Doctor's Orders: WWE Royal Rumble 2014 Preview - YES!? or NO!?
By The Doc
Jan 21, 2014 - 7:19:07 AM
(Doc's note - this column was written prior to last night's Raw. A few assumptions remain as to the role of Daniel Bryan)
QUESTION OF THE DAY: What is your WrestleMania card, pre-Rumble? Give me a combination of what you want to see and what you think we'll see.
The Royal Rumble match is a reflection of the roster. It is no coincidence that the finest versions of the WWE’s most popular gimmick have featured quality depth from #1 to #30. 1992 has been celebrated, for instance, not just for Ric Flair’s all-time great performance, but for the number of relevant wrestlers in the match. The ’92 version also had going for it a sense of unpredictability with at least three realistic candidates to emerge victorious. Indeed, if the Rumble has multiple wrestlers that can conceivably win the match and a stacked roster, then it ascends into rarified air in WWE history.
Personally, though I love the Rumble each year and look forward to it no matter what, I think it has been awhile since we’ve seen a truly excellent version. Either the booking, the roster, or the top candidates to win have underwhelmed. However, this year - more so than in the recent past - the Rumble match has the requisite elements to be an outstanding edition.
It was while watching last week’s Raw that I was struck by the current roster’s depth. My comments should not be misconstrued as suggesting that the 2014 roster compares, necessarily, with any heralded era, but it should be noted as an appreciation of the job that the WWE has done in the last year to make their mid-card seem more important. Case in point was the Usos, an off-and-on tag team title contender, being in the opening and closing segments of Raw last week and winning a Cage match over a heavily featured headlining act. They are the kinds of talents that will bring energy into the Rumble match and out of the crowd (assuming that they occupy two of the thirty spots) and, unlike in previous years, they and others like them won’t be curtain jerkers during the entrance for which the audience sits on their hands. Every Rumble is going to have its filler talents, but imagine if we were to do a ranking of the top 20-25 guys involved in each battle royal, allowing for anywhere between 5-10 spots to be occupied by nobodies like, say, Simon Dean and Ernest Miller from the past decade. The strength of the match is going to be based, in part, on the quality of the wrestlers that fall near the 20th spot. This year, the Usos – a solidly over duo with well-earned recent TV main-event experience - would be in or around that number in the ranking. That bodes very well for this year’s Rumble.
Depth of the roster has always been aided by the attention that a promotion places on its mid-card. Last week, when I saw Big E Langston give Randy Orton everything that he could handle on Smackdown and the Usos main-event Raw, it accentuated a common theme that has been talked about over the last few months, but might actually start paying dividends as soon as this year’s WrestleMania season: the tag team division is in the most sustainable position for success that it has been in a long time and the Intercontinental Championship scene is far more intriguing now that there is only one World Champion. As a by-product of a more focused booking direction for the mid-card titles, the mid-card wrestlers are a lot more relevant. Thus, I’m quite interested in seeing how Langston performs in this year’s Rumble; ditto for the Usos, Cody Rhodes, Goldust, The Prime Time Players, Fandango, The Real Americans, and others. The esteemed hosts of what was recently voted as LOP Radio’s #1 show, The Right Side of the Pond, cooperatively agreed upon last week that “the roster is stacked and the WWE has touched on a formula for three hour RAWs that works well to use them.” I concur and, as such, feel that there are a lot of “one to watch” types in this year’s Rumble.
Factions are another tried and true method for mid-card success (and relevancy) that the WWE has well employed in the last year. The Wyatt Family figures to be a major factor in whatever happens with Daniel Bryan in the Rumble. And, of course, The Shield has maintained a solid position in the WWE hierarchy for most of their 14 month tenure. The elements at play for the Rumble match thanks to the collective time spent enhancing the Wyatts and Shield are some of the most engaging pre-2nd biggest PPV of the year topics. Will The Shield implode and its three members part ways? Is it possible that Roman Reigns ascends to the main-event a year earlier than expected? Will Bray Wyatt and his goons be able to keep Bryan from achieving a major victory on his path to ultimate glory? These are the kinds of stories that create emotional hooks at every stage of the Rumble match, creating multiple layers of drama that extend beyond the final four participants. Color me fascinated, ladies and gentlemen.
There are also quite a few wrestlers that are still relevant - despite their respective falls from the top of the card - who are likely to be involved in the Rumble, as well. The Miz tops that list, with the likes of Damien Sandow, Wade Barrett, Dolph Ziggler, Ryback, and Rey Mysterio adding even more depth to the match. So, I more or less view this year’s Rumble match as being the eye of potentially the perfect storm. There are several legitimate options for the victor on a, thus far, unpredictable Road to WrestleMania; and there are a plethora of relevant acts throughout the mid-card that will add depth. Sprinkle in a few surprises here and there and the recipe is on the table for Royal Rumble 2014 to be one that we’ll talk a lot about in the future.
Historical context, of course, will largely be shaped by the winner of the match and how he achieves his victory. By my count, I think there are three realistic favorites and three unlikely scenarios. The three unlikely victors are Undertaker, Sheamus, and Roman Reigns. The Celtic Warrior is due back from summer surgery and the WWE has a fairly recent track record of shocking the world with a random, unannounced returning star winning the Rumble. There does not seem to be a lot of room at the top for Sheamus right now, but a Rumble victory puts him right back in the thick of things (and in a hurry) for a potential match with Batista or Brock Lesnar. I have a hunch that the WWE will wait to bring Sheamus back for the post-Mania Raw, though. Reigns is the real wild-card based as much on the backstage rumors as his on-screen push. He has come on strong since the latter part of the year and, while a strong Spear spot at Mania seems a lot more likely to come in the first hour of the show than in the last, it is not out of the question for him to begin a rapid ascent with a Rumble victory. That’s an unnecessarily risky venture, in my opinion. The WWE has a lot riding on this Mania season with the Network launching, so I expect they’ll play it a bit safer. Taker winning follows the same logic to me that does Batista winning, in that it would set up his match at Mania to have the extra drawing power attached to it that the WWE Championship would bring. If they book Taker vs. Cena or Lesnar, the title being on the line would enhance the match and make it the sure-fire main-event. The Deadman’s role this year will go a long way toward determining how Mania XXX’s card takes shape.
The 3 Favorites
Batista is at the top of nearly everyone’s list to win the Rumble match. His return is a big deal, but whether or not he wins the Rumble really boils down to this question: does the WWE feel compelled to follow the 2013 formula and put the Undisputed Championship on the shoulder of a star who has name value outside of the WWE? If the answer is “yes,” then Batista has got to be the odds-on favorite to outlast 29 other stars for the 2nd time in his career. A match against Randy Orton or Brock Lesnar – the two most often referenced in discussions for his likely WrestleMania XXX opponent – is made that much bigger by the presence of the title. Those not in favor of Batista winning will correctly site that “The Animal vs. The Beast” does not need the title to draw. I completely agree with that line of thinking and it’s why I do not believe that Batista will win the Rumble or that Lesnar will end up with the title. Brock vs. Batista is very appealing to a lot of different types of fans. It has the feel of a nice consolation prize for the WWE after Rock said “no” to a return for this year. There’s an intangible quality to that match unique to all other options available. But it doesn’t need the WWE Championship to have that aura about it. However, if they want Batista vs. Orton, then the title has to be involved for it to be relevant to the masses. That match would have been huge with or without the title….in 2006. The ship has sailed for a grudge match. If that’s the plotted course, then Batista should win the Rumble. The bottom line is that the WWE brought back Batista for a huge payday at Mania XXX and they’re going to use him in a match that lures in fans that don’t regularly watch WWE. My gut tells me that Batista and Brock’s title aspirations are a smoke screen to give them reason to start a feud. Brock is the perfect opponent in that scenario, making “Beast vs. Animal” a marquee-driven spectacle and leaving the title open for others to pursue. My prediction? Both want the title, but wind up canceling each other out in their attempts to achieve it.
CM Punk has cycled in and out as my #1 choice to win the 2014 Rumble for the last several months. His exact direction for Mania has never been crystal clear from my view, but tons of possibilities exist. Right now, I’m on the fence about his Rumble odds. What I do believe, for sure, is that Punk is going to be involved in one of the top matches at Mania XXX. It has been since the 2011 Royal Rumble that Punk was not involved in a headlining bout on one of the Big Three PPVs and he is coming off his most historic run in 2013, having wrestled Rock, Brock, and Taker at the biggest shows of the year. His name is as firmly established with the unique viewership that augments the buyrates as anyone not named John Cena on the current roster. So, he’s going to be there. The questions are: “against whom will he wrestle?” and “will his match be for the title?” Recent happenings are suggestive of a match with Triple H at Mania. It would be a substantial feather in his cap to have wrestled Chris Jericho, Taker, and Trips at back-to-back-to-back Manias, but unless something very screwy occurs, it does not make much sense to have the title involved. I have seen some prognosticators offer up a Brock-Punk rematch with the title at stake, but that is far-fetched as of this moment. If you follow the signs, Punk vs. Brock is done and Punk’s babyface focus has shifted to The Authority, essentially leaving two viable options for his Mania opponents: Trips or Orton. RKO was CM’s pre-Pipe Bomb Mania foe, with Orton getting the win. A rematch on the grandest stage with the title involved could easily make sense with the right tweak in the plot. If Cena wins the title from Orton on Sunday, then I would not rule out that the WWE would run a babyface match between the two top current roster stars. I’ve been championing that as an alternative if Taker vs. Cena fails to materialize, as it gets Punk into the main-event. The jury is still very much out on the specifics of Punk’s Mania role, but he seems as likely a Rumble winner as anyone.
In my opinion, Daniel Bryan is the favorite to win the Rumble. I will boldly state that the booking of Daniel Bryan has not once confused this particular columnist. It has been consistent and thorough for a long, long time. No doubts exist in my mind as to his role at WrestleMania. He’s either going to win the Royal Rumble on Sunday and, subsequently, win the title at Mania or he’s going to wrestle Triple H. I may as well have started the Bryan vs. Trips bandwagon on the night after Summerslam, but my position on the status of that match for Mania waxes and wanes by the week, depending upon what he does on Raw. Last week gave him the momentum to win the Rumble, which would steer him logically away from a match with Triple H at Mania. If he does not win the Rumble, that match would be very much back in play if you ask me. However, Punk’s presence continues to be the point of confusion for me. The logical direction since Summerslam was to end at HHH vs. Bryan, but now they’re inserting plot points that make HHH vs. Punk seem like the chosen direction. Bryan’s involvement with the Wyatts, right from the beginning, begged the question, “Why did Wyatt choose the words ‘the devil made me do it’ when the angle began?” Random words from a not-yet-understood character or strategically inserted creative plot point? Honestly, who knows? What we do know is that Bryan has two paths to follow and, with each passing week, they’re becoming more distinct – does he go after The Authority figurehead who wants him held down or does he defy him indirectly by winning the WWE Championship? Any direction outside of those two would surprise me. Recent media coverage only enhances the WWE’s position on Bryan. He’s going to get a Mania moment; it’s just a matter of which one.
The Royal Rumble is the feeder to WrestleMania. Accurately predicting this year’s Rumble winner is an exercise in determining how the WWE wants the preeminent title in sports entertainment presented in New Orleans. As of right now, I cannot seem to answer that question, definitively, in my mind. Daniel Bryan and Batista (with an outside shot at Undertaker) provide strikingly different ways to ensure that the WWE Championship is the focal point of the show. With Batista, you get the outside interest from a match with huge “name” value, but you don’t get the guaranteed live pop and crowd reaction. With Bryan, you get the guaranteed huge pop and crowd reaction, but you don’t get the outside interest and he simply cannot provide a match with the kind of aura that Batista (or Brock or Taker) can. On the outside chance that Taker wins, I think that he provides the best of both worlds (interest and crowd response), to a degree.
Until the WWE Network came to be, I thought I had pretty well figured out the WWE’s WrestleMania formula and business model. Though I need to sit down and evaluate the available data to get a better handle on how the Network is going to affect them, I’m going to proceed with the old way of thinking. If I were the WWE, I would simply accept that the WWE Championship is better off occupying a Mania 28-caliber headlining spot, give Bryan his huge moment, and ingratiate him into the top tier of all WWE stars with a safe, non-main-event victory over an established name with past main-events under his belt in Randy Orton. I would, then, stack the top three other matches with the most profit-driven combinations of names remaining. So, I’m going with Bryan to win the Rumble and some sort of shenanigans that keeps Cena looking strong in defeat to Orton and Lesnar costing Batista the Rumble match with a strong bit of hype built for Trips vs. Punk.
The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment.
Join us on “The Doc and Super Chrisss Show” Wednesday evening at a special start time of 5PM as we offer up The Royal Rumble Preview, discuss the role of the wrestling fan, Brock Lesnar versus "insert name here" (could it be Daniel Bryan?) at WrestleMania XXX, and much more!
Popular Wrestling Internet Radio with LordsofPain