If WWE’s objective with the 2016 Royal Rumble match was merely to improve on 2015, it had an undeniably low bar to hit. Even looking past any issues related to Daniel Bryan and Roman Reigns, the 2015 Rumble match stands out as a failure to me because it was unable to do two key things that any good Rumble should: 1) advance or create undercard storylines heading into Wrestlemania and 2) generate a handful of legitimate title contenders for the year to follow.
This year’s Rumble will not go down as one of the greatest of all time, and it was certainly not without its own issues and lapses in logic, but it was a considerable improvement over last year’s hollow affair if only because it was able to do at least those two things successfully. By the time Dean Ambrose was eliminated by Triple H this year, several launching points for new storylines had been created, and the viewer was left believing that a few new names could potentially occupy better spots on the card by the time next year’s Rumble rolls around.
Starting new story threads for Wrestlemania and creating a platform for emerging stars should be the minimum expectation for a Royal Rumble, and by achieving that modest standard, the 2016 Rumble succeeded in all the ways that last year’s match did not. What’s more, it helped create the impression that next year’s Rumble could be yet another marked improvement.
What didn’t work: Roman walking out, Triple H coasting to a win
The best place to start weighing the components of the 2016 Rumble is with the first and last entrants. The payoff of Reigns entering at number one, only to be eliminated by Triple H, was the necessary step to take in order to advance toward their inevitable clash at Wrestlemania. The specific story told in the Rumble, however, was hamstrung by counterintuitive booking that had both men looking far too strong at points where the story demanded that they look weak.
Call it predictable or egocentric, but Triple H had to win the championship here to accommodate the direction that the story of Reigns vs. The Authority has taken. The bigger issue is not necessarily that Triple H won the match and the title, but how he won it: eliminating Reigns and then Ambrose, ostensibly the company’s two top full-time babyfaces, clean as a whistle and without so much as a single underhanded advantage. To give Roman legitimate cause to cry foul and get his rematch, Triple H should have been presented less as a crushing force of nature and more as a nefarious heel who cheated to screw over the heroes. Why this approach wasn't taken is yours to presume.
As for Reigns, taking him out of the match ultimately proved important in that it created time to advance a number of secondary stories that will likely pay off at Wrestlemania—namely Bray Wyatt vs. Brock Lesnar and Owens vs. Zayn, with teases for Strowman vs. Undertaker and Ambrose vs. Jericho. What was highly questionable: having Reigns refuse to leave on a stretcher so that he could walk out under his own power, only to return 20 minutes later not selling any injuries whatsoever.
Presumably, this was done to perpetuate the idea of Reigns as a badass, but that goal would be accomplished just fine by having him return to the match after being completely incapacitated by three heels and taken away by paramedics. Having Roman voluntarily remove himself from a championship match looks substantially less heroic, especially considering Kevin Owens valiantly dragged himself down to the ring to compete only moments after the fact. Even a brief brainstorming could have conceived a dozen different (and vastly better) ways to depict Reigns valiantly fighting against dire injury and being undone by a conniving Triple H, making it all the more confounding that this was the chosen direction.
There were other noticeable issues with booking during the match, not the least of which being the League of Nations’ satisfaction with temporarily incapacitating Reigns as opposed to actually eliminating him from the match, as well as having Lesnar merely walk to the back after being eliminated without laying waste to everything in the ring. Given that the direction heading into the Rumble heavily portended a Reigns/Lesnar showdown, Reigns’ loss could have easily been facilitated by returning to the ring during a Lesnar rampage, which would have also created a logical reason to include Brock in the three-way at Fastlane.
Had the booking of Roman and Triple H been different, there would not have been the need for the considerable leap in logic that took place on Monday's WWE Raw when Stephanie, who only a few weeks prior vowed that Roman would never get another shot at the championship after he lost it, felt compelled to put him in a number one contender’s match anyway because he had “impressed” her. This lack of attention to detail is sadly nothing new, but given how important this storyline is for the company moving forward, one might think that it would be the exception to the rule in terms of minding the finer points.
What worked well: making eliminations matter, setting up the Wrestlemania undercard
The effectiveness of this year’s Royal Rumble can be determined by looking at a few key elements: how well its parts and pieces flowed together, whether it laid the foundation for any additional matches at Wrestlemania, if it protected major stars and elevated others, and if it served as a successful launching pad for the debuting AJ Styles. By achieving those metrics, the match can easily be considered a success on the whole.
One of the biggest shortcomings of the 2015 Royal Rumble was a lack of overall cohesiveness. Specifically, there was a dearth of connectivity between major events in the match that caused a great deal of it to feel unimportant, largely necessitated by the quick introduction and elimination of Daniel Bryan. This year, it was easy to see where the match was broken down into segments and segues, helping to create a better sense of flow: Reigns’ shine and Styles’ debut, a pair of comedy spots, Reigns’ injury angle, spotlighting Strowman, spotlighting Owens and building his feud with Zayn, establishing the dominance of the Wyatts, establishing the dominance of Lesnar, setting up the Wrestlemania feud between Bray and Brock, reintroducing Roman to the match, Triple H entering at number 30, and the closing sequences.
While not every single participant in the match served a major purpose, many satisfied some role in connecting the pieces of the bigger picture. Rusev coming out second, for example, continued the idea of The Authority looking to grind Reigns down, and despite being eliminated quickly, he was protected insofar that he was also the man to put Reigns out of the match for a period of time. This also cleared the deck for Styles’ debut, allowing the crowd to draw out the moment more, and the subsequent appearances of Tyler Breeze and Curtis Axel kept both AJ and Roman involved in the match without forcing them to give up too much offense to one another.
Throughout the match, any time the ring would fill with perceived dead weight, it was either for the purpose of providing fodder for quick eliminations or to slow down the pace during Roman’s injury angle. It’s valid to critique this year’s Rumble field for a lack of viable contenders, but these matches have always been rife with a fair amount of padding. At least this year, that padding was used for the purposes of connecting the bigger pieces.
Excluding Roman and Triple H, this year’s match spotlighted a few wrestlers in particular with their Wrestlemania roles in mind. With Reigns out of the way for a time, Strowman was positioned as the monster du jour by eliminating Kane, Big Show, and Mark Henry in rapid succession. Even despite being clubbed halfway to death by Lesnar and taken off of his feet by multiple clotheslines, Strowman was the only man in the ring with Brock who didn’t take a single suplex, possibly so that a spot of some similar magnitude could be saved for Wrestlemania, likely for a match with The Undertaker (for better or worse).
Bray Wyatt was put into a big spot as well, orchestrating the elimination of Lesnar and setting that Wrestlemania match in motion. While he may not be the most ideal candidate for a showdown with Brock, the match nonetheless did its part in setting up a motive for that match to take place, and it gave a valid enough reason for Brock to seek revenge.
Also getting a fairly substantial limelight in this year’s Rumble was Kevin Owens. Understanding that eliminations matter relative to when they occur and who is involved, the decision to have Owens eliminate Styles was an intelligent one. If the heat generated from a big elimination is a transitive property, then having Owens throw Styles out only to then be eliminated by Sami Zayn is a fine example of keeping that energy in the match and harnessing it in an effective manner. This chain of events not only kept the crowd invested in the match in spite of AJ’s early departure, but it also set up two potential programs for Owens in the near future (the feud with Zayn almost certain to play out at Wrestlemania) and allowed the match to segue into its next point of focus.
As far as introducing Styles, everything (apart from the camerawork) clicked. Immediately positioning AJ as a perceived threat to the WWE World Heavyweight Champion, coupled with JBL pointing out to the home viewing audience that his status as a former IWGP Champion puts him on common ground with Lesnar, established right away that Styles is a big-time player. Also surprising is the decision to merely tease the Styles Clash during his 28-minute appearance and in his singles debut against Jericho on Raw, which not only builds the anticipation to when he does finally hit it, but also theoretically protects it as a killer finisher and not just another move.
On the whole, the match was comparatively well-booked and intelligently-paced, particularly when held up against the 2015 match, and while some may deride some elements of execution or the predictable finish, it at least provides cause to hope that next year’s match will be yet another step forward.
How to improve the Royal Rumble in 2017: exploit roster depth
If there is any lesson to be gleaned from the end of 2015 and beginning of 2016, it’s that injuries are the enemy of best-laid plans. Injuries to Seth Rollins, John Cena, and Randy Orton threw the planned top six matches for this year’s Wrestlemania into disarray, and it once again begs the question of why WWE isn’t leveraging the depth of its roster in the event that so many of its top stars should wind up on the shelf.
There is a long precedent for using the Royal Rumble to set up wrestlers for bigger things in the year to follow. One need only look at Roman Reigns’ dominance in 2014 and how it foretold his rise as a singles star the following year. Of the most protected and best presented stars in the 2016 Rumble, only a few—Wyatt, Strowman, Owens, Styles—are not longstanding bona fide main eventers. By this time next year, if the precedent holds, those men should be closer to a top spot than they are now.
If WWE can follow up by positioning at least Wyatt, Owens, and Styles closer to the top of the heap than they are today, and if Dean Ambrose is solidified as a main eventer, there will be at least four potential first-time world champions in the hunt for a spot in the Wrestlemania main event. If one were to assume that Shinsuke Nakamura will be booked to the level of his talent (and his probable paygrade), and if it is also assumed that Finn Balor would debut sometime between now and next year’s Rumble as a top guy, one-fifth of the men in the 2017 Royal Rumble would be fresh talent with legitimate shots at getting one of the top matches at Wrestlemania.
Add to this the likelihood that established main event names like Cena, Orton, and Rollins will be available for the Rumble, as well as the continued presence of Reigns and Lesnar in the main event scene, and one-third of the Rumble would be feasible picks to win. If names like Sheamus, Dolph Ziggler, Rusev, Alberto Del Rio, Kalisto, and Cesaro are pushed consistently (a big if) or at least put in the position to be elevated by the Rumble itself, then more than half of the 30 men involved in the match would have at least some claim to stake.
If WWE uses the Royal Rumble as the measuring stick for the success of its roster over the course of a calendar year, there is great potential for 2017 to be the deepest and most credible field in the match’s history. In order to get there, however, it must be understood that building the legitimacy of its talent is a year-long process. If the winner of next year’s Royal Rumble is a fresh face or an unexpected name, then it will likely be a strong indication that 2016 was a success, never mind a further hint of more promising years to come.