The Royal Rumble goes down this Sunday night, and wrestling fans are ready to be disappointed. Fans simply aren’t as excited as they usually are this time of year, with ratings at historic lows and a strong sense of ennui over the direction of the company’s stories among the fans who are still paying attention. Traditionally the second hottest WWE show of the year, with a headlining match long thought almost impossible to screw up, the last two Rumbles have been so disastrous that fans have little confidence the company can put on a good show this year.
For the last two years the Rumble has been ground zero for fan anger over WWE booking, from having the returning actor Batista win in 2014 to having Roman Reigns win instead of fan favorite Daniel Bryan in 2015. With Bryan’s concussion history seemingly keeping him out of action for good (at least in WWE), 2016’s Rumble match shouldn’t be hijacked by his fans. The build for the Rumble match this year has been so bad, though, that fans still don’t expect much. The entire match is framed squarely around Roman Reigns, the would-be superstar and John Cena heir apparent who isn’t nearly as over as his push, and his interminable feud with the Authority. The only other Rumble entrant who seems like a genuine threat to win is Brock Lesnar, who’s being positioned for a feud with Bray Wyatt that doesn’t seem like World title material. At this point most wrestling fans expect Triple H, the authority figure who wrestles a handful of times a year, to be a surprise entrant, winning the match and belt and setting up a Wrestlemania main event match with Reigns. That wouldn’t be a surprise, though, because so many fans already expect it to happen.
With only two of the thirty men in the match presented as legitimate contenders, and the most likely surprise being one most fans already expect, this is shaping up to be either a Rumble that’s either terminally predictable or that shocks solely for the sake of shocking, with no regard for logic or storytelling. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. With their resources and incredible roster of talent, WWE should be able to put on a Royal Rumble for the ages. Here are five things they could do on Sunday night that would delight and surprise us, and set the stage for a truly memorable Royal Rumble.
1. The debut of AJ Styles
We know that AJ Styles, perhaps the greatest in-ring performer in the world today, is coming to WWE. His Bullet Club partners Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows won’t be able to join him for a few weeks, but by all accounts Styles is able to start with the company whenever he officially signs his deal. It’s been reported by the Wrestling Observer and other wrestling news sites that the initial plan was to have Styles debut in the Rumble. Those plans might have changed since the news got out, but hopefully they haven’t. Even if it isn’t a huge surprise, it’d still be an amazing sight to see the phenomenally talented global superstar make his WWE debut in one of the biggest matches of the year. And if the company really wanted to win over the diehard wrestling fans who complain about Raw every week, they could have Styles win the match and the title on his first day with the company, just like he did in New Japan Pro Wrestling in 2014. It’s unlikely WWE would push Styles to the top that quickly (if at all), both because he’s largely unknown to much of their fan base (despite almost a decade of national exposure wrestling on the Spike network for TNA Wrestling), and also because he could bring the company bad PR with his well-documented stance against homosexuality. Still, if WWE wanted to make a new top star in one night, and shock the hell out of the wrestling industry, Styles winning the Rumble and the World title would do the trick.—Garrett Martin
2. Mauro Ranallo on commentary
The substandard quality of announcing isn’t the biggest issue with WWE these days but it’s certainly the most consistent. The storylines and ring action can wax and wane, but Michael Cole is always there, droning on and on, fastidiously avoiding saying the word “wrestler,” getting the names of moves wrong, and plugging whatever McMahon’s obsession du jour is without pause. When your biggest constant is the shittiness of your announce team, something’s gone haywire.
Enter Mauro Ranallo. He started with the company on the Smackdown of 2016, and I’d love for him to take over booth for the Rumble. He’s not a panacea to the announce team’s ills and he’s certainly going to have the same earpiece with the same Vince McMahon screaming at him to say this or that, but he offers a spontaneity and enthusiasm that Cole long ago lost. Ranallo is the future, Cole is the past, and if we’re insisting the future is now, let’s do it.—Ian Williams
3. Somebody other than Triple H winning
Like we said, Triple H isn’t even officially in the match, but it’s already treated like a given that he’s walking out the winner. There’s even a lot of buzz online that he’ll be a surprise 31st entrant, which would be a Rumble first; whether that’s just a “fan theory” that’s taken on a life of its own or a legitimate booking plan remains to be seen. There are a few reasons this outcome feels unavoidable. It’s the next logical step in the war between the McMahon family and Roman Reigns, who decimated Triple H the last time he was seen on TV, especially if the plan remains to have Reigns wrestle for the title in the Wrestlemania main event. It also falls in line with WWE’s history of making Triple H look infallible—this is the guy who buried most challengers in the early ‘00s and unjustifiably went over living legend Sting in his first WWE match last year. Even though he hasn’t been a regular wrestler for years, and even though he put over Daniel Bryan and the Shield (repeatedly) in 2014, fans still expect Triple H to be booked like an unbeatable final boss whenever he wrestles, and winning the World title at 46, in his first match since March, would understandably rub many the wrong way, even if it makes sense for his storyline with Reigns. There at least a half-dozen better options to win the belt, even if it zags from the direction they seem currently headed in.—GM
4. A storyline other than just “Roman Reigns versus everybody”
Traditionally the Royal Rumble match is made up of various segments that form a larger, cohesive whole. It would continue most of the major active feuds, perhaps start a few new ones, and offer a chance for several wrestlers to shine. Look at the 1992 Royal Rumble: it established Ric Flair as both the new champion and the most hated man in the company, kicked off the Hulk Hogan / Sid Vicious feud that would co-main event Wrestlemania, and also played off the Jake Roberts / Randy Savage blood feud that was winding down. Who can forget CM Punk cutting promos during the early stretches of the 2010 Rumble, or Too Cool doing their dance after clearing the ring in 2000? Moments like these entertain the fans, develop characters and turn the Rumble into a snapshot of the state of the company at the time.
The build-up of this year’s Rumble has been focused entirely on Roman Reigns, though. Instead of letting a wrestler grab the spotlight and win a chance to wrestle for the World title at Wrestlemania, this year’s Rumble is pitched as the current champion, Roman Reigns, having to overcome almost the entire roster to keep his championship. The company has been so devoted to getting Reigns over that it’s turned almost every other wrestler in the company into an afterthought. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see them stick tight to that “one versus all” marketing and truly make this hour-long match solely about Reigns. That wouldn’t just make for a boring Royal Rumble, especially for people who don’t like Reigns—it would be a betrayal of what the Rumble is supposed to be. Hopefully when they book this match they still allow moments for other wrestlers to get over.—GM
5. Actual Surprises
So many surprise entrants at the Rumble are predictable. You’ll have a quick entrance and retreat by an old-timer, which was pretty great the first however many times it happened but is pretty old hat by now. They’re almost always wrestlers currently signed to Legends contracts, the same old hands who show up in the WWE videogame every year or on Raw whenever they want to remind fans of a show they actually like. You also have the inevitable fightbacks from injury, which, unless your name is Daniel Bryan, would mostly fall flat this year.
I’d love to see an actual surprise, a la Bubba Ray Dudley last year: someone in their prime and who WWE uses their full control of information to keep under wraps. AJ Styles would have been a good candidate if the poaching from NJPW hadn’t gone public. (If that news hadn’t gotten out, Shinsuke Nakamura would’ve been perhaps the biggest surprise ever, at least to the minority of WWE’s fan base that knows who he is.) An appearance from an NXT regular wouldn’t be a huge surprise, but it’d be very welcome. As it is, I’m not sure who they could do (a Samoa Joe call-up? Finn Balor’s full demon entrance? Jay Lethal? Matt or Jeff Hardy?), but surely a big surprise is possible.—IW