By Will Pruett, ProWrestling.net Senior Staffer (@itswilltime)
“That’s the thing about Vince that nobody thinks about or takes credit for, right? That ability to go back to path and to go where you need to go. He’s the magic behind it. That’s what it is. We will deliver, always, for our fans. Maybe not in the exact moment, but we will always deliver.” – Paul “Triple H” Levesque after NXT Takeover: Phoenix.
In 2014, WWE broke the Royal Rumble. In 2015, WWE broke the Royal Rumble again. After these two years, we’ve been living in the era of broken Rumbles. The original sin from these two years: not listening to the fans and scripting Daniel Bryan to win each of these Royal Rumbles. The returning Batista’s babyface run was sacrificed due to tone-deaf Rumble writing. Roman Reigns’ coronation as the conquering hero was sacrificed due to tone-deaf Rumble writing, and Roman’s character never recovered.
This year, with a chance to right wrongs and (sadly) without the specter of Roman Reigns in the Rumble picture, WWE marched into Phoenix with two beloved, but obvious Royal Rumble winners. Becky Lynch and Seth Rollins were the two most obvious picks based on WWE’s pre-2014 tendency to make sure their hottest stars were in the position to win the Royal Rumble. The match is designed to stack the odds and be impossible, thus creating the perfect moments for conquering babyfaces. Could they get it right twice in one night after getting it wrong for so many years?
Let’s explore the second (and lesser) Rumble first. Seth Rollins entered at number ten with an uphill battle in front of him. This was complicated by the presence of his biggest rivals: Dean Ambrose, Bobby Lashley, and Drew McIntyre. Could Seth overcome a low entrance number, a full two-thirds of the Rumble field, and these challenging competitors?
As the Rumble wound down, the answer seemed to be “yes” but Seth took so much damage. Braun Strowman also seemed to be a notable obstacle. He keeps assuring us he is not finished with Brock Lesnar and, while it would have been over a year past his peak, WWE has priors for giving big men unlimited chances to garner support.
It all came together in the end as Seth Rollins, who on Monday night assured us that he is just a common man from a working class family with a dream to headline WrestleMania, won the Royal Rumble. They got it right to close out the show.
Getting there for Becky Lynch was more of a challenge. She is the most popular wrestler on the WWE roster. She was the most popular wrestler at Chase Field in Phoenix last night. Her path on this show was complicated by a scheduled match with Asuka for the Smackdown Women’s Championship. While the tradition in WWE has the hottest stars in the company winning Rumble matches, this star was in the pay-per-view’s fantastic opener.
A convenient injury to Lana on the pre-show set up a spot for Becky to take. A “Spirit of ‘76” style return to the stadium for The Man showed that her earlier loss didn’t hurt her standing. People were craving Becky’s ultimate moment. Fans needed this moment. In 2014, the moment was lost to a returning star. In 2015, the moment was lost to Vince McMahon’s obsession with Roman Reigns. Would this be the year? Could WWE finally bring the Royal Rumble back to its former glory?
Every moment of Becky Lynch’s story on this evening was a struggle. Every time it looked like her path was clearing another challenge arose. From the loss to Asuka, the lack of a spot in the Rumble, the attack from Nia Jax and knee injury, and finally her greatest rival standing between Becky and a win, Lynch’s struggle and subsequent support from the crowd was pitch perfect.
The cathartic release and massive standing ovation when Becky Lynch won the Royal Rumble was like nothing I’ve experienced in wrestling. When WWE gets it right, there’s nothing better. When the moment, the wrestler, the show, and everything else work in tandem, magic happens. This was the magic. This was the moment. This was perfection with, by, and for “The Man” Becky Lynch.
The Royal Rumble has been broken since 2014. It’s been a symbol of fans being deprived of what they want. Over the last few years, The Rumble has been approached with more trepidation than joyous anticipation. This year WWE exercised the demons of 2014 and 2015. Over the course of two matches, they did not get too cute or over think the road they are on. WWE gave the fans exactly what they wanted and it worked.
2019 was the redemption of the Royal Rumble and wrestling is better for it.
Elsewhere on the show:
– This was an amazing show to attend. The stadium looked great and very full in person. Only the very back rows of the highest decks seemed empty. WWE production is always top notch and makes massive crowds look great. At first I was disappointed by the lack of a big stage, but I found wrestlers entering with a sea of humanity behind them quite wonderful by the end of the night. It was a unique look compared to WWE’s usual giant stage comprised entirely of screens.
– We should talk about the length of this show. It was quite long, but I don’t see a solution to this issue. WWE can’t conceivably split the two Rumbles into two nights, can they? Without doing this, a Royal Rumble show will still have two 70-ish minute matches to fit into it. Add in the traditional top title matches, which give us four major singles matches and WWE has a bloated show. It happens and it is an endurance test live.
– Speaking of the cathartic release of Becky Lynch’s Royal Rumble win, there was an exodus in the stadium after it. Exhaustion set in over the crowd after the ride we just went on. Becky Lynch’s win was the high-point of the evening and everything else felt like another show entirely. The biggest victim of this was the Daniel Bryan vs. AJ Styles WWE Championship match, which could never follow the intense fan passion Lynch produced. Color me surprised and delighted that a men’s world championship match ended up in the buffer spot on this show after decades of women playing that role.
– Becky Lynch vs. Asuka for the Smackdown Women’s Championship was excellent. Asuka needed the victory here to establish her as a champion worthy of fearing. Becky Lynch lost nothing by tapping out to Asuka and set herself up with another major match for the future. This was exceptional storytelling and belongs on the short-list of all time great pay-per-view openers.
– I’m never one to complain about getting to see a Shane McMahon match live, but on a very long and draining show, I’m not sure we needed Cesaro and Sheamus vs. Shane McMahon and The Miz. It was a good match. It was a fun match. It might have been a better match for the main event of Smackdown this week.
– Sasha Banks vs. Ronda Rousey for the Raw Women’s Championship was delightful. Sasha continues to impress when given and chance to and, I hope, regardless of what her role is going forward (singles or tag team), she will get a chance to show what she’s capable of. Sasha Banks is an underutilized player in WWE and the time is coming to use her well. Ronda Rousey’s in-ring ability is uncanny and she’s getting better at playing to crowds as well.
– Side note: I’m glad Ronda’s gear is getting a little flashier. I understand why she has been wrestling in MMA-inspired gear, but she has looked very plain compared to her opponents.
– The first half of the Women’s Royal Rumble match was rough. They stocked the ring with talent to be eliminated later and saved big spots and showcase moments for the second half. Numbers one through ten could have used a Kacy Catanzaro or Naomi spot to bring the crowd to their feet.
– This Royal Rumble picked up when Charlotte Flair entered the ring and worked well from that point forward. Charlotte felt like an MVP of this match as she offered unique matchups and lasted until the very end. This was a great performance from Flair.
– The best performers of the Women’s Royal Rumble were (in no particular order): Becky Lynch (obviously), Charlotte Flair, Carmella, Kacy Catanzaro, Zelina Vega, and Bayley. These women produced highlight performances they should be proud of.
– AJ Styles and Daniel Bryan had a pretty good match until a disappointing interference ending. Daniel Bryan getting a vegan flannel wearing disciple in Erick Rowan should be fun, but I’m not looking forward to all of the disappointing endings it could produce. This match might have been better off as a Smackdown main event as opposed to a pay-per-view effort.
– Finn Balor was a worthy challenger for Brock Lesnar and the Universal Championship. While the end of this match was never in question, the path there was more fun than most Brock Lesnar matches. It makes me wonder why Brock was ever in the ring with bigger wrestlers producing disappointing matches when he can have amazing sprints with smaller guys. Brock and Finn captured a little bit of magic and fans bought in. Add in an inventive ending with a desperation submission hold and Balor left the Royal Rumble better than he entered it. Brock Lesnar helped add to the legend of Finn Balor.
– The Men’s Royal Rumble was a more even and consistent match than the Women’s Rumble, but it lacked the emotional high points the Women’s match produced. It also went on in the fifth hour of the show and in front of a burnt out crowd.
– The highlight performers for the Men’s Royal Rumble were (in no particular order): Seth Rollins, Mustafa Ali, Andrade, Rey Mysterio, Nia Jax, Samoa Joe, and Aleister Black.
– The Nia Jax spot was some inventive and fun storytelling. She has the physical stature to stand up to the men in the Rumble. They worked to make her look like a physical equal to them in her first moments in the Rumble. She is a mildly delusional character who will do anything to win, so this was justified. By the end, with Nia eating three finishers and being eliminated she was treated more like Big Show has been in Rumble matches than like a joke. It was fun.
Will Pruett writes about wrestling and popular culture at prowrestling.net. Of interest to him are diversity in wrestling and wrestling as a theatrical art form. To see his video content subscribe to his YouTube channel. To contact, check him out on Twitter @itswilltime, leave a comment, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.