Last night at the Royal Rumble in Philadelphia, the WWE demonstrated its ability to elevate pro wrestling to soaring heights and crash it to depths so murky that even a surprise appearance by the Rock couldn't undo the mess.
Here's how the WWE works: There are 12 pay-per-view events in a year, one each month. In the weeks in between, the company lays the groundwork for storylines that culminate at these events. They pay off at varying degrees of success, but the pay-per-view remains the company's bread and butter.
Though there was more on the card, and it's always fun to watch meaningful wrestling uninterrupted by commercials, last night's Royal Rumble was effectively a two-match event. Both were linked by common storylines. The first would determine who walked away with the heavyweight championship belt. The second would determine who would face the champion in two months at WrestleMania 31.
THE CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH
Since at least WrestleMania 30, where Brock Lesnar ended the Undertaker's 20-year unbeaten streak at the company's biggest pay-per-view event, the WWE has told one consistent story: Lesnar is an near-unbeatable monster worthy of his moniker, "the beast incarnate." Since earning the championship, he's defended it successfully twice against the WWE's biggest star, John Cena, albeit through a disqualification in the rematch. That's a feat unto itself, as dedicated wrestling fans will tell you that the WWE has a bias toward rewarding Cena. Last night's heavyweight championship match was billed as a continuation of multiple, unresolved storylines.
Aside from his physical prowess, Lesnar is something unique: he's a part-time star. He isn't a regular on the WWE's weekly shows, Monday Night Raw and Smackdown. Instead, he appears in the run-up to the pay-per-view events in which he'll be featured. He still hasn't appeared in every pay-per-view event since winning the heavyweight title last year.
In theory, this could make the heavyweight championship something special. Because it's not constantly in contention, clever writing could make a championship bout all the more meaningful.
WWE fans give the organization a fair amount of crap for meandering, predictable and uninspired storylines, but WWE's writing is strongest in the run-up to pay-per-views — because it has to be. That course held true in the weeks leading up to the Royal Rumble, when its creative team devised a triple-threat match between Lesnar, Cena and the most arrogant and annoying bad guy (or, in wrestling terms, "heel"), Seth Rollins.
Cena was the first to make his way to the ring, and he arrived to a chorus of jeering unlike anything I've heard. Most crowds tend to be split about Cena, the consummate good guy, and trade chants of "Let's go Cena!" and "Cena sucks!" Not Philadelphia. The crowd was rowdy and made it known they were not rooting for a good guy Cena victory.
Rollins entered the ring to boos of a different sort, the kind that a great heel earns. Lesnar entered to respect.
The setup was simple: The first wrestler to pin or force anyone else to submit would win the world heavyweight championship. Lesnar didn't even have to be involved, which seemed to make his odds of retaining the belt less than even.
Just like what happens in the space between pay-per-views, the best wrestling matches tell stories. One wrestler takes advantage. Another struggles to come back. Someone works a body part to weaken it and capitalize later. The best wrestling matches are stories told without words, and the triple threat match last night was best of breed.
It began with Lesnar asserting his dominance, which is always a spectacle of pure strength and determination. But it didn't end there. In the next 25 minutes or so, all three superstars traded turns at the top, convincing viewers that anything could happen. Every wrestler turned in an amazing performance, particularly Lesnar and Rollins' high-flying, table-destroying acrobatics.
This is what wrestling fans want to see: a good case for everyone to win and a difficult time sussing out who will emerge victorious.
After what sold as a monumental struggle between three top stars, a whipped and beaten Lesnar retained his title. I stood up and cheered. It was, for this newly reconstituted wrestling fan, perhaps the best match I've seen since I started watching again nearly a year ago.
We know it's fake. We know the outcome is predetermined. But so is every sitcom, mystery and drama we watch. The trick is to tell an interesting story believably; to keep us engaged and suspend our disbelief. In any medium, even the fake can make you laugh, cry or cheer. In pro wrestling, the best matches and stories blur the line between fantasy and reality so well that they evoke emotions. I know Seth Rollins plays a character, but I still recoil in disgust when he takes the stage every week.
There's an ugly counterpoint to this, though. Not only can the worst matches and stories make you roll your eyes, but they also, and necessarily, rub pro wrestling's unspoken farce in your face. And, although nobody knew it at the time, after such great heights, that's exactly where last night's pay-per-view was headed.
THE ROYAL RUMBLE
The second of the big two was the match from which the event takes its name. The Royal Rumble is built on a gimmick. It starts with two wrestlers in the ring. Every 90 seconds, a buzzer rings, and a new wrestler joins the fray. The object for everyone is to force a foe over the top rope and out of the ring. When their feet hit the ground, they're eliminated.
The Royal Rumble is more than just a gimmick, though. As the WWE constantly reminds viewers, the match begins the "road to WrestleMania," a two-month timeframe in which almost all stories lead to the biggest event of the year. The winner of last night's Royal Rumble would earn his place in a battle for the heavyweight championship at WrestleMania 31. And because of what had happened moments before, we knew that the winner would face Brock Lesnar.
What sets the Royal Rumble apart from other pay-per-view events is how it tells multiple stories. It's long by nature — much longer than most matches — and will involve 30 wrestlers, each of whom has the opportunity to spin a mini-narrative.
It began strong. The first 10 or so wrestlers to enter the fray were often fan-favorites who battled with confidence and competence. Bray Wyatt, a deliberately creepy, ambiguous heel or babyface (the terms for bad or good guys, for the uninitiated), took early control, eliminating foe after foe. He became the man to watch. The WWE even offered a few surprises — old wrestlers rejoining the organization or seemingly coming out of retirement to do battle. So far, so good.
But as the match went on, the story fractured.
Worse, it dismissed storylines with little fanfare. A multiple-match saga leading up to the Royal Rumble showed fan favorite Daniel Bryan fight against all odds to secure his place in the main event. He was eliminated early, with little fanfare. Wrestlers who'd been fired and, thanks to Cena, rehired and earned their way into the match last week were eliminated in due course.
And that's about the point at which the crowd really started to turn and make it known vocally. The already cantankerous crowd started a new chant impossible to ignore. I turned to my friend Kris and said, "Are they chanting CM Punk?" referring to the WWE superstar who left the circuit last year and was unceremoniously fired.
It would only get worse.
More wrestlers entered the ring, the story of Wyatt's dominance ended, and the Royal Rumble sank into a swamp of confusion. In part, this was because the credibility of those entering the match made it ever more unrealistic. Not to denigrate the hard work and effort of the mid- to late-card arrivals, but no WWE fan, even a casual observer, would expect mid-card talents like Titus O'Neil or Tyson Kidd to credibly challenge Brock Lesnar for the championship belt at WrestleMania 31. At best, they could put in a good performance and help their careers. At worst, they were place-holding fodder for established superstars.
Then, late into the match, Roman Reigns entered to cheers. As is his custom, he arrived in the ring from a random walkway in the crowd.
Reigns is a controversial figure to fans. His in-ring work is good, perhaps not great. But he has potential and the approximate physique of a silverback gorilla. Reigns looks, in short, like exactly the kind of superstar that the WWE likes to promote. The problem is that his character needs work. His extracurricular speaking activities outside of the squared circle are often uninspiring at best and awkward at worst. In short, he needs time to develop into the company-leading character that that WWE pretty clearly wants him to be.
The general feeling among fans is the WWE wants Reigns to be a top-level guy sooner rather than later. Last summer, rumors swirled that the WWE's plan was to build Reigns into a superstar who'd win the heavyweight championship at WrestleMania 31. In September, Reigns took an unexpected leave of absence because of an emergency surgery for an incarcerated hernia.
Fans then wondered if that time away hurt the WWE's rumored plans to put him on top by late March this year, when WrestleMania airs. Reigns returned late last year, arguably better than he had been, but still not up to superstar-level snuff.
Here's the thing to keep in mind: Even though pro wrestling is a "work," — the industry term for everyone working together, on the same script — that doesn't mean the WWE can do whatever it wants. It's a sports entertainment promotion, and if the fans don't find it entertaining, they will reject it. Vocally. The danger for Roman Reigns is that the WWE will strap rockets to his boots, but the fans will refuse to accept him as bigger than he currently is — refuse to allow him to "go over," in pro wrestling terms.
As the Royal Rumble wore on, it became clear that Reigns was poised to take it all. And the Philadelphia crowd would have none of it.
It came down to what appeared to be a three-way battle for supremacy between Reigns, Corporate Kane and Big Show. The latter two are mainstays of the villainous alliance called the Authority under Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, who in real life and in these events are the husband-and-wife team running the WWE's operations. The boos got louder as the outcome became clearer. As the crowd's displeasure drowned out the action, it was genuinely uncomfortable to watch.
As Reigns was overcome with seemingly no way out, the Rock — Reigns' real-life cousin — appeared from backstage, rushed the ring and took out the bad guys. The crowd, momentarily wowed by one of the biggest wrestlers of all time, cheered as he delivered his signature move, the People's Elbow.
But reality soon crept back in. Roman Reigns eliminated Big Show and Kane. There was a bit of a surprise when Rusev, an undefeated America-hating Russian beast with the United States championship belt, leapt up horror movie style and attacked. But even though everybody'd forgotten about Rusev, Reigns bested him and emerged victorious at the Royal Rumble.
The boos were louder than ever. Even the Rock, a once-in-a-generation superstar, couldn't lend credibility to what happened.
Victory, at a price
In his moment of victory, poor Roman Reigns, sweating and bloodied from his performance, ascended the ropes, put his hands above his head and was met with pure, unadulterated vitriol. This must have been the biggest rejection any performer has suffered since Ahmed "Jar-Jar Binks" Best in the summer of 1999 after Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace's release.
As the official Royal Rumble broadcast ended and the WWE Network post-show began, the crowd started to file out from the stadium. Still they booed, making it difficult to hear the personalities recap the events.
Last night in Philadelphia, the WWE did something amazing. In less than two hours, it showed the best of the physical side of pro wrestling and the worst of what the organization refers to as "sports entertainment."
If the WWE wants Roman Reigns to be the future of the company, its writers have an awful lot of work to do between now and March 29, when WrestleMania 31 airs. And given the immediate reaction, it's difficult to see them pulling it off. Unless this is some elaborate hoax designed to engender this reaction — and it's hard to believe they'd put a superstar on the rise in such an awful position — it may be time for the WWE to listen to the fans. Not that they could have ignored them in Philadelphia last night.