We saw a rarity of sorts on Monday’s Raw: a qualifying match for a Royal Rumble match spot. Here’s why this should become the norm.
With the annual and highly-anticipated Royal Rumble pay-per-view taking place at the end of the month (Jan. 31), it’s that time of year for all the tropes to appear: wrestlers randomly throwing others over the top rope, commentators reminding us that would constitute an elimination in the Royal Rumble match, and most maddening of all, wrestlers simply “declaring” themselves as entrants into the Royal Rumble match.
Quick aside, that’s now really how “declaring” works. It would make more sense if wrestlers went to the equivalent of the town crier who would then declare a wrestler’s entry on their behalf; it still doesn’t work well, but it’s better.
I mean, why doesn’t Titus O’Neil just declare himself WWE Champion if that’s how it works?
On the Jan. 11 episode of Raw, however, we were presented with an uncommon sight (at least for this PPV): an actual qualifying match for entry into the Royal Rumble match.
Drew Gulak “declared” his spot only for Adam Pearce to inform Gulak he had to defeat A.J. Styles to qualify. Styles, for his part, said he earned his entry by being a former two-time WWE Champion, and that makes sense.
Gulak lost, so unless they keep this going with him (almost like Curtis Axel never being eliminated from the Rumble), then we could potentially see two more qualifying matches.
Now, I was excited to see a qualifier not just because seeing these two face each other was such a treat (even if their match lasted only three minutes or so), but also because of the added importance the match carried, particularly for Gulak.
Here are some reasons why qualifying bouts should become the norm for the Royal Rumble match.
(*Note: Any note of matches/roster includes NXT as well.)
Qualifying matches are already common occurrences in WWE (and sports)
Qualifying matches happen every year in WWE for different events, namely the Money in the Bank ladder match and traditional Survivor Series matches (you can add the Brand vs. Brand matches from the defunct Bragging Rights if you’d like).
When the event is scheduled, we generally see qualifying matches for the Elimination Chamber matches, too.
Sure, I can hear you saying, “This will just be another booking trope WWE overuses to the point of hatred.” Considering there would be three or four times a year this would happen if added for the upcoming annual event, I think this would save WWE from its booking.
Also, for a company that bills itself as “sports-entertainment” (which is redundant) with “sports” being listed first, shouldn’t they at least try to make the appearance of having some sports-like qualities?
How many sporting events that have tournaments or championship implications just let athletes or teams “declare” themselves for said events? I can’t think of any.
Even in places where there are automatic entries, like for the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments (March Madness), only the conference tournament champions receive automatic bids, similar to Styles’ automatic entry.
Think of being placed in a qualifying match as making the playoffs after a regular season, the qualifying match as the playoffs, and the Royal Rumble match as the conference championship game. The “main event” at WrestleMania is the proverbial Super Bowl/Stanley Cup/World Series/NBA Finals. This means wrestlers need at least a decent track record in their recent matches heading into January to be placed in qualifying matches.
See? Doesn’t that already make the thought of qualifying matches better? Well, this leads to the next point.
Matches and match type possibilities abound
I can hear your other criticism: “Just how many matches would that be for 60 total spots? It’s just too much work.” Sure, it might be for us, but probably not for a multi-billion dollar company with teams of writers and producers, many of the latter being former wrestlers.
There also don’t have to be 15 or so qualifying matches to determine the entrants. There could be three to five spots reserve for former WWE/Universal Champions (like Styles), though this doesn’t mean they would be the only former champions in the match; others could qualify.
Further, you could save another three to five for the expected surprise entrants, be it legends or returning wrestlers. Similarly, legends and returning wrestlers who may not warrant the surprise Rumble pop could make their comeback in the qualifying matches.
That gives WWE around 20-24 entries for qualifying bouts in both men’s and women’s Rumble matches. Have three or so tag match qualifiers, two triple threat or fatal 4-ways for both singles and tag teams, and singles matches for the remaining spots.
Beyond the traditional one-on-one matches one would expect for something like this, WWE’s also shown they can switch it up a bit (see the above match). Not every match has to be singles.
The Rumble match is a perfect place to have tag teams for many reasons, so tag team qualifying matches would be fun to see. Triple threats and fatal 4-ways could also be good, including the tag team variations.
Also, as sadistic as it sounds, why not have a gauntlet match to determine the last participant in the match only to have them be the first wrestler whose music hits when the Rumble match starts?
Spread over a month, it would give each show a definitive booking direction and a legitimate reason for us (the viewers and fans) to watch the shows.
As seen in the embedded videos above, qualifying matches also allow WWE to fiddle around with booking one-off matches that usually have no significance beyond that match to set up a feud that they can revisit later on. The bookers could also use these matches to end feuds.
I’m sure none of us want to see Bobby Lashley vs. Riddle anymore; if WWE ever picked up on that lack of interest, they could book a Rumble qualifying match between the two that simultaneously served as the two’s climactic clash. What if Ruby Riott pinned Mandy Rose and the latter let that loss fester in her psyche for a few months before using that as the impetus to attack and replace Riott in a Money in the Bank qualifier? The Viking Raiders could return and face a team like Breezango with the loser seeking out the winner on the winner’s show.
I just think about John Cena vs. Finn Balor Elimination Chamber qualifying match from 2018 as an instance of one of those one-off possibilities that leave fans clamoring for more. In that light, is anyone saying no to a one-off match between, say, Kyle O’Reilly and Cedric Alexander?
Ah, matches like those would be really fun.
Adds extra importance and legitimacy to the match AND winner
Lastly, by forcing wrestlers to actually earn their way (what a novel concept!) into a match with such high stakes, it adds extra credibility to those entrants and the eventual winner, even if the winner was one of the few automatic/legends entries. Because of the work each competitor would have to put in just to make the cut, every other wrestler in the match gains that rub as well.
While the match winner is generally viewed with legitimacy heading into their championship match at WrestleMania, this process would make it seem more realistic for the victor to go on to defeat a dominant champion at “The Showcase of the Immortals”, a champion like Cena, Brock Lesnar, or, currently, Roman Reigns.
That should add more intrigue for what would be the headline attraction for WWE’s biggest show of the year. If the Rumble match winner happens to dethrone the respective champion at WrestleMania, they gain even more credibility and legitimacy from not only their victory and the subsequent reign.
I know I keep reiterating credibility and legitimacy, but these are usually at the heart of establishing characters, championships, and promotions. Honestly, we hear arguments over “legitimate” championships in pro sports due to injuries, referee/umpire calls, coach’s decisions, and more, so establishing and maintaining credibility is as sports-like as it gets.
I’ve heard arguments in recent years that the Rumble match itself has become a bit stale, predictable, lacking any sort of real impact beyond seeing who wins. Even the development of feuds stemming from incidents in the match has become all but expected. What better way to liven things up than to start having wrestlers actually needing to qualify for the match?
It’s too late for this to probably become widely-used in the two and a half weeks before the PPV, but maybe WWE is looking at the Pearce-Gulak angle as a pilot. If the response from fans is positive enough, then I think we just might start seeing qualifying matches this time next year.