The Best and Worst of WWE Royal Rumble 2021
The first ever Royal Rumble without fans in attendance took place over the weekend, with the event splitting the opinions of the fanbase. Brandon Bethune highlights what worked well and what didn’t work at all.
Honestly, we could all do with a Royal Rumble right now.
What is usually the best time of year for pro-wrestling fans has, like everything else, had the dark cloud of coronavirus hanging over it. With crowds yet to return, we were faced with a Royal Rumble without fans for the first time. Even 2020, as bad a year as it was, saw fans in attendance for the Rumble, so it’s a damning indictment of 2021’s true nature that even something as sacred as the Rumble isn’t off-limits from the dangers of the pandemic – scary, that.
Nevertheless, the WWE pressed forward with the true “most wonderful time of the year” (a month beyond Christmas) and the excitement for the show was palpable before the event – that being if you ignored the rumours of a potential dark timeline that would drag us back to the nightmare of mid-2010s Rumbles, with Goldberg vs Drew McIntyre and the men’s/women’s Rumble matches giving fans noticeable PTSD beforehand.
We needn’t have worried however, as the WWE largely knocked it out of the park with a show for the ages that kept up the trend of recent great Royal Rumbles, the only consistently good thing to come out of the new decade so far. The 2021 Royal Rumble wasn’t all peaches and cream though, with some typical WWE-isms and frightening long-term consequences dragging the show back from being an all timer.
So, in the interest of fairness, I thought I’d detail the best and worst of the show in reviewing this year’s Royal Rumble PPV, starting with the men’s Rumble match.
Best and Worst: Rated-R Rumble
I feel cruel for attacking this year’s men’s Royal Rumble match because it’s made so many people happy, but take one look at the recent wrestling news cycle over the last few weeks (and the WWE landscape for the last 20 years) and you’ll see the bigger picture.
To get the criticism out of the way, I felt with all the current controversy surrounding the divide between the old and new generations, and the role of part-timers in modern day WWE, that positioning a recently-returned Edge as the winner of the match beyond a more modern star like Daniel Bryan (who himself would’ve been an outdated winner), is a tad counterproductive. Not that WWE is known for letting the bigger picture affect short-term, ratings fuelled bookings…
In the match and overall show’s defence though, I feel the WWE, at least on this occasion, more than earned the part-timer victory for Edge. We got the Drew McIntyre win over Goldberg and the Bianca Belair win in the women’s Rumble as a way of highlighting the younger talent, plus the story surrounding Edge’s win is arguably better than any other potential winner, so I’ll concede on that point.
Winner controversy aside, the rest of the men’s Rumble hit all the right spots. Showcase performances for Daniel Bryan, Bobby Lashley, Big E, Riddle, and Damian Priest put forward who the WWE sees as their big stars going forward. The surprises were packed with an absolutely jacked Carlito; Kane and The Hurricane provided some fun spots; Seth Rollins was nice to see; and of course we got an all-time great Rumble return in Christian. Special mention also to Daniel Bryan’s magnificent mini exchanges with Riddle and Ricochet that helped highlight the under-utilised stars.
Best: Thank God For Drew
While Edge’s win has been met with glee despite the current debate raging through wrestling, a Goldberg victory definitely wouldn’t have come with the same response.
WWE’s toxic use of part-timers is arguably at its worst with Goldberg as the figurehead, with a precedent of previously ending the Universal Title reigns of Kevin Owens and Bray Wyatt with no exciting storyline hook to qualify the need for it. So, when Goldberg made a nonsensical return to challenge Drew McIntyre for the WWE Championship, the fear of the aforementioned dark timeline returned – could a Goldberg victory be on the horizon?
Thankfully, the answer was a swift no. Drew McIntyre looked ten times the star he already is, in this match that made the best possible use of Goldberg, providing a quick, highly physical encounter that made the younger star that much bigger.
The typical Paul Heyman big fight layout was applied here, with a pre-match headbutt and Claymore Kick by McIntyre followed by a spear through the barricade by Goldberg. Drew was then able to withstand a few more spears and a Jackhammer, before delivering a decisive Claymore Kick for the win.
It’s a rare thing when you can praise WWE for its past sins, but the precedent set by Goldberg’s two prior title wins and WWE’s major reliance on big names allows for the drama to be heightened through this unique and all too real fear that your favourite new wrestler will be beaten by your dad’s favourite wrestler from the 90s.
Worst: Women’s Titles Overshadowed
Again, this may be seen as a nit-pick, because anything that happens at the Royal Rumble will be overshadowed by the Rumble matches themselves. No matter how big a star you are or how important the title match, the Rumbles are the most important.
What puts the nail in the coffin, however, is when you put such little effort into establishing the matches you do put on the card as important, that they stand no chance in not being overshadowed.
This was the case specifically in the two women’s title matches that were on the show. The Women’s Tag Team Championships are stone dead anyway, and its pre-show placement didn’t make them anymore valuable. This is more-so another complaint with the WWE generally, but the treatment of the Women’s Tag Team Championships and, at the same time, Asuka’s Raw Women’s Championship deserves better. No amount of Ric Flair and Lacey Evans overbooking could fix the lacklustre Flair/Asuka vs Jax/Bazler pre-show tag.
The SmackDown Women’s Championship Match fared a little better, given Sasha and Carmella have a built-in story and good in-ring chemistry, but the match served little purpose beyond being a card filler.
This doesn’t mean the match was overtly bad by any stretch, but not only did the match pale in comparison to their TLC clash last month, but Carmella was needlessly hurt by suffering another loss (which wasn’t helped by her Royal Rumble performance later in the night).
On the whole not a criminal offence, but the use of the Women’s Championships wasn’t a bright spot on an otherwise spotless show.
Best and Worst: Last Man Standing
Another theme prevalent on this show was that the in-ring work for the non-Rumble matches was strong, but the storytelling lacked.
In the case of the Roman Reigns vs Kevin Owens Last Man Standing Match, the story throughout of Kevin Owens fighting to withstand Reigns’ onslaught remained, but wasn’t highlighted as much as in their TLC match last month, leaving them in a similar situation to Carmella and Sasha earlier in the night. For a show built around being contained in the ring for battle royals though, a match being fought all the way around the arena (in the largely untapped backstage potential of the Thunderdome) was more than welcome, and helped shadow the issues at hand.
Maybe the opening followed too closely to the McIntyre/Goldberg match, but beyond that the work was strong. Reigns and Owens destroyed each other with chair shots, table bumps, and in a hilariously violent visual, Reigns running through Owens with a golf cart that saw Owens smash through the plastic screen that then smashed Roman in the face. Pure gold.
This wasn’t enough to drag it above being just good unfortunately, as the final stretch involving the handcuffs gave the match a disappointing finish, with Roman Reigns having to resort to underhanded tactics to get past Owens again, rather than being able to get the job done decisively in what is likely the end of this rivalry.
The deflating ending compounded the negatives and undermined what had been a fun mess of a match.
Best: Women’s Rumble Delivers
In the past few years, the Women’s Royal Rumble Match has been great for moments, but has lacked a certain something to make it work overall.
2018 was historic as it was the first match of its kind; 2019 had Becky Lynch becoming a superstar; and 2020 had the debut of Shayna Bazler, but the overall matches were poor to average by Rumble standards. 2021 took that tradition and tore it to shreds.
WWE showed how deep its women’s division is in this Rumble, with the ring filling up for the first half of the bout. Starting with Bayley and a returning Naomi was a nice touch, with the following arrival of eventual winner Bianca Belair giving the match a sense of importance right from the beginning. Billie Kay got a strong comedy spot highlighting her character, and we even got an Iconics callback between Billie and Peyton Royce that began a string of surprising rarities in which modern WWE acknowledged its own history in a good way.
The return of Victoria was a welcome addition and even more underwhelming surprises like Jillian and Torrie Wilson were elevated by the quality of the match. NXT debutants Shotzi Blackheart, Toni Storm, and Dakota Kai were also solid, but the NXT debut to talk about belonged to Rhea Ripley, who dominated with the most eliminations in the match and finished as runner-up to likely usher in her main roster run. Things couldn’t have gotten off to a better start.
While previous women’s Rumble matches always felt they had these long periods of nothing happening, 2021 felt like every move mattered, and this was extenuated by the ending, with Bianca Belair, Charlotte Flair and Rhea Ripley in the ring for the final three. Again, using our expectations from past mistakes to build tension, the fear of another disappointing Charlotte victory was extinguished wonderfully as she was dumped out by Bianca and Rhea as a statement of intent, establishing both women as big stars.
This led to a satisfying final stretch, in which Rhea and Bianca traded moves in a battle which could’ve gone either way, and nobody would’ve complained. Bianca eventually dumped Rhea out for the triumphant win, wrapping up a near-perfect Rumble win.
More-so than anything else on the card, the women’s Rumble and Bianca Belair’s win provided that sense of wrestling escapism that a Royal Rumble is known for, and that we all still need right now. The sight of a teary-eyed and battle tested Bianca celebrating her Rumble victory gave a glimpse into, hopefully, a not-too-distant future where we all come out of the terrible current circumstances altered, but empowered, by our challenging experiences.
Yes, it may be a tad hyperbolic to describe Bianca Belair’s victory in the same vein as the type of catharsis that the end of a global pandemic will bring, yet it’s the fight and hope shown throughout her 60 minute plus performance that incited a fighting spirit that we all need instilled in us to keep going right now.
So even when the show had finished with Edge’s victory, the most cynical side of me couldn’t help but feel like the pay-per-view had delivered, not only as a show, but as the strong start the WWE needed for the year. Here’s hoping they can continue that heading into WrestleMania in April, where we may be able to see fans back for the biggest show of the year. Maybe.