Every year, WWE's Royal Rumble marks the beginning of WrestleMania season, that stretch from late January to early April when WWE actually buckles down to tell a cohesive story. Every year, that story is roughly the same, but it's usually compelling nonetheless: the winner of the Royal Rumble, a 30-man timed battle royal, faces the top champion at WrestleMania.
The concept sounds pretty simple, but the permutations have proven to be endless, if not always great; when I say it's "usually compelling," the word "usually" is doing some heavy lifting, as last year's abysmal Roman Reigns–centered WrestleMania can attest. But sometimes it's magic and unpredictable, as when Batista's return faded into a triumphant Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania 30, or Ric Flair lasting almost the whole match to win the belt. Sunday will mark WWE's 30th Royal Rumble, and the event is much needed.
WWE has been in something of a doldrums lately. Last summer's brand split, with Raw and SmackDown getting separate rosters and titles, translated into more pay-per-views, but there's been a strange fallow period since December 18th's Roadblock to the Rumble. What had been too much wrestling, with the pay-per-views coming at a biweekly rate sometimes, has suddenly become not enough. Monday Night Raw has been a mostly listless, joyless affair for weeks now. SmackDown Live has been better, but still risked slipping into the same rut. Royal Rumble is coming at precisely the right time to prevent that.
Not only does the timing work out—this Rumble is shaping up to be the most unpredictable in ages. Usually, we have an idea of who the winner is going to be, or we can at least whittle it down to three or four finalists, but between the company's aging stars, the influx of new blood, and the brand split, the 2017 edition is truly wide open.
Bill Goldberg and Brock Lesnar are both going to enter the Rumble, and they are absolutely going to have a match at WrestleMania. The question is whether one of them wins the Universal title, while the other wins the Rumble, setting up a clash for title as well as pride. The most likely scenario is that one of them screws the other out of a win, leading to a white-hot Round 2 (after Goldberg's unexpected demolition of Lesnar at Survivor Series).
Goldberg is the current favorite to win based on betting odds—yes, people bet on a scripted athletic exhibition, yes, it's weird, and yes, it's sometimes a fairly accurate place to start. It's certainly not outside the realm of possibility that Goldberg gets one last run, however brief, and enters the Hall of Fame.
Still, other names loom as possible winners. Last week, the favorite was Braun Strowman, a former strongman and a legitimate physical freak billed at 6-foot-8 and 350 pounds. His early work in WWE was raw (no pun intended), as might befit a guy who came in fresh, but he's gotten good, albeit with a limited set of moves due to his sheer size. He can cut an OK snarling promo and it's really impressive when he throws other men around like they're basketballs. Vince McMahon has always preferred to have a massive guy in the main event scene, from Andre the Giant to the Undertaker to the Big Show. Strowman fills that niche, even if there are questions as to whether he's ready.
The Royal Rumble is also known for debuts and returns. Kurt Angle may show up briefly after the announcement of his Hall of Fame induction. He's in rough shape, with an extremely bad neck and an absolute unwillingness to tone down his at age 48, but he's also so popular and the pop he'd get would be so huge that it's tough to see WWE turning Angle down if he was willing to go out for 10 minutes or so. He won't win, but it's not always about who wins.
One debutant who might get a surprise win is Samoa Joe. Joe is a former NXT champion and just finished a long program there with Shinsuke Nakamura, but like Nakamura and A.J. Styles, he's never really needed the polish—NXT needed him more than he needed it.
Joe's an old pro of the Styles/CM Punk generation. Indeed, his first taste of a sustained national spotlight was during TNA's brief golden age in the late 2000s, where he regularly wrestled both Angle and Styles. Before that, he was an indie legend who worked an absolutely brutal style, becoming ridiculously over in the process.
Of all the people mooted as winner, Joe is the most intriguing. He's not young, at 37, but the prospect of him and Styles updating their old TNA rivalry would signal several things. One, it would be one more indication that WWE has finally moved on from their reticence to give full-throated support to men and women who made their reputations at erstwhile rivals. It would also indicate that WWE has moved on from its indie-skeptical ways; we're already basically there, with Kevin Owens et al. ruling the roost, but Samoa Joe is kind of an ur-indie guy, the primal manifestation of dangerous bingo hall matches gone national.
There are lots of other rumored names and spin-off matches. Seth Rollins is primed to be screwed over by a returning Triple H, who hasn't been seen in months. Finn Balor, who was the first holder of the Universal title before legitimate injury forced him to vacate, is due back; whatever he ends up doing probably starts at the Rumble. And there are even rumors that the Undertaker is going to get one last run as a tribute before he finally retires in earnest.
Whoever ends up winning, the Royal Rumble is wide open for the first time in years, and there's ample room for smaller side stories to emerge during the match. Combine that with a solid undercard featuring Charlotte vs. Bayley, Reigns vs. Owens, and Styles vs. Cena, and it's set to be the best Royal Rumble we've seen in years, at least on paper. Hopefully the event lives up to its promise.
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