The Royal Rumble is the event that sets the stage for the biggest card of the year. WWE calls it the beginning of the Road to WrestleMania, and that’s true in regard to both the calendar and formal planning; the winners of the men’s and women’s Rumble matches featured Sunday will get championship title matches at April’s WrestleMania 35, along with the in-story fanfare that comes with it. Even if the outcomes are predetermined, the stakes are real.
One can’t help but feel like the stakes are higher this year. Because in 2019, WWE faces a dramatic turning point: Its new TV deals with Fox and NBC Universal are set to begin in the fall and the spotlight on the company hasn’t been brighter in decades, and yet the roster doesn’t have the superstar power that it did in heydays past. So far there’s no modern Steve Austin, there’s no new the Rock, there’s no Hulk Hogan (except, well, Hulk Hogan). The two biggest mainstream names in the company—former UFC champions Ronda Rousey and Brock Lesnar—are uncertain bets. Lesnar is training for another go in the octagon, and his value as itinerant champ is long gone; his every WWE appearance over the past two years has underscored the lack of viable alternatives, and if he loses in the UFC, his own viability may plummet. Rousey has been a prodigy in the ring and a supernova of good PR since she signed on with WWE a year ago, but rumors are circulating that she may take an indefinite leave after WrestleMania.
One only has to look at the WrestleMania card—or lack thereof—to gauge the severity of the moment. Normally by now there are working theories about what the headline matches will be—or, at least, who will be in them. If Lesnar and Rousey survive their Rumble defenses (more on that later), they’ll be near the top of the card. But who will be on the poster next to them is an open question. There are apparently no current plans for the Undertaker and John Cena, though Cena and his new dad hair will certainly be there in some capacity. There’s surprisingly little noise around other legends, like the Rock and Batista. Old standby Chris Jericho just signed with the competition, upstart All Elite Wrestling. Shawn Michaels is presumably re-retired. Triple H can usually be counted on for a headline match, but he’s almost 50 and rehabbing a torn pectoral muscle. Shane McMahon will certainly put on a highwire act, either alongside or in opposition with his current partner, the Miz, but that’s a sideshow. WWE’s chosen star, Roman Reigns, is in treatment for leukemia. Kenny Omega fanfic aside, there are shockingly few surprises left on the free-agent market, and the well of hibernating stars of yore is drying up. To borrow a phrase, CM Punk ain’t walking through that door.
Someone—or ones—will have to fill the void, and the Rumble will signal who gets first dibs at it. In December, the McMahon family opened an episode of Raw to announce a new era of fan service—a vague promise of new stars, new matches, and new ideas to quell audience unrest—which should have been redundant in an industry built on fan response. But there are already glimmers of hope. The two Royal Rumble matches will help chart the company’s path forward, but there are bellwethers on the rest of the card.
Lesnar is defending the Universal title against Finn Balor, who is a catchphrase and a growl away from being a real superstar. Finn is the underdog here; he’s the latest hopeless candidate who stands to gain by losing in Lesnar’s never-ending retirement tour, so it’s hard to see him winning. Except that he’s the underdog in story line terms too, such that McMahon himself intervened to question his worthiness, and there has to be some payoff for that. Whether that happens Sunday or down the line—or whether this is an actual real-time audition for Vince’s affection—remains to be seen, but Balor has the potential to be a great, and WWE needs him to get there.
Rousey is taking on Sasha Banks in what looks to be a time-filler on the way to Rousey’s WrestleMania showdown with Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch, or both. (Banks has the potential to be elite, though whether she’ll ever fully put it together is a longstanding and somewhat mystifying question.) Flair is in the women’s Rumble, and Lynch is taking on Asuka for the latter’s SmackDown women’s belt. Whether Lynch wins will probably depend on what mechanism they use to set up the forthcoming interbrand Mania showdown—be it champ versus champ or whatnot—but Lynch’s position atop the women’s division is indisputable. In the past six months, she’s built herself into potentially the biggest star the company’s seen in ages. Once a grinning, kid-friendly babyface, she jackknifed into a sneering, undeniable electromagnet of charisma and ring work. There’s a real chance that she and Rousey will headline WrestleMania, and she’s earned the spot. No wrestler has captured the imaginations of fans as dramatically as she has since Daniel Bryan five years ago—and if the upward trajectory continues, we might have to start dusting off the “Stone Cold” comparisons. Hell, let’s go ahead. Lynch was scheduled to face Rousey at Survivor Series, but a stray punch (and resulting concussion) put her on the DL—a parallel to Austin’s 1997 neck injury that threatened to cool his rise but only ignited it further. By the time Fox takes over SmackDown this fall, Lynch may be the biggest star on the show, if WWE doesn’t feel obligated to call her up to Raw before then. If there’s a sure bet for transcendence on the current roster, it’s her.
The WWE Championship—a.k.a. the SmackDown men’s belt—is just as juicy. Since returning from forced retirement and, recently, hitting his stride as an ultra-environmentalist nag, Bryan has reminded us that he’s more than an avatar for disgruntled fans—he’s a four-tool sports entertainer you can build a company around. He’s defending the title Sunday against AJ Styles, who has established himself as an anchor of the Tuesday show and a near-guarantee of five-star matches on all the big cards. With concerns about Bryan’s health apparently quelled, the only question mark here is Styles’s purported desire for a reduced workload—though a lighter schedule certainly hasn’t hurt Lesnar’s stock. It’s a rare match in which, judged by fan opinion or corporate considerations, either competitor would be a worthy victor. And between the massive success of Styles and his former TNA Wrestling cohort Samoa Joe, it’s worth considering how much further along the rebuild would be if WWE had hired them sooner.
Of course, raiding the rosters of its competition and signing the luminaries of the indie ranks isn’t a problem in WWE anymore. Faced with the appearance of new competition in All Elite Wrestling—owned by Tony Khan, co-owner (with his father Shahid) of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham FC and helmed by Cody Rhodes, the Young Bucks, and living legend Chris Jericho—as well as a free-agent spending spree by ROH wrestling and the increasing Stateside footprint of New Japan Pro Wrestling, WWE has been signing up talent at an exhausting clip. WWE’s own expansion into the U.K. and Asia and its newfound emphasis on the women’s, cruiserweight, and tag-team ranks has spurred much of the roster growth, but there’s an aggressive capitalist hue to the spending spree. There are reports that WWE has offered to double any competing offer a prospect receives, a rather Steinbrennerian stance that signals the sort of competitive pay rate the industry hasn’t seen since the heyday of WCW. Whether Keith Lee or Matt Riddle will be the next Randy Savage is a question for down the road, but expanding the potential talent base is never a bad thing. WWE needs all the bites at the apple it can get.
Which brings us to the two Royal Rumble matches. Much of the drama on the women’s side is in the two title matches, but the Rumble will answer some logistical questions. (Will Charlotte win and call out both champions: Rousey and Lynch? Will Lynch enter herself in the Rumble to get to Rousey?) There’s plenty of reason for hope in the match, though; in names like Ember Moon, Mandy Rose, Sonya Deville, and the Riott Squad, there’s an enviable sea of talent on the cusp. The irrepressible Alexa Bliss, back from the medical tent, will be there too, and no map forward should exclude Asuka, the hypercolor wrecking ball whom WWE is—somehow—still figuring out what to do with. If we’re lucky we might get a glimpse at some surprises of the next generation, too, which is loaded with star power—namely NXT champ Shayna Baszler and NXT U.K. standouts Rhea Ripley and Toni Storm.
The men’s Rumble match will be more portentous. Drew McIntyre, a Scottish freak sculpted from Marvel Studios CGI, is primed for a huge spot at Mania—be it for the belt, in a star-making match against Cena, or in a The Future Is Now showdown with his regular dance partner Seth Rollins. For whatever reason he has slightly less die-hard hype than some of his contemporaries, but he’s a timeless heel with a supermodern skill set that has main event written all over him. Rollins and his frenemy Dean Ambrose are plug-and-play headliners. Rollins is quietly the MVP of Raw, week in and out, and he could easily be positioned as the company’s top dog if it can find an angle fiery enough to elevate him to the place he was when he won the title back in 2015. Ambrose has more charisma but less consistency; when he’s motivated he’s an elite performer, and he seems to excel in the spotlight, but he needs the right opponent (and story line) to bring out the fire in him. Ambrose has proved he can hold down the title picture in a pinch, but whether he can commandeer the main event is an open question.
Bobby Lashley has found some mojo as a flexing baddie, but he’s a risk for crowd apathy if WWE books him in the premodern style befitting his inflated physique. Any of the three guys in the New Day could (and should) fit into the title picture, but they may be comfortable where they are (and WWE may agree). Samoa Joe has made every feud he’s been plunked into 10 times better than it had any right to be, and he deserves a chance to headline, but as with Rollins, he’s almost held back by his consistent excellence. There’s an old wrestling axiom that you save the big bumps for the big matches to really set them apart, and Joe might be too comfortable beefing with the Jeff Hardys of the world. I hope not—he has the best combination of character and wrestling skill on the roster. If he gets a shot at the crown, he could be transformative.
There’s a short list of guys ready to make the leap—Andrade, Elias, maybe even Mustafa Ali—but the line in front of them seems a little too long at the moment. The injured reserve might have even more superstar potential than the active roster: Braun Strowman is on the cusp of a countrified Hulkamania and looking for a Lesnar showdown. Kevin Owens is a former champ and transcendent talent who is as comfortable in the main event as anyone without a UFC pedigree, and his pal Sami Zayn might be a Daniel Bryan run (and a luchador mask) away from taking over the company. Bray Wyatt is coming up on Year 6 of not quite being the next Undertaker, and hey, who knows, maybe this time it’ll click. It’s possible.
There are lots of possibilities, and that’s what makes the Royal Rumble so exciting, this year more than most. Whoever wins will headline WrestleMania, and whoever headlines WrestleMania will be in position to lead the company into its lucrative and wildly uncertain future. Most years, we leave the Rumble with a good idea of what WrestleMania will look like. This year we might get an outline of the next five years. There’s a lot at stake.