The Road to WrestleMania got off to a really impressive start last night as WWE brought the annual Royal Rumble into Orlando, FL. Big returns and high stakes made the Rumble match really special, Kevin Owens and Dean Ambrose waged violent war and the Divas division got set for a blockbuster clash. It’s the Royal Rumble Recap…
The Royal Rumble is always one of the most exciting events of the WWE pay-per-view calendar. The eponymous battle royal is a yearly treat full of shocks, surprises and Daniel Bryan not winning. This year, WWE had added an extra twist to the match, by forcing current WWE champion Roman Reigns to defend his title in the 30-man contest. Every title in the company was on the line elsewhere on the card.
1. Pre-Show Rumble Qualifier: Ascension vs. Dudley Boys vs. Mark Henry and Jack Swagger vs. Damien Sandow and Darren Young
This was a genuinely bizarre match for WWE to book, featuring two teams who had never been seen together prior to the bout. It was, however, genuinely wonderful to see Damien Sandow return to his “Intellectual Saviour of the Masses” gimmick as comfortably the most over performer in a match featuring at least three future Hall of Fame stars. There was little to write home about in the entirely unremarkable action, with the possible exception of Konnor’s ridiculous botch in which he forgot to break up a pin on Viktor, forcing Jack Swagger to grab Bubba Ray Dudley and save the day. Moments later, Mark Henry pinned Viktor to secure places in the Rumble for him and Henry.
2. Intercontinental Championship Last Man Standing Match: Dean Ambrose (c) vs. Kevin Owens
This was straight-up brutal. WWE has done a tremendous job of gradually upping the intensity of the feud between Owens and Ambrose, so such a violent stipulation was the obvious conclusion. Both men brought their A-game, battering their opponents with kendo sticks, steps, tables and chairs. There was a viciousness to both men that made every weapon blow matter, even within the confines of the PG environment that so often hobbles these kinds of matches. This was not a spotfest. It was a masterful marriage of innovative violence and intense psychology. Ambrose withstood everything that Owens hit him with, including a fisherman buster through a table. Owens lay Ambrose down on an array of chairs and prepared for a moonsault, but Ambrose leapt to his feet and pushed Owens off the turnbuckle, through two stacked tables at ringside. Owens, lying in a mass of snapped and splintered wood, was unable to answer the referee’s count. It wasn’t Cena vs. Umaga from 2007, but it was a great Last Man Standing match.
Given what would happen with Owens later in the show, it makes all of the sense in the world to keep the belt on Ambrose, who stands a real chance of adding prestige to the belt.
3. Tag Team Championship: New Day (c) vs. The Usos
New Day debuted a new trombone, named Francesca II, prior to the match, which seemed to please the Orlando crowd. This match was really hurt by its lack of coherent build, despite the solid action in the ring. A lot of what happened here would not have been out of place on Raw, with none of the big fight feel that made the previous match work. That said, the chemistry between these two teams was impressive and helped to carry the match down some interesting pathways and some nicely executed nearfalls. Big E continues to put his body on the line to tremendous effect and it was his strength, catching Jey Uso in mid-air after a blind tag to hit the Big Ending, that ensured New Day retained their belts once again. If WWE has any sense, they will keep the titles on New Day for a while yet.
4. US Championship: Alberto Del Rio (c) vs. Kalisto
After the debacle of Kalisto’s one-day title reign last week, this was a match that WWE simply had to get right. Thankfully, they pulled it off with aplomb. Del Rio and Kalisto worked a compelling lucha contest that was easily the best of their three championship matches. There were a few spots that didn’t quite work out as they should have done, but there was enough gasp-inducing acrobatics from Kalisto and heel brutality from Del Rio to make the match work. After a great nearfall following a first Salida Del Sol that was a little too near the ropes, a second finisher from Kalisto put the champion down. The thrill of Kalisto’s win was somewhat diluted by the recent hot potato act with the belt, but the signs are good for the future, with an incredibly fresh champion.
5. Divas Championship: Charlotte (c) vs. Becky Lynch
For several weeks now, the issue between Charlotte and Becky Lynch has gradually become the company’s most intriguing feud. Ric Flair has continued to be an x-factor at ringside as Lynch has sought to prove herself worthy of battling with the talented champion. This match was another highly technical affair, which made the most of the fact that the two women know each other exceedingly well. Counters were in abundance and Flair repeatedly tried to make his presence felt. There was a moment of unpleasantness when, for no good reason, Flair opted to kiss Lynch as a distraction, but the match soon went back inside the ring. Lynch moved out of the way of a big move, which led to Charlotte knocking her father off the apron. He immediately popped back up as Lynch locked on the Disarmer, throwing his jacket into the Irish challenger’s face. One thumb to the eyes later and Charlotte hit a spear to retain her belt by nefarious means. This was yet another entertaining clash between two excellent competitors.
After the bell, Charlotte beat down Lynch. Sasha Banks made her return to an enormous pop and swaggered to the ring as only she can. She tossed Lynch out of the ring and gave Charlotte a high-five, teasing a reunion of their NXT alliance known as the BFFs. Charlotte, supremely confident, allowed her father out of the ring. However, when her back was turned, Banks hit a lungblower and locked on the Bank Statement in almost unbearably brutal fashion. She stood tall as Charlotte lay broken, setting up a hell of a WrestleMania match. Hopefully Lynch won’t be lost in the shuffle and will make her presence felt at the Show of Shows as well.
6. WWE Championship Royal Rumble
After two years of Rumble matches that had babyface victors booed out of the arena, the 2016 match had to differ, despite its bizarre stipulation. Thankfully, the lion’s share of the match was booked to perfection. AJ Styles entered at number three, ending weeks of speculation with a blockbuster moment, and The Wyatt Family were able to dominate the field as they gradually appeared. Kevin Owens limped to the ring following his earlier match, but was able to eliminate Styles after a brief battle. Owens’ old NXT foe Sami Zayn then entered the fray and was able to toss out the prize fighter. Reigns soon found himself taken away on a stretcher, following a violent assault by the League of Nations. Brock Lesnar’s arrival put an end to the Wyatts’ dominance, but when Bray Wyatt himself entered the match, the eliminated Wyatts returned to help their patriarch put an end to the Beast. Triple H became the number 30 entrant and was able to bring Reigns’ night to an end after his triumphant return from the back. Dean Ambrose, Triple H’s final challenger put on a valiant fight, but he was soon bested by the King of Kings, who won his fourteenth WWE Title.
The Royal Rumble did a tremendous job of setting up the major story threads for WrestleMania with the Rumble match. Unlike previous years, big babyface eliminations were mitigated by big pop arrivals soon after, and AJ Styles was made to look like the A-list star he is for those who are unfamiliar with the wrestling world outside of the WWE bubble. Bray Wyatt is on a collision course with Brock Lesnar, Styles looks set for a war with Owens and Ambrose could battle Chris Jericho. Meanwhile, Roman Reigns will almost certainly find himself stood opposite the boss on April 3rd. It is, of course, questionable that Triple H is champion so long after his prime, but there’s no doubt that it sets up a hot clash for Dallas.
Overall, Royal Rumble was an excellent pay-per-view to open 2016, anchored by a great Rumble match with surprises up its sleeve. The undercard provided an excellent showcase for WWE’s young talent, with all four of WWE’s other championships around the waists of very capable young performers. WWE is making moves to create new stars and hopefully it will not be a case of too little, too late. With so many reliable upper-tier competitors on the injured list, WWE’s healthy performers have had to step up. On the strength of last night, they’re certainly doing so.
Tom Beasley – Follow me on Twitter for movies, wrestling and jokes about David Cameron.