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To me, a lot of the recent Royal Rumble matches have had disappointing finishes. That isn't to say all of the matches have been bad, but it just felt like WWE just went with a safe pick, or someone the fans were not really excited to see. Roman Reigns, Batista, Randy Orton, John Cena; all of those guys are stars, but it always felt like when it got down to the end of the match it became very obvious who was going to win the match. Some of the more surprising names, such as Sheamus and Alberto Del Rio, were not exactly names that moved the needle. Maybe Shinsuke Nakamura isn't the star that some of those guys are, but at least his victory got a really nice reaction from the crowd and could maybe launch him onto a path so that he becomes one of those major stars.
Royal Rumble Match (M): ****
As usual, there is a lot to get to in this match, so lets break it all down in bullet point form:
* Nakamura winning the Rumble was the right choice. He was one of the favorites but WWE laid out the match really well so it looked like he was an underdog to win the match as they built towards the finish. Nakamura vs AJ is a match that a certain group of fans are going to enjoy already, and given each man's respective performances tonight, anyone else on the fence will end up getting hyped for it as well. I did think it was funny that Renee Young was in the ring approximately 30 seconds after Nakamura won the match to find out who he was facing at WrestleMania. I mean give the guy a minute to make a very important career choice!
* There were no major surprises, but I thought they did a good job utilizing most of their current roster. I wonder if Rey Mysterio is back for good or if he just did a shot, but he looked like he was in great shape and moved really well, especially considering his age and how many knee surgeries that guy has had. Putting in the NXT guys is almost preferable to a bunch of legends, because they are introducing some guys bound for the main roster to fans who may not be familiar with them. Also, if you are a long-time reader of WrestlingInc.com, you will know how far The Hurricane and I go back.
* The final four of Roman Reigns, John Cena, Finn Balor and Nakamura was well done. WWE did a good job manipulating how a lot of hardcore fans probably felt, that it seemed inevitable that Reigns would defeat two fan-favorites as part of WWE's never-ending quest to get Roman Reigns over. Instead they did a good job swerving the fans and giving them a winner they would actually pop big for.
* I like a lot of the little stuff they do to make the rumble pass by over the hour. All of the entrants passing by and kicking Heath Slater was funny, and it was smart to clear the ring for Elias to come out and do his bit. Kofi Kingston's annual save spot was a new one; I love that one day someone in The New Day decided that it would be a good idea for them to become obsessed with Pancakes.
Royal Rumble Match (W): **3/4
* After the crowd had failed to react during the RAW Tag Team Championship match or the Universal Championship match, I was worried the crowd would be dead for a match for the Women's Royal Rumble match. However, WWE did a good job mixing in the former wrestlers who the crowd would pop for with the current stars. The crowd for the most part was polite and gained steam as the match went on. The match was definitely a success and they can easily do it again next year.
* Asuka winning the Rumble was the right call. Rousey I guess theoretically could have won the match since she is certainly going to be involved in WrestleMania, but Asuka is the full-time star who gets the best reaction on the main roster and deserves the kind of push that winning the first Women's rumble entitles.
* Rousey showing up at the end of the show was certainly interesting. Obviously her showing up is going to get WWE a lot of headlines in the mainstream media and she got a big pop from the fans. However, the Women's rumble was all about the women in WWE who had worked really hard to earn the opportunity to have their own rumble and close the show; and at the end of the show the focus was all on someone who had never wrestled in WWE before. I know from a business perspective having her come out at the end and control the spotlight was the right move; but maybe it wasn't in the spirit of what the match felt like. At the end of the day it doesn't really matter; Rousey is in the company and potentially she could have a very big impact on WWE.
* Ohhhhhhhhh..... That is the kind of noise one normally makes when their three year old falls down in the sandbox at the playground, and that was the noise Stephanie McMahon made every single time a wrestler was eliminated from this match. The friendly, babyface Stephanie is a stark contrast to her normal heelish persona; and the difference showed as the normally very confident Stephanie made Percy Watson look loquacious. I will say it was an improvement over either Stephanie getting involved in a huge angle, or doing obnoxious PR for an hour.
Brock Lesnar vs Braun Strowman vs Kane: **1/4
I didn't care for this match, all things considered. The match mainly consisted of chair shots, table bumps, and people taking finishers. It was fine and had plenty of action, but it really just felt like a watered-down version of the very good fatal four way at SummerSlam. If you like watching carnage, it was still good, but it didn't feel like the amazing, over-the-top blockbuster match that the SummerSlam match felt like. I think they might be running out of steam with Strowman in regards to the big spots; although no one has ever really reached this quota; you can only give powerslams to guys through a table so many times before it doesn't get over. The crowd wasn't hot for the match, and I know part of that was that they were coming off the men's rumble match, but Brock Lesnar gave Strowman a F-5 through the table and the crowd barely popped.
With Nakamura challenging Styles for the WWE Championship, Lesnar will need an opponent for WrestleMania. I think what happens is at the Elimination Chamber, Lesnar finishes his feud with Strowman and retains his championship, and Reigns wins the chamber match so he ends up as the number one contender.
Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens vs AJ Styles: ***1/2
I thought this was a really well-done match. The ring work was very good, but even better was the story they executed. I think that the finish was perfect, with the referee rewarding a phantom tag that in theory cost Owens the match, even if logically it really didn't because AJ pinned him fair and square. Owens and Zayn have a gripe, but it really isn't legitimate. It also involves was a way to involve Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon, but it didn't involve them running out and kind of taking over the match from the actual in-ring performers. I thought Zayn and Owens were really good in the post-match bit backstage losing it with Shane, and Shane playing it cool and not giving into them was smart. I think it's better if Shane isn't just a sap that is manipulated into doing whatever Zayn and Owens want, but rather is the man in control of the situation. It helps give all of his actions greater authenticity.
The Usos vs Chad Gable and Shelton Benjamin: **
I don't really understand why this match had to be a two-out-of-three falls match, they obviously had to rush to the finish in a show that was always going to have to be mindful of how it utilizes its time. By having Gable Benjamin lose two falls in short-order, they look like chumps, which is bad because you always want to have good depth in the tag team division. The work was fine, but the match never really got the crowd into it, which is too bad because of how good the match had the potential to being. Hopefully they get another shot on a show that will allow them to go the proper distance.
Seth Rollins and Jason Jordan vs Sheamus and Cesaro: **
Similar to The Usos match earlier, this match never clicked with the crowd but for a different reason; it was given the ultimate death spot on a WWE PPV, having to follow what is typically the most anticipated match of the year. The men in the match worked hard, and Rollins really worked his ass off, but the crowd was never going to get into this match after the high they were coming off with Nakamura winning the Rumble. They were also hamstrung by Jordan being banged up and having to work around his injuries, which led to a match where the heels beat up one of the babyfaces and then unceremoniously pinned him. Just a bunch of things working against them tonight.
Match of the Year
Johnny Gargano vs Andrade 'Cien' Almas: *****
This was maybe the best match WWE has had in a decade. WWE-style takes a lot of criticism, especially from smarks like me, but one thing it really needs to get credit for is that when it is done right, it can be really special because of the amount of talent they can sign and the styles that are brought into the ring. In addition, because they tour so much the guys get to work against each other all the time. In this match, Almas and Gargano completed a lot of complicated spots, but they are not that difficult when you work with each other all the time. The match had all of the makings of a great contest; great wrestling but also good story development and some tremendous near-falls; one's that felt like they could have been the end of the match, but also were not overkill or devalued the finishers of each wrestler.
Almas has come a long way; in Mexico he was a major star and one of the best workers in all of the lucha. When he came to WWE, they stripped him of his character so he felt like he had no charisma and struggled to adjust to WWE style. However, with the addition of Vega he was able to refine his character and the more time he got in the ring he regained his steam and became one of the best workers in the company. Now he looks like a potential big star on the main roster and could be the elusive Latino wrestler WWE has tried to find since Mysterio left.
Although Almas won the match, the real star has got to be Gargano, who turned out the performance of a lifetime. Gargano's selling was unbelievable and his comebacks were everything you would want in a babyface. The best part of the match for me was when both men collapsed and the entire arena started chanting "Johnny Wrestling!". Gargano has all of the tools to be the best babyface in the entire company; really he should be the next Daniel Bryan; he is that good.