The Royal Rumble matters, not so much because of what it is—it’s a rumble, of notable size—but because it is WWE’s traditional jump-off point for WrestleMania season. It’s the first pay-per-view of the new year, and as such its titular matches have implications far beyond their immediate results. Storylines begin to take shape and, perhaps most importantly for WWE in this moment of increased competition, it’s where hype begins to bubble over.
This is where the trouble begins for WWE this year, thanks to two booking decisions that have little in common on paper, but which both speak to the company’s ongoing inability to build believable stars from scratch. On the Road to WrestleMania, WWE has already steered into a couple of deep and jarring potholes.
The less-infuriating booking choice was the less surprising of the two—giving Charlotte Flair the win in the women’s Royal Rumble match this year. This was only the third edition of the women’s version of the match, with the previous winners being marquee names in Asuka and Becky Lynch. Charlotte winning in 2020 seems like WWE’s unstated acknowledgement that they waited too long to bring the women into the Rumble madness. Tossing a win to a wrestler who would have likely won one (or more) if this had been set up in earlier years feels like something of a make-up call after the fact—Martin Scorsese winning Best Picture for The Departed, more or less.
It’s not the worst idea in the abstract, but few people’s biggest or brightest memories of the 2020 women’s Royal Rumble match will feature Charlotte. That match unquestionably belonged to two NXT women, either of which could have won the whole thing and marked a bold new direction for the company. Bianca Belair, a charisma tornado with superhuman strength, entered the ring second and eliminated an astonishing eight women, a new record of excellence in the division.
That record didn’t last long, as the 30th entrant, former NXT women’s champion Shayna Baszler, promptly dumped eight people out of the ring as well. Baszler was the likelier pick to win of the two—it was reported that she was the choice until the last minute—and just as deserving a challenger. She’s ready to go to the main roster, and having her win her first Royal Rumble while still in NXT would have been a hell of a way to promote her. Who wouldn’t want to see her face off against Lynch at WrestleMania? They already built to a great match ahead of Survivor Series last year, and their characters mesh well with each other:
Anyway, that’s not happening. Charlotte won because she’s a Flair and apparently needs the accolades. It’s not ideal, but not egregious, either—she’s not the most exciting woman in the promotion, but she’s a megastar all the same.
The more confusing decision on the night was in the men’s Royal Rumble, where Drew McIntyre won the whole damn thing, eliminating Brock Lesnar and setting up a match with the Beast Incarnate along the way. McIntyre’s meta-story is as heartwarming as wrestling gets: anointed the Chosen One in his first run with the company at the end of the 2000s, he bombed out hard and eventually left for the indies. There, he reinvented himself as a brutal powerhouse and smashed his way back to WWE in 2017. He won the NXT title, and has been a solid mid-card heel obstacle on the main roster since then. In a sport that’s forever trying to force storylines, McIntyre has successfully written his own.
In theory, the Rumble was used correctly here, by elevating someone into the main event in one swift move. McIntyre and Lesnar should have a good, if likely not great, hoss fight at Mania, one that will likely end with either another Lesnar win or a shenanigan-intensive McIntyre victory. That’s interesting! But giving McIntyre his first shot at a world championship at WrestleMania when he hasn’t connected with fans to the level of previous Rumble winners is a risk, and an underwhelming one at that. You only get so many Rumbles with which to build new stars, and in an era when fans are not afraid to show their displeasure with booking decisions, WWE could have given one of its many fan favorites the boost instead.
There’s no shortage of deserving options, there. How about Ricochet? The springy superhero is exactly the type of wrestler that tends to bring the beast out of Lesnar; the big man works hardest and best when he’s faced with a smaller, faster opponent that he can throw around. Or Big E? The New Day big man was relegated to second string during last year’s wildly successful Kofimania, but he’s been ready for a big spot for years. Hell, if the promotion was intent on pushing an older guy, there’s always Samoa Joe. Fans love him, and he already had a great sprint of a match with Lesnar back in 2017.
Yes, it’s probably better to have McIntyre win than another Roman Reigns victory, although Reigns against SmackDown‘s champion, The Fiend, might be a riveting, if not exactly “good,” match. And McIntyre’s promo on Monday’s Raw was a step in the right direction; I’d want to see if crowds outside of those right after the Rumble are similarly hyped about him before feeling comfortable with the decision. Still, pushing a 34-year-old who has never been a top player, let alone one that fans demanded be a top player, seems like something better saved for a random pay-per-view in the summer. Why not give McIntyre the Money in the Bank briefcase instead, for example?
That’s not a rhetorical question, and the answer isn’t flattering for the promotion. WWE just doesn’t have the sort of hot, early-career mid-card talents who could leap into the top rank with a Royal Rumble win. McIntyre looks as good as anyone out there, but that’s precisely the problem—because the company has been so poor about pushing more than a handful of wrestlers at a time, a thirtysomething vet is very much in the conversation for this sort of come-up.
You can’t build a star out of nothing, not in an era that presents so many ways to discuss the product and not in a market with so many other decent-to-great alternatives. Moving wrestlers up the card is a process, and one that requires some devotion of both time and storytelling care. WWE knows how to do this, and NXT has recently done an incredible job of building Keith Lee from an exciting indie wrestler into someone who could get this fantastic reaction from Lesnar in the middle of the Rumble. They just haven’t done it here.
What WWE did to turn Lee into a star wasn’t novel, really. It was Wrestling 101—put him in feuds that elevated his in-ring talent and let fans connect with him organically. Like McIntyre, Lee is a big dude who moves faster than he has any right to, and it took just one well-measured turn in the spotlight for him to go from another jumbo athlete to the recently crowned North American champion. That hasn’t happened on the main roster in…shit, maybe half a decade, since Daniel Bryan went from a beloved mid-card face to The Yes Movement. Even that leap was in conflict with the company’s plans, and only happened because of an overwhelming fan response. There’s no one invading the ring to get McIntyre a WrestleMania main event.
Yes, fans would complain if someone more established had won instead of the Scottish Psychopath, because that’s what wrestling fans do. None of this is on McIntyre, either. WWE’s failure to launch any new stars and stubborn insistence on pushing duds on fans—look, for instance, at how much time the company has spent on the dead duck Baron “King” Corbin over the last year—limited its options. Each underwhelming Corbin match looks, in retrospect, like time that could have been spent building up a Ricochet or an Aleister Black, the latter of whom was reportedly in the final three choices to win the Rumble this year, before WWE decided that McIntyre was more popular with the fans.
And so we enter another WrestleMania with an underwhelming men’s Royal Rumble winner and another Four Horsewoman women’s contender. There are still interesting things that the company could do here—there are reports that Charlotte will buck tradition and actually face the wonderful Rhea Ripley for the NXT title instead of going for Lynch’s belt, although I can’t imagine WWE would forego the latter match and its massive appeal a year after the two women main-evented WrestleMania with Ronda Rousey. But whatever the promotion has in store for McIntyre and Charlotte, it had better get it moving soon. Mania is only 65 days away, and the set up already feels like it’s stuck in traffic.
Although, hey, at least Edge is back.
Spanfeller is a Herb says:
I think you’re a little hard on Drew, I think this is a really good way to build him and I think he’s got the look the promo talent and the in ring chops to pull it off.
January 31, 2020 — 11:15 am
Tsuyoshi Shinjo says:
Yeah, I’m not sure I get this take. The reaction on Cageside Seats has pretty uniformly been: “not my first choice, but someone new and different they’ll actually build up as a real competitor to Brock and I’m excited to see where this goes.”
I’d love to see Big E or Keith Lee get a push. KO and Joe are maybe the top non-Bryan faces, but they’re engaged with Rollins and crew. Riccochet is… fine. But if they can pull off the face/tweener turn for Drew, given how protected he is by Vince, he can have as good a feud Brock’s had since Goldberg.
January 31, 2020 — 12:12 pm
I agree with your points, and also, your oversized wristbands will forever live on in my heart.
January 31, 2020 — 12:41 pm
Luis Paez-Pumar says:
Oh yeah, I can reply here!
I don’t think Drew is bad at all. In fact, for the role he had and maybe even the role he could have after this, he’s pretty damn good. My problem is the timing of this decision. Giving someone who hasn’t been a) super beloved and b) a good face (he’s significantly better as a heel imo) their first main event slot at WrestleMania feels like a waste of the Royal Rumble.
If he beats Brock strong, after a couple of months of promos that have to be better than anything he’s done as a face, I’m willing to eat crow here. I just don’t have any faith in either of those conditionals, which is why I am underwhelmed.
January 31, 2020 — 12:54 pm
Unincorporated Clackamas County FC says:
This thread has put the delightful thought of Vince McMahon coming to the conclusion that the wrestler America needs is Drew Magary.
January 31, 2020 — 1:16 pm
Did Spanfeller kill Kinja? Stopped clocks and all that…
January 31, 2020 — 11:29 am
Unnamed Commenter says:
I think you’re discounting the recent popularity of McIntyre. He’s been steadily getting over on Raw and I think he’s the right person right now. Now, give WWE 65 days and they must screw this up, but McIntyre looks the part, has good promo skills, and can go. I think his personal story has a lot of people happy he’s in the main event ala (although to a much lesser extent) Kofi last year. I would have loved to see Black get the win, but he’s also a 34 year old mid-carder who spent a lot of time in the indies so I don’t think he would have satisfied you either.
January 31, 2020 — 11:31 am
I don’t even like or know the first thing about wrestling, but you’d better believe I’m going to click and read through every one of these blogs this weekend…keep doing what you guys do. Hopefully the world comes to it’s senses and employs you all soon.
January 31, 2020 — 11:32 am
thank you for this wrestlesplainia
January 31, 2020 — 11:34 am
February 1, 2020 — 9:20 am
Stick to sports!
January 31, 2020 — 11:40 am
Just kidding, great to see you again!
January 31, 2020 — 11:40 am
unnamed temporary screen name says:
I don’t necessarily think it’s fair to say that people aren’t excited about Drew. Ever since his call up I and many others thought that all he needed was a star-making moment and he was a ready made main eventer. He’s got the looks to believably take lesnar on, can talk, as you said wrestles really well for his size and hasn’t been burned by WWE booking as bad as others have been. Plus, getting the rub from eliminating lesnar in that situation is potentially one of the biggest star making moments in a long time. It also brings in a lot of eyes from one of the biggest outside US markets where they really need their new deal with BT Sport and NXT UK to be successes. By current standards a 34-year old can by most accounts also still be considered on the younger side. If they wanted to do something bold and not have Roman or Edge win, Drew was the best choice available.
January 31, 2020 — 11:46 am
Marxus Smart says:
I felt like they worked me in a good way into rooting for Drew to win that, and it mixes up the top card enough so that even if this is the last time we see Drew at the top, it adds some gravitas to whatever he does next.
But yeah Shayna should have won the women’s rumble. Sure, you can say Charlotte deserves one, but she’s likely to end up being the most decorated champ ever, she doesn’t need it. The more compelling storyline would be if the Rumble is the one thing she CAN’T win (ala Undertaker) and then we all end up happy when she finally wins the 2027 Rumble.
January 31, 2020 — 11:51 am
Bill James Boswell says:
Agreed re: Charlotte–that was such an obvious call. For a brief moment I was excited at the idea of Bianca and Alexa fighting it out at the end once they eliminated the first half of their competitors and I still think it would have been exciting to have them battle it out at the end.
January 31, 2020 — 10:26 pm
As a smark, I don’t mind the Drew run at all. His development between WWE stints was great and he works well as a badass face. He hasn’t been used like that in this WWE run until a few weeks ago. He has time to make it work and connect with that fans. There’s a better-than-average chance he will.
The Charlotte win is boring, but could be salvaged with the introduction of a secondary belt for the ladies or Charlotte vs. Ripley. Becky/Shayna and Bayley/Sasha work well for the other matches. I’m cautiously hopeful that creative will do something interesting with Charlotte.
January 31, 2020 — 12:29 pm
Cryptkeeper Al Davis says:
Drew can work as a major guy if he truly gets the opportunity, but if WM is just Brock casually beating him, Roman going over the Fiend and Charlotte winning another title, that’ll be seven hours down the drain.
My fear with Smackdown going to Fox was that WWE would be even less willing to take chances, and that played out immediately with Kofi being so savagely tossed aside. Drew is them actually taking a chance again. Fans like bad asses as long as they aren’t booked to invincibility (ala Reigns). I know there’s a lot of ways it could go off the rails, but I’m willing to see it through.
January 31, 2020 — 12:51 pm
Rim Spamfelder says:
So how about that WWE stock in the midst of two massive departures from their corporate hierarchy? That next investor conference call should be fun.
January 31, 2020 — 2:04 pm
Disappointed Asuka didn’t beat Becky at RR and gain the Raw Women’s belt she so sorely deserves. It also could have been a perfect opportunity for Lynch to turn heel, and I think she’d make a damn good one…better than Bayley, who had such a strong and distinctive face identity only to be turned into Generic Mugging WWE Heel (TM). Her music in particular is just so blah!
January 31, 2020 — 3:15 pm
I was more displeased with the absence of Sasha Banks in the women’s Rumble and I’m surprised you didn’t comment on it. A Baszler/Lynch match will be Boring™️ whenever it happens but Lynch/Flair has been done to death and they need time to breath away from each other for a bit. Rhea should drop the title at Portland to Bianca Belair so we can have Belair/Flair—the most enthusiastic Charlotte has looked in months was going toe to toe with Bianca in November and at the Rumble. Plus Belair is just better and more interesting than Ripley.
The rumble win should have gone to Sasha Banks so we can finally see Banks vs. Bayley III at WrestleMania. Two of the best and most consistent wrestlers on the roster with fans chomping at the bit for the narrative payoff on a feud that WWE has blue balled us on a dozen different times.
McIntyre isn’t the most interesting choice for the men but he’s fine, I kind of agree with you that MitB might have been the better call for him. Ricochet is a non starter on the mic, he’s just too corny. He needs a mouthpiece to make him credible even if he’s a lot of fun in the ring.
January 31, 2020 — 4:10 pm
Cryptkeeper Al Davis says:
Sasha was injured, apparently.
January 31, 2020 — 7:06 pm
I’d like to propose a completely unfounded angle based on the Women’s Rumble:
Charlotte continues to dodge the question of who she will challenge in Tampa. Finally, she goes to announce. Mic raised, about to speak… then Shayna’s music hits. Charlotte looks to the ramp when she gets blasted from behind by the Queen of Spades. Shayna wrecks Flair, and leaves her lying on the ground.
Two weeks later Charlotte calls out Shayna. All she hears is crickets. She goes on the hunt but is knocked out by Shayna again. Seems like Baszler is a step ahead, but promises this can all end. All Flair has to do is face her in the ring and put her Mania match on the line. From there we’re off to the races.
On the men’s side, I know Roman is the odds on favorite to face Bray in Tampa. I’m not mad at the match, and don’t think Reigns getting the first win again the Fiend is necessarily a bad call. But as Luis pointed out, WWE hasn’t done a great job building up stars over the past few years, if not longer. I think Fiend’s gimmick could lead to an outstanding series, or just match, with Ali. The man is known as the light, and what else drives out darkness?
January 31, 2020 — 4:42 pm
Adam S. says:
I don’t mind Drew as the winner, but my (frustratingly unlikely) dream has been that Big E would avenge Kofi’s loss by beating Lesnar and taking the title. I think New Day can still function with one holding a single’s title, and it’d stand as the closest thing to a mea culpa over what how dirty WWE did Kofi when he dropped the belt to Lesnar.
January 31, 2020 — 5:20 pm
The Box of Used Assholes on Jim Spanfeller's Desk says:
Ah here’s the wrestling! Asuka should always win! Butcher Blade and Bunny lose too much to be credible henchers! Thanks for the article!
January 31, 2020 — 10:25 pm
Ricochet isn’t great on mic, but I have a proposed solution: put Malcolm Bivens on TV already and have him manage him.
February 1, 2020 — 9:23 am