“What is this shit?”
Such a question was once asked by Greil Marcus in his Rolling Stone review of Bob Dylan’s 1970 album Self Portrait. Tonight, I ask this question of WWE. For the second year in a row, the alleged sports “entertainment” company has ended their Royal Rumble event to a chorus of boos, and a completely livid fanbase. Worst of all, the context of these reactions has basically remained unchanged.
Last year, Dave Batista came back from a rather long hiatus to win the Royal Rumble. Fan favorite Daniel Bryan, who was and is still the most popular non-John Cena member of the roster, was not even in the match. CM Punk, another perennial fan favorite, was eliminated by the lame duck Corporate Kane and suffered a legit concussion. He walked out the next day. All wrestling fans know how the story ends: Daniel Bryan ended up beating both Triple H, and later in a triple threat match, Randy Orton and Batista en route to winning the WWE title at the end of Wrestlemania 30.
The runner up from last year’s Royal Rumble, Roman Reigns, would ironically end up being in the Batista role this year. For the past six months it has been increasingly obvious that Reigns is being groomed as the next face of the company. This despite the clear fact that his ex-Shield partners Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose are far more skilled both in the ring and on the mic. Admittedly though, Seth Rollins has become the top heel in WWE.
Even though Reigns was injured for a large part of the last four months of 2014, WWE’s plans remained completely unchanged and completely transparent. The latter factor is rather important. Most fans know that professional wrestling is scripted. Sometimes, the results are predictable, though this depends on the level of the viewer’s cynicism. With an event like the Royal Rumble, where the result determines the card of the most important event of the year – Wrestlemania – unpredictability is a rather important factor.
Of course, one can rather easily guess the top five candidates to win. Perhaps even the top three. But in a good year, one doesn’t really know for certain who will win. Running up to this year’s event, I wasn’t completely sure. I knew the top three, though: Roman Reigns, Daniel Bryan, and Dolph Ziggler. Bryan returned rather surprisingly in early January from what could have been a career ending-shoulder injury – and an injury that put an end to his title run last year. His return seemed to signal that he had a serious chance to win the match.
My excitement over my short parole from the lifetime sentence of Roman Reigns wins was naive. Daniel Bryan was eliminated long before the match was over, and before WWE had even filtered through the midcarders and jobbers. From there, it was pretty clear that Roman Reigns would win. Though I held out hope for Dolph Ziggler, the final entrant, he was unceremoniously dumped out of the ring by loyal WWE employees Kane and the Big Show.
Regardless of Ziggler, the crowd in Philadelphia turned on the event once Bryan was eliminated. Roman Reigns predictably rode to his WWE knighting ceremony to a chorus of boos. Rest assured that Vince McMahon had a plan. Big Show and Kane started to beat up on Roman Reigns right after the match ended. Heels beating on a babyface is a classic way to garner sympathy, right? Well, not for this Philadelphia crowd. The boos stayed.
Then, The Rock’s music hit. The WWE had publicly promoted his appearance at the arena on Twitter and some had assumed he may be in the Rumble match itself. Rocky came to save his cousin, Roman Reigns. The Rock’s appearance caused a few cheers, but the chorus of boos for Reigns remained. This led to an odd sequence where The Rock’s moves would be cheered, only for Reign’s moves, seconds later, to be booed.
WWE still had one last idea to throw at the wall: Rusev. Apparently, Rusev was never actually thrown over the top rope and was thus not eliminated. He ran down to the ring at some point while Big Show and Kane fought the recently connected father and son duo of The Rock and Roman Reigns. The crowd must have spotted him, as they began to chant “We want Rusev.” This is incredible, because Rusev is one of the few members of the WWE roster to generate real heel heat on a consistent basis. Being a patriotic Russian who displays Vladimir Putin’s face on the Jumbotron will have that effect.
Despite this, the fans cheered Rusev as he fought Reigns. Reigns was obviously going to eliminate this heel usurper, but the fans wanted to have their voices heard. This meant nothing in the end, and Rusev went over the top rope. Reigns and the Rock celebrated for a bit, and then Reigns celebrated by himself in the ring while the crowd continued to boo.
It was a desperate attempt to get the fans to accept management’s decision. The whole situation was quite bizarre: an entertainment company attempting to placate fans, upset by not getting what they paid for, so they would accept an unpopular character thrust upon them. This is of course what happened in 2014, but there is one alarming difference: WWE has cultivated a fair amount of homegrown stars in the past year. Seth Rollins, now the top heel in the company in theory – though Roman could perhaps be the top heel in practice – was of course not in the match. But Dean Ambrose was. Bray Wyatt was. Dolph Ziggler, who has been popular for several years despite being booked inconsistently, was also there.
Instead, Vince McMahon doubled down on his Roman Reigns decision. Daniel Bryan was eliminated early in a foolish attempt to have the crowd get over their anger before Reigns won. Instead they rightfully shit on the rest of the match. Given WWE’s struggles to get more subscribers to the WWE Network this past year, and their crack addict mentality when it comes to seeking mainstream acceptance – here is where I remind you of Daniel Bryan and the popularity of the “YES!” chant – you would think they would try to listen to their fans. Instead, as has happened many times in the past, Vince McMahon has ignored his fans and shoved an unprepared wrestler down their throats. Good luck Roman Reigns, you may very well ruin Wrestlemania.