It feels like decades since our last (brilliant) PPV WWE TLC 2020. Since then the horror show known as 2020 came to a welcome end, we have had Christmas, New Year and more lockdowns! Oh joy! But thank goodness it is time for the road to (another two-night) WrestleMania to commence (and after the Super Bowl showed us some cool looks for the Tampa Bay venue, this could be a big and grand Mania) and it begins with one of the most anticipated shows of the WWE year in the Royal Rumble. Now, if you’ve been keeping up with WWE, people have been saying (after some ratings success and good matches) that Smackdown is WWE’s A-Show but frankly I’m not always in 100% agreement. For me the shows flip every so few weeks. For instance, I had grown a tad irritated by the one-sidedness of the Roman Reigns and Kevin Owens Universal Championship rivalry (which seemed set to culminate in a title Last Man Standing match on this night) – although the way WWE misled us into thinking they were booking Tribal Chief power player Roman against WWE official Adam Pearce (a future possibility perhaps) was well played and they recouped it the last few weeks. While, Big E is a constant delight (as are his snazzy movie-themed cardigans) and there is heaps of talent finally getting their due. Though King Corbin’s dead end feud with Rey and Dominik Mysterio is as meh as it gets. Maybe I’m just biased, as many of my favourite stars are on the red brand.
Speaking of which, over on the Raw side of things Randy Orton and Alexa Bliss have produced the most compelling WWE storyline on TV right now (complete with playgrounds, fire balls and burn masks), as the spectre of the burnt-to-a-crisp The Fiend looms, ready to return at any time (but a constantly deranged Randy and career best Bliss have been absolutely scorching on TV in the meantime…no point intended). Meanwhile we were all a tad shocked to see Goldberg return to the WWE Title picture for a Royal Rumble showdown with champ Drew McIntyre (a match the internet hates). While elsewhere on Raw, Retribution (Mustafa Ali, T-Bar, Mace and Slapjack) have each started to rise with wins over Ricochet and Xavier Woods, seemingly building to some cool – Mania worthy – future things (steeped in longterm history) with Ali and Kofi Kingston (and Ali’s mic work really has been off the page, so much so he got in some alleged backstage trouble for some serious – but honest – shade throwing when it came to Hulk Hogan). Mind you, also on Raw, Ric Flair and Lacey Evans have had a – erm – thing, as Charlotte has looked on as surprised as the rest of us? Which hasn’t been entirely uninteresting, if a touch creepy, but hey, I am old enough to remember Dawn Marie and Al Wilson, so I’m battle hardened! Oh and Edge announced he’d excitingly be entering the Royal Rumble on his return too!
But, no matter what stories have been a brewing in the last few weeks, the big question on this night was who would emerge victorious in the men and women’s Royal Rumble matches? Did any of the above manage it? Or did any other major faces step up or even a returning legend, emerge victorious? This night, points us towards some major WrestleMania attractions, and there were many promising favourites going in, so lets see just what went down at one of WWE’s esteemed Big Four PPVs, what it may mean going forward, and whether WWE started PPV in 2021 with as big a bang as they ended it in 2020…
1. (Kick-Off show) WWE Women’s Tag Team Championships
Charlotte and Asuke (c) vs. Shayna Baszler and Nia Jax
You’d be forgiven for not being as interested in the women’s tag titles at the minute, as Lacey Evans and Ric Flair’s goading of Charlotte has seemingly taken over, and as such it came into play here. The match was, much like TLC, enjoyable, heck maybe even better than last time, as the badass challengers Nia Jax and Shayna Baszler eventually would capitalise on the distraction caused by Ric and Lacey flaunting around onstage, to regain their titles. Really enjoyable and with the right winners, though Asuke (despite being Raw Women’s champ) seems to have been overlooked a lot as of late.
The opening video package sticks with this year’s very picturesque comic strip aesthetic bigging up the start of ‘Mania season.
2. WWE Championship
Drew McIntyre (c) vs. Goldberg
I was looking forward to this, in spite of what social media thought, then again I thought The Fiend and Goldberg might be good too. Thankfully though, this time things played out far far better. As expected this was a short concentrated burst of Godzilla vs. Kong-esque best shots. The action started before the bell, with Drew going for a quick advantage but Goldberg instead spearing him through the barricade outside. When the bell sounded, the guys traded finishing manoeuvres, as an injured Drew kept in the fight, withstood the WCW icons barrage and, after a second Claymore, managed to keep the Hall of Famer down. This match played to Goldberg’s strengths and was his best contest since WrestleMania 33. It did precisely what it needed to do, and the the aftermath with Goldberg raising Drew’s hand in a show of respect was a particularly nice touch. Fantastic start!
3. WWE Smackdown Women’s Championship
Sasha Banks (c) vs. Carmella w/ Reginald
I have mightily enjoyed Carmella’s athletic sommelier Reginald and this feud as a whole, though sadly this would be the worst match of the evening. Still, that’s not to say it was bad but certainly a step down from their fantastic TLC encounter. Even Sasha Bank’s pre-match interview seemed to suggest WWE were ready to move on now and head to Mania. Still, this was an enjoyable enough bout, and had some engaging moments that kept you in it. Carmella has certainly come a long way with this character change and got close to victory champagne. But in the end, Sasha got the submission victory with her trusty Bank Statement finisher.
Backstage Kofi Kingston returns to our screens (though would not be sadly competing tonight – Booo!) and reunites with his New Day brothers for a fun segment where they practically blank poor ol’ Sami Zayn. Oh and major respect for New Day’s Luke Harper themed attire in honour of the late great John Huber. Awesome.
Well, we then went to a live music performance by latino rap star Bad Bunny performing his hit “Booker T”. Which did indeed see Booker T don his old GI Bro-like gear (flashbacks) and stand there on stage quite awkwardly, as the artist danced around him singing his…song. Yeah, the guy is a big WWE fan, so respect to him and his success, and being able to live out a dream but this wasn’t my thing really.
4. Women’s Royal Rumble match
Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler joined commentary for our first Rumble match of the evening and it was the best Women’s Royal Rumble match since the very first one back in 2018 in my opinion. Bayley and a returning Naomi started out at #1 and #2 (though as King stated, they are basically the same thing. Thank you! Finally someone said it), with bookies favourite Bianca Belair joining at #3. From there on in we had some fantastic moments throughout. Starting with the increasingly screen stealing Billie Kay (she has really become a comedic highlight and is just brilliant) entering at #4 and joining commentary, then proceeding to hand out here resume to each entrant for a few entries, only to be blanked, attacked and even have a cannon shot at her by NXT surprise entrant Shotzi Blackheart (#5), though Kay eventually found an ally to team up with, and it was only a returning one in our favourite ‘tuneful’ superstar (and JBL’s former image consultant) Jillian (#8). We also got some trademark jaw-dropping Rumble save athleticism from Naomi (who is like the Kofi-esque highlight reel of the Women’s Rumble) and Belair, as well as a big NXT presence throughout, with stars like Toni Storm (#7), Santana Garrett (#12), Rhea Ripley (#14), Dakota Kai (#23) and Ember Moon (#28) joining the action and making a few statements. While I was left jumping for joy at surprise entrant and women’s pioneer Victoria (#10), who made her first WWE return in years and looked awesome, it was great to see her, we even got a Widow’s Peak for good measure.
From cool surprises like these (Torrie Wilson turned up at #17! Mickie James returned at #19!) to multi-woman fracas, and old/new rivalries coming to play in the match (especially with the NXT ladies), this Rumble was constantly exciting, with some very cool spots, as well as impressively tenured stays from the likes of Bayley, Shayna Baszler (#6), Charlotte, Ripley and Lacey Evans, and great athleticism on display constantly. We even saw surprise entrant Alicia Fox (#21) get a brief WWE 24/7 Title win mid-match as R-Truth and other superstars fought their way out into the fray and she took advantage. Though Truth would (of course) get his baby back again soon after. While later on a returning Lana (#26) got a measure of revenge by eliminating her bullying rival Nia Jax (#29). Alexa Bliss got the coveted #27 spot but was thrown out wisely by Ripley, as she was about to transform into a darker Bliss (as has been seen on Raw). Though after Natalya completed the field entering at #30, things soon got down to the nitty gritty and we were left with Charlotte, Ripley and Belair as our final three. And after The Queen got eliminated by both remaining ladies, the NXT star and EST of WWE duked it out in a back and forth near elimination battle, that had me guessing at points, but Belair ultimately pulled a Flair, and won the Rumble from entry #3, lasting 57 minutes in order to do so. Great match, right winner and set a high bar for Rumble glory this evening. Belair made an emotional thank you speech afterwards to her fans and family which made it feel even more special!
Backstage The Miz and John Morrison offered Bad Bunny a collaboration offer, he declined…more on this later.
The Kick-off panel then rounded up some of the night so far, before 24/7 Champ R-Truth stopped by to say hello, but he was rolled up by panellist Peter Rosenberg!! Who became the new 24/7 Champion. Madness.
5. WWE Universal Championship Last Man Standing Match
Roman Reigns (c) w/ Paul Heyman vs. Kevin Owens
This rivalry may be at stretching point now and not always as evenly matched as I’d like but Owens has really emerged from this whole thing brilliantly, while Reigns’ Tribal Chief character gets more and more blood boilingly detestable and is the staple of Smackdown, and this Last Man Standing match was another excellent match in their series, albeit with an unfortunate small asterisk. The two fought refreshingly uninterrupted outside of the ring and around the Tunderdome and even its vast backstage areas, as Reigns at one point ran Owens over with a golf cart! While Owens would also swanton bomb Reigns through a table off a forklift. These two really went at it taking daring hardcore bumps and even a spear through the stage at one point. However, the ending left an unfortunate mark, as a huge blunder saw Owens handcuff Reigns to the staging, with him so low to the ground he was unable to get to his feet, so he took out the Ref before he could count 10. That was great, and got you second guessing the result, what wasn’t, was that Paul Heyman was then meant to un-cuff Reigns before second ref could make the count, instead what happened was Heyman and Reigns could not get the cuffs off for what seemed like an eternity, the second ref then stopped counting when it was clear Reigns would be down way past 10 (which they should never really do) and when Reigns was finally un-cuffed he guillotine choked out Owens leaving him floored for the winning 10 count. After a great battle, it was an unfortunately messy way to end but it didn’t ruin the effort put forth (by Owens especially) thankfully. This was a hell of a war that made perfect use of the Thunderdome in a way we haven’t seen before.
6. Men’s Royal Rumble Match
Bitter rivals Edge and Randy Orton would start things out at #1 and #2 respectively, and got into it straight off the bat, before being joined by Sami Zayn at #3 and Mustafa Ali at #4, though Edge would soon take Orton outside the ring and floor him with a savage chair attack to the knee, which saw a (still uneliminated) Orton carted off to the back. As the in-ring action continued the ring started to fill out before we were treated to our first of a few surprises in a returning Carlito at #8, who looks absolutely great! As the match raged on, Ali got one up on New Day by eliminating Xavier Woods (#9), while Big E lasted nearly 30 minutes from #10. In fact there were a couple of long stays in this Rumble (Riddle lasting 31 minutes from #16, Daniel Bryan lasting nearly 30 minutes from #17), a few short ones too but plenty of surprises. The sole NXT entrant came in the shape of Damian Priest (#14) who racked up a few big eliminations and had a good call-up debut on this evening, and in one memorable sequence would eliminate Miz (#15) and Morrison (#11) after Bad Bunny came down to the ring causing a distraction (a response to The Miz destroyed his DJ mixing booth while entering), Priest capitalised and then Bad Bunny went to the top rope and dived on both guys (another celebrity WM match incoming here maybe?) for good measure! The next legendary face to appear though would appropriately be at #18, as Mr. Royal Rumble Kane returned in his first match since 2018 and for his record 18th Royal Rumble match, viciously dispatching of Dolph Ziggler (#6) and Ricochet (#12) and chokeslamming everyone in sight, even his Team Hell No buddy Bryan (after a brief reunion). Though The Big Red Machine was soon eliminated himself by Priest, after a cool little face-off. The next big event came when The Hurricane (#23) rolled in to town again (just like 2018) and again picked a rather big fight with unwise opponents, namely Big E and Lashley (#22), who blocked his double chokeslam attempt and dunked the hero out square on his butt.
But at #24 the shape of the match changed entirely, as we had another miraculous return when Christian returned to active competition for the first time in 7 years! Like Edge last year, it was a gratifying and warm moment, and seeing he and Edge embrace in the ring was one of the most emotional WWE moments in some time, they both have beaten the odds and are back to end their stories of their terms!! Christian wasted no time making an impact too, aiding Big E, Riddle and Bryan in disposing of an enraged Lashley. And the big hits kept on coming as AJ Styles arrived at #25 accompanied by his towering pal Omos, who saved AJ from elimination numerous time and even eliminated Big E and Rey Mysterio (#25) for him. I love AJ and Omos together, hope WWE keep the team going, they are two of Raw’s unsung heroes. From here on it was match favourites going at it, as Cesaro and Sheamus (#28 and #27 respectively) had a big swing fallout and the messiah Seth Rollins returned at #29! But when single Royal Rumble match elimination record holder Braun Strowman entered at 30 and went to work eliminating, the table was set. And it soon boiled down to just Edge and Rollins and Edge, as Edge managed to knock Rollins off the apron for the win. That is until The Viper Randy Orton returned to the ring, looking for a quick win but the Rated R Superstar was ready, turned the tables and out went Orton, securing Edge’s second Rumble win (11 years to the day of his first). Edge goes bell to bell (the third man ever to do so) for over an hour, and at 47, he is back in spectacular shape from a career ending diagnosis and in the main event of WrestleMania. What redemption story this could be. Wholly deserved and he worked his arse off here, never just lying inactive and being a big presence throughout the wild turns of the entire match.
Overall, WWE Royal Rumble was a stellar PPV, making it back to back brilliance for WWE for the first time in some time. Some have criticised having a legend win the Men’s Rumble but Edge earned that victory and worked with the best of them, and what a hell of a story going into WrestleMania for them to have, from retirement to chasing the gold you had to relinquish. Chances are he’ll face Reigns (which would not have been my choice and in some ways doesn’t make as much sense) but hopefully Edge gets gold one last time and caps this ace story off. He still has it that’s for damn sure. Meanwhile Sasha and Belair is a must surely for Mania and should be a hell of a women’s main event! The returns in both matches were awesome (Victoria, Jillian, Carlito, Kane, and especially Christian), the match quality across the board was pretty exceptional, with even the worst moments of the show hardly being event destroying. This was just a heck of a fun show and if WWE can keep their momentum going, we should be in for a good WrestleMania season, the best in some time maybe.
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