The 2014 Royal Rumble will be remembered for the horrible reception from WWE fans in the building and watching around the world. Batista, positioned as a conquering hero in his recent return, was summarily booed by the fans in Pittsburgh as he eliminated Roman Reigns to win the Rumble match. Rey Mysterio received a similar reaction when he entered 30th and made it clear that fan-favorite Daniel Bryan would not enter the Rumble match at all. Randy Orton defended the WWE World Heavyweight Title against John Cena in the blow-off match to their feud and the live crowd could not have been less interested- they chanted “boring” and “Daniel Bryan” throughout the workmanlike match. Above all, the booking appeared to demonstrate a disconnect between what most of the fans want to see and what WWE thought they wanted.
I prefer to take a wait-and-see approach with regard to booking. Bryan is red hot and there are certainly many ways for WWE to capitalize on his exclusion from the Rumble. He could work his way into a triple-threat main event at Wrestlemania or take on Undertaker in what would be a bigger match than a shot at the title. For that reason, I think it is too early to criticize WWE for the Wrestlemania card. At the same time, it is perfectly appropriate to criticize WWE for a lackluster Royal Rumble card. I do not know what Cena and Orton could have done in this iteration of their feud that would have entertained the fans who have seen them clash so often, and that shortcoming is purely the fault of the bookers who put them together again with no new wrinkles. The same can be said for Batista, who was inappropriately pushed as a face for the Royal Rumble when most fans apparently prefer to see the full-time, emerging wrestlers beat the big names who disappear to film movies. The fact that HHH friends like Batista, Randy Orton, Sheamus, and the New Age Outlaws were big winners of the night does not prove anything, but the show was a missed opportunity to take risks and think creatively.
Batista Won the Royal Rumble Match
This year’s Rumble match served as a reminder that the match struggles to live up to the fantasy booking dreams in fans’ minds. It checked off all of the necessary boxes that we have become accustomed to expect in a Rumble match. JBL and Kevin Nash served as the surprise Legends entrants and got the requisite pop for their short participation. Dolph Ziggler got a great reaction for his return from another concussion and Sheamus returned from injury to make a run into the final three in the match (although after about three minutes, it felt like Sheamus had never been away). El Torito served as comic relief after Los Matadores teased their own entrance. There were even several feuds that advanced due to non-decisive portions of the match.CM Punk entered first and lasted for most of the match until corporate Kane returned from his earlier elimination to take Punk out and put him through the Spanish announce table. Goldust planted the seeds for his likely feud with Cody Rhodes when he eliminated his half-brother after they lost the Tag Team Titles earlier in the night. Reigns took another step toward singles stardom as he responded to Dean Ambrose’s attempt to take him out with an elimination of both Shield teammates. He also totaled 12 eliminations for the evening to break Kane’s single Rumble record and win tremendous fan support when the match came down to only Batista and him.
The problem with the match is that all of these elements felt rote and uninspired. While Batista is the sort of big name with headlining experience that could be exciting, he looked and moved like a shell of himself and the fans reacted as such. The match had a disproportionate number of entrants who seemed to have zero chance of lasting near the end, let alone winning the Rumble match. Reigns’s run would have been a worthy consolation prize for the fans who wanted Bryan to win, but his runner-up finish seemed to push the clock back on yet another unique program that fans wanted to see. Bryan’s exclusion was the core of the problem. A huge majority of wrestling fans have united behind him for at least six months. His popularity survived the Dusty finishes over the summer because there was a light at the end of the tunnel and his work remained exceptional. Whether fans will continue to follow Bryan’s pursuit after he was not even given a chance at the Rumble is a fair question to ask. The AWA eventually lost popularity when overwhelming fan support failed to earn a young Hulk Hogan the payoff over champion Nick Bockwinkel. The environment of wrestling is very different today, but I struggle to understand the underlying reason to keep Bryan out of the match entirely.
Randy Orton def. John Cena to Retain the WWE World Heavyweight Title
I do not blame Cena and Orton for their uninspired title match. It was clear for weeks that they were given no new material for this program and merely had to rehash a feud that has repeated itself numerous times over the last five years. A slow start to this edition of the rivalry caused many of the fans to turn on the program altogether and chant against both Cena and Orton. Early on, Cena struggled to string together much offense as Orton came up with counters to most of Cena’s moves. The match eventually gained some traction as a spot-fest in which both wrestlers tried to use the other’s finishing moves to earn the victory. Orton hit an AA and locked Cena in a version of the STF (while neither wrestler actually executes the crossface portion of the STF, at least Orton’s choke version looked more painful than when Cena rubs his forearms against his opponent’s cheeks). Cena hit an RKO that got him one of 29 total two-counts in the match. Orton dialed up the intensity and went for the punt as Cena stood up, but Cena ducked and finally got Orton in the STF after multiple failed attempts. Orton got to the ropes and a ref bump was the only thing that saved him from a loss when he tapped out in another STF. He was locked in the hold yet again and looked to be near submission when the lights went out and the Wyatt Family surrounded the ring. The distraction let Orton hit an RKO on Cena to win the match and retain his title. After the win, the Wyatt Family went after Cena in what appeared to be the opening salvo of what is likely to be Cena’s Wrestlemania feud. The match was not bad, but I am not a fan of the “finisher, two-count, repeat” style and the loss of the crowd took away from the atmosphere. Then again, it is hard to imagine what more Cena and Orton could have done in the circumstances.
Brock Lesnar def. Big Show
No one should have expected a wrestling classic between Lesnar and Big Show, and for those who wanted a few memorably big spots, the match lived up to expectations. Lesnar went after Big Show before the bell rang and started the beating. He took him down and hit him with a series of brutal chair shots that made most of my viewing party wonder if someone forgot to tell Lesnar that the match is a work. When Big Show finally got to his feet and the bell sounded, Lesnar charged at him with the chair again and was met with a thunderous KO punch. Big Show took some time to gather himself before he could cover Lesnar and the delay allowed Lesnar to kick out at two. The rest of the match was simply more brutal chair shots by Lesnar insomuch that he ruined two chairs and had to get new ones to continue the beating. He finally finished Big Show off with an F5 that demonstrated that he can, in fact, lift the mass of dead weight in Big Show’s singlet. After the victory, he returned for even more chair shots with a convincingly crazed look in his eyes while Big Show looked to be in serious pain and earned himself several audio drops while he cursed on air. I thought the match was very well written because it persuasively conveyed the notion that Lesnar and Big Show have personal animus and that Lesnar is capable of a great deal of violence when provoked. Even if the match does not show up on any lists of mat classics (the actual match lasted all of two minutes), it told the story it set out to tell.
Bray Wyatt def. Daniel Bryan
The show’s first match was so good that it made everything that came after it pale in comparison. The work that Bryan did with Wyatt set the bar high enough that it likely played a major role in the fans’ collective disinterest with the lesser performances later in the show. Bryan came out very strong with a variety of kicks to work over Wyatt’s left leg. He came off the ropes with a knee to Wyatt’s thigh that looked truly painful. Luke Harper and Erick Rowan tried to help Wyatt turn the tide and the referee banished them from ringside. Wyatt managed to get in control and started to work on Bryan’s head with creative moves to call back to the reported concussion Bryan suffered when they fought in a cage two weeks ago. Bryan stayed with that theme and favored his head throughout the match and even altered his flying headbutt to a flying splash to avoid more damage to the head. Wyatt rebounded with a huge clothesline and set up for Sister Abigail’s Kiss, but Bryan countered to put on the Yes Lock. He could not cinch the hold in, though, because Wyatt bit his arm to force him to release it. Bryan set up for the running knee and Wyatt rolled out of the ring. When Bryan tried a suicide dive, Wyatt side-stepped it and picked up Bryan to hit a devastating Sister Abigail’s Kiss into the barricade. Even though Wyatt had to drag Bryan back into the ring, the impact of the move was so great that it was no surprise that it earned him a three count. The match was great from a technical perspective. It told multiple stories- the body parts that each wrestler worked over and Wyatt’s proclamation of the futility of the fan support. Bryan deserves credit because he helped get Wyatt over in a way that many main event stars would not allow. It is only too bad that he infrequently receives the same courtesy.
New Age Outlaws def. Rhodes Brothers to Become Tag Team Champions
Once again, the Outlaws worked at a pace and effectiveness that belies their advanced age. Goldust did his share of the work for his team and the match went back and forth for several minutes. Cody Rhodes appeared to swing the momentum in his favor and set up Road Dogg for a Disaster Kick. Although the kick connected, Billy Gunn blindly tagged in as Road Dogg came off the ropes and hit Rhodes with the Fameasser as he got up from the Disaster Kick. Gunn covered Rhodes to win the match and make the Outlaws six time tag team champions. While I admire the fact that the Outlaws can still work as well as they can and I acknowledge that they have received a good reaction, I would prefer to see one of the various other deserving tag teams (Wyatt Family, Real Americans, Rybaxel) as the transitional heel champions who beat the Rhodes Brothers.