Andrade "Cien" Almas, naturally kicking Slater en route, made him look like a talent in there - and put himself over in a quality performance. The one-off NXT cameo trend is a welcome one, in that it voids the dinosaur surprises of old and allows fans to enjoy an NXT talent on the main stage, equipped with the knowledge that there is no time with which to ruin them. Bray Wyatt and Big E soon followed - the former battering Slater, the latter providing him with sustenance via pancakes - in a continuation of an inventive, morbidly fun arc.
This wasn’t pure fan service; the second eyes began to roll at Tye Dillinger conveniently drawing #10 for a second successive year, those eyes were directed towards the backstage area to find Kevin Owens and a spot-stealing Sami Zayn giving him more of a beating with their fists than Road Dogg inflicts with the pencil. This was a neat subversion of predictability. It would not be the last - nor the best.
Sheamus entered in slot #11 - the perfect time at which to put an end to the first act’s comedy subplot. On this evidence of hermetic plotting, you were left with the impression that the WWE creative team might know what they are doing, after all. He dragged Slater into the ring - only for Slater to immediately send him tumbling with a clothesline. This, like virtually everything else in a sumptuously structured match, yielded a major reaction from an audience slowly gaining trust. Bray Wyatt deposited the One Man Band over the top rope, drawing molten boos. It was eerily redolent of 2015, only, the audience loved to hate this elimination.
The introduction of Xavier Woods created scope for some excellent, crowd-popping double team spots in a match that slowly, as Rumbles do, degenerated into an indistinguishable mess of flesh. At no point were the fans conditioned to prise themselves from the action. Apollo Crews arrived only to pad out the field, which by this point was buzzing with activity. WWE remembered the expectation of workrate; Finn Bálor delivered it by stomping Wyatt in the chest.
WWE also remembered the dubious lore of the cursed #14 slot and exploited it with the introduction of one Shinsuke Nakamura. A rib, an indictment, or an accident? Whatever the motivation, or however the motivation was perceived, an undercurrent of anxiety swept through the Wells Fargo. It was an emotion WWE literally calculated. Nakamura announced his presence by kneeing Zayn off the apron and out of the match. Nakamura had announced his arrival into WWE with a seminal victory over Zayn. This was no accident. WWE considered every minutiae here in order to craft something as intelligent as it was viscerally gripping. This Rumble was crafted with the zeal of a perfectionist, as opposed to the will-this-do posturing of a company that no longer needs to try.
The (near-)eliminations followed swiftly and creatively. Cesaro uppercutted Crews a good three feet out of the ring. Seth Rollins monkey flipped Cesaro into the heavens. Jinder Mahal threw Kofi Kingston out to meet his New Day stablemates - only for Xavier Woods, in a wonderfully-filmed sequence, to hold onto Kofi’s foot for dear life. The assisted vertical leap with which Kofi reentered the ring was beautiful in its grace, and jaw-dropping in its height and physical achievement. Just as WWE restored the essence of the Rumble, its performers did so much to elevate it - more push and pull in a match that would come to be defined, triumphantly, by it.
The midway point didn’t lag, necessarily, but the booking grew somewhat questionable. WOKEN Matt Hardy eliminated crowd favourite Rusev, in what was a strange decision. The Hurricane’s cameo did not belong to the recent history of the Rumble, low as it is on broad nostalgic banter. It was also pointless, as this old trope used to be, and why it died.
This was but a blip; John Cena, Randy Orton, and Adam Cole soon maintained the Rumble’s knowing contrast between the past and the future. Orton removed Almas from the ring after a spectacular Catch RKO. In response, he blew the hardcore crowd a kiss. The sentiment acknowledged, WWE drove the point home during a seminal third act, in which John Cena even permitted The Miz some offence. The guard was changing everywhere. CONT'D...