Screenshot: WWE on Fox
WWE kicks off its Wrestlemania season into fifth gear this week with Saturday night’s Royal Rumble. Even those who are pissed at the product that New York put out come back to the Rumble in large part for its uniqueness and penchant for surprises, setting how Wrestlemania’s build will be (last year’s exception excepted). , that sucked). And also to poke fun at all the signposts and possibly drunk gambling.
And for the first time in a while, at least on the men’s side, WWE has the opportunity to make their biggest event the culmination of their best story in years, rather than just making it an empty spectacle, in their biggest event, the Main Event at Wrestlemania. built around names and hype. Sami Zayn must win the Royal Rumble.
Recent ‘Mania Main Events
Looking back over recent WWE main events, they lacked any sort of story to pay dividends. There was no catharsis, there was no climax, there were just guys wrestling. Last year was Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar because Vince McMahon was determined to make us eat this matchup and have it accepted by everyone for about seven years. It was just built on their previous encounters, which everyone pretty much hated, which weren’t built on anything either. The 2021 main event on night two saw Reigns in a triple threat with Edge and Daniel Bryan in what was a very good match but everyone felt very forced and crammed together. Whatever it was, and most if not all of those builds were from the Thunderdome era.
We can ignore the 2020 event thanks to the pandemic and the abnormality of a crowdless mania. While 2019 rightly contested Becky Lynch in the main event, that night’s other memorable match was Kofi Kingston, who finally won the Smackdown Championship against Bryan. Kofi had become a fan favorite when there wasn’t a rush of fans after a string of heroic performances, his history with New Day and beyond, and a feeling that he was exactly the kind of wrestler McMahon would screw over time gave and again. It was organic, and it paid off, with no little help from Bryan, who was able to play the opposite role to his very similar push to the top in 2014.
Ehren-Uce and The Bloodline
It is clear to everyone that the best story currently going on in WWE, and possibly all of wrestling, is about Sami Zayn, Reign and Zayn’s role in The Bloodline. That Zayn can take this storyline, which began as a silly lapdogging to Reigns just to be on TV, to the heights it is now is a testament to him and his character work, as well as his ability to constantly engage with fans no matter if you play with the heel or with the face.
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From simple comedy vignettes to the very center of the world of Reigns, this has been the gravitational force for WWE for months. Zayn stole the show at War Games, which has made him the talk of the company, and it’s clear that Reigns doesn’t know how to keep Zayn’s momentum and popularity in check. There are cracks in the relationship already showing, but considering how Zayn has capitalized on that history and placed himself to perhaps become the most popular wrestler on the list, there is no bigger match WWE is hosting right now could as Zayn Reigns. That said, there isn’t a major wrestling match they could book.
Sports Entertainment vs. Wrestling
But WWE hasn’t always been interested in wrestling matches, just moments and events and whatever is talking about it in non-wrestling circles. It’s no secret that WWE’s dream scenario for this April is to face The Rock again against Reigns in LA, which would certainly feel like a major event, but wouldn’t build on what’s happening on TV week in and week out. Sure, there’s that whole family connection that the company would probably harp on for a few months to ground the match. But fans would know that it’s simply The Rock’s fame that the company is banking on. Emphasis on “banks”.
The Rock’s reappearance looked increasingly unlikely as the event drew closer, so WWE turned around. Cody Rhodes, receiving the serious video vignette treatment leading to the announcement that he will be returning to The Rumble, appears to be positioning him as Reigns’ likely challenger. It could always set us all up for a dodge, but Triple H certainly wants us to believe Rhodes is the favorite.
And that’s good. I’m probably not the one commenting on this, given my somewhat reserved attitude towards Cody in the past. Rhodes moving to WWE from AEW, the company he helped build, is one of the biggest stories of 2022, and for that reason alone he’s one of New York’s biggest stars. He’s certainly the biggest face WWE has, but that’s not really based on anything game-related given how much time he’s missed. It’s still basically just based on his return at last year’s Mania. Which is pretty thin.
Cody is fighting for his father’s honor and wrestling as a whole, something he’s never afraid to assert against the evil power of Reigns and The Bloodline certainly works as a huge clash at the industry’s biggest gathering.
But it’s so routine. Shining face against brooding heel, with WWE doing something of a wink as they put Rhodes into their biggest match when AEW couldn’t or wouldn’t find a spot for him at the top of the map anymore. And given the way Reigns and Cody work, the match could last 12 minutes before being suspended for the first time. It’s two big names for sure, but without layers.
More than just a simple face vs. heel dynamic
Zayn has layers shooting out of his ears! Selling his principles to join The Bloodline, his either naivety in not realizing he’s just a tool for Reigns, or his sneaky brilliance in using Reigns himself to push the roster. He has Kofi/Bryan vibes in that he’s a lifer who’s never really made it to the top of the card, although few can match his work in the ring. And then how he’s either turned his back on that to join Reigns and The Usos, or it’s the final act in taking all of that to the forefront of the industry.
When Sami turns his face back, wins the Rumble, and pits it against Reigns, WWE gives all that Cody noise, with a heavy dose of the Kofi buzz it had in 2019 and Bryan in 2014. And he’s a better worker than Rhodes, by some distance. It’s the best wrestling history they have and it doesn’t even come close. That Sami might be the first to bring down Reigns at the age of a dog is the greatest possible moment WWE could have at SoFi Stadium. Imagine this pop. It would pay off a year’s story and reward fans who watched week after week. Putting Cody in that spot would only play it all. Putting The Rock there would only be chasing empty headlines.
Will Triple H bring WWE more to wrestling (when he’s in charge?) with his first mania build in charge? We know the answer is of course no. But even Trips can’t ignore which is the best answer here.