AJ Styles (C) def. Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn – WWE Championship (2 on 1 Handicap Match)
What’s that? A match featuring Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn without Shane McMahon coming down to mess things up? My eyes must be deceiving me. Anyways, I was pleasantly surprised that this match wasn’t sullied by any needless interference by the authority figures of Smackdown LIVE. It’s a WWE Championship match featuring three of the top in-ring performers in the world. What do we need a past his prime stuntman coming in for? I’m not a huge fan of handicap matches because it rarely benefits either man in the long run, but I think the finish was genius in order to protect both teams. AJ Styles was able to effectively cut down each individual to the point where they started to get desperate and had to really utilize their two on one advantage in order to win, but Styles ended up surviving by reversing Owens’ finisher into a fluke pinfall.
Meanwhile, the team of Owens and Zayn can claim that Styles didn’t pin the legal man because the tag wasn’t made. In addition, and I don’t think the announcers made a big deal out of it, but it looked to me that both of Styles’ shoulders were clearly on the mat at the time of the pinfall, thereby negating the pin. Either way, the finish was able to have Styles live to fight another day as champion and the team of Owens and Zayn are probably still in the title hunt. In any case, the match turned out much better than I had expected, and all three men worked together well, with a couple of very close near-falls sprinkled in at the end to really add to the drama. I never once believed Styles would seriously lose the match, but WWE did a great job of teasing it here. ***1/2
The Usos (C) def. Chad Gable and Shelton Benjamin – Smackdown Tag Team Championship (2 out of 3 Falls)
Ugh, and I called this the match of the night too. If the finish of that match was planned, then they should have just done a one-fall match. If that wasn’t the planned finish, which makes way more sense, then boy, was it ill-timed. It’s a shame that the crowd was dead for most of the match because both teams worked hard and they had great chemistry. While I would have liked a bit of a quicker pace for the sake of the crowd, the match was fine. We had psychology with Gable targeting the legs of the Usos, and I believe a different one had an armbar applied to it. The ending sequence with all of the near falls and the tag team moves were also well done too. We were going in a great direction until the second fall happened. So, Gable and Benjamin attack one of The Usos on the outside, have the other Uso right where they want them, Benjamin’s preparing to do a suplex, Gable’s on the top rope and Uso gets a fluke roll up and that’s it?
The delayed reaction from the crowd pretty much shows how incredibly awkward that finish was. I’m not a hater of a 2 out of 3 falls match finishing in just 2 falls because it eliminates the predictability of most 2 out of 3 falls match going to sudden death. However, if you’re going to do it, do it right. It’ll be interesting to see if that indeed was the planned finish, because if it was, then it was a pretty bad one. The Usos had already beaten Gable and Benjamin twice prior to this match, and to have them beat them two times straight is kinda silly. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Usos, and they have been magnificent tag team champions, but I just felt like Gable and Benjamin finally going over would have been better for the tag title situation. The match was going good, but the finish and pace really hurt it a lot. **3/4
Shinsuke Nakamura Wins the 30 Man Royal Rumble Match
My pick for this match was Roman Reigns because that’s exactly the kind of thing I would expect for WWE to do. But never did I think that a guy that was doing jobs to Jinder Mahal in sub-par matches on PPV would eliminate Roman Reigns and win the entire Royal Rumble match. However, we’ll get to that later. Let’s talk about, what is in my opinion, one of the best Rumble matches that WWE has done in some time. Seriously, this Royal Rumble match had everything. Perfectly timed superstar entrances for the right characters, many stories being told inside the ring, very pleasant surprises, and most importantly, no freaking Enzo Amore at 27. We started off very good, with Corbin getting eliminated early but getting his licks in before we left, Elias getting a song in, and a great series of superstars attacking Heath Slater before he even got in the match. However, the best part is that this time, Slater actually got one for himself by eliminating Sheamus for one of the loudest reactions of the Rumble match. We also had surprises early on, with two standouts of NXT Takeover the previous night being represented in the form of Adam Cole and NXT Champion Andrade “Cien” Almas, giving them their first action on the main roster stage.
As the match continued, we had some great subplots getting perpetuated, such as Jinder Mahal’s bits with The New Day and the most impressive use of pancakes you’ll ever see in the annual Kofi gymnastics Rumble spot which I gave a 6.5 out of 10 for wasting a tasty breakfast treat. We also had a little bit of a preview of the RAW tag team title match with Rollins’ elimination of Cesaro which would be a sign of foreboding. Even some of the minor stuff, such as Hardy and Wyatt eliminating each other, Rusev working over the crowd and other action getting prominence, there was never a dull moment. However, the action really started to pick up when we got to the final 10, as we saw Rey Mysterio and Hurricane Helms return, and the big names of the Rumble creating endless drama with a series of reversals, finishers and well-time executed moves. I especially liked the Old School/New School dynamic they did at the end with Orton, Cena, and Rey on one side and Reigns, Nakamura and Balor on the other. Then, once Orton and Mysterio left, it became WWE vs. NJPW of sorts. Many didn’t like the Balor elimination from Cena, but I personally didn’t mind it. Balor really wasn’t winning and he had to get eliminated by someone.