Welcome to Hard Time Blues: The World of Pro Wrestling from Merry-Go-Round Magazine! It’s a great time to get into professional wrestling. In each Hard Time Blues feature, MGRM contributors Luke Phillips and Max Flynn will be exploring the wild, weird, and wooly world of the squared circle, and all of the angles, feuds, gossip, and evil wizards therein.
This week, Luke and Max are joined by contributor Matty Monroe of The Indieheads Podcast and they recap the 2023 WWE Royal Rumble premium live event, as well as forecast the oncoming Wrestlemania season.
Luke Phillips: Obviously, with this Rumble, a lot of people were anticipating it for a variety of reasons. One major factor of which was not just the return of one Cody Rhodes, but also this being the first rumble with Triple H “in charge of creative” while also potentially with Vincent K. McMahon still carny svengali puppet-mastering things behind the scenes. I think they were trying to show and prove a lot with this Rumble, leading into Mania season with this regime change. There was also a shift in positioning top guys at WWE, and what the product will look like moving into Wreslemania season and moving forward. A lot to sink into. A lot to discuss. Some good, some bad. I’m excited!
Let’s start with the Men’s Rumble. Definitely a potentially divisive Rumble, but also I think definitely not as bad as last year, which was the complete drizzling shits.
Maxwell Flynn: Last year was the Shane hijacking, right?
LP: Yes! And clearly everyone knew this was going to be the Cody Rumble. But in hindsight, I think I’m most surprised by the fact that there weren’t really any other surprises beyond that. There were individually good spots, and I liked the concept of turning the babyface/heel thing, where Cody comes in at #30, and WALTER/Gunther goes the distance and lasts the entire Rumble from the #1 spot. Gunther is just such a fuckin chad monster, Cody overtaking him is actually impressive and made them both look good. That’s a really hard tightrope walk to cover, but obviously two talents such as Cody and Gunther are good enough wrestlers where they were more than up to the task. Beyond that, it kind of felt like Hunter dumping practically the entire main roster and available top level talent into the Rumble.
MF: Really there was no NXT stuff besides New Day, who shanked their spot.
Matty Monroe: Kofi’s fucked up his spot for two years in a row now, he should probably hang that up. It’s time to give that spot to somebody else.
LP: I love that Xavier always tries to shoot wrestle the Olympians, that’s always a hilarious and evergreen spot. As much as I love the New Day and as hilarious as they are, I was missing Big E.
MF: Beyond that, WWE really seemed to be pulling top guys throughout the Rumble.
LP: One downside of that was that you had a glut of guys in the ring who were like refusing to get eliminated so they could last longer and look better. Johnny Gargano way overstayed his welcome and was not even doing any spots.
MM: It was 30 minutes. He was in for 30 minutes.
LP: He came in his stupid fucking Marvel gear and looked like a mark. He looked like a baby. He sucks. You go down the list of guys in the Rumble this year… last year I feel like the Rumble made the roster seem thinner than it really was, but this year you had all these top guys seemingly, but my overwhelming feeling was “…is this the best they can do?”
MF: One of the most glaring reveals of all the top guys in the ring at the same time was that, usually during a Rumble, you’ll have guys in the corner catching their breath while other spots are going on. With so many guys in the ring at the same time that was so much more obvious this time around.
LP: I think starting with Gunther and Sheamus was really smart. Sheamus is a beast, and looked great for the whole rumble. He’s only gotten better with age.
MM: He took it upon himself to be a guy who was going to carry the match.
LP: By the time they got to Kross and he was no selling lariats from Gunther, I was like “Fuck off!”
MM: I’m glad he was eliminated quickly.
LP: Gable was good, Otis was good. Dawkins and Montez were good—having the Street Profits in the mix was good. Lesnar coming in and wrecking havoc and then getting eliminated by Lashley was so fun. Corbin coming in and then getting taken out by Rollins was good. Overall, I feel like when you have two Rumbles in one night, certain tropes of practically every Rumble just become way more apparent. It feels like they were repeating spots in both Rumbles even though they weren’t really. It was just similar shit that you’ll always see in any good Rumble.
MF: Yeah, the classic spots of a Rumble that they always have.
LP: Seeing two solid Rumbles after a couple years of bad Rumbles just kind of put into stark contrast how boring the overall WWE product has gotten. The product is boring. They’re not allowing themselves to take the kind of chances AEW does. It’s sanitized. The surprises are only built for little itty bitty promo package moments.
MF: Any surprises they do now are pure nostalgia, but not the good kind.
LP: It’s sad, because it just makes some great guys look worse! I think Drew has unfortunately regressed because of questionable booking. Drew is a monster, and it’s cool that he’s with Sheamus, but I don’t really feel like there’s an urgency to Drew right now.
MF: I loved when everybody jumped Logan Paul.
MM: Logan Paul—MVP of the Rumble, maybe?? I genuinely liked some of the spots he was doing.
LP: I HATED the Ricochet spots. Ricochet is just an Action-Andretti-ass, gimmick-ass wrestler right now. Awful. That was an airball nothing spot. Ricochet is over and washed. Logan Paul is probably better than Will Ospreay.
MM: Logan Paul is a fucking savant. Dude has probably only wrestled five matches and he’s just naturally this good.
LP: He dumped Seth Rollins! I wanna see Seth Rollins vs. Logan Paul. I wanna see Logan Paul vs. Ospreay. I think Rollins and Ospreay and Logan Paul are a perfect trifecta. Those three guys are like the same three guys and the same type of fan loves those same three guys.
MF: Ricochet too.
LP: Those four guys should be in a fatal four-way and fight forever.
MF: The Will Ospreay/Ricochetification of professional wrestling.
LP: I don’t want to be too negative, or to needle too hard, but I haven’t even talked about Edge yet, which says a lot. The Rumble made people look bad. Finn looked like shit. Finn’s kind of sucked for years, if I’m being honest.
MF: At least post-NXT. He got a bad rap with that shoulder injury.
LP: It was cool when he came out with a rainbow flag on his trunks on SMACKDOWN or whatever—we stan. He’s just very bad now, and continues to be pretty bad. Edge, also diminishing returns. Christian is way better than Edge, I think it’s obvious at this point. The Edge Rumbles were fun, but then he had to remind us all how much he sucked, actually. That’s all you need to say about Edge.
MM: Dominik! Let’s get into Dominik. Dominik is great.
MF: Dominik rules.
LP: Dominik is compelling for purely backstage segment character gimmick kayfabe reasons, which just tells you everything about the roster right now. He’s awesome because he’s getting dommed by Rhea Riply. Plain and simple. Aust Theory… I’m not even going to mention him at all.
MM: I wish Montez had got more time. He was dumped too early.
LP: I completely forgot that Omos even showed up. Strowman was awful.
MM: For better or worse, the most ideal Rumble is ROYAL RUMBLE 2004, which is unfortunate because of the ultimate winner of that show, but the story itself is a perfect Rumble story. Big Show just picking off guys, until you get to this David vs. Goliath story. I didn’t really feel much of that narrative pull for most of this Mania, even if the finish was a David vs. Goliath story with Cody vs. Gunther.
LP: I thought they stuck the landing with the final three. Obviously, Cody coming out at #30 was a foregone conclusion. I thought he was going to come out at #20 or #25.
MF: Yeah, I thought he was going to have a little bit more struggle.
LP: I get what they’re doing. It’s a reversal of the heel/babyface dynamic. That is Cody and Triple H playing 4D chess. That’s Cody doing the final “you want me to be a heel, neener neener” and emerging as the ultimate babyface and new main character of WWE. Cody Rhodes knows he’s the new main character, and knows he can step up to that position. That Rumble was about designing him as the new main character. “Here’s all of our guys… they’re not as good as Cody!” But it’s true! They’re not as good as Cody! That Rumble made it very patently obvious that—at least narrative-wise—the rest of the roster is not on Cody’s level.
MM: I had fun. Here’s the thing… with all these criticisms—I don’t disagree, but I think it just hit the bare minimum standards of being good. It was a competent Rumble with a good ending—fine with me. All that matters.
LP: It was really the most WWE show ever. Every stripe on the spectrum of WWE programming, from a completely wallpaper, middling Rumble featuring **the top of the roster** on BOTH the Women’s and Men’s side. The Women’s Rumble I thought was more fun than the Men’s.
MM: We’ll get there. There were a couple matches before the women…
LP: I don’t really want to talk too much about the Pitch Black match. It’s funny, when Cody came out for the press scrum, the literal first thing he did was grab the Mountain Dew Pitch Black and go “I gotta be the first one to try it right?” tasting it, and then saying like “I can’t. It’s outstanding!” Pure class. That was better than the entire Pitch Black match. All that needs to be said is that Bray Wyatt is one of the biggest carnies in the business ever and has never deserved the spot he’s had. He’s one of the worst wrestlers of the past decade, and that’s completely due to diminishing returns. He’s been in nothing angles where he never puts anybody over. I don’t know why anybody would want to work with him after this awful match. He’s done THIS EXACT MATCH, like, four times already. The exact same fucking shit! It gets worse every time! He’s all hype for the worst fucking drizzling shit gimmick wrestling you’ve ever seen. If you like Bray Wyatt, you are a moron. You can’t be taken seriously and your opinion should be invalidated.
MF: It’s like having a deep admiration for Heath Ledger’s Joker in 2023.
LP: Bray Wyatt marks should not be trusted as wrestling fans, because they don’t want to watch wrestling. They want to watch shitty horror movies. They want to ride the Haunted Mansion at Disney World. They just want to go to a haunted house—a haunted house is what they are looking for. Not professional wrestling. Don’t fucking come to wrestling shows! Stay out! You’re not wanted!
MM: I did laugh like an insane person during the ending when Uncle Howdy finally appeared on the top of the scaffolding and then completely missed LA Knight on the elbow drop spot.
LP: It’s so over. Was that Bo Dallas? All the Bray people on Twitter are trying to cope saying he was doing a “safe spot” by missing but like, c’mon man, he was missing him by a country mile, it looked fucking stupid.
MM: I feel bad for LA Knight!
LP: People wanna talk about CM Punk as a cancer? C’mon. People are ruined for years after being in angles with Bray Wyatt. He is a necrotic presence to everyone he faces.
MF: People don’t come out of his angles better for it.
LP: He does the opposite of put people over or give them the rub.
MF: When you wanna cool somebody off, you put them in a program with Bray. Honestly the whole ending seemed like they were trying to make a cool movie instead of actually do pro wrestling.
LP: The last interesting thing Bray Wyatt has been responsible for was the Cena Firefly Funhouse match.
MF: Oh yeah, the Cena Firefly Funhouse Match fucked.
MM: That match was good because Bray didn’t actually have to do any wrestling.
LP: He fucked up being tag team partners with Broken Matty Hardy. He’s the worst. The worst. Any of his fans are completely relying on nostalgia for his peak shit which was a decade ago. Fuck off. He needs to go away. It’s awful. He has no new ideas. Anyway, speaking of the Bray Wyatt shitstain—that stink lingered throughout the Alexa Bliss vs. Bianca Belair Raw Women’s Championship match, which was a perfectly cromulent wrestling match that happened and then was immediately followed by more stupid Bray Wyatt bullshit.
MM: Alexa got in a lot of offense because of Uncle Howdy.
MF: It made Bianca look pretty bad until Bianca easily took Alexa out and face planted her in an incredible finish spot.
LP: Bianca is the best. I kind of wish they were doing Bianca vs. Rhea at Mania but it looks like they’re going to run back Rhea vs. Charlotte and have Bianca face Asuka. That’s also awesome to me. I love all of these strong women. Speaking of! We had Rhea faceoff against a newly returning Juggalette Asuka in the women’s Rumble, which made me mark out on a variety of levels. Damage CTRL also looked like a real threat throughout the match. They had some really fun spots.
MF: Some of the surprises were really fun. That Michelle McCool spot, I was dying. She was like, “Who me??”
LP: Even things that on paper seem corny or eye roll-inducing were genuinely funny and goofy and fun during the rumble. Chelsea Green returning and then immediately getting eliminated was hilarious.
MM: Oh my god. I was laughing so much!
LP: And then Nia returning at #30.
MM: They botched the entrance! They did it like seven seconds too early!
LP: Like most Nia things, it was a botch. I was mad about Nia coming back, but then all of the women immediately dumped her out of the ring, which was awesome and hilarious.
MF: I felt really bad for Chelsea Green. I feel like that was WWE telling her her place.
LP: I thought it was really funny and made sense with her character. It made me want to watch forthcoming Chelsea Green angles and backstage segments.
MM: Corey Graves made a great call during the Chelsea Green spot—“She wasn’t even in the match long enough for me to make fun of her husband!”
MF: I love any spot in a Rumble where the commentators get to start talking about STREET FIGHTER.
LP: The STREET FIGHTER spot with Zelina and Xia was incredible! The Elite had to be shaking in their boots!! The gear this year in both Rumbles was insane. The Miz looked insane. All of the Superstars gear is insane right now. They’re all such weebs.
MF: It was so sick, it was great. Michael Cole saying “I’ve played… video games??”
LP: I love how much Pat McAfee opens up Cole. I love Bayley and Cole’s interactions. I love that Bayley was pleading with Cole to help her throughout the match and Cole was getting audibly annoyed. I thought Zoey Starks looked strong and lasted a while. Sonya looked super cool.
MM: Good Rumble, good winner. It’s very interesting—as in the Men’s Rumble, you have the top heel in the Women’s Division, Rhea Ripley, entering at #1 and going the distance and eventually winning.
LP: That’s the thing where both Rumbles had weird parallels. They were mirrors of each other. But they were good! I thought it worked well. I think Rhea entering the Women’s Rumble with an injury she got during her interference in the Men’s and then going the distance was a good angle and she completely pulled it off and looked badass. They were able to do cool spots and give shine to everyone on the roster and make all the women look good and shine in their spot. Even, like, Lacey Evans—who I think sucks ass—was properly booked and looked great and had some fun spots. This was an extremely well-booked match. Better booked than the Men’s Rumble, despite the first Rumble having several fun spots.
MF: There started to be a lot of women in the ring towards the end, but that was setting up the Nia spot at the end so I think they made the save on that front.
LP: We had no way of knowing that until it happened.
MM: They wrapped it up really well. The return of Clown Asuka is so good and perfect.
MF: I believe she had teased it on Twitter a month or so ago.
LP: I love it. Give it to me. Mami and Asuka are two of the best and most badass wrestlers in the world right now.
MM: Before we get to the main event, we had the Hardy performance!
LP: The less we talk about Hardy, the better.
MF: It felt like a Bob and Tom bit—they were like, doing running commentary over the song and doing bad karaoke eventually. The crowd hated it! The crowd was not into it.
MM: Total bathroom break.
LP: The main event I thought was actually… spectacular. Stellar. Those are some Vince words. It was spectacular, pal!
MM: It was a very good match that told a great story. At this point the Roman formula is kind of locked in as to how he does his matches, but now the story is totally locked in and really fed into this match.
LP: They’re pulling all the right triggers and executing all the right story beats at the exact right moment. This is the exact right moment to do it, because they have all this long-term booking and history between these wrestlers in their favor, and it’s really paying off in a complicated and complex way angle-wise. I almost feel with this specific cast of characters in these combustible sets of circumstances happening in this very moment right now, we’re seeing WWE do an AEW style long term booking angle but execute it in a way only WWE can. It’s almost beating AEW at their own game, but I doubt they’ll stick the landing to be honest. I don’t really have any faith that they will, at least.
MF: You say they’re beating AEW’s long-term booking at their own game. Any time AEW does a long-term booking storyline, there is inevitably a part that gets rushed.
LP: They’re beholden to the frameworks of their stories.
MF: The reason the Roman storyline is so good is because it has been such a slow-burn and it’s been COOKING.
MM: Just look at Hangman Adam Page, though. Hangman is the best long-term booking storyline AEW’s done. They completely made him. It’s the best single story they’ve done so far, in my opinion.
LP: I’ll just say, watching Jey Uso process two years worth of being dogged by Roman and having that whole blowoff with Sami, and finally seeing Sami as someone who could be a brother to him, and be in the Bloodline, and then to see Roman treat Sami the same way he treated Jey. Jey finally having that moment and getting emotional and leaving the ring, divesting himself entirely—that was such a powerful moment to me. That’s what long-term booking in wrestling is all about. That felt powerful to me. Franky, it was more impactful and connected more with me emotionally than the Young Bucks pretending to cry. That’s in spite of the fact that I’ve loved Elite matches, and I’ve loved those moments these last several years. I just think this Bloodline storyline is resonating more on a pure long term booking payoff level. Jey Uso having that moment is sublime wrestling. That is what Cody sees. That is the type of stage and story that you can tell on that level and through that platform. AEW can’t do that yet. AEW will probably get there in the next couple years, but they can’t do it yet. Only WWE can tell those types of wrestling stories. Because of monopoly, because of capitalism! Nobody is really clocking that yet. Roman and Sami Zayn and Jey Uso and Jimmy Uso and Kevin Owens all understand that. Those men just put together one of the most sublime wrestling programs in a while, and I can’t wait for the Fed to fuck it up and drop the ball.
MM: They’ve done SO GOOD with it so far, I really have hope they can stick the landing and end it on a good note. At the same time, I’m ready for them to drop the ball. It’s good to temper your expectations. I think there was a way to really perfectly insert Cody Rhodes into the storyline and make the save for Sami and Kevin. They could have done that, but that moment belongs to Jey.
LP: I was turning over that prospect a lot in my head over the course of the Rumble program.
MM: Now the issue is: How do you get Cody in this storyline? I’m very intrigued how they do it.
LP: I’ve been thinking about it. Roman and The Bloodline have been the A storyline in WWE for the past three years basically, and it’s been good! It’s never been bad, really! It’s always been consistently one of their best if not their best storyline and it served its function as the A plot. Now we’re getting the blowoff of the storyline. We’re getting into the actual, nitty gritty, real good shit, and it’s really good. The A storyline is really hot right now, and it’s always been good. It can function independently of Cody, who is sneakily turning the rest of WWE’s upper mid-to-bottom card into Cody Island. He’ll be the gatekeeper and arbiter of the roster and it will always be hanging over everyone’s heads that he is coming for Roman’s spot. I don’t think he’ll insert himself into the Bloodline story that much at all if they’re smart. If they complicate it, it’ll still be a fun mess, because it’s Cody and he thrives on mess.
MM: That leads to our golden question. It does seem like a lot of people are saying that the best way to end the Bloodline storyline is for Sami to take one or both of the titles off Roman. I think they should split it up like Wrestle Kingdom and have Roman defending one or both belts over each night against both Sami and Cody
MF: We’ve also got Elimination Chamber coming up.
MM: That’s in Montreal, and Sami has been heavily promoted and advertised for that show. It’s hard to make any definitive statements until then.
LP: Maybe Sami earns a title shot at Elimination Chamber. They set a title bout for each belt each night of Mania—Cody for the Heavyweight belt and Sami for Universal.
MM: They just need to have a good payoff for the fact that Roman’s paranoia and abusive behavior has split up the Bloodline. He needs consequences for his actions, because he’s spent the last two years running roughshod over the roster and beating people into submission literally and figuratively.
LP: Is there a nonzero chance that they set up a Rock / Roman match at Mania? It just seems like having Wrestlemania in Hollywood without The Rock facing Roman Reigns seems… stupid.
MF: That’s true.
MM: I don’t disagree, but at this point the storylines are so compelling right now between Sami and Roman and the Bloodline and Cody… I wouldn’t want The Rock to fuck that up.
MF: Yeah, like why do we necessarily want The Rock to enter the field.
LP: The Rock is the Final Boss!! He’s the shadow boss! He’s friends with Nick Khan! The Rock is M. Bison!! Rock IS the Head of the Table! That’s WWE’s own fault for positioning The Rock that way.
MM: I think this Rumble showed Triple H’s booking philosophy where he really wants to push the guys they have and not rely on part timers or returning old guys. Focus on the current guys and the guys on the roster who are already over.
LP: I totally get that they’re trying to book the roster better and more practically and focus on their guys but I also kind of feel like they still need The Rock more than The Rock needs them. In any case, I’m very excited for the brave new world we’re entering while at the same time being extremely trepidatious about this year’s Road to Wrestlemania, and I think that’s really the perfect note to end on.
MM: The Codyverse is only beginning.
LP: The Codyverse is only starting to cook! I really think this will be a rising tide lifting all boats situation. I think this will be good for AEW. I think this will be good for WWE. As Corey Graves kept saying on commentary: IRON SHARPENS IRON.