Let me tell you a story.
It’s 2014. People everywhere are still shaking off their New Year’s hangovers when the news breaks: former World Heavyweight Champion Dave “The Animal” Bautista is coming home to WWE.
The announcement was generally well-received among fans, as Big Dave was starting to gain traction in Hollywood and most people remembered him fondly as one of the cornerstone stars of WWE Smackdown. He even got a somewhat generous reaction upon returning to Monday Night Raw for the first time in several years. It might be fun to see him in the Royal Rumble again, we thought. Maybe he’ll even come out of it with a nice spot on the WrestleMania card.
And then news began to circulate that not only was Bautista scheduled to compete in the annual Rumble match, but that he was expected to win. “The Animal” vs. “The Viper” in the main event of WrestleMania; the two sons of Evolution, back together after all these years.
You probably see where I’m going with this.
Dave tossed the last remaining competitor over the top rope, the announcement of his inevitable victory rang over the house speakers, and as confetti rained down over the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh so did a chorus of 15,000 angry Pennsylvanians simultaneously expressing their rage. 24 hours later CM Punk walked out of Monday Night Raw, never to return again. The combination of Rumble Rage and Chicago’s most infamous son taking his ball home was enough to drive fans into a frenzy, so hot and passionate that nothing else mattered except Daniel Bryan and his “YES Movement”.
Fast-forward exactly one year.
Roman Reigns wins the 2015 Royal Rumble and cements his place in the WrestleMania 31 main event against Brock Lesnar. In the eyes of the fans, Daniel had been snubbed again. The backlash was so immediate that WWE.com servers legitimately crashed from Network cancellation requests in the hours following the pay-per-view.
As we head into 2018, the women of WWE are set to make history once again with the first ever Women’s Royal Rumble match. The stars from both rosters will mix it up in the same ring, despite the fact that Survivor Series is — and I don’t know if you’ve heard the news — the “only night of the year where the stars of Raw and Smackdown go head-to-head in competition”.
Rumor has it that Ronda Rousey has been training non-stop at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, and that her official debut in pro wrestling is just around the corner. Of course, any major names being discussed this close to January can only mean one thing: Royal Rumble speculation. We’ve seen reports that even the ladies backstage are talking about the possibility of one of UFC’s greatest icons turning up in the match.
Rousey is a culturally significant mega star. While she’s not quite at the heights of her pre-Holm and Nunes fall from grace, the name still means something. If handled correctly Ronda could mean big business for WWE, and if she’s able to make the transition from MMA to sports entertainment gracefully, there’s no reason to think she couldn’t be the women’s answer to Brock Lesnar.
The problem is, wrestling fans aren’t necessarily welcoming to people they consider “outsiders”. Jumping the rails at WrestleMania 30 to share the ring with The Rock is one thing; joining the roster and steamrolling through established talent is something completely different.
The lesson to be learned from Dave Bautista and Roman Reigns’ Rumble victories, as well as the rise of the “YES Movement”, is that today’s fans feel exceptionally entitled to have a voice in the creative process. If you’re on the writing staff, you almost have to trick the viewers into making them believe your ideas are actually their ideas.
If fans don’t believe that a performer “deserves” a certain spot at the top of the card, regardless of how much they’ve done to prove they actually DO deserve it, there will be hell to pay. And by “hell” I mean, nobody will be able to enjoy the story because the majority of vocal fans in attendance will be crapping all over it, no matter how good the writing or wrestlers in question actually are.
Look at Roman Reigns. The man is a part of pro wrestling’s most famous family. He basically looks like The Rock with gorgeous hair and a bullet-proof vest. He rarely, if ever, has a truly bad match. His pay-per-view record of quality bouts is actually higher than most of the “internet darlings” we love to get behind. Roman even carried the Big Show to his career best match, if you consider Dave Metlzer’s star ratings as a viable barometer for quality. None of that matters. He’s scarred in the eyes of the fans.
Two months before winning the 2015 Rumble he was getting some of the biggest pops out of anyone on television. Fans LOVED him. He was the next big thing, and there was really nobody batting an eye at that prospect. Bring on the era of Reigns! And then Daniel Bryan came back…
The Royal Rumble is important. For the women of WWE that is doubly true. The men have had 30 years to get the concept right, and we’ve been through plenty of exciting moments and devastating disappointments. But this is the first time women will compete in their very own Rumble match, which means WWE needs to set a positive precedent and think about the outcome very carefully.
Ronda Rousey could be huge in WWE. If she learns how to actually work a match and can convincingly mix it up with names like Charlotte Flair and Alexa Bliss (or Nia Jax…) fans might actually get behind her as a huge star. She could even move the needle on Network subscriptions and would definitely bring in constant attention from mainstream media and sports outlets. But if they don’t handle things just right, any chance of that happening is dead from day one.
Daniel Bryan had “earned” those Rumble wins in the eyes of the fans. It doesn’t matter what you or I, or even Vince McMahon himself, thought about Bautista or Reigns’ at the time. The voices that really mattered had already made up their collective hive mind.
Now, the one possible difference is that there isn’t a single woman in the WWE right now that has the same “Daniel Bryan factor” that spawned a movement. But that doesn’t mean they can’t accidentally create one.
There are many fans looking at this Women’s Royal Rumble as a truly groundbreaking achievement. WWE has preached about how the “women’s revolution” happened because the fans willed it into existence. They’ve made some great progress in the last two years with all kinds of first-time match types, more television time, multiple stories on Raw and Smackdown running simultaneously, etc. In terms of matches that are “important” to the WWE zeitgeist, the Royal Rumble and the WrestleMania main event are at the very top.
It’s possible that Rousey could enter the Rumble, start throwing bodies around left and right, and fans COULD eat it up. They COULD react positively to the idea of Ronda vs. Charlotte at WrestleMania for the title. It’s possible. But it’s also equally possible that she throws over the wrong name — a fan favorite like Sasha Banks or Becky Lynch — and the reality will set in that some former UFC big shot is coming in and stealing the spotlight that the rest of the women’s roster has fought so hard for.
Why risk it?
In my opinion the best option would be to hold off on Ronda’s debut. They can still feature her in a top match at WrestleMania, and even do the whole Four Horsewomen rivalry if that’s still on the table. Heck, put her in the ring with Stephanie McMahon to beat the crap out of one of wrestling’s most hated heels. As long as it doesn’t appear that she’s taking spots away from the full-time roster, or impeding major moments that “belong” to others, it shouldn’t be a problem.
As for who SHOULD win the Royal Rumble… That’s a conversation for another day.