The 2016 Royal Rumble took place on Sunday 24 January from the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida, and for the third year in a row one of WWE’s defining events disappointed. The victory of Triple H in the Rumble proper did not bring about the sort of ire directed at Batista and Roman Reigns in years past – and the event did feature two compelling opening matches, while the Rumble itself contained enough to excite in its early phase – but senseless storytelling, a lack of character development, and the wrong winner once again left WWE scampering, ahead of a WrestleMania which they hope will be the most successful yet, as many as 100,000 fans expected to show sufficient interest to attend AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas on 3 April. If the close to the Royal Rumble was not met with a wave of booing, it is only because the WWE audience is growing increasingly apathetic.
While a clash of styles seemed to mar the early stages of the feud between Kevin Owens and Dean Ambrose, things clicked into gear towards the end of their Intercontinental title match at TLC, when Ambrose countered a Pop-up Powerbomb with a hurricanrana, rolling Owens up to capture the belt. Invigorated, over the last month their confrontations on RAW became increasingly personal, leading to a Last Man Standing Match at the Royal Rumble which proved the best engagement of their series by far.
Bounding out of the blocks, Ambrose sent Owens crashing over the announce table, whipped him into the steel steps, and worked him over with a Kendo stick, but a cannonball through the ringside barrier saw Owens earn the first near fall, with Ambrose struggling back to his feet by the count of eight. A couple of strong counters – his clothesline off the ropes, and a backdrop onto two steel chairs – afforded Ambrose some respite, but shots with the stick and the chair, and more vicious blows on the outside, saw Owens remain in control of the match. Ambrose’s comeback began in earnest when he tossed a chair in the direction of Owens’ face, only for it to wrap round his neck, where it stayed stuck as Ambrose rallied with punches and chops. But two Dirty Deeds couldn’t quite get the job done, Owens showing exceptional awareness to slide out of the ring onto his feet at the count of nine.
An elbow drop through a table from Ambrose, and a reversed suplex through a table from Owens, and still these two men were not through. Finally Ambrose used one of Owens’ own schemes against him, pushing Owens off the top turnbuckle back-first through two tables which he had previously stacked on the floor. Owens twitched at the neck and tried to pull himself up, but the referee completed the ten count and Ambrose retained his belt. The match lasted more than twenty minutes and maintained a swift pace throughout, telling a compelling story, Owens growing increasingly frustrated, both men demonstrating their resilience, but Ambrose using all of his ingenuity to grab the win.
While The Usos have sometimes been condemned as John Cena-lite for the tag division, both Jimmy and Jey are exceptional athletes, and their match versus The New Day provided the Royal Rumble with its other unfettered high point. But before it could commence Xavier Woods took the time to introduce his new trombone, Francesca 2 making her debut after Chris Jericho had snapped the original over his knee on RAW the previous Monday.
The match was held at a high tempo, featuring quick tags and back-and-forth action, Woods momentarily aiding his team with a tornado DDT on the outside, before showing off the sounds of Francesca 2 as Big E stomped and splashed to take advantage of the situation. After both men had tumbled over the barrier, Jey launching himself through the crowd towards Kofi and Big E shouldering Jimmy through the ropes left all four competitors on the floor. Back inside the ring, a superkick and an Uso Splash on Kofi forced Woods to make a desperate save. But when the Usos looked for another big splash, not realising that Big E had made the hidden tag, Big E caught his man on his shoulder and dropped him with the Big Ending for the 1-2-3. So The New Day held on to their tag titles, and will await new challengers to a reign that extends back to last August.
Alberto Del Rio vs. Kalisto should have been able to continue the momentum, but after two excellent opening matches the Royal Rumble began to falter as this bout for the US title became senselessly sloppy. Del Rio was to pit his ruthless streak against Kalisto’s guile and quickness, and Del Rio assailed his opponent with backbreakers, stiff kicks, and some offence on the outside, before attempting to unmask Kalisto only for the high-flyer to land with a senton off the top rope. The closing stages were full of clumsy bumps and moves that barely connected, Kalisto missing with a kick to the head, and both men tumbling awkwardly towards the exposed turnbuckle in what was meant to constitute a hurricanrana reversal, before Kalisto hit a second Salida del Sol to take the title. The title change was the only good thing about the match, with Kalisto enjoying a surge of popularity while Del Rio, saddled with two bad gimmicks in a row, is flatlining.
Charlotte and Becky Lynch put on a typically hard hitting match for Divas championship, not helped by the presence of Ric Flair and some shoddy camera work. With Becky on top on the outside, The Nature Boy got between the challenger and his daughter before planting Becky with a big kiss, a dubious move from the sixty-six-year-old veteran. While a forced kiss could be construed as sexual assault, the act was at least heelish and in keeping with Flair’s character, but it is hard to like a company so excessively prudish when it comes to blood, profanity, and personal expression, that nevertheless remains consistently lecherous in matters of sex.
A frolicking Flair was duly slapped by Becky, but Charlotte seized upon the distraction, and wore her opponent down in the leg scissors. Becky eventually mounted a comeback courtesy of running forearms and suplexes, and after kicking out of a spear, managed to lock in the Dis-arm-her. However just as Charlotte appeared set to tap, The Nature Boy climbed the ring apron and tossed his jacket over Becky’s head, apparently enough to make her relinquish the hold and forego imminent victory. The camera focused on Ric and left the in-ring action unaccounted for, and by the time we could see what was happening, Charlotte was in the process of delivering the spear which won her the match.
Atonement came in the form of Sasha Banks. As Charlotte and her father celebrated, her music hit and this was the Sasha of NXT: dripping with attitude, here with a plan, and received by the audience with eager anticipation. She tossed her sunglasses aside as she entered the ring, and looked Charlotte up and down before kicking Becky to the floor, a turn which brought gasps from those in attendance. But this was Sasha the tweener, out only to assert herself: far from diminishing Becky’s performance, the boot to the gut was almost a sign of respect, Sasha caring enough about Becky to see her well out of the way before turning her attention to Charlotte. As the Flairs attempted to leave the ring, Sasha caught Charlotte with the Backstabber, then cinched in the Bank Statement before raising the Divas title as The Nature Boy raged in the aisleway. The debut of Bayley would make for a mouthwatering four-way at Wrestlemania 32, but far better to wait, and allow Sasha, Charlotte, and Becky to write the first chapter of what should be an extended period of brilliance from the women on the main roster.
So we arrived at the Rumble itself, still probably the most hotly anticipated sixty minutes of the wrestling calendar. The fans cheered for Rusev to win the Rumble this time last year, but WWE seems set on squashing one of its brightest talents, and he was immediately eliminated by Roman Reigns, who by virtue of a rigged lottery had been made the number one entrant. Things picked up when the third man in the Rumble was revealed as AJ Styles, who received a rapturous response on his WWE debut, briefly tangling with Reigns before Tyler Breeze switched the focus of attention. The Rumble is all about surprises, and the debut of Styles was one of the best in years.
The early stages of the Rumble provided plenty of fun. When Chris Jericho arrived at number six with Reigns and Styles again alone in the ring, Reigns was palpably the odd man out, and the crowd relished Styles and Jericho going at it. But too little was made of the likes of Breeze and Curtis Axel – especially Axel, who made a gimmick out of never having been properly eliminated from last year’s Rumble, yet here lasted little more than a minute before departing, his story untold and undeveloped. Indeed a trend of recent Rumbles has been the sheer lack of storytelling beyond those involved in the main event picture: even wrestlers who do achieve a run of eliminations, who last for an exceptional amount of time, or who engage in Rumble-specific confrontations rarely earn a mention from the announce team, who focus solely on preparing us for the Rumble’s end game and the onset of the ‘Road to WrestleMania’.
Kane came out and then Goldust, followed by Ryback and Kofi and Titus O’Neil, but the big story here was Reigns, and now The League of Nations arrived to put a dampener on expectations. Sheamus, Rusev, King Barrett, and Alberto Del Rio, accompanied by Vince McMahon, pulled Reigns out of the ring and assaulted him in turn, Rusev ostensibly finishing the job with a big splash through the announce table. But instead of tossing Reigns back in the ring for an easy elimination, The League of Nations simply left him lying on the outside – a moment of stupidity which was only exacerbated when Reigns, attended by medics, got up off their stretcher and walked to the back of his own volition. So not only had The League of Nations utterly failed in their task of costing Reigns the Rumble, now Reigns, the supposed hero of the piece, without suffering gravely the effects of the beating, had instead apparently wandered backstage for a bit of a breather.
While the cameras and announcers focused all of their attention on Reigns, Kofi was eliminated off-screen, an underwhelming exit for someone whose acrobatics are often among the highlights of the Rumble, even though he had earlier saved himself by hopping on Big E’s shoulders. As members of The Wyatt Family gradually entered, out too came Big Show, Neville, and Kevin Owens and Dean Ambrose – the two men bandaging themselves up after their Intercontinental bout, Owens’ brave return to action contrasting sharply with Reigns’ absence.
Owens tossed AJ Styles over the top rope, restoring his heel heat, and allowing Styles to depart with his head held high after a debut which had lasted an impressive twenty-eight minutes and fifty-eight seconds. Then Owens was ousted by Sami Zayn, out for revenge and making his Rumble debut to a big reaction. But the Wyatts were starting to dominate proceedings, with Luke Harper, Braun Strowman, and Erick Rowan collectively making light work of Kane, Big Show, Neville, Stardust, and Mark Henry, before Zayn too found himself triple-teamed and eliminated.
Then came Brock Lesnar. With Paul Heyman as always in his corner, The Beast proved The Wyatt Family’s undoing, immediately dumping out Rowan, and then Harper and Strowman after expending a little more effort. In the meantime The Miz’s number had been called, but he was biding his time with some announce work before making an entrance, while straight into the thick of it was Alberto Del Rio. When Bray Wyatt followed at number twenty-seven, the Wyatt Family recouped on the outside and Harper, Strowman, and Rowan reentered the ring to eliminate Lesnar on behalf of their leader. So Lesnar was reduced to a marginal role in the Rumble, as WWE again resorted to inadequate storytelling: Lesnar might have lost without damage to his reputation, but surely it should not have counted at the hands of three already dismissed participants.
Dolph Ziggler was number twenty-eight, but the crowd were showing signs of restlessness after Lesnar’s elimination. Then at twenty-nine came Sheamus, but he was interrupted in the aisle by Roman Reigns, who had cried off until the closing stages of the match in a peculiar attempt to convince as all-conquering. Reigns was roundly booed as he struck Sheamus with the Superman Punch, and that really was the death knell for this Royal Rumble. He ejected The Miz and Del Rio and turned his attention to Bray Wyatt, before Triple H made his entrance as the final participant. For someone who calls himself The Game and is so highly praised as a student-become-master of the wrestling business, Hunter pays scant regard to the consistency of his own booking, often appearing on the same show as both a reactionary corporate heel and the revolutionary babyface creator of NXT. Out for five weeks, his return was met with at least as many cheers as jeers, largely because the fans had no interest in witnessing a Reigns victory.
Triple H and Reigns squared off, but soon became caught up in the surrounding commotion. Triple H took a Fameasser only to then toss Ziggler, but when Wyatt rejected his suggestion that they double team Reigns, Wyatt whipped him into the turnbuckle forcing Chris Jericho to suffer an inadvertent stinkface. However Sheamus and Triple H ganged up to eliminate Wyatt. And Jericho’s luck still worsened, as he was eliminated by Ambrose after enduring the Rumble for fifty-one minutes and twenty seconds: the best showing of the night given Reigns’ lengthy disappearance.
Four men remained: Triple H, Reigns, Ambrose, and Sheamus. Sheamus was the first to go, Reigns’ fist sending him packing. Then in a necessary twist, it was Reigns who was eliminated by Hunter, Roman indicating his disbelief out on the floor, while the audience immediately surged behind Ambrose. Reigns and Hunter as the final two would have found themselves booed out of the building, and Ambrose’s presence at least stirred the fans in these closing moments, preventing a catastrophic end to the Rumble. Yet Triple H’s triumph was in little doubt, and after Ambrose hit his rebound clothesline and dumped Hunter onto the ring apron, he was lifted over the top rope and eliminated, leaving our winner standing tall as he was joined in the ring by an equally pleased with herself Stephanie. On commentary Byron Saxton mumbled an inanity, talking about ‘A cryptic quote that The Authority has made famous: The Authority always wins!’, but here nobody was the winner, and WWE will face an uphill struggle preparing a worthy main event for this year’s WrestleMania.