But the real focus was on something brand new, that being the first women’s Royal Rumble match and quite how that might work, given the strong but still comparatively small number of full-time ‘main roster’ competitors and which ‘legends’ could fill the gaps.
As is becoming standard for the WWE’s big four shows, this year’s Royal Rumble came with a two-hour ‘pre-show’ featuring three matches extending the overall running time in excess of six hours!
Kalisto, Lince Dorado & Gran Metallik vs TJP, Jack Gallagher & Drew Gulak
A crusierweight multiman match is usually a good way to get a crowd warmed up, but, as the match began the arena looked all but empty putting the performers in something of an awkward situation.
None the less they did what they do and did it well with chain wrestling mixed with a few flashy spots marking the early going.
As the match went on things did get bigger and the growing crowd showed appreciation as it culminated in a fast and tight final sequence that saw Kalisto pick up the win over TJP with his Solida Del Sol flipping inverted DDT.
It just remains a shame to see such good performers sidelined in what feels like a novelty position, particularly given the evident talents of the likes of Gallagher who recently stole the show back in Progress when he challenged Pete Dunne for WWE’s UK Championship – however given external issues hopefully things will pick up going forward.
Balor Club (Karl Anderson & Luke Gallows) vs The Revival (Dash Wilder & Scott Dawson)
Continuing a story begun last week at the 25th anniversary of Monday Night Raw, these two recently rejuvenated teams did exactly what we’d expect in putting on a solid if standard tag team contest.
While it’s slightly odd seeing Gallows and Anderson in the fan favourite role they were a good match to The Revivals ‘vintage team work’ style attacks.
While The Revival are a consummate matched pair, The Club have a different presence with the controlled Anderson being a counterpoint to the directed chaos (pun intended) of Gallows, but it was the calculated attack of the younger team that got the upper hand, though this feels like the beginning of a longer story that will hopefully help elevate both teams back up to championship level.
WWE United States Championship
Open Challenge Match
‘Glorious’ Bobby Roode (c) vs Mojo Rawley
As he now seems to be finding his feet as a stronger part of the Smackdown upper mid card, Bobby Roode received a very nice greeting in Philadelphia before his surprise opponent was greeted even more loudly, but certainly not in a positive way.
Mojo might be big and athletic but his wrestling limitations really showed here so Roode led the match very well. Even if he’s a more natural heel it’s clear how much of a master he is in the ring.
While the finish fell a little flat it was good to see Roode go over with his Glorious DDT, and I hope this all points to him being a high level star in WWE down the line.
Much like NXT TakeOver the night before WWE didn’t waste time getting to the big action, so after a great intro video that really did make the event feel as important as it is it was right into the action with…
WWE World Heavyweight Championship
AJ Styles (c) vs Sami Zayn & Kevin Owens
While Owens was greeted very favourably initially it was clear as soon as he stepped into the arena that AJ Styles really owns the hardcore WWE crowd making for the rare case of a WWE saying that rings true, Smackdown Live is ‘the house that AJ Styles built’.
With Owens back in his brilliant bullying role and Zayn as his sidekick, both men seem to have upped their already strong game as the match fell into a routine of Owens getting the upper hand only for Styles to fight back, usually at the expense of Zayn.
With the crowd really into things, Styles impressively countered a monkey flip from Owens into a huricanrana on Zayn before locking in his Calf Crusher submission that came close to getting the submission.
After surviving a Phenomenal Forearm and some very nice stiff strikes from Styles the end came as the ref called a tag that didn’t appear to happen and AJ got the roll up on Owens to retain.
The missed call on the tag was an odd moment that I couldn’t tell if it was intentional or not but it does serve to add fuel to the fire of Owens and Zayn’s feud with Shane McMahon, while Styles overcoming two opponents ads to his growing legacy as champion as we head to Wrestlemania.
While not a show stealer, this match showed off the best of all three men and continues Styles run of very impressive performances at Royal Rumble events (following his debut in 2016 and match with John Cena in 2017).
Smackdown Tag Team Championship
Two out of Three Falls Match
The Usos (c) vs Chad Gable and Shelton Benjamin
Since their transition into more tough guy characters The Usos have become a regular highlight of the tag team scene and remained so as they made their way to the ring here.
While athletically impressive this was something Gable and Benjamin couldn’t match.
With a blurred heel/face dynamic it was hard to know exactly who to get behind but the wrestling was great so, what’s not to like – and I was behind the Usos all the way regardless.
The first fall really was where all the action happened with ground wrestling from Gable, followed by a spectacular flurry from Jey Uso including multiple dives to the floor.
A rarely seen in WWE Tiger Suplex from Gable only got a two as did a ‘Paydirt’ facebuster from Benjamin but it was a series of super kicks from the champions on Gable that secured them the first fall.
After that the rest of the match seemed to go a little quickly but did include a brutal looking double team powerbomb/bulldog to the floor, but a roll up ‘out of nowhere’ secured the defence for the champions in a mixed but ultimately enjoyable contest.
Men’s Royal Rumble
After a redone version of the usual ‘it’s all about the numbers’ hype video it was time, surprisingly early in the show, but suitably given what came later, for the men’s Royal Rumble match.
At more that an hour and featuring 30 competitors I’m not going to go through it blow-by-blow but starting off with the now crazily over Rusev and the always popular Finn Balor set the tone well.
Across the match there was a nice balance of styles, with lower card performers standing alongside more main event talent making for a match that genuinely felt like it could have gone a number of ways, often a rarity, and showed just how deep WWE’s roster is as we enter 2018.
An early highlight came with the sub-plot of Heath Slater struggling to even make it to the ring following being attacked on his entrance by an angry, eliminated, Baron Corbin, only to one up past winner Sheamus in matter of seconds.
NXT was well represented, which was great, with not only a large proportion of the main show talent having come through that ‘developmental’ route but also appearance from NXT champion Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas, who put in a very impressive showing, and Adam Cole (Bay-Bay) out to ‘shock the system’ to a big reaction and a great performance.
A highlight gimmicky surprise came with the arrival of Shane ‘Hurricane’ Helms and of course Kofi Kingston had his usual unique survival spot – albeit this time more comedic than athletic but still impressive.
As the match neared its end, with six men left, the story became veterans of WWE vs relative newcomers from NXT so it was John Cena, Randy Orton and a one night returning Rey Mysterio Jr against Roman Reigns, Finn Balor and Shinsuke Nakamura.
Then with Orton and Mysterio gone it became the ‘indie darlings’ (for want of a better description) against the WWE boys with Balor and Nakamura against Reigns and Cena.
Balor was the first to go at the hands of Cena, hopefully setting wheels in motion heading to Wrestlemania, before Nakamura stole the show and the match in impressive fashion eliminating both the mainstay favourites with his ‘Kinshasa’ knee strike.
This seems to have set up the dream match against AJ Styles for Wrestlemania, giving WWE a chance to relive their show stealer from NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom in 2015.
As a whole this was one of the most well structured, balanced and hotly contested Royal Rumble matches in some time, only helped by one of my favourite performers coming out on top against two guys I might respect but don’t overly like (I know I sound like an indie wrestling mark).
Raw Tag Team Championship
Seth Rollins & Jason Jordan (c) vs The Bar (Sheamus and Cesaro)
Given the appearance from three of these four men in Rumble this felt oddly positioned and I can only assume this was switched around at the last-minute due to the issues surrounding the Cruiserweight Championship match that was originally scheduled.
Unsurprisingly after the marathon before it the audience (myself included) was somewhat deflated at this point and the slightly awkward story around an injury to Jordan probably didn’t help that.
That said Rollins in particular, but Cesaro and Sheamus as well, all put on a solid match with some nice moments, including a double frog splash from Rollins, but as The Bar picked up the win and another reign as champions and the Seth and Jordan story took another step forward, this one fell a little flat.
WWE Universal Championship
Brock Lesnar (c) w/ Paul Heyman vs Braun Strowman vs Kane
With Brock Lesnar on great taunting form pre-match, and with Strowman and Kane as his challengers, it was no secret this wasn’t going to be technical masterclass and from the start it was hard-hitting and brutal.
Strowman impressed early with a shotgun dropkick to Lesnar but was slowed down after he hit a stiff knee on Lesnar who quickly gave a receipt with one of the nastiest looking punches I’ve ever seen in a pro-wrestling ring.
With no rests the three destroyed everything around them including all three announcers tables with Strowman and Kane both taking F5’s through the furniture, before hitting multiple powerslams on the champion.
The end came to this flurry of chaos as Kane took an F5 on a steel chair giving the champion the win but emphasising the point made quickly by Strowman that Brock hasn’t beaten him yet.
Even if the crowd were still recovering from the Royal Rumble they got into this one and it was exactly what you’d expect from The Beast, The Monster and The Machine following their destructive rampage in the preceding weeks and I’m looking forward to seeing Strowman challenge Lesnar again one-on-one.
Women’s Royal Rumble
Given the way the event had been promoted and that this was a brand new match within it the show being headlined by the women’s Royal Rumble made perfect sense and continues to show the development of the division and, I hope, isn’t just WWE paying lip service to a trend (to be clear I don’t think it is but I’ve learnt to be sceptical about WWE’s motivations in the past).
With the two champions at ringside things got underway with Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch in the ring for a fast paced start.
As with the men’s match there’s too much to go into detail but with a field of 30 we knew there’d be a number of surprise and/or legends involved, though one of the biggest surprises was hearing Stephanie McMahon on commentary credit Chyna’s part in women wrestling.
Highlights among the legends came with Lita making an appearance and hitting her trademark moonsault, a face off between Beth Phoenix and Nia Jax, and the return of Trish Stratus – and I can’t avoid the great comedy moment with Vickie Guerrero.
Both Kairi Sane and Ember Moon from NXT gave impressive showings before things culminated with Asuka, Sasha and The Bella Twins in the ring.
With Banks in more heelish mode she looked to team with the Bellas against Asuka but that broke down and sisters eliminated her after an impressive 53 minutes, but it was The Empress of Tomorrow who survived the attack of the sisters to claim her place against a champion at WrestleMania.
While slightly scrappier than the men’s match the women’s Royal Rumble was hugely impressive and enjoyable and I hope this isn’t a one-off, though in future maybe making it a 20 woman match and having less of the legends would make more sense.
Arguably the biggest surprise of the night is what came after as, with Asuka, and champions Charlotte Flair and Alexa Bliss in the ring, Joan Jett’s Bad Reputation blasted through the speakers signalling the arrival of former UFC champions ‘Rowdy’ Ronda Rousey.
Entering the ring and having notable moments with Flair and Asuka, as well as shaking hands with McMahon at ringside, Rousey pointed to the WrestleMania sign in the symbolic fashion we all now recognise before heading to the back.
While this has been seen as controversial placement, stealing the thunder of the winner, by some, for me it made sense as it didn’t take anything from the match itself while creating a mainstream high-profile moment.
While I’m always dubious about transfers from MMA into pro-wrestling being pushed too quickly, and it was clear Rousey didn’t really have any character here, I’m interested to see what happens next both in her story and of those of the other women, particularly Asuka and Sasha Banks.
In all this made for one of the better WWE shows in recent memory (as the Rumble often is) and certainly seemed to set many wheels in motion for what could be a classic WrestleMania down the road, something WWE really need for the more dedicated wrestling fans, and at over 6 hours including the pre-show, it didn’t really drag either, which is no mean feat.