The 2023 Royal Rumble ended with one of the great angles in WWE history, although at press time it does not appear it will be leading to the main event of WrestleMania.
The Royal Rumble is WWE’s annual January pay-per-view tradition, where 30 wrestlers (until recently only the male roster, but for the last five years the female roster as well) enter the ring one-by-one to participate in a glorified battle royal, with the winner usually (but not always) getting a championship match in the main event of WrestleMania. This year, the men’s Rumble was won by Cody Rhodes, returning from a gruesome pectoral muscle tear that he actually wrestled through in a Hell in a Cell match versus Seth Rollins last spring. Cody came out at No. 30, last eliminating the man who drew No. 1, Gunther, to earn a title shot at the biggest show of the year. But this year, there is somewhat of a monkey wrench that has been thrown in.
The monkey wrench is Sami Zayn. In April, WWE shot an angle where Zayn, then a heel, decided he was going to try to get in good with WWE undisputed universal champion Roman Reigns and his Bloodline, which at the time consisted of his cousins and WWE tag team champions The Usos. The key to this story is that it was never really supposed to be much of a story; it was just going to be a short-term angle to give Sami something to do for a few weeks.
But Sami got over, and not only did he get over, but he started to get over as a likable guy. In essence, Sami was the goofy geek who wanted to get in good with the most popular clique in high school. As it turned out, he was so good at playing his role, and Roman and the Usos and Paul Heyman were so good at playing theirs, that the fans began to want Sami to succeed, they wanted the cool heel kids to accept him.
So plans changed, and WWE went with it. As the story evolved, Roman and Jimmy Uso sort of took a liking to this geek, but Jey Uso didn’t trust him at all. Every week a new layer was added to the storyline, culminating in a Survivor Series match where Sami saved Reigns from being pinned by Kevin Owens, and then laid out Owens and set him up so Jey could finish him off and win the match. He’d proven his worth to the Bloodline —Jey in particular—and they accepted him as their “Honorary Uce.” Finally, the geek had fully been accepted by the cool kids.
But the other part of the story that night was that the guy who Sami proved his worth with was Kevin Owens. In real life, they’d been best friends for decades. In the fake world of pro wrestling they’d been both friends and enemies in promotions around the world, and they’d been linked everywhere forever, including in WWE. The story was that they were as close as family, but Sami had betrayed him for another family that Owens claimed wasn’t really his family at all, would never accept him as family, and was simply using him.
Over the next two months, the story evolved so that fans believed that, in fact, the Bloodline was using Sami. Roman grew more and more irritated and finally snapped, believing that Sami had a soft spot in his heart for his old friend. Roman, of course, was scheduled to face Owens at the Royal Rumble. He held a trial on Monday Night Raw for Zayn and was about to figuratively have him executed when Jey Uso of all people stepped in, presented a compelling argument for Sami, and convinced Roman to declare him not guilty—for now. Roman essentially told Sami to show up at the Rumble for what would be his final test, helping to take out Owens once and for all.
Roman won, and after the match the Usos handcuffed Owens to the ring ropes and gave him a terrible beating. Roman then grabbed a chair and was going to bash Kevin’s brains in, but Sami finally could take no more and stepped in front of Roman. He tried to reason with him, saying that he’d already defeated Kevin, it was over, and hitting him with a chair while he was handcuffed was beneath him. So Roman paused, and then handed the chair to Sami and told him to finish the job. Over 45,000 fans loudly chanted Sami’s name, and when Sami finally made his decision and smashed the chair across Reigns’s back instead, the fans cheered so loudly that they peaked and distorted the microphones in the building. Of course, the Bloodline turned and destroyed Sami afterwards—all except Jey Uso, who couldn’t bring himself to take out a guy who he’d seemingly come to really love, and he turned and walked out on his family.
Perhaps you can see the dilemma.
Fans cheered Cody when he made his return at No. 30, and they cheered when he faced Gunther and they cheered when he won and pointed at the WrestleMania sign. However, that was the first match on the show. After the main event angle, especially considering that the Bloodline storyline had been going on non-stop the entire time Cody had been out with injury, seemingly the most logical WrestleMania main event was actually Roman Reigns vs. Sami Zayn.
But, as noted, that was not the plan. The plan appears to still be Reigns vs. Rhodes. And what that means is that the company has to be exceedingly careful with how it moves forward in order to avoid the fans turning on Rhodes for no fault of his own, similar to what happened in 2014 when Batista won the Royal Rumble and fans violently turned on him in favor of Daniel Bryan.
Now, there are differences. Batista was an outsider who fans saw as a guy who walked in from Hollywood and got a spot that they felt someone else should have gotten. Bryan was also exceedingly popular and Vince McMahon at the time had no desire to push him to the level fans demanded. In this situation, the only reason Cody came in from the outside was because he’d been sidelined with an injury, plus his final match, where he wrestled 24 minutes with a freshly torn and totally grotesquely discolored pectoral muscle, earned him massive respect from the fanbase. Sami also is in a much better position than Daniel Bryan was in early 2014. He has an incredible storyline and a potential major match at WrestleMania—himself and Kevin Owens vs. The Usos for the tag team championships.
The key to all of this working is the fans need to want to see Owens and Zayn win the tag titles as a team so much that they don’t turn on Cody for getting the WrestleMania main event instead of Sami. It will be difficult, but the easiest solution is likely to give Zayn a championship match versus Roman in his hometown of Montreal at Elimination Chamber in February, and have Jey Uso turn on him and screw him out of the title, leading to Owens making a triumphant return, running down to make the save. The heat needs to be transferred fully to the Usos, and the fans have to want to see Kevin and Sami win the belts more than they want Sami to get a rematch at WrestleMania since he was screwed in his hometown.
It won’t be easy, but in the end, it’s pro wrestling. If the fans turn on Cody and WWE has to shoot an angle where, for example, Cody gifts his title shot to Sami because he feels it’s the right thing to do, and then he has to fight his way back to another title match at SummerSlam, so be it. Literally anything within reason can be done. The magic of pro wrestling is that you can shift direction anytime you want if something happens to catch fire that you weren’t expecting. That was, in fact, the very thing that happened with Sami Zayn back in April. One way or another, fans have the most intriguing road to WrestleMania that they’ve had in perhaps a decade.