Just Business: Royal Rumble 2017 - The Performance Art Review
By Samuel 'Plan
Jan 31, 2017 - 3:43:58 PM
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Just Business: Royal Rumble 2017 - The Performance Art Review
Last Sunday witnessed the latest instalment in WWE’s efforts to redesign the Big Four as being closer to the grandeur of WrestleMania than anything else, with a return to the Alamodome for what I consider their true premier event. Rather than feeling overblown and creatively empty, though, what resulted was a busy show that set the ball rolling for a still very unpredictable Road to WrestleMania; albeit, not without mistakes. Controversy has become a familiar friend to Royal Rumble in the last decade, and it appears 2017 was no different. Despite the outstanding ring quality on show throughout the evening – including the titular main event – it was, ultimately I thought, a mixed bag.
As ever, my name is Samuel ‘Plan and this is the Performance Art Review of Royal Rumble 2017!
Rather than feeling over-produced and vainglorious as some of WWE’s more indulgent WrestleManias have done in recent years, Royal Rumble 2017 reminded of a time, around the early 2000s, when WrestleMania got the balance between the in and out of ring production just right. The size of the crowd; the length of the entrance aisle; the airy acoustics; were it not for a lack of spectacular entrances and heavy use of pyro, you might have been forgiven for thinking you were watching a WrestleMania from fifteen years ago.
This might seem like an unimportant observation to some, but the reason why I believe it provided a lesson worth learning for WWE is because of the unwelcome memories many of us fans still have of WrestleMania 32 – a high watermark for WWE’s self-indulgence when it comes to grandiose productions. Royal Rumble 2017 hit excellent balance in pursuing ceremony without losing its central focus on the in-ring action, just like the Grand Daddy once did in the dying days of Attitude and the first years of the Brand Extension. WWE would therefore be wise to learn the lessons of last April, look to Royal Rumble 2017 – a three and a half hour show that sped by – and consider it the perfect formula for WrestleMania moving forwards.
But maybe that’s beside the point. Maybe the move to transform Royal Rumble, Summerslam and Survivor Series in the way WWE have been doing is so that WrestleMania can continue to grow uncontrollably, to the distaste of many, while fans will always have an antidote to such engorgement: better balanced Big Four shows elsewhere in the year that watch like superior attempts to capture that WrestleMania-sized magic without the WrestleMania-sized hangover.
After all, if ‘Mania 33 stinks up WWE as much as 32 did, I will always now have the Rumble as a superior but not dissimilar alternative to revisit instead.
Character Wrestling Returns in Force
I feel like enough credit hasn’t yet been given to one of the single most delightful aspects that ran throughout all of last Sunday’s pay-per-view spectacular, and something we don’t see nearly enough of these days: character wrestling.
Charlotte and Bayley set a strong standard early in the night, with the former in particular proving many of the announce team’s proclamations to be true: she is reaching, if not already at, a level all her own as a performer. The manner in which she wrestled Bayley – whose own optimistic outlook was effectively reflected with breezy aerial offensives - was unapologetically contemptuous. Charlotte was the arrogant cynic, dragging the action to the clawing, grasping gutter whenever she could to help silence the positive message her challenger was attempting to put out. Charlotte has become quite adept at mastering body language, facial expression and move choice to reflect character between the ropes. Sunday’s effort was an especially strong example of that trait, for which I admire her fiercely.
Universal Champion Kevin Owens has been wrestling character driven work in WWE longer than most around him. While it admittedly took something of a back step in his populist No Disqualification Match opposite Roman Reigns, it didn’t fade entirely; the champion barked more than once at Reigns, in typical undermining fashion, that he himself was “The Guy.” So too did Owens physically wrestle with greater malcontent to signify the escalation of their feud’s animosity, casting aside comedy for legitimate menace in a welcome development.
Anyone who has been regularly checking out 205 Live – and I encourage anyone reading to do so – should already be familiar with Neville’s own increase in menace, throughout what has undoubtedly been a career resurgence for him in the world’s leading pro wrestling promotion. While an inferior effort to their televised work some weeks ago, Neville vs. Swann no doubt held up its end of the character bargain too, with Neville reacting to Swann’s comebacks with what felt almost like indignantly outraged physicality; in contrast, Swann was sure to react to Neville with expressive urgency and, at times, outright panic. It was fiercely intelligent on the parts of both men.
Of course, all of this character work came to a head in the third AJ Styles / John Cena clash for the WWE World Championship. I had no time for their Summerslam match, and it was a shame to see them travel a very similar, if slightly less obscene route here. Nonetheless, where their Rumble encounter surpassed their summer effort was in Cena’s intermittent bursts of offended frustration at Styles’ temerity in continuously withstanding Cena’s very best offense; until, eventually, Cena looked to be unashamedly relishing his own malice. More than this, Cena completed the package with an apparent casual ease from the opening bell, acting as if this were but second nature to him in unusually arrogant fashion. In response, Styles was irritably passionate and, by the end, wrestling in a defensive game of survival. It was hypnotically intriguing for its peculiarity; whether these character inflections develop into longer term character change, however, remains to be seen.
I am a staunch WWE defender most of the time, but I also believe in calling situations as I see them, and Orton’s victory in the Rumble this year was as unnecessary as it was bizarre.
This is not to say I thought this year’s iteration of the Rumble was a bad one. Quite the contrary; for two years running now, I would say we have been provided a top ten effort of all time, and quite comfortably so. Just last week I wrote a column looking at the three key ingredients I believe a Rumble Match needs to truly succeed to the fullest: a solid iron man run; creative set pieces amidst the action; and clearly positioned characters on the roster. Though more-so in some cases than others, 2017 nonetheless delivered in all three of those categories. Further, never having been a fan of novelty entrants, I was pleased to see a focus on relevant roster members that are going to be around for WrestleMania season.
Of particular note for me, and I imagine many others, was Braun Strowman’s inspired presentation in what might just have been the best big man performance in Rumble lore. His eliminations were often aesthetically memorable, such as Kalisto’s or Big Show’s. His presence evoked character-driven action, such as Jericho’s attempt to run and hide and Zayn’s noble effort to fight from the knees up. His run made good use of pre-existing story, not only in the aforementioned case of Zayn but also in conjuring memories of James Ellsworth’s debut too. Most ingenious of all was the manner in which he remained the central focus for his entire stint in the ring in a tightly focussed way I cannot remember seeing before – for all the time Strowman was in the ring, not one competitor ever fought any other; everyone’s primary focus was on the Monster Among Men, as it should’ve been. It was, frankly, a run of destructive beauty, capped by a breathtaking elimination by a favourite of mine, Baron Corbin.
There were some disappointing anti-climaxes, such as yet another dismissive elimination of Ambrose, as well as some gross post-modernism, such as Kingston’s continued effort to find new ways to push the limits of the bout’s core stipulation, Gallagher’s Mary Poppins impression and Cesaro’s big swing-a-thon. Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed what I thought was a tremendously pieced together Rumble Match.
However, in something of a paradox, its overall quality was exactly the reason why I hated it as much as I loved it. Though the triad of titans that was Lesnar, Goldberg and Undertaker were deployed effectively, and contributed a great deal, they were, bluntly, not the reason this year’s Rumble was as good as it was. That distinction belongs to Strowman; to Ambrose and Zayn; to Corbin; to Harper and Wyatt; and, yes, albeit in a horribly cynical way, to Reigns. So why the hell can WWE not bring themselves to allow one of the current generation of stars, who collectively are responsible for the greatest run of pay-per-view quality in company history I might add, to win one of the biggest matches of their calendar year?
Orton may be better suited as the winner rather than his leader if this story transitions into a Wyatt dissension, but right now all I can see last Sunday as is an excellent Rumble Match tarnished by yet further non-committal treatment of the performers WWE will be relying on almost exclusively inside of the next half decade; and who, irritatingly, are in many cases better than those being favoured.
It is understandable to me that some fans will have come away from Sunday’s big show, not for the first time, frustrated and borderline offended. The way WWE used Reigns to heighten crowd investment because of his guaranteed rejection was cheap, cynical and utterly mean spirited. Reassuringly, upon a second watch, it didn’t feel quite as offensive as it did on the night, and it is difficult, because of the vocal but still willing crowd, not to be sucked into the “quasi-heel turn” moment of the Big Dog’s interaction with the Dead Man. Certainly, it was enough for me to be intrigued by what might develop between those two heavy hitters moving forward.
There won’t be much waiting to find out, of course, as now we turn to the Road to WrestleMania in earnest, and even if Royal Rumble 2017 seemed unwilling to commit to the current generation of talent, I am reassured by the fact that the most likely hypotheticals coming off of last Sunday at least exhibit what I believe to be the proper approach for the Grandest Stage of Them All, used so successfully in 2015: pairing younger talent off with older talent to create a show that benefits all.
Though I will remain paranoid about the main event until after Elimination Chamber has been and gone…
I will be back in a few days with my Watch of the Week, where I’ll be taking an in-depth look back at the phenomenal main event of Takeover: San Antonio. You can also hear more of my thoughts on the Royal Rumble and its fallout, as well as those of my countrymen, on this Friday’s The Right Side of the Pond, only on Lords of Pain Radio!
Until then, let me know if you agree or disagree with any of my thoughts on Royal Rumble 2017, and what you particularly liked and disliked about it!
Thanks for reading!
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