The 2017 Royal Rumble was due to be the most unpredictable in years, with rumors of surprise winners, exciting debutants, and a general air of "anything could happen." What we got instead was a mostly predictable, perfectly solid main event, with an absolutely electric undercard that will be talked about for years to come.
Any discussion of the pay-per-view has to start with the actual Royal Rumble itself. One of WWE's defining images each year is the Royal Rumble winner, standing alone, gazing up at a WrestleMania sign. As this year's event drew closer, Randy Orton was settled on as the favorite—and sure enough, there he was posing for the crowd at the end of the night.
If you're wondering how the hell we got from a heavily rumored Samoa Joe debut-and-win or a Finn Balor return to the well-worn spectacle of a Gen X veteran standing triumphant, you're not alone. This is supposed to be about young wrestlers climbing the ladder, or at least fresh ones, and Orton is neither of those things.
But before you consign his win to the WWE dustbin of pointless six-man tag matches, divas, and vascularity, there is reason for optimism. Orton has been working a program with Bray Wyatt for several months, and solid but unspectacular matches have turned into an alliance, with Orton joining the Wyatt Family, Bray's creepy cult of castoffs and weirdos.
That storyline has been building momentum and it's turned out to be pretty good, one of the foundations of SmackDown Live's superiority over Raw. With dissension being teased and a lot of wrestling to go before WrestleMania, there's ample opportunity to get the world title off of John Cena (yes, Cena is champion again, which we'll get to in a moment) and onto Wyatt. In the worst case, we all find out that most of Wyatt's potential has already been realized on NXT's smaller stage; in the best, he becomes a main eventer for years to come.
The rest of the Rumble set the table for WrestleMania in unspectacular, workmanlike fashion. The biggest surprise of the evening wasn't that Brock Lesnar and Bill Goldberg ended up going at it but that Goldberg eliminated Lesnar almost immediately upon arrival. Putting aside how much of that is due to Goldberg not being able to go for long at his age—indeed, he couldn't go much more than 15 minutes in his prime—we're left with a surprisingly intriguing storyline around the two part-timers: Goldberg is the guy the previously invincible Lesnar simply cannot beat. He can barely touch him. That means Lesnar probably wins at WrestleMania, leaving the mythical "rub" a younger wrestler could get from beating Goldberg beyond reach, but that feels OK in the semi-alternate universe these old-timers inhabit.
Roman Reigns' arrival as the final entrant and his subsequent elimination of the Undertaker drew absolutely rabid boos from the crowd, setting up a possible match at WrestleMania. There are rumblings that it might be the Undertaker's last match and that Reigns is very likely to win it if it is. Undertaker is an old-school guy who adheres to the adage that you go out on your back so someone else can look good. The problem is that Reigns is hated, no matter what WWE says about him being a face, and retiring the beloved Undertaker would cement that animosity for a lifetime. That would be a really good thing for both WWE and Reigns if everyone could just agree to run with him as a heel, but as it stands, their refusal to do so means that it might be a disaster of muddied waters instead.
If the main event was a perfectly fine, slightly bland closer to the night, the undercard was spectacular. Charlotte and Bayley, as expected, delivered a very good opener for the women's title, which Charlotte retained. Bayley inhabits a weird space: her work is slightly disjointed, but she's so engaging you can't help but get invested in her matches. Charlotte, meanwhile, continues to be an athletic freak who gets better each time out.
It is not to give short shrift to the women's or cruiserweight matches (Neville defeated Rich Swann in the latter) to focus on the two heavyweight title bouts. Those matches—between Kevin Owens and Roman Reigns and, later, A.J. Styles and John Cena—simply exemplified the best of pro wrestling.
Owens and Reigns had a no-holds-barred garbage match in the best sense, or at least the best sense allowable in the blood- and hyperviolence-averse WWE. Chris Jericho, who has played a role as Owens' sidekick and best friend in one of the best extended gimmicks in recent history, was suspended above the ring in a cage, a delightful throwback to wrestling's carnie tradition.
The match was mostly the two men beating the hell out of each other, something expected of Owens (who made his name in Ring of Honor, where this sort of thing was once de rigueur) but less so of the purely WWE product Reigns. As it turns out, we should all give praise to Reigns for his gimmick matches. He thrives in them, not least because he's willing to take a beating. If Reigns had come through a hardcore promotion like Combat Zone Wrestling, he'd be a legend. It is still very much an open question as to whether Reigns can ever be the top guy night after night, but in the narrow band of throwing people through tables and using chairs as weapons, he absolutely shines.
As for Cena and Styles, there aren't enough superlatives. Once or twice a generation, you get two wrestlers who simply click, dramatically and athletically, every time they enter the ring. Cena and Styles are this decade's Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat: a promotion's stalwart versus a scintillating talent passing through for a few years. They have been wrestling big matches since last summer with nothing less than a great performance to be had, and Sunday night was maybe their best yet. If it wasn't Okada vs. Omega, it wasn't too far off.
Cena won his 16th world title, which ties him with Flair for the all-time record. While Cena was viscerally hated as recently as a couple years ago,the crowd accepted his victory with applause and cheers. His current vulnerability and the clear sense that his career is winding down have made him a sympathetic figure, and his knack for showing up in big matches, which are the only matches he has these days, means we can easily ignore the man's former omnipresence.
Of course, the prospect of Orton vs. Cena at WrestleMania—which is absolutely what would happen if WrestleMania were next weekend—casts a terrible shadow over everything. We've done that before, several times before, and the crowd's surprising acceptance of the two aging superstars' respective wins can quickly curdle if we do it again. Fortunately, there's a lot of wrestling to go, and a lot of noise that suggests we won't. So let's just savor this. It might be one of the last few times Orton and Cena are in a spotlight quite this bright.
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