Where the WWE world championships are concerned, there were no major surprises that rose out of the 2021 edition of the Royal Rumble.
The Raw women’s title wasn’t even defended. Sasha Banks retained the Smackdown equivalent, while both Roman Reigns and Drew McIntyre turned away their challengers. Aside from the off chance Goldberg was going to be used again to usurp a frankly much more deserving champion, this was the expected result for the four primary champions on WWE’s flagship shows.
The two Royal Rumbles were another matter.
While WWE’s reigning kings and queens held their thrones, two very different stories came out of the men’s and women’s Rumbles. For the ladies, Bianca Belair — the EST of everything in WWE — outlasted everyone else from the field from the number three slot to claim her spot at WrestleMania. It shouldn’t come as too much of a shock given her recent push, but it’s refreshing all the same especially when you consider the final included two of WWE’s rising stars in the women’s division in Belair and Rhea Ripley. They also worked together to dispatch the old guard, even if there’s a high probability Charlotte challenges for the Raw title regardless. The seeds are even planted for a possible pre-Mania switch that might see Charlotte take the belt off Asuka to flow directly into a Ripley-Charlotte rematch. But for Belair, who carries all the physical and personal attributes you’d expect from a WWE wrestler, this was the best choice, the surest choice, the greatest choice to hopefully headline one of two nights at WrestleMania.
On the men’s side, all the confusion over announcing the number one and two spots prior to the show crystallized and made a little more sense by the end of the night. Edge and Randy Orton renewed their rivalry from the spring and went head to head for the first portion of the men’s Rumble, that is until Edge sent him to the trainer’s room following an implant DDT through an announce table. Much like the women’s match, Edge and (quietly Orton) lasted to the end of the night, eliminating Braun Strowman, his returning best friend Christian, Seth Rollins and finally Orton who tried to sneak in and steal the win from his rival.
The end results tell two tales: one tells the story of a rising star with all the potential in the world. The other is the tale of a grizzled veteran who in pure narrative and real life terms willed himself back from injury to compete in one Rumble, suffered a serious injury, rehabbed it and came back to win and claim his spot in the main event of WrestleMania. Two very opposing storylines, but all the same, the most compelling ones you can build on leading into WrestleMania season. Whether it’s the rising star looking to etch their name in the history books or the aging veteran looking for one last crack at glory.
What the Rumble excels at, especially this year, is proposing a series of questions to keep us guessing as to the exact course WWE will take. Now that we have the answers to the initial questions, those questions have transformed from “what’s going to happen” to “what happens next?”
The SurEST Bet
With Bianca Belair, there’s only one match she needs, one opponent that suits a rising talent of her calibre and that’s to main event one of WrestleMania’s two nights against Sasha Banks.
For years now, Banks has been a go-to worker in the women’s division whenever another’s star needed some shining, whether it’s Asuka, Ronda Rousey or Charlotte, Banks has been the person who has been the divisional ace-in-the-hole the company has depended on to put forward exceptional performances that amplify her opponent’s work.
Perhaps even more importantly, between she and Bayley, together their program was one of the most important pieces of WWE television in 2020 with both Raw and Smackdown taking larger dips amid COVID. Between their program and the rise of Roman Reigns on Friday nights, you could argue they’re the primary reason Smackdown has become the show to watch if you’re a WWE fan.
Now that Banks is getting the extended title reign she’s long overdue, she’s being given an opportunity to show what she’s made of as a brand leader, but even more critically she’s now the lynchpin as the type of champion that can work with anyone and make them all look better. That makes her an ideal, perfect foil to Belair.
Belair is the type of talent that if you’ve been watching her since her arrival in NXT has been one of the talents to keep an eye on given her seemingly natural charisma and overtly obvious athleticism. She’s also been one who only until recent months has really been taken advantage of on television. Presence can’t be discounted for and it’s something she and Banks share, and where their opposing wrestling styles come together complete a recipe for a potentially great match. There’s no value in having Belair challenge Asuka, with her Raw title’s relevance waning in recent months. Certainly they won’t retread the NXT title route like in 2020, which truly didn’t pay off. The greatest opportunities to reward both Belair and Banks for their 2020-2021 efforts is to give them the time and stage to work to the best of their abilities at WrestleMania in one of the main events. They both deserve it.
On The Razor’s Edge
Edge’s return last year in the 2020 Royal Rumble was believed improbable, never mind going on to wrestle multiple matches prior to his triceps injury. Given his age and wear and tear on his body — not the least of which his neck — no one can know how much more time we’ll have with Edge in front of us.
In late October we briefly talked about the possibility of Edge returning at the Rumble to win and lay the pavement for his road to WrestleMania. This was just after Randy Orton claimed his 14th world title, which as we now know lasted barely longer than Vince McMahon’s satisfaction with a Raw script on a Monday afternoon. The foundation in that point though was 50% dependent on providing closure to the Orton-Edge story that had been cut short, and because the most fitting way to complete that tale was to have Edge win and take a world title at WrestleMania.
Since Edge claimed the Rumble title Sunday night, much of the chatter online surrounding the decision has been focused on whether or not it was the right call. Leading into the night Daniel Bryan had been leading the Vegas odds on winning the match, with Brock Lesnar even creeping in despite his probably not being able to re-enter the U.S. from Canada any time soon due to border restrictions. It would also seem fans would have otherwise preferred to see Big E pushed into the role, and as much as that move or Bryan’s would have value I don’t see those choices as being any more valid than the choice to select Edge.
Citing “pushing new talent” as the source of objection, Belair’s coronation as Rumble champion very much satisfies that criteria; she’s very much an untapped, up-and-coming talent on the WWE roster who has no ceiling on what she can accomplish. But what her narrative is lacking right now is a built-in story, and while I’m sure it’ll be fleshed out very soon, it isn’t there now.
That’s where Edge comes in. His win provides the story WWE needs for WrestleMania season.
There’s a fine argument to be made for why it’s a damaging move, and there’s a surefire path to criticize and condemn WWE for not building new stars to boost their business, which is another component of the argument against Edge winning. In counter to that I’d ask what the true alternatives are and why they make more sense right now. I’d be all for Daniel Bryan getting another crack at greatness, but what’s the story behind it and what makes it better than Edge’s?
What about Big E? Not now. That isn’t to condemn him outright, but we’re also talking about someone who is a physically-threatening hoss who should hold a world title at some point. However, we’re also discussing someone who has been in a faction that predominantly functioned as a tag team for half a decade and is just now getting into the opening leg of his singles run with the Intercontinental championship. His place on the card is fitting right now, because he needs to gain momentum leading into a world title push and he’s the exact person the IC title needs right now.
Looking at the rest, aside from Brock, Shinsuke Nakamura never seemed like a serious choice to win, while choosing Keith Lee would be a dangerous move for his long-term credibility on the card. For reference I’d point you to Nakamura’s own Rumble win which didn’t really lead to much in his quest to dethrone AJ Styles aside from a growing affinity for groin shots. The comparison to make here is Nakamura’s win felt like it came from nowhere, with no real build. Similarly, when it comes to Lee winning he wouldn’t have any real momentum behind the victory, and even much less of a developed story.
That’s the critical piece: storytelling. There’s no denying that Belair is the future in the same way all the men mentioned who are still in their 30s are future contenders, but the mere fact that Edge is realistically on borrowed time is THE story with all its built-in, naturally-occurring plot points that make stories compelling. Wrestling, when it’s successful, very much hinges on storytelling. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking WWE, AEW, ROH, NWA, Impact, NJPW and so on ad nauseum, the wrestling product can be exceptional but the hooks are always the emotional connections whether the communication is covert or overt.
Edge should not be wrestling, but he is. Like any aging veteran, he wants one last chance to validate his career and his path to show all the sacrifices he made are worthwhile. What makes the story further punctuated is Edge’s own ability to look into a camera and make you care about that path and the story ahead. And what lies ahead is an HBK-level comeback story circa 2002. Now, Edge is not the in-ring performer Michaels was, never mind the age differential from their comeback points; but that fundamentally isn’t the point. The value in seeing them return is to see them succeed, to see if they can reach their goal and ultimately walk out with their head high regardless.
With Edge, in an almost selfish, reckless tone, his is to reclaim the status he forfeited. That’s both a captivating and dangerous prospect, as we’ve seen professional boxers and mixed martial artists alike such as Anderson Silva, Chuck Liddell, Evander Holyfield or Roy Jones Jr. hold on far too long and fall below their former stature. Even Brock Lesnar, health issues aside, was never the same after Cain Velasquez beat him down in the UFC. It just comes with time and age.
The bEST Choices
We watch because we care. Whether you’ve been a diehard Edge fan since the late ’90s, or you’re like me and it took time to come around on him (or, maybe you never did), his comeback story is a WrestleMania moment in the making. Even beyond that, regardless of how it turns out, it’s the essence of what makes watching wrestling gripping.
Belair and Edge are both on the path to WrestleMania. Like any other year, there are sure to be twists, turns and swerves. There are many more steps in their journeys, but the best part of WrestleMania season is the ending. You can’t forecast it all the time, sometimes it’ll be what you expect. Yet every so often you see something special. Belair and Edge’s stories are very different, yet no less intertwined. The intrigue is in watching them develop, whether the conclusions are joyous or unanimously bittersweet, if not totally heartbreaking.
When you really break down what WrestleMania season is, there weren’t two better choices than Edge and Bianca Belair.