The 2015 Royal Rumble
January 25, 2015
No wrestling event in the decade had a greater effect on WWE’s future than the 2015 Royal Rumble. The finish of the event and the audience’s relationship with WWE’s decision makers would forever be altered and create a near-constant sense of negativity around Vince McMahon and how he ran the creative end of the company. There were fractures in the company leading up to the 2015 Royal Rumble, but after the event an unprecedented wave of pessimism and jeering crowds would encapsulate WWE’s programming, pitting McMahon in a war against a large portion of his own fanbase.
The seeds for the 2015 Royal Rumble were planted back a year ago at the 2014 Royal Rumble, where Batista won the match to the disdain of fans, who were pulling for Daniel Bryan who never ended up appearing in the match. You could argue that it was actually that show that should be featured here, but a few weeks ago I conducted a poll on Twitter about which event fans felt had a larger impact, the 2014 Rumble or 2015 Rumble, and the 2015 Rumble won by a wide margin, so let’s talk about the 2015 event.
Ironically, the 2015 Royal Rumble match was preceded by one of the most well-received matches in WWE history. The WWE Championship match between Brock Lesnar, Seth Rollins and John Cena was one of the best WWE matches of the decade and should have had the crowd hot for the main event.
Instead, WWE proceeded to make one of its most ill-advised decisions in company history. Daniel Bryan was the clear fan favorite heading into the match; he had been pushed to the moon last year, ending WrestleMania 30 as the world champion before having to later vacate the title due to injury. By January 2015, Bryan was back and healthy and ready to resume his role as the top babyface in the company, but WWE had other plans.
The previous year WWE reluctantly pushed Bryan to the top, after massive fan backlash when Batista won the Royal Rumble, WWE hastily put together a storyline that would get Bryan to the main event of WrestleMania, where he beat both Batista and Randy Orton to win the WWE Championship. When Bryan got hurt, WWE felt burned having pushed Bryan to the top, and they would not make the same mistake twice. No, this time no matter how much fan backlash they got, they were going to go forward with their plan.
Since he began working in developmental, WWE executives had tagged Roman Reigns as the future face of the company. For Vince McMahon, he had the look, the size and natural athleticism to replace John Cena and be the next great WWE legend the company would build everything around. Even if by early 2015 Reigns wasn’t exactly beloved by WWE fans, the optimism for his future was still strong enough that WWE chose to push him into the main event of WrestleMania 31, even if Bryan was more popular with the fans.
Logically, WWE wanted to keep Bryan away from Reigns in the match because they knew that the fans would cheer for Bryan instead of Reigns. At the same time, as they learned last year, they couldn’t not put Bryan in the match because the fans wouldn’t go for that either. The decision was for Bryan to enter the match at #10, last ten forgettable minutes before being disposed by Big Show and Kane halfway through the match.
The idea was that the move would get heat on Big Show and Kane, setting up a babyface pop for Reigns when he vanquished them at the end of the match. In practice, WWE underestimated the intelligence of their fanbase, who became extremely irritated that WWE had treated their favorite wrestler like a common jobber, and at the end of the match had elected to put a lukewarm babyface who fit McMahon’s outdated perception of what a top babyface should look like over Bryan.
The crowd fiercely rejected Reigns, not so much for who he was but what he represented; Vince McMahon and WWE’s insistence on pushing other talent ahead of the fan favorites. Reigns had actually been cheered at last year’s Royal Rumble, ironically at the end of the match when it was between him and Batista, but after he was so clearly put above Bryan on the pecking order, his relationship with the fans would change. Even after the match, when The Rock came out and endorsed Reigns, the crowd loudly booed them both in one of the uglier scenes in recent WWE history.
From that point on, not only was Reigns always behind the eight ball when it came to fan support, but WWE in general entered a new phase with how it reacted to fans. The company would not cave to fan demands by putting Bryan in the WrestleMania main event for the second year in a row, but at the same time the reaction to Reigns became so toxic that they instead had Seth Rollins make the match at WrestleMania an impromptu triple threat match, and then had Rollins pin Reigns to win the title.
What would follow was years of attempts to get Reigns over with the audience and pushes to make him the top babyface, but nothing ever seemed to work. Reigns was almost permanently tainted in the eyes of some fans and while over the past year the hatred of Reigns has waned, he will probably never be as over as WWE once envisioned he would be. Part of that is because of him receiving the spot over Bryan back in 2015, but it also has to be acknowledged that no matter how good he looked to WWE executives, the fact is he was never as talented or as marketable as John Cena or any of the other successful major drawing cards in WWE history.
More than just the reaction to Reigns, the 2015 Rumble set a new attitude for WWE fans in how they reacted to WWE, particularly at live events. There has always been booing at wrestling shows, but now there is a lot more jeering not at individual wrestlers, but at the lack of quality of the product. It has become common for major WWE PPV events to go off the air with the crowd booing and extremely frustrated. There had been moments before the 2015 Rumble where that had happened, but the 2015 Rumble raised the bar and in a lot of ways booing the product (and Reigns specifically) became the “cool” thing to do.
Some people may argue that the problem was not WWE, but that fans have become fickle and too difficult to satisfy. That argument ignores that this is a uniquely WWE problem; no other wrestling promotion fails to satisfy its own fanbase the way WWE does. Very rarely do other promotions end shows with the crowd loudly booing the creative choices of the promotion, such as what took place at Hell in a Cell earlier this year.
The 2015 Royal Rumble was where open criticism of WWE and Vince McMahon became much more prominent. The idea that Vince McMahon was out of touch with the modern fan, which was discussed prior to 2015, would become the defacto position for many fans. As McMahon remains firmly in control of the WWE product heading into the next decade, that criticism should only increase unless WWE is able to strike gold on a new talent that will lead them into another boom period. Then this would only be a blip in the radar for WWE, but until that happens, the 2015 Rumble could be viewed as a major turning point in how fans will remember Vince McMahon.
This article is the sixth in a series of articles discussing the most significant moments in wrestling over the past ten years. Make sure to check back on Thursday for the next installment in the series
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