The Royal Rumble is always one of the most exciting nights on the WWE calendar, and the 2019 incarnation – emanating from Chase Field in Phoenix, AZ – was no different. WrestleMania 35 plans began to form, things changed, things stayed the same and Jerry Lawler made that weird shrieking noise of his continuously for over an hour during the main event.
It’s the official start of the road to the biggest show of the year, so let’s take a look at the Royal Rumble event in full, from the sublime to the ridiculous to the bit where they hit a 51-year-old man with a guitar…
RAW Tag Team Champions Chad Gable & Bobby Roode defeated Revival of Pain (Rezar & Scott Dawson) via a moonsault neckbreaker
The pre-show got started with an odd encounter. Drake Maverick announced earlier in the show that Akam of AOP was injured, but that Scott Dawson of The Revival would join Rezar to compete against the Champions. The makeshift team were able to isolate Gable early, but Roode eventually made a decidedly lukewarm tag and, after the inevitable miscommunication between Rezar and Dawson, no one seemed to know where they were meant to be. Gable landed a moonsault into a Roode neckbreaker on Dawson for the win. No one looked good here, the crowd didn’t care and nothing happened. Why did they bother?
Dash Wilder later tweeted a goodbye emoji, so make of that what you will.
Shinsuke Nakamura defeated Rusev via Kinshasa to become the new US Champion
Rusev came at Nakamura early with a series of suplexes, before Nakamura took control on the outside. Both men went for their finishers pretty early on, but it was Nakamura who got the first chance at victory with an armbar that he transitioned into a triangle choke. Rusev powered out and hit a big suplex for a near fall. Rusev kicked out of Landslide from Nakamura, which led the frustrated challenger to try to untie the turnbuckle pad. An enraged Lana hopped on the apron to protest and was inadvertently taken out by Rusev, who then took a Kinshasa to the back of his head for the pinfall.
The elephant in the room here was the fact that, just last year, Nakamura won the Royal Rumble match and went on to WrestleMania. Twelve months on, he couldn’t be any less relevant or look more like he would rather be anywhere else. Fortunately, there’s a company called Anywhere Else Wrestling on the horizon. At least, I think that’s what the letters stand for.
Cruiserweight Champion Buddy Murphy defeated Hideo Itami, Akira Tozawa and Kalisto via Murphy’s Law on Itami
I totally forgot that Aiden English was doing 205 Live commentaries now, so that was a nice surprise. The match itself was a cracker too, with plenty of the stuff that makes cruiserweight wrestling so much fun. Hideo Itami retreated to the outside for the opening moments, but he soon got involved to trade strikes with the champion. All four guys delivered innovative moves, with plenty of men being thrown directly at other men. Itami kicked out of a Salida Del Sol from Kalisto, but then fell victim to an innovative flurry of kicks from all three competitors. The ring cleared out and Itami got hit with Murphy’s Law for the pinfall.
This was high-quality stuff from the cruiserweight division as always, in the sort of match that would’ve been red hot at Full Sail University or in front of an NXT TakeOver audience. However, with just 50% of the main roster crowd in attendance, it didn’t go down nearly as well as it deserved. Murphy continues to be quietly one of the best champions in the entire company.
SmackDown Live Women’s Champion Asuka defeated Becky Lynch via Cattle Mutilation
The show proper began with a hell of an ovation for ‘The Man’, as she prepared to fight for the Women’s Championship she lost at TLC last year. Champion and challenger exchanged strikes and both women attempted their signature submission holds while tied up in the ropes. The pendulum swung back and forth, right up until Asuka hit an ugly-looking fisherman buster from the apron to the floor, which left both competitors crumpled. A spin kick from Asuka got a close near fall and Lynch almost won the belt after a Bexploder Suplex from the top rope. Both women stole the other’s signature move in an attempt to force a submission, but it was Asuka who came out victorious after transitioning from the Asuka Lock into a version of Daniel Bryan’s Cattle Mutilation hold.
This was a terrific opener that gave Asuka a rare big match victory. Both women gave their all with some hard strikes and a couple of very memorable high-risk spots. The submission battle down the stretch was compelling and the women’s division on SmackDown Live continues to be one of the most exciting parts of WWE.
The Miz & Shane McMahon defeated The Bar (Cesaro & Sheamus) via Shooting Star Press to become the new SmackDown Tag Team Champions
Shane O’Mac started the match by annoying Sheamus with one of his weird flurries of punches, but before long The Miz was in the ring and being thoroughly bullied by The Bar. Sheamus and Cesaro cleared the announce table, but Shane saved his partner and dived on Sheamus before being annihilated with an uppercut by Cesaro. Back in the ring, The Miz took a lot of punishment before he was able to make the hot tag, allowing Shane to continue to pepper an irritated-looking Sheamus.
Shane stacked both members of The Bar in the corner and attempted a double Coast to Coast, but Cesaro caught him and delivered a Giant Swing for at least a minute. Shane caught the Swiss Cyborg in a triangle and he nearly choked him out, but Sheamus got involved and The Bar was able to hit White Noise for a near fall. The action broke down and The Miz hit Sheamus with the Skull-Crushing Finale, allowing Shane to nail Cesaro with a Shooting Star Press. The new Champions celebrated adorably with The Miz’s dad at ringside.
Shane McMahon proving once again why he’s the best wrestler of all time#RoyalRumble2019
— Mark Andrews (@MandrewsJunior) January 28, 2019
This was always the likely outcome, as the Shane/Miz storyline needed this as the logical next step. The match itself was solid, although I remain confused as to whether Shane McMahon is supposed to be a good wrestler or not, in terms of kayfabe. He’s not supposed to be a real wrestler, but his strikes seem capable of taking out anyone and he kicks out of finishers like he’s a WrestleMania main-eventer. With that said, I’m very intrigued to see where this story goes next and whether the long-suggested match between Shane and The Miz at WrestleMania actually takes place. In the meantime, the more odd couple comedy segments we get, the better.
RAW Women’s Champion Ronda Rousey defeated Sasha Banks via Piper’s Pit
Sasha Banks had clearly scouted Rousey going into this match, as The Boss had an answer to all of the former MMA star’s offence in the opening moments. Rousey harnessed her very mixed crowd reaction to yell at the jeering fans before showcasing her wrestling ability. An errant forearm into the ring post gave Banks a target on which to focus and she locked in a very nasty armbar, complete with some joint manipulation that would make Pete Dunne proud and even some biting of the fingers. The two women traded big moves, including a superplex by Banks and the Piper’s Pit slam from Rousey. Rousey, in an odd spot, forced Banks to tap to the armbar on the floor and then seemed surprised when the referee waved it off, rather contradicting her claim from earlier that she does, in fact, know how to wrestle. Back in the ring, Banks was able to counter Piper’s Pit into the Bank Statement, using a detached part of her wrist strap for extra leverage. Rousey managed to power out and land Piper’s Pit for a somewhat surprising pinfall win given the submission-focused action.
This was a match built on a compelling chess match of submission, with both women utilising slightly different holds to their usual arsenal. Banks, in particular, proved that she’s capable of improvising holds beyond the Bank Statement in order to attack a body part. This was perhaps Rousey’s best singles match to date and the fact that she was unable to force Banks to tap possibly leaves the door open for a future battle. Rousey and Banks showed respect for each other after the bell and shook hands on the ramp. Banks, though, showed Rousey the Four Horsewomen symbol, seemingly hinting at the long-rumoured clash between the Horsewomen of WWE and Rousey’s MMA buddies. Could that be the WrestleMania direction after all?
Becky Lynch last eliminated Charlotte Flair to win the Women’s Royal Rumble Match
Recent NXT call-up Lacey Evans started the match with one of her Deep South classy lady promos but was interrupted by number two entrant Natalya. Soon, more bodies entered the bout and Nattie started stacking people up for double Sharpshooters. Ember Moon was the first to benefit from a red hot entry in the number six slot, showcasing some great fire and energy. Billie Kay was less exciting, opting to wait at ringside for Peyton Royce’s entry until Nikki Cross arrived with other ideas and to a great pop. Mae Young Classic tournament competitor Xia Li then made a hell of an impression, taking on Tamina.
The first dramatic near exit came when Ember Moon clung to the bottom rope by her ankles. Soon, the focus shifted to Charlotte Flair, entering at number 13, and her subsequent strike exchange with Kairi Sane – a face-off that hinted at a very exciting match at some point down the road. Naomi, not wishing to be upstaged by Moon, walked for an impossibly long time along the barricade and leapt over to the steel steps. Unfortunately, Mandy Rose shoved her off the steps before she could return to the match, furthering their recent feud and earning huge heat.
Evans was soon eliminated after an impressive 30-minute showing and there was a weird comedy skit in which Maria Kanellis stomped on Alicia Fox’s captain hat and managed to cause it literally no damage. Zelina Vega and surprise entrant Candice LeRae squared off in a callback to their brilliant NXT rivalry and Ruby Riott brought in her previously eliminated Riott Club buddies to pull people under the bottom rope and soften them up before tossing them back – a fun idea.
Naomi had competition in the Kofi Kingston stakes from former Ninja Warrior competitor and WWE newbie Kacy Catanzaro, who pulled off a ridiculous feat of walking on her hands and then climbing the ring post like a koala. Then, bizarrely Hornswoggle turned up to scare Zelina Vega out of the match. Never let it be said that these Rumbles aren’t a variety show. Natalya was eliminated after almost 56 minutes in the match, breaking the record for a woman in a Rumble.
Lana was due out at number 28, but couldn’t make it to the ring because of her injured ankle from earlier. After the final two women entered, Becky Lynch made her way out and petitioned Fit Finlay to allow her to take Lana’s place. This set up a terrific final five sequence involving Lynch, Flair, Bayley, Nia Jax and Carmella. This became a red hot final three with Lynch, Jax and Flair and then an even hotter final two when it came down to just the former friends Lynch and Flair. An incensed Jax injured Lynch’s knee before leaving the arena, setting up a tense climactic stretch as The Man struggled to make her way back into the squared circle.
The subsequent final duel was explosive and passionate, with a staggering Becky repeatedly yelling at Flair that it was her who deserved a WrestleMania bout. She yelled at Flair that “you’ve taken enough from me, you’re not taking this” and the crowd were firmly in her corner. Flair repeatedly targeted Lynch’s injured knee, but it was Lynch who ultimately got the advantage and was able to eliminate Flair, booking her ticket for the ‘Show of Shows’. It was an enjoyable Rumble match, with the right balance between surprises, silliness and serious in-ring drama.
— WWE (@WWE) January 28, 2019
The final five minutes of this match was professional wrestling at its most exquisitely dramatic. WWE has clearly realised what it has with Becky Lynch and they have decided to push her to the moon, acknowledging that she has levels of fan excitement that arguably haven’t been seen since Daniel Bryan at the peak of the Yes Movement. It’s currently unclear as to how everything will shake out with Lynch on the road to WrestleMania, but it seems likely she’ll be booking a bout with Ronda Rousey, rather than taking another crack at Asuka on SmackDown Live.
WWE Champion Daniel Bryan defeated AJ Styles via Erick Rowan interference
These two had a mountain to climb after the elation of the Rumble finish and they worked a methodical bout, as if aware they had to cool the crowd down in order to build them back up again. Bryan tried to frustrate Styles by building his offence slowly and the powerful dislike between these two characters was palpable throughout. The action soon picked up the pace, with Bryan landing a vicious Dragon Suplex for a near fall to almost no reaction from the exhausted crowd. Styles hit his Moonsault DDT on the floor but ended up in the LeBell Lock when Bryan countered the Springboard 450 Splash. Bryan pulled at Styles’ nose but was unable to score the submission.
By this point, Bryan was heavily selling an injured left leg, which came into play when Styles rolled through a Back Superplex and locked in the Calf Crusher. The pair traded high-impact moves until Erick Rowan arrived at ringside, confusing just about everyone. Bryan accidentally kicked the referee, right before taking a Styles Clash. At this point, Rowan entered the ring, closed his enormous hand over Styles’ face and landed a chokeslam. Three seconds later, the referee had woken up and Bryan had scored the pinfall win.
This match wasn’t one of the most impressive bouts of the night, but it very much served its purpose as a stepping stone battle in a feud that now looks as if it may continue into WrestleMania season. When the match got into top gear, there were some amazing spots and Bryan’s newfound nasty streak has turned his submission-based strategy into pure viciousness. These two could fight for months and it would be a joy to watch.
The addition of Rowan is bizarre, unexpected and very intriguing. Neither Luke Harper or Bray Wyatt was anywhere to be seen, so this seems to be distinct from the Wyatt Family and hints that Bryan could be embarking on his own version of CM Punk’s Straight Edge Society. Certainly, with Rowan holding up Styles so that Bryan could hit a knee strike after the match, this is the start of a storyline rather than a one-off act of chaos from the big man.
Universal Champion Brock Lesnar defeated Finn Balor via Kimura Lock
With only about half an hour left on the pay-per-view clock and a Rumble still to go, this felt sure to be a squash. That did not transpire, however, with the challenger out of the blocks quick and stunning Lesnar with a striking flurry, damaging his abdomen by driving him repeatedly into the announcers’ table. Lesnar briefly took over, but Balor fought back with a Slingblade until he got nailed with a massive clothesline. The champion struggled to hit his signature suplexes through the pain and Balor was able to counter the F5 into a DDT. Three somersault topes and the Coup de Grace only landed Balor a two count and Lesnar snapped straight into the Kimura Lock, forcing the underdog to submit.
This was a fast-paced, high energy encounter that achieved everything it was positioned to do. Balor looked like a plausible winner for the majority of this match and carried out a very strong strategy that only fell short because of one flicker of genius from Lesnar to lock on the Kimura. If the goal was to catapult Balor straight back into the main event scene he vacated after his shoulder injury in 2016, this was a total success. Most people, though, will only remember Lesnar’s ludicrous face when he applied the final hold. He looked like he was having a very difficult time in the bathroom.
Seth Rollins last eliminated Braun Strowman to win the Men’s Royal Rumble Match
By the time Elias came out to open the Men’s Royal Rumble, there were 4 hours on the main show clock. With that in mind, it was bizarre to see the contest open with 10 minutes of shtick involving him and surprise number two entrant Jeff Jarrett, who was eliminated shortly after Elias smashed a guitar over his back. There were then fun sprees for Kurt Angle and NXT entrant Johnny Gargano, who scored some key eliminations. Samoa Joe ran wild and Curt Hawkins ran away, trying to pull off a sort of hit and run strategy before being kicked out in a weird comedy skit with Titus O’Neil, who got a cheer for making it to the ring without falling over.
Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins entered and showed more intensity when they were in the Rumble together than they did in their last pay-per-view match. Then it was time for Kofi Kingston’s annual feat of athletic madness, spinning his body along the apron while hanging upside down to avoid elimination. He then did a slightly awkward skit where Xavier Woods entered and held him aloft, but both were soon eliminated by Drew McIntyre, who had previously obliterated No Way Jose’s conga line of buddies.
— WWE Universe (@WWEUniverse) January 28, 2019
There were more surprises to come with WWE UK Champion Pete Dunne and former NXT Champion Aleister Black exploding into the match. Dunne at one point snapped Black’s fingers, only for the Dutchman to pop them back in to an enormous crowd reaction. Rollins got one over on new Intercontinental Champion Bobby Lashley by eliminating him immediately, only for the Architect to be pulled under the bottom rope and slammed through the commentary desk.
Braun Strowman entered in the historically lucky number 27 slot and promptly set about eliminating more people than anyone else in the match – he ultimately tied with McIntyre at four. Strowman’s power created some memorable moments, including a very innovative twist on the Tower of Doom spot, but this was all overshadowed when R-Truth’s cheerful number 30 entrance was interrupted by Nia Jax. Nia promptly flattened Truth and nicked his spot in the match, becoming only the fourth woman to compete in the Men’s Rumble. She eliminated Mustafa Ali and clashed with Randy Orton, before suffering a 619 from Rey Mysterio and then an RKO, bringing her night to an end in a moment of genuine madness that will be tough to forget.
The final four proved to be Strowman, Almas, Dolph Ziggler and a recovered Seth Rollins. The three smaller stars ganged up on Strowman, but Ziggler and Andrade soon fell to the big man. Rollins nearly followed them, but was able to survive through sheer athleticism and ultimately sent Strowman to the floor with a Curb Stomp on the apron. It was a thrilling conclusion to a Rumble match that was otherwise rather lacking in excitement and invention when compared to the women’s version. It was smart, however, to have the two most likely winners there at the end, keeping the audience in reasonable suspense as to who would come out on top.
The Rollins victory provided a satisfying conclusion to a very enjoyable Royal Rumble event that, across the board, delivered on its promise. Some of the match ordering was very sketchy, with Styles and Bryan completely scuppered by following the Women’s Rumble, which should definitely have been the main event. Nothing else on the show could have matched the Lynch victory for sheer excitement. With that in mind, this event fell slightly short of last year’s Royal Rumble, but its best moments were genuinely terrific and there are now some very interesting plates spinning on the Road to WrestleMania.
Overall, this was a show that did a very solid job of establishing the key players and storylines that will feed into the next few months of WWE programming. Becky Lynch continued her journey towards the summit of the sports entertainment business, while Seth Rollins took a big step forward and Finn Balor established himself as a worthy member of the main event scene.
After a rather shaky back half of 2018, and with the threat of a certain upstart promotion on its heels, it seems WWE is back on track.
All images courtesy of WWE.com