WWE’s road to WrestleMania 39 will officially kick off with the Royal Rumble on Saturday at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
What was shaping up to be the first WrestleMania season of WWE’s new era has been complicated by Vince McMahon forcing himself back into power. While Paul “Triple H” Levesque remains in charge of creative, it’s hard to believe that McMahon won’t exert his influence as executive chairman at some point. At all levels, WWE was a much better place with McMahon out of the picture. Hopefully he’s truly only returned to pursue a sale of the company and will stay away from WWE’s day-to-day operations.
Saturday’s pay-per-view will provide the answer to the biggest decision that WWE has to make creatively: Who’s going to challenge Roman Reigns for the undisputed WWE universal championship at WrestleMania? Unless there’s a surprise like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or “Stone Cold” Steve Austin returning, it should be Cody Rhodes or Sami Zayn who wins the men’s Royal Rumble match. Both are fantastic options to face Reigns on WWE’s biggest stage. With either Rhodes or Zayn, there’s an opportunity to tell one of the best stories in WWE history.
Rhodes is attempting to fulfill his family’s destiny by winning the one championship that his father never could. A torn pectoral muscle was a setback for Rhodes’ journey, but overcoming that would just make his title win more epic. Returning to the ring after almost eight months out of action, winning the Royal Rumble, and going on to defeat Reigns at WrestleMania would be the perfect way for Rhodes to accomplish his dream of becoming WWE champion.
Zayn is an even more natural opponent for Reigns. The ongoing story line with Zayn and the Bloodline is one of the best things WWE has ever done. It’s been decades since the company has been able to tell such a great and sustained week-to-week story. If you’re just watching the weekly television, the logical endpoint is Zayn coming to his senses, leaving the Bloodline and going after Reigns’s title. There would be no better underdog story than Zayn ending the most dominant WWE championship reign of the modern era.
For the women’s Royal Rumble match, only Rhea Ripley stands out as an obvious winner. Ripley is on the best run of her career right now as part of the Judgment Day. Even though she’s been a champion in the past, this is the first time that Ripley has felt like a bona fide superstar on the main roster. The dynamic between her and Dominik Mysterio has brought out the best in both of them, allowing Ripley and Mysterio to feel totally confident playing their current heel characters. A match between Ripley and Raw women’s champion Bianca Belair was scheduled to take place at Money in the Bank last year but had to be scrapped because Ripley was not medically cleared to compete. WrestleMania is the ideal place for that match to finally happen. Belair and Ripley are the biggest women’s division stars that WWE has produced since the Four Horsewomen.
The Royal Rumble will stream live on Peacock starting at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday. Title defenses by Reigns and Belair are also set for the PPV. Plus, the inaugural Pitch Black match will go down as Bray Wyatt returns to the ring.
Here’s a full rundown of the card, along with predictions for each match:
Men’s Royal Rumble match
Outside of Rhodes and Zayn, there aren’t many good candidates to win this match. Seth Rollins is consistently awesome and could be rewarded for all the unselfish work he did over the past year, but a Reigns vs. Rollins WrestleMania main event doesn’t feel like the direction WWE is going in. Brock Lesnar is busy feuding with Bobby Lashley and shouldn’t face Reigns again for a long time. Gunther should have a strong showing in the Rumble but isn’t a WrestleMania main eventer quite yet.
Rhodes should win the Rumble and go on to headline WrestleMania. It’s the most obvious choice, but that doesn’t make it a boring one. Reigns vs. Rhodes would be an incredible WrestleMania main event. The promos building to the match would probably be even better. Rhodes took a risk when he bet on himself and decided to return to WWE. These are the moments he was hoping for when he made that decision.
It might be best to leave Zayn out of the men’s Rumble match entirely if he isn’t going to win. You don’t want fans to pit Rhodes and Zayn against each other. There’s enough room for them both to have all-time great WrestleMania moments this year. Zayn and Kevin Owens reuniting to win the tag team titles from The Usos at WrestleMania would be iconic.
Prediction: Cody Rhodes wins
Women’s Royal Rumble match
Of the two Rumbles, the field for the women’s match seems more wide open. Having two women’s championships means there are a variety of different directions WWE could go in. Ronda Rousey winning her second straight Rumble and challenging Belair at WrestleMania would give WWE a fresh main event matchup for the women’s division. WWE could use the Rumble to elevate Raquel Rodriguez into stardom. Becky Lynch and Bayley are both reliable choices who WWE could trust to headline WrestleMania. A returning Asuka could also be a viable option to face either Belair or SmackDown women's champion Charlotte Flair.
Still, Ripley is the right choice to win. This is her time to ascend to the next level.
Prediction: Rhea Ripley wins
Roman Reigns vs. Kevin Owens for the undisputed WWE universal championship
Even with the result being a foregone conclusion, Reigns vs. Owens is going to be a great title match. Owens has been stellar in the buildup to the Royal Rumble, again proving that he’s capable of excelling in any role that WWE puts him in. He isn’t going to defeat Reigns on Saturday, but Owens should be a world champion again at some point.
The most compelling thing about this match is the role that Zayn is going to play. It’s time for him to turn against Reigns and the Bloodline. Whether Zayn fully turns here or just inadvertently almost costs Reigns the match, the Royal Rumble should be the end of Sami Uso.
Prediction: Roman Reigns retains
Bianca Belair vs. Alexa Bliss for the Raw women’s championship
This is another title match where the winner isn’t in any doubt. Belair isn’t going to lose the Raw women’s championship ahead of WrestleMania. It would be a stupid decision to take the title away from her right before she reaches one year as champion.
A darker side of Alexa Bliss’s character has reemerged in recent weeks. In story line, WWE has questioned whether Bliss is responsible for her increasingly bizarre actions or if she’s being controlled by Bray Wyatt’s Uncle Howdy. Bliss is a strong performer, but this version of her character never works well in the women’s title picture.
Prediction: Bianca Belair retains
Pitch Black match: Bray Wyatt vs. LA Knight
There’s a lot for Wyatt to prove in his first televised match in nearly two years. When we last saw him wrestling as The Fiend, Wyatt’s in-ring work failed to live up to his aura as a character. If this version of Wyatt is going to be a lasting success, he needs to deliver in the ring.
Whether this match type will allow for that remains to be seen. Other than being sponsored by Mountain Dew, there isn’t much known about the Pitch Black match. It will be disappointing if Wyatt’s return match is marred by a lights out stipulation that makes it hard to see what’s going on.
Prediction: Bray Wyatt wins