Royal Rumble 2017 is in the books, and overall I felt it was a solid if unspectacular effort. The pressure is always on the 30-man main event to deliver the goods, and there's been more than a little discussion on social media as to whether it accomplished that or not. We saw five title matches and two title changes, and more importantly we began down the most exciting time of the year for the professional wrestling fan, the Road to WrestleMania. (On the other side of things, we also heard the WWE announcing team being forced to say "mountain among men" more times than I think was comfortable for any listener and endured a fate worse than death itself by intently focusing on Undertaker's hideous dye job.) While those last two notes may not be eating at your soul for further discourse, in honor of Tye Dillinger's Rumble entry I present to you ten burning questions from this weekend's big affair. Some of these were asked by the readers of this column, which I truly appreciate. Let's not waste any time and deal with everything arising from the weekend's wars.
Question One: Was Charlotte retaining the right decision?
The match between Charlotte and Bayley was a solid, back-and-forth affair that saw Ric's offspring continue her much-hyped undefeated streak when she violently and forcibly ended the dreams of everyone's favorite hugger with a rough Natural Selection on the apron. Before I dig into whether this was the right call, let me say that these "streaks" are a bit flash in the pan to me anyway considering everything is based on a sport where the results are fixed going in. It's not to say Charlotte or any other performer is to blame for that (or shouldn't take what they are given), but short of Undertaker's WrestleMania run and Goldberg's initial push, the importance of this stuff is highly suspect. One fault WWE has had of late is that they appear incapable of doing anything quietly. Letting Charlotte amass that pile of victories under the radar could make for an excellent storyline later, but by ramming it down our maws left and right they seem more of an egotistical heel than the heel herself. It makes sense given her character, but it didn't really add anything to this particular match and therefore I'd just as well leave it on the sideline.
The unfortunate part about all of this constant reinforced PPV winning is that it's kind of taken away a smidge from the unbelievably good work Charlotte's been doing in the ring. She pulled out all the stops here, and suffered a bloody mouth during the confrontation. That kind of result is never hoped for, due to the obvious injury implications, but can there be any doubt her wars with Sasha Banks turned all of women's wrestling up a notch? The level of physicality was very solid. Bayley's been a bit uneven since her overdue callup from NXT, and creative doesn't really seem to know how to handle her character now that she's here. She has a level of fun appeal that reminds me a lot of AJ Lee (though less offbeat), so it shouldn't be that hard to tap into. Getting girls to watch and enjoy wrestling is an ongoing challenge that you would imagine Bayley to be a solid solution for. There can be little doubt, then, that she is due for a run with the Women's Title before too much time has passed. The question is whether you feel she needed to win it Sunday night in order to move that story along.
For me, I don't think so. Face wrestlers getting disappointed when they come up short is one of the hallmarks of wrestling, and there can be little question that much of what WWE set in motion here prepped the viewing audience for what's to come at WrestleMania. Bayley's story is not over, and this intense tete-a-tete with the champion where she came within a whisper of victory elevates her quest in a way that a simple win would not. I'm happy to be hopefully rid of the silly Dana Brooke storyline and back to what this feud should be, two women showing up and kicking ass in a way that's graceful and forceful at the same time.
Question Two: What was the highlight of the show?
This is an easy question to answer, as it's undoubtedly the match between AJ Styles and John Cena for the WWE World Title. This feud has been so money that it's survived frequent interruptions due to Cena's busy Hollywood schedule, and as with most successful storylines that factor has actually been incorporated into the history between them in a way to keep things fresh and current. Going into Rumble weekend, I'm fairly sure everyone felt that this thing would deliver, but it exceeded my expectations. I give them extra credit for that because they've done battle quite a few times lately, and many of WWE's big matches have been taken down a notch with all the repetition. Because these two talents deliver each time they are called upon and know how to tell a whale of a story in the squared circle, that's just not an issue here. While it wasn't quite to the level of their last match for me, it's close enough that it matters not. Let's also note that Cena winning the belt actually felt a bit like an upset with him losing to Styles previously once or twice. That's a major accomplishment considering where we began.
Kevin Owens and Roman Reigns acquitted themselves admirably in their own title match, but were perhaps overshadowed a bit by the weapon implications of the no-disqualification stip and the theatrics of the wonderful Chris Jericho. No such tricks were needed here, just two main event talents unleashing everything in their respective repertoires to defeat the opposition. For Styles, it's a bit late to say that this is his official coming out party, but rather a furthering of the tale he's telling of truly being perhaps the best in the world. He's dialed it up a notch verbally during this feud, and that's why pitting him against a very solid talker in Cena was a good choice. The belt feels important because they are both making it important, and that can't be understated. The fact that it's an outsider talent like Styles who WWE previously passed on to perform for them shows perhaps just how far their thinking has come. It may be late, but it should be applauded.
It's unclear how long WWE plans to keep the belt on Cena, but it's highly doubtful that it's a long time considering his other commitments. I have no issue with the finish as it keeps the rivalry going and actually gives Styles ammunition on how to win it back. Cena is a proven merchandise mover and has delivered over and over again for the company. This is not a case of handing something to a nostalgia act; it's on the contrary rewarding a tried and true performer with a reward for his continued efforts. This Cena 2.0 is more relatable because he actually does lose, and he'll be losing again before too long if that's your thing. The match itself was so good that the result didn't end up mattering to me. The journey was compelling enough. What else can we ask for?
Question Three: What was the disappointment of the night?
This is likely a harder question to quantify, as I have a few answers. Overall, though, my largest issue coming out of Sunday's show was the continued misuse of the cruiserweight division. Let's be clear that my problem is obviously not with the new Cruiserweight champion, Neville, who has latched onto something with his new heel persona and really energized things. It's also not with Rich Swann, who did a very good job in the championship match and actually spent the majority of the match in control. These two guys did a more than credible job for their part (assisted as always by the highly entertaining Austin Aries at the commentator's desk), but they were put on immediately following the aforementioned Owens/Reigns match that tore the roof off the place with high spots. It was one of those times where no matter what they did, it wasn't going to equal what went before. Poor planning. If the cruiser division is built on giving us the most excitement we can handle, it has to deliver and be given the opportunity to do so.
In addition to that decision, it didn't take the company long to make us all forget about the excellent quality of the CWC and return to their past crimes of treating the division like toys for the big boys. If you remember Kevin Nash launching Rey Mysterio into the side of a trailer during the Monday Night Wars, you'll know that it's essentially been a blueprint for how Vince McMahon has treated those talents for large stretches of their time in the company. It's for comic effect and to get the strongmen over, not to be taken seriously for what it is. If you needed evidence that those biases persist, look no further than the Royal Rumble match itself, where Jack Gallagher's umbrella was more of a factor than he was and guys like Kallisto and Dillinger existed simply to be cannon fodder for the main eventers. Most guys are not going to be booked strongly in the Rumble, as it's just not possible, but do we need to be already headed to the Santino route? Does Gallagher retain any credibility when he's being called Mary Poppins?
This has happened all too frequently, and combined with the amount of title changes the Cruiserweight belt has had since its inception, it's running the risk of turning the whole thing rancid in a hurry. The matches have become highly abbreviated, often taking less time than it takes to change the ring ropes over. I can't imagine this is what they envisioned when they made a big deal of doing the cruiser division separately on Raw. The market is there for this and WWE has never been deeper with world-class performers capable of making you stand up and take notice. Pity they aren't generally getting the opportunity to, particularly when the most eyeballs are glued. Side note: Love Neville ending the match with a submission.
Question Four: Who was the standout star of the Rumble itself?
This year's Rumble was a bit disjointed, as most of the favorites entered in the final eight to ten slots and cleared what had by that point become a very full ring. The Rumble is always a couple of big stories and a couple of smaller ones, and the first half was the expected domination of Braun Strowman. I was a bit surprised that Baron Corbin was the one to eliminate the former Wyatt member, considering Corbin is a heel and on another brand, but it was unexpected and a nice treat. The second half really came down to the standoff between Brock Lesnar and Goldberg, which naturally we did get, and the result was surprising there as well. Lesnar dominated the ring as he has the company for much of his tenure, only to be summarily removed from the playing field by his nemesis. The idea that Goldberg is in Lesnar's head makes their inevitable showdown at WrestleMania a bigger deal, whether a title is involved or not. (For the record, I wouldn't.)
One of the likeliest picks for this honor would be Jericho, who followed up a tremendously entertaining performance inside the shark cage with a Rumble where he came out second and stayed in until the final four. He spent a good bit of the evening on the floor and out of the action, however, so I can't really go with him. I also thought Sami Zayn came off very strong, surviving his brush with frequent foe Strowman to hang in there for quite a while. Zayn, much like Miz, existed to take people's finishers for a good portion of the match, but seeing his endurance and versatility added to him. Both guys ended up being the traditional unheralded workers in a match like this, laying the groundwork for the part-time celebrities to benefit from.
The winner, of course, was Randy Orton, rumored in the days leading up to the match but still a bit of a surprise. That surprise was added to in a smart way by WWE when they brought Roman Reigns out in the vaunted #30 spot (more on that next) and made it seem as if he was headed to the big match anyway even after coming up short against Owens. Orton didn't eliminate anyone until he tossed Reigns out, which I personally like, but it was Wyatt boss Bray that gets my vote. I thought he performed admirably as a wrestler and an actor with his reactions to both Harper (now seemingly a full face) and Orton, and there are tons of questions arising from what happened at the end that should elevate Bray back to where he should be. Orton, naturally, was playing the master of mind games all along, a conclusion that's still not clear but inevitable. Wyatt's best work is yet to come and that's saying something.
Question Five: Roman Reigns at thirty? Really?
As mentioned, nothing gets blood boiling like Reigns, and WWE loves to stir the pot. Many a fan was gladdened at seeing their nightmares not come to fruition when Braun Strowman charged down to the ring in a surprise finish and laid out the former Shield member in a major way, allowing Owens to steal another win. Those same fans were beside themselves when Roman was a surprise entrant in the final Rumble spot of the evening, and WWE twisted the knife by not only having Reigns eliminate Jericho and Bray, but sentimental favorite The Undertaker in undoubtedly one of the two biggest moments of the Rumble match. (The other being Lesnar/Goldberg.) Where Taker/Reigns goes is a good question, but for right now we'd have to assume he'll have his hands full with Strowman.
If you've been campaigning for Reigns to turn heel (and haven't we all), you should unilaterally support this move as it introduces bad blood between him and someone that is pretty much beloved by the entire audience. He did seem to play up the heel angle a bit with his reaction to eliminating Taker, so you'd assume it's headed somewhere, but it's no guarantee that happens at WM. There's still plenty of road to hoe between now and then. Had Roman won the match, the criticism would be much more warranted, but he ended up being a two-time loser on the evening overall rather than holding the Universal Title. What's to complain about in that?
I'll not argue the point that tossing him into the match rather than advertising him in it was a creative decision, but I support it. It got a big reaction, and it doesn't matter a whit in the long haul. I did think it was weird they didn't have him square things with Strowman, but if they are pushing a one-off with Taker it makes sense in its own way. Mostly, though, it ratcheted up some drama for the final moments and put things in place to potentially have happen what a good amount of us have been craving. There are way worse things.
Question Six: Did the surprise entrants deliver?
Not really. I've resisted getting into the hype for who's supposedly showing up at the Rumble, from the sublime (Finn Balor) to the unlikely (Kurt Angle) to the ridiculous (Donald Trump) and everywhere in between. There were eight entrants undeclared at the start of the evening, which is a pretty big number and made you think we'd get some debuts. The biggest hope may have been Samoa Joe, rumored to be heading up from NXT, but that did not materialize. I am more than okay with that, as I don't want him in the Rumble unless he's winning it. Far better to let him do a major angle tonight or tomorrow night setting up his own WM opponent than being reduced to the kind of throwaway angle discussed previously. The only true "surprise" was Tye Dillinger, predictably but effectively called at number ten. It led to a bit of offense and a nice moment before moving on. He can afford that type of treatment.
For the rest, it was a bunch of names from the verbose ring apron promoting the match tossed into a hat and called at random. Kalisto (used so poorly since his championship run it's practically a felony), Jack Gallagher (see above), Mark Henry (still not retired, apparently), James Ellsworth (comedy segment), Apollo Crews (at least they got his name right), and Enzo Amore (the intro was better than the entry) came, saw, and were obliterated. Reigns was a solid use of a surprise spot, as mentioned, but I was a bit surprised they didn't do the same with Seth Rollins. I realize he lost his spot, but far be it from WWE to not use a well-timed end around when it suits their purposes. Mick Foley couldn't overrule Stephanie and further that story of friction?
There were no retro acts this year, and that's especially disappointing to the fans in attendance. They don't always add to the match, but it's a kick to see the pop an ECW guy gets in Philly for example and it's an easy move to get people on board before they get dumped to the floor. You do get the occasional surprise that handles their business tremendously, like the late Curt Hennig in 2002. Those workers are clearly few and far between, though. I think WWE should have used a couple of those spots to bring in a couple names of the past, as they usually do. You never know what's going on behind the scenes, but they could have announced many of the guys above rather than leaving the spots out there. The expectation and disappointment is on them.
Question Seven: What happened to the Rollins/HHH angle?
The short answer is that they still sort of did it, just not at the Rumble. Rollins interrupted Saturday's very good TakeOver event to call out the boss, as he has more than once on Monday nights, but this time Trips actually showed up at the top of the ramp to have security remove the architect. There were some social media posts back and forth on the subject, with the Game in full Authority storyline mode as the impending reality of these two men battling at WrestleMania takes complete and utter focus. The decision to do it Saturday made some sense, as Triple H is highly involved in NXT and Rollins was not advertised as wrestling Sunday. It's again a bit insider though, as your average viewer might not even know those things.
I liked that they involved the NXT event in a WWE storyline, which is something I've been hoping for. Doing so elevates the smaller brand, which is already getting some good buzz, and the allure of big names potentially appearing at both shows drives ticket sales. That said, it still is a bit of a missed opportunity that there was little to no follow up at the Rumble itself. If this is one of the headline matches at WM, I would have expected a bit more pizzazz. There's also been just about no interaction between Universal champ Kevin Owens and the guy who picked him since it happened. It's another of those angles where there's a deliberate step off the gas pedal at the worst possible time. While you can do that as a dramatic choice, it doesn't seem that's the case here.
Ultimately, it's what this feud means to Seth Rollins and his direction that matters most. It's been a tough sell overall for him since moving over from the tweener to the face side of the ledger, and his attachment to the nuclear reactor that is Reigns hasn't helped matters. A match with Triple H moves his story along and should be solid if unspectacular, but I can't help but feel we're a long way from the guy we loved to hate who had a controversial and amazing-looking maneuver at the ready each and every night. They need that traction back if he's to continue to be a prominent player.
Question Eight: Why have a title change on the preshow?
This is really a great one to me, but it's an unfortunate byproduct of the times. WWE wants to stack these "Big 4" cards, and they've made the event way too long, especially if you're not in attendance. Four to five hours is a hell of a long time to watch anything, let alone fair to middling content at times, but they are pushing the value of the Network. In addition, the increase of titles with the brand split has led to too much gold altogether. On a card with both brands getting matches, there are bound to be subtractions. One such subtraction were the tag titles, as Raw's champions Sheamus and Cesaro dropped the straps to Gallows & Anderson before a good portion of the audience was even tuned in. They could consider themselves fortunate compared to Smackdown's American Alpha, however, who didn't even get onto the card at all.
Everything can't fit, naturally, but I do think the titles take a bit of a back seat when they aren't even defended on the main show. This is especially true at a Rumble or Survivor Series, where the makeup of the event inherently means you won't be seeing every title at stake. A similar issue occurred with the Smackdown Women's division, where defending champion Alexa Bliss actually took the fall to Naomi of all people. That in itself is fine, but makes little sense in the midst of her current storyline with Becky Lynch and Mickie James. It felt like filler while you got your popcorn, and champions deserve better.
As for the title change itself, it was more than fine with me. I didn't like the odd couple pairing of Sheamus and Cesaro from the start, and Gallows & Anderson have done some great stuff since ditching the horrid comedy. They had to bide their time while New Day broke Demolition's "record" and can now introduce fans on this side of the ocean to what they are truly capable of. As for the Irish and Swiss superstars, here's an interesting and depressing side note: Their whole team was created out of a series of matches featuring them fighting each other. Now they're going to be fighting each other again. The more things change...
Question Nine: What were the best and worst decisions made last night?
The best decision in my book was the booking of the end of the Rumble match. I don't think Randy Orton winning the thing was going to get anybody excited. He's a talented enough hand, no doubt, but the Wyatt storyline has been all over the map and the decision is as out of left field as a former winner can be. The staredown between Goldberg, Lesnar, and Undertaker at the end of Raw made you think that would factor into the decision, and naturally it wasn't to be. Reigns dumping out the Dead Man on the brink of delivering his promise opens up all kinds of exciting possibilities.
Really, though, this is what WWE should do with Roman at this stage: Leverage the fan's distaste to their advantage. He was the perfect choice to draw all the attention and eliminate a fan favorite dubiously, thus allowing for the WWE to quietly keep their status quo enforced with a proven winner in Orton winning again in a match nobody will remember for that fact. They constantly do this, but rarely does it work as well. Rarer still is it working to the degree that it didn't ruin the match or the event itself. I'm still unconvinced that Roman will be turning heel any time soon, but should they do so this is unquestionably the way to go. Short of turning on The Rock, this is the ultimate person for him to take on that will eliminate any option but massive boos. Which, naturally, will eventually become natural cheers. It's a bizarre biz and I adore it.
For the worst decision, a quick list: 1) Having an entrance ramp so long that guys were out of breath getting to the Rumble match before they'd even stepped in it. 2) Having Carmella put James Ellsworth's face all over her trunks. 3) Having Undertaker fail to properly register his Supercuts dye job with a trained chemical engineer. 4) Making anyone think watching an episode of Holy Foley is a good idea.
Question Ten: How solid does WrestleMania look after the Rumble?
It's tenuous to say the least. We went into the Rumble expecting we'd be seeing Rollins/HHH and Goldberg/Lesnar for sure at WM, and those plans appear to be on by all accounts. Reigns and Undertaker will likely have to be dance partners as well, which puts quite a bit of age at the top of the card but does at least provide three viable solid storylines even in doing so. I can't say I'm excited about any of those, but they have enough sex appeal to get your casual wrestling viewer from the nineties excited for a hot second.
Jericho and Owens will unquestionably break up, so whether it's for the Universal Title or otherwise that will be a solid match. Ditto Charlotte and whatever version of a match they choose, adding in Jax or Banks or all of the above, provided she does the expected and allow for a coronation of fan favorite Bayley. As for Orton, he's been promised the catbird seat, but who will provide the opposition? Wyatt would be the clear choice, but he'd have to land himself the World championship between now and then to make that possible. Is that a big enough tale to tell for the main event of a loaded show? Your call.
Ultimately, the bulk of the card is most certainly taking shape. I'm not sure it's capable of delivering what it appears on paper, but then again these events rarely do. At the very least, 2017's Royal Rumble left us with a couple of solid questions to answer while they dodged the big query again. Well played, Vince. Well played.
Agree? Disagree? Share your opinion with me @DharmanRockwell on Twitter or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org