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1st Stop: Royal Rumble

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Scott: First off, welcome back. You didn’t miss too much in the world of wrestling during your absence, but now that we’re on the other side of Survivor Series it’s time to look seriously at the Royal Rumble card, and part of that involves projecting how WrestleMania might shake out, as KSP and I did last time around.

Speaking of the Rumble, I just read the new David Shoemaker piece on Grantland breaking down the newcomers to the WWE over the past several months. One thing that struck me is a sense of renewed anticipation for the Rumble match itself. After a 40-man Rumble in 2011, the number was restored to 30 in 2012, but even that left many people commenting the match revealed the WWE’s main roster to be remarkably thin. I didn’t agree at the time, but I will allow that some of the talent on that show was not being used as effectively as it is today.

So what are your thoughts on the current WWE roster — not just the names, but the roles they fill?

• • •

David: Thanks for welcoming me back, and a special thanks to K. Sawyer Paul for sitting in my chair for our previous installment.

In preparation for this discussion, I went back and looked at the participant list for the two previous Rumbles to see if I could divine any information that might help us. Did you know that, of the 2011 Royal Rumble’s 40 competitors, only 15 of them were in the 2012 Royal Rumble? Of the 55 people who competed in the two Rumbles combined, there are only about 20-25 who are regularly appearing in a wrestling capacity on Raw or Smackdown, and since the WWE Champion (presumably that will still be CM Punk when we get to the Rumble) is wrestling The Rock, that leaves us with a lot of space to fill.

Fortunately, as the aforementioned David Shoemaker Grantland piece pointed out, the WWE has really added some capable hands in the last year or so. I looked at the 2012 Survivor Series card, and found that, including Ambrose, Rollins and Reigns, there were 10 competitors involved who weren’t in either the 2011 or 2012 Royal Rumbles. That gives me great hope for the 2013 Rumble, and the potential to give us a unique storytelling opportunity.

The roster as it stands now is pretty deep, especially as it relates to the mid-card. While I know some (especially What a Maneuver’s Joe Drilling) don’t like the three-hour Raw format, it has allowed the WWE to give more focus to the middle-tier titles and the tag team division. Of the 10 competitors I mentioned previously, one of them (Antonio Cesaro) holds a title, one is in the hunt for the WWE title (Ryback), and four have been heavily involved in the tag team title picture (Damien Sandow, Sin Cara and the Prime Time Players).

The main event picture, on the other hand, hasn’t changed a lot from last year. Part of that, of course, is related to the fact that CM Punk has held the title for just over a year, but, other than Dolph Ziggler and Ryback, we really haven’t had anyone elevated to the main event picture. Granted, we really haven’t seen anyone leave the main event picture either, which makes it hard to elevate someone. Frankly, I’d love to see Antonio Cesaro start putting together a run toward one of the two bigger titles. Do you think he could do the Neutralizer to the Big Show?

• • •

Scott: Great question about Cesaro and Big Show. I imagine the writers have in their back pocket the idea of a (relatively) smaller guy doing something incredible to Big Show — like the double Attitude Adjustment Cena tried on Show and Edge at WrestleMania XXV — but it’s not likely to be Cesaro, at least not as long as he’s such an effective antagonist. I realize I didn’t answer your question directly, but that’s the beauty of talking wrestling.

As I read Shoemaker’s piece I thought not just of the new faces, but of the steady presence of the mid-card talent and how the three-hour Raw (plus Main Event on Ion) is enabling the creative team to tell more stories simultaneously, giving each of them more breathing room and allowing fans to become invested in more characters. Clearly there’s not been unilateral success, but as it relates to the Rumble specifically, there’s some juicy stuff.

For one thing, the buildup to the main Survivor Series elimination match showed they wouldn’t be ignoring, in the story, old grudges. These guys have crossed brands and pursued different titles and sought cheers and boos so frequently, but to me it’s important to remember their conflicts. Punk and Del Rio hated each other about 12 months ago. Punk and Bryan have quite a WWE history, as do Bryan and Miz. Pretty much everyone hates Orton, right? I don’t need to rehash every angle, but it seems when the performers (and especially commentators) acknowledge histories, it adds depth to the proceedings.

What I loved about older Royal Rumbles is how it gave guys chances to go after each other. Sure, this was a time when I watched and hour of SuperStars each week and saw maybe four guys in the ring, so anything that happened on a pay-per-view was special. But the point is when the clock hits zero and the new guy’s music hits, if the fans are thinking “Oh man, Sandow’s coming out — he and Cody Rhodes are going to be unstoppable in there!” that just adds to the intrigue.

That’s why a Royal Rumble is superior to a battle royal — because staggering the entrances allows for careful mapping of interactions and story development. My main problem with the 2012 Rumble is the only relevant story (as I remember it) was who gets the WrestleMania title shot. There’s much better ways to spend an hour.

We also have the chance for some return performances this year to actually be meaningful if guys like Christian and Jack Swagger show up. That has much more potential than a one-off from Tatanka. Any thoughts on who you’d like to see come January?

• • •

David: Probably the biggest return I’m hoping for is Mark Henry. Can you imagine if his music hits around number 15, with 10 guys still in the ring? Somebody’s gonna get their wig split! He could probably eliminate six or seven people right off the bat. Now, that’s a return! That’s one of the underrated things about the Royal Rumble: the ability to make someone look like a complete monster, even if they don’t win the whole thing.

And that’s the great thing about the Rumble most years. You don’t have to be the “winner” in order to be a winner. And you’re right about the squandered storytelling opportunities from the 2012 Royal Rumble: they spent far too much time on the “Surprise! I’m in the Rumble” moments with Booker T, Jerry Lawler and Michael Cole. They didn’t really add anything to the match, and probably wasted time that could’ve been better spent somewhere else. Your Sandow hypothetical is a great example of the kinds of things they can do to liven up the Rumble.

It’s also an example of how the Rumble can be a beneficiary of the renewed focus on tag team wrestling. In the past, some of the great moments of the Royal Rumble have come from tag teams or alliances either helping each other or being forced to fight each other (see Ax and Smash at Royal Rumble 1989). How great would it be to see Kane and Daniel Bryan draw numbers 1 and 2?

• • •

Scott: That’s exactly the sort of thing I was suggesting. And that specific scenario would be supremely awesome. What if Mysterio and Sin Cara are left alone at some point? What if Darren Young is getting handled by a couple of good guys and Titus O’Neil’s music hits? The point is the fans will react to these moments because there has been a concerted effort to tell stories involving the middle-tier characters over several months.

And it’s not just tag teams. Kofi and Miz and Ziggler could tell a great story in the middle of the Rumble. Bryan and Wade Barrett could perhaps allude to their Nexus days (I found it interesting that faction was referenced during The Shield’s first interview on Raw Nov. 26). How many guys have a bone to pick with Brodus Clay? When fans clamor for WWE to stop being so selective in its memory (or revisionist in its history), what they’re really doing is pleading for richer storytelling. Give us a reason to care.

The beauty of this is we don’t have to care about everyone as a possible top title contender, we just have to understand their motivation. For so long it seems the focus has been on making top stars and pushing them to the moon, which I’m sure is rooted in business more than anything else, it’s refreshing to have the sense they’re just giving characters space to breathe and letting the audience decide who the stars will be.

Going back to your Mark Henry suggestion, that’s probably at the top of my wish list, too. I’m also missing Christian as a regular performer, and perhaps now is a good time for Jack Swagger to re-emerge. Who else am I forgetting?

• • •

David: There were two names that immediately sprung to mind when I considered the idea:

  • Evan Bourne: At the top of my list of guys I miss watching. His skill set doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a great Royal Rumble comeback, but I’m rooting for him to come back sometime soon.
  • Ezekiel Jackson: Not really someone I’m all that interested in, but he’s someone who could make an impact by coming in and cleaning house in the middle of the Rumble.

In addition, since the Royal Rumble is the beginning of WrestleMania season, the Undertaker could always appear there (although they usually save him for after the Rumble). Brock Lesnar is another name who could make an impact at the event.

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day, and he asked me if I thought the introduction of The Shield was CM Punk building a stable. I responded it is indeed a possibility. I did proffer another option, though. Is it possible Punk doesn’t have any affiliation with Shield, and it’s Heyman who’s building a stable behind Punk’s back? Could Lesnar come back at the Rumble to take his place as the leader, win the Rumble and go on to face Punk at WrestleMania? I know you’ve been a proponent of Heyman turning on Punk since they started appearing together a few months ago, but am I out on a limb on this one?

• • •

Scott: If you’re out on a limb, I’m out there with you. I have a variety of theories regarding the rise of Ryback and introduction of the Shield as it relates to Punk. It’s not so much fantasy booking as it is trying to understand plot and character development and think about if the writers are thinking about story development on the same level as myself. Of course, usually when I map scenarios I don’t make any contingency plans for injuries or wellness violations, which is something I would hope the writers always keep tucked away.

My primary strategy is to look at the WrestleMania main event and build backwards. Since we’re still in the dark about what that might be (as we usually are; last year was an anomaly) there’s lots of unknowns. But I operate under one basic conclusion: the Rock will be in the main event. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe that was only an essential for him in Miami. But if I’m in his position, I’m not going to be on the show unless I’m the star. But that same theory holds for another guy I expect to be at WrestleMania — Brock Lesnar.

I’ve long thought the entire purpose of getting Lesnar back in the fold was for him to headline the year’s biggest show. And if there’s anything Vince McMahon could do to draw in mainstream buys for his biggest show of the year, it’s pair up the two guys who have done the most outside wrestling of the last two generations. Brock vs. Rock in New York City, live on pay-per-view. You don’t need the title to be on the line for that one to sell.

This is kind of why I expect Punk to retain at the Rumble. Lots of folks are already upset they would just hand Rock the title at that show, are presuming the entire purpose of the Year of Punk has been to elevate Rock — but does Rock need that sort of elevation? What does a win at the Rumble do for him, at least compared to what it would do for Punk? Isn’t a Punk win in this scenario exactly the type of against all odds victory that’s define his title reign? And imagine if he pulls that off and still can’t land the main event of WrestleMania! His claims of getting no respect would amplify tenfold or better.

Getting from there to Brock-Rock, though, is perhaps too far a leap for even WWE creative. So I do really, really like the idea of watching The Shield evolve and eventually turning on Punk behind Lesnar and Heyman. So far Punk has done a great job of portraying skepticism when those guys are in the ring — enough to make you believe he’s not working with them — and I could see that resistance wearing away into confidence they’ll always have his back. Until they don’t.

So I realize I’m mapping out two opposite strategies (which is why it’s not fantasy booking so much as theoretical speculation) and none of them involve John Cena, which is fine by me. Going way back to your Kane-Bryan point, how great would it be for them to be the first and last two men in the ring at the Rumble — but working together for all points in between? I think if Bryan eliminated Kane to punch his ticket to WrestleMania redemption the crowd would completely explode, especially if they hugged it out afterward anyway.

The other possibility (I think we’ve discussed this before) is Punk losing to Rock at the Rumble then entering and Rumble itself and re-claiming the title shot. With less at stake than WrestleMania, I’d be intrigued by the chance for Ziggler to win the Rumble while still holding his Money In The Bank briefcase. If that plays out this year, he could basically demand a World Title shot at Mania while holding his briefcase as an insurance card for the same show. It might not be revolutionary, but it would be fresh.

I’m starting to ramble here, but I’m picturing myself at a room in Stamford with my ideal WrestleMania card on the right sight of a big board and drawing oodles of lines from those matches to the left of the board, weaving through Elimination Chamber, the Royal Rumble and more than a dozen weeks of live TV. I know programming Smackdown in July isn’t always a treat, but it’s all got to be worth it for the chance to be involved in this time of the wrestling year.

• • •

David: I think you’re mostly right about this being a great time of year to be on the WWE creative team. The one thing that would give me pause is having to write the lead up to something like the recent TLC pay-per-view. On one hand, it would be great to write stories that climax with a ladder match, or a violent chairs match, and I think they did a good job leading us in that direction with the feud between Big Show and Sheamus. On the other hand, you’ve got to add stipulations to a match that doesn’t quite have the history of that feud and make it seem like it’s appropriate.

I will give credit where credit is due, though. The brawl at the end of the Dec. 10 Raw, which incorporated the participants of three different matches, certainly seemed to add a dash of something that was needed. Going into that show, there wasn’t a great reason for why The Shield needed to be in a TLC match with Ryback and Team Hell No. Yes, they’ve made all three of those men’s lives miserable, but they haven’t even gotten a chance to engage them in a regular match, so why do we need stipulations? Now I feel like the Shield’s attack on John Cena, which escalated to the brawl that ended Raw, gave us an important feeling of how dangerous these three men are. Psychologically, that meant a lot going into the show.

I think it’s safe to say writing a continuous wrestling show is difficult even under the best circumstances. But when you’re hamstrung with gimmick pay-per-views, it’s not surprising the creative element behind the WWE doesn’t always work as well as fans would like. I, for one, am an advocate of getting rid of most of the gimmick pay-per-views (not counting The Royal Rumble, which serves well as the beginning of WrestleMania season). How do you feel about gimmick PPVs as a whole?

• • •

Scott: Sometimes it’s not just the gimmicks but the scheduling, too. Many factors are involved when the company establishes its pay-per-view schedule each year, and “narrative flow” is nowhere near the top of the list. But you hit on the biggest problem with the gimmick shows — being forced to add stipulations to a match that can’t be justified by the story. For example, February’s World Heavyweight Championship match at Elimination Chamber forced the introduction of guys into the title picture who had no business being there, especially Santino and Great Khali. But even Cody Rhodes was in that match as Intercontinental Champion while Jack Swagger defended the U.S. Title in a (spontaneous) singles match. He was worthy of a spot in the chamber, but it also made little sense with regard to his title story.

That said, everything we mentioned about the blossoming roster might make the 2013 Elimination Chamber a totally logical event. Imagine a Chamber match with Punk, Cena, Ryback, Ambrose, Reigns and Rollins. All the guys in the U.S./IC title picture have me interested in seeing those titles unified in the Chamber. That would be way more interesting to me than a forced tables match to set up tag team title contenders.

But the card was what it was, and the show is in the books. As always, it will be interesting to see how the fallout gets handled on Raw and Smackdown, and I expect the buildup to the Rumble to be significantly stronger than a year ago. Hopefully there’s some clear narrative on how guys gets spots in the Rumble, especially since there are so many viable contenders.

I’m sure we’ll have lots to talk about coming up during the busiest time of the year for WWE. Until next time…

As always, thanks for reading — please feel free to contact us via Twitter or the comments section. Your feedback is appreciated!

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