By Keith Elliot Greenberg
This past weekend’s Royal Rumble -- followed up by an explosive Monday Night Raw -- has the WWE Universe thinking of WrestleMania.
The sports entertainment extravaganza takes place on Apr. 5, but the Rumble is considered the official launching point, with rivalries playing out until then on both Monday Night Raw (Mondays at 8/7c on USA) and NXT (Wednesdays at 8/7c on USA).
This year, the intensity level seems higher than in the past, due to recent displays of both valiance and treachery.
Entering the Royal Rumble as its first participant, no one was as dominant in the 30-man elimination match as WWE Champion Brock Lesnar. Before returning to the dressing room, “The Beast” eliminated an astonishing 13 adversaries in rapid succession.
But following a low blow to Lesnar from Ricochet, towering Drew McIntyre managed to dispatch Lesnar to the arena floor with a mighty Claymore Kick.
The 6’5,” 265-pound Scotsman would remain in the skirmish until the end, eliminating Roman Reigns in the final moments.
The next night on Monday Night Raw, McIntyre announced that he will cash in his Rumble victory at WrestleMania 36 by challenging Lesnar for the gold. Brimming with confidence, McIntyre even agreed to a two-on-one contest against Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson.
When McIntyre won decisively, piling one on top of the other during the pinfall, most viewers concluded that they were looking at the future champion – until the strapping titlist snuck up and drove his rival into the mat with an F5.
In the women’s version of the Rumble, “The Queen” Charlotte Flair – who has worn the gold on 10 separate occasions on WWE’s main roster -- lasted 27 minutes before winning the grueling battle.
While she contemplates her next move, fans are focusing on the strong showing in the contest exhibited by the women of NXT, WWE’s highly competitive third brand that debuted on USA in September.
Indeed, it was NXT’s former Women’s Champion Shayna Baszler – a former MMA fighter trained by vicious submissions specialist Billy Robinson – who hung with Flair until the very end.
Yet, arguably the most impressive performance may have come from NXT standout Bianca Belair, who tied Baszler for a women’s Royal Rumble record with eight eliminations.
Belair was so resourceful that she even used her hair as a weapon, eliminating Alexa Bliss as the platinum-haired, ex-Raw Women’s Champion attempted to tug on her foe’s long, accessorized braid.
With Belair’s stock raised, fans will be tuning into this week’s NXT to both contemplate her next move, as well as follow rivalries that have been boiling for months, including the friction between former best friends Tegan Nox and Dakota Kai.
The two are scheduled to continue their war on Wednesday, on a show that will also feature the finals of the 2020 NXT Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic.
This year’s top teams consist of the UK’s Grizzled Young Veterans – James Drake and Zack Gibson – and the uniquely paired Broserwights, Matt Riddle and Pete Dunne.
As an added incentive, the victors will challenge NXT Tag Team Champions Kyle O’Reilly and Bobby Fish of the Undisputed Era faction at the brand’s next pay-per-view,NXT TakeOver: Portland on Feb. 16.
As with Monday Night Raw, no development in NXT exists in isolation. Whatever occurs, either in Portland or the weekly Wednesday night show, will inspire a series of chain reactions leading into WrestleMania 36.
Of all the intrigue that occurred over the past weekend, though, none inspired as much fascination as the return of Edge, a former WWE World Heavyweight Champion and Hall of Famer who was forced to retire from a neck injury in 2011.
But after secretly being cleared by a doctor, Edge stunned the world by entering the Royal Rumble at Number 21.
On Monday Night Raw, 46-year-old Edge, looking fit despite the gray streaks in his beard, stood in center ring, as fans chanted, “Welcome home.”
Now that he’s returned to WWE, he vowed to rekindle his career until he decides to leave “on my terms.”
But his address was interrupted by old friend and tag team partner Randy Orton, with whom Edge teamed up and ultimately clashed with at the Rumble.
On this night, Orton appeared to be in a nostalgic mood – at least at first.
After wistfully reminiscing and describing Edge as a “brother,” Orton offered to partner with his old crony again, then abruptly turned on him and drove a steel chair into the Rated-R Superstar’s fragile neck.
With a look of regret and torment on his face, Orton hesitated several times before positioning Edge’s head on the object and smashing a second chair across the top of his head.
The incident shocked viewers, leaving them wondering if Edge could ever recover a second time – and perhaps mete out justice for this most callous of assaults.
Their only reassurance came from the words Edge himself uttered earlier in the night, “I refuse to live in a world of what-ifs.”
KEITH ELLIOT GREENBERG wrote for WWE’s publications for more than two decades, and co-authored the autobiographies of Hall of Famers Ric Flair, Freddie Blassie and Superstar Billy Graham, as well as the third edition of the WWE Encyclopedia of Sports Entertainment.