The bookies were right. Randy Orton won the 30th annual Royal Rumble to secure his place at WrestleMania.
Except…Randy Orton was always going to be at WrestleMania. He’s Randy Orton. The Viper. The Legend-Killer. The Evolution of the Legacy. His place on the big stage is assured.
But he’s a safe choice – and when it came down to the final two, with Roman Reigns the other man still standing, an Orton win was the only way to assure cheers rather than boos as the show went off the air.
Something else that would have assured cheers would have been a more exciting, more interesting choice for the winner – somebody who’s not already guaranteed a shot at the year’s biggest show. It seems that you either have to have a history in the WWE going back a minimum of 15 years or you have to have that famed “look” to be able to edge your way into a main event spot. Daniel Bryan might have got the crowd on his side through years of mockery and comedy storylines due to his personality and his sheer brilliance at wrestling – but after his glorious WrestleMania moment, he had to retire due to injury, and maybe the powers-that-be have been put off taking that risk ever again.
It makes it very dull for those of us watching.
Now, this isn’t a rant about how we ought to cancel our WWE Network subscriptions until we get exactly the results we want. It’s more of a elegy to the eternal hopefulness that’s inherent in being a wrestling fan.
I’ve written before how my love of NXT has revolutionised the way I watch the rest of WWE’s product. I feel connected with the NXT talent; I’ve watched them develop as performers, yes, but I’ve also travelled along with their characters. I understand what motivates those characters. I’m invested in those characters. It’s why I will happily admit to crying at Bayley’s title win at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn, and at Sami Zayn’s ascent to the championship at NXT TakeOver: R Evolution; and to sending irate messages to wrestling fan friends for the last month of 2014 and into 2015 decrying the evils of Kevin Owens.
NXT has only an hour of regular programming a week, but still manages to bring me along for the ride. That’s why I’ve been spending the last few months hoping against hope that Tye Dillinger got to make his Royal Rumble debut as entrant number ten; and why I was noisily rooting for Sami Zayn to prove the iron man of the contest and battle out an underdog victory.
They gave me Dillinger – and I was thrilled. I was thrilled to see a surprise entrant in the Rumble, yes, sure, I always am; but I was mainly thrilled for him. We know how long he’s been in WWE, we know how hard he’s worked to make a name for himself, and we know that he’s always just missed out on the top slots. To hear his music hit, to see him walk out, and to listen to a crowd reacting to him in the way he deserves – that was beautiful.
They gave me Zayn, too, after weeks of trying to make him look like a loser, with the cool kids all mocking him. The problem there, of course, is that’s kind of Zayn’s character. He’s a good-hearted nerd, who’s all about respect and honour and hard work. He’s nice to everyone, he doesn’t like taking shortcuts to glory, and he’s willing to fight for what he wants. Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins, with their lustrous locks and pragmatic principles, can scoff all they like at his game-plan presented to them on RAW; Zayn is essentially a nice man.
One might expect WWE to recognise the power of that niceness in creating a potential champion babyface. It doesn’t look like they have, though.
I was hoping for too much when I was hoping for a Zayn Rumble win. But just think about it. How good would that have been? It would have set up the re-run of the feud with Owens, yes, which would have been fun; but we’ve seen in his battles against Braun Strowman that his sheer spirit can take him a long way against monsters too. WWE is desperately short of babyface champions; I may be naive, but I genuinely believe Zayn could fill that role given a chance.
Take that chance, WWE. Take the chance on new, exciting talent and characters; mix it up. Orton got the biggest cheer he’s received in years when he returned after a lengthy spell away; with so many hours of live programming per week it’s easy for your famous faces to get stale.
So make some new famous faces.
It’s not just Zayn. Jason Jordan and Chad Gable have been lost in the mix since winning the Smackdown tag titles – and we know they’re both great wrestlers who can get a crowd on their side with humour and with emotion. Why not showcase them? Give them a few months in a prominent storyline, give them time in the ring, and I hope and predict they’ll reward you a thousandfold – as will the fans. Imagine – with these kinds of performers, with clearly delineated motivations, you might even start getting the reactions you want from the crowd.