I’m introducing a new series here in which we look back at historically-bad matches, moments, stories and characters to see if the hate they got was well-deserved or blown out of proportion. This is because when people look at something and give their initial responses, those may not be entirely objective.
More than almost any other entertainment medium, pro wrestling is driven by emotion. Fans invest themselves into the stories and characters they see before them. And in some cases, if a given wrestler resonates with them enough, they’ll want to live vicariously through that wrestler. They’ll want to feel like they are that wrestler, and said wrestler’s triumphs and tragedies are theirs as well.
When something major happens in wrestling – good or bad – the reaction might not always be a reflection of reality. People might be influenced by emotion, different perspective, alcohol, among other things. These literal re-views bring a sense of hindsight and objectivity to a subject (that being fan opinion) that often turns into extremely heated debate, at best.
I’ll be structuring these reviews almost like a court case, with famous matches, events, and happenings being like ‘they’re on trial’. I’ll present a charge, introduce some evidence, give some analysis, and then render a verdict.
So with that out of the way, let’s begin with our first case: the 2015 Royal Rumble match.
The 2015 Royal Rumble match is the worst Rumble match ever. People hated this match so much they began to cancel their WWE Network subscriptions, they booed Reigns vociferously whenever he appeared on screen (and some other wrestlers that teamed with him also got singled out for being guilty by association), and it even got some high-profile media attention. Some former WWE wrestlers voiced their opinions on it condemning WWE for making such creative choices. Vince McMahon even had to address the matter in a stockholders’ conference call. He tried his best to shake it under the rug, but you can be sure that was office politics bullshit and he was secretly fuming over this.
The match was structured poorly from the beginning. Daniel Bryan, who had been announced as a participant shortly beforehand, entered at #10 and was immediately pegged as a favorite to win. Fans were far more invested in his story than anyone else’s. He had just returned to WWE after undergoing neck surgery and he planned on retaining his former spot atop the entire company. And yet, he got eliminated after about ten minutes. Once that happened, things took a very, very dark turn.
As soon as Bryan was eliminated, the fans started booing. Loudly. This was very bad. And while I didn’t expect the fans to actually riot, I was almost certain at least a few people would throw garbage into the ring. And then, when Roman Reigns entered the match at #19, the booing got even louder and more sustained. It was as if everyone in that building came to a collective realization that ‘John Cena 2.0’ is gonna win this thing. This sustained ‘heat’ continued until Dean Ambrose entered at #25. Finally, the fans had someone else to cheer for. They latched onto Ambrose with incredible fervor, hoping that maybe, just maybe, Vince McMahon would pull off one of his famous ‘swerves’ and have Ambrose win. And if not win, then maybe make it to the final two.
But shortly afterwards, the Big Show entered, to help his ally Kane, who had entered just before Ambrose. Then, that terrible duo proceeded to eliminate everyone in the ring, only for Reigns to eliminate both of them at the same time. But none of this made Reigns into a heroic character; instead, it only amplified the venom that was already being spewed towards him. And then, Rusev, who hadn’t yet been eliminated, tried to make a surprise attack on Reigns. In doing so, for a split second, Rusev was being cheered like a conquering hero. But that too came to a swift and abrupt end as Rusev was also eliminated by Reigns.
WWE must’ve seen the hatred coming, because they sent The Rock – THE ROCK – out to celebrate with his cousin Roman Reigns. But as Rocky held Reigns’ hand in the air in victory, he too was bombarded with boos. You could see the look on his face. He was being booed out of the building. And this wasn’t the funny sort of booing he got when he was a comedic villain between 2002 and 2003. This was ‘I-hate-you-and –wish-you-would-die’ booing, the sort he got when he was Rocky Maivia in 1996. And this was being expressed towards both Reigns and The Rock, the latter being one of the most universally-adored wrestlers of all time. He was a man that could do no wrong in most peoples’ eyes, yet they were booing him mercilessly here simply because he raised Reigns’ arm in victory.
The reaction to this match was universally-negative. Social media erupted in condemnation, WWE Network subscriptions were cancelled (allegedly), and WWE was trending for all the wrong reasons.
Let’s forget a few things for a moment.
Let’s ignore the fact that wrestling fans hold their own opinions very strongly and love to voice them.
Let’s ignore the fact that this match took place in Philadelphia, a city notorious for its ‘anti-establishment’ voice and tendency to have fans that like hijack shows and chant and do whatever they want.
Let’s forget that many people, both attending live and watching around the world, were still enamored with Daniel Bryan’s story and wanted him to get vindicated for losing the title due to injury the year prior.
Let’s forget the fact that Roman Reigns being Vince’s favorite and new personal pet project was so easily telegraphed and people rejected him for one reason for another.
And let’s also forget Vince’s deliberate act of trolling whereby, as soon as Bryan was eliminated, Goldust entered and the first thing shown on the TitanTron was the words ‘Shattered Dreams’.
Instead, let’s focus on something objective, something observable: how the Rumble match actually ended.
If we look at historically-great Rumble matches, most of them feature an exciting closing sequence in which two or more wrestlers have a credible chance of winning. The 2007 version finished with Shawn Michaels and the Undertaker going at it in an impromptu singles match in what many call the best final two moments in Rumble match history. In the 2001 match, Kane set a record for most eliminations, and he faced off against Steve Austin. And while Kane wasn’t near as big a star as Austin was, Kane still had a fighting chance. Austin had a mountain to overcome in Kane, and during their fight, Kane nearly won. There have been many other ‘final two’ pairings in which one wrestler is clearly going to win but the other one isn’t going to go down without a fight. Brock Lesnar vs. Undertaker from 2003. Ric Flair and Sid Justice from 1992. John Cena and Batista from 2005. These are but a few of the rumble matches that ended on a high note, not because the winner was universally-accepted by the audience, but because the match ended in a dramatic and exciting way.
So who were the final six participants in this match? They were as follows: Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose, Bray Wyatt, Rusev, Kane and the Big Show.
The main problem here is the combination of those last two men, Kane and the Big Show. At the time, they were both pro-Authority goons, hired muscle that acted as hitmen for the annoying on-screen characters of Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. At the same time, both of them had terrible win-loss records and more often than not, ended up attacking people after losing. Kane in particular had one of the most lopsided win-loss records ever in 2014, losing almost every single match that year.
But even if they were credible entrants, what were the chances that one of them could win? Absolute zero. What, do you think that the Authority would allow two of their mercenaries to win instead of the guy they wanted in the top spot? And besides, both of them were way past their primes, and no one believed either of them had a chance of winning this match, much less standing a chance against Brock Lesnar.
That brings us to the remaining four wrestlers.
Roman Reigns was the obvious company favorite, the man chosen by the boss himself to be the new John Cena. There was also Dean Ambrose, the dark horse of the Shield, the unpredictable lunatic to whom you shouldn’t ever turn your back. Then there was Rusev, a midcarder that had built up a decent fan following and had some success as a reviled pro-Russian nationalist. Finally, you had Bray Wyatt, the eloquent, enigmatic, esoteric creepy guy that was as dangerous as he was captivating.
If Roman Reigns was left facing Ambrose, Rusev, or Wyatt in the final two, and got maybe three minutes to fight it out with that person, then this match would’ve been completely acceptable. Moreover, if those four wrestlers fought this out amongst themselves and eliminated Big Show and Kane, this match would’ve been fine. Because what did these four men all have in common? They’re new blood; they were younger rising stars with unknown potential for future greatness.
What happened instead was the exact opposite. First, Rusev escaped the match and ended up outside the ring, but wasn’t eliminated. That left Reigns, Wyatt and Ambrose stuck with facing two giants that worked for the dastardly Authority. So what did Reigns do to prove do the fans that he was still the silent badass and not a failed John Cena clone? Did he rally his former ally and WWE’s resident creeper together to take down the symbols of oppression in WWE? Did he team with Ambrose and Wyatt to eliminate Kane and the Big Show quickly so that they can all share this big moment together, and then fight for the coveted WrestleMania main event like men?
Well, he tried. He and Ambrose tried to double-team The Big Show, but apparently he and fellow giant Kane were too much for Reigns and Ambrose to handle. Despite the fact that both of them had been manhandled by smaller superstars (both literally and in terms of card position) many times before. Yet somehow these two became super-credible threats overnight.
In the span of a few minutes, these aging veterans threw out Bray Wyatt and Dean Ambrose with relative ease. Keep in mind that both of them were basically giant losers (i.e. they have no credibility because they lose a lot when it counts) that were throwing out two of the biggest rising stars in the company. And Ambrose and Wyatt barely even had chances to fight back. They were tossed out with hardly any resistance. It was as if the powers-that-be basically handed the WrestleMania spot to Reigns on a silver platter.
Sure, they tried their best to make it seem like facing these two monsters was such a huge challenge for Reigns. After all, they’re huge, and Vince McMahon has always held the notion that a bigger man would win in a real fight. But like I said earlier, no one believed that either of them was going to eliminate Reigns and win for themselves. They were supposed to be mountains for Reigns to climb, but in truth they were more like molehills.
That alone is what makes this such a terrible Rumble match. The whole match is built on the drama that anyone could win. Even the most cynical observer can usually predict that the match will come down to one or maybe two credible final participants that have equal chances of winning. That didn’t happen here. The company put all their eggs in one basket and made sure there was no one else for the fans to cheer. And to make sure it stayed that way, Reigns was put against two guys that had literally zero chance of winning, while other rising stars were defeated quickly and fan favorite Daniel Bryan was nowhere to be seen when the match ended.
So the match completely fell apart as soon as Ambrose and Bray were eliminated. Because Rusev was a heel and completely unlikely to win, no matter how many fans suddenly decided to cheer his name, and the Authority’s goons were basically there to remove anyone from the match that the fans could cheer for.
The final verdict
This match is still the worst Rumble match of all time. It was executed in a way that robbed it of any major drama at the end. And it left people feeling angry. And this wasn’t just a case of spoiled, self-opinionated fans wanting ‘their guy’ to win. This was a match that was structured in a way that gave the fans no other choice but to accept management’s handpicked choice. While that’s financially justifiable if not a bit amoral, it was executed in a way that robbed arguably the most anticipated match of the year of its most important dramatic sequence.
This wasn’t even one of those ‘so bad you must watch it for laughs’, because there wasn’t any joy to be had on this night. Not only was it a story that simply didn’t make sense and angered people who felt ripped off. For many people, it was as if one man and his henchmen stuck their collective middle fingers at the audience and said, “You’ll like what we decide you’ll like.” And while that may be an exaggeration, enough people thought that idea to be true and voiced their displeasure on this night.
So yes, it really was that bad. It was so bad you shouldn’t ever watch this match at all. If you do decide to revisit the show, however, by all means, do watch the WWE title triple threat match. That contest is pretty damn great. But everything afterwards is best forgotten.