Ask a lot of WWE fans what their favourite night of the year is and it's highly likely that the majority will say the Royal Rumble. Yeah, WrestleMania is spectacular, but can often be a bit like Christmas, in that it's hyped to death and can often disappoint. Royal Rumble is more like 1st December, you've just started opening your advent calendar, you are yet to spend all your money on presents for people you don't really like and you've just heard Mariah Carey on the radio for the first time that year. The night before WWE had probably put on it's greatest ever show in Philadelphia, so the Rumble had a real job to do, even when you consider the difference in aims and target audience. The previous Rumbles in the city had been a mixed bag, with the 2004 and 2015 events taking place in Philly, but where would 2018 rank? Let's take a look
At a glimpse
- Men's Royal Rumble Match // feat. John Cena, Randy Orton, The Miz, Cesaro, Rey Mysterio and more
- Women's Royal Rumble Match // feat. Sasha Banks, Trish Stratus, Natalya, Vickie Guerrero, Mickie James and more
- WWE Championship // Two on One Handicap Match // AJ Styles (C) vs. Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn
- Appearances from Kane, Universal Champion Brock Lesnar, RAW Tag Team Champions Seth Rollins & Jason Jordan, Cesaro & Sheamus and Shelton Benjamin & Chad Gable.
Royal Rumble Match // Shinsuke Nakamura def. John Cena and Randy Orton and The Miz and Cesaro and Rey Mysterio and Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns and Matt Hardy and Dolph Ziggler and Sami Zayn and Sheamus and Kofi Kingston and Bray Wyatt and Goldust and Finn Balor and Rhyno and Rusev and The Hurricane and Baron Corbin and Big E and Heath Slater and Xavier Woods and Adam Cole and Jinder Mahal and Apollo Crews and Titus O'Neil and Andrade Almas and Aiden English and Elias
As expected the Rumble match received a good deal of build-up during the Kick-Off show. The longest portion of this saw 1992 Royal Rumble winner Ric Flair join the panel and just kind of talk for a bit. There was a charm to the way Flair spoke about the Rumble match and his career as a whole, as well as his discussion of the two main title matches. It was clear that Flair wasn't heavily briefed on what to say and the fact that he was talking from the heart lent itself well to getting over what the match means to performers past and present. Whilst Flair wasn't always clear on the details, it appeared that he is up on the current product and that was endearing to see as he discussed a match between Chad Gable and Jey Uso from the previous week's SmackDown. Also on the Kick-Off event were promos for The New Day and Rusev & Aiden English, as well as a Royal Rumble by the numbers vignette (which got replayed just before the match began).
I have to say I was surprised to see the Men's Rumble match go on third, just under an hour into the show. It seems that these new marathon events have a whole new set of rules to learn and understand. I was worried that the match would feel less important in this role, as has often been the case when the Rumble match hasn't gone on last over the years. That didn't seem to have an effect on the match at all, as Philly remained hot for the majority of the match, rising towards the finish and providing a good backdrop for the surprises and twists throughout the contest. In fact, in a way, having the match begin the show took away some of the pressure that recent year's have been unable to get away from. It freed the bout up a little bit, lowered expectations and allowed the match to just do it's own thing.
Beyond a lull about a third of the way in, the years match had more going on than has been the case for the Rumbles of the last few years at least. The contest seemed more focused and energetic than we've seen in the last few incarnations, with a solid smattering of spots and moments, with a couple of on-going stories. Baron Corbin's mad rampage after being eliminated was fun stuff, that also set up Elias' little concert which I popped big for, however I'd have popped more for Aiden English coming out next for duet. I had a lot of time for Heath Slater constantly getting beaten down, unable to get in the ring, before picking up an elimination on fellow ginge Sheamus and this showed that guys that are essentially filler performers in a Rumble can actually help to keep things interesting rather than being a drag on the contest. Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn beating up Tye Dillinger backstage so Zayn could take his place, Kofi Kingston being saved by pancakes before getting an unbelievable leg-up from his New Day pals and Bray Wyatt and Matt Hardy briefly joining forces also stood out as well. The eliminations of Aiden English (enzuigiri off the top from Finn Balor), Andrade Almas (springboard into RKO from Randy Orton), The Miz (Shield bomb to the outside from Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns) and Seth Rollins (by Shield partner, Reigns) also deserve mentions.
This years surprises also seemed to be of a higher quality to recent years, with a heady mixture of NXT debutantes and returning stars. They were also well placed within the match with four of the five coming in the last ten entrants, allowing the excitement to build towards the closing stages and boost a tiring audience that needed a little shot of caffeine to rally for the stretch. The two NXT debuts got good reactions as NXT Champion Andrade Almas and The Undisputed ERA's Adam Cole turned up and both gave good showings of themselves. Almas got a big moment in the bout playing spoiler after Kofi Kingston's excellent elimination evasion and whilst Adam Cole didn't receive an elim, he did get to work a lovely sequence with one of the other surprise, Rey Mysterio. Mysterio was a genuine shocker for me, it hadn't even crossed my mind that he'd be appearing in the event. The former WWE Champion looked great out there as well, seeming to be in much better shape that his last few years with WWE and having a number of fun exchanges with younger talent. The Hurricane also turned up for the first time in WWE since 2010, which was brief, yet entertaining. Dolph Ziggler's return after a few month's away ended up being anti-climatic, as whilst he entered at #30 and had a cute sequence avoiding an RKO and Attitude Adjustment, he ended up lasting just two minutes.
The closing stages were definitely the best part about this Rumble, as things began to get serious when the contest was down to it's final six participants. Finn Balor, Shinsuke Nakamura, John Cena, Randy Orton, Rey Mysterio and Roman Reigns battled it out for the WrestleMania title shot. Even with Balor's stop/start booking, this was six top tier stars, four of which have competed in marquee bouts at WrestleMania's gone by. They provided a sound mixture of cool moments, storytelling and world-class professional wrestling that came together to create a glorious conclusion to what had already been a stellar Royal Rumble. Arguably the three biggest stars in the company for a time teaming up was great to see, as was Cena, Orton and Mysterio hitting their finishers in quick succession, before Reigns took out Orton and Mysterio was sent packing by Balor. If the final six had been good stuff, the scrap between the final four and then the final two was even better. Positioning Cena and Reigns as the heels was a masterstroke that the crowd ate up, whilst Balor and Nakamura shone in their sequence, before Nakkers did the same with John Cena, but it was the two favourites who were left in the ring at the end of it all, as Reigns and Nakamura remained. The pair bought physicality and intensity, selling well their desire to win as the crowd reacted to each movement. I particularly enjoyed the pair working in a number of "near falls" which added a heap of drama to proceedings that has been missed in a recent years.
Shinsuke Nakamura was the bookies favourite heading into the match and therefore seeing the 3 time IWGP Champion as the last man remaining was hardly a surprise. Yet after a lacklustre run since joining the SmackDown brand in April, it has to be considered a bit of a surprise that WWE would decide to give Nakamura such a big win. All of Nakamura's PPV matches have fallen below the standard one would expect and even when you factor in having to face Jinder Mahal two shows in a row, it's not been a great start for the Artist. Beyond the match with John Cena on SmackDown it's difficult to pick out a memorable match from Nakamura's run, he's going to have to work hard to justify the faith shown in him over the next few months. That being said, Nakamura vs. AJ Styles has bags of potential as one of the top matches at WrestleMania and Nakker's popularity means he's probably the most popular Rumble winner with hardcore fans since Edge won in 2010.
Royal Rumble Match // Asuka def. Sasha Banks and Trish Stratus and Natalya and Vickie Guerrero and Mickie James and Kelly Kelly and Nikki Bella and Lita and Becky Lynch and Beth Phoenix and Bayley and Brie Bella and Michelle McCool and Naomi and Torrie Wilson and Dana Brooke and Tamina and Nia Jax and Jacqueline and Lana and Carmella and Ember Moon and Kairi Sane and Molly Holly and Ruby Riott and Liv Morgan and Mandy Rose and Sarah Logan and Sonya Deville
Before we get into the ins and outs of the Women's Royal Rumble and the return of Ronda Rousey to WWE, let's chat about all the coverage and hype the match received during the rest of the show, because there was a good twenty minutes. The hype package played on the pre-show and before the match, whilst we also saw RAW Women's Champion Alexa Bliss, SmackDown Women's Champion and Hall of Famer Alundra Blayze all join the Kick-Off panel to discuss the match. The main thing I got from Bliss' interview was that Jerry Lawler appeared to be deeply in love with Little Miss Bliss, whilst Flair's interview involved her seemingly spoiling the appearance of Nikki Bella, when she listed her as one of the Women she'd like to see win the match. It was cool to see Blayze and she felt natural and at ease with the panel, giving real sounding answers and putting over a number of the competitors in the match. Having Maria Menounous as guest ring announcer (seriously, who the fuck is this woman and why does she keep cropping up in WWE?) rightly got blasted by the fans, whilst having Stephanie McMahon as guest ring announcer made it even clearer who this Royal Rumble was for.
Part of this matches charm was the sheer amount of non-regulars that were involved. Everyone loves a Royal Rumble return or debut and with nowhere near 30 women on the main roster they were always going to need to fill the bout with returns and/or debuts. So we got Lita, Kairi Sane, Torrie Wilson, Molly Holly, Michelle McCool, Vickie Guerrero, Kelly Kelly, Jacqueline, Ember Moon, Beth Phoenix, Nikki Bella, Brie Bella and Trish Stratus turn up. The majority of these weren't massive surprise as we'd seen most the returnees on RAW 25 on Monday and with Adam Cole and Andrade Almas in the Men's Rumble having a couple of NXT Women wasn't a crazy surprise either. Lita, Vickie Guerrero and Molly Holly were the three that I popped for, for obvious reasons. Holly hitting the Molly-go-Round was a pretty spectacular moment, whilst Lita's moonsault onto Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch was also sweet. Some of the women bought back in where clearly not up to scratch however with Wilson and Kelly in particular looking out of their depth in such a match-up. Also, why on earth did Michelle McCool get the most eliminations in the match? What purpose does that serve?
The bouts booking didn't feel as tight and focused as the men's contest, with the match often relying on a constant flow of surprises to pop the crowd and keep things feeling interesting. There were few pieces of storytelling throughout the contest and often when a narrative did present itself it was forgotten relatively quickly. Carmella getting attacked with her own briefcase by Vickie Guerrero felt bafflingly random (although at least meant that Guerrero's last WWE appearance wasn't getting covered in possibly shit), but was then rendered even more bizarre by Carmella's no-sell of the attack a few moments later when she just got in the ring and starting hitting moves. The use of the Riott Squad and Absolution was also a strange one, as after arriving with so much fanfare just two month's ago, all five women in those teams felt like afterthoughts here, with very little interaction between the partners due to the entry numbers and only Riott and Deville notching eliminations. The two groups could have been used as a real driving force for the match at different points and beefed up the story as well.
The bouts most memorable spot was Naomi's Kofi Kingston-esque moment, running across the barricade after landing on a bunch of Nia Jax eliminations on the floor and then using a wheely chair to keep her feet off the floor as she walked on her hands to get back in the ring. It didn't feel completely original, but was still an impressive display from the former SmackDown Women's Champion. Jax getting a string of eliminations upon her entry was cool, especially after her inconsistent booking this year. Beth Phoenix and Natalya reuniting as the Divas of Doom, a shining light during the dark days of 2011, was a lovely moment and them tagging up to fight Jax worked well, especially with Natty quickly getting her heat back by lobbing Phoenix out of the match. There was a similar moment with the show down between Trish Stratus and Mickie James which got a great reaction from the crowd, with the two women doing a solid job of signposting what was about to happen so the crowd could begin to get excited about it. My personal favourite part of the match however was the exchange between Asuka and Ember Moon, as Moon sold the arm that had been the focus of her match with Shayna Baszler the previous night as NXT Takeover: Philadelphia and Asuka even used the injury to eliminate her old rival.
There were parts of the finish that I enjoyed and parts that I felt could have been handled better. I'm still unsure how I feel about The Bella Twins being in the final three, because their involvement did create a rather nice piece of storytelling and provided Asuka with two opponents unpopular with the vocal hardcore audience, but also their presence somewhat undermined the majority of the regular roster members. Could any of the regulars have worked as well in the role they were placed in? I'm not sure, but I think I would've rather seen them in there and given the chance to try. What I did enjoy was Sasha Banks' involvement in the closing stages. In fact, Banks deserves massive credit for wrestling for over 50 minutes, which I'd have to assume is a record for a female performer in WWE. Banks eliminating Bayley and then Trish Stratus, following by helping the Bella Twins beatdown Asuka seemed to lay the groundwork for a Banks heel-turn, a role which the Boss excels in. It was clear that Banks was having a great time once again and appeared to have more energy than she's had on television for quite some time. Asuka and Nikki Bella's final showdown was well handled, with a couple of "near falls" and momentum swings, before Asuka was able to send Bella crashing to the floor and pick up the victory.
It would be incorrect to finish this review without chatting a little bit about the return of Ronda Rousey. Many had speculated that she would be involved in the match, in fact, Rousey had been the favourite with bookies until relatively close to the event, so it wasn't a massive surprise when she headed out to the ring just as Asuka was choosing between Alexa Bliss and Charlotte Flair as her WrestleMania opponent. It was a clever move to have Rousey arrive after the match, working in a similar way to when WWE will flash up the copyright symbol, as I'd decided we just weren't getting Rousey as soon as Trish Stratus came out as the thirtieth entrant and I think many people had done the same. It also meant that Rousey wasn't exposed to an unfamiliar environment like a Rumble before even having a regular pro wrestling match and arguably preserved her mystique for a big time WrestleMania match. Cue lots of pointing at the WrestleMania sign and lots of open questions for RAW and SmackDown to answer.
WWE Championship // Two on One Handicap Match // AJ Styles (C) def. Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn // Pinfall
This match was miles better than it deserved to be. This was mainly do to the bout being tightly structured, the relationship between Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn and the brilliance of AJ Styles. The section that saw Styles repeatedly out-wrestling both opponents, sending them rushing for the tag in the corner after taking a big move was well-done, lifting the energy and doing a strong job of showing off the tag gimmick that was being used. The monkey flip from Owens to Styles into the champ giving Zayn a hurricanrana was one of the best spots on the entire show, with that spot alone being a case for the match having been made a three way. There were also a couple of near falls for Styles off a Phenomenal Forearm and Calf Crusher. I think the bout could have been improved upon by increased focus on the ankle injury that Owens had been shown to suffer on SmackDown the week before, but at least it was used slightly here.
The finish was more than a tad confusing however, with this not being helped by the commentary team who seemed to have no idea what was going on. Zayn had reached for the tag after lengthy period in the match, but had clearly missed, Zayn was then sent to the floor, allowing Owens to ambush Styles with a superkick, only for the champion to reverse a Pop-Up Powerbomb attempt and get a roll-up for the win. If this was an out for taking a loss in a two on one match it wasn't a particularly good one, as Owens still took the pin and only shouldn't have lost on a technicality. If the bout needed an out anyway, why not simply book this as a triple threat, with perhaps an elimination stipulation to differentiate it from the Universal title match? I don't know. Whatever the plans are next for Owens and Zayn, we'd see them later arguing with Shane McMahon about the result and then attacking Tye Dillinger during the Rumble with Sami taking the Perfect Ten's spot.
WWE Universal Championship // Brock Lesnar (C) def. Kane and Braun Strowman // Pinfall
This match was a hot mess, a car crash and a beautiful disaster. Rudimentary elements of good wrestling matches, things like timing and finesse went out of the window and instead we were treated to ten minutes of three 265-385lb men lobbing things at each other and lobbing each other at things. It would be hard to make an argument that this was a good match, especially when compared to Brock Lesnar's three-way classic over the last few years, including the doozy from the same event in 2015, but I still felt this was an entertaining watch for the most part. I mean you can't really go wrong with big lads hitting each other with steel chairs, throwing each other through tables and whacking each other the steps...well, apart from when Strowman had to put himself through a table and the commentary team hung him out to dry. The main problem with all the big spots was that the finish ended up being anti-climactic, as Strowman was pushed off the apron before Kane succumbed to an F5 onto a chair.
Braun Strowman continued to be positioned as a potential threat to the Beast, having recovered well from the disappointing match and loss at No Mercy in September, which was pleasing to see as he's had an incredible twelve months. Strowman dominated the match at points, taking part in the majority of the big spots, including multiple powerslams to Lesnar. Whilst the ease of the move was impressive, I have to say it's time for Strowman to find something new to use as the running powerslam just doesn't feel impactful enough as a finish and now even less so after Lesnar took so many. Two moments that stood out for me were Strowman delivering a German suplex to Lesnar for a nice pop, as well as when Strowman recovered from having the announce table toppled onto him, rising from the ashes like a big massive Phoenix with the intention of fucking shit up. The matches main problem then was that Kane never felt like anything but a warm body in the contest, a warm body that was there to take a pinfall.
RAW Tag Team Championship // Cesaro & Sheamus def. Seth Rollins & Jason Jordan (C) // Pinfall (20:10)
After Seth Rollins & Jason Jordan had shared a great segment with Shelton Benjamin & Chad Gable earlier in the night, unfortunately Rollins & Jordan's RAW Tag Team Championship defence against Cesaro & Sheamus couldn't match up. That being said a lot of that had nothing to do with the four performers in the ring and a lot to do with some questionable booking decisions, especially when it came to the finish. The story was built around Rollins fighting from underneath against Cesaro & Sheamus, with the bruising European tandem working over the Iowan for the majority of the matches thirteen minutes. This is usually a role that Rollins works well in, due to his top selling and scrappy offence and on this occasion it was again effect. Rollins had a number of nice hope spots, including sending Sheamus into the post, before getting cut off. The contest for the most part had good energy, but then came the finish and it all fell apart.
Jason Jordan had been taken out earlier in the match, so when Rollins made the hot tag following a double frog splash, Jordan was unable to stay in the match, selling a head injury. Rollins would then quickly fall to a Brogue Kick and White Noise/Diving Neckbreaker combination. I had quite a few problems with this. Firstly, with a handicap match already having taken place, it seemed silly to book this match as a Handicap match in anything but name. Yes, the storytelling was a little different, but it really wasn't different enough to justify it's position on the card. Secondly, I felt really uncomfortable with how Jordan was either made to look like a pussy for being unable to compete due to what looked like a concussion. Rollins shouting at him after tagging out of the match in particular felt in poor taste. Credit to WWE for attempting to tell a different type of tag team story, but this simply didn't work.
SmackDown Tag Team Championship // Two Out of Three Falls Match // Jimmy Uso & Jey Uso (C) def. Shelton Benjamin & Chad Gable // Pinfall and Pinfall
This was another strangely booked contest. I've got a lot of time for both these teams, but I can't help but feel they were let down by the booking of the second fall. This saw Shelton Benjamin and Chad Gable on fire after taking the first fall, hitting their Powerbomb/Diving Clothesline combination off the steel steps on Uso #1, only for Uso #2 to escape the same move inside the ring and get a roll-up for the second fall. Not a terrible finish for a regular match, but as the second and therefore final fall after a first fall that was absolutely electric it felt incredibly flat. Let's chat about that first fall though because it was brilliant stuff. It was packed with lovely fast-paced wrestling, beginning with multiple signature move attempts and building into a series of false finishes. The near falls were made even sweeter by the Two out of Three Falls gimmick, which has often lead to secondary moves getting a fall, so when these lads were kicking out of their top bin moves it was thrilling to watch. Throw in a series of planchas from Jey Uso and Gable pulling out a tiger suplex and sick moonsault and the first fall on it's own was a bloody good tag team match. It's a real shame the lads didn't get more time and two more falls as it felt like the first fall was building towards something spectacular later on, that didn't materialise.
Kalisto & Gran Metalik & Lince Dorado def. TJP & Gentleman Jack Gallagher & Drew Gulak // Pinfall
It may have played out in front of about sixty-five people, occurring not long after the doors in the arena, but this was the best match on the pre-show. Whilst the lack of crowd noise probably meant the 205 Live sextet felt right at home, they bought a solid six man tag with an energetic conclusion to begin the show. The heels were methodical working over Lince Dorado, after Dorado had worked a lovely sequence with TJP, before the Lucha Trio got to a grand showcase of their talents, with a flip filled, fast-paced comeback. Amongst the big highspots, including a triple moonsault to the floor, the highlight of the match for me was a little bit of character work. This saw Jack Gallagher climb to the second rope, only to be told to get down by his partner, the dive-shy Drew Gulak, with the Gentleman then repeating the phrase "It's fine, it's fine" for what felt like an eternity, even after getting down from the rope, before Dorado was able to counter and find the hot tag. The match showed how much talent and potential there is within the Cruiserweight division, but the fact remains that WWE's audience is still only to get behind the division if WWE decide to do so themselves.
WWE United States Championship // Bobby Roode (C) def. Mojo Rawley // Pinfall
It appears there is two types of open challenge in professional wrestling. The first being "We've got a super cool surprise opponent" and the second being "If we announced this match then nobody would want to watch, so lets create some intrigue another way". This was very much entrenched in the latter category. I could not give two flying arseholes about Mojo Rawley. If you do care about Mojo Rawley (as a performer, not a human being) then you are wrong to do so. This match was pretty similar to the Semi-Final of the US title tournament the two had a few weeks back on SmackyD. Rawley dominated for most of the match with a variety of dull offence that was at least had some intensity behind it, before Roode blocked Rawley's running forearm in the corner and nailed an elevated Glorious DDT for the win. Even though he dominated the match, at no point did Rawley feel like a threat to Roode's fledgling US title reign and at no point did I give a fuck about this match.
Scott Dawson & Dash Wilder def. Luke Gallows & Karl Anderson // Pinfall
This was certainly a match that happened. Not a bad match, not a good match, but it certainly was a match. That's probably a little harsh, because there was some decent tag team wrestling on display here, but it was clear that the segment on RAW last week had hurt the Revival in the eyes of the fans and hadn't done much for Gallows and Anderson either, as the match played out to near silence in Philadelphia. Dawson and Wilder are great when it comes to adding little touches and moments to their matches and that was my main takeaway from the contest as they worked over Karl Anderson and targeted his leg, something which had become their MO when they were on NXT and during their initial appearances on RAW. Everything from Gallows lacklustre hot tag onwards felt flat, with the finish in particular (really a chop block for the win?) having a lack of energy and conviction. These two teams could put on a better match, but after a months of being treated as losers and side-acts it's difficult to get behind or invest to much time into two acts WWE doesn't seem interested in doing the same with. I would've appreciated another Women's match on the Kick Off event instead of this (perhaps a scramble for a spot in the Rumble?)
The Kick-Off show included a look back at past Rumble including highlights from the first Royal Rumble with comments from winner "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan, Ric Flair winning the 1992 Royal Rumble, Shawn Michaels' win in '95, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin taking it in '97 and John Cena's surprise return and victory in '08...We got highlights of something called the KFC Colonel Rumble, which was won by Ric Flair...There was also a package looking at the success of the previous night's NXT Takeover: Philadelphia event which saw Andrade Almas retain the NXT Championship against Johnny Gargano, Aleister Black go over Adam Cole in an Extreme Rules match, The Undisputed ERA's Bobby Fish and Kyle O'Reilly retain the NXT Tag Team Championship against Akam and Rezar, the Authors of Pain, Kassius Ohno put over The Velveteen Dream and Ember Moon keep hold of the NXT Women's Championship against Shayna Baszler... There was backstage segment with RAW Commissioner Stephanie McMahon and RAW General Manager Kurt Angle interacting with SmackDown Commissioner Shane McMahon and SmackDown General Manager Daniel Bryan, it was pretty empty and didn't leave a whole lot to talk about...
For me, the Men's Rumble was the best match on the show, having more depth than the Women's match, with tighter booking and better storytelling. However, the Women's match was still a good outing with a number of strong performances, particularly from Sasha Banks. The Two-on-One Handicap match was much better than it had any right to be as well, whilst the Universal Championship was mostly an entertaining watch, even if it was also a complete mess. Outside of that there was some good action in the tag team title clashes, but both were let down by the booking, whilst all three of the Kick-Off matches were forgettable and apart from the Cruiserweight match, pretty dull as well.
Overall, considering the length of the Rumble matches, this was a solid entry into the Rumble chronology, with the Men's Rumble being one of the best in years. I don't think the event as a whole will be remembered as one of the best, but it will almost certainly be rememebered for the historical first Women's Rumble. Whether they'll do another, after WWE threw pretty much all their potential future surprises into this one match, is yet to be seen.