This year’s Royal Rumble had a distinctly 2017 feel to it coming in. That’s the year nobody was the obvious favorite to win the greatest gimmick match in WWE history. Or, if you prefer, nobody in 2017 had a compelling storyline attached to winning it, making it truly confusing as to who might win. In the end, WWE went with a safe hand that year, with Randy Orton winning and going on to WrestleMania.
2019’s vintage also went with a safe hand instead of embracing the unknown. Even more than 2017, it felt like any number of people had a reason to win, with nobody having a good one. In the end, Seth Rollins won in a technically quite good match, but one with few surprises or warmth.
There is nothing wrong with Rollins. He’s at the level just below great in the ring, let down a bit by his mic skills. He is pretty over with the fans, though some of that is that it’s really fun to yell “BURN IT DOWN” along with his theme song. When he’s with someone working at his speed, he’s really fun to watch.
But Rollins, just like Orton before him, feels a little too safe as winner. Andrade was in the mix at the very end, perhaps as a sop to calm his recent grumblings about his place in the company, but there’s an alternate universe where Andrade wins to a huge pop and goes on to have a monster match with Daniel Bryan. They could’ve finally pulled the trigger on Braun Strowman, who was also one of the final four in the match (Dolph Ziggler was the other and no, it couldn’t have been him). As it stands, we’ll get Rollins versus Brock Lesnar, in what will surely be a perfectly good match along well-established lines, with little time to build to a big story.
Safe isn’t always the right virtue to pursue and perfectly good matches on paper don’t translate to reality sometimes. Remember: Orton faced Bray Wyatt in one of the goofiest matches in WWE history in 2017. For all that safety and predictability was the watchword, it turned out terrible for everyone involved. WWE had a match which is still panned, while Wyatt saw his star sink even further (and arguably never recovered)—only Orton escaped relatively unscathed, but that’s mostly because he never seemed to enjoy the thing from the beginning. Rollins and Lesnar doesn’t have the potential for projections of cockroaches on the mat or anything, so it should be fine, but in the absence of a natural story, it feels like a missed opportunity to not try something new.
We have, of course, a second Rumble now, so nothing was a bust. The women’s match was an inverse of the men’s, sloppier but more fun and, ultimately, far more memorable. Importantly, there was a natural story to tell, so the predictability of the winner was sweet.
Becky Lynch has, since her shoot mauling at the hands of Nia Jax (who briefly showed up in the men’s Rumble, as a trial balloon for intergender matches), become the most over person in the company. She wrestled early in the night, losing clean to Asuka and, presumably, blowing her chance at headlining WrestleMania.
Pro wrestling, of course, is not that neat. She showed up later, replacing a kayfabe-injured Lana who couldn’t make her way to the ring. Lynch then proceeded to eliminate the hated Jax and get through an injury angle to eliminate Charlotte Flair for the win.
We knew coming into Royal Rumble that it was going to be Lynch or Flair winning to go on to face Ronda Rousey. The story demanded it, as did the fans. Remarkably, WWE hasn’t screwed up despite Lynch not being a star of their making. Even the little touch of Lana suffering the injury in the Rumble pre-show two hours earlier showed there was no hotdogging by the backroom staff.
Rollins is a better pure wrestler than Lynch, as are a handful of women on WWE’s roster. What Rollins isn’t better at is character work and leaning into a storyline, something Lynch is one of the best in the world at. Lynch’s sustained presence at the top of the card is partially down to extracurricular stuff, like her preternatural, Ocasio-Cortezian ability to use social media to dress down her opponents in a more ruthless fashion than any of her contemporaries.
This hasn’t just elevated her, but her nearest rivals. People are salivating for the Lynch-Rousey match, even if it becomes a three-way Lynch-Rousey-Flair match—Charlotte Flair is absolutely going to spend the next month complaining that Lynch shouldn’t even have been in the match and that retired wrestler Fit Finlay didn’t have the authority to greenlight her as a Lana replacement, thereby setting up the triangle. Lynch looks like more of a babyface, Flair gets to go back to being more heelish, and Rousey gets to ride out of WWE (maybe) giving the rub to one and maybe two stars.
Predictable? Yes, but who cares? The women’s Rumble match had a lot of dross, exemplified by Alicia Fox and Maria Kanellis arguing over a hat for an excruciatingly long three minutes to zero heat, but it’s the one to watch. It makes sense in an exciting way; the men’s Rumble makes sense in an uninspiring way. As proof of concept, the crowd erupted when Lynch came out, then again when she won. Rollins got a warm but muted reaction to close the show.
The 2019 Royal Rumble showed how predictability can be totally fine if the story is hot enough to support it. The men’s match was a better match from a mechanical standpoint: the moves were better, there was less goofiness, and fewer flubbed moves. But the women’s match is what people will remember, with Becky Lynch delivering the best fired up babyface win at the Rumble in a long time. Lynch will be headlining WrestleMania, against Ronda Rousey, maybe against Rousey and Charlotte. WWE just needs to make sure the biggest stars in the company go on last at WrestleMania.