloppy but Del Rio is a good bully to Kalisto's underdog fighting from behind. The booking is the main focus coming out of it, with yet another title switch that makes no sense considering the game of hot potato they've played with the US strap. Everyone won and no one did.
The New Day vs. The Usos: Enjoyed the comedy before the match, not to mention the fact that New Day managed to get an entire crowd cheering for a trombone. The match was also good fun, as all Uso matches are, but it's nearly impossible to care about the outcome because they never make you care about the characters. It's just fun wrestling for the sake of fun wrestling. That's not a bad thing, but I'm never sure if it's a good thing either.
Dean Ambrose vs. Kevin Owens: This was outstanding in nearly every way. Matches like this require big spots that are hard to get to without being predictable while telling a good story but I'll be damned if they didn't pull off exactly that. Each big spot was a great lead-in to the next with previous failed attempts setting up even bigger spots later, including the finish. This was gimmickry done right with the right program to break it out for, though they could have done a better job with the story coming in. Still, fantastic work and probably the right booking decision pending future considerations.
I enjoyed the hell out of this show while it was happening and it gets better the more I think about it critically. The booking of the Divas title match was infuriating but even that will be fine in the days to come.
Photos via WWE.com