In less than two weeks, the road to Wrestlemania kicks off with the Royal Rumble, theoretically the start of the build up to the biggest show of the year, at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona. The stadium lists 48,000 seats, but with the stage set up, there will be roughly 45,000 tickets available for the pay-per-view. On the surface, the Rumble, one of the historic events on the year, might be a stadium-level show, but the scenarios currently within the WWE landscape might not be a draw of that magnitude. Granted, WWE brass still have next week’s show to attempt to generate some buzz, but there’s a noticeable lack of hype ahead of this event, mostly because of some key decisions that were made previously.
Obviously, the traditional Royal Rumble matches are the main draw, but with Roman Reigns on the sidelines, and Brock Lesnar more or less in the witness protection program with the title, there isn’t anything in particular that’s a draw for an anticipated match that could be set up by the Rumble. This past week on Raw, the Universal title match was randomly switched because Braun Strowman, the promoted challenger still isn’t medically cleared from an elbow injury that required surgery a few months ago. I wrote about it several times prior to this, but Roman’s failed super push came with an “opportunity cost. Everyone else on the roster, no matter how over they were with the audience for the past 4-5 years, was booked secondary to the “big dawg” to ensure he was presented as the top star. That was management’s agenda and as long as they maintained revenue, which they did, they could book their chosen champion. However, without Roman on the roster, the writing team is forced to sell the concept that some of those that were stuck in the mid-card should suddenly be perceived as main event level stars.
Make no mistake about it, Finn Balor is one of the most talented athletes on the roster, but for the past several months, the perception of his persona on television is a mid-carder that lost matches to Baron Corbin. Now, he’s supposed to be considered a legitimate threat to Brock Lesnar’s reign as champion? Don’t get me wrong, Finn Balor SHOULD be a main event star and undoubtedly has the skills to be successful in that role, but for the general audience, it’s about perception and presentation. Has Balor been presented as a potential main event competitor since his return from the shoulder injury a few years ago? How exactly will Lesnar’s title defense be built as something important with just two weeks until the event? The whole scenario is so thrown together that the Universal championship match, and thus Finn’s spotlight almost become an afterthought. “Balor will lose so who wins the Rumble to challenge Brock at Wrestlemania?” will be the narrative ahead of the pay-per-view.
It’s possible that Braun ends up as a later entrant and doesn’t have to do much to win the match to set up for WM, but at this point, especially considering the injuries, would Strowman be the right choice to win it? In my opinion, even if Braun will be healthy enough to compete by WM, the demand for him to win the title has already peaked and he isn’t nearly as over as he was this time last year. Most of the booking decisions minimized his star power, including the random heel turn before Roman’s exit because of illness. The elbow injury halted nearly all of the momentum he had, and the harsh reality is that WWE brass might’ve missed the boat on Braun Strowman. Again, it can’t be understated how important it is for management to capitalize when a competitor’s popularity peaks to get the most from a specific storyline. For example, if Vince McMahon decided that Steve Austin didn’t defeat Shawn Michaels at WM 14 or that Brock didn’t pin The Rock at Summer Slam 2002, the launching point of their major runs wouldn’t have been as strong if the plan was delayed six months. Part of the ability to make stars is to know when it let a talent run with it, and at this stage, management might’ve fumbled the chance to get the most out of Braun Strowman’s popularity.
Speaking of declining popularity, I wrote detailed reasoning behind it several times so I’m not going to fully discuss it again, but I’m honestly not sure what the logic is for another WM based around “who can defeat Brock Lesnar?” I penned an article over a year and a half ago that explained the diminishing return of the Brock Lesnar experiment, but the former UFC heavyweight champion is still at the top of the card. Keep in mind, the entire Brock run last year was intended to get Reigns over, but it didn’t. If that’s simply because nothing at that point would’ve gotten Roman over or if Lesnar was too stale that a win wouldn’t have got him over is a moot point. The bottom line is, the investment into Brock is mostly a flop. You can’t blame Lesnar for that either, he took the money on the table for a very limited schedule, and continued to use the UFC as leverage to negotiate with WWE.
Perhaps, the sluggish ratings for Raw are because it’s difficult to generate viewers for a product when the audience knows the championship, which is promoted as an important accomplishment, isn’t a part of the show. The whole “rare appearances make the champion special” became more of a defense for the show that lacked direction than an effective marketing strategy
Aside from the lackluster build up to the Universal title match, it almost transfers over to the men’s traditional Royal Rumble match because title match is usually linked with the Rumble since it creates speculation for the matches at Wrestlemania. I’d say Smackdown is a factor, but in truth, SD has more or less been a continuously better show in recent months so there’s no reason to shift direction from the AJ/Bryan feud. Plus, with Raw as the flagship show and the program with lower ratings than usual, the Rumble winner will probably be featured on Raw as a way to boost numbers. But, without hype around the champion, there’s indirectly not much hype around a potential Rumble winner. Again, this is another result of some on the roster being kept at the mid-card during the Reigns push. Who is really a WM main event talent right now? Rollins is great, but he was stuck in Intercontinental incognito when Brock was ice fishing instead of working pay-per-views. At some point, Rollins could become typecast of “the IC guy”that works just underneath the main event. Again, you can have a stacked roster, but if almost everyone is presented in a 50/50 manner, how many legitimate money-drawing main event stars are there?
This is just my two cents, but I think they should book John Cena to win the Rumble and challenge Brock for the title with the angle for WM being the chase toward setting the record for the most world title wins. Yes, it’s a retread, but it gives the WWE something to promote that books a credible main event star at WM and a way for them to distance themselves from the Lesnar experiment. Another potential benefit is that it sets up for a “passing of the torch” when Cena eventually drops the belt. Most importantly, it buys time until Roman Reigns returns and will be one of the most legitimately inspirational stories in sports. Cena/Lesnar for a record-setting championship and Ronda Rousey/Becky Lynch could be important bouts on the card that draws a sell out the stadium at WM, but it will be extremely interesting to see if the Rumble will sell out with the scheduled card.
What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.
Until next week
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