Last night was one of the more surreal that I can remember in about 20 years of watching pro wrestling, which is a genre that exists precisely because of its surreality. For the second-straight year, fans at the Royal Rumble booed a purported “good guy” out of the arena for winning the battle royal while not being named Daniel Bryan. Also, for the second straight year, it’s not clear whether WWE management (which is still just code word for Vince McMahon) made the decision to deliberately troll their fan base or if they’re just supremely out of touch with it.
For much of the past year, WWE has been setting up Roman Reigns as the heir apparent to superstardom, a script which would involve winning the Royal Rumble and then defeating Brock Lesnar for the championship at WrestleMania. This is not to say that Reigns is atrocious, and will never be worthy of being the face of the business, but it’s been evident for the past several months that he’s too green in the ring and on the microphone to be bestowed with that honor. The thinking amongst WWE fans goes that Vince has a predilection for attractive faces atop Greek Godly bodies, and has hastily promoted an undeserving candidate who fits that bill, thus overlooking undersized workers like Daniel Bryan (who recently returned from neck surgery) or Dolph Ziggler who have paid their dues.
And boy were fans pissed last night. There were reports that they flooded the WWE Network — where subscription numbers have been a consistent disappointment for shareholders (of which I am a small one, but do not really follow the financial aspects very closely) — with cancellation requests and crashed the server (#CancelWWENetwork is still trending on Twitter this morning), as well as Philly spectators who claimed they were taking out their frustrations by blocking wrestlers’ cars from exiting the arena.
Fans realized Reigns would win the Rumble as soon as Daniel Bryan was eliminated (even before that some saw betting odds shift drastically, signifying a leak), and loudly voiced their frustration both on social media and in the arena for the duration of the match. Kissing Suzy Kolber editor Michael Tunison, who was in attendance, says that his entire section was booing, and estimates that was the case for 80% of the crowd. The WWE seemed to anticipate this would be the case, and trotted out longtime crowd favorite The Rock to give Reigns his unequivocal endorsement, but that gesture really only incensed everybody more. (And this has unfortunately overshadowed a triple threat match between Brock Lesnar, Seth Rollins, and John Cena that will go down as one of the greatest of our lives.)
There was similar backlash last year when Batista returned to win the Rumble — Daniel Bryan was not even an entrant — and WWE actually rearranged its booking because it hadn’t foreseen the immense fan anger. Ironically, this about-face culminated in Bryan’s special WrestleMania (where Bryan was originally penciled in to face mid-carder Sheamus) moment as he overcame all of the obstacles in his way to win the championship. This would not have been as special if it followed the normal script.
Vince McMahon being the devil we know, one cannot dismiss the chance he knew the reaction that was coming and planned accordingly for a payoff down the road. As we’re seeing with Reigns, no one’s elated by triumph in absence of prior oppression. Obviously, this all seems silly to anybody who clicked into this post just to complain that it’s about wrestling. How could someone get this worked up over predetermined outcomes? There’s not really a good answer for that, but there’s likewise not a rational reason why any of us allow strangers in other professional sporting laundry to control our moods. Nobody likes injustice, and last night’s Royal Rumble reeked of it.