I feel like I say it every year, but the 2019 Royal Rumble is the most wide-open in a long time.
WWE World Champion Daniel Bryan and WWE Universal Champion Brock Lesnar are most likely going to hold onto their titles until WrestleMania. Bryan because he's having the run of his life as an anticapitalist scold, and Lesnar because he's Lesnar. So if they're champions, who challenges them at WWE's biggest show of the year?
AJ Styles is the biggest babyface on Smackdown, but he'll have wrestled Bryan on TV five times after the Royal Rumble. So Styles is out, and he'll likely wrestle Shawn Michaels or someone of similar dream match prestige at WrestleMania. After Styles, though, the Smackdown babyface pool gets
really shallow. It's too soon for Mustafa Ali. Jeff Hardy is too deteriorated. There's always Big E, whose breakout singles push has been rumored for years, such pushes are usually foreshadowed a little bit, and this one hasn't been. Also, I feel confident guessing that this was the spot former New Japan Pro Wrestling Heavyweight Champion Kenny Omega would have gotten had he signed the obscene deal WWE offered him, but Omega is probably going to join his friends in All Elite Wrestling instead. I could see old reliable John Cena getting the shot against his kinda sorta ex-brother-in-law, but sniping about the Bellas doesn't give Bryan much room to rant about plastic straws and gas-guzzlers.
Lesnar's challenger is a little easier to guess. Seth Rollins has been getting top guy treatment on Raw the past few weeks, and has even announced his intentions to challenge for the Universal Championship. But Rollins hasn't been so hot in the ring: His match with Dean Ambrose at TLC got "boring" chants, and his work has felt tired for awhile. I'd rather see Finn Balor get the nod. WWE and Paul Heyman could sell the hell out of Demon Balor vs. the Beast Lesnar, and we'd surely get an instant classic entrance when Balor brings his undefeated alter ego to WrestleMania for the first time ever.
When it comes to the women, one title match is almost a lock and the other is a massive question mark.
Raw Women's Champion Ronda Rousey will all but certainly defend her title against Becky Lynch and Charlotte in a triple-threat that should, by all rights, make history by headlining WrestleMania. The only question is how we get there. Lynch challenging Asuka for the Smackdown Women's Championship at the Royal Rumble means "The Man" may not wrestle in the battle royale many expected her to win. So Charlotte will likely win the title shot instead, allowing her to jump to Raw. And Lynch having to grind for her spot in the match will shore up her fan support in the same way Bryan did in 2014.
As for Asuka's WrestleMania opponent: Who knows? Naomi could get the nod, but other than her and the developing Sonya Deville, the Smackdown women's scene is weak. So I'd bet on someone from Raw or NXT. If WWE is feeling frisky they could give the shot to Nikki Cross, who had some great matches with Asuka in NXT. Shayna Baszler is about due for her promotion, too. And she'll be needed on the roster now that WWE is circling the long-awaited Four Horsewomen vs. Four Horsewomen feud, which could escalate with Rousey's Royal Rumble defense against Sasha Banks.
We'll see how many of these questions get answered Jan. 27. Next week, I'll have a column with predictions on the other big mystery of the Royal Rumble: surprise entrants.
Top 20 WWE matches of 2018
WWE United Kingdom Champion Pete Dunne vs. Kyle O'Reilly, NXT (June 13). I wanted to like this match more. Dunne might be my favorite performer in the whole company, and O'Reilly has won me over with his goofball side as part of The Undisputed Era. But his submission exchanges with Dunne in this match just feel like two guys showing off fanboy enthusiasm for MMA — I'm almost surprised they didn't call out the names of the holds as they hurried through them. The striking, and O'Reilly's work on Dunne's leg, felt just as perfunctory. But the Full Sail crowd loved it, and these two have such a high default setting that their match still snuck onto my list anyway.
Seth Rollins vs. Roman Reigns vs. John Cena vs. Elias vs. Finn Balor vs. The Miz vs. Braun Strowman, Raw (Feb. 19). Rollins started 2018 treading water after a Shield reunion and odd-couple tag team with Jason Jordan both ran aground due to injury. But his showing in this two-hour-long (!) gauntlet, in which he pinned both Reigns and Cena during his 65-minute (!!!) run, reasserted him as a centerpiece of Raw. And he's ridden that performance to impressive reigns with the Intercontinental Championship, though his fall feud with Dean Ambrose has struggled to deliver.
Ronda Rousey and Kurt Angle vs. Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, WrestleMania 34. Like many of the WWE main roster's matches on this list, this mixed tag WrestleMania feature benefits from nearly perfect booking. It's a little long, sure. But its confrontations between Rousey and McMahon, as well as Rousey and Triple H, couldn't have been more compelling. The match also benefits from Rousey being a surprisingly natural pro wrestler, trash talking and throwing hands like she's been training five times as long as she has. In that sense, there was some poetry in her pairing with another preternatural talent in Angle.
Smackdown Women's Champion Charlotte Flair vs. Asuka, WrestleMania 34. This women's dream match makes the list in spite of itself. It has Charlotte making a show-stopping entrance and looking the most poised and queenly she has in her career, as well as some slick wrestling and striking with Asuka. But it ends far too abruptly, with the wrong person winning in Charlotte, and quickly cedes the stage to John Cena's dumb storyline with the Undertaker. Because of this match, Asuka would take awhile to recover, and fans would grow tired of Charlotte's superwoman treatment. But with Asuka winning the Smackdown Women's Championship in December and Charlotte finding a new level of intensity in the ring, both are thankfully in a better place at the start of 2019.
WWE Universal Champion Roman Reigns vs. Finn Balor, Raw (Aug. 20). Reigns' first match after finally dethroning Brock Lesnar for Raw's top championship was also his last great singles match before vacating that championship to resume treatment for his leukemia. He and Balor are just perfect dance partners: Reigns brings power and timing, Balor strikes and flying. There was no better first opponent for Reigns to set a new tone as Raw's first full-time Universal Champion in a year and a half. And hopefully he kicks his leukemia's ass so he can get back to having bangers like these every week.
The women's Royal Rumble match, Royal Rumble. If you didn't smile at least once during this match, you have to be dead inside. It made history with one terrific moment after another: Lita rocking #TimesUp gear, Kairi Sane's elbows, Beth Phoenix facing off with Nia Jax, Asuka crossing paths with recent rival Ember Moon only to make fun of her injured arm, Trish Stratus facing off with old foe Mickie James and hopeful new one Sasha Banks, and of course the debut of Ronda Rousey. I didn't need to see Kelly Kelly or Michelle McCool again, but otherwise, the first women's Royal Rumble could go down as its best.
NXT Champion Aleister Black vs. Tommaso Ciampa, NXT (July 25). The irredeemable Ciampa is the best heel in WWE in years. Pivoting him from his blood feud with Johnny Gargano to winning the NXT Championship read like Triple H rewarding him for that work. And Ciampa proved why he deserved the nod, having a nail-biting match with Black that put the championship not only around Ciampa's waist, but with its clever finish, at the center of his feud with Gargano. Also, leave it to Drake Younger to take his first ref bump on exposed cement.
Raw Women's Champion Ronda Rousey vs. Charlotte Flair, Survivor Series. Rousey hasn't just proven to be a gifted pro wrestler, she also brings to her matches the kind of big-fight unpredictability that fellow UFC champion Brock Lesnar does. And this match with Charlotte is anything but predictable, with the advantage frequently shifting through stiff grappling sequences and shows of raw power. Rousey just takes a beating, not only getting busted open during the match but getting brutalized by a kendo stick after Charlotte snaps in despair. Rousey could have sold the beating a little better — walking out after having her neck Pillmanized made her deserving of the boos — but everything else made the match a pleasant surprise.
Buddy Murphy vs. Mustafa Ali, 205 Live (July 3). Murphy and Hideo Itami have been establishing WWE's cruiserweight show as a place where floundering NXT prospects can revive their careers. Murphy has been especially revelatory, reinventing himself as a brawny "Juggernaut" with vicious power offense and the will to fly when needed. And this brutal no-disqualification match against the always dynamic Ali may be his best showcase of that range yet. Ali, for his part, is a phenomenal babyface with a likable presence and fun offense that's just the right amount of flash. It's no surprise he was the first "205 Live" wrestler to graduate to Raw or Smackdown, but Murphy could just as easily follow soon.
Meiko Satomura vs. Mercedes Martinez, Mae Young Classic. The best of the legendary Satormura's dream run in WWE's women's tournament saw her trade devastating strikes and snappy power moves with another veteran in Martinez. The offense was crisp, the near-falls nail-biting, and the respect for both women palpable as they neared the finish. It wasn't just the best match of the second annual tournament but one of its most important, showing WWE fans that the history of women's wrestling is much more than divas and the women's revolution — and much better.
WWE World Champion Daniel Bryan vs. AJ Styles, WWE TLC. Bryan's surprising heel turn in November didn't just give his character a refreshingly dark new direction. It allowed him to overhaul his offense by moving away from the high-risk dives that helped retire him in the first place. And against Styles at TLC, the best of their 2018 series, that new offense included vicious but grounded leg attacks to set up his heel hook. One even saw Bryan tell the referee he has a five-count, surely titillating Ring of Honor fans. In the end, though, it was a small package (another callback) that allowed Bryan to cleanly retain his championship and continue his thoroughly entertaining reign.
NXT Women's Champion Shayna Baszler vs. Kairi Sane, NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn IV. Sane may look diminutive next to the bully Baszler, but the Japanese star's outsize ferocity makes her such a fun opponent for the former mixed martial artist. This match, the best of their series, sees Sane go toe-to-toe with Baszler but outsmart her at the right moment, using her sharper instincts to escape a rear naked choke with the rollover pin Bret Hart made famous. Hopefully, by the end of 2019, these two meet again on the main roster.
NXT North American Champion Ricochet vs. WWE United Kingdom Champion Pete Dunne, NXT (Oct. 10). Though Ricochet is a flyer and Dunne a technician, they overlap enough to produce the kind of wrestling that makes styles clashes so fun. The biggest question was whether Ricochet would bring the aggression his aerial offense usually lacks, but he gamely answered Dunne's strikes with ones of his own. The match ending in a no contest due to interference from the Undisputed Era was disappointing, but with the winner-take-all stipulation, it's no shocker NXT wanted to keep gold around both men's waists.
WWE Universal Champion Brock Lesnar vs. WWE World Champion Daniel Bryan, Survivor Series. Bryan taking a double-digit number of German suplexes wasn't fun to watch, nor was Lesnar pulling the world champion up from a pin attempt before Bryan could muster any offense. But after the newly heel Bryan turned the tide with a kick in the groin, the match got awesome. Bryan leaving footprints on Lesnar's face and clubbing him with forearms to continue the LeBell Lock were highlights of a fantastic main event that found Lesnar raising his game for the first time since last year's Survivor Series classic against AJ Styles.
TLC match: Smackdown Women's Champion Becky Lynch vs. Charlotte Flair vs. Asuka, WWE TLC. Lynch was returning to the ring at the height of her popularity as "The Man," and Asuka finally won her first WWE championship, but this brutal TLC match was by and large Charlotte's show. The match started slow, with spots that required some waiting and obvious cooperation with each other. But midway through it got vicious. Charlotte sounded like she was legitimately dying after Lynch dropped a leg on her from the top of a ladder, and look on Charlotte's face after spearing Asuka through the guardrail was pure ferocity. I'm not in love with Lynch and Charlotte both facing Ronda Rousey at WrestleMania, but between the setup for that match at the end of this one, and Charlotte and Lynch's terrific work since the fall of 2018, they've both earned it.
Ladder match for the new NXT North American Championship: Ricochet vs. Velveteen Dream vs. EC3 vs. Lars Sullivan vs. Adam Cole vs. Killian Dain, NXT TakeOver: New Orleans. Monsters, flyers and dirtbags came together WrestleMania weekend to have one of the best multi-man ladder matches in WWE history. From Ricochet's graceful dives to Dain manhandling everyone in sight, the action was unbelievably varied. Even EC3 got to appear useful. And Cole, the opportunist with the most over crowd participation spot in the whole company, was the perfect one to crown the first NXT North American champion.
NXT Tag Team Champions Mustache Mountain vs. The Undisputed Era, NXT (July 11). A nuclear Full Sail audience was the perfect complement to this throwback tag team match, which saw Kyle O'Reilly and Roderick Strong annihilate the knee of Trent Seven in a way that would make the Andersons and the Midnight Express proud. The Undisputed Era often wrestle like showoffs, cycling through moves simply because they can, but here, their strikes and submissions had fiendish purpose. Seven, to his credit, sold each of them like instant death. And his partner, Tyler Bate, followed an explosive hot tag with some solidly acted anguish before throwing in the towel to save his partner's leg.
Unsanctioned match: Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa, NXT TakeOver: New Orleans. As hateful as it was long, this hellacious match between former friends also had maybe the best finish in NXT history. Like many, I thought Gargano would fall for Ciampa's attempt at a reconciliation, lose the match and move on to 205 Live. Instead, he avoided Ciampa's sucker punch, grabbed his knee brace and applied an STF with the device across Ciampa's face, a flash tapout that ended the match on a feel-good and deliriously exciting note. It figures the former partners' feud has only produced diminishing returns since.
WWE Smackdown Women's Champion Becky Lynch vs. Charlotte Flair, Evolution. Lynch and Flair just wrestled the hell out of this blowoff to their fall feud. As plunder matches go, it wasn't particularly imaginative, aside from Charlotte's use of a ladder to intensify her Figure Eight submission. But she and "The Man" found a way to convey their hatred for each other through every facet of the match, from their enthusiastic bumping to their emotive facial acting. The fact the match happened at Evolution, WWE's first all-woman special event, only underscored just how good, and how essential, those women have become.
NXT Champion Andrade "Cien" Almas vs. Johnny Gargano, NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia. Almas may be the most relentless wrestler in the company, and his act with Zelina Vega is certainly one of the best — despite their infrequent use these days on Smackdown. So "El Idolo" was the perfect opponent to deliver punishment to the nerdy everyman Gargano, whose expression just gets more and more faraway the longer this match goes. With fantastic striking, flying and submission wrestling, this match had it all, and both its ending and its epilogue was just devastating for fans of Gargano. It also began quite the arc for him in 2018.
Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or
email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.