Cast your mind back to 2008. Imagine that Stone Cold Steve Austin was a part-time active wrestler. Imagine if he had been the centrepiece of the company since 1998. Imagine he won the Royal Rumble Match that year. Hard to stomach, right?
Unfortunately, we are looking down the barrel of a gun representing exactly such a situation. John Cena is a part-time active wrestler. He has been the centrepiece of the company since before 2008. He won the Rumble Match in ’08 and there remains, despite increasing rumours proposing otherwise, a very strong chance he could win the Royal Rumble Match again in 2018.
I’ve read the same articles as everyone else of course; articles that claim his match at WrestleMania is set to be “bigger than the WWE or Universal Championships” – a toxic philosophy if ever I’ve heard one. I’ve read the notion that this therefore precludes his third Rumble victory. What counteracts this unsubstantiated hearsay, though, is the empirical evidence. John Cena has been announced for the Royal Rumble Match officially.
Hardly guarantee of a victory, right? Sure. That’s not the bit that has me worried. The bit that has me worried is the fact WWE are absolutely obsessed with statistical records in this day and age, and have gone to great pains, regularly at the wider creative expense of the company, to ensure those records are broken. It’s been a watermark of this Renaissance Era from almost day one; from even latter day Reality, in fact. Everything from Kane’s record number of eliminations in a Rumble Match to Demolition’s longevity as Tag Team Champions through to The Undertaker’s sacrosanct WrestleMania Streak has been targeted. Such statistics are all that the commentary teams seem to speak about in this day and age, especially come Rumble time, and increasingly such record breaks seem to dictate company thinking. It’s the very reason WrestleMania 32 was so gargantuan; so they could break the supposed attendance record they set at WrestleMania III. And you just know, for instance, that The Miz is on the fast-track to overtaking Chris Jericho as the most prolific Intercontinental Champion of all time. A match at WrestleMania seems to be written in the stars for them.
The company doesn’t seem content to stop there, either. Not only do they now seem hell bent on breaking every record in the book, increasingly they seem to do so with ever more disregard. John Cena’s tying Ric Flair’s record number of World title reigns this time last year was met with next to no fanfare from the company, much to the chagrin of a huge swathe of fans.
In this post-modern environment then, further mitigated by WWE’s phobia of their own future and love affair with their own nostalgia creating a heady lust for part-timers and veterans over contemporary talent, makes the current situation ripe for what many fans, myself foremost among them, would consider a worst case scenario come the end of the month.
I can see it now: John Cena ties Austin’s record with third Royal Rumble Match victory and proceeds to WrestleMania to break Ric Flair’s record with 17th World title win to cement his legacy as Greatest of All Time. Fast-forward another year after that and doesn’t that Roman Reigns rematch seem all the more attractive to the corporate higher-ups?
I’m being slightly deliberate in my trollishness here, but I cannot shrug away the cloud of pessimism that hangs over my head, invading my more dispassionate critical faculties. Royal Rumble means more to me personally as a fan than any other show of the year. It’s always been my safe haven when the product has otherwise, generally speaking, not been to my tastes. I could always get excited come the Rumble. It pains me immensely to have seen, then, over the period of the last five to ten years specifically, the gradual erosion of my favourite WWE child into a monster that barely resembles its best self.
Randy Orton; Triple H; Roman Reigns; Batista; John Cena; in a sane world, this roll call would read like a fantasy booked time warp. That those names instead stand as a roll call of the winners of the Royal Rumble Match from 2013 to present day is, frankly, ludicrous; there is no other word for it. I honestly do not think I can stand another year with another name like Cena or Orton attaching itself to the front of that sentence.
Thankfully, there remains, this year, no matter how slim, a little hope. When you look at the bookies’ current favourites, there is an ingratiating prominence of part-timer talent still there, but so too is there a strong presence for contemporary talent. Roman Reigns is an obvious inclusion, but fans should snatch hope from the unlikelier early favourites like Shinsuke Nakamura, Bobby Roode and Seth Rollins. It seems there is chance yet of a few unexpected turns before the Road to WrestleMania truly kicks off.
This hope isn’t just welcome, either. It’s necessary.
Royal Rumble has been left in a sorry state after its systematic creative abuse at the hands of WWE’s higher ups over the course of the last decade. The premature, ill-advised victories for Alberto Del Rio and Sheamus in 2011 and 2012 respectively, along with their flubbed ‘Mania storylines that followed, seem to have soured the company on any future embrace of the present day. You can almost be certain of that souring following the madness that followed on from Reigns’ own win in 2015 – the only other time the company has had the decency to recognise the present day over the past in the last half decade.
Alas, the safer moves the company made for clear storyline purposes turned many fans away from the company entirely because of instigating storylines nobody was desperate to see headline the biggest show of that year. John Cena’s win in 2013 made sense in the context of intended direction and was an ultra-safe bet for WWE, but nonetheless was responsible for pushing many hardened, more positively thinking fans away from the company; an exodus some stand by staunchly to this day. Triple H’s victory in 2016, many claimed, made similar sense, but it too set in motion a storyline nobody was dying to see. So too did both come at the expense of a more beloved, more interesting and, dare I say, more deserving talent that fans were desperate to see in a ‘Mania headlining programme: CM Punk indirectly in 2013, and Dean Ambrose very directly in 2016. It seems, however, WWE had become too risk averse to go all in with them.
Then Orton’s win last year was the icing on the cake; the real head-scratcher of head-scratchers that saw WWE’s weird fetish for part-time names of yesteryear hit its highest height. Not only did it ultimately barely make sense from the context of intended direction – the WWE title playing hotshot with Wyatt’s first reign being unconsidered, unceremonious and meagre at most – but it was executed with the most repulsive mean spirit on the part of the promotion. Whether the decision to inject Reigns at the end of the bout last year was a deliberate troll doesn’t matter – and I’m not convinced it was anyway. What mattered was that it fell ill-humoured and spiteful to a fan base feeling increasingly conditioned to expect coal for Christmas, and to accept that coal happily and without protest.
When did Royal Rumble stop being a time we fans chattered excitedly about who might win and become a time when we wept pessimistically about who will lose?
2018, though, is the crossroads; the opportunity for a clean break. I call the hope of this year’s dark horse contemporaries necessary because WWE is running out of time before those contemporaries turn into a second lost generation of talent, wounded by an unwillingness to commit from their employer. It is time to take a leap of faith. It is time to embrace tomorrow with open arms and launch it enthusiastically into the deep end, unafraid of seeing who will sink and who will swim. There is no reason to believe that the lacklustre sheen of 2011 and 2012 will repeat, because the potential victors this year are infinitely more talented than the men who won on those occasions. Fans care about this year’s possible winners to a far greater degree too, meaning that the controversies that surrounded the wins of Batista and Roman Reigns will be nowhere to be seen.
Past mistakes are to be learned from; not lived in fear of. Royal Rumble 2018 is the time to learn that lesson and set a fresh new tone for a fresh new year, taking us away from the repeated creative stumbles of the last 24 months.
The timing couldn’t be better to set that tone either; nor more vital. John Cena and Randy Orton are around less and less. Brock Lesnar’s contract is up shortly. Triple H’s character arc has reached a very natural end point, easily committed to. Kurt Angle was clearly not his old self in November. Goldberg got his critically well received last hurrah and The Undertaker seemingly retired last year. Shane McMahon has done his thing for two of the top names on his show, and of this generation. The part-timers utilised both in the recent and more distant past have served their purpose and bridged the gap between a wanting generation and a hungry one. It’s important to recognise when their time has come to an end.
2018, then, is a Royal Rumble, and WrestleMania 24 a WrestleMania, to finally tie up the use of part-timers with a neat bow. Propel someone new into the spotlight; someone capable of shining there. Forget the best of a bad bunch years, when you tried and failed. Remember instead the hunger this generation of NXT alumni have, and the incredible reception they always receive in the ring. Most of all, think about the possibilities of what could follow a fresh new perspective.
Imagine Seth Rollins or Shinsuke Nakamura going coast to coast like Shawn Michaels in 1995 or Chris Benoit in 2004. Imagine Bobby Roode defying expectations with a partisan Corey Graves egging him on from the booth as Bobby Heenan once egged on a defiant Ric Flair in 1992. Imagine Kevin Owens winning vaingloriously cheap like Stone Cold Steve Austin in 1997, or imagine Finn Bálor defying expectations like Rey Mysterio in 2006 (except actually working for it).
Past successes are to be learned from too; not lived in forever.
Beyond anything else – beyond any analytical reason – as a fan I simply don’t want to see John Cena or Randy Orton or Roman Reigns or anyone of that ilk pointing at the WrestleMania sign from the top turnbuckle this January 28th. I can’t stand it any longer. That’s a mean spirited, inward looking, divisive Royal Rumble I just don’t recognise. To use the popular social media phrase, that’s not my Rumble.
I want to see someone new doing it, someone fun, someone contemporary and someone who is going to benefit from it.
Basically, what I’m trying to say in a roundabout, not quite so petulant sort of way is this.
I want my Royal Rumble back!