This year’s Royal Rumble is Sunday, which means WrestleMania season is in full effect. But ’Mania be damned, the Rumble will always be the most beloved WWE PPV event. For one thing, it’s endlessly entertaining — there’s a new guy every minute, and on top of all the action that comes with 30 men brawling in the ring, the wrestling usually ends up being subordinate to the story lines. It’s all about surprising returns and positioning — setting up each wrestler’s path toward WrestleMania. In honor of the Rumble’s high-tempo storytelling, I’m going to tackle 30 different items in 90-second intervals and, with any luck, this’ll be my most exciting column ever. Ring the bell!
30. Of the 30 wrestlers who will compete in the Rumble, 20 entrants have been announced: CM Punk, Batista, Alberto Del Rio, Big E Langston, the Miz, R-Truth, Xavier Woods, Kofi Kingston, Cody Rhodes, Goldust, Rey Mysterio, Fandango, Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, Luke Harper, Erick Rowan, Damien Sandow, Jimmy Uso, and Jey Uso. Of that crew, the ones with realistic chances of winning are Punk, Batista, and, for the sake of argument, Langston and Reigns.
29. Oh yeah — Batista’s back. He returned Monday (the plan was for him to be a surprise Rumble entrant; his return was spoiled by a local event ad that included his name on the roster). He’s supposedly going to be around for a year or two, not just a quick, Dwayne Johnson–esque stopover to promote his new movie (but don’t sleep on Guardians of the Galaxy, coming to your solar system in August!), and he’s already rumored to be lining up for a feud with Brock Lesnar. On Raw he stated his intention to contest for Randy Orton’s WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
28. During the TLC pay-per-view, I asked people on Twitter whether Langston or Reigns would hold the WWE title first. I expected a fairly even response, but Reigns got roughly a hundred votes and Langston got one. One! If you’re determined to place a long-odds bet, make it on Reigns. And when Reigns is headlining WrestleMania 31 and Langston is signing autographs next to George “The Animal” Steele next year, just remember that my readers predicted it.
27. The WWE World Heavyweight Championship is officially what we’re calling it. After much debate over what the unified title would be called, WWE just decided to call it everything. On Sunday, Orton will defend his belt against John Cena again, except this time it’ll be a traditional wrestling match, as opposed to the pseudo garbage-fest they had last month at TLC. The outcome of this match should provide an idea about what to expect from WrestleMania 30 in April. The last leaked version of the ’Mania card didn’t even have Cena on it, meaning that either they’re saving him for a big, secret match or they’re waiting to see where on the card they need him most. If another star goes down with an injury or one of the feuds WWE tries to develop in the coming months lacks oomph, they might just toss in Cena as a cure-all. Then again, he might beat Orton on Sunday if WWE decides that Cena is needed most as the undisputed champ leading up to the biggest show of the year, especially without a returning megastar like the Rock to anchor the show.
26. There is one megastar rumored to be returning for ’Mania: Hulk Hogan. Just don’t expect anything resembling a wrestling match out of him. Hogan’s last match of record — against Sting at TNA Bound for Glory 2011 — didn’t involve much wrestling, and now it’s two and a half years later. Hogan’s hips and back and knees are so damaged that he can barely sit in a folding chair, let alone wrestle. Now, could he be featured in a gimmick match or a tag-team bout? Sure. On the Cheap Heat podcast about a month ago, I fantasy-booked Hogan and Cena versus the Real Americans, but it’s probably too late to elevate Swagger and Cesaro to that level. Rowdy Roddy Piper, Hogan’s old sparring partner, has been publicly agitating for a match featuring Hogan and Cena versus Punk and Piper. But Piper has been knocked in the head with a coconut if he thinks that’s going to happen.
25. The Rumble always features a few shocking entries from wrestlers outside the WWE universe. Of all the wrestlers not currently under contract with the company (and not named Hulk Hogan), the two rumored gate-crashers are Sting and AJ Styles. I’d put the odds of either of these two appearing on Sunday at 50-1 and 100-1, respectively. Sting is too far past his prime to be worth much to WWE, except for a victory lap and a Legends contract — which isn’t to say he won’t be there, just that I’m calling it unlikely till it happens. As for Styles, he left TNA and re-signed with Ring of Honor, which is great for indie wrestling fans, but it makes it hard to call him a top-tier free agent. Frankly, I’m not convinced Vince McMahon even knows who Styles is.
24. If there are no surprise hires, then can we at least expect a few surprising returns? The potential field of in-house candidates looks something like this: Chris Jericho, Sheamus, Rob Van Dam, Christian, and the Undertaker. I’m putting Jericho and Sheamus in the highly likely category, since — SPOILER ALERT — both of them are listed as celebrity guests of the World of Wheels car show in Pittsburgh (the site of the Rumble) in the days leading up to the event. Christian was cleared to return from injury several months back, only to be afflicted with the dreaded “recurring concussion symptoms” after a blow to the head. It’s unclear whether he’s still on injured reserve or if WWE is just waiting for the most opportune time to bring him back. RVD is always semi-available, and with the WWE surprise entrant tank running low, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him come back in an echo of his surprise appearance at the 2009 Rumble. And the Undertaker is not entering the Royal Rumble. Period.
23. Speaking of Sheamus — a phrase I never thought I’d need to write — his Twitter account got interesting Monday night. First it reset, deleting all his tweets and reverting to a basic profile, except with a bright orange square as the icon, and “404 Not Found” in place of his name. The first tweet was a garble of code and an attached image of a T-shirt with that same label and image. Later that night the tweet disappeared and the name changed to “Loading … ,” which is a pretty cool little way to tease your return, especially considering Sheamus was a tech support guy in real life before he became a full-time wrestler. If WWE follows this to completion, I’m pretty sure “Sheamus the Disgruntled Tech Support Warrior” would become my favorite wrestler. Imagine him taunting foes by monitoring their on-the-job Facebook use or insisting they email a request form before he can OK their entrance music. I’m all in on this. (Late Wednesday night, “Loading” morphed into “Woading,” which certainly sounds like some ancient Celtic warrior thing, and — wait, yep, I Googled “woad,” and here’s a hot chick dressed up like Sheamus’s girlfriend. When this article was published, it read “Rebooting……”)
22. Two other big names who deserve a place in the Rumble are Mark Henry and Dolph Ziggler, but they also have injury issues. After sitting out for long stretches of 2013 with concussion symptoms, Dolph was recently re-concussed in a match with Ryback, and his readiness is up in the air. Henry should be physically able, but he was served up as fodder for a returning Brock Lesnar. Henry was pretty thoroughly destroyed in that encounter, and bringing him back so soon might delegitimize Lesnar’s brutality on a night when it’s going to be on prime-time display in another match.
21. Lesnar is taking on the Big Show in a match that promises to test the average wrestling fan’s interest in spectacle over substance. Will Show tossing Lesnar around the ring (and Lesnar landing with reckless abandon) be cool to watch? Yes. Will seeing Lesnar toss Show around in return be a Guinness World Record–level astonishing sight? You better believe it. Will the action leading up to those thrills be worth it? That remains to be seen. If they drag it out too long, no number of Paul Heyman crazy faces will save this match from the doldrums.
20. There’s always the chance that somebody in one of the non-Rumble matches will pull double duty. The New Age Outlaws are taking on Cody Rhodes and Goldust (and the Rhodes brothers are already announced as Rumble participants), but I doubt they’ll enter the Rumble, unless it’s for some kind of anti-Punk shenanigans. I assume Show and Lesnar won’t make it solely due to the carnage they’ll wreak upon one another during their head-to-head. Orton and Cena should be negatives as well, but you never know when Vince McMahon will decide John Cena needs another Rumble banner to hang in the rafters. (And as with all things, what goes for Cena goes for Orton to a somewhat lesser degree.) Daniel Bryan and Bray Wyatt are maybes, because, well, next point …
19. I can imagine Bryan and Wyatt ending up as repeat performers in the Rumble because they both seem too big for their one-on-one match, bizarre as that sounds. Their feud has been the main event on Raw for the past few weeks, but appearing in a regular old wrestling match Sunday seems like a letdown. A lot of people are guessing that Bryan will beat Wyatt and then enter himself into the Rumble, which would certainly be a compelling next step in his story line. Just imagine: Bryan comes in at no. 29, starts to clean house. Then Bray comes in at no. 30, stares Bryan down, and helps him clear the ring. Then he lets Bryan knee him out of the ring. I have no idea why any of this happens, but it will somehow add up to Bryan working the main event at ’Mania.
18. But what if Bryan’s feud with Wyatt isn’t actually a piece of that puzzle? I’m not throwing in with everybody who thinks WWE is burying Bryan, but I think there’s something to the idea that they’re keeping him away from the title scene — so he’ll be available to work with a certain Dead Man at ’Mania. Wishful thinking, perhaps. But it makes a lot of sense. If he’s not running in at the end of the Rumble, this is where they’re headed. Or else they’re just burying Bryan.
17. One good indicator that they’re not: The WWE marketing machine has finally gotten behind him, and the results are, well, weird. I understand the genius of selling fake beards — kids love that stuff. And goat-themed onesies — I’m not in the target demographic, but the illustration is cute. But can somebody please explain this fur-billed hat monstrosity? The bill in no way resembles a beard. There’s no way to even wear it as a beard. If you made a fur-billed visor, then you could put it around your face and wear it as a beard. That would be a reasonable product. But a fur-billed hat is just creepy.
16. With the New Age Outlaws back and seemingly unchanged since their heyday, along with Goldust’s Indian summer, Jericho’s timelessness, and Batista’s triumphant return, it may be time to reconsider the definition of a wrestler’s prime. Sure, there have always been guys who wrestled into old age, from “Strangler” Lewis to Ric Flair, but they looked and moved like old men when they performed. This new generation of fogies looks younger than a twentysomething Arn Anderson. What’s going on? For one thing, taking time off the grueling WWE schedule does wonders for these guys’ physical well-being. Besides that, between advances in exercise, the health industry, and supplements of all varieties of legality, this generation is roughly 20 years younger-looking than its parents. This reminds me: The WWE Network really needs to have a season of Tough Enough where all the contestants are former WWE superstars looking for a second chance. Are you telling me you wouldn’t watch that?
15. We’re still several wrestlers shy of 30. Who else is left? Well, how about second-tier guys: Ryback, Curtis Axel, Antonio Cesaro, Jack Swagger, Sin Cara, Brodus Clay, and Tensai. I’d put fairly good odds on all those guys appearing, because they’re all either capable of amazing feats of strength, partners with somebody who’s capable of amazing feats of strength, impressively fat, or Sin Cara. The third tier is Darren Young, Titus O’Neil, Los Matadores, Three Man Band, Tyson Kidd, and Zack Ryder, assuming any of those guys is still employed.
14. Ryback, by the way, has morphed from my least favorite WWE wrestler to one of my five or so favorite performers over the last month. And he’s still climbing. He remains lousy in the ring, but WWE has done a good job of hiding that by putting him in a tag team with Curtis Axel (a more than serviceable worker). The stroke of genius, however, has been letting Ryback sit in on commentary, where he has taken us on a mind-blowing trip into either a severely tortured mind or one of the most well-drawn characters in modern WWE history. The same symptoms are present in his newly robust Twitter presence. He recently went on a rant that was so off the wall that when he teased that he’d been fired, everybody believed him. His next move was to walk to the ring on Raw while making a demented typing gesture. By then, my appreciation for the Big Guy was cemented.
13. I don’t really care about Sin Cara, but it’s worth mentioning that WWE recently replaced the original Sin Cara — who had an astonishing knack for getting hurt — with Hunico, the wrestler last seen on a lowrider bicycle in Dockers and a bandanna. Yes, the same Hunico who played the Evil Sin Cara that “real” Sin Cara feuded with soon after his arrival in WWE. Hunico was a better Sin Cara even then, so it’s somewhat encouraging (if also hilarious) that WWE has seen the error of its ways and given Evil Sin Cara the chance he always deserved. And let this be a lesson to you, meta-fans: Just because you lose a feud doesn’t mean you can’t win in the end.
12. One other bloke I haven’t listed yet is Wade Barrett, who has gotten lots of airtime in recent months with his new “Bad News” Barrett character. But lest you think he’s just another tough judoka from the mean streets of Harlem, he’s the same bristly Brit he’s always been. Now, however, he has a podium and gavel from which he dispenses bad news to fans and fellow wrestlers. Of course, I use “fellow” loosely here, since we haven’t actually seen Wade wrestle since he’s been repackaged. Maybe the Rumble is the right time to debut his physical side, but I wouldn’t mind if they keep him on the sidelines. He’s just too magical as WWE’s cantankerous stage manager, and they should save his ring return for something more important. Which means Wade will probably be in the Rumble.
11. As I write this, I’m realizing that WWE has made me care about Orton, Ryback, (maybe) Sheamus, and Barrett all significantly more than I cared about them three or four months ago. (Of these, Barrett is the only one whom I actually wanted to like, but he’s been so unmemorable since his Nexus run that I’m lumping him in with the rest.) That’s no small feat for the company. Throw Damien Sandow, Fandango, and, hell, even 3MB in there, and you have to admit that WWE has found its rhythm at making terrible characters or potentially terrible gimmicks ironically likable. All I can do is stop here and give the company kudos. Well done, WWE! Now, can you please do something with Kofi Kingston and Alberto Del Rio?
10. Kofi Kingston, disgruntled OfficeMax employee. I’m just going to leave that there.
9. Oh, I guess any Royal Rumble column would be remiss if it didn’t mention Jake “The Snake” Roberts. I can’t not mention Jake, who recently recovered from injury and rehabbed with the aid of pro wrestling’s resident yogi, Diamond Dallas Page. Jake has been practically begging for a Rumble slot since he started getting healthy, but — like Roddy Piper — I think his campaign is working against him. Roberts would be a great surprise, and publicly petitioning to be a surprise is self-defeating. And they already gave him a big surprise moment on “Old School” Raw a few weeks back. That said, if any story deserves a storybook ending, it’s Jake’s. They just might have to build in a little more than 90 seconds so that fans have enough time to wipe the tears from their eyes.
8. Jake’s return at Old-School Raw came in support of CM Punk, who got the rub from both the Snake and Roddy Piper during that show. If there were any question about the counterculture taking over the mainstream, that basically sealed it. Punk is the Rumble’s no. 1 entrant, thanks to a decision by WWE’s nefarious director of operations, Kane. What’s key here isn’t whether Punk will win — my guess is he won’t — but that putting him first makes this Punk’s match. All the other headliners (save for Batista and any other surprises) have matches separate from the Rumble. Making Punk first is a gift to fans, a promise that he’ll be an enormous part of the match.
7. Also, it’s another step toward a fully rekindled feud between Punk and Triple H. First, Punk had issues with Hunter’s old buddies the New Age Outlaws. Then, he quarreled with Kane, who’s doing the McMahon family’s bidding. Are we finally going to get the big Punk–Triple H match we’ve waited years for at WrestleMania 30? I know that many fans hate Triple H, but I would love it if he squares off with Punk. It would be a brilliant move for WWE, too. After that, every time fans scream about a story line they don’t like, WWE can answer: “Look at Punk! He eventually got his match with Triple H! Vindication takes time!” Just kidding, WWE doesn’t listen to the fans.
6. Since the Rumble is the beginning of the road to WrestleMania, what does the rest of the ’Mania card look like at this point? If Punk–Triple H is edging toward a lock, and Bryan-Undertaker looks possible, then Orton-Batista could be more feasible than ever. And I guess that sounds good. I have no interest in Batista as a good guy, but there’s a certain Affliction-T-shirt-wearing faction of WWE fans that will have very strong feelings about the outcome. I’m down with it. Orton-Batista 8: This Is for All the Red Bull and Vodkas, Bro might be a Match of the Year candidate. If you buy that, I guess you’re picking Batista to win the Rumble. Which I guess I am too.
5. The Rhodes brothers — Cody and Goldust — have long been rumored to be heading toward a match at ’Mania, so Sunday’s the day for the seeds of dissent to be sown. Could they lose to the Outlaws and have it out in the Rumble? The fact that they’ve already announced their participation in both matches may be telegraphing this development, but obvious works for these two — it’s just old-fashioned, fun wrestling. Whatever they do will hit the sweet spot.
4. Speaking of old-school wrestling, I have to mention that the Ultimate Warrior was announced as the first inductee into the 2014 WWE Hall of Fame Class. This is great news — by any definition, he should be in the Hall, and any excuse to rewatch those cocaine-fueled, absolutely insane promos from his heyday is worth it to me. I hope WWE offers good health insurance to its production staff, because whatever poor assistant had to pore over the tapes to pick out the interview excerpts for this announcement package is probably suffering from PTSD.
3. Speaking more of old-school wrestling, the WWE Network was announced earlier this month. It’s going to change all our lives. First of all, you get the PPVs for $10 a month, which is a gift in and of itself. Then there’s old wrestling footage, and original shows, one of which is going to be made up solely of old Ultimate Warrior promos and seizure-inducing strobe lights. (OK, that’s not true, but if you have time to watch only one video today, please let it be this amazing video of old Warrior promos. It really makes you reconsider your childhood. Which, now that I think about it, is the beauty of the WWE Network.)
2. Two Mondays ago, when WWE was busy pimping its just-announced network, color man Jerry “The King” Lawler suggested that fans check out his victory against Curt Hennig to win the AWA championship back when Lawler was the star (and co-owner) of the Memphis wrestling territory. JBL replied: “That’s not fair. You booked the territory!” Ladies and gents, this is what the Reality Era hath wrought. In 1996, Brian Pillman uttered the words “booker man” in Kevin Sullivan’s direction, and the wrestling world exploded. Today, breaking kayfabe comes as easily as Pat Summerall calling in the chain gang. (And speaking of WWE announcers breaking the fourth wall, I interviewed the legendary Jim Ross recently, during which he talked about his career, his relationship with WWE, the current crop of superstars, and, of course, Oklahoma Sooner football.)
1. Enjoy the Royal Rumble, everybody. If you haven’t made plans already, take Bill Simmons’s advice and get some friends together for a Rumble draft. Or go to a bar and count down from 10 over and over again for an hour. Or find a Rumble drinking game online, preferably one without “Michael Cole says ‘vintage’” on the list, because I don’t want to be responsible for what happens. Either way, enjoy it — this is the best moment of the wrestling year. Because by the time WrestleMania rolls around, we’ll all be jaded again.