There were many questions waiting to be answered at the Royal Rumble on Sunday. Who would win? Could Roman Reigns go the distance? Who would show up and surprise everyone? While those are all good questions, the biggest one on my mind was if World Wrestling Entertainment would once again leave their crowd feeling angry and disappointed for the third year in a row?
In 2014, the Royal Rumble match gave us our first idea that WWE did not know what their fans wanted. Since his return in January of that year Batista was slated to become the main event player for WrestleMania 30. Big Dave had recently filmed Guardians of the Galaxy and was set to become a movie star. For the past two WrestleManias, WWE had put The Rock back into the main event picture with an overall positive reaction. There were two things that WWE either failed to recognize or chose to ignore. The first being that Dwayne Johnson was a much, much bigger Hollywood star than the Animal, and that while WWE had made Batista their chosen one in January, the WWE Universe had made someone else their chosen one back in August of the previous year. That someone was Daniel Bryan.
After an incredible undercard contest with Bray Wyatt, fans waited anxiously for Bryan to make his way into the Rumble match. As entrant after entrant made their way to the ring, fans became more and more restless. When Rey Mysterio made his entrance at number 30, the normally beloved Mysterio was showered with hate filled jeers. The WWE Universe was sending the brass a message that Rey wasn’t the guy they wanted to see. In fact, none of the guys in the ring were the ones they wanted to see. They wanted Daniel Bryan, and WWE refusing to give it to them unleashed a rage among a very vocal group of fans who began the #CancelWWENetwork movement in protest. By the end of the match, the only refuge the fans could cling to was the possibility of SHIELD badass Roman Reigns, who had just broken Kane’s record for most eliminations in a single Rumble match. Fans cheered Reigns like he was their only hope. At that moment in time, they would have given anything for him to win the Rumble match.
The Difference a Year Makes
In 2015, there was a dark cloud hanging over the Royal Rumble, as everyone was hoping that last year’s abysmal reaction would be rectified. The hope was that WWE would learn from their sins of the past and put on a rumble match good enough to make people forget about 2014’s disaster and cleanse our palettes of the awful taste left in our mouths by Batista and the exclusion of Daniel Bryan.
Not only did WWE fail to improve on the Rumble match from the year prior, but the 2015 edition was even worse. While last year the WWE Universe would have been overjoyed to see Roman Reigns win the Rumble over Batista and headline WrestleMania, by January 2015 things had changed. WWE took the fans reaction to heart and made him their chosen one, but in doing so, they unravelled all the hard work Reigns had done to become so popular. The biggest mistake was not in making Reigns the chosen one, it was in making him WWE’s chosen one. The fans began to see a different Roman Reigns, a Reigns that was not aligned with the Authority, but had become a corporate sellout anyway. He was no longer a quiet badass who tore through opponents and fought for justice. Now, he was trying to crack wise and found himself in peril far more than he should. He was a square peg being shoved into a round hole, and nowhere was this on display more than the 2015 Royal Rumble.
Reigns was booed the moment he walked down the arena steps, and it didn’t stop for the rest of the night. Even if you were a fan of Roman Reigns, this one match gave you all the fuel needed to turn on him. In 2014, Roman was eliminating foes left and right. In 2015 he spent most of the match slumped over in a corner, or getting beat up. All the while, Kane and the Big Show, two aging stars who no one expected to win, were now the bad ass monsters, tossing out every fan favourite in sight, adding more fuel to the fire of the ever increasingly angry crowd. That should have been Reigns reminding people why they loved him in the first place. Instead he was made to look like a chump. Even worse, WWE had what they thought would be an ace up their sleeve in the Rock, Roman’s legitimate blood cousin. When Reigns was getting beat up by the Big Show and Kane, the Rock came out to save his cousin while simultaneously endorsing him. The crowd saw right through it and booed the Rock back to Hollywood. Once again the WWE Universe was sending a message that Vince McMahon had given them what they didn’t want, and once again what they wanted was Daniel Bryan.
The other big problem WWE faced that year was the returning leader of the YES movement, who had been out for months with an injury. WWE learned their mistake from last year and decided to include him in the Rumble match, but forgot that fans didn’t just want to see Bryan in the Rumble, they wanted to see him win. Bryan entered early to thunderous cheers. It was obvious that he was the fan’s chosen one. It was even more obvious when Bryan was unceremoniously knocked off by Bray Wyatt and the crowd completely died. They lost interest and grew quiet, but after the realization set in that they had been screwed over again, the quiet disappointment was replaced with furious anger. Anger that was directed squarely at Roman Reigns. By the end of the night, all of WWE’s attempts to fix the Rumble match from last year had blown up in their face and they were 0-2 in the Reality Era.
Third Times the Charm?
Heading into the Royal Rumble this year, I wondered if we would get more of the same from both WWE and the crowd. Those in attendance were hot from the get go, reacting loudly in the way you would hope. They were clearly enjoying themselves from the pre show fatal four way tag team match, all the way through to when Lilian Garcia announced that it was time for the Rumble match to begin. I paid close attention to the crowd when WWE World Heavyweight Champion Roman Reigns entered from the crowd at number one. While there was certainly more support for him this year than the year before, the majority of the crowd was clearly against him. This was not a good sign, but WWE had a huge surprise to keep the fans from booing for an hour straight.
After disposing of Rusev in quick order to the dismay of those in the audience, the crowd became unglued when the number three entrant was the debuting AJ Styles. Fans had been dreaming of AJ Styles being in WWE for years, so he received a hero’s welcome. Fans definitely knew who he was, and if you were watching at home and didn’t, at least you knew he was a big deal. AJ Styles chants were heard throughout the near 30 minutes that the former Bullet Club member was in the match, until Kevin Owens tossed him out to a shower of hatred from the crowd, which Owens sucked up like a true villain. It was the highlight of the match for me. I remember thinking that WWE had made a real smart move with Styles. They gave the WWE Universe a big surprise early on, had him last a considerable amount of time, had him tossed by a major heel that added to their heat at the same time, and got him out of the way early enough that fans could maybe rally behind Reigns at the end. By the end of the night, I would change my position on that thought.
What about Roman Reigns? What was he off doing while newcomer Styles was busting his tail in the ring? Was he fighting for his life and championship alongside the young pup trying to keep up the big dog? No, he was in the back, catching his breath for the last ten minutes of the match. Earlier on, Vince McMahon had the League of Nations attack Reigns, put him through a table, and had medics come out and check on him. This was a trick they used in the 1999 Rumble match with Stone Cold Steve Austin. The difference of course is that Austin was super over enough to leave for the majority of the match and still some back to a huge reaction. Reigns, was not. In fact, when he did come back, Reigns was booed louder than ever before, and who could blame the fans by this point. Reigns wasn’t even carted out by paramedics, he left under his own power. How can we buy into him as a badass if he chooses to walk away, then come back at the end? That’s a trick Jerry Lawler would pull in the 90’s, not something we should be seeing from the man who represents us as a warrior champion.
While we’re on the subject of badass warriors made to look like chumps, one of the bigger stars involved with this year’s Rumble was Brock Lesnar. In the weeks leading up to the Rumble, it was made clear that the Wyatt Family was out to not only win the Rumble, but destroy the Beast Incarnate in the process. By the time we reached entrant number 23, three of the four Wyatt Family members were in the ring, wreaking havoc. It was time for the conqueror to clean house, except that’s not what happened. Instead, he beat people up and toyed with the Wyatts. That’s fine and good, it even came back to haunt him later when he was tossed by the Wyatts. That’s fine too, as I was looking forward to the destruction of Brock getting angry and decimating everyone in the ring like we’ve seen him do time and time again. Instead, what did the Beast Incarnate do? He looked sad and walked away. Brock Lesnar has demonstrated on multiple occasions that when he is wronged, he not only gets mad but he gets even in as vicious a way possible. Did someone neuter the barbarian before he came to the ring? The answer is yes, and the guilty party is WWE.
So, how did it all end? Did the WWE come back from those missteps and give the fans what they want? The answer is both yes and no. Let’s start from the return of Roman Reigns just after Sheamus arrived at number 29. Reigns came in a house of fire after a nice 20 minute break, but his momentum was extinguished by the arrival of the final entrant, Triple H. The game was a surprise entrant who had not been seen since Roman destroyed him in the aftermath of the TLC event. A showdown between the two was eminent and came at the cost of both Dolph Ziggler and Bray Wyatt’s credibility. It was assumed that in the end we would get an epic showdown between good and evil. To everyone’s surprise, Reigns was eliminated by Triple H second to last, causing the crowd to roar its approval, and leaving the game alone with Intercontinental Champion Dean Ambrose. After a quick struggle, the Lunatic Fringe of WWE was tossed over the ropes and Triple H was crowed the new WWE World Heavyweight Champion while the crowd cheered loudly. They did it! They finally managed to break the curse and remove the black cloud of negativity hanging over the Rumble! In the mind of the WWE, I’m sure they saw Sunday as a victory. The sad truth is, they had failed again, by making the same mistake they had for the past two years prior.
I already talked about how taking your two biggest dogs and turning them into puppies ruins believability in their character. We know how WWE should have handled both Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar in that Rumble, but didn’t. Sadly, there is a bigger issue at play here, and it all comes down to the final two men in the Royal Rumble, Dean Ambrose and Triple H. As good as he is, Dean Ambrose had no business being at the end of the Rumble. Standing across the ring from Triple H, no one believed for a second that he would win. The moment Reigns was tossed out, the match was over. So if Ambrose wasn’t the right choice, and both reigns and Brock had been neutered, who could have possibly been the right choice for that spot? The answer is AJ Styles.
Earlier I said that I would come to change my tune on how Styles was booked during this Rumble match. It is obvious to me now that AJ Styles should have been one of the guys at the end. By putting him there and having him go almost bell to bell in his debut, WWE would have made a brand new superstar in less than one hour. If fans were going to go nuts for someone and cheer them over Reigns, then why not have it come down to Styles and the guy who you are trying to put over as your new heel champion? Dean Ambrose is popular, but after eliminating Reigns, Triple H became WWE’s top baby face. If he turned around and then robbed fans the chance to see something truly special in a known popular star from another company swoop in and shock the world by winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship on his first night, fans would have been booing at the end of the night, but it would’ve been for the right reason.
WWE might have been happy to hear something other than vicious hatred after the final bell had been rung, but those cheers were an illusion of satisfaction. Triple H was a hero because he eliminated Roman Reigns. Anyone who did that would’ve become the top baby face in the company, which is why it was a mistake to put Triple H at the end of the match too. While I still think having someone rob AJ Styles at the end of the night would have been the way to go, Triple H was not that guy. Bray Wyatt was. Sure, Wyatt may still be very popular among the WWE fans, but having him rob Styles and fans of the moment mentioned above would have generated some massive heat for the eater of worlds. It would have also setup a fascinating main event for WrestleMania with Bray Wyatt vs Brock Lesnar. AJ Styles could have benefitted from this too. With things going his way, why not have the other members of the Wyatt Family attack Styles and help Bray eliminate him in despicable fashion? Now you have a built in feud for AJ heading out of the Rumble with the Wyatts, and if he needs help taking on 3 of the backwoods cult followers heading into WrestleMania, I’m pretty sure he knows a pair of guys that are used to fighting alongside him that he could call up.
The Reason WWE Keeps Failing at the Royal Rumble
So, why not go these routes when the opportunity was clearly presented? If a fan writer like myself can clearly see the path they had, why couldn’t WWE? The truth of the matter is, of course WWE could see that path, and probably 50 others that might have been better than the one they chose on Sunday, but WWE did what WWE has done for over a decade at the Royal Rumble and played it safe.
One of the reasons fans were looking forward to the Rumble this year was the added element of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship being on the line. It was a gimmick, but at least it offered the idea of new possibilities and something fresh. The Royal Rumble has been anywhere from good to abominable in the last decade or so, and the reason for that has been predictability and WWE always playing it safe. If this has been a problem for so long, why did fans have such a vitriolic reaction in 2014 and 2015? The answer is that WWE has fallen behind the times. WWE is no longer competing with Ted Turner and World Championship Wrestling. Now they compete with the Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Netflix, the internet, and a number of other shows and formats that have taken entertainment to a higher level in the last decade. The quality of programing is so good because it has to be. The same old same old just doesn’t cut it anymore. You need to surprise your audience and give them a reason to come back. You have to take risks. Ironically, WWE needs to look to their past to ensure their success in the future. In 1997, Vince McMahon infamously called a meeting of his staff and admitted that he no longer knew what the audience wanted. Losing ground to WCW in the Monday Night War was a wake up call that created the Attitude Era, and the wrestling boom of the 90’s. The 2014 Rumble should have been the catalyst for another wake up call that Vince and his team were out of touch and needed to take some risks. Instead, it was the definition of insanity. Doing the same thing with the hope of a different result.
WWE thought Batista was the safe way to go in 2014. He’s a name and a movie star, just like the Rock. We know it will work because it has worked in the past. WWE thought Roman Reigns was the safe way to go in 2015. They cheered him like mad last year. Clearly he was the guy they wanted, so we’ll give them what they want! They don’t want a super hero like John Cena, so let’s make him vulnerable and sympathetic. It’s the tried and true formula.
We got the same thing this year. Triple H is a star and he’s been champion before so we know he can handle the pressure of being champion heading into Mania. He can carry a program with Reigns, who obviously needs some help right now, but we would still like him to be a top guy, so putting the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in there means it’s a top guy feud. Triple H is reliable; he won’t let us down or fail us. He is the safe bet heading into the most important time of the year. He’s safe. He’s boring. He’s predictable. Just like the Royal Rumble match