The Royal Rumble has transformed from being one of the most exciting wrestling events of the year to operating as the most perversely entertaining night on the WWE calendar. Instead of serving as a launching pad to help the next big superstar get over, it plays off more like a heated argument between WWE and its passionate fan base, illustrating just how little the two parties see eye-to-eye on the way the show is booked. For the second year in a row, the outcome of one of WWE’s most storied matches was unanimously rejected by the WWE Universe and the main culprit behind that wave of nuclear heat is one Daniel Bryan. Or rather, the absence of Daniel Bryan.
Myself and basically every other wrestling fan in the world could see this coming from a mile away. The hardcore snarks in attendance at the Wells Fargo Center were passionately behind Bryan right from the get-go, serenading him with the loudest pop of the night. When Bryan was discarded from the Rumble like any other guy, the enthusiasm in that building deflated more quickly than a New England Patriots football. From that moment on, Roman Reigns had no chance. Philly was furious at this development and they were going to ensure that Vince McMahon, Triple H and everyone else in WWE knew about it. The message from WWE was clear – Daniel Bryan will never be “the guy” no matter how much you cheer for him.
And the answer from the audience was resounding: FUCK. THAT. SHIT.
Philly does have a reputation for being a bit more unruly and vulgar than the majority of other cities, but that doesn’t mean that the crowd was unjustified in reacting the way that it did. The booking for the Rumble match was horrendous. In my Royal Rumble preview, I mentioned that WWE was going to be hesitant to give Bryan the nod after his body gave out on him last year and that the opportunity to push Reigns against Brock Lesnar would likely be to hard to resist. That was more or less common knowledge, but I think the scorn from the fans was targeted less at Reigns winning and more at how that outcome was reached. When Bryan was promptly eliminated early on in the most unceremonious way possible, followed by similar eliminations to other fan favorites like Damien Mizdow, Dolph Ziggler and Dean Ambrose, it felt like a giant middle finger from McMahon to the ones who buy his product. “The guys you love are all unambitious millennials and you are all morons, and I’ll tell you what you want!”
The truth is, Bryan should have been there at the end. Same goes for Ziggler and Ambrose. If Bryan wasn’t booked to win, then he and everyone else that the fans wanted to see should have given Reigns a run for his money. Wyatt should have joined those other four in ushering in the new generation of WWE stars, competing head-to-head for one goal: to win the Royal Rumble and become the new face of the company. In essence, that was the biggest problem with Sunday night and why the fans were so pissed. Once Bryan was gone and Big Show and Kane made those other guys look so utterly worthless, it sucked all the drama out of the match and made it clear that only Reigns had a chance of winning. Yeah, I was really on the edge of my seat for that shit.
After the backlash that WWE experienced at the 2014 Rumble when Batista won and Bryan wasn’t even an entrant in the match, you would think that McMahon and his cronies would have learned a thing or two at what not to do. To be fair, Bryan was at least in the match this time and I’m sure they booked his elimination in a way that made sense to them. Wyatt was the one who did the deed and it’s not the first time that the Eater of Worlds has gotten the best of Bryan. When Ziggler and Ambrose were tossed out so easily, it was because Big Show and Kane had made an alliance with The Authority’s blessing, mainly to ensure that all of the stars who caused them problems wouldn’t come anywhere close to main eventing Wrestlemania. And if you want to make Reigns look strong heading into his big showdown with Lesnar on the grandest stage of them all, I suppose having him eliminate two of the tallest and most experienced participants simultaneously is one way to go about it.
Only that’s not the effect that it had and none of it sat well with the fans. No lessons were learned from last year. Reigns was booed from the moment that his music hit and to no fault of his own, he was the main target of Philly’s ire. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. I have many fond memories of the Rumble because I’ve seen the positive impact it can have on an up-and-coming wrestler’s career, or how it can vindicate the fans for believing in a certain tenured veteran who has paid his dues and finally gets his big break. It should be nothing but a special night, and once again it was a miserable one for all the wrong reasons. Ten years from now, you think Reigns will look back on his Rumble victory and think it was one of the greatest moments of his career? Anything can happen, but all signs point to my worst fear for him being realized; that he just isn’t ready for this kind of push and there may be no recovering from what happened in Philly on Sunday night.
Anticipating that the crowd may not embrace Reigns’ victory on its own, WWE tapped The Rock himself to endorse his cousin and pass the proverbial torch, if you will. However, Philly was wise to WWE’s act and did the unthinkable, booing the People’s Champion with the kind of venom he hadn’t experienced since the “Die, Rocky, Die” days. Or rather, they booed the half-hearted attempt to get Reigns over by having a seemingly infallible star give him his blessing. I feel bad for Reigns. He didn’t ask to be put in a no-win scenario where nothing he could do would make the people happy, but he’s the one who’s going to have to deal with it from now on. It’s crap that WWE put him in that position to begin with.
On the other hand, it’s not like the entire night was a dismal failure. The triple threat match between Lesnar, John Cena and Seth Rollins for the title was outstanding, a complete 180 from the match that followed it. Lesnar was the dominating champion, kicking out of multiple finishes and utterly overwhelming the other two combatants with sheer strength. Cena was the backbone of the match and even though he had come up short in his first two attempts to defeat Lesnar, he wasn’t about to give up now. And Rollins was the breakout star, the young gun in his first real chance to step up to the plate and prove that he belonged with the top dogs of the company, and he knocked it out of the park. Rollins put on a sensational display of timing and athleticism and those three guys together were like clockwork. Unfortunately, that match will always be overshadowed by the colossal letdown that the Rumble was, and that’s a damn shame.
Fortunately, WWE caught a lucky break when last night’s Raw was postponed due to that massive blizzard on the east coast, giving the company time to regroup and deal with the falling out from the Rumble. In response, a series of interviews were aired that directly addressed Reigns’ controversial win and the fact that the people only wanted to see Bryan win. Bryan, and no one else. The “Yes Man” tackled that subject head-on and attempted to put the focus on his own shortcomings, saying that he appreciated how disappointed people were that he didn’t emerge victorious but that it was his own fault. Then Lesnar and Reigns met face-to-face in the first of many attempts to build up their main event match at Mania and try to convince people that it is truly best for business. If I were Vince McMahon, I would be kissing the ground that Paul Heyman walks on for generating some actual interest in this contest. He played up the history between himself and Reigns’ family, as well as the match between Rock and Lesnar back in 2002. It was powerful stuff and maybe Reigns and Lesnar will have a great match at Mania.
But will it be enough to make people forget what happened Sunday night in Philly, or get over the fact that Bryan once again isn’t getting the push that we all so desperately want for him? I don’t know.
As CM Punk once said, every wrestler in WWE is just another spoke on the wheel and the wheel will keep on turning regardless of what happens. It’s just sad to think that a truly promising star’s career may have been derailed before it ever got started, simply because WWE ignored the call of the fans and forced somebody else down our throats. I’m still pulling for Roman to get over and be a success, but the Romans know better than anyone how badly a reign can end when the people aren’t on your side.