With the (ahem) elimination of the Elimination Chamber pay-per-view between the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania this year, it seems quite likely that the main event, that is the WWE Championship match, of WrestleMania 31 will be nailed down by the time the former event comes to a close. But for the first time in about five years, I'm really not sure what that match is going to be.
Admittedly, WWE storylines have been a little disappointing leading up to the Rumble, which is arguably my favorite pay-per-view of the year. But my intrigue with the event itself hasn't wavered. If anything, I feel strongly that the WWE has more options than ever heading into this Royal Rumble.
For one, there are three Superstars with a legitimate chance to carry the WWE title into WrestleMania this year, all of whom are competing in a Triple Threat match at the Rumble.
Seth Rollins' addition to the John Cena-Brock Lesnar WWE Championship match created a new wrinkle. Whereas before, it seemed unlikely -- or at least a bad decision -- to have Cena defeat Lesnar for the championship because it would kill Lesnar's mojo heading into what is likely his last WWE match at 'Mania, Rollins gives creative a fall guy.
As noted on Raw during the contract signing segment, Lesnar can lose the championship without ever being pinned.
Rollins also noted in the same segment that he's still the Money in the Bank holder, or Plan B as he referred to it. Because he's been added to the match, in theory, he would be Johnny on the spot as soon as the match concludes -- no matter the outcome -- to cash-in, giving him a second opportunity to walk away with the gold.
Of course, the Rumble itself has some favorites, but there isn't a clear cut winner in place (even if there may have been earlier with Roman Reigns tabbed as that guy). The way I see it, there are 10 names -- the three fighting for the championship and seven likely Rumble particpants -- who could main event the Show of Shows in a variety of combinations.
Assuming a 1-on-1 championship match at WrestleMania and that none of the losers of the WWE title match enter the Rumble, here are some possibilities, based on who emerges as the WWE titleholder.
If the WWE Champion is Seth Rollins ...
First things first, I think Rollins -- despite in storyline having two opportunities to emerge with the WWE Championship thanks to his Money in the Bank contract -- is the least likely to win the title. However, he does have something going for him: Since Money in the Bank became its own PPV in 2010, one of the briefcase winners has been involved in the main event or world championship match at WrestleMania the following year (The Miz, Daniel Bryan, John Cena and Randy Orton). Here are the match possibilities.
vs. Roman Reigns/Dean Ambrose:
OK, I'm cheating a little bit, but the story here practically writes itself with two former Shield brethern squaring off for the industry's top prize. WWE could go with Reigns or Ambrose as the winner of the Rumble -- or heck, even have co-winners and a Triple Threat (although I think they want to avoid another three-way dance). But WWE typically likes to do something "new" for the main event of WrestleMania (and by new, I mean a match we haven't seen in the six months prior to the Rumble) and this isn't that. Also, Vince McMahon likes to have at least one established star in the WrestleMania main event, if not multiple. While the match would certainly be enjoyable and fit the narrative being told with the Shield since their breakup, I don't think he wants to bank on two or three first-time main eventers in the biggest show of the year.
vs. Dolph Ziggler/Daniel Bryan:
Again, cheating a little bit here, but I feel like Ziggler is a poor man's Bryan. Currently, Ziggler isn't even on TV due to his kayfabe "firing" at the hands of the Authority. But he -- along with Ryback and Erick Rowan -- will likely return and be entered into the Rumble match at the last minute as part of the storyline. Coming out of Survivor Series, it certainly seemed like Ziggler was being positioned to make that leap to the main event, but with Bryan's somewhat surprising return, Ziggler seems more like an afterthought. Either Ziggler or Bryan could put on a tremendous wrestling contest with Rollins, as those three might be the best pure in-ring performs in the company. Bryan vs. Rollins is the more likely of the two, because it continues his storyline with the Authority and because he's at least been there before in the main event of a WrestleMania.
vs. Randy Orton:
The Viper had been slated to return earlier, but needed surgery for a deviated septum that pushed that back a bit. I fully suspect he'll be a surprise entrant in the Rumble match and should get a huge babyface pop. In storyline, Rollins and the Authority put him out of action right before the Survivor Series, so he'd be seeking revenge. Orton is that important known commodity that McMahon will want in a main event with a newbie, and these two are certainly destined to feud. However, this would be a bit of a risk. Fans are looking for new hero to cheer, and we've been down this path with Orton before.
More than likely, Rollins will end up at WrestleMania against one of these men -- since all would be perfectly strong mid-card matches for the biggest show of the year. A conclusion to the nearly year-long Rollins-Ambrose feud or a one-on-one against Orton seem probable.
If the WWE Champion is John Cena ...
Should Cena win the title, it would be his record 16th victory, tying Ric Flair for the most world championships in WWE/WCW/NWA lore. While I take no umbrage with a Cena victory, I have to think the fans in Philadelphia, one of the smarkiest wrestling towns of them all, will. And considering the scene at last year's Royal Rumble on the other side of the state, when fans nearly revolted over the stale Orton-Cena title match and Batista winning the Rumble, WWE might not want to deal with that kind of reaction again. SuperCena winning the title also gives us, in my opinion, the fewest possibilities of a fresh match, although it does put a proven draw -- love him or hate him -- in the main event of WrestleMania.
This thought hadn't crossed my mind until I started writing this column, but it's one I'm really starting to like. Rumors have been swirling for a while that Cena and Rusev could cross paths at WrestleMania and Cena could be the one to finally pin the Russian sympathizer's shoulders to the mat. While I actually think Rusev should go over if they do fight, my biggest concern is Rusev holding the United States Championship. The title is a bit of an albatross to getting him into the main event scene. How do you take the title off of him without ending his unblemished mark? (A triple threat or other multi-man match, I guess, but we seem to already be going down that road.) Of course -- crazy thought -- you could actually have him carry the U.S. Championship into the main event and give us the top title vs. mid-card title WrestleMania match we haven't seen since Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior squared off.
vs. Roman Reigns.
If anyone is a favorite to win the Rumble, it's Reigns. And while some fans may be a bit reluctant to get behind him right now, pitting him against Cena is probably the best way to guarantee a positive reaction, since Cena is such a lightning rod for all walks of fans.
There are few fresh match-ups for Cena, especially a WrestleMania main event, so there aren't a whole lot of options here. I think if Cena doesn't win the title, and neither Reigns or Rusev win the Rumble, he could still end up facing one of them. This really feels like a year that Cena needs to put over some young talent on the biggest stage. I'd be fine with Rusev being that guy, but Cena-Reigns seems like a WrestleMania main event, even without the title involved, and would be a great way to position Reigns as the "next" guy with a clean win. (And WWE seems more likely to have Cena put over a babyface at 'Mania than a heel.)
If the WWE Champion is Brock Lesnar...
I still think he is the most likely person to emerge victorious with the WWE Championship. Lesnar has had too strong of a year and WWE has put too much of an investment in him to not have the Beast enter WrestleMania as the champion and put someone over at the biggest show of the year -- the same show that he conquered the Undertaker's Streak. No matter who beats he would get a huge rub of beating the guy who beat the Streak and ragdolled John Cena. And there are at least five guys that could win the Rumble and be interesting opponents for him.
vs. Dolph Ziggler.
Coming out of Survivor Series, I don't think there was a hotter pro wrestler/sports entertainer than Ziggler. Hard to believe less than two months later, he feels like just another mid-carder. With that said, a win at the Rumble could probably get that heat back for him, but as mentioned earlier, he's essentially a prettier and less interesting version of Bryan.
vs. Randy Orton. Should WrestleMania be Lesnar's last match for WWE, then I think one of the bigger regrets will be that he never had a match with the Viper. Orton and Lesnar both came out of the "Ohio Valley Wrestling Class of 2002" along with Batista and Cena, yet they've never mixed it up on a big stage (neither have Lesnar and Batista, which I spent a portion of last year lamenting). I still believe WWE missed the boat by not having Orton beat Cena at Hell in a Cell for the No. 1 contendership, then facing Lesnar at Survivor Series in Orton's hometown of St. Louis, where even though Orton would've still been associated with the Authority during the build, he would've been a babyface in front of his home crowd against heel Lesnar. They also could've gotten the ball rolling on what is now a full-blown feud between Lesnar/Paul Heyman and Rollins/The Authority. Lesnar could've won when some Rollins/Authority interference backfires, then Orton stops Rollins from cashing in out of frustration (perhaps after leveling Lesnar with an RKO post-match). Tensions continue to build and you write-off Orton the next night on Raw, just as they did prior to Survivor Series. Now, doing all that changes a LOT of other things that happened at Survivor Series to present, but for the most part, you still could've made all that work. Anyway, Orton vs. Lesnar is a match we should've gotten then, when Orton would've been white hot, and still at a B-plus level PPV. At WrestleMania? They can do better.
vs. Undertaker. Honestly, if the Dead Man is going to be at WrestleMania, I want him to have a rematch with Lesnar. You can read my rational here. With that said, that match certainly doesn't need to be for the title, although it would create a bit more intrigue if it were. This is pretty unlikely.
vs. Roman Reigns. Sometime last year -- possibly right after WrestleMania -- I think most people saw the writing on the wall and thought this was the direction WWE was going. It wasn't a bad idea, but Reigns' hernia surgery set him back a bit and since catching wind Vince McMahon views him as the next John Cena, fans have put every move Reigns makes under a microscope, deeming him "not ready." Quite honestly, I think in another era, this would've been great business. But the hardcore fans that make up the bulk of the WrestleMania audience seem to have made up their mind they are going to reject Reigns, at least right now.
vs. Daniel Bryan. Everything about this just makes sense. WWE doesn't have a bigger star than Brock Lesnar. It doesn't have a more universally loved babyface than Daniel Bryan. It's the unstoppable beast vs. the ultimate underdog. WWE likes to say they are more like the movie "Rocky" than real sports, and while this is something you'd never see in real sports because of the size differential, it's one of those fantasy fights you can only have in pro wrestling or works of fiction.
Conclusion: While Daniel Bryan vs. Brock Lesnar for the championship certainly feels like the best match WWE can do at WrestleMania, Vince McMahon and co. have to at least have some concerns about keeping the title on Lesnar with his contract expiring just days after the event. And if Lesnar doesn't want to lose, he's not going to. But even without the title, almost any of these match-ups would be must-see.
Wild card: No matter who wins the title, one guy I can't shake as a possibility to win the Royal Rumble is Bray Wyatt. Even though I don't necessarily want to see Wyatt face the Undertaker at WrestleMania, that certainly seems to be the direction WWE is going and WWE has been booking Wyatt quite strong since 2015 began. I could see a swerve where Wyatt wins the Rumble, but eschews his title match to try to lure 'Taker out of where ever he has been. That would give WWE some stakes at next month's Fast Lane PPV, naming a new No. 1 contender if Wyatt doesn't take his title shot. Just a thought.
Final prediction: I think Bryan is a shoo-in to win the Rumble at this point. I just can't see them pulling the trigger on Reigns after last year's debacle where the fans hijacked the ending of the show and forced a change in the WrestleMania main event. But while Bryan vs. Lesnar is the best possible match they can put together, in my opinion, Vince McMahon is going to get the title off Lesnar unless he signs a new contract before the Rumble starts. Because of that, Seth Rollins will likely walk out of the Royal Rumble as the champion, giving us a strong wrestling match for the WrestleMania headliner. Reigns can face Lesnar in the undercard and John Cena will take on Rusev at WrestleMania.