After WrestleMania, the Royal Rumble is perhaps the most anticipated event in the WWE calendar. The suspense of returns, surprises and the non-stop action of the match that the show is named after never fails to create a buzz and excitement among fans. In 2021, things are naturally a bit different. No fans were in attendance, and the show emanated from the WWE ThunderDome. However, this was still the kick-off point for WrestleMania season.
In the kick-off show, Nia Jax and Shayna Baszler regained the WWE Women's Tag Team Championships by defeating Charlotte Flair and Asuka. Lacey Evans got involved in the match, Ric Flair gave her some brass knuckles she used to KO Charlotte Flair. Then, the show opened with a very stylised, superhero-inspired intro video that was pretty inspired and set the table nicely for the show ahead.
WWE Championship: Drew McIntyre (C) vs Goldberg
The curtain-raiser for the 2021 Royal Rumble featured last year's winner and WWE Champion taking on Bill Goldberg. The build for this match was marred by McIntyre testing positive for COVID-19 and having to isolate, as well as some promo flubs by Goldberg. However, the video package covered those flaws up quite nicely.
Goldberg was out first, in loose-fitting shorts, which seemed odd. He also looked in great shape in physique terms but seemed to be carrying a limp which may explain the shorts. Thankfully, no headbutting any lockers though. Drew made his way out for his usual entrance with the sword and a pre-match showdown turned into a brawl with McIntyre taking a page out of his opponent's book and hitting a Spear on Goldberg. The two men trading strikes on the outside before Goldberg Speared McIntyre through the barrier, ostensibly injuring his ribs. This was a nice change of pace from the usual formulaic Goldberg match that has become the hallmark of his more recent WWE run.
Once the bell actually ran, it was a quick sprint, which was probably for the best. With McIntyre only recently recovering from (apparently asymptomatic) COVID, and Goldberg possibly carrying an injury alongside his limitations, they did more than enough. McIntyre countered a spear attempt with a Claymore, before missing a second one and eating a spear for a near fall. Goldberg would hit a Jackhammer that will probably not rank among his best (although it wasn't his worst either, see his match with The Undertaker in Saudi Arabia for that) for another convincing near fall. Drew would rebound shortly after dodging a spear in the corner and hitting a big Claymore for the win.
Winner: Drew McIntyre
The match was short, explosive and did everything it needed to both protect Goldberg and play to his strengths, while also putting over Drew McIntyre. The respect angle after the match might have been a tad cheesy, but it did what it needed and passed the torch. It certainly felt after the match like Goldberg might be done after this, but with Mania coming up, who can say.
SmackDown Women's Championship: Sasha Banks (C) vs Carmella
The show moved along quickly with Carmella challenging Sasha Banks for the SmackDown Women's title. After Carmella had made her way to the ring, there was a very quick backstage interview with Banks, but nothing of note came out of it.
Sasha went for a lightning-quick Banks Statement attempt to start before the two exchanged back and forth strikes. Banks followed this with some top rope work until Reginald, Carmella's sommelier, got involved causing a distraction that let Carmella take the initiative. Reginald was even used as a springboard for Carmella to leap onto Banks at ringside.
Carmella dominated the next section of the match including locking in a modified Code of Silence in the ropes. Banks countered a move from the corner with a Meteora but appeared to hurt her knee on the way down, even though this didn't really play into the match as it went on. Carmella retook control, even going as far as to tie Banks' hair in the ropes, which was very creative.
Sasha would fight back, hitting double knees in the corner for a near fall. A Three Amigos attempt would follow but Carmella would throw Banks to the outside, landing on Reginald, earning him a headscissors takedown before the referee sent him to the back. Carmella would take advantage of this attempting a suicide dive that had a very scary landing, and Carmella is lucky not to have broken her neck in the process.
Back in the ring, Sasha would attempt a series of roll-ups and pin attempts, and then a top rope frog splash, only for Carmella to get her knees up. A Code of Silence attempt was next, but Banks countered with a sliding knee. Sasha's top rope move (it was hard to tell what she was attempting) was countered with a low superkick and a second high one for near fall for Carmella before Sasha locked in the Banks Statement for the win pretty much out of nowhere.
Winner: Sasha Banks
While the finish was abrupt, this was another decent enough undercard match from this pairing and hopefully a definitive end to this feud.
After the match, we transitioned backstage to a segment with Big E and Xavier Woods talking about the Royal Rumble. Sami Zayn interrupted (with his camera crew) as his conspiracy theorist gimmick continued. Kofi returned and scared Sami, and although Kofi is not cleared to compete he was there to provide support for Woods and Big E.
If that wasn't a big enough palette cleanser for the first of the two Rumble matches, we were treated to a Bad Bunny performance with WWE Hall of Famer Booker T on stage. Presumably, the song is about Booker T?
Women's Royal Rumble
After the traditional “It's all in the numbers” statistics video that has become a yearly staple, it was time for the Women's Royal Rumble match. While it is impossible to document everything that happens in such a chaotic match. Hopefully, the biggest moments are covered here.
Bayley and Naomi were out at numbers 1 and 2 respectively. Bayley sporting the word “Cole” shaved into the back of her head for some reason, supposedly due to her wish to challenge Michael Cole if she wins. Weird.
Moving on Naomi's entrance looked amazing (pun intended) in the ThunderDome setting, and these two got things underway with some solid offence, and Bayley doing some sterling work with her trash talk calling back to the match she had with Naomi in Saudi Arabia last year.
Bianca Belair was in at number 3 showing some amazing athleticism including a very cool cartwheel spot alongside Naomi. Billie Kay would be next out of the back clutching a stack of photos and a resume, but she opted to join the commentary team as she waited for someone to form an alliance with.
Shotzi Blackheart and her tank appeared at number 5, firing a foam missile at Kay as she tried to form a partnership, and then hitting a missile dropkick to Bayley upon entering the ring.
Shayna Baszler and Toni Storm would arrive at 6 and 7 both making instant impacts, with Baszler tossing out Blackheart, and both brushing off Billie Kay on the way to the ring.
The eighth entrant and first big surprise of the night came in the form of Jillian Hall who did agree to team up with Billie Kay as “Billie & Jilly”. While the match to this point had been very good, the Billie Kay comedy routine had been really enjoyable and added a lot to proceedings. Kay's continued attempts to associate with The Riott Squad on SmackDown were tested next as Ruby Riott entered the match, but Riott was largely indifferent to the former IIconic's assistance.
After Victoria (minus her theme performed by Tatu, sadly) came out at number 10, Peyton Royce would make her entrance and an IIconics reunion almost happened, although Kay was conflicted by her allegiance to Riott and also to Jillian, although that pairing would soon come apart. Santana Garrett and Liv Morgan would soon enter the increasingly crowded match before Billie Kay and Jillian Hall were dumped out.
From here, we headed towards a more standard Rumble match, with Rhea Ripley dominating with eliminations of Toni Storm and Santana Garrett, then facing off with Charlotte in another nice callback to last year's WrestleMania. Dana Brooke and Torrie Wilson would enter in the following minutes before Lacey Evans made her way down accompanied by Ric Flair at number 18 and an enraged Charlotte Flair in the process leading to a big brawl. Mickie James, Nikki Cross, Alicia Fox (who briefly won the 24/7 title form a confused R-Truth in the midst of the match) and Mandy Rose all followed before we started to get to the business end of the entrants. However, during that span, Bianca Belair did manage to eliminate Bayley and Rhea Ripley went on a spree quickly eliminating Dakota Kai (who came in at number 23) and Mandy Rose. Carmella and Nikki Cross both had brief spotlight moments in the middle of things before being eliminated.
Tamina would come in at number 25 and immediately squared off with Rhea Ripley as the two big powerhouses went for it. Meanwhile, Naomi was almost eliminated but landed on her back with her feet up and used a precariously placed Bianca Belair for leverage to get back in, including her braid, in what was a really clever spot. Tamina clattered Lana as she came in at number 26, but did not eliminate her before Alexa Bliss made her way out at number 27. Surprisingly, considering the prominence she has received on RAW in recent weeks and her part in the ongoing “Fiend” story, Bliss was only in the match briefly as the others teamed up to take her out and Rhea Ripley eliminated her before she could “transform”.
Ember Moon arrived at number 28 hitting an Eclipse on Shayna Baszler in the process before Nia Jax made her presence felt at number 29 and alongside her partner and fellow Tag Team champion eliminated Lacey Evans, Ember Moon, Naomi and Tamina before briefly turning on each other and Jax throwing Baszler over the top rope and to the floor. However, this opened the door for Lana to eliminate Jax and finally get some revenge for the bullying storyline that abruptly stopped in December when Lana disappeared off TV.
As Natalya entered at number 30, Jax and Baszler assaulted her, before doing the same to Lana and then throwing Natalya into the ring. Natalya rallied quickly though, eliminating Lana and bringing things down to the final four of Bianca Belair, Charlotte Flair, Natalya and Rhea Ripley.
As tends to happen in a Royal Rumble, things escalated quickly with Belair eliminating Natalya and, in a shock, Belair teaming up with Rhea Ripley to eliminate Charlotte.
Both Ripley and Belair found themselves on the apron teetering but agreed to go back in the ring and face off honourably. This led to a fun final few minutes, with both women nearly winning it. Ripley almost hit the Riptide, only for Belair to reverse and almost hit the KOD before finally managing to tip Ripley over the top rope and secure the big win.
Winner: Bianca Belair
This was probably the match of the night and a really strong Rumble, with a really big performance from Bianca Belair. This felt like a star-making performance for Belair, and a match with Sasha Banks at WrestleMania is 100% the match to make. There were also strong showings from Charlotte and Rhea Ripley who cemented herself as a big player and let's not forget about Billie Kay who was brilliant in her own way here.
Belair took part in an emotional post-match interview, and it would be hard not to be happy for her. Bianca Belair has charisma for days, a phenomenal look, and her character feels fresh and relevant. Her win here was the right call. It's a shame it wasn't in front of an audience, but this was as good as it could have been in the circumstances.
Before the next match, there was a backstage segment with The Miz and John Morrison talking with Bad Bunny before Booker T interrupted and ran them off. Of course, this would pay off later in the show.
After a brief segment with the pre-show panel running over the events from before the main show, Pete Rosenberg beat R-Truth for the 24/7 title following a distraction and a low blow. Yes, that happened.
WWE Universal Championship: Kevin Owens vs Roman Reigns (C) – Last Man Standing
A video package covering the build-up to the Last Man Standing match was shown, with Adam Pierce and the switcheroo that got Kevin Owens into this match (poor Shinsuke Nakamura).
After the entrances, things started fast with brawling back-and-forth early. Reigns nailed a Superman punch, and Owens hit a pop-up powerbomb in the early going for attempts at the ten-count. The brawl would move to the outside before Reigns hit a big Spear and then hit Owens with the ring steps. Owens would rally and ram Reigns into various objects around the ThunderDome, including up and onto the staging area, trading chair shots and the advantage.
This continued for a while, as per the usual WWE's Last Man Standing playbook, until Owens started to target Reigns' legs, which is a smart move in a match that involves having to stand up. However, Reigns would regain the momentum, until Owens hit a stunner and teased a fall from the stage through a table, only to recover and throw Owens off the structure. It was a pretty brutal looking fall but, surprisingly, did not end the match, which made for a nice babyface moment.
The match continued, with Owens lumbering his way backstage and away from Reigns, stumbling his way to a backstage workout area with a back-up ring before Reigns appeared out of nowhere and attempted to murder him with a golf cart. The noise as the cart made contact at full pelt was very unpleasant.
However, Owens got up. Reigns talked trash, but that only fired up Owens up. They continued to battle through the backstage area, with Owens delivering a Pop-Up Powerbomb on a table (that did not break) and following up with a frog splash through the same table from some equipment cases, but Reigns got up at 9. Owens found a forklift shortly after, and apparently has some prior experience with that particular machine, creating a platform from which to perform a beautiful senton bomb through a table onto Reigns, but it was only enough for another 9-count.
Reigns began to crawl away, broken and battered, barely able to stand as Owens smashed him into every surface they encountered as they went back through the gorilla position and on to the entrance stage. Owens looked to have the match all but won when Reigns hit a desperation Superman Punch and a Spear through the LED boards for a close count. A convincing near-finish (especially as it has been utilised in other last man standing matches). With Owens foggy, Reigns battered Owens repeatedly with a pair of handcuffs, and tried to use them but Owens fought back and returned the favour, clattering Reigns with them before handcuffing reigns to a metal truck meaning Reigns could not stand up. Before the count hit 10, Reigns knocked the referee out and gave Owens a low blow before Paul Heyman appeared and uncuffed him. This was another strong false finish.
With Reigns now free and up to a vertical base (after quite a lot of fiddling about with the cuffs), Reigns hooked a guillotine onto the onrushing Owens, choking him out and allowing Roman to stagger to his feet briefly and beat the count to retain his title.
Winner: Roman Reigns
A strong match between two competitors at the height of their powers, there were lots of nods to famous matches with similar stipulations (not least a little bit of The rock and Mankind from Royal Rumble 1999), and plenty of moments where the result felt in doubt. Reigns is an even bigger heel in victory, and Owens loses nothing in defeat having been screwed out of a sure win by the dastardly Universal Champion. Excellent work from both men.
Men's Royal Rumble
Edge in great shape ran out to attack Orton while he made his entrance. Orton's burns seemed to have healed just fine. They brawled at ringside for a while, in what felt almost like a mini-match before Sami Zayn wandered out at number 3 with his documentary team in tow, ganging up on Edge, and cowering from Orton as necessary. Some lovely character work from Zayn. Mustafa Ali would join at number 4, making for a 3-1 heel beatdown on Edge. Luckily, Jeff Hardy would come in next to even the odds, even attempting a Twist of Fate on Zayn before running into an RKO, with Ali and Zayn also taking an RKO before Edge surprised Orton with a Spear.
As Orton and Edge brawled outside, including a big DDT on the announce table and an assault with chair shots, Dolph Ziggler joined the fray, quickly eliminating Jeff Hardy. Shinsuke Nakamura, in a beautiful flowing coat and looking pretty refreshed, was next in. Randy Orton began limping away from the ring with the help from the referees.
In the first big surprise of the men's match, Carlito returned, looking in great shape, hit a backstabber on Nakamura (after a fun spot with an apple) and another to Ali, before almost eliminating Sami Zayn. Xavier Woods was the next entrant, going right after Ali before getting shut down by Zayn as things started to settle down, only for Big E to emerge at number 10, hitting an assisted splash on Sami and a big top rope double team before ending Sami's night.
John Morrison would be out tenth, while Ali eliminated Xavier Woods, angering Big E who quickly tossed the leader of RETRIBUTION. Ricochet entered the match next with his trademark high-impact aerial offence for a spell, followed by Elias who came in with some big offence, eliminating Carlito.
At this point as the ring filled up, it became harder to track all the eliminations but, hopefully, the main ones will have been covered. Damian Priest from NXT was the next surprise entrant, and he quickly made a strong impression getting into it with Elias (who he eliminated), Ricochet and John Morrisson. The story of Orton's injury was again pushed on commentary as we saw footage of his treatment backstage and a reminder he wasn't actually eliminated. The Miz made his way to ringside smashing up Bad Bunny's DJ setup on the way, which brought the DJ to the ring – a distraction that let Damian Priest eliminate both Miz and Morrison. Even more amazingly, Bad Bunny then hit a top rope dive to the outside onto the former Dirt Sheet hosts. It was a pretty decent crossbody too.
Matt Riddle was out at 16, getting into a striking battle with Nakamura, before Daniel Bryan made his way out at 17 and matching up with Ricochet, perhaps giving a taste of a future match which could be incredible if it ever happens. It was Bryan's past that was out next, as his former Team Hell No partner, Kane, was in at 18 and eliminated Ziggler and Ricochet in short order before we got the “reunion” culminating in a big hug, and then a chokeslam. Poor Bryan. However, The Big Red Machine had a short stint before being dumped out by Damian Priest.
Number 19 was King Corbin, who added about as much as you might expect to this sort of match, although he did eliminate Shinsuke Nakamura. Otis would be next to get involved at number 20, throwing just about everyone all over the ring with a variety of suplexes and delivering the Caterpillar to Damien Priest. Unfortunately, his attempt to hit a Vader Bomb on Priest led to the end of his evening, as Corbin pushed him off the top to the floor.
Dominik Mysterio made his Rumble debut, “shockingly” eliminating King Corbin and doing the whole match a favour as a result. Bobby Lashley was in at 22, making a beeline for Riddle to keep their US title programme bubbling along, before quickly eliminating Mysterio and Damian Priest.
The big advantage of the Royal Rumble is that you can tease future matches or combinations that you might not normally see due to the brand split. As such, when Bobby Lashley and Big E squared up to each other, it felt like a big moment, and one of the pockets within the lining of this epic match where the lack of a real, audible crowd reaction was sorely missed. While this might have been short-lived, it definitely made that seem like an exciting future programme. This segued seamlessly into a more comedic moment as both men ceased their attacks to dump out The Hurricane, who entered at number 23 before pairing off with other dance partners and getting ready for number 24.
With Edge lying prone on the floor, exhausted, it was a great moment to see Christian make his entrance at number 24, in arguably the biggest surprise up to that point in the match. “Captain Charisma” looked in great shape and the shocked looks for the men in the ring and the smile from Edge made for a great moment. Christian quickly entered things properly by helping eliminate Bobby Lashley and quickly sharing an embrace with Edge before they joined forces to beat down Riddle.
AJ Styles made his way to the ring at number 25, accompanied by Omos and quickly involved himself with Edge, a nice nod to their tussle in last year's match which ended with Styles getting injured. Edge would counter the Phenomenal Forearm, but ducking and hitting a big Spear as things settled down and the countdown began again. Rey Mysterio emerged to the sounds of product placement for beer from Michael Cole. Weird. Still, the elder Mysterio got into things with Styles who was saved from elimination by big Omos. Interestingly, Omos then dragged Big E over the top rope by simply reaching over and casually grabbing him, eliminating the Intercontinental Champion. This is perhaps a signpost for Omos' first big programme, or a red herring, but it certainly bears remembering as we enter WrestleMania season.
Sheamus was the 27th entrant to the 2021 Royal Rumble, immediately targeting Edge, Riddle and Christian before locking horns with Daniel Bryan. In a fun spot, Omos blocked a 619 from Rey Mysterio onto AJ Styles, only for Styles to push him over the top rope and Omos to drag Rey to the ground with ease. While Omos might be limited to the ringside area, he certainly made his presence felt here.
Cesaro was next leading to a quick reunion of The Bar before he gave Sheamus the big swing and almost eliminated him in the process. Bryan was next to take the big swing, which still looks incredible. At number 29, Seth Rollins would make his return from absence (paternity leave in this case) by almost being eliminated by Cesaro, but he somehow got back in the ring.
Finally, at number 30 we had Braun Strowman, as expected. Although his placing at number 30 did beg the question, he returned from his kayfabe suspension on SmackDown when he could have been a big surprise revealed here. Naturally, he went on a rampage here, eliminating Cesaro, Sheamus and AJ Styles before being taken down by a double Spear from Edge and Christian.
The final moments played out as you would expect, with lots of elimination teases. Riddle and Bryan did some grappling on the floor, while Rollins lurked as the other all attempted to recover. Rollins would eliminate Bryan after a stomp (something that on Bryan, in particular, is hard to watch given his medical history), only to get into things with Riddle and eventually eliminate him with the stomp on the apron.
It appeared the final four (if you were discounting Randy Orton) were Edge, Christian, Braun Strowman and Seth Rollins and naturally, this led to Strowman refusing to team with Rollins, wiping him out and taking on the former multi-time tag champions alone. However, Rollins would reassert himself eliminating Christian and Strowman seemingly leaving himself and Edge to battle it out.
Of course, Orton returned as soon as Edge dumped Rollins out to many an audible groan. However, shockingly Edge then eliminated Orton to take the win and his second Royal Rumble victory.
Overall, Royal Rumble 2021 was a very enjoyable show. The winners of both Rumble matches were unpredictable but both open up some interesting possibilities moving forward. Edge vs Drew McIntyre makes sense, as does Sasha Banks vs Bianca Belair and there were lots of smaller issues that could blossom nicely from this show. The surprises were minimal, but that was to be expected in the circumstances, although a lack of an appearance by “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt did come as a surprise. Elsewhere, both men's title matches delivered in their own way, and the SmackDown Women's Championship match exceeded expectations. Another strong show, only hampered by a lack of an audience.
All images courtesy of WWE.com