Royal Rumble 2017 promised to be one of the WWE’s most exciting PPVs in recent memory, but unfortunately followed in the footsteps of its predecessors by thrilling and angering its audience in almost equal measure. Here’s my review of the start point in what seems set to be yet another contentious Road to WrestleMania for the WWE.
Reigns and the Royal Rumble
The key selling point of the Royal Rumble is, theoretically, its unpredictability. Even though it’s been easy to telegraph the winner of every Rumble since 2013, there’s still a lot that can happen until the victor’s arm is raised that can shock fans. From surprise entrants through to unexpected eliminations, even WrestleMania doesn’t attract as much fervent speculation as the Rumble, and this year was no exception. Everyone from Kurt Angle, to Finn Balor, to NJPW’s Kenny Omega was considered as a potential candidate for a Royal Rumble 2017 appearance, making for one of the most interesting Rumbles in recent history. Unfortunately, the reality of the match was very different. This year, the only true “surprise” entries were Tye Dillinger who was fittingly given the #10 slot (though fans had predicted this would be the case ahead of time) and, astonishingly, Roman Reigns at #30.
I can’t think of another Superstar who would have sucked the air out of the Alamodome more than Reigns in the #30 slot, considering his track record with the event; Gillberg could have gurned his way down to the ring and received a bigger face reaction. This marks three Royal Rumbles in a row that have been ruined by an unnecessary spotlight being forced upon Reigns, a man who — despite Vince McMahon’s repeated efforts — will never get over as a face in his current incarnation. His music hitting at #30, a slot fans were hoping had been reserved for Balor or the heavily rumored Samoa Joe, was met with nothing but boos from the crowd. Though he didn’t win, with Randy Orton clotheslining him over the top rope to head to WrestleMania 33, the damage had been done. The Rumble, free of surprise entrants and with a deflating final third completely dominated by part-timers Brock Lesnar, Goldberg and The Undertaker, became officially unremarkable and underwhelming the second Roman Reigns was announced.
Listen to the reaction from those in attendance:
For the past three years, the question following the Royal Rumble has remained the same: How on Earth does WWE plan to pull an exciting WrestleMania out of its ass after this? Last year we had Triple H heading to a main event no one wanted to see against Reigns. The year before that we had Reigns heading to a main event no one wanted to see against Lesnar, that had to be saved in the eleventh hour by getting Seth Rollins to cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase. The year before that we had Batista heading to a main event no one wanted to see against Randy Orton, an idea so poor that Daniel Bryan had to be reluctantly thrown into the mixer ahead of the event. This year we have Randy Orton, a man who is experiencing something of a career renaissance as part of The Wyatt Family, but who is still in no way the most exciting option the WWE has at its disposal.
Logic suggests that Cena will drop the title at Elimination Chamber in two weeks to Bray Wyatt, who will then go up against Orton in a match that will almost certainly not be the main event. However, given WWE’s track record, it’s also firmly within the realms of possibility that Orton will go up against Cena once again. At least the former would give us a pay-off to a storyline that’s been bubbling on SmackDown for a good few months now, even if it isn’t exactly the most interesting option for WrestleMania 33’s WWE Championship match. The latter would be a match we’ve seen an inordinate amount of times, and would be a surefire way to get 65,000 people in Orlando’s Camping World Stadium chanting “same old shit” until they run out of breath.
But while the Rumble can also lead to the creation of new, exciting feuds outside of the ‘Mania main event, this year’s match was notably bereft of such developments. The main focus of its first third was on Braun Strowman, who is on the cusp of getting over in a big way, with his rivals’ struggle to eliminate him leading to some great moments. Strowman picking up Big Show with ease and body-slamming him over the top rope received a big pop, while the brutal bump endured by James Ellsworth after Strowman launched him out of the ring was also a highlight. Strowman has been booked exactly right since moving to Raw, and the Rumble was no exception. Him being eliminated by Baron Corbin following a devastating run of eliminations was also a good rub for the “lone wolf,” and hopefully the WWE will find something of note to do with the NXT alumni following the big upset.
The Part-Timer Problem
After Braun was eliminated the Rumble took a nosedive, with its booking revolving around getting as many bodies as possible in the ring until the arrival of Lesnar, Goldberg and Undertaker. With the three men coming in at 26, 27 and 28 respectively, it was a long time to wait with very few eliminations taking place before Lesnar cleaned house. Watching these part-timers stand tall over a crowd of downed bodies served as a very clear-cut metaphor for where WWE is at right now, with many guys who have propped up the company for the past year serving as fodder for men who will work 10-15 minute matches once every six months.
Having Lesnar toss Dean Ambrose over the ropes felt like an injustice, especially considering their squash of a match at last year’s WrestleMania, and Ambrose’s comments regarding Lesnar’s unwillingness to work with him on Steve Austin’s podcast. Watching Lesnar throw people out of the ring at will, before being promptly ejected by Goldberg and then Goldberg being dumped by Undertaker, all while the rest of the roster lay on the mat and awkwardly watched these old guys duke it out, did nothing but continue to sell the idea that the current active WWE roster is infinitely weaker than guys who turn up to collect a pay check every now and again. Why would prospective new viewers tune in to Raw or SmackDown to watch these new guys, when WWE continues to insist that they’re not a patch on their old talent?
Roman Reigns entering in at number 30 was the icing on the cake for attendees in the Alamodome, who helped to mark yet another Royal Rumble that concluded with a stadium of people shitting all over “The Guy.” It’s difficult to decipher exactly how the WWE expected that this decision would be received, and while Reigns thankfully didn’t emerge the victor, he did eliminate The Undertaker and once again became the focal point of the match, likely setting up a WrestleMania match against the Deadman in which he’ll be forced to play the face for some inexplicable reason. If the Rumble is setting up a Reigns heel turn then in hindsight it may have made sense to draw an extortionate amount of heat upon him for no apparent reason, but considering the WWE’s track record with not pulling the trigger on a necessary Reigns heel run then I’m not exactly holding my breath.
John Cena and the Ric Flair record
The Universal Championship bout was great, with Kevin Owens and Roman Reigns doing well to put on a pretty brutal match within the confines of WWE’s PG-friendly No DQ limitations. However, the match of the night was unquestionably AJ Styles vs John Cena for the WWE Championship, who continued their impeccable series with Cena’s shot at Ric Flair’s title record of 16 heavyweight championship wins. Cena was the heavy favorite going into the match and pulled off the win, though it was a testament to its booking that it still felt like it could go either way. Styles kicking out of the “A+AA” (Mauro Ranallo’s words, not mine) from the top rope certainly had me considering that he might pull off the upset, before Cena intercepted the Phenomenal Forearm with an Attitude Adjustment and then another for good measure.
I understand that with Cena’s steady transition into becoming another part-timer, WWE is looking to get the last drops out of him before he becomes infinitely more difficult to factor into the company’s long-term plans. As such, getting him to match Flair’s record before he inevitably breaks it at some point in the future wasn’t the worst decision, even if it seemingly doesn’t leave Styles with a lot of direction headed into WrestleMania 33. There are rumors that he’ll be inserted into a multi-man Intercontinental ladder match, which would be a shame considering the plethora of dream matches he could potentially be involved in. He’ll likely be involved in the Elimination Chamber WWE Championship match and then left out of the title picture for a while.
The Universal Championship picture is a lot more heartening, with it now more than likely that Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho will get their long-awaited match for the title at WrestleMania 33, tying into a Jericho face turn. Many expected that Reigns would win the title at the Rumble and Owens/Jericho would wind up being a non-title feud, but thankfully it seems that there will be more on the line when they eventually square off against one another. Jericho has been the MVP of Raw since the brand split, and will go into WrestleMania with a lot of momentum. I’m looking forward to seeing how both he and Owens will play the eventual downfall of the “best friends.”
Charlotte’s heel work
The other title matches saw Neville inevitably become the “king” of the Cruiserweight division after defeating Rich Swann in a decent match, while Gallows and Anderson pulled off the upset in the pre-show by snagging the titles off of Cesaro and Sheamus in a weird, dirty finish. Outside of the Universal and the WWE Championship matches, the highlight for me was the opener with Charlotte taking on Bayley. Bayley’s transition to the main roster hasn’t exactly been an overwhelming success, with her awkward promo style not translating well to the big arenas. The run-up to her title match with Charlotte played on her underdog story versus her rival’s lineage, and while Charlotte did her best to carry the feud on the mic, Bayley struggled to hold her end.
Fortunately, Bayley’s character works much better when she’s off the mic and actually in the ring, and this rang true for the Women’s Championship bout. I’ve maintained that Charlotte is WWE’s best pure heel next to The Miz, and there was evidence of this throughout the match. From pointing at a near-defeated Bayley and telling the audience “That’s you!” to her surprisingly monstrous offense (slamming Bayley’s head into the canvas repeatedly with her legs before performing a kip-up earned a round of impressed applause from the crowd), she’s becoming increasingly accomplished in her role as the female face of the WWE.
All in all the Royal Rumble 2017 had some great wrestling on the undercard, but greatly suffered from a marquee match that had all the life sucked out of it by the time the final bell had rung. The job of the Rumble match is to generate interest in WrestleMania, but after delivering almost no surprises during the event and repeating bad habits like an over-reliance upon part-timers and Roman Reigns, the WWE has once again made the Royal Rumble a wasted opportunity. It was nowhere near as staggeringly bad as the Royal Rumble 2016, 2015 or 2014, but was still blighted by poor choices and concluded by leaving a sour taste in fans’ mouths. Hopefully one year we’ll get a Rumble that sets us up for a WrestleMania that we actually want to watch.