Yes, it really is that time of year again.
Fans of the WWE sweat with eager anticipation as the "Road to WrestleMania" lays open. The opening leg routes through St. Louis in the form of the Royal Rumble pay-per-view.
On the docket are two World Title matches, a grudge match and the 30-man Royal Rumble match itself.
Normally headlining any wrestling pay-per-view is a World Title match, but not this time. The name sake of the event this Sunday looms large like a Game 7 Conference Championship game in the NBA or NHL.
Aside from the morass of flying bodies in the namesake match, CM Punk defends the WWE Championship against the WWE's resident "Show Off," Dolph Ziggler. As if the antics of Ziggler weren't enough, the match will have a special guest referee with a glaring personal grudge against the "Voice of the Voiceless."
Daniel Bryan won't have it any easier. The "American Dragon" gets to defend his World Heavyweight Championship against the twin behemoths of Big Show and Mark Henry in a Triple Threat match. To add more resistance to an otherwise slippery champion, the match will take place in a Steel Cage.
In any case, certain progressions in the storytelling of both Raw and SmackDown come to a head in less than 24 hours. And like a Meteorologist, I will try to make sense of forthcoming chaos.
Going forward, there are a few things to you'll want to be aware of.
In addition to calling the three matches before the Main Event, the length of the Royal Rumble match will require a few additional items beyond the winner.
In previous years, such things as number of people eliminated and entrance number in the match have dominated the match. Other facts have come into play in recent years however, in the form of slicing the match into separate bits of storytelling.
For example, in the last two years, the WWE has used segments of the match to make wrestlers like CM Punk look strong without tying up valuable real estate in the "Final Four."
Two years running, Punk had dominated the opening segments of the Rumble match with the help of his stables at the time. In 2010, it was the Straight Edge Society. In 2011, it was Nexus.
Will the WWE do the same thing this year? It's tough to know but it is not beyond the realm of possibility.
In regards to the "Final Four", the WWE usually uses his section to highlight main eventers as a wrap up to an eventful night.
However, given the WWE's current rebuilding of the main event scene, expect the WWE to use this chance to help establish some stars in this role, such as with Alberto Del Rio last year.
With all that out of the way, let's go.
Background: This match has more angles going into it then a Geometry exam.
To sum it up, Punk defeated Alberto Del Rio at Survivor Series and hasn't looked back since. Defeating both Del Rio and The Miz in a Triple Threat TLC match at the epynomous pay-per-view in December, Punk has been booked as a strong champion.
Prior to Survivor Series, Punk had made Interim Raw GM John Laurinaitis' life miserable. Punk took every opportunity to riff and insult "Mr. Excitement," including a well received video homage. Laurinaitis took his turns on Punk as well, such as when he opened Raw by coming out to Punk's theme and wearing his shirt. In Punk's hometown no less.
The feud grew more heated with the involvement of Dolph Ziggler. With the help of Laurinaitis, "The Show Off" defeated Punk four times over the last five weeks. Ziggler even went so far as to steal Punk's title twice.
Things between Punk and Laurinaitis finally came to a head a few weeks ago. After Laurinaitis reversed a decision because of involvement from Mick Foley, Punk torched "Mr. Excitement" with a scathing promo that laid everything out. Punk accused Laurinaitis of "jealousy" because he accomplished more in one year then Laurinaitis did in his career. And he did it without compromising who he is.
Punk left the ring and Foley coaxed the truth out of Laurinaitis. The former Johnny Ace, in an uncharacteristic emotional outburst, confirmed he intended to screw Punk at Royal Rumble. After which, he "pipebombed" Foley and laid the former Mankind out.
Fast forward to last Monday and Punk finally managed to get Mr. Laurinaitis into the ring. However, before the match, Laurinaitis received a fax from the "WWE Board of Directors" stating that his job would be under review from his boss, the COO Triple H.
After Laurinaitis explained the fax to Punk and why the match was off, Punk was jumped by Mr. Laurinaitis' Legal Adviser, David Otunga. After Punk fought off Otunga, he finally got his "alone" time with Mr. Laurinaitis. After months of anticipation, Punk gave his boss the ultimate "FU!" and hit him a with a Go To Sleep. Punk was jumped from behind by Ziggler whom stood tall yet again over the WWE Champion.
Analysis: Needless to say, the build up for the match switched from "B Plot" to "Money Angle" in a matter of two weeks. This is partially because the Cena vs. Kane groundwork was laid out. Consider, also that the WWE's heavy investment with Punk seems to be bearing some fruit.
The preliminary buy rates for TLC are in and it's good news for them. Ratings also began to improve as Punk's drawing power becomes pronounced. Granted, he's still not Cena. But it's good enough for now.
The dynamic angle between Punk and Laurinaitis does draw a lot of comparison to the famous McMahon vs. Austin feud of the late 90's. While not as heated or groundbreaking as it's historical counterpart, the Punk vs. Laurinaitis feud has been fun and appropriate for the current era we're in.
The promo work and overall premise of the angle has bounced between good to great. Punk cut his best promo since his first "Pipebomb" in 2011.
Laurinaitis' character continues to improve and his outburst against Foley brought some much needed edge to the otherwise unflappable Raw GM. Ziggler arguably cut his best promo ever against Foley as well on a few weeks ago.
I'm convinced there is still mileage left in story between these three. Punk and Ziggler should tear the house down at Royal Rumble as well.
The hard sell of the match was based on the question "Can Punk overcome the odds of a hot challenger and an inherently biased referee?"
Ultimately, for the sake of the angle and future plans, I think he can. If he can overcome being handcuffed to the ring at TLC, then he should be able to do it again.
Likely Booking: The match should be a strong back and forth matter with some subtle shenanigans from Laurinaitis. Laurinaitis will likely take the proverbial "Referee Bump" which will lay him out cold. Another referee will rush down the ring (Triple H?) and count the pin fall after Punk nails a Go To Sleep on Ziggler.
Prediction: Punk Retains via Pinfall
Background: For months, Big Show had been after Mark Henry's World Heavyweight Championship. The two collided twice before without sufficient resolution to their quarrel and Daniel Bryan became involved in the affair as well.
At TLC, Big Show finally connected his W.M.D. to Henry's temple and laid the "World's Strongest Man" low for a three count. As Big Show celebrated the ending of his near-decade long drought with a World title, Henry rose like an nightmare that wouldn't go away. Henry dropped Big Show with a massive DDT onto a pile of steel chairs.
History would continue to be cruel to Big Show as Daniel Bryan saw his opportunity to cash in his "Money In The Bank" briefcase. He attempted to do so twice prior to TLC and was denied his rightful shot at glory.
Rushing down the ring as "Flight of the Valkyries" blared, he gave his briefcase over to the ref. The match started while Big Show was still in another plane of existence. As such, the pin fall was an academic matter.
Since that time, possessing the World Heavyweight Championship began to the change the once honorable nerd. He became manipulative of his girlfriend A.J. and seemingly even used her to his advantage.
Displaying a surprising amount of genre savvy, Bryan had used the rules time and again to retain his belt. He used Henry to induce a Disqualification against Big Show in his first title defense. He then used AJ to get a No Contest ruling in a "No Disqualification, No Count Out" match.
Then in a Lumberjack match against Mark Henry, he caused the Lumberjacks to riot and collectively beat down Henry while he slithered away with his belt in tow. Afterwards, he was notified by SmackDown General Manager Teddy Long that he would defend the World Heavyweight Championship against both Big Show and Mark Henry in a Triple Threat Steel Cage match at Royal Rumble!
This past Friday on SmackDown, he manipulated Henry into attempting to injure the Big Show during their match. Not one to miss an opportunity, he notified Big Show via a third party that Henry intended to injury Big Show in their main event match that night.
Booking, it seems, isn't without a sense of irony. During the match, Henry apparently hyper extended his knee while throwing a punch at Big Show. The match needed an improvised ending. Bryan took to the task with abandon and repeatedly took a chair to Big Show's body.
Big Show powered through the ordeal (and a LeBell Lock) to deliver a big chokeslam to Bryan. As he readied another W.M.D., Bryan slipped immediately out of the ring leaving the audience to wonder "how will he get out of this one?"
Analysis: Since TLC, Bryan has pulled off a magnificent heel turn. On top of that, he has made an effective champion as well. Where he cannot match either Big Show or Mark Henry's strength, he's shown simple guile to be an effective tool.
I'm sure that some have questioned that lack of real "finishes" to the matches involved with the angle. But consider this has been needed to show Bryan's ability to weasel out time and again without taking the coward's way out. Not once has he run away from a challenge. For the record, this makes for a unique heel in the WWE.
He's also proven effective on the mic, more then holding his own with both men.
Both Big Show and Mark Henry have been feuding for months over the title, so their direct involvement with the World Heavyweight Championship should be blowing off soon. With Elimination Chamber around the corner, it would be appropriate for ending the triangle nature of the angle.
"Money In The Bank" champions are typical trial runs for that wrestler to see if they can be trusted to run with the ball. Bryan has not only run with it, he's broken out of the backfield and is heading for daylight.
The gimmick nature of the match gives Bryan numerous excuses to retain his title. As such, Bryan will likely retain given his surprising versatility thus far. I'm assuming Henry is going to compete before taking some time off to heal.
Likely Booking: After a massive brawl-for-all between the three men, Big Show puts Henry out with another W.M.D. Finally getting some "alone time" with Bryan, Big Show dominates Bryan as he should before throwing Bryan at the cage.
Given how Big Show mentioned that he "doesn't know his own strength," we see this in action as Bryan flies into cage wall only find the wall giving away. Bryan technically escapes the cage to retain his title.
Prediction: Daniel Bryan Retains via escaping the cage.
Background: Prior to TLC, Kane made his return in a mark-out moment for the ages. Kane sauntered to the ring (with a mask!) during a match between Cena and Henry, both men looked like Hell itself had come.
Both the audience and Henry thought Kane was coming for the "World's Strongest Man," who wisely left the ring. Cena stumbled to his feet and ate an awesome chokeslam for his trouble.
Kane stood over Cena and removed the first mask to reveal one more in line with the legacy of his character.
As the weeks progressed, Kane continued to get the better of Cena time and again. Kane roughed up the WWE's resident Boy Scout week after week in an effort to get him to "Embrace the Hate," which John refused to do.
After it became apparent Cena wouldn't turn via direct methods, Kane went after Cena's friend and fan darling Zack Ryder and his gal-pal Eve. Ryder was nearly dragged into Hell with Kane in a moment that caused the IWC to worry for Hornswoggle's safety (I kid you not, it was trending on twitter) and ate a chokeslam on some wooden palettes.
Coincidentally, this injured Ryder whom lost his United States Title in a squash affair to Jack Swagger. Later that same night, Swagger received a memorable "curb stomping" from Cena. Kane appeared on the Titantron and gave his tacit approval.
Next week, Ryder faced Kane in a Falls Count Anywhere match. Laurinaitis made it known that if Cena interfered on Ryder's behalf, Ryder would never receive another shot at the coveted United States Championship.
Ryder showed surprising grit in receiving a 10-minute beatdown from Kane, but the match ended when Kane put the Long Island Iced Z through the stage with a chokeslam.
As Kane sauntered after Eve, Cena finally made his appearance and stopped Kane. Kane slowly escaped through the audience while medical teams prepared to take Ryder to the hospital.
Eve berated Cena and told him "You've done enough!" The segment finished with the ambulance tearing out of the arena and Cena finally understanding what "hate" really was.
Analysis: I had a lot of reservations about the feud between Kane and Cena got started, and even more so with the involvement of Ryder and Eve. However, the angle finally played out to a degree where it actually had a point and might serve some later ramifications.
For months now, the WWE has been teasing a heel turn for Cena. Ironically kicking off the speculation with the "Summer of Punk" saga where Cena showed more serious tones to his character. During the famous Money In The Bank match, Cena took a more heelish role then normal. In the match, Punk kicked out of Cena's Attitude Adjustment three times.
Cena, technically, never kicked out of Punk's Go To Sleep once in that match. It was a nice bit of role reversal for those men that helped spark the debate on a subtle level. Chicago really brought the famous "Let's Go Cena! Cena Sucks!" chants as well.
Going to Survivor Series, Cena took the "butt monkey" role in the angle between him, Rock, and Awesome Truth. In the match at Survivor Series, Cena took the "damsel" role for the face team, receiving a majority of the offense from Awesome Truth. The Rock gave Cena a Rock Bottom to end the affair as well.
Cena was left without a real angle going into TLC before Kane's return. As the Royal Rumble build began, the angle took over as the primary force on Raw to some questionable results. Hindsight being what it is though, all of it was needed to build to the final segment.
On a personal note, I need to the give the WWE more credit with far-thinking angles.
Regardless, the WWE has done a good job with the build of the match between these two. Kane finally getting Cena to understand the chants and "hate" adds a ton of dimension to an otherwise stale gimmick for Cena.
Is Cena going to turn into a rampaging badass we know he can be? Ultimately, I don't know. However, one thing is certain. Cena needs to remain credible going into his date with destiny at WrestleMania 28 against The Rock.
Likely Booking: Kane spends a majority of the match beating down Cena, who teases a number of false comebacks during the match. Finally, in a graphic representation, Cena understand what "the hate" is really about. It clicks.
Cena goes on a tear that would make Undertaker proud and finally nails a massive Attitude Adjustment from a top turnbuckle to give Kane the three second tan. Heel turn optional, but not likely.
Prediction: Cena wins via pinfall.
I should note that despite the rumored swerve for the match itself, it is hard to know exactly what they have planned or if such a thing will actually happen. As such, I will go on the assumption that it won't mar the outcome of the match. The match itself will probably be split into a few segments to pace the match itself.
The Miz. We already know that The Miz is entering the match at Number 1. As we know, some folks have gone "coast to coast" to win the match. However, I'm not predicting that. Instead, Miz will get a number of early eliminations to maintain the idea that he's a strong main event talent. Remember, he did challenge for the WWE Title at TLC.
Brodus Clay. I don't make any bones about the fact that I don't like Clay's gimmick. That said, a number of fans like him and the WWE is apparently high on him. As such, he'll get a few key tosses over the rope before being put over himself, either by Orton or Sheamus.
Sheamus. As high as the WWE is on Clay, they are likely higher on Sheamus. Sheamus hasn't taken a clean loss since Summerslam when he lost via count out to Mark Henry. Since then, Sheamus has steamrolled everyone and everything in his path.
Dolph Ziggler. The WWE will likely have the "Show Off" do double duty at Royal Rumble and look good doing it. As we all know by now, Ziggler is a work horse and should see a long run in the match itself by getting an early draw.
Wade Barrett. The Englishman has had a fine push over the past few months, including a storyline injury to Randy Orton. Barrett should win the World Heavyweight Championship sometime later this year I think, so a good showing in the Royal Rumble match would be appropriate.
Chris Jericho. Given this will be Y2J's return pay-per-view and they have high hopes for a key match at WrestleMania 28, they will want Jericho to look as good as possible while maintaining as much mystique about his ring work as is feasible. One would have to figure he's penciled into this position.
Randy Orton. St. Louis is Orton's hometown and he is the bona fide face of SmackDown. He'll get some run in the Royal Rumble match and be one of the last men standing.
Dolph Ziggler. Ziggler is as close to a made man without breaking through as it gets in the WWE. Given Ziggler's return to grace recently, the WWE will want him in this position to highlight what he can do and to reinforce the idea of him as a legitimate future World Champion
Sheamus. The mighty Irishman is made for this type of match. Strong, robust and with multiple ways to put an individual over the top rope. He'll look damn good doing it, too.
Prediction: Chris Jericho
Analysis: Since the return of Jericho the WWE, he's spoken hardly a word and wrestled even less. But with that said, there are a few reasons to think he will win the Royal Rumble match outright.
The current word around the campfire is that the WWE is still banking on a Jericho vs. Punk match for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania 28. A win for Jericho gives them all the excuse to make that match happen.
Otherwise, the rest of the top card matches have enough lead in to make them happen. Whomever Undertaker faces will have an easy enough setup. The Rock vs. Cena main event match has been made for almost a year now.
The World Heavyweight Championship match could have a logical lead in. If Bryan holds the title through Elimination Chamber, a match between him and Orton could have a simple enough premise than Bryan has defeated everyone. Now it is Randy's turn.
Assuming the WWE were looking at an Orton vs. Bryan match for WrestleMania 28, Orton winning the Rumble could be an easy way to make the match, but given it's Orton's hometown and the WWE's penchant for having hometown wrestlers lose their matches, you get the idea.
One last thing to consider is that the thing missing from Jericho's otherwise storied career is a Royal Rumble match victory. He's won every single title in the WWE that matters and has defeated everyone at some point.
Assuming this will be Jericho's last stint in the WWE, adding a Royal Rumble victory would be highly appropriate.
Thanks for reading! What do you think? Can Punk overcome Ziggler? Can Bryan snake his way to another night with his title ? Can Kane overcome Cena's Five Moves of Doom? Leave your thoughts below.