January 25, 2016 by Joey Keogh
Sometimes the least exciting prospects provide the best results. Sometimes, but not very often, our faith is rewarded. And sometimes it doesn’t matter who wins just as long as it isn’t Roman fucking Reigns. This year’s Royal Rumble was perhaps the least-anticipated of its kind in recent memory. Thanks to a change in stipulation for the titular match, the PPV became more about the golden boy retaining his championship than some lucky sod getting a Wrestlemania shot. Everything looked set in stone already but, thankfully, the WWE managed to keep a few tricks up its sleeve to ensure we went away from the first event of the year content, if not exactly jumping for joy.
We kicked things off in the usual fashion with the Kick-Off show. Jerry Lawler and Byron Saxton switched positions so the former took part in the experts panel on the pre-show while the latter called the actual show itself. The advantage to this was we didn’t have to listen to Lawler making crude comments during what was one of the best women’s matches in recent memory. The downside was we had to suffer through his inane Dad jokes for an entire hour before the show even began. Add to this a bizarre social media lounge with the Social Outcasts, a predictably rousing Kevin Owens promo and the League Of Nations backstage acting like SPECTRE.
Mark Henry and Jack Swagger won the fatal four-way, the highlight of which was old-school Damien Sandow, who made a case for himself as (hopefully) one to watch again in future. Keeping in mind that Kevin Owens and Dean Ambrose were two of the hottest prospects for the Rumble itself, their IC title match was up first, starting the show off well with a proper Last Man Standing match, in which both competitors tried to literally incapacitate the other for a shot at the belt. The intercontinental title has gained serious prominence thanks to this lively feud, and tonight Owens and Ambrose fought for it like it was the goddamn world heavyweight championship – and rightly so.
Tables were stacked high, heads were wrapped in steel chairs and the action was predominantly limited to hand-to-hand combat, which is a terrifically old-school method of doing things that is sadly rare these days. Proud scruffs Owens and Ambrose are very well-suited to this style of wrestling, of course, and we’d easily take thirty minutes of them beating the living shit out of each other rather than ten spent listening to Reigns flub his lines or delivering yet another match-ending Superman punch. Ambrose retained the title, but when the quality is this high, it doesn’t really matter who wins. Long live this feud, and the prestige it lends the struggling IC title, too.
Speaking of fledgling titles, The Usos are back in the tag team race to remind us that those dudes who stuffed the smaller kids into lockers back in high school grew up to be even more obnoxious and dumb – and still acting out as a result. Simply being related to The Rock does not a great tag team make and, tonight, the brothers dim proved that the division was doing just fine in their absence. Thankfully, they have in their opponents the single most fun element to the WWE in years, the incomparable New Day who kick things off by mourning the loss of their dearly-departed trombone with a minute of silence. “Francesca”s replacement is then unveiled as the booty-shakers set about decimating the meathead jocks.
As tag team bouts go, this one is diverting enough. There are some cool spots, provided mostly by Kofi Kingston, while Xavier Woods provides colour commentary from the sidelines, drowning out the mindless marketing babble spouted on the regular by Cole, JBL and a perma-grinning Saxton, who can’t believe his luck getting to call this shit. A Splash by Big E sets the win in motion for the current champs, practically killing Jey, but his bro Jimmy repays him in kind with a gnarly Samoan Drop. Fittingly, it’s a Big Ending that seals the deal for The New Day, making them the second retaining champs of the night, much to everyone’s delight.
There are a number of weird backstage promos interspersed throughout the show tonight, all of which would be better suited to RAW. The first, which sees Vince and Steph heeling it up while drawing attention to poor Jojo’s diminutive size, actually opens the show. Another features The Wyatt Family and some heavy-handed metaphors relating to the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse. It’s out of place, but it feeds into the idea that the biggest freak on the roster might win the title tonight, something that was first introduced on the go-shome show for the Rumble and which feels horribly, tantalisingly within reach if only Reigns wasn’t McMahon’s little pet project.
Up next, the US championship is given short shrift in a botch-heavy, and ultimately quite dull, match featuring Alberto Del Rio and Kalisto. The latter actually ends up stealing the title, in a moment that should feel bigger than it does. Hopefully, given some time to fester, theirs might feel like a real feud and the title a proper prize to be won. Elsewhere, Paul Heyman shows up to discuss his client Brock Lesnar‘s current contract with the company. The boss-lady not-so-subtly implies that once Reigns is taken care of, Lesnar will be too. The beast doesn’t really need an extra push, so this segment kind of feels like filler, but any excuse for Heyman to show up.
The Divas championship match follows, with ex-BFFs Charlotte and Becky Lynch duking it out in a 15-minute time slot that could’ve been twice as long if it wasn’t for all the goddamn numbers promos that are deemed necessary to put this PPV over while we’re already watching it. Their feud has been well-built over the past few months, and regardless of whether this match turned out to be crap (it doesn’t), it’s still nice to see a proper women’s bout for a real reason – and not a Total Diva in sight, either. There’s a ton of mat-based combat to enjoy here, the atmosphere very tough and palatable throughout.
There’s no bullshit, this is just two women beating the living shit out of each other in order to prove who’s best. Great spots follow great spots with a succession of clotheslines, neckbreakers, backbreakers, leg drops and even a super-cool pump handle Suplex courtesy of Becky taking the action further, and making the fans louder, than at any other stage tonight. There are so many counters, so many near falls, that it’s almost impossible to predict who will emerge victorious. In the end, the devious Ric Flair distracts Becky long enough for his daughter to take advantage and win with a Spear, retaining the title for another night.
Then, just when we think it couldn’t get any better, none other than Sasha Banks makes her triumphant return to the ring, knocking both women out before staking a claim for the title, furthering the feud while simultaneously adding another layer to it. The impact of this match cannot be understated; it proves yet again that fans will respond to women’s wrestling if it’s handled properly, that they’ll cheer and support female athletes once they’re given the chance to show off what they can do and that they don’t just want Eva Marie in latex promoting the fucking Fastlane PPV. Simply put, we need more of this, sooner rather than later.
And with that, the Main Event is upon us. Will Reigns emerge victorious? Will there be any surprise entrants, heel/face turns or new allegiances formed? In spite of all evidence to the contrary, this year’s Royal Rumble itself was a lot of fun. Not life-changing, by any stretch of the imagination, but it wasn’t the massive, earth-shattering disappointment most of us expected it to be. For starters, none other than AJ Styles made his WWE début as entrant #3. And, although he only lasted about a half hour, he made his mark in a big way – even if the cameras consistently darted away from the in-ring action to catch an “injured” Reigns on the sidelines.
Aside from Styles; Ambrose, Owens, Sami Zayn(!) and The Wyatt Family all showed off what they can do, while Chris Jericho lasted longer than he had any right to and poor R-Truth rushed to set up a ladder, mistakenly believing he was taking part in the Money In The Bank. The crowd responded negatively to Reigns’ predictable late re-entry, particularly when Wyatt went out ahead of him. Even Lesnar ended up on the wrong side of the ropes after putting on an impressive display by Suplexing everyone in sight. It was left to #30, Triple H, to get rid of the Superman and, somewhat shockingly, he did, leaving it to Ambrose to stand as the final obstacle to the title.
Naturally, the weird, greasy one was never winning the belt that easily, but it was still much more entertaining to see Ambrose and Trips duke it out than Reigns, even if the outcome seemed obvious. If rumours are to be believed, it’s Reigns vs. Trips at Wrestlemania, which means we’ve got another month or so of his pretend-underdog shtick to suffer through before the big event is upon us. Hopefully something happens between now and then to throw a spanner in the works but, in the meantime, it’s enough to see Reigns not win for once. Even if he did lose to someone who probably never should’ve been in the running in the first place (’cause he’s taking a younger guy’s spot).
But, hell, anyone but Roman, right?