The evening kicked off with a fun pre-show match in which the New Age Outlaws defeated the Rhodes brothers for the WWE tag team championship. On commentary JBL focused so much on how long it would be between the Outlaws’ fifth and sixth reigns that I became even more sure than I had been anyway that Road Dogg and Billy Gunn would have an unsuccessful night. Perhaps that was deliberate, WWE having Layfield talk about stats in order to build up surprise for the title change. I think that’s probably giving them too much credit though.
I enjoyed the title reign of Cody Rhodes and Goldust. They made a good team and were the best thing on WWE shows. Losing the titles doesn’t mean they’re going to stop teaming but it does hint at it. So does the fact that ‘The Bizarre One’, albeit accidentally, eliminated Cody from the Rumble later in the night. The rumoured brother versus brother match at ‘Mania looks like a certainty at this point.
The New Age Outlaws getting a sixth reign is, in my opinion, a good thing. There’s nothing wrong with a popular team getting one final turn in the spotlight while they can still perform at the level they’re best remembered for (which the Outlaws can because they were more about mic work than anything else). It’s a way of acknowledging their popularity, rewarding their hard work, and giving them the send-off they deserve. A long championship reign wouldn’t be the right thing, but I doubt that’s what they’re going to get.
The pay-per-view portion of the night kicked off with Daniel Bryan versus Bray Wyatt. The crowd erupted for Bryan and reacted to everything he did. Wyatt, who was proving popular with audiences before his feud with Bryan, was booed simply by virtue of who he was facing. Bryan is that over.
The opening moments saw Bray and Bryan trading punches and kicks and interference from Luke Harper and Erick Rowan. They were immediately dispatched from ringside by the ref, creating a level playing field.
Bryan took control with a cross body block from the top rope to the outside and a second back in the ring. He worked over Bray’s legs for a few minutes and sent him into the ring steps on the outside. Bray regained control with an arm ringer that drove Bryan’s head into the ring apron.
‘The Eater of Worlds’ pummelled Bryan in the corner of the ring, clotheslined his head into the ring post, then followed up with a high running back senton and a wild head and arm suplex in the ring. Bryan came back with charging clothesline, some stiff kicks and a drop toe hold into a turnbuckle. A top rope hurricanarana got him two count. Bray got a two of his own with a charging elbow that looked genuinely painful.
On the outside Bryan leapt off the apron and hit Wyatt with a tornado DDT. Back in the ring again he followed up with a top rope drop kick and yet more kicks. Moments later Bray blasted Bryan with a lariat. His attempt at Sister Abigail was reversed into a roll up for a convincing near fall. The Yes Lock attempt that followed was countered with a distinctly untechnical biting of the fingers (which probably should have been a disqualification, but whatevs).
The men made their way to the top rope, where Bryan sent Bray sprawling with a headbutt and followed up with a splash. His attempt at the running knee sent Bray under the bottom rope to the outside. The suicide dive that Bryan attempted would prove his downfall: Bray caught him and threw him into the crowd barrier with his Sister Abigail finisher. A second use of the move back in the ring earned him the surprising victory.
It was the second eyebrow-raising result of the evening. At the time it happened it was hard not to see it as WWE continuing to refuse to recognise Bryan’s popularity. The use of Bray later in the evening makes me think that it was actually more about preparing him for an important role in the company. Bryan, as the most popular member of the roster, was the ideal man to put Wyatt over as it made people react to him and helped him look like a big deal.
The third match of the night saw Brock Lesnar tangle with Big Show. The presentation of this was far more interesting than I’d expected it to be. ‘The Beast’ attacked Show before the bell, taking him down to the mat and battering him with a chair. When the match officially started Show caught Lesnar off guard with his WMD KO punch.
That would not be enough to stop Lesnar. After a brief trundle around ringside they headed back into the ring and Show got scooped up into an F5. The match ended quickly and emphatically, exactly as it should have.
This is the best way to use Lesnar. He is not someone we’re supposed to think of as a wrestler. He’s a man we’re supposed to think of as a fighter, an unstoppable wall of rage and muscle. His pre-match attack reminded us how volatile he is and the ease with which he dropped Show once the match began reminded us that he’s a man who can make short work of anyone. Arguments that Lesnar looked weak having to resort using a chair against Show miss the point: the aim was to portray Lesnar as unstable and a poor sportsman, not to protect Big Show. Lesnar could have defeated Big Show without the aid of a chair but he used it because he was angry. Plus he shrugged off Show’s KO punch, which has been established as a guaranteed finish.
After the match the beating continued, driving home the point that ‘The Pain’ is not a stable man. It went on for a while but that was fine. I’d rather this approach than a lengthy match in which Show is given offence. The important thing was building Lesnar up for the next two months, and that goal was achieved.
The evening’s penultimate match was Randy Orton’s WWE championship defence against John Cena. It will be remembered almost exclusively for the hostility of the crowd towards the two men. This is something that’s been caused by years of overexposure and it’s been made worse by WWE’s pig-headed refusal to create a batch of new stars. This is a subject I’ll return to below.
The problem with this match was that we’d seen everything they did in the first fifteen minutes before. There was nothing new, highlighting the overfamiliarity already present in any Orton v Cena match. It didn’t help that they were supposed to be battling not just over the title(s) but over a deeply personal issue. ‘The Viper’ had viciously attacked Cena’s dad on an episode of RAW and yet they started with a lockup. Surely such an issue warranted a wild brawl to kick things off, something that would have stood a better chance of engaging the crowd. They even had the relaxed rules to allow for that.
The match progressed slowly. They were blasted with chants of “End this match!”, “This is awful!” and “We want Divas!” in between the bouts of silence and stretches of boos. Cena, used to the reception, carried on with the match as planned. Meanwhile Orty was visibly irritated and didn’t know how to react. In the end he simply stopped and did his arms raised in the air pose and hoped for the best.
Things did pick up in the closing minutes once the two started hitting their finishers and lifting one another’s signature spots. Orton started that off when he applied the STF to Cena. Moments later he slipped out of a Cena STF and planted the challenger with a dodgy AA. Cena responded with an RKO. The crowd reacted to all of this but it was too little too late: the moves got momentary pops but didn’t regain interest in the match as a whole. The crowd were doing everything they could to send WWE the message that they did not want to see Orton and Cena facing off.
The finish did get a sustained reaction though. As Cena had Orty trapped in the STF the lights went out and the Wyatt Family’s signature was screened. When the lights came back on the three Family members were stood on the ring apron. Cena dashed at Bray and knocked him down to the floor but turned around into the match-winning RKO. For the second year in a row a heavily pushed three man faction played a part in the WWE title match at Royal Rumble.
This was a step in the right direction as far as creating new stars is concerned. Having Bray be the reason Cena lost a WWE title match obviously sets the two up for a collision of some sort. It could be a singles match. It could be a tag match with Cena and Bryan taking on two members (I’d personally favour Bray and Harper). It could even be a six man if Hulk Hogan’s capable of standing on the apron for ten minutes before Hulking up and hitting a leg drop.
Whatever it leads to I think Bray interfering in this match gives sense to Bryan’s loss to him in the opener. Bryan will remain popular. Not indefinitely, not at his current level at least, but enough to take one loss to an upper mid-carder. Bray needed that victory to make him appear credible for whatever he does with Cena.
After a final check-in with the expert panel, which was most notable for how hammered Flair appeared, and a short video of mini promos from Rumble entrants (Batista’s was most cringe-worthy, he simply looked at the camera before saying “Exactly”) it was time for the Royal Rumble match. It was Seth Rollins who would start things off against CM Punk. As I wrote in my prediction piece he was a good choice because he was a big enough name to get a reaction but not so big as to be needed later in the bout. Damien Sandow and Cody Rhodes followed. ‘The Intellectual Saviour’ was the first man out when Punk back dropped him over the top rope.
Entrant five was Kane, who tore his shirt off as he trundled towards the ring. He went straight for Punk, trying for a choke slam but getting smacked with a roundhouse kick and eliminated instead. He was followed by NXT regular Alexander Rusev. He knocked everyone in the ring around but would ultimately leave without eliminating anyone.
The crowd weren’t sure whether to pop for Cesaro or boo for Swagger when the Real Americans music hit. It ended up being Swagger, so they booed. He was followed by Kofi Kingston, Jimmy Uso and Goldust. It was at this point that ‘The Bulgarian Brute’ was eliminated via group effort. If this was his official introduction to the main roster it was unimpressive.
Up next was Kofi Kingston’s annual avoiding elimination spot. This year he got knocked off the apron by CM Punk and caught by an angry Rusev at ringside. For no discernable reason Rusev dropped ‘The Wildcat’ on to the crowd barrier, punched him a few times, then wandered off. After psyching himself up Kofi made the eight foot leap from the barrier on to the ring apron and rejoined the action. A while later he would avoid elimination again by wrenching Jack swagger’s boot off and hanging upside down from the ropes. It was not as impressive.
Dean Ambrose, Dolph Ziggler, R-Truth and Kevin Nash followed. Truth found himself immediately eliminated by Ambrose while Nash made short work of Swagger. The reaction for ‘The Show Off’ was impressive. Despite being booked like a nobody for months the fans reacted like he was a star, popped for his missile drop kick, and piped up with a “Let’s go Ziggler!” chant.
The reason for the slight number of eliminations was revealed when Roman Reigns entered at fifteen and set about dominating the match. CM Punk was knocked silly with a running drop kick. Goldust, Cody and Ziggler were all dropped with spears. Kofi was dunked over the top rope after attempting a spinning heel kick. Moments later he was joined by Ziggles and ‘Big Sexy’.
A group effort from The Shield weakened The Great Khali for elimination, but it was Reigns that scooped him up and threw him out. A (planned) timing error between the brothers Rhodes saw Goldy accidentally knock Cody off the apron. Reigns then added to his tally by getting rid of ‘The Golden One’. That left Punk alone with The Shield. Luckily for him, but unluckily for viewers, Sheamus was entrant seventeen. He single-handedly sidelined all three heels.
The Miz, Fandango , El Torito and Antonio Cesaro brought the numbers back up. Fandango and Torito didn’t last long. The dancer went out to the bull and the bull went out to Roman Reigns. Cesaro earned cheers by fending off Rollins and Ambrose and performing a lengthy big swing.
Luke Harper, Jey Uso, JBL and Erick Rowan were the next four. By this point chants for Daniel Bryan had begun and people that weren’t him were getting booed as they entered. ‘The Wrestling God’ kept his suit on and didn’t last long, as you’d expect. He was added to Roman Reigns’ elims list. Eagle-eyed viewers would have noticed Kane sneaking towards the ring as Layfield’s music was playing. This was understandably not acknowledged by Cole and ‘King’.
Jey Uso went out to a Luke Harper boot just as The Ryback was introduced. He was followed by Alberto Del Rio and Batista. The initial reaction for ‘The Animal’ was good but he found himself jeered heavily once he got into the ring. He made quick work of eliminating Rowan, Ryback and ADR. That was intended to remind us of how good he is. Personally I’d have spanned them out a little more, tossing out three guys so rapidly left Big Dave with nothing much to do.
The penultimate entrant was Big E Langston. He too got no reaction because the crowd were holding out for Daniel Bryan. Rey Mysterio was heavily booed when he came out at thirty. Everything that the remaining men did for the next several minutes got similar treatment. It was the fans’ way of telling WWE they were not happy with what they were being given.
Cheers returned when Seth Rollins elim’ed Mysterio. Reigns’ Superman punch elimination of Luke Harper got a mixed reaction but the crowd came to life when Ambrose tried a sneak attack on his big teammate. Rollins shouted at Ambrose for his lack of team spirit and Cesaro tried to chuck them both out. Seconds later all three found themselves on the floor courtesy of Roman Reigns.
The four remaining men (Reigns, Punk, Sheamus and Batista) exchanged finishers, with Punk getting the best of the sequence and ending up stood in a corner. That would turn out to be the wrong thing to do as ‘The Big Red Machine’ would appear from his hiding place under the ring and pull him out of the match. I don’t want to see Kane v CM Punk but I think we’re going to. Probably at, but not necessarily in, Elimination Chamber.
Boos rained down on the three finalists as they clambered back to their feet. Sheamus and Batista made their way through an unengaging exchange of punches and kicks. After what seemed like hours Batista attempted a Batista bomb. Sheamus muscled out of it but ended up back dropped on to the apron. That allowed Reigns to barge him off, making him the record holder for most eliminations in a single Rumble match with twelve.
The crowd rallied behind Reigns. Part of the reason for that is that he’s been teasing a face turn for months. Another part is that he’d single-handedly eliminated twelve men, meaning that he’d earned a victory within the context of the Rumble match itself. But the biggest reason Reigns was cheered was that he’s a fresh face in such an important spot. And new faces are what WWE fans want.
Obviously the crowd would have preferred Bryan because Bryan typifies the new face sentiment. But Roman Reigns was a decent enough substitute. He represented a new direction and youngsters being pushed to the fore. Batista represented big names from yesteryear clogging up the roster and denying the more deserving regulars the spots they’ve earned.
They exchanged punches before Reigns wiped ‘The Animal’ out with a lariat. Batista responded by wiping the Shield boy out with a spear. Seconds later Reigns was back on his feet and dropping Batista with a (far more impressive) spear of his own. He scraped Batsy up off the mat and went to throw him out but the veteran reversed it and chucked ‘The Hound of Justice’ out. Just like that Batista became a two time Royal Rumble winner.
Loud boos and chants of “No!” and “Daniel Bryan!” filled the arena. Batista’s response was to point at the WrestleMania sign and no-sell pyros going off above him.
The booking of the Rumble match itself was mostly fine. It could have done with a few more surprise entrants (Nash felt like a waste as he made a similar appearance in 2011 and I could have done without R-Truth and the Usos) but it did its job re-establishing Batista as a force to be reckoned with, adding reasons for a Rhodes brothers split, furthering the dispute between Punk and The Authority, and prepping Roman Reigns for his babyface turn.
But that’s all likely to be forgotten. What people will remember about the 2014 Royal Rumble is that Daniel Bryan was not a part of it. His absence overshadowed everything else. Had he been popped in in place of The Miz, El Torito, Ryback or even Rey Mysterio the fans would have been satisfied. They’d have had the man they wanted in the match. He didn’t have to win. He just needed to be given the opportunity to.
There is a positive side to all this. It’s just about possible that the omission of Bryan was planned to get the backlash it did. After the show Bryan posted the following on Twitter:
Sorry guys, the machine wanted me nowhere near the Royal Rumble match. But I thank everyone for their support. YOU are the #YESMovement
They try to keep US down and away from the top spots, but they can’t ignore the reactions forever. Keep voicing your opinions. #YESMovement
You could expect this out of CM Punk but it’s completely at odds with the unassuming, level headed Daniel Bryan. I’ve no idea how they’d make it work but I could imagine WWE trying a storyline in which backstage politics and pre-determined finishes are acknowledged (or strongly hinted at), along with the non-random nature of bouts like the Rumble, with Bryan being portrayed as a man the WWE Machine doesn’t want on top. This is already sort of what’s happened with The Authority but so far it’s only been explained and shown in storyline terms with vague insider terms. The opportunity’s there for WWE to take an experimental approach and have Bryan held down in a completely new way, one that acknowledged wrestling’s pre-planned nature.
The odds are against this idea though. Not only is it something wildly outside of WWE’s comfort zone but they’d be doing it at their most successful time of year and just as they’re launching the WWE Network. Still, it’s something to think about. And it would explain why WWE seem so against doing anything with the man who is clearly the most popular performer they have.