If you’re like me, you treat the approach of the Royal Rumble with a type of reverence reserved for professional wrestling’s most celebrated occasions. The Rumble has been wrestling’s ultimate event for me since the beginning, the only time where a scripted wrestling show can appear to be both spontaneous and exciting all at once. Even if you know exactly who is filling out the roster for the match itself (and in this age of the internet, you pretty much always do, though the WWE does a commendable job at stashing a few names away each and every year), there are still sure to be surprises galore in the way said talent is deployed and utilized in the Rumble match. We can battle over the silliness of pretending anyone can win, sure, but the truth is if you’ve got four or five viable threats to walk away with the victory that’s more palpable excitement than us fans generally get about anything happening on your average card.
It’s that enthusiastic history that always causes me to get a bit sentimental at Rumble time, unearthing the cards of the past to wet my whistle for what’s to come. It ages me to discuss, but I vividly recall many a weekend getting a chance to scoop up a video cassette at the local Blockbuster to check out what had happened in the ’90s heyday. I would naturally direct my attentions to the wrestling section, but the Royal Rumble covers were by far the best: fantastic collages of the big names of the sport piled onto the front, each one vying for your attention the same way they would soon vie for the Rumble crown. How could you help but to get it, even if you’d seen it before? And then the build itself, the entertaining commentary of Monsoon/Heenan at full blast while you counted down through the regular matches to get to the big dance. The interviews, with some of the best talkers in the business giving you the strategy on how they would win and somehow finding a different way to do it even when they lost every single year. And the managers, given full access to entertain and irritate as they came to the ring with their charges after that silly early oversight where they were banned from ringside. I’m getting misty just thinking about it.
But that’s the past, and time as we know marches on. The Rumble has evolved, first turning into a match where the winner was guaranteed a title shot at WrestleMania. That raised the stakes considerably, leading right into the victor deciding which belt to go after when more than one World title was being defended in WWE’s rapid expansion phase. That’s been a relatively unexplored facet of the current product, as the brand split of Raw and Smackdown Live have in essence created semi-phony separate rosters while the big names come and go to both shows as they please and advertising dollars and viewer eyeballs demand. It could be a major storyline coup to have someone from one brand challenge the champion of another, but it remains to be seen how much this decision will impact the Rumble match during the revised and revived brand split period.
One majorly negative and likely unintended consequence of this attempt to give a big match even more meaning is that it even further limits the possible winners. While the number of entrants can increase, and has in the past swelled as high as 40, the number of viable threats to get a chance to compete for one of the two big belts in the company remains very low indeed. The Rumble match has never been about making a new star as it is further cementing the legacy of an established one. That in itself doesn’t take away from the match quality or how interesting it is, but it does make it harder to tell a great story in an event where most of the logical permutations have played themselves out over the years. Number one entrant to the end? Got it. Two guys falling out at the same time? Sure. Vince McMahon winning the whole thing? Unfortunately, done and done. Pro wrestling as a whole tends to suffer from an inability to distance itself measurably from its own past, but never does it become as readily apparent as late January.
It also has become increasingly and perhaps agonizingly aware of its own past history as time has marched on, particularly since Titan Tower decided to eschew traditional PPV delivery means in favor of its current online Network. How else to explain the current iteration of the Rumble, advertised as all those many moons before by the standard stockpile of wrestling’s famous faces, but with four part time players heading the pack? While it might be a little unfair to place John Cena in that grouping considering this is a fairly recent development, there can be little doubt he will be on your screen in a wrestling capacity less and less as the “real” jobs start rolling in. WWE is of course so keenly aware of this that they had him go out and recant his storyline testimony about The Rock doing the very same thing. When Vince is hitting the “red alert” button and having his Superman admit error, you know it’s serious stuff. If that leaves talent bred and blossomed elsewhere like AJ Styles and Kevin Owens pushed to the background, well…cost of doing business, don’t you know?
Just as everything the company had built to that point was hastily pushed aside by the desire to get Brock Lesnar over as a badass (a mission the WWE didn’t help itself with early on during his multiple losses to Triple H, mind you), that plan too was put by the wayside in order to allow the returning nostalgia act Goldberg a second crack at revisionist history. Goldberg, extremely popular with a big section of the fanbase despite his limited and largely ineffective previous run after the hostile takeover, presents perhaps in McMahon’s mind one of the last marquee names of wrestling’s golden age and therefore forces him to abandon existing plans in a crusade to get him established as legendary. If you find it ironic that this quest comes in the person of one of WCW’s biggest weapons during its well-publicized Monday Night War with WWE, you’re not wrong. I’m sure that irony isn’t lost on McMahon either. That said, the dye has been cast and Brock’s response to his embarrassment is the second major plotline behind Goldberg’s annihilation of the Beast. If they are perhaps tipping their hand as to setting the stage for neither of those gents to win the big match itself, it might be worth it to see what sort of moment they are planning to accomplish that objective.
Couple that twist with the sudden and rather unexpected return of the Undertaker to the WWE’s (semi)active roster, and you’ve got the makings of a major party. ‘Taker is always a welcome sight, garners a mega reaction, and can still go. That’s important in a match where endurance is truly part of the mix, particularly if the individual is going to draw an early number. Whether the Rumble is being built around giving the dead man one last run at or with the gold remains to be seen, but it’s clearly the most viable tale to tell. While a case can certainly be made for Styles, who had a hell of a run in 2016, or Owens, who’s been a top heel in ways undreamt of by most of the roster, to claim the prize, why bother? They are already wearing the belts. Having one brand champion win the Rumble and challenge the other would make for interesting television, indeed, but risks further underlining one show as being superior to the other. And yes, they are fully aware that we’ve already decided Smackdown has won that battle. That’s why their efforts generally involve stacking the deck on Mondays.
Therein lies the rub, as they say, for the more WWE has retreated into the nostalgic land of one-offs and surprise guests, the more they’ve lessened the actual quality of what was at one time and for a very long time their most historic and meaningful match. It may feel bigger or better in the same way they’ve boosted WrestleMania, promising returns of legends lost and appearances of many a famous face outside the wrestling spectrum. But is it truly? I suppose it depends on how you look at it. For your casual fan, these things add to the luster of the occasion and make it more viral in nature, a chance to see Rock use a flamethrower or Ronda Rousey lock in an armbar. But for those of us that consider ourselves to be longtime fans or diehards, whatever it brings in fun and buzz it usually lacks in quality. These gimmicks are the tools in a magician’s playbook, little misdirections that serve to distract us from seeing them palm the coin. It doesn’t necessarily make it less amusing when they pretend to pull it out of your ear, but it’s a bit less effective when you know the trick.
While WrestleMania still has four plus hours and a variety of match types to pull off that feat, for the Rumble it’s always bound to be about the marathon match itself, and that’s why this tendency has hit it much harder. With the tactic of using short-term thinking until the next big reveal, it’s much harder to tell a triumphant underdog story like Rey Mysterio’s or a dominant story like Yokozuna’s. The Rumble has become a bit of a fait accompli. It’s less about the journey of the mega-match itself than it is the individual moments within leading up to the inexorable conclusion. You’ve seen it yourself: tag partner placement leads the list, but you’ll also find the standard “big guy clears the ring” segment, the “everyone teams up to eliminate big guy” segment, the “surprise elimination” maneuver. The list goes on and on. If you’re sketching it out at home these days, you won’t need to read too deeply into the tea leaves to see that a good bit of what’s going to happen has become far more easily guessable. Bad for Vegas and worse for the viewer.
This doesn’t mean that all is lost, naturally. Everything goes through cycles, and wrestling is keenly aware of how stale the product can get when you leave it alone for a while. That explains all the ever-changing hoopla over how long the interval between entrants is and so on. My personal hope is that WWE uses the red-hot and extremely popular NXT division to bolster what has become more of a tired traditional match. Think about the stakes that would be raised in an NXT-only Rumble where the winner got to challenge a champion on the main roster? That’s dynamite in your pocket for the creative team, and it doesn’t even matter if the winner defeats said champion. In fact, it’s probably better if they lose. It’s also a great opportunity for those unfortunate few who haven’t kept up with what’s going on in NXT to see the product for themselves at a time when interest is at its peak. That’s not just reinvention of the medium, it’s growth in a way that could lead to major positives for both the division and the parent company. Generating new stars is something they need to do much better, and that would help.
Another option would be to have a cruiserweight-only type of Rumble match. While I don’t think excluding the talent to the level they’ve done now is always the smartest move, I admit that realism lacks when you have certain body types tossing out those five times as large. This could be both an opportunity to showcase some of the great talent simply sitting around the locker room waiting to be abused by Braun Strowman, as well as giving fans the chance to see a much more fast-paced style of match than they’re used to. The shock and awe factor of these combatants would be something to see, and as above it could prove a tremendous springboard for “that guy” used knee-deep in the middle of hour two of the endless Raw last week. WWE has struggled to bring the personality to the forefront in this division, and a match like this could go a long way.
Needless to say, WWE has gone a long way toward reminding us incessantly that this is the era of women’s wrestling, in some unfortunate attempt to give themselves credit for something that’s been in the works long before their involvement. Having Nia Jax participate in the Rumble, for example, wouldn’t look out of place but is extremely transparent and assumes a significance it doesn’t really have. Never has the roster been deeper with talented female wrestlers than it is now, and a ladies-only Rumble is perhaps more likely than any of these given their push to rewrite the history books. While I don’t condone the pretense, I am heartily in favor of the potential result. The best way to truly feel that women’s wrestling isn’t being used as filler or getting short shrift is to put it loud and in your face at critical moments, and this would be an excellent way to go about it. Not all of this will be done, of course, but as you can see there’s many easy ways to inject a little excitement into what’s become more than a little rote.
Make no mistake: The Royal Rumble is now and will always be a favorite of mine, and even when it’s done wrong (as it very certainly was in my hometown of Philadelphia not long ago) it produces moments to remember more than anything else WWE does during its calendar year. That’s the hidden benefit of having so many talents in the ring. Just watching it live is something that will definitely stay with you as a wrestling fan. It is perhaps that the event is so close to the heart for me that I have the confidence to say it needs some help, and it needs it fast. Cutting and pasting talents of yore into the forefront is a fickle and fleeting proposition that is tantalizing but ultimately doomed to failure. You’ll cheat a little more each time until you’re left with a series of surprises signifying absolutely nothing and meaning even less. What is not in question is that of anything Vince and friends have created, it is the Rumble that nobody else in the business comes close to. It’s a great, original idea that has stood the test of time and gotten bigger and more extravagant with age. Just because it’s great doesn’t mean, however, that it can’t be improved upon. Now would be a very good time to make the Rumble even better, and use it as more of a showcase for what’s next that an antiquated and obvious celebration of what’s now. Here’s hoping the tastemakers have the moxie to do so.