10 Royal Rumble Silver Linings

Usually one of the WWE's most reliable winners, Sunday's Royal Rumble was mostly a dispiriting mess. But not entirely.
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That low, slow-rolling ambient moaning sound you heard on Sunday night? That was every wrestling fan you know, watching the extended and inevitable outcome of the Royal Rumble, generally WWE's most entertaining annual event.

For a while now, the company has been starting to turn away from the heavily veined meat-slabs of its past and toward lithe, athletic, generally smaller guys, many of whom had pivotal roles in the last decade's American indie-wrestling boom. CM Punk spent the past year-plus as the WWE Champion, convincingly defending against all comers through ability and chicanery, just as Ric Flair once did. Daniel Bryan, Dolph Ziggler, Antonio Cesaro, Cody Rhodes, and a handful of others have been doing consistently great work on WWE TV. Thanks to a recent influx of talent from WWE's developmental system, a ton more guys like this are starting to get TV time. It looked like the company was building toward a slow refocusing of its priorities. But this is the WWE, we're talking about, and shitting away fan goodwill is one of Vincent Kennedy McMahon's favorite activities. And so it was on Sunday night.

The pay-per-view ended with the Rock holding aloft the company's championship belt, having returned from B-grade movie stardom and, after his third wrestling match in the last decade, ended CM Punk's 434-day reign. Most of us saw this coming a mile away, but it got worse when McMahon himself, all smug ochre schadenfreude, smirkily foiled Punk's big last-minute cheat. And before that match, John Cena, the company's longstanding muscle-goofus figurehead, won the Rumble itself, guaranteeing himself a spot in the Wrestlemania main event. All signs point to a rematch of Cena and Rock's 2012 Wrestlemania headliner, a match the company—swear to Christ—billed as “Once in a Lifetime." It's as though McMahon's taking his wife's humiliating Senatorial loss and the general widespread Republican demographic apocalypse out on his viewers, pounding home the message that there is still one place where dominant power-clutching fuckheads are in no danger.

So yeah: Pretty dispiriting ending. But the Rumble itself—the 30-man battle royale that gave the event its name—remained a blast, as always. With the Rumble, the eventual outcome is really only a tiny part of the experience. The magic of the Rumble, as Nick Bond wrote in this space last week and I wrote last year, is in the way the format allows for tiny storylines to play out, for surprise returns and new feuds and unlikely alliances and groansome comedy bits, all within the space of one match. Wrestlers can become stars without winning, or they can become walking human punchlines. But no man, not even two-time winner Cena, is bigger than the Rumble itself. So, in the spirit of this, here are 10 great or ridiculous or wonderfully dumb things that happened during the Rumble itself.

1. The Return of Chris Jericho Jericho is one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, someone who's been a standout in the Canadian territories, the Southern territories, Mexico, Japan, ECW, WCW's once-great Cruiserweight division. Then he somehow became a star in WWE, defeating little-guy odds and stomping with the big dogs. He's a vivid personality, an inventive high-flyer type, and a savant at telling a simple and resonant story in the context of a wrestling match. Also, every time he tries something that's not pro wrestling, he's fucking abominable: Singing barrel-scraping power-metal, stooping to Dancing With the Stars, operating as a D-grade cable Seacrest. Every time he comes back to wrestling, something he's done a few times now, it's cause for celebration. His last run, a small and whimpering thing, ended just six months ago, in a match with Dolph Ziggler that, in storyline terms, cost him his contract. (In real life, he was leaving so he could host a reality show about robots fighting each other.) Ziggler was the Rumble's first entrant, and when he grabbed the mic and said he didn't care who came next, the lights went out, Jericho's music hit, and my heart sang. This run could and probably will turn out just as badly as the last one, but I'll always be happy to see him come back.

2. Jericho's Miraculous Late-Rumble Run Call this silver lining 1a, if you want. Jericho actually lasted for just about forever in the Rumble, making it to the final stages. But his best moment came near the end, after the lumbering roidbeast Ryback (I like him okay, actually) had come into the match and tossed a handful of wrestlers out. Ryback's destructive rampage ended when he walked into a Codebreaker from Jericho, a move where Jericho tucks his knees up to the guys' chest, grabs him, and falls backward. The audience, which never really warmed to Ryback despite his obvious company-dictated next-big-thing status, erupted. And after his David/Goliath moment, Jericho went on his own rampage, hitting big moves on everyone else left in the match before Ziggler finally superkicked him out.

3. Goldust A couple of weeks ago, Dustin Rhodes, in his glammed-out absurdist Goldust alter-ego, wrestled in the main event of an indie wrestling show at a horse arena in Lexington, Virginia, near where I live. I thought about going, but it was an hour's drive to see Goldust wrestle the recently axed WWE midcarder Chris Masters, and it just seemed sad. Suddenly, though, Goldust was back in the Rumble, going straight after real-life brother Cody Rhodes—who was awesomely dickish throughout the Rumble—and generally transcending his gay-baiting gimmick ashe's been doing for nearly two decades. Goldust has been publicly hoping for a Wrestlemania match against his brother for a while, and his Rumble appearance made it seem at least halfway plausible.

4. Kofi Kingston's Wondrous Idiocy Last year, the oft-jumping Kingston narrowly avoided Rumble elimination by walking across the floor on his hands; you're not eliminated, see, until both your feet touch the ground. This time, he was teetering on the ring apron when, instead of falling, he lept onto the back of Tensai, the fake-Japanese behemoth he'd just eliminated. Tensai roared, thrashed around, and deposited Kingston on the announce table. After milking a moment of suspense, Kingston figured out his way back into the ring: Hopping on announcer John Bradshaw Layfield's chair like it was a pogo ball. It looked goofy as hell, and the aforementioned Cody Rhodes promptly kicked Kingston off the apron as soon as he arrived. I laughed. So did Cody.

5. Ziggler Goes The Distance Ziggler should be the WWE's next headliner: A rakishly handsome, freakily athletic bleach-blonde dickhead with a tendency to sell all his opponents' moves like he's getting shot and the ability to pull off a leopard-print metallic vest with spikes on the shoulders. But the company seems unwilling to pull the trigger on him completely, possibly because he's a bit shorter than most of its biggest stars and possibly because he doesn't appear to have muscles dripping out of his ears. I think that's it, at least. Otherwise, I have no idea. Maybe it's that they've given him the name "Dolph Ziggler." It would've been amazing if Ziggler actually won the Rumble, but instead, we did at least get the the next best thing. Ziggler entered first and ended up as one of the last four guys in the ring. He tossed a whole bunch of people, and he never looked winded. You don't have to win the Rumble to benefit from it, and Ziggler got to be the most impressive non-winner. That's something.

6. The Godfather Among all the deeply ridiculous characters of the WWF's late-90s era, the Godfather was arguably the most ridiculous: A lovably flamboyant pimp who'd offer his opponents whore-sex if they opted not to wrestle him. Always a shitty and predictable wrestler, he'd appear alongside a coterie of local strippers in every city; today, in real life (well, Las Vegas, which is close) he manages Cheetah's, the club from Showgirls. I wasn't especially amped to see the Godfather return to the ring at the Rumble, but I was amped to see Ziggler dropkick him directly out the second he entered. It was about as grand a return as the Godfather deserved.

7. The Continued Team Hell No Implosion The massively bearded mat technician Daniel Bryan and the hulking masked monster Kane spent last summer feuding, largely because they were both constantly angry sociopaths who hated everyone. Then they bonded over being constantly angry sociopaths who hated everyone. They've done a masterful-for-wrestling job of depicting a love-hate relationship in action, and that storyline nudged itself along just a little further when Bryan pushed Kanye out of the ring, then found himself thrown out while was celebrating. He landed in Kane's arms and begged Kane to put him back in the ring. Kane seemed to consider it for a moment, then dropped Bryan on his ass, leaving Bryan to make excellently cartoonish angry faces. Look, I'll take what I can get.

8. The Let's-All-Push-The-Fat-Guy-Out Moment A treasured Rumble tradition: An enormous man-mountain stomps his way out to the ring, and everyone else immediately drops what they're doing so they can all mob up and dump him. Usually, those guys are juggernauts like Mark Henry or the Big Show, and the crowd's efforts don't work. Once, a few years ago, everyone piled up on the Great Khali, and the visual of Khali, in a single movement, sending bodies flying in every direction provided what was easily the highlight of his entire career. But when the leviathan of the moment is a dancing human dinosaur who loses every match, it turns out to be pretty easy for six or seven wrestlers to push him out. This time around, Funkasaurus Brodus Clay's elimination seemed almost matter-of-fact.

9. Sheamus Plays Human Croquet Irish bruiser Sheamus won last year's Rumble, and he ended up in the final three this year. He also had a great minor moment on Sunday when he used David Otunga's body to knock Titus O'Neil's body out of the ring, effectively turning gigantic human beings into weapons and clearing a couple of useless stiffs out at the same damn time.

10. Bo Dallas Is A Thing Now Royal Rumble storytelling at its best: New guy (in this case, stringy-haired and greased-up third-generation prospect Bo Dallas) wins a battle royale to get a spot in the Rumble. He hangs around for a while, doing nothing of note but narrowly escaping elimination a few times. Then, he seized his moment and tosses out an established midcard beast; in this case, it was snarling British bad guy Wade Barrett. Said midcarder, enraged, pulls the prospect out of the ring and knocks him out. That's about the most direct route possible to introducing a new wrestler and throwing him into a new feud, so simple that it's almost elegant. Even as the top of the card falls into boring stasis, at least things are still churning further down.

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