The 2012 Royal Rumble pay-per-view includes just four announced matches, but the show nonetheless looks like the most interesting edition within memory. The WWE has done a great job of enhancing each match with intrigue that goes beyond the basic question of who wins.
WrestleMania is a snapshot of the business and the biggest show of the year, but I find that the Royal Rumble (and, recently, Money in the Bank) is the pay-per-view that generally tells us more about where the business is headed. I fully expect that to be the case in 2012. Moreso than usual, in fact.
World Heavyweight Championship: Daniel Bryan (c) vs. Mark Henry vs. The Big Show
One of the most impressive recent WWE creative feats has been to help transform Daniel Bryan from a great wrestler who was a little bland and somewhat directionless on the mic into one of the more compelling characters on the roster. Bryan has evolved into a performer who combines a classic cowardly heel mentality (when’s the last time he actually won a match?) with a modern ironic sensibility.
I don’t think that will change at the Rumble. Slithering away with his title status intact may be more difficult in a cage match, but the fact that it’s a triple threat with Big Show and Mark Henry leads me to believe that he’ll be beaten to a pulp by both of them, then somehow find just enough strength to escape the cage while they’re occupied with one another. The manner in which that unfolds should be entertaining.
John Cena vs. Kane
The buildup for the John Cena vs. Kane match has been a mixed bag, sometimes crossing into some very silly territory. The big picture is worth following, though. The issue boils down to this: Will the WWE spend the last two months before WrestleMania continuing to move Cena’s character along a trajectory that embraces his mixed fan reaction by giving him a heretofore unseen edginess? Or, will the culmination of this angle simply be to reinforce that Cena is a superhero “face?”
This is a difficult call. If the WWE is as responsive to the fans as it claims to be, it would probably make more sense for Cena to continue to acknowledge his detractors and to turn on that portion of the audience (as Kane and Roddy Piper have suggested). On the other hand, if the idea is to maintain Cena as a resolute character who “Rises Above Hate,” then I think that leads to him denying his baser emotions.
Here’s why I think the WWE may go the “face with an edge” route. The main event of Survivor Series (and its aftermath) was carefully booked to make Cena look like a chump, plain and simple. From that moment, it became implausible that this version of John Cena would be able to defeat The Rock at WrestleMania, a point later explicitly reinforced by Piper.
The entire angle with Ryder and Kane has been a slow burn to get Cena to snap. I think the character is at that point now. So, I think he’ll defeat Kane at the Royal Rumble and either be conflicted about attacking after the bell (but do it), or go all-in and absolutely destroy Kane (and possibly some officials), depending on whether they want to wait until we’re closer to April 1st to pull the trigger. Either way, I think the WWE has come to the conclusion that they need to alter Cena’s character in advance of WrestleMania.
WWE Championship: CM Punk (c) vs. Dolph Ziggler
CM Punk’s recent feud with John Laurinaitis evokes obvious comparisons to the (seemingly endless) McMahon / Austin rivalry of the Attitude Era. Laurinaitis serves as guest referee for Punk’s match with Dolph Ziggler at the Rumble. The Executive VP of Talent Relations previously vowed to “screw” Punk, only to recant after HHH revealed that Laurinaitis would be up for a performance review on Monday.
The booking of the angle has been fairly paint-by-numbers thus far, with Dolph Ziggler picking up several victories under circumstances that enhance his own profile without diminishing Punk’s. That’s suggestive of a Punk victory on Sunday, especially with the “odds stacked against him.” I expect Punk to overcome those odds, just as Austin did more often than not in the late 90’s.
This match is more important to Dolph Ziggler, win or lose. I personally think Ziggler may be the biggest star in the company inside of three years. He could be a superb heel foil for John Cena, perhaps just as much as the soon-to-be Hall-of-Famer Edge was. Ziggler’s title match with Punk at the Rumble should be another example of Ziggler having the best match on the card. This will also serve to reinforce him as a believable contender for the WWE Title, which he’ll almost certainly win at some point in the foreseeable future.
Many, myself included, have suggested / hoped for a Punk / Jericho feud leading to a WrestleMania match. I think some believe that’s why Ziggler may walk out of the Rumble with the WWE Title, thanks to interference from Y2J. I don’t see the belt changing hands (see below), but I acknowledge that it’s not out of the question. I would be less surprised to see a title change here than I would be in the WHT match, but I think a title switch in either is less likely than not.
The 30-Man Royal Rumble Match
Now we get to the heart of the show. It wouldn’t be a Royal Rumble without a few staples. One, we’ll get a marathon run by a guy who doesn’t win as a show of confidence and a way to keep him relevant. That’s obviously the Miz this year. The #1 entrant is clearly (at least to me) still a guy who can be a main event talent for years to come, but the WWE has had him treading water for several months in order to elevate other superstars in the second half of 2011 (e.g. Del Rio). I expect Miz to last a good half-hour, but ultimately go out as one of the final ten guys. Miz fans shouldn’t feel bad about him being in this role: Last year, it was CM Punk. I also think Sheamus will have a nice showing—for exactly the same reasons.
We’ll also get some “surprise” entrants. Mick Foley (whom I think will make it to the last five guys in order to tease a win) doesn’t count, since he’s already been announced, but he would otherwise fit that mold. Gus Ramsey’s simulation of the Rumble had Brock Lesnar actually winning it, but I doubt we’ll see Brock in the real thing (and I suspect Gus does as well). Surprise entrants who aren’t on the active roster usually don’t last long. I don’t believe Lesnar would come back for the sake of a huge pop just to be eliminated a couple of minutes later a la Kevin Nash last year. For a somewhat similar reason, I don’t think we’ll see the Undertaker, either. Someone who’s been sidelined for a while like Rey Mysterio, Christian, or Alberto Del Rio may show up, but I think their injuries were severe enough to keep them out of action for a while longer.
Someone at Sons of the Sports Guy brought up a good suggestion: Road Warrior Animal (and father of St. Louis Ram James Laurinaitis) might have a cameo appearance. Mike Austin thinks MVP will also show. We might see HHH, but the fact that he’s already announced for RAW probably makes it less likely he’ll be in the Rumble, based on the normal pro wrestling logic. I’m sure we’ll see at least one person on the roster we haven’t seen in the ring in a while, like Goldust. Not knowing exactly who the thirty men will be is a great part of the fun.
There will be some comic relief provided by likely candidates such as Santino Marella (as usual), Broadus Clay, and William Regal. Clay’s music may compel “involuntary” dancing from those in the ring upon his entrance—before he eliminates them. Or maybe something like this will happen.
But what about the actual winner of the event?
It may be foolish to say this about an ostensibly unpredictable event, but I think there are only four competitors who have any realistic chance of winning. Note that John Cena is not on the following list. His being locked into the biggest match on the WrestleMania card already makes it a fait accompli that he won’t win the Rumble. He may not even be one of the thirty men.
Here are the four, in reverse order of likelihood:
4. Dolph Ziggler – An interesting note about this year’s Rumble is that it’s apparently open to all superstars, including champions. That’s something we haven’t seen in about twenty years. More on that in a moment. Before Ziggler earned his way into the WWE Title match, I thought he was the co-favorite to win the Rumble. Just like Wade Barrett on Smackdown, Ziggler is ready to be the top heel on RAW. He’s a great worker and talker with Hall of Fame potential. The only question is the timetable. Since he’s already in the title match earlier, he’s a very long shot at this point, albeit still on the board. I think he may end up in a high-profile feud with Mick Foley with Ziggler going over to elevate the former Spirit Squad member even further.
3. Wade Barrett – I believe that he can absolutely be the top heel on Smackdown—and a World champion—right now. He’s that good. He’s hurt by the fact that Smackdown is so heel-heavy, with Mark Henry and now Daniel Bryan at the top of the heap. In fact, Sheamus and Orton both having little alternative but to work face is a good indicator of how imbalanced things have become on Friday night. As for Barrett, barring injury, it’s just a matter of time before he gets a run with Big Gold. The company has given some mixed signals on him, seeming to trust him for sure, but only up to a point. He needs one final push to go over the top. The dominant “Barrett Barrage” run is a good sign. I also think he’s a long-shot, however, because of his unfinished business with Randy Orton. That leads me to . . .
2. Randy Orton – The case for Orton: He’s from St. Louis, the site of the Rumble. He’s coming off an injury, as was the case with recent winners Cena and Edge the years that they triumphed. The case against Orton: When Cena and Edge won, they came back from injuries early as surprise participants in the Rumble. Orton was on Smackdown this past week and looked to be in fighting shape. Orton also still has an active issue with Wade Barrett, who is not currently a titleholder. That leads me to believe that Barrett will eliminate Orton (or they’ll eliminate each other), continuing their feud. Having said that, Orton is definitely a threat to win. If he does come out on top in the Rumble, it would make sense for Barrett to win the World Title and hold it for the month prior to WrestleMania, where he then faces Orton. Given what’s happened with Bryan’s character of late, the quick timing of that seems unwise. If Orton hadn’t already appeared on television, I might have him at #1.
1. Chris Jericho – He’s the favorite, and picking someone else would probably qualify as over-thinking this. A feud with Punk has incredible potential, and the WWE probably feels more confident booking a Jericho / Punk feud (for the “smarts”) with Cena / Rock anchoring the show, taking pressure off of the other main events from a casual fan standpoint. Admittedly, I’m biased, as Chris Jericho is one of my all-time favorites. However, the buildup for Jericho leads me to believe that, whether he wins the Rumble or not, the WWE has huge plans for him. If he doesn’t feud with Punk, the alternative might be Undertaker, although I don’t think that’s objectively as interesting.
I’ll be surprised if someone besides Jericho or Orton wins. I’ll be shocked if someone other than these four wins.
Speaking of Jericho, there’s still one looming question in play. I began this piece by noting that the PPV is packed with intrigue beyond match outcomes. The biggest mystery of all is the significance of Jericho’s “end of the world” talk. I think there are two primary possibilities.
First, it could just be generic, grandiose wrestling promo talk designed to make Jericho seem like the major star that he is. It might not have any deeper meaning than “I’m back, so get ready for me to start winning matches and titles—not to mention your hearts and minds!” Remember the original Nexus? And remember how Wade Barrett would make vague references to a “bigger picture,” implying there was a higher purpose for the group, or that there was someone else pulling the strings behind the scenes? Heck, remember the anonymous RAW general manager?
Sometimes writers try to enhance angles with undefined but implicitly earth-shattering significance, only to fail to pay off those angles in a way that maintains narrative integrity. That’s just the way it goes in sports entertainment. That may be the case here. “The end of the world” could just lead to something ordinary, like an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to end the Undertaker’s streak.
Could be. If it were someone other than Chris Jericho, I might say that the odds are it’s something unspectacular.
But, it is him. And I don’t think it will be.
Consider a possible alternative. Perhaps Jericho (kayfabe) took exception to Punk’s proclamation about being “The Best in the World.” Jericho then decided to return to show Punk the error of his ways by costing him the WWE Title, or taking it from Punk himself.
It could be that simple, and I think most WWE fans would be fine with (and excited by) a Punk/Jericho feud. But what if it goes beyond that? What if Jericho does do something to reshape the WWE?
Win the Royal Rumble.
Win the World Title at Elimination Chamber next month.
Show up on RAW and tell Punk that he’s going to unify the titles at WrestleMania to recreate the Undisputed Championship he innovated, signaling the end of the brand extension in the process.
In short, the end of the World (Wrestling Entertainment) as we’ve known it for the last decade or so.
This could unfold a number of ways. Jericho might have to defend his World Title earlier in the night at WrestleMania (which he’ll dismiss by reminding us of the night he beat The Rock and Steve Austin to unify the titles originally). Or, in a twist, and as a final seal of approval for Punk, Jericho might actually lose his belt to Punk, and it would be Punk who became Undisputed Champion.
Of course, the possibility of a straightforward feud between Jericho and Punk is still very much in play, and few would be disappointed by that outcome. Still, the WWE has been inching toward eliminating the longstanding brand extension for months. The RAW SuperShows and the announcement that champions are eligible for the Rumble are both hints of this. The latter is a deliberate tease to get the “smarts” talking about the possibility of one of the major champions winning the Rumble and challenging the other. I have a feeling the brand contraction trend will continue. However, the WWE may not complete that process until sometime in 2013.
If Jericho isn’t destined to win the Rumble, or to go after Punk, or even to feud with the Undertaker, then Y2J fans still may not come away displeased. Maybe that will be something outlandish or totally unexpected, like, as Mike suggested, a performance by Fozzy in lieu of Jericho actually walking to the ring for the Rumble. Just as he’s done these last several weeks, I’m confident that, whatever turn Jericho’s character takes at the Rumble, he’ll do something thoroughly creative, thought-provoking, and, above all else, entertaining.