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I know that the Royal Rumble is the second biggest show of the year and there is a lot to get into, but first let's talk about the 25th Anniversary of Monday Night RAW. It was easily the most highly anticipated RAW show since RAW 1000 and delivered WWE's largest viewing audience in years. From an immediate business perspective, it was a huge success and it had a large presence both on social media and in mainstream media outlets.
I know a lot of fans were disappointed in the show, and I can understand why. For starters, I thought that they did a really crappy job for the fans in the Manhattan Center, who are really the most ardent supporters of WWE around and immediately paid big money to be in the building where RAW was originally filmed. With WWE's business relying more and more on the "superfan" that travels to events and has no problem spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars on WWE every year, those are the kind of people you don't want to piss off. In addition, while WWE had plenty of legends and former stars on hand, it was disappointing to see guys as prestigious as Ric Flair and Chris Jericho kind of pasted into the show, not even giving the live crowd a chance to see them in person.
That being said, I thought the show lived up to expectations for the most part. It was a show based on nostalgia, and they certainly delivered, with the biggest acts over the years showing up and delivering. The Austin and Vince McMahon skit was perfect to open the show, and although I'm not the biggest DX fan in the world, there bit was really good as well. They also had the stupid/absurd moments with all the wacky characters coming into Kurt Angle's office and the expanding poker game.
The only real significant failure was that I thought WWE didn't do a good job capitalizing on the massive viewing audience they had at their disposal. As the viewership indicates, WWE had millions of people watching RAW that used to watch it on a weekly basis but do not anymore. This was their opportunity to get people invested in the new stars and the current programs, not just see some of the greatest hits. At RAW 1000, WWE did pull off a major angle with CM Punk turning heel on The Rock. The 25th Anniversary of RAW would have been the perfect time for something similar. The fact is that Steve Austin isn't going to be on RAW next week, nor will DX or Vince McMahon; WWE needed to give those former fans something to lure them back week after week, and I think they failed in that regard.
The Universal Championship
As I have been opining for months, I'm not a fan of WWE going the predictable route for WrestleMania this year, with the plan being obvious since last year that Brock Lesnar was going to face Roman Reigns in the main event of next year's show. Well, the good news is that within a few weeks time WWE will confirm the match for WrestleMania, so the two can at least go into a program with each other and WWE can stop pretending that Lesnar is going to lose the title. The final "challenge" for Lesnar will be a Triple Threat match against Braun Strowman and Kane, two behemoths who are going in opposite directions in regards to their career.
Kane, who is currently running for office in Tennessee, has not been painted as someone that can win this match. His interactions with Lesnar and Strowman have been almost exclusively him getting manhandled; his greatest triumph being a chokeslam on Lesnar, a move Lesnar quickly recovered from and chased Kane from the ring. Kane's role in the match is very obvious, he is there to take the pinfall from presumably either Strowman or Lesnar, as both men cannot afford a loss. Outside of storyline, this might be the final hurrah for a veteran who has given a lot to WWE over the years.
Strowman is in an interesting position, as he has been the most-over babyface on the full-time roster for a number of months now. However, he could be reaching a tipping point with the fans and may soon come crashing back to Earth. Over the last couple of weeks WWE has engaged Strowman in some incredible stunts, such as pulling down the lighting rig or tipping over the cab of a big rig. In the past, those stunts have gotten Strowman over as a kind of folk-hero, but the last couple of weeks may have pushed Strowman over the edge. Fans love the absurd in small doses, but perhaps WWE has stretched their affections too far by having things gets stranger and stranger every week. On Monday, Strowman gave Lesnar a running powerslam through the announce table to close the show, and the crowd barely reacted. A few months ago the place would have gone crazy, so maybe Strowman has already reached his climax and is now sliding back down. It is also possible the crowd was upset about the lack of a major angle on RAW, so they didn't react as well as they normally have, and Strowman is still super-over. The reality is that it doesn't matter for now, because he isn't winning this match, Lesnar is.
The WWE Championship
SmackDown has been built around two intertwining angles; Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan feuding as the leaders of SmackDown, and AJ Styles fighting off the team of Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn and trying to retain the WWE Championship. The tension between Shane and Bryan has been done very well, and both men have had good performances in their respective roles. Logically, this feud should be leading to some form of match at WrestleMania, but since Bryan isn't cleared to wrestle, WWE will have to get creative in finding a replacement. The Daniel Bryan situation is very complicated because WWE could theoretically clear him at any time to wrestle, but they haven't yet and may never will.
The negative side to Bryan and Shane's feud is that the WWE Championship often feels like an afterthought. AJ Styles has not been aided in being saddled with trying to get the horrible "Kami" over in his interviews. Owens and Zayn have been good overall in their roles, but just like Styles they often feel like side-characters to the main feud between Bryan and Shane.
The match is interesting as a handicap match for the title. The idea of having Zayn and Owens as legitimate co-champions has to be interesting for WWE, simply because it has never really been done before. Styles could always lose the title and win it back if they don't want to do it long term, and Styles isn't the kind of wrestler that needs to win all the time to stay over with the audience. Owens is banged up and hasn't been working on house shows and he clearly couldn't work much on SmackDown Tuesday night, so it will be interesting to see how much work he does on Sunday. There is really no telling how this match is going to end; but I'm sure it will involve Shane and Bryan in a big spot arguing with each other.
The Royal Rumble (W)
For the first time WWE will be having a Royal Rumble match for their female competitors. In the spirit of equality, the match will feature 30 wrestlers, just as the men's match does. Having a 30 person rumble is a tall task for the women. The men's Rumble is able to get by because the fan's are really invested in who comes out because they have done so well delivering surprises, and I'm not sure if the crowd can stay amped up for an hour watching this match. I think overall they will be fine, but I'm curious to see if the novelty of the match can keep the crowd engaged for such a long time.
The favorite for the match is Asuka, as she is undefeated and having her win the rumble and defeat Alexa Bliss at WrestleMania is a logical storyline. They also could use the rumble as a way to get another star over; such as Ruby Riott, or Liv Morgan. Having them win the first rumble would be an immediate sign of faith from WWE management to the fans that they are committed to making this newcomer a star.
The elephant in the room is Ronda Rousey, who could very well debut for WWE in this match. Nothing else on the show would generate the level of mainstream coverage and it would immediately make the women's rumble the most important match on the show, something that would be great for WWE's future promotion of the women's division. From a business standpoint, I think it makes all the sense in the world to have Rousey win the rumble. As a fan, I'm not crazy about WWE building the division around someone who hasn't wrestled a legitimate match yet, but the fact is nobody else in the division is going to generate half of the interest Rousey is, so it is a no-brainer.
The Royal Rumble (M)
The Men's Royal Rumble feels very open-ended. If I had to pick someone to win the match, it would be Reigns. We basically know that Reigns is going to be in a world title match at WrestleMania, so the simplest path for him to get there is to win the rumble. In addition, WWE just took the Intercontinental Championship off of Reigns on Monday, which would free him up to immediately begin feuding with Lesnar on Sunday when he wins the rumble. Of course, Reigns winning the rumble may feel too predictable to WWE, especially if he gets down to the final few competitors and the fans will almost certainly start booing him and cheering whoever he faces. Reigns could always secure his world title match at a later date if a SmackDown wrestler wins.
Which SmackDown wrestler has the best chance? Shinsuke Nakamura would be the favorite, as WWE tries to rebuild his momentum after a disastrous program with Jinder Mahal last year. Nakamura vs Styles is a dream match for some fans, and their encounter at Wrestle Kingdom a few years ago is frequently mentioned as being the best match in both men's careers. Additionally, a mainstay like Randy Orton is always an option as the safe pick for WWE, even if Orton is so bland at this point he might as well be a cardboard cut-out that occasionally performs RKOs. I would be interested in seeing a true dark horse candidate just come out and win the rumble. What if Rusev won? The best case scenario is he builds a ton of momentum and becomes a really significant babyface for the company in his quest to win the WWE Championship? The worst case scenario is he flops and they have a mediocre match at WrestleMania, but who cares? It isn't like that match is going to carry the show or be the main event; if it is forgettable nobody is really going to mind.
Although I don't think he is going to win, it is likely that The Undertaker makes an appearance at the rumble. His promo on RAW was…interesting? Nobody is really sure what he said but by the tone of it I think he is going to come back for at least one more match at WrestleMania. If you remember my review of last year's WrestleMania, I don't want to see The Undertaker wrestle another match. However, the issue is WWE doesn't have anyone else that can generate the same kind of interest as The Undertaker when they wrestle a major opponent. Throughout the last several years, WWE has failed to produce a new star who could equal The Undertaker's drawing power at WrestleMania and that is simply a colossal failure on their behalf, and the result is they are forced to rely on someone who really shouldn't be wrestling anymore, to carry their biggest show of the year. The biggest possible match is with John Cena, so I imagine he and Cena will lock horns at some point during the rumble.
Other random predictions:
-Cesaro and Sheamus regain the RAW Tag Team Championships as Jordan screws Rollins over and continues his well-booked heel slide. David Shoemaker joked that on RAW X-Pac should have confronted Jordan about stealing all his heat.
-Gable and Benjamin win the SmackDown Tag Team Championships
-Triple H makes an appearance in the Men's Royal Rumble…and Stephanie McMahon makes an appearance in the Women's Royal Rumble.
-Johnny Gargano wins the NXT Championship, Andrade Almas debuts the following night in the Rumble.
-Bobby Lashley returns during the rumble.
-Ricochet is shown in the crowd at NXT, even though he is a better performer than everyone else in the company except a couple of main event guys.
-Shane McMahon is in the rumble, but Daniel Bryan comes out next (as a non-competitor) and causes Shane to get eliminated.
Must Watch Matches
Volador Jr. vs El Barbaro Cavernario: **** - CMLL/NJPW Fantastica Mania Night 8
Keith Lee vs Jonah Rock: ****1/4 - PWG All Star Weekend 13 Night 1
Sammy Guevara vs Rey Horus vs Flamita: **** - PWG All Star Weekend 13 Night 1
Ricochet vs WALTER: ****1/2 - PWG All Star Weekend 13 Night 1
Mark Haskins and Morgan Webster vs The Young Bucks: **** - PWG All Star Weekend 13 Night 2
Ricochet vs Chuck Taylor: ****1/2 - PWG All Star Weekend 13 Night 2
WALTER vs Zack Sabre Jr.: ****1/4 - PWG All Star Weekend 13 Night 2
Rey Horus vs Trent vs Matt Sydal: **** PWG All Star Weekend 13 Night 2