WWE kicks its Wrestlemania season into fifth gear this week with Saturday night’s Royal Rumble. Even those who have soured on the product New York has been putting out come back in for the Rumble — for the most part — due to its uniqueness and penchant for surprises, and setting up what the build to Wrestlemania will be (except for last year, which sucked). And also to make fun of all the sign-pointing and possibly some drunken gambling.
And WWE has an opportunity, for the first time in a while on the men’s side at least, to make its biggest event in its biggest event, the main event at Wrestlemania, the culmination of the best story it’s had in years, instead of just making it an empty spectacle constructed around names and hype. Sami Zayn must win the Royal Rumble.
Going back through recent WWE main events, they have lacked any sort of story to pay off. There’s been no catharsis, there’s been no culmination, there have just been dudes wrestling. Last year was Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar, because Vince McMahon was determined to make us eat that matchup and have everyone accept it for some seven years. It was built only on their previous encounters, which everyone pretty much hated which were also built on nothing. 2021’s main event on the second night saw Reigns in a triple threat with Edge and Daniel Bryan, which was a very good match but all felt very forced and jammed together. Which it kind of was, and most if not all that build still came in the Thunderdome era.
We can ignore the 2020 event thanks to the pandemic and the abnormality of a Mania without a crowd. While 2019 saw, deservedly, Becky Lynch in the main event, the other memorable match from that night was Kofi Kingston finally claiming the Smackdown title over Bryan. Kofi had become the fan’s favorite after a string of heroic performances, his history with the New Day and beyond, and the feeling that if there wasn’t a surge from the fans, he was the exact kind of wrestler that McMahon would screw over time and again. It was organic, and it paid off, with no little help from Bryan getting to play the opposite role to his very similar push to the top in 2014.
It is quite clear to everyone that the best story going in WWE right now, and possibly in all of wrestling, is Sami Zayn, Reigns, and Zayn’s role in The Bloodline. Zayn being able to take this story, which started out as just goofy lap-dogging to Reigns simply to be on television, to the heights it now occupies is a testament to him and his character work as well as his ability to constantly connect with fans whether playing the heel or face.
From just simple comedy vignettes to being the absolute center of Reigns’s world, this has been the gravitational force for WWE for months now. Zayn stole the show at War Games, which has made him the talk of the company, and it is clear that Reigns does not know how to keep Zayn’s momentum and popularity at bay. There are already fissures in the relationship starting to show, but seeing as how Zayn has used this story and placing to become perhaps the most popular wrestler on the roster, there is no bigger match that WWE could put on right now than Zayn-Reigns. That is to say, there is no bigger wrestling match that they could book.
But WWE hasn’t always been interested in wrestling matches, so much as just moments and events and whatever gets them talked about in non-wrestling circles. It has been no secret that WWE’s dream scenario for this April is to bring back The Rock to face Reigns in L.A., which would certainly feel like a major event but wouldn’t be built on anything that’s been happening week-to-week on TV. Sure, there is the whole familial connection that the company would likely harp on for a couple of months to give the match a foundation. But fans would know it’s simply The Rock’s celebrity that the company is banking on. Emphasis on “banking.”
The Rock reappearing has looked more and more unlikely as we get closer to the event, so WWE is pivoting. Cody Rhodes getting the serious video vignette treatment leading up to the announcement that he’ll return at The Rumble seems to position him as the likely challenger to Reigns. It could always be setting us all up for a swerve, but certainly, Triple H wants us to believe that Rhodes is the favorite.
And that’s…fine. I’m probably not the one to comment, given my somewhat understated takes on Cody in the past. Rhodes flipping to WWE from AEW, the company he helped create, is one of 2022’s biggest stories, and purely on that, he is one of New York’s biggest stars. He’s certainly the biggest face WWE has, but that isn’t really based on anything match-related given how much time he’s missed. It’s still basically just based on his return at last year’s Mania. Which is kind of thin.
Cody fighting for the honor of his father and wrestling as a whole, something he’s never been shy about claiming, against the evil force of Reigns and The Bloodline certainly works as a giant clash at the industry’s biggest coming together.
But it’s so rote. Shiny face against the brooding heel, with WWE making some sort of wink about putting Rhodes in their biggest match when AEW couldn’t or wouldn’t find a place for him at the top of the card anymore. And given the way both Reigns and Cody work, the match might take 12 minutes before the first lock-up. It’s two big names for sure, but with no layers.
Zayn has layers shooting out of his ears! The selling out of his principles to join The Bloodline, his either naivety in not realizing how he’s just a tool for Reigns, or his underhanded brilliance in using Reigns himself to propel up the roster. He has Kofi/Bryan vibes, given that he’s a lifer who has never really been given a run at the top of the card even though few can match his in-ring work. And then how he’s either turned his back on that to join up with Reigns and The Usos or it’s the final act in taking all of that to the top of the industry.
Having Sami turn back face, win the Rumble, and setting him up to face Reigns gives WWE all that Cody noise, with a heavy pinch of that Kofi buzz it had in 2019 and Bryan in 2014. And he’s a better worker than Rhodes, by some distance. It is the best wrestling story they have and it’s not even close. Sami possibly being the first to topple Reigns in a dog’s age is the biggest possible moment WWE could have at SoFi stadium. Imagine that pop. It would pay off a year’s worth of story, and reward fans who have been watching week to week. Putting Cody in that spot would just be playing at all of it. Putting The Rock there would just be empty headline chasing.
Will Triple H make WWE more about wrestling with his first Mania build in charge (if he’s in charge?)? We know the answer is of course no. But even Trips can’t ignore what is the best answer here.