You’d be forgiven if you thought that WWE falls into its best long-term storytelling by accident, including in last night’s Royal Rumble. It’s so fixated on providing “moments,” where the crowd pops to a riotous level and (these days) social media starts spinning and buzzing like a slot machine. Whatever leads up to those, the company doesn’t seem to care much or put all that much work into. Lucky for them, they have just enough performers so good at putting those together themselves that most of the viewers won’t notice.
Let’s just start here:
Sami Zayn was the story going into the Rumble, and he will be the story coming out of it, which was clearly the aim of the whole production. Yes, the post-match drama with Sami and Roman Reigns and the Bloodline and Kevin Owens was interminably long. It was certainly not the best way to get where we are, and it’s even a question of should this program be where it is now. And yet, all WWE and Triple H cared about was the echoes of Seth Rollins hitting Roman with a chair in the back that were stirred by Sami doing so, and the reaction of the live crowd, which was for sure uproarious. It was a moment they simply couldn’t miss.
All the questions that come after it don’t matter to them, even if they matter to some of us. Right now, the biggest match, as we’ve said before, WWE can run is Sami vs. Roman. That hasn’t changed, but it hasn’t become any clearer how WWE gets there or if they’re even concerned with doing so. We’d like to believe that they would want to run their biggest match possible in years on the biggest stage possible, but there’s a wide swath of fans that have grown quite weary of hearing, “Let’s see where they go with this.”
That’s because Cody Rhodes won the Rumble, which slots him to face Reigns at Wrestlemania. Which is just two big names running into each other for the sake of it. No story, little history, barely any tension. All WWE had was Cody’s return and then unsurprising win of the Rumble, but that’s all they wanted. His return wasn’t even a surprise, thanks to the weeks-long video package campaign that at least in my head was at Cody’s insistence. It doesn’t matter that there was barely anything going into it.
Am I bitter that I apparently motherfucked Sami Zayn, perhaps the greatest crime I’ve ever committed? Quite. And my feelings for Cody are hardly a secret or subtle anymore. But there were numerous routes to go about this that could have worked out better for everyone.
What if Roman sent Sami into the Rumble to keep selected opponents from winning? It puts the company’s biggest star, Sami, into the match with intrigue. If Cody overcomes that, he’s got more buzz than simply BEING CODY RHODES, and he’s connected to the story now. That’s just one way they could have gone about this. Sami could have accidentally won it too. But WWE was so deadset on its Cody moment that this is what we got. It all felt a bit paint by numbers.
One of the pitfalls of running two Rumble matches on the same card is that it is a challenge to make them feel unique from each other or follow different paths. The usual tropes bleed into both, be they the big star who clears out the ring or the alliances that form, or the mini-faceoffs we see within the bigger match, such as two of the hosses squaring up with each other.
Still, it would be nice to feel like they tried. The men’s Rumble match started the show off, which saw Gunther come in at #1 and last all the way to the end before being the last one eliminated. Which kind of dulled the sheen of Rhea Ripley doing the same thing on the women’s side, though winning it. But again, all WWE cares about is getting the moment and image of Rhea hanging onto the top rope, and being strong enough to whip Liv Morgan off the apron with a hurricanrana. It doesn’t really matter that the rest of women’s rumble, or even the whole show, was kind of “meh” up to that point.
The big surprises were either Nia Jaxx, a wrestler most fans have concluded can’t actually wrestle and is mostly known for injuring her coworkers, or a comedic appearance from Booker T that ended within 30 seconds. Maybe there weren’t wrestlers around who could provide the kind of surprise entrance we’ve seen in the past, but it also felt like they weren’t all that interested in creating them.
Bianca’s match with Alexa Bliss never felt like anything other than Bianca’s procession, and Bliss’s turn back into Bray Wyatt’s other half barely moved forward. Wyatt’s own match, the Pitch Black match, wasn’t really anything other than a barely fine wrestling match on the set of Tron.
Most, if not all, of the show felt like the path of least resistance. They want Cody vs. Roman in the main event of Wrestlemania, so they took the shortest path to it. They wanted the moment of Sami turning on Roman, so they found the easiest way possible there. They wanted Rhea to be a star at Mania, so they went the most obvious route to get her there. And it doesn’t really matter if it leaves more questions going forward. Because all they have to do at upcoming shows and Wrestlemania is provide another moment or two. There’s a small chance the fans could turn on a Cody-Reigns matchup because they want Sami in it, and maybe they find a way around that. But this isn’t 2015, as Cody is still a loved face instead of a character forced upon an unconvinced crowd which, funny enough, was Roman himself instead of Bryan Danielson (Daniel Bryan then). Even if I feel Cody is just another code word for “things forced upon us.”
There were a lot of more interesting ways to go about where they are now, but what was obvious last night is that WWE is only concerned with the endpoints. It’s all they have to be, because everyone is so trained to react to “the moments.” If there’s one thing WWE knows how to do, is serve them up on the reg.