Blazing a Trail: The Success of the 2018 Royal Rumble

For the last decade or so, the Royal Rumble has been an exercise in disappointment. Year after year we’ve seen mediocre storylines, poor match pacing and unwanted winners. You can argue that fans haven’t been happy with the end result since Edge in 2010 or John Cena in 2008 — and both of those were surprise entrants who came back much earlier from injury than expected.

Part of this is our own fault. The Royal Rumble represents a fantasy booker’s paradise; there are so many potential outcomes that we almost can’t help but think up something that is unlikely to ever happen. WWE certainly should not be having fans dictate all (or even most) of its storylines. But the fact remains that crowds have been dissatisfied for years with the ending of one of the company’s biggest events.

It’s also not just about the winner. Many fans will still be content with how a Rumble plays out if the moments along the way are worth it. For some, that means their favorite wrestlers lasting a long time before being eliminated; for others, that’s a big-time surprise return or a cool spot like Kofi Kingston avoiding getting tossed through creative means. WWE has been failing in all of these areas for a while, which is what made last night’s Royal Rumble so refreshing.

WOMEN’S ROYAL RUMBLE

This was the first-ever women’s version of the match, and it delivered in a lot of ways. No, it wasn’t perfect — there were several spots where the action lulled a bit, and the roster is a little thin to support 30 entrants — but it was a great showcase for how far women’s wrestling has come. If nothing else, this is exciting because it gives us twice as many opportunities to think up wild scenarios and imagine how this match will affect the Road to Wrestlemania.

Putting Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch up front was a smart move, as it allowed the early stages of the Rumble to have two strong in-ring performers carry the load. It was also the right call to let Sasha be the woman who stayed in the longest, since she wasn’t going to win. We had some expected returns and some surprises, and Trish Stratus and Michelle McCool looked like they could easily come back for another match against the bevy of talent on the roster today. Vickie Guerrero got to scream at people, so that was nice, I guess.

Other than the fact that the commentary sucked (Cole was more unbearable than usual, Steph seemed unprepared and out of place, and Corey seemed unsure what to do with either of them), this was a strong start. Asuka winning wasn’t surprising, but I’m content with the fact that they let an active roster member win the first one. Holding the Ronda Rousey debut until after the match was also the right call, as it was an unneeded distraction in the Rumble itself. I’m sure some folks will say that it diminished Asuka’s victory somehow, but WWE is playing to its casual fans in that moment — as well as people who don’t follow it at all.

Next year, with the inaugural event in the rear-view mirror, hopefully we’ll get a few more talented NXT women involved to help the in-ring action, and the announcers can stop telling me how unprecedented something is every 14 seconds. If they build on what worked this year, the women’s Rumble could be a real treat.

MEN’S ROYAL RUMBLE

Considering the groundbreaking nature of the women’s Rumble and the Rousey debut that was on deck after, I really don’t mind that version being the main event this year. The only downsides were A) it would have been cool for Nakamura to get that moment at the end of the show, after so many have closed out with fans booing or being disinterested, and B) the crowd was dead for a good 30-40 minutes after this finished.

Still, this was a phenomenal event on the men’s side and whoever put it together deserves a ton of credit. I’m not talking about the outcome, although I’m happy to see Shinsuke get the opportunity and he and AJ Styles will put on a clinic at Wrestlemania; I just mean the structure and the pacing. WWE always fudges the numbers a little bit when it comes to “90 seconds between entrants,” but in this case, with two matches of its kind on the card, keeping it closer to 70-80 meant that the match flew by in a good way.

Finn Balor was positioned as the iron man this year, which was another smart play that allowed him to look good without getting the W. Having Baron Corbin wreck shop to open up space in the ring for Elias to put on a performance was great, as was several early entrants beating the hell out of Heath Slater on their way into the match. In the middle section, we transitioned into some storytelling, with some tag teams like New Day and The Bar getting their moments while Bray Wyatt and Woken Matt Hardy resumed their feud.

Then, things picked up down the stretch. John Cena came in at #20 and everyone else in the match beat him up. Hurricane was a fun, if short, surprise at 21. Rey Mysterio looked great when he entered at 27, and it was nice to see him get a big reception after they screwed him over in 2014. Reigns gets boos at 28, and Dolph Ziggler shows up at 30 to get eliminated in about two minutes, which was weird.

We eventually work our way to the final four of Reigns, Cena, Balor and Nakamura. The old guard vs. the new; the indie darlings vs. the WWE mainstays. After moving along at a brisk pace, the match suddenly slows as they play with the tension here, knowing that fans will have some pretty big-time rooting interests here one way or another. Balor goes first, which leaves some folks horrified (oh no, not Cena or Reigns again!), but eventually Shinsuke gets the best of both of them and stands tall.

This wasn’t perfect either — it could have used a couple more surprise entrants, for example — but it was fun from start to finish. In fact, that’s the takeaway from the whole evening: the group I was watching with was more than satisfied when it was over, even though there were things we might have done differently. Fans being happy with a product, what a concept!

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