Why WWE's 2019 Women's Royal Rumble was Great

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2018's inaugural women's Royal Rumble match was a long time coming, and lived up the anticipation as WWE's past, present, and future from Madusa to Asuka to Ember Moon rose to the main event opportunity. The overall standard was refreshingly elevated after an arguable downswing in the past handful of annual Rumble shows, and expectations were forgivingly tempered for the sophomore edition to hit equal highs. But oh, did it ever surpass those expectations, possibly becoming one of the very best Rumbles ever.

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NXT Represented

Foremost, I will remember this Rumble for just how prominently it featured some of NXT's brightest prospects, including some that haven't even been on the weekly NXT TV product yet. On PW Torch's weekly podcast PWT Talks NXT, I refrained from predicting more than a couple slots going to WWE's developmental brands (more on who I got right and wrong in a moment) as I figured many unannounced roles would be going to surprise appearances by former WWE "Divas" such as Eve Torres or Melina, and perhaps some recurring cameos by veterans like Ivory or Lita.
Recent call-ups Nikki Cross and Lacey Evans both had their moments to shine. The latter opened the entire affair with a promo before squaring off with veteran gatekeeper and her opponent du jour Natalya and going on to last nearly half the match. This is encouraging, as Evans' evolution in NXT was fascinating and promising to track. Cross' time was more fleeting, but the magnetically manic character Sanity's Scot portrays is practically immune to embarrassment and she efficiently maximized her minutes to make a good impression as she is wont to do.
Then my 2/3rds of my heart burst atwain when Xia Li's music hit at #11. Li debuted in the 2017 Mae Young Classic against Mercedes Martinez and has since been a standout on NXT's Central Florida "Coconut Loop" of house shows. Despite reaching the second round after an excellent match with Karen Q in the 2018 Mae (and working a dark match at the January 3rd NXT tapings during which she astoundingly box-jumped to perch upon the shoulders of an upright Lacey Evans), Li has yet to appear on NXT TV, making this entrance a massive surprise. Adorably, just as Michael Cole was introducing the newcomer to the home audience by name and nationality, Li herself shouted to the crowd, "My name is Xia Li; I am from China!"
Speaking of adorable, the remaining 1/3rd of my heart exploded in shards when the Mae Young Classic's first winner and former NXT Women's Champion Kairi Sane ran to the ring on her toes while peering through her telescope. It was at this moment, with no thirds of heart remaining, that I thought, "Rhea, don't you dare." Sane was a last-minute replacement for the injured Alicia Fox in the 2018 Rumble, and she was more formidable here as she lasted almost 20 minutes and assisted in an elimination compared to her prior goose egg.
Then, I couldn't have been any more flabbergasted when none other than the miniature American Ninja Warrior Kacy Catanzaro came in at #19. Under (mild) pressure to say something of consequence when forecasting NXT's possibilities for Sunday night, I decided to cash in on a barely explicable hunch I've been harboring that relatively new Performance Center project Catanzaro would appear on main roster programming before NXT programming. How in the world this wound up being correct I will never have any idea. I even said she would save herself in the acrobatic tradition of Kofi Kingston (and now Naomi) by shimmying up a ringpost, and wouldn't you know that's precisely what happened. Catanzaro did work two matches at the 2018 Mae, with the respective members of the "R&R" tandem Reina Gonzalez and Rhea Ripley against whom she's had a great deal of practice, though nothing in those matches felt unrehearsed. The natural chaos of the Rumble proved to be the best exemplification to date of Catanzaro's true adaptation to this whole wrestling thing.
And I'm going to have to have a talk with 2018's true breakout star Rhea Ripley, because, when I had little left to give, she emerged before the reported 48,193 fans at #24. If you didn't see the first Mae Young Classic, if you haven't seen any "Coconut Loop" shows, if you don't watch NXT UK, there's no way Ripley didn't catch your attention. Even if you didn't see the second Mae where Ripley tore through the rounds and was clearly booked to lose to Tegan Nox but galvanized her new persona by perfectly improvising upon Nox' devastating injury then went on to put together an unplanned 13-minute match with Io Shirai in less than an hour's time, her boot stamping down outside the dugout at Chase Field still raised your eyebrows. Looking every bit the equal of her more storied competition, Ripley paid off on her practice with Catanzaro in a big spot, and eliminated three people to tie Ruby Riott as well as her and Riott's eventual eliminator Bayley with the second-most eliminations of the match behind Charlotte Flair. I had predicted that the second Mae winner and new NXT UK Women's Champion Toni Storm would get this spot, but it was all the more rewarding to see the first NXT UK Women's Champion Ripley in there instead.
Far from forgotten, Candice LeRae and Mae finalist Io Shirai were also featured to bring NXT's count to six (not including Cross and Evans). Also of note, NXT referee and boon to the entire NXT roster Jessika Carr made another main roster appearance as an outside official and wound up being involved in the climax.

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Current Main Roster Strengths Highlighted

Though subjectively the new blood stood out to me most here, the Rumble was nothing if not a grand reassurance of just how damn good all the WWE's women's divisions are.
In her aforementioned co-starting position, the glue of WWE's women's scene for over a decade Natalya lasted longer than anyone else including the original record-setter Sasha Banks in 2018's Rumble. Joining her shy of that 56-minute run was Ember Moon, who has stood out despite inconsistent booking following her call-up to Monday Night Raw last year. When Moon appeared at #6 my first thought was that I would love to see her become the iron woman of the evening, and that wish basically came true even though she failed to score any eliminations.
Since their inauspicious photocopy of a call-up that turned all three members heel simply to stock the shelves of the then-upcoming first women's Rumble in 2017, the Riott Squad has become one of the true highlights of Raw. Liv Morgan - who has excelled beyond her tepid babyface act in NXT - was hilariously tossed out by stable rival Natalya in less than ten seconds at #4. #12 Sarah Logan is a natural babyface, but has sufficiently bonded with the riotous ways for now and wound up fairing slightly better at around five minutes even though that time was highlighted by flopping and flying for Kairi Sane. Ruby Riott, however, sauntered in at #21 and lived up to the reputation she's made for herself as a real ring general, even briefly doing battle with fellow general Bayley - a newer favorite pairing of mine to watch between bells. As a trio, the Squad reinforced the threat they pose to the burgeoning women's tag scene by creating dangerous variables inside and outside the ropes.
Having risen far beyond her interest-piquing yet less heralded beginnings in NXT as one of the headsails of WWE's flagship show, Alexa Bliss made her greatly anticipated return to action late on the entry list at #26 after a concerning stay in concussion protocol. In what could be the beginning of a babyface trajectory for the deservedly popular Bliss (also a top favorite of mine), the five-footer premiered a new standing backflip maneuver before ending Ember Moon's marathon and taking out a menacingly game, Gina Carano-esque Sonya Deville (from whom I'm certain we've only seen the beginning).
Coming up on a year with the main roster that has suited their comical heel characters just swell, IIconics Billie Kay and Peyton Royce played their usual shtick to welcome end. In what may signal a return to somewhat greater prominence, the underappreciated Dana Brooke had a short yet impressive showing as entrant #22 that she followed up nicely on the next night on Raw (making her my early and agreeable call for WrestleMania battle royal winner). Then my soft spot for Carmella felt warranted yet again as the unique talent rose to the occasion of the #30 position. Could have gone for a dance break, though.
Of these who all came up short of the win, Charlotte Flair was the obvious pillar. The moment the Amazon drove to the ring with a glower and a purpose at lucky #13, the tone shifted. From that moment, Flair was the fulcrum of the proceedings, and the match overall was as much about her seething pursuit of dominance as it was the eventual winner.

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The Weaving Narratives

So often Royal Rumbles and battle royals, etcetera, become about groups of people laying in wait or working meaningless spots in slow motion while the focus trains in on a single story at a time. Excellent though it was, the 2018 women's Rumble became a prime example of this. And that's not an accusation; such simply comes with the territory. So it is all the more outstanding that the wrestlers of the 2019 women's Rumble so deftly juggled multiple narratives throughout the match's 70+ minutes, hopping in and out of ongoing threads and breaking away for appropriate interludes along the way without forgetting the key elements as can so easily happen at this event. The waiting must occur by design, but it nary felt inorganic.
As described above, Charlotte Flair seeing (and being) red was the throughline that much of the match was built on. As if she hadn't already proven herself over and over (most recently in back-to-back vicious outings against Lynch at Evolution and Ronda Rousey at Survivor Series), with a cavalcade of contemporaries and up-and-comers aiming her way Flair looked perhaps more supreme than ever.
Zelina Vega has been remarkable in about every appearance since arriving on NXT TV as Andrade "Cien" Almas' manager in 2017, yet she still feels like a well-kept secret with mega babyface potential. Her hiding-beneath-the-ring gag suited her perfectly, and was made all the better as she beautifully hit her every mark to continually remind us of her presence by popping her head out from the ring skirt to survey damage and cackle at those who'd been eliminated. Though I respect Dylan Postl as much as the next person you won't find me defending his subsequent resurrection of the Hornswoggle gimmick, but at least Vega's role demonstrated her performance ability while it lasted and this was far from the worst comic relief offender in Rumble history.
Of course many individual wrestlers received spotlights as detailed, and with rare exception these flowed seamlessly with the match as a whole. All the while, though, there coursed the underlying eagerness to see whether Becky Lynch would enter and, if so, whether she would win. Such a thing could manifest as a dark cloud over any event, though in this case it served to make it all much more exciting.

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That Moment

I can't be the only one who noticed. Tell me I'm not. Because this actually happened, and it was magnificent.
Charlotte Flair has changed the perception of the tall blonde archetype in WWE, and cemented herself as the prototype other tall blondes (like Rhea Ripley) wind up being compared to before setting themselves apart (like Rhea Ripley). Lacey Evans is one of those tall blondes, and before Sunday had never shared a ring with Flair. It was a moment begging to go down, and when it did it was like a dance floor in an '80s movie that suddenly goes to slow motion as the masses fall to the background and the leads feel like the only people in the world.
The two teased-up, heavily breathing combatants met in each others' paths, and locked eyes. It was serendipity. The stadium lights dimmed to a deep red. Maria Kanellis was making her entrance for a planned spot with Evans and Flair, hence the lighting, but the coinciding milestone in the ring demanded the camera remain with the embroiled wrestlers as much as possible.
Then Kanellis' theme music made itself known to the senses. With Evans and Flair heatedly standing off, their surroundings bathed in crimson as if by an alchemical reaction created by their proximity, the hair metal-like guitar riff bled in to the balladic belting of, "Here's to the greatest love I've ever known! I'm burning up in your love, your love..."
Pure magic. Tell Tom Cruise to scratch that Top Gun sequel; we're covered.

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The Man

Becky Lynch has been steadily earning goodwill since turning face against Sasha Banks on NXT back in 2015. An indefatigable hero of the people and expert social media tactician, it felt dubious when she wasn't positioned particularly strongly in her division over the past couple years.
Then she was forced to share the spotlight with the entitled Charlotte Flair for what was to be one of her biggest singles matches against Carmella at last year's SummerSlam. The beatdown Flair suffered by Lynch's hand following that match felt like a welcome enhancement upon the should-be champion we already knew. It was a catharsis that played upon real life circumstance, but the following Tuesday's SmackDown revealed that WWE had intended it as a heel turn with Lynch now scripted to arbitrarily accuse fans for not believing in her despite bountiful ready evidence to the contrary.
If this sounds familiar, it's because it's strikingly similar to the chronicle of Daniel Bryan circa 2013-2014.
As luck would have it, however, Lynch got punched in the face. In an indelible, echelon-leaping moment I've chosen to label as "Blood from a Blarney Stone," the increasingly badass Lynch invaded Raw to target Ronda Rousey and, courtesy a flailing Nia Jax, got a potato to end all potatoes this side of John Cena's 2015 nasal relocation. That the out-on-her-feet lass withstood the punishment, her face an explosion of blood and her synapses on sudden vacation, and still came out on top with an unfazed expression made for one of the greatest Raw moments in recent memory as well as the galvanization of the new Becky Lynch - the most popular wrestler on the planet.
Recognizing the Bryan parallels, I repeatedly suggested on Twitter that we fans need prepare to endure further frustration due to apparent booking dissonance en route to gratification with Lynch. I suggested WWE was going to string us along in to believing we willed the wrestler to the pinnacle of the business all on our own. This suggestion felt justified when Lynch submitted to Asuka in the opening singles contest of the Royal Rumble event proper, just as Bryan had been decimated by Bray Wyatt in the opening of the 2014 Rumble event. Along with the thought of Lynch withstanding Rousey's armbar all the more tantalizing after seeing her succumb to a modified Asuka Lock, it seemed we were indeed going to have to buckle in for a months-long struggle for Lynch to find her way to her destined WrestleMania match. I began envisioning Lynch having to fight through Stephanie McMahon to earn her way in to the main event, a la Bryan with Triple H. It seemed that way, until Lana feebly limped out to the women's Rumble at #28, having taken a spill from the apron on the pre-show.
The writing was on the wall at that point - Lynch would successfully demand Lana's spot from Fit Finlay (an individual it is typically wise to flee lest your name is Becky). A Flair victory did still feel plausible since the show still had about two hours with which to win the crowd back, but in a move WWE has reserved for only spare occasions in its current age they gave us what we so desired to experience.
Be it a singles match or triple threat (and the door is wide open for the latter, which I expect to be contested as we speed toward April), Becky Lynch is the WrestleMania main event. She is the best-received Royal Rumble winner in years and years, with likely my favorite Rumble ever preceding her victory.