The 30th WWE Royal Rumble takes place this Sunday in San Antonio, Texas' Alamo Dome, prompting the tagline "Remember the Rumble," (in a building where there is, in fact, a basement). This year's, in particular, may be more memorable than most, given the caliber of superstars scheduled for the 30-man main event.
The Rumble is the official kickoff of the Road to Wrestlemania, a months-long buildup to WWE's yearly flagship event. It's a time for storylines to evolve, tighten and reveal themselves. And it's also one of the rare times that both the Monday Night Raw and Smackdown Live brands work together on one pay-per-view (a word quickly becoming obsolete after these events have become increasingly WWE Network exclusives). The Rumble match, in particular, will allow tensions to build between particular characters between both brands, another plus as the company builds to Wrestlemania.
In addition to the battle royal, there are four additional matches on the Royal Rumble main card, plus another two on the two-hour pre-show. That's six hours of wrestling on Sunday night. Let's break it all down.
Raw Tag Team Championship: Cesaro and Sheamus (c) vs. Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson
This match has an added stipulation of there being two referees assigned to call it, a reference to two weeks ago on Raw where a referee dispute resulted in Cesaro and Sheamus retaining the championships rather than Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson picking up the win on a clean pinfall.
Cesaro and Sheamus have been established as a true hoss team -- team being the operative word after months of being unhappy partners wedded by Raw general manager Mick Foley. Meanwhile, Gallows and Anderson, a dominant team in New Japan Pro Wrestling, have mostly treaded water in the WWE so far despite numerous forays into the title picture. Either way: A physically powerful duo will be the Raw tag champions, regardless of who wins.
Sasha Banks vs. Nia Jas
Nia Jax has been working the "Sasha Banks is weak" angle since Banks' most recent loss to the Raw Women's Champion, Charlotte, as well as a Banks' history, both real and kayfabe, of injuries. Banks has been nursing a knee injury that Jax has been all-too-happy to exacerbate via sneak attacks-including during a "pre-show doctors' evaluation," on Raw a few weeks back.
Banks did have the comeuppance in a bait-and-switch attack of her own on the Raw prior to the Royal Rumble but Jax seems to be the division's unstoppable force.
Cruiserweight Championship Match: Rich Swann (c) vs. Neville
Since the inception of the WWE's new Cruiserweight division, much had been made of the absence of Neville, who seemed perfect for the division as a known quantity that could help make the unknown members of the division more familiar to the average Universe crowd. But instead, the "Man that Gravity Forgot" became the "Man that WWE Forgot." Luckily, that has become a storyline and an attendant shift from face to heel for Neville, who has now made it his mission to become Cruiserweight champion and thus "King of the cruiserweight."
A series of cheap-shots and run-ins have predicated the title bout between Swann and Neville and that layer of acrimony should help further intensify a match that will doubtlessly be high-energy and high-risk, given the complimentary stiles of Swann and Neville. Where this match is positioned on the card will determine its failure or success with the live crowd, but it should be a good battle that will invariably at least entertain those watching at home.
Six Woman Smackdown Tag Match: Naomi, Nikki Bella and Becky Lynch vs. Alexa Bliss, Natalya and Mickie James
Instead of adding a second one-on-one women's match in the Royal Rumble main card this year, the event will see three feuds being addressed via a six-women tag match between Smackdown Live competitors, with Naomi, Nikki Bella and Becky Lynch on one side and champion Alexa Bliss, Natalya and Mickie James on the other.
Naomi and Bliss began their feud on Tuesday's Smackdown with Bliss openly mocking Naomi's recent absence from television. James, recently returned (and briefly assisting Bliss as La Luchadora) is now in a heated rivalry with Lynch thanks to James' repeated intervention in Lynch's attempt to regain the Women's Title from Bliss. Natalya and Bella have been fighting for weeks over Natalya's sneak attack to remove Bella from the Smackdown women's team at Survivor Series, which has devolved into Natalya being consumed with jealousy over Bella's position in the company.
This should be an entertaining enough match, one that will help advance the trio of storylines, likely with the goal in mind that one will outshine the other and become Smackdown's premiere women's rivalry on the road to Wrestlemania.
WWE World Heavyweight Championship Match: A.J. Styles (c) vs. John Cena
The A.J. Styles-John Cena feud came to a brief halt while Cena spent time away from WWE to record a second season of FOX's American Grit, but has resumed with the same intensity as before. The storyline isn't much different: Styles wants to be "the face that runs the place," taking Cena's longstanding crown as the company's top worker and ambassador, while Cena is nowhere near interested in abdicating his throne. Many a smartly-worded and well-spoken ego-driven promo has been featured between the two over the last weeks, culminating in Cena challenging for Styles' WWE Heavyweight title.
Cena and Styles are two of the very best in the world at what they do right now (with all fairness to Chris Jericho, who, too, is doing incredible late-career work -- more on that below) and pairing them together has made for solid (if sometimes overlong) exposition. Their match at the Rumble could prove to be an instant classic, thanks to both men's ring skills, experience and the explosive nature of their current storyline. This has implications for the Rumble match itself, as well; should the winner be from Smackdown Live, either Styles or Cena will be in their crosshairs for Wrestlemania's main event.
Raw Women's Championship Match: Charlotte (c) vs. Bayley
Charlotte Flair's current championship reign has the undercurrent of all of her others, in that she was born into this world as the daughter of 15-time World champion and undisputed legend, Ric Flair, and that there was no doubt that she would ascend to the top of the game in no time. It was, after all, her destiny. And now, she has the perfect foil to her character in former NXT Four Horsewoman ally Bayley, the lovable fan-favorite who hugs at will and who came into the industry through big dreams and hard work.
Charlotte has shrugged off Bayley's decades of effort by calling here a "mere" fan who spent her childhood watching the Royal Rumble on the couch while she was physically in the room, watching her father win it. The Silver Spoon vs. Hardscrabble Want-To storyline is a classic in pro wrestling and Charlotte and Bayley's iteration of it has not lacked drama. This also has the hallmark of a long-term feud; don't expect this one to end before Wrestlemania. The story is so full of history to plumb that it's the rivalry that keeps on giving.
WWE Universal Championship Match: Kevin Owens (c) vs. Roman Reigns
Special Stipulation: Chris Jericho elevated above the ring in a locked shark cage
"Best friends" Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens ("Kevin and Chris" or "Chris and Kevin," depending upon who you ask) have been terrorizing the WWE for months, most recently and notably former Shield brothers Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins. Lately, it's been Reigns who has been in the duo's crosshairs; each time Reigns is stuck in a match with one, the other interferes, helping establish an ever-popular "heel cannot win without help," storyline the WWE enjoys so much.
The solution to this was for Raw general manager Mick Foley (along with the blessing of Commissioner Stephanie McMahon) to stipulate that Jericho must be suspended in a locked shark cage above the ring when Reigns challenges Owens for the WWE Universal Championship at the Royal Rumble, preventing the threat of interference. Jericho and Owens, unsurprisingly, are none too happy about this. Reigns, who recently lost his United States Championship to Jericho, is quite pleased.
Owens and Jericho's friendship has been tenuous at times and tinged heavily with rivalry, feelings that haven't much been tempered by the duo each holding a belt. In fact, Jericho will be in the 30-man Rumble match later in the card, much to Owens' consternation at his "friend" wanting to come after his Universal Championship at Wrestlemania (never mind that Owens has called the belt shared between the two in the past). But Owens' and Jericho's Rumble plans may shift if Reigns gets the win; but so, too, could their friendship. Never forget what Owens did to another former best friend, Sami Zayn, in NXT.
Royal Rumble Match: 30-Man Battle Royal
The format of the Royal Rumble is well-established. There are 30 competitors, some announced, some not, who each enter the ring at two-minute intervals. Eliminations come in the form of being thrown over the top rope and the last man standing gets to challenge for either the WWE World Heavyweight title (if he's from Smackdown Live) or the WWE Universal title (if he's from Raw) at the main event of Wrestlemania.
This year is the 30th anniversary of the event, which means the WWE has pulled out some big guns to be among the 30 competitors. This begins right away, when Brock Lesnar and Bill Goldberg -- part-timers, big men, monsters and legends -- enter the match at No. 1 and No. 2 and are given the time to revisit the 1:26 Goldberg win over Lesnar at Survivor Series.
Jericho, with his goals of aiding or outshining Owens, is set to be the No. 3 entrant. The remaining order is TBD, but many of those already known to be in the match all have their own sets of motivations. All three members of The New Day, until recently the longest reigning WWE Tag Team Champions, will be in the match. Kofi Kingston, Big E and Xavier Woods have vowed that no matter who wins, they will all share the belt they expect to win at Wrestlemania and the responsibility for defending it -- much as they did as tag champs. This is an unlikely scenario, though; but Kingston should be good for one of his patented high-drama near-elimination spots he's become known for at the Rumble.
Other feuds should play out among the chaos, influencing who gets eliminated, by whom and when. These include the Lana-influenced rivalry between her husband, Rusev (with assistance from an incredibly over-buff Jinder Mahal) and the team of Enzo and Big Cass, the violent, Intercontinental-title based clash between Dean Ambrose and The Miz and the seeming disintegration of the Wyatt Family, with Bray Wyatt having bitted Randy Orton against Luke Harper on Tuesday's Smackdown (Orton won and Wyatt gave Harper a Sister Abigail for good measure).
It's hard to imagine any of the big part-timers, including The Undertaker, winning if only because any of the three being long-term champions (with a win at Wrestlemania) makes little logistical sense. There are wild card options like Baron Corbin (a one-time winner of the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal) or Mojo Rawley (who won a Smackdown battle royal on Tuesday for the opportunity for a Rumble spot). The long-term consequences of a Jericho win could help shape his relationship with Owens and thus the main storyline of Raw. Braun Strowman could also be a favorite to win it all, but as he's made enemies of practically everyone (Lesnar, Undertaker and Goldberg included), it could make his longevity a question mark. And the surprise entrants-those whose names we don't yet know-could also produce this year's victor.
Samoa Joe, who has spent the last year in NXT, is expected to be one of those surprises. Finn Balor, who suffered a shoulder injury that was supposed to sideline him four to six months is now five months through his recovery and may be cleared to return to the ring shortly-perhaps Sunday is that day. Kurt Angle has made it clear he wants to return to WWE action, and his induction into the WWE Hall of Fame, set for Wrestlemania weekend, could mean a showing in the Rumble. No matter the winner, the final outcome of the Royal Rumble match will shape WWE's Road to Wrestlemania and establish storylines around the main event.
A Note on Seth Rollins
Seth Rollins was placed in a win-and-you're-in match on Monday's Raw in order to remain an entrant in the main event battle royal. He lost and is out, but it's how he lost that sets up just what particular exit he'll take on that Wrestlemania highway.
Rollins' loss-against Sami Zayn, who is now one of the 30 in the Rumble, came by a familiar WWE trope: distraction. But it wasn't a distraction or an in-ring interference by an actual Superstar that led to it, but by its other form: The hitting of a rival's entrance theme, in this case that of Triple H's, Vince and Stephanie McMahon's right hand man (and Stephanie's husband), with whom Rollins has unfinished business.
Rollins was passed over as one-time face of Raw, his devastating knee injury a year ago one factor in such decision, but was then also betrayed and abandoned by H, once his biggest cheerleader. He's been calling for Triple H's head since, to no avail, but the inevitable destination for the two to clash is at Wrestlemania. Expect Rollins and Stephanie's husband to finally be face-to-face in some capacity on Sunday.