Be bold: that was what my LOP compatriot Maverick had implored WWE to do this Royal Rumble Weekend and it was the phrase that lingered in my head relentlessly until last night’s pay-per-view went off air.
Be bold; so, did they dare to?
The weekend kicked off with another typically robust offering from the black and gold brand, Takeover: Phoenix. I have said many times before that these events are wrestling’s equivalent to Marvel Studios movies – a franchise of frightening consistency sticking ardently to a formula proven in its success. That formula was inevitably leaned on once more this weekend.
Takeover: Phoenix is unlikely to have disappointed the core NXT fan base as a result. Those who enjoy Takeovers in general will have found much to enjoy about Saturday night’s big event. Those less enamoured – myself among them – will still have found little to put them off. The card structure was the same as always, the match design the same as always, but Phoenix’s own version of the show proved admirably restrained, actively avoiding those final ten minutes in matches that often pushed this fan beyond the brink of acceptable suspension of disbelief and that repeatedly marred 2018 Takeover bouts, serving to make the entire environment around that franchise of show feel exhaustingly hysterical.
Not every element of the show hit home for me. The NXT Championship and NXT Women’s Championship bouts both felt relatively flat and rather too long for the story they had to tell, and in both cases the challengers didn’t quite feel like the right fit for their spot on the show. The NXT Tag Team Championship Match wasn’t quite up to the phenomenal standards of 2018’s Undisputed Era either, though I appreciate that may be my inherent dislike for when superheavyweights wrestle like cruiserweights and cruiserweights wrestle like superheavyweights.
Phoenix’s true success was the middle of its card. The encounter between Matt Riddle and Kassius Ohno felt to be built on a relatively flimsy foundation, but the two did well to exceed expectations and put together this Takeover’s equivalent to the Finn Bálor / Jordan Devlin match in Blackpool that I loved so much: solid, story-driven mid card fare that effectively developed character. It’s what great shows are made of. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
So too did I enjoy its follow-up, that saw Johnny Gargano beat Ricochet for the North American Championship – while longer, bigger, more verbose and considerably more ‘Epic’ than the aforementioned Riddle / Ohno match, Gargano and Ricochet put together what was still a more mature, more controlled version of 2018 Gargano’s prototypical work and I appreciated it all the more for that composure. A dark ending catalysing a title change and evolving character only added more points in the plus column. I can’t say I loved it on just the one watch, but I liked it enough to revisit it so as to see whether or not, eventually, loving it is something I can do.
Takeover: Phoenix didn’t offer up quite the usual mind-blowing card as more recent Takeovers made a habit of, and while that meant a second half to the show that left me feeling distinctly underwhelmed, it resulted in matches that felt like a breath of fresh air for their (extremely relative!) restraint. It felt like, more so than ever before, character development was foremost in the minds of the producers, whether it was Undisputed Era being met with a new challenge to overcome, Kassius Ohno succumbing to his bitter resentment, Johnny Gargano completing his fall to the dark side or whether it was Bianca Bel Air being forged into diamond before our eyes by the championship pressure cooker. Everything at Takeover: Phoenix felt like it mattered, felt like it moved the product forwards.
That feels like something we should be able to take for granted on the main roster too, doesn’t it? How perverse that we can’t.
Heading into Sunday night, then, the question was whether or not WWE could capture that same sense of forward momentum with their main roster, at what feels like a crucial time for them to do exactly that.
While Royal Rumble itself perhaps missed more opportunities to be brave and bold with their product than it captured thanks to the bizarre Shane McMahon blight persisting and the predictable refusal to stray from the Brock Lesnar safety net, it is worth emphasising that Sunday’s pay-per-view did capture a refreshing sense of the new, especially in its two most important matches.
The commitment demonstrated, sometimes flirted with in areas throughout their undercard made the dogmatic decisions to stick with sterile elements all the more disappointing. I’m unconvinced there’s anybody on planet earth interested in the Shane McMahon / Miz feud one would assume is being platformed by this woefully misguided Tag Team Championship storyline, and it’s a massive shame that The Bar, one of the three iconic teams of their time, has had to fall victim to it.
Similar disappointment is inescapable too, if expected, in the quarter of the Universal Championship. Placing that red strap back on the shoulder of Finn Bálor, if even only for a brief month-long spurt, would have only further augmented the sense of freshness the 2019 Rumble event had going for it, and done so to a noticeable degree. For now, we will have to settle for what felt like Lesnar’s most interesting and original match this side of 2016 (if not before) and a respectful if non-committal production of Bálor himself. One silver lining would be the hope it lends that WWE are yet to surrender entirely on the prospect of a Bálor headlining major pay-per-views, which in turn only provides further promise for the day when Lesnar is finally gone I suppose.
The real coup for WWE’s main roster this weekend, though, has been the bolstering treatment in almost every other corner of their full-time roster.
Asuka was the beneficiary of receiving a little of that lost edge back thanks to the admirably brave decision to have the new Smackdown Live (SDL) Women’s Champion tap out Becky Lynch – a decision curious at the time but excused through context when intentions were made clear during the Women’s Royal Rumble Match. And while Sasha Banks still wasn’t quite afforded the outright chance to turn villain and once again become The Boss that dominated NXT, she was nonetheless given a slight opening to edge towards that compelling persona. She proved more than willing to tear that opening apart, seizing her moment in the sunlight to give Ronda Rousey her best match in the company to date, I felt.
The WWE Championship Match proved unable to capture the imagination of the live audience in quite the same way, even though it drew out a degree of the same broiling animosity that characterised the tone of both the women’s title bouts. Perhaps its dull feel was because of its slow pace on the back of a Rumble, perhaps it was because the show was hurtling towards four hours deep at the time the bout took place or perhaps it was because there was little left to say for the clash of characters, considering the near-perfectly structured trilogy Daniel Bryan and AJ Styles wrestled to close out 2018. Regardless of whether or not you felt the match fell as boringly flat as I did, and regardless of how you might feel about Erick Rowan as Bryan’s apparent new enforcer, the commitment to the success of this ‘New Daniel Bryan’ character evidenced in the move to further bolster its profile, while still carrying the WWE Championship, is an encouraging sign that perhaps the company really is beginning to pay a little more attention to what’s catching on and to what is worth running with. Long may the ‘New’ Daniel Bryan’s run continue.
The Rumbles themselves, for my part, were the success of the main roster’s weekend though.
On the women’s side, the task of proving that an all-women’s Rumble was feasible without the crutches of novelty and nostalgia was tackled, I thought, with great success. While the content of the match offered little to mark it out as a historically special effort, sticking instead to an older school proliferation of one-tone brawling, the run time was still littered with fun character interactions and one or two head-turning innovations – the production of the Riott Squad springs to mind, as does Charlotte’s frankly superlative performance; one that, surely, will make it onto any future revisions I may do of my Top 60 (Non-Winning) Performances list. The choice to run with Becky Lynch as the victor deserves particular praise. Not only was it an irresistibly crowd-pleasing choice, not only did it feel like a narrative demand being eagerly met, but it sets up a smart and fluid avenue into a triple threat between Lynch, Flair and Rousey at WrestleMania should WWE choose to pursue it – with Lynch not technically an official entrant, Charlotte is offered grounds to challenge the outcome of the bout. It’s been a long time since story progression, character development, in-universe logic and fan sentiment were all so sublimely balanced.
For the men’s part, I will, of course, always hold a special place in my heart for the Rumble won by my all-time favourite wrestler. Putting that bias aside, though, it is worth saying that the similarities with the preceding women’s take on the genre for the year didn’t just stop at the disappointing decision to directly replicate two specific tropes. The Men’s Rumble too stuck to an older school approach, the same proliferation of brawling characterising the run time. It may therefore, in an age where we’re used to a greater frequency of stylised contrivance in our Rumbles, not quite measure up to some of the more recent fan favourites (though it feels those are few and far between!). It was not without merits though. Micro-interactions between characters in the field are plentiful from the get-go, many of them perfectly demonstrating the nature of the characters involved in brisk, brief fashion. There are a number of entrances into the match that provide for magnetic television – Drew McIntyre’s is a particularly inspired moment of production – and while the design of the Final Four might not have been as effective as a more traditional approach, I greatly admired its desire to find a new avenue at the end of a match that was very much all about emphasising the ‘New.’
That was the true take-away for the 2019 Men’s Rumble in particular. It finally stepped away, fully and enthusiastically, from the obsession with the old guard that has marked the Rumble for the last decade. It didn’t even obsess over that narrative, like last year’s Men’s match did Any novelty was quickly put aside after the first five minutes, and despite the presence of a number of veteran names at the back end of the match, for the most part the 2019 Men’s Rumble simply got on with unapologetically placing its focus squarely on the contemporary generation. Featured roles for NXT alumni and NXT contemporaries, for Reality Era mid carders and for the incoming Era’s certified headliners were the order of the day, lending the entire match, in spite of the simplicity of its content, a powerfully refreshing and genuinely hope-inducing feel.
Given the crossroads the entire wrestling industry seems to be at right now, it had never been more important for WWE to put together a Rumble that did just that. Now let’s just hope it wasn’t a one-night deal.
For more on my thoughts about Royal Rumble 2019, be sure to check out my Performance Art Review on my podcast, Sports Entertainment is Dead, dropping exclusively on Lords of Pain Radio this Wednesday at 12.30 EST / 16.30 GMT!
What are YOUR first reactions to the events of Royal Rumble Weekend this year? Sound off in the comments below, on social media or over on LOPForums!