This Royal Rumble has a chance to be one of the most unpredictable in a long time.
Some of WWE’s biggest stars are out of the picture heading into the Royal Rumble pay-per-view on Sunday (7 p.m., WWE Network), leaving the door open for plenty of unannounced entrants into the Rumble matches.
One thing is for certain: WWE has two credible marquee champions in Drew McIntyre and Roman Reigns. If they retain their titles Sunday, they will turn to chances to defend them at WrestleMania 37, which was moved from Los Angeles to Tampa, Fla., and rescheduled as a two-night event on April 10-11.
Here is a look at five things to watch at the 2021 Royal Rumble:
Please, not again
The WWE championship match program between McIntyre and Bill Goldberg got off to an inauspicious start when the former WCW star cut a promo questioning McIntyre’s respect for WWE’s legends. McIntyre reportedly didn’t have time to cut a promo that would set up Goldberg’s, so the accusations against the usually respectful champion just looked silly.
Goldberg having to be in this match is an indictment of WWE’s poor booking, which leaves them without a challenger ready to face McIntrye on a big pay-per-view stage. They already used Keith Lee for a match on Raw. Though he’s looked great at times, Lee hasn’t won enough to feel like a PPV-worthy opponent. A McIntyre-Sheamus feud feels like it warrants more than a throw-away pre-WrestleMania run.
So WWE gave us Goldberg. A win for the two-time Universal champion is certainly not out of the question. We have already seen him beat “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt and Kevin Owens for the Universal championship. If he does win, maybe they run this back at WrestleMania. But Raw’s sagging ratings likely don’t need two months of Goldberg not defending the championship. McIntyre will make this match as good as it can be. Let’s hope the booking is too.
A Money in the Bank cash-in from The Miz feels extremely possible here. The A-Lister has teased it, and doing so successfully would give McIntyre an instant opponent and angle prior to WrestleMania.
SmackDown is giving us Universal champion Roman Reigns against Kevin Owens for a third time and a second straight pay-per-view. This one is a Last Man Standing match. The stipulation opens up a number of possibilities. Reigns can lose the championship without getting pinned or submitted. Or Owens can again fight like heck to keep standing only to be thwarted by some devious move from The Tribal Chief. It feels as if Owens will have an answer for Reigns’ cousin Jey Uso this time, so there is a chance Jimmy Uso returns to ensure Owens loses. Jey Uso recently talked about The Bloodline on SmackDown.
The women’s Royal Rumble match could go from super predictable to off-the-wall bonkers. There are some obvious active choices to win it and head to WrestleMania, starting with Bianca Belair. “The EST of WWE” has been made to look strong during her feud with Bayley and turned in a memorable Rumble performance last year with eight eliminations. A WrestleMania match against SmackDown women’s champion Sasha Banks is an easy sell with their similar larger-than-life personas and star appeal.
On the Raw women’s side, Alexa Bliss — who is now undergoing Fiend-like transformations — has been positioned as a clear threat to Asuka’s championship, but little has been done for anyone else on the red brand’s roster. Charlotte Flair, Nia Jax and Shayna Baszler are possible but unlikely winners.
Now, here is where things can get interesting…
Becky Lynch delivered her first child with Seth Rollins in December and is certainly a possibility for a Royal Rumble return. Better yet, with fans set to be in attendance at Raymond James Stadium for WrestleMania, maybe Ronda Rousey wins the Rumble in a long-awaited return to WWE. Rousey teased the possibility on Twitter earlier this week. But without live fans, WWE would be sacrificing the opportunity for huge return pops for Lynch and Rousey. Another potential entry not currently on the main roster is former NXT women’s champion Rhea Ripley. She has been off television in NXT since losing to Raquel Gonzalez in a Last Woman Standing match and has cachet from her WrestleMania match with Flair last year.
Edge of our seats
Edge was the talk of last year’s Rumble after his surprise return to the ring following a nine-year absence. This time he will be back from a triceps injury that cost him seven months. He immediately became a favorite after announcing his entry this week. Edge vs. McIntyre is the type of match that looks good on posters. SmackDown’s Daniel Bryan remains a strong possibility despite being cooled off of late. But his ultra-babyface qualities would play well next to Reigns’ heel persona.
The lack of build around the men’s participants leaves open a number of possible surprises that make sense. We have not seen Brock Lesnar since he lost to McIntyre at last year’s WrestleMania. Why not run that back? Seth Rollins has been off TV since late November. He could return with his old music, ditching the “Monday Night Messiah” gimmick to win and challenge his old pal Reigns. Other possibilities include boxing champion Tyson Fury, Cesaro, Big E, Bobby Lashley and Lee. Or maybe Braun Strowman returns and wins.
Outside the company, former IWGP heavyweight champion Jay White’s contract is up with New Japan Pro-Wrestling. There have been rumors the superb heel could sign with WWE. The Aussie would make an excellent opponent for McIntyre.
Flair for the dramatic
Ric Flair, along with Lacey Evans, has become a distraction for Charlotte, one-half of the women’s tag champions with Asuka. Charlotte told her dad last week on Raw that she is the only one protecting him and his flirtatious actions with Evans are making him less of a legend and more of an old man.
Could dad and his new lady cost Charlotte and Asuka their titles when they defend against Baszler and Jax, the former champions? It feels like a Flair-Evans singles match needs to happen because Evans currently doesn’t have a tag team partner. It could mean the end of Flair’s and Asuka’s reign, and using a distraction would keep them from being pinned clean.
If they keep the belts, maybe Evans finds a partner (Peyton Royce?). Asuka could also pull double duty at WrestleMania, defending one of her titles on each night. Maybe she teams with Flair on one night and wrestles her on the other.
Still to come?
The Royal Rumble pay-per-view never has as many matches as do other WWE shows because of the time needed for the two Rumble matches. There are a number of notable feuds not on the card as of Friday, though they could be added prior to Sunday.
Carmella and Sasha Banks are supposed to meet for the SmackDown women’s title again at some point. Riddle, via his gauntlet match win, is due a United States championship match against Lashley. The Street Profits have been trying to get a SmackDown tag team championship rematch against Dolph Ziggler and Robert Roode. The battle for Big E’s Intercontinental championship could become a triple threat match with Sami Zayn and Apollo Crews. Randy Orton, who has been feuding with The Fiend and Bliss, is in the Rumble match, so a resumption of that storyline likely will have to wait.