By Keith Elliot Greenberg
With the airing of the 25th anniversary edition of Monday Night Raw on USA this past week, the WWE Superstars honored the past and barreled into the future.
Short term, the gladiators are dedicating their complete focus to the Royal Rumble scheduled for this Sunday, Jan. 28. Although Raw (broadcast on Mondays at 8/7c) and its companion show, Smackdown Live (seen Tuesdays on USA at 8/7c) have completely separate rosters, the Rumble is one of WWE’s few pay-per-views that allow competitors from both shows to battle in the same ring.
The winner of the 30-man Royal Rumble main event is guaranteed a title shot at WWE’s biggest showdown, WrestleMania 34, Apr. 8, in New Orleans. If a Raw member wins, he will challenge for the WWE Universal Championship, currently held by Brock Lesnar, while the SmackDown LIVE conqueror would contend for AJ Styles’ WWE Championship.
Of course, if either Lesnar or Styles loses his championship on the Royal Rumble card, the title picture will be dramatically altered.
Also, for the first time ever, female Superstars will clash, under the same rules as their male counterparts in their own Royal Rumble. WWE Hall of Famer Ric Flair has boldly predicted that his daughter, Charlotte, will come into WrestleMania 34 still holding the Smackdown Women’s Championship, ready to vanquish whoever emerges with her arm raised in the Rumble.
Meanwhile, Charlotte’s Raw equivalent, Alexa Bliss, has been reportedly training -- and politicking -- to ensure that the gold remains in her possession.
Either way, the next several months of Raw and SmackDown LIVE will contain no shortage of intrigue, in and out of the ring.
“The great thing about the Royal Rumble is that it gives us something exciting in the bleakest part of winter,” notes WWE Hall of Famer Mick Foley. “It really makes the month of January go by faster, and seamlessly segues into WrestleMania season. There’s no better time to be a wrestling fan.”
What distinguishes this particular Royal Rumble, though, is that it will take place just six days after one of the most memorable shows in WWE history, the 25th anniversary broadcast of Monday Night Raw.
In a throwback to the company’s “Attitude” age, fans had the opportunity to see “Stone Cold” Steve Austin deliver a Stunner to his old adversary, WWE boss Vince McMahon. On the same show, there were several instances when the torch from the “Attitude” era seemed to be passed forward, most notably when DX -- Shawn Michaels, Triple H, Billy Gunn, Road Dogg, and X-Pac -- along with Razor Ramon, touched fingers with Finn Bálor, Luke Gallows, and Karl Anderson and shouted, “Too sweet.” This was the very same term Bálor Club and his mates used while teaming together in Japan. There was no mistaking the significance of the scene: DX, the rebels of the past, anointing the Bálor Club as the premiere renegade faction of the future.
The Undertaker’s longtime plans remain nebulous after he appeared on Raw and delivered a statement about making all the greats of his time “rest in peace.” It was unclear whether he was reminiscing or forecasting doom for upcoming opponents.
As for the man who defeated The Phenom at the last WrestleMania, Roman Reigns lost his Intercontinental Championship to now-eight-time titlist The Miz.
Perhaps the boldest statement of the night was delivered by Braun Strowman. Rather than simply talk about his Triple Threat match on the Royal Rumble card against Lesnar and Kane, the “Monster Among Men” put the rugged Universal kingpin through the announcers’ table.
The next night on SmackDown LIVE, AJ Styles took on both Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn in back-to-back contests. After forcing Owens to tap to the Calf Crusher submission, Styles took time away from his clash with Zayn to attack KO's leg. But when he then upended Owens from his gurney, Zayn managed to topple the distracted champion in the non-title contest with a blue thunder bomb.
The mixed results provide a window into what fans may witness at the Royal Rumble, when Styles puts up the gold against both Owens and Zayn in a handicap match. If the contenders pool their resources and triumph, they will hold the bizarre distinction of being co-titlists.
“What you have is the future of WWE,” Owens said early in the SmackDown LIVE broadcast, “not a parade of retirees like you saw...at Raw's 25th anniversary.”
The two-on-one match was set by SmackDown LIVE General Manager Daniel Brian, who some speculate created the stipulation to assert his dominance over the show's commissioner Shane McMahon.
Whether Brian and McMahon are still working together on next Tuesday's SmackDown LIVE may be determined at the Rumble. For now, the pair are tentative partners at best.
As Asuka demonstrated on Raw though, in WWE no one can be trusted.
With her eye on nothing less than a Women’s Royal Rumble victory -- and subsequent title shot -- Asuka turned on her teammates Sasha Banks, Bayley and Mickie James in an eight-woman tag team match.
But her aspirations will be difficult to realize as rumors swirl that the Raw and SmackDown LIVE lionesses will be joined by standouts from WWE’s highly-touted developmental league, NXT, as well as legends of the past and athletes from other sports.
“With every Royal Rumble, we all want to see the surprise entrants,” Foley says. “But because we have two Rumbles this year, I’m hoping the women set the bar high. They definitely have the talent to do it.”
KEITH ELLIOT GREENBERG is the co-author of the third edition of the WWE Encyclopedia of Sports Entertainment, as well as the autobiographies of WWE Hall of Famers “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, “Classy” Freddie Blassie and Superstar Billy Graham.