The Inaugural Women's Royal Rumble Review (2018)
- January 29th, 2018 -
The WWE's annual Royal Rumble is many pro-wrestling fan's favorite pay-per-view, and with good reason.
It is the pop-filled prelude to WrestleMania, typically establishing the primary Championship narratives that lead into Vince McMahon's "Showcase of the Immortals". Unfortunately, recent Rumbles have been mired in fan discontent, with the WWE and its audience locked in deep disagreement about who deserves the "top guy" moniker, and thus a shot at WrestleMania's main event.
All eyes await, with a mounting sense of anticipatory dread, as the final four participants are revealed. There is a collective sense of "really...this is who it's going to be?" that hangs over the end of the match like a dark cloud.
I'm happy to report, as I continue to bask in the rosy glow of Sunday's results, that the 2018 Royal Rumble broke that dower trend and delivered a show that was delightfully focused, fun, and important.
This was achieved thanks to a few simple creative decisions: the primary storylines were clearly established well in advance, the success of the event didn't hinge entirely upon Philadelphia's reaction to the winners or losers, the nostalgia pops and the surprises were few yet effective, and the kick-off show (in what will become official policy for all future pay-per-views) was entirely nixed, keeping the extravaganza a relatively lean four hours.
But, most of all, this Royal Rumble was successful, and inherently interesting, thanks to the inclusion of the inaugural Women's Royal Rumble match.
The fact that the women headlined the show in the main event added even more heft to the significance of the occasion - a signal that the WWE is committed to change.
I shudder to think what yet another Royal Rumble without a Women's Rumble would have been like this year; a standard affair with WWE and its fans going through the motions, purposefully failing to adequately recognize the existence and worth of an entire gender.
Not only would this event have been less interesting, less fun, and less historically resonant had it not included a Women's Rumble, it would have been unforgivably, blatantly, and laughably hypocritical given the WWE's "Women's Evolution" marketing campaign - a shiny repackaging of the real fan-movements #GiveDivasAChance & #WomensWrestling.
The new Women's Royal Rumble doesn't fix all of WWE's problems of representation, of course, but it is, at the very least (and I mean the very least), a much-needed step in a somewhat, slightly better direction.
The company doesn't have to explain to its viewers (or the culture) why it didn't book a Women's Rumble, especially during a time when issues of racism, representation, appropriation, gender-inequality, sexual harassment, and sexual assault are at the forefront of the public consciousness. The company doesn't have to explain why it failed, yet again, to make good on the promise it made two years ago at WrestleMania 32 when it dropped the pejorative "Diva" as a descriptor of women wrestlers and started to rebuild the Women's Division in the more equitable image fans demanded.
Instead, the company made the obviously right decision that so obviously coincides with its obvious desire to be perceived as a forward-thinking organization.
The Women's Rumble naysayers who claimed "there aren't enough women for a thirty-woman rumble" were surely surprised to discover that more than thirty women exist, and that many of them are capable wrestlers.
The question to ask following this event is not, "What could WWE possibly do with all these women?" but "How will pro-wrestling's dude-bros reconcile their belief that women's wrestling just isn't very good with the fact that they cheered for Asuka like a mob of Beetlemania teens?"
As for the match itself, the WWE wisely and seamlessly showcased the standouts from the Mae Young Classic, asserted the dominance of the main roster mainstays, paid homage to pro-wrestling's past, and pushed forward into pro-wrestling's future.
It was nice to see Alundra Blayze, Lita, and Trish Stratus all play more than mere supporting roles in the event; there were moments when it seemed possible that any of them could win.
Lita received the second biggest pop of the night when her music hit and she suddenly stood up from behind commentary and leapt atop the desk. Seeing her pump her fist and hype the crowd before charging into the fray was a welcome reminder of her connection with the crowd. After being eliminated by Ruby Riot, Lita returned to the commentator's desk winded and noticeably excited, which lent even more joy to the viewing experience.
As for commentary itself, Renee Young's enthusiasm throughout the event was infectious, and her focus upon athletic realism a welcome change from the advertisements and self-indulgent banter that bends fans' ears every Monday and Tuesday. A future where Renee Young & Mauro Ranallo share a table on Raw & SmackDown is one I eagerly await.
Bianca Belair stole the entire show (which is to be expected by anyone with eyes and a pulse), using her hair-whip both as a means of staying in the Rumble and as a means of beating opponents out of the Rumble.
There's nothing in the WWE today quite as exciting as the moment Bianca slashes her braid into an opponent's chest or back. The audible crack, followed by the crowd's collective gasp, is a lesson in authenticity. She is a star - plain and simple. There was a tangible sense of loss when Shayna Bazler knocked Bianca out of the ring, as if the air had suddenly been let out of the arena.
The battle between the final four participants (Ronda Rousey, Nia Jax, Sasha Banks, and Asuka) thankfully felt more like an energetic mini-four-way match than the closing moments of a standard Rumble.
Predictably, the crowd mercilessly booed Rousey from the moment she entered at the coveted thirty-spot. Rousey's ground and pound offense against the three other women was an impressive, dominant display, and a brief glimpse of what her style will be like in the future should she continue in the WWE.
Nia fought off all attempts to get her out of the ring even as the three other wrestlers teamed against her; a surprising and welcome dose of realism.
When Rousey eliminated Sasha Banks, the crowd nearly eupted into a riot.
The familiar dread and anger of "really?" crept into the back of their minds, as they braced themselves for Rousey's seemingly inevitable victory. The WWE revealed itself to be more aware of its audience than we tend to give them credit, though.
After planting Rousey on the apron, Asuka whipped around with a stiff forearm and knocked the MMA maven out onto the floor, earning the biggest pop of the night.
Usually, after this kind of elimination, Nia would have snuck up behind Asuka and shoved her out immediately after Rousey.
But, instead, Asuka slowly turned around as Nia slowly got back up to her feet.
The intensity of this moment (and the intelligence of the booking) must long be remembered by fans and the WWE alike. This is the kind of moment we yearn for as wrestling fans. Something real and meaningful. A moment earned. Viewers were able to savor both the unexpected elimination of Rousey and the cinematic face-off of two of WWE's strongest women.
Nia and Asuka traded blows for a minute in the center of the ring rather than immediately scramble into the ropes. This helped build anticipation for the final flurry of offense from Asuka and the last elimination.
The WWE wisely subverted fan-expectations yet again when Nia suddenly hurled Asuka out of the ring to win the first ever Women's Rumble.
The victory was strong and definitive, rather than underhanded and sneaky. I cannot over-emphasize how wonderfully logical this match was.
If we think of pro-wrestling as real, Nia would never need to resort to sneaky tactics to win a Rumble. She is bigger and stronger than every woman who entered.
Why wouldn't she win?
Her heelness will be defined by her relentless power rather than some form of arbitrary cowardice.
Everyone went into this match expecting Asuka to win (and they would have been perfectly happy had their expectations been met). And that's exactly why it's good she didn't. While the usual grousing about the outcome will commence, those who really paid attention will appreciate the careful and logical way the WWE constructed this match.
It was created so as to provide the maximum benefit to not only the primary players, but the entire women's roster.
Despite losing the match, Asuka eliminated the most opponents in all of Royal Rumble history at thirteen participants (eclipsing Roman Reigns' record of twelve).
Asuka also doesn't have to carry around the albatross of an undefeated streak anymore, while simultaneously being able to maintain the claim that she still hasn't been beaten in singles competition. A number one contender's match for the women's title at WrestleMania between Asuka and Bianca Belair feels like a gift-wrapped, and all-too obvious, match to book tonight on RAW.
Nia received the boost she's needed, and all indications point toward the WWE positing her as the unstoppable force of the women's division.
This sets up a classic "how can she possibly overcome" story between Nia and current RAW Women's Champion Bayley - who has seen an upswing in fan-support following her lengthy, surprisingly brutal, No Holds Barred Championship rematch against Alexa Bliss.
Yes, Bayley has already defeated Nia in NXT, but people have short memories, and wrestling fans have even shorter memories, and a good story is a good story.
This has all the makings of a great match at WrestleMania for the Raw Women's Championship, especially if it's allowed to go the distance in a lengthy contest.
So good job, WWE.
Not only did you make the right decision, you made the right decision well.