“So, how about we do the Royal Rumble this year.”
Usually the sort of words I ignore. It’s not that I don’t love wrestling. It’s just that I’ve grown up too much somewhere along the line. Rule number 1 of my wrestling fandom is that it doesn’t impact my family life. I watch it on my time. I write about it on my time. The worlds don’t intersect. That’s why I write a series of articles for Parv and Chad for Where the Big Boys Play instead of actually ever being on the podcast.
So while people ask me to go to shows now and again, I haven’t been to one since 2004. It’s not like I don’t find ways to work enough wrestling in anyway. A college friend had asked though, and for once, I thought long and hard about it. Getting to Philly from the Baltimore area wasn’t the hardest thing in the world, and this was back in early fall, when there was still plenty of time to work it all out.
Even so, I just don’t leave my wife and kids for a night all that often. If there’s a death in the family or a work conference and really, that’s it. Still, I could do it in one night, and the Rumble, despite all the angst and gnashing, looked like an amazing experience to witness live back in 2014. I had been to the 2003 one in Boston (one of two PPVs I’d ever been to, along with Survivor Series 1993), but I’d never seen a title change live, and I’d never seen a show in Philly, and I thought that there were enough pieces on the table back in fall that the card had to be pretty good.
Well, I was wrong about that last bit, but that was okay, too, because I also realized that if the card was good, and if they WWE learned from last year and if they gave us something fitting and appropriate and triumphant and well thought out, that would be great. On the other hand, if they didn’t? Well, in some ways, in front of a hostile Philly crowd, that’d almost be better. The 2014 Rumble was magic. It was terrible, horrible magic, but it was magic nonetheless. It felt like a no-lose proposition.
So, on my birthday, a little further into fall, I said that the trip was what I wanted for Xmas, that I’d minimize the impact and be away from home for around twenty four hours and keep the costs down. The tickets were good (I didn’t know how good until later) and the room was mostly subsidized.
As the days went by and I finalized plans, doors shut and the card started to crystallize in increasingly bleak ways. Sting debuted at Survivor Series which meant his debut obviously couldn’t happen at the Rumble. Cena vs Lesnar was announced as the main event, and while that’s been one of the most dynamic matches in the WWE over the last three years or so, we’d seen it numerous times by now. Maybe worst of all, we had continuous dark rumors about Daniel Bryan: lack of feeling in his arm, holistic refusal to have further surgery, and then ultimately silence. Finally, just after Xmas, they went back on the Survivor Series stips and brought back The Authority, instantly making TV feel stale again.
It looked almost lackluster to the point where the crowd wouldn’t even turn on it, because they wouldn’t care enough to turn. Then, hope, in the form of Daniel Bryan’s announcement and return. Seth Rollins was added to the Title match (and while no one likes a triple threat much, it added an element of storyline intrigue to it. Even if he didn’t win, he might cash in). Sure, it was, on paper, one of the weakest undercards in WWE history, but the buzz was there. Bryan actually wrestled in the build and had to defend his spot. There was real momentum and hey, even if things didn’t work out and even if WWE didn’t listen to how the fanbase was slowly turning upon their chosen one, Roman Reigns, due to his brutal, Vince-scripted promos, well, at least now I could see the frenetic live trainwreck firsthand. It was worth it being a part of that. Really, Mania was so wide open, for the first time in years, that so long as they didn’t have Brock retain clean and Reigns win the Rumble, almost any outcome out of a possible dozen would feel acceptable and fresh.
So, I watched the rumor sites. I had counted that clock down in 2003 but there weren’t really any major surprises that year. Nostalgia had ramped up considerably since then. Orton or Sheamus were obvious choices, but RVD was a top runner and DDP was announced as an outlier and the Dudley Boyz made sense given the ECW ties and no announcement of a new TNA contract. Jericho was in Philadelphia for the Pritchard/Bischoff debate and either Undertaker or Sting were a possibility. I thought they might have Triple H enter to spoil Bryan’s return. For guys returning from injury or a leave there were Heath Slater and Bo Dallas and Zach Ryder, who had been working out at the performance center and Otunga who had been brought onto house shows. By the day of the show they’d only announced 17 wrestlers for the Rumble. It was pretty obvious there were going to be some fun surprises.
Then there was that last rumor, the one I saw floating about Sunday morning before I left the house and tried very hard for about fifteen minutes not to click on before failing horribly (I have no self-restraint): The Rock. Now, The Rock doesn’t really move me one way or the other, and he certainly didn’t have a good run last time he was around but the pop when the music hit? Well, that was something I was hoping to experience. It also added yet another layer of uncertainty to the Rumble and every bit helped.
I left early in the morning. There was snow coming (and I’d been watching the weather all week as well) so getting out of Philadelphia on time would be important. I had already decided on utilizing public transportation for a number of reasons (some so mundane as not wanting to put extra miles on my car and the fact we only have one EZ-pass and that my wife would have to drive through some tolls on Sunday, mundane stuff): driving to the BWI airport, parking in the daily garage, taking the light rail into Baltimore, running across the back streets behind M&T Stadium to the Greyhound station, riding the bus to Philadelphia, running a few blocks to the regional rail, taking that to the Philly airport, and then riding the free shuttle to the hotel to meet my friend so we could drive to the stadium. Planes, trains and, well, the only thing missing would be John Candy, basically.
Thankfully, my reading material for that bus ride of oh, about three hours, was Gary Hart’s biography, and I’ve made it, between the way there and the way back, 20-odd chapters in. It’s absolutely as good as everyone says it is. He covers so many different territories, in such a conversational, but detail-packed way, including the most in depth look at Barnett’s Australia I’ve ever come across. There’s a little story or two at every point, mixed with a palpable feeling for what the world was like back then. Hart exaggerates sometimes, but he’s so reasonable when he does it that you can hardly hold it against him. It’s extremely well done and I just wish we had more footage from some of these places and of some of the angles he recounts. If you can get your hands on it, do so.
Anyway, after making it to Philly, I met up with another friend for a late lunch at Reading Terminal market. He had wanted to go to the show but all the second hand tickets, even the poor ones, were going for hundreds of dollars. There was plenty going on in the city, a Chikara show at the ECW arena, the Pritchard-Bischoff Debate (which was why Jericho was there), JR’s one-man show on Saturday night. The downside to all that public transportation was that I really couldn’t get to the city earlier to take part in any of this. You could tell that there was a PPV that night though. Just walking around Philly it wasn’t hard to spot people in UItimate Warrior or Dolph Ziggler shirts.
Luck was on my side and I somehow made all my connections. I had just enough time to drop my bag off at the hotel before we were on the road to the arena. The scene there was much as you’d expect, long lines of wrestling fans waiting to get in and random chanting all over the place, as well as a lot of muttered speculation from everyone on what might go down during the night. It was a Smart crowd. People had traveled from all over the northeast and mid-atlantic and while there were a spattering of kids, it was much more of a WrestleMania experience, I thought. The huge majority of people I saw were in the know, the sort who would pay inflated prices on tickets in order to be a part of this. I had no indication at any point of the night that it was just a few hundred or even few thousand people leading the rest in revolt. There were a few very bewildered people who didn’t seem to get why the (at this point still impending) boos were happening but they were very few and very far between.
We reached our seats. I then realized just how good these seats were. We were in the first section off the floor, maybe five rows back, facing hard camera. My friend had showed me on a map months before but it didn’t sink in until I walked in and saw it. I’m actually all over the show. No one needs to try and find me but whenever they go wide with the hard camera, I’m usually right under the hashtag. I’ll admit, shamefully, that I spent a chunk of the New Age Outlaws match and the Divas tag match trying to see myself on the Titantron, as that was a totally new experience for me. When I went to Royal Rumble 2003, for instance, I think we were in the second to last row in the entire arena.
People were still settling in during the pre-show. Booker T had a good pop but he came out to no music and only a portion of the Arena could see him. Around this time someone two or three rows in front of us passed out dozens and dozens of “Ziggler Section” and “YES!” printouts, up and down to total strangers, so that’s how the “Cesaro Section” ones worked in shows past. It wasn’t anything more organized than that.
We had made sure to get there early enough to see the pre-show match, as on paper, it looked to be the best or second best match on the card. The crowd made its presence felt almost immediately, with Cesaro getting a hero’s reception and The New Day being the first of a number of unfortunate casualties. I don’t think that they were necessarily reviled on their own, despite the New Day Sucks chants. People shouted along with them as they came out, for instance. If they were in there against, let’s say, Slater Gator, it probably would have been different. Cesaro was just too over though. He was a symbol of the sort of underutilized talent that the crowd adored, and everyone went nuts anytime he did anything. There was a huge amount of energy and I think most people weren’t expecting the finish of he and Kidd going over (especially after one of the near falls at the end) and it was a great pop. From my vantage point I actually thought they were wearing Bullet Club shirts, which was at the very least amusing. That they were self-made Brass Ring Club shirts made it even better. After the match, there was another twenty minutes or so of downtime, which brought the crowd back down a bit.
Eventually, though, we got the “There’s no WWE without you” video, a promo for a house show later in the year, the opening pyro (the announcers had already come out during the pre-show, with JBL’s entrance hugely entertaining), the opening video, during which Rollins received a nice pop and we had the first ROMAN SUCKS chant of the night. Then came the New Age Outlaws doing their best 1991 Freebirds impression with the goofy Philly Fanatics hats. Those, I think, didn’t move the crowd at all, since it was so made up of out-of-towners and people who are far more obsessed about wrestling than anything else, but everyone wanted to sing along with the Outlaws. There are very few wrestling fans in the world that don’t want to be part of the show, at least in a small way. Even here, that was no different. For instance, the “You’ve still got it” chant which followed some relatively lackluster shine work from Billy Gunn wasn’t ironic in the least. The crowd really wanted a chance, any chance, to chant it. The only thing to note on The Ascension’s entrance is how ridiculous they look squatting down and waiting for the camera to pan up on them.
The match itself certainly wasn’t great but it benefited slightly from being the only tag match on a card with four tag matches which could really have a face-in-peril segment that led to a hot tag. They tried, slightly, in the New Day match but The New Day weren’t actually the faces in that match. The dynamic was completely skewered in the tag title match, and the divas didn’t actually get to make a hot tag, which was just weird. I understand having to switch things up and it did benefit things here even if it hurt the other matches. The idea that Gunn might be able to hit the Fameasser at the end popped the crowd. The Ascension winning deflated it. The first nothing match on a mostly nothing undercard.
Next up was Miz/Mizdow vs the Usos and it was an absolutely surreal experience. I don’t think there was a single person in the entire arena watching the match. Every set of eyes was focused entirely on Mizdown and his antics. There was the concern that if you looked away even for a moment you’d miss something hilarious. I caught some of the match on the Network and I literally hadn’t seen anything that I watched. All I saw was Mizdow’s reactions. I had been skeptical about the idea that Mizdow was hurting the tag team titles first by having them and then by feuding over them but I actually think it’s true now. It was hugely entertaining but it certainly wasn’t doing anything for the belts.
There really isn’t much to say about the Divas match. There was a young girl a few rows back who was chanting for pretty much every Diva in the ring in rotation and I thought that was notable. The crowd tuned out for the most part. I thought Paige was pretty good on the apron working the crowd, but it was all for naught considering they didn’t give the babyfaces a comeback. In general, I think that’s something worth doing every now and again as it makes hot tags mean more if they don’t actually happen in every match but in this moment it was jarring.
I came in to the triple threat excited. I had thought that it might be a way to get the belt off of Brock without him having to get pinned. What it was, instead, was a way to end the Cena vs Lesnar rivalry without Cena having to get pinned. Pre-match, I had thought Rollins was going to be the clear favorite since the crowd had popped for him in the video and backstage segments, but the pop for Lesnar was deafening. After Bryan, he was the second most over wrestler for the night. That’s not to say that the crowd wasn’t heavily into Rollins’ near-falls though. Cena was booed and the Cena Sucks chants were intense but he almost felt like an afterthought too.
As for the match itself, I have to admit that it’s a blur. The crowd popped for every suplex and desperately wanted to count along with them but couldn’t make up its mind whether to have a separate count for suplexes on Cena and on Rollins or just one big count. I’m usually a stickler for match structure, but now, a couple of days later, I still couldn’t tell you whether or not this was a good match. I can say that it was an amazing experience though. There was such an air of uncertainty on what would happen that every near fall towards the end was electric. Moreover, the crowd completely bought the stretcher angle as a way for Brock to save face in the loss, so when he leaped up and dashed into the ring, the entire arena’s breath caught in their throats all at once. I’ll have to watch back to see if the gasp was audible, but people’s hearts stopped for a moment in anticipation of what would happen, and even then, we all thought that Rollins might pull it out. I do think there’s a worry that finishing sequences like this could end up overdone and collapse under their own weight, but this played with our expectations just enough to work and leave everyone breathless. That said, Brock retaining really set the stage for what would come. It closed doors in a way that Cena or Rollins winning (or Rollins cashing in) wouldn’t have. At that point, the Rumble could only end one of two ways, Reigns or Bryan.
People will recount how the Rumble was the worst this or the worst that ever, the worst Rumble, the worst booked match ever, etc., but the first half was a lot of fun. If there was a delay in the reaction to Miz coming out, that was because the crowd thought it might be Mizdow. Then, everyone thought that #2 was going to be Mizdow. It’s a testament to how much the crowd wanted to be part of the show that Truth got the reaction he did. Bubba coming out, then, was an amazing moment. The crowd was desperate for anything ECW and Bubba was fresh in ways that RVD could never be. The Rowan thing was fun though everyone wanted a reunion, not Harper predictably turning on him. For running that sort of mini angle within the Rumble, they didn’t really get the mileage out of it. Boogeyman got a bit of a pop at first for the surprise factor and then for the realization that he (like Bubba before him) was going to face off against Wyatt. I thought it was a little disappointing that Wyatt didn’t do more sermonizing when he had the ring to himself. DDP had been rumored but somehow seemed unlikely and especially since we didn’t get Sting, was well appreciated by the kid who grew up watching WCW in the early 90s in me. Every Diamond Cutter got a huge BANG shout.
Really, by this point, everyone was feeling pretty good about things. The surprises were fun and rewarding. Everything was on pace. Then Bryan went bounding off the top rope, grumbling frustrated on his way back, and all doors closed but one. I think it was right around that point, before his number even came up that the Roman Sucks chant started. Everyone knows how the rest of the show went. Ryder had a pop. Ryback had a pop and an even bigger one when he clotheslined Reigns. Ambrose had a pop. Ziggler had a pop. Rusev drew a USA chant. But it was dead between these. The crowd had been standing since the start of the triple threat match and in unison they all just sort of sat down. In this moment, the magic was gone from what was going on in the ring. It was just the pure mechanics of a bunch of guys (some of them giants) pretending to hit each other. I’ve never experience such a collapse of the suspension of disbelief at a live show before. It wasn’t wrestling. It wasn’t even entertainment. It was just sad. The air had been let out of the balloon and it was laying there on the ground deflated, just like the crowd.
At least WWE gave us something to react to again. The fix was in. Show and Kane gingerly eliminated one hope after the next, Wyatt, Ziggler, Ambrose. Then they began to fight each other and everyone knew where it was going. We rained the ring with boos, especially so when they started to fight each other. I felt bad for Show and Kane because they were professionals doing their job. This wasn’t their fault. Earlier in the match, after Bryan had been eliminated, I had similarly felt bad for Goldust and Stardust because their fighting was a bit moment totally eclipsed by what had just happened (they did get the crowd back for a second but just for a second; Show and Kane didn’t have them at all). Reigns pushed them out. They rolled back in to attack and then The Rock’s music hit.
I think by this point people had sort of discounted that he’d actually be coming out. Most figured that he’d be on earlier in the show or maybe a surprise Rumble entrant. Therefore, the music had a pop. The first few moves had a pop right until Reigns recovered and started to join in. Then it all died a horrible death. One side of the ring saw Rusev and chanted for him (the rest of us forgot about him). Everyone else started to chant for refunds. Reigns won and the crowd turned harder still.
Being in that crowd, I don’t actually think that Reigns was the problem. I don’t even think that Bryan, who had the best “winning” story in WWE over the last month in his comeback, not winning was the problem. Wyatt or Ambrose or Ryback or Rock or Triple H or really anyone BUT Reigns winning would have worked. The crowd was booing the WWE machine and the sheer predictability of what shouldn’t have been predictable at all. At the start of the night, WrestleMania DID seem wide open. By the end, it was locked up and stagnant. It was the same old instead of the new excitement. This was a smart crowd, one that knew WWE’s history, that knew all the backstage posturings over the last few years, that read, if not the Wrestling Observer, then the websites that stole material from it, and if not that, then maybe Grantland when it discussed the same topics. We knew what it meant when Lesnar won. We knew what it meant when Bryan was eliminated, and we especially knew why Rock was being sent out there.
Wrestling is all about manipulating the crowd. It always has been. It’s carny as can be and that’s part of why we love it, but there was no manipulating that crowd. There was only inflaming it. I’m sure in months and years to come, someone might suggest that this was what WWE wanted the whole time, the crowd to care that much and make that much noise and this was all part of the plan. Maybe it was, but if so, then the work WWE was orchestrating there was pretty remarkable in its psychology. Usually, the most likely answer is the correct one and eliminating Bryan early to let the anger out, letting Reigns fight back against two giants acting as heelish as possible, and then having Rock (who is expensive both in financial and political costs and can only be used sparsely) endorse Roman to get the crowd behind him sure seems like a more likely plan than to do all of this to have the turn on it (and on The Rock who has to be fairly sensitive to such things) as part of some larger plan. It’s far more likely that Vince tried to manipulate the crowd, and the crowd, smart, engaged, well-read, social media active, and hardcore as could be, would not have it.
In my life I’ve been a part of two special crowd reactions. The first was in 2003 when we gave Chris Benoit a standing ovation, the one that would help propel him to the World title in 2004. That was a huge positive that over the years has turned into a negative in my memories. Being part of the crowd that pushed back against everything it was fed, being part of those yes chants, and yes, even though I’d like to say I was above it all, being part of those boos, was the second. That was negative, hugely negative, but right now, as I look back at it, it feels very positive to me and I feel lucky that I was able to experience and be a part of it and I think almost everyone else in that crowd feels the same.