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Posted in: Just Business
Just Business: Royal Rumble 2018 - The Performance Art Review
By Samuel 'Plan
Jan 31, 2018 - 4:44:44 AM

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Just Business: Royal Rumble 2018 - The Performance Art Review


2017 was a tough year to be a WWE fan. It was the kind of annus horribilis that makes you question more frequently than is normal why it is you remain a staunch and loyal viewer of their product.

Royal Rumble 2018, however, was the kind of pay-per-view that makes you question why you ever doubted your fandom in the first place.

Talk about getting things right, outside of the Universal Championship Triple Threat Match – which is disqualified from being covered here because of it being so heavily based upon a part time talent I refuse to spend column inches discussing – everything on the show clicked; and only improved further upon a second viewing.

There’s so much to discuss regarding the depth of last Sunday’s success that I’ll be splitting this Performance Art Review in two, with the second half landing on Friday in my regular The Preview Side of the Pond column.

For now, though, my name is Samuel ‘Plan and this is the first half of the Performance Art Review of Royal Rumble 2018.

Women’s Wrestling Proves Itself to Be More Than a Marketing Slogan

Headlines since last Sunday have been dominated by the arrival of Ronda Rousey in WWE, and it is perfectly understandable why the likes of Nikki Bella, Nia Jax and Sasha Banks have demonstrated a degree of resentment of that fact. The accomplishment of the 30 women involved in the first ever all women’s Royal Rumble Match some days ago cannot be overstated enough - the entirety of their first swing at the long-term WWE cornerstone was an hour long demonstration in precision creative judgement we see all too rarely in WWE’s product.

As a fan base, we knew that simple logistical demand was going to ensure a prevalence of the so-called novelty entrant; after all, even with every active female competitor on the roster not holding a championship being entered into the fray, there remained a notable number of blank spots to fill. In the end, WWE turned to their female legends to fill the majority of those spots, and understandably so. This Rumble Match currently sits as the absolute peak of what WWE now refer to as ‘the women’s evolution’ and thus treating it as a celebratory parade of the most notable names in the company’s lore seemed fitting.

As was the case in 2012, there was a danger such reliance on novelty could come to suffocate the rest of the match. Thankfully, because WWE were firing on all cylinders last Sunday, this was not the case. Not all of those who turned up were necessarily renowned for their ring acumen, but the deployment of every legendary name was appropriately relative to their ability in the ring, ensuring any real disaster was comfortably avoided. Vickie Guerrero was excellently used as comic relief while Torrie Wilson, Kelly Kelly and Brie Bella were confined to respectful cameos. More capable names like Lita, Molly Holly, Michelle McCool and Trish Stratus were allowed fuller involvement, and the latter two in particular more than held up their end of the bargain.

It would be grossly unfair to claim that the match relied on its novelty factor to succeed, however. Indeed, to simply refer to the use of the legends who appeared as ‘novelty entrants’ even feels somewhat unfair in this instance. This is because the first ever Women’s Royal Rumble Match was built effectively not on the back of nostalgia, but of established continuity, both fictional and factual. Its embrace of continuity is, in actual fact, deceptively dense, providing the beating heart of the bout’s most memorable and outstanding moments.

It stretched into the distant past, with a welcome revisit of the infamous Trish vs. Mickie feud from 2006 – which for years boasted the greatest women’s match in WrestleMania history as its crowning achievement – as well as the friendship once fostered between Vickie Guerrero and Michelle McCool. So too did it cast its eye over the recent past, and its promise to shape the future; the confrontation between Ember Moon and Asuka referred back to their storied issues from NXT that you can bet will one day foster a main roster feud too. Famously iconic storylines from the women’s division were given reference in the form of Sasha Banks betraying Bayley to elimination; storylines that were fashioned during the days the Women’s Revolution was first emerging were given reference in the form of Nikki Bella once again betraying her sister Brie as she once did at Summerslam 2014; even the most obscure elements of how WWE’s women got to where they are today were referenced, with commentary recognising Kelly Kelly as Naomi’s former Pro in the first incarnation of NXT.

Alongside this awareness of continuity, it was the character work that exploded into life upon Nia Jax’s game changing emergence in the number 22 spot that really propelled the match to success. Everything after that point took on a life of its own, demonstrating the same vibrant sense of shared universe and character-driven action that so greatly benefitted the male roster earlier in the night.

Jax was presented in suitable accordance with her nickname – the Irresistible Force – by immediately dominating the field; but her zeal to demonstrate her power would prove her undoing, preventing her from ensuring the elimination of those she tossed aside. Thus, eventually, she would find herself eliminated through the assembled traits of her opposition. The guile of Stratus’s experience, the prowess of Asuka’s martial skill and the opportunistic cunning of the Bella Twins would see the Irresistible Force, just this once, successfully resisted.

This was after the rebirth of Beth Phoenix from the ashes of yesteryear proved outrageously effective, as the powerhouse of yesterday felt briefly like the only hope we had of seeing Nia Jax derailed on her rampage towards WrestleMania. Reunified with her fellow Diva of Doom Natalya, the two renowned best friends were at least able to slow down Jax’s riotous momentum, until the resentful ambition of the veteran Queen of All Black Hearts got the better of her, throwing Beth to the outside in a moment of vainglorious ego.

Carmella, whose own opportunism is born from cowardice than from anything other, had an excellent evening too. She screamed in flight away from the Empress of Tomorrow thanks to her spineless disposition, and the same panicked screaming rose above the action’s clamour whenever someone came close to tipping her out of the ring. Nor was she averse to jumping other competitors from behind when they least expected it; such ‘Pearl Harbour Jobs’, as Gorilla Monsoon would call them, proved a hallmark of her time in the ring.

Quite the opposite of Carmella’s cowardice was the plucky fighting spirit of the NXT Women’s Champion Ember Moon, who introduced herself to the generation of women who fought the canvas wars ahead of her like a dangerous one-armed ronin, utterly unafraid of taking the fight to the most presumptive of her forerunners in spite of her telegraphed handicap. Alas, it was her very inability to temper her steel that saw her run afoul once again of old nemesis Asuka, fuelling further the fire of their future fight.

Then there was Sasha Banks. If anyone other than Beth deserved to be called Phoenix last Sunday, it was Sasha. The Boss seemingly awoke fresh from a two year slumber the moment she tossed best friend Bayley from the ring in unapologetic fashion, to the shock of fellow Horsewoman Charlotte who watched on from ringside. That same cut-throat attitude saw The Boss slap the legendary Trish Stratus in the mouth when Stratus had the audacity to taunt her signature pose, before successfully eliminating the most prolific Women’s Champion of all time. It became quickly apparent, as the noose of the Rumble tightened around the necks of those remaining, that The Boss had risen again to make a statement; bad news for her fellow survivors. Even the notable stage presence and legitimate threat posed by Asuka failed to deter Banks, who quickly masterminded a coalition with the Bella Twins and ring-led them to domination over the Empress of Tomorrow. Sadly for Banks, she underestimated the gold-digging cunning of the Bellas to her own misfortune.

From there, the match sprinted to its unique and original conclusion. Bella, in retrospect rather foolishly, betrayed Bella, before Asuka used her war guile to outmanoeuvre her remaining obstacle, Nikki Bella, and emerge the winner on the back of what was already a frightfully charismatic performance for the new number one contender. From mocking Ember Moon and Sasha Banks to surviving the final three on one assault, Asuka was sure to demonstrate that, not only was she the sensible choice to win the first ever Women’s Royal Rumble Match, but that she was a deserving choice too.

In the end, though the majority of the action throughout most of the Women’s Royal Rumble Match last Sunday was kept simple, and though legends and NXT cameos were needed to meet the 30 woman quota that tradition demanded, every woman involved in the match can proudly call themselves a part of a genuinely impressive achievement, both in historic terms and in creative terms. It more than deserves a spot among the pantheon of Rumble Matches that are littered throughout WWE’s modern history, and spoke to why the time might be near to let these women loose on a show of their own. There’s just too much talent to focus only on one title feud at a time.

I Got My Royal Rumble Back

I wrote a column some weeks ago, the message of which was clear and simple: I wanted my Royal Rumble Match back. It is with a beaming smile I can say that I got my Royal Rumble Match back.

While a first viewing left me feeling cautious about over-rating its actual quality, under the belief that the refreshing focus on contemporary talent might be misleading, my traditional second watch revealed quite the opposite. If anything, I’m not sure it’s receiving the plaudits it deserves as the absolute masterpiece it was. Although we will have to wait another year to discover whether Shinsuke Nakamura’s victory at the end of a tense, highly self-aware conclusion is the start of a new trend or a begrudging one off, for now we should revel in the encouraging signs and recognise that, if this is the start of a new trend, then 2018’s Men’s Royal Rumble Match might have been the most important since Ric Flair’s iconic victory back in 1992, when the match itself came of age.

The key theme, of course, was the battle between generations. This erupted in volcanic fashion in a thoroughly Reality Era inspired conclusion, between Nakamura, Finn Bálor and Roman Reigns on one side of the line in the sand and John Cena, Randy Orton and Rey Mysterio on the other. This was not a sudden injection of theme saved for the big climax, though; it was the boiling over of a theme that had simmered just underneath the surface of the action up to that point, stretching almost as far back as the very beginning of the bout.

During his time in NXT, Baron Corbin engaged in a brief, generationally themed big man feud with Rhyno; the destruction machine of a new generation meeting the destruction machine of the past. That history was revisited here, in the first ten minutes of the action. What’s more, Corbin’s very status as the destruction machine of today was further underlined following his elimination when he tore through the competitors still legally in the match, in what felt like a refreshingly re-imagined new trope for the Rumble Match sub-genre.

Andrade Cien Almas stood in representation of the second wave of contemporary talent currently making waves in NXT, following up what many are calling an instant all-time classic the night before with a notable 30 minute run in the Rumble itself. Though some might find his elimination at the hands of Randy Orton a galling set back, it is worth considering that his elimination was, in itself, reserved for a top name at the end of a prolonged iron man run. That counts for something.

Nor did Almas have an uneventful run. His elimination of Kofi Kingston was, in part, yet another representation of the generational shift that beat at the heart of the match. Some might feel disappointed that the New Day didn’t get a more impressive showing, being eliminated in part by Almas and, in greater part, by Jinder Mahal. I felt deflated myself; until I came to realise that it was a signal. The New Day is no longer the act who deserves to get a ‘Name elimination;’ they are the ‘Name elimination.’ Mahal and Almas throwing out Xavier Woods, Big E and Kingston was a big moment for them, indicating just how unstoppable the new generation of talent’s march towards tomorrow has now become considering that New Day occupied the role, in that moment, that the likes of a Michaels or an Undertaker, or a Cena or an Orton might have occupied anywhere up to ten years ago.

I found John Cena’s evening notable long before his quasi-villainous turn in the final six, because of how it too played into the over-arching theme. His entrance was reminiscent of his stint in 2013; the last time he was victorious and, many would argue, victorious out of his time. In that year, he emerged to an army of assembled mid card heels of much lesser star power than his own, who quickly teamed up on him. This time, however, he emerged to an army of assembled contemporary names who either currently occupy, or seem one day bound to occupy the main event, and who, as before, quickly teamed up on him; and while Cena would claim a pair of eliminations for himself in swift fashion, gone was the jarring, overbearing nature of his more dominant introduction five years prior. In fact the only talent you could genuinely say he truly dominated was the novelty entrant The Hurricane, and his recently emergent nemesis Elias; and I have the feeling the latter is leading to a greater pay-off.

Most telling of all, however, was John Cena being quickly tossed aside with a single right hand punch from Roman Reigns when the Big Dog entered at number 28. It’s hard to imagine such a moment having happened in 2013.

Like the women’s own match later that night, the generational theme was further supported by a lavish amount of character work that framed the entire Royal Rumble Match as a colourful explosion of shared universe storytelling. From Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens assaulting Tye Dillinger and Zayn inserting himself into the Rumble at the expense of his so-called friend, to The Miz going straight after Seth Rollins - who Curb Stomped him after RAW 25 went off-air – and John Cena – with whom his history is storied; from Reigns eliminating Rollins in a further demonstration of their diverging yet intertwined destinies, to the self-importance and ultimately ineffective outing of a returning Dolph Ziggler; from the singular, pyrrhic focus of Woken Matt Hardy and Bray Wyatt leading to mutual elimination, right down to Heath Slater fighting his way through recurring assaults to land an impressive elimination, furthering his own small story of learning how to toughen up; in every single nook and cranny the 2018 Royal Rumble Match teemed with characterful life, to such degree it felt more immersive than any Rumble I’ve watched live since 2009.

That would have been enough to warrant lauding its quality alone; that it coupled such achievements in tandem with a raft of original creative thought helped only all the more. The Hardy / Wyatt interaction was inevitable; that they would briefly team up before eliminating one another was fresh. That Kingston would again avoid elimination was inevitable; that the most impressive part would be less the manner of his survival and more the manner of his return (that incredible vertical jump!) felt fresh. That Owens and Zayn wouldn’t take their earlier loss lying down, thus leading to shenanigans, was inevitable; that it would be Zayn, not the bigger star of Owens, who would go on to compete in the Rumble felt fresh.

No single idea overplayed its hand either. I had fears that the refrain of Slater being attacked on the outside would be stretched out far too long, if not to a comedy ending like that in 2011; instead, it was ended just at the right time, with a fitting emotional pay-off. The same could be said for Corbin’s violent reprisals; the Kingston spot; the Ziggler return; the duration of every set piece was so perfectly timed in length that the match never stalled, moving along at a brisk pace in spite of its dense content.

This was not how I felt about the prolonged conclusion on first watch. That, I did feel was drawn out. In retrospect, I know now I felt that way only because of my inability to shake the paranoia of a Reigns / Cena finish. Upon second viewing, and the ability to more dispassionately appreciate the creative tour de force that was the Final Six and, more importantly, Final Four, I could find only room to praise it too.

It’s drawn out nature plays heavily in its favour. Bálor’s longevity coupled with his being the first of the Final Four eliminated is a clear signal that we had now entered true war of attrition territory; the stage of the contest where only those with the deepest reserves can survive. Had Finn been in Demon form, maybe he might have done. Once Cena is then eliminated, the final confrontation between Nakamura and Reigns feels less like an awkward attempt to relive the success of Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker in 2007 – the likes of which has been attempted multiple times in previous Rumbles, all too inadequately – but more a justified throw-down between two of the very best in the world. Just watch the immensely immersive camera work after Cena is thrown out; the shot across Reigns’ shoulder to a Nakamura rising from all fours like a predator; the cut to a surprised Reigns, unaccustomed to the man who now presents his final obstacle; it’s a brand new confrontation we’d never once seen before, ever, and an electrifying moment, truly.

Further, it is in the overall conclusion I find reason to call it potentially the most important Royal Rumble since 1992; not just in its winner.

The ending to last Sunday’s Men’s Rumble was intensely self-aware, and unafraid to play on recent fan sentiment. The generational themes are clear during the Final Six - it stands as a striking metaphor for the controversies of 2016 and 2017 specifically, and the manner in which a veteran star unnecessarily emerged victorious at the expense of a more popular, far more contemporary talent. That ultimately each of the three vets is eliminated by a different member of the three remaining contemporary stars here thus reads as an undeniable indicator that, finally, WWE might be prepared to embrace its future alongside us.

What I have seen less appreciation for is how this then transforms into a Final Four that stands as comment on the controversies of 2014 and 2015; and, perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, of 2013 too. Separating Reigns and Cena apart from Bálor and Nakamura felt like a deliberate representation of how the desires of the fans and the intentions of the company have, in their clashing friction, torn recent past Rumbles apart at the seams. It is that metaphor that then drives the final climax, and, just as in the Final Six, it is a fan favourite in Nakamura who eliminates the anointed corporate golden boys in Cena and Reigns.

Hence, if this masterpiece of performance art comes, in 2019, to act as a gateway to a future we have all now been waiting for far too long for, while at the same time having actively worked to metaphorically apologise for the darkest hours in Royal Rumble’s own history, all the while having focussed on contemporary talents and presented veteran and part time talents as increasingly out of their depth, it might prove to have been the most important Royal Rumble Match since 1992; if not, quite possibly, of all time.

For now, though, regardless of any grander historical role – regardless as to whether it is the most important of its kind for two and a half decades, or whether it is an early signal that the Renaissance Era is on the verge of a maturation point – it is enough to simply call it a powerhouse creative achievement, and a return of the kind of Royal Rumble Match we have all been waiting to see again for the last five years.

So to quote my favourite wrestler Seth Rollins: “Welcome back, old friend.”

In Closing

Thank you for sticking with this bumper Review, kind reader. Believe it or not, I do still have more thoughts to share and you can check those out in my Friday night The Preview Side of the Pond column, as well as on LOP Radio’s Friday night podcast The Right Side of the Pond!

Until then, please do share with me your thoughts on last Sunday’s two Royal Rumble Matches and how you have come to feel about them over the course of the last half a week in the comments below, over on social media or even by signing up to our own LOPForums; just click here to sign up!

LOPForums’ Columns Forum has seen a recent injection of new signees all try their hands at their first columns. There’s a whole load of potential on show, and you can come join in too! If you’ve got thoughts and feelings to share on any kind of pro wrestling that social media or the like simply won’t do in sharing, sign up to our Forum and work to become LOP’s next great contributor! Just click here to sign up: Sign up to the Columns Forum!

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