In an uplifting and redemptive return, Rey Mysterio, subverting the theme, entered the ring having seemingly travelled back in time. The man looked to be in incredible physical shape, wrestling with the snap of his WCW self.
And then there was The One, entering at #28: Roman Reigns. The crowd met his arrival with a vuvuzela swarm - a sentiment Reigns exacerbated by targeting contrarian favourite The Miz and, to establish his transitory heel turn, Shield brother Seth Rollins. Anxiety and animosity allied, the heat rose to nuclear levels.
Dolph Ziggler was a waste of the #30 slot. His swift elimination, so soon after his return to storylines, translated as a cruel rib. The toxicity soon dissipated as the field thinned to six. In one corner stood Nakamura, Bálor and Reigns: the present, full-time generation. In the other stood Cena, Orton and Mysterio: the living ghosts of a distant past WWE forced the audience to confront, willing them into exorcism. Reigns ejected Orton. Bálor ejected Mysterio. This was now a battle between the establishment and the people. The texture in this match was endlessly fascinating.
Reigns and Cena, assuming control, taunted one another - the audience, really - with a pose down in the foreground of the WrestleMania sign. After an electric exchange between Bálor and Nakamura, Cena opportunistically tossed the Demon. The chants of “Nakamura!” boomed ever louder. He was their guy. Their guy, following an awesome sequence, eliminated Cena with the Kinshasa.
And then there were two.
In one corner stood Shinsuke Nakamura, symbol of change and hope. In the other stood Roman Reigns, symbol of WWE-as-oligarchy. What followed was a finishing sequence dripping with suspense and anxiety. Nakamura plunged to the ring apron, in parallel with the sinking feeling experienced by his fans, when ensnaring Reigns in a hanging triangle. Reigns powered out. Reigns flattened Nakamura with a Spear for which Nakamura, in a stupendous performance, bumped like a madman for. Nakamura, after minutes of back and forth loaded with peril and meaning, levelled Reigns with the Kinshasa. He then tossed Reigns out. Shinsuke Nakamura - and I’m writing this, even though you know it, because it is so great to write after years of the office guy winning - Shinsuke Nakamura won the Royal Rumble match. Shinsuke Nakamura won the best Royal Rumble match of all time.
Competition, of course, is fierce.
The 1992 edition introduced and arguably perfected the Iron Man trope, in which Ric Flair, in a bravura heel performance, outlasted the most star-studded field in history. The 2001 bout perfected Paul Heyman’s booking formula in that one man (Steve Austin) went over and another man (Kane) got over. In 2010, Shawn Michaels reinforced his credentials as the greatest performer in company history in an epic arc of pure, morality-frying desperation.
The Rumble’s other seminal finish - the classic, suspense-fuelled match-within-a-match contested between Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker - did not boast such a rich emotional palette. Ultimately, while perfect in context, it was a match fought between two established legends. Had the pendulum swung in the other direction, would the outcome have truly felt any different?
This writer is a major exponent of Roman Reigns, whose work in that breathtaking climax should not be undersold - but this felt, for the first time in years, like a sorely-needed win. The fans in the arena needed it. Shinsuke Nakamura needed it. This instant classic was built on pure, multifaceted emotion. For once, WWE rewarded our investment.
What the 2018 Men’s Royal Rumble Match achieved is astonishing. Shinsuke Nakamura emerged from it entirely rehabilitated. Finn Bálor restored his aura. Rey Mysterio redeemed himself on the Rumble stage. Kofi Kingston fortified his legend. Andrade Almas slotted alongside the likes of Randy Orton seamlessly. WWE, quietly, wrote a further chapter in the story of the Shield. Rusev shone. Elias shone. So many so-called stars felt like stars.
Ultimately, the 2018 match was the best of its kind because it reconciled office and public to stirring effect. WWE acknowledged and channeled this company-defining anxiety to drive an incredibly rich and emotional narrative, the payoff of which promises an incredibly popular WrestleMania WWE Championship bout loaded with classic potential. We're getting a unanimous awesome match on the biggest show of the year. This is what wrestling is supposed to be.
The 2018 Men’s Royal Rumble Match was a masterclass of diverse content, psychology, and emotion, in which WWE delivered a finish of pure relief engineered with incredible, manipulative skill.
The 2018 Men’s Royal Rumble Match was the best ever.