I’ve been doing annual reviews of WWE events over the last few years — a Wrestlemania here, a SummerSlam there. Perhaps my favorite event, though, is the Royal Rumble, especially since they added a women’s version. That means you get two crazy events for the price of one. So when the Rumble came to Phoenix this year, I decided it was time for my first-ever live event. I capitalized on this opportunity by forgetting to write about it until March.
Well, better late than never!
As you can see from the photo above, we had seats in the upper deck at Chase Field. One of the more interesting subplots heading into the event was how they were going to arrange the stadium to accommodate the show. I thought perhaps they would position the ring with a corner on home plate so that seats would basically flow like at a Diamondbacks game, but that wasn’t quite the case. I’m also a bit surprised that they didn’t utilize the pool in right-center field, but that would probably have been gimmicky at best. Still, the ballpark was sold out and with the help of the big TV screens, there really weren’t any bad seats in the house.
Knowing that we were in for a long event, we got to the venue in time to see the last 10 or 15 minutes of the pre-show, with the cruiserweights putting on a clinic in a match with some neat spots. Right after that we jumped into the main card with six matches: four for championships, and the two Rumbles for title shots at Wrestlemania. This was both a good and bad thing — good, because it meant solid action from start to finish in matchups with high stakes, but bad, because it meant there was never a cooldown for the crowd.
One of the things that became apparent watching in-person was that it’s difficult for a crowd to maintain its energy for the duration of a four- to seven-hour event. The card is often arranged in such a way that a less notable match can follow a huge one to give fans a chance to catch their breath. This meant that the two men’s title matches were in a difficult spot, sandwiched between two hourlong extravaganzas.
Let’s go match by match before talking about the Rumbles and some overall impressions:
- First up was Asuka vs. Becky Lynch for the Smackdown women’s title. This was a physical match with some fun ring psychology. Asuka retained the championship only when she applied some extra oomph to her usual submission finisher, much to the dismay of the crowd (who liked Asuka but looooved Becky). Luckily for the fans, Becky’s night wasn’t over just yet.
- That was followed by the least interesting match of the night, but still a decent one: The Bar vs. Shane McMahon and The Miz for the Smackdown tag titles. Most of this was pretty paint-by-numbers, but there were a few fun moments scattered throughout, like Cesaro swinging Shane for what felt like 90 seconds, or Shane busting out the Shooting Star Press to pick up the victory.
- Then it was Ronda Rousey against Sasha Banks for the Raw women’s title. Like the opening bout, fans were split on this one — they’ve generally liked Rousey since her debut, but many felt like Sasha had been passed over for too many opportunities lately. This was a back-and-forth affair with a few devastating-looking spots, and they did a good job making it seem like Sasha might win on a couple occasions. Unsurprisingly, Rousey ended up with the W, but both superstars looked great.
- After the women’s Rumble, Daniel Bryan faced AJ Styles for the WWE Championship. You could feel the letdown here: these are both tremendously popular wrestlers, but coming off a 70-minute saga with an emotionally satisfying ending, this slow, technical match was an uphill battle. Still, the crowd got into it by the end, especially when Erick Rowan showed up to join Bryan’s vegan cult and help him retain.
- Next up was Brock Lesnar vs. Finn Balor. Like the Rousey/Banks match, you could pretty much guess how this was going to turn out. Still, Balor was presented as a credible challenger and had a pretty convincing near-fall at one point, and playing up Brock’s midsection issues was a smart way of opening that door after his past issues with diverticulitis. Plus, it was cool seeing Finn’s entrance live.
That just leaves us with the creme de la creme, the two Rumble matches.
WOMEN’S ROYAL RUMBLE
This was the main event last year, but it made sense not to do that again in 2019. Two things were notably different about watching this live: counting down from 10 to 0 with the crowd is surprisingly fun, even if it happens 28 times; and it’s really hard to tell when wrestlers are eliminated, especially from the higher seats. There’s no commentary in the stadium and no ring announcer telling us what happened, so there were a few points in each Rumble where someone disappeared from the ring and no one in our section was quite sure when it had happened.
I wasn’t sold on the start of the match, with Natalya positioned as the ring general who would last a while but probably not win. Still, she did a strong job carrying the pacing through the opening half-dozen or so entrants. Business picked up when Ember Moon, one of the favorites, entered the match at No. 6, followed by some shenanigans from the IIconics. Things were really fun in the middle section, with some fun surprises (Kairi Sane again! Xia Li! Candice LeRae! Ninja Warrior’s Kacy Catanzaro?!) sprinkled in around Charlotte’s entry at 13. Zelina Vega had an amusing comedy spot after hiding underneath the ring for a while, and Rhea Ripley looked dominant in her stint in the ring.
Then things got serious, with Alexa Bliss (huge pop), Bayley, Nia Jax and Carmella all entering in the last five spots. The other woman was Lana, who had been injured during Rusev’s match on the pre-show — she couldn’t make it up the ramp to get in the ring. After stalling for a couple spots, fans suddenly rose to their feet as Becky Lynch rushed out and pleaded with officials to let her take the spot. They finally acquiesced, and after an injury scare where it seemed like Charlotte would be declared the winner because Becky had tweaked her knee, she eventually emerged victorious, much to the delight of fans.
Overall, a solid Rumble with a few fun spots (Naomi and Catanzaro dodging elimination, for example) and a popular character actually winning for once.
MEN’S ROYAL RUMBLE
Weirdly enough, that last sentence for the women pretty much sums up the men too.
Getting the main event spot over the two men’s title matches, this Rumble started with a surprise from the get-go: Elias at No. 1, which gave him a chance to perform, and Jeff Jarrett returning at No. 2. Jarrett hadn’t been around WWE in forever, and he served as the perfect foil for the guitar-wielding Elias, who tossed him without much fanfare. Shinsuke Nakamura carried things early, and Kurt Angle’s entrance got a deafening pop at No. 4. Johnny Gargano popped up early as well, with Seth Rollins entering 10th. The middle section featured just how much talent and athleticism is at WWE’s disposal these days. Seriously, check out this series of entrants: Kofi Kingston, Mustafa Ali, Pete Dunne, Andrade, Apollo Crews, Aleister Black and Shelton Benjamin all joined the match in a span of like nine people. Crunch time was when some heavy hitters showed up like Jeff Hardy, Rey Mysterio, Bobby Lashley, Braun Strowman and Randy Orton — no John Cena, who we heard was out with an injury. It seemed like Braun was in position to win, eliminating a whole bunch of folks by himself.
Perhaps the strangest or most controversial moment was at No. 30, when the last entrant was Nia Jax. She “earned” this spot by beating up R. Truth as he was making his entrance. Jax has the physical presence to hold her own in a men’s Rumble, but there are some folks out there who are adamantly opposed to intergender wrestling. It doesn’t help that Jax had nuclear heat for legitimately giving Becky Lynch a concussion weeks earlier, so you can imagine the cavalcade of boos that rained down. Still, after getting an elimination herself, she ate a sequence of finishers from the male competitors and got knocked out.
Eventually we were left with Strowman and Rollins, and though it took some work to topple the big man, Rollins won the match to close out the show, sending the fans home happy.
Overall, it was a lot of fun attending the event live. It was also tiring — you can tell how long these shows are watching from home, but it hits you even harder if you’re there for hours, screaming your head off at given moments. I didn’t have a voice for a few days, and I blame Kurt Angle for that. As for the show as a whole, I’d give it a B+. The matches mattered, the Rumbles had solid booking and strong winners, and stories either continued or wrapped up in intelligent ways. It’s hard to ask for too much more than that.