Hard Knocks and Cheap Pops – A Royal Rumble Rundown by Pop & Schlock

Last night was the 2016 WWE Royal Rumble. Now in its twenty-ninth year, the event has come to signify the beginning of the road to WrestleMania. A road paved with good intentions and lots of ambition, but full of potholes that the creative teams working behind the scenes at WWE are hell bent on hitting at full speed.

First things first, let’s run down the basics;

Dean Ambrose defeated Kevin Owens in what was clearly the match of the night. Owens is the best kind of heel and the work he put on with Ambrose was aggressive storytelling at its finest. Plenty of exciting spots, great chemistry between two guys who know how to deliver a solid match and they got the show off to a pretty damn good start.

Up next, everybody’s favorite unicorns, the New Day defeated the Usos to retain the tag team championships. The New Day have to be one of the best things the WWE has going for itself these days. They are next-level over and talented enough that nobody can begrudge them their success. I know the Usos are the slammy award winning team, however much that accounts for, but New Day have the natural charisma to keep a sinking show afloat simply by walking into frame. Not many other superstars in the history of WWE could pull that off.

Next we got the Alberto Del Rio v. Kalisto rematch for the United States championship whose ending was all but a forgone conclusion. Alberto Del Rio is an outstanding performer, and I like him as a heel. He simply hasn’t caught on the way that he should have following his return. He comes back to beat Cena clean for the title and then gets relegated to palling around with Sheamus of all people. At least they knew better than to keep him saddled with that MexAmerica gimmick. That was a dumpster fire that could have burned down a small city.

So Del Rio drops the title to Kalisto because the little luchadore is scoring well in all the right demographics despite being not altogether the smoothest performer in the ring, as evidenced by the numerous botched spots during the match. The commentary team, who themselves may be the most inept component of WWE at the moment, try to salvage it by throwing around the old “that’s why they call it high risk” routine but if a superstar’s entire repertoire is high risk, high flying daredevil stuff they better be able to make it look convincing.

And if we want to talk about not looking convincing, a good deal of the work in the Diva’s championship match fits the bill. I love me some Becky Lynch, and Charlotte is really working as a heel but something felt incredibly off about the pacing of their match at the Rumble. It felt clumsy and slapdash in a way I’m not used to when seeing these two ladies in the ring. The most convincing work of the whole segment came when Sasha Banks made her triumphant return to lay the smack down on both competitors and show the world that she’s in the title hunt.

Having recently gone back and tore through several months of NXT programming, the idea of Becky, Charlotte and Sasha working an angle together going into WrestleMania has me excited. Especially if we’re going to see a Bayley call-up to the big leagues around that same time. Hopefully the creative team putting all of this together has the good sense to allow for longer than four minutes of screen time per week for these ladies as we head down the road to Dallas.

Then we come to the rumble…

Roman Reigns enters at number one, the concept being that he must outlast twenty-nine other superstars in order to retain his WWE championship. His first opponent i Rusev, who shows signs of intermittent brilliance when not saddled with some sort of ill-conceived angle to work through. He is, not surprisingly, eliminated early after just over a minute in order to make Reigns look strong.

Then we get our third entrant, AJ goddamn Styles.

Let me talk about AJ Styles for a second. He could not have arrived at a better time. With Cena, Rollins, Orton, and so many of WWE’s big guns on the disabled list, bringing in someone like Styles is a sure-fire way to set up some dang interesting stuff headed into WrestleMania. Having just watched his stellar performance against Shinsuke Nakamura (who is rumored to make his own WWE debut in February) at WrestleKingdom 10 earlier this month after having lost track of him following his departure from TNA, I can think of several matches for the “Phenomenal One” at WrestleMania that could easily become match of the year contenders. Styles manages to last around thirty minutes before being eliminated by Kevin Owens, who is my personal pick for his opponent in Dallas.

The rumble does a number of things well this year and an equal number terribly. They have Reigns assaulted by Sheamus and his goon squad and carried backstage to sit out what was effectively the majority of the match only to return at the end to close the whole thing out. This really hurts the image of Reigns as the “Superman” they are trying to push him as. I understand the reasoning, both from a creative standpoint and an athletic standpoint. They know that having Reigns in the ring the whole time pulls focus from other storylines happening in a microcosm within the match itself. We would not have been able to get the show we got from Kevin Owens, who was followed immediately by Dean Ambrose leading to a continuation of their stellar work from the opening of the show. We would not have been able to linger on the work being put in by the Wyatt family in asserting their dominance and clashing with Brock Lesnar. These things necessitated focus being drawn away from Reigns for a time.

WWE shot themselves in the damn foot by booking this in the fashion they did. The “one versus all” concept only works when the champion stays in the ring the entire time. By having Reigns taken out, it makes him look weak and it forces a whole swath of fans to wonder if he really is as tough as they’re selling him as when an old workhorse like Chris Jericho stayed in the match for over fifty minutes and didn’t seem to take a breather once. When Reigns returns to assault Sheamus, entering at number twenty nine, it doesn’t feel triumphant, it feels cheap. The crowd knew that, and the boos came hard and heavy.

Then we come to the finish. Triple H enters at number thirty and we get a few moments where things could have really gotten interesting. He could have formed an alliance with Bray Wyatt, which was teased for a millisecond before crumbling into vapor. He could have been eliminated and thrown a rage tantrum, returning simply to eliminate Reigns thus starting a feud but not going so far as putting the title on himself and carrying the weight of the championship chase on his back going into WrestleMania.

None of these things happened. Instead, he eliminates Reigns, leaving only Dean Ambrose in the ring with him. This could have led to interesting outcomes as well. Ambrose could have taken it by force. Hunter could have eliminated himself and put Dean in an uncomfortable position as champion. Instead, we get the predictable ending with Triple H coming out on top as champion.

Now, I’ve been an off and on fan of professional wrestling for nearly two decades. I understand the trappings and the tropes that come along with it. I know that careful, in depth analysis of the proceedings is a task that ultimately only ends in frustration. That having been said, it is interesting to me what the creative minds at WWE are doing at the moment.

They are trying their damndest to make Roman Reigns a thing. They want him to be the guy. The next Austin, the next Rock, the next Foley, the next Cena. The only problem with this ambition is that fans don’t like to be told who to cheer for. The Rock was pushed as a heel and became popular through natural charisma. The moniker of “The People’s Champ” was an ironic one to begin with. It simply became true by virtue of organic progression of story, insofar as that can exist in the world of sports entertainment. Roman Reigns, in theory, could carry the company on his back. That is true. He isn’t as limited in his ring skills as someone like Cena, so ability isn’t an issue. He can’t speak worth a damn on the mic but that’s what managers are for. The only issue is that they are pushing him as the good guy. Reigns should not be the good guy. He shouldn’t be the bad guy either. He should be a damned force of nature who arrives to break people with his superior physical conditioning and walk out with the title around his waist. They shouldn’t be building him as the next Steve Austin, they should be building him as the next Brock Lesnar. Give him a Paul Heyman to hit the talking points. Keep his mouth shut except when he’s shouting a warriors cry of rage before destroying his opponents. Build some mystique around the guy because right now he’s about as interesting as a lump of raw pumpernickel bread dough.

You know who gets over with the WWE crowd right now? Guys with personality. Who can sell their character with conviction. Owens, Ambrose, New Day. There is confidence in their character that Reigns does not possess. Every sentence out of Reigns’ mouth could be followed with “I guess” and it would seem about the same.

Time will tell if the seeds sown by the 2016 Royal Rumble bear fruit, but it’s certainly a coin toss at this juncture. It is a time of uncertain variables. What is the plan for AJ Styles? Can Triple H be convincing as a champion? Will they ever let Bray Wyatt win a damned feud? Only time will tell.