On 29th January, WWE returned to the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas for the first time in over twenty years, presenting the 2017 edition of the Royal Rumble in front of an alleged 52,020 fans (around 8000 less than the reported figure for the 1997 event at the same arena). The eponymous 30 man over-the-top event was, of course, the main event, with an eclectic line-up seeing the likes of The Undertaker, Chris Jericho, Randy Orton, The Miz and Cesaro battling for either a WWE Championship or WWE Universal Championship shot at WrestleMania 33 on 2nd April. Also on the event, AJ Styles put the WWE Championship on the line against long-time rival, John Cena, whilst Roman Reigns challenged for Kevin Owens' WWE Universal Championship in a No Disqualification match, with Chris Jericho suspended above the ring in a "shark cage". The undercard included the likes of RAW Tag Team Champions Cesaro & Sheamus, Mickie James, Sasha Banks and Natalya in action.
Could WWE kick off the Road to WrestleMania in style? Let's take a look.
- An updated version of "Rumble by Numbers" was the first notable moment of the Kick-Off event, although WWE would air this a couple more times later on.
- The Kick-Off panel of Renee Young, Booker T, Jerry "The King" Lawler and Shawn Michaels discussed the RAW Women's Championship match coming up later.
Nikki Bella, Becky Lynch & Naomi
Natalya, Mickie James & Alexa Bliss
A fairly basic six man tag to open the event, with Naomi getting the pin on Smackdown Women's Champion Alexa Bliss, which will surely lead to a title match on 12th February at Elimination Chamber. Naomi's hot tag sequence was the highlight, partly because the crowd went nuts for it and partly because the former Funkadactyl was a ball of energy as soon as Becky Lynch had made the tag. The rest of the match was standard stuff, nothing wrong with it, but nothing to get excited about. It would've been nice to have had a match that felt like it hadn't just been thrown onto the card when someone realised they hadn't booked a Smackdown Women's match for the show, especially considering there's a shit tonne of talent in that division.
- The panel had a chat about the Kevin Owens v Roman Reigns match, with plenty of discussion about Chris Jericho being in the shark cage, because we all love fucking shark cages...
Luke Gallows & Karl Anderson
Cesaro & Sheamus
to win the WWE RAW Tag Team Championship
This match had a two referee gimmick, which did more to harm the two pairs than anything else. The finish ended up feeling so contrived with various people bumping into other people and Anderson eventually pinned Cesaro with a school boy roll up, after all sorts of things happened, seemingly all at the same time. Outside of the gimmicky silliness, the teams worked a physical match, that felt like it could've broke out into a sleeper hit, even if the crowd didn't seem particularly interested. Unfortunately that wasn't to be, as the booking and structure let the lads down, as Sheamus was bizarrely given the hot(ish) tag and the gimmick then took control. The four worked hard for each other, but they ended up fighting a losing battle.
- Austin Aries joined the panel to talk about Neville getting his shot at Rich Swann's WWE Cruiserweight Championship, in what was perhaps the strongest analysis the panel did all evening.
- Charly Caruso interviewed Dean Ambrose in the Social Media Lounge, with the Intercontinental Champion talking about hiding underneath giants and dinosaurs, to some benign fan questions.
- Match Three - Nia Jax def. Sasha Banks (3:13 [TV]) - Jax ran through Banks like a local competitor.
to retain RAW Women's Championship
With a big slot as the opening match, a sound framework to work with, plenty of time and a red hot crowd that couldn't have been anymore invested if they tried...I came away feeling a little disappointed with the RAW Women's Championship match. The story of the likeable underdog Bayley battling the arrogant and dominant Flair fueled the action, and whilst the two couldn't be better suited for their current roles, the action itself was all too often awkward or rushed. Perhaps this stemmed from an early slip with Bayley attempting to throw Flair to the outside, but there were a number of time when the two seemed to have some real trouble communicating inside the ring. Bayley having to jump back down from the top rope to re-position Flair for an elbow drop stands out in particular. The match also suffered from a lack of believable nearfall for it's babyface and with the level of crowd support it seemed a little wasteful to have Flair be so dominant. The Natural Selection on the apron was a sweet finish, though.
- Big lengthy promo package from the Universal Championship match...shark cage.
Kevin Owens [Kevin Steen]
to retain the WWE Universal Championship
[No Disqualification Match, with Chris Jericho suspended above the ring in a "shark cage"]
If you take away the shark cage gimmick, a silly brass knuckles super punch near fall for Owens and Braun Strowman's involvement in the finish, The Prizefighter v The Big Dog was a bloody good heavyweight scrap, that utilised the No Disqualification gimmick to a tee. Let's focus on the positives, before looking at the finish, with the main plus point being the wild brawling style that suited the two down to the ground. They kicked things off with a heated brawl through the crowd, that raised the energy inside the Alamodome and kept the fire coming throughout. While I wouldn't say it felt like the two hated each other, there was definitely the feeling that this was two men who would anything for the Universal Championship. This was emphasised by a number of well placed spots, including Owens nailing a brutal looking Frog Splash through a table on the outside, before later toppling through an inventive pyramid of chairs. One of the best matches for either man over the last twelve months.
Braun Strowman's involvement in the finish, ambushing Reigns on the outside, allowing Owens to get the pin was a curious ending to the bout. I didn't particularly dislike it, it's clear that Reigns was never going to lose to Owens clean and with Jericho stuck above the ring, it was obvious that WWE had booked themselves into a corner and plumped for the Strowman route. I always feel that the longer a match goes, the more important it is to have a satisfying and complete finish (something that's already been alluded to during the match) and after over twenty minutes of scrapping and battling, it was difficult not feel disappointing with how things ended in San Antonio. I would've liked to have seen Owens nail a Pop-Up Powerbomb to put the exclamation point on it and give a little heat back to the Prizefigher. I'm not particularly interested in Reigns v Strowman feud either, so that probably had a bit of an impact on my enjoyment of the whole thing.
- The first part of a Royal Rumble vignette aired, with Cole describing it as the top 30 Rumble moments, but it was more of a rehashed Rumble by the number situation.
- A promo for Neville and Rich Swann's Cruiserweight title clash, as the division continues to try and rediscover the formula that made the Cruiserweight Classic must-watch.
to win the WWE Cruiserweight Championship
The Cruiserweight Division is yet to find an real identity, but despite the crowd's nonchalance, Rich Swann dropping the belt to Neville was a cracking jaunt. This was arguably the best bout the division has had since it's return, as the two characters slotted together nicely, whilst the pairs history in Dragon Gate (both in the USA and Japan) meant the action was well paced and crisply delivered throughout. Neville's new heel character is taking a while to get over, thanks partly to the fact that he's the best known face to your regular WWE audience, but Swann's comeback, after a lengthy period of the Geordie controlling play, was exactly what The Man That Gravity Forgot and the division as a whole needed. Swann's offence was exciting, came at a ridiculous speed and had blue eye fire in bucket loads. This clash was a solid building block to start constructing the division around and deserves extra credit for having to slot in between the Owens v Reigns and Styles v Cena matches. The King of Cruiserweights now has his crown and potential title defenses against the likes of Akira Tozawa, Gran Metalik and Jack Gallagher should create some great moments inside the purple ropes in 2017.
- The hype package for the WWE Championship match detailed the rivalry between challenger John Cena and champion AJ Styles, including their previous bouts last year at Money in the Bank, SummerSlam and with Dean Ambrose at No Mercy.
to win WWE Championship
Money in the Bank was great, SummerSlam was superb and Royal Rumble was the perfect conclusion to one of the best in-ring feud that WWE has ever produced. For me, the evidence for just how good this match was was that John Cena finally managed to equal Ric Flair's sixteen World Championship reigns and got a positive reaction, which would have been almost unthinkable in the not so distant past. In fact, the crowd were fantastic throughout the entire match, creating, what sounded like, an amazing atmosphere inside the Alamodome and made each near fall even more gripping for me sitting on my sofa. The pair built their 24 minutes epic from the very beginning towards a near-fall laden third act, that began with Styles catching his opponent's diving leg drop bulldog and powerbombing Cena into the canvas. I'd happily put the final stretch up against any World Championship collision, as the momentum shifts, kick-outs and both men pulling out rarely used moves, produced some magnificent television. Styles' inaugural WWE Championship reign has opened eyes and anchored Smackdown Live excellently, hopefully he is rewarded with a money match at WrestleMania on 2nd April.
I've seen this match dismissed in certain circles for being finisher heavy and while there was three Styles Clashes and four Attitude Adjustments, there was a whole lot more to match. This was rich and vibrant encounter, that saw two of the best in the business, take the audience through a variety of tones, with each form flowing into the next, with a near perfect ebb and flow. The story of Cena's desperation to win back the prize, alongside his dislike for Styles, gave us a strike based opening and some wonderful visuals of a Cenation Leader reaching his boiling point when unable to seal the victory. The first portion played on some of the work done in the previous two collisions, with Styles having an answer to a number of signature offence, hitting a number of big moves including the Styles Suplex Special and a Rack Bomb. The two also chucked in a technically solid exchange of submissions, that began with a spectacular series of reversals with both managing to lock in their signature holds, before moments later branching out as Cena went for a timely Figure Four Leg Lock and The Phenomenal One caught his opponent in a crossarmbreaker. WWE may manage to equal this clash later in the year, but I'd be very surprise if Vince McMahon's promotions manages to better it.
- The second part of the Royal Rumble vignette aired, as a final bit of hype for the eponymous battle royal.
- Before the main event, Big Cass and Enzo Amore got a little mic time, as they chattered about being in Texas, a coupe of the Royal Rumble entrants, as well as running through their catchphrases.
Chris Jericho, Braun Strowman, Baron Corbin, Sami Zayn [El Generico], Sheamus, The Miz, The Undertaker, Dean Ambrose, Bray Wyatt, Rusev, Cesaro [Claudio Castagnoli], Luke Harper, Brock Lesnar, Roman Reigns, Kofi Kingston, Goldberg, Big Cass [Colin Cassady], Big E, Kalisto, Mojo Rawley, Mark Henry, Apollo Crews [Uhaa Nation], Tye Dillinger [Shawn Spears], Xavier Woods, Dolph Ziggler, Jack Gallagher, The Big Show, James Ellsworth [Jimmy Dream] and Enzo Amore.
to earn a WWE Championship match at WrestleMania 33
[Royal Rumble Match]
So, as was expected, Randy Orton won the Royal Rumble for the second time and earned himself a fifth major championship match at WrestleMania. The brand split means that this victory is perhaps less important to the Show of Shows than it had been over the last three years and therefore having an established main eventer, who already has twelve World title wins to his name was a little less annoying than had it just propelled him into the only big championship match on the show. Similar to Orton winning the Money in the Bank Ladder match in 2013, this victory follows a period where we've seen The Viper slip into the background, teaming with Bray Wyatt, having lost his last three one on one PPV matches, without a singles title match since April 2015 and with no singles gold since dropping the WWE World Heavyweight Championship to Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania XXX. Therefore, there's an argument to be made that this Rumble win does indeed elevate it's winner and whilst Orton could probably still walk into main events (see: SummerSlam last year). winning the most popular match of the year certainly won't hurt him.
The closing stages of the contest appeared to play of the disdain that a big chunk of WWE's audience has for Roman Reigns as the Big Dog wreaked havoc after entering at #30. Some of the videos showing various reactions to Reigns are hilarious, showing just how over the Pensacolan is and how invested those fans who claim to be "smart" are with his exploits. Having Roman entering last got the audience on his back immediately, taking any potential heat away from an Orton victory Reigns use during his five minute run was some of the most intriguing booking WWE has used in a while as the 2015 winner eliminated The Undertaker, screaming at The Deadman that "This is my yard now", before also taking out a man who had spent over an hour in the match, Chris Jericho. Those two eliminations obviously gave Reigns momentum, with the match pointing towards a triumphant win after he took Orton's tag partner Bray Wyatt out also and if there was one thing the audience didn't want to see it was another Roman rumble victory. This allowed Orton's win to feel clean, with an audience who was onside with the promotion, instead of fighting against the story direction as we've seen in the last few years.
It wasn't just Randy Orton, but the entire The Wyatt Family who took up a big chunk of the matches last twenty fives minutes, with Orton, Bray Wyatt and Luke Harper entering between #21-#25. Whilst the threesome didn't pick up many eliminations (just two with Orton throwing out Reigns and Harper taking out Apollo Crews), there was some major storyline developments, where they became the main focus of proceedings. The biggest moment was, of course, Harper turning on his teammates, after it had initially been teased that Orton would finally leave the uneasy alliance. It was a cool swerve, that all three played nicely and the pop that Harper got when he went for a Sister Abigail on Wyatt showed that it was the right time and place for the swap. Perhaps an elimination for either side here would have added a little bit extra, as it seemed weird to leave Harper in the match to just be fodder for Goldberg later on. There's potential however in a babyface push for The Backwood Brawler, he's got a whole lot of talent that perhaps he hasn't quite been able to show and a feud with Wyatt could produce a unique narrative of the oppressed Harper battling against the Cult Leader.
With no-shows from Samoa Joe and Finn Balor, almost all of the bookies favourites entered the match towards the end of the contest, with Braun Strowman and Chris Jericho the only exceptions. Orton, Brock Lesnar, Goldberg and The Undertaker all headed to the ring in the last twenty minutes or so, leading to an eventful final third. The continuation of the Lesnar and Goldberg feud, with The Beast getting chucked over the top within minutes of his foe entering the ring. I can take or leave Lesnar v Goldberg again and I'm not too sure that their interactions have made their rematch a bigger contest than their November clash. Goldberg would eventually get sent packing by Undertaker. Personally, whilst the interplay between the various legends was entertaining, I felt it was a shame to have guys like The Miz, Dolph Ziggler, Dean Ambrose, Sami Zayn and other regulars look like complete chumps in comparison to the guys who only wrestle a handful of matches a year.
The rest of the Rumble was pretty run of the mill, featuring a handful moments that managed to hold the attention, but had a bit of a treading water feeling. The ring filled up with fodder for Strowman (Big Show, Mark Henry, Kalisto etc.), Cesaro & Sheamus were the cliche tag team at loggerheads, big lads looked at each other, people did a couple of signature moves when they came in, Kofi Kingston had a spot. It was a decent way to pass an hour, but there was very little that grabbed. The two exceptions were Baron Corbin eliminating Strowman, after a Helluva Kick from Sami Zayn and Tye Dillinger entering a Number 10. The booking of The Monster Among Men was a masterstroke, as not only did it finally give Zayn a bit of redemption against his tormenter, but it gave a big rub to The Lone Wolf. The elimination was a clever use of the brand split, as it elevates Corbin on the Smackdown brand, without the need for a full programme between the two (yet!). Whilst Dillinger's appearance was as predictable as rain in England, it did get a great pop and provided a hard working talent with a well deserved moment. Jack Gallagher was also a breath of fresh air during his three minute stint.
Coming out of the Rumble, I think my main feeling was that it was mostly an enjoyable watch, but not a substantial one. It was junk food, as opposed to a Royal feast. It never felt boring, but neither did it feel like I was glued to the screen either. Maybe this was partly my fault for checking the odds before the show and being almost certain that Orton was going to win, but I also feel a big part was down to how the match was put together. The feeling that everyone was passing time until the big names made their entrance held the match back, as well as a lack of any genuine surprises. It certainly wasn't a bad match, but I doubt it will stand long in anyone's memory.
ATPW Scale Rating - 6.77/10
The first PPV of 2017 was a pretty good outing, with every match on the main card offering something worth watching. The clear Match of the Night was John Cena and AJ Styles' thrilling WWE Championship match, whilst it was well supported by the more physical Roman Reigns v Kevin Owens WWE Universal title clash. I didn't feel like Charlotte Flair v Bayley live up to it's potential, but the crowd's investment, at least, meant it's worth having a look at and it's perhaps it's a match that I'll reevaluate in the future. The audience were a big help to the overall presentation, being energetic and involved for almost the entire evening, with their sheer numbers giving the event an extra special feel.
Review: James Marston
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