The best way to watch WWE is to recognize that there are actually three WWEs. There’s the television WWE, which consistently sucks and, outside maybe two or three nights a year, is insistent on nothing of import happening. There’s the Fall doldrums WWE, a long grey expanse from just after SummerSlam until January when the pay-per-views are passable but not great, in thrall to a paralytic fear of anything interesting happening which might upset the balance going into Wrestlemania season.
Then there’s the third WWE, the good WWE. From Royal Rumble to SummerSlam, with Wrestlemania as a midpoint, the pay-per-views are usually good to great. The booking can be down—this is WWE, after all—but it’s a fun company to watch, so long as you stick to the pay-per-views.
Sunday’s Royal Rumble was the good WWE in full pomp. Its two Royal Rumble matches (the traditional men’s match and the very first women’s) were near perfectly booked, never seemed to drag, and reminded everyone both of what a roster as talented and large as WWE’s can do and brought up questions about why they just won’t goddamned do it all the time.
Most Rumble matches work with a splash of humor, and the men’s was no different. The early highlight was Heath Slater lying prone on the floor outside the ring, knocked out on the walkway by an enraged Baron Corbin, only for everyone to walk by and get in a shot or two to keep him down. That was until Sheamus, in an act of hubris, threw Slater in, only to be immediately dumped out by the perennial jobber. It was perfect, both funny and roundabout revenge for Sheamus’s squash of the white hot heel Daniel Bryan several years ago, and I actually shrieked in an alarmingly high-pitched fashion when it happened.
Comedy wrestling gets a bad rap as being too gimmicky or diluting the melodrama the form is ideally capable of, but Royal Rumbles are long and the willingness to punctuate them with moments of silliness and irony shows strength, not weakness. WWE isn’t, and shouldn’t be, all comedy wrestling, but if you’re working with that much time and that many people, smoothing the edges is strong booking, not weak.
That held true throughout. Everything was booked more or less perfectly, the best Rumble match in over a decade and maybe one of the best five or six ever. Everything just clicked in that almost ephemeral, weightless way good wrestling does. Elias is in the ring starting a song and he tells us that the clock won’t start until he’s finished? That doesn’t make sense, but the timing of the gimmick and pacing of its execution made it feel right. Baron Corbin isn’t going to set the world on fire, but his post-elimination outburst knocking out several wrestlers felt right. The boos raining down on Matt Hardy and Bray Wyatt for eliminating Rusev felt right.
Nothing felt more right in terms of timing and execution than Shinsuke Nakamura’s win. It was a slow build, and it would have been fair to worry that WWE’s handling of Nakamura (leashing him to some of the worst signature taunts in the promotion) would make his win feel unsatisfying. But that was not the case. Instead, you could feel him growing into his role as eventual winner, the crowd and wrestler establishing a symbiotic relationship as the end, punctuated by Nakamura delivering the best Kinshasa knee since he left NXT to Roman Reigns, rolled around. For the first time since his call up, Nakamura felt like something more than what we’ve been given so far. I remain a skeptic, but this is the test: if the knock on him is that he only shows up for big matches (and fair play to him, he’s earned that right and getting money from the McMahons while going half-speed is okay in my book), it’s never getting bigger than a Wrestlemania title match against AJ Styles. And I am, at the least, less skeptical than I was before he shone at the Royal Rumble.
Again, equal credit is due the much-maligned booking team. The final six faced off in groups of three—Reigns, Nakamura, and Finn Balor squaring off against John Cena, Randy Orton, and a returning (and cut) Rey Mysterio. The generational warfare in the face-off was fully contrived; Nakamura and Balor are almost as old as their opposites, while Reigns is heading toward his mid-30s at light speed. The contrivance didn’t matter. It was pure symbolism of the best sort, less about generation than about where the younger men came from. New Japan. NXT. Small arenas and MMA matches.
The generation gap was present in the equally good inaugural women’s Royal Rumble, albeit for different reasons. The women’s match was more reliant on returning stars from the past, simply because the roster isn’t as large as the men’s. 30 people is a lot, and there’s also undoubtedly a baseline pop you want to maintain for each entrance, something which the lesser lights of a roster can’t always muster (see Titus O’Neil’s entrance in the men’s Rumble).
This created a trap. There was no way that the returnees weren’t going to eliminate some of the current stars, and that’s what happened. In any other year, this would grate, and probably will if the same happens in future women’s Rumbles.
In this one, though, it felt alright. WWE created its past and it was ugly. The returnees, from Lita to Trish Stratus to Molly Holly to every single one of them, were treated figuratively and literally like dogs. No amount of purging the references to the Attitude Era’s treatment of women and no amount of Stephanie McMahon’s self-aggrandizement will alter that. Colette Arrand’s thoughts on this are worth reading and appreciating.
But history did happen and it did suck. One of the byproducts of that is that these women, nearly all of whom are now in their 40s, never got the chance to take part in something like this. It would’ve been unthinkable for WWE’s corporate climate at the time to move from pudding matches and teased nudity to truly treating them as equal competitors (and, for what it’s worth, they still aren’t quite there, given that Brie Bella and Lana were introduced via their relation to their wrestling husbands).
Treating the women’s Rumble as a self-contained entity is tough, but there was a remarkable ease and joy to the returnees’ actions in the ring. This was typified by Stratus and Mickie James facing off towards the end. Look at the sheer, unworked happiness on their faces, not just as old foes and friends coming together after ten years, but at working a Royal Rumble together.
In the end, Asuka won, which was as correct a call as Nakamura winning the men’s match. She remained a buzzsaw throughout, and the earlier worries over her main roster debut have faded. Asuka has steadily, consistently been the monster we all hoped for and WWE needed. She, more than anyone else, has the ineffable “it"—the kind of thing that doesn’t require being the biggest or strongest, but which takes a wrestler up another level. The Rumble cemented that. The crowd was on fire every time she had her moments with another wrestler.
The end of the pay-per-view struck a slightly off-key note in an otherwise nearly perfect show (nearly perfect because the matches outside the Rumbles were merely fine, but that is exactly the level they should’ve been given how exhaustingly good the main events were). Ronda Rousey, of course, came out in Roddy Piper’s jacket. She inserted herself into Asuka’s moment, a fact which seemed to draw everything from nervousness to outright rage, judging from internet reaction.
It’s currently tough to parse. The charitable view, and it’s the one I’m currently holding, is that the manner of her arrival points to something interesting on the horizon. She extended a hand to Asuka, signalling that she’ll wait for the Rumble winner to choose who she wants to face at Wrestlemania, leaving Rousey with the other. Asuka slapped her hand away, a signal in turn that Asuka isn’t sharing the glory.
The problem is that the execution was ever so slightly off. It became immediately clear that Rousey isn’t ready to work a crowd. Almost immediately upon entering the ring, without waiting for the people chanting her name to reach a crescendo, she pointed awkwardly at the WrestleMania sign. The timing of it, the single most important skill in wrestling, was all off. Then she mutely pointed again as proceedings ended.
Rousey comes with a host of baggage, though it’s not to diminish this fact to point to the awful people WWE regularly does business with. An internal negotiation takes place every time we watch wrestling, old or new, no matter the promotion. It’s justifiable if Rousey’s transphobia and Sandy Hook trutherism are where you bail, just as it would be if Warrior’s return or Mike Tyson’s 1998 arrival as a recently convicted and released rapist was.
Setting all of that aside, the point was so immediately weird and robotic, so out of sync with the rhythm of the crowd and moment, that even though it was small, it immediately felt like the most basic pro wrestling skills were missing. That’s a problem in the mechanical sense for WWE. She’s going to make them a lot of money, and she’ll make money in return. But it’s worth recalling Ken Shamrock, her most immediate antecedent. He had all the physical skills and the intimidation factor, but he never picked up mic skills or the crowd empathy needed to move with the crowd’s swells and eddies, and it was quickly apparent with him, too.
This was not Rousey’s moment, however. This was Asuka’s and Nakamura’s. For once, the fans got exactly what they wanted and the show was wonderful because of it. So much of this was unthinkable 20 years ago, from a legit women’s Royal Rumble to two top Japanese challengers who aren’t reduced to caricature. Royal Rumble 2018 was historic, fun, and among the very best of its kind.