While there’s no denying that WrestleMania is the WWE’s, and all of pro-wrestling’s, biggest event of the year, what comes second could be debated, is it NJPW’s January fourth show (this year WrestleKingdom 11), is it SummerSlam (WWE’s WrestleMania of the summer) or is it the Royal Rumble where WWE kickstarts its year and the ‘Road to WrestleMania’?
If be hard pressed to argue against the Rumble, not only is it a launching off point for WWE’s hottest season its name has entered the pop culture lexicon like few things from pro-wrestling ever have and, with supposedly more than 50,000 in attendance the 2017 edition of the show could well confirm my argument.
Even in the pre show it was clear that The Alamodome was a vast arena and a far better scale of this was given than in the 1997 event which also took place here and even as the warm up matches got under way the crowd was already huge.
Kick Off Show
Becky Lynch, Nikki Bella and Naomi vs Alexa Bliss, Mickie James and Natalya
While a women’s six-man tag match screams throwaway warmup match it was clear that all six competitors, Superstars if you will, didn’t want this to be seen that way as all were obviously giving it their all.
Seeing Mickie James back on the main shows was great and gives a boost to the Smackdown roster that is otherwise made up of many lesser experienced performers or those moving out of the Diva-era into new WWE women’s wrestling.
As the match went on several storylines were developed or set up that could all feed into WrestleMania but it was the startlingly athletic Naomi pinning the Smackdown Women’s Champion Alexa Bliss after a split legged moonsalut that was the biggest story moment and I expect to see this play out as we head toward April.
WWE Raw Tag Team Championship
Luke Gallows & Karl Anderson (aka The Club) vs Cesaro & Sheamus (c)
Following a bit of a flat run in the middle of 2016, the new year has started with former IWGP Tag Team Champions, The Club, on great form while the development of the tag team champions has been equally great to watch so this felt like a natural match about who of these two rough and tough teams is the best.
As expected the action was hard-hitting throughout with The Club playing the classic heels and Sheamus and Cesaro’s teamwork growing to new heights, including some nice tandem attacks.
The gimmick of the second referee of course came into play in the conclusion as one ref ate a Brogue Kick from Sheamus allowing The Club to hit their Magic Killer finisher in the Irishman before Anderson rolled up Cesaro with a handful of tights to capture the gold.
This left stuff nicely open for the feud to continue on to Mania and showed The Club as they should have been all along, hard-hitting, dastardly heels of the old school.
Sasha Banks vs Nia Jax
While this match felt like it had come a little out of nowhere over the last few weeks Banks’ history shows she is rarely less than a good performer and Jax has developed into a solid, if slightly one-dimensional performer and that about sums up how the match went.
With a typical big wrestler vs small wrestler story it wasn’t anything special but Sasha is great at getting sympathy as Nia beat her with size and strength at every turn.
Sasha got a brief comeback after Jax went shoulder first into the ring post including hitting a nice double knee dive. Like Nakamura last night at NXT Takeover though this was Bank’s downfall and her knee injury allowed Jax to hit the pop-up Samoan Drop for the win.
While it’s no surprise to see Nia Jax get pushed (she is after all both an imposing presence and a cousin to The Rock) I’m not sure where she can go now as a dominating heel and Charlotte Flair also sitting atop the mountain as a dominant heel of a different flavour.
As I’ve said previously the Royal Rumble is arguably the second biggest show in the pro-wrestling calendar and with an opening hype video like this it really got that across. Unlike many other shows which focus on all sorts of things it was clear that this was all about champions and contenders.
All the matches before the Rumble were for a title and then, of course, the Rumble itself is for a shot at the WWE World or Universal Championship at WrestleMania and from the off its clear this huge crowd was an excited for the show.
WWE Raw Women’s Championship
Bayley vs Charlotte Flair (c)
As her music hit and she made her way onto the stage in her ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage colours and tassels the crowd erupted for Bayley, showing the ongoing potential she has to be a top-level babyface like few female performers her.
Charlotte was greeted by a similarly loud reaction but suited to her heel persona as she has, over the past year, really grown into her role as a Flair to great effect.
As the heel champion Flair set the tone with a slow and steady pace, working down her faster more exuberant challenger before Bayley came back with speed and pace including a baseball slide hurricanrana, springboard cross body and Savage style diving elbow drop, before Charlotte regained the advantage with some brilliantly heelish use of the ring apron and steel stairs.
After that it was nearly all Charlotte as she continued to build her dominant persona culminating in a Natural Selection cutter on the ring apron. While this wasn’t the stormer I thought it might manage to be it was still a good, classically paced, contest and it remains great to see the women’s matches given the same level of importance and respect now as the men’s.
WWE Universal Championship
Roman Reigns vs Kevin Owens (c)
No Disqualification with Chris Jericho suspended above the ring in a shark cage!
While the gimmick may sound ridiculous it has its history back in the old territorial days and WWE have recently revived it with the same being used back at NXT Takeover: Toronto in November with Paul Ellering in the cage. Now it was Jericho’s turn to stop him from interfering in the match.
Owens and Jericho’s arrival got a very positive response (despite their heel role) while the reaction was typically very mixed with the lower, louder boos winning out.
The match itself was a great brawling affair starting with a walk and brawl through the crowd before Owens got the upper hand with a cannonball into the barricade and attempting to powerbomb Reigns throw a pyramid of steel chairs.
Back in the ring the pace slowed as Reigns took control in a far more heel way than anything Owen was really doing before ‘The Big Dog’ headed out the ring and set up a table. It wasn’t long before the table came into play with Owens getting the upper hand and hitting a top rope frog splash on Reigns through the table on the floor to a huge reaction.
After some more back and forth as Reigns survived the table splash Jericho dropped some brass knuckles into the ring and Owens attempted to use them to no avail before taking a Samoan drop onto a steel chair but coming back with a Stone Cold Stunner.
In what felt like the climax of the match Reigns again returned fire driving Owens through the announce table after sending him flying from the top rope through the pyramid of chairs as the crowd continued its mixed response to his every move.
As it looked like the win was secured though Braun Strowman appeared from nowhere chokeslamming Reigns through the table before powerslamming him through another allowing Owens to retain the Universal Championship.
While this felt like a great high stakes match it was once again a strange one with Reigns role as something of a ‘tweener’ still not really working in a satisfying way, though he is constantly putting on decent matches now. With most of the big bumps being taken by Kevin Owens really showed him as the more dedicated worker and the input of Strowman felt like it didn’t totally make sense given what came later in the night.
WWE Cruiserweight Championship
Neville vs Rich Swann (c)
Another match that had a great build through both Raw and the 205 Live show it was no surprise it got off to a fast start with Neville reinvigorated as the heel and Swann far more on the warpath than we’ve seen to date.
Neville looks like a beast now and after Swann getting the upper hand early the Geordie came back with a powerful missile dropkick from the top rope before slowing the pace down and using his strength to take the advantage.
Swann came back with a series of stiff kicks, showing he can play Neville’s game too, and hit his spinning heel kick finisher too close to the ropes to get the win.
The end came with a nasty looking superplex (it shows why smaller people doing this move is more dangerous) before Neville locked in his Rings of Saturn style double armbar to claim the Cruiserweight crown.
While the math was decent it didn’t sizzle quite as I thought it might but with the crowd in recovery mode from Roman/Owens and gearing up for Cena/Styles that’s not too surprising and with a solid heel at the top of the Cruiserweight roster now it can only help elevate the 205 Live brand further.
WWE World Championship
John Cena vs AJ Styles (c)
The build up to this match has been bubbling away since last summer and really hit a final burst in the last couple of weeks with an intense war of words between the pair that saw Cena take a darker turn than we’ve seen in a while and Styles’ role as well-travelled legit ‘world champion’ elevated even further.
As the pair were announced both received a mix response (showing how well tweener characters can work) before Cena got the early advantage with a, for him, vicious and physical attack.
For the whole match the crowd were loud and animated as the pair went back and forth time and again with both hitting their big moves early for near falls.
In a very nice sequence the pair traded holds from Cena’s AA to Styles Calf Crusher then STFs from each man and finally a figure-four leg lock from Cena referencing the fact that if he won this Cena would equal Ric Flair’s record number of world championships before AJ revered again into a cross arm breaker.
From there it was a flurry of big moves from both including powerbombs, an avalanche AA, the Styles Clash twice, an Ushigoroshi and more.
The crowd was going nuts for all the near falls as Styles set up for another Phenomenal Forearm before Cena countered, hitting a pair of AAs for the win to equal Flair’s record and, in a nice touch, the referee was long time Flair compatriot Charles Robinson.
While the match was very good (I don’t think it was ‘the best WWE Championship match ever’ as some have claimed) the logic of putting the belt on Cena again is lost on me.
He is a star with or without the belt both in the ring and out and he can’t be elevated any further in the wrestling world by having the championship again. While I respect his work and work ethic I will admit to never getting Cena but I am, as if it wasn’t obvious, a wrestling nerd not a casual fan, though I would have thought keeping the title on Styles going into WrestleMania would have helped elevate him while Cena remains the same star level he has been for the better part of a decade.
30 Man Battle Royal For A World of Universal Championship Match at WrestleMania
With more than 50,000 fans singalong to Enzo Amore and Big Cass the Rumble this year got going with the 7-foot New Yorker squaring off against the WWE United States Champion Chris Jericho.
With this being one of the most star-studded Rumbles in its 30 year history there was a real sense of anticipation and as Kalisto and Mojo Rawley entered the pace picked up and it got a nice flow going.
UK cruiserweight Jack Gallagher was a nice highlight early entrant and got up to some fun with his umbrella but was sadly the first man out at the hands of a returning (again) Mark Henry before the arrival of ‘The Monster Amongst Men’ Braun Strowman.
Strowman cleared most from the ring with Jericho sneaking away to hide with the announcers like the classic heel he is. It was clear at this point the first ‘story’ in this year’s Rumble would be based around Braun Strowman but his recent rival Sami Zayn survived the initial attack to stay in.
Entry number 10 was, as many had predicted and hoped, NXT’s ‘Perfect Ten’ Tye Dillinger and he and Zayn took the attack to Strowman while James Ellsworth provided a nice amusing moment leading to a nasty landing getting sent over the top rope by the monster.
Things became a battle of the big men as Baron Corbin hit the ring and after a flurry from all, including a stiff looking Helluva Kick from Zayn, Corbin sent Strowman out in something of a shock moment.
With Kofi Kingston’s usual survival spot not living up to past efforts the next part of the match saw Sheamus hit the ring in stiff mode battering his way through everyone before his tag team partner Cesaro arrived and hit his Giant Swing on anyone that got too close.
The pair soon eliminated The New Day, reinvigorating their rivalry, before being eliminated themselves by Jericho.
The next section of the match was built around the ongoing collapse of The Wyatt Family with Randy Orton hitting RKO’s on many before Luke Harper turned on Bray Wyatt and the feud hit a new high.
At this point it was clear the big name part timers were all coming late in the match and the crowd were getting impatient for it with regular Goldberg chants filling the Alamodome until Brock Lesnar’s music hit and the crowd erupted. The presence of quite so many part timers getting quite so much glory here is something that irks me a bit but I can see the draw they have to more casual fans, especially the three big names here Lesnar, Goldberg and The Undertaker.
Lesnar did what he does with multiple eliminations, suplexes and F-5s before the comparatively tiny Enzo Amore hit the ring all brash bluster and did one of the best sells on a clothesline I’ve seen in a long time before going over the top rope at the hands of the Beast.
With the field clear (or at least all downed at the hands of Lesnar) the epic music of Goldberg blared and he stalked to the ring face off with one of his greatest rivals. In a repeat of Survivor Series in November there’s a spear, a clothesline and Goldberg sends Lesnar packing in another shock moment that looks to be leading to a rematch at WrestleMania.
With an open moment Orton and Wyatt attack Goldberg before Goldberg gets the upper hand but the lights go out and The Undertaker appears in the ring attacking and eliminating Goldberg in another shock.
The final man out is, of course, Roman Reigns to another unbalanced reaction and he and Taker face off and go at it before Reigns sends Taker to the floor and I can only assume that WWE is finally pushing Reigns as an all out heel as the crowd chanted ‘bullshit’ at quite some volume.
With Reigns, Orton and Wyatt remaining Roman fought back eliminating Bray before Randy countered a spear into an RKO and got the, to me, surprise win to get a shot at John Cena at WrestleMania.
While I will admit to not being too hot on the idea of Cena vs Orton again at Mania the end of the match was nicely delivered but as a whole the match felt unbalanced.
The presence of the part timers in the final chunk added little to the overall match while their interactions with the main performers did nothing but make them look weaker leaving things on something of a downer
That said I remain hopeful that WWE have some good things planned heading into WrestleMania as, while this whole show was certainly good, it lacked the magic thing to take it to the next level – maybe its too much hype that could never be lived up to?