By Keith Elliot Greenberg
It was an unprecedented event, the first time 30 of the most athletic females on earth would assemble in the ring and compete in the WWE’s inaugural Women’s Royal Rumble in 2018.
One year later, fans are still talking about that night -- and the turns in the various competitors’ careers as witnessed on Monday Night Raw (Mondays on USA at 8/7c) and SmackDown Live (Tuesdays on USA at 8/7c).
With the Royal Rumble pay-per-view scheduled for this Sunday, January 27th, most observers agree that neither they -- nor the participants themselves -- could have predicted how the last 12 months would transpire.
There was so much anticipation for the match that it was scheduled to go last, long after Shinsuke Nakamura had won the men’s Royal Rumble. When the first two female competitors, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch, entered the ring, the crowd became unhinged.
The path each embarked on that night led directly to the 2019 Royal Rumble. Although neither is entered in the Rumble match, both will be on the show, challenging for the gold -- with Sasha Banks taking on Ronda Rousey for the Raw Women’s Championship, and Becky Lynch battling Asuka for the SmackDown Women’s title.
Of the two, Lynch has undergone the more stunning transformation. She’s gone from a popular -- but sometimes underappreciated – talent to arguably one of the most enthralling figures in sports entertainment.
It started at SummerSlam in August 2018 when Lynch -- following an impressive winning streak -- failed to win the SmackDown Women’s Championship in a Triple Threat match with the titleholder at the time, Charlotte Flair, and Carmella. As Flair emerged victorious, a frustrated Lynch congratulated the victor, then viciously attacked her.
Even Lynch expected the fans to boo heartily. But the sold-out crowd in Brooklyn didn’t. They cheered, excited to see the “lass-kicker” from the Emerald Isle release the fire they knew had always burned inside her.
Subsequently, Lynch began calling herself “The Man,” as in “To be the man, you have to beat the man” -- a term coined by WWE Hall of Famer, Ric Flair, Charlotte’s father.
In November, at the Survivor Series, Charlotte also descended to the dark side, assaulting Ronda Rousey with a chair and kendo stick.
As a result, while last year’s Women’s Rumble is remembered for historic firsts, the 2019 version seems predicated on the question over which athlete can mete out and tolerate the most brutality.
The 2018 Women’s Rumble ended with the then-unbeaten Asuka, Banks and Nikki and Brie Bella as the final four combatants in the ring. The Bella sisters paired up to eliminate Banks -- who, with close to 55 minutes between the strands, survived the match for the longest period of time. “The Empress of Tomorrow” then tossed out both sisters to win the Rumble.
Per Rumble rules, Asuka had earned an opportunity to challenge for the title at WrestleMania. As she was ruminating whether to contend for the Raw or SmackDown Women’s Championship, Ronda Rousey’s music hit and the former UFC titlist came to the ring to let the world know she’d officially signed with WWE.
Rousey would win the Raw title at SummerSlam, while Asuka chose to pursue the SmackDown prize at WrestleMania 34, falling short and losing her winning streak. But in December, at the first-ever Women’s Tables, Ladders and Chairs match, she finally claimed gold.
At the Royal Rumble, 30 other women will come to the ring with the intention of ending up in the same position. And it could take another year to get there.
Keith Elliot Greenberg is the co-author of the autobiographies of WWE Hall of Famers Ric Flair, Freddie Blassie and Superstar Billy Graham, and the third edition of the WWE Encyclopedia of Sports Entertainment.