PHILADELPHIA – It was a little disconcerting at the Royal Rumble Sunday night in Philadelphia when fans at the Wells Fargo Center started booing Roman Reigns when he appeared in the video at the top of the show. I’ve never been the biggest fan of the man with the Superman punch, but as far as I could tell, he seemed to be over with the live crowds wherever the WWE has traveled over the past few months.
Let’s back up for a second and talk about the nature of the Rumble match. It’s not like no heels have ever won, but because of the stipulation involved — that the winner will end up in the main event at WrestleMania — it’s usually a fan favorite, or at worst, someone with a mixed reaction like John Cena, that ends up as the last of 30 men not to go over the top rope and hit the floor.
Except now we might have to qualify that by saying it’s someone the WWE expects to have solid fan support. For the second straight year, there was a large, very public miscalculation on that score. I didn’t think we’d see another situation like the one with Batista in 2014, but sure enough, it happened.
If I had known from the beginning of the show that Reigns was going to win, it would have been like seeing something fragile fall from across the room, knowing there was nothing you could do about it. Those early boos were foreshadowing a storm, though I was completely unaware how big it was going to become.
As it turned out, only three people with realistic shots of winning would have sent the fans home happy. Daniel Bryan, obviously, as his elimination set off choruses of audible displeasure and chants for his return. Dean Ambrose and Dolph Ziggler would have been fine with most of those in attendance. I’m also sure Cesaro, Damien Mizdow and Bubba Ray Dudley would have worked out fine, but none of them were going to be main eventing WrestleMania.
Instead, the WWE doubled down on its confidence in Reigns by having him as the only rooting interest among the match’s final four. Yes, Ambrose was in there too, but Rusev had been thrown between the ropes and was out on the floor for a while, so the actual last four was Reigns, Big Show, Kane and Rusev.
If that wasn’t enough, The Rock also came out to help Reigns out after Show and Kane refused to leave, essentially doubling down again. It was kind of like tying a rock (pun intended) to the accelerator while barreling toward a cliff after you’ve already ripped off the steering wheel.
When one of the most popular wrestlers in WWE history is giving the winner a hand and people would rather chant for a guy whose gimmick involves praising Vladimir Putin, there might be a problem. Unlike some other fans in my section, I don’t expect the WWE to rewrite the finish during the show, as there’s too much at stake for that. But now I’m starting to wonder if the “guaranteed WrestleMania main event spot” is an anchor that is weighing the Royal Rumble down, because if you gamble on someone and get burnt, you’re kind of stuck.
We can’t fall into the trap of overreacting. Reigns can make a heel turn — he’d almost have to since the fans are treating Brock Lesnar like a face — or other wrestlers can be shoehorned into the main event to dilute the unwanted presence. Both of those things happened last year with Batista.
Then again, I don’t remember the Sporting News calling the 2014 Royal Rumble “legendarily terrible” or #CancelWWENetwork trending on Twitter last year right after the show. I’m pretty sure that the WWE simply backed the wrong horse as opposed to trolling its own fans, but here’s the thing: if you can’t figure out how to win them back over, the end result is pretty much the same. There are just over 60 days for the company to figure out how to do it.
- Nick Tylwalk has been writing for SLAM! Wrestling since Sting was still a WCW main event player. He’s the editor at Bam Smack Pow and entertainment editorial director for FanSided, but he’ll always make time for some pro wrestling.