Sports Entertainment Review: 2019 WWE Royal Rumble
Ah, yes…it’s that happy time of year: the proverbial Road to Wrestlemania! Storylines begin to take shape, pushes become more obvious, main event hype begins, and the cavalcade of surprises begins in earnest. It’s funny that the build is for Wrestlemania a.k.a. The Grandest Stage of Them All a.k.a. The Showcase of the Immortals, because when you ask a majority of wrestling fans what their favorite shows is they will tell you it’s the Royal Rumble. I’m in that group.
There’s just something about the show itself and (of course) the actual Rumble match that capture the imagination. You get a little bit of everything- returns, debuts, call-ups, and swerves. The 2019 version of WWE’s second biggest event was no exception. There were a lot of smart moves and expected pushes.
Let’s dig in, shall we?
Smackdown Women’s Championship Match: Asuka (Champion) vs. Becky Lynch (Challenger); 3 stars: I found this to be an interesting choice to open the show with. I also thought it said a lot about the booking of the show and how things would be laid out, and it turns out I was right. Asuka and The Man have comparable styles of strike first and submit for the finish. Both women are crazy hard-working and unafraid to take risks, and while this outing didn’t do anything that reinvented the wheel, it was technically solid with a couple of excellent high spots on the floor and from the top. The outcome again said a lot about the curvature (or lack thereof) on that aforementioned Road. Winner and STILL Smackdown Women’s Champion: Asuka
Smackdown Tag Team Title Match: The Bar (Champions) vs. Shane McMahon and The Miz; 4 stars: Tag team wrestling isn’t a seemingly big focus in WWE nowadays, but this match bucked that trend. Shane O’Mac and The A-Lister are an odd combo that work in surprisingly wonderful harmony. Shane helps you to buy into Miz as a Face, and The Bar are consummate pros, hard-hitting and first-rate sellers. I really dug the pacing of this one. I especially dug that they teased the ubiquitous Shane high spots (post-to-table, Coast-to-Coast) without delivering only to have it finish with something I wouldn’t have believed McMahon capable of if you’d told me ahead of time. Definitely one of the better matches of the whole show. It was a fun match that you could tell meant something to Miz and Shane. Winners and NEW Smackdown Tag Team Champions: Shane McMahon and The Miz
Raw Women’s Championship Match: Ronda Rousey (Champion) vs. Sasha Banks (Challenger); 4 stars: The next stop on the Ronda Rousey Maturation Tour completes the first year of her career (her first appearance was after the inaugural Women’s Rumble last year). This time she faced arguably her toughest test yet in the former 4-time champ, The Boss. Sasha is the total package, and it’s good to see her back in a top spot role. Ronda has grown exponentially in the last year. Her selling and endurance have both improved drastically through her rookie year, and this was a great show with the right opponent to show off the new wheels. The submission work complemented both character’s development and stories nicely. It was a great way to utilize Sasha before she goes on next month to win the new Women’s Tag Titles with Bayley (don’t act like we don’t all know I’m right). And are they building for a Horsewomen vs. Horsewomen rivalry? I think so. Winner and STILL Raw Women’s Champion: Ronda Rousey
30-Woman Royal Rumble Match; 4.25 stars: The best Rumble matches should take THE primary name and put them front and center while opening your eyes to new faces that will have a big year in the following eleven months. The Women’s Match did just that, giving us a heavy dose of the major players- Charlotte Flair, Nia Jax, Alexa Bliss, Bayley, and Ember Moon. All of them tore shit up (especially The Queen), while Alexa definitely got the biggest pop on her entrance (well, almost). The cool surprises came in the form of a very scrappy Lacey Evans, a scary dominant Rhea Ripley, and the freakishly athletic American Ninja Warrior legend Kacy Catanzaro! With no shortage of high spots and some comedic fun (Alicia Fox and that damn hat!), the Women’s Rumble Match was the better of the two. Then the swerve came with the late addition of “The Man” Becky Lynch in replacement of an injured Lana. Now we’ll get The Man vs. Rowdy Ronda at ‘Mania. I call that one hell of a main event. Also, I could watch Charlotte and Becky wrestle into infinity; they are this generation’s Ric and Dusty. Winner and New #1 Contender : Becky Lynch
WWE Championship Match: Daniel Bryan (Champion) vs. AJ Styles (Challenger); 3 stars: This was old school. This was psychology, tactics, and beautifully heel-heavy stuff. You won’t get crazy high spots and flashiness here. I’m loving Daniel Bryan in heel mode so much that it’s a little embarrassing; he’s irresistibly easy to hate and far, far more interesting than he is as a Face. The Phenomenal One, for his part, is everything that a complete pro wrestler should be, and even though you’ve seen his stuff before his easy athleticism and embrace of the spotlight still wow you. The swerve at the end with Erick Rowan means that The “New” Daniel Bryan has backup/followers. I smell a fun retread of CM Punk’s Straight Edge Society with a vegan flair. As DDP once said: “That’s not a bad thing…..that’s a GOOD thing!” Winner and STILL WWE Champion: Daniel Bryan
WWE Universal Championship Match: Brock Lesnar (Champion) vs. Finn Balor (Challenger); 4.5 stars: How, you may ask, can a typical Brock Lesnar match (i.e. average length of 10 minutes) deliver like this? You did read the name Finn Balor, right? If you haven’t noticed by now, WWE is smartly deciding to pair up Lesnar with smaller, more athletic, more slippery opponents in order to break the trend of “the typical Lesnar match”. Balor took it to Brock early and set a crazy pace that made a roughly 10 minute affair feel much longer. I can’t remember the last time I honestly believed Brock would be beaten, but this time the drama was 1000% legit! If you doubt how special either of these men are you won’t after watching this one. For believable and dangerous money, Brock is the best champ in the history of the biz, and Balor hasn’t come anywhere near his ridiculous ceiling. I’d love to see this one again; singles Match of the Night. My only gripe: I WANT THE DEMON ENTRANCE!! Winner and STILL WWE Universal Champion: Brock Lesnar
30-Man Royal Rumble Match; 3.75 stars: While the women stole the Rumble show, this was still a pretty entertaining and telling match. My takeaways? WWE is very high on Johnny Gargano and Mustafa Ali (for good reason). Samoa Joe is a friggin’ nightmare and will be WWE Champ within the next year. Aleister Black will be not just huge but monstrous with the fans (also for good reason). I want more of “The Bruiserweight” Pete Dunne; what a nasty little motherfucker he is! Andrade really opened my eyes. Orton is the timeless predator and sick little monkey. WWE needs to use Elias more wisely; he’s scary good. This was a Rumble low on surprises/returns (Jeff Jarrett was pretty funny!), but high on the prospects of the future. That swerve at the end with Nia Jax was great storytelling and emotion. She looked phenomenal, too. Still, the winner was no surprise after the year he’s had. Winner and New #1 Contender: Seth Rollins
All in all, this is one of those Royal Rumble shows that people will look back on in a few years and remember as an emergence of new talent. It sealed the deal for me that my beloved Attitude Era is a piece of ancient history firmly in the rearview mirror. And you know what? That’s okay. Pro wrestling is America’s great sport and an ever-evolving beast, and this year we saw that the beast is still plenty alive and hungry. Excellent show with not a stinker match in sight.
Nice work, WWE. I’ve said recently that you’d better step up your game with ROH, NJPW, and now AEW nipping at your heels. There’s real competition again. Clearly you’re paying attention.