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WrestleMania Season Stumbled Out Of The Gate At The Royal Rumble

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.