Friday, January 24, 2014

The Unbearable Weight of Uncertain Expectation: 2014 Royal Rumble Preview

Will WWE have the bearded people's choice win the Rumble this year...
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The 2014 Royal Rumble match both feels crushingly predictable, yet at the same time a mystery. In a year where the first telegraphed match for WrestleMania was hinted at during the final RAW before said Rumble event, prognosticating anything for Sunday feels like a conundrum. Then again, when WWE's plans aren't visible through the palantir, the show gets a much more exciting feel. Then again, the People's Pick to win the match isn't even announced for it yet. The only guy they've blatantly telegraphed for victory is the returning movie star not named Dwayne Johnson.

In years past, the WWE could take a chance on a Rumble winner because they had two nominally "top" belts, even if somewhere around 2010, the World Heavyweight Championship took a decided backseat to the WWE Championship. Even when the Championships were equal in stature, if one Championship match had a "not quite there yet, but close" wrestler challenging for it, the company could make up for it by booking a stronger title match opposite. The Championships are unified, at least for the time being. I would be remiss if I didn't think shenanigans in the other main event were possible. I would be surprised if WWE split the belts now, but I don't think that decision would come out of nowhere.

Anyway, because only one top Championship exists, the Royal Rumble crown now solely awaits a suitor who is ready to come out and be the main event for their biggest show of the year. Unless the John Cena/Randy Orton loser enters the match, only four possible victors emerge: Batista, CM Punk, Roman Reigns, Daniel Bryan. Batista, Punk, and Reigns are entered in the match. Bryan, right now, is not in the fray. Instead, he has Bray Wyatt in front of him.

Bryan's apparent exclusion from the match has left many scratching their heads. He was wronged in the main event of SummerSlam and spent the entire autumn fighting for the chance to make it right, only to be thwarted at every turn by nefarious outside factors. Wyatt has been his sojourn for the last three months, one that actually made sense. He and his family of backwater hillbilly cultists preach a message of dismantling the machine, a machine that ostensibly has been putting the pneumatic screws to Bryan ever since he defeated Cena in the middle of the ring at the Biggest Party of the Summer. Shouldn't his struggle against them and doing things their way lead to a clearer path towards the Championship, the prize he's wanted above all else?

...or will it be the conquering, returning antihero?
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That question strikes at the heart of WWE storytelling. The clearest narrative should put Bryan on the warpath against Orton or someone more nefarious and a bit fresher to his struggle, like, I don't know, Brock Lesnar. But WWE rarely seems to be driven by what the best story they could possibly tell is. Rather, they look at big events, and they want dollar signs. Even though Bryan moves the needle in every other category except buyrates, and even though buyrates are about to be hit by a meteor known as the WWE Network into extinction, WWE, if the news is to be believed, panicked when they saw his moment at SummerSlam not bring in the cash they wanted it to.

Of course, Batista comes into play now, as he carries the name cache and the "old guy coming back" allure. He's done business before, why can't he do it again? His ticket may be punched for former stablemate Orton at Mania, but Orton's far from a guarantee to be Champion then anyway. But leaving Bryan by the apparent wayside for a big strong dude with muscles feels like the most stereotypical way for WWE to operate.

Then again, is the Championship really the only thing to fight for at Mania? If Bryan is meant to wrestle the head of the Authority (Triple H) or a goal that's rarer to appear in the Undertaker's Streak, then should he even be in the Rumble match? I have no idea how to answer that question, because I still don't know what the currency is most in WWE. Is wrestling for the Championship the be-all, end-all, or is being a part of a hot, well-written, memorable story the thing that should be strived for?

If stories are the currency, then maybe the Rumble is freed up a little more. Maybe the best way for Punk to strike at this Authority that has been bothering him, or more accurately, retaliating against him for his unprovoked rabble-rousing against them is to take their title, not fight the god-head of it. The dissolution of The Shield might not be a thing that happens before WrestleMania, but afterwards, as professional jealousy shears the group at its fault lines as Reigns would now have the biggest prize of them all. Hell, Cody Rhodes has unfinished business with Orton. Mark Henry has a receipt to present to Brock Lesnar.

No matter how my imagination runs wild with possible endings, I still keep going back to only two possible winners for this match. Daniel Bryan is the angel that sits on my right shoulder, thrusting his arms in a V-shape up to the heavens, shouting affirmations towards giving the Authority their final embarrassment. On the left sits Batista, dressed in his ostentatious cop-shades and leather vest, continually repeating "I can has title shot?" until my brain breaks in response. The crushing weight of expectation is breaking my back, and yet I still don't know how the whole thing is going to play out. I wonder if that paradox itself provides all the beauty inherent in this year's Rumble match.