It has been a while, folks.

I know all that “new year, new me” shit is a complete cliché, but I honestly was waiting around for 2017’s epoch before I dove back into complaining about WWE. It just made sense. So much happened during the long drought of 2016 that to jump back into it for a random pay-per-view felt like it would raise more questions than it answered. Thinking about it, this is going to be the first show that I’ve covered since the brand split, and that’s a can of worms on its own. So, let’s make a deal. I’ll keep the coverage up from now on, pinky promise, and you lot just assume I know what’s going on. Okay? Okay.

Besides, this seems like as good a place to jump back in as any other. Better, even. It’s the first pay-per-view show of the year. It’s the first of the Big Four – the others being Survivor Series, SummerSlam and WrestleMania – to take place since the brand split, the implementation of the cruiserweight division, and a handful of other significant changes to the product. It’s the Royal Rumble, for fuck’s sake. Everyone loves the Royal Rumble.

It’s also slated to be a six-hour show. That’s a long time. It’s a long time to spend doing anything, but it’s a particularly long time to spend watching pro-wrestling. We’ll definitely have plenty to talk about. That, though, is for Monday. Until then, let’s take a look at the event, see what’s what, and make some wild prognostications about the potential outcomes.

The Pre-Show

I can usually take or leave all the kick-off shenanigans, but Sunday’s pre-show is booked for two hours and features three matches – one for a title, no less. So, it’s worth a cursory examination if nothing else.

Singles Match: Sasha Banks vs. Nia Jax

7

At some point between the last time I wrote one of these and today, Sasha Banks – the best, most over female star on the roster – has somehow found herself tumbling from historic headlining matches as a three-time Women’s Champion directly into the opening act of the pre-show ghetto. This is unacceptable. It’s especially egregious because she’s no doubt being used to put over Nia Jax, who is the latest in a long line of dominant heel monsters being pushed because of their physical attributes rather than any kind of technical acumen or effective character work. This shouldn’t stand.

Still, here we are. The build for this hasn’t been horrible by WWE’s usual standards – I like Nia’s backstage assaults quite a bit; it’s the kind or curtain-twitching pre-match fixing you don’t see all that often in the current product. And the size differential can’t be understated. If anyone can sell Nia Jax’s power moves and make her look like the powerhouse we’re repeatedly told she is, it’s Sasha. But Sasha’s worked knee injury sets off alarm bells. It’s hardly a new booking strategy for WWE to protect one of their stars in a loss by undermining them in some way, whether it’s through an “injury” or some kind of interference. You can predict pretty much the whole match: Sasha fights valiantly against the monster, and she gets close, closer than anyone ever has before, but ultimately that pesky knee gives out at just the wrong moment.

The only other outcome I can envisage is a sneaky Sasha win followed by a sulky post-match beatdown, but that hardly strikes me as the smartest storytelling choice to kick-start Nia’s inevitable main event push. She’s spent most of the year slapping around local jobbers, so she needs a clean win over a legitimate opponent at a major show to establish some kind of credibility.

Tag Team Match (RAW Championships): Sheamus & Cesaro (c) vs. Gallows & Anderson

8

There’s an additional stipulation here: the match will have two referees. The reason for this is ostensibly because Sheamus accidentally hit a ref during their last title match and we need another one around to prevent anything shady from happening. In reality, what this means is Creative have no idea what to do with either team and this match is going to be dumb.

It has to be dumb, by the way. No choice. Pro-wrestling thrives on a suspension of disbelief, and one of the silly things that fans have gotten used to over the years is the sport’s referees being complete fucking morons. Very few seem to have a solid grasp of the rules, and they all, without exception, are childishly easy to distract, and blind to blatant interference. We’re used to this. The logical solution has always been to add another referee – one to essentially officiate the other. But WWE has never done this because it makes no sense in narrative terms. The fallibility of pro-wrestling referees is vital to the storytelling. If this match goes well, if a pair of referees keep the action consistently fair and then WWE doesn’t adapt this as the standard model, the product’s entire framework collapses.

So, the match will be dumb. The question is which direction the outcome will tilt because of that, and it’s difficult to say. On the one hand, Sheamus and Cesaro have only held the belts for a month, and having them drop the gold now seems a little premature. On the other, this is pretty much the last chance for Gallows and Anderson to make any kind of legitimate run. After a long period of being atrociously mishandled, they’re already cold. But they have far less upside as individuals than Sheamus and Cesaro do – both men are in the Royal Rumble match, and the Swiss Superman in particular is one of the best workers on the roster. I think a title change is ultimately inevitable. I just don’t think it’ll happen on Sunday.

Six-Woman Tag Team Match: Nikki Bella, Naomi & Becky Lynch vs. Mickie James, Natalya & Alexa Bliss

5

Right now, Smackdown is the far superior brand to Raw, and if you want to understand why you only need to look at the Women’s Division. It’s stacked. And while Raw consistently struggles to make four women consistently interesting, Smackdown has six, all of whom are involved in rivalries or angles, all of whom are individually compelling, and all of whom can go in the ring. The Blue Brand is managing to give all their female talent something to do while simultaneously weaving in associations with Total Divas and pseudo-reality. It’s the kind of efficient, economical storytelling you just don’t get on Monday nights.

Smackdown has its next PPV, Elimination Chamber, in just two weeks, and with two strong singles feuds already in-play this match seems like a good opportunity to properly establish a third. It’s also Mickie James’s first PPV match in nearly seven years. What this suggests, to me at least, is the heels going over.

The Main Card

Crikey, four hours seems like a long time. But the more you study the main card, the more loaded it seems with talent and intriguing matchups. I’m the last person to ever trust WWE Creative’s ability to sustain a show, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for now.

On with it.

Singles Match (Cruiserweight Championship): Rich Swann (c) vs. Neville

4

If the sheer amount of time being devoted to this show has a distinct upside, it’s that matches like this should, theoretically, get more time. And time is something the cruiserweight division desperately needs given how terrible the 205ers have been treated since the end of the Cruiserweight Classic.

Usually I’d be the first to complain about title belts being treated like a hot potato, but in this particular case I think the first order of business needs to be getting the championship on the hotter act, and that’s undeniably Neville. Since his return as a heel he’s been given depth, complexity and actual character development, which is a lot more than I can say for anyone else in the division, and he has been a tremendous worker for a long time. The fans latch on to him in a way that they haven’t yet with any of the cruiserweights because they recognise he was around before. All of the other contenders here feel like gimmicky sideshow characters who have been brought along to pad out a new division. That isn’t to say there aren’t some real talents among them, and there’s nothing wrong with Rich Swann per se, but in a division this young that has been so reliably mistreated since its inception what it needs first and foremost is a figurehead.

I know, I know, why rush the inevitable? They could just as easily have Swann pick up a sneaky win and pave the way for more of Neville’s random skulduggery. I just feel like the smarter play is to get the title change over and done with so Neville can establish a nice, solid, multiple-month run with it. That’ll give the rest of the division room to flesh itself out and develop contenders somewhat organically, rather than just cycling through everyone to see who gets over.

Singles Match (RAW Women’s Championship): Charlotte (c) vs. Bayley

1

I love Bayley. And I know I’m not in her target demographic. The hugging doesn’t do anything for me. I’d die a happy man if she never recited any poetry again in her entire life. But I love the idea of Bayley as a character. What she represents. She’s the antithesis of Charlotte Flair, who’s undeniably a great performer but equally undeniably a far-from-compelling entity. She’s pro-wrestling royalty. Her successes have been givens, and her character is specifically designed to remind everyone of that. She’s supposed to be here. But Bayley started out as just a fan. She made her way to the WWE because she fought tooth and nail to achieve a childhood dream. Which isn’t kayfabe, by the way – that’s her real story. She’s arguably the most compelling underdog since Daniel Bryan.

For once, I think WWE understands this. It took them a long while with Bryan, but eventually they saw what everyone else did, and by the grace of the pro-wrestling Gods he was able to have his moment at WrestleMania before injuries tragically curtailed his career. The blueprint is there. Bayley will claim the Women’s Championship, whether it’s in singles competition or a rumoured four-way that also includes Charlotte, Sasha Banks and Nia Jax. But she’ll do it at ‘Mania. Which means on Sunday Charlotte will find a way to win. And that’s okay.

No DQ Match (Universal Championship): Kevin Owens (c) vs. Roman Reigns

2

This isn’t exactly a popular opinion, but 2016 might have low-key been Roman Reigns’ best year to date. Not in terms of crowd reaction, obviously. He still gets vehemently booed regardless of the fact he’s supposed to be a babyface, and I doubt that’s going to change without some serious work on his character. The fact is, he’s simply miscast. He’s still holding onto his Shield persona without Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins to prop him up, and it isn’t that he can’t thrive on his own, it’s that he can’t thrive on his own without becoming an individual. When he inevitably captures the Universal Championship on Sunday, that could hopefully be the first step in a redesign. It doesn’t have to be anything drastic, just something that feels a little less artificial.

Not that WWE’s bookers do him any favours. By their usual standards this feud had been decent, but mostly thanks to every element besides Reigns. The unlikely pairing of JeriKO has propelled Raw along on sheer charisma, and their upcoming feud (which will likely start to solidify after whatever contrived outcome this match decides to go with) will almost certainly be great. In amongst it all is Seth Rollins, who might well make an appearance to facilitate the next step in his rivalry with Triple-H. Him costing Owens the belt seems as likely an outcome as any.

Singles Match (WWE Championship): AJ Styles (c) vs. John Cena

3

There’s really very little I need to say about this. It’s almost certainly going to be great, just like every other match in this series has been. And I think after a year of remarkably solid work, AJ Styles isn’t exiting the main event picture any time soon, regardless of the outcome. With that in mind, I don’t see any reason to worry about it. Just sit back and enjoy what will likely be the best match of the night.

Oh, who do I think’s going to win? It’s kind of a pick-‘em match, truth be told. Cena has to win the belt eventually. There’s no way he doesn’t break Ric Flair’s all-time record for number of championships held, but he’s a company man through and through. He isn’t going anywhere. With that in mind, it doesn’t seem right to have him finally beat AJ after three consecutive losses to him. Losing again makes the most sense; it propels Styles into stratospheric stardom, and it frees up Cena to fulfil some of his other media obligations. Styles can lose the belt, and Cena can win it, a little further down the line.

The Royal Motherfucking Rumble

6

I think the best way of doing this is just to write about some of the entrants and their respective chances of winning. Everybody knows how the Rumble works by now. This year’s is really stacked with talent from all over the spectrum, and while I don’t trust it to be good because I’m cynical and my heart is a dried-up little grape, I’ll hold out hope all the same.

I don’t see Goldberg or Lesnar winning. Their names add some serious star power and it’s obvious they’ll factor into each other’s demise, but they clearly have a date at WrestleMania and therefore neither of them needs a win here.

There’s a rumour of a Randy Orton win to set up an inevitable Wyatt Family implosion, and that’s worthy of consideration, but I have a hard time picking him here. The same goes, more or less, for any member of the Smackdown brand, especially considering how much better served most of the feuds would be at the upcoming Elimination Chamber event. I guess we’ll see. I say it’s unlikely though.

Also unlikely is a win for any main roster debutant (yes, including Samoa Joe) or well-hidden surprise entrant – with one notable exception that we’ll get to in a minute. A significant appearance like, say, that of Triple-H, could have a serious impact on the outcome, but nothing more than that. Forget about members of tag teams, too. Some will likely have a strong showing (we’re all awaiting the Kofi Kingston spot) but having any individual win when both brand’s team divisions are in such a state seems extremely counterintuitive.

You can almost guarantee a strong showing from guys like Dolph Ziggler, Dean Ambrose, the Miz and Sami Zayn. Zayn in particular is my pick for the wrestler who survives in there the longest, and I also have a strong suspicion he’ll be the one to eliminate Braun Strowman, who’ll also be booked well.

So, who the hell do I think is going to win? Officially, I think it’s going to be the Undertaker. It makes a lot of sense. Why else would you bring the A-list icon out of his… I dunno, coffin, unless you wanted him to do something significant? They save his scheduled dates for big moments, and for the Deadman to enter the Rumble and be unceremoniously dumped over the top would feel like a betrayal of sports-entertainment in its entirety. Plus, the Texas crowd would love it, and he still (just) has enough left in him to go on one final title run. I’m okay with all of this and I think it’s the most likely outcome.

I do have an outside pick though, and here it is: Finn Balor. Admittedly I don’t know if he’s medically cleared to compete, but if he is you can expect him to get straight back to his winning ways. The company put a lot of faith in him just before his injury, and he was incredibly over with the fans. It’s less likely than my “official” pick, but I’d love to see it.

Official Predictions

The Pre-Show

Nia Jax

Gallows & Anderson

Mickie James, Natalya & Alexa Bliss

The Main Card

Neville

Charlotte

Roman Reigns

AJ Styles

The Rumble

Longest-lasting: Sami Zayn

Most Eliminations: Braun Strowman

Winner: The Undertaker

Outside Pick: Finn Balor

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