By Matt Straub and Brad Carroll
The Royal Rumble is my favorite show of the year. I love it even more than WrestleMania. The way they can tell a story over time, the surprise entrants, and the possibility of mistakes make it so much fun to watch. Plus, you have the annual “Kofi uses props to avoid hitting the floor,” spot.
This year’s Rumble, however, had better deliver since there isn’t much else to talk about on Sunday’s card. There are two Rumble matches, which is great, but only two people who could win each one. There are four title matches, but only one which won’t just be used as a chance to set up something for WrestleMania. So while this year’s show will be interesting, it won’t be terribly unpredictable. The Rumble always does give us some surprises, however, so let’s look at some of the forks the road to WrestleMania could take.
Below is Part 1 of our preview with breakdowns and predictions for the title matches. Click here for Part 2 with breakdowns and predictions for both the men’s and women’s Royal Rumble matches.
SmackDown Tag Team Champions The Usos vs. Chad Gable & Shelton Benjamin (2-out-of-3-Falls Match)
Matt’s Breakdown and Prediction: How well a match like this comes off is all about placement. This is probably a really exciting thing on SmackDown. Not as much as when they’ve done special events such as the ironman matches, but this could serve as a big main event for a highly-rated regular edition of a free TV show. The only other place this serves as a good idea is if it’s on the pre-show, which is going to be some two hours. There it could be given plenty of time to include all the necessary high spots, frantic switches, and twists which could make this match fun. If this is the opener of the real show at 7 p.m., it will be wildly disappointing. There would still be a few minutes of craziness, but not enough time to tell a good story (which best-of-three matches need), and would fall well short of its potential. The match must be well-told to work, wherever it lands and however long it goes, because that would be the only thing it has going for it. Otherwise, it’s the typical Smackdown match: some great athletes running and jumping around for reasons which are unexplained or are just dumb. In a way, I’d love to see the rosters flipped for a month. What could the production value of Raw do to enhance the worth of the stronger workers of SmackDown? The Red brand has its own problems, but it has always felt like the bigger show (as WWE wants it to be), which makes SmackDown feel inferior. The Blue Branders will always be the “other guys,” which, for a match like this, is a shame. Whenever it goes on and for however long, the challengers win. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Brad’s Breakdown and Prediction: I thought Matt was right when he pegged this as a kickoff show match, but now that I see WWE has already scheduled three matches alone for it, I think the SDLive tag team championship will actually get on the main card. For those three matches, which nobody will tune in for, especially considering the main show is going to run four hours, are a curiserweight six-man tag, a tag team match between Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson and The Revival and a Bobby Roode open challenge for the US title. The Usos have really stepped into their own and will have a tremendous match with Benjamin and Gable here, there’s no doubt about it. Matt’s right though, if its on the kickoff show, it will allow them to do everything they wanted to do in a match without time constraints. If it goes 30 minutes, where WWE will pipe in commercials too, before the actual Rumble goes on air, what’s the harm? It will be a great match. If it’s on the regular show, it will get probably 12 minutes. And fitting two or three falls into 12 minutes just doesn’t work. I really can’t believe Matt got me into breaking down where and when a match should fall on the card like he did here, but luckily this is the internet, and it can handle all the words I can write. Delving into his insanity is never a good idea. Anyway, I think Gable does have a solid future in WWE, not on a main event scale, but a US or IC title reign in the future is definitely in the cards. Benjamin seems lost in a tag team that doesn’t really make sense, and other wrestlers think so too, calling them American Alpha II, which is not a good thing. The Usos are the best tag team on SmackDown, and probably all of WWE now, although if they were on Raw they wouldn’t even be in the title picture, which tells you something about how WWE is booked. But, finally, a prediction, after a great match, the Usos retain and Matt begins yet another losing streak on these previews against me.
Raw Tag Team Champions Seth Rollins & Jason Jordan vs. Cesaro & Sheamus
Matt’s Breakdown and Prediction: If you’ve watched wrestling as long as we have, you often know what’s coming. The knowledge is supposed to come from experience, however, not from the wrestlers giving it away. When an angle is coming down the line, the wrestlers know, but are supposed to keep their poker faces on until the right time. Jordan and Rollins are probably very bad poker players. Any long-time wrestling fan know there’s a breakup coming for Rollins and Jordan. It makes sense for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the incredible bad luck which has cursed the Shield’s reunion tour. Dean Ambrose being out helped force Rollins and Jordan together, which will give Rollins something to do for a couple of months until WrestleMania. They’re supposed to make you believe the breakup is going to take a while, but watching the duo at Raw 25 made it impossible to think they’ll make it past this Monday. Not only do the fans hate the pair together, but Rollins can’t even pretend to hide his disdain for Jordan. And no, it’s not in an “angle” kind of way. Watch when Jordan is talking to the crowd again, but this time forget his own struggles and focus on Rollins. He’s not selling a story, he’s openly asking for permission to just turn right then, right there, to get everyone’s misery over with. His face screamed, “look, I know the plan is for Jordan to turn soon, but let me just turn now and kill him so I don’t have to be in this ring one second longer.” We all think Jordan is going to turn on the fans who hate him and “break from his dad’s shadow,” the way Charlotte did a while ago with her epic promo on Ric Flair, but a Rollins turn might work better. He costs Jordan the match Sunday, they fight in February, and Rollins turns his attention to something bigger by the time we get to New Orleans. Depending on if Rumble plans change, that could be against Roman or Brock. Perhaps he could even wrestle Kurt Angle, though I still see he and Triple H together that night. No matter where he goes, there are many more things to do for him as a heel. If Jordan turns, the pair could be stuck together for a while, which would be a huge blow to Rollins’ career. Either way, something weird happens tonight, the Bar wins thanks to the dysfunction, and Monday starts Rollins vs. Jordan.
Brad’s Breakdown and Prediction: Not surprisingly, Matt has read this situation entirely wrong. Now as all of you sit back on your couch and say “what else is new,” here’s why. Jason Jordan was horrible in the beginning of this storyline. Straight up terrible. Beyond bad. Like Roman Reigns is the greatest wrestler of all time compared to him bad. But a funny thing happened on the road to Jordan being vilified for all the wrong reasons … he’s become vilified for all the right reasons. It’s been shocking, really. Jordan has played his role perfectly recently, as the ego maniacal talker and performer who’s has embraced the hate from the fans and turned into an actual heat magnet rather than just guy who everyone thought should simply go away. He’s done everything the right way, the way Roman Reigns should have dealt with the fans, instead of being just a cocky idiot who thinks he deserves everything he’s gotten. Jordan has become interesting and having him with Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns and The Bar has done wonders for him, and there’s no reason to stop that now. I really wish The Bar would win this match and take the tag team titles back, because they really are the best team in the division, bar none (get it?). But that won’t happen because WWE needs to freshen up Raw by not running countless variations of The Shield vs. The Bar. It’s really too much at this point. That sucks for Sheamus and Cesaro, who will probably have to feud and lose to Gallows and Anderson, the newly pushed Balor Club duo, next, unless they are built back up until Matt's prediction of Jordan vs. Rollins happens and they get back into the title picture again. Rollins and Jordan will continue to be awkward together, but Jordan is actually making the pair interesting, and who would have guessed that even three weeks ago? Rollins, of course, is just wasted here and has been since he turned face. He’s meant to be a heel, so this is killing him, although I’m sure he’s happy getting his merch checks. As for who they feud with next, who knows? The Revival? They just got buried on Raw 25. Gallows and Anderson could make sense, but rubbing the newly formed Balor Club with Rollins and Jordan right now might be the wrong move to get them over again. Whomever it is, everyone will be waiting for Dean Ambrose to return to make for some interesting television. And who would have thought the guy with the best overall presence of those three would be Jason Jordan? Crazy. Rollins and Jordan survive with the titles.
WWE Champion AJ Styles vs. Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn
(2-on-1 Handicap Match for the WWE Title)
Matt’s Breakdown and Prediction: If the title matches are the least interesting thing on a card, you probably have a bad show ahead. But on Rumble night, it makes sense. I actually don’t want to say too much about this match here because it will give away my Rumble pick, but suffice it to say there’s no chance AJ loses. It doesn’t make sense to have Kevin win unless he’s going to feud with Sami, and that’s not a WrestleMania match. I actually love watching those two fight, as their chemistry is incredible, even if WWE ruined its most logic-based stories by reuniting them, but it just doesn’t have the feel of a 10 p.m. match at WrestleMania. The idea being floated that they’d be “co-champs” would be different, but not exciting enough to mess up the plans for WrestleMania. Maybe Kevin and Sami will break up and fight earlier on the card at WrestleMania, but they aren’t winning here. Let’s move on and get to the good stuff.
Brad’s Breakdown and Prediction: The Sami Zayn heel turn and partnership with Kevin Owens has been the best thing that could have happened to him, as he’s gone from afterthought to world title contender in short order. Zayn has been great in this role and should continue for the long haul with Owens by his side, so I don’t see them breaking up any time soon. Winning this match together, though, is a tougher sell, really because there’s no way WWE is going to let their be co-champions, especially since it’s never happened before and even more especially because it would set up another weird title defense at WrestleMania. Plus, there’s no way Shane McMahon will allow it to happen. This feud has been all about McMahon and Daniel Bryan, not Styles or Owens or Zayn. The sideshow has been the main show, which has made this match something nobody really wants to see, as fans know it won’t simply come down to Styles vs. Zayn and Owens. There will be a way to keep the belt on Styles while setting up an Owens and Zayn match with McMahon at WrestleMania, otherwise what’s the point of this whole thing? Styles could then go on to feud with the winner of the Royal Rumble or another challenger altogether. We’ll get a better understanding of the futures of all these superstars after this match and the Royal Rumble as well. But Styles escapes with his championship for now.
Universal Champion Brock Lesnar vs. Braun Strowman vs. Kane
(Triple Threat Match)
Matt’s Breakdown and Prediction: For months we’ve talked about the obvious end of the road to WrestleMania. Brock is going to fight Roman Reigns. Don’t shoot the messenger here (I can already feel Brad getting angry), as it’s not my idea. It’s just what’s going to happen. Unless one of them gets hurt or Roman is implicated in the case involving that drug dealer who named him as a client recently, that’s your Mania main event. Even if something does happen with Roman, he would probably win the belt from jail somehow. WWE is still Vince’s toy, and he’ll do what he wants with it. We’re all going to complain, then give Vince millions of dollars anyway, so why should he not enjoy himself? The question becomes how we get there. The most logical outcome is Reigns winning the Rumble (which, and this shocked me, too, he’s only done once) and getting the shot at Lesnar. There are, however, numerous ways to get there. Kane is in this match to keep whoever doesn’t win it strong, so we don’t have to worry about the end of Braun Strowman’s push. There’s even a small chance Vince gets swayed by how big Braun has become and gives him the belt now. I just don’t see Braun vs. Brock at Mania, not after they’ve spent so much time focused on getting to Brock vs. Roman. I can’t see Lesnar losing on anything other than a huge show, so it has to be Sunday or at WrestleMania. Brock beats Kane, Braun and Kane finish their feud, and Braun wins the belt sometime after WrestleMania. If Braun wins, he would fight Kane next month and Lesnar would lose his rematch at WrestleMania, but I consider that the less likely scenario.
Brad’s Breakdown and Prediction: Me get angry? That's umpossible. Paraphrasing Ralph Wiggum is fun, and while Matt's concern for my heart levels is greatly appreciated, I'm way too numb to the Roman Reigns push to get angry anymore. It's a new Brad, although I'm sure something will happen for the old version to appear again. Maybe like Reigns winning the Royal Rumble match, but we'll get to that in Part 2 of our preview here. WrestleMania’s main event will probably be Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns because the WWE hates you. Simple as that. But plans change and although it makes complete sense for these two to wrestle for the championship at WrestleMania, there are better options, at least from a fan’s perspective. I’ve laid one option in Part 2 of our Royal Rumble preview, so check that out. The belt is going to come off Lesnar sooner rather than later, and WrestleMania and Roman Reigns check all the boxes for it happening in that way. But that’s for a future column. Here, we all know Kane isn’t winning. I’m not even sure why he’s in this match in the first place. Kane’s had a great career, but he’s not the Undertaker, meaning he just can’t show up and expect fans to go crazy for him. It’s just not the same. Most have no idea why he’s still wrestling, let alone in a title match. Braun Strowman could win and finally take the championship, which really could set up a wonderful WrestleMania triple threat match between him, Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns, which would get the three biggest players on Raw in the ring at the same time. I’d actual sign up for that because nobody would be able to pick the winner with any kind of certainty. But I think everyone knows which way this is going. Strowman is going to kill everyone for most of the match before something happens where either he’s taken out of the equation, and Lesnar pins Kane, or Lesnar catches Braun with an F-5 outtanowhere to win. Lesnar will be champion, even though it’s Strowman’s time. WWE just isn’t going to pull the trigger just yet. Lesnar wins and we won't care because the men's Royal Rumble is up next.
Click here for Part 2 of our preview, which breaks down and predicts both the men's and women's Royal Rumble matches