In just one night WWE has managed to set itself up for an extremely promising WrestleMania. You might be thinking “that’s not a big deal, WWE manages this every year”, but there is one key difference between this year and many recent incarnations of “the Show of Shows”.
There has been a huge dent left in the WWE roster in recent months, and while it seems that it could be problematic it is starting to look like the absence of the regular main event talent (John Cena, Seth Rollins, and Randy Orton, to name a few) has given new life to those who have been on the cusp of the main event for some time now.
The 2016 Royal Rumble presented four matches which could be considered WrestleMania-worthy, and the January 25th edition of Raw solidified at least one of them.
“It’s time to play The Game”
Roman Reigns’ motto of “One versus All” was taken very literally by Mr. McMahon heading into the Royal Rumble, and was put to the test as Roman entered the melee as the number one entrant. Barring many fans fears that Reigns might emulate #HBShizzle himself, Shawn Michaels (and WWE’s own Voldemort in Chris Benoit), the match was exceptionally well booked and saw Reigns blend into the background (at one point he literally walked away from the match for twenty-plus minutes) until it was necessary for his presence to be known.
This was never more obvious than in the final moments of the match. Having entered at number thirty, COO Triple H returned from a month-long hiatus since being assaulted by the defending WWE World Heavyweight Champion. The ending of this match was now left with two options, none of which I was overly fond of (I chose Bray Wyatt as the sole survivor, something I’ll get into more at a later point). Either Triple H was leaving Royal Rumble as Champion, or Roman was adding another record to his short-but-impressive Royal Rumble legacy.
Despite its obvious nature, Reigns was eliminated to the shock of the WWE Universe, resulting in the second biggest pop of the night (the debut of AJ Styles eclipsing all others). This would not have been a fitting end in WWE’s quest to market Reigns as it’s top baby face, and allowed for one final twist.
Having Dean Ambrose, injury and all, face The Game in the final two confirmed that the Lunatic Fringe will not be confined you the mid-card for much longer. He is over, as evidenced by the immediate support he got from the WWE Universe, and his ties with Reigns make him a key player in the main event picture heading to WrestleMania.
As you will have gathered, I firmly believe that regardless of Brock Lesnar and Dean Ambrose’s date with Reigns at Fastlane we will be getting Triple H versus Roman at WrestleMania.
The question is, what will Ambrose’s part be in that match? Does he help Reigns and take his loss at Fastlane like a man, or does he make the heel turn many have expected for months and become the second Shield brother to screw The Big Dog out of his WrestleMania moment?
Bray Wyatt and his quest for a WrestleMania victory
Despite being one of the most interesting and intriguing characters on the WWE roster for the past two and a half years, it might be surprising to learn that Bray Wyatt is yet to hold WWE gold or notch a victory in his first two WrestleMania outings. Having failed to tarnish John Cena’s legacy at WrestleMania XXX and come shy of finishing off what Brock Lesnar started with The Undertaker at 31, there is no doubt that the Eater of Worlds is due a victory. Despite his place in what could be considered main event matches at WrestleMania being certain, the lack of victories in these big matches has seen Bray lost in the shuffle for quite some time. It’s almost as if he only finds direction around Royal Rumble time, and veers into obscurity soon after Extreme Rules.
In last year’s Royal Rumble match, Bray was one of the more impressive superstars to emerge from the bout, and I believe WWE had that in mind when building to this year’s event. He got the rub of humanising The Beast Incarnate known as Brock Lesnar, and even played a huge part in eliminating him from the match. As I have already noted, I was pulling for a Wyatt victory. As unlikely as it was with the ties to Lesnar, I firmly believed it would have set up a more unpredictable scenario with Reigns as both superstars need the WrestleMania victory. The idea of Bray carrying the WWE Championship into WrestleMania also gives me chills.
What we will be getting instead is just as unpredictable. While Brock is the WWE’s established Beast, Bray is insane enough to be unaffected by his path of destruction. WWE has also put considerable and intricate work into showing Brock can be defeated while maintaining his aura, and a clash of two brilliantly developed characters makes for a very intriguing and somewhat unpredictable match.
And this is all before you take into account the influence of Bray’s followers, his family members. One such roadblock in Brock’s path to Bray will most certainly be Braun Strowman.
The newest member of the Wyatt Family had been somewhat quiet in the last few months, but he found his place as WWE’s newest monster heel during the Royal Rumble match. Eliminating most of the former World Champions in the contest, including veterans in Big Show and Kane, he made an huge mark on his first Rumble. It cannot be ignored that Lesnar had to work Strowman down for quite some time before eliminating him.
No matter the trajectory of this rivalry, I believe we will see Bray Wyatt come out stronger and closer to the main event than ever before.
The re-emergence of the Intercontinental Championship as WWE’s stepping stone
Dean Ambrose and Kevin Owens have come some way in helping the Intercontinental title mean something again, by which I mean it feels like a big deal to carry the white-strapped championship again. The last time I recall seeing it as a big deal was during Chris Jericho’s pursuits of the prize. The similarities are there.
The Royal Rumble saw a Last Man Standing match between Champion Ambrose and former Champion Kevin Owens, and it continued the theme of both men putting their bodies on the line for the sake of the gold. The old school styles of both men combined with their risk-taking acumen make for great viewing, but also remind me of the Jericho-Benoit clashes of the late-Attitude Era. Back in 2001, Y2J and Benoit contested a Ladder match at the Royal Rumble which saw both men throw everything they had into their pursuit of the IC title. Though Owens and Ambrose do not flaunt as much technical ability as Jericho and Benoit did, the passion is just as strong.
As much fun as it is to see KO and Ambrose destroy each other in the name of the title, however, it would seem that their story is done or at least on its final chapter. Where does this leave Ambrose and Owens respectively?
I have alluded to Ambrose playing a part in WrestleMania 32’s main event, but he would still need a match on the card. WWE could take the Owens and Ambrose feud to WrestleMania, but there are more options to consider.
Chris Jericho looks to be on the cusp of turning heel one last time after he begrudgingly took a loss to AJ Styles in his debut Raw match, and a losing streak could ironically turn his focus toward the title many would consider built his WWE legacy.
This would leave Owens without an opponent, but I once again refer you to the Royal Rumble match. In his impressive showing, Owens eliminated none other than AJ Styles. The two have a past of competing against one another and WWE seems to have the early confidence in AJ to allow the two indie stars to try and steal the show.
A third alternative would be to contest the title in a Ladder match for the second straight WrestleMania, and unify the two suggestions for a showcase of athleticism. This allows for the likes of Neville and perhaps Sami Zayn to get involved, and the best part of all of this is that there are a multitude of rivalries to tie all six competitors together.
Should any of this happen, the Intercontinental Championship could become what Jericho versus Michaels was at WrestleMania XIX and steal the show.
So there you have it, WWE looks to have booked a potential four matches for its annual showcase, and for once I’m not groaning at the prospect of any of them.
WWE is ironically blessed by the lack of established main event talent heading into this year’s WrestleMania, and everybody should be looking to cement their place before the John Cena’s and the Randy Orton’s return.
Thank you for your time, I hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts on what should be a very interesting Road to WrestleMania.