Next Sunday sees the WWE kick off 2016 with its first pay-per-view of the year; the 29th Royal Rumble event. Traditionally, this is the first major sign-post on the road to WrestleMania, and the start of three months of segments ending with wrestlers pointing to a sign.

In years gone by, the build to the Royal Rumble has been lacklustre, with typically second-rate main events being thrown onto the show, in the belief that the Rumble itself was the drawing card. CM Punk vs. Dolph Ziggler, Edge vs. Rey Mysterio, John Cena vs. JBL, Batista vs. Mr Kennedy, Brock Lesnar vs. Hardcore Holly. Very few of those matches would main evented any other pay-per-view, but they were all for a title. This year, for the first time since 1992, we’ve got the WWE title up for grabs in the Royal Rumble – except this time, it’s not to crown a new champion.

So, instead of using the Rumble to create a challenger for WrestleMania, and have Roman Reigns face off against A. N. Other (which’d give us two matches), with eight days to go, we currently only have two matches scheduled: Dean Ambrose vs. Kevin Owens, and the Royal Rumble itself. Even with the WWE’s current injury crisis, the fact that neither of the ongoing storylines between New Day and the Usos, nor the Charlotte/Becky Lynch storylines currently even involves the Royal Rumble pay-per-view right now tells you how little thought is being given to anything outside of the main event scene – which is symptomatic of what is wrong with WWE in the current era.

For years, the running joke was that WWE only had plans for John Cena, and everything else was inconsequential. Whilst that may not have been strictly true, it is fair to say that there has been less and less focus on the undercard in recent times. Since last year, Cena’s been phased out of the scene (before injuries and reality TV shows helped him on his way), so we’ve had a little over a year of what WWE is looking like without having a crown jewel. Unfortunately, in that time, we’ve been subjected to a year of WWE trying to make Roman Reigns the new John Cena, with very mixed results. Everyone else on the undercard, at best, has been portrayed as being all on the same level. Don’t believe me? Thanks to the dedicated work of Chris Harrington at, we can see just what the company has produced.

Looking only at a) male Superstars and b) guys who have had 40+ TV matches in 2015, as I’m working on the old school theory that stars should be appearing every week. With that in mind, these are the guys who are batting higher than .500 in televised singles matches (not counting house show matches, since WWE have long since conditioned us to believe that these don’t count): Roman Reigns (81%), John Cena (73%), Ryback (70%), Titus O’Neil (69%), Darren Young (68%), Dean Ambrose (62%), Neville (60%), Kalisto (60%), Sin Cara (56%), Kevin Owens (56%), Dolph Ziggler (54%), Rusev (53%), Big E (52%), Cesaro (50%).

Some key takeaways from that list: Reigns is the WWE champion after being given a monster push for most of 2015, whilst Dean Ambrose ended the year with the Intercontinental title after a similar, but not quite-so-big push. The trio of Cena, Cara and Cesaro are out with shoulder injuries, and from the remaining pack, the only guy who has a shred of credibility as a top line singles star is Kevin Owens.

Ryback has already found himself cemented in the midcard following his failed run at the WWE title in 2012 (after being built up to be a monster heel that was then booked into a corner), and the same goes for Dolph Ziggler, whose big run with the title in 2013 has seen him go a similar way to Ryback, whilst Rusev’s booking in the past year has seen him go from a monster heel to on the fringes of the WWE Doghouse. Take out the tag team guys, and the only man left standing with a decent record, who isn’t injured, non-credible or otherwise engaged is… Neville. Which neatly circles us back to the conundrum caused by Kalisto’s brief US title run this past week.

Thanks to the booking philosophy that WWE currently uses, the roster can mostly be split into four buckets:

  • You’re currently our priority and you’ll be given as many wins as possible (i.e. Roman Reigns)
  • You’re going to be fed to our main priority, and you’ll be losing a lot (i.e. Seth Rollins)
  • We don’t care, and you’ll be trading wins and losses until we decide to make you a priority (i.e. Dolph Ziggler)
  • We really don’t care, and if you’re on TV, you’ll probably lose and you’ll definitely not get an entrance (i.e. Zack Ryder, Damien Sandow)

For the two “don’t care” piles, in spite of their characters, they all tend to blend into each other. Gone are the days where WWE would have an act bubbling up through the midcard and eventually becoming a star; the opposite seems to be true these days. Look at the likes of Kevin Owens – debuted against John Cena, and then slipped down the pecking order when his feud there ended; or how about Curtis Axel, who was repackaged and got a (sort of) win against Triple H before fading into obscurity? Heck, even Adam Rose was brought up to some fanfare, before being tweaked and repackaged so much that his only TV time until recently came as a NXT jobber.

For the Royal Rumble, this sort of booking would typically result in the winner of match itself being predictable. Despite the premise of any one of 30 men being able to win the match, we all really know that Heath Slater, Viktor or a surprise superstar won’t be the last man standing. This year, it’s even more crucial – the outcome of the 2016 Royal Rumble will probably see Roman Reigns retain his title, be the last man thrown out (thereby creating your WrestleMania title match), or eliminated earlier than that (and create a WrestleMania non-title match). Given that Reigns is now being accepted by the fans, and that he has already had a brief title reign, the time is not right for him to lose it and then start another chase (regardless of whether he regains it at WrestleMania or not).

So, what’s the point of the 1 vs. All Royal Rumble? For Reigns to literally beat 29 other guys and eliminate everyone else as a challenger? This match needs to create a big match for Roman Reigns at WrestleMania, but ideally without him losing the belt. Unfortunately, those seem to be mutually exclusive scenarios.

Looking to the women’s scene, and the situation isn’t that much better. Granted, they have been building towards Charlotte vs. Becky Lynch on TV (with no match announced to date), but storyline aside, there’s not much else going on. Nikki Bella, Sasha Banks and Paige are allegedly ruled out with injury, which leaves us with potential challengers Tamina (47% win rate on TV), Brie Bella (45%) and Alicia Fox (37%). It’s amazing that for all the talk of a Diva Revolution earlier this year, one injury each to the thrown together groups of Team BAD, the former PCB and the Bellas + Alicia has left the division in as much disarray as we were in a year ago. But that’s another dissection for another time.

The end result is pretty simple – for all of the talk of this finally being the year where WWE had a firm set of plans for WrestleMania, 2016 is starting out as the year where the company’s overall booking policy is finally coming to bite them on the rear end. Of course, it was always going to be a long shot for every one of WWE’s “chosen ones” to fall to injury inside the space of three months, but that’s the whole point of having a vibrant lower- to mid-card – so that in a pinch, you have some credible names to move up the card. Even if Sheamus was never going to be a viable champion, the reaction wouldn’t quite have been so muted had he not been in a position that saw him in a comedy tag team match mere hours before winning the world title!

Throughout my life as a wrestling fan, the most memorable WWE champions have been guys who started towards the bottom of the card and worked their way to the top. Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, John Cena. Brock Lesnar, with his monster push, didn’t go straight into the title picture, but, crucially, neither was he mired in a 50-50 feud, trading wins and losses with someone who had already been established as a midcarder.

I’m not saying that WWE needs to pick new “chosen ones”, but the way they handle storylines and feuds certainly needs to be revisited. In any other combat sport (say, UFC), if you score enough wins, you move up the card, and eventually, you get into title contention. While it doesn’t need to be in the style of Chikara’s “Campeonatos de Parejas” where you need to get three wins in a row to get a title shot, WWE should get out of the habit of booking midcarders to feud with other midcarders, with minimal upward mobility. Reassign where the United States and Intercontinental titles lie in the pecking order, and have one or the other as a stepping stone up to the WWE title.

By any means, this isn’t going to be the magic bullet, but maybe next time WWE has a crisis when their champion falls to a major injury, a secondary champion will be credible enough internally and externally in order to fill the gap without too much hesitation. And perhaps future Royal Rumbles won’t be as predictable as those in years gone by.