Monday, 29 January 2018

WWE Royal Rumble 2018 - What I Learned as A Cynical, Old-School Fan

2018 Royal Rumble Review
I sometimes feel that I'm too old to be watching wrestling. 

I don't mean that I feel any embarrassment about spending my spare time running this blog, or even that I should put a hold on my goal to watch and review every WWE pay per view from Wrestlemania 1 - 30. I enjoy this. It's harmless escapism and something that I still find myself oddly passionate about even 25 years after I first started watching.

No, it's more that I feel like the aging rocker who just doesn't get all this new-fangled noise the kids are into, I feel like the product, in an effort to reinvent itself and appeal to a younger audience, has evolved into an entirely different beast than the one I'm familiar with from my own youth and has -dare I say it- passed me by.

I turn 34 this year. I run a full-time business, I have family, relationships, a home to run and bills to pay. I don't even have time to keep up with Raw and Smackdown every week, let alone NXT, and 'The Indies' are like some magical Narnia that I've only ever glimpsed at from outside the wadrobe without ever really stepping foot inside.

I don't know what 'strong style' is or why that weird gremlin-looking guy is the king of it.

I don't know when it became normal for wrestlers to pretend to hate each other for two hours on TV but then 30 minutes later share Instagram pics about what an honour it is to be working together.

I don't know when the object of pro wrestling became about "tearing the house down" and not, you know, winning matches.

Every year I commit to staying up until 4AM to watch the Royal Rumble and Wrestlemania (ask any fan from the UK, that's never easy), and every year the cast of characters that I actually find it possible to become emotionally invested in gets smaller and smaller.

I start thinking that it's time to call time on this weird and wonderful little hobby of mine. That I should just stick to occasionally reviewing old Clash of the Champions shows and leave the kids to their Alexa Blisses and their Shinske Nakawhatsisfaces.

Then I stay up one last time for the 2018 Royal Rumble, and WWE puts on a show that reminds me why I still do this whole staying-up-all-night watching wrestling thing:

Because when its done right, there's nothing else on earth like it.

No movie, no TV show, theatre performance or video game can take such an immediate and vice-like hold on the emotions and drag them along the proverbial rollercoaster with such heart-pounding intensity that within the space of half an hour you find yourself going from not recognising who any of the characters are to bouncing on the edge of your seat, utterly desperate to see them overcome the odds.

The characters may have changed, the presentation may be entirely different, and the memory of kayfabe may turn in its grave every time a pro wrestler updades their Instagram account, but if the Royal Rumble taught me anything last night, it's that, when you strip all of that away, pro wrestling is still capable of telling some incredibly captivating stories.

Here's a few of my thoughts on the stories that were told last night.

Pre-show

This is where my Angry Old Man Who Doesn't Understand Youth Culture thing really flares up.

The lack of a crowd really killed the opening six-man match, though I'm not sure how much better it would have been had there been a roaring audience of thousands passionately cheering on every move. It was like watching a bunch of guys just playing wrestling amongst themselves whilst nobody paid attention.

Very weird.

I don't really get the appeal of Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson, and I'll be honest, I had no idea who The Revival were, but I will be paying more attention to them. I thought this match was pretty fun, though again it was just something that happened in the background to kill time before the main show started.

The Bobby Roode vs. Mojo Rawley thing felt the same way, though I must admit, I've always liked Bobby Roode since his days playing a rich guy gimmick in TNA. His entrance proved to be the best part of the match, and just watching it made me glad to see a guy I've cheered on for years doing so well.

Mojo Rawley on the other hand, is just awkward. Watching him, I always get this uncomfortable sense that the guy's own body doesn't quite fit him properly, and I don't get what he has to offer other than being tall.

WWE Championship match 

I saw WWE get a lot of backlash on Twitter for putting this match on first, as though AJ, Owens, and Zayn were somehow being relegated to curtain-jerker status.

I may have had some issues with the layout of the card early on in the night, but this one wasn't one of them.

As became glaringly apparent after the men's Rumble match, pacing is vital to keeping the crowds emotionally invested, and kicking off the show was the perfect way to ensure this one got the crowd at their hottest and most lively.

Had they put the handicap match anywhere else on the card, it risked either playing out to a dead crowd or at the very least losing its significance among a crowd of other marquee contests.

As it was, the opening segment was ideal and created a match which I felt was pretty underwhelming to begin with, heated up with some pretty exciting spots, and then ruined somewhat by the ridiculous "Zayn can't reach Owens to make the tag" spot.

I'm not saying the ending was bad, given the story they'll no doubt tell on Smackdown (Aj didn't pin the wrong guy, ergo, this ain't over!), but the actual spot with Zayn trying to make the tag was as unconvincing as those Sasha Banks kicks to Lita later on in the Rumble - talk about breaking suspension of disbelief.

Smackdown Tag Team Championship 

Overall, I thought this was a fun match with a bizarre ending. I get that bucking the trend can add that element of unpredictability, but I really felt that these two teams could have been given more time to tell the usual two-out-of-three-falls story of both sides scoring a pin and going to the tie, and make it work.

Still, it was enjoyable for what it was, and further helped convince this old-timer that some things never change - great wrestling can still capture the imagination and provide a level of excitement that no other form of entertainment - live or otherwise- can match.

Men's Royal Rumble 

As you might have gathered by now, I'm an old-school guy. So when they announced that the classic 30-man battle royal was kicking off in the first hour of the show, I was convinced that it was stripping the event of all its mystique, and that yes, this pro wrestling stuff really had evolved to a point that it was completely unrecognisable from the product I used to love.

When the entrants started coming in thick and fast, I even complained that the whole thing was being rushed, taking the shine off the event even further.

Then the match went on, and on, and the longer it went, the more utterly enthralling it became.

Royal Rumbles of the past few years have become a lot more dynamic, interesting, and spot-based than the "let's just all hang out by the ropes brawling for an hour" stuff that I remember from being a kid - and that's a good thing.

Most of this stuff was a joy to watch, and when it came down to that "Old school vs. New Blood" staredown between Cena/Orton/Mysterio and Reigns/Balor/Nakamura, I genuinely got chills.

From that moment on, I was hooked in a way that I haven't been hooked on a pro wrestling match in a long time.

Every moment as they worked down from the final six to Nakamura winning the whole thing was a pure work of art.

I honestly didn't care who won (I don't think Reigns is as bad as all the hate he receives would warrant), but the story they told was truly captivating, and it was this that made me realise that yes, pro wrestling was something that was still worth staying up all night for.

Raw Tag Team championship 

You could have put Undertaker vs. Cena, AJ vs. Nakamura, or just about any dream match you could think of in this spot and it still would have been met with the same level of apathy from a burned out crowd that this one did.

The lack of any reaction for this match was more a compliment to the emotional rollercoaster of the Rumble match and not a criticism on what was otherwise a decent effort from all concerned.

Call me optimistic, but I don't believe that the outcome leads to Rollins vs. Jordon at Wrestlemania, either. In an ideal world, I think Rollins vs. Jordon at Elimination Chamber, followed by a big return to the ring for Kurt Angle to take on Rollins on The Grandest Stage of Them All makes much more sense.

Universal Championship 

I've never cared much for Kane and Brock Lesnar, though I admit I do find Braun Strowman impressive.

This match was exactly what everyone thought it was going to be and what it really needed to be - short and destructive.

Title matches at Royal Rumbles always have the weird distinction of being "just another match" and not the marquee attraction they would be on any other show, so I don't feel bad that this wasn't my favourite thing on the show.

Women's Royal Rumble 

Last but not least, this wasn't just a good women's Royal Rumble match, it was a good Royal Rumble match period.

Though it lacked a lot of the nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat stuff until the final moments, I thought this was a very compelling and wonderfully entertaining contest.

Admittedly, I wasn't into the Ronda Rousey stuff, mainly because I have no interest in MMA and don't get why she's a big deal, but also because the whole "Point to the Wrestlemania Sign" stuff is already overplayed, and Ronda's take on it just seemed very forced and unnatural.

Still, the actual Rumble match was a great end to great show which proved to a cynical old fan like me that, whether I continue watching or not, pro wrestling is going to continue to be the most engrossing, emotionally-charged form of entertainment there is.

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