By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
… It’s time to talk about the Royal Rumble.
But, you see, that’s the thing.
HARD TO COMPREHEND
Talking about the Royal Rumble, even now, two days later, seems to be an impossible task. I’ve yet to read anywhere – social media, website, postcard – that any bit of it was good. I’ve read occasional nice things about something here or there, but even if someone has the gall to say something other than it was a massive failure, they quickly couch whatever positivity they offer with something along the lines of … “Yeah, but it still sucked.”
And what can you say? Yeah. It didn’t hold up its end of the bargain. The men’s Royal Rumble match fell flat. The building almost caught on fire in what happens to be the most on-the-nose metaphor that the WrestleMania sign has ever or will ever experience. And Seth Rollins wore his old Shield gear, making even the most cynical fan stand up and clap.
Speaking of Rollins, though, you had to know what the night would be after the first half-hour of the event. It served as the perfect summation of everything this year’s Royal Rumble came to be. A really neat, unexpected moment in time when the Shield music hits and Rollins walks through the crowd. A pretty-good-to-very-good match. And then … a complete bullshit finish with a post-match attack that went on too long, sucking all the life and optimism out of the building.
That’s the 2022 Royal Rumble in a nutshell. How so?
For reasons that I don’t even think can be explained, everyone seemed to rally around this year’s installment of the event more than they have in at least the past few years. The experts, people in the know, media personalities, the ones who wouldn’t normally blink an eye for a WWE event — even they came out and showed a sliver of excitement for it. Tons of people in the online community appeared out of the woodwork to say that the Royal Rumble has always been their favorite WWE event. The supposed lack of predictability for how the night would turn out worked wonders for a product that has a reputation for being frustratingly bland.
Or, in other words, the anticipation was like Seth Rollins coming through the crowd in Shield gear unexpectedly.
From there, though – and much like the Reigns vs. Rollins match – it was all downhill, capped off most notably by the DQ finish between Rollins and Reigns. Expand the metaphor further, and that was perhaps the equivalent to Brock Lesnar entering and winning the Royal Rumble to end the night. The wall-writing became clearer as the night wore on that one of the most passed-around predictions would indeed become a reality, and because we knew Stardust wasn’t walking through that door, there was little reason to stick with the rest of the program.
But speaking of Stardust …
TOO MUCH HOPE?
I can’t help but wonder if one of the biggest reasons this show didn’t work for so many who watched it was the fact that expectations going into this thing were unfair. I can’t forget the night Mickie James was announced to appear at this year’s Rumble on Smackdown. I was sitting on my couch with the TV on in the background, preparing to cover AEW’s Rampage for this site. When they announced her as “Impact Knockouts Champion,” my eyes lifted from my laptop to my television screen. It felt like something was happening, something had changed, something big was on the horizon.
And I don’t think I was the only one who allowed that type of expectation to swirl through my head while considering what the rest of the Royal Rumble could be this year. From that point forward, everyone from WWE to those who cover WWE for a living, helped fan those flames. Reports of “a name WWE is targeting” or “who WWE reached out to over the weekend” surfaced every other day. The notion that someone from AEW could show up snowballed like a boulder of runaway ice speeding down a mountain. It got to the point where if something wild didn’t happen, as a sign once read at a wrestling show in New York City, we riot.
Well, something wild didn’t happen. We got the usual smatter of legends in both the men’s and women’s Royal Rumble matches. We got what I guess is going to be an ornery Ronda Rousey moving forward. We got the celebrity spot in the men’s Royal Rumble match — then we got another one, if you count Bad Bunny, who kind of seems like he’s going to come around once a year now and be a quarter-timer or something (side note: When do we get a women’s Royal Rumble match celebrity spot? I know the women’s side of things is relatively new, but I wonder if there’s someone like a Cardi B or Tiffany Haddish that would be willing to step into the ring?).
We got what we expected. We just didn’t get what we un-expected.
And that’s not necessarily a reasonable explanation for why someone should think the entire night sucked. Granted, I’m not saying everyone is claiming that it sucked for that reason; I’m just saying that I think on a subconscious level, these types of things can worm into our minds and have a lasting effect on our overall perception of a show, even if we mask it by just saying AEW would never book a DQ finish for a title match and WWE has no problem doing that type of thing on a weekly basis.
To that, I’d ask …
What was WWE supposed to do?
By no means am I a WWE apologist on any level. But you don’t want to beat Roman Reigns in this position because we are squarely on the road to WrestleMania and after all this time, it wouldn’t make sense to beat him beyond shock value. You don’t want to beat Seth Rollins because Seth Rollins has somehow managed to keep his status for the last few years without really holding a title. He’s one of the company’s stars, like it or not, and I’m not so sure he was ready (or in a position) to take a loss on that stage, that cleanly, in the way Reigns has given losses to a million other people over the last 500 or so days.
You can then say, “So don’t book the match,” and that’s fine. Fair play. But you needed a big matchup for Roman and it’s not like WWE has produced an expanding crop of pickin’s in recent years. Especially on the Smackdown side. Do you really think there’s a babyface on Friday nights that would have been as intriguing a matchup as Seth Rollins was on Saturday night? Drew McIntyre was hurt. Maybe Big E, but he didn’t even come back to the blue brand until Friday. And contrary to popular belief, Rick Boogs isn’t quite ready for the top of the card just yet.
So, you had Seth vs. Roman with a very good match and an outcome that sucked. All right. The women’s Royal Rumble gave us everything it said it would, and, yeah, I’ll say it, was the superior Royal Rumble match of the night. With news that Rousey would be back, the winner was as predictable as the men’s, but with Mickie James and Sasha Banks and Lita all previously announced as being involved with this year’s event, my expectations going in were the expectations the women met (maybe it wasn’t a bad idea after all to previously announce everyone outside of Rousey, eh?).
Heyman then turned on Brock Lesnar, Roman Reigns laid Lesnar out and Bobby Lashley got his title back. These were all parts of the predictions a lot of people made, and, again, I’ll ask: What was WWE supposed to do? The company was given a bad hand at Day 1 when Reigns couldn’t compete and Lesnar moved into the only men’s world title match on the card. Just because the booking may have been predictable doesn’t mean the booking was bad. We all knew we were getting Lesnar vs. Reigns at WrestleMania somehow. It’s hard to think of another way to do it while causing minimal damage to other stories (though maximum damage to Big E, but we’ll get to that another day).
Becky Lynch and Doudrop were overshadowed by a category 209 fire that was going on 50 feet away from them, so you can’t throw any blame on them if you had a problem with their match. The mixed tag was actually better than I thought it would be, and kudos to those four for working as hard as they did. Then the men’s Royal Rumble match didn’t quite work because … it was predictable? AJ Styles was thrown out by a guy dressed as a cruise line stripper? The show went too long?
Or, because …
There weren’t any adequate surprises?
I don’t know. You tell me.
Before you do, though, let’s take a second for some perspective. There was a time when the Royal Rumble was great just because the Royal Rumble was great. It was a spectacle. It was innovative. You knew who the entrants were, but you never knew when they’d come out, so the intrigue was fun, but not the main focus. All blends and brands of superstars were involved in it. The wrestling world wasn’t bogged down with a ton of battle royals to begin with, so the concept felt fresh each year.
And you want to know what never mattered? Whether or not legends or celebrities or people from other companies would show up.
That’s not so today as the Royal Rumble matches have become defined by surprises. It was never a vehicle to watch a great wrestling match, sure, but it was still a vehicle to watch somewhat of an unconventional wrestling match. At this point, the wrestling doesn’t matter at all anymore. Actually, none of the ring work matters. The only thing that matters is that countdown and the crowd that stands up to chant for it each time it appears on the screen. Once the countdown is over, you sit down, take another sip of your Coke or beer or whatever, glance at the ring and turn your attention back to the entrance way. The only way you’re watching the ring is if someone like Kenny Omega just ran through the curtain and you’re like … huh?
It’s a shame because you can’t have 30 (or if you count both Rumbles, 60) different surprises. Actually, you’re lucky if you have five, three even. The risk of being disappointed as a fan is as big as the reward for being lionized as a great company is for WWE. The problem is that fans these days are far more inclined to be disappointed by WWE while WWE continues to believe it should be knighted for all its contributions to the wrestling world over the decades. All the while, WWE rarely delivers.
So, yeah. Maybe the Royal Rumble wasn’t great this year. Why it wasn’t great is in the eye of the beholder, forever and always. I just can’t help but wonder how we’d be talking about it if Jon Moxley walked through the crowd with Seth Rollins or if Hangman Page sprinted through the entrance as the 29th entrant in the men’s Royal Rumble. Would the hate be as loud? We’ll never know.
All we really know is that for a few weeks – and especially a few early-day hours – leading up to Saturday night was a lot of fun. People were excited for a WWE event again and it felt good for the wrestling world as a whole. The build can often be better than the match in pro wrestling; in real life, the walk-up to this year’s Royal Rumble reiterated that very reality.
For better or for worse.