As everybody who’s ever watched WWE television can tell you, the Royal Rumble marks the beginning of the road to WrestleMania. In a more abstract sense, the road starts with the first booking rumors, which usually begin trickling out soon after the previous year’s event. And for WWE, the road never ends — one year’s Mania leads to the next in a never-ending cycle of money maximization. But for now, let’s take the WWE at its word — that WrestleMania season starts Sunday, at the Rumble.
It’s true in the most straightforward sense — that the story lines that will carry through to Mania are set into motion (or, if previously established, are codified). Sunday night will feature matches for both the WWE championship and the Universal championship — the winner of each presumed to carry the title into WrestleMania — and in the namesake bout of the evening, 30 men will enter the ring to try to win the Rumble and a one-way ticket into one of those title matches.
The pitch is, in pro wrestling terms, perfect: Anything can happen, and anyone can earn their way into the main event on the biggest night of the year. But even if wrestling is a loose meritocracy, where performers vie for the crowd’s endorsement, they still depend on management to decide to put them on top. And so it goes for the Rumble: Thirty men enter, one man leaves, but only a couple really had a chance in the first place. Of the 22 announced wrestlers, the only men slated for the Rumble who will walk in Sunday with betting odds in their favor are Braun Strowman, the Undertaker, and maybe the Miz. Then there are the wild cards, the fellas who’ll fill out the eight remaining spots in the match — the avenging title match losers, the surprise entries, a stray Seth Rollins or two.
Thirty men enter, each entry position is a surprise, and the uncertainties are plentiful: It’s everything great about pro wrestling distilled to its most carnal form — except, of course, for the wrestling. So what if the outcome usually looks obvious in the rearview mirror? Right now, on the precipice of the event, anything seems possible. So again, let’s take WWE at its word and embrace that hope, that sense of endless possibility. After all, Triple H recently said that "I can see this year going a lot of different ways and I think it’s going to go in a way that nobody expects." Let’s look at everybody who’s going to be in the match and plot their path forward to the WrestleMania main event.
He won a mini-Rumble on Tuesday night to earn entry into Sunday’s match. He’s beloved by WWE (if for nothing else than his upbeat attitude and his connections) and his tag-team partner is out indefinitely, so why not give him a push now and really shock everybody? That would certainly live up to Triple H’s, um, hype. Imagine this: Rawley comes in at no. 30, as Undertaker and Strowman are facing off, the crowd boos lustily, only to have their jeers turn to cheers when the two monsters try to toss Mojo and end up double-eliminating themselves. Mojo takes on Cena for the WWE title at Mania with Rob Gronkowski in his corner — only to have Gronk rip off his Zubaz to reveal jorts and join Team Cena, costing Mojo the belt.
Rusev has simultaneously been one of the most valuable and most infuriatingly booked wrestlers in WWE over the past year. From the hapless League of Nations, to holding down the United States title and valiantly re-elevating Roman Reigns after his suspension, to a comedy beef against Enzo and Big Cass. He can do anything, and so WWE hasn’t given him much really good to do. But it wouldn’t be hard to push him back to the top of the card — with his wife, Lana, and his buddy Jinder Mahal helping to pull strings, it wouldn’t take much to reignite a feud with Reigns (or Cena) … or better yet, Kevin Owens. Those two going at it in the main event of Mania might give Vince McMahon an aneurysm, but that tension would keep fans on the edge of their seats from now until April.
This one’s easy. Reigns fails another Wellness Policy test on Sunday, Owens keeps the belt and, left without a Fabioesque babyface to ram down our throats, Vince says, "Fuck it, let’s go with the big blond kid." We get Cass as Diesel 2.0 facing off against Owens on the big stage, and the WWE’s youth movement gets even younger (and taller, and blonder, and tanner). And then all of us smarks who go crazy every time Enzo and Cass cut a promo can start hating Cass for being Cena 3.0, and all will be right with the world.
Zayn is a main-event angle ready to happen — WWE just has to pull the trigger. Sure, WWE would be better off letting him build organically for another year or so, but if the company wants to do it now, why not? Triple H intervenes in the Universal title match to free Chris Jericho from the shark cage and help Owens before Rollins and Zayn come out to even the odds. Triple H waves to the back and Strowman shockingly comes to his aid, allowing Owens to keep the belt. In the Rumble, Owens comes out to get a cheap shot in on Zayn, but Zayn lays him out. When he gets back into the ring, it’s just him and Strowman, and he tosses the big guy, avenging his loss from Raw and setting him on course to face his old pal Owens at Mania. After that, it’s easy: Zayn plays the Daniel Bryan role of the Authority-unapproved underdog. (Phase 2 is the WWE firing him and a mysterious masked wrestler coming from Mexico to take Zayn’s place.)
Reigns beats Owens due to Jericho’s failed interference, starting the inevitable Owens-Jericho feud. Strowman gets paired off with Taker, and suddenly Reigns needs a big monster to overcome. Who better than the newly bearded and slimmed-down Big Show, who’s theoretically slated to face Shaquille O’Neal at Mania, but for the sake of fantasy booking, let’s say Shaq pulls a quad learning to run the ropes. Roman overcomes all odds and beats Show in the Mania main event, and Big Show turns face again the next night on Raw.
Bray Wyatt, Randy Orton, and Luke Harper
At the moment, these three are tied up in an interpersonal cult conflict — Wyatt and his longtime acolyte Harper recruited Orton to join their Family, they got the tag titles, they lost the tag titles, and now Orton and Harper are competing for Bray’s affection. Imagine, though, that they keep their issues at bay for the Rumble, work together to eliminate the field, then, just as it seems like they’re about to come to blows over who gets to win, they all embrace, and Orton and Harper self-eliminate, setting up Cena-Wyatt at WrestleMania. (Alternately: Wyatt and Harper let Orton win, or, maybe most dramatically, Wyatt and Orton let Harper win.) (I’m talking myself into some version of this.) (WWE creative, if you’re out there, you can have it.)
Sheamus and Cesaro
First, they lose the tag titles to the Club in the pre-show, leading Sheamus and Cesaro to start fighting and reignite the slobberknocking rivalry that led to their teaming up in the first place. They fight backstage, and between every match we see Handycam footage of them fighting in the locker room, craft services, the parking lot. Then they’re announced as the first two slots in the Rumble, where the men brawl through the entire match, oblivious to the other wrestlers in the ring. Finally at the end, it’s just them and Strowman, and when they realize it, they find a last vestige of teamwork and use it to toss Braun to the outside. Then they exchange stiff forearms for a minute and Cesaro tosses Sheamus, or vice versa, and the winner gets Reigns at Mania, with the loser joining Team Reigns as an enforcer.
This one’s easy: Ambrose — former WWE champ and current Intercontinental belt-holder — lasts till the end and wins. He’s a top-tier guy, and the only thing hampering his odds are the IC title and the seemingly impending feud with Baron Corbin. But when WWE needed someone to step into the spotlight over the summer, it called on Ambrose. When it needed someone to anchor the new Smackdown brand, it called on Ambrose. If the brass decides they need to spice up the WrestleMania picture, why not have Ambrose win and cut a worked-shoot promo for the ages: "Vince, I did everything you wanted me to do. I made your title mean something when Roman dropped the ball. I made Smackdown matter when the USA Network was breathing down your throat. I got AJ Styles over. Hell, I got James Ellsworth over. But I’m done being a good little soldier. This brand split? It doesn’t mean a thing to me. You think you can send me to Tuesdays and replace the belt that I made with that silly red thing? Fine, I’ll take that one, too, before Roman drops the ball again. Roman? It’s me and you at Mania, brother."
Ziggler is going through a sort of anti-renaissance at the moment; he’s finally turning heel — his natural state — after years of treading water as an aimless fan favorite, but he’s taken several steps back, from feuds with the Miz and AJ Styles to Kalisto and Apollo Crews. It’s refreshing to see him evolve, but it would be nice if he were doing it in a segment that actually meant something. A Rumble win could be a shocker and a validation of his turn. Let’s say Cena wins early in the night, and after the other big names (Brock Lesnar and Goldberg, Taker and Strowman) eliminate each other, the Rumble comes down to Ziggler and a debuting Samoa Joe (more on him later). Fans will be roughly 97 percent pro-Joe — he’s the exciting surprise, and we’re used to seeing Ziggler as the patsy in these situations. But Ziggler backflips out of a Muscle Buster and superkicks Joe out of the ring. The crowd turns on Dolph — finally — and Ziggler’s ascent to top heel on Smackdown is complete.
If the Miz were anybody other than the Miz, booking him to win the Rumble and take on John Cena for the WWE championship at WrestleMania would be a borderline no-brainer — he’s grown from a bit player to a legitimate heel anchor on Smackdown, and absolutely thrived in every moment of screen time he was given over the past year. But then again, it’s the Miz, who actually headlined WrestleMania XXVII against Cena — and won, with an assist from the Rock. Which sounds great, but he was indisputably the third wheel in the looming Cena-Rock feud, and his reign in general is widely considered one of the lamest in recent history. To put him back in that same spotlight might jinx his renaissance — but what the hell, let’s run with it. The final three are Miz, Taker, and Strowman. Taker tosses Strowman, Miz sneaks in and hits the Skull-Crushing Finale on Taker, and Strowman clambers up to the apron to help Miz toss Taker out. Miz goes to Mania on a campaign to reclaim the spotlight that Cena and the Rock shoved him out of.
Corbin’s route is basically Big Cass’s, except on the Smackdown brand and with bad tattoos. Cena beats AJ for the belt, and with all of the Smackdown headliners feeling tired, Vince decides to go with the new blood. Corbin wins, and it’s so plainly a bad decision that they write James Ellsworth into the story line to try to save it.
Kofi Kingston, Big E, and Xavier Woods
The New Day are ready to spread their wings and be more than just a (three-man) tag team. The problem is, they’re more than the sum of their parts, and there’s no such thing as three men using Freebird Rules to share a singles title. (Yet!) Splitting them up would be crazy (even though in wrestling logic it’s practically inevitable), so I say keep them together, with two running interference for whoever wins. Big E is the obvious choice, Kofi is the safe choice, and Woods is the intriguing choice. A month of skits of Kofi and Big E training Xavier, Rocky-style, in preparation for his big match would be a joy. And the promos they could cut on Roman Reigns would be even better if they let the New Day edge back toward their heelish proclivities. Reigns overcoming all odds is a boring story at this point, but if those odds are three wrestlers we all care about, well, that’s at least a little more interesting.
Conventional wisdom has it that Kevin Owens will lose the Universal title to Reigns and feud with his current BFF Jericho over the latter’s U.S. championship. But why not have Jericho somehow get out of the shark cage he’ll be in during the title match, help Owens retain the title, and then miraculously win the Rumble? Owens can spend the next few weeks trying to talk Jericho into challenging for the Smackdown belt, leading to an announcement ceremony in which Jericho reveals the last name on the last page of the List of Jericho: Kevin Owens. Owens loses it, regaining the brutal streak he made his name with, and Jericho gets a last run at the title before he retires. (Who am I kidding? Jericho’s got another 20 years left in him.)
He’s a linchpin in half of my endgame scenarios, and with good reason: WWE has managed to build him into its most fully formed and entertaining monster since Kane. He’s helped himself by exceeding the expectations that Kane-like monsters typically have; he’s not, we assume, ever going to be forced upon us as long-term champ like Cena or Reigns. But at the rate he’s progressing, WWE would be silly not to give him a shot at the title. Rumors have had him facing off against Reigns at Mania for a while now; if he wins the Rumble and Reigns beats Owens, it’s simple math. The only question is who wins. Most assume he’s being built up as Roman fodder, an Umaga to Reigns’s Cena, but I’ll take the path Dan St. Germain proposed on my podcast last week — Strowman squashes Reigns. Ideally it’ll be the redemptive beating Reigns needs to get a fresh start with the fans. At a minimum, it’ll make the smark-filled WrestleMania crowd go crazy.
This one’s been rumored on and off for the past several months, so it’s easy to imagine Taker outlasting the field and going on to face Reigns or Cena or AJ Styles at WrestleMania. A title vs. career showdown against Cena would have a big-match feel, and Taker-Roman might be the most fun option for the inevitable Reigns main event. (Taker-Owens would be better, but that’s a whole other level of fantasy.) I’d personally like to see a triple-threat between Cena, Taker, and AJ — thus eliminating the obviousness of the finish, presuming Taker’s taking the pin in what might be his last match. But if we’re giving Taker a last run at the title, why not go all in? Have him win the Rumble, challenge Reigns (or Owens), then show up at next month’s Elimination Chamber and win the Smackdown title, making the Mania main event a title-vs.-title match, which Taker wins, because he deserves it.
Brock Lesnar and Goldberg
Again, conventional wisdom says that these two are facing off at Mania, a fulfillment of the brief tease of a match they had at Survivor Series. Odds are they’ll eliminate each other and brawl all the way to WrestleMania. At this point Goldberg is too old and Lesnar’s too erratic to hand them the belt, but Vince has made stranger calls in the past. (Like, well, making Lesnar the champ in 2014.) If WWE wanted to go down that path, the story writes itself. Have them as the last two left in the match. Milk the stare-down for as long as humanly possible, then have Goldberg spear and jackhammer Lesnar just like he did at Survivor Series, then toss him out and go on to face Reigns at Mania in a torch-passing, battle-of-the-spears-and-goatees schmozz of the century. Same thing for Lesnar: He gets his rub back from Goldberg by suplexing him 10 times and tossing him out of the ring. In this fantasy I’d have Owens retain the title, because Owens wants it, and as usual, he’s right. It would be a hell of a match.
Roman Reigns, Kevin Owens, John Cena, and AJ Styles
If the title matches go on before the Rumble (and they should, because the crowd is exhausted and overstimulated by the end of the Rumble), the loser is a safe bet to enter the 30-man match to try to reclaim his place in the spotlight. In any of these cases, their odds are slim if for no other reason than WWE’s aversion to repetition at WrestleMania. As poetic an ending as it would be to the Cena-Styles feud to have them tear the roof off on Sunday and then segue right into a WrestleMania rematch, I don’t foresee a rerun. Instead, if any of these four won the Rumble, let the crowd sigh with ennui and the announcers boom about the WrestleMania rematch, only for the winner to grab the mic and say: "I’m tired of fighting for belts. I want to fight for my legacy. Undertaker, I’m calling you out."
Seth Rollins and Triple H
I don’t need to add a spoiler alert before I say that WWE is angling toward a Rollins–Triple H match at Mania — the company has been projecting it for months, and on Monday night, Triple H’s music hit during a Rollins-Zayn match, distracting Rollins and costing him the win along with his spot in the Rumble. So the odds of either of them winning are vanishingly small, even if WWE finds a way to insert them into the match. Unless … Triple H is a surprise entry at, say, no. 25, followed immediately by Rollins. One of them wins, the other one manages to swipe the Universal title from Owens/Reigns between now and Mania, and voila. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but WWE putting its top title in one of its top feuds has a certain marketer’s logic to it.
Shinsuke Nakamura and Samoa Joe
If WWE really wants to shake things up — if Triple H’s "something nobody expects" is taken to its furthest possibility — these are the two best options WWE has. They’ve been holding down the NXT title scene for months, and both of them are sure-fire main-event players. With his notable run in NXT along with his TNA tenure, Joe would probably get the biggest pop, and he’s the easiest to plug into any role — face or heel — he’s needed for. Nakamura, on the other hand, is a more nuanced talent, a sort of self-aware caricature with the charisma and ring skill of Shawn Michaels. Throw either of them out mid-Rumble and you’re guaranteed a huge response; give either of them the win and you’re kicking off the road to WrestleMania with an intriguing left turn. The fantasy match for both of them is probably against Cena for the WWE championship, but with Elimination Chamber in the way, the storytelling would be slightly precarious. Put either of them against Reigns and you have the potential for an incredible car wreck — it’s an awful lot to put on these rookies’ shoulders to help carry a Universal title feud, and honestly, there’s no telling who the crowd will be cheering for by Mania with either Joe or Nakamura set against Reigns. Nakamura is a more natural heel, and Joe is better at working heel, but both of them would have the backing of smart fans who could hijack the WrestleMania main event in their favor. If it were up to me, I’d match up Shinsuke with Cena and Joe against Reigns, and let the cheers and boos fall where they may.
Chris Hero and Kenny Omega
A recent WWE (re)signing and a much-rumored potential signing, Hero and Omega are among the biggest stars in the American indie scene and in Japan. The fantasy here would be the unexpectedness of Joe/Nakamura times 10, but with less fan awareness. I’m not even going to indulge myself in fantasy-booking either of them, because I’ll just get myself too unnecessarily worked up.
When he was drafted to Raw during the brand split in July, Bálor was pushed as the top prospect in pro wrestling. When he became the first Universal champion at SummerSlam, the anointing was complete. When it was revealed that he injured his shoulder during that match to the point of having to give up the belt and get surgery, his career (and WWE’s long-term plan) was thrown into disarray. If he is cleared to wrestle on Sunday, WWE can pick up right where it left off. It wouldn’t take much to reboot the character — just have him come out with his full PPV entrance midway through the match and have him tear it up, eliminating a few major players along the way. Reigns beats Owens, Owens enters the Rumble at no. 30, and Bálor ends up in the final two with him. They go back and forth, the once and future face of the company against his stopgap replacement. Owens goes for the pop-up powerbomb, but Bálor reverses it into a hurricanrana, tossing Owens to the floor. Finn goes on to face Reigns at Mania, finally allowing Roman to turn heel, and reestablishing Bálor atop the company.
WWE would be right where it planned to be six months ago. But Triple H would be right — nobody would expect it. They might predict a Bálor return, but nobody would expect long-term plans to come to fruition. This is pro wrestling after all. Anything can happen, and sometimes the obvious thing is the last thing you expect.