By Keith Elliot Greenberg
The home of baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks will be invaded by a buff and colorful cast of WWE Superstars this Sunday, January 27th for the company's Royal Rumble pay-per-view.
The event, named for the 30-person elimination match in which the winner receives a championship challenge at WrestleMania 35 in April, is considered the kickoff to the yearly spectacle that some characterize as WWE's version of the World Cup.
For the second year in a row, there will be separate Royal Rumbles for men and women -- each with its own set of intrigues and athletic performances that fans will recall for decades.
As with WrestleMania 35, the Rumble will draw an international crowd, many of whom arranged months ago to journey to Chase Field in Phoenix to witness history. A significant number plan to remain in the city for WWE's live television shows, Monday Night Raw (seen on USA on Mondays at 8/7c) and SmackDown Live (broadcast on USA on Tuesdays at 8/7c), chanting, singing, and transforming the mood of the Talking Stick Resort Arena.
The charged atmosphere of the post-Rumble Raw and SmackDown Live shows are said to invigorate the Superstars, as the countdown to WrestleMania accelerates.
In addition to the two Rumbles, there are a number of intriguing match-ups on the card, including WWE Universal Champion Brock Lesnar -- a former UFC and NCAA kingpin -- defending against the first man to ever capture that title, Finn Balor. Balor earned the number-one contender's spot on a recent edition of Monday Night Raw in a Fatal 4-Way match with Drew McIntyre, Baron Corbin, and John Cena, who was hoping to cap a career that led him to Hollywood with a main event at WrestleMania 35.
When Balor -- a charismatic Irishman whose inclusive philosophy prompted him to ask members of New Orleans' LGBT community to accompany him to his match at WrestleMania 34 last year -- triumphed instead, Cena was gracious in defeat.
“These people believe in you. For what it's worth,” Cena said, extending his hand, “you've got one more person who believes in you.”
Just as compelling is the clash between WWE Champion Daniel Bryan and AJ Styles. Technically, both Superstars are considered among the best in the world. But each has shown a more aggressive side to his personality in recent months, with Bryan scorning the fans who supported him as he recovered from a serious neck injury, and Styles attacking WWE Chairman Vince McMahon on a December episode of SmackDown Live.
On the women's side, Ronda Rousey -- like Lesnar, a former UFC titlist -- defends her Raw Women's Championship against Sasha Banks, while the “Empress of Tomorrow” Asuka puts up the SmackDown Women's crown against Becky Lynch.
The flame-haired Lynch has been on a roll since adopting a ruthless attitude over the summer, branding herself “The Man,” an homage to WWE Hall of Famer Ric Flair's slogan, “To be the man you have to beat the man.”
Perhaps the most bewildering confrontation on the show pits WWE SmackDown Tag Team Champions The Bar (Cesaro and Sheamus) against The Miz and former SmackDown Live commissioner Shane McMahon, a fourth generation sports-entertainment executive best known for bewildering feats of daring.
The first Royal Rumble was held in 1988 and broadcast live on USA Network. Competitors draw numbers beforehand. Once the first two combatants lock up, a clock ticks down 90 seconds until the next Superstar is allowed to enter -- usually to ravenous applause. Rules stipulate that, in order to be eliminated, a participant must be hurled over the top rope, with both feet hitting the ground.
Virtually every year, Kofi Kingston of the New Day tag team has managed to delight the crowd by landing somewhere other than the arena floor -- the ring steps or the security barricade, for instance -- before returning to the ring.
What makes the 2019 Rumble particularly intriguing is the recent announcement by the McMahon family that the company is undergoing a revival. A number of Superstars have been promoted from NXT -- WWE's heralded developmental league, which is staging its own sold-out show in Phoenix the night before the Rumble -- although not all have competed on the Raw or SmackDown Live rosters. This has led to speculation over who might make his or her debut at the Royal Rumble.
The one certainty is that the Rumble will both impress and astonish watchers, with the element of surprise continuing over the next two days on Monday Night Raw and SmackDown Live -- and extending through WrestleMania 35 this April!
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.