For the first time in several years, there are two world champions who could be challenged by the winner of the Royal Rumble. WWE has yet to specify whether the winner will be given the option to choose which title, but it can be implied that most likely, whichever brand that superstar is on, that’s the championship they earn a title shot for.
With that being said, instead of doing one 3-Count of the top three most likely candidates to be victorious, I figured I would separate things into the Raw and SmackDown rosters for a little more clarity.
The following is my ranked list of which wrestlers on the Raw brand I feel have the best chance to challenge for the Universal Championship come WrestleMania and just how things might turn out.
Before We Get Started
Even though they are the two most prominently featured men as far as the marquee goes, you won’t be seeing Goldberg or Brock Lesnar on this list. That may come as a travesty or pure lunacy to most unless you’ve read any of my other articles or checked out any of the podcasts where I’ve broken down my expectations for these two over the past month.
By no means do I expect either of them to win even though I do think they’ll do rather well in terms of looking strong. The end game of Lesnar vs. Goldberg isn’t going to be wasted at Fastlane with one of them (likely Goldberg in that scenario) winning the Royal Rumble and focusing his efforts on the champion because that will undermine the importance of his match with Lesnar. Instead of being an epic encounter, it would be a bump in the road to WrestleMania and much less important.
Far less likely still is Lesnar being victorious, as they’ve done him heading into WrestleMania for the championship recently and there aren’t any opponents properly set up to justify making that a main event. They clearly won’t have Lesnar face Owens, nor would it be a good decision to have him against Reigns again. For him to face somebody else like Braun Strowman, we’d have to see the title change hands at Fastlane and at that point, you’re moving too many pieces of the puzzle around for a match that looks good on paper but may not actually create much buzz.
So while we discuss a few names on this list, even though some of them may not be as big of stars, keep in mind that I’m ruling Lesnar and Goldberg out of the mix already, which opens up more possibilities for some potential surprises.
Honorable Mention: Sami Zayn
In a different world, Sami Zayn would have been the chosen underdog for this year’s Royal Rumble to go up against Kevin Owens. The storyline is as textbook basic as you can possibly get: the two started off as friends before Owens turned on Zayn, taking the NXT Championship from him and putting them down a path of feuding for the entirety of Owens’ run in WWE. They’ve crossed paths numerous times—normally at Zayn’s dismay—but every so often, the little guy gets the last laugh.
If Zayn had spent the past few months feuding with upper midcarders and building up momentum, there would definitely be a reason to believe he could win the Royal Rumble to go on to defeat his former best friend at WrestleMania. It would be the culmination of a long-standing feud where Zayn finally exorcizes his past demons and can move on.
Sadly for Zayn, this has not been his career trajectory. Barring an emergency situation where multiple people are injured, he won’t be WWE’s pick even if the SmackDown roster wasn’t in contention and this was purely relegated to Raw wrestlers. Zayn is looking like he may not even receive a separate match at WrestleMania this year, but rather, be involved in a multi-man midcard title feud or tossed unceremoniously into the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal.
Who knows, though…maybe in the future, they can revisit this again.
- Finn Balor
It’s interesting to think of how things would have played out differently with the entire roster had Finn Balor not been injured during his Universal Championship win. Clearly, WWE did not plan on this being in the upcoming storylines for the next year, so would he have entered WrestleMania season as champion or would he have dropped it sometime in 2016? If so, who would have feuded with and who would have been holding the strap now?
Once Owens was crowned the new champion, the clock started ticking for Balor’s return. Royal Rumble appearances are always great for injured stars to make a resurgence (see: Triple H in 2002, John Cena in 2008, Edge in 2010 and so on) which meant if he healed in time, he could be back to win a shot at Owens to regain the title he had to forfeit.
There’s been absolutely no indication that this is going to happen, though. No seeds have been planted that Owens would be feuding with Balor or any information leaked about him being ready to get back into the ring. Sure, this could just be something we’re all kept in the dark about in order to make it more of a surprise, but normally, these things come out beforehand. Instead, it looks as though post-WrestleMania is the time frame we should be expecting to see The Demon again.
That being said, Balor still has a better shot than all but two people on the Raw roster to win the Royal Rumble. If he’s able to return, he shoots up the list to the very top. Meanwhile, people we know will be available for the match have absolutely zero chance whatsoever. A prioritized star returning from injury is a much safer bet than thinking Titus O’Neil, Goldust, Epico, Bo Dallas or anybody else who is not even at the proper midcard level would ever be considered to win this match. While Balor is probably not ready to even compete, he still stands a bigger threat than the people WWE can’t find the time to write onto the TV show for weeks at a time.
- Chris Jericho
Just a few weeks back, I was thinking Chris Jericho was a shoe-in to win the Royal Rumble. It seemed like a guarantee with the breakdown of JeriKO being the best possible storyline to build around going into WrestleMania. Unfortunately, all those hopes were dashed when he won the United States Championship from Roman Reigns.
It sounds odd, but yes, winning a championship has negatively affected Jericho’s chances of winning the Royal Rumble. Sure, Owens and Jericho will still feud, but now it will be for the United States title instead of the Universal Championship, which sadly also means Roman Reigns will probably dethrone Owens in order for that to happen.