WWE can’t ever get out of its own way. Sunday night’s Royal Rumble started off as well as it could have, even without real fans in the Tampa Bay Rays’ empty stadium, as a refreshing change of pace. That it eventually went wrong due to WWE dipping into its own uninspired history was significantly less surprising.
Let’s go over the good stuff first: For everyone who didn’t want an ancient champion, Drew McIntyre beat 54-year-old Goldberg to retain the WWE title. Sasha Banks and Carmella had a fun SmackDown Women’s Championship match. Most encouragingly, the women’s Royal Rumble match stole the show with the best finish and winner in the event’s short history. Bianca Belair has been built up as the next great wrestler in the women’s division, and her besting fellow rising star Rhea Ripley from the number three spot should solidify her as a top-tier performer as she heads into a WrestleMania title match, likely against Banks.
Even the start of Roman Reigns and Kevin Owens in a Last Man Standing title match, the worst stipulation WWE regularly employs, featured a memorable golf cart spot.
Owens also had a spectacular jump from a forklift:
It’s a shame, given that Reigns and Owens were putting on a solidly entertaining brawl, that the company went back to its bag of overused tropes. In the climax of the match, Owens had reversed Reigns’s attempt to handcuff him to a light pole, and locked the champion to the bottom rungs. It was a great babyface moment for Owens, and led to Reigns throwing a referee against a piece of steel to not lose the match while his manager Paul Heyman went to open the handcuffs. In theory, at least.
In execution, this is what happened:
Heyman attempted to unlock the cuffs for a solid minute, while everyone stood around awkwardly and commentary willfully ignored the whole thing. The replacement referee started counting out Reigns to heighten the drama … only to stop when it became obvious that there were technical difficulties. After 20-plus minutes of great action, the sequence was tough to watch.
Nothing halts an intense match so suddenly like a prop misfire, and in this case it was avoidable. For the storyline purposes, the point of a Last Man Standing match is to determine who is the better wrestler, leaving no room for doubt. If a wrestler can knock out his opponent for a long 10-count in the brutal format, then there should be no question that he deserved it. However, WWE loves to bring out handcuffs or other artificial impediments to give itself a way out of making an actual booking decision. It never leads to a satisfying conclusion.
A recent beloved and violent blood feud used a similar spot: At NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn in 2018, Tommaso Ciampa beat Johnny Gargano while handcuffed, stumbling to his feet and being held up by his handcuffed arm. John Cena has also won multiple Last Man Standing matches by trapping but not incapacitating his opponents. WWE is institutionally allergic to booking one wrestler to be definitively better than another; even Reigns, after finally getting free from the handcuffs, needed a low blow to win.
The handcuff malfunction wasn’t the only trope to fall flat Sunday. After the women’s Rumble match, the show took a quick detour to deploy the old “celebrity wins a title” cliché, only in this case, both the celebrity and the title were flimsy by definition: Hot 97 DJ and general blowhard Peter Rosenberg won the 24/7 title from R-Truth for no reason except to give the company a name non-wrestling fans might recognize. Rosenberg didn’t lose the title last night, so he’ll be obnoxious about it on the radio today (if he hasn’t already).
This is just how WWE operates. The company’s creative minds can put together an entertaining setup but rarely come through with a truly innovative ending. WWE’s strength is more in utilizing its resources to build on existing ideas: AEW used a golf cart spot last year, although not in exactly the same way. (To be fair, golf carts have a history in wrestling, but the timing of these two spots is too coincidental to be an accident.) But too often the company relies on a limited collection of tricks and hopes that they work one more time, even in a show that’s supposed to be unique from the rest of the year. They typically get away with it. But on Sunday, the handcuffs had had enough.