Monday, 26 January 2015

WWE Royal Rumble 2015 review

For the last few years WWE has struggled with its Royal Rumble shows. The titular gimmick match, which is always the central attraction no matter what else is on the show, has seemingly become a problem for them. In theory it’s an easy match to get right. You ascertain who the audience wants to see win and you have them win. Or you pick a hot heel that people really don’t want to see win. WWE’s booking crew seem to have forgotten this, which has led to a string of limp, uninspiring matches.

This year was no different. A man neither the live crowd nor the home audience really wanted to see win was the man that won. Not only that but he did so in the most underwhelming, clichéd manner possible. It was a poor end to a poor pay-per-view.

This was not helped by a generic undercard. The show kicked off with The Ascension versus the New Age Outlaws. It wasn’t a bad match, but that in itself made it a slight disappointment. The Outlaws should have been very quickly squashed by Konor and Viktor in an attempt to erase the memory of the Kliq and the APA, all of whom are well into their forties, easily dispatching The Ascension on RAW. Because it’s The Ascension who are going to be of more benefit to WWE in the future, not the stars form the 90s.

But we didn’t get that. Instead we got a competent match that ended with Billy Gunn tagging in to take Total Elimina- sorry, I mean The Fall of Man. It was the right result but the wrong route was taken to get to it.

Because the card only had five matches it was heavily padded. The first instance of this was the deluge of ads that followed The Ascension’s victory. Mixed in with that was news that Vince McMahon had tweeted about Rock being in Philadelphia, the city hosting the Rumble. We were also treated to Triple H and Stephanie McMahon discussing Sting. They were concerned he’d get into the building again. Then Paul Heyman rocked up and told them that the solution to their Sting problem was Brock Lesnar. Nothing came of this on the rest of the show so presumably it was setting something up for the future.

The tag team title match went on second. The Miz’s music got a raucous cheer from the crowd. Miz himself was booed while Damien Mizdow, his bearded, super-over stunt double, got a massive cheer. The Usos were met with indifference, although people did get into their little cheering gimmick.

The match was similar to the one they had at TLC, only here Mizdow didn’t get to tag in at all. He spent the early minutes hamming around, mimicking ‘The A-Lister’ and being adored for it. After a while the seriousness of the situation got to him and he asked Miz to tag him in, reminding him it was for the titles. Miz teased that he would but pulled his hand away at the last minute, his ego demanding that he and he alone regain the straps.

It wouldn’t work out for him. Moments later Miz would hit Jey with the Skull Crushing Finale only for the champion to kick out. A “Mizdow!” chant rang out through the arena as Miz ran into a super kick from Jey and then got splashed. The humiliation continued for him when Mizdow snuck into the ring and hit Jey with an SCF of his own, which Jey again kicked out of.

Mizdow slumped down at ringside in disbelief. Back in the ring Jimmy reappeared (he’s been inexplicably absent for several minutes) and gave Miz a splash from the top rope after Jey had sunset bombed him from the corner. That was enough to put The Miz down for a three count.

Mizdow made no effort to break the pin up and mimicked ‘The Awesome One’s’ annoyance with him after the match. It wasn’t a bad match but it was the relationship between Miz and Mizdow that was the focus rather than the action. That’s not a bad thing but it would have been nice, two matches into a five match show, to have had a match where the action was the focus.

Theoretically the Divas tag match fit that description. In practice though it was something approaching a wreck. It started off looking promising, with Paige and Natalya making lots of swift tags and working over Brie. It didn’t last though. Eventually the Bellas turned the tables and isolated Natalya. She spent several minutes working towards and just before she got it Brie yanked Paige form the apron, leaving Natalya to take a match-winning forearm from the face from Nikki.

After comments from Roman Reigns, Stardust, Goldust, Rusev, Miz and Mizdow (who again teased dissension), Big Show (who bizarrely claimed he's not mortal), Fandango, and Daniel Bryan about their Rumble-winning plans it was time for the WWE championship match. The first three matches had been mostly inoffensive and forgettable. This was one of two matches people were expectign big things from, and they got them. It was the highlight of the show.

Early contender for WWE match of 2015.
John Cena got massive heat when he entered first. That was understandable. The smart fan-filled crowd was never going to give him an easy time. Seth Rollins got a pop, because he’s someone that sort of crowd appreciates. But it was defending champion Brock Lesnar, alongside Philadelphia legend Paul Heyman, who got the biggest reaction of the three.

Seth slipped out of ring as soon as the match began. Lesnar simply set to work German suplexing Cena. After a few seconds Rollins saw an opening and returned. He was instantly grabbed for a German suplex but J&J saved him. That came at a price though: they were left open to Lesnar, who easily hoisted both of them up for a double German suplex. The next several minutes were a haze of German suplexes from the champion to both of his challengers. The crowd ate it up.

Lesnar eventually tired of the suplexes and slapped a kimura on Cena instead. Cena made it to his knees and then to his feet before Rollins broke the hold up with a knee to Lesnar's head. Rollins kicked at Lesnar, then Cena joined him to hit a double suplex on the champ. Cena followed up with an AA and Rollins stole the cover. Lesnar kicked out at one.

The challengers briefly took out Lesnar by drop kicking him into the ring steps. Back in the ring Cena hit his belly-to-back suplex and went for the Five Knuckle Shuffle. Lesnar grabbed him for a German suplex before he could finish the taunt. Rollins broke up an attempted rolling German suplex with a super kick then kneed Lesnar in the back of the head to send him tumbling from the ring. Then one of those rare instances of Cena debuting a new move occurred. In this case Rollins turned round to take a Michinoku driver, the most stolen move of the 90s. Maybe he could start using it regularly and call it the Cena driver.

Rollins got a Blockbuster on Cena (and I was left disappointed that JBL didn’t namecheck Buff Bagwell). The subsequent pin attempt was broken up by Lesnar. Cena dropped ‘The Pain’ with a clothesline then got pulled out of the ring by Rollins, who springboarded back into the ring looking for a knee to Lesnar's head but got caught and F5ed. Cena broke up that cover to keep the match alive.

Lesnar German suplexed Cena then left the ring to pull apart the Spanish announce desk. When he returned to grab Cena he was blasted with three AAs in quick succession. Rollins pulled Cena off the cover but it didn't matter because Lesnar kicked out anyway. Rollins gave the champion a Curb Stomp, which Lesnar took really well, and Cena broke the cover up. Again it didn’t matter because Lesnar was kicking out.

Lesnar left the ring to recover. Cena followed him out and speared him through the crowd barrier into the timekeeper’s area, then pulled him back to his feet and threw him into the ring steps before smacking him in the head with them, sending Lesnar sprawling onto the Spanish announce table. A Rollins baseball slide wiped out Cena, who then hit a perfect elbow from the top rope onto Lesnar, bouncing off of him as he crushed him through the table.

Cena grabbed Rollins and put him back in the ring. Rollins surprised him with a small package for two. A super kick earned him another. Cena came back with an AA attempt. Rollins landed on his feet but then ran into a pop-up power bomb. Rollins kicked out and fired back with a buckle bomb. He attempted a Curb Stomp but Cena avoided it, latching onto his leg and pulling him down into an STF. J&J broke that up and helped Rollins hit a Shield bomb.

At this point a stretcher arrived for Lesnar and Michael Cole told us the champion may have suffered a broken rib. The inclusion of such an overplayed spot was the only negative thing about the match, but it wasn’t anywhere near bad enough to ruin it.

In the ring Rollins was handed his briefcase by Noble and Mercury. He tried to lamp Cena with it but was instead sent over the top rope (lucky he wasn’t in the Rumble match, eh?). Cena then hit a stacked up AA on J&J. Rollins returned and ate an AA of his own but managed to kick out. Then they staggered back to their feet and traded punches before Rollins scored an enziguri and a Curb Stomp for another two count.

Realising he'd need to try something special to keep Cena down Rollins went up to the top rope and hit Cena with a phoenix splash. But before he could make a cover he was grabbed and German suplexed by a returning Lesnar. Cena got one too, sending him rolling from the ring. Another German on Rollins didn't work out because 'The Future' managed to land on his feet, grab his briefcase and wallop Lesnar with it twice. He went for a Curb Stomp to Lesnar on the case but as he came off the ropes Lesnar sprang to his feet and caught him with and F5 for a successful title defence.

The match couldn't have been better. It was perfectly constructed, avoiding the awkwardness that often plagues WWE three-ways, and everyone got to look good. Cena entered one of his best performances in months. Rollins showed he belonged and was elevated by such a strong performance and not looking out of place with two far more experienced headliners. And Lesnar's status as an unbeatable monster was, astonishingly, not only kept intact but enhanced. It kept viewers guessing and made it clear that the WWE championships and something. Basically, we don't get matches like this anywhere near enough in WWE.

And we wouldn't get one in the night’s main event. The Royal Rumble match closed the show and it's the match that really let the card as a whole down. The opening half of the match was well put together but the back half was full of mistakes. It was basically a match put together according to a booking ethic that is decades out of date. I will touch on this again below.

The Miz and R-Truth started the match off. It made a nice change for the Rumble not to begin with someone announced for the number one spot. The battle from the number one spot has become played out. I was, however, disappointed that no one on commentary acknowledged the Awesome Truth reunion.

He's no longer a Bully, he's back to being a star.
They had a spirited exchange before being joined by entrant number three, the returning Bubba Ray Dudley. He hit the bionic elbow on Miz and then hit the Whassup headbutt and the Dudley Death Drop with R-Truth in the role of Devon. Bubba then eliminated both Miz and Truth as like Harper wandered out.

They traded some big lad moves before being joined by Royal Rumble debutant Bray Wyatt. Harper and Wyatt teamed up on Bubba as the crowd chanted for Devon. Instead they got a Bubba elimination. Bray and Harper exchanged words and then stepped apart, seemingly agreeing to work together.

Curtis Axel got attacked by Erick Rowan as he posed in the aisle. The commentary team made it very clear that Rowan was not an official entrant but Axel never made it to the ring and was never mentioned again. It’s also worth pointing out that Rowan exited the match over the top rope. It was a confusing move. If Rowan stole the spot that should have been made clear. If he didn’t then we should have been told why Axel didn’t make it to the ring.

Harper and Rowan agreed to go after Bray together (which got a loud response from the fans) but Harper turned on Rowan and sided with Bray. Both former henchmen would end up eliminated seconds later as they slumped themselves over the top rope and Wyatt simply tipped them out. ‘The Man of 1,000 Truths’ then stood in the middle of the ring and roared that it was his year. The crowd approved.  

The Boogeyman, Sin Cara and Zack Ryder all made their way into the ring. Each was quickly eliminated by 'The Eater of Worlds'. Number ten fared better. Because it was Daniel Bryan. The crowd erupted into a “Yes!” chant when he entered. He hit Wyatt with a clothesline, four corner drop kicks, smashed him with some kicks and then a top rope hurricanrana, all to a very loud response.

Fandango, Tyson Kidd and Stardust joined the fray. Kidd was quickly eliminated by D-Bry. Number fourteen was Diamond Dallas Page. He started hitting Diamond Cutters almost immediately. Stardust got one as he tried a scoop slam. Fandango was given one off the turnbuckle following a failed top rope leg drop. Wyatt found a haymaker ducked before he took his. The crowd loved it. It may not be a bad idea to look at booking Orton this way whenever he bothers to show back up.

Still a crazy over move after nearly twenty years.
Rusev entered at number fifteen. DDP tried a Diamond Cutter on him but Rusev shoved him off and threw him out, quickly doing the same to Fandango. His faceoff with Wyatt was cut short by a drop kick from Daniel Bryan, who followed up with kicks to both men. Seconds later the match hit its turning point when Daniel Bryan was thrown over the top rope by ‘The Super Athlete’. He landed on the apron but that wasn't enough to save him: Wyatt charged in and knocked him off, officially eliminating him from the match.

This decision baffles me. This was Bryan's return to pay-per-view and his first Rumble in two years after being omitted last year despite being the company's hottest act. The people wanted to see him win the match. I understand WWE wanting to go with someone else but if the paying audience is so clearly invested in someone you’re not booking to win it’s a good idea to keep them in the match for as long as possible so the crowd can enjoy themselves. I'm sure the argument against keeping Bryan in until the end would be that it would detract from support for a certain other "babyface" entrant. But any babyface that wasn't D-Bry was going to face a tough time with the Philadelphia crowd once he’d been eliminated. WWE should have known that, embraced it, and kept Bryan in looking like a contender until much closer to the end of the match. It's what people wanted and it would have made the match far more interesting.

Goldust entered at sixteen. Stardust tried to eliminate him as he went for Shattered Dreams but Goldy kept his feet off the floor and returned to give him a slap. The audience’s response to that and the generic action that followed was to boo and chant for Daniel Bryan. 

Kofi Kingston headed in at seventeen (to hefty boos) and got his annual clever elimination evasion spot shortly afterwards: this year he was thrown over the top rope and landed on the Rosebuds, who were at ringside for Adam Rose’s entrance. Rose looked miffed at this as he entered and got lobbed straight out by 'The Bulgarian Brute'. Kofi followed within seconds.

The boos really intensified when Roman Reigns entered at nineteen, very probably because they could sense what was coming. He got in shots on everyone before eliminating Goldust and Stardust. Big E also got a frosty reception for not being Daniel Bryan. Mizdow did much better, bringing many in the crowd to their feet. He was interrupted by Miz, who told him he was taking his spot. When he was immediately pie-faced off the apron by Reigns Mizdow reconsidered (egged on by frantic fans at ringside) and entered the match. He got in moves on Bray and Big E before being eliminated by Rusev, at which point he went back to mimicking an irate Miz.

Jack Swagger, Ryback and Kane entered at twenty-two, -three and -four and did nothing of interest bar triggering a "CM Punk!" chant (you get one guess at whose entry got that). Dean Ambrose came in at twenty-five and immediately became the crowd's favourite. Titus O'Neil followed him in, immediately getting eliminated by Reigns and Ambrose. It was meant to become a new quickest ever elimination but Titus somehow botched gravity and lasted longer than the current record of four seconds.

Lucky number twenty-seven went to Intercontinental champ Bad News Barrett, followed by Cesaro at twenty-nine. Rusev eliminated Big E with a drop kick before Big Show came in at twenty-nine. A gaggle of guys swarmed him but he shrugged them off with power. He quickly formed an alliance with Kane and they threw out out Ryback and Swags. The final man in was Dolph Ziggler. He immediately swatted Kane, Show and Bray with super kicks, hit the giants with a double DDT, and eliminated BNB with a super kick.

Cesaro grabbed Ziggler for a Big Swing then threw him onto the apron. Ziggler pulled him out and super kicked him to the floor. He returned to the ring only to take a KO punch from Show. ‘The Giant’ and ‘The Big Red machine’ then poured him (yeah, poured him) out of the ring. Kane was set up for a Sister Abigail by Wyatt but Show saved him with another KO punch and they threw him out too.

A dreadfully booked finish.
That left Big Show and Kane on one side of the ring with Reigns and Ambrose on the other. Rusev had quietly slipped out of the ring in order to do a surprise return later. The Shield lads escaped choke slams and worked together to topple ‘The World’s Largest Athlete’. Their attempt at tossing him out didn't work and they ended up getting battered by the large lads. Ambrose took a choke slam from Show and then got tossed out, leaving just Reigns and the giants.

It was a scenario which stank of Vince McMahon. The crowd realised this and chanted “Bullshit!” Cole covered the lax booking by saying they were unhappy about Bryan and Ambrose being gone. That was true, but the problem was far deeper than that. It had become clear Reigns was going to win, and not just win but do so via the 80s cliché of toppling giants. Giants who, as Michael Cole ham-fistedly reminded us, were very accomplished Rumble performers.

Show tried to eliminate Kane as they worked over Reigns, leading to a falling out. As they leaned against the ropes, looking vaguely like they were humping one another, Reigns snuck in to tip them both out. The match was announced as a victory for him even though Rusev was still knocking about (and Curtis Axel never even got in). Reigns didn’t get to celebrate for long: The Authority lads were unhappy at their treatment so they got back into the ring and gave him a double choke slam. The audience’s response was to chant for Rusev, previously one of the most reliable heels in all of wrestling.

The Rock's music hit. He stormed down to the ring, gave Kane a spinebuster and a People's Elbow then gave show a Rock Bottom after Reigns had given him a Superman punch. At that point Rusev returned. Reigns made short work of him, spearing him, pointing at the WrestleMania sign (which is a taunt that always maxes your power bar), and then simply picking him up and chucking him out.

‘The Great One’ slipped back into the ring to pose with his cousin as Triple H and Stephanie came out to scowl. This was all part of Reigns’ elevation package. He was getting the rub from The Rock and being cast as the anti-authority rebel, WWE’s favourite trope, by being the object of Tripper and Steph’s displeasure.

It didn’t work. Reigns was subjected to heavy boos as he posed the show off the air.

It was a dreadful Royal Rumble, characterising everything that’s wrong with WWE in 2015. They want people to pay for the Network and live event tickets and all the rest of it but they don't want to push the people fans want to see pushed. I'm not complaining about Reigns’ win here. It wasn’t ideal but I expected it and, more to the point we’ve only seen the beginning of the story with his victory. But Bryan could have lasted far longer and gone out in a far more impressive manner than he did. The same goes for Ziggler, Wyatt and Ambrose. The latter two were sacrificed to Show and Kane to make them look good for when Reigns Hulked up and tipped them out.

Reigns. One of life's winners.
WWE don’t seem to get how to book for a modern audience. Reigns' initial victory was earned by him sneakily tipping two big fellas out as they humped on the ropes. Where's the dynamism in that? He should have been Superman punching them over the top rope to the ground. If Kane and Show can't take that bump forget 'em, they shouldn't be there.

A Philadelphia crowd was always going to boo this version of Roman Reigns. He’s a typical WWE babyface. That’s what Philadelphia does to them. But I think they would have been happier had a more intense final act been crafted, heavy on young guys as opposed to men who made their Rumble debuts well over a decade ago.

As a show this could have been a far worse starting point for WrestleMania season. The undercard tag matches were inconsequential filler, which is preferable to being actively bad, while the world title match was an early Match of the Year contender. It’s the Rumble that dragged the thing down. There was a right way and a wrong way for Reigns to win. WWE went for the wrong way.
Results summary:
The Ascension defeated The New Age Outlaws
The Usos defeated The Miz and Damien Mizdow to retain the tag team championship
The Bellas def Paige and Natalya
Brock Lesnar defeated Seth Rollins and John Cena to retain the WWE championship
Roman Reigns last eliminated Rusev to win the 2015 Royal Rumble

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