And it's at the Royal Rumble where it will all start to take shape.
Let's start with the WWE championship match. Brock Lesnar will defend, for the first time since September, against John Cena and Seth Rollins. It's been an unspectacular reign for Lesnar so far. He trounced Cena at SummerSlam and then lost by DQ at Night of Champions before retreating to his woodland home. Although he's defending against Cena again here the addition of Rollins to the match should ensure we get something markedly different to last year's two Cena v Lesnar singles offerings. Some early two-on-one work against Cena giving way to a true three-way match seems like a realistic expectation.
Any of the three could leave as champion. Lesnar could retain the title in order to put someone over in a grandiose gesture at WrestleMania 31. Cena could win his sixteenth world title because he's Cena and I fully expect WWE to give him at least two more reigns in order to cement his status as "the greatest thing ever". Rollins could win his first WWE world title so that he spends WWE’s peak period as champion, sending the message to returning and casual viewers that new people are finally being given things to do.
Until a few weeks ago I was convinced Lesnar would retain at the Rumble and lose the title to Roman Reigns in the final match of WrestleMania 31. Three things made me less certain: Rollins' addition to the match, Reigns' string of generic performances, and the Rumble having numerous potential winners who could match up with Cena, Rollins or Lesnar. I'm not counting 'The Beast' out completely, but Cena and Rollins look like they have just of much as a chance as he does right now.
Basically I'm saying it could go to any of the three men in the match. But the nature of previewing a show means making a prediction rather than saying "Hey, they all look good!" With that in mind I'm going to go with Rollins leaving the show as champion. Note that wording though. I could see Lesnar winning the triple threat match or Cena getting world title number sixteen only for Rollins to cash-in his Money in the Bank briefcase for an immediate rematch in which he'd bag the gold. At least part of my reasoning for this is wishful thinking, a hope that WWE have gotten their act together and realised that giving Rollins a title reign at this point could do him so much good.
Before we get to the Rumble match let's quickly look at the rest of the card. Which is the most tag-heavy affair WWE have offered in years.
The New Age Outlaws will make their first pay-per-view appearance since WrestleMania XXX. Funny how Triple H’s mates seem to come back for the WWE’s biggest annual shows, isn’t it? They’ll take on The Ascension.
In NXT The Ascension were presented as the most imposing tag team in years. They were promoted to the main roster at the end of December in less than a month that carefully cultivated aura has been stripped away by jibes from JBL and unspectacular booking. The January 19 RAW saw them get overpowered by the Kliq and the APA. They were outnumbered, but it still didn’t do them any favours. It would have been so much better in the long run if they’d made a comeback against Nash, Hall, Waltman, JBL, Simmons, and the Outlaws and ended the segment as the ones standing.
That’s not what happened though. They were overpowered and so looked weak. I imagine they’ll get the win at the Rumble to show that they can easily dispatch Road Dogg and Billy Gunn in a fair fight, but so what? The damage has already been done.
Paige and Natalya will team up to take on the Bellas. The story behind this match is that Tyson Kidd, Natalya’s husband, has shown more concern for Natty’s opponents than for Natty herself during her matches over the last month. Paige thinks he’s an idiot and Natalya has tried to justify his behaviour and they’re teaming despite these different views because they both dislike the Bellas (and presumably want Nikki’s Divas title). I imagine the Bellas will win following Tyson-related shenanigans, allowing the marital troubles story to progress.
The Miz and Damien Mizdow will get their tag title rematch against the Usos. The Rumble card generally has a lot of time for the undercard and Mizdow and Miz are amongst the most popular acts on the roster so they’ll probably get a fair bit of time. I'd like to see Miz and Mizdow become two time champions but I think the Usos winning seems likelier. A split between the ‘The A-Lister’ and his stunt double is probably coming so they get to have a match at WrestleMania. That would almost certainly be on the pre-show, but whatever.
Of course the best way to split 'The A-Lister' from his bearded double would be in the Rumble match itself. ‘The Awesome One’ could suffer elimination at the hands of some general do-gooder babyface, or contribute to the tally of some powerhouse who’s racking up the throw-outs like Rusev or Reigns, then demand that Mizdow mimic the elimination and leave the match. For the first time in the partnership Mizdow could refuse, standing up to his mean ol’ benefactor. Or he could go through with mimicking the elimination as a matter of course, to boos from the crowd, and then look back on it a few weeks later as the moment he realised he could be more than Miz’s stunt double.
Or they could do something else entirely. The point is that the elimination match invites a lot of different scenarios for a copycat gimmick, especially with someone proven to go as far with it as Sandow does.
Finally there’s the Rumble match. In addition to picking out a winner part of the fun of the Rumble over the last few years has been guessing who’ll stay in the longest and who’ll get the most eliminations. Oh, and seeing what wacky method of avoiding elimination Kofi Kingston has dreamt up.
The most eliminations title seems like something made for Rusev. It would keep him looking strong and could be brought up as a reason he should be given a WWE title match even if he doesn’t win. Which in turn could set up a confrontation with a certain megastar babyface. The longest time is a wider field. If Daniel Bryan goes in early it could be him, but I think he’ll get an entrance number with double figures so that his entrance is built up to. I’ll pick Dolph Ziggler. It seems like the sort of thing WWE would do with him.
As I noted at the top this year’s Rumble has many potential winners. There are returnees such as Daniel Bryan and the likely Sheamus and Randy Orton. There are guys WWE might want to elevate like Rusev and Roman Reigns. And there are guys who have a long shot of winning if management decide to go in an unexpected, some would say baffling, but not entirely unrealistic direction, like Dolph Ziggler and Dean Ambrose.
Let’s go through that list one by one. Daniel Bryan seems like a strong candidate to win. He’s phenomenally popular, it’s his comeback match, and he’d work as an opponent for any of the three men in the Rumble title match. Bryan v Lesnar could be an amazing story, perhaps the greatest David versus Goliath match ever in WWE. Rollins and Bryan could tear the house with a ‘Mania setting and the entrances, status, and time that comes with, and their match could be sold as the beginning of a new era for the company. And Bryan v Cena could be presented as a battle between the two top guys in the company, the first time the two have touched since SummerSlam 2013.
Going against D-Bry is that he took a lot of last year off. Obviously that wasn’t his fault but in the topsy-turvy, light on logic world of WWE that’s a black mark. There’s also the argument that he had his turn last year and 2015 is the time for someone else to be given a crack at being ‘The Man’. It’s not something I’d necessarily agree with, what with Bryan still clearly being very over and talented, but I’d take it as an excuse not to have him win over his neck injury and 2014 layoff.
Sheamus may seem like a ridiculous person to mention as a potential winner but I’d like to remind you all that he won the match in 2012. The E is not above having ‘Great White’ win their biggest gimmick match of the year. When you consider that he’ll be coming back from an injury (worked or otherwise) and will probably get something impactful to do it’s not that hard to imagine a Shaymo win.
Randy Orton is obviously a candidate to win because he’s Randy Orton. Everyone that counts in the company’s decision-making circles loves the guy. Like Sheamus he’ll be making a return, and should get a far louder reaction because of the nature of his absence (he was sidelined by The Authority). What he has that Sheamus doesn’t is an existing grudge with one of the men in the WWE title match: Seth Rollins.
‘The Future’ is the one primarily responsible for ‘The Viper’s’ injury-slash-filming break. A match between the two is going to happen at some point this year, and WrestleMania 31 seems like a good spot for it. If they won their respective matches they’d be set on a path to that match. Of course, that grudge could also be saved for another time and Orty could be pitted against Lesnar before he leaves: a rare fresh match between established main event names.
Rusev isn’t that likely but he’s not impossible. The decision could be taken to push his undefeated status into overdrive, having him enter the Rumble early and toss out everyone before winning the thing. He and Lana get strong heel heat already, giving him the Rumble would increase it and be a way of elevating some new talent (which, as stated already, is something I’m hopeful WWE want to do before ‘Mania 31). Rusev v Rollins wouldn’t work. Rusev v Lesnar could with a little bit of tweaking to Lesnar’s character, and would do wonders for ‘The Super Athlete’ if he actually won.
But obviously John Cena would be the most natural man for a Rumble-winning Rusev to face. Cena stands up for “what’s right” (and being proud to be Russian is wrong) and would all too easily slot into the American hero role that the Rusev character works so well opposite. The quality of the match would be questionable, but it would be a tough one to call a winner for if they handled it right. If they wanted to WWE could take the plunge and have Cena lose to Rusev, setting him up as a truly unstoppable beast in a way that no other win could. If he won the title from Cena and was still undefeated the first person to beat him would get a massive boost.
Roman Reigns, like Bryan, would work well against any of the three WWE title match participants. Reigns v Rollins could be presented as a match that will determine the shape of WWE’s future and call on the pair’s history in The Shield, their tag title reign together, and their non-feud last autumn. Reigns v Cena could be presented as the future encroaching on the present, a changing of the guard moment for the company. Whether that guard change would come would be irrelevant for the match itself.
I’ve written about a match between Reigns and Lesnar at length. Suffice it to say here that having Reigns win the Rumble and then defeat Lesnar for the championship at WrestleMania, in a year that’s seen Lesnar overcome Cena twice, win the WWE world title, defeat him again in a three-way also involving Rollins, and end The Undertaker’s Streak, would be the best way possible of cementing him as ‘The Man’. That’s true of anyone of course, but Reigns as the look and charisma that WWE traditionally wants in its leading men.
Finally there are Dolph Ziggler and Dean Ambrose. They’re long shots, but they’re both over enough to make a Rumble win and ‘Mania headlining position just about feasible. Either man facing Cena seems unlikely: if they were to make it to the WWE championship match at WrestleMania it’s a safe bet that Cena would be in a significant non-title match to help keep the card looking big. Lesnar seems a little likelier because as much as he’s considered a draw he’s not the reliable professional Cena is, but I still think it’s unlikely we’d see him face a Ziggler or an Ambrose.
But either man against Rollins would work. Having them chase a heel Rollins for two months before finally dethroning him at the company’s flagship event would provide a good story, a memorable moment, and make it clear that everyone involved is someone of note.
Picking a winner from this list is hard. Realistically I could see Bryan being eliminated in the final moments by whoever he’s working with at ‘Mania. That could very well be Sheamus, who I can’t see winning because he’s Sheamus (and also because it feels like WWE are gearing up to push new people). Orton winning and facing Rollins would make a great deal of sense considering what they went through last year, but they could just as easily do that match without the title. Similarly Rusev doesn’t need to win the Rumble to clash with Cena. Ziggler and Ambrose are popular but they don’t seem like they’ve been positioned for such a high profile spot.
Which, by process of elimination, leaves me predicting a win for Roman Reigns. It’s not something I’m adamantly against but it’s also not something I’m really hoping for. Reigns has his strengths and isn’t the worst person WWE could move up, but I’d much rather see them give Bryan another go or try Ziggler as a top guy. But what’s nice is that I don’t feel especially confident about any of these predictions. WWE has a chance to really surprise us. I just hope they do it in a positive way.
Predictions summary:Roman Reigns to win the Royal Rumble
Dolph Ziggler to survive the longest
Rusev to make the most eliminations
Seth Rollins to leave the show as WWE champion
The Usos to defeat The Miz and Damien Mizdow
The Ascension to defeat The New Age Outlaws
The Bella twins to defeat Paige and Natalya