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Monday, January 29, 2018

Road to Wrestlemania New Orleans: Royal Rumble a crowning achievement

Posted By on Mon, Jan 29, 2018 at 12:03 PM

click image Asuka in action, applying the Asuka Lock on Bayley, just seconds before winning at NXT TakeOver: Dallas. - PHOTO BY MIGUEL DISCART/CREATIVE COMMONS
  • Asuka in action, applying the Asuka Lock on Bayley, just seconds before winning at NXT TakeOver: Dallas.

What if the Phorty Phunny Phellows, who stuff themselves inside a streetcar to inaugurate Carnival Season, were ... hotter?

And what if the Phellows strove furiously to throw one another out of the streetcar, because the last one left inside earned the chance to become King of Carnival and would, on Fat Tuesday, fight last year's Rex for the crown inside the Superdome? I don't know about you, but that sounds to me like the absolute quintessence of entertainment.

That, reader, is WWE's Royal Rumble, which last night kicked off 2018's Wrestlemania Season, a rather slicker, longer and more profitably produced Carnival which will culminate at the Superdome April 8 at Wrestlemania 34.

The Royal Rumble limns the first big, solid strokes of the year's Wrestlemania card, since its winner generally contends for the championship in Wrestlemania's main event. Royal Rumble 2018 was very good, easily the best Rumble event in many years. I leave it to better historians than myself to determine its all-time rank, but it's probably way up there.

A big reason, if not the only one, was that this year featured the the first ever Women's Royal Rumble, which ran under the same rules as the men's: 30 wrestlers trickle into the ring, one every 90 seconds. You're eliminated by being thrown over the top ring-rope, and the last wrestler left inside fights the division's champion at Wrestlemania.

The Women's Royal Rumble was not just a gesture, however — it was the main event, a position of the highest honor. This meant it ran after not only the men's Rumble match but two highly anticipated non-Rumble title matches.

The risk was considerable, because by the time of the main event there already had been three and a half hours of show, preceded by two hours of preshow wrestling and gaga, meaning the crowd was worn out. There's also the reality that WWE's women wrestlers, while superb, still are not as popular as their male counterparts; nor is the average technical acumen across the division quite as high (though the elite women wrestlers are as good as the top men). The risk was compounded since this year's Rumble was in Philadelphia, and Philly fans ... well, they're Philly fans. They emphatically and impolitely reject outcomes or developments that don't gratify them.
I frontload all this paternalistic concern because the first-ever Women's Royal Rumble could have easily been a grim, rudely booed shu-shu instead of the sparkling and magnificent triumph it was.

Royal Rumble matches are long and have to be carefully crafted to maintain audience enthusiasm; they ask a lot of the participants, some of whom must appear to actively try to lift and throw others for 30 or 40 minutes with scant chance for rest.

While each Rumble contains many smaller confrontations, dramas, running jokes and shocking swerves of expectation — will longtime friends turn on one another? — there is often a larger narrative arc within a Rumble. In this case, the big question was whether the undefeated-in-WWE Asuka would continue to never, ever lose. Asuka is a Japanese woman who has become a tremendous fan favorite simply by being better than everyone else.

When Asuka fights, she wins. Fans like that. I like that. Asuka is awesome. It's remarkable and a sign of the times that she's succeeded in WWE despite speaking very little English.

She's very exciting to watch. Her wrestling style is brutally aggressive; there seems to be a pack of her swarming her opponents. Asuka's scintillatingly colorful hair and motley ring gear, rather than giving her a cartoonishly kawaii appearance, signal danger as those colors would in nature. Her smile is not winsome or ingratiating but radiates an unsettling diabolic confidence. They call Asuka "The Empress of Tomorrow," an objectively badass nickname, and to watch her do her thing (i.e. beat the hell out of everyone and win) is as satisfying an arc of anticipation and satiety as the resolution of a slowly-built chord progression. It's like gazing into a cozy fire.

After Asuka won (which, despite her record, didn't seem at all a sure thing until it happened), the two women's champions (one from Smackdown, one from RAW, the two WWE TV shows), came to the ring so Asuka could choose whom she'd fight at Wrestlemania. This ceremonial decision was disrupted by the surprise arrival of UFC icon Ronda Rousey, who stormed the ring wearing the leather jacket of late WWE legend Rowdy Roddy Piper.

The three wrestlers in the ring were nonplussed. Ronda extended a congratulatory hand to Asuka, who snarled and slapped it away. Ronda then pointed to the purple, green and gold Wrestlemania sign hanging above the ring, and the show went off the air.

What does this mean? What does it mean, reader?  Who will fight whom, and what will the stakes be? I can't wait to find out.

The larger women's Rumble match was great. This has been a huge year for women's wrestling. WWE, which is still most of what pro wrestling is, finally began treating its women wrestlers better, giving them longer matches, elevating more capable competitors and doing away with humiliatingly sexist "bra and panty" and "pillowfight" matches that were the division's hallmarks. It's not a fait accompli — there are plenty of legitimate criticisms to be made about the women's division storylines, and one suspects pay equity may not yet be implemented— but the progress is as significant as it's overdue.

Because the active WWE women's roster is smaller than the men's, the 30 slots of the women's rumble featured a lot of surprise entrants from WWE's past, which not only offered some nice reunions and intergenerational confrontations but, in the perhaps unlikely medium of a long, chaotic brawl, provided a capsule history of the women's division, honoring its different eras and contributors. It was all so deftly and capably handled that I can't quite believe it.

The times are clearly a-changed, as further confirmed by the winner of the men's rumble match: another flamboyant Japanese competitor who doesn't speak much English, the enigmatic Shinsuke Nakamura. At Wrestlemania, Nakamura will face WWE World Heavyweight Champ A.J. Styles, god's perfect wrestling hero. Styles is a smallish, charmingly cocky Southern underdog who is one of pro wrestling's all-time greats. Nakamura is also one of this generation's best, so there's grounds for considerable optimism about their match.
For years, it's been a foregone conclusion in much of wrestling punditry that the main event of Wrestlemania 34 will be the coronation of Roman Reigns, a towering, merely competent wrestler who looks and moves like a video game protagonist and has the real but stylistically stale sex appeal of a romance-novel cover model. Reigns is WWE honcho Vince McMahon's golden boy and for years has been built up to face (and defeat) the apparently inhuman WWE Universal Champ Brock Lesnar. I'd expected Reigns to win the men's Rumble match, which would have maintained a year-long streak of disappointing rumble finishes. I was pleasantly surprised.

Any other year, I would be praising the specifics of the men's Royal Rumble to the sky; it was a cut far above what we've become used to, with its own full complement of highlights and memorable moments. After being thrown over the top rope, Kofi Kingston was saved when one of his feet landed atop a stack of pancakes ringside, meaning both of his feet didn't touch the floor and he wasn't eliminated from the Rumble. This seasoning of high-camp absurdity, used in careful moderation as it was last night, is tremendously palate-pleasing.

There were other contests on the card, including A.J. Styles fending off two schemers to retain his WWE World Championship, some perfectly good tag-team matches and a lively smash-up in which Brock Lesnar successfully defended his Universal title against two other big crazy monsters, but the two Rumble matches were the heart and soul of the show.

In almost every conceivable way, the state of the gameboard is miles better than it was prior to New Orleans' first Wrestlemania four years ago. I know it's a busy season, but if you want a very worthwhile four hours of passive entertainment, I'd recommend watching the Rumble on-demand on the WWE streaming network. Maybe play it in the background while you're working on a costume. It doesn't have the timeless soul of our Carnival, of course, and it lacks the crucial participatory element, but pro wrestling at its best — which I'd argue the 2018 Rumble was — can be every bit as wild, colorful, sexy and fun.

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