Two Rumble matches! Ronda Rousey! Kane eating a pin. OK, we already knew that was going to happen.
The Royal Rumble has come and gone, and y’all, it was good. It was real good. We got a title change, two first-time Royal Rumble winners, and oh, yeah, two Royal Rumble matches for the first time ever, too. Also, Ronda Rousey was there.
Here are the five key things we learned from the 2018 edition of WWE’s Royal Rumble, the first steps on the road to WrestleMania 34.
Having two Royal Rumbles in one night can work
WWE’s women absolutely, 100 percent deserve (and deserved) to have their own Royal Rumble match at the Royal Rumble. The problem was that it was hard to just assume that WWE was going to be able to appropriately handle what comes with having two Royal Rumbles in one night: Would they be able to make two distinct matches that would avoid wearing out their audience by reusing common Rumble tropes? Would they give the women the time they deserve, i.e., the same time as the men? Would James Ellsworth materialize from the ether and throw the presumed winner out, making him the first-ever winner of the women’s Royal Rumble?
I have a lot of fears about WWE’s treatment of women, okay? And they are not unfounded.
Luckily, WWE nailed both Rumbles, and did so by making them each have their own feel. The men’s Rumble included a lot of goofy segments that helped pass the time until things got serious: everyone beating up on Heath Slater before he could even enter the ring is an instant-classic, Rumble Jokes Division. It featured plenty of mini stories within the match itself, as the best-paced Rumbles do, and plenty of little nods that were apparent to the discerning eye, like when there were just six competitors left and they lined up, in their most basic form, as Old Guard WWE vs. New Hotness WWE. Or when there were just four guys left, and it was Vince McMahon’s favorites (John Cena and Roman Reigns) squaring off against two of Triple H’s (Vince’s eventual successor) dudes, Shinsuke Nakamura and Finn Balor.
Also, the wrestling was good.
The women’s Rumble leaned more heavily on the appearance of legends, but that makes sense both practically and for storytelling purposes: WWE has 30 women to put into the Rumble when you include their NXT roster, but in the first-ever Rumble, including many of the popular women from WWE’s past who never got the chance to participate in a Rumble in their own day is both a nod to the past and a very public apology. It’s a more subtle apology than these women deserve, given how they were often treated by WWE and therefore also by WWE’s fans, but it’s something.
The nostalgia wasn’t gratuitous or pointless, either: old rivals Mickie James and Trish Stratus interacted, as they absolutely had to while in the same room. Old friends Natalya and Beth Phoenix reunited in a hug in the middle of the ring, and then Natalya turned on Beth, because Natalya is a (kayfabe) nightmare of a person these days. Current superstars like Sasha Banks got the opportunity to face down a legend like Trish. Lita appeared early and showed the crowd she’s still got it — and why wouldn’t she? She’s just 42 years old, but more on that later.
Last, we got Asuka surviving the twin onslaught of the Bellas, Nikki and Brie, who both made their return to the ring after, respectively, a break due to injury and retirement slash having a baby. This wasn’t just important because Asuka won, but it was also the new dominant force in WWE’s women’s division taking out the previous most popular act, the one that was part of the transition from WWE’s old “Diva” model and has adjusted, successfully, to life in the women’s evolution.
tl;dr: I’m excited to do this again in 2019, because now we know that WWE can pull it off.
Braun Strowman should probably be WWE Universal Champion
I get why Roman Reigns is presumably going to be the guy facing off against Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 34. It’s the story WWE has been meaning to tell for a few years now, since Roman took on Brock at WrestleMania 31 and didn’t get the chance to prove if he could have won or not thanks to Seth Rollins cashing in a championship opportunity mid-match and coming away with the title. Wrapping that story is important, especially since WWE gives us so many opportunities to criticize them for not seeing something through to its end.
But man, Braun Strowman is hot fire right now, the crowd loves him, and he is just as much of a star as Roman already. Why can’t Braun have won the WWE Universal Championship here against Lesnar and Kane, and then gone on to face Roman at Mania instead to continue their own amazing feud? Or even if Strowman won here and then lost to Lesnar again later before Mania so we could have it all?
It’s fine. Strowman will probably be Reigns’ first post-Mania 34 opponent, should things go down as I expect them to, and we’ll get to see them wreck each other. Lesnar is still the final boss of WWE until Reigns topples him. This is a tough situation with no 100 percent correct answer, so WWE did the best they could with the path they chose: Strowman wasn’t going to win the Rumble, so he was put in a championship match instead, and it was a triple threat so Strowman could not win more than he would lose via Kane eating the pin. That sets him up for later, and helps keep Lesnar looking unbeatable heading into his inevitable showdown with Reigns.
On the other hand… okay I could do this all day let’s move on.
SmackDown’s championship scene is confusing, but not in a bad way
A.J. Styles defeated Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn in a WWE Championship handicap match, but really, he didn’t. Owens wasn’t the legal man since Zayn never tagged him in, so Styles pinned the wrong guy, and therefore should not have won. The only reason this issue didn’t get more attention is because SmackDown’s commissioner, Shane McMahon, hates Owens and Zayn and would set them on fire and watch them burn if he wouldn’t be investigated by WWE’s board for it.
So, Owens and Sami have a claim to another WWE Championship match most likely, and will probably get it once SmackDown general manager Daniel Bryan figures out how to handle his super-biased boss. Men’s Royal Rumble winner Shinsuke Nakamura has already declared Styles and the WWE Championship as his target for WrestleMania 34, but he might not be facing Styles given Owens and Zayn are still looming. SmackDown has a lot to figure out before April, which is good, because it’s still just January.
WWE nailed the Ronda Rousey angle, unless they completely botched it
Fans are definitely split on Ronda Rousey’s appearance at the end of the Royal Rumble. She didn’t appear in the women’s Rumble itself, but did show up afterward to point at the WrestleMania sign and make her presence known to RAW Women’s Champion Alexa Bliss, SmackDown Women’s Champion Charlotte Flair, and Royal Rumble winner Asuka.
Not appearing in the Rumble is good! Showing up afterward to steal Asuka’s thunder is bad. Unless the idea here is that Asuka, Charlotte, and Alexa are fully aware that Ronda is stealing the spotlight, and given the faces they had on and Asuka swatting Ronda’s handshake away, they are hyper-aware of this. Ronda Rousey, Interloper is a good place for her career to begin, especially since she can wreck some mid-carders through raw ability and then get a rude awakening about how the likes of Charlotte and Asuka are on another level entirely.
Given Stephanie McMahon is one of the principal owners of WWE, her confusion at Ronda showing up during a WWE event five minutes before ESPN drops an exclusive about her signing with the company doesn’t make a lot of sense… unless the idea here is that Steph’s brother Shane signed Rousey behind her back in part because there is bad blood between Stephanie and Ronda, stemming from a WrestleMania 31 appearance.
So, yeah. Things are still up in the air. Ronda is full-time, but is she working on house shows, or just TV? Is she only going to wrestle at pay-per-views (but wrestle at all of them), or is she going to be doing this — meaning, wrestling for WWE — as her actual full-time job week in and week out? The Brock Lesnar part-time monster thing works because Lesnar was a force of nature in WWE for years before he ever joined MMA — Ronda is a lifelong wrestling fan, but not yet a wrestler. Hopefully Ronda has to put some work in before she ever actually wins a championship: she’s just 30 years old, the first-ever women’s Rumble winner, Asuka, is 36: Rousey has got plenty of time to combine name recognition with in-ring work to shift out of this interloper thing without WWE forcing it.
Wrestling needs more moms
WWE has a history of discarding women’s wrestlers after they hit their 30s. It’s not so much the case anymore, but it’s pretty telling when you consider that Trish Stratus, legend, worked for the company for seven years until 2006 and then was inducted into the Hall of Fame at age 36 — she’s 41 now. Mickie James returned to WWE at age 37 as a mother, and she was the first mom to come back and work a full schedule (Tamina, who also works full-time for WWE, was already a mom). Also, WWE ran an angle where Alexa Bliss couldn’t stop talking about how ancient and decrepit Mickie was, so I’m not saying they’re totally innocent in the present-day now that they hired a mom.
The women’s Rumble, though, was full of moms. There were moms everywhere. Beth Phoenix is a mother! Brie Bella, too! Michelle McCool, like Heath Slater, has got kids. Trish Stratus was actually pregnant the last time WWE supposedly wanted to bring her back to wrestle. And of course, Mickie and Tamina are already doing the mom thing.
It would be wonderful if WWE would allow more women with children back into the company like they did with Mickie, and for more than just a fun nostalgia appearance at something like the Royal Rumble. Get Beth Phoenix back, and make her husband Edge be her valet while she’s the star attraction. Let’s get Brie Bella back to do more of the fun stuff she managed at WrestleMania 32 when she retired, except this time, she’s also a mom, and Daniel Bryan has to balance watching their baby with being SmackDown’s GM because mom is busy kicking people in the face.
Undertaker is like 900 years old give or take a decade and maybe coming back for one more match at WrestleMania 34. WWE can afford to extend the career length and opportunities for their women. That feels like it would fit comfortably into the women’s evolution, no?
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