The Royal Rumble 2016 edition has come and gone, and as always delivered on its promise to set us on the Road to WrestleMania, a white-knuckled barrel race of a journey that is conceivably at least as exciting as a ticket on the Marrakesh Express. This year’s iteration exemplified the steadfast tradition World Wrestling Entertainment has insisted on foisting on the only semi-suspecting public of late: whip furor into a barely contained frenzy over the possibility of some cosmic event occurring (Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns, The Wyatt Family winning the Royal Rumble, The Big Show serving a purpose other than large comic window dressing); perform a carefully calculated bait-and-switch routine that would impress your neighborhood Omaha Steaks salesperson (Lesnar and Reigns don’t even exchange Christmas cards, The Wyatts fade in the stretch and get back to battling demons, The Big Show is The Big Show); and hedge all possible bets post haste. In this carefully crafted sideshow of 50-50 booking, Titan Tower monitors the pulse of its ever-discerning audience and promptly flips the switches to ensure nobody ever gets what they want for long. Unless of course what you want is more McMahon Family mayhem, which has proven the most oddly irritating familial drama fired at you via the USA Network from every conceivable place with the subtlety of a gigantic T-shirt cannon. In this hall of mirrors, you can see yourself temporarily in any form you like before the inevitable occurs and things resolve into the same blasé malaise from whence you escaped. It’s sticking the landing that counts, not the dynamism of the floor performance prior, and you’d better appreciate your box of Vince’s Oat Holes and never, ever confuse them with the far sexier box of Cheerios that tempts you from the other side of the aisle. There’s a line you never thought you’d read. Bourbon is wonderful.
For any of you who missed Sunday’s show (or tonight’s tepid Raw), fear not. I will delve through the goings-on to bring you the Slams and Shams of the action. Events or individuals denoted by a Slam are those that brought excitement, entertainment, or both to the party. Contrarily, Shams are examples of the feckless booking generally proffered by the upper management these days and should be avoided at all costs. A show heavy on the former and lacking in the latter is a big win. Plus, it’s sort of catchy, so I’m going with it. Like most of my work, it’s got a very poor man’s Dr. Seuss vibe.
Sham: Tag Team Wrestling
Tag teams were supposed to be invigorated by this point under the Helmsley regime, with vague promises of returning to one’s roots and getting the pop back into this neglected segment of the roster. A pity, then, that two of the four teams appearing in the Royal Rumble preshow aren’t even really teams. That would include the exceptionally strange pairing of Damien Sandow and Darren Young, which existed simply to remind us that cheering for Sandow will result in his fate being only slightly less tragic than that of Sisyphus, and that the Prime Time Players are never ever getting back together, just like the Eagles or One Direction. (Unfortunately all too true in the case of the former. RIP Glenn Frey. Long live the Smuggler’s Blues.)
The other thrown-together pairing actually won the match, that being All-American American American (picture Mr. Kennedy saying that) with not much to do since Zeb Colter’s trip back to the void, teaming with Mark Henry. I don’t actually mind the existence of this team so much as the fact that it’s not really a team at all, allowing the announcers to blatantly inform us that most of the participants in this match are doing it just to get into the Royal Rumble. Nothing like burying the lead, guys. The two actual teams together for longer than a cup of coffee, the Dudleys and the Ascension, performed their roles admirably in reminding us why this division is lagging. While The New Day and the Usos continue to battle at the top of the heap, everyone else just stands around and watches. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the Divas division has been doing exactly the same thing as of late. For this tilt to be more interesting, they should have just had a battle royal with every team member for themselves. I like the idea of spots on the line as it makes the match more than filler. Unfortunately tag teams have become exactly that in the WWE. Side note: Creative couldn’t figure out a way to put some of the JOB Squad/Social Outcasts members in this match? At least give the impression you’re following through.
Slam: Vince McMahon
While the insipid and very forced McMahon Family vs. Roman Reigns storyline has been largely a snooze, one gigantic exception to that mantra exists in the personage of Mr. McMahon. McMahon is a classic heel, and he does it to a degree that just about everyone else not named Ric Flair can be envious of. Look no further than the promo to open the Rumble itself, in which Vince makes random cantankerous observations about the local arena and promptly reminds us how much he’s stacked the deck against Reigns. Obvious? Sure. But executed so well that you don’t care. Vinnie Mac had more of the same in store Monday, running down the occupants in Miami and making evil billionaire exhortations left and right. Put simply, even when McMahon’s patter isn’t on it’s still some of the best stuff you’ll see on any given night. Vince showing up week in and week out to remind us how it’s done is a very good thing. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the only things of late.
Slam: Kevin Owens
Owens was the workhorse for most of the evening Sunday in all the right ways, and deserves major kudos for it. Owens has drawn mixed reviews recently, with everything from his opening salvo of matches to his physical conditioning serving as cannon fodder for those who back the antiquated idea of what a “champion” should look like, but he’s a fantastic natural heel and eats up that role. His commentary during his own matches is tremendous, and hilariously on point. Plus there’s the not-small matter of his ring work being exemplary over the last few months. Owens had a Last Man Standing throwdown with Intercontinental Champion Dean Ambrose at the Rumble, and as most of those matches have shown, it was a hot and solid effort to start the main show. Owens gamely went to battle with Ambrose and threw everything but the kitchen sink at him, only to experience defeat. That included a well-done spot at the end where Owens was pushed off the turnbuckle and through a couple of tables, the kind of bump that includes a no-doubt-about-it level of true pain in order to leave you agape. Owens would return later in the Rumble match itself, limping down the runway and performing one of the best villainous moves of the evening in depositing AJ Styles to the floor after welcoming him to the competition. He’s the best man for that job already, and that’s why he’s extremely solid. Shortly thereafter, his joy came to shame as Sami Zayn made a surprise appearance and deposited the bully (and his dreams) out of the Rumble match. Whether Owens renews his emotionally compelling rivalry with Zayn or begins a program with Styles is far less relevant than the clear fact he has arrived in a major way.
Sham: Alberto Del Rio
On the other side of the scale, Alberto Del Rio must be wondering why exactly he returned to WWE at all. Having walked into one hell of an angle with his surprise appearance and conquest of United States champion John Cena, Del Rio’s upstart feud with Kallisto of all people has produced some entertaining wrestling but some puzzling booking. ADR came in like a ball of fire, but his losses to one half of the Lucha Dragons have left me puzzled as to the longview here. Witness Sunday, where Del Rio came up short in losing the belt for the second time in a couple of weeks, then returned for the Rumble match to serve as a five-minute non-factor primarily focused on becoming Roman Reigns’s lunch. Whatever momentum and buzz was generated by his return has been squandered in favor of bigger and better things. It’s a pity, because his look and work have both improved since we saw him last.
Slam: AJ Styles
Unless you remained spoiler free (and bully for you), you likely knew that AJ’s presence backstage cemented the fact that he would be actively participating in Sunday’s Rumble. To WWE’s credit, they debuted the well-known Styles in the right way, giving him nearly a half an hour in his first match to showcase his obvious skills and tell a decent story. This is a bigger deal still when you consider that the WWE doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to presenting rival talent. The crowd was behind Styles from the beginning, making it clear the decision to start him on the main roster rather than NXT was the right one, and his elimination from the match didn’t spoil a thing. Would I have preferred a Bullet Club reunion right out of the chute? Naturally. Notwithstanding that pipe dream, though, this was the next best thing. Monday’s Raw provided an obvious but nonetheless extension by allowing Styles to work with Chris Jericho, allowing for the best possible outcome of Styles winning a squeaker against a willing veteran hand before the slightly uncomfortable handshake/staredown that followed. More of this please. Daniel Bryan’s absence has created a vacuum that only someone with the talent and experience of AJ Styles can try to fill.
Slam: Sasha Banks
The Divas Title match was a tame affair, with Ric Flair’s predictable interference preventing Becky Lynch from dethroning daughter Charlotte. The Lynch/Charlotte breakup existed solely to place Charlotte where she belongs on the heel side of the ledger, with the frankly hilarious hints that it was due to Ric being the dirtiest player in the game. While Ric was unquestionably one hell of a baddie in his day, it’s been a steady parade of John Cena love notes and divorce attorneys since then. In any event, booing Charlotte is really the natural thing to do. She’s egotistical, she thinks she’s better than you, and she comes out to a remixed version of Also Sprach Zarathustra, which is not what you thought better of ordering at Chipotle yesterday. That sea change meant the need existed to come up with Charlotte’s next real challenger, which fortunately for all of us is Sasha Banks. Banks tore it up in NXT and hasn’t really been given the opportunity to turn heads with her semi-ridiculous posse. Now that those reindeer games have ended, Sasha has been placed in a great position and got the perfect springboard with her surprise beatdown of Charlotte. This feud will be great and will give Sasha the chance to take the ball and run with it for this division in a way we’ve not seen since AJ Lee. Between the Bella retirement potential and the Paige character seesaw, the time is most certainly right.
Sham: The League of Nations
Even at its zeitgeist, the League was pretty much just an opportunity to surround the Band-Aid champion Sheamus with some running buddies to help ease the blow of the unfortunate Seth Rollins injury. Sheamus was clearly a placeholder, and surrounding him with a bunch of foreign big bads was a concept that likely sounded a lot better a couple decades ago. Now that we’ve moved on to Roman Reigns vs. HHH, the need for this group has lessened, and they’ve been relegated to a position similar to Brisco and Patterson’s stooges. They show up and get decimated to make way for their fearless leader. Bad News Barrett was MIA once again for the Rumble, dealing with a combination of injuries and lack of creative. For the three men that did make the trip, bad news abounded for them as well. The travails of Del Rio were mentioned above, and Rusev barely had time to get a cup of Sanka before Reigns tossed him to the floor to open the action. Sheamus fared slightly better, drawing a late number and surviving an ambush by a returning Reigns in the entrance aisle. He actually eliminated Bray Wyatt in one of the Rumble’s more interesting sequences (a staredown by Bray, booked strongly, and HHH himself) before becoming grist for the mill as Reigns made hay with the overused and silly Superman Punch. Other than being insulted by The Rock and losing to Reigns again and again, what is the point of this faction? Over and done.
Slam: Chris Jericho
What’s better than Y2J? Not much. Jericho being back in the WWE has been more than a sigh of relief, and he showed exactly why he’s one of the all-time best in Sunday’s Rumble. Jericho is perfect for that type of match, as he has the staying power and arsenal to go the distance without taking too much of a hit when he’s eventually eliminated. While nobody likely thought of Jericho as a candidate to win the match, he performed admirably and showed he can more than hang with the current roster. Jericho entered the ring at number six and mixed it up with everyone, hanging around until the end and giving Dean Ambrose the honor of dashing his dreams. Monday’s Raw showed Jericho in prime form again, doing battle in a losing effort against WWE’s newest roster member, AJ Styles. Allowing an opponent to go over to his own detriment is something Jericho has done time and time again, writing an instructional manual for veterans on how to give back to the business that made them famous. It’s incredibly refreshing to see this in a business where many take advantage of their spot and refuse to allow anyone else to succeed. Jericho is indeed the best at what he does.
Sham: Big Show & Mark Henry
Remember when it was a big deal that Show was entering the Rumble? He came out and gave an impassioned speech on Raw. Despite all the mounting evidence to the contrary, WWE loves to maintain that bigger is better in this thing. Show made a temporary impact after getting into the ring at #15, tossing two contenders out, but was served up to Braun Strowman of all people just minutes later. It seemed more than a little anti-climactic to me. Show was back to doing what he does best these days on Raw, playing second fiddle in a comedy bit with The Rock. Show’s had a nice long career, but it’s time to give in to the crowd chants and fly off into the wild blue yonder if this is the best the company’s going to do for him. Speaking of retirement, you may have heard that this was Mark Henry’s last Royal Rumble. That’s because the announcing team has been doing apoplectic cartwheels to enthusiastically remind us of this every four seconds. If it indeed is, it’s fitting because Henry was a non-factor, entering late and being thrown right out by the entire Wyatt Family. The simple fact is that nothing will be a better sendoff for Henry than his fake retirement speech a while back. It showed a different side to him not seen since his “Sexual Chocolate” days. The time for the plodding giants has passed. This was another indicator. I wish both of them luck but it’s time to pay the check already. It’s not even one note anymore.
Sham: Brock Lesnar
This is less a shot at Lesnar than at the head-scratching way WWE booked him for the Rumble. One of the more interesting overtones of this year’s battle was the eventual showdown between Reigns and Lesnar. While smart money had either Reigns overcoming all odds to retain or HHH getting the surprise nod (guess which actually happened), Lesnar’s presence in the match and Paul Heyman’s backstage bits with Stephanie and Vince made for some exciting possibilities. With Lesnar not being available that often and a headlining match at WrestleMania a certainty, all that remained was to see how it would come out in the wash. The answer, unfortunately, was avoidance. WWE has backed themselves into a corner with Lesnar vs. Reigns, as we’ve already seen it and the results were not great for Roman. Brock entered the match while WWE was playing up the Reigns injury angle, and he looked dominating, racking up several eliminations. The Wyatts eventually staked their revenge by re-entering the ring (other than Bray, who hadn’t been eliminated) and getting rid of the mayor of Suplex City. It wasn’t long before Reigns hit the ring again, and WWE had deliberately missed their opportunity to give us the showdown we were looking for. Incidentally, shouldn’t Bray have commanded his family to hang out and help him some more? He might have finished a little better. Brock came in like a ball of fire and definitely delivered what we expected. Unfortunately, an aborted attempt at roster management deprived us of a satisfactory ending.
Sham: Triple H & The Big Finish
Many of you likely guessed that Trips would be the man to enter at number thirty, and I’ll give him some credit in that he has kept himself in great shape considering he’s not been on the active roster in some time. Many of you probably also guessed that it would come down to Trips and Reigns at the end, and on that score you were dead wrong. Desperate to demonstrate the need to be the new Vince McMahon, a guy not on the regular planner shows up and wins the toughest match of the year. In addition to claiming the big belt and the WrestleMania spot, Triple H also thumbed his nose at internet haters by dumping Reigns out even before the end of the match. Roman overcame innumerable odds and advantages, but he wasn’t good enough to take out the part-time Game. Things got mildly interesting when Dean Ambrose remained in the ring after Reigns’s elimination. What I’d have loved to have seen was Trips tossing himself over the top for the Ambrose surprise swerve. But this is WWE, and we don’t do things that way. What the folks love is predictability, gosh darn it, so Ambrose got tossed and Trips celebrated with Stephanie.
Let’s put aside the idea that anyone has been going to bed each night dreaming of a match between Reigns and Triple H. The astounding thing about all of this is the silly promo Trips cut the next night on Raw, claiming that he entered the match to preserve the honor of Vince McMahon and that he was going to keep the title until someone else deserved it. This is such a laughable claim that it’s ridiculous even in the context of a scripted promo. If Triple H wants to wrestle, that’s fine. Let him keep wrestling Sting and The Rock and any other returning veterans in special matches. Don’t do some overblown pass-the-torch segment to try to get Reigns over in the same fraudulent manner that has seen a good portion of the audience reject it outright. Triple H winning the Rumble was an insult to all other entrants, and ruined what was actually a decent match to that point. As for Ambrose, I feel for the guy. Will he ever get an honest moment to himself? Even on a night when he busted his ass in the opener, he was relegated to an afterthought at the eleventh hour. What we’ve all been missing is more Authority promos evidently. This song has remained the same far longer than Led Zeppelin’s lyrics.
I won’t accuse this year’s Royal Rumble of being boring, but the uneven booking continues and WWE’s penchant for flirting with more interesting storylines before jilting them at the altar to date their boring ex-girlfriend they’ve broken up with fifteen times already smacks of something that would be far more at home on an episode of Total Divas. The Rumble match was far superior to the one I witnessed live in Philly last year, and Owens and Ambrose stole the show in a major way. Still, shams outweighed slams on this night, and I’m once again left exhorting the company to try just a little bit harder. I realize that the AJ Styles and Sami Zayns of the world actually dared to make money at a place other than Titan Tower, but WWE’s bullheaded unwillingness to accept anything that they didn’t create in their own petri dish is downright absurd. This Rumble was the World’s Biggest Cheese Wheel on the road to WrestleMania: one of roadside attractions that sounds interesting but probably didn’t get you to stop driving.