Inside The Royal Rumble 3: A Look Behind The Mayhem Of Royal Rumble 2022

Inside The Royal Rumble 1: with Triple H, Bret Hart, Court Bauer, Tom Prichard, Shane Helms, Shotzi, Victoria, Jake Hager, Kevin Owens, Duke Droese

Inside the Royal Rumble 2: Adam Cole, Johnny Gargano, Kurt Angle, Drew McIntyre, Scotty Too Hotty, Chelsea Green, Jeff Jarrett, Dakota Kai, Shotzi, Bushwhackers, Brian Myers, Sin Cara, Mojo Rawley, Mike Bennett, Mandy Rose, Maria, Chuck Palumbo

Charlotte Flair Feels She Made WrestleMania 35 Main Event Come Together

There's no other way to put it. The 2022 Royal Rumble was a train wreck. Backstage and on-screen, it just didn't work.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. But those in WWE hope the person responsible for the 2022 train wreck won't put their finger prints all over this year's Rumble.

The Royal Rumble is this author's favorite match and event of the year. More than Double or Nothing, more than Wrestle Kingdom, and more than WrestleMania. I often spoke about the optimism provided by the Royal Rumble match. The way many talents can be highlighted, debuts, and returns lead to juicy storylines heading into WrestleMania and beyond.

The months in the later year have traditionally been down in recent years, and the clouds cast over the industry clear out in January. New year, new me, right? Well, that's certainly the case for the WWE. Since January 2022, there has been a new regime, a rejuvenated roster, increased morale, and a change in the on-screen presentation of the company in one of their most financially successful periods ever. This is almost all due to the exit of longtime head of creative, and virtually everything else, Vince McMahon. Amid a multi-million dollar sexual misconduct scandal, Vince McMahon retired from WWE and handed off his many roles to his son-in-law Triple H, daughter Stephanie McMahon, and Nick Khan. However, shortly after work on this feature started, McMahon forced his way back into the company, leaving the talent curious about what that could mean for their futures and their creative. They've been told constantly that Vince McMahon is not coming back, and if you go back one year, you'll understand why so many were horrified by his return. Who wouldn't be horrified by a man who shared no shame for abusing his power for his own sexual gratification?

Before that July 2022 retirement, so many within WWE had long lost confidence in Vince McMahon in many ways. The 2022 Royal Rumble featured some important talent who lost confidence in McMahon in a creative capacity forever more. I have actually written two iterations of Inside The Royal Rumble -- one in 2021 and one in 2022 -- where we spoke to talent on the record about their experiences in the Rumble matches itself. It was an incredible undertaking that compromised a lot of time during interviews. This year will be different, and I felt the stories behind the 2022 Rumble must be read (and even seen) to be believed. This edition will be a stark contrast to those on-the-record, publicly sourced stories, instead focusing on the wild stories that had to be anonymously told to us for consumption. As is tradition, this isn't as much of a threaded story, as it is a collection of stories.

Fightful was on the scene at the 2022 Rumble, credentialed as media at The Dome at America's Center in St. Louis. There was a media junket the day before that featured the likes of Liv Morgan, Shelton Benjamin, Doudrop, Reggie, AJ Styles and Nikki ASH.

The same day, the media junket, the Cincinnati Bengals, kicked the shit out of the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL playoffs about 250 miles west via Interstate 70. The bitter cold was felt figuratively and literally by WWE fans and Superstars at the site of the show. The two Royal Rumble matches were used as vehicles for former UFC Champions Brock Lesnar and Ronda Rousey. Lesnar was re-entering the World Title picture, while Rousey was headed back to the company. Earlier that week, Fightful Select reported Ronda Rousey's return and subsequent Royal Rumble win was already in the works, en route to another championship reign. She'd been out of action for nearly three years while starting a family. Her WWE contract had long expired, and many wondered if she'd ever return.

Both entries were considered surprises, but as in entertainment, sometimes word of surprises makes its way out. Seriously, subscribe to FightfulSelect.com for more of that. The decision of both winners was heavily criticized. As subjective entertainment can be viewed as positive or negative by anyone, we'll look at the aggregate. On Cagematch, the Men's Royal Rumble match was rated 1.91 out of 10, with the women's landing at 4.47. In total, the show was rated 2.73, and when the best match on the show was an opening Universal Title match that ended in a DQ, it all went downhill from there. From a professional perspective, there was never an individual show that garnered Fightful more contact from talent to express their frustrations -- and that's saying something considering we covered WWE Hell in a Cell 2019.

Day 1 Ish.

The Men's Royal Rumble match was the culmination of backstage frustration from numerous talent, in which really accelerated on the January 1 PPV, Day 1. Brock Lesnar was set to face Roman Reigns for the WWE Universal Championship at the Day 1 PPV, a match already done to death multiple times, with six singles match, two multi-man matches, and other encounters that ended up being canceled.

The WWE audience had seen it all before, even just a few months before at WWE Crown Jewel. However, Fightful reported Roman Reigns was sidelined with COVID, and it tumbled downhill after that. Lesnar was instead added to the WWE Championship match that featured Kevin Owens, Seth Rollins, Bobby Lashley and Champion Big E.

Big E, immensely popular both on screen and behind the scenes, hadn't been the focal point during his title run, and the booking left a lot to be desired. The hasty decision to insert Lesnar into the match was one thing, but he won the bout in less than eight-and-a-half minutes. A match in which he could have lost without even getting pinned ended up with an impromptu title run that actually ended just a few weeks later....at the Royal Rumble.....to Bobby Lashley.....who was also in the Fatal Five Way match.

The backstage reaction was one of disappointment after Day 1. The decision to put Lesnar in the main event was understandable. He's a major star promoted for a big show on a holiday. Roman Reigns couldn't be there, and the company couldn't also deprive the audience of Lesnar.

Following the match, Fightful had learned that Big E was originally set to win. We found out within the week that talent weren't actually informed of the original plan for the finish themselves. Big E, a unanimously adored talent, was said by producers to have tried his best to add to his own presentation as champion and push to not work against the same performers for his three months, as was common during the Vince McMahon era's later years. He also made incredible efforts to make sense of the creative, per the words of actual creative team members that we spoke to in the day after his title loss.

Sources close to Big E said he was professional about doing business but was more annoyed than he had thought he would be after the match result. Still, backstage WWE staff told us that Big E didn't sell it at all, doing his job to the best of his ability. He didn't need to express that frustration. Plenty of others did it for him.

Morale was already on a decline at that point. Stale creative, repeated matches. Nonsensical angles with no real payoff or expectation of follow up. That had all become the norm, but since mid-2019, it had really accelerated. So much talent is expected to be the opposite with the emergence of a true competitor in AEW. That didn't happen, and in between mass releases keeping everyone on edge, many longtime performers simply wanted out. The Royal Rumble only accelerated that.

Brock Lesnar

Just a few weeks after being world champion, Big E entered the Royal Rumble match in a prime spot -- 26. He lasted less than seven minutes and eliminated nobody. There was no redemption.

Who won the Royal Rumble match itself? Brock Lesnar, eliminating five wrestlers in two and a half minutes at number 30. Minutes after losing the WWE Championship, he won the Royal Rumble, then win the title back at Elimination Chamber.

See, instead of competing for Roman Reigns' title at WrestleMania, which might even be more frustrating, he was booked to win the title at Elimination Chamber. Bobby Lashley had sustained an injury against Lesnar in their Royal Rumble singles match, which they probably should have never had to begin with, but were forced to due to the inept Vince McMahon booking that led to it. However, instead of vacating the title, WWE tried to make the best of a bad situation and had Lashley written out of the Elimination Chamber match. So we were looking at the third title swap in about six weeks.

Let's review this. Brock Lesnar was scheduled to face Roman Reigns. That match was canceled, and he won a title, then lost it three weeks later. Minutes later, he was booked to win a match that could get him a shot at either of those titles at WrestleMania. Instead, he won the one he'd just lost (and was never supposed to be booked near in the first place), and then competed for the other one at WrestleMania. A year later, we're nearing a situation where WWE may remove one of said unified titles without having Roman Reigns lose it, rather than having him drop it in a three way, or the Rumble match itself. It's scripted! Make it make sense. Anyway. The match.

Shane McMahon, Abyss, Jamie Noble, Shawn Daivari, and Adam Pearce produced the Men's Royal Rumble Match. But Shane McMahon helped. Or should we say "helped?"

Well, that was the huge point of contention. As legend has it, Shane McMahon, both contributing to producing and competing in the match as a surprise entrant, wanted to highlight himself. Fightful spoke with several people close to the WWE Royal Rumble match, who uncovered some logic behind Shane McMahon's pitches, or lack thereof. It was even mentioned to Fightful that he pitched the number one spot. However, Vince McMahon personally came along and said he'd be making changes to the match and wouldn't be doing much of what Shane laid out. By the way, he ended up being marked down to enter at 29. He would actually enter at 28. More on that later.

From a producer standpoint, Shane McMahon wasn't actually listed internally as a producer for the match, but he was heavily involved in the match, particularly a lot of the late changes that happened. One source indicated that even separate of that, it was the most frustrating and stressful experience of their WWE careers, and things were changing right up to the minute people would go through the curtain. Specifically, we're told Vince McMahon changed the order of the men's Royal Rumble, and there were a few times where people going out didn't know who they were eliminating.

When Vince McMahon learned of Shane McMahon's plans, he wasn't happy about them, and neither was Brock Lesnar. Lesnar specifically took issue with the notion that the 51-year-old Shane wanted to be in a spot where he would go toe-to-toe with the former UFC Heavyweight Champion. Granted, Shane had done some striking and MMA training with some decorated coaches and fighters, but let's be real here. As bad as that Royal Rumble match was, that would have made it worse.

Shane insisted on seeing them through, which didn't end up happening. That was far from it. Shane McMahon was slated to enter number 29, at his insistence. Randy Orton was set for the 28 spot. Well, that didn't end up happening either. Instead, Orton sat at Gorilla position, looking into one of WWE's many documentary cameras on scene, waiting for the notes of his theme song to hit. Needless to say, "Here comes the monaaaaaaaayyyy!" is not his theme song. A visibly frustrated Shane McMahon emerged and expressed his anger, as his music incorrectly played. Randy Orton, incredulous, fell down on the spot, laughing his ass off. Footage of this actually exists and has been witnessed, but is unlikely to see the light of day.

As Shane McMahon realized Randy Orton would not be entering the lyrics "ching ching, bling bling bling!" he just gave up and made his way to the ring. Oh no, it didn't end there. Reeling from a hugely critical failure of an event, Shane McMahon got the brunt of the blame. Abyss, Jamie Noble, Shawn Daivari, and Adam Pearce were listed as the credited producers internally for the match, but Shane McMahon contributed.

Well, Vince McMahon contributed to Shane McMahon not being around anymore, because immediately following the show, Shane was effectively dismissed. Vince McMahon would tell people in his inner circle that Shane McMahon "would never get another pop in this company as long as I'm around." So you're saying there's a chance.....? No, probably not. The new regime seems to not like him either. Oh, and Vince is back. Sorry, Shane. At least he made $828,000 for his quick Rumble work.

Other Men's Rumble stuff

The nightmare scenario caused several WWE Superstars to be incredibly frustrated. There were numbers and adjustments being made midway through the match, which was a huge shift from the meticulously planned efforts in previous years. It was WWE's first live Royal Rumble match since 2020, and perhaps most importantly, one of the first ever live Rumbles without any input, consulting or help from Pat Patterson. Patterson, the innovator of the match, unfortunately passed away in December 2020. The Royal Rumble the following month was filmed from the comfort of the ThunderDome. As many of us had previously noted, his influence could not be underscored.

Several of the traditional Royal Rumble highlighted moments weren't there. There was no Rick Martel iron man spot for a guy who didn't get the attention he deserved. AJ Styles, beloved, but established, was the "iron man" at 29 minutes. He also threw out the most opponents -- six. Brock Lesnar was in for two and a half minutes and threw out five. Omos did get the traditional big man spot, which required six people to dump him over, after four minutes and three eliminations. A dozen entrants didn't make it four and a half minutes. The match felt directionless and lacking story, save a few moments. This, after several televised programs were brought to a screeching halt to use the TV time (which was not in short supply, anyway) to promote the Rumble match.

One of the traditional Rumble spots WAS supposed to be there, but it finally happened. Gravity kept Kofi Kingston from doing his annual breathtaking "Rumble save" spot. After so many successful ones, Kofi didn't dwell on it too much, and actually said he learned from it.

Kofi told Fightful "When you go back and look at the stats sometimes, people will say, ‘Okay, this person was in for this amount of time,’ I think that was the shortest amount of time that I’d been in any Rumble. Of course, it was the shortest duration of a superstar in last year’s Rumble, too. It was definitely supposed to be longer than that. I don’t know how long it was supposed to be, but it was supposed to be longer than that. I’ve talked about it where I feel like we have our biggest growth when we fail, right? When we don’t do what we intended to do when we set a goal and we try to accomplish it and we don’t accomplish it. That is where real growth happens. So part of me was kind of excited for the growth, to be able to experience that.

It’s a situation where I’ve been doing these Royal Rumble elimination spots for a long time. I’m surprised none of them have messed up to this point. I think it just adds to the element of realism to what we do and it reinforces, yeah, we go out there every week and things go off without a hitch, but sometimes they don’t. That’s just the reality of what we do and what we do is not easy. It is actually quite difficult. Sometimes everything has to be 100% accurate. If one thing is off then everything will be off. Yeah, man. It’s all good, it’s all good. Hopefully this year will be different. It can’t be worse."

Kofi was quick to credit John Morrison, who truly innovated the spot that he, Naomi, Kacy Catanzaro and others embraced.

On a positive note, Drew McIntyre returned at the Royal Rumble. He'd only been sidelined for a few weeks due to a neck injury, but the time off was needed. His appearance was kept very quiet, and even being able to appear wasn't a sure thing, less than a month after he was taken off TV. He wasn't quite 100 percent, and was continuing to rehabilitate his neck. He first sustained his injury in 2016 and had been working around it ever since. There were many within the company that had no idea Drew McIntyre was back until he appeared at Gorilla position. Apparently, his neck has held up well, as he wrestled over 100 matches in the 10 months following his return. Another injury in December 2012 also had him healing up.

Let's look at some more positives –

The show and matches itself weren't all bad. AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura's interaction to kick off the Rumble match was nice.

Johnny Knoxville got an incredible pop that led to an even more remarkable WrestleMania match with Sami Zayn. There was also a brilliant promotional stunt ahead of the Rumble. While talking with a WWE higher up, we witnessed a video of crossover star Brock Lesnar slamming Jackass star Wee Man on a dinner table. Lesnar would later claim it was unplanned, but the higher up present seemed happy about how it turned out. .

Knoxville's runthrough earlier in the day drew an audience of WWE Superstars who had grown up on 'Jackass'. They got to witness him cracking his balls up against the side of the ring while trying to slide into the ring. Knoxville and the Jackass crew were very well received by WWE Superstars, and they were joking backstage, taking pictures, and enjoying the experience. Upon his elimination, he was greeted backstage by a number of WWE Superstars, where he exclaimed how much he enjoyed the experience.

It's worth noting Bad Bunny is always entertaining, and continued to excel in his most recent WWE appearance.

Women's Royal Rumble

The cast for the Royal Rumble in 2022 Women's match was set up to provide several cameos to create small stories within the match, as it should! Cameron, Sarah Logan and others were in town and in plain sight leading up to the show.

Cameron was a "surprise." I throw that in quotation marks, as she was one of the earliest reported names on the scene of the show the week of the Royal Rumble. The bright purple hair certainly wasn't camouflaging with the rest of the St. Louis crowd. Either way, her appearance served a storyline purpose, as Sonya Deville eliminated her to further her feud with Naomi, which had been going on for months. Ultimately, that's a big part of what the Rumble is about. However, after Sonya Deville was tossed out, she eliminated Naomi from BEYOND THE GRAVE -- one of the lame duck things that needs to be fixed in the Rumble.

Ivory returning in her Right To Censor persona is objectively awesome, and I'll hear no different. One that didn't accelerate a story, but was a cool moment. Brie Bella showing up and getting a great pop, Michelle McCool doing what she does -- coming in and working a good 20+ minutes in a Rumble. It's not fair to say the whole match was a misfire. There were fun moments, and 30 talented people were involved.

Of all things that could have happened, a kid walked up to me as I spoke to a WWE rep the day before the Royal Rumble. The child had seen the Undertaker in town, and asked if he'd be in the Royal Rumble. The rep was quick to manage the child's expectations and said he was "just being a supportive husband," to Michelle McCool. I asked them if Sarah Logan was "just being a supportive wife," when her husband Erik wasn't in town yet, as he had Smackdown duties to fulfill. That will be five dollars, kid!

Oh yeah, Summer Rae was there. In the weeks prior, she and Natalya worked their own angle referencing their 'Total Divas' days. Summer -- an honest to god, good athlete and former football player -- sprinted full speed to the ring, screaming "YOU FUCKIN' BITCH, FUCK YOUUU!!" and was quickly eliminated. She told people privately she couldn't believe they put that on television. Well, yeah. It was mid-entrance, and a hilarious moment.

Seven of the legends brought in for the match lasted a minute or less, which shows you that they were brought in for a pop, and then WWE got them the hell out of there. I'm sure revisionist history, and the fact that it was a year ago, will try to tell you these matches were better than they actually were, but Vince McMahon especially failed his talent on January 29, 2022. It's what St. Louis deserved, but not the world! If we have to point out some positives, Charlotte Flair, Rhea Ripley, Bianca Belair, Natalya and Liv Morgan all got a good amount of time in the match. Lita getting the call to make her return led to a fun program with Becky Lynch. Lita, who had a long history of neck issues, went into the Royal Rumble with a banged up shoulder and neck from training for the match. The Bella Twins appeared, with Brie's daughter Birdie cheering on backstage.

The women we spoke to were contacted way further ahead of time than usual for the Royal Rumble match, but several also were under the impression that their appearances wouldn't be announced at all, much less a month out. There was one specific cameo that seemed like one of the biggest stories of 2022.


Forbidden Door!?

Mickie James, IMPACT Knockouts Champion. In December, one of the first Royal Rumble entrants announced was a complete shocker. Mickie James, the top women's champion of longtime competitor IMPACT Wrestling, was revealed as one of the participants. The move was a surprise, to the point where some announced entrants didn't even know they were being revealed at the time. Even more surprising was that IMPACT Wrestling and the Knockouts Championship were both named. Not completely unheard of in WWE, but rare in the Vince McMahon controlled universe, where only WWE matters.

The IMPACT sources we spoke with said it was a double-edged sword. The company objectively got a boost in attention and buzz that it sorely needed. On the other hand, it telegraphed the winner of their PPV main event, with Mickie James defending against Deonna Purrazzo at Hard To Kill. Nobody in their right mind expected IMPACT to take the title off the woman who would be running to the ring with it on in front of millions of people. IMPACT sources said they were under the impression that the spot was to be announced after Hard To Kill.

So she did. Mickie James entered to her "Hardcore Country" theme, that Mickie recorded herself, a first for her in WWE. She appeared with the IMPACT Knockouts Title belt and a graphic. James resumed her well-documented feud with Michelle McCool, eliminating her and giving some closure to the decade-old storyline. Unfortunately, Mickie was eliminated in under 12 minutes.

As it turns out, IMPACT Wrestling didn't have much say in the matter. Mickie James had been working on a per-appearance deal without a full-time contract, so she was technically free to do whatever she chose. Also, she's Mickie James, so there's that too. On the internal announcement, "IMPACT Knockouts Champion" was surrounded by question marks. That was because those who formatted those sheets didn't know whether they could refer to her as that on air.

Mickie James told Fightful's Wrestling Perspective, "In my part for the Rumble. I was technically a free agent. I was also the Knockouts World Champion and represented the Knockouts World Championship. I felt like it was important too, if I was part of the rumble, then I'd be who I was, Mickie James, hardcore country and be the champion. I thought it was good co-branding and co-promotion that recognized that championship on television and on WWE’s platform, and that was something that hadn't been done in 20 years for the men. I think, certainly not in this era of professional television wrestling, that we see this modern. It was a real opportunity to do something that had never been done before. I wanted to make it special, and, you know, I figured I would shoot for the stars and ask for it all, and see what happens. And I just got lucky, because I got it all, didn't I?"

Well, she almost didn't get it all.

The night of, Vince McMahon wasn't keen on having IMPACT's Championship on the air. He told one producer to relay the message that wouldn't be allowed, and Mickie wouldn't be able to wear the championship. It wouldn't appear that even made it as far as Mickie James, as that same producer informed Vince that it was part of the deal to bring Mickie in. Despite her being a free agent, she still took care of IMPACT Wrestling, and a frustrated McMahon exclaimed "fuck it, fine!" Several in IMPACT had noted they feared McMahon would try to do that very thing at the last minute.

However, Mickie wasn't the only IMPACT contracted talent to be contacted for the match. Jess McKay and Cassie Lee, the former Billie Kay and Peyton Royce, also had been requested for the match. The former IIconics turned IInspiration passed on the offer. Outside of active competitors, Lana, who hadn't wrestled since her release, was also contacted and passed. Her former rival Nia Jax had also not wrestled following being canned by WWE, and also saw WWE reach out to her. Considering Jax still hadn't had several of her belongings returned by WWE, an expletive-filled rejection was returned to their inquiry. As it turns out, firing a bunch of people during a pandemic and asking them to come back for a quick pop doesn't work for many people.

Also, Asuka and Kairi Sane were both inquired about, and those close to the match say they were both unavailable or not ready. Either way, Ronda Rousey won the Royal Rumble. The pop for her return was great. Reception for the match itself was not good. Rousey was driven to the the Gorilla position, where she'd enter at number 28 in her first match in a few years.

Setting Up

Even the preparation for the matches was a mess. Where the talent were staying, there was a ring secretly set up on an inaccessible floor. At events like this, fans flood the lobby of a hotel they're not staying at and wait by the elevators for talent to walk out of what is effectively their second home. Several within WWE, as much as they appreciate the audience, were frustrated by the hotel itself for effectively allowing a huge crowd to form in the hotel itself.

Anyway, a bunch of fans watched Jillian Hall roll up, unadvertised, and head up to the secret rehearsal room! What are you gonna do? She and former star Aksana would serve as alternates and wouldn't end up appearing. Kaitlyn was also in town, but we never gained confirmation if she was an alternate or not. On the men's side, Apollo Crews, Cedric Alexander, R-Truth and Shelton Benjamin were all available and not used. However, they were used for something else. Several floors up, WWE will hold media events, or use the floor to film WWE Network/Peacock content. We'd reported Kurt Angle and R-Truth filmed content that week. They ended up doing all the above, as we spoke with AJ Styles, Reggie (who had no idea if he'd be on the show in his hometown), Nikki Cross, Doudrop, Liv Morgan and Benjamin. You can say what you want about how much of a mess the end of the Vince McMahon regime was, but the media junkets run smooth as hell!

That's more than can be said about the Women's Royal Rumble match preparation. A few weeks before the Rumble, the company's most heralded producer went home. TJ Wilson, also known as Tyson Kidd, wasn't around. We were actually told he was leaving the company at the time, but those close to him quickly shut that down. However, people who worked with him often said they were hopeful he'd take some time off and return, because he was invaluable. So much so, WWE had to bring in extra help to fill his shoes. Fit Finlay, Shane Helms, Molly Holly, Pat Buck, and Michael Hayes ended up producing the women's match, an eclectic and talented group. Molly actually competed in the match, and Fit Finlay had stopped producing well before that to take a training and coaching job at the Performance Center. With Wilson absent, the reinforcements had to be called in. It was called "complete chaos" by one talent. We've heard of at least one woman's talent that passed on doing the Royal Rumble because they learned TJ Wilson wasn't producing.

Fire

The trash fire didn't stop there. There were literal fires in the arena.

Oddly enough, this is the second time I've been to an arena caught on fire by WWE. The first was Raw 1001 in Cincinnati, and we weren't able to make it in the building until the first match had already started. That one was caused by pyro.....as was both of the Royal Rumble 2022 fires.

Almost directly above where we were sitting, a huge WrestleMania sign was suspended. You know, the one there specifically for pointing reasons. A wrestler wins the Royal Rumble, points at the sign, we make a t-shirt of their silhouette, and Ronda Rousey's legal team sends a C&D to Pro Wrestling Tees. Then we don't sell the shirt anymore, because the juice isn't worth the squeeze, and start our own shop. That sign! That's the one! It caught on fire.

The sign caught on fire twice. The first time was a major distraction was the crew had to pull the entire sign down and repair it, while evacuating fans immediately underneath it. It ended up taking away from whatever match was happening. I just can't remember what match that was because I was DISTRACTED! The second time happened as Brock Lesnar's music was playing to end the show, so it was time to get the hell out of dodge at that point.

Those in Gorilla Position didn't even know the fire was happening until the sign was being lowered.

A very ironic end to the trash fire booking.

What Did And Didn't Happen

Not everything will go the way WWE wants. As we mentioned, they reached out to Nia Jax, Lana, the IIconics, and no dice. Kairi Sane and Asuka were mentioned, but either weren't possibilities or realistic. However, Alexa Bliss was. You wouldn't have known that she was actually watching the Royal Rumble show, because she didn't compete in the match. She was smack dab in the middle of a month-plus long set of "therapy" sessions, and a few weeks before, Fightful was told she wasn't figured in to Royal Rumble plans. But hey, that doesn't matter with Vince McMahon at the helm. Just a few weeks after 30 women competed for a big title match, five people get a title shot, including Bliss, who was kept out of the Rumble. WWE had decided long before the Royal Rumble that she'd not be in it, as they filmed a ton of therapy segments that would run through the Royal Rumble. About a month later, Alexa Bliss was headed home for another few months in a "call me when you have something worth my time" type of situation. Bliss was eliminated last in the Chamber and vanished until May.

Mustafa Ali had publicly asked for his WWE release weeks before the WWE Royal Rumble, after being parked for several months. Word of a verbal disagreement with Vince McMahon was published with Fightful, with reports McMahon had pitched "something he knew Mustafa Ali would never do." Still, an unnamed WWE Superstar was looking for a way to get Mustafa Ali back in the fold. He'd pitched Ali eliminating him from the Rumble, but was asked whether Mustafa Ali would even be interested. When the idea made its way to the public, Ali publicly indicated he wouldn't be interested. That remained the case until late April, when he returned.

They did get what they wanted in one situation, but the fans didn't. Sasha Banks had been sidelined for six weeks, which would put her out past the Royal Rumble. However, WWE was able to get her back early, and her appearance on Smackdown the night before the Rumble match itself gave it a much needed boost of attention. She entered first, which got a great reaction. She was matched up against another top women's star of yesteryear in Melina.... great! Then she eliminated Melina in less than a minute and got chucked out in less than ten herself. Not great!

There were reports in the weeks prior that Matt Riddle was scheduled to win the Royal Rumble. However, in following up on that both at the time and in the following year, not only wasn't that the plan, it was never even considered. Brock Lesnar had been the only name mentioned as possible, based on what we heard.

NXT talent told us three weeks before the Royal Rumble that some of them were tipped off that they likely wouldn't be used, and that WWE wanted to lean away from using NXT 2.0 talent. No reason why was given, and no NXT talent appeared in the match. Moving Forward.

As we moved to WrestleMania, there were positives and negatives to Vince McMahon's affection towards pushing part-time talent to the moon. Most of them were talented and worked hard. Edge, Brock Lesnar, Pat McAfee, Steve Austin, Johnny Knoxville, Ronda Rousey, Logan Paul -- there weren't many people complaining about them based on their in-ring performance. It was the constant booking and undermining the company's weekly television shows that really drew the ire of active talent. The signing and debut of Cody Rhodes, the first big defection from AEW, brought some optimism. They'll have to book him well to show AEW talent the grass isn't greener, many longtime WWE talent thought.

We'll never know how long Rhodes would have been booked competently, as he unfortunately was injured in June. Unfortunately, Vince McMahon retired in a long overdue move the next month. As for the Royal Rumble, it was clear that WWE knew the show wasn't received well. After the show, Randy Orton posed for the hometown crowd to help send them home happy.

What happened?

In the weeks that followed, Fightful reported on the fallout of the Royal Rumble. The morale was the lowest I've personally seen since covering wrestling, which is ironic because a year later, the WWE locker room morale is probably at its highest since I've covered wrestling.

I'll let the original report speak for itself:

WWE's morale seems near a decades-long low, if not an all-time low in the locker room.

Since this past week's heavily criticized WWE Royal Rumble, Fightful has heard from a wealth of discouraged and disappointed WWE talent frustrated with the direction of the company. Ranging from those rarely on television to consistent main eventers, new names and veterans, we've heard of decreasing morale within the locker room.

The Royal Rumble was a major point of frustration. Issues with how the match was produced, and the lack of most talent not being highlighted to maximize their presence, were repeatedly noted. There were also issues with moments not being created, and the lack of capitalizing on many angles that built the match itself.

One longtime talent said nothing matters, outside of four people "maybe," as the vibe they get. Over a half dozen main roster talent pointed to issues with continuity and nobody else being designed to do anything. Several talents have felt like they're without a voice, and are reduced to making pleas on social media.

Another talent said they've never felt "less heard," and their attempts to speak with Vince McMahon go ignored, met with haste, or sometimes seemingly spitefully go the other way based on their recommendations. We've also heard of several contradictory decisions over many months that have reversed course to something the talent had already pitched and denied prior.

One wrestler stated, "if you see a complaint with merit and in good faith about something that lacks sense, logic or continuity, I almost guarantee we have complained too, it just never changes anything." Several talent we spoke to believe WWE will eventually sell, with one saying that's the only way they can rationalize some decision-making. It should be noted that this report doesn't reflect the locker room as a whole, only those we spoke to and their experiences.

WWE's morale never truly recovered from January 2022, in the experience of our reporting. Although there was cautious optimism around WrestleMania, it was consistently proven throughout the pandemic that McMahon's leadership had eroded, as had the confidence and security of much of the WWE roster. WWE Hell in a Cell 2019 pre-pandemic, and Royal Rumble 2021 post-pandemic were pieces of stale bread that comprised the shit sandwich McMahon fed his audience, as well as his uber-talented roster that deserved better. One year later, optimism went from without condition to "cautious" again, as McMahon's shadow hangs over the company.

Let's get further away from his booking by the day, and closer to the optimism, hope and joy that was formerly associated with the Royal Rumble. The talent themselves deserve it, and so do we, the fans.

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